He calls me at about three-thirty in the afternoon and I say shouldn't you be in a class? a lecture? something? working on the great American novel. He says nothing back, only breathes at me down the phone line.
Just come over. Now. He adds, please, like a little boy jogged by the memory of a sterner parent than either of Huck's ever were to mind his damn manners.
It does no good to think that both of us should be past this by now; we're not, it is as simple as that. Neither is Andrea. Neither is Molly. Neither is C.J. or Josh or the President. Neither is the world, having to remake itself around the lack of Toby Ziegler: a little itch it cannot scratch because it cannot locate either the fingers to do the scratching nor the piece of skin where the irritant should lie. But we cannot seem to even ignore that itch, that lack; pretend that we have other lives to bluff through and, in the process of bluffing, begin to forget -- for seconds or minutes or whole stretches of time in which life is being lived.
Huck and I have business of our own to conclude. But I have to bluff a little.
You don't have, I say, anything else you should be doing?
No, he says, almost sullenly. He's a grown -- if still very young -- man, but sometimes he's a little kid being denied an ice cream.
Just come over, he says. I was writing last night. I want to show you.
This is not a lie, though it is not only the truth. He does write -- poetry, short stories, one of which was published in a reasonably prestigious magazine. My joke about the Great American novel wasn't really a joke, particularly since I believe that one day he will write it, even if his motivation for doing so will mostly be misplaced genetic deference. But I've been writing is also a code: it means, for both of us, that we've been thinking about him.
Toby died seven years ago. Seven is a magic number. Years have passed slowly. Death is still an unbelievable fact.
Please, he says. I really do want to show you something.
Give me half an hour, I say.
When I get there he opens the door and smiles at me like I'm just a buddy of his, come around for a beer and careful avoidance of casual chatting, sitting beside each other on the couch not quite knowing what either of us is doing there. Except that Huck isn't that guy, and we know exactly what we're both doing there.
He steps aside to let me in, scans the corridor outside for people. He does this sometimes. Like he's expecting to be watched.
Once the door is closed we watch each other. That's the game: keeping a pristine perimeter between us; only touching with glances that bounce off each of us like light off a mirror. I get briefly blinded by the plane of his cheekbone, sharp and bright-white under the lights in his apartment. I blink and in a moment the dazzle is gone.
He shows me the thing he wants to show me, which is a new chapter of the book he's been writing since his senior year of college. Since Toby's not around anymore he talks to me about the whole business of writing and how to tell what you're doing wrong while you're engaged in it. He is terrifyingly good, and I am running out of ways to sound like I know better about the whole thing by virtue of experience than he does from baseline intuition. But it's good to talk to someone about writing, even though I don't really write anymore. Since Toby. With Huck, it's something we can share; it all triangulates the same way that every other thing Huck and I have in common does, but it's something.
I read his chapter. Huck seemed nervous but I couldn't see why. The writing was as exceptional as always and though I've been reading the various iterations of this book for the last two years I'm still aching to know what happens at the end, what the hell is going to happen. I say reassuring things to him; he seems happier.
He's older now than he was when we began this -- when I began it -- and he keeps his hair short: razored at the back and at the sides so that I can see his skin, which looks grey underneath the stubble of hair. His brows are heavy and dark, undefined, like his father took him, at around ten years old, and wiped both his thumbs, ink-covered, over the orbit of his eyes. Those eyes are serious, and a kind of quartz crystal grey.
He is twenty-two. And I'm not. I am, to be honest, a pretty damn long way from twenty-two. But he looks like his father: a sad, incredibly young version of his father. Toby Ziegler for the twenty-first century, in skinny jeans and a thin t-shirt and a little blush of hair on his chest, spreading up to his throat. He sits on the couch with his knees up to his chin and I can't stop staring at the shape of his kneecaps, both pointed and blunt as his feet move around, restlessly shifting. His naked, pale feet. His ankles that I want to kiss because I never saw Toby's ankles, except once, one glimpse, and I still haven't forgotten.
He looks like his father, and so I can't stop looking at him.
When he walks into the bathroom, knowing that I will follow, and starts to strip with his back turned to me, I can't stop looking at him either. He is thin and pale and I want to touch him but I know I can't.
He stands in front of the mirror with nothing on his face but what he knows I want from him. His hair -- the long sweep of hair over his forehead -- is catching on his eyebrows, like he's just got out of bed, or like he spent careful hours training it to do that, just that.
He finds my eyes in the mirror. I'm in the doorway and I hardly see myself. I'm just a blur in a black sweater and jeans. My feet in off-white tennis sneakers match the colour of my throat. He is incontrovertible, in his ordinary skin and pinkish nipples. His penis and testicles nestling in black hair, looking stupid and vulnerable and somehow unfinished. He is not particularly beautiful, but I don't think I would want to look at him so much if he was. The hair swirls around his navel, a little whirlpool. And when he sees me looking he places his hand there and follows the eddies with his fingers.
He looks unhappy, but then he always does. It's part of his allure, and part of his persona, and I'm used to that. I recognise it. It makes the times that he laughs, or even just smiles, with his eyes suddenly shiny and intimate, as unbelievable in that moment as waking up from a daydream into something real and awful. His smiles are little dreams. I've made up whole fictions for them, from old pictures and scraps of stories Toby never told me. I want him to be happy, but I want him more when he's sad.
I shouldn't have read it. I know. I shouldn't even have been in the house except that his mother asked me to stay, after the funeral. I had nowhere particular to go, mostly because I'd forgotten how to move one foot in front of the other. I'd been wandering around their house, stupidly, unable to see or to think or to feel anything because a part of my brain understood that if I abandoned autopilot I, too, might die. You can die of a broken heart, you know. Or anyway you can if you're someone like me.
Huck and Molly were both out in the garden of the big house Andy bought before they got married again. There is a robust tree in that garden. A beech, I think, maybe even oak; one of those huge European trees that seem older than American history somehow, like they are the ones writing the history, just watching us come and go and laugh, or not: no more consequence to them than a cloud passing overhead to us. Andy had set up a tire swing there, when the kids were still under five foot.
Out of the window of Huck's bedroom, I could see them both. Huck on the swing and Molly pushing it. Huck's hair was long then, around his ears, and it was long enough to hide his face. His head was down. He was looking at his sneakers. His legs thrown straight out in front of him, going through the air like an arrow, but only because of Molly. Her momentum, pushing him. She has always been the one with the momentum. Until she stopped pushing him and just stood there, behind him, with her chin on the top of his head.
Both of them. Still. Skinny. The same dark, straight hair, about the same length then. Both dressed in black. Two kids of fifteen, exactly alike. From the distant window, anyway.
I looked out of the window for a while. Watched them. I told myself that I was worried about them, because, god, they'd just lost their father. But I wasn't. I wasn't worried about anything. In fact, I felt perversely free -- of any kind of feeling. Nothing tugging at me. Just blankness.
Huck's computer was on. His laptop. Just whirring away and getting hot. I touched the cord and almost burnt off my finger. I was going to just close the lid and let the thing get some sleep, maybe cool off before it set the table, the bedroom, and then the whole house on fire. But I didn't. I sat down at the desk and I started reading, instead.
Some journalling site. Not Facebook. He'd already told me by then that he hated Facebook and I couldn't say I really disagreed. You would think that if you were the kind of person who'd once worked at the White House and before that at a prestigious New York law firm, you wouldn't really feel threatened by the kind of one-upmanship stuff that Facebook seems to run on. You'd be wrong. Really, really wrong. Doesn't surprise me at all that the whole idea was dreamt up by a Harvard man.
Anyway, some journalling site. Long blog posts, white on black. It was hard to read but impossible to stop, particularly once I realised what it was about.
I was reading his diary. Huck's journal. He was logged in as himself (user name 'finnzee', which it took me a few minutes to figure out) and so there was nothing I couldn't see, or find. Nothing locked. And I just kept on clicking through.
It was a perfect record of his grief. He was -- still is -- a reticent boy, and he wouldn't have spoken to me about how he felt, when Toby got sick, and then, after he died. I'm not sure he even said much to Molly, or Andy, or his friends.
But I guess it's easier to tell a stranger these things. Or at least a person whose face you can't see, who cannot hear the cracks in your voice or the tears and the snot and the blood full in your face. I imagine Huck would pretty much hate to show all that, to anyone; I imagine he caught that hate from his father.
It's strange: to get off on someone else's sadness. It's not an erotic high, not really, except that the depth of the emotion, the colour and the texture, the weight of the feeling, is a little bit like the high you get from sex -- intimacy instituted by massive rushes of hormones and chemicals; emotional reactions to acts the body is put through, frictions of proximity that create poetry and symphonies: the collision of atoms of personality, rushing into each other, exploding, glowing and dying like stars. With sex that glow fails and dies; with grief it seems to grow, every day, pulsing.
It was easy enough to eroticise the sadness. That was my fault.
-- from Huck's journal, 14th July 2016
I'm reading Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World. Good gay literature (or literature with gay people included) is hard enough to find that it doesn't matter if you like it or not, you have to read it. So I'm reading. So far I'm finding it pretty unbelievably depressing, actually. But one part got to me, right at the start, in the first few pages. Jonathan -- the gay guy -- talks about his father's beauty.I want to talk about my father's beauty. I know it's not a usual subject for a man -- when we talk about our fathers we are far more likely to tell tales of courage or titanic rage, even of tenderness. But I want to talk about my father's frank, unadulterated beauty: the potent symmetry of his arms, blond and lithely muscled as if they'd been carved of raw ash; the easy, measured grace of his stride. He was a compact, physically dignified man; a dark-eyed theater owner quietly in love with the movies.I want to talk about my father's beauty, before it disappears.
He's sick. He's sick and they told us today. He's sick but he looks fine -- he still looks fine, and now it's just a matter of waiting, because there's nothing they can do, and all I can think to do is catalogue the decline.
I don't know where to start. Maybe it's better to copy Jonathan, right?
My father's arms. His heavy arms. Also like carven wood, but dark, more like mahogany than anything, except at the inside, at the close of his elbow. The skin is pale there. It is tender there. When I was a kid and he'd hold me I'd press my face there and it was as smooth as any place on my body. But then he'll turn those arms over and it's all muscle and black hair and that perfect, indescribable shape -- all angles and curves at once. To me it's a little bit like trying to describe something I don't know the name of, or the shape of; something I have no tools to describe -- no measurements, no words, no anything. Something no one understands well enough to describe.
I don't know. Beauty works like that, I suppose. Poetry doesn't work and art doesn't work either. Nothing does.
Yeah. I was cut out to be gay, huh?
I don't know, you guys. It's not real yet, I think. I don't know what I'll do when it is, that's the only thing.
That was the start of it. The very first day. I remember how I felt when I was told; I couldn't have written about it as eloquently.
The comments on that first entry were ... awful. Awfully young and awkward and full of love. Most of them just saying how sorry they are in stunned disbelief. Except one. One of them called attention to Huck's catalogue, to the little litany of his father that he made. That one called Huck a poet. I thought then that that person, whoever they are, was right. And maybe that was part of it too.
I kept on reading. I read the whole of his online life, backwards, my hand on the laptop track pad light and nervous, as though he would know.
He went on being honest. I wouldn't expect anything else from Huck and yet I kept on being amazed by how willing he was to tear himself open like that. Flayed, every day.
I learned a lot about him in the hour or so I had with that laptop. I already guessed that he was gay; I'd understood it without having bent any words around it. I recognised him, I suppose. I recognised myself in him. I'm not going to belabour the biography but, yeah, I knew I was bisexual at that age and I, too, was in love with my father. Unlike Huck, who is bad at hiding anything and, though he says a number of times in the journal entries that he wasn't looking forward to coming out to his folks but saw no reason why he should lie about his orientation, I felt that I had to hide those feelings; at his age I dated girls and tried to forget my crushes on other boys. But the main difference is temperament, I guess: Huck has gathered secrets and melancholia around himself, and I have tried to burn them out with sunshine and idealism.
I don't know if Toby knew. I have no idea if he would have guessed, given time, or if he just knew as I did. And I have trouble working out, these days, if he would have had a problem with it. My logic tells me of course he wouldn't have, but something else wonders. It's different, when it's your own son, or your own friend.
Huck knew that I was in love with his father. He mentions it, in sideways intimations that maybe only he and I would have understood, even then. I don't imagine any of his friends who were actually supposed to be reading his account would have understood. At no point does Huck lay out a cast of characters for their benefit. It's 'my father', 'mom', 'Molly', various teachers, various offline friends who have eschewed the temptation of online life beyond Facebook, and the odd mention -- 'my dad's friend'. Some of them are explicit (Aunt C.J. is mentioned more than once) but my name is never used. My invisibility is total, and yet I know that he meant me.
I went on reading. Eventually Andy called the kids in from the garden. I heard his footsteps on the stairs. I got up and remembered just in time not to close the lid of the laptop. I closed the bedroom door behind me just as he reached the head of the stairs.
He keeps my eyes in the mirror. The light above the sink is fluorescent and unflattering; it makes his skin seem sallow and brings up bruise-purple smudges under his eyes. He hasn't been sleeping much, he said; thinking too much instead.
He touches himself gently, as though tenderness will get him harder quicker than a big hand taking charge. And he does get hard quickly. He's young, I guess -- all it should take is a knowing look and a low whispered word from a person he finds attractive. What he has is me, watching him, and his own fist, and the third point we have, invisible, but in the air like smoke, each atom expanding to fit the space we occupy, in our lungs and on our skin and cell by cell it rewrites us; our desire rewrites us, and our desperation. We are not the people we were before.
He holds his cock gently in his hand. He is circumcised, of course, and the head of his dick is gratifyingly pink -- blood-gorged but not so red that it looks painful. I would like to test its weight in my mouth, but I won't.
(We don't touch each other. I've given up trying to work out whether this is better or worse than what we could be doing. But I won't touch him; if I did, I would never be able to stop, or so I suspect, at least until this grief has burned itself up against his skin. I don't have faith that any such thing would happen: I would stitch my sadness into him; he would carry it around -- my heart in his chest; he would say he was in love with me, even if he knew the words were empty justification. Right now we aren't doing any good, but at least we aren't killing each other. I think that way we would kill each other. At least this way we can say that we're just good friends.)
He strokes his cock, just the underside against the palm of his hand. His fingers dance and flex. He thrusts his hips forward a little, just two shallow jerks. Then he lets go and rubs both hands, then the backs of his fingers bent at the second knuckle like he's fixing to punch himself in the stomach, gently, over his belly. His cock bobs just below the level of his fingers. I am conscious that my lips are slightly parted and that I'm thinking about getting down on my knees and letting his dick bob against the roof of my mouth. I'm getting hard in my jeans, of course, but I will wait until I'm back in my own place before I jerk off. I don't want him to see me. Not today.
His breath crackles as he takes hold of himself again. I close my eyes and listen, for a minute or so. He starts giving out little moans. He sounds younger, this way; his voice is high and tender; his moans make me think of glass creaking and cracking, then shattering, as he gets closer.
When I open my eyes again there is a flush over his neck and a palm's breadth down from the hollow at the base of his neck. If there is one place on his body that I would kiss, if I could, it is that place when there is a sunrise of blush there.
His cock is fully hard now, and because he is still so skinny his erection seems huge -- too heavy for his hips. He is holding his hand underneath his cock, cupped, fingers curled, almost as if he were receiving a baton in a relay race. My stupid simile makes me smile, and then, seeing me, he smiles too. His eyes are bright; the mirror gives me the brightness back, doubled. I am blinded again. Huck doesn't notice, of course, and he carries on -- thrusting gently into his own hand, index finger and thumb closing around the head, the tendons in his wrist flexing, his ass clenched. The unflattering fluorescent light picks out the fine hairs on his ass cheeks. I feel myself moved by this small evidence of his youth. I would like, in that moment, to cover him and cuddle him, and promise him: never ever.
He's getting close. His lips, unkissed, seem reddened. There is a thick vein at the side of his neck, paler under the skin than the skin itself. His throat is pink; my fingertips, pressing there, would leave white marks. He is holding his breath as he gets close. His eyes flutter closed. His moan is guttural, much deeper than his usual voice. It sounds ... it sounds like the voice even my dreams no longer remember clearly; one clean note, as Huck comes, semen bursting against his belly, hitting the sink both porcelain white, he says my name.
In from the doorway, four steps. One step between his heels and my shoes, short enough that I can put out a hand and touch the concavity of his back, between his shoulder blades. He is crying. He has both hands braced on the sink, his head low between his shoulders. The little hills of his vertebrae sharp and white, painful to look at. I want to cover them with my hands. The shaven line of his hair a darker grey than the stubble at the sides of his head, velvet-like, some small animal shivering. He is shivering.
I'm still wearing a thick cashmere sweater with my jeans and my tennis shoes. I might as well still have my overcoat on. I might as well just throw some dollar bills down for him.
I take the sweater off and get both my hands through the neck hole, bunch up the body of the thing, ignore the arms flapping around. He is still as I slip the sweater over his head. He lifts up his right arm and then his left and, after some attempt to bend his arm in a direction it will not take through which he does not complain, I get both his arms through. I pull the body of the sweater down over his body: I am at least five or six inches taller than he is and so the thing hangs on him, two sizes too big. Its hem half-covers his penis but I try to pull it down even further. The wool distorts. He pushes my hands away.
It's Huck who throws himself into my arms, head down, his face pressed against my chest, knocking the air out of me. I just hold him. He sounds very young, like this, and very fragile. Eventually he stops sobbing. I smudge a kiss against the side of his head while I try not to sob myself. His hair stings my lips. He finds my right hand with his left and squeezes it.
"We're really fucked up," he whispers.
"You're loaded, you get the therapy bill."
I laugh a little, against his hair.
"You want material for your book, right?"
"I'd rather have him, really."
Chastened, I say, "Yeah. Sorry. I'm sorry, Huck."
"It's really not, kid."
"It will be. Takes time. Or it won't. Either way, what're you gonna do? I don't see you as the guy who jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge."
"Why we write, right?" His voice is bubbling with the remnants of his tears, sniffling, and still pressed against my body, so it takes me a minute to work out what he means, even without the homophones. "I mean, writing makes sense of it, somehow. It's not just that haze in your head that you can't think through."
"You should write, too."
"I'm not that kind of writer."
He laughs. "You just haven't tried. Where's your pioneer spirit?"
"You're ... I don't even know what you are. Pretty amazing."
He loosens his grip on my hand, then squeezes it again, rubbing his thumb over my fingers.
"I'm not even one of a kind," he says.
I stroke his hair, shakily. The sensation is more intense than any orgasm. I've waited for it a long time, I guess.
"You are," I say. "Genetics only goes so far, you know."
He puts his own jeans on later, but he asks if he can keep the sweater. I say, of course. We sit on the couch watching crappy TV. He drinks a glass of milk and dips Oreos in it every few minutes. I get a few papers out of my briefcase and do a little not-very-diligent reading. He leans against my arm. I ask him about homework; he rolls his eyes. Eventually he falls asleep, as the light disappears from the sky outside.
I want to say I'm sorry -- I'm sorry that I read your secret heart, but I don't. I am still hoping that we can repair ourselves with silent understandings and quiet evenings in front of the television; the currency of forgiveness between boys and their fathers. Those secrets were given to me, these last seven years; I was the only other person who understood them. And I have said and done enough. There is no need for further confessions. Excuses, excuses, Sam says a voice in my head.
I stay until he wakes up. He is bleary-eyed when I kiss his forehead.
"I'll see you later," I say.
"Come back tomorrow," he says.
"Get some more sleep, Huck. Call me later. If you want to."
In a few days he emails another chapter of the book to my office. He says he thinks the end is in sight. His prose is sharp, and painful. He never lost his habit of being searingly honest. His father is there, indelible, but invisible: the lacuna between each sentence, the pause for breath, the stretch of a comma, the punctuation that tells us where to go next.
I'm there too, but I'm a much quieter presence. No one would notice me. Except the two of us.
I congratulate him. I tell him I'm pretty sure that soon it'll be finished and, after we're done tearing into it with red pen, we'll find him an agent and get the thing out there in the world. It's time, I say. We can get this done.
First person plural. He laughs at me down the phone.
Yes, I'd like that. Or some other verb that means 'oh god I'm not looking forward to what you're gonna say', he says.
We'll get it done. We will get this done. We will finish this -- try to fill the lacuna. He has no father, and I have no son, and I don't think we have fucked ourselves up so far that there is no retreat, no direction left but onward, until the end. I believe we can yet be saved.
Come over later? he says. Please?