The sun never shone like this in Wisconsin.
As a teenager, Affenlight had spent many long July days sweating in the fields of his family farm, fixing fences, rounding up dairy cattle, and running football drills with friends as the sun browned his skin and bleached his hair almost as light as his darkest brother. The days had been bright and hot then, but no Wisconsin field could soak up sunshine like a South Pacific beach. The heat was scorching beneath the rippling waves of the towel Owen had purchased from a vendor that morning, radiating up and around them like steam on the breeze. Even in the seventies, when Affenlight had stepped onto this very beach as a young marine biologist eager to strip off and swim, it surely hadn’t been so hot.
This was a theme that Owen had taken to as readily as Affenlight would have expected. “Allowing for the difficulties in accurately comparing memories with the present, climate scientists would tend to agree with you,” he said, lying on his back, eyes closed, folded glasses marking the place in his paperback novel. “The actual data is disheartening and nigh-on apocalyptic, Guert. But I admit the heat feels good.”
It felt good not to do anything, certainly. To lie around and read, to watch beads of sweat creep up on Owen’s belly above his turquoise Speedos until Owen occasionally roused himself and dipped into the water, which was barely cooler than the beach. Affenlight had even conceded to taking off his Harpooners t-shirt while he paged through a novel Pella had jammed into his backpack before departure, wearing his old glasses for once in the event he wanted to swim and avoid the sting of saltwater behind his contacts. He and Owen had always done companionable silence well, sitting by the lake, sprawled on the couch, lying around in bed. Just having O’s presence there, the scent of him amid waves and sweat and other tourists…
“You’re doing it again,” Owen murmured.
Affenlight glanced over at him. Owen was still lying motionless, eyes closed, hands flat on the towel by his sides. “Doing what?”
“You’ve flirted with every woman we’ve spoken to since we left Westish. The check-in clerk, the flight attendants, the hotel receptionist…”
“I was only being polite.” Affenlight flipped his book upside down. It was possibly fair to say that his Midwest manners and habit of smiling at strangers might be interpreted as flirting in the brusque, rude world of today, and particularly where American tourists were concerned, but Owen should have no reason to suspect his motives.
“Strange, then, that you didn’t turn on the charm with the gentleman who sold me this towel.”
“He was ripping you off.”
“It’s a nice towel.”
Affenlight sat up, wiping sweat from his forehead. No matter how intently he looked at Owen through those damn glasses, there was no sign of any perturbed thought in his body, no creased forehead, pursed mouth, or tensed muscles. Owen looked much like this when he slept. Was, in fact, noisier and more active when he slept. And yet, in the few times they’d had anything that might be defined as fights since their living arrangement became permanent, Owen had maintained precisely the same vexingly serene demeanor. It made Affenlight feel like a shamefully irrational child every time.
“I’m not flirting with anyone now,” he said softly. If they weren’t in public it would be nice to wrap Owen in his arms and kiss him, to gently convince him that he was being upset for no good reason. But even back in the hotel room that would be difficult. Not because they couldn’t be intimate there, but because a disapproving Owen constantly made him feel like a chastised student who should instead bow his head and study harder.
Owen’s eyes flicked open. Never mind that Owen probably couldn’t focus on him without his glasses, those smoke-gray eyes seemed piercing nonetheless. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that might be the issue at hand? We’ve been here for hours, Guert. You haven’t so much as touched me. You didn’t even want me to put sunblock on your back.”
“I don’t burn easily…”
“And if we were home by the lake? You’d have your hand down my shorts by now.”
Affenlight glanced up. No one was close enough to hear, and in any case might not speak English if they were. “We’re in public now.” Even with that little eye movement, that slight excuse, he knew what was coming.
“So?” The tiny hint of genuine feeling that had slipped into Owen’s voice might, in other circumstances, have seemed like a victory. "I'm not asking you to suck me off, Guert. I’m asking you to behave like we’re a couple. As though you actually like me.”
Affenlight’s instinct for consideration before speaking kept him from saying things like You’re overreacting or Don’t be ridiculous in these kinds of situations, and usually led to him backing away from the argument entirely. Yelling at Pella had never achieved anything but aggravation. Arguing with Owen made him feel even worse. Still, conceding defeat now would mean doing more than nodding and going back to his book. It meant clasping O’s hand and kissing him, and all the little things they might do at home – a bare foot idly stroking a calf, fingertips touching Owen’s bristly hair, holding O close if he wanted to nap...
“I don’t want to offend anyone,” he said carefully. “There’s no reason to provoke people.”
It was a harsh topic to bring up, particularly here in the golden sunlight with Owen, beautiful Owen, almost naked by his side. But it was his defense, a way to keep O safe from the looks, the slurs, and whatever else might assail them. Two men sharing a towel were a curiosity. Two men kissing might be something else entirely.
“The reason is that you’re offending me.” Owen sat up, brushing sand from his thighs. “There are more gay people here than there are in Westish, Guert. I don’t only want to be your lover in one small Wisconsin town where everyone already knows us. We’re on a beach surrounded by people who are all practically naked. There’s a couple over there about two inches from actually having sex. Which we were doing very enjoyably not four hours ago. So I think you can hold my hand. Or at least tell me how hot I look."
“You do look very hot.” Probably if anyone cared they had already seen him watching O with far more appreciation than any straight friend could ever have for another. But going further, doing what now came naturally at home and anywhere around Westish, or even in Door County and Milwaukee when Owen wanted shops and cinemas and good restaurants, seemed like it would take as much energy and boldness as smashing through a wall.
Owen spun around to face him, legs crossed. “Guert,” he said. “I love you. I don’t want you to be scared to be with me. This isn’t a bad place for us and I wouldn’t have suggested we come if it were.”
Affenlight nodded. He’d been more reluctant to go along with the whole vacation idea because it involved both intense heat and the mysterious depths of Owen’s bank account. But Owen violently disliked the Wisconsin winter, and Affenlight had eventually conceded a certain interest in how Tahiti had changed since his last visit, not to mention Melville’s days, and here they were by the water after flights that had lasted forever and a long, jetlagged sleep involving several sweet awakenings.
“I agree it shouldn’t be like this. But kissing you here… It feels like a political statement, O, not just a kiss. As though I’m doing it to make a point.”
Owen smiled. “The first time I ever kissed you was to make a point. And the second time. I think after that the point was very firmly made.”
“It was…” Affenlight lifted his hand from the towel, touched it down against one of Owen’s. Their fingers flexed and curled. This morning in a drowsy dawn they’d been wrapped in each other, in kisses and gasps, the slide and push of Owen inside him, the rock of his hips… Still, this brush of skin, grains of sand between them still, felt as intimate as a palm on a forehead had once been.
“I think I might…” Affenlight swallowed and wetted his mouth. “I think I’ll get a drink.” He dropped Owen’s hand and, in the process of standing, pressed his lips quickly to O’s forehead to make it look less like he was fleeing. “Something cold?”
Owen was already lying back down, the picture of relaxation, what might have been amusement on his face. “I’ll be waiting.”
Beaches and coastlines had been his favorite weekend and holiday destination when Pella still lived with him in Cambridge. She’d loved the summers, hated the winters when she grew a little older and much less enamored with her father’s eccentricities. The appeal of the frosty sea wind, the unearthly solitude of the shore in Januarys and Decembers, had never truly touched her. But in Julys and Augusts they'd donned swimsuits and built castles together with a hundred other families. He really had flirted on those New England beaches, with all the single mothers whose children Pella recruited into a sort of beachcombing army. Pella had soon grown tired of the limited imaginations and experiences of kids her own age, but Affenlight had generally formed longer relationships: relationships long enough for dinner and a night or two at least.
In all likelihood no one but Owen looked at him with interest when he was shirtless now, striding across the beach. The other vacationers and locals certainly weren’t all bronzed, toned bodies, but Affenlight’s memories were of being a much younger man with rowing-honed muscles, the kind of hard flat stomach no one over forty was supposed to possess... He’d become healthier and fitter under the Dunne regime of vegetables, running, and yoga, but in comparison with those memories he would always be disappointed by the reality.
He slipped off his glasses by the kiosk, squinting at the various bright containers of what might be at least five percent fruit. Was that supposed to be mango, perhaps? Passion fruit?
“I’m guessing I wouldn’t be the first person to ask if you’re having a whale of a time?”
Owen wasn’t there, and in any case wouldn’t believe that Affenlight had at least temporarily managed to be more interested in slushies than in the bikini-clad, genuinely-bronzed woman leaning on the bar beside him. Probably in her mid-thirties: one of those ex-college athletes who actually kept their trim figures… Far too young for him. Considerably older than Owen.
“Well, you’d be the first person today.” Somewhere between his awkward teens and his own mid-thirties he’d managed to develop a whole array of charming, genuine-seeming smiles to use on everyone from toddlers to trustees. His normal mode of interaction with people – and with women especially – had become masked in good humor and an expression of absolute interest in whatever they might be saying. It had worked well for him with administrators and girlfriends alike, had become something like a genuine reflection of the part of him that really was sincere and earnest and enjoyed being in the company of others. But how, once you had achieved that goal of charismatic likability, did you ever switch it off?
The woman matched his smile and raised a slim, jaunty hand to shake. “Joanna.”
“So you’re American, right? Or did I just really insult a Canadian?”
Once you were on the flirting train it was near impossible to get off, particularly if you’d never managed to figure out how to avoid boarding in the first place. You could be curt and rude. You could pretend not to speak English. Somehow as a younger man he’d never had the problem. Girls either hadn’t spoken to him, or they’d become uninterested almost immediately. And even if Owen – and, admittedly, several dozen other people – found him to be strikingly good-looking, surely he’d been even more so in his twenties, at the peak of physical conditioning?
“I’m from Wisconsin.” Affenlight adopted a frown in the direction of the juice again. But that seemed too far from friendly. “And you’re Australian. Unless I’m insulting a New Zealander.”
“No hurt feelings necessary.” Joanna followed his gaze. “So I’m thinking pineapple?”
“Either that or some kind of mutant fruit salad mishmash.” She ordered one from the vendor, pulled francs from her purse. Upon sipping, she nodded, clearing her throat. “Fruit salad it is. Although it tastes mostly of ice.”
Affenlight smiled and asked for two large plastic cups. Owen could only complain so much. At least in this situation he could make his excuses and leave. Ice melted, after all.
“You’re here with your partner, right?” Joanna said while he was picking up his change. “You two are really adorable together.”
“Adorable?” He couldn’t define why that question made him suddenly very aware of his thumping heartbeat, particularly given that it was being asked by a friendly young woman in a bikini.
She looked at him in sudden horror. “Oh god. He’s your son or something, isn’t he? Talk about hurt feelings.”
“No, no. He’s… he is my boyfriend.” Somehow charm and empathy made that easier to say, despite other people gathered around. “I just didn’t think we were that obvious.”
“Well, I hate to say there’s anything like gaydar, I mean it just plays into stereotypes, but sometimes you can see the way people look at each other. Especially two guys on holiday together.”
Affenlight felt as at sea as he often did in conversations with Owen, when O seemed to have a world of information on sexuality and romance and social justice at his fingertips when Affenlight had barely realized it existed. “How do we look at each other?”
“Mm, like you’ve been kissing pretty recently and you’re thinking about doing it again.” Joanna looked over his shoulder. “Michelle! I couldn’t tell if you’d want the orange or the… other orange. This is Guert. I already did the ‘whale of a time’ joke.”
Her companion was of an age, shirt over short-shorts, tying up a black ponytail. “Now what am I supposed to say?” She smiled in greeting. “I’ll try the other orange?”
Now it would be even simpler to excuse himself and traipse back to Owen with melting drinks. But the idea of any stranger seeing O and himself as a couple, much less an adorable one, was even more riveting than any girl in a bikini had been to him at twenty-five. “So how are you enjoying Tahiti?”
Joanna sucked in juice noisily, straw blocked with slush. “It’s good to get away, you know? But it’s been fun. Michelle was worried it wouldn’t be the most gay-friendly environment, despite what we read online, so it was a relief to see you and your man.”
“Owen,” Affenlight supplied. In all his worried reservations about the beach, he’d never even contemplated the idea of any audience to his interactions with Owen actually comprising other gay couples. “Everyone’s been very nice.”
Now that he thought about it, he and Owen had never been around other gay couples. Presumably they existed in a town of Westish’s size, with an LGBT club on campus, but Affenlight generally considered himself and Owen to be a unique phenomenon, even without taking into account the interracial or May-December (“September,” Owen invariably corrected) aspects.
“Perhaps,” he said, “you could join us? I know O would love to meet you.”
Owen was still stretched out on the towel when he returned, that lovely slender figure, feet dusted with sand, Speedos barely concealing the thickness of him beneath. The women might well be right, Affenlight thought as Owen opened his eyes. Maybe looking really was enough to tell. “I found some company,” Affenlight explained, holding out one plastic cup dripping condensation. “O, this is Joanna and Michelle. Joanna, Michelle, this is my boyfriend Owen.”
Owen took the cup and looked up at all three of them through sweat-smeared glasses. This fractional pause was all the indication Affenlight ever got that he was flustered. “A pleasure. Guert, you’re doing your anti-flirting argument no favors.”
“Oh, I did all the flirting.” Joanna nodded at a corner of the towel. “Mind if we sit?”
“Not at all.” Owen crossed his legs and dragged their backpack out of the way, looking suspiciously at his drink.
Affenlight sat by him on the towel, stroking a hand down O’s slick back. How had he behaved with girlfriends at the beach? They’d never actually rolled around in the sand as far as he could remember. But they’d kissed. They’d fooled around with sunblock. Perhaps the reason he couldn’t remember it clearly was that it hadn’t meant very much at all – the girl, the kisses, the day. What did you do with someone you loved, girl or boy? He hadn’t seen the movies. The books he loved held romance at arm’s length. And he’d always viewed other couples as somehow false in their affections. Either that, or he’d tried not to see – averted his gaze whenever Mike Schwartz kissed his daughter.
“So how did you two meet?” Michelle had that sweet, earnest look of someone used to receiving simple answers to simple questions. The gay men she knew – the people she knew – had probably met in bars or clubs, at work, walking their dogs, taking their kids to the park…
“We teach at the same college,” Owen said, which was true, albeit a complete non-sequitur where that question was concerned.
Guert rested his hand against Owen’s shoulder. “He swept me off my feet.”
“Oh indeed, Mr. Quarterback? I couldn’t sweep you off your feet if I knew judo. You, on the other hand…” Owen took a sip of juice. “And how about you? I’m thinking… soccer team?”
Joanna wagged a finger at him. “Lesbians on a sports team? That old stereotype? I’m really disappointed in you, Owen.”
“Cricket team actually,” Michelle smiled.
“Owen plays baseball.”
“Baseball!” Eyerolling. “You Americans have no patience for anything.”
It was almost astonishing, just how easy conversations with strangers could be when the motive was nothing but conversation, no need to teach anyone, to slyly charm or to fill the college coffers. He could mostly do what he did when he and Owen were alone, which was to listen to O talk, smile at his passions for the environment and for literature, nod along with Owen’s tales of Henry the superstar. He could lay his hand high on Owen’s thigh, lean in and kiss his cheek, and know that among this tiny group at least, no one cared. Which was one step toward not caring himself.
The evening brought with it the kind of warm breeze he sometimes longed for on nights by the lake. He loved to sit out on the shore as the sun set, Contango a warm ball of fur by his side, but even when Owen brought mugs of cocoa to heat up their hands it was really too chilly to sit for long.
After dinner Affenlight logged on to his e-mail via Owen’s laptop, having paid the exorbitant hotel Wi-Fi fees, and sent a short message to Pella. She wouldn’t worry about him out here, not when she knew Owen was with him, but he felt a little obliged to check in, to worry about himself on her behalf, as it were. And then he counted out his pills and took them with water. At least they trusted him to do that on his own these days.
He slipped on one of his shirts, not buttoning it, but rolling up the sleeves out of habit. If Owen’s intentions for him on this trip were to make him more comfortable with himself, with his body, with his sexuality, then so be it. Outside he let himself be ripped off by another drinks vendor and walked barefoot along the beach until he found Owen.
Affenlight sank down behind him, reaching around to clink glass against glass. “Thought we might want to make a toast.”
“You shouldn’t be drinking,” Owen murmured, but even in the low light Affenlight could tell he was smiling.
“It’s about four percent alcohol. I’ve more chance of getting drunk from my cologne.”
Owen settled back against him, turning the bottle around in his hand to see the label. “So what are we toasting?”
“From Melville’s footsteps to new friends, new horizons, and something eternal amid it all.” O was still just in his Speedos, clothes rolled away once more after dinner, but he radiated heat, glowed with it. Affenlight lazily stroked Owen’s belly, feeling the softness beneath the remaining trails of sweat or seawater.
Their bottles clinked again and they both drank. Tropical flavors with just a little alcoholic burn somewhere beneath the citrus. There were others still on the beach, paddling in the shallow water, taking strolls hand in hand, boys kicking a ball around … Affenlight turned his head into the crook of Owen’s neck. There was comfort there in his warmth, in his garlicky, herbal scent that couldn’t be washed away, and it didn’t even feel much like hiding.
“So tomorrow we’ll go exploring,” Owen said. “I took photos of Michelle’s guidebook. You can tell she’s a teacher. It’s annotated half to death, which is of course to our benefit.”
“Mm. I’ll do my best not to flirt with anyone.”
Owen directed an elbow back against his ribs. “Don’t you dare. Your flirting is highly enjoyable to see, as long as an equal part of it is directed toward me. It makes me appreciate the fact that I’m the only one who gets to savor the quiet, solitary side of Guert Affenlight.”
“I’m hardly solitary when I’m with you.” Another sip. “Or quiet either, come to think of it.”
“That,” Owen said, “is an entirely different consideration.”
They sat and watched the waves ripple against the shore, a boy running to pluck his soccer ball from the wet sand. If anyone looked their way for more than a moment, Affenlight wasn’t aware of it, and probably Owen would be insulted that he was still worried. There was nothing wrong in holding one’s same-sex lover on a beach, nothing more wrong than deliberately not doing it anyway, and in any case doing it made him feel more secure than pretending they were just friends ever could.
Perhaps he was deluding himself that now, in his sixties, with a bad heart, he could really do anything if some kids wandered over to yell epithets or worse. But however old Owen and his youthful, beautiful body made him feel, O made him feel younger too, stronger: that broad-shouldered, fearless quarterback, that charming lothario, while still being precisely the introverted, cautious, tentative professor Owen had once kissed silently in a moonlit kitchen.
“It seems very convenient,” he said after a while, “for me to meet another gay couple just as you were telling me to be more relaxed about touching you.”
Owen laced his fingers with Affenlight’s against his belly, nudged downwards. “Mm?”
“And apparently they’re staying at our hotel.”
“I imagine most tourists on this beach are.” Owen glanced up at him. “Besides, things like that happen in the movies all the time.”
Owen’s swimsuit was mostly dry, smoothly curved over his penis. Barely worth wearing anything, really, the outline he made was obvious enough even when soft. Affenlight kept his hand there even as Owen placed his back into the sand with a contented sigh. It was dark enough now that the little motion of rubbing him would make no impression on anyone more than six feet away. Owen took another drink and turned his head to kiss him, a long kiss as his penis thickened out, shifted under the material.
Affenlight dug his own bottle into the sand, moving his free hand over Owen’s chest, finding his nipples hard with arousal, body flushed even hotter. Had Melville once done this, years and years ago, held a young Tahitian boy naked in his arms, slathered him with oil, brought him off with a whisper of a moan in the twilight?
Owen did moan, but twisted away from Affenlight’s hand, up on his knees, cupping his cheeks and kissing him to make a silhouette that would be unmistakable at any distance. The contents of Owen’s bottle were pouring away into the sand as Affenlight’s tongue met his and Affenlight closed his eyes, imagining a world where they were entirely alone, where the only thing that mattered, that had ever mattered, was Owen’s body under his hands, under his tongue.
“You’d better take me back to your room if you want to use that gorgeous mouth on me some more,” Owen murmured, his thumbs massaging Affenlight’s temples, stroking short hairs. “Just wait a few moments, so I can walk.”
Affenlight smiled, looping his arms around Owen’s slim waist. “The Polynesians are in the habit of making bosom friends at the shortest possible notice. Mine was Owen, a handsome youth, who could never do enough for me.” He’d read Omoo on the flight over, some of the passages seeming more relevant than ever.
“And there was no end to Owen’s affections for his particular white friend.” Owen kissed his forehead and stood up, grabbing both bottles. “I feel obliged to point out the evils of colonialism and exploitation of said Polynesians, in which Melville was a willing partner, in addition to the ways in which our relationship bears little resemblance to those of the past… But perhaps I can so do in greater detail after we’ve taken care of how tight and restrictive these trunks have somehow become.”
Affenlight rolled up the towel, shaking off sand, and crammed it into Owen’s backpack, which he slung over one shoulder. Tomorrow morning O would no doubt repack everything with his usual fastidious care, but for tonight there were greater pleasures awaiting them than neatly folded laundry.
“As I recall,” he said, taking Owen’s hand as they turned back, “it’s more your room than mine.” Walking like this by the water, he half missed Contango loping along at their heels. But perhaps getting to walk around mostly naked made up for the allures of Lake Michigan.
“Ah, all the better, you can be my comely youth for the evening.” Owen gave his hand a squeeze.
In the room they showered together, washing away sea salt and sand, touching and kissing under the curtain of water until, mostly dry, Owen lay back on the bed and let Guert please him.
There was more than one way in which it was ridiculous to do this so happily now, to feel Owen harden and thrust between his lips, while feeling a sickening jolt of fear about holding hands outside. But he’d felt terrible the first time he had tried to give a blow job, and he’d perhaps felt worse holding Owen’s hand that first summer, when everyone in Westish had already known. It had all become easier with time. If Melville had managed to do it a hundred and fifty years ago, with eager lads on their knees, on their bellies before him, then this was one thing he could surely do better than his hero.
He enjoyed every part of making love to Owen – tasting him, touching him, being closer to him than anyone else could ever be – but there was something special, something he found deeply arousing, in the moment dear, taciturn Owen’s breathing became audible, his hips moving with a little more force until fast breaths became real moans, and then finally Affenlight’s name with a burst of semen in his mouth.
Affenlight lay over him as they held each other and kissed, his own erection not urgent in its need just yet, even when Owen’s sleepy hand found him and caressed him from balls to tip.
“Fuck me,” O started saying between kisses. He was getting stiff again, pressing up into Affenlight’s abdomen. Oh, the wonderful stamina of youth. Affenlight reached for the lubricant.
They’d tried more athletic positions in the past – Owen’s yoga proficiency helped immensely – but absent special requests Affenlight always preferred to return to this, to his arms wrapped around Owen, to Owen’s legs pulling him in deeper, the rocking motion gentle and slow for as long as he could take it.
Perhaps Owen liked precisely the same thing, seeing his face change as the pleasure and the wanting became far too much to stave off, feeling him come with a shattering jolt of hips. Affenlight did miss the old days of lying in bed with a girl for a few hours, smoking and chatting and then rolling over for another round. But age came with its own compensations, paramount among which was Owen rolling the condom off him, switching off the light, and holding him tightly. They were close enough to the water that they could still hear the waves breaking on the shore.
“I love you,” Affenlight said, and Owen, kissing him, said it back.