The same as always, the sun shone a rather flat yellow, without intention or malicious heat towards those in the city of Water 7, like a cardboard cutout watching over the citizens and their massive, intricate outlay of water channels and shipyards. The sun did, however, pay particular attention to the building which housed the main offices of Galley-La, the ship-building/repairing company that owned all the shipyards. The President, Iceberg—also well-known as the beloved town mayor and a genius shipwright—sat and diligently worked in his office on the top floor. He was just finishing up reading a report from one of his workers about a maddeningly complex wiring entanglement in the control panel of a customer’s ship when his Vice President and former apprentice walked through the door, looking dapper in his suit except for his blonde hair smoothed against his head by a pair of garish orange goggles.
“Thank God you’re here, Paulie,” the President said, promptly dumping the report in his Vice President’s hands. “I’m at my wit’s end with this.”
“You think I want it?” Paulie barked.
“You may be a V.P., but you’re still a dock-worker. It wouldn’t kill you to do a little work every now and again,” Iceberg said, but his tone was playful and his eyes were busy roaming over his associate. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t you remember what day it is today?” The look on Iceberg’s face indicated he clearly did not. Paulie shook his head. “We talked about this yesterday,” he said, and then carefully slipped one hand into Iceberg’s. “It’s been one year. We still going out to dinner tonight?”
“Right,” Iceberg said, smiling broadly to cover up having forgotten. “Of course.”
“Great,” Paulie chirped, eyes almost as bright as the pale-gold color of his hair. “Just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget. I also figured you could use one of these,” he said, then daringly placed a kiss on the older man’s grizzled cheek. He felt the tensing of muscle beneath his lips and gave Iceberg a quizzical look.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’ve told you not to do that,” Iceberg mumbled.
Paulie frowned, trying to remember and having a hunch that the memory was there but buried under hundreds of others. “When?”
“If you don’t remember, then just forget about it,” Iceberg said, retreating to his desk.
“Okay, you’ve probably told me before,” Paulie admitted, leaning against his boss’ desk, “but what’s the big deal? We kiss all the time and you don’t have a problem with it.”
“Not like that,” Iceberg said, averting his eyes from Paulie’s confused glare. “It’s just awkward for me.” He paused, then said, “You always kissed my cheek when you were little.”
“Oh man, this again?” Paulie groaned, unwilling to get on the subject, which had become more and more familiar in the past couple of months.
“Yes this again,” Iceberg snapped. “It may not matter to you, but it reminds me of the days when you used to lean on my knee and ask me why the sky was blue. I remember teaching you how to use a hammer and nails when you were barely old enough to read and write.”
“That’s natural—you were my mentor after all.”
“Yes, but you don’t seem to understand …”
Iceberg couldn’t find the words and voice to explain how during those younger days when he walked Paulie home from his shipyard, the young boy held the calloused hand with an utmost gentleness, like a father would hold precious his newborn baby, and could make Iceberg feel like the smallest mouse and yet the strongest bulwark in all the world. He would never forget the shy smile Paulie always gave him, beckoning him to share the endless fascinations that made up his life and his worries. Just being a young boy, he could understand Iceberg in the most natural of ways—they had many questions. Whether it was about life or why any god would make every person unique and unequal to the other, they both held the same pure drive to ask and be answered.
“I was even the one who had the sex talk with you,” Iceberg complained miserably as he racked his brain for a way to explain himself.
But even when Paulie’s body changed and his voice tripped over puberty to lower decibels he didn’t care for the female body, seemed adverse to it even, and began looking at Iceberg in a way the elder couldn’t understand. There grew a distance between them and a certain mystery in Paulie’s words and actions. Paulie became too manly to hold Iceberg’s hand and his face seemed stuck in a permanent, focused frown, tinged by a slight twist of pain and tobacco from the cigars he began smoking. He started asking less about things like the blue sky and more about ships and politics. These were Iceberg’s passions, but he found he couldn’t summon any enthusiastic response. Paulie was growing up, Paulie was trying to make his own ships, Paulie was slowly being dragged away by an unknown hand and was replaced with a Paulie that knew no closeness to the man he’d formerly admired. Iceberg felt a great sense of division and guilt, as if he’d once held a baby sparrow in his palm and he slowly, consciously opened his palm to let it fall into the grass somewhere. His shame lay in the fact that he allowed it to happen, watched it with great anticipation, as if having carefully cultivated a flower so it could bloom for him.
“Don’t you realize that we’re twelve years apart?” Iceberg said, looking up at his lover pleadingly.
“Right now, there’s only a few inches between us,” Paulie answered in that infuriatingly simple, unassuming way of his. His straightforwardness was reminiscent of a child’s and it made Iceberg sick at his stomach.
“Go to work, Paulie,” he commanded, and his orders were followed without question.
By the time Paulie got time to break for lunch, a late afternoon shadow had been cast carelessly over the docks like a smothering blanket, and Paulie was still thinking about Iceberg’s revulsion at his earlier touch. Sitting on a few boxes with his friends and coworkers Tilestone and Peeply Lulu, sandwiches in hand, Paulie stared at the unthinking sky, envying it, waiting as if he knew he would be sucked into it.
“Stop thinking about him,” Peeply advised. “Things like this have happened between you before. It’ll pass.”
“Yeah, but he’s been like this a lot lately,” Paulie sighed. “He worries too much about our age difference. Makes him sentimental.”
“What about you? Isn’t it awkward? You know, dating a guy who’s so much older than you,” Tilestone shouted, oblivious to his noise level. The other dock workers strolled by casually, hearing him and hearing Paulie’s conversation, but having much more interest in their daily work.
Peeply smirked knowingly at the workers passing by. “Thanks to Tilestone’s yelling over the past year, yours and Iceberg’s relationship is the worst-kept secret in Water 7.”
“Just don’t let Iceberg catch on,” Paulie said with a cheeky grin.
Tilestone, unknowing of his lack of volume control, ignored their commentary on him and pressed, “Well? Your answer?”
“He was your mentor before,” Peeply pointed out.
“Almost like an older brother at times,” Paulie admitted with a solemn nod.
“Almost old enough to be your dad,” Tilestone added helpfully, scratching his beard as if contemplating what he would say if he were in Paulie’s shoes.
Peeply nonchalantly brushed a hand over an unruly spike of hair on the left side of his head, only to have another spike pop up on the right, curling slightly in a sneer. “You don’t think that makes things … weird?”
This was the inevitable question asked by concerned individuals, and yet Tilestone and Peeply didn’t really seem confused or troubled. When Paulie shook his head and said “No,” they looked as if they expected this response—relieved, almost—as if they had wished he would say it so they could feel it.
“I can’t change that I’m younger than him, but I’ve changed a lot from the time I used to call him my teacher.” Paulie gave a half-shrug and clarified, “I mean, I still learn things from him, but I can’t call him my teacher anymore.”
“Why not?” Peeply asked. “What’s different?”
Paulie’s automatic internal response was, ‘That would be to ask the difference between a friend and a lover,’ but he knew it wasn’t quite the same. You could make the jump to being ‘lovers’ from ‘friends’ with far less time and concern than you could from being ‘family’ or ‘student/superior.’ He’d thought off-handedly about the age difference between himself and Iceberg, but never had cause to think of it at length. He didn’t care that he was a good piece younger. Mostly because the people on the docks didn’t care either—they had their own secrets and worries. A sexual deviant was the same to them as any pirate who wanted their ship repaired—trustworthy, as long as you paid them to do their job and didn’t start trouble. Paulie didn’t know about the townspeople, but he suspected they had families to raise and lives to live. They probably cared more about Iceberg’s economic policies than who he was fucking on the side.
Crossing his arms, Paulie tried to think of how to adequately explain his relationship in words, when both he and his audience didn’t really give a shit about or question its intricacies in the first place. He squinted up at the clouds painfully, as if wishing for backup. The clouds thought nothing of him.
“It’s like … well, a pair of good, clean slacks,” he said, looking back down at them and searching their faces for understanding that wasn’t there. He only found the most beautiful of blind acceptance. “You go long enough and you grow out of the labels until they don’t quite fit you anymore—the cuffs don’t quite reach your ankles, the zipper gets a little tight in the crotch—”
His friends laughed at his suggestive comment and the sensual arch of one brow, wiping away any awkwardness left that could possibly come between them.
“And you just … get a new pair of pants,” he said, shrugging again, a little bewildered and uneasy at how simple his explanation really was. His stomach turned over a few times like a rotten pig would turn on a spit. “You can give away the old pair to somebody else, but you can’t change the fact you had them and that there’s no pair in the world exactly like it.”
“What if you want to go back to the old … ‘pair of pants?’” Tilestone said, his voice for once not being forced out at the top of his lungs.
“What’s the point in wanting that? Every day that’s gone is gone. Iceberg and I can’t be like we used to be, because we’re different now.”
Paulie had his own regrets about growing up and losing his childhood, and losing the Iceberg he used to know. He missed those days when Iceberg seemed like the smartest person in the world—unquestionable, and worthy of god-like admiration. Now Paulie was learning what it meant to support Iceberg not as his subordinate but as his equal—it was like being a beam holding up only one floor of a mansion, always trying to guess what side of the house the building would come down on. The young mechanic felt helpless most days, a stranger to even Iceberg’s innermost thoughts, and yet he felt the thrill and discovery of slowly learning how to help. It was like tending to a ship with skin instead of metal plates.
“I guess you can say,” he picked up after a long pause, “because we spent so much time together, got close enough in just the right way … calling ourselves ‘lovers’ was the only way we could fit together.”
He focused on his friends’ faces and found a small light of recognition shining in the depths of their souls. They’d never understand what it meant to be in a relationship with a man, let alone a mentor. But it was enough that they asked—nobody else would’ve asked, and even if they all three didn’t really care that much, somebody had to take the issue seriously.
“So then,” Tilestone added coyly with a raucous laugh, “how do you deal with him being a man?”
Paulie’s laughter echoed his friend’s as he brushed off the question and the further unease it brought by saying, “That’s a story for another day.”