Owen hadn’t come. Had not yet come.
Every day since their afternoon homework sessions began, Affenlight had felt a twinge of anxiety that perhaps Owen would choose not to come, would have decided that his head felt better and that he no longer required or wanted Affenlight to read to him. And after the evening they’d kissed, when he’d first knelt between Owen’s parted legs and Owen had first made coffee, that twinge had deepened into an almost-constant thrumming of adrenaline fuelled by both desire and worry. He wanted Owen’s company more than ever, was more than ever convinced that Owen wanted him too… and more than ever concerned that Owen would find him to be a distinctly second-rate lover.
Still, Owen had come every weekday for two weeks now since that first time they’d kissed in the presidential office, since the first time they’d become intimate – Affenlight hesitated to say “made love”, although he knew Owen would rebuke him – and the worries had been surpassed by eager anticipation. He’d been neglecting his work as a result, his afternoons spent watching the clock, distracted by thoughts of Owen, by what they could discuss as much as what they might do.
Since the first time, that first experimental and, whatever Owen might insist, not very good first time, he’d almost become confident about sinking down with his knees against the warped wood. Owen would stroke his hair, guide him, instruct him, and Affenlight was nothing if not eager to learn. He’d once done the same with women, after all, and the results with Owen seemed no less impressive. But making twenty-one-year-olds come was no great feat, he knew from having been twenty-one himself what seemed like not so long ago… or what might seem to Owen like a century ago, given that damned photo from yesterday.
At twenty past the hour, Affenlight had pushed his daybook aside and pulled loose his tie along with the top two buttons of his shirt, waiting for Owen to knock. Now, twenty-five minutes later, he was still waiting. From Owen, who was usually so unfailingly well-mannered, even if those manners were tinged with an irony quite unlike Affenlight’s own, it seemed beyond strange. Surely even if he were breaking off their nascent relationship he would come for a minute or two, or send an e-mail. Phone, even. He wouldn’t have Affenlight’s cellphone number, but the office number was in any campus directory.
Affenlight sat down on the love seat and examined his perfectly clean fingernails, pondering whether he should be alarmed for other reasons. Aesthetically speaking, O’s head injury was almost entirely healed. The swelling had gone down days ago, and as of yesterday only a little bruising remained around his eye. Owen had certainly always seemed mentally alert enough – desire notwithstanding, Affenlight would never have touched him if he had any thought that Owen was still concussed or affected by drugs – and this past week O had smiled with adorable mischief before loosening Affenlight’s fly and closing his mouth over that freed erection. But a head injury was a head injury, even one month on, and who would have thought to tell him if Owen had collapsed? Mike Schwartz, eventually, although given his break-up with Pella perhaps not so readily…
But that was catastrophizing and in any case far more unlikely than Owen simply making a clean break of things after seeing the photograph yesterday. It was the kind of photograph most people longed to see in their old yearbooks: even Affenlight himself had to admit that he had looked good at twenty, with his muscular football physique, clear skin and flowing hair. And however good he looked now, he would never be twenty again or anything close, would never be a fellow student with whom Owen could hold hands in the Quad, kiss in Café Oo, cast in his plays. Owen needed someone his own age. Affenlight had always known it, and now Owen knew it too.
Affenlight checked his watch again. The idea of living without Owen, well, he’d known it would come in September, when he could devote himself to his work, to repairing his relationship with Pella. But September still seemed reliably far away, as though it might never come at all. Perhaps it was for the best that it had all ended now. He could half-convince himself that it had all been a fantasy, a dream out of time, a-
A tap-tap-tap came at the door.
Owen had already stepped into the room, smoothly locked the door, and fixed his smile on Affenlight before Affenlight had even stood up from the love seat. “Guert.”
There was no messenger bag today, but O still clasped his hands tightly and kissed him. “Many apologies for my latecoming. I was at practice.”
“Baseball practice?” Affenlight said, realizing how stupid that question must sound.
Owen dropped down to the love seat, tugging Affenlight with him. “Indeed. Dr. Collins cleared me to play tomorrow… Or at least to sit on the bench as I’m sure I’ve missed too much to actually play. Still, I’ll be there to support my brothers in arms.”
“Oh,” Affenlight said. “Good. That’s good.”
Owen smiled again and touched his cheek. “So why do you look so glum?”
“No reason. I just… I thought you weren’t coming.”
O gave his hair an affectionate ruffle. “We’ll still see each other, although if our games with Coshwale go well this weekend you may have to excuse my absences during May. Still, it’s almost the summer.”
The summer. Three months of days with Owen. With any luck Pella would reconcile with Mike Schwartz, or devote herself to a full load of classes in her efforts to catch up. Still, with the start of summer came a glimpse of its end. Affenlight barely wanted April to be over, let alone May. “Good,” he said again.
“But we do need to talk about something.”
Owen’s hand was laid on top of both of his, warm from practice or just his typical youthful heat. Affenlight was already nodding without understanding. It sounded, felt like a breakup. He’d experienced enough of them to know, had initiated enough of them to understand what it meant to let someone down easy, to give the “I hope we can still be friends” speech. But hadn’t Owen just been talking about May? Perhaps he only wanted homework help, not that Owen needed help with anything anymore.
“This isn’t what I want, Guert.” Owen’s voice was soft, placatory, but clear. “Coming to your office every day, locking the door… It was fun the first week, all the secrecy. But it’s like a gay porn version of Groundhog Day. You’re wonderful. It’s wonderful. But it’s not a relationship.”
Affenlight nodded. The Quad and Café Oo were coming to mind again. Everything Owen must have done with Jason Gomes and however many other boyfriends. Boyfriends who could take him to the movies, to the mall, to wherever young people went on dates these days. Still, something in him blanched at this description of the last two weeks. Gay porn was hardly… “We talk,” he protested. “We drink coffee.”
“Everybody drinks coffee.”
Did everyone sit and hold each other, sharing a postcoital cigarette while discussing Transcendentalist philosophy? Well, this was a college. Perhaps they did. Perhaps what Affenlight found meaningful was barely scratching the surface of what lovers did today. Perhaps Owen had enjoyed the same conversations with Jason Gomes, while also having the benefit of Jason Gomes’ six-pack abs – Affenlight had no memory of Jason being an athlete, but in his imagination he was – and Jason Gomes’ ability to go anywhere and do anything with him.
“I’m the college president,” he said. “I’m sixty years old. Sixty-one next week.”
Owen gave his hands a squeeze. “Yes you are. But neither of those are the issues at hand. I want to live, Guert. I want you to take me to dinner. I want to go to bed with you. We’ve never even rented a movie.”
Affenlight looked confusedly at Owen’s hand on his. “I don’t like movies.” That phrase – I want to go to bed with you was making more intelligent thoughts almost impossible to formulate. Lying in bed at night, he’d thought about it, about feeling O’s naked body pressed to his, about what it might be like to wake up and find Owen there, his mind barely daring to consider the sexual component beyond kisses and caresses, beyond Owen’s slender weight above him.
“I know it’s a delicate situation,” Owen continued as though he’d never even spoken. “But you’re a college president, not a rock star. All we need to do is drive an hour or two away. Take me to some little Friday-night fish fry and an anonymous motel where we can watch awful cable TV and you can hold me all night and recite Whitman till I fall asleep.”
Affenlight’s lips parted. The maudlin part of him that Owen had split wide open in recent weeks now seemed too sensitive to bear. “That’s what you want?” It was more than he’d ever dared hope for.
“No, it’s not what I want. But it’s a step in the right direction. If that’s what you want.”
Words were Affenlight’s forte, even when Owen’s mere presence often made him fumble for articulacy. Now, though, he lifted one of his hands, cupped the back of Owen’s once-swollen head, and kissed him. Owen murmured something, lips parting, relief washing over Affenlight as something like normality returned to their afternoon together. Something beyond normality, really, something that would soon mean even greater anxiety when it came to actually planning on dates, on having to let Owen see him naked, even on performing in bed if Owen wanted something more than oral sex, which he more than likely would. But for the moment Owen was kissing him, hand brushing down over his ribs, settling in his lap for a moment before lifting again, unzipping his fly. It felt nice, Owen’s hand on him through his shorts even when he was still soft, which really he wasn’t now as he raised his hips a little, pressing into Owen, pulling Owen’s t-shirt loose from his sweatpants, feeling the smooth skin beneath, feeling himself thick under O’s hand, seeing the bulge at Owen’s crotch…
A knock came at the door. No tap-tap-tap this time. A properly loud knock that expected to be answered. Affenlight froze, mind running over the possibilities of who it could be, half-knowing he should be fastening his pants, letting Owen straighten his own clothes. Pella? Mrs. McCallister back to collect something? They could just stay quiet until whoever it was went away, but that would only seem even more suspicious if the person waited, or went to get a key.
The knock came again and the door handle moved. Owen had already withdrawn his hand and was tucking his t-shirt back in. Affenlight cleared his throat and stood up. “One moment,” he called, zipping his pants and moving one of the spindle-backed chairs next to the love seat, handing Owen one of the global warming books from his desk and laying a stack of journal articles on the chair. His erection had thankfully taken care of itself. He unlocked the door and opened it.
The man standing there in galoshes was evidently neither Pella nor Mrs. McCallister. Affenlight, however, recognized him easily from the photograph on his firm’s website. “David,” he said with only a hint of surprise. Pella had said he would be coming today, but he’d assumed the two of them would work out arrangements by phone or e-mail before David actually showed up in person. Affenlight stuck out a hand, feeling the aura of practiced charm and ease come over him, even if that wasn’t quite the attitude he wanted to convey to the man who had once spirited off his daughter. “Guert Affenlight.”
David looked at his hand warily. “Where’s my wife?”
“Did you call upstairs? She’s probably still at work. Why don’t you come in… Owen and I were just finishing up.” He held the door open, seeing that Owen had picked up one of his pens and was now diligently annotating one of the articles. “This is Owen, one of Pella’s friends.” That was a bit of a stretch, but anyway. “We’re working on some budget proposals to reduce our carbon footprint here at the college. Owen, this is David.” He didn’t particularly want to add any descriptors to David’s name, but Owen would otherwise be baffled. “My son-in-law.”
“A pleasure,” Owen said.
David gave him the vaguest nod of acknowledgement. “Why was the door locked?” he asked, which struck Affenlight as strangely – if correctly – suspicious for a man who should be focused on winning back his wife.
“We kept being interrupted by students,” Affenlight said, gently closing the door again and directing David to the other wooden chair. “Your knock sounded a little more urgent.” He knew very well that he was usually a horribly obvious liar, but this was as smooth as any white lie he’d passed off at trustee cocktail dinners.
“I have a right to see my wife.” That sounded more like it, and on a much safer topic.
“I’m sure she’ll be here shortly.” He dared to look over at Owen. Dear, beautiful Owen who he would now surely have to wait until Monday to touch again. “I’m sorry Owen. Perhaps you can e-mail me those references so I can read them over the weekend?”
Owen nodded. “Of course.” He neatly stacked the articles, capping the pen and leaving it atop the pile. “Thank you very much for your time, President Affenlight.”
Another knock came. Affenlight was on the verge of severely rebuking whoever it might be when Pella slipped inside, still in her kitchen getup, baseball cap and all. “Doesn’t this look surprisingly civilized?” she said after a moment. “Hi Owen.”
“Hi.” Owen paused beside the love seat, awkwardly caught between two Affenlights and one Affenlight-by-marriage.
She frowned. “Why are you here?”
“We were-” Affenlight began, but any excuses were clearly unnecessary as David had already risen, going to her, calling her “Bella” as they kissed on both cheeks. He’d never been worried that David was a violent man – emotionally abusive perhaps, although he’d seen no evidence of that either – but Affenlight still wanted to push him away from his daughter like a football player who’d had too much to drink.
“I thought we were going to dinner,” David was saying.
“We are. Maison Robert at eight o’clock. I’m sure you’ll hate it, but the only other option was pizza.” She glanced at Affenlight, probably taking in his uncharacteristic lack of a tie – or was that just his own guilty conscience? “Did you check into your hotel yet? Maybe you can pick us up later?”
Us? Affenlight’s thoughts echoed. Pella wanting him there was a good sign, a sign that he was unequivocally on her side, which of course he was. But it still meant sitting through what could only be an awkward dinner with a man he would prefer never speak to again.
“Us. My father and I.” Pella took off her cap and fussed with her hair. “And, you know, Owen should come too. We owe you dinner at Maison Robert, don’t we?”
Owen smiled, confident that it was a joke. “I’m sure Chef Spirodocus’ treats were just as delicious. And in a far nicer setting too. But if you’ll excuse me…”
“No, I’m serious. Four’s far better than three.” Pella directed her gaze back at David. “Owen just won the Trowell Award to study in Tokyo. It’s very prestigious.”
David seemed as focused on her as if she were the only person in the room. “And not some sort of gardening implement? Bella, I thought this would be a chance for us to really talk, not a dinner party.”
“We’re civilized people, aren’t we? And the four of us hardly make up a dinner party.”
David protested of course, and Affenlight expected Owen to say something too – O had wanted to go to dinner with him, but presumably not like this – but O just quietly sat down and waited until David, with a despairing look at the rain outside, finally left for his hotel. Pella twisted her baseball cap in her hands. “Sorry,” she said to Owen. “I got a bit carried away. Order the most expensive thing on the menu. David’s treat.”
“Owen’s a vegetarian,” Affenlight reminded her, leaning back against the edge of his desk. The evening seemed so shot to hell already that he felt quite calm.
“There must be some kind of expensive vegetable… Fine, the three of us better put away as much wine as possible. It’s Friday night after all. God, I should’ve asked Mike instead. He could eat a cow. Two cows. What were you two doing in here anyway?”
Owen, thankfully, held up the book. “We’ve been working on ways to make Westish more eco-friendly.”
“I thought the budgets and everything were submitted last month,” Pella said. “You told me about five times how relieved you were.”
“That’s only step one, I’m afraid. There are constant revisions up until the end of May. I have a meeting with the trustees next Saturday, so Owen’s been prepping me.”
“Isn’t that a turnaround.” She gave Owen an apologetic smile. “I’m glad your face is better.”
“Thank you. I’m on the bench tomorrow, pinch-hitting aside.”
“Oh fuck, there’s a game isn’t there? Well my dad can probably drink a couple of bottles by himself without even getting hungover.” Pella looked between them. “Meet outside by the statue in an hour?”
And then he was left alone with Owen again. An hour. They could relock the door, sit back down on the love seat, make each other feel good. But even just the first part of that idea was far too risky now.
“You really don’t have to come,” he said.
“I’m happy to. Pella seems to want a buffer zone. I take it this marriage has come to an unhappy conclusion?”
In their weeks of meeting together, they really should have discussed this. But he’d too often felt guilty thinking of Pella at all while he was sipping coffee with Owen, blissfully post-orgasmic from O’s hand or mouth. “Indeed.”
Owen nodded, standing. “I suspected her time in San Francisco hadn’t been entirely happy. She’s lucky, Guert. I wish I had had you to support me when my heart was broken.”
“You have me now.” Affenlight, fearing that was going a little too far, slid his hands into his pockets and looked back toward the door. “Besides, Pella seems to be the one doing the heartbreaking.”
Owen was standing next to him now and for a moment it seemed as though he might say something. Instead he leaned into Affenlight and kissed him, as lightly and softly, yet deliberately, as the first time they’d kissed. “An hour then.”
Alone in his office, Affenlight picked up his tie from the desk and watched until the light came on in Phumber 405 and Owen’s shadow passed the lamp. Upstairs Pella would no doubt be in the shower, but perhaps he should change. Change his tie at least, check his hair, smoke a surreptitious cigarette to calm his nerves. Having dinner with David and having dinner with Owen should have been two entirely different crises. Now that they had been interwoven by fate or unfortunate circumstance, he was left bereft of any concept of how to prepare.
He sat down at his desk, pulled a cigarette from the drawer, and lit it. He wished he could say it was no different for the lack of Owen’s lips having been on it first.
An hour later, after occupying himself with work that required as little concentration as possible, he checked the knot of his tie in the reflection of his computer monitor, straightened his jacket, and headed outside. The rain had stopped, and he’d hoped that Owen might already be there, waiting to exchange a quick word, but Affenlight stood alone by the statue, nodding to students returning to dorms after dinner. A minute or two later, Pella appeared from the private entrance to Scull Hall, wearing the same lilac dress she’d worn when Owen’s mother had visited. She still looked lovely in it. Adult. Elegant. Everything like her mother and, Affenlight hoped, perhaps at least a little like himself as well.
“You’re beautiful,” he said and she ducked her head a little, smoothing the dress down over her hips.
“Sorry I dragged you into this.” She kissed his cheek, friendlier than she’d been in a month. They’d argued bitterly earlier this morning, or at least she had, but that had presumably been half anger at Mike for whatever he might have done or failed to do, and half the pain of her finger, which was now bound up with tape. “Do you think Owen minds? It’s Friday night. He probably had plans.”
“I don’t think Owen’s the type for bars. Besides, he has a game tomorrow.”
Pella nodded. “All these athletes. Between him and Mike and Henry it’s like some kind of physical diversity study. Marvel at how all of these dissimilar men can still be exceptionally good at hitting balls! Or catching balls! Or standing around apparently doing nothing!”
Two girls swiped their entry card for Phumber and after they had entered, Owen came out. Affenlight had expected he would find some neatly-pressed slacks and a sweater, having never actually seen Owen lately in anything more formal than his baseball uniform, and what student in Westish even needed formal attire for an interview? Chef Spirodocus seemed happy enough with students who were fearless pot-scrubbers and not entirely nude. But here was Owen in a charcoal gray suit Affenlight might have picked out for himself, his loafers polished to a sheen, shirt a pristine white, tie a Westish navy without the addition of ecru harpooners.
“Looking sharp Mr. Dunne,” Affenlight said, adopting a presidential tone of approval. It was certainly a world away from t-shirts and sweatpants, and thankfully Pella couldn’t tell how eager he suddenly was to undress Owen all over again.
Owen straightened his glasses and smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, I think now that we’re going to dinner together you’d better start calling me Guert.”
“If I can say it correctly.”
“Somehow I think you’ll manage.”
If only they truly were going to dinner alone, to some fictional restaurant in a fictional world where they could share wine by candlelight, hold hands across the table, and go home together without anyone watching, whispering, or even seeing them. But Pella was already clearing her throat. “If you two can stop flirting, maybe we can go? I’d like to get this over with.”
Pella sat in the passenger seat, Owen in the back after he’d wordlessly stacked up the papers and CD cases Affenlight had let accumulate there over the years. He hadn’t had to give more than one person a ride since… well, possibly since the very start of his time at Westish. Gone were the days of ferrying Pella and her friends around. Long gone, really. By the time she was thirteen she already had friends with licenses.
“How’s your mom?” Pella asked, twisting round a little.
“Good,” Owen said. “Relieved to be back in the civilized world, I imagine, despite our rustic charm.”
“Oh yes, the rustic charm. I bet David’s loving it too.”
“He’s from… San Francisco, you said?”
She nodded. “Not that everyone there’s a snob, but he’s… I don’t think he’ll be impressed by this place. So I need you both to pretend that everyone in this entire town is as cultured as you are, okay?”
Affenlight might have asked why, after leaving David with such determination, she still cared about impressing him. But perhaps showing one’s ex that you’d gone up in the world, or at least hadn’t gone down, was a social necessity.
“Westish isn’t so bad at all,” Owen said. “The student drama group is very experimental, with a good reputation. Michael’s rejuvenated the Harpooners on both fronts. Even the Bugler occasionally has good articles, although I’m afraid Sarah often opts for sensationalism over erudite comment.”
The mention of Mike Schwartz made Affenlight brace for one of Pella’s two defense mechanisms: outright anger or seething silence, but she just hummed her agreement and glanced outside the window as Affenlight looked for parking. “So are we keeping you from your boyfriend tonight?”
Despite knowing that Owen wouldn’t possibly tell the truth, Affenlight held his breath, pretending to focus on the rear-view mirror.
“Unfortunately not. There aren’t so many gay men on campus, or bisexual men I should say, and there’s fierce competition for any who are even vaguely attractive or personable.”
“See, that’s what my dad says. No interesting women for miles around. Which, by the way, doesn’t explain what was wrong with your mom.”
“Nothing is wrong with Genevieve,” Affenlight said, feeling like an intruder in this entire conversation. “She’s a lovely woman I’m sure I’d like to know better. But she lives in San Jose. This is the other problem with Westish, Pella. By the very nature of it, everyone leaves.”
A moment of silence from both of them. Given Mike’s upcoming graduation and Owen’s departure for Tokyo a few months later, perhaps that had been a little too blunt. “Even staff,” he added, putting on the handbrake. “My last girlfriend moved to Ann Arbor.”
“Your last girlfriend?” Pella snapped off her seatbelt and turned to face him. “When was this? You didn’t tell me. Was it serious?”
“She moved across the country, Pella, it obviously wasn’t that serious.” No, that was far too sensitive a topic too. “She was in the history department. And you weren’t really talking to me at the time.” He opened the door, which wasn’t much of an escape, but it was at least a partial one.
Maison Robert’s unchallenged status as the only relatively upscale restaurant in town had made it the haunt of lecturers wishing to eat out while avoiding the student body, who swarmed through Carapelli’s and every other establishment. Affenlight ate there only rarely, mostly when escorting guests and trustees he needed to impress. Even at the door he already had nods from several staff members. Judy Eglantine, sitting alone, smiled. “Guert, how are you?”
“Very well. I hear you’ve been suffering my daughter in your class.”
“She pays a lot more attention than those baseball boys. Oh, Owen excepted, of course. When are you coming back, Owen?”
Naturally everyone in here had to know Owen. The humanities professors at the very least. “I think I’ve already taken all the classes.”
“Then teach mine for me! I hear Sobel already had that idea for the summer.”
David hadn’t made his appearance yet, but they were seated at a table for four and showered with menus by the fair-haired, almost albino waiter: Pella and Owen on one side, Affenlight opposite Owen and next to the empty chair. He assumed that David would be a perfect gentleman, at least so far as avoiding noise and violence went, but he barely knew the man and perhaps Pella’s desire to have both himself and Owen there spoke volumes.
Under the table, Owen’s leg brushed his and the bell rang at the door.
“Ah, you’re here.” Relieved of his galoshes and coat David looked far more serious but also diminished in stature and color. The type of man Affenlight would expect to see alone in art galleries, appearing to be pondering the meaning and style of impressive pieces more than he really was. More than anyone could be. Still, David shook his hand firmly this time and then Owen’s, complimenting Pella on her dress. Clearly he’d come with a strategy of concerted politeness and sophistication and intended to enact it to the letter.
“I didn’t think I could possibly get lost in a town this small,” David said, opening his menu. “At least the Prius gets good mileage.”
“You drove it here from Chicago?” Owen asked. David certainly knew how to appeal to his own kind. Not that Owen was David’s kind. No, not at all.
David nodded, gesturing to the waiter. “We have one in San Francisco. By far the best choice, with gas prices as they are and global warming the way it is.” He ordered Bordeaux, which Affenlight thought he should object to on principle, even if it was a good wine.
“That’s the good thing about Westish,” Pella said. “You don’t really have to drive anywhere.”
“If you don’t have to have any kind of engagement with culture and society. Is there even a movie theater here? I drove around half the town and I saw maybe two or three restaurants that weren’t solely fast food. And I imagine you can forget about opera or the theater. Museums...”
“Life isn’t entirely found in cultural institutions,” Affenlight said mildly. He’d had something like the same argument with Pella eight years ago – why move to Westish, which had a lake and not much else? You couldn’t quantify the experience of walking by Lake Michigan as easily as you could spending an evening with Faust, however deeply you felt it.
David was watching the waiter pour. “Once the weather clears up I’m sure it’s beautiful. But Pella has talents that shouldn’t be limited to a rural, second-rate college people can barely find on the maps. No offense, Guert.”
Usually Affenlight was all too happy to acknowledge Westish’s weaknesses – if you loved Westish you loved it for itself, not for its place in academic rankings or in terms of how well the Harpooners did in regional competitions. Genevieve’s gentle teasing had been a delight, or would have been if he hadn’t spent the evening anxiously fixated on Owen, but with David he automatically searched for a rebuke. David, though, was already speaking to the waiter in French, not seeing or not caring for the confusion in his pale eyes.
As Pella tried the wine too, Owen cleared his throat and spoke… well, to say it was perfect French would be over-estimating Affenlight’s own competency with the language, but it certainly sounded fluent, and it was nice to see some of that confusion on David’s face too. “Sorry,” David said. “I didn’t quite-”
“Oh,” Owen said. “Never mind. How’s the wine?”
Pella nodded, smiling. “Good. Have some.”
The waiter poured for all four of them and David ordered for the four of them too, this time in English. Perhaps he was used to doing it for Pella.
“Escargot?” Owen said immediately. “I’ll have to decline, thank you. The ratatouille sounds delicious, though.”
Affenlight, though generally reluctant to have any vegetarian option, agreed with him this time. Pella, though, went with the snails. What did that mean? Did it mean anything? Owen’s shoe tips were pressed to his under the table: reassuring or mischievous? This felt like two exams at the same time, two exams for which he’d had no time to prepare.
Pella and David were already on the topic of cooking and Chef Spirodocus, Owen polishing his glasses with the corner of his napkin. He was so beautiful, so vulnerable, that it almost made Affenlight’s heart ache just looking at him. He’d passed a couple of their meetings just like this, mesmerized while Owen lectured him on alternative energies and carbon footprints. In the last couple of weeks he’d been able to just reach out and touch Owen when he felt like it, to kiss him, cradling his cheek, unknotting the ties of his sweatpants. There was a sudden heat at his groin, and he made himself pay attention to the conversation as their dishes arrived.
“Besides, my father’s here,” Pella was saying, which made it a good time to seem attentive.
The way David focused on her and only her, it was as though Affenlight and Owen were on the other side of the room. “I appreciate that, Bella, but in the last four years you were hardly pining away for your family. And he never visited you.”
Which was primarily because she’d forbidden him to, and secondarily because conflict with Pella hadn’t resulted in a victory for him since she was twelve.
“How would you know what I was pining away for?” She stabbed a forlorn snail. “You seemed to think it was dropping out of school, never working, never learning to drive…”
“Bella... we discussed all of those, and we agreed it was better for you to focus on your art. In this day and age, with those exorbitant loans and falling standards, a college degree is barely worth the effort. Especially for artists.”
Owen took a sip of wine. “You know, living in Westish has made me realize how important a driving license is. If only I had a car. But nevertheless, I imagine San Francisco has good public transport?”
“Precisely. Driving is inefficient, Bella, and besides, you know you shouldn’t have been driving, let alone driving for the first time, with the medication you were on.”
“Everyone’s on medication!” Pella said, just as the waiter topped up her glass. “Shall we go round the table and discuss what pills we’re taking?”
David gave a weary, paternal sigh while Affenlight, as Pella’s actual weary father, said: “Pella, you were on medication?” There was privacy, and then there was privacy with your sole surviving parent.
She took a bite and a sip. “I’ll tell you about it later. Nothing serious.”
“Nothing serious?” David laid down his fork. “Depression, anxiety, panic attacks… You ended up in the hospital.”
“That was a mistake!”
“The hospital? What happened?”
“Just a mix-up… Could happen to you if you took too many blood pressure pills, not that that’s likely to happen.”
Owen laid his hand atop Pella’s on the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I believe we can all agree that spending as little time in the hospital as possible would be the preferred option. Even with the nicest visitors.”
“Which is precisely why San Francisco is a far better environment for you,” David said, clearly warming to his argument. “What specialists do they have here? Country doctors and retirees. And what is there to excite and stimulate your talents? You’ve been here a month and you’re working in a cafeteria, living at home… Don’t you see what’s happening? You’re wasting your talents, your intelligence...”
“She’s trying to be happy,” Owen said. “Before you can change the world it helps if you can get out of bed in the morning.”
“Besides,” Pella said, “I’m sleeping with someone.”
David paused. “No you’re not.”
“I really am.”
David frowned at Owen. “With him?”
“The point,” Affenlight said, drawing on reserves of gravitas and confidence he rarely actually felt, “is that Pella wants to stay here at Westish, and it’s her decision.”
Around them, the lecturers and other diners were finishing desserts, settling their bills. David swirled wine around in the bottom of his glass and sighed as though the three of them were stubbornly ignorant children. “Of course it’s her decision. I don’t even expect her to come back with me, not if she was so unhappy there. But Bella, I only care about your future, and hiding away here... It’s a temporary solution at best. And heaven forbid you actually stayed here in the long-term. Your desire for something greater was one of the reasons I fell in love with you. And this… This is about as small as it gets.”
“It’s home,” Pella said quietly.
“It’s your father’s home, and you’ve told me a hundred times how you could barely live in the same state as each other. Now you’re down the hall? This isn’t a good environment for you, Bella, and I’m concerned for your health. For your future.”
“Concerned for her health?” Owen set down his fork. “You’ve just said she was in the hospital, she was on multiple medications, she was unhappy enough to leave you even when she and Guert hadn’t seen each other in years. It’s clear San Francisco isn’t the best place for her right now. And Westish isn’t a penitentiary. How old are you, Pella? Twenty-three? My mother was a single mom with no journalism experience at that age. Guert didn’t figure out what he wanted to do till he was thirty.”
David barked out a laugh, took a drink from his refilled glass. “People can become depressed anywhere. Does the sun even shine in this part of the world?”
“You don’t know it,” Owen said. Pella was nodding, pushing around the edge of an unused soup spoon. “We love it here, all of us. That’s why we came.”
Something swelled in Affenlight’s chest at that sentiment: the delight that Owen had said it intertwined with the hope that Westish might be more than a waystop for him on his journey toward inevitable greatness.
“Why you came, maybe.” David pushed his plate back, looked around for the waiter. “But you’re just trying to get into my wife’s pants, aren’t you?”
Behind the lenses, Owen’s gray eyes looked cooler than they ever had before. “She’s not your wife,” he said. “And I couldn’t be less interested in sleeping with her.”
“Oh, it’s that way, is it?” David shifted in his chair, ignoring Pella for the first time all evening. “I should have guessed: her father the perpetual bachelor, with all his homoerotic books. How do you like the look of his pants?”
Affenlight’s heart was pounding, and not for the reasons it had before. Pella, though, was rolling her eyes, scrunching up her napkin. “David, you’re being ridiculous.”
“Really? Ask them why they were in his office after hours, no secretary in sight, with a locked door.”
Pella looked at him now, as pain shot through Affenlight’s chest. He should be laughing, irritatedly contradicting David and moving on. But he was a terrible liar, and lying to Pella had always made him feel not only guilty, but awfully, wretchedly so. “The door was locked?” she asked.
He wanted Owen to say something in those smooth, unflustered tones, but Owen was looking away, removing himself from anything that passed between father and daughter. Perhaps that tiny malicious part of him, which Affenlight found so exciting when they were kissing, wanted it all to come out. Affenlight would have had to tell her sooner or later, in the event – the admittedly unlikely event – that Owen wanted to continue their relationship past August. But now, now of all times. He shouldn’t have eaten a bite.
“We should talk about this at home,” he said. Home, yes, that was all that mattered. To have Pella here to stay, no matter how much they might fight, how little she might speak to him.
The way she stared at him, twenty-three years of her life had to be flashing before her eyes: all his Harvard girlfriends, all his eager idolization of Melville, Hawthorne and Thoreau, all the way up to his nerves over dinner with Genevieve and Owen’s surprising presence in his office this evening. At least, they were flashing before his own.
“How long has this been going on?” she said.
Affenlight risked a glance at Owen. Owen, who was looking at him with something that might have been pity. “Not long.”
Pella pursed her lips, licked them. “And how many before Owen?”
And how many drinks have you had? And how many boys were there? “There’s only ever been Owen.”
Perhaps there was a flicker of a smile from O, he hoped there might be, but Pella seemed unmoved, David sipping his wine with an air of satisfaction.
“He’s a kid,” Pella said. “He’s a student. And you’re in love with him?”
How must he look at Owen, for her to ask that? “Yes,” he said, not looking at any of them.
“What are we going to do?”
Despite the tone, the situation, at least it was still we. “I don’t know.”
Pella smiled sadly, looking suddenly much older. “I think you two should probably go.”
Probably no one had ever suggested he leave a room since his dissertation adviser strongly hinted that, despite the breadth of young Guert’s questions, he had another meeting scheduled. Pella, receiving the same suggestion, would defy it on principle. But Affenlight nodded, his head ringing. “Don’t go with him,” he said, not that it would make much difference, not now.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Pella said. She touched Owen on the wrist as he stood, whispered something.
Affenlight got to slightly unsteady feet. Pella had his credit card. David could drive her home, or she could go to Mike Schwartz’s house, or book herself into any of the half-empty guest houses along this very street. She would be fine without him. Perhaps she always would have been.
The wall outside the restaurant felt cold and still slightly damp against the back of his head as he leaned against it, blinking up at where the stars should have been. He couldn’t remember breathing since he’d stood up from the table, couldn’t imagine ever having to breathe again. But still, his chest hurt and his ears were ringing.
He was fourteen years old again, tall and broad-shouldered, aching and bruised as he walked off the field, face burning in the helmet he didn’t dare to take off. He’d lost the game. You could blame it on other people, on anyone, but you still knew.
“Guert, look at me.”
Owen’s hands, impossibly cool, were cupping his face and then unbuttoning his collar, loosening his tie. Affenlight’s eyes narrowed, dazzled by streetlights. He hadn’t felt this much adrenaline since the phone call about Sarah, and all of it useless. “Everything’s going to be fine,” Owen was saying in that calming, mellifluous voice that should have made anyone believe him. “One breath at a time Guert. It’ll pass in a minute.”
He was being treated like a child, the way he’d admittedly wanted to be treated after that phone call. He’d badly wanted some more competent person to sit him down and tell him what to do. But now, actually receiving that advice, it was Owen who seemed like the foolishly optimistic child. Nothing was ever going to be fine.
After a minute, though, his head really did feel better, cooler, rain beginning to mist on his face.
“Give me your keys,” Owen said, hand held out. “You’re not driving like this.”
It was easiest just to dip a hand into the pocket of his coat and hand the set to Owen. He’d always assumed that O knew what he was doing in any situation, and he hadn’t yet been proven wrong.
Owen drove stick competently but slowly, overly careful even in Westish’s quiet streets. After a couple of blocks, Affenlight closed his eyes. At a stoplight, Owen’s hand drifted from the gearshift to squeeze his thigh. “She’s not going to leave with him.”
“You don’t know Pella. She’s loved to do exactly what I least want her to do ever since she was twelve.”
The car set off again. “I’m not sure you know Pella so well anymore, Guert. She came home. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Because she knows it’ll hurt even more when she leaves.”
A gear shift. “I’ve only met her twice, but she doesn’t seem like the malicious sort. She’s not twelve anymore. And given what she’s said she went through in San Francisco, I can see why she came here. Regardless of your actions, I doubt she would want to return.”
“My actions.” Affenlight opened his eyes. They were already on the narrow roads within the campus. “It’s as if I’ve taken a page from her book, doing precisely the worst possible thing: falling in love with someone her age, just as she’s become convinced of the perils of being with an older man. And with a student, which could get me fired. Will get me fired, and where does that leave us? I’ll have no job and we’ll have no home, and God knows how Pella will get into any half-decent school without valid SAT scores or even her GED.”
Owen frowned for a moment, reversing into the parking spot reserved for the college president. “Guert, even the worst possible scenario isn’t too bad. No one’s being shot. Pella might have to spend a year or two retaking tests, but she’s smart enough to get in anywhere she likes, and I’m sure you can easily find a new job. But in any case, you’re not going to be fired.”
The drizzle was still only intermittent when Affenlight got out of the car, the campus dark and near-empty around them, students driven indoors by the rain. The cold air was a relief, cooling his skin, calming him down as far as he could be calm, which was nowhere near as calm as Owen. As mature as Owen could be – was, really – he wasn’t a parent, had never been responsible for the fate of another person, and had probably never been in fear of poverty, of homelessness. Affenlight, if he thought about it at all, was perfectly aware of his currently more-than-healthy bank account. But he’d grown up aware of his family hovering on a delicate line between success and ruin, had once lived in a tiny, almost-windowless apartment while surviving mostly on free food from the place he tended bar. Probably, given those facts, he was actually more capable of survival in dire circumstances than either Owen or Pella... But he was sixty now, with a daughter he needed to protect, and with Owen too in some way.
He swiped his access card through the security lock that was attached awkwardly to the centuries-old building and held the door open for Owen. Upstairs he unlocked the apartment door with an old-fashioned key that had probably been used for those same centuries. He hung up his coat, folded his jacket over a chair in the study, and went to the bathroom without looking back.
What was it, this feeling of wanting Owen nearby while at the same time wanting him to leave? To lock himself in the bathroom like a sulking child while Owen waited. He sat down on the toilet lid and pulled his tie all the way loose, rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands. Was this a panic attack? He wasn’t hyperventilating, at least not anymore, but he still felt unnaturally hot, feverish, his heart pounding. If only Owen were his own age, or at least a little older than twenty-one, perhaps he would be able to collapse into O’s arms and let himself be comforted. The students could do that these days, even the men, even the men like Mike Schwartz. Perhaps even young men who grew up on Midwestern farms with three older brothers.
A light rapping came at the door. “Guert? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He should have turned on some water at least. Now his stomach was churning. Perhaps he wasn’t so fine. He stood up, flushed the toilet out of habit, and studied himself briefly in the mirror. By all rights he should have looked like he used to in his late twenties: visibly exhausted, pale and disheveled. But perhaps age gave immunity to those symptoms. Age and a good haircut. He unlocked the door.
Owen was leaning against the opposite wall of the hallway, holding his jacket. For all they were alone in the apartment, there was little Affenlight wanted less than to kiss him and pull open his immaculate shirt. For a moment they simply looked at each other. Then Affenlight dragged a nervous hand through his hair and headed for his study. “Water?”
“Do you take water in your scotch?” Thank God Owen was twenty-one. It felt less like contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Owen hesitated. “Yes please,” he said after a moment. “Guert…”
Coping mechanisms never really got old at all. He’d started smoking and drinking in earnest at sea, because of course that was what Melville would have done, and in any case both of them kept him warm and entertained through long, boring nights. As a bartender they’d become real crutches. As a professor they were more of a prop for 1920s allure. He handed a glass to Owen and found an unopened pack of Parliaments in the bureau, lit one, took a larger gulp of the scotch than he’d really intended, and sat back on the couch, sliding his glass onto the table.
If you were spending all of your time telling yourself to think, were you still thinking? Were cogs still turning? Or did he feel so blank, so helpless, because he already knew the answer, already knew the inevitable decision?
“I have to resign,” he said, just as Owen sat down beside him, not nestled up against him but a foot or so away.
“You don’t have to do anything. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
He’d expected utter calm and composure from Owen, but there was more than a hint of anxiety in his tone, even more than there had been when they’d had sex the first time and Affenlight had been so confused, so worryingly silent…
“Nothing except the cardinal sin.” Affenlight took a drag on the cigarette. “Falling for a student, and a boy at that. Everything we’re told never to do. Even when I was a TA, and now I’m president… Fundraising’s already a nightmare. I’ve been foolish.” He swallowed, acutely aware of Owen’s warm, breathing body just a touch away. “And I didn’t regret a second of it.”
“But you regret it now.”
“I can’t let Pella hate this place. It’s home. It’s my home. Better that I resign and she can still go to school here, you can still go to school here. If they find out, if I’m fired, she won’t get in and she won’t want to. They might start raking through your record too. Half the world runs on appearances, O. It wouldn’t be crazy for the Trowells to revoke your fellowship. Or for Westish to start demanding three years of fees.”
“Which would be ridiculous, as I’m sure my mother’s attorney would point out. It can easily be proven that you had no ulterior motive when you selected me for the Maria Westish Award, and that you’ve never asked my professors to alter my grades. Pella, meanwhile, is brilliant and can get into practically any school in a year or two. But all this is irrelevant, Guert. I highly doubt David will ever tell anyone, and if he does it’s his word against ours.”
Was David a petty man? If Pella indeed refused to go with him, if she filed for divorce, getting her father fired and leaving them homeless would be an easy revenge. But much as Affenlight was inclined to despise the man, he seemed honorable enough, or at least with enough self-respect to care as little as possible about whom slept with whom.
“I won’t lie about it,” Affenlight said. The cigarette seemed little comfort. “But in any case we can’t continue like this. You know that. You told me yourself. It’s no kind of relationship at all if we can’t be together in public, if I can’t take you to dinner and the opera and… God, even rent movies. And if we try, someone will find out. Someone from the school who cares more than Pella or David.”
This weighty feeling of dread was familiar too, from the night following the day Sarah died. The inescapable dread of the morning, of his bright, innocent, adorable daughter springing up to hug him and bully him into yet another day at the pool, and the moment he would have to take her mother away from her forever.
Owen said nothing for a long, long time. Affenlight heard him set his glass down carefully on the coffee table.
“Guert,” he said. “Do you want me to leave?”
Affenlight’s breath caught. Better to say nothing, to let O collect his jacket and quietly slip back to his own room. But he’d been alone before, left to get as drunk as he dared, to wash away tears and cool red eyes time and time again. He reached out his hand and blindly found Owen’s. “No,” he said, ashamed of how shaky his voice was. “I never want you to leave.”
O’s fingers intertwined tightly with his, squeezed his hand. “I’ll make some coffee.”
Affenlight opened his eyes as soon as he heard water running in the kitchen. He cleared his throat and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette, swallowing the last mouthful of scotch. It would be pleasant to be drunk, he suspected, to simply go to sleep in a numb haze, but he hadn’t been able to do that in years. High tolerances weren’t always a blessing.
Still, it was comforting to hear Owen in the kitchen, as though it was normal for him to fill the kettle and pull out mugs (no espresso at this time of night). Affenlight could at least briefly indulge in the fantasy of this indeed being normal, of wandering upstairs after a day at the office to find Owen and Pella here, handing books from chair to chair, debating Chekhov or Kant. He’d kiss them both, settle down with coffee, an arm around Owen’s waist…
“Thank you.” He had no appetite at all for the coffee, but he liked taking the mug from Owen, even if the mug itself was one of his own with a deep blue wave design. No cute slogans today. He took a sip as Owen sat down, drawing a knee up onto the couch.
“Do you need to take something?” Owen asked.
Affenlight raised his eyebrows. “Take something?” Perhaps the caffeine helped him understand what Owen was asking. “You think I need to be sedated?”
“I think you’re upset, and I have no idea what your mental health might be, Guert, but I know that depression and bipolar tendencies can run in families. I just want to make sure you’re okay. And I can get you something, if you need it.”
Affenlight smiled. “Given that I’ve been called monomaniacal half my life, perhaps it’s not a bad question.” At another time perhaps he should dwell a little more on Pella’s health issues, or on his own tendencies for grim reflection alternating with borderline-manic intensity… and perhaps he should ask about Owen having a ready supply of drugs, too. “I’m fine, O. Well, not fine, but… better for you being here. I’m sorry our date wasn’t exactly what you hoped for.”
“It was nice, part of it at least. You looked very dashing, President Affenlight, but then you always do.”
Affenlight lifted his free hand to caress Owen’s bruised cheek with his thumb, pushing his mug onto the table and kissing him, softly at first until Owen grasped the back of his head and licked his lips. Oh God, just kissing him, breathing the same air, having Owen touch his thigh, press against him... Affenlight barely ever knew what Owen expected from him in these moments – even when he’d been a shy, inexperienced teenager he’d known the role he was expected to play – but for once at least he knew what he wanted.
“I should let you go,” he said, his fingers between the buttons of Owen’s shirt, eyes cast downward. “But I can’t. I just… I can’t, O. I’ve never…”
“Shhh.” Owen leaned in, wrapped an arm around him. “You make your own decisions, Guert. But you’re not the only one with strong feelings.”
Affenlight felt as though his eyes were beginning to ache. “You’re going to Tokyo.”
“Does that change anything?”
“You won’t be coming back.”
“I have no idea what I might intend to do in a year from now. We have a whole summer before I even leave. But nothing’s insurmountable, Guert. Of course I understand if you would prefer we went our separate ways. You do have a job and a daughter to think about. But that’s your decision.”
Affenlight shook his head. “It’s not a decision at all. Because I’m a fool and an old man who’ll put love before responsibility.”
Owen stroked the hair at the nape of his neck, kissed his forehead. “Do you really think those responsibilities aren’t love as well? You love Pella and you love Westish, and you want to put all that love before everything else. That’s not foolish in the slightest.”
Maybe it was the late hour, maybe the alcohol, but it sounded to Affenlight’s ears that Owen was talking nonsense. Or possibly Affenlight was just a bad student. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t resign and don’t let them fire you. You should be able to love whomever you like, law permitting. You’re an outstanding president and Pella would be a credit to the college.”
“It would also be a scandal. I’d be fired just the same. There’s a code…”
“Then the code is wrong, Guert! You love Westish, but Westish has to change. Do you think it would have admitted Pella in our beloved nineteenth century? Do you think it would have admitted me? Firing you for falling in love with another consenting adult is ridiculous. We have no doctor-patient relationship, no authority over one another.”
“And demonstrably incorrect. Guert, sweetheart, don’t let them do this to you.”
He let Owen hold him, rested his head on O’s shoulder and slipped his arms around him. He could pretend he was comforting Owen, consoling him about their inevitable parting, because he was the adult after all, the authority figure, the person all of Westish assumed knew what he was doing. But closing his eyes, breathing in Owen’s garlic scent, feeling O’s slender form in his arms, he strongly suspected that only Owen really knew what Affenlight was doing.
“Besides,” Owen said, lips brushing his hair, “before you do anything, we should at least be guilty of some of the crimes of which you expect they’ll accuse you.”
“I’m guilty of enough already.”
“Guert…” Owen’s hand moved down his spine, feeling the shape of him through his shirt. “Do you ever think about going to bed with me? About making love that way? Because I know I do. I have for quite some time. Which, as you can imagine, is very inconvenient with poor Henry three feet away.”
Affenlight smiled. “Of course I do.”
“Do you?” Owen pulled back just a little, enough that they could look each other in the eye. “Our afternoons together have been wonderful, but I also wonder if perhaps you’d be just as happy reading to me as you are sucking me off.”
“Once I was happy just looking at you across a ballpark. But not now. Not now that we’ve…” Affenlight blinked. He couldn’t recall being so tongue-tied around a lover in years, heat on his cheeks. “I do like reading to you. I like talking. But if you’re asking whether I want you, physically, then yes I do. So, so much.”
“Mm.” A pleased smile came to Owen’s lips. “So how do you want me, Guert?”
The answers were all so pathetic that they wouldn’t even have been answers with a woman, they would have been a given. But now he stumbled over them in his mind, flushed with embarrassment and awkwardness. “I think about feeling your body next to mine in bed, your skin on mine. I think what it might be like to feel you inside me. Not just my mouth, but…”
“What might it be like?” Owen’s palm moved against the crotch of his pants, warm, soothing.
“Good,” he said, which really was pathetic from a sometime English professor. “I like what you do with your fingers when you’re blowing me. But I want you to be closer. And apparently it’s supposed to be quite an incredible feeling.”
“Yes,” Owen said, kissing his throat. “Quite incredible. I seem to remember you have a very nice shower, from the last time I was here.”
Affenlight took a breath. This seemed like safer, if slightly confusing, subject matter. “If you don’t mind some nineteenth century plumbing. Why do you-”
Owen’s fingers worked on the top button of his shirt. “Because cleanliness is preferable for some bedroom activities, and showering with you has been a fantasy of mine since… well, certainly since we started meeting one-on-one.”
“O…” Affenlight stilled his hand. “I’m sixty years old.”
“So you keep saying.”
“I’m not… I don’t look like Adam Starblind with my shirt off. I’m not sure I ever did.”
Owen laughed and tugged his hand away, continuing to pull buttons loose from their holes. “Do you think I look like Adam? Do you think Mike does? Or even Henry? And would you even be bringing this up if I were my mother?” He finished with the buttons. “There. Now show me this whale you’ve told me about.”
“Only if you don’t mention your mother again.”
It was true, though, that if he’d taken Genevieve back to her hotel that evening and gracefully accepted her suggestion of a nightcap, he would never have given a second thought to his own body. Compared to almost anyone his own age, he was in terrific shape, and the same was true, more or less, when it came to men in Genevieve’s age bracket. As long as he looked trim and lean in his good Italian suits, how discerning was anyone in the bedroom? He would simply have been charming and confident, kissing her and taking her to bed, with no concept of not meeting her expectations. Owen, for all his youth, seemed to sap out every ounce of sophistication Affenlight had ever gained.
He pulled off his shirt, getting it over with, seeing Owen raising his eyebrows behind his glasses as O began to unbutton his own shirt. “What, precisely, were you worried I might think? It’s a very lovely whale.”
Affenlight laughed, thinking that perhaps the whisky was behind it, and kissed him. Much as he didn’t want to think of Genevieve while contemplating taking her son to bed, he could at least think of how he might have acted with her, as though he wasn’t crippled by his concerns about pleasing Owen.
And Owen himself, naked from the waist up except for his glasses, was a little less like the slender, almost androgynous figure Affenlight had imagined. Not that Affenlight had ever imagined him to be feminine, not after two weeks on his knees, Owen filling his mouth, but his chest and shoulders had a little more muscle under smooth, hairless skin: the body of a man, not a boy. A college athlete, even with the softness at his belly, the slender frame. Affenlight ran his thumbs over Owen’s nipples, no longer sure exactly what he was thinking, except that the heat in him had transformed from embarrassment to desire.
“So let’s take a shower,” Owen said. “Get out of these clothes.”
Probably the bathtub had indeed been replaced several times since the twenties, but the ominous, creaking sounds of hot water in the pipes could have fooled most visitors. Stepping out of his slacks, Owen gazed upwards at the ceiling. “Is the water heater always on?”
“There’s one switch for the building. I don’t think anyone ever touches it.”
“But who ever needs hot water except for you and Pella? And me, now.”
Affenlight stared upwards too. Perhaps he should have been relieved that here they were, naked and vulnerable before each other for the first time, and O was most concerned about energy conservation. But now a new worry had occurred to him: “What if Pella comes home?”
Owen gently grasped his arm below the tattoo. “I assume she and Michael will be nicely tipsy by now. In any case, you’re perfectly entitled to be sexually active in your own home. And now you’re wasting water.”
They probably wasted a good deal of water, Affenlight reflected, sandwiched between Owen and the tiled wall. If Owen had never taken a shower with a boyfriend before – and surely it would have been difficult in dorms or at his mother’s house – he certainly took to this one enthusiastically enough. And Affenlight too persuaded himself to forget at least some of his anxieties and simply embrace the opportunity to touch all of Owen, to see him, to hold him close so their soapy bodies rubbed and slid against each other, water in their mouths as they kissed.
Standing up, he should have felt more dominant with those couple of inches of extra height, broad shoulders, a weight advantage on which he didn’t particularly want to dwell. But once Owen dropped the soap back onto its holder, O’s hand was on the back of his neck, pulling him in. “This is a very nice shower,” Owen said in a whisper by his ear, before slipping both hands down Affenlight’s sides, grasping his ass.
With a girl, Affenlight would have been tempted to lift her up, let her wrap her legs around him, make love right there despite the slippery surfaces. But with Owen… Not only was Owen an almost-six-foot man, but Affenlight badly wanted him in the warmth of his bedroom, to hold him close, to be held. Something that could pass for normally, boringly domestic rather than the passion of one night. Something he could pretend would last forever.
He moved his legs slightly further apart as they kept kissing, Owen’s fingers stroking in ways that shouldn’t have felt good, but Affenlight closed his eyes and let out a murmur of pleasure, his penis stiffening again against Owen’s.
“Good,” Owen said. He twisted his wrist, one long finger sliding part of the way in. Affenlight couldn’t help tensing his muscles around it. This is Owen, he thought. Owen, inside me. Somehow articulating it made it feel even better.
Owen moved his finger a little, hummed approval, and shut off the water. “Let’s see what lubricant you have, shall we?”
They dried off first, Affenlight taking a clean towel from behind the door and drying Owen, or most of him, without even thinking about it. Owen might have smiled, amused, but he stood still and let Affenlight do it, touching every part of him again, even if water barely seemed to stick to his skin at all.
Walking down the hallway naked seemed like a risk, as though Pella might have returned and would jump out at them, but inside his bedroom Affenlight shut the door and switched on the light. Owen sat back on the edge of the bed, looking around at the haphazard stacks of books with interest, the old maps framed on the walls, the photograph of Pella and her parents on the dresser. And...
“Heartthrob of the humanities?” Owen asked, getting up to inspect the old Crimson front page.
Affenlight was still rubbing a towel through his hair. “Pella framed it for me on Christmas one year… it seemed a little egotistical to hang it anywhere else.”
“It should be in your office.” Owen, absent his glasses, was inches from the photo, eye-to-eye with a forty-year-old Guert Affenlight. “You’re a beautiful man.”
Beautiful meant Affenlight was inclined to search the statement for irony, for some sort of disparaging intent, but this was Owen, and even some implication of femininity – which was doubtful – would never be meant as an insult. “Thank you.”
“Hm. Now… Lubricant?”
What he had in the way of supplies for sex were thankfully not so old and out of use that he had to check the dates. Owen checked something, though, and nodded his approval. “Now lie down for me.”
“The lights?” Affenlight asked.
Owen gave him a light push toward the mattress. “Guert, if I wanted to do this in the dark I wouldn’t care so much about how incredibly good-looking you are. So on your belly, please. You might like a pillow.”
Affenlight did as he was asked, bunching up a pillow under his head as Owen nudged his thighs wider. He expected the cold gel of the lubricant on Owen’s fingers. What he felt was something much wetter, and much more alive. A shiver of pleasure and realization went through his body, leaving his fingertips tingling. “Oh God.”
Owen’s breath was unexpectedly hot against him. “Tell me.”
“Don’t stop.” He raised his hips from the bed, getting closer to Owen while also giving himself enough space to grip his own half-hard penis.
Owen’s tongue, he’d found out in the last couple of weeks, was simply the most delightful thing – in his mouth, over his cock, and now… He could barely think about it, about anything. Would he have dared to do this to O, even after a shower, even knowing that swallowing loads of Owen’s come was hardly much different? The intimacy of it seemed astounding, even apart from the way it felt. He could have done it to women, and yet it hadn’t even occurred to him. Or, apparently, to them.
He buried his face in the pillow, unable not to cry out, and then remembered where they were. No longer in his office, risking passersby hearing. They were in a deserted building two floors up. And, more importantly, in his own apartment. If he wanted to make a racket in the bedroom, who could possibly say a word against him? So there was really no doubt that Owen knew just how much he liked it, how much he was a little sad that Owen did finally stop, reaching for the lubricant.
What must it look like from Owen’s perspective, his college president, this allegedly distinguished older man, face down on a bed, begging to be fucked? But then from Owen’s perspective he’d never really been that man, had he? He’d been Guert, at least since their first e-mail exchange, and for now at least he was just a virgin Owen needed to teach and take care of.
Owen’s finger slid in again, much easier now, and another perhaps, touching him inside in a way that felt almost like how Owen rubbed against his prostate from the outside during oral sex. After the first time they’d tried that, Affenlight had pulled up diagrams that had reminded him just how lacking his biology studies had been. Certainly they hadn’t included much to explain the sudden, surprising intensity of his orgasms, the way Owen seemed in complete control of even his body’s most basic functions. He’d found himself on much less scientific sites, with photographs of muscled young men doing something like what Owen was doing to him now. It felt good, so good that for a moment he forgot there was more to come, until Owen pulled out his fingers and asked: “Condom?”
Affenlight sat back on his knees while Owen found one in the drawer and, settling amid pillows at the head of the bed, rolled it on. There were other issues that should have been on his mind – dinner, Pella – but whatever part of his brain that was, it was numbed from all negative thoughts by the collision of desire and panic throughout the entirety of his body. He reached back, feeling the slickness of lubricant there, eying Owen’s size. Not that it was anything dramatic by porn standards, but it was certainly substantially bigger than fingers. A thrill went through him, something he couldn’t exactly define as fear, thinking of Owen simply filling him like that. He’d done the same to women, of course, moving inside them, as close as could be. But this felt somehow closer, breaking taboos and destroying any vestiges of virginity he really had, and doing it with Owen.
“Feeling good?” Owen said.
Affenlight nodded. He’d feel better if he could tell if Owen were flushed, if Owen ever broke into a sweat, but at the very least Owen was here, wanted to make love to him, and was incontrovertibly hard, with that youthful, effortless erection Affenlight loved to feel.
Owen smiled. “Come sit on my dick.”
Affenlight blanched. He’d imagined lying prone and Owen doing whatever Owen wanted to do with him, with failure barely an option. “Sit?” he said.
“I think it’ll be easier for you. You can control how fast we go. I might get carried away.”
“Okay.” He felt as he had getting down on his knees that first time: clueless, exposed, but wanting beyond doubt to do it regardless. He and Owen kissed for a while, stroking each other, until Owen got up on his knees and made Affenlight do the same. Owen leaned back against the headboard and pulled Affenlight’s hip back a little so Affenlight could feel him.
“Easy,” Owen said, and applied more of the lubricant before guiding Affenlight’s hand to his cock. “Take it as slowly as you need to. If I’m hurting you, we’ll try something else.”
It might have been easier if he could see Owen, but at least he didn’t have to worry about analyzing O’s every expression. He just had O in his hand, Owen’s hands light on his thighs, and if he thought any more about the situation, he suspected his heart might stop.
Moving back onto Owen felt much like O’s fingers had at first, although thicker, and the easy slide of the lubricant meant he went slightly further than was comfortable, letting out a low moan at the slow burn. But the pressure wasn’t entirely unpleasurable, especially when Owen started to stroke him again, taking the edge off a little.
“Relax.” Owen’s voice was the most soothing thing in the world. “We’ve got all night. I’m sure I can nap on the bench.”
“Don’t you dare. This school has a reputation to uphold, Mr. Dunne.” Affenlight felt down to see just how much of Owen remained. Certainly more than was inside him now. He moved up again, breathed in the warm air of the apartment, and guided Owen inside himself once more, going a little further as heat blossomed deep inside him, between Owen’s penis and Owen’s hand. “Oh God...”
Owen’s other hand moved to his chest, stroking, rubbing over hard nipples. “A little more, baby, if you can take it.”
The last time they’d been in this apartment together, could he ever have imagined Owen calling him baby? And yet here was Owen telling him how good he felt, how hot he looked with Owen inside him, how much Owen wanted to make him come. He squeezed his eyes closed and pushed back against Owen’s cock, breathing out, willing his body to open up. The sense of relief when he had Owen’s entire length inside him was something indescribable – not purely psychological, he was convinced, but some deep physical switch had been released too, now that O wrapped an arm around his chest and kissed him on the ear. “You feel exactly as good as I’d hoped.”
Affenlight murmured something even he couldn’t understand and kissed him, neither of them moving much, just the dull throb of their bodies together between Affenlight’s legs. Affenlight pressed his palm low on his belly. “God, I can feel you here.”
Owen laughed. “I’m not that big.”
“Still.” Affenlight’s breaths seemed horribly loud in a quiet room, his heart thrumming like it used to when he rowed sprints on the Charles. He should do that again if he and Owen were going to make a habit of this, buy a single scull from someone in town and spend his mornings on the lake. He’d probably never be in as good a shape as he was eight years ago when he arrived from Cambridge, but he could work at it, be a little less self-conscious, a little healthier… His breathing calmed a little as he turned his thoughts to moving, to really being fucked now his body was mostly cooperating.
It was an awkward, unfamiliar motion, but Owen rocked against him, his lubricant-slick hand still stroking, every movement slow and gentle. Precisely how he’d imagined sex with Owen might be, even though in his earliest fantasies he’d barely dared to think about the mechanics of it, of Owen inside him, or himself inside Owen. But within those movements an intensity stirred. Affenlight had never felt so much, nerve endings over-stimulated, without coming. And yet, he didn’t want it to end. Owen, forty years younger, seemed entirely unhurried, holding him, filling him, hand working the head of Affenlight’s penis in fascinating ways.
Affenlight leaned his head back against Owen’s shoulder and let O do the work, that beautifully warm feeling returning as Owen found just the right angle, Owen’s breaths finally becoming audible, his grip on Affenlight’s penis slightly less gentle. “Oh God, O, please…”
“Shh, just let it happen.”
Any one aspect of their night together, of what they were doing now, should have flung him over the edge, but instead the combination seemed to prolong the bliss of Owen’s body in his for an agonizingly long time, all the way until O thrust a little harder and it was as if the come was being pushed out of him, muscles tightening hard around Owen’s length as the orgasm held him in its grip. Limp in Owen’s arms, as Owen’s semen-spattered hand kept stroking him, he closed his eyes, smiling. “Jesus, O. I love you so much.”
Perhaps he’d gone far too far away from his current troubles, far enough away that he and O seemed like a couple who had been a couple for more than two weeks, or a month, or three months, or however you measured the time. He certainly couldn’t dismiss it as a habitual reaction. Had he ever said those words to anyone in bed? Even to a youthful, naïve crush?
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.” He couldn’t quite see Owen’s eyes, but he half-turned anyway.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s a beautiful thing to say.”
Affenlight more or less caught his breath, gazing down at Owen’s hand on him. “Did you…?”
He ached in many more places than his ass, moving forward, easing away from Owen. It felt much later than it was, the darkness outside the blinds even deeper, and a weariness descending on him. But he carefully took the condom from Owen and, as Owen unfolded his legs and settled back again against the pillows, Affenlight lay flat and took Owen into his mouth. For a twenty-one-year-old, Owen usually lasted an impressively long time in their afternoon sessions, but now, already hard and over-sensitive, it didn’t take long at all for Owen’s fingers to curl tightly in his hair and for him to cry out, hips moving, as Affenlight swallowed his come.
They were probably a mess, a mess they would never have allowed in the president’s office, and a mess Affenlight suspected Owen wouldn’t tolerate now. But he laid his head in Owen’s lap, exhausted and riding the glorious tiredness of a postorgasmic high. Owen’s hand, possibly still smeared with semen, stroked his hair.
“Perhaps now would be a good time to switch off the lights,” Owen suggested, and Affenlight reluctantly struggled up to hit the switch by the bed. It was only when he pulled back the covers that he thought about what this meant, that Owen was staying, but anxious reflection would have to wait for the morning. He was far too tired to think, his body utterly sated, and laying his head down against Owen’s chest, an arm flung over his belly, seemed more like something right than something to be questioned.
For the first time in years, his bladder or sunlight failed to wake him at four. The sun was already bright when he opened his eyes, or at least brighter than it was at dawn, revealing a disheveled bed and a young, brown-skinned man curled up in a nest of sky-blue blankets. It made Affenlight’s heart hurt just to look at him, which was a good enough distraction from the other events of the previous evening. He laid a hand on Owen’s smooth, warm hip, and moved in closer. Owen sleepily stirred, hugging Affenlight’s arm to his chest. “What time is it?”
“Ugh, you don’t set an alarm?” Owen rolled over onto his back. “You have a very comfortable bed.”
“Well. Thank you.”
Owen smiled and lifted his head enough that they could kiss. “And a very enjoyable body. I have to go. I’m going to be late for team breakfast.”
“Mike insists we all eat lots of egg-whites and carbs. Fuel for the big games.” Owen yawned, covering his mouth. “I think I’ll shower back in my room. I need to change clothes anyway.”
“Okay,” Affenlight said. Regardless of what they’d done last night, he still waited for Owen to set the agenda.
Owen smiled again and squeezed Affenlight’s arm. “Don’t worry. Are you sore?”
“A little.” He didn’t much want to reach back and feel at the moment, but neither did he want to give the impression that he might not like to do it again in the very near future.
“It won’t last too long, I hope. You look, sort of…” Owen squinted. “Sad?”
Affenlight managed a smile. “It’s nothing. It’s silly. I just… now I’ve lost my virginity again, there’s one less mystery in the world.”
“It’s hardly losing your virginity, not that virginity is a useful concept in any case. But I’m sure we can find more mysteries to explore.”
“Can I see you tonight?”
“I imagine I will be celebrating or commiserating with my cohorts, and we have another game on Sunday. But hopefully on Sunday night I shall be at your disposal once again.”
Affenlight nodded, stroking his thumb across Owen’s belly. “I’ll be at the game.”
“Mm. So will I.”
The apartment seemed eerily empty once he left, with no sign of Pella and no way to contact her. He could probably find the number for Mike Schwartz’s house, but then again probably not on a Saturday, when Administration was closed. Or perhaps she would be working in the dining hall already, but that was hardly the place to have the argument he knew awaited them.
He threw the sheets into the wash and took a long shower, his ass stinging a little under the probing of his finger. Not too bad, really, and surely he’d get better at it if Owen gave him the chance.
Normally on a Saturday he’d dress down, forget about his tie and jacket, roll up his sleeves, but there would be a ceremony today with Aparicio Rodriguez, not to mention the likely presence of many scouts, and it was his duty to represent the college in his very best suit and polished shoes. Still, he went for his usual walk by the lake wearing just that.
The clanging metal bleachers were just beginning to attract spectators when he strolled over to the ballpark. On his recent visits to see the games – and mostly to see the injured Owen reading in the dugout - he’d struck up many conversations with parents, locals, other students who were sports fans or girlfriends of the players. He and Philip Loondorf’s mother had forged a firm friendship over their shared love for kringles, which seemed to be the main fuel of the Harpooners during the season. Hers, though, seemed much lighter and tastier than the ones his own mother had packed for him as school lunches.
He shook hands with Dwight Rogner and, as they swapped pleasantries, noted the navy Westish sweatshirt and baseball cap of his daughter one section of bleachers away. Relief flashed through him. She was still here, hadn’t let David drive her to Milwaukee in his goddamn Prius and spirit her back to San Francisco. Whether she’d be talking to him, whether she’d come home, seemed like distant concerns by comparison. He brightly introduced Dwight to Professor Guladni and made his way across and up to where she was sitting, hunched over, elbows on knees, a bright yellow Murakami on the bleacher next to her.
Nothing would have been better than to hug her, or to have her hug him, to resume that simple shorthand they’d had in her childhood, that mutual I’m sorry and then settling back into a pleasant ease. But her posture prevented that, and the many years between then and now. He sat down on the other side of the book.
“Thank you for staying.”
She rubbed her hands together. “I didn’t do it for you.”
“David’s going to spend a couple of days in Chicago and then he’s flying home. And then I guess we’re going to get some legal papers in the mail.”
Affenlight nodded. The field before them seemed empty and bleak with no players warming up yet.
He thought she glanced sidelong at him. “Did Owen stay with you last night?”
“Yes. You said you would be with Mike Schwartz.”
“Yeah, what a night that was.” Her hair was wet, maybe from the pool, and she pushed back a damp strand. “It’s good he was with you. You looked like you were going to throw up.”
“I felt like it.” Going home alone, he probably would have. Or at least drunk more scotch, smoked more cigarettes, not gone to bed at all. “Pella…”
“Someone is going to find out,” she said. “And I don’t mean David or Mike. David doesn’t care and Mike thinks you’re both absolutely wonderful human beings. Someone’s going to find out and then we’ll both be fucked. I mean, I’ll do something, but it won’t be getting into Westish. And where are you even going to live?” She tugged both sleeves down over her palms. “You’ve been lying to me. You’ve lied and lied and I know I’ve been a fuckwad of a daughter in the last few years, but what the fuck, Dad? Genevieve Wister asked me if you were gay, you know? And I told her no, definitely not, when all the time you’re boning her son? Who just about had his head taken off by a baseball... I don’t even know where to start with you.”
Affenlight barely knew how to untangle it either. “I haven’t been lying,” he said, keeping his tone as soft and level as he could. “Not as much as you think. Owen’s the first man I’ve ever felt this way about… If I were gay I would’ve told you a long time ago. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because you were banging students? I don’t know! Who cares that he’s a guy, really? I mean, I guess the trustees will, they’re probably all ninety-year-old Republicans, but he’s a kid. He might be brilliant and nice and, okay, sort of good looking, but you’re sixty years old. I get that you’re lonely. I get the whole thing where you’re looking ahead and your life seems like some meaningless, hopeless void and you just want to be with someone. I really do. But there’s a whole world of women out there – and men – who aren’t students and aren’t younger than I am.”
Just to see Owen come ambling onto the field with Henry Skrimshander would have been a relief. “I know. But I love him.” All her teenage pleas came back to him now, in those brief days when she’d actually asked permission: but there’s a party. He hadn’t seen the irrefutable logic then, and she wouldn’t now.
She pressed her hands to her forehead and turned to look at him. “So you’re going to get fired and have your reputation in shreds for this guy who won’t even be around? Isn’t he going to Tokyo? Or is he fucking up his whole life for you too?”
“I couldn’t ask him to do that.”
“But he’s fine with you losing your job, your home, being smeared as a college president who sleeps with vulnerable male students?”
He winced. “Owen’s not vulnerable. He’s anything but vulnerable.” Which really was easy enough to believe, broken cheekbone aside, if he didn’t remember Owen’s warning about breaking his heart as well. “Pella, you have to understand that I just can’t... I know it’s ridiculous from every perspective but my own, monomania to the nth degree, but I’ve never loved anyone this way. Never. Of course your mother and I were very close, but...”
“Oh God, save it.” Pella sighed, rubbed her eyes.
Together they stared out at the empty field over the heads of scouts and parents a few rows down. Affenlight laid a tentative hand on her back, between sharp shoulder blades. “I know I haven’t been the reliable father you’d like me to be. But you can always find a home with me, wherever I am in the world. I will get you into school and pay for you to be there, if necessary.”
“All that,” she said, “and you can’t pass up on three months with your toyboy.”
Throughout her teenage years, up until he’d left for Westish, she’d made an artform of arguing with him, knowing precisely that his instinct was to withdraw from raised voices and hurt feelings, just as he had decades ago as a small boy among six adults sharing a farmhouse. It took effort to keep his hand where it was, to stay seated where he was, rather than walk away and find a door to close behind him.
“I love you,” he said. “I know that you know that, and that you being here, you staying here, means the world to me. Which is why I’d hope you could understand just how much O means to me too.”
“O,” she repeated, and flexed her back. The Coshwale boys had jogged out onto the field, beginning their warm-up in precise drills. “I just want... I want things to be okay again, and I’ve been doing so much to get there, with you, with Mike, working and going to class. You’ve no idea how many days I just didn’t get out of bed. Or I never went to bed at all. But now you’re going to make things worse.”
Affenlight gave her shoulder a squeeze. “No, I think we’re going to make things much better.”
“Sure, the Affenlights and their boyfriends.” Pella nodded out toward the Westish dugout, where Owen and Mike were emerging along with the rest of their team: less than twenty boys, not such an imposing side, some of them already with impressive guts, some more likely to be knocked down with a feather. And Henry Skrimshander, the hero of the day, not much to look at, but… he and Owen were standing talking, and then doing some sort of pre-match ritual that might as well have been a dance, or martial art.
“I have to go,” he said. “Introduce myself to our guest of honor. But you should come with me. Meet the great Aparicio Rodriguez.”
“Oh, come on, you know neither one of us could pick him out of a lineup.” Pella squinched his kneecap. “Go. I’ll see you later.”
Affenlight had garnered so much experience with small talk and charming visitors that he managed to spend a couple of innings exchanging comments with Rogner and Rodriguez that, he hoped, were slightly less than inane. At least his month of watching the team’s home games had accustomed him to the regular players, and even their usual proficiencies at bat and in the field. What he wouldn’t have given to see Owen play, though, even if he had little idea whether O was much good at all. Surely the Westish team of nineteen must have high standards, or they would have at least a half-dozen more players. But Affenlight had few illusions regarding the athletic qualities of Westish students.
Even seeing O warming up had been a joy as he threw and caught with a kind of bored, lethargic grace. Surely he really was out of practice, but the attitude was all Owen, and he never seemed taxed as he stretched his glove to make a catch.
After a couple of innings, Westish ahead by two, Affenlight excused himself and ran a gauntlet of parents and students to reach the point where Owen was leaning against the dugout fence, reading a book he’d mentioned offhandedly before – Rodriguez’s own The Art of Fielding.
“Good game,” Affenlight said.
Owen nodded. He marked his place with one elegant finger. “Pella’s still here.”
“Thank God.” She was doubtless watching them now with more interest than anyone else. “I feel like the worst father in the world.”
“If you were, she wouldn’t be here. How are you feeling, otherwise?”
Otherwise. He felt like he’d been beaten up by half the football team, but most of that was probably tiredness and emotional turmoil. “I’m fine. You?”
“I’m only a couple of aspirin away from normal.”
There was a sudden uproar from the spectators. Something dramatic occurring on the field. Affenlight badly wanted to stick his fingers through the chain-link fence, have Owen grasp them.
“Give me your cell number,” Owen said suddenly.
Affenlight, surprise overwhelming his delight, rattled it off. O smiled. “Relax, Guert. Enjoy the game.” And then he was gone, disappearing down the dugout steps just as a student tapped Affenlight’s elbow, attempting to engage him in a discussion about the Melville course next semester, and some rumors that perhaps he might be teaching it.
Next semester. Who knew where he would be? Almost certainly not at Westish, however much both he and Owen wanted to try his luck. He might be in Tokyo, although that was a fantasy. Cambridge, perhaps. New York. Traveling somewhere in Europe. Much as it pained him to spend real money on anything, he had enough – more than enough – to bum around for a few years, pay Pella’s tuition, even buy a house somewhere. Somewhere he could sit back and read and imagine O with him, throwing out a dozen design ideas, puzzling over paint chips and arranging plants on the windowsill.
He gave vague but hopeful answers and asked her about her class with Judy Eglantine. When the next inning threatened to begin, he made his way back to his seat by Rodriguez, looking up to see Pella watching him. He should really sit by her instead, although she wouldn’t want to talk, but a president’s work was never done.
The Harpooners lost the game, despite playing bravely after Henry Skrimshander walked off the field. Despite the weary, seen-it-all-before remarks of the two men next to him, Affenlight’s heart bled for the young man, for Owen, for the entire team. Surely for Henry to give up his spot was akin to Affenlight ripping up Moby-Dick. It spoke of hopelessness beyond despair.
He thought Owen might come to the fence again, but O was probably preoccupied with Henry, with his teammates, and besides there was no point in being so obvious yet.
In the second game, playing with some sort of determination Affenlight had rarely seen from them, the Harpooners won. Henry, though, seemed dejected, worn out. Far older than twenty. He walked away, and Affenlight was soon distracted by Rogner slapping him on the shoulder and shaking his hand, saying something about making an earlier flight than he’d thought. Aparicio Rodriguez, too, shook his hand with great solemnity and told him what a beautiful campus it was. By the time Affenlight was left alone, neither the Harpooners nor Pella were anywhere to be seen.
He went home, stuck some of Mrs. McCallister’s pasta in the microwave, and changed the sheets on the bed. A housekeeper came twice a week, but he rarely left her much work to do – she was banned from touching his books and papers, which comprised most of the mess. Downstairs he checked his e-mail and read the news before changing into sweats and a t-shirt, running hard enough on the treadmill to break a sweat and then some. He rarely felt lonely in the apartment, with a thousand students nearby, but he wanted Pella to come flip-flopping up the stairs, or even for Owen to press the doorbell.
He was reading when his phone rang. An unfamiliar number, although it was past midnight. He hoped it was Owen, or perhaps Pella had finally got a new phone.
“Guert. We can’t find Henry.”
Affenlight went to the window, as if Henry might coincidentally be standing next to Melville in the Quad. “I thought you were all at dinner.”
“That was hours ago. No one’s seen him since the game.”
Owen rarely sounded anxious, but certainly Henry going missing – while understandable given the day he’d had – would be worrisome. Affenlight frowned. “I could ask campus security to have a look around.” It only amounted to a few men at the gate and somewhere on campus, but calling the police probably wasn’t an option.
“Please. And do you still have a key to my room?”
Affenlight felt a twinge of guilt. “I think so.”
“It would be helpful if you could go there. Let us know if Henry comes back. Mike and I are going to check Bartleby’s, although it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be there.”
“All right,” Affenlight said. “I’ll go there now.”
“Thanks Guert. You’re a sweetheart.”
He dialed campus security on the walk over to Phumber, using his best presidential voice and emphasizing that Henry might be badly depressed, possibly to the extent of harming himself. He hoped it wasn’t true, but it was something to make them pay attention. A few students looked at him in panic, standing by the entrance to some sort of party, but he studiously ignored them as he ascended the stairs to Phumber 405. He knocked on the door and, receiving no reply, unlocked it and switched on the light.
There was no sign of Henry, and no suggestion that he had returned at all after the game. The room was as neat as it had been the last time Affenlight had visited, perhaps even more so. He sat down on Owen’s bed, swept a hand over O’s pillow while rebuking himself for his sentimentality. To be Owen’s roommate, to lock the door every night and cuddle up with him under silken sheets…
He stood up and fetched a book from the shelves. Achebe. Well, Affenlight hadn’t read him in a while. He sat down at Owen’s desk and made himself look at the pages, while not really taking in a word.
Eventually there were footsteps on the stairs and the door opened: Mike Schwartz carrying a young blonde, and Owen…
“Hi,” Affenlight said.
“We found one Skrimshander,” Mike Schwartz said gruffly, setting her down on Henry’s bed. “Absent the Affenlight who was supposed to be looking after her.”
Presumably discovering Affenlight’s romantic entanglements had led Mike to believe he could speak to his college president like another member of his team. Or perhaps it was simply that it was after midnight already and the day had been going on for far too long. “Pella’s missing too?”
“She’s fine,” Owen said. “A miscommunication. But there’s been no sign of Henry. We told his parents he’s with us, but he’s not here, not in the library, not at the VAC or the bar. Henry just doesn’t go anywhere else.”
Mike sat down heavily on Owen’s bed, wrinkling the comforter. He drew a massive hand over his face. “The Skrimmer’s probably fine. Just crashed somewhere.”
“But where? Henry doesn’t have other friends.”
“How do we know that? He might.”
The girl, Henry’s sister, stirred and half-opened her eyes. “Henry?”
For a moment she looked so much like Pella once had that Affenlight rose from his chair. “Shh,” he told her. He gently removed her shoes, realizing only now that she stank of booze. Whether she’d drunk much or simply been walking in it was another question. “It’s late. Go back to sleep.”
She wriggled under the comforter when he pulled it over her, shifting to face the wall, thumb touched to her lips. Affenlight rested a hand on her arm. The girl must have been sixteen at least, but she seemed as young and fragile as Pella had been at eight. He turned back to the others.
“The bus leaves at seven,” Owen said. “I hope he’ll show up then.”
“Don’t know where else to check.” Mike was feeling the softness of Owen’s pillow as if he wanted to curl up there and sleep just like – what was her name? – Sophie.
Owen might not have seemed tired, but he did look defeated. He let his arms fall by his sides in resignation. “Where do you go when you’re Henry Skrimshander and want to be alone?”
“I don’t know,” Affenlight said. “But I know where I go.”
It was the long shot of long shots but, as Owen said, it made a lot of sense. Unless Henry was hiding out in another dorm with unknown friends, there were few places open on campus at this hour, and in any case Henry generally shied away from social events. Even campus security didn’t check the shoreline.
He and Owen had left Mike, ostensibly to watch Sophie, but mostly to sleep. Owen had grabbed a flashlight and they’d set off toward the baseball field, which was as good a place as any to start. Mike had phoned Pella, who was at his house, and told her to meet them, even if it meant her walking ten blocks in the middle of the night. Pella could be sulky and stubborn, but Affenlight was reasonably sure she’d do it. He’d even thought of rounding up a few other students on the way, but all those up at this hour were too drunk to be trusted by the water.
From the field, they walked to the blackness of the lakeshore. Already it was barely possible to see a thing. Owen shone his flashlight in an arc. “The lighthouse?” he suggested. It was the only landmark visible.
They walked carefully along the beach and the path that followed. Affenlight often walked it in the daylight and had even come at night during his student days, but now it seemed more uncertain. He recalled the walk being two miles or more – a reasonable training run, there and back. Owen took his hand in the darkness.
Closer to the lighthouse, at least they could see. Owen’s phone rang and he answered it as Affenlight went to check the lighthouse doors. Just as Owen said, “Tell her we’re out at the lighthouse,” Affenlight found it. A bag emblazoned with the number 3.
Affenlight called Owen’s name, then Henry’s, pulling sharply at the doors. They were locked securely, and in any case the bag outside suggested Henry hadn’t been able to go inside.
“Henry?” Owen yelled. He looked sick in the glow of the lighthouse.
Affenlight took the phone from him, told Mike Schwartz to call campus security and use his name, and hung up. Out in the lake were two buoys perhaps fifty yards apart. No other lights, and nothing else out of place as far as Affenlight could tell. Who knew how long this bag had been here? Henry might have dropped it, thinking it useless, and headed north, somehow traversing the razor-wire fence… Or of course turned around and gone elsewhere. Or… The lake looked endless.
Owen walked out to the shoreline till the water came over his sneakers, calling Henry’s name with increased desperation. Something caught his attention and he walked in a little deeper, scooping something out of the waves: a soaked-through Cardinals cap. “Henry!”
“O…” Affenlight was about to tell him that even if Henry were somewhere out there, he probably wouldn’t hear… And then something out there, beyond the second buoy, almost out of sight, something glinted.
Light on waves, most likely, except out that far there was only darkness. Affenlight gripped Owen’s arm and pointed. There it was again. Possibly nothing, but Affenlight couldn’t think what it could possibly be other than, just perhaps, the wristwatch of a missing boy.
“Stay here,” he said sharply to Owen, just this once imagining that Owen were actually one of the children who might obey, jerking off his shoes, pulling off his t-shirt and sweatpants. “Pella and security should be here soon.”
“What are you doing?” Owen looked utterly blank.
“Stay here. Do not come in after me, whatever you think. They won’t have any way to find us if you’re not here.” Affenlight pressed a kiss to his brow. A more dramatic pronouncement might have been to tell Pella he loved her, but it was important not to dwell on precisely how dangerous this might be.
The water was freezing, even in comparison to his memories of long ago, and he hadn’t been swimming in a while. Still, he’d always been a strong swimmer and he had no fear of the water or what might lie beneath it. Keeping his eye on the buoys, he swam out parallel to them, and then beyond them. And then, Owen’s flashlight tiny on the horizon, he righted himself, treading water, feeling warm despite what the temperature must have been. “Henry?”
The voice came off to his right, maybe another twenty yards away: dazed but certainly alive. Affenlight headed toward it. When he stopped to get his bearings, Henry was right next to him. Affenlight could still barely see a thing. “Henry. What are you doing?”
“I’m… taking a swim.”
“It’s past midnight.” The boy could just be a student Affenlight had found drunk in the Quad. Affenlight squinted. The metal hadn’t been a wristwatch after all. “What are you wearing?”
Henry looked down at himself. “Just what I wear for training.”
A weighted vest. God. “Take that off.”
“Now, Henry. Take it off and drop it.”
“Schwartzy’ll kill me.”
“I’ll buy him a new one.”
Henry struggled with it, splashing, and submerged for a moment. Just as Affenlight was about to grab onto him, he reappeared.
“Now we’re going to swim back. Right toward the lighthouse.”
“I can’t see it.”
Affenlight glanced back at where the shore should have been. “The buoys then. You first.”
He half expected Henry to sink, he must have been so tired, but the boy struck out with steady, if slow, strokes and Affenlight followed him. The lighthouse came into sight soon enough, and Owen with it… And Pella too, he realized, when they got close enough for Henry to set his feet down on the sandbank.
“What the fuck?”
Affenlight could hear the tears in her voice before he really saw her face, as she dragged Henry up onto the shore. When Henry collapsed, sitting down heavily on the sand, she tackled Affenlight, hugging him fiercely. “Don’t ever do that again. Please.”
He’d been warm in the water. Now the wind was biting against his skin and his teeth were chattering. Owen was stripping off his jacket.
“Give it to Henry,” Affenlight said. “Campus security?”
“Soon.” Owen crouched down, wrapping the coat around Henry’s shoulders. “We should take you both to St. Anne’s.”
Affenlight picked up his t-shirt from the ground, wiping his face with it. “We’re fine. Just wet.”
Pella shot him a look. “Miracle you don’t have hypothermia. We’re taking you to the hospital.”
The next few minutes brought a phone call from Mike Schwartz and then three campus security officers, bearing blankets and a thermos of hot coffee. Owen made Henry drink it while Affenlight, all too aware of the officers staring at his tattoo in the dull light, dried himself off enough to put his clothes and shoes back on.
“Can you walk?” One of the officers asked. The ambulance they’d called wouldn’t make it out this far.
Henry had lost his sandals in the lake, he said, and in any case seemed to have no energy left to go anywhere. Two bulky officers helped him to his feet, half carrying him toward the nearest paved road. Affenlight had said he was fine, but Owen gave him a hug, kissed his ear, and then kept an arm around him all the way back, other hand gripping the flashlight and Henry’s sodden cap. Pella had swung Henry’s bag over her shoulder and walked alongside them, taking Affenlight’s hand.
The four of them rode in the ambulance, even though the paramedics – who said a cheerful hello to Owen, their former patient – assured them that neither Henry nor Affenlight needed more than some warm clothes and a bite to eat. “Or some scotch,” Affenlight said, not really joking.
Mike Schwartz brought them the warm clothes, trusting that Sophie would be fine by herself. Affenlight could wear Owen’s clean sweatpants, but all his sweaters were far too small in the shoulders. Mike pulled off his own sweatshirt for Affenlight to wear.
“No way you’re going to the game tomorrow,” Pella said.
Mike scratched his receding hairline. “Have to. Need the Buddha at bat too. But Henry needs some sleep. We can sleep on the bus.”
Henry was hunched over on the seat at the end of the row, Owen next to him, speaking in a low voice, hand on Henry’s back. Henry was shaking, maybe with the cold, maybe with sobs he was trying to repress.
“What are we going to do with all our Skrimshanders?” Pella asked.
Mike gave her a sharp look. “Yeah, about that. You left Sophie in a bar?”
“Of course I didn’t leave her in a bar! Am I supposed to think everyone on your team is a closet rapist? I don’t know my way around here. I thought I could trust him!”
“Trust whom?” They both ignored Affenlight.
“Well…” Mike folded his arms. “No harm done, except she’ll have one hell of a headache tomorrow. Might as well leave her where she is and we’ll take her back to her parents in the morning, say she tried one beer and it knocked her sideways. Same with Henry. I guess… Can’t leave the two of them alone. Buddha?”
“Yes?” Owen pulled a Kleenex from somewhere and passed it to Henry.
“All right if I use your bed tonight? I figure the Skrimshanders only take up about half a bed each.”
“You don’t want me to stay with them?”
“Sure I do, but I don’t think you can tackle Henry to the floor if he tries to do something else stupid. And I’m probably right in thinking you can stay with the president, here.”
Affenlight glanced over at Owen. Was this what it was like to be a couple in public, to have people know? “Of course he can.”
“I’m going to stay home too,” Pella said. “But I will find myself some earplugs, so help me God.”
Back in his study, Affenlight poured scotch into three glasses, two with water. Both Pella and Owen were sitting on the couch, up so late after early mornings that they’d caught some sort of second wind. Affenlight was very glad for the building’s thermostat being cranked up, in addition to Mike’s sweatshirt.
“We should get him some counseling.” Pella pondered the scotch in her glass before taking a sip. “I told Mike, but this is something more than not being able to throw a ball.”
“I don’t think he was trying to kill himself.”
“No?” She faced Owen. “He was out swimming in freezing water, wearing a weight vest, past midnight. No one knew where he was. If my dad hadn’t found him right that second he could be dead right now. And it’s a complete miracle – not a stroke of luck, an actual miracle – that you found him at all.”
Affenlight nodded. “I’ll speak to his parents in the morning. A couple of weeks away from baseball may be the best thing for Henry right now.”
Pella hmphed her agreement. “Not the Mike Schwartz philosophy, but it’s true.”
“He doesn’t have anything else in his life,” Owen said. “Just baseball. Which, I agree, is far from healthy, but I think taking it away from him may make everything worse. But if we don’t win tomorrow, excuse me, later today, it’s a moot point. The season’s over.”
It was almost two. Barely worth going to sleep, but Pella finished her drink and levered herself up. “Well, good luck, I guess.” Her eyes flicked to Affenlight. “Don’t keep him up too late,” she said. “He gets cranky.”
Affenlight moved to the couch when he heard her door close, setting his glass down and enveloping Owen in a hug. O felt even warmer than usual, his arms tighter when he hugged back. “I’m glad you’re here,” Affenlight said.
“Me too, although perhaps we should go to bed. I’m acutely aware of how few hours I have until I’m expected to be on the bus for Coshwale.”
“Mike needs you at bat.”
Owen smiled slightly. “Mike’s very kind.”
Even this late, Affenlight watched Owen a little anxiously when they closed the door and undressed, just in case O might be expecting sex of some variety. But Owen drew back the comforter and said, “You might want to leave some clothes on if you’re cold.”
It was still odd to be under the covers in his usual old t-shirt and shorts with Owen wrapped around him. But he was too tired to think about making moves, even rubbing back against Owen’s crotch. The beeping of Owen setting the alarm on his BlackBerry for just three or four hours’ time seemed like agony. All he wanted was for true, long sleep with the confidence that O would be there when he woke, just as warm and solid as he was now.
“Are you okay?” Owen said.
Affenlight nodded. It was nothing, really, a dip in some cold water for a few minutes, a late night, even if the ER doctor had tutted at him about his blood pressure. He’d have to start taking the right pills again in the morning.
“I never considered the idea that you could break my heart in ways other than breaking up with me.” Owen’s voice was almost too low to hear. He hugged Affenlight tighter. “You saved my friend’s life. But please don’t do that again.”
The alarm sounded at six, although Affenlight tried childishly to ignore it while Owen sat up, turned it off, and groped for his glasses in the half-light of the morning. Owen pressed a hand to his side. “Go back to sleep. I’ll avail myself of your shower, if I may.”
Later, he heard Owen and Pella talking in the hallway before Owen nudged open the door again and kneeling up on the bed, kissed him. “Pella’s going to keep an eye on Henry. I’ll be away most of the day, but I’ll call you. Dinner tonight?”
“We could rent a movie,” Affenlight said.
“You don’t have a television.”
Affenlight stretched out against the pillows. “I could get one from Infrastructure. I have friends in high places, you know.”
He slept later than he had in years, which was doubtless still far earlier than most students would contemplate, particularly on a Sunday. The dining hall didn’t even serve breakfast on Sundays, a decision that was presumably based on the minuscule number of students who might actually appear for their cornflakes and orange juice before nine.
Any lasting effects of his late night dip in Lake Michigan would doubtless be his imagination, but he stayed in the shower for longer than Owen would approve, shaved, counted out pills according to what he guessed he should be taking, downed a cup of espresso, and headed out.
The dining hall was indeed deserted, chairs still stacked on top of tables. God, it had been a while since he’d stepped in here. He hadn’t remembered the institutional décor, the repulsive green of the chairs. Affenlight stepped into the kitchen, rapping his knuckles against the door. “Chef Spirodocus.”
“President Affenlight. Your daughter is not here this morning.” The chef was working with dough on a metal counter. Off to his right, a young Hispanic man was banging around pots and pans. There must be a certain appeal in washing dishes for a living, if not enough appeal to dismiss the low wages and unending monotony. Affenlight made a mental note to discuss the dining room workers’ salaries with Bruce Gibbs before Owen or Pella brought up the subject of the college’s near-slave labor. If, of course, he survived long enough as president to even mention it.
“I know. I was hoping I could take her some breakfast. She’s looking after a friend of hers who had a rough night.”
Standing there in his shirt sleeves, out of his element, he might as well have been a twenty-year-old student asking for an extra helping of pudding. Chef Spirodocus devoted the next few moments to shaping the buns or cakes or bread rolls or whatever they might have been. “You had a rough night too, they say.”
Affenlight glanced over at the young man by the sinks. “They do?”
“Word gets around.” Chef Spirodocus cleared his throat. “Not breakfast, but lunch perhaps. Wait, please.”
He slipped his phone from his pocket. No word from Owen, no pleas for help from Pella. A couple of months ago, he could spend all weekend not speaking to another person, with no real demands on his time. But it was pleasant, on occasion, to be needed.
It took ten minutes for Chef Spirodocus to return with, Affenlight recognized, a bag very similar to the one Pella had once brought home: its cartons and containers spoke of untold delights. Or at least brunch for two hungry students.
“Thank you,” he said, wanting to say more. “Thank you.”
Affenlight took the Phumber stairs two at a time, past some open doors and a few students whose conversations died down as he passed them. Two Asian boys said hello as he reached 405 and knocked.
“Hey,” Pella said. She looked down. “Oooh, food!”
The three of them ate in near silence, Henry sitting on the edge of his bed, Affenlight and Pella on Owen’s. The Art of Fielding was open against O’s pillow. It was hard to tell whether talking baseball would be good or bad. But if you didn’t, what else did you talk about with Henry? What was he even majoring in? Affenlight looked over at the shelves, but all the books seemed to be Owen’s.
“You could go,” he said to Pella as she swept their sandwich wrappers and plastic forks into the plastic bag. “I’ll keep Henry company.”
“It’s fine, really.” She stuffed the bag in a trash can under Owen’s desk that looked so immaculate Affenlight expected it was really only for show. “Or… Well, if you don’t mind?”
Henry didn’t protest at all as Pella kissed Affenlight on the temple, gave Henry an abrupt hug, and clattered down the stairs. Affenlight stood up to examine the books in a little more detail. Owen had already reshelved the Achebe. Henry lay back on his bed with a tiny gasp of a sigh.
“Thank you for last night,” Henry said. He sounded younger than the last time they’d spoken, here on the night after Owen was hospitalized, much like he’d seemed in the ER that first time. “Sophie was asking for you.”
“Your sister’s a sweet girl.”
“Yeah… Schwartzy said a beer really went to her head. I’d probably get the same way.”
Affenlight turned, hands in his pockets. “What’s your major?”
“Finals are coming up. Any studying you need to be doing?”
“Not in physics.” Henry scratched the side of his head above the ear. His haircut wasn’t far off the crewcut Affenlight had boasted at his age. “I’m taking all these soft courses this semester. Lit. History. Something Owen took last year in philosophy.”
Affenlight could have given him a lecture about the idea of “soft courses”, but not much had changed in forty years – athletes still swapping around course notes and papers, scraping by while snoozing through lectures. “Which lit courses?”
“Professor Eglantine’s thing on…” Henry thought. “Transforming orality?”
“The oral tradition,” Affenlight corrected. “So tell me about nineteen twenty-two.”
Henry swung himself back up into a sitting position. “Nineteen twenty-two?”
“You haven’t covered modernism yet? Eliot? Joyce? Woolf?”
“Um. I guess we did… Eliot anyway.” Henry opened his eyes wide, as if trying to clear them from sleep. “I’ve been trying to focus on baseball.”
Affenlight checked amid the chaos of Henry’s desk and pulled out a course syllabus, plus a stapled sheaf of excerpts. “Time to focus on something else.”
The afternoon probably didn’t go quickly at all from Henry’s point of view, but for Affenlight it was freeing to forget about administrative duties and simply teach again, even if Henry was a not-particularly-adept student. Still, as they ran through modernism and then back until they reached The Iliad and Gilgamesh, at least Henry’s questions started to be a little more on-point. Affenlight made them some tea from Owen’s supplies and they began again. Just then, his phone beeped. A text message from Owen.
“They won,” Affenlight said. “Twice. Mercy rule. They’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
The thought lifted his spirits, thinking about holding O again, spending the night with him. But Henry was again pursing his mouth, staring at the rug with its milk stains. “They’re conference champions,” he said dully.
“You’re a champion too. Just because you missed three games in a season…”
Henry shook his head. “I walked off. I quit.”
“You were under immense stress. No one pushed Owen to play with a concussion, Henry. You shouldn’t have to play when you’re not at your best either.”
“Of course I have to play. You play through it, that’s how it’s supposed to work.” Henry looked up. “Pella said you played football here. She showed me that register.”
The register. Affenlight took it down from the mantel. Owen had marked the page of the boy with the bicycle. “None of us were very good. But you’re right, we played anyway, with our fingers and knees taped up and bruises everywhere. And we sucked. We all sucked. On our best day we sucked. On your best day, Henry, you’re flawless. The team wouldn’t have won without you.”
“They won today. It’s all Schwartzy. Starblind. Izzy’s not bad…”
“This is one day. And yesterday was one day too. Don’t give up, son. If you don’t feel you can play, then coach, sit on the bench. You think they’re going to win regionals without you?”
“They might. I’m just one guy.”
Henry sighed again. For a moment it looked as though he might cry. “I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” he said. “I just needed to get away.”
“Funny,” Affenlight said. “Everyone else seems worried that they won’t be able to stay.”
Henry nodded. “Schwartzy,” he said. “He loves it here. And Pella… Pella says you’re sleeping with Owen.”
“Yes.” How many more people was Pella going to tell? Chef Spirodocus? Adam Starblind? The Westish Bugler? But somehow those prospects no longer made his heart race. It was what it was. Denying Owen felt more of a crime than being with him.
“Owen’s going to Japan.”
“They’re going to fire you?”
Affenlight took in a long breath. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe I’ll coach. Sit on the bench.”
He read to Henry after that, slipping off his loafers and lying back on Owen’s bed. It was easy to lose himself in the poetry of The Iliad, and the entire point was to hear it out loud. Just when he’d convinced himself that Henry had nodded off, the boy would pipe up with a puzzled question. Affenlight was in the midst of explaining various interpretations of Achilles and Patroclus when there were footsteps on the stairs.
“Hello Guert, Henry. Ah, shall we sing tales of the Harpooners’ epic victories?”
“Best not,” Mike Schwartz said, just as Owen sat down on the bed and leaned in to give Affenlight a kiss on the lips. “Skrimmer, time to get loose. We’ve got some practice to do now you missed three games. Finals in a few days. It’s not as if we’ve got guys to spare.”
Henry was sitting up, looking at his sneakers on the floor. “It’s useless.”
“It’s not useless. Worst possible outcome, you’re fitter than anyone else in your physics labs. And I need you to train up Izzy even better if you’re not going to be playing. You’ll be DHing if nothing else, so we need to work on that swing…”
“He talks a good game,” Affenlight said once the two of them had headed out – Henry reluctant but moving.
Owen smiled. This time the kiss was deeper, longer. Affenlight folded him up in his arms.
“You said something about dinner?” Owen said finally. “I’d suggest we lock the door and just stay right here, but I’m starving. Coach Cox called me up to bunt and I actually made the run. I was standing up for twenty minutes! Horrific!”
For the first time in eight years, Affenlight called out for pizza and he and Owen spent the half-hour waiting time liberating a television and DVD player from Infrastructure, which had a room full of presentation equipment. Pella, thankfully, called to say she would be staying with Mike, and probably with Henry too if they felt they still needed to watch him.
“He seemed better,” Owen said, crouching down as he blew dust from the DVD and slotted it in. The drama department had an entire closet of DVDs and old VHS tapes showing movies and TV adaptations of major plays and musicals.
“He seems depressed, but possibly no more so than most students on campus.” Affenlight had been a little mystified regarding which wine to put out for pizza. Owen had simply Googled it and Affenlight was now pouring out a Chianti to go with the steaming pizza and its multihued vegetarian toppings. “Tomorrow we should look into getting him some counseling.”
“Tomorrow we shall. I’ve already discussed it with Pella.” Owen picked up the remote and came to sit by Affenlight on the couch, unlacing his shoes. “This, Guert, is Groundhog Day, a little masterpiece of storytelling, comedy, and romance. And, of course, entirely horrific if we devote much thought to it at all.”
He hadn’t watched a film with anyone since Pella had been small. In those days, naturally, she insisted on watching several movies more than a dozen times. The Little Mermaid. The Lion King. It hadn’t been long since he’d given up on watching them himself and just let her have the run of the television. Most of the time she preferred her books anyway. His girlfriends over the years had occasionally suggested dates at the cinema, but had been easily won over by dinner or the opera or classical concerts instead. Owen… Owen put an arm around him and gulped down pizza and smiled. Affenlight laid his head on Owen’s shoulder. Bliss.
The movie was a short one, but Affenlight would have been happy enough to stay precisely where he was for another hour or two as they worked their way through the bottle. But Owen thumbed off the television, cupped his cheek, and kissed him with the very clear intent that kissing was what they were going to do for the foreseeable future.
They hadn’t smoked all evening, Affenlight thought, tasting Owen’s mouth. Wine and pizza were very different from tobacco and coffee. On Owen just as nice, though, or maybe better. Dinner was more than a postcoital break. It was time and comfort.
“I’ve been thinking,” Owen said, pulling hard on Affenlight’s belt to work it open, “for which I had more than adequate time on our bus trips today, napping aside. And I’ve been doing my best to focus less on the life-imperiling aspects of last night’s escapades and more on just how sexy you looked doing it.”
Affenlight trailed fingers over Owen’s short hair and eased off his glasses. “Not many people would have that reaction to seeing a sixty-year-old man in his underwear.”
“But you’re not an ordinary sixty-year-old man.” Owen blinked, unzipping Affenlight’s slacks even as Affenlight bent forward to set Owen’s glasses on the table. “You have a very nice body.”
Affenlight’s instincts tended toward self-deprecation, but now probably wasn’t the time. “You have a very nice body too. Did you know my boyfriend’s a college athlete?”
He wondered if O might demur at the term boyfriend, but Owen just slipped a warm hand down over the crotch of his shorts. “A conference champion no less. With a hit to his name today. Coach Cox says I may be playing at regionals. Sooty’s a little banged up. Everyone’s tired after my month off, and he says I’m reliable. Which is a compliment I’ll accept with good grace.”
“I’d like to see you play.”
“You’ll come to regionals?”
“I may not have anything else to do.” Affenlight pulled at the hem of Owen’s t-shirt and Owen obliged in taking it all the way off, his hand immediately back where it had been, massaging as Affenlight gradually stiffened beneath his palm.
“You’ll have plenty.”
“This may not reflect well on you either,” Affenlight said. It wasn’t the right topic for the moment, but it weighed on his mind, the idea of anyone denigrating lovely, brilliant Owen, anyone doubting his brilliance or talent was entirely his own. “People will talk. There may be an investigation.”
Owen flipped his right leg over Affenlight’s. “An investigation will find nothing. And, as a gay black man in rural Wisconsin – or indeed in California – I’ve learned not to pay attention to what people say. But you’ll be gay tomorrow, you know. Even if you’re not, people will say you are.”
“People say I’m part Native too.” Affenlight drew Owen closer.
“What I mean is… I don’t want you to do this unless you’re sure. Pella and Henry and Mike are very different from the trustees and the student body and the world. You have no idea who’s going to get worked up about this.”
“So at worst Pella and I will have to change our names and move to Japan.”
“Guert… I don’t want to see you get hurt. Especially not because of me.”
His cheek was so smooth under Affenlight’s fingers. “You’re the one who’s been telling me everything is going to be fine.”
Owen smiled. “Did you ever consider that I might be telling myself that?”
Affenlight kissed him softly. “O, everything I’ve ever done in my life, everything that’s ever mattered, has been utterly terrifying, a leap into the unknown. Going to sea, applying to Harvard, having a daughter… Perhaps this last leap will be one too far, but I could never live with myself if I didn’t try, anymore than I could stay on dry land after college. I would’ve started knocking people’s hats off in the street. And the worst case isn’t even so bad. I won’t be made to stand in the Quad with a scarlet A on my chest. The best case is well worth fighting for.”
Owen held his gaze. “Even if I leave for Japan? Even if I never come back?”
“I know I can’t ask you for commitment, O. But you can’t ask me to give you up either. Not now. Not the way I feel about you.”
Owen withdrew his hand from Affenlight’s pants. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then Owen backed up, finding Affenlight’s hand with his own. “Come to bed.”
They took the wine with them, switching off the lights in the rest of the apartment. O murmured something about lighting candles on another night, but all Affenlight wanted, or could ever imagine wanting, was to lie down with him and nestle his head against Owen’s shoulder and let O touch him.
The wine was good, calming, and he liked to watch Owen drink it, even if O inevitably had a lower tolerance for alcohol. Owen put aside his glass first, then took Affenlight’s. “I still want all the parts to work,” he said, nimbly sliding buttons from holes on Affenlight’s shirt.
“Believe me, they’re working perfectly.” Perhaps the wine made him slightly irritable too. Or just the mild insinuation regarding the possible sexual issues of a man his age.
Owen’s smile was unconcerned as he folded Affenlight’s shirt over the dresser. “Shall we check?”
Affenlight moved under the covers, watching Owen undress. It should have been simpler for him, in his t-shirt and sweatpants, but he moved with what had to be deliberate slowness, idly stretching as he looked again at that Crimson cover, leaned forward to inspect an old map of the South Pacific without his glasses. Far from hurrying him along with an impatient word, Affenlight just took all of him in, those slim hips, boyish ass… He’d once barely thought of Owen in a sexual way at all, and now just the sight of him sent Affenlight’s hand to stroke himself, thinking of O filling him up again.
How did you define the intimacy of it? Sex wasn’t it, Affenlight knew from a lifetime of forgettable encounters. He’d thought it might lie in the coffee and cigarettes they shared, and really part of it had to, no matter what Owen said. It was something beyond prostitution, to see each other again and again, to kiss and hold each other, even to discuss Shakespeare and argue over Melville. What did a real couple do? You spent time together in public, you made plans, you called each other when you needed help. The last had already happened, the first would be possible tomorrow, and their plans went as far as September, which might be better than many couples after a month together.
And you made each other happy. Did he make Owen happy? It seemed as though he did.
“This will be nice on cold winter nights,” Owen said, finally lifting an edge of the comforter and joining Affenlight. “As long as we turn the thermostat down, of course.”
“You won’t need to wait for winter in this place.”
Owen kissed him, pressing close. “It’s a romantic thought, though. Making love while the snow falls… However ugly the weather might actually be outside.” He slipped an arm around Affenlight’s back and hugged him tightly. “I don’t want to go to Tokyo, Guert. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I can find another reason to go one day. You and I may not have time to waste.”
Affenlight might as well have been punched in the gut. “Owen,” he said, fighting to express some of his usual conviction. “You can’t-”
“I know I can’t. But I can’t let you do what you’re doing tomorrow and remain entirely ambivalent on the issue. I want to stay. I want to walk with you by the lake in fall and bundle up on the couch during the winter, and play another baseball season before I hang up my bunting bat for good. Of course that may change, but whether you count our relationship being for the month since we kissed, or the three months since we became friends, or the seven years since I read your book… it’s always going to be of the deepest importance to me.”
He seemed even more slender in Affenlight’s arms. “I prefer this to communicating with you through a book that’s as old as Pella.”
Owen gave his ass a friendly squeeze. “Me too.”
The coziness dispersed when Owen turned Affenlight over and threw back the covers, kissing him intensely before moving down his body. Owen tapped his hip. “Scoot up.”
Affenlight moved into a half-sitting position among the pillows, as O knelt between his legs and kissed his neck, sternum, sucked gently on a nipple and flicked his tongue over it in a way that made Affenlight – who rarely cared for anyone doing anything to his nipples – groan and press his hand against the back of Owen’s head. Every time Owen touched him, O seemed to find some new, secret way to unravel potential pleasures his body had been concealing for years. It couldn’t all be in his head, not the way Owen’s tongue made warmth flow down to his groin, as if he could truly feel the blood surging, thickening his cock.
Owen slipped a hand down there as he switched to the other nipple, stroking without much intent, as if he just liked to feel Affenlight’s length.
“Tomorrow night,” Owen said, lifting his head finally, “I fully expect you to throw me down and have your way with me. So take notes, professor.”
Not long ago, the idea would have terrified him so much he would have had trouble concentrating on anything but what on earth he would do with a man in bed, if he had to take the lead. But he now had a reasonable grasp of oral sex, and the rest of the body wasn’t entirely dissimilar… Besides, Owen was moving down lower, kneeling at the edge of the bed and planting his hands to either side of Affenlight’s hips before running his tongue up the underside of Affenlight’s penis. Affenlight bunched up a fistful of the sheet in each hand, and Owen grinned before closing his lips around him.
In his office, the position and the circumstances had hindered full enjoyment of what exactly Owen’s mouth could do to him, even if he hadn’t realized it at the time. Now that he could stretch out and fully relax, cry out and curse and tell Owen how good it was, it really was better than he could have believed. So it was at least half a disappointment that Owen finally did stop, laying his head on Affenlight’s thigh for a moment before getting up to fetch the lubricant.
“Unless you’re too sore,” he said while Affenlight blinked up at him.
“You’re a terrible liar.” But O resumed his position between Affenlight’s thighs in any case, wordlessly pushing his legs so Affenlight took the hint and bent them, feet flat on the mattress.
It did sting and burn more than it had before, O’s fingers inside him, but he was already relaxed and easy enough not to mind, closing his eyes and focusing only on the way Owen was moving against his muscles, touching him inside.
“How flexible are you?” Owen asked, reaching for a condom.
That was a loaded question, but lying seemed far too risky – the most impressive feat in that realm Affenlight had performed in eight years had been hopping the fence bordering the baseball diamond, and that had mostly been fuelled by adrenaline. “I’m not sure.”
Owen smiled. “No gymnastics necessary. A little stretching, perhaps. If it hurts too much we’ll try something else… And I’ll teach you some yoga.”
There was some appeal in that, and not just for the reason of physical wellbeing, but also the danger of seeming absolutely ridiculous. But Owen was already pushing back gently, palm against one of Affenlight’s thighs, rubbing the head of his cock over the slick lubricant that had salved some of the burn from before. Forget the pain, Affenlight badly, irrationally wanted to see Owen inside him.
Had Melville ever done this, felt this, wanted this? On a beach with his Tahitian boys, rough and furtive below decks on a long voyage, or even on some lonely hillside with Hawthorne? It would have been different then. No porn to sneak a look at online, no instructional texts you could find even in Westish’s bookstores. Did humans have an instinct for this as they had to have for procreation? Was it as simple as rubbing against a warm body because it felt good, men liking to stick their hard penises in any willing crevice…
He watched Owen push inside him, slow but without stopping, his breath catching at the simple sight of it combined with the sudden sensation of O inside him. Perhaps it was the taboo that excited him most, more than the simple amazement of anyone entering him like that, or the deep pleasure it evoked. Actually seeing himself being penetrated should have been the least of it. And yet… As Owen pulled back a little and then began to find a rhythm, really fucking him, Affenlight felt down between them, that shaft opening him up and filling him repeatedly, the power in Owen’s hips…
“Oh God.” He let his head fall against the pillow just as O pushed back further on his thighs. It wasn’t painful, especially with a hand on his own cock, although it did occur to him how ridiculous he must look, legs spread and held apart.
“Guert? Is this good for you?”
Affenlight blinked and focused once again on Owen’s face. “It’s wonderful.”
“You looked like you were a million miles away.”
“I was just…” Affenlight tugged at Owen’s hip. “Please don’t stop.”
Affenlight could barely imagine what harder might be like. “Yes.”
“It’s perfectly fine if you prefer to fantasize about someone else,” Owen said, moving in closer, which necessitated Affenlight shifting position slightly to let Owen stay inside him as they kissed. “If that’s what helps you get off.”
“I…” This wasn’t the time to be introducing this concept, not now Owen had weight and gravity on his side, and all Affenlight wanted to do was lie back and process it all, or more likely not process a thing. “I was thinking about Melville.”
Owen laughed. “Of course you were.”
It was hard to breathe the way his body needed to be, with Owen banging him in a way that finally did justice to the colloquialism. Not dangerously so, but enough that the physical reality of it all overcame his anxious thoughts. His erection was already leaking a little pre-come, aching with need. He reached around to touch O, cupping the tightening muscles of his ass, the power that lay in this primal movement… So much for Owen being slender and delicate.
“Mm, I think I want to come,” Owen said after a while, still moving, a trace of breathlessness in his voice. “Maybe you should take matters into your own hands, as it were.”
“I want to feel you come in me.”
Owen’s eyebrows raised a fraction, but he kissed Affenlight again, groaned softly, and moved with even more purpose than before.
Affenlight stroked himself, watching Owen, feeling Owen. Just a month ago he’d seen Owen lying battered and unconscious in an ambulance and yet not even had the nerve to take his hand, and now he’d found the absolute intimacy of sharing their bodies, of seeing the open-eyed bliss of Owen’s face when he came. Nothing could be better.
As Owen’s movements slowed, Affenlight quickened his own motions, focusing still on Owen inside him, on Owen’s beautiful, vulnerable face… He came with a cry, spilling over his hand onto his chest, truly spent.
“So that’s how you like it,” Owen said a moment later, when he’d sat back and pulled off the condom, letting Affenlight lie flat again.
Affenlight didn’t exactly know what to make of his smile. “That was really something.”
Owen cleaned them both up before switching off the lights and wriggling underneath the covers. Affenlight felt too sated, too overwhelmed, to say anything at all. He simply laid his head against Owen’s shoulder and went to sleep.
This time he did wake at four, untangling himself from a soundly sleeping Owen and pulling on clothes. After visiting the bathroom, he switched on the espresso machine out of habit and stood by the study window. It was almost as dark as it would have been at midnight, but somehow seeing it from this side of sleep made him feel euphoric, as if the campus and the lake and the world beyond existed purely for him. For the first time, though, he felt settling in the back of his mind the idea that one day soon he might leave for good.
Never leaving Westish would have seemed like a strange idea just a week before. He hadn’t become president, leaving his Cambridge home, with the intent to live out his days by the lake and eventually die here, to be buried in the college or town cemetery. He’d only imagined days without end, days like this when he would wake up before the world and stroll by the lake, sneak a cigarette by the Melville statue, greet students by name – a true prince of his own kingdom, given a kind of eternal power by the fact he had come here as a boy. He’d imagined something of the same once at Harvard too, but his ongoing conflicts with Pella had meant he’d enjoyed it far less. Coming to Westish had been an act of extreme passivity from that point of view – he couldn’t win against her, and fighting made him more upset than losing – but he had at least felt that he would have come in any case, one day. The prospect of leaving Westish, even if it were for Harvard again, only left him feeling adrift.
Melville would take to sea. Thoreau would build a cabin and isolate himself. Hawthorne… would probably berate him for being a wholly inadequate father. Or, no, Hawthorne would think that, and write him an overly-polite letter instead. Hawthorne might as well have been from Wisconsin.
Affenlight dug his palms into his eyes, trying to shake off sleep, and thought about where he’d left his cigarettes. He’d been smoking too much – the doctor’s concerned tone hadn’t completely escaped him – but if there were any excuse for such behavior, he had several: O in the hospital, Pella’s arrival, dinner with David, his aching sympathy for Henry, and the task set before him today. Perhaps he and O should just pack a few things, get into the Audi, and leave. Pella would be fine, maybe better, without him. Owen barely needed education in the form of lectures and papers. They could just get that place in New York where O could write, shopping his plays to a city full of theatres… He placed a hand on the wall by the window, scratching his head under tousled hair.
He could see Owen’s reflection in the glass. O had already pulled on his sweatpants and Harpooner hoodie. “Hi.”
“Your coffee machine could wake the dead.”
“And here we are.”
Owen put an arm around him. Squeezed. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been awake this early. You should come back to bed. You’re only torturing yourself.”
Affenlight shook his head, even as he leaned into Owen. “I’m always up around this time. I need to get ready... I’ve got so much work stacked up, I should do some of it before Mrs. McCallister starts giving me more pointed looks.”
“When are you going to see Gibbs?”
“This afternoon, I imagine. Monday mornings always entail an avalanche of new issues. It’s difficult for me to get away.”
Owen nodded. “I have a class, and then Michael demands we show our faces for practice later. I expect hearty pep talks and many concerned looks in Henry’s direction. But I think we’ll all be relieved if Henry spends a few games on the bench, Henry most of all. And Adam second of all. By the way, you never did tell me how you seem to know so much about our good friend Mr. Starblind’s perfectly-chiseled physique? Should I be jealous?”
“Mmm.” Affenlight half-laughed, turning so he could hold onto Owen and all his warmth. “You’ve never been here in the summer, have you? You’ve missed many shirtless frisbee games across the Quad. Never a window smashed yet, which constantly amazes me.”
“I’ll be here this summer. Every day.” Owen kissed his cheek. “We can even go fishing… If no actual fishing is involved.”
Now there was a reason to stay. Reason enough just to rent a room somewhere if the college threw him out. He didn’t own much other than books, most of which could go into storage… And in any case it would be a wrench to leave the lake. He’d only managed to leave once before because he’d been going to sea, all the way to the South Pacific.
“Last chance to back out of this,” he said. “As of this evening you’ll be my little toyboy, whose grades mean nothing, who gave blow jobs in exchange for a scholarship and fellowship. Called a coward here, hailed a hero there!”
“I’ll take my tambourine. Given what they’ll be saying about you, we social pariahs should stick together.”
Affenlight rested his chin on Owen’s shoulder, held him tighter. “Or we could say nothing. I’ll go somewhere else for the summer, then you’ll go to Tokyo…”
Owen threaded fingers through his tangled hair. “Guert. Do you really want me to break up with you?”
Just the idea of letting go of Owen now seemed like an impossibility. “What I want… is for you to take me back to bed.”
“Well then.” Owen sounded pleased, victorious. “Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth.”
The words came like a balm, they always did. “Thou touchest my inmost center, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings.”
Owen found his hand. “We’ll see about touching your inmost center later.”
Affenlight found Glendinning Hall to be relatively quiet in the late afternoon, with just a line of students waiting to submit some kind of paperwork, probably for accommodation during the next school year. Affenlight smiled at the secretary who guarded the offices to several senior staff members and, with her leave, knocked lightly on Bruce Gibbs’ door and stepped inside.
Gibbs’ office was smaller than the presidential office over in Scull, but nicely appointed all the same, with its old oak bookcases and framed photographs. The man himself looked up from a document he was signing with a smile and a little surprise. “Guert. I meant to give you a call. Heard you were up to some heroics over the weekend.”
“Hardly heroics.” Affenlight closed the door, making sure it was fully closed. He’d spoken to Henry’s father by phone that morning. Despite Jim Skrimshander apparently taking after Affenlight’s own father in terms of gruff, unbending masculinity, he’d fallen quiet at the news of Henry’s late-night escapades and agreed that they should discuss the possibility of therapy.
“Well, the Skrimshander boy seems to be having a troubled time… Happens too often with students these days. Is it the pressure? And yet all around us they insist standards are falling. Take a seat, Guert. What’s on your mind?”
Affenlight sat down on one of the spindle-backed chairs facing Gibbs’ desk, unbuttoning his suit jacket. “I’m afraid I might throw off your whole week, Bruce.”
“Not more budget amendments.”
“No. Something of a more personal nature.”
Gibbs’ hand stroked by his mouth. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Serious, yes. But no deaths or other incidents of that nature.” Over Gibbs’ shoulder, the sun was glancing off the library’s mirrored walls. Affenlight’s heart was pounding. “Bearing in mind the college code, I felt I was obliged to tell you that I’ve begun a relationship with a student.”
Gibbs blinked at him and picked up his pen, seemingly so he could tap it against the desk. “Well. Indeed, the code. We naturally make every effort to ensure no quid-pro-quo arrangements or coercion takes place here at Westish. Such allegations have smeared the good name of many other institutions. Still, it’s certainly not unheard of for professors to even marry their students, although of course it’s not encouraged. And an administrator such as yourself… Who is the student in question?”
Affenlight suddenly felt a great urge to laugh. He repressed it. “Owen Dunne.”
He’d never seen anyone quite so stunned as Bruce Gibbs in the next few moments, before his features began to convey more than a little suspicion. “Owen Dunne,” he repeated.
“He’s an English major…”
“Yes, I’m well aware who Owen Dunne is, Guert.” Gibbs leaned his elbows on the desk, pinching the bridge of his nose. “If this is in any way a joke, I suggest you tell me now.”
On occasion, an excellent Italian suit and silver-flecked hair were a wonderful way to be taken seriously. “It’s not a joke. I appreciate that the best way to deal with this is to be above-board from the start. No sneaking around. No smearing the good name of Westish.”
“I sincerely doubt you’ll avoid that.”
It was difficult, Affenlight had often thought, for these old buildings to ever be truly quiet. The wood of the shelves, the stones of the walls – they all seemed to shift, to breathe. You could never be alone in a room like this.
Gibbs cleared his throat. “I don’t have much interest in what anyone does in his private life. It’s very rarely my business. But this is a student, and honestly it might even seem worse if it were a girl. In any case, you can’t possibly think you can continue in your position if you intend to pursue this relationship.”
“I see no reason not to. Would I be correct in assuming that if I’d named a forty-five-year-old female student you would, slight hassle aside, be less than panicked about this prospect?”
“Panicked is not the word, and you’re splitting hairs. You serve at the pleasure of the trustees, and granted they might tolerate you having a relationship with a student, or with a man, but not both at once. And certainly not with anyone so much younger than yourself. It’s madness. Believe me, I can understand being attracted to a beautiful young person, but risking your career and the college’s reputation… You need to think about this, Guert. Where can this possibly go?”
Affenlight smiled blandly. “Who knows? Who knows where any relationship might go? But I need to find that out for myself. Owen and I have done nothing wrong. We’re consenting adults who care very deeply for each other, and our lives are yours to scrutinize.”
“I’m sure no scrutinizing is necessary. You’ve been to countless trustee events, you know what they’re like. Image is everything! The trustees are already under pressure given the economic climate. We simply can’t have a president who sleeps with the students.” Gibbs drew back, having made his point. His eyes narrowed at a sudden thought. “Is this why you’ve become such an enthusiastic proponent of all these ecological initiatives? This Dunne boy?”
“I’m an enthusiast because I’ve done the reading, Bruce, and I presented the proposals on the basis of the great many signatures collected by the Students for a Responsible Westish group. Are you going to suggest I’m sleeping with Admissions & Athletics too?”
Gibbs let out a long sigh that was far too weary for a bright Monday morning. “Guert… I have the greatest respect for you as a scholar and a president, but let this one go. I promise you no one’s heart will be broken. It’s what’s best for you and for the school. And for Owen, I might add.”
Affenlight adopted the intensely good-natured expression he usually employed when pretending to listen to the trustees. “Is that a threat, Bruce?”
“I’ve no reason to threaten you. For now this is just between us. Let the boy down easily or, if you feel you must, draft a resignation letter. If I have to take this to Melkin and the Board… Everyone will know. You won’t leave on your own terms, and I can’t imagine other educational institutions will be clamoring to have you. This sort of thing leaves a stain. Think about your daughter, man. About Westish. Anyone can tell you love it here.”
“I do,” Affenlight said. “Which is why I need to change it.”
The reassuring ping of bat against ball could be heard some way before Affenlight reached the field. Whether it was the strength of the hit or the still air, it was a very pleasant sound to hear: the release of tension, like a completed rhyme, ejaculation… The roar of a crowd at a home run was certainly orgasmic. But perhaps he simply had sex on the brain ever since Owen had awakened new sources of passion within him just a few short months ago.
He was alone in the stands, the metal ice-cold even in May, with sunshine breaking through the clouds. The Harpooners were out on the field in their navy and ecru pinstripes, Adam Starblind conferring with Mike Schwartz at home plate, wheeling his right arm in easy circles as he did so, left hand pressed to his shoulder. Out at shortstop, Henry Skrimshander was working with the Hispanic not-Henry who had filled in for him on Saturday, and presumably Sunday too, the not-Henry throwing quickly and accurately to Ajay Guladni at second, and a heavier, redheaded boy at first. Rick O’Shea. Affenlight had smiled at the name the first time he heard it, and never could stop.
And further out... Not napping with his cap pulled over his eyes as Affenlight tended to imagine him, Owen was tossing the ball back and forth with the big Korean right-fielder Sooty Kim, easily stretching out with his glove to catch it every time.
Affenlight steeled himself against the cold, lit up a fresh Parliament, and settled down to watch. He’d told Mrs. McCallister he could be some time. No meetings were scheduled, and he would catch up with his paperwork eventually. It might in fact be a bonus if the trustees decided to revoke his contract. He’d finally be saved from balance sheets and budgets.
On one catch, Owen wheeled around and took a step back toward home, throwing while yelling “Henry!”
Skrimshander turned, lifting his glove. The ball thudded home perfectly, slid into his free hand, and- Even Affenlight could see the moment of hesitation, the well-oiled cogs momentarily off-track, but this time Henry at least threw it, threw it with the sort of doomed affect of a not-particularly-talented high school boy who knows he’ll fail whatever he does. O’Shea had to jump and stretch to catch it, but it went in before he flung it back out wide to Owen.
Not-Henry and Henry exchanged a word. Henry bounced on the balls of his feet.
Owen had to run back a few strides to catch O’Shea’s throw, his shirt riding up, but he caught it with what seemed like his typical boredom. And with it, he caught sight of Affenlight. Even at this distance, Affenlight could see him grin. He tossed the ball to Kim and began a leisurely jog back toward home plate and the dugout.
“Hi,” Affenlight said when Owen emerged from the stairwell. “I did it.”
“You’re still in one piece.”
“Bruce didn’t quite manage to flagellate me with his cane.”
Owen took the seat next to him, easing first a packet of mints from his pocket, which he offered to Affenlight, and then his phone. Affenlight wondered how he avoided crushing it out there on the field. “Well, several minutes ago I sent e-mails to my mother and to Sarah X. Pessel, as well as a few friends who deserve to know before the entire world. And now that you’re here, I think I’ll switch this off for a while.”
Affenlight ground out his cigarette on the floor as he watched the screen go black. “What did you tell Genevieve?”
“Oh, she’ll be concerned regardless. Fortunately she’s two thousand miles away, so even if she leaves for the airport now she’ll have calmed down a little before she tries to kill both of us. In any case, I emphasized that you are precisely the perfect gentleman she thought you were, I made all the moves, and that we’re very much in love.”
Owen cleared his throat. “My message to Sarah was a little more overtly political, but I doubt appealing to the trustees’ sense of romance will do us much good. Appealing to the bottom line, however… It’s all they’re really worried about, and firing a president for whom he’s dating sounds much worse than firing him for a scandal.”
“In this case it’s the same thing.”
“Not at all. We’ve been perfectly honest with the trustees, no deception or abuse has taken place, and despite the unconventional nature of our relationship on several fronts, there’s no good reason to fire you because of it.”
“Well,” Affenlight said, turning back to the game. “It’s done now.” That feeling settled on him again, that desire to be alone without wanting Owen to leave. “We should take Pella and Mike to dinner tonight. Something a little nicer than Friday, and we deserve to celebrate.”
“I’d invite Henry too. Although I have no idea what he’d make of the snails.”
“His sister went home with their parents?”
He could see Owen nod. “If you want to make up the numbers, we could always invite Professor Eglantine. Pella thinks very highly of her.”
“Or we could wait for your mother to come crashing through my door.” Perhaps, now that Pella seemed to have accepted – if not approved of – the idea, hurting Genevieve was his greatest source of guilt.
“I suggest we fortify ourselves with alcohol first.”
Out on the field, one of Starblind’s pitches rocketed off the fence behind Schwartz, earning a shake of the head that could barely be discerned inside the catcher’s mask.
Affenlight laid a hand on Owen’s shoulder. “I should get back. Up until the moment they fire me, I still have a college to run. And perhaps I should get a physical at St. Anne’s while I still have health insurance. Maybe I’ll take a walk by the lake first. Much nicer in the daylight.”
“As long as you don’t intend to jump in.”
“I could probably use a coffin to float on, given the maelstrom beneath me.” He stood, dusting down his slacks, and gave Owen a smile. “You’ll come by the office later?”
“Why, President Affenlight, people will talk.” Owen got to his feet as well. In that baseball uniform he seemed so well-turned-out he might as well be on the catwalk. It was a wonder the entire team didn’t ask him to do their laundry.
“The sooner they see us together, the better. I hardly want our relationship to preoccupy the college so much that finals are ignored.”
Owen clasped his hands warmly. “I’ll ask Henry to do something spectacular at regionals just so Sarah can fill her column inches. Or Adam can streak naked through the Quad.”
“Either one. Both.”
He was beautiful. As beautiful as the first day Affenlight had noticed that beauty. Or maybe even more so in the daylight, in his pristine pants, navy-and-ecru shirt, his bruises faded back into that healthy golden-brown skin that warmed Affenlight’s fingertips now.
Affenlight lifted his hand to Owen’s cheek, touching his glasses, looking into those smoke-gray eyes that seemed so much like his own. The field had fallen silent, the boys stretching or conferring or perhaps staring up at the stands, watching them. It no longer mattered.
Touching his lips to Owen’s now felt like a transgression worse than the first time they’d kissed, than the many times they’d spent together behind locked doors. But as Owen tilted his face up just a little and let Affenlight kiss him deeply, truly, it was the only thing he ever could have done.
Let them watch.