The rain thundering against the windows of Phumber 405 woke Owen before his alarm. He’d been waking early in any case over the last week, used to being roused by Henry stumbling around at five, on his way out to jog his way around the campus. But the rain irked him more than Henry’s early-morning activities. The rain, for one thing, did not magically cease banging the windows after it had tied its shoelaces and rubbed sleep from its eyes. Owen reached for his glasses and blinked at Henry, who was staring out at the gray Quad. “Too wet for running?”
“It’s never too wet for running.”
It had been more than three weeks since the Harpooners won the national championship and one week since Henry was allowed to leave the psych ward and come home. ‘Home’ in this case had turned out to be Westish instead of South Dakota, which made sense given Henry’s insistence that he would be sticking around for the team next year, but his parents hadn’t been happy. Owen had been given the task of manning the phone (Henry still didn’t have a cell) and politely replying to the e-mails Henry’s mom sent from the Lankton library. Whether Henry was happy was a difficult question – his old enthusiasm about running stadiums and fielding grounders was gone – but it was almost certain that he was happier than he would have been bussing carts all summer.
Owen sat up, sliding his feet into his slippers, and came to join him at the drafty, unwelcoming window. “Guert told me the summers here were beautiful.”
Henry shrugged. He reached out to smear fog from the glass. “They are, sort of.”
And maybe they were, from the point of view of art rather than comfort: rain streaming down the Melville statue, pooling at Herman’s feet. Bright hexagonal umbrellas making their way across the Quad. An exchange student from one of Owen’s classes dashing across the walkways, book above his head… until he realized the book was less easy to dry, and stashed it under his jacket instead, gloomily accepting the inevitability of wet hair. No doubt Guert had already taken his morning stroll by the lake, relishing the muddy pathway, the raindrops staining his immaculate shirt and suit…
“I hope Sophie’s still going to make it,” Henry said.
Owen laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “This is the Midwest. They don’t even stop for blizzards here. Now, shall I take the first shower?”
“I’m going out.” Henry tore himself away from the window and picked up the windcheater from his bed with sudden resolution. “But… maybe you could make some hot chocolate?”
Owen smiled. “I could be convinced. It does cheer the soul on such a morning.”
He had a class at ten, once a soaked Henry had returned and gulped down two cups of heavily-sugared hot chocolate before taking up residence in the shower. The playwriting classes hadn't been as simple as he’d hoped – he’d been so hopelessly nervous before the first one that he and Guert hadn’t even done anything the night before, just argued Stanislavsky and Chekhov. Guert knew exactly how well a good debate could calm him down. But now, at the end of the second week, he’d accepted that none of the summer students were there to fight him or to fall asleep. They had no idea he was just a junior, and certainly in his well-pressed shirt and slacks he could pass for at least five years older than the other students in their dirty jeans and hoodies. Besides, there was nothing he liked better than taking them to the little Westish auditorium and have them sit around on the stage reading, observing other students act out little bits of dialogue. “The page is just a prompt,” Owen found himself saying over and over. “The play has to exist out here. Not in your head, and not on a computer screen.”
One class last week, Guert had come and sat in the darkness of the back row. Probably none of the students even knew who he was - the president had very limited duties during the summer months - and his presence could have been unnerving. If anything, it had been reassuring. Owen lectured Guert all the time. There was nothing to fear there. During this class, though, there was no sign of him, and Owen spent an extra half an hour with some particularly enthusiastic class members before wrapping himself up in his raincoat and heading back to Phumber 405.
The moment he opened the door, the younger Skrimshander, all blonde hair and limbs, was upon him. “Owen-O! Did you see this weather? I couldn’t sleep at all on the bus, it was crazy, and this guy just kept telling me about special moves in some video game, and what do I care about fifteen ways to rip someone’s head off, except I was kinda thinking about doing all of them to him by the end…”
Owen gave her the tight squeeze he knew Henry himself would resist. Somehow, even though they weren’t twins, giving affection to one of them would still have an effect on the other. “How are you, my dear?”
“Wet! But I love this hot pot thing… Mom and Dad have got to get one, right Henry? Maybe they’ll get me one when I start at SDSU, which is practically now, really.”
Sophie coming to Westish over the summer had been an idea spawned from an idle thought of Henry’s that Pella had instantly seized upon as the best possible option for rehabilitating the elder Skrimshander. While they tried to raise Henry’s spirits and make sure he was eating healthily and exercising a reasonable amount, enjoying baseball rather than torturing himself, Sophie was a bright piece of normality and nothing to do with the various crises that had assailed them all in the past few months. And Henry, sitting on the edge of his bed with Zero beside him, was indeed giving the first unforced smile Owen had seen since April.
“Are you sure it’s fine I’m staying here?” Sophie asked, plopping down on Owen’s bed. “Oooh, this comforter is so soft… are you taking it with you?”
“It’s all yours,” Owen said. “My boyfriend comes with his own bedding.”
“And he doesn’t mind you staying with him?” Sophie and her brother shared the same expression when they were anxious. “I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“He’s ecstatic.” Pella had been less so, but it was really the only way to let Sophie stay at Westish and keep an eye on her brother. It wasn’t technically approved by the student proctors, but they had no idea who all the students even were during the summer, and certainly wouldn’t suspect someone like Sophie of any wrongdoing. “And in fact I should be going. Please don’t hesitate to call in the event of any problems. My number is by the phone.”
Sophie obediently looked over at it and nodded. “So are we going to meet this new bee-eff of yours? Is he hot? Henry, have you met him? What’s his name?”
“Soph, don’t pester him.”
“What? I just want all the Westish gossip! Like there’s any interesting news at all in Lankton. And he told me all about Jason before.”
She winced and looked up at Owen apologetically. “Sorry. I know he turned out to be kind of an asshat.”
“Kind of,” Owen good-naturedly agreed. He picked up the large backpack from the foot of the bed that Guert had loaned him a couple of days ago. The pack was designed for hiking, but laden down with books and clothes it seemed to weigh more than Owen did himself. “Well, enjoy yourselves, Skrimshanders!”
He was halfway out of the door, wondering whether he should have just dropped the bag out of the window, when he heard Sophie say excitedly: “So is Adam still here?”
The bus at the Westish gate thankfully waited for the minute it took him to struggle along to the stop, and then deposited him in Main Street just a few hundred meters from The House. Guert had offered to pick him up, but they’d already been far too lucky with their subterfuge, and the entire cover for Owen’s visits had been that he was assisting Mike and Pella with their move from the frankly disgusting house Michael had shared with Demetrius Arsch. Owen had meant to attack the place with bleach once all the books were removed, but in the end Guert had spared him from the mold and hired a professional cleaner.
He’d imagined The House on numerous occasions before actually visiting it, and had conceived of such a place even before Guert had mentioned it for the first time: a secret place where they could live undisturbed, with no one frowning over Owen slipping into Scull by the private entrance. Who would be keeping tabs on the president’s activities out here, especially during the summer, particularly when Mike, Pella, Henry, and Izzy had all been here at one time or another, lugging around boxes and arranging furniture?
The rain had almost stopped by the time he reached the gate, but it made little difference as far as his jacket or slacks were concerned. He knocked on the door and turned the handle, almost immediately met by the pure-white husky Guert had adopted along with the house. “Hi there!” Owen petted him with a wet hand, but Contango just sniffed at him and loped away, presumably seeking drier friends.
He closed the door and left the bag propped up by the wall, hanging up his coat in the hallway. He was still wiping his glasses clean with a handkerchief when he leaned into the door of Guert’s study and pushed it open.
The president of Westish College. However close they’d become in the past few months as friends and lovers, however much Owen insisted on viewing him as a complete equal regardless of age and status, there was a certain erotic thrill in letting himself think about it for just a moment: Guert Affenlight, he of the charming affect and silver hair and magnificent reputation, who in moments would surely be kissing him, would soon go to bed with him…
Guert spun in his seat, already smiling. “Owen! You look damp. You should’ve called. I would have driven you.”
“I need the exercise.”
“You really don’t.”
They clasped hands and kissed: the semi-chaste welcome Owen preferred, mostly because it prolonged the anticipation of what was to come. Straddling Guert on this slightly unsteady office chair required a little more balance than usual, but Guert was quick to hold him there. “The younger Skrimshander has been safely installed. So I’m your houseguest for the foreseeable future.” Well, so far as foreseeable didn’t extend to September, but they’d agreed not to discuss that.
Guert’s smile, almost ever-present around students on campus, still seemed uniquely special whenever it was directed at him. Perhaps, up close, it was his eyes more than anything, a deep gray that was still somehow very young. “I’m glad Henry’s doing better.”
“Mm hm.” Owen leaned into him and kissed him properly, the chair rocking back a little as Owen sank his fingers into all that thick silver-flecked hair, his tongue meeting Guert’s, their bodies pressed together as hard as they had been two nights ago…
Ever since they’d gone to the motel and started making love in beds, everything had become much easier, more intimate and more relaxed. Maybe most of that was down to Guert’s growing confidence that he could please a man sexually without falling short, but the summer had loosened Owen’s restrictions on himself too. Years ago, Jason had made all the rules in their relationship, and he’d ensured that Owen made rules for all future relationships too – don’t get too close, don’t let him break your heart – but Guert was nothing like Jason. Guert was all bare, exposed feelings, simply trusting and hoping that Owen wouldn’t hurt him.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Owen said in a whisper, slipping a hand between them, rubbing over the bulge in Guert’s pants. “You want me inside you again, don’t you?”
Speaking of erotic thrills, Guert’s particular interests in that area hadn’t been hard to locate. All it took were two nights to realize how much he truly enjoyed taking time to undress, and to undress Owen, no matter how aroused and breathless they were at the time. And the same two nights to understand that being penetrated was something that fascinated Guert intellectually as well as giving him immense physical pleasure. Once, when he wasn’t so much younger, Owen had assumed many things about people based on their preferences in the bedroom – childhood experiences, the need to dominate or be dominated – but if it didn’t add up to much in his own case, the chances were it didn’t in Guert’s either. Or at least Guert wouldn’t have waited forty years to be screwed in the ass.
“It’s early, and I have a surprise for you. You don’t want to wear me out just yet.”
Owen sat back a little, leaving his hand where it was without rubbing anymore. “Your refractory period isn’t that long. What’s the surprise?”
One of the more interesting features of Guert learning to relax in his company was just how mischievous Guert could be on occasion. “I think you’re a little too over-excited to find out.” He carefully, methodically loosened Owen’s belt, unbuttoned the fly, and pulled down the zipper, setting Owen’s not-unsubstantial erection free of his briefs. “Let’s switch places, shall we?”
Owen stood up and then gratefully sat in Guert’s padded leather chair, pulling down his slacks and underwear to a comfortable position. “I assume Pella won’t be home soon?” For all it was reassuring to do this the way people all over the world did this, in their own homes without worrying about locking the door, he still didn’t want to be caught doing anything other than kissing.
“Dishes,” Guert said, a hand on each of Owen’s knees as he knelt, half under the desk. “And then some kind of seminar with Judy. I think we’re more than safe. We should have done this in my office in Scull.”
“We still could. But it seems a little too clichéd.”
“And that chair isn’t at all comfortable.”
Owen breathed deeply, watching Guert kiss and suck the head of his penis before bending lower, taking him all in. The very first time Guert had done this, he’d probably come mostly from the simple warm wetness of Guert’s mouth coupled by the unshakable fact that Guert Affenlight, president of Westish College, was on his knees with Owen Dunne’s cock in his mouth. But Guert had improved vastly in two months with some gentle coaching, and the problem was no longer the possibility of not coming, but that he might not last long enough to fully enjoy every last sensation Guert was all too happy to tease out of his willing body.
“Mm, yeah, just like that…” His fingers were in Guert’s hair again, feeling the motion of him as he watched that slick slide of himself past Guert’s lips, feeling himself fill Guert's mouth. “Just like that.”
He made himself relax against the back of the chair, closing his eyes and raising his hips. He could only suspect what Guert must assume about his other lovers, and about how good they’d been. The guys in San Jose had been inexperienced and Jason mostly bored with giving rather than receiving. But Guert… Guert loved him, there was no question about that, no matter how terrifying it was to accept. Guert loved every part of him, touching him and tasting him, and even when technique was lacking, the feeling never was.
“Oh God,” he said eventually, voice strained, hips moving, “you’re making me come.”
It felt like he shot ropes of the stuff, as though everything in him uncoiled and drained, spurting out over Guert’s tongue and down Guert’s throat. Biology textbooks said the average was about a teaspoon – he’d seen the porn scenes too – but his body was telling him it was endless, the come inside him pushed out by heat and pleasure.
Guert kept moving, kept sucking him, until Owen gently pushed him back, opening his eyes and stretching out. “You’re sure I can’t?” he asked. Guert had to be lovely and stiff in those pants, ready to be stroked, ready to be fucked as soon as Owen came back to life.
But Guert simply stood, dusting off his knees, and pressed a hand to Owen’s cheek. “You can come to the bedroom, but only so I can show you something.”
He disappeared out the door, leaving Owen to follow as soon as he’d neatly adjusted his clothes. Guert’s bedroom was the next and only room along the hallway, and one of the few entirely clear of unopened boxes. Owen had already enjoyed the queen-size bed on a number of occasions. “Well?” he said, leaning against the doorway.
Guert opened his closet door and, from a row of almost identical suits, brought out one – pants and jacket on the same hanger, both black. “Try it on.”
“You bought me a suit?”
“Are we going to a funeral?”
Guert smiled. “Possibly several.”
Mystified, Owen took the hanger. “How did you know my size?”
“I can eyeball these things reasonably well. And I checked the tags on your clothes. I think it’ll fit well enough for tonight. You can always take it to a tailor later.”
“Tonight…” Owen laid it on the bed, kicking off his shoes. The suit did at least seem to be the right size. “Are you taking me to the theater? No… the opera?”
“I thought it might be more appropriate for a date than a fish fry in a basement restaurant. If you don’t mind the four-hour round trip.”
“If you don’t mind driving. But I’m sure I could find us a room at a reasonable rate if you wanted to stay overnight in Milwaukee.”
Guert was watching him with a smile, the suit an almost-perfect fit now that Owen had fastened the waist and straightened his shoulders. “I thought that, as we’re celebrating you moving in, perhaps we should spend the night at home. Given that it’s home for you too, now.”
He could debate the phrasing – home could of course be somewhere you intended to leave, just as Phumber 405 had been, but somewhere you would likely leave in a couple of months? But Guert knew that as well as he did, and there was no point in ruining the moment or the day, especially not with a fine new suit as a present and a promised excursion to the true civilization of the city. Owen laced his fingers behind Guert’s neck and kissed him. “It is good to be home,” he said.
The afternoon was spent lying on Guert’s bed – really their bed now – reading through plot summaries presented by his students, some neatly printed from library computers, some scribbled in what looked like purple ink. When Guert brought him coffee, the two of them puzzled over some of the more esoteric writing. “Count yourself lucky,” Guert said. “Students these days don’t know what it is to write papers on typewriters without delete keys and spellcheck. Or, honestly, what it is to write papers at all.”
He only had one bag to unpack, and its contents barely filled a corner of a drawer and half a bookshelf. In Phumber his possessions had seemed extravagant. Here, no matter how loudly Pella railed against her father’s boxes of junk, they were ridiculously minimalist.
Once he paired the new suit with a clean white shirt and one of Guert’s ties, the mirror cautiously advised him that he might indeed appear presentable. Surely the Milwaukee opera wasn’t the pinnacle of culture worldwide, but it was the only culture he would be attending this evening, and the only culture he truly wanted to appreciate, because Guert appreciated it.
“How many black men do you think attend operas?” he asked Guert in the car.
Guert glanced at him. “I would have thought that was a racist question.”
“I’ll rephrase. How much do you think I might stand out from the crowd this evening, as either a black man or a person under forty, or both?”
“Opera isn’t just for rich old white people, O.”
“Of course not. I’ve lately been reading about the works of Chevalier de Saint-George. But good intentions and actual demographics are very different things, as you might be aware, given the relatively low percentages of women and people of color on faculty at Westish.”
Guert thumbed the Play button. “Given our location and pay scale, it’s amazing we have any sort of faculty at all. And I didn’t think you would worry about standing out.”
“I don’t, as a rule. But I worry for your sake. The opera on a Friday night is a lot more visible to staff and trustees than a little restaurant and motel in the middle of nowhere.” Owen leaned forward to pop the glove compartment and fish out the CD case for whatever was beginning to come through the sound system. “I appreciate your fearlessness, Guert, but I don’t want to blow your cover. So to speak.”
“So to speak, indeed.” Guert shifted gears as they came out onto the highway, and laid a hand on Owen’s thigh. “Relax. Listen. There may be an exam later.”
Genevieve had made sure to introduce him to the finer things in life at a young age, taking him as her date to restaurants, movies, the theater, and more. But she’d probably never even considered the opera. Henry’s response to Owen’s recent playing of YouTube videos had been polite bafflement and slight concern about why so many large women seemed to be in such pain. And, thinking about it, Guert’s childhood should have been far less cultured than that of a city boy whose mother worked in television. Possibly even less so than Henry’s must have been.
They couldn’t hold hands inside the building, but at least Owen could stick close to his side, feeling an unfamiliar anxiety come over him about possibly doing something wrong… not that there was anything he could possibly do wrong, there were no religious protocols to follow or priceless exhibits to smash, but it was still somewhere new with its own conventions, and it was clearly important to Guert that the evening went smoothly.
“When did you first go to the opera?” he asked Guert in a murmur as they ascended the stairs.
“Go? Not until I lived in Cambridge. But I’d listened to it all through my twenties. It seemed like something I should know about and appreciate, along with all the books I was inhaling, so I would buy these old records – yes, actual vinyl records – and play them in my tiny attic room until my neighbors started complaining. Actually hearing them sung live, and without the thumping on the walls, was startling. I’m not sure how good this company might be, but it’ll at least give you an impression.”
Owen let the backs of his fingers brush against Guert’s. “And I’ll be with you.”
Guert turned and smiled. “Yes, and then I found out what a wonderful dating tool the opera can be. It’s a very potent aphrodisiac.”
“I don’t think we need one of those.”
Did anyone sit and make out in the back row of an opera house? Owen had done it plenty of times in the cinema, although admittedly not during any movies he actually wanted to see, and seen others do it at the theater. He might have dared take Guert’s hand in the darkness, just to reinforce that they really were there together, sharing the same experience, but Guert seemed so rapt by the entire affair that any sort of touch might feel like an invasion.
There were supertitles at this production, translating from the Italian, which presumably put him at an advantage over Guert’s younger self. But, as he told his playwriting class over and over, it wasn’t all about the words. There was doubtless weighty historical context he was missing, as well as the conventions of the time and the genre. What was required and what was interpretation? This was why he loved films, which gave him the chance to pause, to rewind, to examine frame by frame. But this, even though he could look up the lyrics and context online, was ephemeral, completely of the moment. A moment he was no doubt missing by thinking about it at all.
At home – home being Guert’s home – he would have settled his head against Guert’s broad shoulder and relaxed, trusting that he would be able to see it from Guert’s perspective or, if not, that Guert would explain it to him later with that brimming-over enthusiasm that usually filled him close to midnight when they talked literature after a glass or two of scotch. Here he simply felt out of place, adrift. Maybe the way Guert felt when they watched films. Maybe the way Guert felt when they did anything at all.
“So how much are you hating it?” Guert asked at the interval, having retrieved drinks from the bar.
“I’m not hating it at all.”
Guert looked at him levelly. “I have a daughter. I’m well aware what kind of vibes people give off when they’re sitting through something against their will.”
“We’re talking about vibes now?”
Owen froze, scotch glass at his mouth. It was as if merely thinking about it had made it happen, like in numerous fairy tales, or in Ghostbusters. He could turn and pretend to join another circle of conversation, melt away in the direction of the restrooms, but they were already here: the typical couple he had always imagined made up the Westish board of trustees. Affluent, white, jovial, and probably ten years older than Guert. Then again, judging anyone else’s age according to the way Guert looked was a bad idea.
Guert was already making warm handshakes and effortless conversation. “And this is my young friend Owen,” he said. “Owen’s lecturing for our English Department this summer, and I’m introducing him to our fine opera company here.”
“An excellent choice.” Owen’s hand was taken in the sort of grip he associated with former military men who possibly intended to crunch bones. “This season isn’t as impressive as last year’s, but we’ve all had to make cuts in this awful climate, eh, Guert?”
“I’m just very thankful I don’t need to worry about the budget again until next February at least.”
“Oh, you can worry, it just won’t do you much good!” Guert’s shoulder bore a hearty slap. “You two youngsters out without any young ladies? Heavens, Margaret, what is the world coming to?
Guert slipped his hands into his pockets and smiled amiably. “Now, we have to give the young ladies one night off a week.”
“Too right! Exactly! Can’t wear ‘em out. Good meeting you, Owen. I think it’s time to find those damn seats again…”
They waited, finishing their drinks, while the crowd parted around them. “Is this going to be trouble for you on Monday?” Owen asked quietly.
“Trouble?” Guert turned and gazed in the direction the trustees had gone. “No, I don’t expect so. The trustees have very little involvement in the actual daily running of the school. They’re more like overseers, and they like their meetings and dinners. So you might as well be a parrot as a student. And in any case, taking a student to the opera isn’t exactly a hanging offense. Bruce Gibbs would probably suggest I bring a whole group next time.”
Guert took Owen’s glass, returning both safely to the bar, and then laid a hand on his shoulder. “There’s a very long road between here and anyone even imagining I spent the entire first two acts thinking about going to bed with you tonight.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Owen said, and smiled. “I’m a very attractive man. And those first two acts were execrable.”
They hadn’t discussed stopping somewhere for dinner after the performance, but Guert mentioned Bau Kitchen, a restaurant he thought was probably Thai, and in any case came strongly recommended by Pella and several online restaurant reviews Owen consulted on his phone during the drive over.
Perhaps they were conspicuously well-dressed among a crowd mostly made up of students and the occasional genuine adult, but Guert hung his jacket on the back of his chair, folded his tie neatly into his pocket, and was suddenly a man of the people once more.
“Were you like this when you were my age?” Owen asked, scouring the menu and for once being bombarded with vegetarian and vegan options. “Before Harvard?”
“Like what? All these students with their messenger bags and iPods?”
“No…” Owen gestured, without being quite sure what he was actually indicating. “I mean, were you so… effortless?”
Guert glanced down in puzzlement at his own shirt sleeves. “Well, effortless, yes, but the results weren’t so stylish. Lots of jeans and plaid and an abhorrence of both scissors and razors.”
“It was the seventies.”
“True, but that wasn’t the reason why. Just the reason I could look like that and still have a job.” Guert absently loosened his cufflinks and rolled the sleeves midway up his forearms, every line seemingly as crisp and straight as if it had been done by machine. “Perhaps you’ll look very different when you’re thirty.”
“If I’m planning on a beard and an afro, I’d better start now.”
Guert had almost started to say something in response when the waiter, a slight Asian man in a suit, came to take their order: dinner for two, with plenty to take home for their upstairs neighbors, and perhaps the Skrimshanders too. Owen thought about wine, but this time their drive would be much longer than the one between the fish fry restaurant and the motel. He’d strongly disapproved of Guert driving even then. Given the crate of alcohol he’d helped move into the new house, there would be no shortage of the stuff at home.
“What were you going to say?” Owen asked. The place was busy enough, everyone immersed in their own conversation, that he really could clasp Guert’s hand across the table. But he settled for pressing shoe tips against shoe tips.
“I…” Guert cleared his throat. “You mentioned growing an afro. I wondered if that’s really what your hair does. When it’s longer.”
“Should I have my mother send you pictures?”
Much younger, in a school mostly populated by white children, he’d become irritated by other kids wanting to touch his hair, asking him if he’d tried dreads or cornrows. He’d only been more irritated when Genevieve had matter-of-factly started telling him about the history of African-American hair, which was more troublesome than even he, a more politically-aware elementary school student than most, had imagined. But fair was fair, given his many longing looks at the flowing locks of a young Guert Affenlight, and personal questions were a significant step forward from sex and literature.
“Mostly it just gets sort of… fluffy.” Owen rubbed a hand back over his hair, presently short and freshly trimmed. “Some influence from my Irish genes. Neither one nor the other, but a unique mismatch of the two.”
Guert’s smile did indeed light up his eyes. “Unique, anyway. And I’d say more of a perfect blend.”
“Now I sound like a pot of tea,” Owen grumbled as their starters arrived, but he pressed his toes harder against Guert’s.
He must have fallen asleep at some point on the drive back, his head against the glass as he looked out at the black expanse of the lake with only distant pinpricks of light from stars and buoys. The rain had started again when they left the restaurant, and Guert had rummaged in the glove compartment to find his copy of the opera they’d just seen, all the better to accompany his explanation of events for Owen.
It really had been fascinating, at least the first hour of it. Guert was a captivating lecturer, even at the wheel of his car, and his enthusiasm about the subject was enough to keep Owen listening and asking questions. But it had been a long day since the rain and the Skrimshanders, and eventually Guert’s voice had just become a reassuring hum in the back of his mind as his eyes closed.
“Don’t make me carry you,” Guert was saying, switching off the engine.
Owen blinked, sitting up straight and finding new aches all along his neck and shoulder. They were back in Westish, in the driveway of the white house, Mike’s battered old car by the curb. The clock in the Audi was at something past midnight. “Actually I’d prefer that,” he said, straightening his glasses and releasing the seatbelt.
Guert leaned over and kissed him, just once, lightly on the lips. “I’m not sure you would. Come on. Let’s make some coffee.”
It wasn’t the kind of street where neighbors were likely to be awake past midnight, but Owen cast a look around while Guert opened the door, wondering what kind of excuse he or Guert would have. True, taking a student to the opera was no real offense, and almost everyone else on the planet would hesitate to consider that Guert might be remotely queer. But still…
The house was dark, and as Guert flipped the light switch by the door only Contango raised his head in vague interest from where he was napping on the living room rug. “The kids must be asleep already,” Guert said. “Or pretending to be. How about that coffee?”
“Could we skip it?” Owen turned the lock and eased once more out of his jacket. “Bed’s sounding very appealing.”
“Mm.” Guert stopped in the kitchen doorway, turning back and taking in the look of him. “Still tired?”
“Yes…” Owen started undoing the buttons of his shirt as he headed toward the bedroom. “But not tired enough.”
He lay on the bed for a while, shirt undone, feet on the floor, while Guert finished up in the bathroom. What a funny thing a bedroom was, this place that served to orient you even when you were asleep, so that when you woke you knew exactly what you expected to see without opening your eyes. A door here, the window here, the ceiling just so. Owen only remembered having two bedrooms in his life, although when they’d lived with his father there had been a third he’d seen in photographs. There was his mother’s house, where he’d grown from a preschooler with cartoon drawings on the walls to a teenager who stacked books in every crevice he could find, with framed quotes and photographs from some of his most esteemed poets and writers. The Sperm-Squeezers by Guert Affenlight had never been far from his reach.
At eighteen he’d looked forward to truly living on his own, but had quickly become used to having even less space than he’d enjoyed in San Jose, with Henry sleeping just three or four feet away every night. The Trowell Foundation had promised him his own room in Tokyo too, a room bigger than Phumber 405, given to international researchers who couldn’t be expected to squeeze into the tiny undergraduate cubbyholes. Yet here he was in Guert’s bedroom, with Guert’s things that seemed so familiar.
“Are you asleep?” Guert said softly from the doorway. The light was off in the bedroom, but he was backlit from the hall.
Owen raised his head a little. “Just waiting for you.”
Guert flipped the light off in the hallway and closed the door. He was naked now – Owen didn’t know if he always slept that way, or only when Owen was visiting – but that apple-butter scent of his cologne was still there, a deep breath of the rustic and sophisticated in one when Owen kissed him.
They lay side by side, Guert’s hand up under his shirt, Owen’s in Guert’s hair as they kissed. Last night Owen had stayed in Phumber with Henry, giving Mike and Pella the chance to go out together. Probably Henry didn’t need to be watched and certainly didn’t appreciate the babysitting, but after everything that had happened before, there was no persuading any of them to stop. Owen had never found the close living conditions so close before, but wearing his yin-yang pajamas and lying next to Henry instead of Guert, but thinking of Guert all the same… He’d rolled over to face the wall, slipping a hand down to soothe himself. He couldn’t let himself come with Henry there, but he also couldn’t stop thinking about Guert, thinking about what Guert might be lying there wanting… In the end he’d cleared his throat, snatched up his glasses, and gone to the bathroom.
Guert was already loosening Owen’s belt just as he had before, unzipping the fly and freeing him from his undershorts. Owen kept kissing him but pressed closer, letting himself get harder in Guert’s hand until it felt just too good to keep lying there. He stood up, dropping clothes on the floor with a speed he knew would annoy Guert and a carelessness that annoyed himself on some level too. But he needed this, and Guert needed this, and they’d have all weekend to be slow and careful.
“For all that operatic passion,” he said, getting two fingers of lubricant from the tube by the bed, “there isn’t very much sex.”
Guert laughed. “By that argument there isn’t very much sex in Moby-Dick either.”
“I suppose the bullfighting in Carmen is somewhat analogous.” He parted Guert’s knees and knelt, running his tongue along Guert’s length before beginning to suck, fingers probing further back.
“Somewhat analogous?” Guert moved to let his fingers have better access, pushing further into Owen’s mouth as he did so. “I didn’t think that going a whole night without spearing me, so to speak, would make you forget the implications.”
Owen murmured his agreement around Guert’s cock, his fingers sliding inside. All the weeks since the motel had made it easier for Guert to relax and to take him, but he still liked the way Guert’s breathing changed when he did it.
“I like the idea of the bull living to be speared another day, though,” he said, lifting his head.
“Seems unlike you. It’s a very cruel sport.” Guert pulled down a pillow, rolling over onto his belly.
“Only if the bull doesn’t enjoy it… Which of course it doesn’t. Could we please find another metaphor?”
Guert spread his thighs, wrapping his arms around another pillow beneath his head. “Try scoring a home run, Harpooner.”
“If Henry were here, he would cry.” Owen rolled on a condom and applied more lubricant. “Doubtless for a number of reasons.”
No one could spend their life comparing one life to another, one lover to another. Everything would eventually come up short. But there was one choice Owen sometimes dwelled on at night, while either listening to Henry snore or feeling Guert breathing in his arms. Just a few hours after he’d been told he would be going to Tokyo in the fall, he’d come to Guert and kissed him in the darkness of his kitchen, making all of the doubts between them disappear. I want you, that kiss had said, and the message had only become stronger in the months since.
Guert gasped under him, lifting up to stroke himself and make Owen go deeper. It hadn’t been so very long at all that Owen had looked upon this kind of sex with the sort of shock and revulsion that comes after conceiving a sexual relationship as somehow pure romance made physical. This, this was carnal and animal and not entirely clean. As a young teen, Owen had felt guilty enough coming into a wad of Kleenex. Actually coming in Guert, being in Guert… It shouldn’t have felt anywhere near as good as it did.
“Oh, fuck me,” Guert groaned. “I want to feel it.”
“Feel me in you?” Owen asked with a smile. He liked feeling that long slide in and out, knowing just how deep he went, imagining the aching pressure he was making Guert feel every second. He liked thinking about Guert’s cock too. He’d always liked thinking about Guert’s cock, before he’d ever even felt it or seen it. It was what you did when you had a teenage crush, or an impossibly good-looking yet unobtainable neighbor. He’d just never really been convinced that Guert might possibly develop an equal fascination with his own.
They’d talked about keeping things quiet during their first time making love knowing that Mike and Pella were upstairs, but there was a perverse pleasure in making Guert cry out, feeling all that tension in him, finding the sweet spot. And Owen had trouble keeping his own composure too, even when they took it slowly, which was not what they were doing now.
“Feel that?” He couldn’t thrust as hard as Guert wanted him to and pretend it had no effect.
Guert was nodding, speechless. Owen felt around and found Guert’s hand already working his cock. Owen pushed his hand aside. The rhythm was harder to keep like this, but he badly wanted to feel it too – the way his movements went right through Guert, building up heat and pressure inside him, his penis so swollen and sensitive it might as well have been an extension of Owen’s own.
“Don’t worry,” Owen said. “I’m going to take care of you.”
By all rights he should have come first, the tightness of Guert’s body just perfect around him, but Guert had got him off earlier and he was focused far more on what Guert needed, was begging for, than what might take him over the edge. There was something absolutely, purely arousing about having such an intellectual man desperate for physical satisfaction. Owen wondered if, when the positions were reversed, Guert felt the same way about him.
Guert came in a burst of sound that might have wakened Contango down the hall, his semen hot and slippery on Owen’s hand as Owen kept stroking him, kept fucking into him even as Guert was gasping for breath, his muscles grasping Owen tighter. And then Guert was saying something, pushing back harder, and Owen was just gone, spilling out into him until they fell together to the mattress.
“Wish you could just stay there,” Guert said as they lay on the bed, Owen still inside him, their breathing gently leveling out. “Feels nice.”
Eventually, though, he had to sit up and get rid of the condom, find some Kleenex and straighten out the bed enough that they could settle down to sleep in it. The outside world seemed far too quiet after three years of life by the Small Quad, with bells every hour and other students every minute. Even if he concentrated and strained, he couldn’t hear a whisper beyond his own breathing, his and Guert’s. Who could tell there was a dog a room away, two other people upstairs, a hundred others not too far away? And none of them aware of him and Guert in this moment, this dark and silent moment of warmth and comfort, a moment that just stretched and lasted.
“Is this what it would be like?” Owen said. He was whispering, but his voice still felt like a siren in the night.
Guert had pulled the covers up over them afterward, before nestling down with his head against Owen’s shoulder, an arm flung across him. They’d ended up in a similar position their first night together, without discussing or arranging it at all, and Owen had felt more astonished by that than by the sex: the way Guert, who had been anxious bordering on terrified all night, simply fit against him with the sort of trust and vulnerability Owen had only ever imagined within Jason.
“What?” Guert lifted his head slightly, like Contango had. Owen had probably woken him from very pleasant dreams.
“Shh, nothing. Go back to sleep.” It was comforting, lacing his fingers in Guert’s hair, just stroking, touching.
Guert shifted, hugging him a little tighter. “Like what would be like?”
If only you could speak words without being sure of an impact. Owen moved his head a little, so he could see the stars through slats in the blinds. “If we were together. If none of this were a secret.”
“Operas and restaurants, you mean?”
“And the rest of it.”
Guert fell silent, his palm rubbing slow circles on Owen’s belly. Poor Guert. Poor fragile, romantic Guert, the man Owen had hoped might exist within the book he’d read as a teenager, but hadn’t seen until one afternoon many months ago. The perfect lover for a nineteenth-century man, and the worst to consider leaving. Guert, who could never hide what he wanted from Owen, not for one second, and who could never stop his heart from being broken.
Owen very much didn’t want to break it.
“We are together,” Guert said. “And it doesn’t have to be a secret forever.”
“If it’s not a secret, the rest of it falls away. The school, the normality… We can’t have both.”
“Do we need both?”
The entirety of their lives stretched out beyond the rain-washed window: long even for Guert. All those choices, all those decisions between now and Tokyo, between Tokyo and graduation, between graduation and whatever was supposed to come next for Owen Dunne. Could you ever just hang onto the person you loved in a darkened room and choose that, choose him, beyond anything else? Was that enough?
“What if we do?” Just the question felt like a betrayal of values, of Thoreau’s, of his mother’s, of Guert’s. Who was ever supposed to pick money or education or travel or culture over whatever passed between them in these moments? And who was supposed to pick a life for themselves and other people at twenty-one? Who did anything at twenty-one beyond study and play baseball?
He could feel Guert smiling against his skin. “Times change and people change,” Guert said. “And none of it’s as complicated as you’d like to think.”
“What does that mean?”
“Mm.” Guert yawned and nestled closer to him. “I’ll be up around four to take the dog out. There’s cereal in the kitchen for breakfast, although Pella may be experimenting. Try the fridge for coffee beans.”
Owen turned in his arms and moved down enough that they could kiss, that Owen could wrap his arms around Guert and be held too, in a sort of warm and stuffy embrace. There were answers here, in the days before September, in the hours before either one of them had to get out of bed. Lazy, domestic, normal answers. The best kind for a college summer.
“The summers here are beautiful,” he said as if agreeing to something, and closed his eyes once more.