There was no dog to wake him, but the clock still read just past four when Affenlight opened his eyes. Usually Contango was patiently waiting by the front door when Affenlight ventured out to the bathroom and, on days his master dared to spend an extra ten minutes asleep, would eventually whine at the bedroom door until Affenlight came to pet and reassure him. This morning Pella would have that particular delight and duty, as Affenlight was spending his first weekend in years in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Even at this hour of the morning the city was far brighter and louder than Westish ever was. In the winter, Affenlight was used to seeing little else but starlight out by the lake, guided only by the dog and his own familiarity with the shore. Last night he’d had trouble falling asleep until Owen finished looking over his notes and came to bed. Too many distractions. But now, despite the flood of artificial light outside the hotel room window, it was just the two of them, and Affenlight had no reason to get up.
Owen was habitually a sound sleeper, and he’d taken readily to the hotel room bed with its warm blankets and orthopedic pillows. He was still asleep now, face turned into a pillow, his breathing a gentle snuffle when Affenlight drew closer. It would be a pity to wake him, but Affenlight couldn’t help but touch the smooth skin of his long, soft limbs, the curve of his shoulders and hips. Affenlight pressed against him, the better to stroke his chest, his belly, fingers skirting against the wiry hair he found lower. Sometimes Owen would be more than happy to be touched and coaxed into lovemaking at this hour, but now he probably needed his rest.
When Affenlight woke again, though, his first sensation was of being hard, with a very pleasant warmth against him.
“This,” Owen said, “seemed irrepressibly insistent on waking me. And it’s a pity to waste, don’t you think?”
Affenlight moved his lips, then rubbed his eyes and moved into a slightly more comfortable position, a hand on Owen’s side. “You’re right, as always.”
“Unless of course you need to use the bathroom.”
“Shh.” In the course of their relationship, which had now stretched into almost two years, Affenlight had found that Owen often needed to be shut up with kisses.
Those two years had included Owen’s months in Tokyo, though, to say nothing of the summer Affenlight had been a physical and mental wreck, such that all of this – where this was kisses and fingers and gently turning Owen onto his back – seemed as rare and special and new as those first covert nights they’d spent together at the school.
But it had all become much better in time too. Affenlight had learned to be calm, and Owen had learned to be passionate, so that now Affenlight could move down, pushing back covers, and take O into his mouth without his heart thrumming with panic. The very first time, Owen had made very little noise, moved hardly at all. This time his pleasure was more than obvious, that melodic voice giving music to moans as he bent his legs and pulled them back, wanting so much more. Affenlight made a grab for the lubricant.
He’d never been closer to a person than he’d been to Owen. Perhaps Sarah came close, in the few times they’d slept together while she was pregnant with Pella, but that was a different kind of intimacy entirely. With O it was only ever the two of them, bodies interlinked, arms wrapped around each other, all kisses and movement and vulnerability.
“Are you nervous?” he asked, moving slowly, Owen’s legs hooked higher than his hips. He got to see Owen without his glasses so rarely that it was nice to see those smoke-gray eyes unobscured, as well as the thoughts behind them.
Owen’s eyebrows raised. “Why would I be nervous? You’re very good at this.”
“Don’t avoid the question.” Being inside Owen meant tightness and ease in equal amounts. He knew O’s body by now, the angles and the force that would make his penis twitch, would make Owen shut his eyes tight and cry out to be fucked harder, but making love also meant just being there, feeling and being felt.
“I repeat: why would I be nervous? No one knows my subject better than I do. Not even at Harvard.”
Owen lifted a hand from Affenlight’s bicep, smoothing across his forehead. “Are you sure you’re not the nervous one?”
“I don’t have to do any talking at all.”
“No, but as you pointed out, you haven’t seen most of your former colleagues in ten years.”
Affenlight licked his dry lips. “Ten years is a long time. I’m a lot older than I was.”
“You’re a lot more distinguished.”
“People don’t realize how sweet you are, do they?”
Ten years… It shouldn’t have made much of a difference between his fifties and sixties. But he’d been such a different person then, the benevolent ruler of the English Department, sighed over by undergraduates, courted by publishers. His private life had been different too: an unruly teenage daughter at home, dates three or four times a week with eligible ladies, outings to cultural centers that were simply non-existent in Westish. And physically… He’d sculled on the Charles any chance he got, spent time in the gym to almost make up for the cigarettes and his drinking, neither of which had really concerned him at the time. No woman, not even the ones substantially his junior, had ever been disappointed with his physique in the bedroom. He’d looked better than most of the students, and on a par with even some of the athletes. Or at least trying to compare himself to them hadn’t been entirely ridiculous.
But now his hair was gray, his body perhaps not too bad under the Dunne dietary regime and the Schwartz workout plan, but nothing like it had been. He was out of touch with the opera and theater, and with most of the academic world despite the journals that piled up in his office courtesy of various subscriptions and Owen’s library research. Time moved faster at Harvard. No doubt the students fairly sprinted across the Yard these days.
“I’m not… I’m not the person I was back then.”
Owen smiled, his fingertips tracing the lines at the corners of Affenlight’s eyes. “I’m hardly the person I was ten years ago either.”
“Let’s not think about that.” If he had been, the police wouldn’t have approved of their current activities at all.
“I’m sure your friends have aged too. And far worse than you have. Unless it isn’t the scourge of time that worries you so much?”
“I’m long past being concerned about people knowing I’m living with a man.” Well, perhaps not long past, but past. Not being able to hold Owen’s hand and kiss him and say “my boyfriend” was worse than surprising or even shocking a few people. “And I doubt there are too many homophobic humanities students anymore. Certainly not in Massachusetts.”
Owen’s expression suggested otherwise, but he raised himself up enough to plant a kiss on Affenlight’s lips. “Good. Now Guert, if you’d be so kind…”
“You’re getting sore?” Whenever Affenlight was on the bottom in this position, his thighs always took a beating.
“I’m getting unbelievably sexually frustrated, and I’d like to come before breakfast.”
Breakfast was waiting on a tray outside the door afterward, and they ate on the bed, confident any crumbs would be gone by that evening. Affenlight took his pills and checked his e-mail (confused students, Pella’s Instagram photo of Contango romping around the neighborhood) while Owen showered. By the time Affenlight had showered and shaved, O was sitting at the laptop, fashionably turned out in one of several suits he’d lately purchased from Affenlight’s tailor.
Affenlight had brought a suit himself. It was the first he’d worn since… well, since he’d tried it on before they left home, concerned that it would now be too tight or too baggy. It and his formal shirt fit as perfectly as they had when he was college president, and he checked his cufflinks and his silver tie in the mirror.
“I look ancient,” he said when Owen’s reflection joined his.
“I preferred your hair a little longer,” Owen said. “You looked nicely wolfish.”
Affenlight frowned at his hair. It was precisely the same length he’d had it when they’d begun their relationship. “They say dog owners do start looking like their pets.”
Owen cleared his throat and proffered a harpooner-free navy tie instead. “Try this one, and let’s go.”
Was it possible for centuries-old buildings to look different from the way they had when he’d seen them daily? Perhaps they’d been so familiar then that he’d ceased to take in the details. Or perhaps it was only the tiny changes he noticed – a fresh coat of paint here, a student banner there. The very first time he’d arrived, so long ago in 1979, he had stood in awe much like he was doing now. Hallowed ground. He’d been thirty, less than half his current age, in a cheap suit bought with bartending money. But he’d felt hopelessly old then, too, amid teenagers who often mistook him for a lecturer, at least until his knowledge, his striking looks, and his impressive scotch-drinking abilities had started to win him all kinds of successes.
He took Owen’s hand. “Do you know where we’re going?”
It was a Saturday, but the campus seemed no quieter than he remembered. It was possible, of course, that weekdays meant an absolute crush of people flooding from classroom to classroom. The students weren’t much different from those at home, but perhaps more ethnically inclusive than the largely homogenous Westish student population Owen frequently decried. Probably, scholarship students aside, their bank accounts were much healthier. Then again, Affenlight himself had earned plenty of money in both locations.
The conference seemed to be well enough attended, judging by the groups of people gathered chatting in the foyer. “I’ll go and check in,” Owen said. “Let the organizers know I’m actually here.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No, no. Mingle. Practice your schmoozing abilities.” Owen squeezed his hand. “Smile.”
Affenlight had never enjoyed schmoozing even when it had been an integral part of his job, but there was no doubting he was good at it. Or at least he had been. Still, he could get a cup of coffee rather than standing awkwardly in the doorway.
There was no decaf, which meant straying from his no-caffeine-no-alcohol rules, but even Owen expected him to do so on occasion.
“Oh my God, Guert?”
Affenlight finished pouring and steeled himself. He turned with a smile. “Amir. How are you?”
He was grasped firmly by the shoulders. “Oh my God,” Amir said again, his dark eyes wide. “I had no idea you were going to be here. Are you presenting? Tell me you’re presenting.”
“I’m not. Actually I-”
“You look great! I could’ve sworn Molly told me you were dead.”
“I’m not dead.” Affenlight gently pried the hands from his shoulders. “It’s good to see you.”
But Amir was already looking round, calling “Molly!” and gesturing excitedly. With a faint inward sigh, Affenlight took a gulp of coffee and braced himself.
Molly, at least, was slightly more composed at the sight of him. “Guert Affenlight. So now you grace us with your presence? After we’ve had at least four events on the nineteenth century I have personally begged you to attend?” But she wrapped him up in a hug that was just a little tighter than strictly professional. “Same cologne, I see.”
“I’m a traditionalist. Would you like some coffee?”
Amir was bouncing on his toes. “Didn’t you tell me he was dead?”
“I told you he had a heart attack and ran off with a baseball player.” Molly stepped back, looking him up and down. “Or maybe the other way around. In any case, he looks alive enough to me.”
It really was good to see them both. Amir had once been an over-eager graduate student, and Molly a perpetually frustrated lecturer aiming to rise higher in the department pecking order. Now she had Affenlight’s old job, and Amir had hers. It was reassuring that neither of them had been entirely unaffected by the years either.
“Oh, right, the baseball player.” Amir nodded. “I forgot Guert’s playing for the other team now.”
Molly took the cup Affenlight was proffering. “Could be a switch-hitter.”
“That’s a real curveball, I can tell you. Whole new ballgame.”
“Came out of left field,” Molly agreed with a smirk.
“Should I ask if you’re the pitcher or the catcher? And what is second base on guys, anyway?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Molly said. “I’m sure our Guert hits it out of the park every time.”
Affenlight adopted a familiar expression of paternal vexation. “Are you both finished?”
Amir was already scrolling through something on his phone. “I could continue. Wikipedia has a whole page of these.”
“I will spend half an hour ripping apart your presentation, I swear to God.”
Molly laid a hand on his arm. “Really, though, how are you? Is Pella here too?”
“She’s busy with work and studies, unfortunately, but she sends her love.” He really should come here more often, and bring Pella too. If Owen was likely to be spending several months a year in Cambridge, it would give both Affenlights ample excuses to visit. “And I’m fine. A healthier lifestyle is, apparently, healthier. Who knew?”
“Guert!” Owen appeared by his side, brandishing a sheet of paper. He glanced at Molly and Amir. “Excuse me, but have you seen this list of presentations and lectures? Some of their theses are simply insulting. And I’ve read three or four books on this one topic alone. I can’t imagine anyone having anything pertinent to add.”
Affenlight laid a soothing hand on Owen’s shoulder. “O, these are my good friends Molly Chase and Amir Taji. Molly, Amir – my partner Owen Dunne.”
“You’re the baseball player?” Amir reached out to shake Owen’s hand.
Owen graciously dipped his head. “Well, I’m not sure I would characterize myself as such anymore.”
“Owen won a national championship,” Affenlight added.
“Only Division III.”
Affenlight resolved to ignore him. “He scored runs live on ESPN.”
Molly shook Owen’s hand too, and kept hold of it. “Owen Dunne,” she said. “The same Owen Dunne who’s presenting that paper on Chekhov today? Who was supposed to be in my department last August?”
“Indeed,” Owen said. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“You’re Guert’s boyfriend.”
“I believe I did mention we were acquainted.”
“Not acquainted acquainted.” Molly looked between the two of them. “I suppose I should have realized Westish, Wisconsin is a really, really small town.”
The morning’s presentations were, on the whole, well done, barring nerves and a couple of logical flaws Owen was all too happy to point out. After O’s first few questions, Affenlight was considering holding both his hands for the duration. But when the talks verged on Affenlight’s own specific field of expertise, he spoke up too. He’d meant to be a quiet, sedate observer, just another interested member of the public. But it felt good to stretch out his intellect a little, to talk with people who weren’t Owen and Pella, and the often ill-read members of his “Melville and His Times” class back at Westish.
“There’s a paper in that,” Owen said over the lunch break, while Affenlight steered him toward the English Department offices.
“In what you just argued in there.”
“I’m sure it’s already been done.” Affenlight pushed open a door and looked right-left, getting his bearings. “Or that student will do it.”
“You should publish again.”
“I’m writing my novel.” Insofar as frowning at sheets of paper constituted writing.
“A journal article would take you one weekend at most. Do you know where you’re going?”
“Of course I do.”
And then, thankfully, they were there, Owen adjusting his glasses as he examined the artwork and student flyers on the walls. The corridor was the same, the doors the same. But the colors had changed. Everything seemed just one step removed from his memory. Of course he’d rarely ever just stood there and looked at it. He’d had a student or two in tow while they discussed the stylistic features of Hawthorne’s writing, or Melville’s relationship to the Civil War. Pella had spent most of her childhood running around these corridors, in and out of various offices. Who were the lecturers behind the doors now? How many of them would even know who he was?
“This used to be my office,” he said to Owen. Molly’s name had long ago replaced his. “I practically lived here.”
“You make a habit of living where your office is.”
“Mm.” He tried the door. It was locked, of course. And in any case what was it without his books, his teaching awards, his photograph of Melville and Pella? Most of which were now in their office at home. Molly would have her own books, new furniture. Even the view from the window would seem very different.
“I wonder… Do you have other habits where your offices are concerned?”
Affenlight, preoccupied, only turned around after a moment. “What?”
Owen had his arms folded. “You slept with Molly, didn’t you? Maybe right here.”
“O, come on. She’s married now. Couple of kids.”
“So you did.”
Affenlight looked up and down the corridor. No one else was there, at least not out in the open. “I slept with a lot of people back then. I was single and-”
“Very attractive, with good taste and high disposable income. Who could resist?”
“O…” Affenlight took a step closer and dropped his voice. “Are you upset with me? For sleeping with someone years ago?”
“Of course I’m not upset. I just find it interesting to come face to face with your past, full as it is with rampant, brazen heterosexuality. It’s actually quite surprising you didn’t beget more children.”
“I was always careful. More than careful.” And this still, somehow, felt as though he was being forced to be defensive, put on the back foot by Owen’s questions. “Besides, it’s not an issue for us.”
Owen unfolded his arms. “I’m glad you pointed that out. I was concerned.”
“You do… seem concerned.”
But Owen simply patted him on the shoulder. “We should procure sandwiches before I dazzle the Ivy League with my brilliance.”
Affenlight occasionally took care to remind himself that not everyone saw Owen in precisely the same light as he did. Certainly not everyone was stopped in their tracks by the inherent, slender beauty of him, left with an ache in their chest from his elegant gestures and equally composed words. But as a teacher, a leader, other people truly did find him captivating. Affenlight had seen it at that very first meeting with the Students for a Responsible Westish group. He saw it every time he sat in on one of Owen’s classes. And he saw it now, as Owen gave his presentation: his voice soft and mellifluous, his tone patient, his argument utterly persuasive. Owen could have been an experienced pedagogue, or some foreign expert flown in for the day. A dozen hands raised with questions, all prefixed with compliments.
“I hope he’ll be with us in the fall,” Molly said to Affenlight over coffee. Owen had excused himself to explore one of the libraries. “All credit to the University of Wisconsin, but…”
Affenlight nodded. Owen had enrolled there to obtain an MA degree while still remaining in Westish, teaching a class at the college and living with the Affenlights. But Owen could have been at Harvard last fall. He’d initially deferred entry for a year, and then talked about reapplying in several years’ time, when Pella would have graduated and Affenlight, in theory, would have much less tying him down to the Midwest. “I’m trying to convince him. Especially if he wouldn’t have to be here on a permanent basis.”
“We don’t mind making special arrangements now and again. As far as I’m concerned, he can write his dissertation anywhere on the planet as long as he lets us know he’s still breathing every so often.” Molly set down her cup. “I can see why you like him.”
Affenlight smiled. He wondered if he might be blushing. “He’s an extraordinary young man.”
“He’s a lot like you.”
“He’s not like me at all.”
“Oh, he’s younger than you were, but what’s a few years? You don’t remember what you were like. Absolute intensity and conviction backed up by that Affenlight smile. He’s a pretty striking fellow too, Guert. Do you take him to the opera?”
“He’s not just another expendable date, if that’s what you’re hinting at.”
“I would never dare to hint.” Molly leaned back in her chair, folded her hands. “We could use you. There’s huge competition to get even a pinkie toe in the door here, but it wouldn’t take much of an argument to get you back. Stay, teach. I’m sure Pella will be coming here for graduate school. Here or a little bit south. Don’t tell me you’re planning to hole up in Westish for the rest of your life.”
Affenlight raised his cup to his lips. “That was something like the plan, yes.”
“It does sound idyllic. But an idyll’s very boring, Guert, especially if you’re there alone. Rent out the house for a few years, re-educate the world about sperm squeezing, and then go back when you’re actually old enough to be retired. Not that any of us really retire at all these days. Health permitting, of course.” Molly waited for a moment, perhaps anticipating his input. “How are you, Guert, really? I’m assuming with that boy in your bed you’re hardly at death’s door.”
“I was, once. Not so long ago.” The aroma of the coffee was still tempting, but he set down the mug. “Which made me realize how much Pella and Owen need me to stick around. How much I need me to stick around. Almost dying wasn’t pleasant at all. I can’t imagine what going all the way must feel like.” Affenlight smiled, the best to put a note of humor into a dark subject. “And you? How are Ned and the kids?”
Molly waved a non-committal hand at him. “Oh, the same. Allan’s working on a gaucho ranch for a year. Don’t ask me why. And Becky just moved in with her girlfriend in Vermont. Nice enough girl, but don’t ask me why Vermont either.” She narrowed her gaze a little. “I can’t help but ask, Guert… why you were in the closet all those years. And so far in the closet too, with all those women. Although I suppose we should’ve realized no straight man has such good fashion sense.”
“Well, thank you!” Affenlight checked his cufflinks again. “But I never looked at a man before Owen. I wasn’t secretly thinking about the male faculty while the two of us were together.”
“It’s very possible I was.” Molly winked. “You seem to be beeping.”
His phone was, indeed, making bloopy noises. A text message from Owen.
Molly laid a hand on his arm. “I’ll see you later. Think about what I said, okay?”
The message made Affenlight head for where he hoped the library in question was located, all the while internally berating Owen for using a cellphone in such hushed, hallowed halls. But those halls had never been so very hushed, even when he’d been a student and the most sophisticated technology on his person was his watch. Whenever he visited the Westish library, his search for books was inevitably accompanied by tinny music blaring from headphones and students tip-tapping messages… He really was getting old.
Finding Owen, despite the reasonably precise instructions, took far longer than expected. Likely because Owen was neither waiting at the entrance nor ensconced in a study carrel, but sitting down between bookcases in such a way that Affenlight would have felt obliged to reprimand him for that, too, if there had been anyone else around at all.
“There are chairs,” he pointed out, glancing around before inwardly sighing and joining Owen on the floor. The VAC’s yoga classes, despite making him feel ridiculous, at least lessened the creaking of bones.
“I felt the moment required a certain ambiance and intimacy.” Owen proffered a bound sheaf of paper, slightly torn and bent at the edges, with the now ancient-seeming sight of typewritten words on the cover. He cleared his throat. “The Sperm-Squeezers: The Homosocial & Homoerotic in 19th Century American Letters. By Guert Affenlight.”
And there they were: words that had surely faded since the mid-80s, but which were there nonetheless. When had he last held this in his hands? How long ago? He could barely even remember submitting it, but the jitters of ragged nerves seemed fresh. Or maybe that was the coffee.
“Wow,” Affenlight said. “Huh.”
Owen nudged up closer to him. “I’ve requested a scanned copy for scholarly purposes. And of course to see what you changed between this and the version I’ve read.”
“The published version was easier to read.” He turned to the contents page. “Not to mention it included a lot of the jokes my advisor originally insisted I remove. This is… this seems like a lifetime ago. It was a lifetime ago. It’s older than you are.”
“Most of your things are older than I am.” Owen reached to turn back a page. “You dedicated it to H.M. I don’t think you ever change.”
Affenlight smiled and reached around to hug him. “Well, Pella hadn’t been conceived yet, and my family had hardly been involved much in my academic career. Melville’s the one who started it all. Who kept me going. Unfolded myself within myself. I doubt he appreciated the sentiment very much, but I meant it all the same.”
“I’m not sure it needs to be said to whom I’ll dedicate mine one day.”
“I reiterate my earlier comment regarding your sweetness.” Affenlight had flipped over to his introduction, the words eerily familiar although he couldn’t have guessed at them a moment ago. He’d lived and breathed this text for so very long, and simultaneously breathed life into not only Pella, but also the fourteen-year-old Owen Dunne who would eventually read it in book form. “Speaking of which, Molly’s quite adamant you begin your studies in the next academic year.”
Owen’s mouth pursed just a little. “I’m not certain I want to spend my time commuting from Westish to Boston.”
“So stay in Boston.”
“Guert, if I hadn’t known you for so long, I’d think you actually wanted me gone.”
“I don’t want you gone.” Affenlight carefully closed the dissertation. “Your career means a lot to me. Your future.”
Owen sighed. “A future you seem to think can’t possibly occur in Westish. Time passes there too, you know. Our lives aren’t any less valid or meaningful for not being at Harvard.”
“Molly wants me to teach here again. Would that change your mind?”
“Perhaps. If I had even the slightest reason to believe you actually wanted to do that.”
Affenlight’s hand crept up to stroke the short hairs at the nape of Owen’s neck. “I want… I don’t want things to change, O. Which is the sort of foolish, childish hope I had when I was eight and scared of ever leaving the farm. But all I want is for us to stay in Westish by the lake, you and me and Mike and Pella, and for everything to just get slightly better every day.”
“Things are getting better. You’re getting better.”
“I’m getting older. Pella’s going to graduate and you’ll be treading academic water, and Mike deserves more than coaching third-rate college teams. Coming here… You and Pella can go to school. Mike can too, if he likes, or find better employment opportunities on the East Coast. At least we can be together for a while longer.”
Owen shifted so they could look at each other. “Guert,” he said, and sounded both very old and very young when he said it, “I need you to understand that we’re always going to be together. Always. Even if one or other of us needs to travel occasionally, we’re going to come home. I’m going to come home. So there is absolutely no question of whether or not we’ll be together, just about where. And I know how much you love Westish. You just don’t quite understand how much we love it too.”
“This isn’t Melville’s era. We have computers and planes, extraordinarily harmful as they are to the environment. Westish isn’t some small Polynesian island undiscovered by the western world. It’s another two years till Pella graduates, and we both know Mike won’t go anywhere without her. Either I’ll work something out with the English Department here, or I’ll use those two years to write. And in two years… In two years I’ll still want to be with you, and be woken up inexcusably early by your dog, and complain about the lack of good restaurants, and watch you sit staring at the lake for hours.”
Affenlight swallowed. He was focusing very, very hard on Owen’s tie. “Even Contango isn’t going to live forever.” That thought, whenever it came to him, always seemed far more disturbing than any realization of his own mortality.
“Don’t tell him that.” There was movement, and then Owen’s lips touched his. “You shouldn’t worry so much. Be happy, Guert. If I’m unhappy, if any of us are unhappy, we’ll tell you. But you should remember that Boston will likely be underwater in the next few years. The middle of nowhere might suddenly become somewhere.”
“You’re not as reassuring as you think you are,” Affenlight said, but he leaned his head against Owen’s shoulder. “And forever might not be so long for us.”
He could feel Owen kiss his hair, Owen’s arms around him. “Don’t you dare to die for at least another twenty years.”
“New territory for the Affenlights,” Affenlight said. “I’m not sure you’ll still want to be with me when I’m eighty.”
“If you can cope with me being, ugh, forty, I think we’ll manage.”
Affenlight smiled, turning his head just as a student – or lecturer, they all looked so young these days – appeared at the end of the stack, already bearing an armful of books as well as a list for more. “Perhaps we should vacate the area.”
Owen sprang to his feet, giving Affenlight a hand up and dusting off his jacket before letting the student pass. He straightened Affenlight’s tie and kept hold of it with forefinger and thumb. “Shall I tell you what to do?”
“You should take me to an expensive vegetarian restaurant in the city, where there will be candlelight and fine champagne, of which you will have one glass. Later, as I will have consumed the rest of the bottle, you can carry me back to the hotel and tuck me in, and hold me while we watch the very worst movie I can find on cable. And then tomorrow we can stay in bed all day.”
“We can stay in bed all day at home. This isn’t exactly our honeymoon.”
Owen cocked his head in interest. “We could get married here, you know.”
“Three-day waiting period,” Affenlight said. “We’re flying home on Monday.”
“You looked it up.”
“I thought you might mention it. And besides, it wouldn’t be recognized in Wisconsin.”
“One more reason to consider living closer to true civilization,” Owen said, “but we already agreed we wouldn’t be doing it for the legal benefits.”
Affenlight smiled. It was one of many pleasant experiences they’d had over Christmas, snuggled up like Ishmael and Queequeg with scents of marijuana and hot chowder in the air. “Only the romantic benefits?”
“I am, as you know, a fervent traditionalist when it comes to matters of the heart. And Pella keeps sending me photos of rings and wedding suits. I’ve never seen you in a top hat and tails. So there’s no need to be so anxious.”
“I’m only anxious about where to eat without reservations on a Saturday night.” Although he’d also feel better once the caffeine had cleared his bloodstream.
Owen patted Affenlight’s tie affectionately. “I have every confidence that your looks and charm can get us in just about anywhere.”
Their first meal together had come with champagne too, if you could call it a meal: grape leaves, hummus, crudités and cinnamon loaf, served on Affenlight’s coffee table while they discussed scotch and Melville and all of his favorite topics other than how to be alone with Owen again. Perhaps it had been the champagne, mixed with painkillers and the high of his fellowship, that had made Owen pad into the darkened kitchen that evening, his toes brushing Affenlight’s loafers as they shared their first kiss.
“My head really hurt,” Owen said as they walked back to the hotel after dinner, Affenlight’s arm around him. “I very badly wanted to lie down and sleep on your couch, with half a hope you’d all let me stay there till morning, but I also knew…” He cleared his throat as they paused, letting a cyclist whizz by. “I also knew that half a minute half alone with you might be the best I ever got. If I left, there would never be another excuse. And much as I love you, dear Guert, I wasn’t going to risk my other cheekbone for your benefit.”
Molly had recommended a little Italian place, new since Affenlight had last been in the city, where Owen frowned at the carbs before devouring a plate packed with fusilli and chunks of mysterious vegetables smothered in cream. Affenlight stuck to antipasti and slightly more than his regulation one glass of champagne. Well, they’d all make him suffer for his (minor) sins the moment he set foot back in Westish.
They held hands across the table, because they could, and because Affenlight too-keenly remembered the terror of simply being at the same table as Owen. One of the benefits of having a left-handed lover was that you could hold his right with your left, and still leave both of you able to tuck into your meal. There was candlelight and a waitress who kept smiling at them and there was Owen. Affenlight didn’t think about death once, except when congratulating himself for not thinking about death, which surely didn’t count.
And now Owen was crashed out on their hotel bed again, which had been duly remade with impossibly tightly-drawn blankets, and was devoting all of his attention to fiddling with the remote. Affenlight hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign out front, just in case tomorrow panned out the way Owen wanted it to, and locked the door.
“I’m not drunk,” Owen declared in a knowingly ironic fashion, patting the mattress beside him. “However I wish I’d brought some pot. Are you feeling better?”
Affenlight stripped down to his undershirt and shorts before joining Owen on the bed, his suit and tie hung up in the closet, his dress shirt in the laundry bag. It was still early, as nights went in the city, too early to sleep. But late enough to stack up some pillows to rest against, and to tug with great emphasis on Owen’s jacket until he finally got up and undressed as well. A call to Pella was probably in order, but she might be out with Mike, or in with Mike, Contango in any case dozing on the rug or suspiciously eying squirrels in the yard. Phoning her now would seem less like checking in and more like checking up on her. Besides, how much trouble could they conceivably get into at Harvard? Reflecting on all the trouble Pella had got into personally was a bad idea. Still, neither he nor Owen was likely to spend all night out dancing.
“Can you dance?” he asked Owen, leaning into him as Owen settled back against the pillows.
Owen slid a slender arm around him, his fingers covering Affenlight’s tattoo. “I hesitate to say yes.”
“I’m not going to ask for a demonstration.”
“Still, I’m afraid the answer has to be no. Whenever Jason took me to a club, I stood politely to the side, wincing and glancing at my watch. And you, Mr. President? I’m assuming your waltz is as elegant as everything else about you.”
Affenlight chuckled. “Perhaps. But I grew up a farmboy and worked as a bartender. My dancing wasn’t always so refined.”
“Maybe if you show me your farm one day I’ll see some of it.”
“Maybe.” The farm wasn’t the same anymore, hadn’t been the same as the place he grew up in even when he returned from the South Pacific. Mechanization. Industrialization. Urban sprawl. Without the pastoral romance he’d remembered from his childhood, he couldn’t imagine Owen looking at it with anything but disgust. “Tomorrow I’ll show you our old townhouse. It’s not far. Even if they do say you can never go home again.”
“Melville might have thought that, coming into Boston after being away for two years. And then he stepped off the boat and ran straight into your unfortunate namesake.” Owen had been reading up on the famous Guerts of the past, of whom there was really only one.
Affenlight tucked his hand in between Owen’s briefs and hipbone. “It was a smaller world then. And largely filled with Gansevoorts and Melvilles, it seemed. You might take me to San Jose sometime.”
“Ah, the Californian sun... But you’re right, Guert. It’s hard going back when you’re older.”
“Old, not older. No one could be disappointed in you.” In looks or in achievements. Perhaps in choice of partner.
Owen continued thumbing the remote, unhappy with any of the channels. And for good reason, from what little Affenlight could see. “But I could be disappointed in it. Maybe things have actually improved, but if so they’ve improved without me… The entire visit couldn’t help but be an exercise in egotism and self-pity. There’s something to be said for settling down somewhere to stay. Not that you couldn’t slip back into Harvard without one misstep. There will always be an office ready to have Guert Affenlight’s name on it.”
“That’s a reassuring thought. Even if I never actually test the premise.”
The channel-flipping stopped back at ESPN. Saturday night college basketball. Not a popular sport at Westish, but Affenlight had played it enough as a kid, he and his brothers accounting for what passed as giants at their local high school. Owen sighed. “I suppose we could try this for a while, big dumb jocks that we are.”
“Did you ever play?”
“I’m tall and I’m black. Of course I played.” Owen lightly kissed his forehead. “Locker room racial profiling at its finest. My temperament doesn’t much suit all this rushing around, though.”
Affenlight had a not-terrible of habit of falling asleep against Owen’s shoulder, but it wasn’t difficult to develop an interest in the game that just about balanced the comforting warmth of Owen next to him, and the steady rhythm of O’s heartbeat.
When they got home he’d have to look at the scan of his original dissertation too. The decades had established enough of a cushion between him and the original panic of the feat. And besides, it might encourage him to write that paper Owen had been talking about. It couldn’t hurt, anyway, making a minor contribution to Melville scholarship, and perhaps Owen could use a second author credit to his name…
He let his hand stroke up a little higher during yet another time-out. “By the way, what is second base on guys?”
Owen smiled, met his gaze, and switched off the game.