He never even had the chance to lie to Owen.
“You were fired, weren’t you?” Pella said dully, the afternoon of the Division III final.
They were standing in the barren kitchen of her new shared apartment. Affenlight had met Henry at the statue that morning to see him off, and asked for the address. Intruding on Pella’s privacy was something he’d hoped to avoid, and he had avoided it for weeks, communicating only by e-mail as though she were still in California rather than two or three streets away. But circumstances had changed, every circumstance had changed, and so he’d walked over there desperate to talk to someone, even if what he said was entirely untrue.
He’d spent so long the previous evening trying to come up with a good excuse for submitting his resignation within the next two weeks. There were plenty of reasons, of course, but it wouldn’t have mattered which one he picked. Even after so many years apart and even more in a state of perpetual warfare, she knew him far too well. He would never leave Westish of his own accord, probably not even if his life depended on it. And she’d predicted precisely this conclusion only a few weeks ago.
“Did he turn you in?”
Pella looked good, he thought. She’d always been beautiful, far too much like her mother, but now she seemed more like her actual age, no longer fatigued. Just weary of him.
“Owen? No, of course not.”
She nodded. “What are you going to do?”
When did these children start making him feel so young? So naïve? So helpless? When Owen did it, it was forgivable because he could almost believe Owen truly was an old, eternal soul, and in any case a remarkably mature man. But he’d held Pella when she was born. He’d given her baths and changed her diapers. She’d made him feel helpless then, too, but at least there had been instructions for him to follow.
“I don’t know,” he said. He held his arms out slightly from his sides, a gesture he knew was a habit, sleeves rolled up just so to bare the wrists. Slit them here, he thought.
But she bit the edge of her lip, took two steps forward and hugged him. A hug that lasted this time, not the awkward enforced-by-social-etiquette hug they’d enacted at the airport. She was warm and soft, with the scent of chlorine in her coppery hair, and she didn’t let him go. Affenlight rested his head on her shoulder, clad in a navy Harpooner hoodie, and closed his eyes.
He didn’t weep, not exactly. You didn’t cry on your daughter’s shoulder, no matter how bad things got. But his chest was tight and he felt instinctively that any breath would bring with it a pitiful sob.
“Those bastards,” Pella said finally, so he was able to straighten up and turn and cough and compose himself just a little. And perhaps she knew, understood, because when he turned back she was already walking away, reaching for the kettle. “Sit down. I’ll make coffee.”
“Your roommates?” It wouldn’t do for students to find him here, half-crying at their kitchen table, but he sat anyway.
“Everyone’s at the Student Union,” Pella said. “The big game.”
“Oh.” He had told Henry to convey his apologies and well wishes. However much he wanted to speak to Owen, or to see him on ESPN, it felt somehow dangerous. Owen would see through any lie or façade just as quickly as Pella had done. Possibly even through television cameras a thousand miles away. “You’re not going to watch it?”
“There’s a TV here. I can do without the roaring crowd, you know?”
Affenlight thanked Pella for the coffee, even as he wished it was espresso, and perhaps a double at that. He’d slept on the love seat in his office last night, which was both uncomfortable and too cold to let him sleep for long, even if he’d had the capacity to. In the wee hours, he’d showered and dressed, met Henry, and then taken Contango for a long walk by the lake. The dog was tied up outside now, quietly resigned to waiting.
“Have you told Owen?” She sat opposite him, sipping.
He shook his head, wondering if he should try to adopt the traditional role of Upbeat Dad. Everything has a solution! We’ll be just fine!
“Do you love him?”
Affenlight cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“And does he love you?”
He let the heat trickle all the way down his throat. “I don’t know.” That seemed unsatisfactory. “He’s going to Japan.”
They’d had plenty of uncomfortable kitchen-table conversations in their lives, from poor report cards that stemmed from sheer boredom, to late-night parties with booze and boys. Usually he’d been quiet then, quiet and disappointed, while she’d blurted out excuses and finally either embraced him or stomped off to her room. Now neither one of them was talking.
“Is there any way…” They were both halfway through their mugs before Pella spoke. “There’s no way you can fight it? Get everything swept under the rug? You said Owen’s leaving anyway.”
Affenlight took a breath to steady himself. It seemed to do just the opposite. “I’m not going to deny it. I won’t lie about it. About us.”
“But you’re losing your home. We…” She stopped herself with a little laugh. “Who knew your biggest fault would be that you’re too much of a romantic?”
“You have an apartment,” he said. “I’ve arranged with Bruce Gibbs that you’ll still be able to attend Westish free of charge. You’ll be fine.”
“You actually think I can stay here?”
He had to smile at her fierce family loyalty rearing its head now, of all times. “It’s a good college, for all its faults. It’s not Yale, but… I wouldn’t throw away a free four-year degree. You have a job here. Friends.”
Owen had told him about Mike Schwartz and Henry Skrimshander, and their complex relationships with both his daughter and each other. But she’d make more friends the longer she stayed, when she was properly taking classes. There were other slightly more mature students on campus. And besides, a packed social life was probably the last thing she needed.
“And where will you be?”
The last time he’d been interrogated like this, it had probably been his mother talking to him, a woman he could see very little of in Pella. She’d never understood why her youngest son, her little Guert, would choose to go to sea rather than come back to the family farm. “A voyage halfway around the world, where will it get you?”
His answer was the same now. “I don’t know.” By the time he spoke to Owen, he should come up with answers. But probably no answers would be enough. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“It matters to me!”
Their coffee finished, Pella stood up, zipping her hoodie. “I’m going out for ten minutes, and I’m going to use your credit card, all right?”
“So go sit on the couch, bring in that poor dog, and find ESPN on the TV. Probably the pre-match program’s on by now.”
Affenlight rubbed two fingers against the middle of his forehead. “You want to watch the game?”
“Of course. Be cheery, my lads…” She stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Oh, and don’t drink from any Gatorade bottles you find lying around.”
He hadn’t really watched television in years, and it didn’t seem to have changed much, flipping channels as Contango lay at his feet, nosing the interesting smells of an unfamiliar rug. How bizarre, to anticipate watching one’s lover on television, or even to see any of the boys – Mike, Henry, Adam Starblind, Ajay Guladni. It was simply incredible, truly unprecedented, that the Harpooners had made it to the final. A feat possibly never to be repeated. Pella was right to insist they watch it. Even if he ended up far from Wisconsin, the Harpooners would always be his home team.
“Supplies,” Pella announced, returning with two shopping bags from the corner store. One was very obviously bearing twin wine bottles, along with some kind of microwavable lasagna and a bag of pretzels. “Fine cuisine, huh? I’ll get a corkscrew.”
At home he would have objected, but it all seemed very natural in this place, where students no doubt drank cheap wine and eschewed anything that couldn’t be prepared within five minutes.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he said.
“No smoking,” Pella said automatically, popping out the first cork. There were wine glasses, rather than the mugs he had feared, but they’d probably seen better days. “Well, maybe one. And only because I’m worried you might faint otherwise. But I’m ripping up the packet afterward.”
He felt several degrees better with some wine in him and a lit cigarette in his hand. What he wouldn’t have given to be wrapped up in blankets and Owen’s arms, though, to be simply told what to do the way Owen had told him on the night they’d gone to the motel. But that had been the night that ended everything, however blissful it had been at the time.
Pella sipped from her own glass, made a “not-bad” face, and reached down to pet the dog. “How beautiful are you? What’s his name?”
“A canine economist. And why is he following you around?”
While they ignored most of the pre-game highlights, Affenlight told her almost everything: about the house, about the ambush in his office the previous evening, about sending Henry to the game in his stead. And, at her urging, he told her about Owen, editing the story down to cut out the more sordid aspects. It sounded not entirely perverse, put together: longing looks, Owen’s injury, a kiss by moonlight, Affenlight reading to him, more kissing, the motel.
“I’m so sorry,” he said at that point. “I should have been with you.”
“Well.” Pella refilled their glasses. “I’ve missed way more appointments because I was with a boy. But...”
“I understand being attracted to someone even if you don’t swing their way. I can appreciate hot women. Intelligent women. Women I want to spend time with. I just can’t imagine actually sleeping with them. And you do sleep with him, right? It’s not just…” She gestured confusedly. “Cuddling?”
Affenlight looked at her through his glass. They’d never had an entirely age-appropriate relationship. He’d probably treated her like an adult far too early. And now she was asking about his sex life. But with reason, admittedly.
“It’s not just cuddling,” he said, knowing what she might assume next, that they only did things where he could pretend Owen was a girl. But going into more detail, giving her the actual mental images of what her father enjoyed, would be beyond the pale. “It’s making love.”
“Huh,” she said, and eyed the bottle. “I should’ve bought more.”
The TV announcers knew very little about the Harpooners beyond explaining where Westish was and their previously unenviable record. But someone had filled them in on Henry’s errorless run, as well as Owen’s recent injury – explaining his face mask – and Adam Starblind’s impressive pitching record.
They said television cameras distorted a person, making them seem heavier or taller, but when the Harpooners jogged out onto the field, they seemed just as they had when Affenlight had last seen them play in person. Just as they had on that frigid March day when Owen had been hit, with perhaps a little more glamour and renewed enthusiasm masking their utter fatigue.
There was Mike Schwartz in his catcher’s vest, helmet in hand, in deep discussion with Coach Cox. There was Owen looking up to the stands with his usual serene expression, and just a little wonder in his eyes. There were the Westish supporters and banners, the parents: Genevieve, Professor Guladni, Mrs. Loondorf… Affenlight had shaken many hands at the games, but the names were hard to recall for once. Where was Henry? Affenlight checked his watch. Perhaps the flight had been delayed.
“Feels like the Spartans up against the might of the Persian army,” Pella said. “Except there were three hundred Spartans.”
“Harpooners, not Spartans.”
Pella settled back against the couch cushions. “Great. Hope they brought a coffin to float home in.”
And there was Henry, pale and thin, seeming almost shell-shocked as he scrambled down to the field.
“Has he eaten anything?” she asked.
“Cereal last night. And a banana.”
She hmmed, impressed. “He kept it down?”
“I think so.”
“I should’ve put you on the case earlier. Much earlier.”
Affenlight settled back too. The wine was tasting a little better. “I have plenty of experience persuading recalcitrant kids to eat things.”
“You got me eating snails. Although, to be fair, kids are probably more likely to eat mollusks than spinach.”
They hadn’t had a conversation this easy in years. Possibly not ever. Back in her prepubescent years she’d adored him, but they hadn’t been equals. You could say that a father and daughter never would be, but here they were, swigging cheap wine, watching their boyfriends on national television: Mike crouched down, Owen out wide in right field. He’d been starting lately, a product of niggling injuries to his teammates and a couple of impressive catches (“flukes,” Owen said, but Affenlight could hear the proud smile in his voice as he said it). He’d expected far more tension between them, fury at being let down, potentially abandoned the way she’d once abandoned him (except children were always expected to do just that). Yet... Now he was at precisely her level. Below her level. She had a home, a job, a degree program, an ex-boyfriend who would reconcile with her in two minutes if he had any sense. Affenlight had nothing more than a reassuring bank balance and Owen. Owen, whose presence in his life had always been temporary, and now even more so.
The game continued. Somewhere among the innings, Pella broke out the water and microwaved the lasagna. “Or we’re going to have impressive hangovers this evening.”
Beautiful Owen. He should have recorded this, except that seemed like obsessive behavior, to want to see Owen even after they inevitably parted. It was better not to have anything of his at all.
Was he an utter fool to hope for one more night? Final kisses, final lovemaking, a final night asleep with Owen’s arm around him. Because there would never be anyone after Owen. He probed his mind at that thought, searching for hyperbole, but it was only the calm, accepted truth.
The game continued. Probably neither Affenlight had spent much time yelling at a television set lately, but they did while Westish struck out, missed catches, bore the brunt of bad calls. After a while, Pella drew her socked feet up onto the couch, snuggling against him. Affenlight slipped his arm around her, like she was a drowsy child, or a drowsy young woman who had had too much wine.
She leapt up when Mike Schwartz did, though, arguing a bad call with the sort of desperation that accompanied these dying minutes. If Affenlight were still to make a convocation speech, he would be paying tribute to these boys, some of whom, Mike Schwartz included, would be graduating next month. A win looked less and less likely, but Westish had practically been built on courageous victories.
Last three strikes. Arsch struck out, then Starblind. Not-Henry (“Izzy,” Pella supplied) made it to first base. Owen stepped up to bat, eternally unconcerned. Affenlight sat forward, fists unwittingly clenched, fearful for Owen, for physical injury as well as the weighty responsibility of being the man to seal the Harpooners’ fate.
“He can do it,” Pella said. “He’s looked good at bat all day.”
The pitcher conferred with his catcher. They took up their positions. Owen… Owen didn’t even seem to draw breath as the first pitch whizzed past his thigh.
“And when you think about it,” she continued, “he’s not a small guy.”
This time, O cocked his head to the side, adjusting his helmet after the ball slammed into the catcher’s glove.
“Oh God,” Affenlight said. He’d never understood the motivation to turn away, to hide one’s eyes at a vital moment, but he wanted to leave the room, take a walk, anything but see the potential for loss. Pella squeezed his hand. If he looked at her sidelong, perhaps she was holding her breath too, hoping, bracing herself…
The ball came off Owen’s bat. Perhaps Amherst had been caught up in their imminent victory, distracted by the roars of the crowd. Their fielding was just sluggish enough for Owen to sneak onto first by inches. Izzy on second. Mike Schwartz up to bat.
If Affenlight hadn’t heard the boy – man, he internally corrected, because Owen was two years younger – if he hadn’t heard Mike Schwartz discuss Melville and philosophy, he might have had to take him for the animal he seemed to be now. Huge and wild, no longer do-or-die, but rampage or be cut down. Amherst were finally paying attention.
For a moment it looked like a home run, both Affenlights jumping to their feet, but Izzy and Owen still ran like it wasn’t, and by the time the ball ricocheted off the far wall, Izzy was almost home. He was home. And Owen would, in any other game, have calmly judged the odds and stuck firmly to third. In this game, he never even slowed down.
Affenlight stood and stared. Owen wasn’t a runner, wasn’t a risk-taker (insofar as sports went; matters of the heart were an entirely different matter) and yet all too clearly was now standing beaming with both feet safely on home plate until Mike Schwartz and Demetrius Arsch thrust him up into the air. The Harpooners…
“We won,” Affenlight said. “Owen won.”
Pella kissed him on the cheek. “Our boyfriends just won a championship. What do you say we walk the dog back to your place and get ourselves a real drink?”
They stayed and watched the Harpooner celebrations for a while, though, long enough to see Henry Skrimshander collapse into a heap, and subsequently being carried out by paramedics on a stretcher. Owen might have gone with him, because it was Mike Schwartz and Adam Starblind who accepted the trophy, lifting it high as their teammates – some now shirtless – cheered and hugged.
By the time they’d walked Contango and burned off a little wine-tinged adrenaline, Owen called. Affenlight and Pella were just walking upstairs in Scull Hall, Contango strolling with them, and his phone bleep-blooped.
“Guert! How are you?”
At least that probably wasn’t the preface to bad news. “I’m fine. We watched the game. Congratulations! I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.” As he said the words, unlocking his apartment door, he could feel that forced-charm of the presidency coming over him. The kind of forced-charm he’d never been able to maintain around O, because O led him to stop and stare, to stumble over his words, to forget what he might have been thinking. But at least Owen wasn’t in the room.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t too.” Owen paused. “I’m at the hospital. Henry’s fine, they think. Their strategy is to pump him full of nutrients and let him rest. Which is actually a course of action that seems very appealing at present.”
“Isn’t there a party in your honor you should be attending?”
“Indeed, although I think I’ll wait here for a while. Are you still working?”
“No…” Pella already had two scotch glasses out and was pondering her choice among the bottles. “I’m at home with Pella.”
Owen’s voice brightened. “Oh, good!”
“Tell him to give Mike a big kiss from me!” Pella called, chugging water into one glass and probably overdoing it by about a third. “And Adam too, why not.”
Affenlight settled into the leather armchair. “My darling daughter wishes you to convey her good wishes to the more conventionally attractive members of the team.”
“I shall undertake the task with all due alacrity,” Owen said solemnly. “Guert… I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Of course!” Affenlight said with enthusiasm mostly generated by the alcohol in his bloodstream. “I must welcome home our heroic athletes.”
“Yes, but… I can come by your office?”
Such initiative from Owen would have been more heartening a day ago, not that he hadn’t readily displayed enough interest in being with Affenlight over the past few months. But now the prospect of seeing him was interlaced with the need to tell him everything. “Of course,” Affenlight said again. “And please let us know if there’s any news on Henry.”
He took the watery glass from Pella. It was uncertain just how much would be necessary to get well and truly drunk these days, but he was tempted to find out.
Sundays were, by tradition, a day of complete rest at Westish College, at least in theory. The chapel held services, the library’s hours were curtailed, and the dining room served no breakfast. Affenlight had puzzled over the latter for some time: surely the students with meal plans still needed to eat on Sunday mornings? But Chef Spirodocus was short-staffed due to labor laws, and most of the students struggled to rise before noon. For the early birds, fruit and cereal was still on offer to ward off starvation till lunch.
Affenlight had never been required to work on Sundays, and often not at the weekends at all, although the trustees often held Saturday events. Mrs. McCallister was certainly not to be seen. But Westish held very few entertainments, and he usually wandered between reading in his study and catching up on work and e-mails in his office. On many weekends, when he was the only one in the entire building, he would spend the day in a t-shirt and sweatpants or shorts, confident no one would ever know if he had 24-hour bedhead or wore the glasses that made him seem ten years older.
This Sunday, though, he woke – a little later than usual – to find Pella had already disappeared, and Contango was looking at him hopefully. They did go for their walk in more casual clothing, but once Affenlight had set out food and water for the dog, he showered, shaved and dressed as though it were a business day, straightening his tie, folding up his sleeves just so. He checked the Harpooners’ return flight on his computer: even if the hungover and possibly still-drunk boys made it, they wouldn’t be in Milwaukee till the afternoon, and then a two-hour bus ride... He thought about how odd it might seem, to drive down and welcome them personally, find some excuse to drive Owen home… Too odd, really, although perhaps that no longer mattered.
His notes for his convocation speech were still laid on his desk. Would he have to write it? If not, who would make the speech? Bruce would surely give him that one last chance to speak to the students, to the college as a whole. But perhaps even that was too much of a risk, given the likelihood that his relationship with Owen would leak out one way or another. Every surprise resignation carried with it whispers of affairs, or drugs, or cancer. Affenlight didn’t have to be especially vain to know all the whispers in his case would be about whom he had been fucking.
He closed the daybook and surveyed the papers on his desk. It was tempting to leave everything. Damn it all. Leave the finances and problems for the next guy. Once his resignation was official, he’d have enough to do, wrapping up, signing papers. And more pressing than the details of leaving were the details of where he was to go. If only he’d bought that white whale of a house eight years ago, at least he’d still have somewhere to live. Now he had two weeks to find a home, a place, a purpose.
Near noon he took Contango out for another jaunt by the lake, walking right up to the old lighthouse a couple of miles north. They passed by the dining hall for sandwiches, the husky instantly popular with the not-very-many students who had ventured forth, and returned. He would have to ask Pella for more of that chowder he’d eaten two nights ago.
Was retiring the way to go? He was sixty-one. He had money, although not enough to be splashy. He could buy the house, take Contango for walks, write just as he’d planned. He’d be around for Pella. He could suffer through any ill-will from the college. It would be almost the same life as he had now, but with no budgetary headaches. And with no Owen.
He’d left the external door closed but unlocked, confident no one would even try it. And at three, almost to the minute by the wall clock, Owen’s light knock came at the door.
Affenlight stood and rounded the desk, Contango’s ears perking up in interest as Owen slipped in, locking the door behind him as was customary.
“Hi,” Affenlight said.
Owen clasped his hands and kissed him. He was wearing a navy-and-ecru 2010 Champions t-shirt over jeans, and he looked tired… but so very beautiful. “I missed you,” Owen said, and smiled over at Contango. “Hello! Guert, we have an audience. I hope you’ve sworn him to secrecy.” He sat down cross-legged on the rug, as Contango leaned in, sniffing him and ready to be petted.
“How was your flight?” Affenlight asked, lost as ever.
“Oh, not bad. I got some sleep. Mike and I saw Henry in the hospital again this morning. He’s awake if a little drowsy. They’ll keep him there for a couple of weeks.”
“To make sure he doesn’t collapse the moment they let him go. And so he gets proper psych counseling, which is probably what he’s needed for months.” Owen smiled up at him. “How are you? You’ve reconciled with Pella?”
“Baseball and wine are great levelers.”
“And yet…” He gave Contango one last ruffle and got back to his feet. “You seem glum. Are you all right?”
He could write speeches at a moment’s notice, give lectures off the top of his head, had dumped girlfriends - and been dumped by girlfriends - without a second thought. But Owen, beautiful Owen, buzzing with health and happiness. He should lie, for at least another day. If he could.
Owen cocked his head. “Guert, are we having a Dear John talk?”
“No. No, of course not.” Except it was, really. Not one of his own volition, but with the same result.
“Then what’s wrong?”
Affenlight looked down, but that just meant he had Contango staring at him rather than Owen. That one blue eye blinked. “I’ve been asked to resign.”
There were many possible reasons: the trustees felt it was time for a change; his budgets were bad; his fundraising was woeful; someone’s nephew needed a prestigious position... “They found out, didn’t they?” Owen’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “About us?”
Affenlight nodded. “A student’s parents saw us at the motel.”
“We were so careful.”
Owen took his hand again, and Affenlight dared to raise his eyes. He’d never seen… Even when Owen had been unconscious, badly hurt, quietly angry, he’d never seemed so utterly bereft. “I’m so sorry, Guert. This is all my fault. I’ll tell the trustees...”
“Shh. It doesn’t matter now.” Had they ever hugged before, outside of bed? Affenlight couldn’t remember, but he hugged Owen like he might have hugged Pella, and at least partly to comfort himself, to feel Owen’s warmth, to know his scent, just one last time.
Owen held on tightly, his fingers brushing the nape of Affenlight’s neck. “Guert… When?”
“Two weeks. I’ll hand in my resignation tomorrow.”
“You should fight it. It’s not right.”
“I’m as guilty as anyone’s ever been.” Affenlight pulled back, in what he felt was a monumental display of willpower. “And I would do it all again. It’s been wonderful, O. Truly.”
Owen drew a hand up to rub at his eyes under his glasses. “Past tense?”
“You’re going to Japan. I don’t even know where I might be. At least they’ll let Pella stay here.”
“I hoped…” Owen cleared his throat. “I hoped when I got back next spring you would still be here, and we could spend some time together. A lot of time.”
Perhaps the mark of being an adult, the adult, was that you got to watch other people’s hearts break while pretending your own wasn’t splitting apart. “You’ll have so much more to do then. Graduate school. A career. Boys.” He thought that maybe, maybe he’d be able to stay in touch with Owen, by letters or e-mail, just so long as he could imagine O happy in a vague way, rather than with actual men he could name or see.
Contango whined on the rug, stood to rub against Owen’s calves: comforting or begging for attention?
“You know what I hoped?” Here was a good joke. He made himself smile. “I thought we might just run away together, go to New York and get a little apartment in Chelsea. Hold hands on Eighth Avenue and go shopping and eat in restaurants you actually like, and see some of those plays you’re always telling me about.”
Silence. And then: “Let’s go,” Owen said.
Owen’s fingers tangled up with his own. “Let’s just go.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Pella said.
Affenlight paused to finish chewing the stuffed grape leaves she’d somehow wrangled from Chef Spirodocus yet again. Yet again, they were celebratory grape leaves, if such a thing existed, and both Owen and Mike Schwartz had tucked into the spread like they had been starved for days. Even Contango had sniffed the hummus with interest.
He could easily understand why Bruce Gibbs had felt the need to request his resignation. He could understand why Owen might feel enough guilt and pity to entertain the idea of not only staying in the USA, but moving with him to New York. He could not, at the moment, fathom why Pella would be in the least supportive.
Once, he thought, he’d been able to judge her tone for sarcasm. But perhaps he never had. Perhaps after the onset of puberty he’d eventually determined that nothing she said was truly sincere.
“I do.” Pella wiped tahini from the corner of her mouth. “You’ve been cooped up here for how long? You’ve barely left Wisconsin in years. It would be good for you to have a change of scene. Get out, meet people, do things. You used to love going to the city.”
“What I don’t think is anything like a good idea is Owen going with you. He’s supposed to be in Japan.”
“I’m supposed to exercise my own judgment,” Owen said with a kind smile. His plate was laden with a spectrum of pickled vegetables. “The Trowell is prestigious, yes, but Tokyo is very far from my own dear friends, and particularly the one dear friend who needs me most.”
“Whom you were pretty happily going to leave in August, until he got fired. It’s one hell of a guilt trip, declining a fellowship, and then not even finishing your degree. And it’s not like he’s the best boyfriend in the world. I’ve seen him with way too many women to think that.”
Owen took it upon himself to refill their glasses. More expensive wine this time. “Really? What does he do with women?”
“Oh, he’s a perfect gentleman. Dinner, opera, sex. But he gets bored, and once you’re less interesting to him than his latest book or research, you’re quietly dropped.” Pella cleared her throat and took an appreciative sip of the wine. “I harbor a certain respect for the women who dropped him first.”
“Like your mom,” Affenlight said.
“Absolutely. I mean, I totally understand the attraction. He’s charming and smart and disturbingly hot at any age. But he’s never been relationship material. Not even for actual relations.”
Wherever Pella had got her talent for fights, it wasn’t from him. “I’m different now.”
She shrugged. “So you’re with a guy, and you’re in love. I’ve been in love with a bunch of guys for, what, three or four months? That’s nothing. Look what marrying David got me. Just… accept it for what it is, go back to wining and dining eligible ladies – or bachelors if you want – and let him go to Japan.”
Affenlight glanced at Owen. Calm, untroubled Owen, who even had a hint of a smile about his expression. Owen, who simply scooped up more hummus with a fan of pita, asking “What do you think, Michael?”
Mike Schwartz, who had been hereunto hiding behind the constant excuse of a full mouth, looked up. For a big guy who was older than Owen, who routinely commanded a small platoon of athletes, he seemed very much like a deer caught in headlights.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said slowly. “You’re both adults. If I read about it in a newspaper I’d think you were nutcases, but I know you. I know you, Buddha. I think you could do dumber things than move somewhere because you love someone. Or because you might love someone.”
“Or stay somewhere because you might love someone,” Owen said.
Mike reached for his glass. “Yeah, that too.”
Affenlight let his gaze settle on Pella, hopefully unobtrusively. As far as he knew, Mike hadn’t yet given a final answer about the Assistant Sports Director position. And, as much as it was foolish and possibly misogynistic to think it, it was at least partly reassuring that Pella might have someone to lean on in his absence. The idea that he would also be leaving some part of Westish, however small, in the hands of a kindred spirit was also heartening.
As the night wore on, there was the suggestion that Mike should probably leave for home while he was still fit to drive, and that perhaps Pella would go with him. “Because Arsch’s snoring is way better than any noises that might come from my dad’s room tonight.”
Owen yawned, stretching. “They might not be very interesting noises. I would sleep for a week if I didn’t have a final on Tuesday.” He laid a hand on Affenlight’s thigh. Affenlight almost flinched. With other people present, it was difficult to think of the situation as anything but public. “I can stay in my own room if you prefer. I won’t be very good company.”
“I’d like you to stay.” It felt like an even deeper intimacy, to spend the night together without any sexual intentions.
“Then I shall stay,” Owen proclaimed, kissing Affenlight’s forehead as he stood. “And I shall avail myself of the bathroom, if I may.”
Affenlight watched him go, largely to avoid seeing whatever Pella’s reaction had been. When he did turn back, she was packing up all the wrappers and cartons into the original bag. “He’s very sweet,” she said. “I love you, but if you fuck up his life like you’ve let this fuck up yours... Heads might roll.”
Owen went to bed after they left, while Affenlight took Contango down to the Quad for one last brief walk before laying out food and water and bidding him goodnight. The dog seemed to fall asleep with no effort at all. Maybe it was too warm. He hadn’t turned down the thermostat yet... He decided to leave it. At least tonight there were two other living beings in the building.
The bedroom was dark, but the light from the hallway shone onto the bed, a golden glow on Owen’s golden skin. He was lying on his belly, arms hugging a pillow under his head, comforter pushed down around his hips, just revealing the barest hint of what was below. When had Affenlight begun to be aroused by the male body? By the idea of taking this as an invitation to strip, find the lubricant, and… Perhaps only Owen would ever provoke this warmth at his groin, the images that filled his mind, but Owen was the only man who mattered.
“Will you switch off that light?” Owen murmured into his pillow.
Affenlight flicked it off, closing the door against any sudden canine interruptions. He undressed, nude despite everything, and got underneath the blankets. Owen turned into him, finding his mouth and kissing him, warm bodies pressed together.
“Mm.” Owen’s thigh had nudged the beginnings of his erection. “Shall I do something about this?”
“True. If I could, I’d be tempted to somehow sleep in your shower. Or the VAC Jacuzzi, which I suspect Mike has done on a few occasions.” Owen pressed the side of his head into Affenlight’s chest, moved his thigh away slightly. “But don’t think I haven’t noticed just how tense you are. I’ll take good care of you in the morning. If I can still move.”
Affenlight held him, gently working the muscles of Owen’s back and shoulders until Owen’s murmurs of approval turned into the steady breathing of sleep. They’d never wound up in anything like this position before, and Affenlight half-wondered if there was a reason for it now beyond Owen simply wanting to be close to him. Awake, their physical differences had very little effect on their relationship: Affenlight might have been taller and heavier and probably stronger, but Owen was always undoubtedly in control. Asleep, though, nestled against Affenlight like this, O seemed like the slender, vulnerable young man he’d been that night in the ambulance, needing to be looked after and protected. And if he didn’t really, even if that were just an illusion of physicality, it gave Affenlight the chance to play the big strong protector.
But he was probably just over-analyzing things again. And in any case it felt good to have Owen here, and to have Owen here, wrapped in his arms. There was an entire nest of anxieties buzzing in Affenlight’s mind, but, for once, none of them involved anyone bursting in or finding out about this. The apartment, the Quad, and even the Scull Hall mouse were quiet. Affenlight closed his eyes.
They kept him busy. On some occasions it almost seemed as if they were conspiring to do so: Owen and Pella, Bruce Gibbs and Dean Melkin, the trustees and the accountants. And surely at least some of them, at least Pella and O, understood just how awful it was to have even one spare minute a day to think about leaving.
He had to think about it on some level, but it was a level of practicality, of handing in his resignation, writing the convocation speech they’d decided he could deliver, arranging everything for his eventual successor, packing up his office and apartment... Even on his early morning walks, before Owen was awake, Contango was apparently in on the plot, keeping Affenlight’s mind away from the utter doom of his career by threatening to chase after squirrels, splashing the hem of his pants, howling loud enough to wake the dead for no apparent reason.
He’d decided, possibly foolishly, to go ahead with buying the house. Ideally he would have devoted more thought to it, given the circumstances, but he’d already given his heart to the place and to his redesign plans, and there were other points in his favor. Pella could live there – with Mike if he was smart enough to stick around – and all of his possessions, which were mainly books, would be better off in her care than in a storage locker. Contango, of whom he was becoming fonder by the day, would have someone to look after him (although the thought of Contango looking after Pella cheered him too). And, if he and Owen went ahead with this harebrained-yet-appealing idea of decamping to NYC, he’d have something more long-term than Pella’s degree program linking him to Westish. It was a reassurance that he could always come back.
Everyone asked why. Why was he leaving? The trustees were jarred. Mrs. McCallister regarded him as an untoward child. But perhaps worst hit were the students. He’d been a stable presence for all of them throughout their Westish careers: a president, a father, a friend. Things would be okay with him around, they felt. And no one had ever been closer to them, learning their names, ever-ready to entertain their ideas to improve the school, attending every one of the Harpooners’ home games…
He told them all it was time for a fresh start, which made little sense to anyone who knew Pella had only just arrived, and added on something vague about wanting to travel and write, just like his hero Melville. Owen, who came over every evening he didn’t have a final the next day, reported on the various rumors: “You’ve been embezzling, or banging Cicely Krum, or the trustees finally discovered you’re actually a male model instead of an English professor.”
Somewhere in there, Pella needled him to book and take another physical. He also found one of those 7-day morning-and-evening pill boxes on his desk, each loaded up with the pills he hated: baby aspirin and the stuff for high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Owen had seen the pills and been horrified by the tale of his family history, horrified enough that Affenlight did actually book the physical and let Owen see him taking the pills. He didn’t feel any different as a result, but Owen probably did.
The results of the physical were… Well, the young punk of a doctor adopted a “you have cancer” expression, which he probably gave absolutely everyone, and outlined the various ways in which Affenlight was apparently lucky to be alive. He wanted to carry out a coronary angiography, and book Affenlight in for other tests he should have had in the past eight years. Even his nightly activities with Owen didn’t make the prospect of a colonoscopy any more pleasant.
Still, there was no reason to make Pella even angrier with him, and it was probably at least something of a “fuck you” to the trustees who paid for his health insurance. He worried – worried badly – that it would all make him seem so much older to Owen, but if anything O latched onto the “less red meat” part of the diagnosis and launched into regular lectures on factory farming and the antibiotics used on cattle… So much so that even a former farmboy could live with a little more fish and high stacks of vegetables.
“It’ll be okay,” Owen said to him on the last day.
It was a Friday, June 11. Convocation was on Saturday, but as Gibbs expected him to be gone before Monday, before the summer session kicked into high gear, this was the day almost every trace of him would be removed from Westish. The movers were here.
The Bremens’ house would be his, but not until the start of next month when they completed their move. So in the meantime most of his things were indeed going into that storage locker, and he himself would be in a hotel room in town. Owen had taken a few boxes, though, stacking them on the absent Henry’s bed, and Pella a few more.
The entire process of the resignation meant that he was leaving Westish with his head held high, still a beloved president whose name wouldn’t be struck from the annals, whose portrait would still go up on the dining room wall. Who could still be buried here, if he chose to be – a notion that seemed as right as it was shocking, to be encased in earth by the lake, near it yet never able to see it again.
All of this should have been reassuring. As it was, he felt repeatedly like he needed to vomit. Even his early morning walk with Contango had stretched on and on as he sat by the lake out next to the lighthouse, the dog eventually nosing him to find out what was wrong, and why they weren’t heading back yet. Still, he’d hugged Contango for warmth until his phone bleeped – Owen, wondering whether he’d decided to jump into the lake.
At home, while it was still home, they’d made love for the last time in that bed, Owen making it intense enough that he really did forget his fear for a while. But then it was back to nausea and borderline-tears, and pretending everything was just fine.
Owen stayed with him all morning, while the movers went to-and-fro, to-and-fro. There was no longer anything to do, no directions to give, except to ensure everything was taken and hopefully nothing damaged in any way. Affenlight leaned back against his now-empty desk, feeling the wood beneath his palms. The trustees were no doubt interviewing candidates already. By August, someone new would be installed in his place. Someone who would inherit this desk and the plinth of a chair. Affenlight had thought about telling Gibbs just what he and Owen had done on the love seat, so he could keep it. Maybe he should have said the same thing about the desk.
O still couldn’t take his hand in public, couldn’t hug him like Pella did when she arrived. They’d been seeing so much of each other lately, sleeping together almost every night, it seemed ridiculous that they couldn’t be a couple in the smallest ways outside a locked apartment. These sorts of thoughts had been making New York even more attractive in his mind. He’d have Owen, and he wouldn’t feel like he was dead already, near the college but unable to be part of it ever again.
That night he checked into his hotel, walked out and found a motel with Owen. Westish was too small a town for O to spend the night with him in any commercially-run accommodation. They’d been caught at a motel before, but now being caught didn’t matter so much. What mattered was not being blatant.
They ate cartons of Chinese on the bed, made love, watched TV. Simple things, comforting things. Things he wouldn’t have imagined Owen enjoying.
“It’s not illicit anymore,” Affenlight said. “I’m not your college president. I know there’s not much of a thrill. And I don’t want you to feel obliged-”
Owen patted his ruffled hair, just as he would a whining Contango. “I said always, didn’t I? And besides, Guert, that was never the thrill.”
Owen had a teaching job for the summer. Pella was taking classes during the summer session and learning cooking skills from Chef Spirodocus. Mike Schwartz had taken the athletic department job and was going through paperwork with simultaneous rehabilitation on his wounded knees. Pella had mentioned something oblique yet concerning about a reliance on painkillers that Affenlight, given his own tendencies towards self-medication, had chosen to ignore.
Staving off both boredom and depression, he put himself to work with a phone and the new laptop he’d been forced to buy. If they were going to live in New York, Owen would need a way to continue his studies. So Affenlight, naturally, called Columbia.
His years as an English professor, and then as head of the Harvard English department, had given him impressive connections in the Ivy League and elsewhere. The names of former colleagues and former students – and the former students of former colleagues – leapt out at him from every online staff listing. Getting a student in the door was never easy, especially as a one-year transfer undertaken in suspect circumstances, but Affenlight knew the people and, more than that, he knew how it all worked.
Plus, Owen wasn’t just his beautiful young lover. Owen was a Trowell winner, a scholarship student, a sporting hero, and in possession of a fierce charisma.
Soon, Affenlight was in a position to present Owen with a lengthy, exhaustive list of the paperwork he would need to send: transcripts, recommendations, papers, in addition to a letter that would explain in a convincing way why he’d chosen to renounce Tokyo and come to NYC. Appealing to the egos of the Columbia humanities professors was probably only half the battle. But Owen took the list, nodded, and pledged to have it all ready within a week.
Moving into the Bremens’ house took little effort on anyone’s part. The Bremens had left a few pieces of furniture, but otherwise, even between both Affenlights, Mike Schwartz, and Owen, there was very little to move other than books. Affenlight and Pella had ordered beds, but for the moment they’d be sitting on box chairs and eating from box tables.
It was expensive to outfit a home like this, and especially to think of doing so while simultaneously keeping an apartment in New York, but O and Pella happily trailed off to flea markets and antique shops around the Westish and Door County areas, and as the summer wore on, the white whale seemed a little more like home.
Somewhere in there, Owen came clean to his mother.
“It’s fine,” he said, joining Affenlight on a lakeside walk. “She’s not happy, of course, but the Columbia angle has assuaged her fury a little. Plus it’s very difficult to make the case that you’re somehow a dirty old man taking advantage of me. At least she knows you. Not to mention how dashing you are, if I recall her phrasing. It’s inevitable that I’d be sleeping with someone next year. Why not someone with expertise and connections?”
Affenlight wrapped an arm around Owen’s slender shoulders, O’s bookbag banging his thigh. “So you’re the dirty young man taking advantage of me?”
“I take exception to the word ‘dirty’, but yes. I’m preying on your naiveté and carnal desires, dear Guert. It’s well known that I’m a master manipulator and, of course, never do anything with purely romantic intentions myself.”
“Of course.” Affenlight tugged him close enough to kiss his temple. “Are you all right?” As the recipient of a similar phone call once from Pella, he understood the ways Genevieve’s reaction might really have been expressed.
Owen nodded. “It’s fine,” he said again. “The longer we go without hurting each other, the more she’ll realize it’s not a bad thing, the two of us. Pella might think we’re crazy, but she also knows neither of us has bad intentions.”
Affenlight doubted that, whatever his faults and however bad the experience might have been for Pella, David had ever truly had bad intentions either. Although there was surely some qualitative difference between luring an 18-year-old girl away from high school and having a 21-year-old young man decide to switch which university he would study at for a year. Surely.
In the end, once Columbia had formally admitted Owen after being bombarded with paperwork that included hearty recommendations from the Trowell committee alongside most of the Westish English department, it was Genevieve who solved their housing problem.
“Our parent network keeps apartments around the country,” she explained to Affenlight by phone, “in case correspondents need to cover major news stories in certain locations. Naturally New York is one of those locations. Everyone’s constantly going there. But I may be able to let you use an apartment for a year. Fully-furnished. Minimal rent.”
Affenlight waited. Whatever swing Genevieve had among her media colleagues, this seemed far too good to be true.
“On the perfectly reasonable condition that you renovate while you’re there. The company was planning to do it this year anyway, and they need someone to supervise the workers. Plus I’ve assured them that O is just the man they need as an interior design consultant. My son has very firm tastes. And he tells me you’re surprisingly good at woodwork?”
Affenlight hadn’t done any kind of manual work in years. But he’d settled into the task of setting up bookshelves in the new house, as well as repairing a few of the items Pella and O brought back from their excursions… Owen had spent a few afternoons watching him sand and varnish with a new attitude of respect.
If Owen had greeted the news with unbridled joy, and was already plotting new design schemes, Affenlight held quiet reservations: supervising builders and painters all day could get boring quickly, and leave him with little peace to work or time to go out. But he’d still be with Owen, and the other options weren’t options at all. They’d manage. Adversity always made life interesting. Or, at least, so he’d been told.
“I could drive for a while,” Owen said.
They were barely twenty minutes out of Westish, after an early-morning departure during which there had been many farewell hugs. Affenlight had wanted so badly to tell Pella so many things, to hold her like he had when she was a toddler, to give her all the advice and wisdom in the world. But she’d gently reminded him about the existence of telephones and e-mail, and given him a shove toward the van.
Given their books and various other boxes, they’d decided the two or three-day drive to NYC was a better option than flying, and rented a van they’d stacked up with everything they thought they might need. And now here they were, driving down the interstate, ready to start a new life together. It didn’t exactly amount to the running away Affenlight had originally imagined, but the outcome would be similar. He and Owen were going to live together. To be a couple. Publicly.
For now, they were just being a couple inside the vehicle: Affenlight’s opera already playing, Owen lounging back, a hand resting on Affenlight’s thigh.
“You’re not supposed to drive.” The rental company’s insurance wouldn’t cover him unless he was twenty-five, with however many years’ experience.
“You really intend to drive for eight or ten hours today.”
“I do. With a couple of breaks.”
“You’ll be exhausted. And bored.”
Affenlight glanced over at him. “I drove to Westish from Cambridge. It wasn’t a problem.”
“Well…” Owen yawned and turned his head toward the window. “I offered.”
Owen dozed until around Milwaukee, where they paused at a rest stop for coffee. Chicago was another three hours away. And then perhaps five hours would get them to Cleveland, or thereabouts, which was where Affenlight aimed to be by the end of the day. Owen had argued for less intensive driving and more time to savor whatever sights there might be along the route, but Affenlight found it hard to view the trip as a vacation. The journey to New York meant he was always traveling away from Westish, from Pella, and from home. At least once they arrived at the apartment, they’d be in another sort of home, and going no further.
A little past Chicago, they found another rest stop and parked, getting lunch and using the bathroom – an experience Owen could barely stand. “I don’t even know how the people who work here stand it,” he said, reaching to lightly massage Affenlight’s shoulders while he pumped gas. “Never mind that they occasionally need to utilize the facilities themselves. Working here, with the knowledge that those abominations are just on the other side of a wall… You’re worryingly tense, tiger.”
Perhaps he was tenser still, not pulling away, conscious that anyone at all could see Owen touching him and might wonder... But he really was a gay man now, in the eyes of the world at least, and Owen’s hands felt wonderfully good.
In the end, they pulled over slightly before Cleveland. It was after seven and Affenlight was not only tired but sore. At some point Owen had brightly said, “How about here?” And Affenlight had been in no mood to argue.
There were other cars parked at the motel, and it seemed nicer than the one they’d once found in the middle of rural Wisconsin. More frequently used, in any case.
“One or two beds?” The guy at the desk seemed more awake than either one of them. Owen lifted a tourism pamphlet from the stack.
“One,” Affenlight said.
It was the third time he’d had that simple conversation, yet his heart thumped faster every time. Could you be a motel clerk and not see every possible facet of humanity? This one certainly didn’t blink. Even if the clerk thought it was a joke, that Owen was his son, it was a joke he was going to follow through to the end.
“Is there somewhere we can eat around here?”
“Right up at the next intersection there’s a couple of places,” the clerk said, jangling the keys into Owen’s politely outstretched hand. “Two minutes if you drive fast.”
Owen offered to go, unsurprisingly, but Affenlight left him to inspect the room. The next intersection yielded a café and a burger place, neither of which were first choices for a meal, but soon they’d be in the city, with a better selection of real sit-down restaurants.
When he returned with his paper bags and drinks, O was sitting up on the bed barefoot, watching TV, and now looking disapprovingly at said bags.
“It was the best I could do,” Affenlight said, setting them down on the bed with a pre-emptive apology and then heading back to lock the door.
Owen muted the television and rummaged. “Ugh. This is for you, I imagine.” He took out the hamburger Affenlight had ordered. “French fries… the salt will do your arteries no good at all. Oh, this one has something in it that might once have been a vegetable.”
Affenlight smiled and sat down, loosening the ties of his sneakers. “Don’t eat it all at once.”
He felt nicely full and weary after the meal, undressing while he still had any energy at all. He might have gone to sleep right then, but Owen dug around in his bag for massage oil and went to work on him. Affenlight could never have worked up the energy for sex this evening, but Owen’s fingers felt just as good put to work like this.
“I’d be willing to bet you’ve been storing up some of this tension for years,” Owen said. It was a familiar theory. “It’s amazing you have such good posture today, all those hay bales and football tackles, and the rowing. You need to look after yourself better. These lovely shoulders…”
In the morning, Affenlight could remember no further than that. His body felt heavy and warm when he woke, Owen’s hand against his belly, Owen’s body curved into his. The digital clock by the bed read later than he’d hoped, but he suspected trying to leap into action – and encourage O to do the same – would be futile. At worst they’d find another motel, maybe somewhere in the vast expanses of Pennsylvania, and get to New York a day later.
“Mm.” Owen stirred against him, squeezed him tighter.
No need to spring up, furtively look around to see if Pella had come in during the night, and try to make O leave quickly without being rude about it. No need to worry about the neighbors. No need to worry about anything, really. Barring rampant homophobia, as Owen would doubtless point out.
He’d been on trips with girlfriends before, trips to New York, trips to islands and lakes and coastlines, trips with the intention of staying in bed as much as humanly possible. But all of those trips had been about the places and the sex, and never so much about the girlfriends, although they’d all been very engaging, attractive women. He’d wanted company and so had they, and that was all it was. But now…
This too, whatever this would turn out to be, also had a time limit. One year rather than a week or two, although maybe it was really only six or nine months, given that they’d have to make plans. O would be applying to grad schools or shopping around his plays, trying to get internships in the city. And Affenlight... Affenlight would make a home with Owen, or go home to Westish. Or, perhaps, one day, the two might be one and the same.
Affenlight turned over. Owen’s eyes were sleepy, half open, face half smushed into the pillow. But he smiled, stroking his fingers along Affenlight’s side, ribs to hip. He was beautiful. Heartbreakingly so, in the morning sunlight that fell in shafts across the sheets. How was it to know what he would feel in a year, whether he would still want to follow Owen around the world if necessary? Perhaps they wouldn’t be able to stand each other in a month.
“I love you,” Affenlight said. His heart felt like shards in his chest as he said it, unspeakably fragile, cutting into him with the sudden pain of uncertainty, of the risk he was taking.
Owen blinked sleepily and moved to kiss him. A long, long kiss. A kiss that wasn’t “I love you” but was nowhere near “I’ll never love you.”
“Turn over,” Owen said finally, when Affenlight was still open-mouthed, breathless and stunned. “I should finish that massage.”
“Might this have an internal component?” Affenlight asked, stretching out, kicking away the sheets.
Owen reached for his glasses with one hand, affectionately tweaked Affenlight’s ass with the other. “Only if you’re very, very good.”
They arrived in NYC the next day, just in time for lunch. An intern from Genevieve’s affiliate network was waiting for them with the keys and disappeared as soon as he’d dumped them into Owen’s hand along with an envelope containing all the legal and other information they might require.
“It has potential,” Owen said, throwing open doors and looking up at cornices with an expert eye.
Affenlight set down one of their boxes on the coffee table and unshouldered his duffel bag. Owen had brought up the laptops, but seemed far too engrossed to help any further insofar as heavy lifting was concerned.
It was a two-bedroom apartment, one of which had been set up as a small office. Nothing, in fact, was big. Small bedroom, small kitchen, small bathroom. But Owen had lived for three years in a room maybe a third or a quarter as big as this apartment, and Affenlight had lived in worse circumstances onboard ship or above a bar. Besides, neither of them had come here seeking residential luxury.
“It’s really going to take a year to renovate this place?” he asked once he’d brought everything up. On his second trip down he’d run into one of their neighbors, a tall young man with impressive biceps and a t-shirt two sizes too small who’d been more than happy to help with the book boxes. On the third trip, the young man’s equally well-muscled boyfriend had joined them.
Owen had made coffee with some instant he’d found in a cabinet. “Certainly not. But it sounds like a good excuse for the network. Give me a couple of weeks and it’ll be just like home. A few plants, some music…”
Home. It didn’t take long to shake out the clothes they’d brought from Westish and refold them in drawers, hang them in the closet. Owen had talked about going shopping, and perhaps a new wardrobe was in order. Affenlight hadn’t yet decided whether he was a retired college president or an unemployed college professor, but in either case there was no need to wear fine Italian suits around the city, or reading at home. And Owen had tutted over his few truly casual clothes. “Dad jeans,” Owen had said, tossing them aside. “I expected better, Guert.”
There was no point trying to appear thirty again, to rouge his cheeks and play von Aschenbach. But there was sixty and… there was sixty. And he was a sixty-one-year-old man with a twenty-one-year-old lover, who would try not to embarrass that lover too deeply or often.
Besides, he’d always been a sharp dresser, always taken care of his looks, his hair. Now that there was a specific someone to impress – even if that specific someone already knew his various physical imperfections – he had a more pressing motivation to look even better.
Even just with the things they’d brought with them, Owen managed to work what Affenlight considered to be wonders within the first hour: blinds rolled up, windows open, bed made with clean linen and plush comforter, bathroom stocked with toiletries.
While Owen was immersed in unpacking the book boxes, Affenlight lay down on the bed among masses of Owen’s fluffy pillows, and called Pella.
“How’s the Big Apple?” she said. “I feel like we’ve got a serious case of Empty Nest Syndrome here. Contango was inconsolable… Well, until he realized I could take him for walkies too.”
“It’s nice.” Affenlight ran a hand down over the seafoam-green comforter. “It’s very nice.”
“You seem less than utterly enthused.”
Owen nudged open the door, dropping a stack of books onto the top of the dresser before crawling up onto the bed, his sneakers clanking against Affenlight’s. Affenlight paused just long enough for a kiss. “I’m enthused. I’m quietly enthused.”
Pella cleared her throat. “Hi Owen!”
Affenlight thumbed the speaker button.
“Hello my dear. The color scheme looks quite different in person, but I’ll post photos tomorrow so we can consult.”
“I want photos when you start renovating my dad’s wardrobe too.”
“Perhaps we can videoconference from the changing rooms.” Owen laid his head against Affenlight’s shoulder, brushing a thumb over his belt buckle. “Please remind Michael to update the Harpooners blog. I require all the latest pre-season news, and funds won’t raise themselves now that the president isn’t quite as dashing.”
After they hung up, Affenlight watched Owen unzip his fly. “We just did this,” he said with the slightest hint of reproach. Just meant early this morning, but it still seemed more than decadent to be thinking about it again now.
Owen stopped. “You don’t want to?”
“I didn’t say that.”
A mischievous, amused smile returned to Owen's face. “You might have to get used to this for a while.”
“Until we settle into a state of bored domesticity?”
“Let’s see, I’m twenty-one.” Owen threw a leg over his hip, gently easing him out from his undershorts. “So let’s give it, say, ten years.”
“By which time you’ll have killed me in any number of very pleasant ways.”
Owen leaned forward to kiss him. “Shh.”
Afterward, they lay wrapped up in the comforter, with its soft warmth against bare skin. It would be good here on cold fall nights, to bundle up and sip hot chocolate from O’s hotpot and pretend this was Wisconsin. Affenlight thought he might even enjoy the blizzards.
“I’ll have to clean,” Owen said eventually, in decisive tones. “We should buy breakfast food for tomorrow. And bleach. Lots of bleach.”
Affenlight pulled an arm out, checked his watch. “I need to return the van.”
“Fine. I shall shop. You can catch a cab back here and we’ll rendezvous for dinner. Perhaps sushi, if Foursquare serves me well. And then maybe we can walk up and down Eighth Avenue holding hands.”
Affenlight smiled. “I’d like that.”
It had seemed a ridiculous joke of an idea, back when he’d first thought of it: a fantasy among fantasies, a demonstrable impossibility that had only ever existed out of despair and panic. But here they were, he and O, and not living the kind of dream Affenlight would have imagined then. That had been an airy, romantic dream that included little but holding hands and some inchoate notion of being free and being together. Now, like the evening he’d seen that porn on Owen’s laptop, it had all become real and practical... And all the more thrilling for it.
Bleach and bathroom cleanser were a little further away from blow jobs and Chekhov than he would have liked. But it was already clear that they would find plenty of time for those too.
“A civilized and enlightened town…” The words Melville - or a Melville proxy - had once used to convince a beautiful young friend to join him in the city. He had a year to get to know it again. And to know Owen much better.
“And all the more so for our presence.” Owen kissed him on the forehead. “Let’s go and explore those fine streets.”
Affenlight threw back the sheets.