The world is round
There’s a key to every door
That’s what our hero found
Nothing is for nothing, and
A new land is a new land to explore
Not just paths you retrace
I’m talking mountains and space….
—William Finn, “Set Those Sails”
The first man Whizzer slept with in New York City was Jesse McCannon, who was really just a kid. At nineteen and eighteen, both of them were kids, both of them runaways. One gray, gritty winter morning in ’67, they ate breakfast in a twenty-four-hour diner after their first sleepless night together, smooth and smug with good sex, and Jesse told his double-feature coming-out/getting-kicked-out story. He came from Kinsley, Kansas, exactly halfway between New York City and San Francisco. He chose NYC, he said, off a coin toss. He was a teenaged Midwestern queer and he didn’t know any better: he came out to his family and his father disowned him. He dropped out of college, hitchhiked east, waited tables, and fell into bed and breakfast with Whizzer Brown.
“Me too,” Whizzer said that morning, which wasn’t really true, although he had migrated across the Hudson from Jersey. But Jesse was a romantic and needed to feel that they were the same. “I mean, my dad was the one. He walked in on me and this football player from high school, and that was it. No second chances, y’know?”
They were drinking coffee by then, lingering over their first meal out in the city. Jesse had asked Whizzer to move into his crummy studio before they were halfway done with their toast, so there was no need for Whizzer to make any more of an impression. But Jesse looked impressed anyway. Whizzer’s story was better drama.
“What’d he do?” Jesse asked.
“What didn’t he do?” Whizzer said, coyly dreamy. “Oh, you mean my dad. He punched the jock.”
“No, what’d he do to you?”
Whizzer raised an eyebrow and drained his cup. He suddenly felt much older than Jesse. He was drinking coffee black at five a.m. in New York City and spending whole nights with men. Boys. Either way. He felt as though he’d been doing it all for years and could do it for years to come.
“He didn’t do shit to me,” he’d said. “I left before he said anything. I mean no second chances for him.”
They didn’t last, he and Jesse. Four months later they stayed up all night fighting over nothing, then forewent makeup sex in favor of makeup breakfast in the same diner. Halfway through the coffee, it all felt too stale, and Whizzer walked out. They slept together on and off for years afterward, but with no expectations. The morning after the bicentennial celebration in 1976, honest and hungover, they finally called a ceasefire and agreed to stick to friendship.
Whizzer knew that trick at eighteen, and it’s gotten him through more than a decade unscathed. He’s never imagined later opportunities or delayed gratification, and that’s been his upper hand. He stays obscenely beautiful, like the promise of eternal youth, but behind the façade he’s always a little older than—a little ahead of—every man he’s been with. He can seem to offer, but finally withhold, a next time around. Which never existed, which never should have been expected.
Seconds, he knows, are for other people. Second helpings are for people who won’t keep their bodies past twenty-five. Second dates are for people who date. Second Comings are for Christians, second comings for dykes—if he can believe Charlotte and Cordelia. Going back to school (despite the exhortations of a later, older, holier-than-thou boyfriend) is for people who didn’t get Cs in high-school English and drop out halfway through senior year. Going back home, he and Jesse agreed that first dark morning over coffee, is for people who aren’t queer.
Not that he really believes in any of these metaphors. Metaphors are also for other people, people who talk rather than fuck and probably got As in English. But he does believe in patterns. He believes in spotting them, in sex as in sports, before they make you predictable enough to corner. Pattern recognition and rejection. If he’d ever gone back to school, maybe he’d have found a place in mathematics. He believes that what patterns really refer to is the phenomenon where you know the end from the behavior of the beginning. And he’s never had much interest in seeing anything through to the end.
In 1979, he’s thirty years old and sitting on a stranger’s bed, pulling on his socks in the dark. The apartment’s single window lets in the noise of the morning’s first traffic, but no light, not yet.
“Come back to bed,” the man says. He’s sleepy, self-satisfied, only just finished. He doesn’t understand the pattern: you come and then you go.
Whizzer grunts. “I gotta run.”
A few hours ago, in the half-light of the bar, this guy appealed to Whizzer because he seemed shapeless. He had a nice enough face, but the rest of him was indistinct. As if, like dough, he could be anything but nothing for too long. Now that they’ve been to bed, though, the doughiness just feels like flab. It’ll be light out soon and then Whizzer will have to see him. Whizzer isn’t interested; he isn’t hooked.
“C’mon,” says the man. “You’ve really got somewhere urgent to be at four o’clock in the morning?”
On the wall across the room there’s a full-length mirror facing the bed. This guy must be into that kind of thing when the lights are on. Whizzer stands up in his socks and stares into the blackness that houses his reflection. He can’t see himself, but he knows his own naked body, every clean taut inch of it, a mass on which gravity will never act. In the dark he can give it and never give any of it away.
“I don’t wanna be late with my boyfriend’s breakfast,” he says.
But of course sometimes he is late, and life goes on. One morning he stays out past breakfast, and later he misses a dinner or two. Marvin yells, thrashes, sulks, and eventually always subsides.
Eventually, Whizzer makes a point of lateness every few days, trying to find the boundaries. He never does. It’s never the end of the world—that’s the problem. He might not have studied history past high school, but like all explorers, he finds that the world isn’t flat and so has no edges, no end. The world is round, no matter how far you forge, which means that eventually you turn up back where you began. And that’s when he gets anxious, antsy. That’s when he starts coming late, provoking fights, and looking for an out.
He keeps pushing it just a little further. One Thursday night, he gets home to find all the lights in the living room off. He takes off his shoes, moving stealthily. In the darkened kitchen, the microwave clock reads 11:57, and he tries to ignore the way the bottom of his stomach drops out like a soggy paper bag when he thinks that Marvin’s stopped bothering to wait up.
But he finds the lamp in the bedroom still on, and Marvin sitting up in bed with his back against the headboard, looking pedantic and rumpled in sweats and reading glasses. He’s got one of his night-school textbooks in his lap, and he barely looks up as Whizzer sidles in.
“There’s takeout in the fridge,” Marvin says.
Whizzer hesitates in the doorway, immediately wary. “Yeah?”
He crosses back into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Through the door Marvin calls, “Chinese. Kung pao something, I think.”
Whizzer stands there feeling the cold tiled floor through his socked feet, biting back a retort. There’s no way he can come out ahead on this one. Marvin knows he’s allergic to peanuts, and in blacker moods seems to take a certain pleasure in it. It’s the only thing wrong with your body, he once said. So Whizzer just opens the little takeout carton, following through, refusing to be caught in a misstep—and finds that it’s just beef with vegetables. And then finds he’s not hungry after all.
He trails back into the bedroom. In passing, he says, “You’re an asshole.”
Marvin’s smirking into his book. “New record for you,” he observes. “Midnight. I think you’re just not trying hard enough. I know it doesn’t take you that long to get a guy off.”
“It’s only 11:57,” says Whizzer.
“11:59 now, asshole," says Whizzer. He takes off his coat slowly, waiting for Marvin to watch, knowing he will. He goes into the walk-in closet to hang it up. From inside, he says, “What do you care, it’s not like it’s family dinner night.” He can’t hear any pages turning out there.
“Maybe you should just go alone tomorrow, since you enjoy it so much,” says Marvin caustically. “Trina obviously likes you better than she likes me.”
Whizzer leaves his shirt in the closet, and wanders over to the bed bare-chested. For a moment he stands looking down at Marvin, who is again assiduously studying his book. Sometimes Whizzer doesn’t know what to do. What to do about Marvin, or to him. Hit him, hate him, fuck him, kill him, kiss him. He’s tried them all. Sometimes he can’t tell which feelings are for Marvin’s body, which for his money, which for his family, and which just for him, the man who’d never touched another man before this year. So moments like this hang waiting, waiting for Whizzer to untangle the threads and try again, or else to simply walk away.
Finally, he leans down and kisses Marvin on the top of the head, where the dark hair is thinnest. “Marvin,” he says, “Trina likes everyone better than she likes you.”
Before Marvin can answer, he goes into the bathroom. As he starts brushing his teeth, he watches himself in the mirror and thinks, My game.
Marvin’s pages start turning again. He’s always been a bad sport this way: he refuses to concede the point. After a while, Whizzer spits and asks, “Why are you still up?” Get out of that one, asshole; explain how you weren’t waiting up. “Don’t you have therapy before work tomorrow?”
“We’re terminating,” says Marvin. “Just for the symmetry. If I divorce the wife, I should divorce the new husband too. What does that make him to me now? My husband-in-law?”
“You got the wedding invitation,” guesses Whizzer. He’s very careful not to say “We.” No wonder Marvin’s trying to play it aloof. If he explodes about the missed dinner—if he cares—then he’ll have to face all of it: losing Trina and never really having had Whizzer to begin with.
“It’s a spring wedding,” says Marvin. “They assure me it’s going to be lovely. That’s Trina’s favorite word, you know. She gets it from her mother. On our wedding day, every other word that woman said was ‘lovely.’ She was almost as drunk as I was.”
Whizzer comes back into the bedroom cautiously. Lately Marvin’s been trying to teach him chess, and it hasn’t been taking, but Whizzer’s picked up a couple of his patterns. One of them involves throwing a lot of pieces away at the beginning, getting bogged down in amateurish little skirmishes on the periphery. Breaching his own defenses, seeming to give you something. But in the end Marvin always figures out how to hit you right out in front and destroy your defenses.
Leaning back against the dresser, Whizzer says without inflection, “I know. Trina told me.” Marvin’s control is savage but not absolute: he all but tears a page out of his book as he turns it. “That first time Mendel came to family dinner. Remember, you drank practically the whole bottle of wine and kept trying to tell him that Freud was gay. While we were doing the dishes, Trina turned to me and said, ‘The last time I saw Marvin this drunk, he was making his vows to me.’”
Only now does Whizzer realize how awful that night was, how rotten he’d felt. At the time he’d been so busy being charming—flirting with Trina, keeping Jason occupied with chatter—that he’d even distracted himself.
Marvin glances up at him, a quick and unexpected bolt of pain. “It was terrible for me too, you know.” For a moment Whizzer thinks he means that dinner; for a moment they seem synchronized as they haven’t been since their first days together. “I knew I was going to break her heart. No one wants to know that about himself. I— god, I drank tequila with my high-school girlfriend Rhoda in the temple bathroom half an hour before the wedding. She wanted to fool around and I threw up in the sink. When we got to the ceremony, I couldn’t even break the glass. In front of everyone. Including Rhoda, who knew I couldn’t—” He’s staring at Whizzer fiercely. “I really thought I thought I was going to die. That day, and each and every time I tried to… with anyone…. You know?”
Whizzer doesn’t. He really doesn’t know, and doesn’t know what to do when Marvin wants to have these talks, these Years I Spent in the Closet talks. He has no use for self-hatred and confusion. He’s always known the people he wants, and he’s always gone after them. Marvin’s stories, his allusions and analogies, seem like mere side maneuvers, ways to put off the frontal assault that must be made. Groping some girl in high school, marrying Trina. All so many distractions while he waited for a strange bar in Greenwich Village, for someone who would cut through the bullshit and make him play the damn game.
“No,” says Whizzer. Very deliberately, he unzips his jeans and sheds them on the floor. He’s wearing nothing underneath. “I don’t know. I never wasted time trying to make it work with women.”
“No,” says Marvin. “That’s true. You never waste any time.” He folds his book around one hand and looks up at Whizzer. “You wouldn’t have bothered spending all those years trying to love Trina.”
“That’s why she likes me better,” says Whizzer. “The rest is bullshit. I’ll tell you what love is, Marvin: it’s a loser’s score. It’s zero.”
Something passes across Marvin’s face, like the shadow of a door closing. Within moments, it’s as if it was never open at all.
“Yeah,” says Marvin. “If you die for love, you die for really nothing at all. Rhoda told me that while I was throwing up in the sink. I should’ve married her.” As Whizzer crosses the room, Marvin coolly appraises the long curve of him, from throat to groin. “What I wouldn’t give to see the painting in your attic.”
“You know I don’t know what that means,” says Whizzer, settling into bed, turning his back to Marvin and the lamp. Calling Marvin out that way tends to rob him of the full pleasure of condescension.
“It’s a book we’re reading in class,” says Marvin. “Beautiful young man stays beautiful and young—on the outside—while the painting in his attic gets uglier and older in his place.” Whizzer can feel Marvin shift in bed, and then he traces a hand down Whizzer’s spine. “By the master of backhanded compliments, Oscar Wilde.”
“He was a queer,” Whizzer offers.
“Brilliant,” says Marvin. “If they ever need a substitute professor, I’m sure you’ll be the first one they call.”
Whizzer met the current professor, Terry, at a class get-together at his house that Marvin badgered Whizzer into attending. Terry was silver-haired, precise, and distinguished. It was obvious from the moment they stepped through the door that Marvin was attracted to him, and wanted Whizzer along to shake things up. It turned out that the guy was married and had a kid not much older than Jason. He’d openly cruised Whizzer all night long. But Marvin has still continued undeterred, getting As on every paper, squeezing in Friday-night classes between work and family dinner, and coming to the table breathless to tell them all what brilliant comment Terry made today. Marvin has a thing for instructors. Sometimes Whizzer thinks that’s why they got along best in the beginning; back then, Whizzer still had things to teach him.
He half-dozes, thinking about it. After a while, he rouses himself enough to say, “Turn out the light, I’m tryin’ to sleep.”
“I’ve got an exam tomorrow,” says Marvin. He’s kneading Whizzer’s back like a cat, absent and instinctive, as he reads. “What's a tenor?”
“What I’m gonna make you,” says Whizzer, turning his face into the pillow, “if you don’t turn out the light.”
“The subject of a metaphor, apparently,” says Marvin, with a kind of pleased surprise in his voice. “Who knew there was a word for that?”
“That’s pretty stupid,” Whizzer says.
“From the Latin—”
Whizzer reaches back, brushes off Marvin’s roaming hand, and fumbles around until he locates Marvin’s face. He takes hold of Marvin’s reading glasses by the bridge and pulls them off.
“You’ll ruin your eyes,” he says. “At your age it doesn’t take much. Go to bed, Marvin.”
Marvin huffs, but has to show off; they both know that Marvin learned enough Latin from law school to figure out the derivation for himself. “From the Latin for… ‘to hold.’”
“That’s even stupider,” says Whizzer. “To hold what?”
He can feel Marvin turn over, and in a moment the light goes out. Marvin doesn’t try to touch him again, and Whizzer drops off right away. He swims through sleep deeply and blankly. He only wakes once in the night, when Marvin, jerking upright in one of his chronic nightmares, says distinctly, “I found a word.”
“I know, congratulations,” says Whizzer muzzily. He hates when Marvin does this; it creeps the hell out of him how you can lie in bed with a person’s sleeping body while his mind does something entirely different and inscrutable. “Tell Terry all about it tomorrow.” He rolls over and away.
The next day, he already knows what’s coming. It’s all a foregone conclusion somehow; a retread of familiar ground. When Marvin gets home from class, they break up over a chess game in which all the moves seem preordained. Marvin throws the usual furniture, then adds in a new missile: the big suitcase from the hall closet. As gracefully as he can, Whizzer picks it up, goes into the spare bedroom, and packs his clothes. It’ll be all right. He knows how it goes: he’ll take a cubicle at St. Marks for a night or two, and by the time he comes back, Marvin will be so horny he’ll pretend nothing happened.
Only there’s a hitch this time, a curveball Whizzer didn’t see coming. As he drags the suitcase out of the bedroom, Marvin’s opening the front door to Trina, Mendel, and Jason. That’s wrong. On Friday nights they always go to Trina’s for dinner, then bring Jason back here for the weekend. And then the whole thing goes off the rails.
Trina’s making small talk, but Marvin starts in about the wedding invitations right away, with far more venom than is called for. Then Mendel’s trying to mediate—the poor guy never gets a day off—and explaining that they’ve decided it might be best to discontinue family dinner altogether now that the wedding’s officially on. Whizzer’s trying to edge out without making eye contact with anyone, especially Jason, but Marvin’s blocking the door with his body, saying that everybody needs to just shut up and stay here, and Trina’s saying shrilly, “Marvin, sometimes you are the flat-out dumbest person I know—”
“And that’s around when he hit her,” says Whizzer.
Jesse sits bolt upright on the sagging couch. “His wife?”
“Well, let’s see,” says Whizzer; “his wife is just about the only woman in this entire story, so yeah.” It’s a welcome change to be the one in a conversation who gets to be patronizing.
“In front of the kid?”
Whizzer lifts his feet onto the coffee table and says, “In front of the kid, the fiancée, the lover, and everyone.”
“Shit,” says Jesse. He sits back. “Listen, I say this as your friend: that’s all too complicated.”
Jesse puts a hand on Whizzer’s knee for emphasis. “Whizzer. Way too complicated.”
“I know,” says Whizzer irritably. “I left, didn’t I?”
Jesse fixes him with a canny eye. “I don’t know, did you?”
Whizzer flops back against the cushions with a long-suffering sigh. “Jesse, don’t psychoanalyze me. I had to eat Friday-night dinner with my lover’s shrink for weeks.” Jesse’s still looking at him, so he says, enunciating clearly, “I was the one who left. I am not going back.”
He says it without any self-consciousness about the fact that he never actually asked if he could stay here, and Jesse doesn’t seem put out. After Marvin hit Trina, Whizzer slipped out past Mendel while the rest of them stood in slack-jawed shock, and somehow he got himself here, though he hadn’t seen Jesse since Marvin happened and had never taken public transportation from one to the other. He, too, must’ve been in more shock than he was admitting, because he doesn’t remember how he did it. After the dry crack of Marvin’s palm against Trina’s face, there was nothing until Jesse buzzed him up and met him in the doorway to his apartment.
The apartment is familiar. Jesse has had it for a few years, ever since he got a career (in Whizzer’s mind this is much like getting religion, and causes people to act in similarly inexplicable ways) working for Christopher Street. It’s a step up from the rat-traps where he used to live when they’d both first arrived: it’s still just a studio, but with its own bathroom and a kitchen alcove. The only difference since Whizzer was last here is that Jesse has acquired a goldfish and partitioned the main area with a bamboo screen, so that now the bed and the entrance to the bathroom are their own space, separate from the living room and kitchen.
That in itself, though, feels like a major change—not in the apartment, but in Jesse. A walling off, a withdrawal from view. The Jesse he knows never had much use for privacy. The Jesse he knows shares everything, tells all, says what’s on his mind.
That’s what he did when Whizzer arrived at his door tonight. He looked Whizzer up and down, smiled ingenuously, and said, “Well, you’re still beautiful.” In the moment Whizzer assumed it was a dig, because he’d just bused halfway across town in a miserable drizzling rain. He was damp and wilted and still smarting a little, as if he was the one who’d been hit. Afterward, inside, he remembered that Jesse didn’t go in for sarcasm, and must have meant it genuinely. By then it was too late to return the compliment, which was a shame, because in retrospect Whizzer thinks he would’ve said, “Well, I’d like to see the painting in your attic.” That would’ve impressed Jesse, now that he’s a writer and all. But it would’ve been a lie. That’s the other thing about Jesse that’s changed: he doesn’t look like a nineteen-year-old any more. He’s ambiguous, with an older face but a skinnier body, like a prepubescent boy’s. He looks a little bit like he is the painting in the attic.
Whizzer shakes his head. That’s pretty fucking crazy.
Then a key turns in the lock, and a man comes in the front door. Whizzer only gets a brief glimpse of him—their age or a little younger, geeky glasses and a wiry frame, but an almost classically handsome face—before Jesse takes his hand off Whizzer’s knee and stands up between them, obscuring the view.
“Hi,” says Whizzer. He’s going to get the first word in, if nothing else.
“Uh, Stephen, my— my friend Whizzer needs a place to crash for a while. Whizzer, this is Stephen Jeffries. Stephen, Whizzer Brown.”
Whizzer stands up too, offering his hand. Stephen shakes it, gives him a “Hello,” and almost in the same breath says, “Baby, give me fifteen minutes for a shower and I’ll do dinner.” He kisses Jesse lingeringly with Whizzer’s hand still in his.
After Stephen has disappeared into the bathroom, Whizzer splays himself across the couch again and looks up at Jesse with raised eyebrows.
“That was Stephen,” says Jesse, taking a deep breath.
“Well, apparently,” says Whizzer. He grins. “I couldn’t figure out the bedroom screen, but I assumed that you would’ve just moved into something better if you had two people to pay the rent.” He swats Jesse in the back of the thigh. “How long has Stephen been going on?”
Jesse sits back down and quirks his mouth in a crooked smile. “A couple months, I guess. You haven’t been around in a while.”
The shower sputters in the next room, and they can hear Stephen start to warble: “I’ll sing to him… each spring to him… and worship the trousers that cling to him….” He has a surprisingly good voice, deep and resonant. Jesse ducks his head and grins all over. But Whizzer reflects that Stephen’s got to know that, through the thin wall, he’s audible to anyone in the next room. It’s not just a show for Jesse.
“Jess,” Whizzer says, “this isn’t going to be complicated, isn’t it?”
Jesse looks at him wide-eyed and says, “No, of course not. Nothing’s changed. Everything’s going to stay simple.”
Of course, it doesn’t. Even on that first night, Whizzer senses that it won’t. He waits to use the bathroom until Jesse and Stephen have turned in, but there’s no way to make it less awkward, cutting right through their room. Going in, he feels his way along the wall in the darkness, eyes averted; but coming out, he gets caught for a moment in the doorway of the bathroom, the light behind him falling narrowly across the bed. Stephen sleeps spooned around Jesse, his chin tucked against Jesse’s collarbone. They’re so still that Whizzer freezes too. Then Jesse’s eyes open and he looks at Whizzer steadily, without self-consciousness.
Sorry, Whizzer mouths. Go to sleep. He switches off the bathroom light and goes back around the screen. But he listens most of the night, and recognizes the sound of Jesse not sleeping.
During the days, maybe, when Stephen works long hours doing something at NYU, it’s possible to pretend that it’s still the overripe end of the sixties in a city full of flawless men, and that he and Jesse are still rattling around waiting for their real lives to begin. Whizzer survives for a while off the communal groceries and the savings he put away in the first few months with Marvin, before he quit working. His days are his own. He rises early, goes for a run around the neighborhood, and gets back in time to have coffee ready for Jesse. Jesse works mostly from home, wakes late and shambles into the kitchen alcove, and writes book reviews for his magazine at the table, while Whizzer thumbs through the stash of back issues and reads the raunchier passages of fiction aloud. Sometimes he can make Jesse laugh, and that’s when everything is still simple. But the rest of the time, Jesse scribbles feverishly and chokes down half a dozen cups of coffee and looks, disturbingly, like someone who really has caught a virulent case of career: tired, glassy-eyed, and older. He’s more cynical, too. He smirks through half the books he reviews, and the other half prompt the kind of political tirades that Whizzer hates from guys their age.
“Why do all the queers always have to die at the end?” he asks one morning, closing the latest with a deep sigh.
More concerned with stretching his calves after a run, Whizzer says, “’cause everybody dies at the end.”
“No, I mean in fiction. Fiction written by gay men. Everybody has to commit suicide, or get stabbed in the heart, or be cannibalized on a beach in Spain, you know?”
“I don’t know, actually,” says Whizzer. He looks up to see Jesse scowling at the wall. “Jess,” he says, “it’s just books.”
It’s around that time each day that things get old, and Whizzer sets out on his own. He goes to the bars or the baths and whiles away the daylight, or—if no one seems worth the time—takes another leisurely jog through Greenwich Village, running from nothing and to nothing.
Eventually, if he doesn’t want to take a cubicle at the baths, he’ll wander back to the apartment for the latest installment in Stephen Jeffries’s Lecture Series. Stephen was awkwardly civil to him for the first day or two, but after that Jesse must’ve mentioned something to him about how Whizzer spent his last nine months. Since then, Stephen has dominated their dinner conversation with long discussions of The Sad State of New York Gay Life, focusing on the moral bankruptcy of people who frequent the baths, mooch off wealthier lovers, and sleep around on the side. (“Shit, Jess, is he monogamous?” Whizzer asked once, and when Jesse flushed and said, “Nowadays we kinda both are,” Whizzer finally understood why Jesse seemed so much more private. This was the thing he’d begun holding back from the world.)
It’s not that Whizzer really minds. He doesn’t need Stephen’s approval, even if he is sort of cute. And Whizzer’s used to family dinners where at least one person at the table wishes he weren’t there. But before, he was dealing with Trina, who—despite obviously wishing that he would choke on her exquisite cooking and/or ex-husband’s dick—was always almost embarrassingly gracious. Stephen’s a new type: polite until he knows you, shy until he’s got an angle, at which point he pontificates, gets absurdly butch, calls you by your last name like you’re back in junior high, and tells you meaningless things like “Larry says we shouldn’t have to be faithful, we should want to be faithful” while you roll your eyes at his boyfriend across the table.
“Who the fuck is Larry?” Whizzer asks one night, right in the middle of a really good tirade.
Stephen blinks balefully at him over the pasta primavera and says, “Who the fuck are you, Brown?”
Jesse steps in. “Larry’s a guy Stephen knows through the theater.”
“I thought you worked at NYU,” says Whizzer.
Stephen looks at the ceiling and says very slowly, “I study at NYU. I’m a graduate student.”
“In set design,” says Jesse, as if that’s crucial.
“Wait,” says Whizzer. “Let me get this straight. You’re still in school? Jesse, is that why you guys haven’t moved somewhere better?” Jesse looks at him unhappily and mouths, Please. Whizzer feels bad for him for a second, but he’s just starting to warm up. It’s been too long since he’s taken a swing at anything. “And all this time he’s been riding me for being a kept man?”
Stephen looks at him, then at Jesse. He sets his fork and knife down on his plate, stands up, and says, “Jesse, I’m going to the bathroom.”
He leaves, and Jesse, with a despairing look at Whizzer, follows him. For a second Whizzer assumes they’re going to have sex—after all, what else do you do after a fight, or during one?—before he remembers that the bathroom is the only part of the apartment where you can have a private conversation, the only room with a closeable door. Still, he can hear Stephen’s voice rise to a pitch not nearly as appealing as his singing.
“That sounds good,” Whizzer says to the goldfish, which is poised in its tank as if it’s listening too. The fish goggles at him.
A few minutes later, Stephen emerges from the bathroom and announces to the apartment at large, “I’m GOING TO THE LIBRARY.” That doesn’t mean much in itself, since Stephen goes to the library like most people Whizzer knows go to the baths. After Stephen slams the front door, Jesse trails out of the bathroom, looking more tired than ever.
“Does it bother you, how much your boyfriend sounds like the subway?” asks Whizzer, forking up another mouthful of pasta. Jesse looks blank. “Always announcing his next stop?”
Jesse doesn’t laugh. “Maybe you should start thinking about getting your own place,” he says.
“Really?” Whizzer pauses. He doesn’t know how this happens, how sometimes he simply can’t see it coming: the game going sour. “Oh. Okay. Like tonight?”
“God, no,” says Jesse. “I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m not gonna turn you out on the street.” He glances away, then back, shamefacedly. “Maybe tomorrow, though?”
Whizzer laughs. “What’d he do, threaten to withhold sex? Think about it. He’s hung up on not screwing anyone else. That’d punish him more than you.”
“Only if you’re assuming I’d screw someone else,” says Jesse tightly. Whizzer gives him a long look, and finally Jesse relaxes and smiles a little. “I know. Crazy. But true. Listen, I’ve got a friend who’s renting some cheap places over on the other side of the park. I could show you tomorrow. And if you need a job I could put in a word for you at our gym. They’re always looking for trainers, and they’d like you, everybody likes you—”
“Except Stephen,” says Whizzer.
Jesse shrugs. “I can’t fix that. I can like you without him liking you. He can like me without liking you.”
“I know,” says Whizzer. “It’s fine.”
“You’ve stopped eating,” observes Jesse.
“You never eat enough,” retorts Whizzer, indicating Jesse’s picked-over plate. “You drink too much coffee. You get bad sleep. You ought to go running with me and get out of the house more. Don’t start with me.”
Jesse snorts, pulls out the chair next to Whizzer, and drops into it. He puts his elbows on the table. “That’s not what I meant. Whizzer… I’m not kicking you out, you know? Nobody’s kicking you out this time.”
“Oh, please,” says Whizzer. “Come on, really? You wanna do this?”
“I’m just saying, ten months with a guy—”
“Nine,” says Whizzer automatically.
“—nine months with a guy, that’s a long time for anybody. If you… feel bad about it, or—”
“Honestly?” says Whizzer. “Mind your own business.” They sit for a while in an oddly companionable silence. Whizzer can feel the body heat radiating off Jesse, the fatigue, the things that pass between them without words. Finally, Whizzer says, “He’s really gonna kick me out because he doesn’t like my sex life?”
“We-ell,” says Jesse. “One specific part of your sex life.”
Whizzer studies him for a moment, thinking it over. After that he feels really, really dumb. “The part in the late sixties,” he says. “You and me, right? Shit. He thinks I’m gonna seduce you again.”
“‘Again,’” Jesse scoffs good-naturedly. But he spreads his hands in rueful acknowledgement and says, “I mean, he does believe the other things he says. About monogamy and sexual politics and Larry fucking Kramer. There isn’t a, a gap between the talk and the action for him. Really. I think that’s why he’s so brilliant at theater. But there’s always… subtext, too.”
“Don’t write me a book review, Jess,” says Whizzer. “Look, no offense, you know I love you, but I have no plans to sleep with you again.”
“I know that,” says Jesse. “I know you’re good at that.”
“What, not sleeping with people?” Whizzer starts to laugh.
“No,” says Jesse. He toys with the food he hasn’t eaten. “At not making the same mistake twice.”
Thanks to the gym owner’s immediate and obvious attraction to him, Whizzer has a job within the week, and thanks to Jesse’s real-estate connections, he moves out a few days later. It happens so fast it doesn’t even feel like a transition. He still sees Jesse semi-regularly, whenever Jesse bothers to work out, and he occupies himself with a string of beautiful men whom he trains and then massages and fucks in the showers. A string of beautiful clients, if he’s honest, and he tries always to be honest about these things. It’s his job to make them feel better about their bodies, be it in the weight room or the locker room. It doesn’t make him uncomfortable, the way he gets what he wants. It never has. If there were no money involved, he wouldn’t behave any differently. Things are very simple.
That is, except for the occasional matter of bugs. Dr. Forester, who’s been his GP since he dumped the last one for getting too preachy, treated him without comment for the syphilis and then the hep B in ’79. But by the time Whizzer goes into the exam room in the early spring of ’81 with a case of the runs and comes out asking what the fuck “amebiasis” is (what it is is disgusting), even Forester, who’s gay himself, is getting a little stick-up-the-ass. And not in the good way.
“I’m not saying jump back in the closet,” says Forester, off Whizzer’s martyred look, as he writes out about five hundred different prescriptions. “I’m saying you’re thirty-two years old and your chart says you’ve been in the city since you were eighteen, so I don’t think you’ve got a whole lot of lost time to make up for. It wouldn’t kill you to start being a little pickier.”
“How do you know what’ll kill me?” says Whizzer. “You self-hating queer.” He’s grinning, although honestly looking at that prescription pad makes him want to throw up more than those fucking amoebas (amoebas, seriously?) ever did. “You’re just jealous.”
Forester grunts and hands him the prescriptions. “I’m just tired of seeing so much of this shit.”
It’s an admission of vulnerability that Whizzer doesn’t expect from a doctor. As he leaves, he realizes that Forester did look tired—he’s the go-to guy for about half the gay men Whizzer knows in the neighborhood—which made him look a lot more like a real human being. And then Whizzer realizes that there’s something attractive in that; and then he’s surprised to realize that he didn’t act on it, and has no desire to try to “accidentally” bump into Forester sometime outside of the clinic.
Whizzer spends the next few weeks sweating and shaking through those five hundred prescriptions, and once he’s free and clear on the other side, he finds that the apathy lingers. His encounters thin out. He stops pursuing, becomes passive, responds only to prolonged advances. Gets almost vanilla. If he were a conspiracy theorist, he’d think Forester prescribed him something to lower his libido. But conspiracies are more complexity than he’s interested in. Anyway, he still likes sex; it’s people he seems to like less. Maybe it’s just more trouble than it’s worth: the carefully casual game, the avoidance of entanglements, the inevitable fucking amoebas, the bitchy doctors. Maybe he’s tired too. When you’re eighteen, it isn’t so hard. When you’re past thirty, he hates to admit, you have to work at pretending to still be eighteen.
On Wednesdays he finishes with his last guy at the gym at 3:30. Once it was 4:00, but after the amoebas Whizzer stopped extending their sessions into the showers. But the guy—his name is either Tim or Jim, or possibly Maurice—hasn’t quite come to terms with the falling-off of service, and the first week Whizzer tries to sneak out of the gym after his shift, Tim/Jim/Maurice spots him before he gets off Bleecker Street and wants to talk about it.
So the second week, Whizzer takes a different route home, one that brings him past Washington Square Park. It’s almost the end of an unseasonably warm May, the city crackling with a summer static that leaves Whizzer feeling hot and sour and cynical. The only reason he swerves into the park at all is for the promise of shade. A couple of tourists are standing stupidly by the chess circle, following the games, and Whizzer hates them even more than he usually hates tourists, because he hates chess and what kind of asshole watches it like it’s a spectator sport? And that’s when he hears a voice—artless, weightless, a boy’s voice that doesn’t have to feign youth—say, “Checkmate.”
He slows down and looks. It is. It’s Jason.
He’s recognizable even from behind as he finishes off a guy three times his age, who looks like he’d much rather deck Jason than shake the offered hand. Whizzer stops dead right in his line of sight, and over Jason’s shoulder he gives the guy a long, level look. For the first time in a while, he feels ready to fuck around, to fight, to be engaged. The guy, about as scrawny as you’d expect a chess player to be, doesn’t give him the chance. He puts his head down, shakes Jason’s hand, and then moves on.
Whizzer doesn’t even think of running away. Later, he’ll think of that as being to his credit. Where Jason is concerned, he doesn’t hesitate. He goes right over, puts a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and says, “This park is full of hustlers, y’know.”
Jason stiffens and turns. In the next moment, he gives a yelp of “Whizzer!” and has his arms around Whizzer’s midriff. His head almost reaches Whizzer’s shoulder now. Whizzer instinctively hugs him back, and only wonders after the fact how they look to the tourists. Best-case scenario, like an estranged son and father. He’s not sure if he likes that idea or is terrified by it—that he’s old enough to look like, much less to be, anybody’s father.
“Hey, Jason,” he says, smiling. After a moment he holds the kid out at arm’s length and says, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Jason, still flushed with surprise, looks to the side for a second, then right into Whizzer’s eyes. Mometarily he’s so much like Marvin, Marvin trying to lie, Marvin trying to please, that Whizzer feels rocked back, physically moved by memory.
“Just playing a few games on the way home from school.”
Whizzer pushes away the past. “Unless you take like four buses to and from school, this is nowhere close to ‘on the way.’ And you don’t. ’cause I know where you go to school, Jason.”
Jason sighs. “Okay. I come down here sometimes after school. The chess club meets on Wednesdays. That’s where my mom thinks I am.” He gives a lopsided smile. Marvin’s smile. “It’s not not true. This is just a better chess club. Bobby Fischer played here, y’know.”
“Who?” says Whizzer.
“Bobby Fischer.” When Whizzer shakes his head, Jason elaborates: “He won the World Chess Championship and then he got crazy and kinda disappeared? I was a baby when it happened and even I know.”
“Guess I was busy with other things,” says Whizzer.
Jason’s too polite to gawp, so he just keeps going. “He actually got arrested yesterday.”
“Yeah, well, Jason, people do get arrested in Washington Square Park. It’s not all fun and chess games. Which is why your mom would probably want you to stick with the second-stringers at school.” Whizzer feels a little sickened that he’s apparently pulling a responsible-adult act, but seriously, the kid’s mom married the family shrink and left his psychotic dad to throw furniture at innocent bystanders. Somebody’s got to step up.
“He got arrested in California,” clarifies Jason.
“Oh,” says Whizzer airily, “one of those.”
Jason looks like he’s fending off complete embarrassment. Apparently he called Marvin “a homo” to Trina’s face on several occasions, but with Whizzer he’s always been delicate, almost deferential. “Anyway,” he says desperately, “my mom doesn’t ask many questions. She’s just glad I’m playing with anybody besides myself.”
“More fun that way,” says Whizzer, reflexively, and Jason actually does blush this time. With most people, that response would gratify Whizzer, but with Jason it feels unfair, unsportsmanlike.
It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that Jason isn’t just this kid that Whizzer loves. That once he was the precocious nine-year-old who watched his dad grow distant, dick around with another man, and divorce Jason’s mother. It’s insane, really, that they can even look at each other. But then they have common ground. Losing fathers. Losing Marvin.
“How is your mom?” asks Whizzer. He’s surprised to find he cares, and that he still likes Trina more than he ever meant to. “And Mendel?”
“They’re okay,” says Jason tonelessly. For all his occasionally creepy maturity, about this he’s definitely still a twelve-year-old boy: he sees the emotional landscapes of his mother and stepfather at such a distance that they seem dull, devoid of elevation. “Starting to get crazy about the bar mitzvah,” he adds, and then catches himself and looks at Whizzer guiltily. “I’m not really in charge of the guest list—”
“C’mon, I’m not waiting by the phone every night,” says Whizzer. “It’s okay.”
Jason lowers his head and jerks it at the abandoned board. “Uh, you wanna play?” he asks.
It’s so transparent that it’s kind of sweet: he can’t offer an invitation, so he offers a game. He sits down at the stone table. Whizzer doesn’t want to play, he really doesn’t, he hates chess, but he realizes that they’ve been awkwardly standing the whole time and that the tourists are watching with interest usually reserved for Broadway shows and My First Drag Queens. So he sits down too. Play the game, he thinks. Move the pawn. When he remembers which ones the pawns are, he does move one, at random.
Jason moves a pawn. Whizzer moves another. They don’t speak until Jason has summarily taken several of Whizzer’s, and then he says, his dark head bent over the board that he now controls, “My dad’s okay, too.”
“Yeah?” says Whizzer. He moves his queen and loses it. He can’t help himself: he asks, “You like his new boyfriend?”
Jason’s head bobs up, and he asks, “He has a new boyfriend?”
“I don’t know, Jason,” says Whizzer. “I’m like you; nobody tells me shit in this family.” He smiles, trying to take away the strain. “I was just assuming.”
“Nah,” says Jason, now blushing furiously. He retaliates by taking a bishop. “I mean, a while back I met a few guys leaving on Friday nights. But I didn’t like any of ’em, and I guess my dad didn’t really either. There’s been nobody since, like, last year.”
“Huh,” says Whizzer. He throws a knight out there and watches it get slaughtered. Death to chivalry.
He knows, without knowing how he knows, exactly how it went down. Marvin planned it so that every time he brought somebody home, the guy would be leaving right when Jason was arriving. The two of them would be unable to pass each other in the narrow hallway outside the apartment until Marvin had dragged them through introductions and handshakes. Afterward, casually, over dinner or TV, Marvin would ask Jason what he’d thought of Hank, Peter, or Mark, and Jason would gather all of his twelve-year-old wit for some withering one-line evaluation. Next Friday, it would be somebody else. Then eventually nobody, because of course it was Marvin who was really the kid looking for a permission slip, or maybe an excuse to stay home and not go on another field trip at all.
“How are you?” Whizzer asks finally. That’s the question he’s pretty sure nobody else has been asking, except maybe Mendel; he sure hopes Mendel’s still using that shrink degree on somebody. Trina’s neighbors have been fascinated by her life’s soap-opera developments ever since it turned out that her husband was one of those, and Charlotte and Cordelia have certainly been keeping tabs on Marvin for more altruistic reasons. But Whizzer wagers that most people don’t think to ask Jason.
It pays off. Jason looks at him nakedly for a long moment. But all he says is “I’m okay too.” And then, offering it up for approval (god, he’s so like Marvin that it makes it hard to think): “I’m playing baseball.”
Whizzer finds himself smiling widely. Even in the city, he feels, kids should play baseball. It’s so simple, so clean, when it’s done right. Taking a swing, hitting the sweet spot, sending the ball into orbit. People are always trying to tell him that The Beauty of Baseball is in the strategy, the action you can’t see, but he thinks that’s just the kind of bullshit advanced by over-intellectualized, sexually frustrated people who don’t know from action. Before Whizzer got to him, Marvin used to talk like that (though never about baseball; Marvin’s always hated baseball). He used to spout Latin and literary criticism in Christopher Street bars when men got too close. He was incredibly smart and incredibly stupid, incredibly sexy, incredibly scared. Later on, as things went stale, that part was easy to forget: the miracle of Marvin changing when he was finally first touched. He was all strategy and theory, all potential energy, until Whizzer made contact and released it. Whizzer understands that he caused pain, that in altering Marvin he couldn’t help but alter Trina and Jason. But he knew that going in, and Marvin should’ve too. The thing about going up to bat is you have to be prepared to run away from home.
“Yeah?” he says. “That’s great. Baseball’s—” Beautiful, he almost says. “I love baseball. Good for you.”
Jason looks up at him with shy pleasure. “The season’s started, actually. If you really like it. If you ever wanted to… come see.” That’s when Whizzer slams on the brakes, realizing this has gone too far and gotten too concrete. He’s not a stepfather here. This is a bad idea. He sets up his other knight for sacrifice, but Jason goes on undistracted: “There’s, um— I actually have a game tomorrow.” When he looks at the board again, he barely seems to see the knight, but his eyes get very focused for a moment. He slides a bishop down the board, boxing Whizzer in. “Checkmate.”
“Well, that was embarrassing for me.” Whizzer flicks his king over with a forefinger—about the only nuance of chess he ever learned from Marvin.
“If you’re free, I mean,” says Jason. “Tomorrow.”
Whizzer rests his head in one hand, regarding the toppled king.
“Hey, Jason,” he says. “There isn’t… I mean, there isn’t like a pattern to how I fuck up this game, is there?”
Jason’s looking at the king too. Apologetically, he says, “Well, just that you play badly and then you lose.”
Whizzer laughs. “Yeah. Right.”
Jason’s hands seem to be trying to tie a knot in his lap. “Uh, Whizzer? Tomorrow, do you wanna come?”
“I don’t know,” says Whizzer. He really does try to be honest, about the things he can be.
Jason starts moving the pieces back into their starting lineup, suddenly businesslike. “Okay, well, y’know. Just if you didn’t already have plans.” After a while, he says, “You know why I think Bobby Fischer went crazy?”
“He was a big closet case?” says Whizzer.
Jason laughs. “My dad says you think that about everyone.”
Whizzer shrugs, though the present tense doesn’t escape him. My dad says. He tries not to think about it. “I’m usually right when it matters. Why do you think Bobby went crazy?”
“’cause he didn’t play again,” says Jason. “He won a big game and then he didn’t play again. Like once was enough.”
Whizzer watches him. He knows Jason is smarter than all of them—even smarter than Marvin, that crazy impossible inescapable fucker—but he’s never been sure exactly how smart. No one can say for sure how much Jason notices or guesses or just knows. Jason finishes lining up the last of the pawns and stares back at him. He just looks like a lonely twelve-year-old kid, but who can ever really tell about anyone?
“You wanna play again?” asks Jason.
Whizzer looks at the waiting board.
“Jason,” he says, “I really don’t know.”
He goes. God help him, he goes.
He takes a half-day off at the gym, wakes up early, and stands in front of the bathroom mirror for a full twenty minutes trying to disguise his one small patch of thinning hair. Finally he looks at his reflection and says, “Fuck it,” because really, what does Jason care about his hair, and if he isn’t going for Jason then who does he think he’s going for? Better not to go there. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Literally, he goes.
After all that, he gets lost on the way and doesn’t arrive until the seventh inning. The first one he spots in the bleachers is Mendel, who’s on his feet a few rows up, screaming at the batter about Hank Greenberg. Mendel notices Whizzer a second later and waves uncertainly. That alerts Charlotte and Cordelia, who stare at him in delighted surprise, and Trina, who looks considerably less joyful. But no one says anything until Marvin reacts. Sitting back down from yelling at Jason to steal a base (he tries and gets tagged out, poor kid), Marvin turns his head and sees Whizzer, and stops.
“What’s Whizzer doing here?” he asks of no one in particular.
That’s what he says. But suddenly he looks different. Suffused, lit up, like something just flooded in under his skin. He looks good, the bastard. Older, softer, and better. Whizzer has no idea why he didn’t see Marvin first, because he sticks out in the crowd—and not just because he’s wearing a fresh-out-of-the-office suit. Seeing him, the first coherent thing that Whizzer thinks, with a dumb sort of pride, is I slept with that man. He can’t imagine how every other person in the stands doesn’t see it too.
The lesbians are beaming at them both. “Oh, shit,” says Whizzer, and makes himself think of Marvin throwing things, Marvin pitching a fit about dinner, Marvin lashing out. He goes up to meet them.
For two innings, he sits in front of Marvin and tries to watch the game. Jason is embarrassingly awful, but Whizzer’s sure that everyone is staring at him. Usually he’d appreciate that, but today the sun is hotter and brighter than any spotlight he ever asked for. He feels completely undone, and stupidly underdressed next to Marvin. Everybody must be able to see right through his scalp and into his skull. Marvin can see the bald spot, that’s for certain, because the asshole remarked on it right away. Whizzer can feel Marvin looking. Marvin’s knees keep bumping up against his spine, and Marvin keeps asking him about the fine points of the game.
“You don’t care about baseball,” says Whizzer finally.
“Don’t get him started,” says Trina, the first words she’s said to him since he arrived.
“Baseball is a beautiful sport,” says Mendel.
Whizzer looks at him in real, gratified surprise. “Thank you.”
“It’s the sport of Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax,” says Mendel, warming to his theme.
“No kidding,” says Marvin sourly. “Remind me, who was the last openly gay baseball player?”
“My husband wouldn’t know,” says Trina just as sourly, giving Whizzer the eye. Whizzer regrets ever glancing away from the game.
“I’m just saying,” says Mendel, not in the least deflated, “that baseball is the sport of miracles.”
“I don’t believe in miracles,” says Marvin with finality.
“Neither did Koufax,” retorts Mendel. “He still ended up being the youngest Hall-of-Famer after he had to retire at thirty.”
“Mendel,” says Whizzer, grinning up at him, “I should’ve slept with you.” Off Marvin’s kick in the ribs, he says, “Shut up, Marvin. You hate baseball.”
“I do,” agrees Marvin, surprisingly complacent. He puts a hand on the back of Whizzer’s neck, where the others can’t see. His fingers move in the short, bristly hair on the nape. “I’m working on it,” he says.
It’s an incredible relief when Jason gets on deck and Whizzer can flee down to give him a few pointers. A minute later, he’s standing by the fence, watching Jason at the plate, when the chain-link rattles next to him. Marvin’s there. Smiling that smile.
“Whizzer,” Marvin says.
“So you think there’s hope for the kid?” asks Marvin.
Jason swings and misses for the second time. “I love Jason,” says Whizzer, “but this is not his venue.”
Marvin tucks his chin and leans against the fence, lacing his hands through the links behind him. “He loves you too, y’know. I had no idea he was going to ask you here.”
“If you knew, you would’ve stopped him?” asks Whizzer idly.
“Yes,” says Marvin. They look at each other. “I’m glad I didn’t know.” Whizzer sighs and puts his back against the fence too, so that it bends under their shared weight. “Listen,” says Marvin, “could I maybe just— would it be possible to call you, sometime?”
“You don’t have my new number,” says Whizzer.
“So give it to me.”
And that’s when it happens; that’s when Jason bends his knees and floats the bat and hits the goddamn ball. Their heads go up as one. The ball is soaring, a perfect arc, going all the way. It’s the most impossible thing Whizzer’s ever seen. The crowd is looking skyward, the whole world airborne and suspended, everyone’s forgotten them for a moment—even Charlotte and Cordelia, even Trina—and Whizzer can feel, along the taut length of the fence, how much Marvin wants to kiss him.
Not that, he thinks. Not yet. So he does the next best thing. He gives Marvin his phone number.
“When can I call you?” asks Marvin, looking like Jason hit him with the bat.
“Marvin, be a grownup. Call me when you call me.”
Then the ball drops over the far fence, and things have to start happening again. They all scream at Jason to go. He brings in three runs ahead of him and comes pounding around to home at the end, where Marvin’s cheering like the craziest baseball fanatic in the bunch. Whizzer gives Jason the first high-five and then slips out through the crowd as discreetly as possible. Best to leave on a high note, he figures. Let this be what Marvin remembers when he looks at that phone number, rather than the hepatitis or the bad chess or the bald spot.
But before he’s outside the park, Marvin catches up to him and grabs him by the arm.
“Listen,” Marvin says. “Here’s the thing. My commute’s shorter than yours. If we both leave now, you’ll get home and I’ll already be on your answering machine, asking if I can see you. And then you’ll just have to schlep all the way back uptown.”
“You think so, huh?” says Whizzer. Marvin’s grinning like an idiot. “Well, shit, I took off work till tonight. Can you make it worth my while?”
They walk to Marvin’s place, Marvin talking about Jason and baseball and the bar mitzvah the whole way. He’s out of breath by the time they get there. He doesn’t usually walk to and from Jason’s games, it turns out; he carpools with Trina and Mendel, in the car he got from his mother when his father died, which Trina got in the divorce. (Whizzer remembers the car’s being a sore spot two years ago, like the dog that Trina also got, which nobody in the family besides Marvin even liked. Marvin seems strangely resigned to both losses now.)
“I would’ve asked them for a ride,” says Marvin, jiggling the key in the lock, “but there wouldn’t have really been a way to explain your coming along, would there, and I’d’ve had to hear about it from Trina for weeks, and Jason would’ve been confused—”
“Marvin.” Whizzer takes the key ring from him and gets the door open. It always sticks in hot weather, he remembers. “I love Jason, okay? But I really don’t want to talk about your family any more right now.”
They don’t make it to the bedroom. They get to the couch in the living room, which Marvin’s had reupholstered in a fabric uncomfortable enough that it’s obvious he hasn’t had company over in a while. He keeps apologizing and gasping and fumbling with the belt that Whizzer didn’t have when they were last together. Whizzer helps him unbuckle it, pulls him onto the floor, and tells him to calm down; they’ve got all the time in the world. That’s when Marvin kisses him for the first time in two years.
When Whizzer goes in, Marvin’s still breathing hard, quivering as though he really hasn’t been touched in two years, which can’t be true, how can that be true. So Whizzer slows it down, like the real first time they did this. He gets hold of both Marvin’s fists and gently unclenches them against the carpet, unclenches him, opens him up. They move together, a perfect arc. How no one’s been touching Marvin, how anyone’s refrained, Whizzer can’t imagine.
They’re on the brink when another key clicks in the front lock. For a wild second Whizzer expects it to be some unmentioned live-in lover. He half-expects it to be Stephen. Much crazier things have already happened today. Then the door opens on Cordelia, burdened down with Tupperware, and he remembers. She and Charlotte have a key, and recently they’ve had no reason to hesitate before letting themselves in.
Which is probably why Cordelia simply stands there for a moment, staring, as if someone entirely unexpected just hit another homerun. Which, as metaphors go, isn’t completely inappropriate.
Marvin half-lifts his head, but he’s obviously not capable of doing much of anything at the moment. So Whizzer rests his chin on Marvin’s back and says, “Hi, listen, I’d love to catch up with you guys too, but if you could just give me a few more minutes with this one….”
That seems to release Cordelia. “Sorry! Sorry! I just brought some food samples! No rush!” She drops the Tupperware containers and backs out. Whizzer starts to chuckle, and Marvin drops his head again and grunts. Before she disappears, Cordelia gives Whizzer two thumbs up and mouths, Good. Yes. Good.
Once the door closes, Whizzer laughs for a full minute, muffling the sound against Marvin’s quivering back; after all, the walls are thin. Marvin’s grunts turn to groans, and finally he frees one hand, gropes out behind him, and tangles his fingers in Whizzer’s hair.
“Fuck, Whizzer, come on,” he pants. And Whizzer remembers where they are. Here he is shaking with laughter while he’s still inside Marvin, and here’s Marvin, who’s been waiting for two minutes, two years, who knows.
“I’m sorry, Marvin,” he says, kissing the nearest bare shoulder, and finishes him off. Marvin shudders, sobs, bucks, but his hand stays on Whizzer’s head the whole time. Whizzer comes soon after. In the seconds before he does, while he hovers above Marvin, he has an absurd, almost hallucinatory sense of having come through something, of having fallen off the edge and found himself caught, cupped, safe, in a place he never expected to reach, wistfully familiar and entirely new. Looking back on it later, he’ll think that probably all he did was hit the sweet spot; but he’ll never be sure.
Afterward, they lie together on the floor as the afternoon light lengthens through the kitchen windows. Marvin’s breathing evens out very slowly. Whizzer gives him a while, and then he says, “Well, Trina’s going to know about this by the end of the weekend.”
His eyes still closed, Marvin says, “Oh, come on, Cordelia’s not going to tell my wife—”
“—my ex-wife that she walked in on us.”
“Well, she won’t say it like that,” says Whizzer. “She’ll be subtler about it than that. It’ll be more like, ‘Oh, Trina, dropping Jason off? Try my rugelach; I think I’ve really made some improvements. By the way, you’ll never guess where your ex had his rugelach yesterday after the game.’”
Marvin opens his eyes and splutters, “That— you— she’s not going to— okay, but that doesn’t even make sense! Rugelach’s not even phallic. I mean, maybe depending on the filling—”
Whizzer surprises them both with a laugh. He’d thought that Marvin’s pedantry had stopped being charming after the first few months. Apparently it hasn’t, or it is again.
“Yes,” says Marvin. Whizzer looks at him inquisitively. “That. Do that. You remember early on? We used to do that a lot more.”
Whizzer rolls onto his back and regards Marvin sideways. “Back then you were also married, and I could never go home with you, and you’d call me once a week from work to set up a time at my place.”
“I picked up the phone every day,” says Marvin.
“You dialed once a week,” says Whizzer. “It was fucked from the start. Don’t do that.”
“Sorry,” says Marvin. It’s the first time he’s said that. Maybe in his whole life.
Whizzer nods and sits up. He’s much more worn out than sex usually makes him feel. “Fine. Maybe… maybe you can tell me about it later. But I’ve gotta get downtown for work.”
“Can I call you again?” Marvin asks. Then he laughs and amends, “Can I call you a first time? Can I tell you about it over dinner sometime?”
Whizzer looks at him, and caution fails him, simply deserts him. “Well. Yeah, okay.”
Marvin sits up too. “Can you take off the rest of the day?”
Whizzer raises his eyebrows. “You want me to play hooky? I’m thirty-two years old. I’m supposed to be an adult now.”
“I’m thirty-four,” says Marvin. “It’s a process. Look, I don’t want to call you. I don’t wanna wait. I want you to stay and have dinner. I want Jason to get here tomorrow night and be confused. I want Trina to throw a fit and Mendel to have to talk her down when she gets home. I want to laugh about all of it. God, Whizzer, it’s been so long, I’ve been waiting, I don’t want to fuck it up again, and I want you— I just want you to stay.”
The temptation is there. When Whizzer saw Jason in the park yesterday, he stayed without hesitation, because what he feels about Jason is simple and has never scared him. But the temptation is here, and the temptation is to leave. You come and then you go.
He waits a second, and then another. And after that it’s already gone too far.
“You don’t know how to make dinner,” he says at last.
Marvin smiles. “I’d like to learn,” he says.
That Saturday, Marvin’s plans for the big alternative-family weekend reunion get derailed by the outside world. Jason has a makeup baseball practice at noon, and Whizzer gets called into the gym to cover an early shift. He’s becoming less and less of a morning person, and for a while after he wakes up, he’s at best half-connected to the world. Through the haze on Saturday, he registers only fragments: the shattering noise of his alarm; aches in places he didn’t know existed, which Marvin has been mapping nightly; the shock of cold as he sits up out of his sweat-drenched sheets; Marvin rolling over, slinging an arm across his lap, and drowsily asking him to stay.
“Being an adult, remember?” Whizzer says in his ear, though at the moment he himself doesn’t remember why that’s important. Marvin mumbles something plaintive into the mattress, and Whizzer sits there for just a minute more, rubbing Marvin’s back, before he gets up.
After a few cups of a coffee and a long commute, he’s himself again, a little nonplussed by it all. A little relieved, honestly, to be out of the house on his own again. He and Marvin have been holed up together in Marvin’s apartment since Thursday, hardly even leaving the bed except for the brief window on Friday night between Jason’s arrival (he wasn’t confused at all) and his bedtime. Whizzer’s never stuck around that long for anybody. It scares him a little, the way the boundaries begin to blur. The way he accidentally puts on Marvin’s socks in the morning or drinks from Marvin’s glass at dinner. The way they came together for the first time on Friday night, and how for a second he couldn’t tell where Marvin ended and he began, how it felt so familiar that he forgot it was the first time.
He works it all out of his system at the gym, putting a new collection of clients through their paces and smilingly rejecting their advances. He could say yes, he knows; each time, it’s a choice with two possible outcomes, both equally plausible, and the fact that he keeps saying no doesn’t have to mean anything. Every time you flip a coin, there’s still a fifty-percent chance it’ll land on tails. It’s not a pattern if it’s always heads. It’s just chance. He’s pretty sure that’s so.
At two o’clock, he finishes with his last client, having beaten him soundly in racquetball. Sometimes this job is too good to be true: men paying him to best them. The guy claps him on the back, a cheerful no-hard-feelings kind of contact, but leaves his hand there for a second longer than necessary. Whizzer turns a grin on him and leaves the court first.
Paul, the other trainer usually scheduled on Saturdays, is waiting for him in the hall. He admires the view as the client heads away from them into the locker room, then turns to Whizzer and says, “Really, no go?”
Whizzer shrugs. “Guess I’m not his type.”
“You’re everyone’s type,” says Paul. “Hey, listen, you’ve got a guy waiting for you upstairs.”
“Oh, no,” says Whizzer. “I’m done. Tonio’s shift is supposed to end at two, and that’s all I said I’d cover. Why hasn’t he been fired yet, anyway? Hasn’t he called off sick practically every other shift for the last month?”
“I think he’s banging the owner,” says Paul cheerfully. “Anyway, I didn’t say it’s a client. He said he’s a friend.” He grins slyly and says, “Not bad, Brown. About an eight point five outta ten, I’d say.”
Whizzer rolls his eyes and makes for the stairs. At first he considers with dread the possibility that it’s his Wednesday guy—Tim? Jim? Maurice?—stepping up the stalking. Then he remembers that Saturday is one of Jesse’s occasional workout days, and considers with greater dread the prospect of telling Jesse about Marvin and the baseball game and their two-day marathon.
Partway up the flight of steps, he pauses, getting back his breath. The main staircase of the gym is a sprawling, glass-enclosed spiral with a skylight at the top, all white marble designed on the owner’s specifications to resemble the inside of a snail shell. (“What a giant faggot,” Whizzer said when he heard that one.) Halfway up, at the point where the staircase curves out farthest, you have a long, clear, angled view of both the first and second stories. Looking up through the blinding brightness, Whizzer catches his breath again. Marvin’s sitting on the bench in the second-floor lobby.
“Hey,” says Whizzer as he reaches Marvin. He’s diffident, almost awkward. They haven’t been together out in the world since the baseball game.
Marvin stands up in a hurry. “Hey,” he says. “Hi.” They look at each other. “Sorry. I just, I took Jason to baseball and then I was in the neighborhood.”
“Jason doesn’t play baseball anywhere near here,” says Whizzer.
Marvin’s lips tug into a smile. “Right, no.” He puts his hands in his pockets and seems to cast about for something. “At the desk they told me you were in the middle of an appointment. Then that guy—Paul?—said that if I wanted, I could watch from up here.” He inclines his head toward the windows that overlook the racquetball courts. “He said if you didn’t want people to watch, you wouldn’t play in the public courts.”
“Paul’s got a big mouth,” says Whizzer, still reticent.
Marvin keeps gazing down into the courts. “You looked good. I didn’t know what you guys were playing, but… it looked like you were good at it.”
Whizzer groans, glad for the opening to talk about something other than themselves. “Marvin. You don’t know what racquetball looks like?” Marvin glances at him sideways, unsure how to react. For a moment, he’s the same man he was two years ago, the man who looked at Whizzer across a crowded bar and asked with his eyes for things he didn’t even understand. Whizzer smiles, almost painfully. “I’ll teach you.”
Marvin’s an easier partner than his usual. All Whizzer has to do is get a rhythm going, and then he can settle into one spot and just feed the ball out. He sends Marvin all over the court while he stands there in the center of it all, making everything move. After a while he gets his second wind, and then he follows Marvin, ranging across the court and calling all the shots aloud. It’s a kind of dance, not a waltz but a tango, rough and unselfconscious, full of swoops and dives. Whizzer is occasionally aware of Marvin pulling up short behind him—trying not to collide with him—and then just watching him move for a few seconds. Then Whizzer will turn and smash the ball against the far wall, and bark, “Marvin! Stay in the game.”
It doesn’t take Whizzer long to finish him off. As Marvin goes to retrieve the ball from the corner where it rolled to its final stop, Whizzer leans on his racquet and says, “You’re really rotten at this.”
“I know,” says Marvin brightly. “Thank god, right?”
Whizzer smiles bemusedly, helplessly, as Marvin comes jogging back. Marvin’s panting open-mouthed, pouring sweat, happy as a dog after a long run.
“I won,” says Whizzer. “You do understand the rules that much? You lost.”
“No, I didn’t,” says Marvin. “God, Whizzer.” He stands there, his chest heaving, and struggles with the words. “I don’t need to— I don’t care if— all I want—”
All Whizzer wants, right now, is to touch him. So he does. He reaches out and puts his hands on Marvin’s hips, holding him in place, making him be here. And in his grasp Marvin practically wags with pleasure, his whole body moving but not going away.
They leave the court, Marvin damp and tousled and glowing. Paul’s still hanging around in the hallway, and as they pass he nudges Whizzer with a shoulder. When Whizzer glances back, Paul gives him a conspiratorial look and mouths, Okay, nine point five.
In the locker room, Whizzer coaxes Marvin into a cold shower, and they stand shivering together, slowly bringing each other over the edge. When they emerge, gasping, from the stall, they’re no longer alone. A man’s sitting on the nearby bench, changing out of his sweats. He turns his face toward them impersonally.
“Oh,” says Whizzer. Of course. “Hi, Stephen.”
Marvin has already snatched up a towel and tucked it around his waist. Inexplicably, he tends to be almost ashamed of his body. They’re working on it. He takes up another towel and offers it to Whizzer.
“Brown,” says Stephen, but it’s Marvin he’s staring at.
Whizzer grasps Marvin by the wrist, not taking the towel. “It’s okay, Marvin,” he says, clear and crisp as ice. He can feel Marvin falter as Stephen’s glance sharpens, but he doesn’t retreat. Whizzer gives him a quick sideways smile, a flash of reassurance. “Stephen’s a friend of a friend.” He turns the smile on Stephen, because after all, it’s not Stephen’s fault he’s insane. And Jesse really does like him. That’s worth remembering. “How’s Jesse? I haven’t seen him around in a while. I thought he was a regular on Saturdays at least.”
Stephen doesn’t seem to know what to do about the smile. He crosses one leg across the other and turns his attention to tying his shoe.
“He didn’t feel like coming in,” he says. “Summer cold.”
“Excuses,” says Whizzer lightly. “I’ve had a summer cold all year and I still just kicked his ass in racquetball.” He puts a hand on Marvin’s towel-clad ass to illustrate the point. Marvin twitches just perceptibly, almost a flinch. He’s never gotten over being closeted in public, even in places like this. That’s another thing they’re going to have to work on. For now, Whizzer slides his hand up, letting it come to rest on the small of Marvin’s back. “Tell Jess to suck it up like the rest of us, or he’s gonna lose his body.”
“Shut up, Brown,” Stephen snaps abruptly. Marvin jumps, and as Stephen stands, even Whizzer takes a step back, bracing his weight on his planted back foot. But Stephen doesn’t take a swing at anybody. He grabs his duffel bag, slings it over his shoulder, and makes for the door. As he passes, he says to Marvin, “Word to the wise: stop slumming. It’s embarrassing.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” says Marvin, mystified. When they’re alone, he raises an eyebrow at Whizzer. “Okay. What just happened?”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Whizzer. He shakes himself off, chilled as the adrenaline drains away, and rummages through his locker for his clothes. He can feel Marvin watching him as he sits on the bench and starts putting on his pants.
“Jesse’s your ex, right?” asks Marvin.
Whizzer sighs. “Something like that.” He stands to pull up the jeans, which he hasn’t worn in a month or two, and finds that they no longer fit; they slide off his hips. He looks down at himself, furrowing his brow. Regular sex is supposed to be a good workout, but this is a little much. “Yeah, okay. Jess is my ex. Stephen is his boyfriend now. I stayed with them for a little while. At the end of ’79.”
“Ah. Did you sleep with him?”
Whizzer laughs, his throat catching on it. “Which ‘him’?”
Marvin hesitates, and seems to guess. “Stephen?”
“What the hell did I do to these pants?” Whizzer struggles with them, his cold fingers clumsy. With some asperity, he says, “No, I didn’t sleep with Stephen.”
He feels a towel being draped across his shoulders, and then Marvin reaches around him with both arms and threads a belt through the loops of his jeans. “Put on some clothes, you idiot,” says Marvin, crouching down for better access, his dark head bent near Whizzer’s hip as he works. “You can borrow this till we get home. Not like I need any help keeping my pants up.”
Whizzer can see them framed together in the mirror on the inside of the locker door. He wants to tell Marvin that there’s nothing wrong with his body, that Paul—who works at a gym, after all—gave him a nine point five. That Marvin is the most physically real person he’s ever known. Instead, he just leans back slightly, shifting his weight, letting Marvin hold it.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t sleep with Jesse either. But that’s not all there is to it. It’s… complicated.”
As he finishes fastening the belt, Marvin stays half-crouched, but he looks up from Whizzer’s side. In the mirror, his face is soft.
“What isn’t?” he says, and leans his head against Whizzer’s leg.
The summer’s young, and so are they. Whizzer breaks his lease and moves back in with Marvin, and spends a week expecting Jesse to hear about it from his landlord friend, track Whizzer down, and tell him he’s a moron. But Jesse never does. As May turns into June, they’re living for the weekends: for days of racquetball at the gym and jogging in Central Park; evenings in the kitchen still hot from dinner, with all the windows open wide and Jason chattering about chess and girls; and nights when Jason sleeps in the spare bedroom and they undress with the lights on, watching, wondering. Like they’ve never done it before, like two kids who’ve run away from home to find another.
The second weekend in June is when Marvin decides to take on family dinner for the first time. He’s been experimenting on Whizzer during the week, but it’s this Saturday when he bites the bullet and tries to cook for Jason, some kind of French-named seafood dish that has to marinate forever. You have to hand it to Marvin: when he goes for something, he goes all the way.
They’re both a little tense tonight, these crazy people with whom Whizzer’s thrown in his lot. Marvin’s way out of his depth with foie de octopus or whatever the fuck, and is daring anybody to notice. Jason takes his first exams at school this month, and he’s struggling through the Age of Exploration. And of course, for both of them, there’s the bar-mitzvah nightmare underlying everything. Within twenty minutes of Jason’s arrival, Whizzer excuses himself and goes next door to Charlotte and Cordelia’s.
Charlotte answers the door with a ready grin. “Hey, the big family dinner night, huh? I can smell it.”
“You’re telling me,” says Whizzer dourly. “It’s been stinking up the fridge all week.” Not that he needs to tell Charlotte. For the past few days he’s been ducking in to commiserate with her on the perils of being a kitchen guinea pig.
Charlotte laughs and beckons him in. “What’s up?”
“We need to borrow some ingredients,” he says. “Will Cordelia mind…?” He looks around for her.
Leading him into the kitchen, Charlotte says, “She’s out for the night. She had to make an appearance at an event she’s catering. Stuffed shirts. No dykes.” Whizzer starts to speak, and over her shoulder Charlotte adds, “Please, don’t invite me for dinner. Cordelia left me something. This should just be you guys and Jason. And honestly, I don’t think my stomach can take any more innovation right now.”
In the kitchen, she motions him toward the pantry, settles herself into a chair, and picks up a booklet from the table. As he rummages around, he listens to the comfortingly boring drone of the television news, and the familiar noise of Charlotte huffing in outrage at the state of the world. After a while, he emerges sheepishly with a box of kosher salt in hand.
Charlotte looks up at him for a moment, then says, “Marvin’s been obsessing about this meal for a week… and he ran out of salt.”
“It’s a good thing he’s rich,” says Whizzer. “Otherwise I don’t know what I’d see in him.”
“I worry about you boys, I really do,” says Charlotte. As Whizzer pours some salt into a Ziploc bag, she feigns attention to the TV and asks offhandedly, “You really ran out of salt?”
Whizzer seals the bag, sets it on the counter, and stands looking at her.
“No,” he says. “I just, you know. It gets a little hard to breathe in there sometimes.”
She gets up and hugs him then, without warning, hard and close. He doesn’t know where to put his hands, which is a new sensation for him. They stand there in the blue light of the television, awkwardly united.
“You know exactly what you see in him,” she says. She’s tall enough to say it in his ear. “Relax, you’re doing fine. It’s just what we do. They cook shitty food and we keep coming home for it.”
He tries to breathe, coughs, closes his eyes, and lets it wash over him. He hangs onto her. After a while, she turns her head slightly, giving him a moment. The only sound is the weekly roundup on the news, Reagan saying we are an unselfish country, a compassionate country. After a while, her shoulder still comfortably pressing into Whizzer’s chest, Charlotte says, “What a fucker.”
Whizzer opens his eyes and looks at the television with her. He lets her go and says, “Terrible actor, too.”
“But he’s really not, is the thing,” she says, leaning on the counter next to him. “He’s an incredible fucker but almost everybody’s buying the act. Selflessness, compassion. You know, I have this friend from med school who’s in DC now, this gay guy in the closet at GW Hospital. Back in March, when they brought Reagan in after the shooting, he told me there was a rumor that Reagan said to everyone in the operating room, ‘I hope you’re all Republicans.’ Supposedly one of the surgeons said, ‘Mr. President, today we’re all Republicans.’ And my friend says to me, ‘If they’re all Reaganite Republicans in there, we’re all in big trouble out here.’” Charlotte purses her lips. “I don’t know what made me think of that.” She shakes her head and says, “Anyway. Cordelia’s due back soon and I’ve got the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to read, and you’ve got a date.”
“I’d rather read the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” says Whizzer.
“No, you wouldn’t.” There’s enough certainty in her voice for both of them. When she says, “Go home, Whizzer,” he finds that he can. As he’s picking up his stupid bag of salt, she says, “And tell Marvin to start feeding you better. You tell him that from me, that you’ve got a doctor’s note.” She puts her arms around him again. “You came back to us skinny.”
He goes home, and Marvin and Jason, sunk in their respective woes, don’t even seem to notice he ever left. He ruffles Jason’s hair in passing, thinks about going to Marvin, and then observes the belligerent set of his shoulders and decides to wait on it. He sits at the table with Jason and makes halfhearted jokes (“Magellan circumcised the world? I thought all those guys were Catholic”), watching Marvin fiddle with the stove and refraining from going over and touching him.
Finally, Jason slams a hand down on the table and looks up from his textbook, aggrieved. “This is torture!”
“You’re a Jew,” says Marvin shortly, without turning around. “You were made to suffer. It’s your birthright. You’re born… you get bar mitzvahed… you suffer.”
Whizzer coughs dryly and makes a face at his back. “What’s torture?” he asks Jason.
Jason thumps the book. “This. Shit, history is boring.”
“Jason,” says Marvin warningly.
Whizzer gives Jason a wide, innocent smile. “Your mother will fucking kill us if she thinks you’re picking up that kind of language here.”
Jason stares at him, unable to relinquish hostility for a moment; then he dissolves into giggles. His voice has been starting to change this summer, teetering on the edge before the descent, but his laughter is still a child’s. Since he came back, Whizzer finds himself making a point of eliciting that laugh. Storing it up, in case it too someday goes away.
“I didn’t sign up for two twelve-year-olds,” says Marvin. But Whizzer can see his shoulders relaxing, the line of his jaw softening. After a pause, he says happily, “Shit.” In that word is a whole world of things. Whizzer wants him to always sound like that, and wants to see how many different ways he can be made to say that word, and wants so badly to go to him that he has to brace his palms against the tabletop.
“What’re you studying now?” Whizzer asks Jason.
Jason rolls his eyes and says, “Christopher Columbus. Like we haven’t already studied him every other year. Bo-ring.”
Marvin turns from the stove for the first time, absently rubbing at his face. He leaves a streak of sauce beneath one ear. The muscles move in his forearms, under the warm, diffuse light of the hanging lamp.
“I played Columbus in a play once,” he says. “I wasn’t much older than you. It was actually very… educational.”
Jason’s eyes roll even farther. “There’s nothing new to learn about Columbus.”
Whizzer leans back lazily and puts his knees against the edge of the table. “Your father thinks Columbus was a—”
“You’ll tip over and kill yourself if you do that,” says Marvin. Whizzer sticks out his tongue. “Why do you— I never said I thought Columbus—”
He’s turning pink in the face, and his flow of words seems to have gotten dammed up somewhere. He used to get like this all the time when they first met. Whizzer thought he’d just take Marvin home, away from the overwhelming idea of being a gay man in a gay bar, and he’d be fine. But he was hopeless even in Whizzer’s dingy little apartment, like an amateur actor who had his lines memorized but couldn’t perform them. He’d sat miserably next to Whizzer on the edge of the bed, trying to have a conversation, resting a hand on Whizzer’s thigh. Stuck. He was better looking than he’d seemed in the bar, much more real. His damp palm soaked through the leg of Whizzer’s favorite pants. Finally, Whizzer said, “Hey. What’ve you got to sweat about?” In one smooth motion, he swung off the bed and onto the floor, facing Marvin. When he finished unbuttoning Marvin’s fly, he took both of Marvin’s hands and put them firmly on his own shoulders. “This is where they go,” he said. “I’ll let you know when you should start sweating.” And then he’d taken Marvin in his mouth, and Marvin had jumped and jerked but stayed. He fell back on the bed and lay there fisting his hands in Whizzer’s hair, crying, “Oh, shit, shit, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna—” He came, a whimper and a bang, and Whizzer crawled up next to him and said, “You always think you’re gonna. But I promise you never do.”
Marvin’s still talking, chipping away at the block. Whizzer, trying to listen, can feel that he’s gotten a little flushed too. He squirms, coughs into one hand.
Marvin says, “Whizzer thinks, and so assumes that we all think, that everyone is….”
“A homo,” says Jason at last, helpfully. “I know.”
“C’mon,” says Whizzer, “you said one of ’em’s named Ponce something. And he went looking for the fountain of youth. We all know what that means.”
“Whizzer,” says Marvin, in the exact same tone he said “Jason” when the shits started flying.
“Okay, this isn’t really helping me study,” says Jason. “I don’t think my teacher would consider any of this educational.”
“History isn’t about learning the facts,” says Marvin, enunciating the last word with distaste. Jason looks skeptical. “It’s about understanding the significance. The thing about—” He pauses, then tilts his head, as if he’s listening to someone. He’s looking at Whizzer, something dawning in his face. More slowly, he says, “The thing about explorers is, they discover things that are already there.”
After a beat, Jason moans and says, “Oh, god, talk about boring, I’m going back to the book now.” He adopts a hunched attitude of despair over it.
“Marvin,” says Whizzer. He tips his chair farther away from the table. “Metaphors really are pretty stupid. People should just say things.”
He doesn’t expect a reaction, so when Marvin abruptly crosses the room to him, he loses his equilibrium. He can feel the exact moment when balance moves beyond him: the point of vanishing stability from which he can’t right himself. That’s when Marvin reaches him, takes hold of the back of the chair, and hauls him up.
“Okay,” he says, and kisses Whizzer.
“C’mon, you guys,” says Jason, though he barely looks up from his book. “Get a room.”
Later on, after Jason goes to bed, they do. Marvin pours them some wine, and they lie in their room in the light, balancing their glasses on their stomachs and looking at each other. It’s Marvin who takes off his clothes first, then Whizzer’s. They’re very soft, very subdued. The walls are thin, but they’ve never worried about Jason overhearing before. Now it’s something else that they’re quiet in the face of, something else they don’t want to awaken too soon.
Afterward, Marvin falls asleep first. Whizzer sits with his back against the headboard, immobilized. Lately he’s been having trouble sleeping at night. Sometimes he almost has trouble breathing. Like Marvin at the start of it all, he doesn’t know where to put his hands, where to put himself. He thinks about Trina and Mendel uptown, and Stephen and Jesse downtown, and Charlotte and Cordelia just beyond the wall, and Jason across the hall. None of this is what he planned on. It isn’t what he expected from his life. But then he never really expected much of anything at all.
He had no idea, when he left Jersey, how big New York was going to be. It’s so big it closes down his chest. It’s much too big, this thing behind the metaphors. There’s a fancy word for that, for what’s described but obscured by the metaphor. Marvin said it once. Yes: it’s called the tenor, like the highest male voice, like that brief unbroken moment of youth when innocence and virility are still possible together. From the Latin for… something. Marvin would remember, but Marvin sleeps on.
Whizzer can’t move, can’t breathe. He doesn’t know what to do. Until Marvin twitches in the beginning of a bad dream, and he does. He puts his arms around Marvin and holds him.
By mutual agreement, Friday is Whizzer’s night to cook, and two weeks later he comes home from work and burns the hell out of dinner. It’s the kind of thing he used to do on purpose two years ago, whenever he was feeling passive-aggressive. But tonight he’s just feeling like shit. Two clients beat him in racquetball today, and afterward he threw up in the locker room. He puts the roast in the oven without setting a timer, meaning to take it out when Marvin gets home, and goes into the bedroom to lie down. When he wakes up, Marvin’s not home—twenty minutes late—and he can smell smoke.
In a daze, he ignores it and stumbles into the living room to the cordless phone. He calls Marvin’s office, and the secretary picks up. Well, at least he’s not sleeping with her, Whizzer thinks, and coughs on a laugh.
“Is Marvin there?” he asks, not bothering to camouflage himself, to provide some pseudonym. Marvin’s still closeted at work.
“He left about half an hour ago,” she says. “Do you want to leave a message? He’ll get it on Monday—”
“No, I don’t,” Whizzer says. “The asshole lives with me. He’s supposed to be here all weekend.” She makes an indecipherable noise and hangs up.
He wanders into the kitchen, turns off the oven, and only then looks inside. The roast is black, blasted-looking, like volcanic rock. He closes the oven door; it’s entirely beyond him. Back into the bedroom he goes, where he splashes water on his face in the bathroom and tries to focus. There’s nothing else in the fridge, and it’s supposed to be his night. He doesn’t know how to fix it, but suddenly he’s struck by a memory of eating dinner at Jesse’s—not that last time with the explosions over pasta, but the nights back in the sixties when they first met, when Jesse tried to woo him with food. He learned to cook from Jesse in those days, and now it occurs to him that if anybody can salvage the roast, it’s Jesse. He’ll know some trick, some secret.
He calls Jesse. The phone rings and rings. Finally, Stephen picks up with a snarled “What?”
“Is Jesse there?” asks Whizzer. He’s not really in the mood for Stephen-baiting tonight.
“He’s dead,” says Stephen, no inflection at all.
Momentarily, irrationally, an image bubbles up on Whizzer: Marvin rolling over in the deepest hours of the night, tousled and sweaty, gripped by nightmare. Just a flash, which he dispels with a laugh. Good-naturedly, he says, “Ah, fuck you, Stephen, I’m not a telemarketer. It’s Whizzer. Lemme talk to J—”
“Fuck you, Brown,” says Stephen; “I just got back from the motherfucking hospital—” Which is when his voice breaks, high and cracked like china, and Whizzer looks in the bathroom mirror and feels suddenly how young Stephen is, how young he is. For the first time it brings him no pleasure.
“What do you— what happened?” he says.
Stephen’s voice is clotted, choked. “I know it’s all the same to you, but I’m in grad school, not med school,” he says through it.
“I don’t understand. There was an accident?” Whizzer makes it back into the bedroom and onto the bed.
“It’s all an accident,” says Stephen.
He hangs up, leaving Whizzer sitting there staring into space, into a nothing beginning to take vague shape, in the face of which he senses how goddamn young they all are.
Jesse is thirty-three, he thinks. He remembers that when Jesse was twenty-nine, he went to Cabo with an older lover, erupted in blisters a month later, and made Whizzer take him to the hospital in the middle of the night, convinced it was a deadly tropical disease. The boyfriend, convinced it was a contagious deadly tropical disease, had already disappeared. It turned out to be shingles, something the doctors explained was caused by the chickenpox virus—Jesse’d had it at the age of six—which made Whizzer feel strangely more solicitous. He remembers sitting in the hospital room while they examined Jesse, holding his hand and saying, “Hey, Jess, toughen up. This is kid stuff.”
He remembers the important thing, too, which is the hospital that Jesse asked to be taken to. NYU Medical Center—where Charlotte works.
He calls her personal number at the hospital. She’s as prompt and efficient about the phone as she is about everything else; she picks up on the second ring.
“Charlotte?” he says, before she can get a word out. “Do you have a patient named Jesse McCannon there?”
He can hear her hesitation. “Whizzer—” she says, and for a second he’s maddeningly sure she’s going to tell him that patient names are confidential. Then she stops, and with a new note in her voice she says, “We did. He died a few hours ago. Do you— did you know him?”
Whizzer looks at the shadows on the wall. He tries to remember how breathing works.
“Oh, Whizzer,” she says, “I’m so sorry. You were close?”
“Look,” he says, “I’ll call you back, I’ve got somebody on the other line, okay?”
“Hang on,” she says, and she sounds utterly unlike herself. “Listen. Something bad— I think something very bad is h—”
He hangs up and listens to the empty line. After a while, he calls Marvin again. This time, the secretary doesn’t pick up—gone home, or knowing it’s him, or just fed up with the way the outside world always forces itself upon you—and he sits imagining how the ringing echoes in the empty office, which he’s never been inside.
He has no idea how long it is before Marvin comes home, before he and Jason are laughing and chattering out in the hall. Then they’re in the doorway to the bedroom, peering in at him, each holding a plastic bag, looking achingly like each other.
“Hey,” Marvin says warmly, smiling. He loves Friday nights, loves coming home to Jason and dinner on the table and the whole weekend theirs. He’s never more purely happy than this first moment when he comes through the door. “How was—”
“I burned dinner,” says Whizzer flatly, sitting up hot-eyed in the middle of the bed.
Jason laughs, and after a moment Marvin joins him, his grin lopsided and undiminished. “Yeah, we thought we smelled something. Don’t worry about it, we—”
“Where the fuck were you?”
Jason actually takes a step back, his eyes widening. Marvin does the opposite: he immediately goes blank and guarded. For all the wreckage he’s caused in his life, Marvin can be very delicate, very careful, when he wants to be. Maybe because of all the wreckage.
“Remember, I told you?” he says. “I went to get Jason from a friend’s—”
“You weren’t at the office when I called,” says Whizzer. And then, as an afterthought, because now he can barely remember the things that happened before he talked to Stephen: “I called twice. You weren’t there.”
“Okay,” says Marvin. Somehow he communicates to Jason that he should leave the room, in a sort of nonverbal shorthand they’ve only started sharing since Whizzer came back. Yes, Whizzer thinks: with Jason gone, they can finally have it out, they can drop this crazy frightening act and fight as they used to, and Marvin can throw things and walk out on it all. But Marvin just stands there looking at him for a long time, and then he says, “I’ll be right back.”
Whizzer can hear him moving around in the kitchen, murmuring to Jason. In a minute he reappears in the doorway, carrying two full plates.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I kind of thought you might not be up to making dinner tonight, so we decided to stop on the way for takeout. That Greek place you like. I should’ve called before I left.”
“The roast is fucked,” says Whizzer. Marvin nods, not really smiling, a little line between his brows. “Jesse’s dead.” He’s horrified to find how close to tears he is.
“Hey,” says Marvin, standing there with a plate balanced on each hand. Whizzer can’t stop looking at him, no matter how much he wants to. Marvin sets the plates on the floor in the doorway, crosses the room, and sits on the bed behind him. “Hey.” He touches Whizzer’s shoulder. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” says Whizzer. “Something bad”—and he twists around and puts his arms around Marvin.
“Okay,” Marvin says. “Okay.” He’s rubbing Whizzer’s back in slow concentric circles. Whizzer thinks he must’ve been great when Jason was little and had colic, or colds, or chickenpox. He thinks about Jesse in that hospital bed in 1977, miserably pricked by the vestiges of a childhood disease; he remembers the first cold Marvin passed along to him, and the first thing he passed along to Marvin. Syphilis isn’t like shingles: the rash doesn’t itch, so it was Whizzer who first noticed it, one afternoon in bed, on the soles of Marvin’s feet.
“Marvin?” he says. “I’m sorry I gave you syphilis that time.”
Marvin doesn’t make a sound, but Whizzer can feel his body vibrate in a brief chuckle.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “You wanna talk about Jesse?”
Whizzer keeps being brought up sharply against this obstacle: that it’s real, that it’s happened. He can’t even begin to sound its depths or find its edges.
“Not tonight,” he says. “I don’t know.”
They’re quiet for a long while, until Marvin nudges him and Whizzer realizes he’s been dozing off, his cheek against Marvin’s shoulder. He considers getting up, but then thinks better of it and just slides lower, so that he comes to rest against Marvin’s knee, looking up into his face. He clears his throat a few times and says, “Shit, poor Jason. I kinda scared him just now, didn’t I?”
Lightly, Marvin says, “He’s not used to seeing your bitchy side. He’ll get over it.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That you’ve been PMSing lately.” Marvin looks down at him. “You feeling any better today?” Whizzer shrugs, and Marvin says, “You want me to cancel our reservation for the racquetball court tomorrow?”
Whizzer’s drifting off again. “Don’t you try to get out of it,” he says. “I’m still going to humiliate you.” He closes his eyes. After a wandering minute, he says, “Y’know what I was thinking today? Little League season’s over next weekend. No more ball games this summer.”
Marvin’s voice is full of mock-outrage. “Only if you’re assuming Jason’s team won’t make the playoffs.”
“Marvin,” says Whizzer, “that’s the most optimistic thing I’ve ever heard you say.” Marvin’s laughter rolls over him like a tide, and he sleeps with his head in Marvin’s lap.
He wakes later in the night, the lights out and Marvin gone. He floats fuzzily, unmoored in the sea of his soaked sheets. He lies curled on his side, almost comfortably feverish, staring at the far wall until his eyes adjust and Marvin’s form resolves itself out of the darkness. That must’ve been what woke him: Marvin trying to come in quietly, closing the door behind him against the light of the hallway.
Marvin hears him stir. “Hey, kiddo,” he says softly. “Go back to sleep.”
“Where were you?” Whizzer asks.
“Putting Jason to bed,” says Marvin, apologetic. “Doing office paperwork. It’s all right.”
He’s taking off his shoes, one foot lifted and then the other, his weight balanced against the dresser. He crosses the room and stands over Whizzer, outlined in the black. Whizzer rolls over, onto Marvin’s side of the bed, and Marvin puts out a hand like a reflex and touches him on the forehead.
“Hey,” Marvin says. Whizzer can hear the smile in his voice, the memory. “What’ve you got to sweat about?”
Every time Marvin touches him, it feels like a first, and there’s a moment when he doesn’t believe it; when he can’t breathe; when he really does think he’ll die. But he never does. Cheating the anticipated end, he lives in a constant state of surprise. A kind of agelessness, free from the deformity of afflictions both childish and adult, where even the explored terrain remains fresh and unmarked, where the voice never breaks and the highest note is reachable; where everything is still possible.
“Marvin,” says Whizzer. “Come back to bed.”
And there it is, the miracle he never learned to expect: Marvin does. Marvin comes back.
…And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little Gidding