(Prologue: the surest proof)
When he writes it all out afterwards, he still finds words the surest proof against annihilation, or the attraction of annihilation. He is still sure, in his heart or what is left of it, that he can write himself out of oblivion, create a legacy from the pages he didn't rip up or wipe clean; only now there is nothing worth writing for, only himself.
It is a long story now and not a happy one, but it is better to start at the beginning; it is the only way he knows how to start. He starts to hoard paper and pens, legal pads pile up on his kitchen table and words onto his lips; he takes long walks in the afternoons, walking for running water, walking by the river. It's not the same without company, without another set of footsteps to listen to and mark rhythm with, but sometimes he can hear their echoes. He comes back to the apartment with the sound of the East River in his thoughts and in his prose - it bursts out as soon as he sits with paper in front of him, needing no prompting, and no pie.
He starts small: gets a few short stories noticed, even something in the New Yorker; he gets an agent, and then a publishing house get interested. It is all much too easy. He knows the story isn't done yet. It's 1970, and nothing is the same.
Toby thinks: it's either haiku, or epic poetry. Nothing else will do. There aren't the right words for this - too slippery and too dark, huge behind my eyes and inside his jeans; and there aren't poets for this - no poetry for the way I have loved men, with shame but without beauty, without ever wanting to fit; love that begins to despise all forms of its expression because not one of them ever feel correct, precise; nothing can ever fit. Nothing but my body and his, and all the darkness there and all the light, when nothing makes sense but all the imagery I hate and long, complicated metaphors twisting through sentences like the pull of the bed sheets between his thighs, and similes, and excess, and the way he tastes of nothing but sweetness. I can only describe him in negative, like G-d - couplets on everything he isn't and no rhymes; not light, but the absence of darkness and whatever is the proper opposite of love, which is myself and the love I have for him.
Toby thinks: I didn't think I would miss him, even after all of it, I didn't think I was a man who would have trouble walking away.
For a while Toby can't look at the kid's name, let alone write it. And so that is how Sam gets his new name and the fiction which a new name gives. One day, playing around with words on the pad, letting poetry come as it will, letting go - Toby writes a name he has never written before. It seems right. He stares at it, at the shape of his handwriting as if willing it to change. It transfigures, just a little, and he turns away. The next day it is still there and still resonant; for all that this is a new thing, it still reads 'Sam' in his head. Close enough, he thinks. Let's go.
It is the beginning of Toby's story, and he is half way through it before he realises that he must re-name himself as well. He has thought of the most Protestant name he can for the kid (and admits that it is unfair) and so renames himself for an Old Testament king, and not a wise one or a just one, but yet still a king. He still thinks that much of himself. The story twists, stubbornly, refusing to respect deadlines or sleep or the complaints of Toby's wrist. His agent feeds him with gentle words about artistry and taking enough time, though he knows she is as impatient to reach the finishing line as he; Toby can't wait to be done.
He tells himself the story back, three months later - three days to go before D-day. He is checking for missed commas, lurking inaccuracies, invisible things that will make a fool out of him. He checks for sense, for structure. He isn't listening for emotion, only finds that at nightfall on the last day, when he collapses into his bed and closes his eyes and starts the story again, curling his body around a missing space.
Toby thinks: better to begin at the beginning.
Toby Ziegler comes to Butler College in the September of 1956. He is thirty-six years old. He is perhaps five feet ten in height, losing hair rapidly but compensating with a full black beard that he has not yet found a preferred way to trim. He is still quite slight though heavy in the shoulders and about to become so in the belly. His wife is dead. He still has the traces of a European accent which he will not try to suppress. Sometimes there are ghosts in his eyes, and his vowels. And sometimes he hides: in crowds, in empty rooms, inside the pages of books he has yet to publish and poems he knows are not good enough (not yet). He hides because the hiding is easy; it has become instinct. He smiles seldom - when smiling is called for and not for gratitude, not for 'hello' and 'goodbye'. He is fiercely liberal and unable to apologise for it or the things it will occasionally make him say. He is an imperfect son and an imperfect Jew and he was an imperfect husband (to say the least) and nothing he loves is here in this place of leaves and woods and Greco-Roman architecture and streets where you can still see the sky because the buildings aren't tall enough, and there is no fog, and no river.
He walks through the campus. He has to admit that it is beautiful, if you can appreciate that kind of beauty. He is not sure he can, not anymore.
He has difficulty believing this job is actually his. He has difficulty, as he walks through the crowded first-day campus complete with dappled sunlight falling through the leaves of maple trees which, when they fall do not seem to be left decaying on the paths but disappear by some secret agency, leaving all fresh and new and perfectly picture-esque; he has difficulty convincing himself that they will not ask him to leave. He sees a couple of men who look like older versions of himself - smallish, dark-headed men with beards and covered eyes, walking quickly with bowed shoulders. Jewish men, obvious to him, in the modern age. America seems to be unable to cure them of their fears, though these must be the adventurers, the swindlers and rich men, the confident scholars who knew when to run. They are still running: dashing through the campus as fast as thin, middle-aged legs can carry them. Toby wonders which cities they came from, and how they ended up here. Then he thinks of Brooklyn, and begins to walk a little faster.
The Faculty Board interview had been hideous. He holds three American degrees from institutions his mother has heard of, whose certificates come with the magic Latin phrase printed in script his mother cannot read. He holds letters of recommendation and one of them is signed by someone very famous, very American, very Gentile. He held his hands in his lap and tried not to say anything that would get him run out of the state.
They manage politics without too much trouble, he thinks. He supposes he wouldn't be here at all if they didn't find at least some merit in his politics, or at least disregard them enough to allow him to teach his principles to fine American youth. He manages to side-step the (tenuous at best, he feels) relationship between liberal Democratic thinking and Communism, convinces them he won't sell them to the Reds. That the word 'Jew' is written all over his face and into his skin and makes its own music in the tones of his voice doesn't seem to worry them overmuch. He's sure they'd prefer him to be a Protestant but it's not like they're not used to the ranks of Yid intelligentsia now, even have a couple of important ones on the Faculty and after all, after all that stuff with Hitler, don't we kinda owe them? The war in Europe is more than ten years gone but at times like these Toby still feels like a guest in his adopted country, like they might start asking for papers any minute. So he keeps his hands quiet on his lap and tries, for safety, for the sake of not being conspicuous, just for once - for life, not to shoot his mouth off.
It all passes. He even makes them laugh. They all shake his hand, one after another in a long line down the boardroom table. Toby feels approved of, and has to bite his tongue to keep his anger quiet. Fuck you, he wants to say; fuck you and fuck this. I'm going home. Only there is no 'home' now, only the empty river.
The letter had come two days later: we are pleased to be able to offer you ... He stands in his kitchen and chain-smokes three cigarettes and listens to his breathing and tilts his head into the smoke cloud and closes his eyes. This is goodbye. He packs up and leaves the next day and spends the entire ride from New York to New England writing a twelve line poem about a river he doesn't remembers well enough to elegise, now that he cannot step out of his apartment and pay it a visit.
So he walks a little, walks around. He appreciates that the trees are beautiful and will be breathtaking later in the fall; that the architecture is likewise, and still impresses on a grey September morning, full of rain; he likes the look of the kids, milling around with books in their arms and Sartre on their lips, looking like walking adverts for the aesthetic benefits of a college education. But he feels terribly divided from them: their dark face, looking back at them from the other side of the river. They don't understand, and he doesn't care to help them.
The first month, the first night, the first minutes, the first waking from the same dream: he thinks of her.
Leah is the reason the river had begun to run with death again, why Toby had to leave. First the Rhine (dirty thing, like a street made of water and cries and history; he used to play act with David there, pretend that he was about to push his brother into the swell and the kid would scream like a girl and grab hold of his sleeve for dear life and Toby would punch his arm and pull him back from the edge; loving the river like a second brother) and now the Hudson (they walked there, at the beginning; she said it was a typical Ziegler courtship - the greyest, dullest, dirtiest attraction in all of New York City: you couldn't take me to the theatre, she said, or the museums; you gotta take me down by the river; and he did, one night - her skirt up high on her thighs and his hands pressed around her waist and she was so soft and beautiful and said that she loved him - she loved him, and he loved the river in thanks). His brother is still an arm's reach away, ready to be pulled in, but his wife is drowning; still drowning in the water.
The doctor said tuberculosis and Toby had looked at his thin-shouldered wife and flinched. You should prepare for the worst but hope for the best, Toby, his mother had whispered in his ear. Toby has always preferred to take hope out of the equation altogether - all the more surprising, that way, when it turns up. He looked at Leah and knew what she was thinking: my husband has already buried me, in these last sixty seconds. He had looked away from her, and rubbed the heel of his hand over his forehead.
She died quickly. At least there had been that, and no children to provide for. And all Toby had to provide for were his memories. And they went like this:
She had thin shoulders, like a boy's almost and walking behind her one winter in the street, this was what Toby noticed first. She fits into Brooklyn, he thinks, she must be native: wearing a red coat and sturdy black shoes she steps around puddles and depressions in the sidewalk easily, without looking down at her feet; she dances. She turns - she has seen someone she knows, passing in the other direction - her mouth is red too, open, laughing; and her hair is red, and Toby's brain mutters something to him about temptation. She sees him staring and stares back, one eyebrow raised.
It's a miracle, he had thought. Looking around at shul the following Friday, he recognises a twist of red hair and a laugh like running water. She is here - and he never saw her before. Toby stares until David pinches his arm. "Who are you looking at?" Toby shifts his head to indicate her row. "The redhead." David grins. "Oh, Toby," he says.
It takes some weeks before he can speak to her but when he finally does it is as though she has expected it, although she already knows what he will ask. She gave him her slick red smile and linked her hands around his arm. They walked by the river and she let him kiss her. "Well," she said, "At least you finally got round to that." It is a matter of days before she comes home with him, meets the family, among other things. When Leah has gone, having insisted that she doesn't need anyone to walk her home, all Toby's mother can talk about is the colour of her hair and the cut of her clothes. "You're sure she is Jewish, Toby?" Toby shakes his head. "Yes, ma. I'm sure."
She had insisted that by marrying him she is doing him the biggest favour of his hitherto miserable life. "You'll never find me again, Toby," she says, whispering into his ear this same refrain while the sweat cools at his throat. "I love you," he says. She smiles, one eyebrow raised. "Well of course you do." But she curls close to his body at night, thin shoulders digging in the muscle of his chest, and sighs when he strokes her hair. She sleeps like the dead in his arms, her breathing a low rustle of noise: she knows safety there.
It's during the second year of his marriage that he meets the boy. It's a small thing, he tells himself, not serious, not dark. The boy is thin, has terribly dark eyes smudged round in grey, and long black eyelashes. The way he pulls at Toby's shirt front, leading him back, reminds Toby of David, when David was young. So maybe that's it. Toby kisses him hard against the back wall of the synagogue, feeling repentance build up under his tongue and guilt start to heat the centre of his palms where they touch the temple stones, either side of the boy's thin shoulders. But he doesn't stop. When it's done - when kissing has gone to shaking, and then to peace - he tells the kid to get lost but can't help watching him go: he limps away almost, as though Toby has crippled him. That night when he prays, Toby doesn't know what to say.
It wasn't as though they didn't want children, or that is what he told himself. Leah is sanguine about the whole thing, easy with the lack of noise in their apartment and their respective mothers' comments on the nature of the quiet. But she asks him, softly in their bed: "Would you?" And he kisses her so that he doesn't have to answer.
She got so thin. The dusk light shadows her collarbones and the space between the cords of her neck. He doesn't want to kiss her anymore, he wants to cover her head in his arms; he doesn't want to listen to the scratches of cough in her throat, he wants to sing into his hands.
He held her hand all night, this is all he remembers, and she was dead by the morning. So in the mornings he thinks of her and hears the river.
Toby's first year at Butler is Sam Seaborn's last as an undergraduate. He is twenty years old, almost twenty-one, and he is, as Toby discovers over the course of their first month together, a straight-A student and an athlete of better than average competence, when he isn't falling over his feet. Though he learns later that this is not the first meeting, that Sam remembers paths crossed earlier, the first time Toby remembers seeing Sam is in his first class at Butler - the astonishingly young-looking boy, in the very first row.
Toby remembers him not for beauty but because he almost succeeds in demolishing the first row as he tries to take his place in it. The floor of the lecture hall, newly polished and shiny, catches him coming and between it and the boy's new patent leather shoes there is quite a meeting. The boy skids into his desk and holds on to its sides for support, but does not factor in his own momentum, which pulls the desk over onto his chest and his own body into the shoes of the boy sitting behind him and his bag almost into the skirts of the girl sitting to his left. He rights himself, and the desk, quickly but of course that doesn't matter. Forever afterwards, he is the kid who tripped over his desk on the first day of his senior year. There will probably be a yearbook award. Toby hopes he went to the kind of school which prepares a person for such honorifics.
Toby stands with one hand on his hip and a purposely blank expression. The kid looks up at him; the rest are laughing. Toby turns his stare on them. They quiet, reluctantly.
"If you're quite ready, Mr ... ?"
"Seaborn," the boy says. His cheeks are red. Toby smiles at him; his crooked smile, which is two parts apology.
"Mr. Seaborn. Sitting comfortably?"
"Then we shall proceed."
He longs, until the longing becomes something sick inside his belly in the mornings, for Brooklyn. Or, very late in the night or in the first five minutes following his waking in the morning, when he is not sure where he is or what is the day, for the old place; for the place in Europe (and now, after twenty years in America, Europe seems like just one city where everyone is backward and traditional, where they were too stupid to run, were his father still lies) which he no longer remembers, because he chooses not to. He finds, absurdly, that he misses the rivers.
Both the cities he has loved are built on rivers. Rivers like channelled seas running past streets, loud under bridges and menacing when they ran high, after the rain. Toby misses the music of the water and the smell that could almost be that of the sea. Rivers remind him of impermanence and he's afraid that the words they bring on in him are almost poetry. And when he heard that the Hudson river, which flowed through his dreams in his first weeks in New York, is sometimes called America's Rhine, Toby knew he had reached home.
The closest thing the neighbourhood surrounding Butler College has to a river is the small stream which runs through the land at the back of the disused playing field. The ground is overgrown, bushy with green things and overwhelmed by the big New England sky. Toby finds he walks there often in his first months. He finds the stream in the middle of the first semester and follows its length as far as the land will allow him, mesmerised by the movement of the water, finally reaching towards something that feels suspiciously like contentment. He realises, too late, that it reminds him not of the East River, but of a twist of the Rhine back home, where he and David sometimes fished in the mud and got wet and played. He waits for the rainstorm he knows is coming and sits with his hands in river.
Toby is uncomfortable with the changes of season to which Butler's situation expose him as he never was in New York City. He smells winter coming for three weeks before it actually arrives and by the time he finally wakes up to a snow flurry and frosted windows, his body is thrumming with anticipation and something almost like fear. In New York, the winter arrived overnight and Toby realises that he prefers to be surprised. He goes out in the snow anyhow, wrapped as warm as he can make himself. The campus, covered in dry static whiteness, seems fleetingly beautiful, like sunlight flashing in his peripheral vision; as soon as he turns he recognises buildings, trees, the negative space that the sky makes against the small buildings and is back at Butler, where nothing is right.
Later, but not very much later, he comes to Butler's stream and thinks of the boy. Sam's song becomes part of the music of the water, and the boy's body what he misses when he sits here. He even thinks of a new fragment of poetry.
The boy makes a good constant. Sam Seaborn, who is talented for a twenty year old, particularly with his pen, never seems to change very much. Looking shockingly clean-shaven, pink with his youth, he sits in the same first row seat he almost destroyed on the first day and listens with disturbing attentiveness to every word Toby says, notes them down to the very comma and conjunction. He catches worship in the kid's eyes, almost by accident one morning in late November, catching like the sunlight in Sam's eyes as Toby looks down at the end of a particularly involved monologue on the responsibilities of liberty. Toby blinks, frowns, looks away.
He is not unfamiliar with the situation. His last but one job, his short-lived tenure at the only community college in Brooklyn that would have him, introduced him to the concept of student crushes. A youngish girl, not even the brightest in her row (which surprises Toby; he never thought anyone but the quiet bookish ones would ever look at him) but with a nice turn of phrase. She used to stare at him when she thought he wasn't looking, and then once or twice when she knew damn well he was looking, running her pencil across her lips like something out of a bad novel. He has been mostly confused, flattered some as well, but mostly confused and faintly embarrassed. He went home and told Leah about it and when she laughed, knew that whatever charm there had been was broken. But there is no charm-breaker now; Toby is on his own.
The kid is thin-shouldered. He has small hands that don't yet look like a man's, though he is almost twenty; his sleeves and the size of his watch seem to overwhelm his wrists, which are thick, but by their thickness only serve to emphasise the smallness of the hands, as though they belong to a smaller, younger boy when he raises one in response to a question, which he always does. Toby likes them in spite of their size, he is grateful that they remind him that the boy is just that: a very young, very beautiful kid. It is his mouth which tempts Toby: full, stung-looking lips which are very pink and very mobile and bring Sam into his dreams some nights. Waking up from a dream where Sam's lips end up redder than they started out, Toby has to admit that maybe the crush is not entirely one-sided.
Yet nothing will be done; there is nothing he needs which the boy's body will soothe and only small poetry in the mind of a college senior. Toby likes him, but there is nothing to be done.
The stream whispers to him, but in the days after his dreams begin to change, Toby can't tell who is in the song.
One night there is a nightmare. Toby wakes up covered in sweat and unable to remember any narrative or any reason for the nausea that bends him over his bed. The air hangs around him like sickness and in his memory is a dark, rough figure - a man made of clay, a reflection in a broken mirror. Toby holds his hand over his mouth, feeling dizzy.
The only one who ever knew was David. He sits on the side of his bed wondering whether David remembers the night he ran to the head of the stairs at their place in Brooklyn and saw his brother with his hands on another boy, kissing a boy at the foot of the stairs.
His brother is a professor too now, a biologist at Cornell; a luck child, Toby thinks, since he had rather more of G-d's blessing than I ever did. He got married young, and now there is a child. His last letter said something about tenure. Toby holds his hand harder over his mouth, sure he will throw up.
What was that? he asked, in Yiddish, in shock, sounding closer to ten than the fifteen he had been then. And Toby never knew what to tell him, except the truth. The boy he got rid of, put his hands on his shoulders and pushed him through the door as gently as the weight of discovery would allow. David stood at the head of the stairs, in ridiculous pyjamas and bare feet, with his hair a mess of dark curls like winding plants. He waited for Toby to close the door and lock it.
"What were you doing?"
"Oh David, you're not a kid anymore. You know what I was doing!" Toby hissed it up the stairs at him, nineteen and full of lust, dark with it, replete with his longing, looking that night for the change in diet his brother's discovery made, for the moment, impossible.
"You were kissing him."
"Yes," Toby said, half sigh and half scorn. He climbed the stairs and pushed his brother up to their bedroom with his hands on the boy's shoulders.
"You're not ... going, are you?"
"No," he had said, more sigh now than anything. David twisted back in his hands, looked up. "No, I'm not going."
As it turned out, Toby is the one abandoned. His brother makes a small career from leave-takings, from two homes and two rivers and two sisters. And Toby should have known he was next on the list and that his journeys through Brooklyn on snowy mornings would soon be solo efforts, as David gets picked out as a small genius and offered the scholarships which Toby's words have yet to give him. He should have known, and yet he thinks that he did, once. But all fathers forget the promise of the eclipse that will come, even if they are only surrogates.
They still shared a bed then, the last year they did. David sat on the bed with his knees up to his chin and watched as Toby got undressed. Every look Toby shot him was given back in gentleness, in supplication (please don't leave) and Toby found he couldn't keep anger out of his face. He pushed his brother over to the far side of the bed and got in, with his back turned on him. They lay that way, too stiff to sleep and both frightened. It hadn't been Toby who reached out.
David's hand nudged at him in the same moment as his voice. "Toby?"
"I won't tell."
As simple as that? Toby wanted to say, down into David's hair. He turned to face his brother. "You can't ever tell."
David had moved to cross the two inches of mattress that separated their bodies and laid his head heavy on Toby's shoulder. Toby had sighed and done what he had wanted (one of things he had wanted that night) and stroked his brother's hair. David let out a little sound that twisted in Toby's belly and curled closer. The boy had slept and Toby stayed wakeful, wondering.
He finds that whiskey soothes the nausea. Only anger is better than liquor but Toby can't afford to get angry tonight; no anger, nor recklessness, nor a sweet young man instead of his brother in this bed, so he drinks through half the bottle.
He thinks he sees something coming. Something careening towards him without enough grace, like running feet echoing and slipping. He thinks Sam Seaborn knows all about him and that promise and dreams are not the only thing he can see in the boy's eyes in those suddenly-silent swollen moments when their eyes meet in the lecture theatre. He thinks Sam Seaborn will reach out one day, and when Toby thinks about that he cannot imagine pulling away, and not from gratitude, or even from desire, not really. He just cannot imagine turning Sam away, denying him whatever he thinks he can find in Toby. And half of him is looking forward to it, half of him can feel the pull already.
And the other half? he thinks. What about the other half? The rest of him is drinking whiskey straight out of the bottle, sitting on the side of his bed with his head down between his knees; the rest is kissing a boy whose face he can't remember with his hands pressed to cold stone; the rest is holding his brother's hand so tight that the boy is trying to pull away before his fingers drop off; the rest is speaking with a thick, outlawed Jewish tongue; the rest is remembering the list of reasons he decided where enough to declare as a manifesto for the hatred of his father; the rest is missing his dead wife. Toby thinks that half of his body belongs to the past, remembering a river he cannot hear now and a city with no Jews left where he still thinks, in the minutes after waking, that he belongs. He thinks perhaps half of him is as good as a ghost and though he speaks English and holds American diplomas and the moulding of American minds in his hands, that re-invention failed and everything good about him died on a station platform in Cologne.
Toby thinks: Sam Seaborn is, despite his name, not a thing that belongs to the heavy sea and crash of waves and whisper of rivers but a creature of light. He is made of sun reflected in the eyes of all impressionable young men whom Toby would like to corrupt, darkening them with all the worst parts of himself and repaying joy with sadness, love with anger. Though he is all too aware that he should not, though he knows what will happen if he should be caught, though he half believes, with words he knows to be propaganda and hatred ringing in his head, that this part of himself should be a thing hidden and despised, Toby would like to kiss him. Somewhere secret and somewhere clean, Toby would like to press his body against the boy and forget.
It doesn't take long. Something comes. Something nothing like Toby's desire but yet something which fits it exactly; takes it in hand and pulls him down. Sam's mouth is sweet like new air in a different country that feels like home after your feet touch the land, and the hand that pulls at him is gentle. Toby knows it does not look like yield, but he is yielding. The boy pulls at his heart and already seems to know all the ways to say: please don't go.
Toby thinks: I got my wish. And my G-d, how much of me would you like in payment?
First kisses come easily, like water in his mouth. Sam is the one who presses his body hard against another man's, rising up against Toby's lust as though it is the warmth of sunlight. He thinks, though he does not ask because not knowing is a more bearable kind of pain, that Sam is new to all this; to a man's mouth and body, or if not that, he is new to Toby's kind of desire, which has survived through long practice more than activity and is a twisted thing now, not right for this boy. Longing crowds in him, like a second self: a clay man, one of many. Toby smiles, without much mirth, and wonders: how many second selves may a man have?
That he is so sure he must pay for such good fortune is not something Toby thinks about, only knows to be true. For a man who is never lucky (except that one time, that one important time) to suddenly win so big requires a counterbalance. So either some other poor schmuck gets Toby's breaks for a few years, or something else is following fortune. But it is not that part of the story yet, he thinks; not time yet for sins to find us out.
He will take Sam to the river in the coming days; he will hold the boy in his arms. He will find that words form more easily when the boy is with him; that he wants them to come and crowd out his thoughts into nothing but an act of creation, a blind white flash of words. He will start to keep a notebook. He will start to yield.
Sam is trying not to weep, Toby thinks. He has been using words like 'corruption', like 'damage', like 'sin' often in the past few weeks. He has been listening to the whispers in his heart. It is the phonecall from his father which changes him - disgraces all the worse for being secret. He will not tell Toby what has happened, but Toby can guess, has seen pictures of Sam's father and recognises the glint of the eye, the lawyer's ease with expedient deceptions. Sam's father is the reason Toby has a problem with Sam going to Law School.
But now he may have to. Toby has heard the rumours, from the other side of the Faculty room door. They think it is two of the undergraduates, two upperclassmen and all they are looking for is proof - from anywhere they can find it, which is one of a number of reasons that Sam should not be here tonight, sitting in a bath of cooling water, in Toby's apartment. He hasn't told the boy yet, but that doesn't matter - Sam can hear whispers in the wind.
"Are you cold?"
"The water's hot."
"I won't allow it, Sam."
"How are you going to stop it? They already think you're a Communist. And you're corrupting a nice American boy with your filthy European homosexuality. A nice Protestant boy too."
"You oughta work harder with the accent."
"Yeah, I've only been here twenty years."
"You think that matters to them?"
"I think you're imagining conspiracies."
"Did they make you sign a piece of paper saying you weren't a homosexual? That you're not a Communist? Nice Christian values and, by the way, sir, could you try to keep all that Jewish stuff a bit quiet, sir?"
"Yes," Toby says, quietly.
"Yeah, well, me too."
"It puzzles me that the two things are thought to be related - homosexuality and Communism. That has never made sense to me."
"Things happen, Sam. Things like this."
"Yeah. I guess."
"They don't suspect ... anything."
"How -- "
"Because I'm still here." He leans over, kisses Sam's wet hair. "Don't worry."
Sam takes in a deep breath. "It will happen."
"Perhaps. But not tonight." He gathers water in his hand and lets it fall over Sam's back. "Not tonight."
"Let me stay?"
"They won't miss you?"
"They won't notice."
"Then of course."
Toby smiles. "Okay."
"I hate ... I hate the deceit."
Sam sighs again, then slips back in the bath, resting his head on the rim. Toby keeps his eyes on the boy's face. Sam's eyes are closed.
"Talk to me," Sam says.
"Get out of that. And come to bed. Then I'll talk to you."
Toby smiles, and strokes his hand over Sam's wet hair. "Come to bed."
Sometimes Toby thinks: you must hate me too, since it's my secrets you are keeping. And I should let you go but I can't, not yet. You can still be mine a little longer.
Sam climbs out of the bath. Toby tries not to watch him but can't help it. He is so slender, still more boy than man with his small hands and sharp hips. Toby cannot see any veins standing out in his arms or hands and his chest is smooth. Only by his thighs could you place his age any higher than seventeen - they are thick with muscle and covered with his dark hair. Toby looks away as Sam turns to face him.
"It's alright. You can look at me," he says softly.
"You don't like it."
"I don't mind."
"I know you don't like it."
"But you like to look."
"That's no reason, Sam."
"I don't mind," he says and touches Toby's shoulder. "Come on."
The boy who is much too beautiful to be sharing Toby's bed walks from bathroom to bedroom with his back held too straight. Toby thinks: he hates this, but he trusts me. You shouldn't, Mr. Seaborn, you really shouldn't. He follows, three steps behind, and doesn't watch as Sam gets into the bed and makes himself comfortable on the side that is now as good as his own. Toby undresses with his eyes on the floor and turns out the light.
They kiss that night for a long time. Toby can taste the fear in Sam's mouth. He clings on to Toby's body as though onto a raft in the ocean. What is it you think I can save you from? Toby thinks. What are you doing here?
"Will you tell me about your father? Your family?"
"There isn't much to tell."
"But ... I mean, you got out, didn't you?"
"We did, yes. My mother and my brother and sisters."
"Not your dad?"
"What happened to him?"
"It's a long story, Sam."
"I'm not so tired, Toby," Sam says, smiling as though he knows Toby is talking to him exactly as he used to talk to his little brother David, and is quite happy to let it pass. "Tell me."
"It's not a very pleasant story either."
"I didn't think it would be," Sam says. He smiles gently. "Tell me anyway."
This is not quite the story which Toby tells his lover. This, in its particulars, is the story Toby will not tell anyone until he tells everyone and by so doing, breaks his father's spell. It is easy to hate a dead man; Toby manages it every day.
His mother is always telling him that he judges his dad, Jules, much too hard. Toby thinks he goes easy on the hate. He is ten years old and he suspects rottenness in his kind-eyed father and does not know why; does not need a reason, really, only feels it tighten in his chest when he looks at Julie Ziegler, with his hat in his hand and the frays of threads coming out at the sleeves of his coat. Something in Toby despises his father, something in the son looks for the expression of pride in the father and find him lacking - only a middle-aged man who keeps his head down and his hands busy and minds his business and that of his family. At ten years old this is not enough for his eldest son, whose unfocussed anger is looking for something keener, something more like a promise, a mythology; something better able to stand his love.
Toby thinks, has reasoned in fact, that he does not love his father. He wrote it in his journal in his small, slanted hand-writing: I do not think I love him. I do not think it is possible for me as it is for David, because he is young, or Hanna and Rachel because they are girls, or mama because he is her husband. He is nothing to me. But I do not think they will start to hate him as I do either. I hope they don't. Nothing touches Toby's heart like the knowledge that he is loved but cannot give love back where it is deserved and where he sees rottenness in his father, begins to see it in himself.
But he has, at the age of ten, accepted all this as quite ordinary and usual. He has friends who hate their fathers and friends who talk about them as if they are gods. Toby only knows a little better than them: knows he has sinned in indifference and disrespect and hatred and anger. He is not proud, but he will not lie either. When his friend Max asks why he never talks about his father, Toby only says that he has nothing to say. He does not - not to Max and Andras and Tomas, who yet might understand. And not to the others - to David or Hanna or Rachel, who know already. The words aren't ready yet, he says to himself, and knows it as truth.
He is thirteen when the National Socialists come to power in Germany; his brother David is nine; his sister Hanna sixteen; his sister Rachel fifteen. They seem frightened: David keeps to Toby's heel when they walk together in the street and clutches at his arm in a crowd, Hanna and Rachel whisper more and giggle less. Toby is frightened too, but lets anger wrap him up warmly against the cold stares that come that April. He looks Jewish, he knows, with his curled black hair and his nose growing crooked like his father's, and he doesn't feel German. At night, sometimes, he dreams about America - wide arms and a three-part promise that seems better than he can imagine now, in Germany, in 1933.
They keep, or kept before the laws came, a small shop in the high street in Cologne. Clothes: suits, shirts and collars, smart hats. His father is a good tailor and his mother a skilled seamstress and his sisters, though they, and Hanna in particular, who has big clumsy hands and an impatient mind, hate the small, fiddly work they do it anyway; they have few other choices. David, now the only one still too young to be press-ganged into at least occasional work in the shop, talks about going to university; he wants to be a scientist when he is a man and this amuses their father and pains their mother, who would probably have preferred at least one rabbi in the family. But David is quick and clever and the only time Toby sees him really happy is the half an hour they spend together walking home from school, for a while at least; Toby thinks he will probably get what he wants. When they ask Toby what he will be, he never knows what to tell them: the only things he loves are words, and it is hard to make bread from verbs and nouns these days, particularly if you happen to be Jewish.
It becomes hard, harder than imagination could have had it. Toby remembers wanting bread and missing sweetness on his tongue, but turning from food too, because he felt too sick with pride, with his thick Jewish tongue. He remembers his brother crying and his father disappearing for days on end. Toby wishes - half-wishes - that he wouldn't bother coming back and only for his mother's sake stops that silent prayer one night, when he sees her crying.
It is agreed between them, with few words, that escape is necessary - the only way to fight what is surely coming. There is an uncle - and here particularly Toby thanks G-d - in the United States. None of the children have ever met him or even seen his picture but he is to be the bright hope. Toby imagines a tall man with glasses and his father's (his own) crooked nose. He finds it odd that he does not hate this man too, even in the middle of this act of self-preservation.
They thought to send David on his own at first. At eleven he is quite tall, could almost pass for fourteen with his thickly smudged eyebrows and heavy hands. But he is too frightened, and holds on to Toby's arm when they discuss it at the table so hard that Toby thinks he might dislocate the shoulder. But if he is frightened then they are terrified for him, because he is the youngest and there is no way to protect a child; not a child like David. A compromise then, reached after three months wasted in shuttled letters back and forth from Cologne to New York: David will go with Toby and the rest will follow after. Having despaired of quieting David, who is listening to all this and wriggling with joy like a prisoner listening to his reprieve, Toby looks up at his father. Julie is sitting at the head of the table with his eyes directed down at its surface, rubbing his fingertips deep into the lines in his forehead. Toby thinks he looks like he might cry, like a small old man at the closing of his world. He does not look away as his father looks up at him and smiles. Julie stretches his hand out and touches his elder son's forehead.
"May you never know of any troubles, son."
Julie gets up from the table and goes to hug David, who clings on to him as he clung on to Toby. Toby says nothing, doesn't move. He thinks he may have just killed his father.
He and David catch the train in the September of 1935. Toby keeps every piece of battered, torn paper next to his chest and feels his heart beat through them past every guard and every checkpoint and every sign. At fifteen he has only a dim idea of how difficult these papers were to come by for even one of them; no idea of the pleading mixed with fraud and bribery, but Toby knows, as surely as if he had seen G-d himself write the letters that make up his name and David's in the book of their fate, ripped them out and handed them over, that they are immeasurably precious.
"Are we almost there?"
New York rises like salvation in the sea, after too long, after too many countries passed through with hardly a nod. David has lost track of where they have been as the days progressed and forgotten where they are supposed to be. He never moves from Toby's side, as though now he is father and mother as well as a brother loved too much. The train took them out of Germany and delivered them into the hands of the Dutch, a boat gives them to the British, a liner promises them America. Toby never lets his brother out of his sight, not that there is anywhere for David to go. Always a nervous boy, happiest with a pencil and a book, making notes on the creatures he pulled from the bottom of the Rhine, now he is smaller and almost always silent, speaking to Toby only in whispers. The kindness of strangers is lost on David, who turns into Toby's shoulder if anyone else speaks to him.
The first day in New York, looking at Brooklyn, looking up and trying to find the sky among the incredible height of the buildings and blocks of never-ending city, their uncle takes David and Toby onto the boardwalk at Brighton Beach and though David turns from the sea as though he has been slapped, Toby turns his face into the wind and thinks: home.
English they both learn quickly; David because he is small and sponge-like, sucking in information as he does oxygen, Toby because the quality of the words, their music, is fascinating to him. He learns grammar like David learns math, even though they must both study when the night has gone dark, after work has eaten up the day. Toby makes his brother speak English even at home, where their uncle is given to the language of his home: orders and scoldings and the songs he sang to David for the first few night when he wouldn't sleep, all given in Yiddish. But Toby isn't fooled: to be American kids they must forget all that and re-invent; Yiddish is what the ghosts speak, English the future.
He is amazed that he ever sees his sisters and his mother again, but he does, in the end. He is not surprised that Julie is not with them, not surprised by the story Hanna will only outline for him - that death tapped a finger on their father's back and kissed him coldly. As though their father is the price paid, his breath is multiplied, and shared between the five of them. Hanna will not give details. Toby has a feeling that her reticence is not from denial or too much sorrow; he thinks she would tell, if it were anyone but Toby. In the end he just nods and lets Hanna hug him and kiss his hair, but he still finds room for anger. They are all in fragments now, and his father's body sinking into the earth near the Rhine means Toby himself will never be free of the place; there will always be someone to remember, someone who did not escape.
Toby doesn't want to hear the rest of Hanna's desperate story - the long minutes it took to persuade their mother on board the train with them, pulling her arm, throwing her suitcase in the door ahead of her, the crying, the begging. She didn't want to leave their father, she said, it's not right to leave him here, all alone.
"How did you do it?" Toby asks, because he must.
(He's dead, ma.)
"Blackmail," Hanna says, with a shrug. "You and David."
(We're better off without him.)
"I wish you hadn't done that."
(I always hated the bastard anyway.)
"What did you want me to do, Toby? Maybe you'd like to try it next time."
"No, not really."
(Please come home.)
"Well, shut up then, okay?"
(Mama ... )
"It's okay now," Hanna says, forcing a smile. "All safe now."
"I'm sorry," Sam says.
"Don't be. Not your fault."
"Will you sleep?"
"Sleep well, Mr. Seaborn."
Toby sleeps well, he even dreams. Late in the night with Sam in his bed, Toby dreams in American.
In his dream there has never been anything but Cadillacs and soda and drive-in movies. Yet, nothing like America, he takes his boyfriend to a third-run showing of East of Eden and realises as he sits with his arm around Sam's shoulders in the Caddy with its hood up, that he does not find James Dean at all attractive. Sam is more impressed, but Toby is not jealous, because this is a dream, and it is a good one. The other kids (it does not seem incongruous, to Toby or anyone else, that he is at least fifteen years older than every other man here) have started necking before the movie is half done. Sweaters are being pulled and skirts tugged at. Sam is wearing black jeans and a white tee. His checked shirt was around his waist but is now on the floor of the car. It's not a convincing outfit. He looks more of a tough guy than Julie Harris, but only just. Toby looks down at himself and sees a sweater vest and an Oxford shirt, chinos in pale cream. He winces. As a picture it doesn't work, but in a dream dissonance is tolerated, and doesn't seem strange.
He turns to look at Sam and the boy turns too, and smiles at him. Toby finds the dream of him perfect, like a photograph, like a news reel of many very famous and absolutely imaginary events. Sam's eyelashes are so black that Toby wonders if his boy's secret deviancies have begun to stretch to transvestism and reaches to touch Sam's face with one fingertip. Sam allows it, and more - tilts his head into Toby's hand and turns his face to kiss Toby's palm. The boy turns like an animal; submission Toby wouldn't expect in life - not from this good-looking WASP lawyer's son with the perfect GPA and track team when he isn't falling over his feet ... when he isn't falling over his feet. Toby nudges Sam's leg with his own foot, and that does it, and the kid has thrown himself against Toby's body and his tongue is in Toby's mouth and everything is frantically, honestly, about clean, sugar-coated American sex in the back of a Cadillac. He almost remembers being a teenager, though there wasn't any such thing when he was young, or any boy as beautiful as this one.
And when he wakes with a young man in his arms, still beautiful even when dumb with sleep, Toby doesn't feel an ounce of guilt, nor shame either. He thinks, in fact, that he might almost be happy.
He asks in the most absolutely inappropriate place he could have chosen: in Toby's bed, in early March, huddled close though they have just had some pretty energetic sex, nestled against his chest because it is cold in Toby's small bedroom, Sam asks:
"What would you say to being my supervisor?"
"No, I mean, if I applied to Butler as a graduate student. I'd need a supervisor, someone I wanted to work with."
"Yeah. Why not?"
Toby raises his eyebrow, jabs his elbow in Sam's ribs. The kid squirms, but he is grinning. "I think this would give the Board a little pause, don't you?"
"I think it'd give them pause if I dropped out of college right now, Toby, if they walked in right now. More than a small problem, I would think. That's what I'm saying."
"So you think the best thing to do would be to compound that issue by becoming my graduate student? Presumably with a little help teaching my classes, grading papers, generally hanging around my office as you are so keen to do? Is this your way of telling me you don't want to continue this ... relationship, Mr. Seaborn?"
"No. The opposite, actually."
"And you're okay with that?"
"Sam, under normal circumstances you are almost a caricature of a moral young man. You exaggerate tiny transgressions into sins, you make an art of guilt, you have an almost childlike horror of breaking ethical rules -- "
"You said 'almost' twice and I don't think any of that is true."
"You'd like to try, perhaps?"
"Toby, I realise what you're saying. I'm saying it doesn't bother me -- "
"It doesn't bother you?"
"Hang on - it doesn't bother me as much as it would have done ... before."
"So you're saying I compromise your moral rectitude?"
"You're saying, if it was someone else - some other Professor sleeping with his grad student, that wouldn't be okay. But because it's you and I."
"I didn't say it was right."
"I'm not a child, Toby. You're ... you're not my grade school teacher. And you're not exactly a man of compromised ethics either."
"I'm not sure the Faculty Board would see it that way."
"Since when did you care what they think?"
"Since they sign my paychecks, Sam."
"We wouldn't get caught."
"What happened to sinning and corruption?" Toby asks, softly. "You were so keen on them last month."
"I got some perspective."
"You want to stay?"
Toby stares at the ceiling, keeps very still. "Okay," he says.
Sam smiles. "Good."
"You've already applied, haven't you?"
"It's late in the admissions cycle, Toby."
"I wouldn't have ... I mean, I -- "
"I know. Shut up. Go to sleep."
The boy sleeps easily in his arms, a whole night through. Toby has to leave him sleeping in the morning, with sunlight shining on his face.
There is a girl who is in love with him, whose eyes have made him decadent requests many times, a girl whose fetishes include - he can just tell - moaning the word 'Professor' as she comes. For reasons passing his understanding, she has decided that Toby will be that professor. Her name - fittingly, he thinks - is Helen. She is where the danger is. She is the one they suspect when they talk about him, if they talk about him. He still doubts they do. The whispers have become so low as to be almost silent. If he was pretty like Sam, then perhaps. But he is, if young, only a Jewish political science professor with less hair than the rest and aggressively polished shoes he wears with ageing suits in colours which do not often flatter, and that's nobody's real idea of a good time. Except Sam, who is so beautiful that he doesn't need to worry about beauty in others. Toby is worried about him and the reasons he is choosing, but love moves his heart: it seems he cannot say no.
Toby thinks about kissing him when he wakes up alone in his bed, after he has taken care of the erection which might be a result of the dream or just of the hour. The sun is high and cold just above the clouds and the window, just coming to dawn. He can just find the taste and warmth of Sam's mouth, at the edge of the dream as it is fading, if he watches the clouds move across the sky and doesn't think. It is the morning of Sam's interview with the Admissions Committee. Toby has marked it as a day of doom, one way or another.
"How are you feeling?"
Sam smiles. "I'll be fine."
"Don't be so optimistic, Sam."
"I mean -- "
"I know what you mean."
"And you're okay?"
"Are you sure you want to stay?"
"Little late to be asking that, isn't it?"
"Two more years?"
"I want to stay, Toby. I found my guy."
"Just remember that I'm not on the Admissions committee. So, you know, don't feel the need to come break the door down if they don't accept you."
"You think they won't?"
"No, I think they'd be crazy not to."
"But that doesn't mean they will."
"Okay, okay! I get the message - loud and clear. No optimism."
"Sam, just ... just be aware, okay?"
"Don't talk about me too much."
"Do I give myself away, Toby?"
Toby shrugs his shoulders. "You do this ... You do a thing."
"I do, huh?"
"You definitely do."
"Well, I hope they don't come ask you any questions about me," Sam says, smiling. "You can be very possessive, you know."
"I'll see you later."
Good luck, Toby whispers, as the door closes.
Toby thinks: he seems older now, he seems happier. Soon he won't be mine at all.
Toby thinks: I never knew a boy who belonged to books quite as well as Sam Seaborn does. (Well, perhaps one other.) They gather around him like the friends he does not seem to have or need and he talks to them, and the words are returned. He is a natural scholar, that much seems certain, and happy to devote his life to knowledge, in the hope that it can be useful. He seems so happy now, Toby thinks. I wonder how long it will last. It won't be forever.
His own words are crowding so thickly that he finds it difficult to think about anything but Sam, to whom all these new words belong. One day they will be useful, he thinks; one day they will be retrievable, but now all they are is a headache. Toby would like to have some silence again. As it turns out, he thinks, maybe there won't turn out to be much of a choice.
Something is coming, and it's not good. But Toby smiles. He thinks: being blessed was so disconcerting. Take it away, G-d. You should take him. This was never meant to last; it wasn't meant for me. Words to bring it on, words to summon what is coming. Toby whispers them into Sam's hair: take him back.
(break: be sure your sin will find you out)
It is a small fall, in the end. Nothing too awful: only disgrace, not death - just the marker, only shame. He takes it. Not happily and not without anger but not like a man who doesn't think he deserves the censure. They do find out, as Toby had known from the start they would. It is all much too poetic to have gone any other way. He refuses, absolutely, to reveal who his lover is. It needs a confession to bring Sam down with the ship and Toby will not give it, not to drown them both since they cannot both be saved.
Sam cries, angrily, shouting - screaming. Toby wonders, as he tries to hold the boy still, if the Faculty Board will hear him and come running, but they do not. They are a disappointment always, and do not recognise their own cues. But Sam is furious, crackling like brush-fire in Toby's arms. You can't, you can't he says. So Toby kisses him. He pulls away, pushes his hands against Toby's chest in fists, his thumb presses hard against the hollow of Toby's neck and the nail scratches Toby's skin. Toby can't let him go - holds on tighter than he meant to and wraps his arms around Sam's head, covering him and pressing his face hard to Sam's hair. Toby kisses him again.
"But I'm going to."
"I'm not okay with this!"
"Don't I get a say?"
"Then what was the point - of any of this?"
He thinks of a dozen different answers. Comfort, maybe, or experimentation. Two bodies holding each other in the dark? Except that is too simple an answer for him, and for Sam too, who always asked the difficult questions and drove everyone mad. So he tries something else.
"I think ... I think maybe you wanted to break some rules, Sam. Before you settled, before you grew up. And I wanted to let you."
Sam is silent. His mouth is open a little and his eyes have darkened. "So it's not about love then? It never has been?"
"I don't think so, no."
He says, "I thought you loved me."
Toby says nothing and can't keep Sam's eyes, can't keep from shifting, foot to foot, with his hands in his pockets.
"This is the part where you lie and push me away and try to save me from my decadent urges? Is it? Toby?"
"Sam -- "
"No - is that what this is right now?"
"Sam, I don't want to do this right now."
"I don't really care that much, Toby. You're going to hang yourself and you expect me to watch? And say nothing and let you walk away? Because you think, for the story to sound right you have to hurt me and make me into a man because you fucked me? Is that it, Toby?"
"Sam -- "
"This isn't a story, Toby."
"No, it's not."
"But ... you have to take it and twist it until it is. You should write, not teach. You should go write speeches for Eisenhower. Poetry. Something you can control with no real people in it."
"How did you think it would end, Sam? Did you want a happy ending?"
"I never thought I would get one."
"You have to go now, Sam."
"Having made me a man?"
"Having made you a man." Toby leans in and takes Sam's hand, pulls his arm up and round so that it bends, halved, against his chest and wraps his other arm around Sam's shoulders. His hand is warm in Toby's and his fingers tighten.
"Don't you love me?" Sam asks, in the same voice he might use to say: are you out of coffee? Where are the eggs? Nothing plaintive in him anymore, nothing boyish. Toby can see the day's stubble pricking on his upper lip. His eyes don't seem sky blue now, but more like a dark city river: only the slightest hint of colour. Toby kisses him.
"Because it's right, Sam. Or better than this."
"I think so."
"What if I don't agree?"
"Come back. Later. Find me."
"When I'm older, you mean?"
"Yes, when you are ... older."
"I can hear your accent when you send me away. You sound German when you send me away."
"I love you," he says, against Sam's cheek. "How did that sound?"
Sam smiles. "American."
"Yes." Toby kisses his cheek and tries for a daring, broken, handsome smile. "Now beat it."
"Okay," Sam says, with a nod. "I'll see you."
(interlude: nothing is the same)
In the end they will both write the same story, from opposite sides. Toby takes the war, Jewishness and occupations of the mind; Sam Communism, homosexuality and occupations of the heart. They pass no notes, they admit nothing, but they both change their names and recreate kisses they are sure the other one has forgotten and want to write in the dedication something like: This is for him, because of love. Neither one does.
Toby writes a slim book, and writes it first. It is neither poetry nor prose but he is amazed by how many people use the word 'beautiful' when describing it back to him. Sam's diarist tendencies slip into his first manuscript and throw it slightly off balance; and his agent can't sell it, but it has great promise, she tells him, keep writing me these, and one day we'll have a Pulitzer on our hands here. But Sam just keeps writing towards the story he knows is coming.
Neither man thinks of the other, except in echoes - an odd taste at the back of the throat; a scent not quite remembered into a name or a place, or not clearly. Neither one thinks of the other, except in the pages of the manuscripts: in red ink and corrections, in torn-up pages and the few phrases that make them say, silently, yes.
It is 1970, and nothing is the same.
Sam becomes a writer on his thirty-fifth birthday. It's a little thing, just a short story, the overspill of the diary he has been keeping for six years with absolute faith, except that one day, August 15th. That page was pulled out of this year's journal when Sam realised that disguising his missing lover in prose is not a usual part of the daily chronicle. He doesn't understand where it came from, why it flowed out on that day and not another, why it hasn't come sooner. But it comes on his birthday and, thinking back, Sam finds that oddly, excruciatingly, appropriate.
It is not clear to Sam how much he loves the words for their own sake, and how much of him is always listening for applause. He's been tempted, since he found out that he was listening, to blame Toby for this new set of worldly concerns; Toby who was quietly, murderously jealous of every beautiful phrase and every beautiful writer he ever met or passed by on the way to his own section of shelf in the 'Z' section in Barnes and Noble. Where else can he possibly have learnt to listen to this shadow over his shoulder, when Toby is the only teacher he's ever had who mattered?
It's a quiet day in Sam's Californian town and he is thinking of the beach later, perhaps, a short stroll in the sunshine to get his muscles warm and to coax his words out into the daylight. Main Street is as good as empty though the day is fine, though the hour is not unfriendly. He wonders where everyone has gone. At the head of the street, as the road rises into the distance, away from the path he should take to the beach, is a bookshop. He almost tells himself not to go in, because lately it's been more like torture to see the work of other writers, bound prettily and available to buy for a couple of dollars. But he thinks of the smell, the comfort of the air conditioning and the company of books; he can't resist.
He wanders, from the Poli. Sci. texts to the rhyming dictionaries, to the maps and guidebooks. He stops in poetry for a while, trying to figure if he really needs another edition of the complete Frost. He decides he does not, this time, though now this edition bears some quality fingerprints. They could easily track him back to his apartment, make him pay up. He smiles, and turns towards the back of the store. Fiction is his last stop, the only real horror in the place; where destiny has not yet come to rest for intrepid hero Samuel N. Seaborn. He decides, as he does often does, that he will begin at the end of the alphabet. There is nothing nudging at his heart, no warning - only the books of the 'Z' shelves, waiting for his attention.
Of course it's the first thing he sees. He's shocked - jostled by memory and the almost-tangible reanimation of desire - when he sees Toby's slim book staring up at him, it's front cover turned outwards in the row, in the middle of the shelf, announcing itself. It is small, blue-covered. There is an outline map of what is probably Brooklyn, Sam can't really tell, on the cover and silver letters making the title. Smaller, black letters make up the name of the author. He frowns, almost passes straight past - maybe there are other Toby Zieglers. But he has to pick it up. Sam opens the front page, expecting - dreading - a photograph of the author on the inside slip of the dust jacket. When there is nothing but blank page he feels his gut twist in disappointment. He realises he has no pictures of Toby. He finds his fingers stroking the cover, over the lightly embossed name of his former mentor (it must be him - Sam has read the first few paragraphs now; it must be). But he gets angry quickly, because he hadn't known and no-one had told him, because this was going to be his thing - something with his name on it, something where all the acknowledgements are silent; not a 'Ziegler' to be found. He was going to be the writer.
He buys the book anyway.
Sam discovers that he is a compulsive diarist in his junior year at Butler, the last pre-Ziegler year. So he cannot blame Toby for that at least. In the diary go the petty events of his life, which he still believes are events at the time, because he is only nineteen and small things still matter a great deal, because nothing large has yet come along to displace them. He is not in love - not really - but he does have good friends and decent classes which he enjoys and the track team and the library work and the girl in the blue sweater who occasionally comes in and smiles at him as she takes back the books he has just stamped for her. He remembers Bobby for the diary as well, probably too much. But memories are the substance of friendship this year, since his best friend disappeared.
He doesn't need to work but he does anyway. He applied for work in the library because he likes the books and also the impression that this must make him look intelligent. That he already looks intelligent and is only cementing his reputation as a square doesn't quite occur to him. But even if it had, or if an unkind friend had thought to point it out to him, Sam wouldn't have minded. He likes the quiet too: deeper than any romance he has of his own scholastic prowess is the satisfaction he gets from the steady crossing off of the days in his work. He likes the knowledge that he is learning; that he seems to be good at it; that this, this which is so full of pleasure, is work.
The other draw is the books themselves. They cluster around him warmly, walls of knowledge. Sam says a silent 'hi' to them as he comes in on his mornings in the stacks. He tells this to one of his friends one day in a fit of joy-driven trust and immediately wishes he hadn't. It doesn't occur to Sam that maybe he needs some new friends until he hears the story passed back to him by one of their girlfriends, pity in her face.
It's in the library that he first sees Toby Ziegler. It's in the library that he first touches Toby Ziegler.
It's the library that gives Toby his name.
The Professor (and in Sam's head this is a title that belongs to only one man, whose voice disappears too quickly from his memory after lectures however hard Sam tries to hold on to it) doesn't come into the library often, but on the very first day of the semester proper, when Sam has had his job for a little over an hour, he makes an appearance.
Sam is on the front desk. He is anxious this morning because he is sure that everyone can see the coffee stain he made on his white shirt at breakfast, and keeps pulling up the v of his sweater to hide it, then tapping his fingers on the desk, as though to remind them that they have a job to do. He is fiddling with the sweater when the Professor comes into the library and doesn't notice the dark-haired man standing at the desk, rocking a little on the balls of his feet.
"Sorry," he stutters. "Er, hi. Good morning. Can I help you?"
The man stares at him. "Is this your first day?"
"Nevermind. Can you get me a copy of the senior class Political Science text? Or whatever corresponds to such a thing."
"Sure, sir. I can get that for you, or ... er, I can show you where it is?"
"Sure," the guy says, with, Sam thinks, a touch of amusement in his face: why not go for a trip with this strange kid? "Sure."
The library closes round them, distressingly like a labyrinth once Sam is alone in it with this man and grasping wildly at the floorplan he thought he had learnt three years ago when he first came to Butler; the stacks seem unfriendly and the man is walking too close behind him. He's an odd guy, Sam thinks; saying nothing but breathing loud enough that Sam can hear him in the quiet of the library, as though his mouth is opening with silent questions, as though he is appraising the back of Sam's head. He can hear the guy's steps even clearer. They have no rhythm and yet they sound a little like a dance.
They round on the right stack and Sam turns his head a little as he walks, a touch faster now, and smiles, tilts his head to indicate the end of the journey. The man nods, unsmiling. Sam blushes a little in response.
"Here we are - Poli. Sci. 318, basic text. It's not that great actually: not much the way of sources, not really much for interpretation. The history more or less stops at Locke."
"Are you a historian?"
"No," Sam says, suddenly reluctant. "Political Science ... and English. Double major."
"An interesting combination."
Sam bows his head: that was more or less what his father had said. But when he looks up, though he isn't sure, though it could be only a trick of the library's ancient light fixtures, he thinks he sees a smile in the man's dark eyes. But he doesn't have time to be sure, because with a wave of the book in his hand and a gruff word of thanks, the man is gone; his quick, drunken dance of a step echoing through the stacks.
He doesn't know if it is fate or good fortune (or bad) which gives him Bobby Kendrick as a roommate his freshman year. The guy is, if not handsome, then that strange kind of attractive which takes no account of symmetry of face or proportions of body. That is not to say that he is unattractive and far from it - he stands about five foot ten, with broad crooked shoulders which rise perhaps a half inch higher on his left than his right because that hand is always in his pocket, and he has dark, thick hair that grows low on his neck. His mouth too is dark, less pink than almost purple, and his upper lip is slightly fuller than his lower, lending his face the same kind of oddly fascinating asymmetry as the rest of his body. His voice is low and his hands are big and like a workman's, Sam thinks, having only a small stock of workman's hands with which to compare them. At night, before he turns in, Bobby sits around their room in his undershirt and reads poets Sam has never heard of, despite his course load. And sometimes Bobby ruffles Sam's hair with his big hands, as though he is a child. And Sam wonders why he doesn't resent it, since he hates his pink, baby-face and thin shoulders and kid's hands and anything that reminds him that maybe he is less than a man. Bobby calls him 'kid' as if he is twenty years Sam's senior, instead of a few months. And Sam always feels younger and smaller around his friend, as though he might find a place to be safe with him. It takes him three months of Bobby's presence to work out why.
Sam thinks that the best word to describe Bobby, a word which he writes more than once in the margins of his journal, is magnetic. In his freshman year, Sam writes a good deal about Bobby in the margins of his journal.
The books that cause the trouble don't appear in their room until after Spring Break. Half of Sam thrills at the expression of trust which such things imply: they must mean that Bobby knows him, knows that he would never tell. Not quite the Communist Manifesto but something close, something dangerous. Sam watches it, as though it is an animal not to be frightened, as though it might move if he takes his eyes off it. He watches it for the first few weeks and then, when Bobby is out one night, he picks it up and leafs through it, and puts it down abruptly when Bobby comes back an hour before he said he would. Sam's friend looks at him in amusement.
"You know you can read it if you like. I mean, if you want to. I'd like you to."
Sam smiles. "Maybe not. I mean, not such a good idea, is it? Having it around, I mean?"
"Why? Are you going to rat me out, Sam?"
"No," Sam says, shaking his head. "No, I'm not."
"Okay." Bobby smiles. "But I'm not hiding it. Okay?"
"Yeah. Sure, I guess."
"You're really sure, huh?"
"Shut up, Bob."
"Fuck you, Seaborn."
"Shouldn't you be calling me 'comrade'?"
"Fuck you, Sam."
"Go to bed, kid."
Bobby puts both his hands on Sam's shoulders and steers him towards the bed, pushes him down. "Will you get the hell to sleep, Sam?"
"Yes," Sam says, head on the pillow, still smiling.
Nothing comes of the book, or Bobby's hands on Sam's shoulders either; not in the next few weeks anyway. The book stays on Bobby's credenza and the memory of his hands stay in Sam's mind. Now at night, just before they both get the hell to sleep, Bobby has started sharing passages with Sam, pulling him over and holding the book open for him, so Sam can read this book which is not quite as bad as the one that could get the pair of them blacklisted over Bobby's crooked shoulder. Sam starts to let the ideas speak to him, and though he knows right then and there that he is not now nor will he ever be, the poetry of idealism wraps around his heart. And though it will never be his, part of Sam wants it; because it is his friend's.
A month or so after that, near the end of the year, he gets the better part of his wish. He has just opened his mouth to argue a point with Bobby, something he isn't sure about beyond the surety of faith: though he cannot prove himself right, he knows he believes. As he is about to speak, Bobby kisses him; half-expected (expected for a long time) and half shocking, because he has never kissed another boy before and isn't prepared for what he imagines will have become stubble-burn in the morning.
Bobby kisses with one hand in his pocket, tilting his left shoulder up. Sam puts out a hand and touches it and isn't surprised that it does not move. He smiles against Bobby's mouth.
"Your shoulder," Sam says, stroking it lightly.
"It's nothing. Just something you do."
Sam says, later: "I like you ... a lot."
"Sam. Come on."
"What? I do."
"I'm not your boyfriend, Sam. And you're not a sixth grade schoolgirl."
"Come on yourself, Bob! I like you, is that so awful?"
"A Commie queer?"
"Don't say that, Bobby."
He shrugs. "Why not? It is true after all."
"I don't care."
"You should, Sammie. Really you should."
When Bobby goes to the meetings, Sam goes with him. He sits at the back with a mug of coffee cooling in his hands and listens to the music of ideas sing through the air. Bobby's voice isn't the loudest, or the most commanding but, for Sam, it undercuts the rest, bass notes and the rhythm of the discourse. Most of it Sam doesn't quite understand and a lot of what he does understand makes him angry and breathless with defence, but when Bobby is speaking, Sam finds he has to listen. Only after they've come back home and Sam is lying in bed, across the room from Bobby who is already asleep and breathing softly, does Sam think of words to explain the ways they are wrong, and he never has a chance to say any of them.
The next night Sam comes back from classes and a hasty trip to the library to grab the last of the Poli. Sci. texts before they all disappear, expecting Bobby at his desk, in his shirtsleeves, reading, with his back to the door. The room is empty, dark. So Sam shrugs and settles down with his own book, facing the door, and waits. Hours pass slowly, and no-one comes. Sam falls asleep, uncomfortably, with the first year political science textbook open at John Locke.
The next day they call him out of calculus and give him the news. Bobby Kendrick is gone, they say, in a way which tries to imply vanishment but which really means and we think you know why, Mister Seaborn, so please keep it quiet. He won't be coming back either way. Sam nods and goes back inside the room and almost trips over his desk. A week later, the semester and the year end. Sam packs up half of a hollow room and leaves for California. He almost leaves his journal behind; he doesn't write in it so much anymore.
Sam's father has clear opinions. He has a letter from the College open and clearly much-read on his desk in the study. Sam stares at the Butler crest thinking that, yes, betrayal really does feel like a slap in the face.
"He was Red, Sam. Your best buddy was a Communist -- "
"Dad, he was never -- "
"I don't want to hear another word about him, Sam. Is that understood, son?"
He gets his own room for the second year, as if his father's instruction to remove Bobby from sight and sound and memory and record has been carried to the Board and approved there too; for all Sam knows, it has been. Because he's a nice young boy with all the right letters in his name and none of the wrong books in his bag, he gets a second chance; at a price. He touches the bare walls with his fingertips and wonders that they think this will help; as if loneliness will cure desire, as if an empty room is easier to forget in. Sam is quick to learn that it is not.
It's a very quiet stack. Mostly a row of worthies discussing Silver Latin epic poetry and no-one ever comes in here, not even the classics majors. Sam knows the Professor is following him - his footsteps that always sound different are echoing against the books - and wonders how he knew. Sam feels, and he's sure its the influence of all this mythology - gods and legends attaching to his skin and creeping under his tongue like dust - that he ought to be leaving his way behind him with a red thread. But he's not sure if his trail would be the means of his escape, or a lure for the Professor. Sam presses his sweaty fingers against the spines of the books he passes, and leaves the only trail he can. He turns and walks backwards for a few steps, sees the Professor round the corner. He is coming slowly and his eyes are very dark in the dull light of the library, at dusk. Sam turns and stops and rests his hand against the oversize atlases and manuscripts that end the corridor, and listens to his breathing.
He's closer now. Sam can hear the rustle of his clothes, the creak of his shoe leather as he comes to a stop then shifts his weight to the other foot. Sam smiles, and turns round.
"Why -- "
The Professor can't finish his sentence, can't say: why did you lead me here, why did you make me follow you? Unless he's asking: why did I come?
"I don't know."
Sam does know, of course. He has imagined this before - with Bobby, with the girl in the blue sweater, but most often with the Professor: the pretence of control before he submits, his arms around some warm solid body and welcome oblivion, for a few seconds anyway. He doesn't imagine it would be that easy with the Professor, but he's allowed to dream these last few seconds, before something does happen, before they reach whatever agreement they have to offer each other, even if all it comes to is a quick, horrible grope hidden behind maps of the Roman Empire drawn in the 1900s. Sam looks up at him.
"I'm sorry," he says.
The Professor is shaking his head, slowly. But he is not looking at Sam and when he does raise his head, just as slow, creating a thickness of air around his body, seeming to grow darker against the dim lamps, he stares, and it is terrible. Sam has not realised - not taken sufficient note before now of how black his beard is, and how dark his eyes, how red his mouth and sharp his shoulders. He is a much younger man than Sam believed when what he saw was a little academic grey at his temples and heard soft vowels in his accent and only thought: teacher, even as he imagined being fucked against the stacks. It seems he has made an awful mistake.
He stares at his Professor, watches his lips and his hand when it comes up to brush at his moustache. Sam wants to kiss him very badly but imagines he is now just three conversations away from expulsion instead of a few minutes from deviant, wonderful orgasm.
The Professor comes closer. He is, ordinarily, an inch or so smaller than Sam but seems so tall now as he comes closer and Sam sinks down against the books.
"Professor -- "
The man stops. His hands are in the act of reaching out - for Sam's shoulders maybe, or his hand to pull him up, to make him be a man and answer for what he has tried to do. But he stops, and his hand moves, and his fingers touch Sam's cheek, and his thumb brushes over Sam's mouth, as though that was what he wanted to do all along.
Sam stands, with difficulty, with one hand holding hard to 'A New Gazetteer of Constantinople' and hearing the crunch of spines and smelling the half century's worth of dust he has just freed. The Professor is still staring, but Sam reads something else in it now - some of the blackness has given way to red, warmly, and full of swelling desire, growing fat with the sight of Sam's lips.
"Sir, I ... I don't want - I mean, I'm sorry. I shouldn't ... "
"No, you shouldn't," he says, in his voice like low thunder. "Do you do this often, Mr. Seaborn?"
"I am glad to hear that."
"I'm sorry, sir -- "
"I followed you, didn't I?" he says, interrupting. He is standing much too close now, and he has one arm braced against the stacks himself, close by Sam's head. If he wanted, Sam could lean his face to the fabric of the Professor's sleeve - rough tailoring that must be American but doesn't look it.
"Professor -- "
Sam looks at him; feels caught in the quiet, dangerous stare which is now so close to his face. He begins to speak, stops, stutters. The Professor stays perfectly still. Toby, he says, whispers, breath touching Sam's lips.
Sam nods, smiling at himself again, finally - embarrassed, red-cheeked, but gloriously so. As he bows his head, his hair falls against the Professor's forehead.
"That sounds ... better."
They kiss so easily, gentle. Sam puts his fingers in the Professor's not-so-grey-after-all hair; Toby's hands rest on his shoulders and start to slip up into Sam's hair also, and Sam doesn't know what he thinks of that, but he can feel, as he shifts closer to him, Toby's high erection pushing at his hip. They kiss for a long time, like exploration - every taste and texture of their mouths picked and catalogued, while everything gets harder, in time with the throb of blood in Sam's ears. He feels light-headed. He clings on. And when they are done kissing they stand and rock against each other, waiting to walk again.
"I can't ... here," the Professor says.
"Come see me later. My office hours finish at four o'clock. Come then."
"Goodbye, Mr. Seaborn," he whispers, with his lips close to Sam's ear. His beard scratches Sam's skin like cold rain - numbing and vital at once. Sam leans his head closer.
He says, playing, experimenting: "Professor Ziegler -- " and Toby kisses him as his tongue has started to push out the 'r' of 'Ziegler'. His fingers are in Sam's collar and his knee is nudging at Sam's thighs - but he breaks, suddenly, with his eyes full and dark and his bottom lip a little swollen. He tries to smile but it looks more menacing than kind; desire blackening the tenderness in his face.
"Later," Sam says.
He goes first, pulling at his jacket then with his hands in his pockets. His elbow, the round of his hip brushes the stacks as he goes, listing almost, like someone drunk. Sam grins as he watches the Professor go and, like a girl, rubs the tips of his fingers against his mouth which feels tender and pink and tastes, as he runs his tongue over it, wonderfully, of smoke and dust and another man. Sam smiles, breathes out a long breath, and walks out of the stacks in the other direction.
It is half past one. Bright sunshine and the rustle of voices like leaves is filling the quad. Sam walks from the Library end to the other side, where his dorm is, without missing a beat of his step, without looking up at the sky to shout joy for the thing that has just happened to him. He enters his block, climbs the stairs two at a time, reaches his landing, passes the three doors which precede his own, fumbles in his pocket for his key, opens the door quickly and enters, closes it and stands for a minute with his back against the wood, grinning.
The only thing to do, the only thing that seems right, is to write it down before it fades too far: before four o'clock.
Sam writes: he's not what he seems to be. No one is, but the Professor - Toby, he's asked me to call him Toby - he is a man made out of his secrets and everything hidden. I hardly know him but I know that. And I feel as though I know him better than I can truly be able, like he's been with me for a long while and we're only just now realising it. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about - I'm sure that's true. And maybe it's just because he kissed me and I've wanted that since the start of the year, since he came. Maybe because we're both ... that way. So I'm become a man made of his secrets too - a man who wants to sleep with other men. Or just one man, just one now.
Sam writes: he kissed me, and in an hour or so I think he's going to do more than that. And maybe I should feel guilty - he wears a wedding ring besides his being my Professor (he writes: and a man, but crosses it out) - but I don't, I don't.
Three forty-five comes round like a jab in Sam's ribs, suggesting a look at his watch just as the minute hand rounds the number nine. It takes ten minutes to cross the quad. Sam stands, closes his diary and locks in it his dresser drawer, puts the key in his pocket. He wonders if he should change his shirt but decides against it - too obvious, too like what a girl would do - so he only straightens his collar and throws some water on his face before he steps out, and makes for the school block.
His door is in the middle of a small corridor of doors on the ground floor of the building. As Sam takes his last step towards it, the door opens, swinging out far enough to send a heavy current of air past Sam's face. He flinches, and steps back. He can hear the Professor speaking, sounding impatient, sounding more than eager to be rid of the guy who is backing out of the office, holding his books tight to his chest like protection. Sam grins despite himself, and waits behind the door.
"You're not going in there are you?" the guy asks, seeing Sam as he pushes his glasses up his nose with a free finger.
"God go with you, friend," he says, walking off with quick steps, in the other direction.
The office is sparse, its main decoration being sheaves of paper and books piled in uneven towers on desks and the floor. Sam can't help reading the upside down articles and small slips on which the Professor's scrawl climbs and dances. There is a stack of essays which Sam thinks he recognises. He looks away.
"Hello," the Professor says, from behind his desk now. He is not sitting but moving to and fro, picking up books and then discarding them, shuffling paper into his briefcase and then seeming to change his mind and unpacking the whole lot again. Sam winces.
"Give me a minute, please."
"Yeah ... sure." Sam watches him a minute or two more, then, "Would you like a hand, Professor?"
"No, Mr. Seaborn. Stay right there. Try not to read anything."
The door is still open. Sam leans against the jamb and watches, momentarily contented.
"Walk with me," the Professor says, after a minute or two, holding his briefcase in his left hand.
"Where are we going?"
"I don't know. Let's see."
The invisible road is one which Sam thinks the Professor knows very well. He walks slightly ahead through the campus, past all the administration buildings and into the grounds. Sam has never been here, so while half his attention is on the man walking in front of him (on the curls at the back of his neck and the way his hands swing wide from his wrists as he moves), the other half is on the trees and green space opening out in front of him, all of which seems new, yet familiar; promised. The trees make a kind of wide tunnel, their branches and canopies dappling the sunlight on the road in front of them. Toby knows the way, he is sure, from the way his steps miss all the half-hidden depressions in the soil which upset Sam's balance and make walking difficult. After a while he just watches the Professor walking, taking his rhythm; it seems to help.
They walk for perhaps twenty minutes. Sam hadn't known the grounds were so extensive. He can't hear the noise of the campus, nor any road close by them. The clearing has opened out, the trees are thinning out. Sam thinks he can hear running water.
"Will anyone see us?"
"If this were a place we were likely to be seen, Mr. Seaborn, I would not be bringing us to it."
"Do you come here a lot?"
"Do you bring other ... Do you bring people here?"
"No. I bring my ghosts here."
"Nothing, Mr. Seaborn. Keep walking - not far."
"Why do you wear that ring?" Sam asks, after a few more steps. "Are you married?"
"I was married."
"My wife died."
"I'm sorry," Sam says. He thinks he might even mean it; for the brief look of liquid grief in Toby's eyes which he catches as he turns and meets the brief turn of the other man's head, almost furtive, he would apologise any time.
"I never thought about taking it off."
Sam reaches out to his side and takes the Professor's hand as he walks, catching it on the upswing. Sam strokes his fingers, over the shiny smooth place where the ring sits, then over the short nails, back down to the thick knuckles. "I'm sorry," he says again, testing the shape of the words in his mouth.
"Don't be sorry, Sam." He stops walking, twists his hand in Sam's so that their fingers are linked together. "We're here."
There is a stream. Toby lets go of Sam's hand and stands beside it, almost proudly, as though the water is his, as though it is a thing of his that Sam will find beautiful. Sam smiles and goes to stand with him at the water's edge. Toby gets down on his knees and runs his fingers through the water; Sam puts his hand on the Professor's broad back as he does, lets his hand stay still and flat, as though he can remember a whole body and the quality of this afternoon from one point of contact. The Professor's too-long curly hair draws Sam's fingers upwards, pressing into his neck and rubbing curls between his thumb and forefinger. The Professor doesn't move.
The Professor stands (Sam's hand slips down off his back like water) and turns round from the stream. "Do you like it?" Toby asks, almost as though he is frightened.
Sam nods. "It's beautiful."
"I come here sometimes."
He lies on his back and lets the Professor touch him. Toby lies curled round, propped on his elbow, exploring with his other hand, travelling down. From Sam's hair which he touches as though it is holy; down his chest (Sam arches up into his palm and is pushed back down), slipping his fingers between the shirt buttons; rubbing over his stomach; cupping his crotch. Toby kisses him, gentle at first and then harder, pushing his shoulder down into the ground, catching Sam's lower lip between his teeth and perhaps drawing a little blood. Sam pushes back then, feeling challenged; with his eyes closed he puts both his hands on the Professor's chest and pushes him away. Toby looks down on him, pupils blown, breathing heavily. Sam stares back at him.
"You don't like that?" he asks.
"No, I like that fine."
There are shadows over him, shadows with names and histories cut very short, very brutal. Sam guesses at what they are and though the Professor has never spoken of where he came from Sam knows a German accent when he hears one and a Jewish man when he looks at one; he can do the math. But this is not what makes Toby. When he looks at the Professor he sees: a coiled secret, waiting to spring out; lusts packed together with no space for breath, no space for compassion; a man with sad eyes who seems much older than he is; something extraordinary disguised as quite the most ordinary-looking individual you could imagine, promising something astonishing, when the time is right. There is one button undone at the top of his waistcoat. Sam wants to put his hands inside it.
"Do you want to stop?" the Professor asks. His accent is thicker now, Sam thinks; less Brooklyn, more ... somewhere else.
"Do you want to do more?"
"Didn't I ask you?"
"Yes, you did. Do you want more?"
"You know what could happen," he says, not like a question but as though he is looking at a possible ending in a novel he is reading, trying to warn the hero to stop before it is too late. Sam wonders which one of them he is speaking to.
"I don't care."
"You should," the Professor says, before he bends his head close to Sam's again.
The sex is what Sam remembers, what he focusses on when he thinks of Toby in the first few months, what goes down in the diary. He makes stories from details, dissects the tone of Toby's moans and the angle of his hips jerking down into his own and the hand that holds on too hard to his shoulder and the kiss on the back of his neck. He's never had so much sex in so short a time. Days together seem to stretch into long afternoons next to Toby's body in his bed and then snap back into the bright five-second pleasure burst, and Toby's eyes smiling. Toby is a tower of heat and desire: he never seems sated, as though he is having all the best fucks of his life in the same two month period. Sam isn't complaining. He is exhausted, eating more because he is losing weight, laughing without looking around him to check for mocking eyes; he is happy.
It starts with small things usually. Toby's fingers are stroking the inside of Sam's bare arm, over and over in small, spiralling circles. Sam is getting an erection.
They lie on Toby's creaking bed, face to face, and kiss for a while. Both of them wonder why but neither of them makes as if to stop, neither one changes anything but the path of his mouth and the direction of his tongue. Both of them let a smile slip out the edges of their kisses. Sam strokes Toby's hair, particularly fond of the long downstrokes of his sideburns and the crinkles that sweep over his temples. He likes to be affectionate. Toby never strokes that way - always deliberate he is: finding a hot spot and rubbing at it, he soon knows more than one way to make Sam come.
Sam almost doesn't dare learn the same things. Toby's body is like a foreign country - he doesn't speak the language, gets turned round easily, feels panicked without a map. Toby lies down naked on his bed and puts his hands behind his head. Sam swallows. Toby tells him - without words - to take some initiative, to be a man. Come on. But it doesn't feel right, not yet. So Toby rolls him over and begins again, eating up Sam's feeble explorations and getting him lost in his own pleasure. Sam is almost crying with his ecstasy: he's had an epiphany, he wants to emigrate.
Toby keeps asking. Sam has started to wonder why he thinks he'd get off on being the passive one, on being the girl. It doesn't seem very in-character. But Toby keeps asking; Sam knows he won't be able to go on saying no.
One day it happens. It's simple and Freudian and born out of a split-second of hatred for Toby's black-eyed condescension and smooth words. He hadn't put a whole-hearted effort into that last essay, Toby claimed. (Sam thinks: I was a little busy being fucked by you.) And after pouring out his resentment in red ink into the diary, Sam goes to his closet and picks out his whitest shirt and his blackest tie and the pants he knows Toby can't not stare at him in and slams the door of his room behind him and half-runs over to the Professor's place. When he knocks on the door he realises he is covered in sweat, but not from fear. His eyes feel black inside his head, there is a red glow at the edges of his heart.
"I want to talk to you."
"I want to tell you something."
He always seems to forget, just like the first time, that he is actually taller than Toby. The Professor is broader, older, but Sam is in training and knows his small hands are balanced by his strong shoulders. He uses them to push Toby back against his apartment door, hard. Toby is smirking; he knows what is coming, and that only makes Sam angrier.
He fights back, half-heartedly, as an adult does with a child - no intention to hurt. Sam pushes harder, digs his teeth into Toby's shoulder through his shirt. Toby cries out; Sam grins. But on the bed, with Toby on his back with his arms thrown out over the sides and the hollow of his chest shadowing with huge inhalations, Sam knows he can't do it. He moves between Toby's legs and knows it won't work. He puts out a hand and cups Toby's cheek: I'm sorry. Toby smiles: you were just getting it.
Sam will try for that smile. So he waves his hand:
"Open your legs."
Sam listens to the song that starts oh god oh god as though there is a prayer he cannot read written on his own skin. He tries not to come. He tries to get closer, hear more of the words that Toby gives up so hard, like his last breaths. Sam is finding it difficult too: it is still difficult to fuck your professor when you cannot be passive, when he is asking beneath you and you are inside him and you cannot quite let instinct take over because you are still seeing him giving your last lecture together, with his shirt buttoned up to the collar and his tie drifting over the curve of his belly and all you can look at is the pale skin of the side of his neck; but he is so desperate and so lost, with his eyes closed and his mouth open and sweat darkening his hair and glistening at his throat. Sam feels the blood rush behind his eyes and sees the room go dark. He leans closer, putting their bellies together - one flat and one a little rounded - and licks the sweat from Toby's neck. He thinks Toby is coming now because he is silent suddenly and his body is rigid like wood, solid like earth, like the ground underneath Sam's back when he is lying under a tree in the gardens thinking about this moment, and the ones before it; Toby is coming with his hands thrown back above his head, his wrists crossed like a convict, and his face very red and his body so slick that Sam slips out of him and comes himself in a great shattering gasp that ends in a spatter of semen between Toby's thighs.
"Oh god ... "
Sam kisses him, his closed mouth over Toby's open one, landing in his beard. "I know."
Toby pulls away, suddenly, and puts his hands to Sam's face, holds him, stares at him.
"Why are you here?"
"Toby ... ?"
"Why ... "
"Because I wanted ... "
"You shouldn't be here."
"Should I leave?"
"No," he says, quietly, with his voice in darkness, very deep. "No."
All he can find in the darkness after is the smell of sex and Toby's body, less open now, already curving into itself and away from Sam. He knows later there will be a hand on his upper arm, a thigh pressed up close to his own or Toby's dreams making him say Sam's name over and over. But these acts of possession are all he has in the aftermath, and sex is never tender in the hours after it is gone. Sam lies on his side, staring at his lover's back. He puts out a hand, as he always does, and runs his fingers over Toby's shoulder blades and feels him flinch from small caresses, as he always does. Sam sighs and pulls up closer, rests his forehead to the hollow line of Toby's backbone. Toby doesn't move.
Sam wishes for simple things as he falls asleep: for Toby to turn and embrace him now, while he is still awake. For there to be a small kiss just to the left of his mouth. He doesn't wish for 'I love you' because he isn't sure he is brave enough to say it back. Not yet, not now.
He takes what he has now, and curls himself around Toby's back; falls asleep.
He lies on his side and strokes Toby's face. They don't talk. His lips move under Sam's fingers, but silently. Sam slips his thumb into the warmth of Toby's mouth and touches tongue and teeth and the smoothness of mouth. Sam likes this because it is not like the coarseness of Toby's beard; is the opposite in fact, because this is so soft and so not-Toby: so much softer than (almost) all the other places of his body that Sam has learnt like a road-map. He knows the ways to get to shivering orgasm, both direct and scenic, and sometimes reads the map for his lover, out loud. But not his mouth, which fascinates Sam because it is every small and every significant thing he loves about the Professor: coarse hair and chapped lips, prickly like the words and opinions which nobody appreciates him sharing and hidden, slightly, like the American behind the accent; full bottom lip which pouts without meaning to and makes Sam think of the curve of his belly and shoulders and thighs and his cock when it is warm with blood; and the inside of his mouth which is impossibly soft (like his hands stroking, and his upper arms, the small of his back and the lobe of his ear) and ordinarily, Sam likes the hair and imperfect skin and the places where the bones show through - the hard places - but sometimes he wants the other, and longs for softness. So Toby's mouth (and this is not something to admit, not something to write in the diary, even though he already has) is Sam's private place, refuge in the other man: where the dreams are.
"You know what we should do?"
"What should we do, Mr. Seaborn?"
"Over Spring Break, we should go somewhere. Go on a trip."
"To New York?" Sam says, softly, thinking he might know the right temptation. "You could show me the river."
"Sam ... "
"It'd be ... nice."
"And you want to be a writer someday? Don't use words like that."
"That I want to be a writer?"
Toby's eyes slip up to his. They are smiling though his mouth is not. "I guessed. You have a very thick diary."
"That doesn't necessarily -- "
"No, I know. Just a thought."
"You're trying to distract me."
Toby smiles this time. "You're getting better."
"You don't want to go to New York?"
"I don't think it's the best idea, Sam."
Sam nods. "Yeah, maybe not."
"We'll be here. It's always quiet over Break."
Sam leans back in the bed, one arm behind his head. "We could go."
"No, Sam -- "
"No, wait - we could imagine it. Dream it."
Toby shakes his head, then strokes the hair back from the Sam's forehead, kisses him there, above his eyebrow and smiles at the smile that meets his, as though Sam is his son and not his lover. "Okay," he says. "You first."
Sam has always liked parks. As a child in California, although he loved the sea and beaches, he remembers seeking out the green places where the trees were so tall that he couldn't see the sky. Trees and the smell of leaves and the quality of light hidden under their canopy are the stuff of simple happiness for Sam. So the first thing he wants in New York, feeling like a kid - happy and stupid in the invisible sun because he is with Toby, because Toby's arm is brushing against his as they walk - are the green things of Central Park. They are in short supply now, in the middle of a cruel winter, but Sam sees their shadows and fills in the colour for himself against the black silhouettes of the trees and bushes by the lake, which they walk around twice, because Toby is staring into the water.
In is winter and no-one watching, no-one here at all: Sam lets his hand twist out towards Toby's as they walk, cuffs touching first, then the warmth of the side of Toby's hand briefly against Sam's wrist, then Sam's knuckles caught in the centre of Toby's palm. The Professor turns to him with his eyebrow raised, but he is not frowning; Sam sees a smile in his eyes. As they step onto the first of their bridges today, Toby lets Sam's hand fold into his quietly.
(We can't do this forever.)
Just as far as the lake, please, Toby. There's nobody here at all.
The snow starts falling as they come out of the park: a dirty, grey snow which is more than half ice and rain. The streets outside the park seem impossibly bleak, filling up with slush and dead leaves. Toby's hand slips out of Sam's and disappears deep into his pockets.
They sit in the back row of a shitty movie theatre in New York City, popcorn on the floors and dust coming of the seats in waves as Toby shifts and settles. They don't watch the movie. Toby has seen it before and Sam seems uninterested - only wanted somewhere warm and loud and dark to disguise the kisses and his groping hands on Toby's body. It was raining outside, and the water is still in Toby's beard. He worries, Sam does, though it is his lust they are serving here, and pulls his hands away from Toby's open zipper. Toby pulls them back.
(I always wanted to do this. Something about your thighs, Toby.)
It doesn't feel as sordid as perhaps it should: Sam's hand deep between Toby's thighs and Toby timing his gasps to the screams on the screen. It doesn't feel sordid when Sam grins at him, covered in light even in this dark place, and drops to his knees. His hands stroke across Toby's thighs, opening them again, pressing on the warm, soft places. Sam's head is heavy, resting for a moment before he starts his work, on the shallow curve of Toby's leg pressed into the seat. He thinks he might faint. He feels Sam fiddling with the zipper again: asking, pulling, suddenly losing his grace in this most graceless of acts. But Toby won't let him stop now - presses his knees hard around Sam's ribs and rests his hands on his shoulders, the only part of the kid hard enough to take Toby's spasms. He lifts his hips when he feels Sam's tongue, sinks deeper into the seat and tries to keep his eyes open, tries to focus on the movie. He fails, and shuts them hard when Sam begins sucking, humming hot breath and vibration against him. Sam's left hand is laid against Toby's stomach, following the slight roundness there, his thumb stroking just a little. Toby removes his own left hand from the kid's shoulder and grabs Sam's. He will probably crush the boy's fingers but he doesn't care; squeezes harder.
There is what Toby fears is an audible 'pop' as Sam gives up sucking, for the moment. He comes back, teasing, in small licks and kisses. He looks up at Toby and smiles. Toby feels self-disgust twist in with desire, a familiar black thread running into the reds, as Sam grins. His forehead is smooth and dry and his mouth is wet. Toby himself is covered in sweat.
Just do it he whispers; not like an order, more like a plea.
Yes, sir, Sam says, with a little nod and a flashing glint of smile, of pure wickedness. He bends his head down, and finishes it.
It doesn't feel sordid until he takes Sam's hand to lift him off the floor and brushes a hand over his pants and finds the filth of the theatre coming off on his palm; until he realises he cannot kiss the boy because the usher has bright, inquisitive eyes; until he finds Sam's fingers sticky and too-hot pulling away from his own when he offers his hand, palm-upwards on the seat arm between them.
(You're making it sordid.)
Toby thinks: I'm not trying to - this is just how it would be.
Sam asks if they can walk along the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, very like a little boy. Toby half thinks about buying him a balloon and some cotton candy; grins instead and puts his arm around Sam's hips in half an instant, and takes it back before anyone can see.
It doesn't take a genius to work out what the river - what any river he feels close to - has come to symbolise. He has become accustomed to Sam's slightly heavier footfalls but hears David and Leah inside them still, echoing away into the water. He lets Sam brush his fingers around his jacket cuff; Sam takes momentary hold each time their steps bounce back towards each other and smiles, down at the walkway, down into the river. Toby can tell he is smiling without looking at him. He looks up instead, at the greyish New York sky between the arcs of the bridge.
(Do you think it's beautiful?)
Toby thinks: you know I do. And it is, in a way that will not appeal to poetry; none of Toby's words will bend around what he finds to love in his city - something wanted and given and then taken away again; a place he has never quite belonged to but to which he has given himself, like a suitor - in hope.
Where Toby has loved his river, Sam misses the sea. Next stop the Boardwalk and a beach he thinks will disappoint the expectations of sun-striped Sam Seaborn, one of California's best sons. All they can see is seagulls and grey ocean, grey beach. The Atlantic is very different from the Pacific, a wholly separate kind of mother, and Toby sees Sam shivering and pulling his jacket around his shoulders; he does not belong here. Toby slips an arm across the boy's shoulders: come on, we should go
(It suits you.)
But not you. Let's go.
He dances with his lover in Grand Central Station, at night, in January, with snow on their shoes.
(It's only a dream. Wake up, Sam.)
Toby is more graceful than he would ever have thought, than either of them would ever have believed. The lamps, the gold and the marble all reflect in his hair. Toby's belly pushes at Sam's and his shoulder is hard under Sam's hand. Sam thinks, with the faulty eye of one who has never feared a mirror, that he is - Toby is - beautiful.
(Wake up, Mr. Seaborn. This is not part of our program of study.)
Sam believes, quite seriously at the time, that they could get lost in Terminal City and live there happily, always in transit or on the threshold of transit, which is romantic to Sam, whose family home in the suburbs of California is a monument to permanence. He thinks the building is a comfort as well as a marvel and everything which is dear to him can be found in its architecture, which he watches twirl by, over Toby's shoulder. He knows that Toby grasps for such feelings but is torn by the grandeur, by the expression of strength; the grand things (the Grand things) which say: we have come to the future, and it is ours. Though Toby took possession of his future when he was fifteen and did not find it permanently denied him by that odd little guy with Chaplin's mustache, he will never belong, not wholly, to this place which he loves. And though he loves it, Sam knows that in his version of this dream he is watching their dance from the balcony, edging closer to the door, where the lights play in Sam's hair instead.
(Thanks a whole lot, Sam.)
He dances with Toby. Around the clock, of course. He smiles into Toby's neck and smells the coarse soap and the Brylcreem slicking the curls of his hair. He licks the small square of skin that is visible between the line of Toby's beard and his collar and feels Toby pull him closer and lose their rhythm as he puts the palm of his hand around the back of Sam's head, hiding their intimacy even in a dream. Sam holds on to him - a hand on his mountain-shoulders and one tight round his waist. Sam hides too.
(Don't be scared.)
They stop dancing. They kiss. They even hold hands. The station fills up with people. The flag above their heads starts to fly in the January wind. Nobody stares or points. No women scream. No-one tries to arrest them. No-one shouts about Communists or liberals or fags or fairies or perverts or homos. Toby starts to smile.
Sam wakes up.
He takes the letter to Toby's place. He has been feeling increasingly nauseous in the days designated for its coming and now that it is here, peeking white out of his pigeonhole this morning, Sam has been carefully drinking glass after glass of cold water in an effort to keep his breakfast down. He doesn't think he can open it without Toby in the room with him, on the other hand, the idea of Toby's eyes on him if he opens a rejection letter is almost too much. He takes it over there anyway.
Toby looks up, raised eyebrows and a mug halfway to his lips as Sam bursts in. Sam stands with his back flat against the door, holding the letter against his chest.
"Is that it?"
"Are you going to open it?"
"I ... I really don't want to."
"Which answer are you more frightened of, Sam?"
"Toby ... "
"Shall I open it for you?"
Sam nods. "Please."
Toby gets up, puts the mug down, comes over to the door and takes the letter out of Sam's hand. His fingers brush Sam's knuckles; Sam shivers. He turns his back and rips the envelope; Sam swallows and wishes he had another glass of water. When he turns back again, Toby isn't smiling. He has pressed the unfolded letter against his chest, printed side to his shirt. Sam can see the shadow of the Butler crest through his fingers. Toby turns the letter out towards Sam; Sam closes his eyes.
"Don't tell me."
"Congratulations, Mr. Seaborn."
"The Admissions committee of the Graduate School have indicated that they would appreciate the presence of a good, monied Presbyterian boy with a 4.0 GPA and his own bicycle."
"Toby - you're not kidding me are you?"
Toby smiles, shakes his head. "Well done."
"You should stop saying that. Or at least pick a synonym."
Toby folds the letter back into its original thirds and hands it back to Sam. He leans in and kisses Sam's cheek gently. "Well done."
"You said that already."
"Your deficiencies are catching."
"You made it."
Sam looks at Butler differently that afternoon - more like home and less like somewhere temporarily his. He finds familiarity in the places he has walked through for three and a half years without much love that is not attached to other things; to books, to ideas, to men. But now the place opens out as it did the first day, which he remembers now clearly where before he had forgotten: seeming to promise so much, with no shadows and nothing there to threaten the sunshine. Sam walks through the grounds, wishing he had Toby's hand in his, but enjoying the silence that is his and victory, finally reached, like a country, and no-one to turn him back now.
It's almost midnight. In Toby's office the lamps are being turned off one by one. Toby has his coat on and his briefcase on the table. He is tapping his fingers on its handle. Sam is sitting on his couch, reading, with a notebook by his thigh and his feet up on the coffee table. He stops and puts down the thin book he is reading, picks up the notebook to replace it and writes something in its middle pages. He holds the book up to Toby, fingers holding the pages open.
"Do you think this is a good sentence?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"Why am I asking you?"
"Do you do this with any of your other professors?"
"I don't have any other professors anymore."
"Don't you want to know why?"
"I just guessing, but I think the knowledge would probably bring me pain," Toby says, with one eyebrow raised. He is making for the door. "Are you coming?"
"Because you still write the most beautiful sentences I've ever read."
"Are you coming? Or are you going to sit here in the dark all night?"
"Well, could you please ... "
"In a minute."
"What are you doing anyway?"
"Roosevelt's speeches. The last Fireside Chat."
"I'm reading it."
"Because it's powerful."
"You think you could do better?"
"I think you could even do better. Can we go home now?"
"I think it's powerful."
"Sam, going home at midnight would be fine if we worked in the White House, but since we don't."
"Yes. Members of the Un-American Activities Committee, place your bets, please."
"Toby. You're not un-American. You're the very spirit of America, you're -- "
"I am nothing of the kind and we are not having this conversation now. It's almost midnight. We're going home."
"This is why you couldn't work at the White House, anyway."
"And why is that?"
"You keep your brain in the same place all good, real, American boys do. And that's got to be a distraction. Well, I know it's a distraction. Distracts me."
"Toby! That's not fair!"
"Who said anything about fair? Come on!"
"You should really write a book, you know."
"This isn't going to make me grade you any easier, you do know that, don't you?"
"You're already ... "
"Can we go?"
"You should still write a book."
"Just come on."
Sam means every word he says. He has been wondering, on nights when he is not in Toby's bed and his thoughts won't let him sleep, if America is a country of people who will never belong to only one place; people like him. But Sam is aware that his heart is not a reliable barometer of other people's beliefs and opinions, only his own whimsy. He has been wishing that his own life was not one of such resolute permanence and determined belonging. In this wish Sam counts as alien only considerations of geography; not faith, not politics and certainly not love. Pilgrimages concern all three, but they do not occur to him, or else they do not seem as if they should matter, and he leaves them out. Concentrating on sea and land and the journey in between the two, he misses the point entirely, clinging onto Toby like a raft. His wish isn't ready yet.
He has noticed that Toby is writing more and more. He covers three or four pages each night while Sam is working, nothing to do with work. He writes as much as Sam ever did in his journal and he never shows Sam anything he comes up with and closes the pages tight when Sam gets too close. He wonders if Toby has been wondering anything like the same things, whether he will write a book someday, maybe about this. Perhaps he might start tonight.
Sam follows him out and turns out the last light. They walk home together and the cuffs of their coatsleeves brush as they walk.
Sam doesn't get angry again until he is gone. He doesn't watch Toby go, doesn't help him pack his existence at Butler into his small, battered suitcases; Toby forbade it. The day after he leaves is bright and sunny, as though the Faculty Board were all right and he was nothing but a dark, perverted stain on the name of the college and now that he's gone, the sun is free to shine again. And the empty place in the centre of Sam's chest thinks maybe they were right.
They give him a new advisor - someone more qualified, they say, someone worthier of you, Mr. Seaborn. Sam wants to tell them to keep their ideas of worth to themselves. He doesn't want anyone to call him 'Mr. Seaborn' ever again. He thinks for a while that he'd like to run away, quit grad school and go back home (or to New York), but how would he explain that to his father, who was a partner in his firm at thirty-five? His dad still expects weekly reports on how everything is going and manages to insinuate into every letter he sends back the unspoken agreement that after all this political nonsense is out of his system, he will be expected to come back home and work in the firm for a little, go to school for something useful. Sam doesn't want to be a lawyer anymore, if he ever did, but the new Professor is okay (it's not his fault) and his father is right (and has his fingers very tightly round the purse-strings). So Sam stays, and watches his last year at Butler trickle away; nothing like home anymore.
He doesn't think about Toby because when he does the words in his head become confused and he cannot grasp at a thought without it twisting in anger and finding it written over with memories of Toby's body and the sound of his voice. Sam doesn't know if this is what is supposed to happen after the end of love, if this dark place is the right one for his heart to have gone, but sometimes he dreams about the warmth of a broad back next to him in a bed which is not his own and when he wakes up he forgets for a moment that he cannot put out his hand and touch that place, since it is gone as surely as if it had sunk into the ocean.
(Epilogue: a door in Brooklyn)
It is the book that leads him back, though he is not surprised to be in New York, walking blocks so close to the river that he can smell it in the heat. It smells more like the sea. This is exactly what he suspected.
He tells Mary he'll be gone for a few days, paying a call on an old friend he wants to talk to about the book, and that's not lying, not exactly. He doesn't explain to her the reasons it seems so important to talk to this particular friend before he really starts on his novel, nor that this friend has a novel of his own. Mary read Toby's book after Sam was done with it (the first time; he has read it through three times now) and when Sam asked her what she thought, anticipation like the taste of lemons in his throat, she managed only one complete sentence, full of prevarication. Sam went to bed that night with nerves twisting in his belly and the next morning he called the airline, and made some reservations.
It was frighteningly easy to get an address out of Toby's publisher and Sam will definitely not be using them for the promotion of his own opus, he thinks, anxiously, as he walks to the airport to board the first flight to New York. All he had needed to say, it seemed to him, were the words 'old friend', 'Butler' and his name, which worries at him as he makes himself as comfortable as he can in his seat and tries to ignore his neighbour, who is wrestling with a jar of macadamia nuts. He closes his eyes and tries to sleep.
(But he did say ... )
He sleeps, fitfully. The flight isn't long but it is peaceful, once the guy has won his battle with the jar of nuts, and Sam feels himself begin to miss the sleep he did not have the previous night, when he turned over every fifteen minutes, trying not to touch the body next to him in the bed.
(Come and find me.)
He knocks on a door in Brooklyn and doesn't pray for anything.
The first thing is Toby's slow blink, the one that says yes?; the second is the silver in his beard and hair, which was never there before; the third is his voice.
"Mr. Seaborn. A surprise."
He nods, impatient of the words. He stands in the door, almost a silhouette against his small windows.
"I don't want you back," Sam says, because he thinks he has to - just to make it clear, just to be completely clear.
"But you said ... do you remember?"
"Come and find me."
"I'm glad, Sam."
"I just ... I wanted to say hi."
Toby nods. "Okay."
"I'm engaged," Sam says, much too quickly, spitting out the words as though they are burning his tongue.
Toby nods again. "That's good."
Sam nods, slowly. "Yeah."
"So what are you doing here?"
"I just said -- "
"Sam. What are you doing here?"
"I don't want you back."
"Can I come in?"
Toby nods. He isn't smiling. He is standing with his arm braced in the door, staring at Sam. "Of course."
Toby puts his arms around Sam slowly, as if welcoming him in from a storm. He is warm, dark and safe, like nighttime in a bed which is familiar and comfortable sleep falling over his face. Sam breathes out carefully. He feels he might break if he makes any sudden movement, falling to pieces here in Toby's arms when that's the last thing he wants, because he knows he still trusts Toby to put the pieces back together again and he doesn't know if he can stand that now, when everything is so different.
"I don't -- "
"You don't want me back. Okay. You made that clear."
"Toby -- "
"It's okay, Sam," he says, shaking his head and Sam can tell that it's anything but and wants to comfort him, but can't. "It's fine."
"Did you eat?" Sam says, suddenly.
"Lunch, dinner - whatever. Did you eat yet?"
"Ah ... no. Not yet."
"You wanna come get something with me?"
"Don't you trust yourself here?" he says, very softly.
"I just thought you might be hungry," Sam says, straight-faced.
"Are you coming?"
"You're very different in your adulthood, Mr. Seaborn," Toby says, smiling.
"Are you coming?" Sam says, matching his smile.
In the street the sun is shining. Toby walks beside Sam, rolling up his shirt sleeves as they go. Sam watches him out of the corner of his eye, turning with what he hopes looks like nonchalance as they cross the street and snatching a glance at Toby's forearms (broad still and did he always have that much hair and his watch looks wrong on his wrist and god I've missed the way his hands move when he walks) and then turning back and looking straight ahead, without saying anything. New York rises like a mountain out of the streets, clear and huge against the sky, without the haze that hides the buildings in Santa Barbara until you're right on top of them and Sam remembers a fantasy he hasn't thought about in years, and turns his head to look at Toby.
Still dark, and yet gentler now to Sam's eye, Toby's face seems to be looking for peace; or perhaps he has found it here, Sam thinks. He always did want to go home. Sam keeps on watching as they walk, catching glimpses of the man he remembers; he still thinks Toby is beautiful.
"So do you want to hear about my fiancée?" Sam asks once they have made it to the diner.
"Not really, no," Toby says, his mouth half-full of burnt steak.
"I thought about bringing it up," he says, and swallows. "And decided I wouldn't."
"I'm sure she is, Sam."
"You want to know her name?"
"If I said no would it make a difference?"
"Her name's Mary."
"Yes. I think so. Yes."
Toby looks at him, face impassive. "Have you known her long?"
"A while. Well, not really that long. A year."
"Have you met anyone new?"
Toby chuckles. "No," he says, not as though it's a stupid question although Sam knows that it was, but more like he has just been told a not very good joke. Sam blushes a little, though he's not sure the quality of his small talk is the only reason why.
"What are you doing here?"
"What, I can't come and say hey?"
"I didn't say anything about California."
"Do you live in California, Sam?"
" ... Yes."
"So - what are you doing here?"
"I wanted to see you." Sam thinks: why not just admit it?
"Here I am."
"I can take it that you didn't miss me, then?"
Toby lays down his knife and fork, rubs his bottom lip with his thumb, then runs the back of his hand over his mouth. "I wouldn't say that."
Back at the apartment, the rooms are too warm. Toby ducks into the kitchen to make the coffee that neither of them have said they want and Sam turns little circles on his carpet, back and forth in front of Toby's windows, trying to work out if he is brave enough to open them without Toby's agreement. He pulls at the collar of his shirt and realises he is sweating. He doesn't turn round when he hears Toby enter the room.
"Yeah?" he says, turning reluctantly and trying not to show it. Toby nods down at the mug in his hand, holds it out towards Sam. Sam knows their fingers will touch, feels the sweat running down the back of his neck.
It's too weird: sitting with Toby in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, miles from home, with only a manuscript and a disclaimer for his defence. Sam knows he isn't fooling anyone. He watches Toby's mouth move as he drinks the coffee and doesn't blink as Toby puts down the mug, gets up from the chair on the opposite side of the table, leans over and kisses him gently. All he can taste is the coffee in both their mouths, but it is not taste Sam has wanted but the small magic of closeness and potentiality, the warmth of Toby's mouth that seems to promise unspoken things to him. They don't touch but for the one place: Toby has his hands in his pockets; Sam's hands are wrapped round the mug of coffee, burning slowly.
Toby draws away slowly, inclining his head down towards Sam's even as he slips back, across the table, half the world away. Sam puts the back of his hand against his lips.
"I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to do that."
"It's okay, Toby -- " Sam rises, reaches across the table for Toby's mouth, to put his fingers there too; Toby pulls away.
"So ask me to stay."
"No," Toby says, not blinking, no reaction.
"Toby -- "
"You don't really want me to do that."
"What if I do?"
"What if I am capable of having an independent thought, Toby?" Sam says, listening to his voice rise up when it touches Toby's name, listening to the maturity fall out of it.
Toby blinks, shifts his feet. "I know you are." His voice sounds soft, almost hurt.
"I'm ... sorry. I'm sorry."
Toby shakes his head. "Don't be."
"Can I stay?"
Toby nods. "Yes."
He still can't quite believe, despite what seems to be an agreement, that Toby hasn't told him to get out. The awkwardness which characterised the first few days and nights together passes by increments so small that Sam does not notice them go and can't trace the path back from the first night, waiting anxiously for the sound of water to cease in the bathroom, to these latest nights of a quiet tension you could almost mistake for happiness. He realises he has learnt how to move around the other man as if learning the steps of a dance. He closes the door of his bedroom at eleven thirty, and listens to Toby brushing his teeth.
He supposes maybe it's just familiarity. But then he wonders: didn't we have that before? Looking round at the walls of what has been his place for the last three weeks, still feeling half like an intruder and half like a wife, Sam thinks maybe they didn't. He doesn't sleep for a long time.
Odd, celibate nights come and go at Toby's place. Sam calls Mary to apologise or explain or something - just to let her hear his voice; she hangs up on him. Toby never says goodnight or good morning, just as he never said go or stay. Sam begins to be afraid of all conversation. They drink their coffee together in Toby's small kitchen and do not quite know what to say to each other, whether they should say anything at all. Sam sleeps in the room that should have been Toby's work room, if he didn't prefer writing at the kitchen counter. He can hear Manhattan, he thinks, from his window when it is open and thinks about asking Toby to walk there with him, but thinks Toby probably prefers Brooklyn. Domesticity completely unlike that he shared (and now that he has admitted what is really going on here, he can only use the past tense) with Mary gathers up around them. There is nowhere to escape to, no classes to run off to, no papers to write: he has arrived. So instead they buy groceries and Sam gets used to the taste of bourbon after dark and the warmth and smell of another man, who isn't his roommate and isn't his lover and isn't anything anymore which has a name that Sam knows.
Toby is a mostly silent presence; uncharted territory is Sam thinks when he looks at him bent over the counter. He tries not to think of what he already knows about Toby's body, what he holds in fragments like remembered poetry, nothing like a map. Sam stares at his back and shoulders and listens to the arrhythmic tap of his pen against the page and realises that there are lines of prose forming in his head, as if they need the blank of Toby's back to be written against. Sam sails seas of disconnected images and passing flavours of emotion, springing up like colours in his head, like songs on his tongue. He would like to tell Toby about them, but it isn't time yet.
Brooklyn frightens him a little and for a while he only knows the way to the store and the deli, and the library, and the park. He goes with Toby sometimes and others by himself; they are enough. But when a month has gone by and Toby still hasn't asked him to leave and he's getting more confident and the morning is bright, he suddenly feels hungry for the city. Like the first day, it is similar to falling in love. The borough spreads out in front of him like a lover's body and this time Sam knows where to put his hands; all at once the courage comes, as easy as a sip of water. Sam puts his head down beside Brooklyn and gets comfortable.
The next day the story comes. He bought notebooks from the bookstore on the corner near the apartment when he was out walking yesterday and today he knows why and rips them out of their plastic covering and strokes them with his fingertips. Then he pulls back the cover, folds it underneath and begins.
It is scraps and fits and figuring out what is sea and what is land in this new map he is drawing with nouns and verbs, but Sam goes to bed smiling. Looking around him at the walls and listening to Toby brushing his teeth in the next room, he turns out the light and goes to sleep.
"What are you writing?" Toby asks one night, his voice worryingly neutral in Sam's ears.
"I'm writing a book."
"No, not really. Not at all." Toby smiles, and rests the palm of his hand in the middle of Sam's back, just for a second, as he walks away. It is the first time they have touched in months and Sam finds that what he had thought is true, of course. He almost goes after him, to put his hand through the bedroom door before it closes, but he doesn't.
"What's it about?"
"The book, Sam. What's the book about?"
Sam opens his mouth to lie but the words won't come. So he says what appeared in his head: "I don't know."
Toby smiles. "How do you know what to write?"
"Toby ... "
"I'd suggest that you still have a ways to go, Mr. Seaborn."
"Can there be just one thing where you don't know better than me?"
Toby stares at him for a long moment, and then he says, "I think there is, Sam."
"Figured out what it's about yet?"
"You want to tell me?"
"Congratulations," Toby says, nine months later. The proofs are in, all corrections are finished. Sam's publisher has been making frantic phonecalls full of euphoria every morning at half past ten: he thinks this might be the one. All the difference Sam has noticed is a tendency for his hands to shake in the mornings. Toby is sitting at the counter, holding a mug of coffee in his hands. Sam is aware that his friend hasn't stopped watching him all morning.
"Thank you," Sam says.
"Do you want to go now?"
"Do you want to go back to California now?"
"Toby -- "
Toby puts the mug down. "You did it. You've finished."
"So it's time for you to go."
"Are you sending me away again?"
"You were staying here whilst you wrote. You needed ... a space. But you're done now."
"Toby, are you asking me to go?"
"No," he says, quietly. "I'm asking what you want to do."
"Having made me a man?"
"I didn't help you this time. You were very clear on my not helping you with that. But I did enjoy watching it."
Sam smiles. "So what if I like New York? Now that I'm here."
Toby's mouth twists noncommittally. "I don't know."
"You can have an opinion, you know," Sam says softly.
Toby smiles. "I don't know."