Owen had never anticipated that Harvard might be so terrifying.
He’d always imagined it to be a hallowed place of study, the atmosphere as akin to a monastery as anything populated by thousands of people ever could be. Equally, he’d always known that this was a blatantly incorrect fantasy. Even so, the reality, the blur of motion that ceased to be merely a blur when it shoved past him, left him holding his breath while the department head cheerfully expounded upon the bimonthly meetings he would be expected to attend. On his previous visits to Cambridge, for interviews and to secure an apartment for the year of his fellowship, he’d been able to stand safely apart from it all, shepherded around by an earnest postgrad. At Stanford, where he’d taught and completed his PhD, he’d mostly been dashing around with the best of them. Now he didn’t even know where they were dashing to.
“And we’ll get you into your office in a day or two, once Kwame has packed up,” the hale and hearty professor said. He was English and the precise incarnation of the stereotypical Oxford man Owen had always seen in films. “In the meantime I’m sure we can squeeze you in somewhere. There’s always the library of course.” He checked his watch. “Ah. Lunch.” Presumably the tidal wave of hungry students had eluded him. “Well, I need to be going…”
For a moment, Owen feared he was going to be left standing in the corridor with no real idea where he was or even where his future office was supposed to be. He’d find his way, of course, but it wasn’t exactly the start to his Harvard career for which he’d been hoping.
“Perhaps-” he began tentatively.
“Guert!” the professor barked, raising a hand in a cheerful wave, a beacon on the sea.
There amid the students was a tall, bearded man, about Owen’s height but probably fifteen years older, his head bowed as he listened to questions from a ponytailed young woman. He raised two fingers in an “I heard you” sign and, after a moment and an exchange of words, dodged over to their side of the corridor. “Charlie. What can I do for you?”
His hair was a rich, thick reddish brown, his eyes keen, his general person with the bearing of someone utterly confident in their own attractiveness, possibly because he was, indeed, undeniably attractive. His blue sleeves were crisply folded midway up muscular forearms. No tie. His students were probably trying to outdo each other in the scale of their crushes.
“Guert, this is Owen Dunne, our new playwright in residence. Just got off the plane from California.” He said the state name as though it were nineteenth century Timbuktu. “Take him to lunch, will you? Show him around a bit.”
The head disappeared remarkably quickly for a man of his size. Owen smiled apologetically. “Sorry, if you could just point me in the general direction…”
“It’s all right, I was headed there myself.” Guert surveyed the tail end of students. “Just as soon as I find my daughter.”
“She’s a student here?” Owen followed him as Guert stuck his head in the door of what might have been the departmental office. If Guert was forty, forty-five, he could easily have a child starting her undergraduate career in her father’s department.
“Well, she’s here, and no doubt she’s studying something. Rose, have you seen Pella?”
Whatever answer he got, he sighed and took Owen by the shoulder, guiding him down the corridor. “Playwright, then? Have I seen any of your work?”
“Probably not.” He’d had a few plays produced in LA and San Jose: small-scale student and experimental productions that had done little to excite audiences but had been enough to interest Harvard along with his teaching credentials. “You’re Guert Affenlight.”
“I liked your book.”
Guert gave him the kind smile he probably had on hand to deal with precisely this sentiment from adoring students. “Thank you. Nice to know someone’s still reading it.”
The dining hall was a crush of students and filled with more excited buzz than Owen had heard anywhere smaller than a stadium. “I don’t eat here much,” Guert said, handing Owen a tray. “For reasons that may swiftly become apparent.”
Despite the line, which Guert said they were technically allowed to skip as staff members, the real problem was that most of the students were interested in talking to Guert rather than letting him eat. Owen quietly picked up a pre-packaged salad and some orange juice, half-listening to all the requests and comments, from pleas for paper extensions to discussion of game-show quiz questions about Moby-Dick. As a student, Owen might well have been among them himself, but for any other professor the amorous throng would have been a one-man unit. Quite apart from his good looks, Guert had wit and charisma to spare. And his hand was back on Owen’s shoulder by the time they made it to the end of the line.
“Vegetarian?” Guert asked. His own meal, what he’d managed to grab, was some sort of beef and potato stew.
Owen nodded. “And not very hungry.”
“You probably will be.” Guert picked up an apple for each of them and paid for both of their lunches before looking around, scanning the hall. “Now…”
There were tables apparently reserved for, or at least monopolized by, the staff members in one section, but Guert led them first to a table populated by kids who looked like they were fresh out of high school with their experimental hair, and one girl who surely should’ve still been in elementary school. Guert bent down by her ear. “Pella, come and be sociable.”
“I am being sociable.” She was a cute kid, coppery curls to her shoulders, mouth in a pout as she glanced up at Owen.
“Be sociable with me, then. This is Owen. He’s new.”
Owen half-lifted a hand from the side of his tray in a wave.
Pella sighed dramatically and packed up her folder of artwork, lifting a backpack from under her seat. “Fine.”
At least the staff tables were a little quieter. Owen sat across from Guert, Pella by his side, although she opened her folder up again immediately, either engrossed in her drawing or feigning a lack of interest.
“My darling daughter Pella,” Guert said as a word of explanation. “Pella, Owen’s our new playwright in residence.”
She scrutinized him. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight. How old are you?”
A pause. “Almost ten. Aren’t you a bit young to be a playwright?”
“Aren’t you a bit young to be studying at Harvard?” It was only half a joke.
“She’s sort of the departmental mascot,” Guert said between bites. “Doubtless her perpetual truancy will end one of these days.”
Probably Harvard attracted more than its share of eccentric professors, but Owen would have thought that most parents would be happy for their kids to be safely in school somewhere, even if there wasn’t a mom in the picture. Guert wasn’t wearing a ring, not that that meant much. He wondered about a divorce, or a partner who worked somewhere even less suitable for a child. Doubtless he’d learn the full story eventually, through the gossip that just had to circulate around a school. He cracked open the plastic casing of his salad.
“So tell me about your work,” Guert said. “Are they making you teach anything?”
Owen hesitantly began to discuss the themes of his plays, his recent successes and current project. Most people only asked to be polite, but Guert was either genuinely interested or astoundingly skilled at pretending to be. When Owen referred to Transcendental philosophy, even Pella raised her head from her drawing and commented, correcting him on the date of Thoreau’s untimely death.
Guert smiled. “She’s taken my seminars every year since she was five.”
“Four, then. Kindergartner with the best knowledge of Nietzsche, I imagine. Listen, Owen, I have to lecture at two, but perhaps Pella can show you around. She knows this place better than anyone and I’m sure you can keep each other out of trouble. Then maybe you can come to dinner... well, I have a date tonight, but tomorrow? Or at the weekend. Once you’ve settled in, of course.”
“That’s really kind.”
“I just jump at any chance to talk about Melville to someone who isn’t trying to get a better grade.”
Any reservations Owen had about being shown around by a pre-teen half his size were quickly dispelled by Pella herself, who took to the task surprisingly seriously, grabbing his hand whenever he lingered too long, and enthusiastically relating information about the various departments and facilities like a practiced tour guide. Perhaps she’d tagged along with enough actual tours of the university to know the spiel by heart.
When they wound up back where they’d started in the English Department, she led him to an unmarked wooden door and nudged it open. “This’ll be your office.”
A desk, a chair, a low, somewhat worn couch. Bookcases. Now the shelves were mostly bare, two cardboard packing boxes on the desktop. The window looked out onto the wall of the next building. Sunlight was clearly at a premium in this department.
“Kwame’s going home to New York,” Pella explained, plopping down on the couch. “His mom’s sick. Too bad, he was nice.” She looked thoughtfully at Owen, who was still lingering in the doorway. “My mom died in Africa.”
Well that was one answer, one he hadn’t hoped for. “I’m sorry,” Owen said.
Surprisingly, she smiled. “Thanks. Most people say ‘Why Africa?’ first. I’m writing a paper.”
“How many people use the word ‘precocious’ around you?”
The smile became a grin. Owen pulled his messenger bag off over his head and took a seat on the chair by the desk. “My grandparents came from Senegal. My mom’s mom and dad.”
“You don’t look very black.”
“My dad’s mom and dad came from whiter places.”
She nodded. “My mom went to Uganda to study diseases. She was a medical doctor, a really good one. They had a car accident and they all died. But I was only three, so… Are you gay?”
Owen followed her gaze: one of several pins on his bag was a rainbow flag. “Do you get away with asking lots of really blunt questions because you’re nine?”
“Almost ten. It doesn’t matter if you are. I’m just wondering.”
“I am,” he said.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Not at the moment.”
That thoughtful expression descended once more. “Are you allowed to date students? My dad isn’t.”
Owen considered. “Probably not.”
She nodded again. “I’ll get back to you.”
Two nights later he went to dinner with the Affenlights and Guert’s girlfriend, an MIT researcher named Carolyn with a taste for opera. Over the next couple of weeks, though, as he settled into his office and found his way around the library, Owen saw far more of Pella than her father. Guert occasionally poked his head in and asked how Owen was doing, inviting him to lunch or dropping off a Xeroxed journal article. But Pella would sit and read on his couch for hours while he worked, absolutely silent. He had little idea why she chose his room. Maybe she’d already tried the patience of her father and the other lecturers. But she was no trouble, and occasionally helpful, especially when she caught him re-reading The Sperm-Squeezers, a first edition he’d peppered with notes during his first semester of college.
“I like the introduction best,” she said.
“You’ve read it?” Never mind the subject matter, the writing was a little above her grade level, peppered with Latin.
“Some of it. My dad reads bits to me. I was born just after it was published.”
Guert, when Owen ran into him smoking outside the library, laughed at this. “I used to read her journal articles when she was little, to help her get to sleep. Probably she has Transcendental philosophy buried deep in her subconscious. Speaking of which, I read your plays.”
“My plays?” Owen slipped a cigarette from his own pocket and accepted a light. “Where did you find them?”
“Charlie had copies from whenever you submitted your application. They made pretty interesting reading.”
“You could’ve just asked me for them.”
Guert smiled. “Yes, but what if I’d hated them? Better that you never know. In any case, the themes resonated with something I’m working on, a paper about Emerson’s reflections on Thoreau. There are a couple of people I know who are familiar with the source material, but I’d prefer a slightly more romantic standpoint.”
“Not very academic.”
“It’s the very bedrock of academia, Mr. Dunne. And my own personal vice, smoking and scotch excepted. If you’re free tonight, maybe you could come over. We’ll order pizza or something and I’ll show you what I’ve got.”
Despite having his own apartment, the Affenlights’ townhouse on Shepard St. felt a little more like home, surrounded by Guert’s books, with Pella reading or asleep upstairs. Owen and Guert sat on the floor next to the fireplace in his study, laying out papers by their coffee mugs, smoking as the evening went on and the books Guert pulled out began to form wobbly towers. Guert’s knowledge was both encyclopedic and daunting, which left Owen to mainly ask questions – whatever came to mind – while Guert nodded and took down notes in his precise, fluid handwriting.
The night wore on long past the remains of their pizza, but Guert was obviously a night owl, fuelled by endless amounts of coffee, and Owen could hardly bear to break off their discussion and head home. Even if he had trouble keeping his eyes open, he wanted to listen to Guert. Maybe his crush was far too readily apparent, or maybe Guert had become accustomed to everyone looking at him like that long, long ago, but Guert never asked him to leave, kept leaning in close enough that Owen could smell his cologne. He would close his eyes whenever Guert left to fetch a book from another room, imagining, wondering what would happen if, the next time, he simply turned and kissed him. And then he just didn’t open his eyes.
He was horizontal by the time he did. Sunlight was coming in the windows and Pella was sitting in the armchair in her pajamas, spooning Cheerios into her mouth. Owen blinked. Apparently he’d spent the night on the couch, although he didn’t remember ever sitting there, didn’t even remember leaving Guert’s study. Had he really fallen asleep on the floor? More to the point, had Guert really carried him to the couch? Someone had removed his glasses and shoes, covered him with a blanket...
He reached for his glasses on the coffee table. “What time is it?”
Owen sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He remembered midnight passing the previous night. Had they been up after one? Two? With Guert’s enthusiasm and energy, it was a real possibility.
The espresso machine in the kitchen was whistling and then Guert appeared, looking about as tired as Owen felt, his hair tousled, still wearing what was presumably his usual nighttime attire of boxer shorts and a rumpled Harvard Rowing t-shirt. “Sorry I wore you out last night,” he said, bending down to kiss Pella on the temple. “I forget not everyone keeps the same hours.”
“It’s okay. It was fun.” Bleary eyes and messy hair aside, or maybe even not aside, Guert still managed to look gorgeous, maybe even more so now that Owen could see a bit more of him. He tried not to let his gaze linger on the bulge in Guert’s shorts and, in doing so, found himself looking curiously at the black lines that extended beyond Guert’s left sleeve.
Guert saw that look and tugged up the sleeve to let him see. “My little secret.”
It was a whale, a sperm whale, elegantly composed in black ink. Perhaps from one of Rockwell Kent’s wonderful illustrations for Moby-Dick, or at least in that style. “It’s beautiful.”
With Guert’s skin tone, it was hard to see him blush. But he smiled and affectionately ruffled Pella’s hair. “Espresso? I’m going rowing soon. I’ll drop you off after I take Pella to her swimming class.”
“You’re a very nautical family.”
“You should come swimming with me!” Pella said, finally interested in the conversation. “Please Owen! I’ll teach you the butterfly.”
“Owen’s got better things to do than hang out with us all weekend,” Guert said, heading back into the kitchen.
Owen could easily have protested that no, he didn’t – it hadn’t been easy to make friends in Cambridge, particularly when most of the people he met were grad students and the rules about spending time with them were ethically a little hazy. He’d made contact with the campus LGBT club and drama club, gone to theaters and met up with friends-of-friends… But the Affenlights were the only ones he felt he knew personally rather than professionally, the only ones with whom he could truly relax. And fall asleep in front of, apparently.
“Is it difficult, rowing?” Owen asked as Guert pulled up by his apartment building. They’d already deposited Pella with an excited group of other kids.
Guert looked at him with interest. “You want to try?”
“Just interested. Everyone in the Olympics looks so… fit. Obviously.” Never mind his doctorate or GRE scores, everything he said in front of Guert made him feel like an idiot.
“Well, you’d probably hurt the first few times, I know I did. But unless you’re racing it doesn’t have to be too strenuous. I go out there to relax, mostly. To think. I suspect you might fall in love with it too.” Guert squeezed his shoulder. “Let me know if you ever want to come along, okay? But now you should probably get some sleep.”
Owen took his advice, walking upstairs, checking his messages, and falling into bed even as the sun began to fall across his sheets. This afternoon he needed to devote time to his own work rather than Guert’s. But for the moment there was no real crime in lying there with his eyes closed, feeling the tension slip away as he thought about having Guert there, holding him, being able to tousle that hair himself and see what lay under the rest of his clothes.
“He’s going to drive me crazy,” he said on the phone to Flynn, his Stanford partner-in-crime and intermittent boyfriend. “And what can I do? Tell him I can’t be his friend anymore because I’m too busy thinking about sleeping with him?”
Flynn chuckled. In academic matters, Owen sometimes felt positively middle-aged compared to him. But in the personal domain, Flynn had somehow seen and done it all before he was even twenty-one. “Maybe he’s doing it on purpose.”
“He’s not washing his car shirtless, Flynn. He’s just doing exactly what anyone would do for a friend. He probably thinks I’m just a poor kid he needs to look out for in the big bad world of academia. It’s just… the way he looks at me sometimes...”
“How old is he again?”
“So he probably does think you’re a kid. I mean, you just said he carried you to bed and tucked you in. What’s next? Milk and cookies?”
Owen took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Unfortunately, what Flynn was saying was far from impossible. “Does every crush on an older man have to be a father fixation?”
“Depends how much older. But when you start thinking about fucking a guy who actually could be your dad, you’ve got to wonder.” A pause. “Okay, I take it all back. I just found the guy’s photo on the Harvard site. You owe it to all gay men everywhere to hit that.”
“Except he’s straight. Really, really straight.”
“No one who writes a book called The Sperm-Squeezers is really really straight, O.”
The temptation to believe him was getting stronger by the second. “So what do I do? Kiss him? Because he’s already taken me to dinner, had me spend the night at his house. If I ask him out to the movies he’ll just think it’s an intellectual excursion.”
“Fine, go for it.”
“And if he doesn’t feel the same way, I lose the only good friend I have here.”
He could almost see Flynn shrug. “O, man. Depends what you think is worse – losing a friend, or staying around him with a raging boner for the next year.”
For the next few weeks, it wasn’t even much of an issue. Owen mostly saw Guert via e-mail and through whatever Pella told him, which was usually some couldn’t-care-less comment about her father helping out graduate students and dating a new girlfriend. Or two new girlfriends, she couldn’t be sure. For his part, Owen read and worked on his play and thought that perhaps the initial period of close friendship was over and done. Well, he could tolerate solitude for a few months. It was what he’d craved at Stanford.
But one Friday lunch hour Guert pushed open his door, rapping the wood with his knuckles after he was already inside. “Am I interrupting?”
“No, but if you’re looking for Pella I haven’t seen her.”
“She’s probably discussing ballads with the freshmen.” There was a hubbub in the corridor, and Guert softly closed the door behind him. “Sorry I haven’t been in touch much, but I finished up the paper we were discussing. I made you second author, hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind, but I don’t deserve it.”
Guert smiled. “You really do. You don’t know how much you helped me.”
“A writing credit on a Guert Affenlight paper might give me some idea.” Owen pushed back his chair. “Tea?” His kettle was the only source of sustenance in the room other than the bowl of fruit on the windowsill by his forest of potted plants.
He was already switching on the kettle when Guert murmured something that might have been assent.
“When are you in Cambridge till?” Guert asked finally.
When Owen turned, he saw what he’d half-hoped for and yet never wanted to see – Guert staring thoughtfully, despondently at the wall outside the window. “Although it seems likely I’ll be here for Christmas. My mother is intending to spend the holiday with her latest boyfriend in Colorado.”
Guert rubbed his jaw. “Well. Good. You could have dinner with us. We don’t have family here and I know Pella would love it.”
“Pella would love it?”
“I’m sure she would.” Guert tore his gaze away from the window and glanced at Owen. “I would too, of course.”
The kettle was whistling already, low on water since his last trip to the nearest kitchen, but Owen stepped away from it and into Guert, half treading on his toes as he planted a soft kiss on his mouth. He could feel Guert’s breath on his lips in the moment before Guert kissed him back, a good, proper kiss, a kiss meant for a lover behind closed doors. Owen cupped Guert’s face in his hands, wanting it never to end, but wanting to feel him too, his beard, his hair, his crisp dress shirt and everything it covered.
“Are you okay?” he murmured when he snuck a glance at Guert’s face, still filled with conflict and confusion no matter what his body was doing.
Owen reached past him and turned the lock of the door. “I never kissed anyone with a beard before.”
Guert’s hand ran down over his bicep, lingered on his forearm. “I’ve never…” His eyes met Owen’s again.
“Obviously not. But you want to?”
Guert nodded. Owen pulled off his sweater – the room was getting far too hot – and was, for the first time, thankful for his office’s complete lack of a view. When they kissed again, Guert’s fingers slid up under the hem of his loose shirt.
He appreciated the time it took Guert to carefully unbutton the shirt, slowly, buttonhole by buttonhole, enough time for them to catch their breaths. When Guert folded the shirt over the low arm of the couch, Owen vaguely suspected that this was where it would end between them. He didn’t need to take off his pants to prove to Guert he wasn’t a woman, that Guert couldn’t pretend he was. And Guert was certainly looking at him with something that might have been astonishment… but it wasn’t disgust. Slowly, carefully, Guert reached for the top button of his own shirt.
It had been months since Owen had touched someone like this, and never anyone in Guert’s age range, although Guert’s body was better than those of most twenty-five-year-olds Owen knew. Owen’s fingertips went to the tattoo on his arm, probably everyone’s did. He wanted to touch every part of Guert and simultaneously step back and just look at him, take him all in like he would a painting, appreciate him like he would a novel.
His phone rang in his pocket and he slid it out, saw Genevieve’s name, and switched it off. “Sit down,” he said.
Guert sat on the couch and Owen slipped onto his lap, straddling him, pushing into him as their mouths met, and rubbing up against the bulge in Guert’s slacks. He fumbled a little with Guert’s belt and fly, Guert’s hands stroking over his back in gentle mystification, and then Guert was in his hand… Nice, really nice. Guert felt so good, wrapped in his fingers, his very hardness the answer to a question Owen hadn’t even wanted to frame in his mind, and Guert was breathing quickly now, watching him, moving his hips just so to keep Owen’s hand on him fully.
Owen backed up and let him go, stepping out of his shoes, pulling off his pants and briefs, letting Guert see him, all of him. And Guert, perhaps deliberately, let Owen see that he was seeing, looking him up and down without flinching, without saying “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea” and fleeing down the hallway. Owen knelt down on the floor between Guert’s feet and pushed his knees apart.
They drank tea and smoked afterward, one cup and one cigarette between them as Owen put his clothes back on and Guert wiped off his hands on a tissue. For a long time, neither of them spoke as the room grew darker, but Guert leaned into Owen’s shoulder and Owen, taking the almost burnt-out cigarette from his fingers, wrapped an arm around him.
“You’ll come over tonight?” Guert said.
“It already is tonight.”
“After dinner, then. I have to find Pella.”
Owen kissed him by the door before he left and watched him self-consciously smoothing back his hair as he walked. In his office, Owen switched on the light and swallowed down the rest of the tea. His computer came back to life with the touch of a key. It seemed entirely unreal that anything at all had happened in the past hour.
He was late getting to the Affenlights’ townhouse. He’d eaten dinner in the university dining hall and gone back to his apartment to change clothes. Then finding a cab had been a nightmare. Still, Guert opened the door with a smile. “Come in. Did you eat? Beer?”
“Beer, sure.” Owen glanced upstairs. “Pella…?”
“Reading with a flashlight under the covers, I suspect. She told me off for not inviting you to dinner. Don’t worry, my spaghetti is nothing you wish you hadn’t missed.”
Guert’s study had another halo of papers on the carpet and Owen sat down to read them. “Homosexuality and cannibalism in Melville,” he said. “You’re a brave man to let me anywhere near your penis.”
“It seemed to be worth the risk.” He passed Owen a cold Heineken and joined him crosslegged on the floor. “You’ve renewed my enthusiasm about publishing. God knows I’d love to write another book, more research. But honestly I’m not sure there’s anything out there to hold my interest. No more nineteenth century letters are being written between ardent male admirers.”
“No, but it’s been a hundred and fifty years since Moby-Dick, Guert. Ten since The Sperm-Squeezers. The old works don’t change, but how we see them does.”
Guert swallowed down some beer. “Since eighty-seven?”
“Queer theory is a relatively recent field. Why not throw out the homosocial and explore the homosexual in earnest? Not just backslapping and whaling crews and mutual admiration. Rip away the veneer.”
“I’m not sure I know how.”
Owen clinked his glass. “We could look into it together.”
For a while they did precisely what they’d done on many nights before: Owen picking up articles and posing questions, Guert jotting down notes and searching for answers. But it was easier to lean in close to Guert now without worrying about touching him, and sometimes Guert would tap his knee to attract his attention and then just leave his hand resting against Owen’s thigh.
“So,” Guert said finally. “We’d better go to bed.”
Guert looked in on Pella’s room when they went upstairs (to, he said, remove any books that might be blocking her airways) and Owen switched on the light in the other bedroom. There were bookcases here too, with journals stacked haphazardly on top of them. Even though the Affenlights had a cleaner who came by a couple of times a week, she was under orders not to touch any written material. The bed was neatly made. Guert softly closed the door and then locked it. “Pella can knock, at least,” he said. “She’s a little bit old to sneak into my bed to hide from nightmares.”
“Can I use that excuse?” Owen was unbuttoning his shirt, studying a photograph on top of the dresser: Guert several years ago, with his arms around a beautiful redhead. “Pella’s mom?” Apart from an age difference of about thirty years, the similarities were unmistakable.
Guert nodded, folding his shirt over the back of a chair. “Sarah.”
“You must miss her.”
“We were good friends for years.” Guert sat down on the edge of the bed, unlacing his shoes. “We didn’t date very long. But she was a great mom. Super-competent at everything. Fearless. Pella doesn’t really remember her, and I suspect what she does remember is mostly imagined, but maybe some of my memories are the same way.”
Owen slipped out of his pants and underwear, pressing a hand to Guert’s cheek. “You’re a good dad, you know.”
“Am I?” Guert looked up at him. “She’s a good kid. She’d probably thrive in the Sahara. But she doesn’t go to school very often. Most of her friends are ten years older than her at least. I’m not entirely in favor of the structured, learn-by-rote education in schools, but hanging around Harvard all day, going to random lectures, reading whatever she feels like… I don’t know if it’s genius on my part or just laziness.”
“She’s going to be okay.” Owen leaned in to kiss his forehead, ruffled his hair. “We turned out okay.”
Guert carefully took off Owen’s glasses and folded them closed. “You turned out perfectly.”
Guert’s bed was nice, bigger than the one in Owen’s rented apartment and with higher thread-count sheets, and most importantly with Guert pressed against him, skin to skin down the lengths of their bodies as they kissed under the covers by dull lamplight, touching rather than seeing, Guert’s leg hooked over both of Owen’s. Owen slid a hand down between them, working Guert to hardness, moaning softly as Guert played curiously with his nipples.
“It’s good?” Guert asked, his mouth on Owen’s jaw, fingers still stroking.
“Mm hm.” He pushed against Guert’s stomach, showing him the way the heat surged down below his belly with every touch.
“I never really…” Guert’s hand on him was tentative rather than simply gentle. “I’m not sure…”
Owen licked his lips. “You did just fine earlier. Do you have some lubricant? It’ll be easier.”
“Sure, sure. Of course.” Guert pulled away a little, reaching up into the headboard. Owen kissed his sternum, worked his way down the flat, muscular belly to where hair tickled his lips and he could lick the head of Guert’s penis.
After a moment, he popped his head out from under the comforter and laid a hand on Guert’s side. “Are you okay?”
“A panicked sort of fine.”
Guert let out a breath. “Yeah, maybe. I just...” Another breath. “With women I know what to do.”
Owen stuck his elbow into a pillow, propping himself up. “You’re sure you really want to do this? I can sleep on the couch again.”
“No, I want to. You feel so good. All of you.”
“At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not entirely different from a woman, Guert. I like your hands and your mouth and your cock.” Ah. “Guert, do you want to fuck me? Is that it?”
The hesitation lasted longer than he expected. “I, uh. I was hoping that… that you might want to fuck me.”
Owen raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“Really.” He thought Guert just might be smiling now. “You know me. I might have done quite a lot of reading ever since I first… Well, since I started thinking about you like that. I even looked up some porn. And I just couldn’t get my mind off what it might be like to feel you inside me. I mean, if that’s something you’d enjoy.”
“I know I’d enjoy it a lot.”
Guert breathed out and nestled back against Owen, his hand, slippery with lubricant, finding Owen’s erection again. “I showered before you came. Cleaned up. So everything should be… clean.”
“You’re a considerate man.”
“I’ve been fairly good in bed for fifteen years,” Guert said, kissing him. “No reason to stop right here.”
In the morning, Owen woke to the unusual but delightful sensation of himself already hard, already in Guert’s mouth. He reached both hands down to feel Guert’s head as he moved, those broad shoulders… He was already closer to coming than he’d thought, half the blow job in his dreams. “Oh god, Guert.” All he wanted to do was fuck Guert’s mouth, but he held his breath and let Guert be the one to move, and came hard against Guert’s tongue.
Guert had nothing to prove about liking him as a man after last night, but perhaps he’d felt like showing Owen one last piece of evidence about his sudden liking for cock… or at least for Owen’s cock. He pulled himself up alongside Owen and Owen kissed him, reaching for him.
“I’m not sure I can for a while,” Guert said.
“But it feels good?”
“You always feel good.”
They lay in each other’s arms drowsily for what could have been almost any length of time, occasionally kissing as Owen stroked his thumb along Guert’s half-hard penis. Eventually Guert looked at his watch over Owen’s shoulder. “We should get up. I promised Pella we’d go to Fenway Park today.”
“You like baseball?”
“Not so much. But I try to take her out at the weekends. Museums, galleries, that sort of thing. You could come. I always get an extra ticket.”
“For your many girlfriends.”
“I don’t think there’ll be so many in the future.”
Owen borrowed boxers and a t-shirt from Guert’s collection and ventured downstairs while Guert was in the bathroom. He figured out the espresso machine and made some toast. After a few minutes, a fully-dressed Pella appeared in the doorway. “Hi Owen.”
“That’s my dad’s.”
Owen looked down at the t-shirt. “Yep.”
“You didn’t sleep on the couch.”
“Nope. Do you want some toast?”
Pella nodded. “With jelly, please. It’s in the fridge.”
Guert appeared a few moments later, tousling Pella’s hair and laying a hand on Owen’s back as he poured himself an espresso. Owen fetched the jelly and spread it liberally over the toast, very much aware that Pella was still watching the two of them.
“Dad,” she said eventually. “Is Owen your boyfriend now?”
Guert sipped on his espresso. “I think he probably is. Is that okay?”
“I guess. But does that mean he won’t be coming around sometime soon?”
Owen handed her the plate.
“I hope he’ll be coming around for a long, long time.”
Owen had never been to Fenway Park before – had barely been into Boston – but Pella took his hand and explained the way around to him while Guert bought them hotdogs. “Sorry, no tofu,” he said to Owen. “I got you some sort of vegetable pastry thing.” Sitting and watching the game should have been interesting, and he was able to explain some of the finer rules to a curious Pella, but all he really wanted to do was put his arm around Guert and kiss him.
Work continued as normal, but for lunch, whenever lunch was for the two of them, scheduled around classes, Guert usually brought packaged sandwiches and salad to Owen’s office and they worked on their plans for Guert’s book, usually with the door locked for the times they wanted to kiss and the occasions they just tossed the notes aside and made love on the couch.
Most nights, Owen stayed with the Affenlights. When Guert had meetings and university-mandated social appointments, Owen became Pella’s babysitter and they sat and watched movies that probably weren’t entirely age appropriate.
The sex was good and rapidly getting better. Guert was unfailingly affectionate whenever they were alone together or with Pella, but in public, even in the probably accepting space of the university, there wasn’t even a question that they might kiss or hold hands. If anything, they touched each other less than before, Guert suddenly concerned that a hand on Owen’s shoulder, which would have been construed as friendly or even paternal before, would now reveal their relationship to everyone.
Two weeks in, Guert knocked at his door and came in, salad, sandwiches, and juice cartons stacked on top of journals from the library. “Hi. Sorry I’m late. One of my postgrad students was having a crisis over a potential dissertation topic. How’s the play?”
“Actually I’ve had other things on my mind.”
Owen let Guert set down the food on his desk before he stood up and kissed him. They’d done this before, these desperate kisses that came after mere hours apart. If they’d begun this relationship over the summer they would surely have found some way to stay in bed for a month, burning out their relentless early desire for each other that would surely settle into an easier routine ever after. This time, Owen gave him a small push back against the door, pressing into him, stroking down his jawline with a thumb.
“I want you to know that we’re not breaking up,” he said, kissing a now-confused Guert again. “But we need to discuss something.”
Guert nodded wordlessly and stayed where he was, a good enough lock while Owen sat down on the couch. “This secrecy. It has to end.”
“I know. But at the moment it’s… delicate.”
“Because I’m a man.”
“Because I’m so hopeless with relationships.” Guert leaned back, hands in his pockets, the door clicking in its frame. “However much I like you, want to be with you, I don’t know how long this is going to last. And with the nature of things, with us being in the same department, I don’t want to screw us both over if things don’t work out.”
Owen contemplated this. “So your reluctance has nothing to do with not wanting other people to know you’re dating a man? You’re not using the restrictions of our situation because you find them convenient?”
Guert was, he knew, a hopeless liar. Fortunately Guert knew this too. “I won’t say nothing. But what if this ends in a month? What kind of talk would there be about both of us? People might think you were with me just to get ahead. And-”
“People might think you’re gay.”
“Well.” Guert’s gaze was on the carpet between them. “The way I feel about you… Why does it have to become my identity? I sleep with you for a few weeks and it becomes something that defines my entire life afterward? That’s not what I want.”
Owen sighed, slapped his palms against his thighs, and stood up. “So you can’t commit to me because you’re concerned it’ll affect your ability to fuck women in the future? You’re so worried about being hopeless in relationships, Guert, well this is you being hopeless in relationships.”
Now Guert standing against the door was a problem, but Owen pushed him out of the way and, flummoxed, Guert made no attempt to resist as Owen opened the door and left. It was a dumb move on his part – it was his goddamn office, after all, and he’d have to go back eventually. More to the point, Guert didn’t have a key to lock it up. But he couldn’t be furious with Guert and actually look at Guert at the same time.
“Owen!” There were only a few students in the hallway, but those ahead of him glanced around at Guert’s shout. Owen kept walking.
The sound of someone running, then a touch of his shoulder and Guert in front of him. “O, please. What should I do?”
Owen stopped. They were blocking up the corridor, but he barely cared. He folded his arms. “You should treat me like you’d treat a girlfriend. Or, rather, however you imagine people better at relationships treat their girlfriends. It’s not hard, Guert. Hold my hand sometimes. Kiss me sometimes. Tell anyone who asks what we are to each other. Hope that the world doesn’t end as a result. And take me to dinner tonight somewhere nice, somewhere romantic where it doesn’t look like you’re a kindly professor showing the new kid around the city.”
Guert hesitated, glancing at the girls squeezing past them with bulky folders. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. The sum total of my needs from you as regards public displays of homosexuality.”
“Jesus.” Guert swallowed. “Okay.”
Guert’s hand was bigger than his, the top of his palm scored with callus from the oars, but it felt good. Owen squeezed it reassuringly and Guert squeezed back. “Should we go to the dining hall and show each other off?” Guert said. He was never much good at disguising his panic either.
“No, let’s have our sandwiches.” Owen gave him a tug back along the corridor. “Everyone will figure it out soon enough.”
Exactly when everyone figured it out was a frequent postcoital discussion point for them over the next few weeks. Certainly, it wouldn’t have taken a detective. Guert drove Owen to and from the university most days, and if they didn’t hold hands every time they walked through the Yard or down corridors, they did it often enough that plenty of people saw. And then Guert took to kissing him goodbye every morning at his office door, so that when they finally had to go together to a department meeting, no one lifted any shocked eyebrows at their fingers intertwining on the table as they listened to the reports and opinions of the other staff members, arguments going back and forth. When Guert spoke, though, everyone paid attention.
“I don’t want them to think of you as my little toyboy,” Guert said, lying back with his head against Owen’s belly one Sunday morning. Pella was away swimming with neighbors. “Your work should command respect, no matter whom you’re sleeping with.”
“I’ve got years to command respect. I can cope with being your little toyboy for a while.”
“Whiles in this instance do not necessarily preclude forever.” He loved playing with Guert’s hair, even sticky with sweat as it was now, seeing the threads of silver among the brown. “Has anyone actually treated you differently? Said anything?”
Guert shrugged a little. “It’s hard to tell what I’m imagining. But Rose in the office thinks it’s nice I’m settling down with such a nice and polite young man. Charlie has a gay son, so he’s not had a problem. And Kev wants me to ‘embrace my queer identity’, whatever that means. You’re all the queer identity I want to embrace.”
“Do you still think of yourself as straight?”
A long moment passed. “I probably do. Which is not to say I think you’re a woman, or feminine, or anything like that. If anything, I’m the feminine one. I just can’t see myself being attracted to another man. Or, honestly, another woman now.”
Owen decided to put the possible implications of that to one side for the moment. “You’re the feminine one?” He couldn’t possibly mean it literally. No one on earth would look at the two of them and decide bearded, broad-shouldered Guert was the more womanly.
“You know.” Guert glanced up at him.
Sometimes, despite the gray in his hair, Guert seemed much, much younger. “Because you like bottoming and being held? All that really means is you like bottoming and being held. Both of which you’ve missed out on for twenty-five years.”
“So why does having sex with a man need to mean anything more than having sex with a man?”
“Because you’re also having a relationship with a man, and many people in our society still have problems with that.”
“So other people’s problems define me.”
“You define you,” Owen said. “Gay, bi, pan, straight with one exception, whatever feels right.”
“And if you’re the only thing that feels right?” Guert rolled over and moved so he could kiss Owen.
“Well,” Owen said. “I’m better than nothing.”
The winter holiday was spent entirely with Guert and Pella, and was of a type Owen hadn’t experienced since he was Pella’s age himself: a glittering tree with brightly-wrapped presents beneath it, and a general aura of something he had to call Christmas spirit. “We used to go to church,” Guert said. “Just a couple of years, so she knew what it was all about. Sarah never had any religious upbringing at all, and mine clearly fell by the wayside. I thought Pella might like the stories… but this is a girl I brought up on Moby-Dick. She wasn’t very impressed by mystical stars or cows by a manger.”
Guert was lured into watching cartoons with Pella while Owen phoned his mom. “Darling!” Genevieve sounded like she was already at a party. “Merry Christmas!”
He’d waited some weeks before telling her about Guert – well, about the fact they were sleeping together; he’d told her about Guert himself on the first day. She’d only been momentarily doubtful about the age difference however, swayed by the very existence of Pella. How could she possibly be against Owen falling for a dapper professor who was also a devoted single dad? “My my,” Genevieve had said. “Just like a Brontë novel.”
Owen wasn’t sure precisely which Brontë novel she’d meant precisely – he’d checked the attic for mad wives, and there were few fog-strewn moors around Cambridge – but at least their conversations were better now than when he’d been dating Flynn.
Flynn was, in fact, his next call. The phone was answered by an unfamiliar man who sounded at least moderately tipsy. Flynn moreso. “Owen-O! Have I told you I love you recently?”
“Not too recently.”
“I’m gonna tell you. That was Nicky. He’s hot. Hot voice, right?”
“Very hot,” Owen agreed. “Maybe you could drink some water or coffee or something for a few hours?”
Flynn laughed. “Always my big bro, Owen. Bro-wen. How’s your dad?”
“The Sperm-Squeezer guy. Kurt?”
“Guert. I just wanted to wish you happy holidays from us.”
“Yep!” Noises off. “I got your card. Big happy family, huh? When’s the wedding?”
It was true – for a relationship barely two months in, they had settled into a happily domestic routine. But then Guert was far older than the boyfriends he had had at Stanford. Guert actually had a daughter and a house and a full-time job. Spending time with him usually meant working on the book, companionably reading, or going out with Pella. Sometimes Owen would take a book and notepad down to the riverbank while Guert was rowing, partly for the fresh air, partly to see his boyfriend in those non-mandatory tight shorts. And so Owen stayed over more and more. They went shopping together. It was as if, Owen reflected, they’d been together forever and intended that forever to continue.
He gave Guert books for the holiday. Guert took him to a tailor. The suit was the best-fitting (and doubtless most expensive) one Owen had ever had, and largely intended for department head Charlie’s annual New Year party, to which they were both invited. A protesting Pella had been handed over to the neighbors for the night.
The house was surprisingly large for a Harvard professor’s salary, with an extensive garden in the back. “His wife comes from pretty impressive money,” Guert explained. “Does something in fashion. A mismatched couple if ever I saw one, but perhaps I shouldn’t call kettles black.”
An elegant older woman greeted them at the door. Or at least greeted Guert, grasping his hand and kissing him on both cheeks before he could get a word out. Owen thought perhaps she would get on wonderfully with Genevieve. “Guert, you rascal. Every year you promise to come to dinner and I barely see you from one New Year’s Eve to the next.”
“I’ll do better.”
“Bigger. Smarter. I’ll bring her over too.”
“See that you do.” Her gaze flitted to Owen and she extended a slightly more formal hand. “And you must be… Owen, is it? Charlie’s told me almost nothing about you, but I’m sure we’ll make that up tonight. Did you run out of pretty Boston girls, Guert? You had to start on the cute boys?”
Guert tangled up his fingers with Owen’s. “I’m just playing hard to get.”
“You’re going to be on the Most Eligible Bachelor list forever the way things are going.” A sigh. “Well, have a drink, boys. I’ll catch up with you later.”
If either of them had worried that suddenly dating a man would lead to social exclusion for Guert, those concerns were clearly unfounded. Much as Guert attempted to stick with Owen and introduce him to his society friends, he was far too frequently dragged into conversations and pulled away to be introduced to someone new: MIT professors, magazine editors from New York, and more Owen didn’t even get close enough to hear.
When Charlie asked Guert for a moment, nodding towards his home office, Owen gave Guert’s hand a reassuring squeeze and wandered off by himself to find some finger food and chat with the other slightly younger people in attendance.
“D’you have a light?”
The guy already had a cigarette between his lips and a martini glass in his hand. Owen fished around in his pocket. “Sure.” After glancing around to see that other people were indeed smoking, he lit one for himself too.
“Thanks. Enjoying the party?” The newcomer was in his twenties too, clean-shaven with a vaguely pouty look, dark curls falling onto his forehead. His suit was even nicer than Owen’s, but he’d evidently lost his tie, or never had one on.
Owen thought of a diplomatic answer. “There are lots of interesting people.”
“If you’re over fifty, sure.”
“It does skew a little older.” Owen held out his hand. “I’m Owen.”
The guy shook it in a manner that suggested he was more used to curt nods than handshakes. “Chas. You’re with Guert, yeah? I’ve known him for years. Brings a different chick to every party. Nice guy, sure, but that’s just the way he is. You don’t have a drink.”
“Fuck that.” Chas nodded toward the end of the garden. “Want to get out of here? You know the old guy’s going to ditch you anyway soon as he gets a sniff of tail.”
The obvious response – Guert’s not like that – seemed useless in the face of someone who’d known Guert for far, far longer than a few months. “I think that might be disrespectful to our hosts.”
Chas took a gulp of his drink. “Man, aren’t you the exciting one? Seriously, we’ll be back before midnight. You’re the last guy I want to fuck this year.”
“That could be taken in two very different ways.”
“Well well.” Guert’s hand on Chas’ shoulder made him slosh a little from his glass. “If it isn’t young Charles. Last time I saw you, you were practically in diapers.” He smiled at Owen. “Did he tell you I used to babysit him?”
Chas swept back hair from his forehead. “That was not babysitting. I was like fourteen.”
“We certainly watched a lot of cartoons. But you’ll excuse Owen if I steal him away. Your dad’s looking for you.”
“You willingly watched cartoons?” Owen asked as Guert swept an arm around his shoulders and picked up a glass from the buffet.
Guert laughed. “Just sucking up to my boss. I sat quietly and marked papers. Sorry for deserting you back there.”
“What did Charlie want?”
“Is it okay if I tell you later? I assume Chas wanted to fuck you up against a tree or something?”
“Not the most appealing idea.” Owen said. “This is far too nice a suit. Feeling jealous of another man?”
“A younger man, maybe.”
“You shouldn’t. But do you really bring a different girl here every year?”
Guert leaned in and kissed his forehead. “It’s probably true. In any case, I found some theater people I want you to talk to before everyone gets too drunk. Networking, networking. I already told them how brilliant you are. Now you have to convince them I’m not just saying that because I’m sleeping with you.”
The theater people turned out to be warily interested in his project, giving him business cards and promising to look at his work in a week or so. No one would sensibly want to commit to anything while slightly inebriated at a party, but Owen detected a modicum of actual sincerity amid their general liking for Guert.
By midnight they were once more out in the garden for fireworks. Guert kissed him long and hard, a sex kiss more than a New Year’s kiss, but surely no one was paying any attention at all. Owen hugged him. “Happy New Year, Guert.”
Guert rested his head on Owen’s shoulder. “I love you,” he murmured, still clear despite the fireworks.
“Just how drunk are you?”
Guert laughed and straightened up, rubbing his eyes. “A little more than usual, I admit.” He carefully straightened Owen’s lapels. “But I’d like to break one habit and have you here next year. I don’t want you to leave in June.”
Perhaps Guert was just a melancholy drunk. “June’s six months away.”
“I know. But I hate thinking about you leaving.”
“Guert…” Owen clasped both of his hands. “You know how I feel about you. But I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, okay? I don’t know what’s going to happen in three months, let alone six.”
Guert nodded and met his eyes. “Sorry. Just… jealous of all those younger guys in California waiting for you to come back to them.”
“You have nothing to worry about, and you look positively edible in that suit. Come on, let me take you home before I have to fuck you up against a tree.”
The next morning, Guert was even more dead to the world than usual, so Owen left him with water and aspirin and went to pick up Pella from the neighbors, two houses along. The kids’ sleepover had possibly been more raucous than their party, with various drowsy youngsters still dozing in armchairs. Even Pella, usually bright and awake no matter how early the hour, leaned against his side while Owen chatted to the adults.
There were doubtless some murmurings, from jokes to insults, that neither Guert not Owen ever heard, but of everyone who knew them to be a couple, Owen had only found colleagues and acquaintances to be supportive, or at least accepting.
“So nice that he found you,” Mrs. Anderson said, packing up leftover Christmas cake for them to take home. “Always charming, but you could tell, you know, that he was lonely.”
Walking home, Owen wanted to ask Pella precisely why anyone would think that about her dad or, equally, why everyone seemed to think they were so serious after just a couple of months. Perhaps Guert’s girlfriends were never around in the daylight. Probably they never picked up Pella from friends’ houses or shopped in order to stock the refrigerator with something that wasn’t coffee. But he and Guert had settled into that easy routine without ever talking about it.
This was, he knew, what being with Guert would be like. Guert was a single dad with a tenured position at what was arguably the greatest university in the world. Guert had no reason to ever leave Cambridge, other than brief trips for conferences or vacations. He was precisely where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do, and making a decent attempt at raising his daughter along the way. If Owen was supposed to slot into that life, as he apparently already had, this could be his routine forever: writing, teaching, tossing ideas around in Guert’s study, spending time with Pella, going to bed every night with the same man for years and years.
It didn’t sound so horrific, especially if that same man were Guert. But Owen was twenty-eight, with a career barely begun. A boyfriend his own age just might have something like Guert’s life, with a child and a secure job, but it was a lot less likely. With someone his own age they could strike out together in New York or Chicago, somewhere better for a playwright. They could eventually buy a place together, perhaps one day start a family together. It wouldn’t be this instant, pre-set life Guert offered him.
Guert was sitting on the couch sipping espresso when they got in. Pella dropped off her coat and rushed to hug him, which turned into slumping drowsily in his arms in an attempt to claim the couch as her bed and her father as her new pillow.
“We both had too much fun last night, huh?” Guert tousled her hair and set down his cup. “Thanks O. C’mon kiddo.”
Even a tired Guert could hoist a squealing Pella over his shoulder and carry her upstairs to bed without too much trouble. When he came back down, though, he was still bleary-eyed, squinting against the light and going right for his espresso again.
“Don’t ask me to pull that same move with you.” Owen sat down by his side. “How’s your head?”
“Reminding me I’m not twenty-five anymore.” Guert leaned back into the cushions and rubbed his forehead. He narrowed his eyes again. “I said some things to you last night… It’s not that I didn’t mean them, but there could have been a better time.”
“There could have been.”
Guert nodded just a fraction. “And at the same time, I didn’t want to wait until May to tell you I’d like it if you stayed.”
“My landlord probably appreciates that.” His landlord. He’d maybe been home three days in the past month. “I’m going to have to take a few days… If I’m here all I want to do is hang around watching TV or read or mess around in bed with you. I really need to get some work done. And probably also laundry.”
“Sure. Of course. I don’t want to monopolize your time.”
We’re not breaking up. He felt he should preface all of his statements with that now. How could they be so secure and so fragile all at once? “But tomorrow, okay? It’s New Year. And the two of you will just sleep all day if I leave.”
“You underestimate the power of caffeine.”
Owen switched on the news and Guert, as had become his habit, leaned into him so that eventually Guert was half-dozing on Owen’s lap, one eye on the natural science program Owen had found as Owen idly stroked his bearded cheek.
“Do you ever shave?” Owen asked when the credits rolled.
He lightly tugged a patch of hair. “Just wondering what you look like under all this.”
“Who knows?” Guert rolled over to look up at him. “It’s been a while.”
“How much of a while?”
“My senior year of college… So, twenty-four, twenty-five years? As I said, a while.”
Strange that it was so hard to imagine him clean-shaven, even though Owen could easily trace the line of his jaw and cheekbones. “Pella’s never seen you without it, then. Why did you grow it? Hippie era?”
“Transcendental era. I wanted to look like Whitman, Emerson, Melville. My writer’s beard. Didn’t help my prose much, but I got used to it somewhere along the way. Did you ever have a beard?”
“Me? Guert, have you ever even seen me shave? If I’d never shaved since puberty I might have a bit of fuzz.”
Weary gray eyes blinked up at him. “You’re beautiful.”
It was inevitable that they would end up back in bed, making love and then Owen reading while Guert slept beside him. In the afternoon they found Pella surrounded by photo albums in her room, with a box of loose photographs she was now carefully filing, mouth pursed in concentration. When the two of them sat down by her, passing the pictures back and forth, she protested that they were making things even worse, but it was nice to see snapshots of Guert’s past – Pella growing up, mostly, some of Pella’s mom, some of Harvard.
In older, yellower photos there was the sea, foreign ports: Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia. Guert even had a beard then. But there were a few pictures from even further back of a clean-shaven young football player with a crew cut, holding his helmet and smiling a little uncertainly for the camera. It was hard to imagine that this was Guert, that Guert would ever have found it fun to risk life and limb smashing into other, bigger boys and chucking a ball around. This was a Guert from the time before he’d learned to love books, before he had a daughter. Before he’d ever been laid, Guert told him. Beautiful, virginal Guert Affenlight, high school quarterback. Owen would have dragged Guert back to bed but for the fact they’d just got up. The Guert of the present day didn’t have that boy’s eager, innocent youth. But that boy wouldn’t have had any of the qualities that had drawn Owen to him in the first place. He had a good body, a fresh, handsome face. But the Guert sitting alongside him now, laughing with Pella, had an easy charm and love of knowledge that, Guert said, hadn’t come till much later.
For the next week he stayed home, chilly in his apartment as he worked on his laptop and puzzled over remaining plot threads, dialogue that never seemed on-point enough. He made enthusiastic use of the Delete key. Guert called a couple of times. Owen called him a couple of times. Neither of them suggested meeting up. This was what “space” felt like, alone in the freezing air with no distractions. And it was what he needed, however much he longed for Guert touching his shoulder and kissing his neck and persuading him to come to bed.
When he finally ventured into the university for a hot meal and to take advantage of the printing facilities, Guert wasn’t in his office. Owen made a quick survey of the library, but finding anything not labeled with a call number, human or otherwise, could take weeks. So he walked home via Shepard St. in the early evening and, seeing Guert’s Audi outside, knocked.
After a longer-than-normal wait, the door was opened by a Guert who was more recognizable from his college photos than Owen’s recent memories of him, clean-shaven, with a knitted sweater, sleeves pulled to mid-forearm. “Hey,” he said, before Owen could remark on any of it. “Come in. Pella’s a little upset at the moment, so... Make yourself some coffee?”
“What’s going on?” Owen hung up his coat and messenger bag on the hall hooks.
Guert rubbed at his jaw. “Nothing too serious. A neighbor’s kid was in a car accident, so she’s pretty shocked by the whole thing. At first she was worried something could happen to her, but then of course I said precisely the wrong thing and now she’s convinced I’m about to drop dead...” He sighed, hands bunched in his pockets. “I’m a terrible father.”
Owen kissed his cheek. “You’re not a terrible anything. You should’ve called…”
Pella was sniffling on the couch, cradling a box of Kleenex, her cheeks red with tears. She looked up when Owen came in, but blew her nose instead of saying a word. He sat down beside her and, after carefully wiping her face, she fell into him.
How did the Affenlights live before he had cautiously ventured into their lives and been wholeheartedly embraced by both father and daughter? Awkwardly, he imagined. They undeniably loved each other fiercely, but Guert was both obsessed with doing the right thing and utterly baffled most of the time as to what the right thing might be. Pella might detect that her dad always meant well, but she was nine years old. She couldn’t be expected to shrug off his failures and somehow cope on her own.
That evening they coped by watching a dusty VHS tape Owen found in a cabinet, Pella still nestled against him even as her sniffles grew less frequent. Guert, after pacing anxiously through the ground-floor rooms, sat down beside them with a book. His hand settled in Owen’s, said thank you with a touch.
“What did you say to her?”
It was later, hours later, after Guert had taken Pella to bed and read her a story. Even if she could read perfectly well herself, and much faster than Guert could speak, her dad was a good reader and doubtless a reassuring presence in the darkness of her bedroom. In Guert’s room they had locked the door and switched on the lights, Owen working out the tension in Guert’s back with the aid of massage oil.
“Old family maxim.” Guert’s shoulders were tight, no matter how much Owen worked them. “I was trying to reassure her, because it’s the Affenlight men who die young. The women live forever.”
Owen poured out more oil. “Well, I guess it was half reassuring.”
“Story of my life.”
“Is it true, though? Do the men die young?”
Guert glanced back at him, shifted and folded his arms above his head on the pillow. “Not young. Well, one of my uncles died in his twenties, but that was some kind of farm accident. Runaway tractor. But my brother George died a couple of years ago. Heart attack. And my dad too, in his sixties. Few other relatives.”
“Genetic heart trouble?”
“Or genetic life on a farm. Work hard, dawn to dusk every day from the time you can walk, and your heart gives out on you.”
Owen moved to straddle Guert’s body, just below his ass. “Do you take something for it, then?” He’d never seen Guert take anything other than minor painkillers.
“No… Do you think I’m in bad shape?”
“You’re in great shape.” Owen was particularly admiring his lats at the present moment. “But you’re forty-seven. These things start mounting up.”
Guert chuckled into the pillow. “O, I’ve got the stamina and body fat of a college athlete. I row with the kids sometimes, you know. I’m not far off their speed and I’m twenty years older.”
“What about their cholesterol and blood pressure? Do you get check-ups?”
If anything, the tension was getting worse. “I don’t like doctors.”
“Pella’s mom was a doctor.”
“I don’t like being prodded and poked and told what to do by some kid fresh out of med school.”
Owen sat back on his heels. “It doesn’t matter what age the doctor is. Just get a blood test. It’s all about numbers, Guert. You don’t need to be a genius to know what’s too high. And, worse case, you take some pills.”
A sigh, and then Guert rolled over beneath him. “Some pills. I get to be sick for the rest of my life.”
“You might be sick either way. But with the pills, if you need them, you get to have more of a life. Maybe you’re completely fine, but with your family history I’d get checked out. You smoke and you drink, probably too much. You’re the only family Pella’s got, Guert, and you’re about nineteen years older than I am. We both need you to look after yourself.”
Guert exhaled. “I don’t feel nineteen years older.”
“No, you don’t.” He still had a hand smeared with oil, which went very nicely with Guert’s penis. “If you want, I’ll go with you.”
“I don’t need my hand held.”
“If you want, I will.”
Guert might sulk, but he never really got angry, at least as far as Owen knew. And now he just closed his eyes and relaxed, raising his hips to meet the strokes of Owen’s hand. He really did have a ridiculous body for a man his age, particularly an academic of his age, at least on the surface. The closest Owen had ever come to having a boyfriend with a six-pack. “You look better without the beard, by the way.”
Guert smiled. “You think so?”
“I’ll have to attend all of your seminars just to fight off the adoring students.”
“I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Owen leaned forward to kiss him, properly kiss him, and be held by those strong, very much not dead arms. “I missed you,” he said. “And your bed.”
It really was nice to just lie there with him afterward in the darkness and near-silence of the house, their limbs tangled together, Guert’s beard for once not tickling his shoulder. It was the kind of thing you imagined doing forever.
“I didn’t mean to pressure you,” Guert said. His voice sounded almost eerie after such a long time of doing nothing but breathing. “And I suspect it’s going to feel as though I’m pressuring you again. But I’ve been doing some thinking about June.”
“What I really want to do is give you time. To decide what you want. So you don’t need to worry about what you’d do if you decided to stay, so you don’t need to decide in just a couple of months.”
Owen rested his hand on Guert’s head. “Okay.”
“So if – if – you do want to stay, you could just move in with us. I think it would be about time, then. And as for a job, I can probably swing that one too. Charlie told me he’s retiring at the end of the semester, and he’s going to recommend me as his successor, given that everyone else in the department is either too new or too incompetent, or simply doesn’t want to do it. You might have to teach composition, but it’d be something to do while you shop your plays around.”
Taking the pressure off his shoulders did indeed feel like putting more pressure on. “Then they really would think I was your toyboy.”
“Would you care?” Guert was tracing light circles around his navel.
“Probably not enough. If I stay, though – if I stay – are you really going to be comfortable being a gay man on a permanent basis?”
He could feel Guert’s breath on his sternum. “It’s a little strange thinking about never having sex with a woman again. But maybe it’s stranger thinking about never having sex with you again.” Guert kissed his chest. “I will miss breasts, though.”
About two weeks later, Guert appeared at his office door without even bothering to knock retroactively, a drugstore bag in one hand, a brown paper envelope in the other. He dropped the bag on Owen’s keyboard. “What I have to look forward to for the rest of my life.”
Owen rummaged in the bag. Lipitor, TriCor, Toprol-XL, and baby aspirin. Exactly what they were defeated him, aspirin aside. He popped the boxes open and checked the leaflets. Cholesterol, cholesterol, and high blood pressure. He looked at Guert sitting on the couch. “Doesn’t seem that bad.”
“I have to quit smoking and cut down the drinking.” Guert picked at his fingernails. “And the red meat, which you’re no doubt ecstatic about.”
“Naturally your genetic predispositions are all part of my diabolical plan.” Owen spun around in his chair and tossed the bag back into Guert’s lap. “You knew about the smoking, Guert, surely. You’ll probably row better.”
Guert cast him a dark look. “If I row better I’ll be in the Olympics.”
“And you’ll sleep better with a diet that doesn’t rely so much on scotch and espresso.”
If he hadn’t known better, he would have had to assume Guert was in real physical pain. “If I didn’t feel old before, I certainly do now. Not to mention boring.”
Owen smiled. “I’ll try to liven things up. What’s in the envelope?”
Guert put the bag to one side and proffered the envelope. “Talking about my ‘writer’s beard’ the other day got me thinking about my attempts to be the next Melville. Took me a while to find this thing among all my papers. I’m amazed it didn’t crumble to pieces.”
What was inside was a reasonably thick bundle of slightly yellowed typewritten pages, along with several loose sheets covered in Guert’s handwriting. Owen turned the bundle the right way up. “Night of the Large Few Stars,” he read, and glanced up at Guert. “Whitman?”
Owen laid the first page on his keyboard and carefully, slowly read the first page before flipping to the back. One hundred and fifty-three pages. And the last one seemed to end in the middle of a sentence. “Very Finnigans Wake,” he said.
“Well, yes.” Guert crossed his ankle over his knee. “Not even half finished, certainly not edited, and it almost cost me my sanity to write that much. But it’s been twenty years since then. Working with you, helping you research your play… Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but I keep thinking – deluding myself, most likely – that maybe I could do it this time. Finish that one or start something new.”
“I’m sure you could.” Owen ran a thumb down the rough edge. “Can I keep this? I’d like to read it all.”
“I’m not sure if I want you to like it or hate it. But I do trust your opinion.” Guert sank his hands into his pockets and tipped his head back, studying the somewhat dank ceiling. “Listen to me. I’m a nervous Melville hoping Hawthorne likes Moby-Dick. Except it’s not Moby-Dick.”
“Good thing I’m not Hawthorne, then.” Owen slid the text carefully back inside its envelope and glanced at the time on his computer screen. “Did you eat already?”
Guert looked pointedly at the drugstore bag. “I may never eat again.”
Their evenings together became times of not-quite companionable reading, Owen turning over pages on the couch, Guert in the armchair with draft chapters of their Queer Transcendentalism book. Guert was a fantastic, inspired editor of academic work, even and particularly his own, and every evening threw down the drafts and went hunting for more references, pulled out his notepad and rewrote sections by hand that one of them would type up later. But Owen could feel his anxious glances, his worried attempts at analyzing what Owen was thinking about his unfinished novel. Owen, now on his second read-through, took care to betray nothing lest he find himself forced to revise his opinion.
“It’s fine,” he said finally, making another note on his own pad.
Guert raised his eyes from his paper. “Fine?”
“Wonderful, in places, but you’d do a much better job now.” Owen sat up, brushing down his t-shirt. “I can almost taste how earnest you were, how much trouble you had. You wanted it to be so good, but you had little idea where you were going.”
“Isn’t that where the adventure lies?”
“On an easy forest trail, maybe. But when you’re knee-deep in snow amid a blizzard, you wish you’d never come on the adventure at all.”
Guert nodded and capped off his fountain pen. “So I should just abandon it.”
“You should read it, for a start. It’s far from a lost cause, if there’s still a story there you want to tell. And if there isn’t, maybe it’ll remind you of why you wanted to write in the first place and how you can overcome the problems you had.”
“I’m not sure doing that without cigarettes or scotch is such a good idea.”
“Perhaps they were the problems.”
Owen had thrown out his own cigarettes in solidarity with Guert, but Guert was undoubtedly suffering more from the loss of a habit that had been with him his entire adult life. Whether he still snuck one in between classes was debatable, but at least he smelled more of his apple cologne these days than tobacco, and he had more of an appetite for even the salads and omelets Owen prepared. While Owen refused to cook meat, Guert would make himself and Pella fish or chicken, although Pella frequently proclaimed herself happy with whatever Owen was eating. Given enough opera as background music, Guert was surprisingly competent when it came to cooking: “Did you think I raised my daughter solely on cafeteria food and Cheerios?”
They went over Guert’s proposed edits until almost midnight, good-naturedly arguing back and forth as though this were yet another seminar. Owen had sat in on one or two of Guert’s actual seminars, listening to him draw out the opinions of his students, challenging them to back up their assertions and look at the subject in a different way. His expertise seemed boundless. “I just did a lot of reading,” Guert would say with a shrug when Owen mentioned it. “I was never that smart in school. But I’ve read a lot of books.”
But what Guert did in a classroom, in his papers, was far from a feat of reading or simple memorization. He could not only access literary quotes and historical context at will, but inspire students who themselves were often tired and apathetic, perhaps not the brightest, perhaps young men and women who weren’t even English majors, but biology students who had reluctantly signed up for whatever Guert was teaching that semester. (In reality, though, only the very eager managed to sign up for Guert’s classes – they always maxed out, no matter how much background reading he required.)
One of the reasons for those teaching awards lining Guert’s bookshelves and the almost constant line of students at his door was that he took them all so very seriously, speaking to them like equals, like professional colleagues, rather than kids who’d possibly only stumbled through the Cliffs Notes of Moby-Dick. Even when they said something that appeared wildly incorrect, Guert gave them the benefit of the doubt, mostly using the chance to gently correct them, but occasionally having his attention drawn to a new perspective of the issue.
This, of course, caused Owen to wonder if what they did together, their discussion sessions, made him any better than a student. What Guert needed was generally a sounding board, an intelligent, well-read person who didn’t need to provide inspiration so much as questions, even uncomprehending ones. Even after years teaching and lecturing class after class, after so many papers, Guert was still unbelievably excited by the subject matter, ready to talk for hours to anyone who would listen. And probably Owen offered a few more thoughtful insights than Pella, although that too was arguable.
It was only with him, though, that Guert could rub weary eyes and lean into him, groaning “I have no idea what I’m saying”. Sometimes Owen would tousle his hair, tell him he was being ridiculous, and pick up another book. On other occasions the tousling would turn into kissing and the decision that going to bed was long, long overdue.
On one such occasion, they were lazily kissing under the covers and, as Owen’s hand slid down the back of Guert’s shorts, there was a tentative knock at the door. Guert raised his head. “Pella?”
The knock came again.
Guert went to the door, pulling on a t-shirt from the floor and turning the lock. The light was on in the hallway, a nine-year-old girl looking up at him in the sort of nighttime terror and neediness that could make anyone of any age feel secretly about three. “Are you okay?” Guert asked. He crouched down and Pella flung her arms around him. “Sweetie?”
Whatever else might have escaped Guert about parenting, hugging he could do. He could hold her for as long as she needed to stop sniffling and vibrating with tension, even if that meant until she fell asleep in his arms.
“I had a nightmare,” she said eventually. The words came out hoarse and she coughed, clearing her throat, trying her best to regard the concept ironically.
Guert swept a lock of coppery hair back from her eyes. “I’ll come and read you a story.”
“Um.” Owen saw her cast a fearful look back toward her room. “Can I just stay here?”
“Aren’t you a little big for that now?”
Daytime Pella would have never asked to stay at all. Nighttime Pella knew nightmares were not to be reasoned with, or even age-dependent.
Owen sat up. “Guert, I’ll take the couch. It’s no problem.”
“No…” Guert stood up, not-too-unhappily resigned. “Stay. We might as well make it a pajama party.”
Pella smiled a little at Owen in the darkness. “You look funny without your glasses.”
It was probably, Owen reflected, the first time he’d been in bed with more than one person since a much, much younger version of himself was with his parents. He didn’t even have to wonder how many of Guert’s girlfriends would have tolerated a sleepy little girl planting herself in the middle of the bed. But Pella didn’t seem concerned at all about him being there. If anything he was probably an additional buttress of protection against monsters under the bed.
Guert switched off the light and got back under the covers, an arm around his daughter. He kissed Owen over her head. “You’re a saint.”
“I remember boogeymen too.”
She was gone by the morning, no doubt seeking out books and cereal. Owen rubbed sleep from his eyes, squinted at the time, and curled his body around Guert’s, clothes between them for the first time since winter. Guert mumbled something and pulled Owen’s arm tighter. Perhaps Pella’s mother, the medical specialist, had been an early bird. Owen kissed the hair behind his ear and slid a hand down the front of his shorts, just to feel him more than anything, but Guert readily thickened under his touch and turned, eyes still closed, so they could kiss.
“You know I’m staying, don’t you?” Owen said.
It really was impressive how awake and alert Guert could appear to be on cue. His fingertips trailed down the smooth line of Owen’s jaw. “I don’t want you to decide anything now that you might regret. We’ve got time.”
“I can’t tell what I might someday regret, Guert, but I’m not going to regret this by June. Not for a lot of Junes. I love you. I love Pella. I’m staying, if you’ll both have me.”
“Well,” Guert said. He smiled. “I think you’d better move in.”
Guert spoke with the housing department on the following Monday and arranged for the remainder of Owen’s rent to be waived, less one month, on the assurance that a replacement tenant or tenants would be found. On the Tuesday, they were – thankful seminar students desperate to get away from slightly less studious roommates. Owen had very few possessions to move, all of which he either took to his office or had Guert take in his car. The next weekend, Guert banged together a new bookcase with impressive finesse and neatly arranged Owen’s books and papers. It was, apparently, that simple.
Life continued to be simple for some time – teaching, writing, yoga, the opera, taking Pella swimming and to the batting cages when Guert was working late or holding extra classes on the weekends. Pella had viewed the idea of repeatedly hitting a ball rather dimly, but she’d soon seen the boys her age whacking them and decided to do just as well, if not better. She tied her hair back, pulled down the brim of her Red Sox cap, and nodded gravely at all of Owen’s tips. Parents and grandparents would chat to Owen as they stood by the fence about everything from baseball to the weather, commending him on having such a determined little daughter. If anyone thought he was a little too young or a little too brown to be Pella’s dad, no one commented. And if any of the same people saw him when Guert came along and draped an arm around his shoulders, no one said anything about that either.
“They probably think I’m your father,” Guert would say, at least until Owen nudged him in the ribs and kissed his cheek.
At the start of the summer they went to New York for a long weekend, where Genevieve could finally be persuaded to meet them. Owen could barely imagine anyone, let alone his mother, failing to adore the Affenlights, and she quite happily chatted with Pella about life as a journalist and flirted outrageously with Guert, who doubtless enjoyed every second of it. They went to museums and shows together, and Genevieve took Pella shopping while Owen and Guert browsed bookstores and then retreated to their hotel to make very good use of the bed.
By the next semester, Guert was busier than ever as the department head, attending meeting after meeting, more often than not drowning in paperwork. Pella had been persuaded to attend school at least semi-regularly, and Owen was teaching a couple of introductory literature classes, trying to make football players show even the slightest interest in Hemingway. (“Bullfighting!” he said. “Guns! Guert, don’t straight men like these things?”)
In October Owen’s phone rang as he was crossing the Yard and, after a twenty-minute conversation that made him late for his class already, he jogged over to Guert’s office instead.
“Hey.” Guert was alone in his double-size office with its book-lined walls and teaching awards.
Guert, from the look of things, was going over accounts with pen and paper. At least his math was substantially better than Owen’s. He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Class canceled?”
“By now it probably is.” Owen closed the door and twisted the snib. “I just got a phone call.”
“Is Pella okay?”
“Pella’s fine.” Owen took his bag off over his head and sat on the love seat. “It’s about my play. There’s a theater that’s seriously considering it for a run. There’ll be meetings with investors and so on, nothing’s for certain and in any case it’ll be a while before anything happens, but it looks good.”
“Yes. Except the theater’s in New York. Off-Off-Broadway.”
Guert frowned. “There’s an Off-Off-Broadway?” He recapped his pen and got out from behind his desk, sitting down by Owen.
“There is. I have to go there for meetings, and if there’s a run I’ll need to be around for rehearsals, press, maybe more.”
“A few months, then?”
“If anything happens. If it doesn’t close after one night.”
Guert nodded. “We’ll miss you.”
Owen wrapped him in a hug, tears beginning to sting his eyes as anxiety surged through him. “Do I have to say that we’re not breaking up?”
“We knew this was going to happen sooner or later, O. Your play’s brilliant. You’re brilliant. And at least it’s not LA. Pella and I can come see you on the weekends, or you can see us. We can get by for a few months.”
“And if it turns into something longer?” The play, he knew, could easily never get off the ground or be an utter disaster. Even brilliant plays could fail dramatically. But if it did reasonably well, there might be other opportunities, even commissions… Probably none of which would be for theaters in Boston.
“We’ll figure it out.” Guert had his very best don’t-panic voice on, usually administered to PhD students in a thesis crunch. “You don’t need to be anywhere in particular to write, do you? And, worst case, I’ll have to start teaching at Columbia.”
Owen smiled. “I doubt it’ll be that bad.”
At Christmas Genevieve joined them in Cambridge, enjoying doting on Pella more than anything. For New Year, they were back at Charlie’s garden party, where Guert introduced Owen to yet more people, possibly a little too enthusiastic about having the same date for two Decembers in a row. “I wish I could ask you to marry me,” he said in the first moments of 1998, too many scotches in his system.
“You can ask,” Owen said. A couple of months later, Guert made no appearance on Boston magazine’s Most Eligible Bachelor list for the first time in years.
The play was mounted in the spring, to impressed reviews and moderate success with audiences. More than anything, Owen loved sitting on a table in the rehearsal hall, listening to actors imbue his words with more meaning and emotion than he’d ever imagined. On one Saturday he brought Guert and Pella with him. If anything, they made more of an impression on the cast than he had in weeks.
“Your partner’s better looking than half the leading men,” the director whispered in his ear. “Better voice too. What the hell is he doing in lecture halls?”
Pella, enchanted by the entire process, was taken on a backstage tour by a couple of understudies and then begged to be allowed to stay while her dad went back to Cambridge. “I can learn so much more here than in school!”
“But probably not any math or history,” Guert said reasonably. “We’ll be back for opening night.”
Opening night came without too much glitz and glamour, but at least Owen got to sit nervously with the Affenlights, Flynn, and his mom, and see whether they actually liked it. At the afterparty, Pella was left in the care of actresses who tried to answer her sincere questions, while Owen was congratulated by people he’d never met and Guert seemed to effortlessly charm most of New York.
An LGBT-oriented magazine ran an interview with Owen later that month, this hot young playwright with the news anchor mother and Harvard professor boyfriend. Guert called one evening to remark upon how taken his students were with the photoshoot. “No shirtless ones though, which from the look of the rest of the magazine seems to be a terrible oversight.”
If Guert was jealous of the attention, both from the media and from a wide array of attractive younger men, he said nothing. By the fall, Owen was back in Cambridge, writing for a living now, a real working playwright. He’d turned thirty, which he was on some level horrified by, but Guert, at almost fifty, was at least one example of how the next twenty years didn’t have to involve a worrying decline. The next twenty years for Guert didn’t scare him too much either, now that Guert took his pills twice a day and went for checkups and still rowed whenever he could. And if this were the longest relationship either one of them had ever had, a great venture into the unknown, it never seemed particularly perilous. They were both too essentially honest, too romantic, too non-confrontational for that. Even after two years, they still sat up nights encircled by books, still were desperate for each other in bed.
That winter, Guert came home one night and set a bundle of paper on the desk where Owen was working. Owen glanced up at him and then looked through it: Perhaps three hundred, four hundred pages of honest-to-god typewritten prose, because Guert still had a typewriter in his office, had had it since his PhD program in the mid-eighties, and strongly believed in an inability to go back and change what he’d just written. The title was not, as Owen expected, Night of the Large Few Stars, but something new: Endless Unfolding.
“Words of ages, and mine a word of the modern.” Owen ran a finger along the page, underlining Guert’s name. “When did you do this?”
“Mostly while you were away. I don’t like sleeping alone.” Guert smoothed back his already perfect hair. “You can tell me if it’s terrible.”
“I can tell you it’s terrible either way, if you’d prefer.”
Guert’s novel kept him up nights too, making use of the espresso machine before finally tumbling into bed, where Guert’s body was always warm and ready to hold him. “It’s perfect,” he said on the last of these nights. “Absolutely perfect.”
Guert stirred. “’s not Moby-Dick.”
“Admittedly you have more typos than Moby-Dick, but those can be fixed. And taken with your admirable inclusion of female characters, as well as people of color who aren’t entirely stereotypical savages, I think you come out much better on several fronts.” Owen considered. “Although Melville has you beat when it comes to whale penises.”
“Melville has us all beat when it comes to whale penises.”
Owen’s New York connections helped to find Guert a literary agent – a young woman who actually owned a copy of The Sperm-Squeezers – and then, after a publisher was secured, he spent a year or so editing. Editing Guert could do, even while running a department and lecturing and grading papers and raising a daughter. His academic publication record suffered, but that he could let slide for a year or so after their Queer Transcendentalism book had secured publication and some favorable academic reviews.
When the novel was published, Guert was dispatched to book festivals in Europe over the summer, which gave him the chance to introduce Owen and Pella to the continent, or at least most of the western half of it. Owen’s French was rusty but good, Guert’s Dutch reasonably terrible. Pella was mostly irritated by the fact they weren’t visiting Greece, much less Ancient Greece.
If home in Cambridge seemed a reassuring, familiar calm for them now: an opportunity to read and write and live in a relative state of normalcy untainted by the press or glittering city lights, for Pella it was increasingly the most boring place in the world. She stayed out later, hung out with older kids she met at swim meets or parties, allegedly forgot to call. Even if she always came home safe and sound, always still got up and went to school, aced her exams, Guert was tormented by the situation – firstly because he was worried, and maybe more so because he had no idea what to do with a teenage girl who no longer adored him and everything he adored. Owen might have been more lenient in general, but then he could hardly tell Guert what to do about his own daughter. Both he and Guert had spent their teenage years being good kids, by and large, Owen in the library, Guert working on his parents’ farm. Even Pella’s time-consuming extracurriculars of swimming, softball, and the theater didn’t keep her occupied enough.
By then, late 2001, Owen was spending more and more time in New York, working on projects he couldn’t manage from their Massachusetts home. Guert was always busy too, at least on weekdays, but the real tension around their relationship became Pella. “How do I tell the difference between something she’ll grow out of and something that’ll get her killed?” Guert said on the phone one evening. Owen could hear him pacing, exasperated, from two hundred miles away. “She’s fourteen and she’s out drinking and I have to assume having sex, with all the boys hanging around her. College boys. I know she’s smart. But she’s a kid too.”
During the weekends they spent together in NYC, Owen would talk to her, under the proviso that she never play the “you’re not my father!” card with him, and she would nod and hug him. But she’d still come home around midnight, alcohol on her breath, before sitting down to write papers. Where Guert was shocked and concerned, Owen couldn’t help feeling a certain admiration amid his worry.
The following February, Owen returned home around noon from one trip and took a cab to the university. When he walked into Guert’s office, he found Guert glaring at his desk, mopping up spilled espresso. “You’ve got coffee on your shirt.”
“I’ve got coffee on everything.” Guert tossed a stack of slightly soggy papers onto the couch with a sigh, brushed off his shirt, and enveloped Owen in what seemed like an exhausted hug. “How was the flight?”
“Quick. Are you all right?”
“Fine… I’m fine.” Guert cast a hand back, indicating his desk. “I just had a phone call. Job offer.”
“What’s a better job than this? President of Harvard?”
Guert laughed. “Not quite. President of Westish College.”
“Your alma mater? In Wisconsin, right?” Owen unloaded his bag onto the love seat.
Owen had seen pictures, even Googled the place out of interest. “Bit of a step down from Harvard, though.”
“Mm… but it’s beautiful, O. You can’t imagine how beautiful. The lake, the stars… I haven’t had real darkness like that in years.” Guert met his eyes again and scratched at the stain on his shirt. “I know it’s not realistic to think about dragging you and Pella out there, but…”
“But you’re still thinking about it.”
“I haven’t been back in years, it’s probably changed so much, but it still feels, in some little way, like home. It’s not a bad school. Not at all. And it could be the perfect place to write, for both of us. Pella might stop staying out all night too, if there’s nowhere to go.”
“Which would drive her even crazier.” Owen took Guert’s hands in his. “Guert, you have one of the best jobs on the planet. You probably really could be president of Harvard someday. We’re making this work with the flights. Pella’s in a good school. I’m not sure we can make it work in rural Wisconsin.”
Guert nodded glumly and squeezed his hands. “I thought… I didn’t promise them anything, of course. But perhaps it would be a good excuse to go out there. Pella’s never been. I think you’d like it.”
“You told them you were bringing your gay lover to a job interview?”
That brought a smile, however forlorn, to Guert’s face. “I hardly think they could escape knowing about you. Apparently they’ve discussed the public relations pitfalls of having a gay president and decided I might be worth the hassle. Who knows how many better candidates already turned them down?”
“I’m sure you can still charm the pants off all the students’ mothers. And their fathers.”
“In any case, it’s barely an interview at this stage. If I were going to take the idea seriously I’d have to go back and forth a few times. There’s vetting and so on.”
Owen gave his arm a pat and went to brew tea in the kettle. “And you’d like to take the idea seriously.”
“I would, if it were just me.” Guert examined the papers he’d thrown on the couch and began to gently pry the pages apart. “I don’t give a damn about honors and prestige. There’s nothing wrong with Westish College if you don’t have the grades or money to get into Harvard. Not when I went there and not now. I feel as though I should give back in a way, but it’s not just about feeling obliged to. It’s…” He sighed and sat down. “I have to take you. I can’t describe it.”
If it were just me… In the years since they’d met, their relationship had opened up far more avenues than it had closed off. But under all that time, under the intimacy and the shared days and nights, was still a man baffled by the daughter he’d suddenly, unwillingly acquired. And then, deeper still, a younger man intending to spend his entire life alone on the sea, or writing in some tranquil forest. Guert’s soul never worked well with practicalities.
Wisconsin wasn’t just far from Pella’s school and most of Owen’s work commitments. It wasn’t just a step down in prestige and probably pay for Guert. It was nowhere near the best place in the USA to be gay, no matter what the middle class, liberal Westish trustees might think. Milwaukee might be all right. Up in the rural countryside Guert loved so much, it would doubtless be a different story. Owen wondered how likely it would be for them to have their windows smashed, to be hassled on the street, even to be knifed in the silent evening of a college campus after dark. The Midwest might be renowned for its manners, but its most rustic corners were hardly filled with black and openly gay people.
Even the very concept of the idea made Guert enthusiastic, though, flipping through the prospectus Westish sent him by mail, showing a bored Pella photos on the computer, sharing daydreams with Owen as they held each other at night.
“It’ll be nice to see it again,” Guert murmured as they watched the full moon from their bedroom window. “It must have changed so much. But god, O, the lake…”
The next month, Owen came home with vegetarian sushi after a day at the library and found Pella curled up in the armchair with a novel. Guert’s office door was closed. “Is Guert home?”
Pella shrugged. And then, thinking better of it: “Wouldn’t go in there.”
“Why not?” He set the trays down on the dining table and turned back. It was then that he saw it, not that it was hard to see, black on her otherwise Irish-pale skin. “I thought you wanted something Chinese,” he said.
She shrugged again.
“I hope this isn’t some sort of Affenlight gang symbol now. It won’t show up half as well on my arm.” Owen pulled off his jacket, glancing down the hallway. “Your dad’s upset.”
“He doesn’t get upset. He didn’t even say anything.”
The hint of tears in her voice made him want to gather her up and hug her, even if she was almost as tall as him now. He crouched down beside the chair instead, arms folded over the edge. “You went out of state? You have fake ID?”
She sighed. “I have fake ID,” she said. “And we went to Providence.”
“No wonder Guert’s upset.”
“I got a tattoo, Owen! I didn’t overdose. Didn’t get knocked up.” She sniffed, patted her pocket for a tissue. “He should be happy.”
He found a clean one for her. “He is. He loves you.”
“He loves that stupid college. He should just go.” She blew her nose and wiped. “We’d get on okay. I’d come live with you in New York.”
“Sure. You’d get so much studying done.”
Pella glared. “My grades are great. I’m going to get into Yale.”
“Yale, really?” Owen smiled. “And a reverse whale tattoo. I think you might benefit from taking elementary psychology already.”
She scratched at her arm and winced. “Fuck you.”
“Fuck you too.” He stood up, kissing her on the forehead. “Eat some sushi. I’ll talk to your dad.”
The office door was unlocked. Owen closed it softly behind him and only then rapped it with his knuckles. Guert was sitting on the floor, back up against one of the bookcases, making notes on papers. He smiled with half his mouth. “Come to plead on my daughter’s behalf?”
“No need. You’re the only parent who banishes himself to his room when the child misbehaves.”
“She went out of state.”
“To Providence. An hour away.”
“To get a tattoo.” Guert rubbed his forehead. “She’s just a kid. Who can pass for eighteen, apparently.”
Owen slid down the bookcase to sit next to him. “At least it’s of the one thing she won’t regret.”
“I’d bet she regrets it already, and not because it made me angry. Because it was a hell of a lot of effort just to piss off her old man.”
“You really think that’s what she was trying to do?”
“It’s what she’s always trying to do.” Guert tipped his head back and turned to look at Owen. “And this time the effects are a little more permanent than a hangover.”
“You don’t regret your tattoo, do you?”
“Mine meant – means – something to me. Hers is just a middle finger in graphic form.” He swallowed and glanced down. “I could have slapped her, O. I’ve never been so furious with anyone.”
Owen touched a hand to his cheek. “Guert. Do you honestly think Moby-Dick means nothing to her? That you mean nothing to her?”
“I forbid her from getting a tattoo, so she takes mine. That’s all there is to it. She’s fourteen and she can smoke and drink and sleep around more than I ever did. She can get better grades than I ever got in college. She’d probably try to win the Superbowl if she had a little more testosterone. She doesn’t need me anymore.”
Owen waited. “Or,” he said, shifting to slide an arm around Guert. “You’ve been her hero since she was three, she’s only ever wanted to be like you, and now she’s scared you’re going to leave her here and go to Westish.”
Guert looked up. “Did she say that?”
“She loves you. But she’s a rebellious teenager who can’t just hug her dad or hang out with him anymore, so she finds a way that means you’ll always be together, somehow.” Owen kissed his furrowed brow. “Don’t you ever listen to your own seminars?”
The door opened a crack. “Um,” came a voice, “the sushi’s getting dry.”
They ate on the floor with chopsticks and cups of soda, Pella’s gaze more or less focused on the carpet in front of her crossed legs while, mostly to fill the silence, Owen related the plot of a play he’d recently seen in rehearsals.
“Does it hurt?” Guert said finally, nodding at Pella’s arm.
She looked at the black ink, splotchy pale skin. “It burns a bit. Did yours hurt?”
Owen felt Guert breathe in. “It was mostly fine till one of my shipmates knocked me off the dock. Then I wanted to saw my arm off with the nearest harpoon.”
“It’s supposed to have an antiseptic effect, saltwater,” Pella said.
“Yes, I really appreciated that. You should probably bandage it up for a few days, now we’ve all had a good look. You don’t want an inflamed whale on your hands. Or your arm.”
Pella nodded, pushing a sushi roll around her half-empty tray. “You got your tattoo at sea?”
“When we docked at Yokohama. I’d been thinking about it for a while, sketching it out. Everyone saw my tattoo at sea. When I got home and put a shirt on again, hardly anyone did.” He took a swig of soda. “Probably no one in my family ever had any idea except you.”
She stabbed a chopstick toward him in the air. “So, just to recap, dear father, you went to Japan to get a tattoo of which your parents would disapprove…”
“I was twenty-two,” Guert said, fending off the chopstick. “You’re fourteen. I realize you don’t see the difference right now, because you’re growing up in a world very different from a Wisconsin dairy farm, but I’d appreciate it if you could at least trust me when I tell you there is a difference. Coming from someone who’s been fourteen and twenty-two, and a lot more ages besides.”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “When you’re fourteen you don’t get to have an opinion. You don’t get a say. Not over tattoos, or over curfews, or moving about a thousand miles away.”
Guert caught her hand in both of his. “Pella… I’d never leave you. Either of you. If we go anywhere, we’ll do it together, and I know you two don’t want to go to Westish. I’m going to tell the college I can’t take the job.”
Pella bit her lip. “I don’t want you to mope around.”
“I’m not going to mope around.”
She pulled back her hand, not roughly, refusing to simply win the argument. “Maybe we could… You know, if Owen can, maybe we could still go to Wisconsin over spring break? If this lake’s so beautiful.”
Guert hesitated. “You’re sure you won’t hate it?”
She shrugged. “Can’t be any worse than all the other water you sit around staring at.”
“Consider the subtleness of the sea…” Owen quoted, capturing Pella’s last remaining roll with his chopsticks. “Owen most certainly can and would be happy to accompany Dr. and Ms. Affenlight on their cross-country escapades.”
“We’ll have fun,” Guert said with a grin, reaching across to hug Pella as if she were still eight. And fourteen-year-old Pella rolled her eyes and hugged him back.
The Midwest was foreign territory for Owen, neither his mother nor his various careers having any reason to take him there, and though Pella had attended a family funeral as a child, she had no memory of Wisconsin either. Even for Guert, his home state was a memory ten years old.
They’d discussed driving southwest, out beyond Madison, to visit Guert’s two older brothers and their families, but Guert’s contact with them was limited to occasional phone calls. “We’d only have enough to talk about for five minutes,” he explained, although Owen suspected Guert mainly feared his relatives not knowing what to make of their little brother’s gay mulatto lover. Tolerance was a lot easier to convey through including him in Christmas cards than putting the two of them up in the same room and watching even Guert’s low-level form of public affection.
So they rented a car and drove north, the lake huge and clear to their right. It really was beautiful, at least if one refrained from testing samples for industrial pollutants, and Owen could hardly imagine what it must have seemed like to a young man accustomed to landlocked farmland. From here, it might as well have been the Pacific, the beaches of which Owen had played on as a child, more concerned with sandcastles than the vastness of the ocean beyond.
The drive was about two hours, and then they arrived in Westish, certainly more of a town than a city, and with the quiet rural atmosphere of a village that only reluctantly considered itself a college town. Many students had probably returned home or gone south for the holiday, or perhaps the streets really were normally this peaceful.
Past the navy gates accented with the college name in ecru, the small parking lot was almost empty. As Pella stretched and grumbled about nothing in particular, Guert took Owen’s hand, an unusual event anywhere but on the Harvard campus, and began to point out the various nineteenth century buildings. The chapel bells chimed two o’clock.
The students who were around, walking with books and Coke bottles, looked much like the Harvard students, if a little whiter, blonder, and less fashion-conscious on average. More of the boys stared at Pella than anyone paid attention to them holding hands, and as they crossed what Guert called the Large Quad, Owen wondered when he’d become more concerned than Guert about looking gay.
Shimmering in the sunlight, the library was the only building that seemed modern, but Guert shook his head. “The basement levels are still the same. They’ve gutted some of the interior. Replaced some books with computers. Progress.”
Crossing a strip of grass worn down by student footprints, they emerged in a smaller quad, where Pella said: “Huh. Melville.”
Guert pointed out Phumber Hall, the dormitory building where he’d once lived for four years, and then they reached the statue: life-sized, although on a stone plinth about waist-height, and spattered with guano. Pella read the inscription aloud: “Humbled, I am, by the severe beauty of this Westish land, and these Great Lakes, America’s secret sinew of inward-collecting seas.”
“All because of you,” Owen said, giving Guert’s hand a squeeze.
Guert, overcome by thought or emotion, only nodded.
Given leave to forage for food in the college’s dining hall or café, Pella left them as they strolled down to the shore, walking a little way before sitting on the slightly damp grass.
“I’d never seen it before the semester started,” Guert said, arms looped around his shins. “All I wanted to do was swim out there forever, and I’d never even swum in anything but a pool before. I still have dreams of drowning here. Not nightmares, exactly, and maybe drowning isn’t the right word. I just dream of floating downward, suspended there, not needing to move, or breathe, or think again, and I never want to leave.”
“And then?” A jogger was pacing toward them, a balding man around Guert’s age, accompanied by a sugar-white husky.
“And then I wake up in bed with you and I never want to leave there either.”
“Good weather for March!” The jogging man slowed, the dog venturing into the shallow water. “Just passing through?”
“Coming back.” Guert stood to shake his hand. “Guert Affenlight. I went to school here, a long time ago.”
The jogger nodded and wiped his hand on his shorts before shaking Guert’s. “Tom Bremen. Physics department. Not too many Affenlights around. I’ve seen your name.”
“We do tend to stand out. This is my partner Owen. My daughter’s out foraging for lunch.”
“Thinking of coming here herself?” Tom nodded hello to Owen, who had ventured down to the shoreline to pet the dog.
“She’s got her heart set on Yale at the moment, but that could change. She’s got a few years to think about it.”
“Beautiful animal you’ve got here,” Owen said.
Tom smiled. “Contango. Really he’s my son’s, but we didn’t think he’d take to Sweden.”
The guest house Owen had booked them into, after careful online consultations regarding which Westish businesses might be sufficiently gay-friendly not to kick up a fuss about he and Guert sharing a bed, turned out to be clean and quaint, run by an older couple who seemed more concerned about the hellraising potential of a teenage girl than two impeccably-dressed academics. Owen and Pella left Guert at the front desk, where he and the proprietors eagerly pored over a state map, discussing the migration patterns of past Affenlights.
For dinner they were steered to a little, relatively upscale French restaurant, Maison Robert, where cheese and wine seemed to be the order of the day. Pella, who might otherwise have been delighted by the idea of sharing a glass of wine with the two of them, was so exhausted that she could barely raise a fork.
“I guess I don’t need to worry about her sneaking out anywhere tonight,” Guert said.
Guert was reserved, removed, even when they went to bed. The sheets were cold and crisply starched. Sex seemed all but impossible in this sort of environment. “They won’t ask me again.” His hands were folded behind his head.
Owen rolled over onto his side to rub Guert’s thigh. “They might. But they don’t have to. We can come back. Who knows where Pella might be going to college in a few years? If she’s at Stanford or Columbia we might as well be here. Even if she’s at Yale I doubt she’ll want to live at home.”
“You’d really want to live with me out here, in the middle of nowhere? These same stars twinkle over other fields than these,” he said, quoting Thoreau.
“The ‘with you’ is the important part. And it’s not the middle of nowhere, between Milwaukee and Green Bay. Chicago’s, what, a 45-minute flight?”
Guert slid an arm under him and tugged him close. “You’re a sweetheart. You make everything sound so simple.”
“Things are simpler than they seem, Guert.”
“I honestly never thought about being anywhere other than Harvard for the rest of my career. The rest of my life. I don’t like thinking about my own mortality. Anyone’s, really. But coming back here… It feels like where I should have been all along.”
Owen laid his head against Guert’s chest. “Being here makes you think about dying.”
“It’s where I began. It makes me think about endings.”
“Just another chapter, maybe. A sequel.”
Guert sighed and shifted. “Have you ever thought about adopting Pella officially?”
It was at once a charming and a worrying question. He’d known Pella for six years, lived with her almost that long, dried her tears, cheered at swim meets, quizzed her on test questions, been a parent to her in every sense but the biological. And, well, the legal. “Guert. Tell me you’re not planning to jump into the lake.”
A whisper of laughter. Guert turned and slid down to kiss him. “We’re not breaking up,” he said. “But if anything ever happened to me, even if it happens by the time Pella’s your age, I’d want to know you’re there for her.”
“You know that now.”
“I do. But the courts wouldn’t. A lot can happen before she’s an adult. I can’t take it on faith that something like what happened to Sarah can’t happen to me in the next four years. And I know you don’t need my money, O, but you’d need her.”
Owen swallowed. “You’re going to make me cry.”
“Shh.” Being enveloped in Guert’s arms, hearing his heartbeat through his t-shirt, made it even more ludicrous that someday he might not be there. “Sarah used to hang up on me when I got like this. Or she’d say, ‘Nothing personal, Affenlight, but you need to stop drinking and go to bed’, and shove me out the door.’”
“Maybe in this instance we should start drinking.” Owen cleared his throat. “I’ll talk to her about it. But I don’t know. She’s not a little kid anymore. She wants to be independent, not saddled with another authority figure.”
Guert stroked his hair. “Ask her how much she’d prefer to spend the rest of her childhood on a Wisconsin farm. I just… You always wonder how committed I am, O. Today when we met Tom Bremen, all I wanted to do was introduce you as my husband and talk about our daughter.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Owen said in his ear. “And you’re not even drunk. But yes, dear heart. I want that too.”
Halcyon days. Guert was fond of the phrase. In his writing, it was usually employed to illustrate a negative, to ground flights of fancy, to rip up floorboards of rhetoric and reveal the rot beneath. The next four years, though, were as golden as Owen could ever have imagined them to be.
He spent much of his time writing, some of it while shuttling to New York and Chicago for workshops and rehearsals. Pella, increasingly fascinated by the theater, came with him whenever his trips coincided with school vacations. After discussions and much thought, she had decided that for once her father was right, so Guert had spoken to his lawyer and worked out the adoption process in what was a surprisingly short time. “I am not calling you ‘dad’,” she said firmly, “or ‘papa’ or anything like that.”
“I call my mother Genevieve.”
“I won’t be calling you Genevieve either.”
In May 2004, it was Pella who called him up from school, demanding to know when her parents were going to get married. Owen had kept one eye on the developing legal proceedings in Massachusetts, and the other on Guert, who had said nothing serious about the topic since Westish. It was certainly one thing to talk about the possibility while half-drunk when, at the time, it hadn’t been a possibility at all. Only a few years ago, Guert had been apparently happy with being a bachelor for life. But the intervening years had changed everything.
“I’m fifty-five,” Guert said one evening.
He’d been sitting in the armchair for almost an hour, flipping through Redburn. Pella was out with friends. Owen was lying flat on the couch, making notes on a manuscript. He looked up now. “Yes?” They’d gone out to celebrate Guert’s birthday just a couple of weeks ago.
“Pella’s seventeen. My hair’s gray. I still don’t like movies.” Guert set the book down on his lap. He waited.
Owen pushed himself up into a sitting position. “We’ve been together almost eight years. I adopted your daughter. I love you.”
Guert smiled. “This is much harder to do sober.”
“Pella’s going to want to pick out the rings.”
“Yes.” Guert nodded gravely. “We should probably call your mother.”
They got married by the coast on a Sunday morning in early July. Pella took photographs, Genevieve admired Owen’s Guert-bought suit, and all Guert wanted to do was kiss him, no matter how many passing tourists looked on in vague interest. That summer, while Pella was in California, Guert took him to the Netherlands for something of a honeymoon, one of the few places they could go out of state and still be recognized as a married couple. Guert’s Dutch hadn’t improved much, but at least most of the locals could say his name.
When they returned, Guert shushed a barrage of questions from students about the new ring on his finger and settled back into teaching, beginning a new novel – something of a romance – on the weekends. Pella, having acquired no further tattoos and slightly fewer phone calls home about various “incidents” (usually intercepted by Owen), amassed a fort of textbooks and college prospectuses.
Two years later, Westish called.
Pella drove cross-country with them the week before she was due to start at Yale, on condition that she could pick most of the music and do at least some of the driving. In the evenings before they reached their scheduled stops for the night, she kept them awake by telling them about the social dramas of Tellman Rose, her old school, and the weenie of a lecturer she’d had in the last year: “His Greek was excellent. But he had a beard. God, I hate beards.”
The short timespan between initial interview and the start of the semester, which accounted for the desperation sufficient for Westish to make the call in the first place, meant that their long-term living arrangements were still undecided. But in the meantime Guert and Owen were moving into the traditional presidential quarters on campus, and Guert was considering buying the departing president’s house, either as a real residence or as an investment:
“If Pella ever lives with us long-term we’ll need a lot more space,” he said. “Or if we accumulate many more books.”
The campus buildings truly were lovely, though, and even with three thousand students and staff members hurrying around them, it didn’t seem as though the Small Quad could ever be busy enough to disturb their work or sleep. There was a real appeal to being able to write in the library, or in their apartment, or by the lake, whatever Owen felt like on any given day, and there was a drama department filled with students who just might be eager enough to workshop some scenes for him. Dr. Sobel, department head, had already e-mailed him with a tentative suggestion that he perhaps think about teaching a playwriting course in the spring, or at least during the following summer session.
“Just like Harvard in miniature,” he commented to Guert as they carried out the laborious process of actually moving in. They had very little furniture – the quarters were already furnished in gorgeous walnut and leather – but box upon box of books and files had to be relocated to either Guert’s new office, or the study upstairs. Pella had charmed a trolley from a maintenance man, but after that they were on their own.
“You’ve got to promise me you’ll look after him,” Pella said, frowning at her own writing on an upside-down box. “I mean, I’m not going to be here till Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas. Don’t let him… do whatever he does. Mope.”
Owen gazed over in the direction of Scull Hall, where Guert was being read a list of procedures by Mrs. McCallister, the long-serving secretarial assistant who was probably no more than five years older than Guert but was already treating him like a somewhat wayward son. “I don’t think he’ll even get close to moping. He loves it here.”
“Well, make sure he takes his pills and eats and…” She chewed on her lip. “Just look after him, okay?”
“He’ll be more worried about you.”
“About me?” She grinned. “I’ve been dealing with these college boys for years, Owen. I can drink more than any of them. I probably know the courses back to front. Don’t worry about me.”
Guert returned, his shirtfront already smeared with lines of dirt from the boxes, and clapped his hands. “Look at you two slacking off.”
“We’re fragile creatures,” Owen pled. “Meant for reading books, not carrying them.”
At that, a passing boy glanced over in what Owen first took for disdain, and then for interest in Pella. But the boy stopped: “Need a hand?” Maybe he was twenty, twenty-two, but as tall as Guert and built like a linebacker, the scruff of stubble on his chin. Still, a nice-looking kid, not a brute.
“If you’re not busy.”
The boy shrugged. “I’m just here early for football practice. Classes don’t start for a few days. I could do with the exercise. That’s the president’s office, right? I heard the old one had some sort of scandal.”
“We try not to dwell.” Guert held out his hand. “Guert Affenlight.”
“Mike Schwartz.” He was looking at Pella again.
Guert followed his gaze. “And this is-”
“His husband Owen and our daughter Pella,” Owen said, shaking Mike’s oversized hand and nudging Guert simultaneously. “He likes saying it far too much.”
That at least gave Mike something more to think about than Pella, who would probably stand out in any group of girls even without her purply-hued hair. He glanced between them, then back at Pella. “Oh.” Most of their new acquaintances since the wedding had taken to assuming that Pella, fairer than both of them, was probably adopted. “Sacked by the Romans in 168 BC.”
“Yeah, the city. Not me personally.” She might have been blushing.
Mike turned his attention back to Guert, grasping for a conversational topic. “So you’re from Massachusetts?”
“I used to teach at Harvard. Technically we’re not married as far as Wisconsin’s concerned, but… we still have the rings.”
Mike nodded, impressed. “Things’ll change.”
“You said football? What position?”
“Hope you’ll do better than I did. Maybe I’ll get to see some games this season.”
They each hefted boxes and walked inside, talking football as though Guert had actually cared about it in the forty years since he was an undergraduate. Owen suspected that in the coming days he’d seem to care about every college activity under the sun. And with Guert’s penchant for sincerity and genuine enthusiasm, it might even be true.
“Well, that’s one student won over to our decadent gay agenda,” he remarked to Pella, finally finding a box that felt light enough to be carried by a non-quarterback. “Two thousand, three-hundred ninety-nine to go?”
“He has really beautiful eyes…” Pella mused, and followed Owen into the building.
They ate in the college dining hall that evening, too tired and dirty to do anything else, some boxes unpacked, most stacked awaiting proper assignment on shelves. Only a few dozen students were in attendance, with two tables full of boys who had to be on the football team, scoffing down mounds of protein and carbs. While Guert made the acquaintance of the college chef, a squat Latin American man whose creations apparently included excellent chowder, Pella quietly asked to be excused and slipped over to join Mike Schwartz at an empty table.
“That’s the thing with Westish,” Guert said, sitting back down with another helping, and more orange juice for Owen. “Most of the people here are here because they love it. There’s no particular prestige, no money they’re after that they wouldn’t find somewhere more central. But there’s something special about being taught by, about teaching, people who want to be here.” Silver-flecked gray hair aside, he looked more eager and boyish than Owen had ever known him. “I just hope you’re one of them.”
Owen gave him a mock-frown. “Of course I do, and I’ll be traveling out to the real world often enough, when I need new-fangled things like clothes stores and movie theaters. Now eat your chowder. And then wash your mouth out before you kiss me.”
He was aching the next morning, and it barely was still morning by the time he looked at the clock, his shoulders and back protesting as he raided an open box of Guert’s clothes for underwear and a t-shirt and pushed on his glasses. Last night, sleeping in the new bed for the first time, they’d laid and gazed out at the almost complete darkness of the night sky, listening to the sounds of the campus and the creaking old building. “I think we have a mouse,” Guert said, and Owen tended to agree.
In the early hours, the chapel bells tolling, sunshine heating the comforter, it had been lovely, perfect, to revel in that warm, sleepy feeling as Guert kissed and caressed him, parted his legs and filled him up. It was almost like being a student again, even if the dormitory was an apartment, the bed queen-size, the boyfriend the school president. Owen peeked past the door of Pella’s room, finding her still asleep – and alone – under the covers. From the kitchen windows he could see where Guert had gone – wide awake, smile in place, shirt sleeves rolled up just so, he was chatting to staff members by the Melville statue below, greeting students as they hauled boxes and suitcases across the Quad’s lawns and walkways, carried guitars and TVs and computers to and fro. Owen switched on the espresso machine and ducked into the shower.
The hot water didn’t do his sore muscles much good, but he was almost at the point of resolving to take up some sort of serious exercise regime himself. Yoga wasn’t everything, and there was a sports center right on his doorstep. He could swim, run, maybe even get some batting practice in… It was worth thinking about, if Pella expected him to keep her father fit and healthy in ways that didn’t solely extend to early-morning lovemaking.
Rubbing his jaw and deciding that this was not one of the rare days he needed to shave, he found his own jeans and a neater-fitting shirt, and made coffee in mugs he’d begged from Mrs. McCallister last night – their own were buried somewhere in cryptically-marked boxes. Outside, the air was fresh and cooler than he expected.
“Hey.” Guert smiled warmly, accepting the mug and kissing him, responding to a flicker of a disapproving look with: “Well, you are Irish, aren’t you?”
Owen looked, for the first time, at the slogan on his mug.
“O, this is Judy Eglantine, from the English department. And I believe you’ve already been in touch with Dr. Sobel. I was just telling them all about your new play.”
Guert’s new colleagues were perhaps not quite as enthusiastic about the forthcoming semester as the neophyte president, but their conversation went beyond mere politeness, inquiring about Owen’s writing projects and who among the student body he might contact for information on the drama club. “Jason Gomes,” Sobel said. “Just put a period between the names and then it’s westish-dot-edu. He’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
Left alone by the statue, the sun-warmed plinth against their backs, they watched in a companionable silence for a while, sipping coffee, looking out toward the lake. “Where’s Pella?” Guert asked.
“Still asleep. She won’t want to fly back tomorrow. She’s quite taken with that football player.”
Guert nodded. “Good. Any reason for her to visit us as often as possible.”
“Shouldn’t we be unpacking? And you need to work on your convocation speech.” Knowing Guert, he already had it mostly in his head, could bluff his way through making something up on the spot if necessary.
Somewhere up above them, in one of the dorms overlooking the quad, someone opened a window and switched on some music. Loud, upbeat pop blared out, bouncing off nineteenth century walls. Not Guert’s taste, and not really Owen’s either, but it seemed to suit the summer day, in these last hours before classes began.
Guert laid a hand on his shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay here,” he said. “It’s going to be good for us and for Westish. But I won’t be able to do any of it without you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You live a charmed life, Guert Affenlight, from finding those Melville papers till today.”
“Those papers…” Guert leaned back against the statue. “I was just a kid, poking around. I had no idea what I was doing. So much more unfolding to do.”
Owen ruffled his hair, to the giggles of passing freshpersons. “You’re still just a kid poking around.”
Guert smiled. “Don’t you wish you’d known me then?”
“Then and now,” Owen said. “Always.”