Owen had never been left alone in Guert’s apartment before. Guert, admittedly, was just one room away while Owen gathered up the books lying open in the study, slotted bookmarks into each one and stacked them on the edge of the desk, but Guert was asleep, the curtains drawn, and for once Owen had the run of the place. Possibly of the entire building. Contango, the white-furred husky Guert was dog-sitting for the week, watched him with vague interest before padding off to find a comfortable spot on the study’s lush carpeting.
He was tired too, but Guert was exhausted and there were things that needed to be done before Owen slipped into bed beside him for the night. Besides, even after a flight cross-country and seeing around the Bremens’ house with Guert and Pella, it was still barely four. Owen slid a hand up under the back of his t-shirt, scratching the still-damp small of his back. He needed a shower to rinse off the Lake Michigan scum he’d doubtless acquired while skinny-dipping, or better yet a hot bath to ease muscles aching from a long month of games. Yesterday afternoon the Harpooners had won the national championship. That victory already seemed a lifetime ago.
I love you he’d said to Guert, buzzed and warm from the win, from sex, from having Guert all to himself under the fluffy blankets of a hotel room bed. He’d known then only half what the words might commit him to – finding a way to have a real, lasting relationship with a college president 40 years his senior, with a distance between them that was shortly to stretch into the thousands of miles. Minutes later, when he discovered that Guert had lost the job he loved, that commitment had become deeper, graver. Even though Guert’s position had constituted a significant obstacle for them, the obliteration of that barrier meant more than Pella or Genevieve being upset by the relationship. Their families would come round. The job, Guert’s place and purpose in life, was gone forever.
Now, after failing a depressed Henry Skrimshander almost completely, Owen found himself in charge of a heartbroken Guert Affenlight. A man who, regardless of his mental or emotional condition, had some serious dietary problems of his own. Mindful of Pella’s warnings, Owen gathered up cigarette packets from Guert’s desk and then quietly went downstairs to check the office there, too. Ordinarily he would adopt a much more laissez-faire attitude to the habits of others. What right did he have to insist someone quit smoking or eat in a particular way or go to the gym? None, really. But given Guert’s long-neglected medical problems and his weary nods of assent in the car, he’d had to put those ideals aside. He took a trash bag from Mrs. McCallister’s collection and threw in all the cigarettes he’d managed to find, plus those from his own bag. Neither of them seemed to be particularly heavy smokers, all things considered, but withdrawal wasn’t likely to be entirely pleasant over the next few days. Owen knotted the ties of the bag and took it to the large bins at the rear of the building.
Upstairs he thoughtfully considered Guert’s alcohol collection – really too expensive and lovely to throw away. Ditto his coffee. But the kitchen, when he inspected it, was free from everything but limes, butter, and some slightly old vegetables in a bowl. Cabinets revealed dusty bags of rice and pasta, jars of spaghetti sauce. What did Guert live on? Espresso and whatever Mrs. McCallister fed him? Owen had never seen him in the dining hall.
A cursory inspection of the rest of the apartment revealed nothing in particular – closets stuffed with books, Pella’s room neat and empty, the bathroom clean, a spare room again stacked with books, books crammed with marginalia, a treadmill in one corner. Owen stepped up, surprised to see that, from the look of the dust-free console, it might actually be in a regular use. Guert had a nice body – not chiseled, but nice – yet he’d never thought it came from anything but careful eating and regular walks.
After a moment of thought, he tucked in his t-shirt neatly, slid a credit card from the wallet Guert had left on the coffee table, roused Contango, and went out.
The campus store was small and well-stuffed with everything the average student might require without actually summoning the desire to walk into town. Owen barely ever went there, preferring to patronize the once-weekly farmers’ market for treats of organic fruits and cheeses he couldn’t get in the dining hall. But sometimes he deigned to stroll the narrow aisles for milk and cigarettes. Now he picked up a plastic basket and poked around the vegetables until he found ones he liked. Orange juice. Milk. Eggs. Bran flakes – he needed to extol the virtues of fiber to Guert at some point. Bananas.
Manning the checkout, finger marking his page in a textbook, Red Bull on standby, was a very drowsy Phil Loondorf. “Hey Owen,” he said, straightening up and searching for the requisite codes required for all the non-barcoded items, one eye on Contango by Owen’s heel. There was no leash for the dog, but he was well-behaved enough.
“Hi Phil.” Buddha and Loonie seemed relegated to the field. “You should get some sleep.”
“Gotta work. And I have a final tomorrow afternoon, so…”
“Right.” As a music major, many of Loondorf’s interests intersected with Owen’s, particularly over the last month as Guert had taught him a little about opera and Owen had downloaded the requisite mp3s. This had led to some lively discussions in the locker room and on buses across America. But this afternoon Owen’s mind was on other things, and Loondorf’s was barely in gear.
At least, that was, until he blinked at the MasterCard. “Since when are you President Affenlight?”
“I’m just doing his shopping.”
Loondorf shrugged and ran it through. The chances that Owen was buying the president’s groceries, however unlikely, were far more probable than the suggestion Owen had stolen the president’s credit card and was using it to buy lettuce. “Your mom seemed kind of pissed this morning. Everything okay?”
That, too, seemed like a lifetime ago. He’d told Genevieve about himself and Guert and, although most of the arguments had been within her room, some had followed them down into the lobby. Guert had wisely made himself scarce and gone to the airport before breakfast. “Nothing to be concerned about.”
The receipt was ripped off and Loondorf nodded at the pen on the desk. “It was cool of Affy to come to the game. I mean, he was at practically all of them this season.”
“Guert’s a big fan,” Owen said, bagging his purchases.
Whether Loondorf registered the first name was debatable. But he nodded and helped bag up the milk. “Heard anything about Henry?”
“He’s okay. Sleeping. Mike too. You should call in reinforcements and go to bed.”
Loondorf grinned. “Yeah? Guess who else is on staff today? Boddington. Ten to one he’s facedown on someone’s couch. I’m here for the long haul. Me and the Bull.”
Arranging the food in Guert’s fridge took no time at all, and when Owen headed over to his own room in Phumber, the stench of soup and murky bathwater was still present in the air. He would have to clean properly in the next couple of days. But for now he gathered a backpack’s worth of clean clothes and books, packed up his laptop, and headed back down four flights and then up three more. The apartment was silent once he’d shut the door and set up his laptop on the coffee table. He was used to hearing Henry moving around, noise on the landing below, the Asian Steves across the hall playing music, bags of trash thumping down the chute. At night he knew he would hear the creaking of old walls, stray voices in the quad as he lay next to Guert. But for the moment, dog excepted, he was all by himself.
In the bathroom he pulled boxes and silver sheets from the drawers and took them back into the study, Googling the drugs. Cholesterol and high blood pressure. Nothing out of the ordinary, except if you didn’t take them correctly. The last time Guert had even filled a prescription was, it seemed, almost three months ago. Owen picked up the landline and dialed the number he had for Dr. Collins. Then he took a bath.
Even if the rest of the apartment looked like Guert had a fairly diligent cleaner – unlike those assigned to the student dorms, who were mainly employed to check that the students in question weren’t festering corpses – the grout had certainly not been scrubbed as thoroughly as Owen might have liked. But Guert was moving out in two weeks, and Owen’s arms felt like they might fall off if he had to lift them one more time.
Probably no one had taken an actual bath in here for years. But there was copious hot water and soap, and that was more than good enough. Owen folded up his clothes on the cabinet by the sink, set his glasses carefully to one side, and eased in.
He felt as though he’d fallen asleep when a soft knock came at the door, but the water was still warm, if not exactly hot.
“You can come in,” he called. “I’m taking a bath.”
Guert was still in the white t-shirt and boxers he had been wearing when Owen had tucked him into bed hours ago. He smiled, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Hi.”
There was a temptation to treat Guert with kid gloves, given the loss of his job, the potential health problems, and everything that had happened to Henry. But Guert, however immature he could apparently be on some issues, like taking prescribed medications, was also an adult, a reasonably competent single dad, and someone who’d got through worse in his life than being asked for his resignation.
For Owen, being thrown out of Westish would have been survivable from an academic standpoint, but not good at all from any other. He would’ve wound up living with his mother again, struggling to explain the circumstances to other good schools. Even now, Mike was contemplating a year as a bartender, or working at the foundry in Chicago. Henry might be destined to go home to Lankton, South Dakota. Adulthood and independence would be curtailed for all three of them. But even if Guert never held an academic post again, which was far from certain, he had a sterling reputation unlikely to be more than briefly tarnished by a consensual relationship with a student who hadn’t even been his student. He could write. At the very worst he could probably settle into a sort of retirement, buy a house, live on returns from investments. He wasn’t going to end up back at his family’s farm. Still, there were worse hells than having to go home.
Guert crouched down to kiss him and then sat on the mat by the bath, hooking an arm over the edge of the tub to trail his fingers in the water. “You’re all moved in.”
“For the moment.” It would be nice, he thought, to stay. Drabness aside, the apartment was lovely in its leather-and-walnut design, outfitted with Guert’s books. Given the summer, he could really do something with the place, bring some more light and color in, scrub the grout… Still, the Bremens’ home would give him the chance to do something similar, plus embark on environmentally-friendly projects once they came back from Tokyo, and Guert would love having the lake on his doorstep. “How are you feeling?”
“A little better.” Guert moved his hand to stroke over Owen’s chest, eyes flicking anxiously to see if this was all right. Owen leaned back against the curved end of the tub and closed his eyes. “I feel like I have jetlag.”
“You’ll be all right tomorrow.”
“Maybe.” He heard Guert inhale. “I have to work in the morning.”
“We’ll have to start packing up. I will, anyway. You need to study.”
Guert’s hand felt absolutely perfect, smoothing over soapy skin, brushing up against nipples until they were hard. Owen had wondered what might happen once they got past the learning stages of sex with each other, once Guert no longer felt anxious about giving blow jobs or about any aspect of sleeping with a man. Perhaps it hadn’t exactly happened yet, but it was coming.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Owen murmured. He could so easily fall asleep like this, as Guert’s hand dipped under the water, finding him half-hard already. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
It had made him uncomfortable before when Guert had said it, even if it had been after he’d come in Owen’s mouth, even if it had been the more oblique “I could never have fallen in love like this.” Now it was reassurance as warm as the bathwater, as comforting as Guert’s hand around him. Guert not only felt the same way, but believed him when he said it.
“This is going to make a mess,” he said, his breath catching, hips pushing against Guert’s hand.
“I’ll hose you down.”
He hadn’t come in the bath since high school and he still had the impulse from then not to make a sound. Still, he heard, or imagined he heard, his heavy breaths echoing around the tiled walls, the bathwater suddenly hotter against his skin as he spilled out into the water and Guert kept stroking him. They kissed and Owen, wet hands on Guert’s t-shirt, wanted to pull it off, pull Guert right in there with him, but the bath was barely big enough for one and… Well, later would come soon enough.
He rinsed himself off with the showerhead, listening to Guert bang around in the kitchen. When he walked in there, just in clean briefs and a t-shirt, Guert was sitting in the breakfast nook, sipping orange juice. “Still fighting jetlag,” Guert said, sounding miserable. “I’ll never get to sleep tonight if I have espresso now.”
Owen smiled and found two bowls, taking out vegetables from the fridge. Guert eyed him. “No cigarettes anywhere?” he said.
“I say stupid things when I’m sleep-deprived.”
“We’ll both feel better for it in a few days.” It felt good to have the run of a proper kitchen again. His cooking skills weren’t anything out of the ordinary, and eating in the dining hall had saved him a lot of time and money over the past three years, but eating more than cereal in privacy meant a lot. And when it was with Guert, even more so.
The salads he made were simple, but they were healthy and fresh and had to be better than the practically nothing Guert had been consuming lately. Guert, to his credit, said nothing about “rabbit food”. If he wanted, he could buy his own meat and fish easily enough.
“I worked out your pill schedule,” Owen said when he was done, setting two bowls on the counter and sitting opposite Guert. Their knees brushed under the table. “And I made you an appointment at St. Anne’s tomorrow for a physical.”
“I admit your position at the school may have helped me pull a few strings with the medical staff, behavior which I’d normally condemn. But Guert, you haven’t been looking after yourself properly for eight years, coupled with all the stress you’re under…”
Guert rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at a slice of tomato. “You and Pella worry far too much. I feel fine. I get enough exercise, more than most of the students or staff around here.”
“So humor us. We love you, and it won’t do you any harm to take a few pills once or twice a day.”
Owen watched him chew and dug a fork into his own heap of lettuce and cucumber just as Guert touched the fingertips of his free hand. “It makes me think about dying,” Guert said. “This all makes me think about dying. About how old I am and how much older I am than you and how things are going to get worse. Pella I’m not worried about, not in that way. I know once she gets her life together she’ll go wherever she needs to, for school or her career, or for whatever family she makes for herself. But you... It’s all a great romantic adventure, going to Tokyo together, and maybe you’ll even think I’m hot and interesting for a few more years. But what then?”
“You know you could say precisely the same thing if I were sixty-one too?” Owen said, reaching to squeeze his hand tightly. “That I’d worry the same thing if you were my age, that we were just kids tying ourselves to each other when we don’t even know what we’re doing yet, or where we might get jobs. That’s what Jason said when he broke up with me, that it was stupid to think about love, about the future, when we’re this young. But I believe in love. So we’ll see how we are come August, and we’ll see how it goes between us in Tokyo, and we’ll keep on seeing. We’re not getting married, Guert. We’re not having kids. I don’t know if this is for forever, neither of us do, but it’s not out of pity or hero worship. You’re the boy I like, the boy I’ve fallen for much, much too quickly. But we’re both romantics, aren’t we? So I have every hope we won’t break each other’s hearts.”
Guert was smiling a little forlornly, gazing down at his fork. But he squeezed back. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure I don’t break yours.”
After what they were calling dinner, Guert obediently swallowed down the pills Owen pressed into his hand and they read for a while in the study, Guert picking up stapled xeroxed course handouts and quizzing him on them. And then, around nine, which was a good enough delay to pretend they hadn’t both been thinking about it for hours, Owen cupped his hand over the warm cotton at Guert’s groin and they made out on the couch.
They’d done this once before, on the night after the Chute game, when Guert had been almost paralyzingly nervous about Pella walking in, such that Owen had given up on the idea entirely and just tugged him into the bedroom. Guert hadn’t completely relaxed there either, at least not until he’d fallen asleep in Owen’s arms. Now, though, there was no chance of anyone barging in, and no reason to feel guilty or concerned if they did. Pella already knew they were sleeping together, had already seen them kiss, and she’d managed to reach some kind of détente with her father this afternoon, possibly more enraged at the college officials than she could ever be with Guert. So Guert kissed him like he might have kissed any number of girlfriends on this same couch, stripped off Owen’s t-shirt and kissed him some more, pressing him down into sticky leather cushions.
“Have you ever had sex here?” Owen asked. At least this couch was a third bigger than the love seat and more comfortable. Still not really big enough if they stretched out, but…
Guert shook his head no and pulled his own t-shirt off, mussing his hair even more. He’d been embarrassed in the motel, being naked in front of Owen, embarrassed of being older and not exactly however slim or muscular he felt he might have to be to make up for that deficiency of forty years. But that night and the intervening weeks had given him at least a little confidence that Owen liked more of him than just his face and hair and cock.
They rubbed together as they kissed, Guert keeping his weight off Owen more or less, but the bulge of Owen’s arousal was more than evident in his tight briefs and every time Guert lowered his hips just a fraction Owen could feel him too. Somehow, even though he’d seen and touched and sucked Guert’s cock a number of times in the last couple of months, not seeing it now gave him just as much of a thrill as it had the first time he’d seen Guert get hard when they were kissing in his office, touched him and felt his whole length, leaned in and tasted the tip.
Owen slid his hands down Guert’s sides, down inside his boxers, and moved to cup his ass, pressing him down more, easing down the shorts…
“I should take a shower,” Guert said.
Owen licked his lips and nodded.
He lay in Guert’s bed with his glasses off, just listening to the shower water, a hand brushing over his own chest as he thought about the online porn he’d jacked off to when he was positive Henry would be away training for a couple of hours, thought about Guert’s hand on him in the bathtub, about Guert deep inside him last night. He was still mostly hard by the time Guert joined him, naked and slightly damp, switching off the lights in the hallway. The lights on the roof of the chapel cast a hazy yellow glow over the room. Guert lay down and took Owen in his mouth.
They’d talked once about refractory periods and stamina and all the irritating biological factors that they might need to take into account now that Owen was sleeping with someone older than twenty-one or twenty-two. He and Jason had just fucked until their heads were buzzing or their backs were thick with sweat. It had been exhausting and wonderful to come and come again, Jason in his mouth and pushing into his ass, or Jason under him, impatiently begging to be fucked harder. Even now, if he wanted, Owen could probably, physically, come every five or ten minutes. Guert had shrugged and said he’d never really been put to the test in a long time. But the answers Owen found while Googling hadn’t been very optimistic at all.
So, bathtub hand jobs aside, he preferred to ease Guert’s mouth off his cock before he really came dangerously close to coming and have Guert move up the bed to kiss him with a saliva-wet mouth. What had Guert’s girlfriends felt in this same situation? Was there any reason to think they felt any differently than he did now, warm and aroused, loving the way Guert smelled, the way he kissed?
This time when he slid his hands down Guert’s back, Guert parted his legs just a little more, a knee to each side of Owen’s thighs. He was lubricant-slick already, relaxed when Owen curled in an exploratory finger. How far Guert had come in a month. Owen had thought, once, that Guert’s enjoyment of sex with him was almost entirely in Guert’s head, divorced from the physical reality. He liked making Owen feel good and he liked the idea that Owen wanted him, if not really enjoying the actual sensations of their lovemaking. But if that was still true today, Guert was certainly one hell of an actor.
Owen rolled him onto his side, chest pressed to Guert’s back, pushing Guert’s leg up a little with his own. There was a time for hard, fast fucking, and this evening was far from it. This way he could touch Guert while he was inside him, kiss him, push his hands aside and listen to all the perfect noises he made. Even if there was some kind of sexuality switch deep in Guert’s mind that had never been flipped to “gay”, if Guert loved him and enjoyed the way his body reacted to Owen’s body, wasn’t that all that really mattered?
“Oh god, right there.” It was a challenge not to come, the way Guert wanted to be fucked, the way Guert himself could hold back seemingly forever. But feeling how hard he was when Owen was inside him made it worth it, while Owen stroked him and held him, his hand eventually sticky with Guert's come.
“We should go away somewhere,” Owen said as they lay together afterward, spooning, looking out at a starless sky. “Just a few days before the summer session starts. Somewhere no one knows us and we can do nothing but stay in bed. With some good books, of course.”
“I need to move house.”
“You need a break, Guert. I have every faith that Pella and Mike can cope over a weekend.”
A pause. “People will stare at us wherever we go.” Guert was admirably good at pitching these sorts of statements as if they were simple concepts to be debated in a seminar rather than taken to heart.
“Yes. Because you’re alarmingly good-looking and they probably saw me win a baseball championship live on ESPN. But do you care?”
The tension in Guert’s body under his arm suggested that, yes, he cared very much. “You know what I mean.”
Owen gave him a squeeze. “Because we’re men, because I’m black, because I’m younger. None of which stopped you from responding to that deeply inappropriate e-mail I sent you months ago. None of which is stopping you being with me now.”
“It’s not you...” Guert’s sigh was ragged. “It’s me. I don’t want to make you some sort of outcast.”
“Naturally, as a gay black man at a rural Wisconsin college I have never felt as if perhaps people viewed me as being a little different.”
Guert turned over onto his back, light catching his eyes, guilt lining his forehead. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think… I forget sometimes that-”
“That I’m black.”
“That not everyone thinks you’re as perfect as I do.”
Owen smiled. “I’m not perfect. My eyesight’s terrible. My physics scores are worse.”
Guert laughed and drew him close in a hug. Never mind that Guert wasn’t physically much bigger than Owen, quarterback build aside, being in his arms always felt like being bundled tight in a security blanket. “Where do you want to go?” Guert asked softly.
“There must be a gay-friendly spa or guest house somewhere in this wilderness,” Owen said. “Or we’ll go to one of those huge, anonymous hotels in the city where no one cares what we do as long as we have a valid credit card.”
He could feel Guert nod. “Okay.” Guert’s lips brushed the top of his head. “I need to stop being afraid of people seeing us.”
“You need to stop feeling guilty. You wouldn’t be with me if you didn’t think I was an adult capable of making mature, rational decisions. I want you to be happy, Guert. Not looking over your shoulder and feeling like a pedophile. I want us both to live. Really live.”
“To walk down the street holding hands.”
“Yes. And to lie in bed together in our own home without feeling as though the weight of the world is in here with us. Your virtuous nature is endearing, Guert, but I decided to be with you. You need to decide, really decide, to be with me.”
It was still at least half-dark the next morning when Guert woke him with a touch. Owen blinked, almost expecting to see Henry gulping down SuperBoost. Guert, already shaved and fully-dressed, smiled and kissed him. “I’m going to take Contango out by the lake and then to my office. Come down whenever you get up.”
When he did get up it was a few hours later, his muscles still aching, the apartment quiet. Life with Guert. When they went away, Owen would need to make him sleep in, sit on him if necessary. But the pills he’d laid out last night were gone, and the box of bran flakes was open, a banana snapped from the bunch. Not too bad a start. Better than a meal of coffee beans, in any case.
Owen trailed down the staircase after a shower, having donned a Harpooners t-shirt, flip-flops, and his customary sweatpants. Mrs. McCallister gave him a long look as he emerged from the doorway leading to Guert’s apartment. “Hi, is Guert available?”
“Always to you, it seems.” She resumed sorting the papers on her desk. Presumably she would no longer be greeting him in song or tempting him with homemade cookies.
He knocked lightly at the heavy presidential door and then opened it just enough to see into the room. Guert, as was so often the case when Owen had arrived for their late-afternoon dates, was sitting behind his desk in his shirt sleeves, grappling with mounds of paper. But he rose with a smile, coming around so Owen could grasp his hands and kiss him, pushing the door closed with his foot. Contango, dozing on the rug, looked up in vague interest.
“Do you want to read my resignation letter?” Guert said in a tone that was determinedly anything but melancholy. He still seemed weary, if no longer dead on his feet.
Owen smiled. “I’m sure it’s very eloquent.”
“One to frame, I think. If they even accept it.”
“There’s a question?”
Guert kissed his temple and went back to sorting papers between stacks. “The purpose of my resignation was to avoid any of this ever coming to light – a president philandering with a student, and a male student at that. But we’re staying together, as I explained to Bruce yesterday, and of course everyone will know soon enough.”
Owen sat down on the love seat, picking up a couple of books from its toppled stack. “I assume Mrs. McCallister already knows.”
“I had to tell her before she heard any rumors. She’s not happy with me at all.”
“No one can possibly stay mad at you.” He thumbed through a 1906 edition of Thoreau's journals, volume one, squinting at faded handwritten notes in the margins. “So if they refuse your resignation… They’ll fire you, straight up?”
“I assume so. Swift, decisive action by the trustees to put an end to unethical behavior. Letting me go without a reprimand would be bad publicity.”
“Firing you would draw more attention.” Owen settled back. “Would you really be barred from teaching again if our relationship became public knowledge?”
“Hard to say. It happens often enough, lecturers marrying former students. Sleeping with current ones. But you were never my student. I don’t know if we’re worth a scandal, and maybe more importantly I don’t know what the repercussions might be regarding Pella’s admission for next year. I’ll talk it out with Bruce when I give him the letter.” Guert set his papers down with a sigh. “Either way, in two weeks I’ll be out of here. I barely know where to start. Meetings with the accountants, sorting out the paperwork, packing up, closing on the house or finding somewhere to hole up for a while… And Pella called. We’re meeting her and Mike at Maison Robert around seven, following our romantic date at the hospital.”
Owen smiled. “Sounds promising. And you know I’m happy to help with the packing.”
“You should be studying. Those finals are important. Even sleeping with the president doesn’t guarantee an A these days.”
Owen bounced back up to his feet. “I’ll take Contango out first. Shall I bring you lunch later?”
“I’d prefer an entire pack of cigarettes. And maybe some scotch.”
Guert walked him to the office door, kissing him and wrapping him in a warm hug that Owen suspected – knew – was more for Mrs. McCallister’s benefit than his own. Still, it was the same thing, this I’m not scared and I’m not ashamed, no matter what problems still lay ahead, personally and professionally, in the next two weeks and every two weeks after that.
Owen smoothed down Guert’s tie and shirtfront. “Don’t let him drink too much coffee,” he said to Mrs. McCallister, and gave Contango a gentle tug on the collar. “C’mon buddy. Let’s give Guert a chance to get some work done.”
The Small Quad was flooded with sunlight when he strolled across the grass, Contango close at his heels. This morning, with finals on and students going back and forth from library to dining hall, the campus was far busier than on the weekend, and every ten feet he encountered another high-five, fist-bump, slap on the back, or beaming smile, mostly from guys and girls he barely even knew. This was what being a sports star was like, apparently. Very few people had cared at all when they’d been freezing their fingers and butts off in March, the stands practically empty. The Westish Bugler’s sensationalist commentary on Henry’s troubles had attracted more, alongside the better weather, but now even Owen’s friends from Students for a Responsible Westish seemed to care. They asked about Contango, nodded along to his deliberately vague explanation, and launched into anxious deliberations about finals and the future of their carbon neutrality project.
At some point they really would all know, every last student and staff member, every parent and Westish resident. It was what he’d wanted barely a month ago, to be able to embrace Guert as his boyfriend, to hold his hand, to be seen with him in restaurants and at the movies. The reality would be less romantic, at least insofar as the trustees were concerned, but Westish wasn’t the world. They would have all of Japan to explore, and when they returned Owen wanted to take Guert to California, to have Guert show him around Cambridge and New York. And after that… who would care? Westish would have a new president and a new sports star to glorify in the papers.
After an inadvertent victory lap of the quad, they passed the Melville statue and strolled down to the lakeside, where some students were sitting with books or papers, others trying to tan, a frisbee being tossed by guys in surf shorts by the water's edge.
Genevieve – and Guert too – said he was far too young to plan so far ahead, to commit himself to anyone. “Look what happened with Jason,” Genevieve had told him yesterday morning. “You thought that would be forever. It was six months, and he was only a couple of years older.”
But he’d known what he was doing when he’d sent Guert that first e-mail, thrilled and anxious, had known when he’d kissed Guert in the kitchen, when he’d unzipped Guert’s pants in his office, when he’d suggested they go to dinner and a motel. And, even if he’d needed Owen to push and encourage him a little, Guert had known what he was doing too. Could it ever have ended up any other way, from the time Owen had first clicked SEND? Could he have borne leaving Guert at the airport with a firm handshake or impulsive hug, promising to meet up again in two or four years, whenever their relationship would be anything but scandalous for the president of Westish College? Could he have simply never written that mail, or written “Dear President Affenlight” and “Sincerely, Owen Dunne” and ignored Guert’s obvious infatuation? But then he would never have known how good Guert smelled up close, what it was like to lie in bed with him and talk and dream and watch the stars. He would have condemned both of their lonely souls to wait it out in the hope that some other romantic, insatiably well-read person would one day bowl them over with feelings half as sweet.
By the shore, Contango grew tired of the worn grass path along the lake and loped down the slight embankment, his footprints sinking into the sand. Owen sat on the sandy grass and watched waves break against the dog’s legs, frothing into a white mist. He’d known he would be leaving since the moment he arrived, with no plans to stay at Westish or in Wisconsin after his four-year degree was complete. Since April, he’d known he would be leaving for Tokyo at the end of August. His future held almost limitless possibilities. And if he’d simply stayed sitting on that couch, closing his eyes and letting the painkillers and champagne lull him to sleep, he would have nothing to hold him back now.
Henry and Mike were good friends, but their futures lay in very different directions. Guert, though… The idea of Guert, that part of his soul he’d put into The Sperm-Squeezers, had been an integral part of his life for so long, and the reality of Guert, that fascinating mind and very nice body, was something he could never leave behind. He’d known what The Sperm-Squeezers meant to him the instant he picked it up, had kept it close to his heart in the seven years since. And he’d known what Guert meant to him that evening as they’d kissed in the moonlight.
He slid his phone from his pocket. Genevieve was no doubt home in San Jose by now, back in the studio, concerned for him, furious with Guert. Parents were obliged to feel these things. She couldn’t simply acknowledge that Owen’s new boyfriend was handsome and brilliant, kind and gentle, with flawless Midwest manners. She couldn’t even sigh, as if he were dating a convicted gang member, and mutter something about hoping he’d get over it soon enough. She had to talk to trustees. She had to think the worst of Guert, as though he were a child molester, a dirty old man taking advantage of an innocent boy, because that was far easier than viewing them both as consenting adults who had both had a lot of consensual sex with other people for years prior. This was what parents did. This was what Guert had done with Pella’s husband.
Calling was, therefore, pointless. He would have to write to her in a day or two when she’d calmed down enough to read the e-mail. He’d ask her to fly out when she had the time, so the three of them – perhaps with Pella and Mike as a buffer zone – could have dinner like civilized people. Guert wasn’t his father, he would say, and maybe she’d actually believe him.
There was a neatly folded square of paper in his wallet, slipped behind his student ID, and he took it out now and read Mike’s handwriting: legible, if rushed. He dialed the number.
It rang six times.
The voice sounded surprisingly normal. So normal, so Henry-like, that it couldn’t possibly be him. “Henry?”
Henry was still in bed in South Carolina with needles in his arm, marveling at what it felt like to absorb nutrition that way, suck in vitamins and micronutrients without needing to pop pills or mix up SuperBoost. He sounded great. He sounded, actually, a little high.
“Have you seen Pella?” Henry asked a little way into the conversation, when they’d got past discussing how his collapse was racking up hits on YouTube and how surprisingly good hospital bedsheets felt. These four words made him sound, for the first time, genuinely exhausted.
Owen batted water droplets from the air as Contango shook himself off. “Yesterday afternoon. We were looking at a house Guert wants to buy.”
“Oh. How, um. How are things going with you guys?”
“Fine. Better than fine.” Henry deserved at least the two weeks before he heard anything about the not-so-great aspects. “He’s a wonderful man.”
Henry hummed what was probably agreement into the receiver. “You have to thank him for me. For everything. For-”
“It’s okay. He likes saving baseball players. Besides, you can thank him by helping us move in a few weeks, when you’re feeling better. We’ll need a lot of help carrying boxes.”
“I’m not even sure I can stand up.”
“You’re not the only one. Pella said Mike more or less collapsed into her bed and fell asleep.”
A helpless giggle answered. “Well,” Henry said. “I guess that’s a good sign.”