Guert had both seen and taken no notice of the café that sat two streets away from Bartleby’s. He made coffee at home and ate at the bar, and had no use for hipster coffee shops with their free Wi-Fi and music from undiscovered local bands. Once places like that had been a haven, a place where you could wedge yourself into a comfy corner with a book and a notepad, and stay there all day with the same coffee mug. Now that sort of behavior would draw disapproving glances and pointed questions from the wait staff.
Well, perhaps he had taken notice of it, but only because it was to the left of the dilapidated building where Pella had her loft-slash-studio – old, lovely, inspirational, and slowly falling to pieces. He was always alarmed by the crumbling concrete stairs, the lack of a handrail, the new locks that seemed redundant given the state of the doors in which they were installed. But Pella found the ambiance endearing, or liberating, or something, and besides, the place had come cheap.
It was because of that, then, that faint acquaintance, that made him go there on the morning his espresso machine failed to whistle and splutter in its usual rhythm. Guert worked late and habitually rose late too, a little before noon, before going out to run errands and pore over paperwork in the bar’s tiny back office. Without espresso, his brain was so mired in sludge that he stood there for several moments, unable to decide what to do. Unable, even, to think of options. But he dragged himself to the shower, made it a cold one, shaved and dressed, and headed straight for Café Oo.
Half an hour before the lunch rush, the place was quiet, students on their laptops, a toddler chattering to his mom. Behind the bar, a slight young man wearing the company apron was busily making coffees with lightning-fast speed and, apparently, accuracy. Another glanced up at Guert from where he was sitting, chair tipped against the wall, as he read Kierkegaard. Guert raised his eyebrows just a little at the choice of book. But then it was probably a prop, just like his glasses. Only one other customer stood in line, but she was laughing, leaning forward while a kid with slicked-back blond hair reeled off his best lines. They both looked at Guert with some irritation. How dare he expect to order coffee in a coffee shop?
“Huh?” The blond frowned at him when he said his name – as if there were enough people around to require it.
“Guert.” He spelled it. The kid with the book – tall, lanky, brown-skinned – lifted his eyes from the page.
But he got his espresso, efficiently delivered with an anxious smile from the barista (Henry, it read beneath the company name on his badge), and retreated to an empty table, picking up a folded newspaper from another chair.
He could have ordered the drink to go, but he wasn’t ready for the bar yet, or for shopping or laundry or whatever chores needed to be done. Besides, the atmosphere had turned out to be not so bad at all. He scanned the pages, watched the barista work, and saw the kid set down his Kierkegaard to bus tables with a bored affect. Guert went back to the Arts & Culture pages.
“Excuse me?” The kid – Owen – was hovering on the other side of Guert's table with a sheaf of black fliers in his hand, text printed boldly in white and green. “Perhaps you don’t know about the debate being held next Saturday? We’re trying to raise awareness of the city’s ridiculously bad conservation scores, and how many aspects of the problem can be resolved or improved at low cost. It’s an issue that affects all local residents and business owners…”
Guert, as both, took a flier. “I’ll be working,” he said, seeing the time and date in bold white print, “but thanks.”
“Sure.” Owen paused. “You live in the area?”
“I own Bartleby’s.”
“Oh. Well perhaps I could give you some more of these? Put them on the bar?”
Guert took a sip of coffee. His brain was waking up and beginning to appreciate the kid’s enthusiasm. Not that he was much of a kid. Twenty-one, twenty-two. Almost Pella’s age. “I doubt anyone will see them, but I’ll take them if you like. I haven’t seen you there.”
“I prefer not to go to bars.” Owen drew up a hand to scratch his stubble-short hair. “And Spectrum’s more my crowd.”
Spectrum was the sole gay bar in town. It didn’t seem much like the place for a man who read Kierkegaard either. “We have better beer.”
Owen smiled. “I’ll get you those fliers.”
He returned moments later with a small stack, looped around with an elastic band. “By the way, any relation to Guert Gansevoort?”
“And Melville? I wish. Maybe back in Holland.” He hadn’t thought any random meeting in a coffee shop would make the connection. “Are you really reading Fear and Trembling?”
Owen glanced back toward the bar. “Naturally.”
“Potentially. I was meant to be taking a year off before grad school, but my more glamorous options fell through. Literature seems more likely, though.”
“Good luck,” Guert said.
Owen smiled again. “I’ll let you know how the debate goes.”
Sticking the pile on the bar was about as little effort as he could possibly contribute to Owen’s worthy cause. But after spending half an hour with the books, he tacked a couple of the ads up to the bulletin board where people would leave their band posters and woeful “missed connection” pleas. He had a vague affinity with the concept of conservation, given his background going from farmer to marine biologist, but becoming involved on even the most perfunctory level had never occurred to him. Not that it took much to pin up a few fliers, but ordinarily he wouldn't even have taken them from a barista.
The rest of the afternoon was spent diligently with the books, going over supply orders. But he was distracted more than usual. Probably due to his broken espresso machine, he reasoned. It had thrown off his entire day. And yet, when the evening came and, along with it the students, he spent more time than usual out front, seeing if the fliers were being picked up or just used as beermats, wondering if perhaps Owen might show up to say hello.
Bed came late, with thoughts of how the espresso machine would still be broken in the morning and that he should have bought another one. Yet the idea of going back to Café Oo appealed more than it should have in the wee hours.
Even without espresso, he felt slightly buzzed walking in the doors of the café just before noon again. This time there was a larger, bulky man with a linebacker’s build taking orders. The barista, Henry, was making drinks, the blond lining up orders of pastries and muffins along the bar. No sign of Owen, which led to a twinge of disappointment… Not that he had anything to report. Not that the presence of a busboy should matter. He was just there to get some coffee. But as he waited for the girls in front of him to make up their minds, the door to the kitchen swung open and Owen appeared, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Guert! How are you?”
Probably the staff members were encouraged to learn customers’ names, and his was unusual enough for it to stick in the memory, but his smile was still genuine in response. “Good. Good. You?”
There was only really so long he could hang around drinking an espresso, and only so much he could stare at Owen as he went around cleaning tables, occasionally taking orders... Why was this kid riveting his attention? Did Owen remind him of someone, perhaps? But Guert grew more and more convinced that he’d never seen anyone like Owen in his entire life.
When Owen picked up plates and cups from the next table along, Guert glanced up and said: “So how long have you been working here?”
“A few months… I used to be a barista, until Mike found Henry. He does the work of about four people about eight times as well.” Owen gave him a wink. “Want me to come serve drinks in your big macho bar?"
“It’s not that macho.”
Owen had finished loading his tray. He lingered for a moment, casting a look over Guert and his dress shirt, his slacks. “If your clientele looks much like you, I might be convinced.”
It wasn’t the first flirtatious remark he’d ever had from a gay man, and usually Guert tried to see it as a compliment. This was the first time he’d ever even thought of taking it personally. No, more than that, wanted to take it personally.
“You need a girlfriend,” Pella said. Guert had decided to risk finding her with a half-naked man or two sprawled around her studio. Instead, she was painting, vivid squares of canvas propped against a whitewashed wall.
He sat, flipping through gallery catalogues. “I don’t need a girlfriend.”
She looked back over her shoulder. “I don’t want you to be lonely. And it’s not going to get any easier to find someone.”
“Being practically dead and buried does limit my options somewhat.”
“You look better than most forty-year-olds. Most twenty-year-olds, actually. They all wander the streets here looking like they’re getting four hours of sleep and existing on coffee. Have you been smoking?”
Guert had never really managed to lose that startled ‘who, me?’ look adopted by every teenage boy. “Not much.” At some point in his relationship with Pella – possibly when she’d moved back to Westish after art school, but more likely when she was eight or nine – she’d given up on him being a mature adult entirely and decided she’d better serve as his surrogate mother.
“Well,” she said. “I sold some pieces to the café next door. Ever been in there?”
“Once or twice.”
“Not that it’s related, but I’m going on a date with this gorgeous guy who works there.”
His mind flicked through the obvious candidates. Owen was certainly the man who came to mind most readily, but… “The blond boy?” Adam didn’t really fit Pella’s dating profile, but he was certainly model-quality beautiful in that conventional way, boringly beautiful compared to the riveting beauty of Owen, which was a kind of beauty no one had ever seen or defined before.
Pella barked out a “Ha!” while he was still pondering that last thought. “No. His name’s Mike. Tall? Kind of a jock? He’s the manager there.”
“Don’t look at me like that.” She wasn’t even looking at him. “There’s nothing more wrong about managing a coffee shop than there is about managing a bar. And he’s smart enough to go to law school. Just aimed too high with his applications and then wound up getting into this business.”
“So, what do you care? You’re pissed off at yourself for not going to grad school, and me for not going to a real college, and now a guy you’ve never met for working in the service industry?”
Guert fiddled with the paints on Pella’s desk. He loved the colors, loved the results, even if his only work of art was now tattooed on his arm. Well, his only work of art other than the collaborative, interpretive work-in-progress that was Pella. “I’m not pissed off. He must have good taste to buy your work.”
“Yeah, well. He barely even stared at my tits while I was showing him the pieces, too.” She sighed and walked back over to the desk, dipping her paintbrush in cleaning solvent. “Go on a date with someone. Get laid. You’ll feel better.”
“I feel fine.”
“I’ll feel better, then. Mainly because I won’t have to worry about my father’s sex life anymore.”
He continued to not buy a new espresso machine, despite resigning himself to the fact the old one wasn’t going to spontaneously repair itself. It was a new stage in his life, Café Oo, he reasoned. It was a way to connect with the local community, to keep an eye on Pella’s new boyfriend, and to learn about the environmental issues he’d been unforgivably ignoring for most of his life. Owen, not having much to do before the lunch rush, was usually happy to sit down with him and talk, and after a couple of such conversations to bring books and journal articles for Guert to read. Which he did, eager to keep their conversations alive, to show that he really did care, and maybe also to delay Owen’s realization that Guert simply loved to hear him talk, to have an excuse to watch him, to study his face, his expressive hands, without seeming like a creep or like he was interested in a gay way.
But even after just a few days, it was harder to deny that it was Owen who was getting him out of bed and to the café every morning rather than a desperate need for caffeine. He even took to coming earlier, so their talks could last longer. There was some reassurance that at night after the bar he was reading in bed rather than jacking off, fantasizing about Owen… but really he was fantasizing about Owen, about Owen smiling like a pleased professor, about Owen even being impressed by him, never mind that Owen was just a kid, just a kid with an English degree, like any number of dumb kids who got wasted every night in Bartleby’s. Guert had an apartment and a career and a life of learning, although admittedly not one that came with much certified paperwork.
“Marine biology, really?”
He’d held back about his original major and his time on a US research vessel, sailing the South Pacific, resisting the delight he hoped it would inspire in Owen. And Owen, indeed, seemed even more pleased with him than usual. “But now you work in a bar.”
Or perhaps that was the reason he’d avoided it. His twenties had seemed so promising. If he were still that boy now, he and Owen would be good friends. He’d been at least half an intellectual, traveling the world like his hero, Melville. And then he’d gone into his thirties still working in a bar, never finishing his novel or going to grad school.
“Mm.” There was an explanation, or at least an excuse, but he didn’t want to go into it. He had a feeling that would push Owen even further away.
Owen, though, got back on track immediately, resuming his half-lecture on over-fishing without acknowledging there had ever been a pause. The next day, when Guert brought two of his own books, semi-rare out-of-print records of sailing in the early twentieth century, Owen appreciated them just as he’d hoped he would. He would never have brought them out of his apartment for anyone else, but Owen seemed to have a similar reverence for books of any kind. Guert could imagine the two of them poring through the bookshelves in Guert’s apartment, looking for references, sitting down with coffee, hands brushing…
But there was no good reason to invite Owen over, and less of a good reason to touch him. It was all a stupid fantasy, a fantasy that didn’t even include sex, that was pathetic in the extent of its desires. Pella, as ever, was probably right. He should give in to the flirtations of women at the bar, even the women Owen’s age, and have all the physical contact he wanted. This was a college town. They weren’t all brainless. Maybe what he needed was a girl just like Owen. He’d been longing for a kindred spirit for so long that he’d found himself longing for a man at the same time, mixing up intellectual stimulation with the physical.
It felt nice to be wanted by beautiful women, to have college girls regard him with interest over the lip of their glass, to have them scrawl numbers on the back of one of Owen’s fliers. But, despite the fact that all he had to do was invite them upstairs, slip a condom from his wallet, it felt like cheating. It felt like Owen, seeing him, would be disappointed, even though Owen never came to Bartleby’s.
He had to admit to himself, when he called off work and dressed in his neatest business casual attire to attend the debate, that he was still going more to elicit Owen’s approval than because he was desperate to hear the issues at hand. The crowd there, in one of the college’s larger halls, was surprisingly large, most of them students or at least student-age, but with others Guert recognized as locals. Judy Eglantine, an English lecturer he had grown to know through semi-frequent encounters in the library and at the city’s only truly good scotch store, gave him a warm welcome and, as they sat together, began to share departmental gossip. Pella had strongly hinted on a couple of occasions that he and Judy should try true coupledom rather than the middle-aged version of friends-with-benefits of which they occasionally took advantage. But Judy was no more interested in a long-term relationship than Guert had been, and there was no way that he would be the one to raise the possibility now.
The debate, and the following Q&A session, was lengthy, stretching past the allotted ninety minutes. To Guert’s surprise, Owen was one of the main speakers, alongside a university administrator and a representative from the city. Out of his café uniform and in a coal-gray suit, shirt and tie, he could have been a genuine up-and-coming politician. Perhaps he was.
Although Guert could sympathize with many of the financial arguments for the current environmentally-damaging situation, Owen was the more informed and charismatic speaker, and the crowd was clearly on his side. Guert raised no questions. It was a joy simply to listen to Owen, to watch him listen to others, his bearing confident yet never aggressive. He would use arguments to pacify people, to gently sway them to his point of view.
It was lovely to imagine, even for a few moments, linking hands with Owen and taking him home. Once the debate ended, Guert excused himself from Judy’s side and went to find Owen as the students checked their watches and streamed out, probably to Bartleby’s. Owen, when Guert found him, was by the stage, embracing another young man – this one in jeans and some kind of political t-shirt beloved by students the world over. And then they kissed.
Guert felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach, as though he wanted to punch himself in the stomach. Of course Owen had a boyfriend, and probably a dozen more longing to go to bed with him. There was no reason in the world he would look at Guert, middle-aged and silver-haired and boringly straight, and see anything but a fellow concerned citizen. Not when he had boys his own age, boys with artfully bleached jeans and all the right political views, boys with flat stomachs and biceps and the ability to go ten rounds in bed without pausing for breath.
He considered turning and walking away, like jilted lovers in a hundred movies he hadn’t even seen, but Owen turned a little and smiled. “Guert! You came!”
So he had to walk over and shake Owen’s hand and say all the compliments in a stiffer, more formal way than he’d intended.
“This is my boyfriend Jason Gomes,” Owen said, indicating the other young man. He was tall with choppy hair, tanned or maybe Hispanic. “And this is Guert… You know, I don’t know your last name?”
“Affenlight,” Guert supplied, feeling an ice wall build between them. It had been hopelessly stupid to think there was some kind of connection between him and Owen. They didn’t have each other’s phone numbers. This was the first time they’d even seen each other outside Café Oo.
“Licht Affen,” Jason said instantly, shaking Guert’s hand. “Photographer?”
People rarely made the connection. If Owen had made it, Guert would have been secretly pleased. From Jason, he tried to take it as the insult Einstein had intended. “I manage Bartleby’s.”
Not an artist, not a philosopher or professor. Just a glorified bartender. “Well we have to go,” Jason said. “Our movie starts in twenty minutes, babe.”
“Good to meet you,” Guert nodded.
Owen shook his hand again. “Really, Guert. Thanks for coming.”
He went directly to his apartment even though the bar was still busy, thought about women he could call, and poured himself a scotch instead. And a couple more. He rarely had hangovers, and if he did he’d appreciate something else to monopolize his attention. Worse than being dumped, he’d never even had those sweet moments with Owen that Jason Gomes doubtless had every night. In the early morning, when the noise died down, he threw himself into bed and grasped his cock, thinking about it, thinking about not thinking about Owen.
The next morning he wanted to avoid Café Oo, but he still had no espresso machine and he should probably say hello to Pella… This time, Owen was standing outside near the door, leaning back against the wall as he smoked, dreamily looking at the sky.
“Hi,” Guert said.
“Guert!” It was as if they hadn’t seen each other for weeks. “Cigarette?”
Smoking together was a sort of forbidden intimacy too, even if the subject matter was strictly on the topic of last night’s debate. Maybe there was little wrong in being attracted to an unobtainable person, like the way young people were obsessed with movie stars, or the way he himself loved Melville and Thoreau. And he hardly had anyone else who made him use his brain these days, who pushed books into his hands and gave him library references.
Weeks went by, Guert’s studies becoming more intense, more in-depth. Owen couldn’t always speak with him, was sometimes washing dishes or taking orders, but it was nice to sit and sip coffee and read the newspaper and glance up occasionally and see him there.
One Monday, though, he wasn’t there. Which seemed reasonable. Owen always had a day off per week, and if he hadn’t mentioned it the previous day, it had doubtless slipped his mind, or he just hadn’t felt he needed to keep Guert up to date with his schedule. The next day, with another absence, Guert was both surprised and uneasy. On the third day, he gave his order to Adam and asked whether Owen still worked there.
“Yeah, I guess… Henry said he’s sick or something.”
“Oh,” Guert said. “Too bad.”
He sat and drank his coffee as usual. People were sick all the time. But three days suggested something more serious than an upset stomach, and Owen’s family was in California…
When he was finished, he went back to the bar. “Henry, do you know where Owen lives? He has some of my books I really need back.”
Henry had one of those open, eager-to-please faces you didn’t encounter very often, but were relieved when you did. The face of an innocent rather than an idiot. “We have a place together on Groome,” he said. “I guess…” He finished up with the leaf pattern he was drawing on a cappuccino, and leaned on the bar. “Would you go and see him? I don’t think he’s been eating for days now.”
“Has he been to a doctor?”
“He’s not sick. He… His boyfriend broke up with him over the phone at the weekend. He’s really…” Henry’s mouth twisted. “I didn’t think he could ever be so unhappy.”
One of the advantages of being almost impossibly old from a student point of view was that no one thought you were likely to burglarize their apartment or murder the inhabitants. Armed with the address, Guert stopped by the just-opened pizza place and bought a large vegetarian pie, plus a salad (of which Owen might approve) and a couple of bottles of soda (of which he would not, but he probably needed the calories).
It took several minutes of leaning against the doorbell for there to be the sound of a lock being turned. “Guert?”
Owen looked younger than he ever had, eyes puffy behind his glasses, wearing only a white undershirt and red pajama pants decorated with yin-yang symbols.
“Get some plates,” Guert said, pushing the door further open with his foot. “We’re eating.”
The apartment should have been a typical student hangout, but it was conspicuously tidy, with art on the walls and potted plants by the windows, the drapes and rug bright and whole. Not the usual fittings. Owen was probably too weak to do anything but follow instructions, and he obediently fetched them a plate and glass each while Guert opened up the pizza box on the coffee table in front of the couch, which might have been a battered original but was now covered by a subtle blue throw.
“I don't really feel hungry,” Owen said, sitting down.
“You won’t until you eat something. Or keel over.” On impulse, Guert pressed a palm to his forehead. “You feel feverish.”
Owen checked his own forehead. “I don’t know.”
Without asking, Guert searched the bathroom, finding it as well-stocked as he had hoped – in fact, markedly better-stocked than his own. The thermometer swore that Owen was fine, but Guert had him take a couple of aspirin anyway, given that Owen admitted he had a headache.
He had longed for this, or something like this, coming to Owen’s apartment, eating lunch with him, touching him. And now that it had come, he felt more paternal than anything, coaxing him to eat a slice of the pizza, to drink some Sprite. Only after Owen had done that did Guert have some for himself, talking about anything to get Owen to engage, or at least to take his mind off his current troubles. Owen said nothing but a few small comments, but he did reach for another slice and refilled both of their glasses.
“You’re sweet to come,” he said finally, leaning against Guert’s shoulder and yawning. “Mm. You smell nice.”
Guert shifted slightly so he could wrap an arm around him, but Owen said nothing more. Guert wondered if perhaps he was asleep until he felt Owen shaking under his arm, heard the gasps of breath and tiny, repressed sobs. Just like Pella when she’d been hopelessly upset but also angry with herself for showing it. And, just like he’d done with Pella, Guert simply pulled Owen into a hug, letting him cry into his shirt at the crook of his shoulder while Guert rubbed his back. “It’s okay,” he kept saying, because an actual discussion was neither possible nor productive, and thought about the various kinds of physical violence he’d like to perpetrate on Jason Gomes. Who, having Owen, having Owen’s love and devotion, would ever give him up?
After a few minutes Owen drew back, wiped off his glasses on his sleeve, and coughed. “Excuse me for a moment. I need to use the bathroom.”
Guert thought about razors, but he could hardly go and watch while Owen pissed or washed his face. Still, it was a relief when Owen came out unscathed, his eyes a little less red.
“You probably need to go,” Owen said.
Owen’s gazed was fixed on a point between them, the glass corner of the coffee table. He swallowed. “Would you like to watch a movie?”
Guert, who never did, said “Sure!”
They watched Groundhog Day on a DVD from Owen’s collection, which Owen assumed Guert had naturally seen before and therefore made comments throughout regarding scripting, punctuated by blowing his nose. Guert just kept an arm around him, concern eventually folding once again into simply how nice it felt having Owen’s warmth and weight against him. Now nice it felt to finally be intimate in some small way.
When Owen switched off the television, they sat in silence for a moment.
“I loved him,” Owen said.
“I keep feeling… My chest keeps hurting like I’m having a heart attack, but I know I’m not because I’m still here and it still hurts.” He halfheartedly blew his nose again. “What am I going to do, Guert? What do you do?”
All-knowing, brilliant Owen was now looking at him as if he were the voice of experience, as if he had wisdom to impart when really no woman had ever left him heartbroken through a breakup. So he thought, instead, of Sarah and that phone call twenty-five years ago that had meant she was dead. “You do the boring things,” he said. “You get eight hours’ sleep and you eat breakfast and go shopping and go to work and do laundry. You get it done. And at some point it stops being so hard. Or it’s still hard, but you’ve gotten stronger.”
Owen swallowed and turned so Guert could see his face. “I’m so glad I have you, Guert. Really, you’re so sweet to take care of me.”
“You’re a… a wonderful young man,” Guert said. “And I missed you.”
“Mm.” Owen turned in further, touched one of the buttons of Guert’s shirt, and kissed him. It was a soft, gentle kiss, but it lasted longer than any kiss born solely out of politeness.
Whether Guert kissed him back was something he found hard to admit, but he did press a hand to Owen’s chest, to the heat of him beneath that undershirt. “I can’t,” he said. “You’re not yourself.”
“Don’t you want to?” Owen’s eyes were searching, his manner as confident as it had been at the debate. But how deep did that fragile exterior really go?
“That doesn’t matter.” Guert hopped to his feet, gathering up the pizza box and the few shreds of crusts they hadn’t consumed. “What should we watch next?”
By the time he returned from stuffing the box into the kitchen trashcan, Owen had set up another movie, an action-adventure tale he said Adam from the café had once loaned him. Although Owen snuggled against his side again, no more kisses were forthcoming. And, after another couple of hours, the lock on the door jangled and Henry came in.
At the bar, conscious of having lost an afternoon, Guert stayed in the back with opera coming through his headphones, working on accounts. He’d given Henry his number in case he and Owen needed anything, but it remained silent. The next day, he woke early and went to Café Oo in barely-concealed anxiety. By the entrance, though, he ran into Pella rather than Owen.
“Oh, you’re getting coffee? Here?” She held open the door for him. “Actually it isn’t bad. I just thought you had a machine.”
Guert cast a look around the shop for Owen, or at least for Henry. “It’s broken.” There Henry was, behind the bar, but with his back to the door. “Come to sell more paintings? I’m not sure they have enough wall space.”
“Just meeting Mike.”
The big, burly guy appeared after a moment. Up close he seemed less threatening rather than more so, with soft amber eyes and a ready smile for Pella.
“Mike, this is my dad…”
They nodded their hellos. “I had no idea,” Mike said. “You’re in here so much. Buddha’s getting garbage duty for not telling me.”
“Buddha?” Pella asked, just as Guert was putting the name together with Owen and finding a good fit.
Guert cleared his throat. “We talk about Melville sometimes.” It seemed to him that Pella would find his sudden interest in environmentalism more than a little strange. “Can I get you two a drink?”
“Oh, we’re heading out.” Pella kissed his cheek. “Maybe we’ll have lunch tomorrow, though?”
When the door swung closed behind them, Guert turned to make his order. Adam was in full flirtation mode, and Owen… Owen was now bussing tables like always. Guert had to resist the impulse to rush over and hug him, bless him for being all right. He instead made his order, picked it up from Henry, who already had it prepared, and went over to his customary table, where Owen was wiping it down.
“How are you?” Guert asked, his voice low.
Owen gave him a half-smile. “Fine. Being boring, as you advised. I didn’t know you had family.”
He expected some accusation in that statement, but could detect none. “And your name is Buddha.”
The smile became a little more genuine. “Your books are in my bag. One moment.”
Owen brought a glass of orange juice along with the books, and sat sipping it while Guert flipped open his wallet to his photo of Pella as a toddler with both of her parents. “My daughter. Pella.”
“Her art’s quite lovely,” Owen said, indicating the wall to their right. “And that’s your wife?”
The disappointment that came along with the question was wounding. Did Owen really take him for a married man, even a closeted married man, emotionally fooling around with a college student? “No, Pella’s mom,” he said. “We were never married. She died not long after this was taken.”
Owen looked at the photo again, and back to him. “I’m so sorry.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“My dad left when I was little,” Owen said. “I’ve often wondered how different I might be, if I had been raised by two parents, or just my dad.”
Guert slipped his wallet back into his pants. “I think you’d still be you. God knows Pella’s always been Pella.”
Their daily discussions resumed, albeit with a slightly more personal touch than before. Owen now had Guert’s number, and Guert, after Owen started sending him occasional texts with brief thoughts on their reading material, had Owen’s too. Owen never mentioned Jason Gomes, and neither did he mention any new boyfriend. Sometimes they even pushed the environment to one side and discussed Owen’s ideas for graduate theses, or family, or how they would both have loved to visit Walden Pond before it became something of a tourist attraction.
The weeks went by, and fall in Wisconsin became early winter. Soon the students would mostly be returning home for the holidays or heading to warmer climes, but first there were parties to plan and even more alcohol to order than usual. Pella mentioned plans for some kind of Christmas event in her workspace, and Guert, who would have loved nothing better than a quiet dinner with her, knew his only option was to say nothing. Inviting Owen to a family dinner would have seemed strange, and probably Owen, who hated the cold, would be heading home to San Jose for the holiday in any case. Fearing the answer, Guert hadn’t raised the question.
On the Friday before Christmas, Bartleby’s was full of students using dancing and beer to stay warm. With his usual bartenders overwhelmed, Guert pitched in, which was better than trying to do paperwork while battling the din of music and chatter. He’d always enjoyed working behind the bar as a young man. It had helped him overcome his initial shyness with women, and he’d learned a lot beyond a vast array of cocktails. Now it was nice to get back to it occasionally, to mix drinks and exchange cheery holiday greetings, or just watch the kids have a good time. Some guy already had his shirt off. Frostbite was probably going to set in on the way home.
“So what do you have on tap?”
He’d been dreamily watching the dancers, such that almost anyone could have snuck up on him. For Owen to do so, though, was a particular achievement. “Hey!” They clasped hands across the bar. “Stepping outside your comfort zone?”
“And into yours. These heterosexual mating rituals are fascinating.”
“Things more sedate over at Spectrum?”
“Far more shirtless men.” Owen still had his own shirt on, clean and pressed, as if he were stopping on the way to a country club dinner. “Less beer on the floor.”
“As long as they buy it first.” Guert set two near-frozen bottles of Heineken on the bar and popped off the caps. “Here. On the house.”
Owen took a sip. “Can the house afford it?”
“Sure. Just don’t ask why I’m eating cold beans for Christmas.”
Holding a conversation was difficult with the music so loud, so Owen just leaned against the bar and the two of them watched together, uncertain exactly what they were watching. Guert stepped away to get drinks for a pair of men, and when he stepped back Owen laid a hand over his and leaned in. “Can we go somewhere?”
The air was crisp in the loading yard behind the bar, but the music was muted, the stars visible in a clear winter sky. Out of habit, Guert patted his pockets for cigarettes. Probably still in his coat in the back room.
“It’s a nice place,” Owen said. “Everyone looks like they’re having fun.”
“I’m not sure it would take much.” He rested his shoulders against the back wall, tilting his head up to watch the stars twinkle. “Are you going away for Christmas?” It was the only reason he could think of to warrant a special visit, particularly amid crowds of semi-drunk students.
Owen touched his elbow. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Owen’s body seemed feverish in the cold air, but his hands were cool on Guert’s cheeks as they kissed and Guert, knowing that they really were kissing now, put his arms around Owen, around that slender frame and perfect clothes, drawing him close. He’d imagined it before, a kiss when it wasn’t tainted by tears or defined as taking advantage. But those imaginings had still been of quiet tenderness. They had never involved Owen’s body pressed tightly to his, Owen’s tongue… He was breathless, overwhelmed, loving being overwhelmed, and Owen, still kissing him, rubbed a hand down over the bulge in his pants. Guert pushed against it, instinctively wanting more, and Owen got his other arm free so he could unloop Guert’s belt, unzip the fly, and slide in a hand.
It was only then that the absolutely irresistible want of his body, his mind, gave way to the fact that he absolutely did not want this to end with Owen on his knees outside the bar.
“Wait.” He caught Owen around the wrist and Owen looked at him warily. “Let’s go upstairs, okay?”
Probably no one saw them as Guert unlocked the stairway door and took Owen up to his apartment. No one to observe Guert’s belt hanging loose, or Owen’s hand firmly clasped in his. But so what if they did? Everyone was doing worse this evening. Barely anyone would remember it.
He only began to think that bringing Owen home was a bad idea when he locked the door and turned to see Owen’s eyes wide at his bookcases. Admittedly, few bartenders had a collection anywhere near as large or as sophisticated, not to say expensive. “Guert…” Owen ran his fingertips along the spines, tilting his head to read the titles. He stopped when he got to The Book. “Is this what I think it is?”
It should have been his pride and joy. Was, when he didn’t have to explain it to anyone, to explain how he could have all these books, could have memorized most of them, littered them with marginalia, and still be tending bar in a college town.
“Can I?” Owen asked, and slipped it out of place with gentle, careful fingers, easing it open. He seemed to be holding his breath as much as Guert did whenever he looked at it, caressing the Rockwell Kent illustrations only with his eyes. Owen, or someone like Owen, could easily spend hours just looking through that one book, never mind the rest of the library. The moment, it seemed, had been broken.
Guert unthreaded the belt from his jeans and cleared his throat. “Coffee?” No espresso, but he probably had some instant lying around for emergencies.
“Maybe later…” Owen replaced the book, took in the many Melville editions surrounding it, and refocused his attentions on Guert. “I assume you have a bedroom? Perhaps with fewer distractions?”
There were books stacked up in the bedroom too, not to mention an unmade bed. Guert took them all in from what he assumed Owen’s fastidious perspective would be, and was about to turn and apologize for his relatively slovenly habits when Owen slipped his arms around Guert’s waist and kissed him on the ear. “No one will miss you at the bar?”
“They’re all drunk enough already.”
Thinking sensibly, being with Owen should have been just like being with a woman, for the most part. There was no reason to stand dumbstruck, or to feel nervous about touching him, especially not when touching him was really all Guert wanted to do. “You’re so beautiful,” Guert whispered as they kissed and Owen began to undo the buttons of his shirt. It was the thought that had been at the forefront of his mind for months, the words he’d worried would slip out at any time.
Owen smiled, perhaps a little less serenely than usual, and Guert risked pulling Owen’s shirt from his pants, running his hands up over his sides, around to his smooth back. When they kissed now, their bodies pressed together as they had outside, and then Owen tugged Guert’s shirt from him and looked angrily at the white t-shirt that lay under it until Guert backed up enough to pull it off.
His body was, presumably, nothing like Jason Gomes’. Nothing like any lover Owen might have had before. Not bad under nice clothes, still in reasonably good shape… But “reasonably good shape” meant something different at his age than it did at Owen’s. At least his tattoo was a good distraction, and Owen’s fingertips brushed over it now. “Any more?” he asked, then, undoing the clasp of the jeans again.
They lay down together naked over a comforter Owen had straightened out, kissing, exploring. Owen’s body confused him while at the same time he wanted to do nothing but touch it. No breasts, although Owen did seem to like it when Guert gently pinched his nipples. And an erection that nudged his own. Guert touched him, felt the thrust of him through his fingers while Owen stroked him too, their forearms brushing. He’d enjoyed feeling how wet some women got for him, but this… This was clear and obvious, this hard, hot, youthful desire.
Owen kissed him and pushed him back, flipping over so he could get his mouth around Guert while Guert could still touch him. Certainly, having a cock in his hand meant he couldn’t simply imagine a woman doing this to him. Not that he wanted to, but what he really wanted was Owen, whatever that might entail. Owen’s tongue, Owen’s hips and ass, Owen’s penis… He licked his lips and touched them to the head of Owen’s erection, the hot pleasure of Owen’s mouth bypassing his fear for the moment at least. He tasted of skin, mostly, a little precum under Guert’s tongue, nothing too different from going down on a woman. It was the responding thrust of Owen’s hips that made the difference, the idea of having the length of him in his mouth, of Owen coming down his throat, or something else, something more.
How did he feel about being fucked? Because Owen might want that. Would probably want it, one way or another. Owen was licking, sucking him so nicely now that even those thoughts seemed warm, safe, arousing. But there was violence in having his mouth penetrated, without even thinking about being fucked in the ass. How did he feel about not being in control? Or, really, how did he feel about Owen being in control? But then Owen already was. Had been from the moment they’d left the bar. Maybe from the first moment they’d met.
“O…” he said. God, it was lovely seeing himself in Owen’s mouth.
Owen raised his head, let him go. For a moment Guert thought he would have to confess his own mystification, but Owen simply looked over at the end table. “I hope you have lubricant and condoms if you want to fuck me.”
“Is that what you want?” Perhaps there were codes at work here, tests in play.
Owen, though, gave his penis a kiss. “Badly.”
When he’d retrieved lubricant and a condom from the drawer, Owen was already the picture of relaxation on the bed, one fluffy pillow under his head, the other beneath his hips, legs spread far enough that Guert could kneel between them. Even though fucking was something with which he had decades of experience, it felt deeply odd to be stroking anyone’s asshole with lubed up fingers, following Owen’s sighed instructions to slide in fingers, stretch him, rub just so… But any trace of disgust went away with Owen’s murmurs, the way he pushed back against Guert’s fingers, spread his legs a little wider. “God, Guert. Just get in me.”
He erred on the side of caution with the lubricant, and Owen’s body still felt drier, more resistant than a woman would have been. But tighter too. Hotter. And directly connected to Owen’s movements under him, the moans, the “oh yeah” he kept murmuring.
At some point, he thought, it had to hurt, even when you took endorphins into account. But Owen begged him to go harder, moved harder, fucking himself on Guert’s cock more than Guert dared to fuck him. “Please please please.” It was only when Guert decided to take him at his word and push in deeper, more forcefully, hard and fast enough that he was really working up a sweat himself, that Owen visibly relaxed under him, sighing, moaning as if Guert were just giving him a particularly good massage.
With women he’d invariably make sure they came before he did. That was how it worked, and he liked feeling them come around him, liked watching them tense and arch up and cry out. But Owen… He wasn’t sure if he could make Owen come just from fucking him, and his cock was buried in the pillow under his hips.
“Turn over?” he suggested.
Owen moved without discussion, Guert barely needing to pull out. The angle should have made things more difficult this way, but Owen tilted his hips up, pulling his legs back, and that was just fine. Owen had mentioned attending yoga classes at the college, but Guert had never really thought about practical applications before now. How flexible did you need to be to serve coffee or write papers? But imagining himself in the same position just made him wince.
Like this he could see how precisely Owen was very much not a woman, his cock still stiff against his belly, but he was still Owen too, and there was something about that erection, that so-obvious declaration of arousal, that sent a thrill through him. “Can you…?” He licked dry lips and pushed past his embarrassment at his virginity. “I want you to come.”
Owen gave him a glance, as though he were working out the logistics, and dropped one leg against the bed, straightening out the other against Guert’s shoulder. “Okay,” he said, a hand now on his cock. “God you feel nice.”
Guert thrust into him hard without being asked this time, bending Owen’s leg back a little for easier access. There were things he should’ve paid more attention to in his biology classes than whales, he considered, but Owen – if Owen wanted to do this again and keep doing it – would probably prove an excellent teacher.
Owen’s head was tossed back now, eyes half closed as he touched himself, his breathing rapid, catching on every fourth or fifth stroke of Guert’s inside him, fingers teasing one of his own nipples. “Oh… oh god…”
He saw the come over Owen’s belly before he felt it, that tightness squeezing him as Owen cried out, working his cock still until he fell back, limp, looking up at Guert with a dazed smile. “Okay,” he said when he had his breath back. “Now you.”
Owen’s mouth felt even better the second time, maybe even better than his ass, although perhaps that was more to do with the condom being stripped away. Owen’s fingers stroked his thighs, cupped his balls, and he came faster than he’d expected, a hand against Owen’s head.
It felt natural, when Owen pulled himself up beside him, to hug, to cuddle, and it was only when Owen said, “do you want me to stay?” that he realized there could be a question. After all, this was their first time. Could be their last. They weren’t dating… or at least Owen hadn’t said they were, and he didn’t want to seem as foolishly needy as he was. But it had taken so long to get this far. He couldn’t bear to push Owen away. “Please,” he said, and Owen smiled.
They slept in a tangle of limbs that would have felt stuffy in the summer and was just perfect for mid-December. In the morning they made love again, Guert feeling a mischievous delight in how responsive Owen’s body was and how often he could get Owen to come before Owen finally grabbed his glasses and mentioned that he should probably get home so he could shower before work.
“Can I see you again?” Guert asked at the door, hoping the question was already redundant.
Owen kissed him. “Aren’t you coming for coffee?”
Seeing Owen at Café Oo a couple of hours later made Guert’s heart swell with desire alongside delight, although they only exchanged friendly hellos before Pella appeared for a half-forgotten lunch date. Owen came to Bartleby’s that evening, though. After a week of nights with Owen, everything got easier: blowing him, all the positions Owen suggested, and coming inside him, which just felt extraordinary. He gradually let Owen get him used to having his own ass fingered too, stroking him during blow jobs, sliding a finger inside, massaging his prostate, which felt so much better than medical exams that Guert was mildly angry at having discovered it only this late in his life. On Christmas Eve Owen fucked him – boring missionary style, with lots of lubricant and slow, careful movement, but at least Guert felt safe in his arms, where they could kiss and communicate, Owen’s body rubbing over his cock. Coming with Owen inside him was just... Well, it made him push concerns about being dominated and feminized away forever.
Outside of Guert’s apartment, though, nothing seemed to change. They still sat and chatted at Café Oo, hands brushing, but no one else would have seen anything out of the ordinary. No one came close enough to hear Owen’s whispered intentions for that evening.
Owen was indeed sticking around in Westish for Christmas and the New Year, his mother having taken a vacation with her boyfriend, and his father being perennially out of the picture. Guert invited him to Pella’s get-together as his date, not sure whether that meant simply both showing up, or something more. He wanted it, wanted to hold Owen’s hand and kiss him and say “my boyfriend”, even though that would mean explaining things to Pella and to Judy and his friends and employees more than he ever would have with a girlfriend. It was probably best to speak to Pella first, alone, when he could explain how seriously he felt and how he wasn’t alone anymore, and that even if Owen would be leaving after next summer for graduate school in places unknown, he needed a few months of bliss with the only person who had ever made him feel this way.
He got to the party early, but there was already a small group there, so he hugged Pella and brought in drinks from his car, and charmed everyone with easy conversation. Owen showed up with Henry and, when Guert ducked into the kitchen to give them an excuse to be alone, Owen took the hint and followed.
It felt nice to kiss him somewhere that was almost public, to even think that it would only take someone walking in to have the whole thing revealed, to not have to broach the subject with Pella or Mike or anyone. But no one walked in.
For the rest of the night they drank and laughed as a group, and after wishing everyone Merry Christmas Owen left, with Henry again, while Guert stayed to clean up. Or tried to, until Pella bluntly told him that she and Mike wanted to get to bed. Outside, Owen was waiting for him, leaning against the café door, smoking. “Not tonight, then?” he said.
“It’s Christmas.” It seemed like as good an excuse as any. It would have been like announcing your engagement while at a wedding. Owen seemed distant, irritated, on the drive to Bartleby’s, but in Guert’s apartment he slipped a wrapped package from his pocket and kissed him. “Happy holidays.”
For a moment he worried it was something truly expensive – Owen, for all his simple job at the café, had made some remarks that indicated a more than healthy bank account – but it was a notebook, or a writing journal, with a soft leather binding illustrated with an old sailing ship. He paged through it, letting his fingertips touch the pristine, textured paper. “Thank you.”
His gift to Owen was a book he’d found in an antiquarian store in Door County, a firsthand account of an African-American sailor’s life at sea in the late nineteenth century. Not too rare, but interesting. They drank celebratory scotch and went to bed.
Owen still seemed a little vexed throughout the next week. He was still affectionate, still slept with Guert every night, but his patience was shorter. Guert shied away from asking what was wrong, in case it was a problem it would fall to him to solve.
On Owen’s day off, they spent the afternoon in bed, reading to each other, dozing, making love. In mid-afternoon there was a knock at the door. Guert pulled on shorts and went to answer. Pella. “Hi.” He knew it seemed guilty, to stand blocking the doorway rather than immediately inviting her in.
She raised her eyebrows. “Are you still in bed?”
“Just… catching up on some reading.”
“Uh huh. Can I come in?”
He did think about it. Owen could just stay in bed. Pella wouldn’t burst into his bedroom. But he couldn’t make Owen hide for what might be an hour or more. “Actually I have company at the moment.”
She looked pointedly at his shorts. “Bed company?”
“Would this bed company be Owen Dunne?”
He knew his pause was tantamount to an admission, but mainly he was relieved that he hadn’t had to say it himself. “How did you find out?”
“Mike says you’ve spent every morning with him for months. I thought it was just you mooning over Melville with another member of the fanclub, but the way you were looking at him over Christmas…” Pella sighed. “So you’re gay?”
He was now less confused by his own feelings than by her reaction to them. “I… I love him.”
“Good for you. I’m pregnant. Now can I come in?”
If Owen hadn’t been there, things might have been a lot worse. Not that he would have been angry, if Owen hadn’t brewed tea for all three of them and hugged Pella and softly asked the questions he should have been asking. But he would have sat, baffled, and said barely anything at all when he was supposed to be a supportive father.
It was Mike’s baby – or rather, as Sarah would have pointed out, mostly Pella’s baby - and if Guert had been paying as much attention to Pella at Christmas as he had been to Owen, perhaps he would have noticed she wasn’t drinking. She was keeping it, despite it being unplanned, because it seemed like a not-altogether bad idea, and she and Mike thought that maybe they could be as good as anyone at being parents. Which, given Guert’s own failures over the years and Pella’s insistence on being wonderful regardless, was probably true.
Owen felt the slight swell of her three-month belly and they talked about going shopping for non-clichéd maternity clothes as if they were old friends while Guert sipped his tea and tried to let anything, anything at all coalesce into an actual thought.
“And what about you?” Pella said finally, with a hint of accusation. “How long has this been going on?”
“Not long,” Guert said.
“Not long with him, or not long in general?”
Guert blinked at Owen, almost not even comprehending the question. “There’s only ever been him.”
The next morning, in Pella’s loft, they talked without Owen’s presence as a buffer, about finances and how she was going to cope on the hazardous stairs while pregnant, and where she and Mike would live… And Pella, of course, had the perfect comeback whenever he pointed out impracticalities: “He’s only a kid, you know. Younger than me.”
Owen never seemed so much younger. Physically, in bed, yes. But in their conversations he was an old soul. Or perhaps Guert was just an immature soul and couldn’t tell the difference. “He’ll be leaving in the summer,” he said. “He’s going to grad school. Ivy League, probably.”
“So why bother at all, then?” Pella said. “You’re breaking your heart over a boy you couldn’t have even if he were staying.”
He wished she could feel what he felt for Owen, sense it somehow without forcing him to put it into wholly inadequate words. “I couldn’t leave him,” he said. “He has to leave me.”
When not working, Owen spent much of his time sprawled on Guert’s couch or in his bed, reading through books he picked out from the shelves, or articles he’d printed in the college library. He barely ever went home, having relocated clothes and toiletries, and even though Owen had to get up before Guert did, and Guert was always home late, the hours they spent together were enough. And now, when he came into Café Oo in the morning, Owen grinned and kissed him, and they’d sit with their books, Owen’s hand over his.
“What’s this?” Owen said one night, when Guert brought home Chinese for them to eat in the wee hours. He had the attitude of a spouse who had found photos of another woman. Guert, though, could think of nothing that would inspire such a reaction, particularly since Owen was brandishing a sheaf of paper rather than…
The realization came upon him like a weight as he sat down on the couch, wriggling out of his jacket. He hadn’t seen those papers in twenty years, had stuck them in a “safe place” and then tried his best to forget. “Nothing. Just old things.”
Owen tapped his fingers against the yellowed, folded paper and sat down, buzzing with energy. “You never told me you were the one to find the Melville speech. The college is practically based on that. I thought you moved here because of it, not the other way around.”
“It doesn’t matter. It was just a stroke of luck.”
“But the rest isn’t. I’ve been baffled all this time about why you never went into academia. You’ve studied so much. You could teach nineteenth century literature and history as well as anyone. Better. And you manage a college bar.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“No, except this is an actual goddamn recommendation for you to do a doctorate at Harvard, Guert!” Owen was clearly excited if he was even mildly swearing. “From twenty-five years ago! Why didn’t you ever go?”
Guert cracked open one of the beers. “It was a stupid idea.”
“You cared enough to get the recommendation in the first place.”
“My degree’s in biology. I had no experience with literature or history. They would never have taken me.”
“Professor Oxtin thought they would.” Owen set the pages down. “Guert… really. What happened?”
He hated the story, hated relating it, because it sounded like he was blaming anyone but himself. “I was going to apply. Oxtin even phoned up the right people. But I went back to Chicago where I was working, and my ex, Sarah, called and said she was pregnant. So I couldn’t… She didn’t make me. But I couldn’t just leave her and Pella and move across the country. I thought I’d just stick around for a couple of years, until the really difficult stuff was over and everything was set up and I had some savings. But then Sarah died, and…” He took a gulp of beer. “It wasn’t to be, O. I thought here was the best place to bring up Pella. So I got a job tending bar and worked my way up, finally bought the place. At least I got to be near the college and the lake.”
Owen was looking at him, stricken, pitying, as if his life really had been a failure. But he’d brought up Pella as best he could. He’d fed and clothed her, got her through school, and now she was having a baby of her own in not the worst circumstances.
“You could still go,” Owen said.
Guert laughed. “On the back of a twenty-five-year-old recommendation from a dead man? Besides, I’m far too old. And I’ve got a grandson coming. Pella’s going to need all the help she can get.” He squeezed Owen’s knee. “You’ll go. You’ll do well enough for both of us.”
He couldn’t help but think that Owen felt disappointed in him after that, or had finally realized just how much older Guert was, and just how rooted to Westish. Their months together had a definite endpoint, after which Owen would continue his studies and Guert would continue at Bartleby’s and help raise his grandson (grandson!) and not think too much about love ever again.
The colder weather attracted many more people to Café Oo in search of hot drinks or simple shelter from the wind and sleet, meaning Owen was often required behind the bar when Guert went in to see him. So Guert took to writing in the journal Owen had given him, to show Owen he was using it mostly, but then because the writing sucked him in deeper, so that even when Owen was free Guert kept him waiting.
They often went to the library together, Owen honing his scholarly skills once again, Guert pursuing material for a project that had consumed his hours without Owen as well as much of the time they were together. He refused to talk about it with Owen, though; even if he were doing it partly to show Owen that he could, there was no point in deluding him about their possible future.
With May came warmer days, the first lights of spring. He and Owen would stroll by the lake holding hands, discussing Thoreau and Emerson, arguing about the worth of Ellery Channing’s poetry. Once, when their discussions took them far enough, to a quiet, dry spot shielded by trees, they made love in the sunshine, Owen astride his hips. It was rough and awkward and beautiful, and Guert wished he could take photos of such moments. Eventually he borrowed Pella’s camera and did just that: Owen his model who didn’t believe in shyness, tangled up naked in his bedsheets, dozing on the couch, or lit up by the sun in the wilderness, skinny dipping in the lake. Sometimes Owen would seize the camera and take some of him, too, little memories to take with him to Massachusetts. His acceptance letter from Harvard had come in late April. Guert had brought champagne and refused to let himself think of September without Owen.
He started letting Owen drag him to those yoga classes, where he felt old alongside the students, and stupid alongside the various people his own age who were still almost as limber as Owen. But it did help, aches aside, and he paid up his membership again to the college gym, bearing in mind both his young lover and Pella’s son, who he’d be expected to run after and play ball with for hopefully the next twenty years. He’d never be twenty-five again, but step by step he was getting his body back, making it his again rather than something he usually ignored and then abused with too much alcohol and coffee, and those occasional cigarettes he could never entirely ditch. Owen had awakened so much in him, the physical as well as the emotional, feelings he’d never had or let himself indulge.
Perhaps, he thought, it was only because he knew it had to end that he could feel it all so deeply.
“The Sperm-Squeezers?” Owen said one evening.
They’d just finished eating and Guert, scraping plates into the trash, held his breath for a moment and considered whether there was any possible way to stop Owen asking any more questions. Possibly only in the short term, and that only if he unzipped Owen’s pants and dropped to his knees.
His little project had long ago outstripped the original journal, making him clean up his old writing desk and begin stacking it with books – his own and those loaned from the library – and academic papers annotated with his comments and questions. He’d written it longhand, in writing pads he could easily stuff in drawers away from Owen’s eyes, and typed it up at the library while Owen was working. But this afternoon he’d printed the entire first draft out, to go over it with a pen, and he’d left the stack on his desk, distracted by being late for his own job already.
“Just something I’ve been working on.” He wrapped his arms around Owen, fiddling with his fly, kissing his neck. “It’s late.”
“Hmm.” Owen, though, was already carefully laying the title page to one side and reading the introduction. His thumb ran down the stack, estimating how many pages. Then he turned over the next one. And the next. “Guert… This is what you’ve been writing since Christmas?”
“It’s not finished,” he said. “Not edited, anyway. And it’s just a silly thing for my own amusement. Keeps me busy.”
Owen shot him a look that was almost angry. “It doesn’t seem silly at all. You write beautifully.” He pulled out the chair and sat at the desk, flipping to the back of the stack to skim through the references, the endnotes. “I need to read this.”
“No, but tomorrow. I have a free day.”
Guert stroked the hairs at the nape of Owen’s neck. “Really, don’t waste your day off. I’ve just been writing this because I can never write fiction well enough. Melville would laugh at me.”
“Thousands of academics wouldn’t. I wouldn’t.” Owen reached back and took his hand. “You don’t need a doctorate to be an expert, Guert. In fact this could be your doctorate.”
“You haven’t even read it.”
“So I will,” Owen said, pushing back his chair. “Tomorrow.”
Guert spent the next day in Pella’s building, having unearthed his old toolbox from the bar’s storeroom. He and Mike worked to babyproof the place, which was easier said than done, even if they’d installed a sturdy handrail months ago. It was good to try some physical labor for a change, to work alongside the man who was more or less his son-in-law, and to keep his mind off what Owen was doing – what Owen might be thinking.
When he got back, there was a note attached to the last page of his manuscript, written in Owen’s fluid, calligraphic hand: You’re coming with me.
Owen himself was bundled up in blankets, asleep, angelic. For a man so concerned with modern political and environmental realities, it was peculiar how easily he slipped into the realms of fantasy, into the books he loved, the plays he had written, and beyond, into a world where Guert Affenlight might yet be as young and free as Owen Dunne.
He humored Owen over the next couple of weeks, because their days together were drawing to a close as June went on, September no longer so far away. He gave in to Owen’s excited suggestions as they went through the manuscript together, correcting errors and adding new material. And, yes, he found it exciting too, to have a collaborative partner, to work on something he was so passionate about. But the end, as far as he saw it, would be to get it bound in the college store and then slot it onto a shelf, for Pella to read one day perhaps, or for Owen to refer to in the future.
He and Owen were in the café, good-naturedly arguing over a matter of logic, when Mike appeared, phone to his ear. “Pella’s in labor. Probably.”
That day was a long one, leaving Henry and Adam in charge of the café, and Guert’s head bartender in charge of Bartleby’s. St. Anne’s was a good hospital, as far as rural Wisconsin hospitals went, but even Owen was on edge, uncertain what exactly was happening. When Sarah had given birth, she’d been in complete control despite the pain, her medical training meaning the situation calmed rather than frightened her. Guert had longed for scotch and cigarettes then, and now perhaps more so, waiting outside with Owen holding his hand while Mike was inside with Pella.
After hours passed with the two of them working up very little conversation, Owen finally stood and said, “I’ll go and get us some food.”
Just then, Mike appeared in the corridor. “Hey,” he said, tackling them both in one big Mike bearhug. “I’ve got a son. And he’s beautiful.”
“We’re calling him Evert,” Pella said later, while Guert sat by her bedside and Mike held the baby, pointing out the miracle of his fingers and toes to Owen.
“You wouldn’t call him Ishmael, but you’ll call him Evert? After the guy who hated Moby-Dick?”
“After the guy who was one of Melville’s best friends, yes. And it’s Dutch. And it’s practically your name too.”
“He has an entire life of spelling it to look forward to.”
Pella nudged him as best she could. Owen, who had no siblings, was being given his turn at holding little Evert, who didn’t seem to mind being manhandled and passed between various strange creatures. “You Affenlights all have really beautiful eyes,” he said.
“Schwartzes too. And he’s going to be seven feet tall with all those genes.”
“So Owen,” Pella called. “How does it feel being a grandpa at twenty-three?”
Owen smiled that same serene smile, letting Evert grab his fingertip. “Like I’m way ahead of the curve.”
The editing done, and much of his free time spent babysitting in Pella’s loft, Guert’s life returned to reading more of Owen’s environmental tomes. He and Owen took Evert for walks out by the lake. “He’ll be swimming out there in a few years,” Guert said. “Playing football. Going to school. Lots to do.”
Owen, though he had lots to plan for too, just nodded as he held Evert against his arm, letting him feed from a bottle. For a moment, Guert worried that Owen might give up Harvard, might stay for the sake of one or two Affenlights who loved him. But it wasn’t a real threat. He would get Owen to Harvard if he had to drive him there himself.
The letter, when it came, was sitting next to his espresso on the bar, addressed to Mr. Guert Affenlight, c/o Café Oo. The Harvard crest sat in one corner. Could it be Owen’s, sent under his name for some reason? Guert took it back to his table, suspiciously tearing open one corner and ripping open the end. By the time Owen appeared from the back, he’d read the cover letter twice and thumbed through the various supporting documents.
“You sent my book to them,” he said.
Owen set down his orange juice. “Yes. And they liked it, just as I said they would. What did they say?”
Guert handed him the letter. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s an interview. Which means a lot, given that you’re far too old and only have a biology degree.” Owen tapped his shin under the table. “You impressed them.”
“I’m not from one of their old boys’ clubs, O. I’m not giving them money. Why would they care?”
“Because some people actually care about publishing and hiring the best. Here, look. The department head studied under Oxtin. That recommendation was worth a lot.”
“So I’m a curiosity. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m far too old to be a student or a new hire.”
Owen replaced the letter on the table. “You’re not as old as you think you are, and if you can publish stuff like The Sperm-Squeezers, that’s gold for the department. Hell, your entire story is gold. The New Yorker would probably love it. In any case, you’ve got nothing to lose by going for the interview. Put on a good suit and you’ll already look like you should be president of the university.”
Anyone could get swept up in Owen’s enthusiasm if they weren’t careful, if they didn’t engage their brains and memories and cling to the weighty anchor of reality.
“Owen. I can’t go anywhere.” It was the voice he’d had to use on Pella a time or two when she was a child, the voice of authority and cold understanding. “I know it’s been fun for you to imagine it. It’s sweet of you to try. But I’m not a kid anymore. I have a kid. I have a grandson. This is my life now.”
Owen set his jaw. “Do you think I’m a kid, Guert? Do you think I live in some kind of fantasy world just because I’m younger than you, because I grew up somewhere sunny? If I’m the delusional one, why am I the one fighting for this? For us? It would be far easier to walk away. You’re the one taking the easy way out.”
“I have a family, O.”
“A daughter who knows she’s the reason you’re still a bartender, and a grandson who’s going to feel the same way. Maybe he’s not going to be a genius, Guert. Maybe he’s going to be completely average. But even then, it matters that your grandfather gave a damn about his life, about following some shred of a dream. Or do you want him tending bar here too, secretly reading textbooks at night or playing flag football in the park when he could’ve been playing in college?”
The brochures and forms they’d included in the envelope were all lovingly produced, the images tempting. Owen, if Harvard paid him, would be a very convincing recruiter. Guert didn’t want to give in, never mind that his chest tightened with the sheer effort of saying no. Staying here, working at Bartleby’s, being there for Pella and Evert, that was the right thing to do. Owen would be fine without him. And if he put off that right thing for a year, if he let himself try it out, live with Owen in Boston, go to classes, maybe teach classes… He still wouldn’t be the thirty-year-old guy who should have gone there a long, long time ago.
“Go,” Pella said when he reported to the loft for babysitting duties. She and Owen had been talking a lot lately: decorating, buying clothes. They’d obviously been conspiring as well. “Seriously, it’s one interview. It’ll do you good to get out of Wisconsin for a while.”
Evert was blowing milk bubbles. Guert tickled his belly. “And if it’s more than one interview? More than a while?”
“You can decide what to do like a rational adult, which means no blaming it on me or Ev, and no martyr-like sacrifices based on what you think is best for Owen. He’s a kid, but he’s a smart kid and he knows everything you know. Don’t make his decisions for him. And you were a single dad and did everything okay. I’ve got Mike. We’ve got Henry and a dozen other friends, and you’ll be back for Christmas and in the summer.”
When the next question came to mind, he knew they’d already won: “And Bartleby’s?”
“Mike’s going to run it. Make it a real Westish family chain. He’s already got this new guy Izzy who’s apparently almost as good as Henry when it comes to mixing drinks… Westish is not going to fall apart without you, Dad.”
He took Evert with him down to the lake, along the winding shoreline path to where Owen was spread out on the grass with some books, glasses up on his forehead as he lay in the sun. “I think you already have a tan,” Guert said, scooping Evert out of his stroller and adjusting the little Westish cap Mike had given him.
Owen opened an eye and smiled, letting Guert set the baby down to doze on his belly. “So,” he said, resting a hand on Evert's back.
“So.” Guert sat by his side, squinting into the sunshine reflecting off the lake. “You all certainly have everything planned out. What happens if it’s only an interview? If that’s all it ever is?”
“Then I’ll be taking classes and you can audit, and you’ll have access to much nicer libraries. I bet they’ll want you as a research assistant if nothing else, and worst case you can work in a bar or a coffee shop. I’ll teach you how to bus tables.”
Guert slid his fingers between Owen’s on the grass. “You live in an alarmingly simple world, Owen Dunne.”
Owen squeezed his hand. “Wouldn’t you like to live here too?”
There was a breeze coming in off the lake, and Guert lay down beside them, thinking how perfect the moment was, how perfect they both were. It hadn’t been so many months since his espresso machine had broken, since he’d taken a chance on a coffee shop with a silly name…
“Why is it called Café Oo?” he asked.
“Would you believe it’s the delighted noise our customers make upon drinking our cosmopolitan beverages?”
“Well.” Owen cleared his throat. “Then it’s just between us, but mainly it’s because the ‘harp’ and the ‘ner’ fell off a long, long time ago and it was easier to move the ‘oo’ along than replace them. See, not a very romantic story.”
Guert turned. “You mean to say I’ve been sleeping with a Harpooner all this time?”
“Shhh,” Owen said, patting his hand. “You’ll wake the baby. And I’ve never brought a tomahawk to bed yet.”
He set his head back against the grass, breathing in the scents of flowers, the lake, Owen and Evert. It had taken twenty-five years, longer than a lifetime as far as either of them was concerned, but he was finally going to pursue that one crazy dream.