MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THE SALT POINT
On Poughkeepsie's Main Street, the pedestrian mall, a boy sits. This is how it begins: Lydia and Anatole seeing, out two separate windows, this boy perched on the back of a bench. Lydia leans her forehead against the windowpane of Boutique Elegance, recently opened and soon to go out of business. She's bored. She stares. Across the street at Reflexion Anatole is hectic, darting to the window in between customers. Together they fix the boy in the angle of their gaze.
They don't know his name. They know nothing about him. He eats a frozen chocolate bar--a slight boy, seventeen or eighteen. He crosses his legs like a girl. Behind him, the fountains are dry. The trees have died. The broken concrete underfoot yields up the dust and heat of an afternoon whose temperature tips ninety. This boy has thinarms, dishwater-blond hair that falls in a long lock over one eye. He licks the frozen chocolate bar.
There are five billion people in the world. Nobody matters very much. He wears jeans, a white T-shirt, black loafers without socks. His profile is perfect.
Chris Havilland is drinking scotch in Bertie's when Lydia and Anatole burst in.
"Oh God am I glad you're here," Anatole tells him.
"I'm always here, remember?"
Anatole flings himself exhaustedly down in the booth.
"Every once in a while you just need independent confirmation. You know, a voice from the outside."
"Anatole, what are you talking about? Lydia, what is Anatole talking about?"
"Lydia knows," Anatole exclaims. "Lydia saw. Lydia can tell you I'm not crazy."
"You are crazy, Anatole," Lydia reminds him. "It's why we like you, remember?"
"I'm boy crazy," he tells Chris simply.
"Oh please. Not again?" It's a joke among them, how Anatole's always falling in love with teenage boys. He glimpses them in supermarkets, movie theaters, they occupy his whole life for the space of a few hours or days, then he forgets about them. Whenever he and Chris and Lydia are out together, he's always pointing out what boy has just stolen his heart. It alarms Chris, it seems dangerous and ill-advised, and he's always wanting to lead Anatole away to somewhere where it's safe, where he won't be tormented by these visions.
"I know what you're thinking," Anatole tells Chris. "But this one was different. The light around him was different."
"It was lighter."
Chris leans back and draws on his cigarette. He knows it's an affectation, one he suspects his friends used to be impressed by, but now don't notice much anymore.
"Don't tell me you tried to pick him up," he teases, trying tomask a vague unease. "I know you: you leaned out the window and hooted down at him or something embarrassing."
"Don't I wish? You're nothing but a heretic," Anatole complains. "This wasn't just boy, this was divine."
"You saw the vision too?" Chris turns to Lydia. She and Anatole always seem to be noticing exactly the same thing, only from different angles.
"It was one of those moments," she admits.
"You sound almost grim."
"You had to be there."
"Oh God. Why do I feel like groaning?" Chris is conscious of playing the skeptical third. But it's okay--it means he's the one the others defer to, as if they expect him to judge them, to find them wanting.
"You'll see," Anatole tells him.
"Yeah, sure. So when's the shrine going up?"
"You laugh. There'll be healings."
"Shrine of Our Boy of the Mall." Chris tries it out.
"Exactly." Anatole is quiet for a moment, as if considering the implications. "I'll never see him again," he says.
"Think of it as a narrow escape," Chris tells him, but immediately he regrets his tone--it's everything he doesn't like about himself, his aloofness, his shielding wit. He sees how Lydia and Anatole glance at each other--an instant--to say, He doesn't understand these things. We didn't really think he would.
And he hasn't. Or if he has, he wants to keep aloof from it. There's something in the alliances Anatole and Lydia construct that leaves him out--despite his tangled history with both of them. When the three of them are together, he always feels he's the third. Probably it's because he's the newcomer--three years ago he hadn't met either one of them--while Anatole and Lydia both grew up in Poughkeepsie, they've known each other Since When, as they like to say. I'm just visiting this place, Chris will tell himself. I don't live here, but they do--and he doesn't know whether that difference saddens or liberates him. For the three years he's lived in Poughkeepsie, he's lived apart from it--treading water, as it were, never breaking the surface. Allhe wants is a place to hide, and Immaculate Blue, the record store he manages on Academy Street, allows him exactly that. Poughkeepsie allows him exactly that.
They're best friends, Chris and Anatole and Lydia. Either the first wave of Poughkeepsie's long-awaited gentrification or its last stand, they like to think of themselves as beautiful, chic, to be envied--"the only thing this goddamned city's got going for it," they'll joke among themselves, especially when it's late at night and they're drunk, or stoned, or bored. Together they share complicated pasts, common frustrations. Their friendship is a balancing of forces that would otherwise part them, a constant reorientation of needs, crises, deflections at depths they are reluctant to plumb. For each of them it is different, for none of them does it remain a single, definable thing.
Main Street's deserted, the moon's out, a thin crescent. They walk in a loose contingent, Daniel and Anatole, Lydia and Marion. In a Macy's shopping bag Marion carries bottles of champagne.
Daniel is Anatole's business partner, and he's pretending he's in a Madonna video. He wears an enormous string of pearls, knotted. A tight black skirt, blue turtleneck, a beret with a costume diamond brooch affixed. His long blond hair falls below it. He's singing "Like a Virgin," velvet falsetto. Anatole frisks with him, trying--but failing--to be suave and mysterious as the man wearing the lion mask in the video. With liquid movements Daniel tries to turn Main Street into the canals of Venice. He's in a gondola, he's on an arched bridge, he's in a palace and a twilit Adriatic breeze is blowing the gauze curtains out into the room.
Daniel's the star hairdresser at Reflexion--if it wasn't for him, the salon would go under in a month. But he's also a little crazy. At night he'll do Ecstasy, roam Poughkeepsie's streets in drag, so good he's seldom mistaken for a man. Last month the police picked him up for DWI--he was driving around in his Rabbit with the headlights off. At first the officer thought he was carrying a fake driver's license. "'Daniel'? Come on, lady, what kind of a name's that?"
Deep in conversation, Lydia and Marion ignore Daniel's and Anatole's antics. Marion's telling Lydia how wonderful the two are to her, how just knowing them has changed her life. Lydia sighs--Marion's simply the latest in a long line of Daniel-and-Anatole groupies, a collection of women who swear miracles by them. In any other city it might be a famous therapist, or a dance teacher. Here it's Daniel and Anatole--who specialize in these lonely women they flatter into expensive dye jobs, elaborate and prolonged programs of hair reconstitution. They made a date with her--come by Saturday, bring champagne, we'll remake you. It'll be fabulous, it'll change your life, doll.
To Lydia--who's just along for the champagne, the company on a Saturday night--it feels sad. This fat woman's really thrilled, she thinks; she's thrilled because they've talked her into thinking this may after all be the thing that will change her life. Things'll be different. She'll find love.
Just be careful, Lydia wants to tell Marion. But she doesn't. She walks beside Marion and pretends not to enjoy how Daniel and Anatole cavort. They leap into a dry fountainbed. Daniel pretends to splash, to let the jet of invisible water drench him.
Let Marion learn, Lydia thinks. Anyway, she doesn't like her very much; she's a fat, pathetic intruder. A little overweight herself, or at least convinced she's overweight, Lydia hates without mercy women who are fat.
Marion lopes along in her huge cornflower blue dress, Princess Diana stockings and slippers, and Lydia thinks: Who the hell are you? What Mad Hatter tea party did you stumble out of?
But Marion is drunk, she's talkative. "Aren't they fabulous?" She indicates the two dancing figures. "It's so interesting to me. Women like us."
"What do you mean, 'women like us'?"
Marion seems for a moment to want to backtrack, but then plunges bravely ahead. "Oh, you know. Fag hags."
"I don't consider myself a fag hag," Lydia says politely. She wants to make Marion suffer.
"Oh, I don't mean anything; I mean, I don't want to put you,to put anybody, down or anything. We're all in it together. Am I talking too much? I had a lot to drink before I came here. I was trying to get my nerve up."
Anatole and Daniel are pirouetting in the moonlight. "Like a virgin," they screech at the empty buildings. In the doorway of Schwartz's, two black men lift a sack-wrapped whiskey bottle in a toast, "Yah yah yah," they sing in hoarse chorus. "White girls," they yell. "Come over here, suck my cock, white girls."
Daniel turns to Anatole. "Want to?"
"Sounds fun. I bet they got humongous cocks."
"Foot-long hot dogs."
"Put his foot in yo mouff."
Daniel and Anatole strutting arm in arm, whooping it up. The two black men suddenly seem to be having second thoughts. They shy back into the shadows, brandishing their bottle as if to ward off what it is they've unleashed.
"They're so crazy," Marion observes.
"They're doing it for you." Lydia dry, a bit alienated. "They're trying to work you up to the mood before they get their hands on your hair. So watch out."
"I'm ready for anything."
Then they are clattering up the stairs to Reflexion. "Chez Barbarella, it looks more like," Anatole admits. "Make yourself at home."
Standing on tiptoes, stretching his arms wide, Daniel takes a picture off the wall. It's nearly as big as he is--the Calvin Klein poster of a model naked except for briefs, smooth skin oiled and bronzed, against a backdrop of blindingly white stucco wall. Romantic gaze, off camera, stage right. What sailors does he see entering the harbor? What boys cavorting bare on the beach? Above him the blue sky of Mykonos. Daniel dusts off the glass with a cloth, then proceeds diligently to deposit a pyramid of coke in the center of the picture, where the model's navel is. With his American Express card he cuts it into eight long thin lines, bars across the model's body. "Drugs is a terrible prison," Daniel laughs, inviting Marion and Lydia to partake. "Let'sfree this boy." Anatole busies himself with opening the champagne bottle. He opens a window, leans far out, lets the cork shoot into the night.
"You should do business like this all the time," Marion tells them, bending low over the picture, closing one nostril with her fingertip.
"Go to it, girl," Daniel advises her, running his hands through his long blond hair, shaking it out luxuriously. "Sniff that crotch."
"Don't make me laugh. It'll be expensive."
"She's got an idea, you know." Anatole pours champagne into plastic cups. "Set up midnight rates. We'll steal Astor Place's clientele. They'll drive up from the City in pink Cadillacs."
"Dream on, darling," Daniel purrs, bending a nostril close to the glass, sniffing up the line. "Ah"--he straightens, breathes deep--"wake up and smell that coffee."
Anatole flicks a tape in the box he's got on the counter: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Lydia moves around the room to the beat. The hairdressing equipment looks strange and wonderful in the harsh light. She's bored, but doesn't mind. She likes being here when there're no customers, when it's just them. They know the secret life of the place, and to know the secret life of anything is to lift you out of yourself.
Daniel and Anatole have settled Marion into a chair, draped her with a drop cloth, it's as if a surgery's going to be performed. Daniel is fluent and excited--he only really comes alive when the prospect of hair is before him. He's like a boy about to have sex for the first time. He arranges mirrors around her, contemplates her every way he can. "Doll, you're in for the treat of your life," Anatole assures her. Daniel is snipping shears at thin air; already he's shaping her in the abstract. He runs his hand though her thick dark masses. "Very Irish hair," he tells her. "Very colleen country-girl look."
"I don't want to look like a country girl," Marion tells him.
"Of course you don't. The sophisticated look. Very short, I think. Clipped, sharp. Witty."
"And the color," Anatole adds. "You can't keep that brunette."
"How about giddy blonde?" Daniel keeps looking at her like apainter angling his subject. "I think giddy blonde'd be perfect. Marilyn meets the Marine Corps. It'll accent the Manhattan chop effect, set up a rhythm of tensions, it'll just be fabulous."
"I'm putting my life in your hands," Marion tells them, holding out her cup for more champagne. "I'm just going to lie back and take a nap and when I wake up I'll be a new person. How's that?"
"Doll, you're so trusting. You're like, perfect. Have you considered really dramatic colors?"
"Anatole, get the cellophanes. There. See these? They're really vibrant. Prism cellophanes. They'll wash out in a month. They won't hurt your hair."
"Go for it," Anatole urges. "In a hundred years, more like ten probably, we'll all be dead. Nobody'll care whether you had a little fun with your life."
"Sure," Marion says. "Why not? Just pour me some more champagne."
"We could do stripes," Daniel says, tapping his chin with his finger, an artist deep in thought. "Eggplant purple in back, fantail effect"--he gestures expressivley at her head, shaping the new look with his hands--"then this lovely wine red and electric blue, alternating, on the sides."
"Does she need to sign a rights waiver? What's our lawyer's current thinking?"
"I'll sign anything," Marion says. She's very drunk. The coke and champagne are an immense wave of light lifting her toward the ceiling, where the view is infinite. In a single motion Daniel flips Marion's reclining chair back--"Whoops!" she cries--so her head rests above the sink. Vigorously he rinses her scalp, applies shampoo. All at once the room smells of fresh coconuts. Another rinse, then conditioner, wheat and honey. "Anybody for tahini?" Marion jokes under Daniel's long, energetic fingers.
It's not turning out to be as fun for Lydia as she expected. Suddenly she's jealous of the attention Daniel and Anatole are giving to Marion. It surprises her, but there's nothing she can do about it. Shesits sidesaddle on the window ledge and looks down at Main Street. It's empty, a bleak expanse of concrete and a few straggling trees, none of it made magical by a thin moonlight. Am I like this? she thinks. It's Anatole and Daniel at their worst--Daniel seems to bring it out in Anatole, a kind of desperate camp that's finally heartless, even destructive. If she didn't dislike Marion, fear her as a usurper, a disturbing mirror of her own condition, she'd feel sorry for her. As it is, depressingly enough, what's happening to her at their hands seems a species of sweet revenge.
When she looks back at the trio, Marion is sitting upright, her head covered in a tight rubber cap with holes in it. She could be an experiment in a science fiction movie. Daniel's a demented Marilyn Monroe turned lab assistant as he uses what looks like a crochet needle to pull strands of hair through the holes. "Ow," Marion half cries, half laughs. "That hurts."
"It's art--what do you expect, baby doll?"
"Ow." Marion cringes beneath Daniel's retrieval of her hair from the rubber torture cap.
"All finished." Daniel pats her hand. "You survived. Now we bleach."
"What did one bleached whale say to the other?" Anatole asks.
"I'm so washed up I could dye," Daniel tells him.
"You've heard it?"
"I think I made it up, darling." He twirls a small paintbrush in a bowl, then daubs bleach along the strands of exposed hair. "I think," he notices casually, "the bleached whale is out cold." And she is. She snores, head tilted back, empty champagne cup cradled in her lap like a favorite toy. Beneath Daniel's hands her dark, luxurious brunette dies, whitens like bone. Daniel tips her back once more into the sink and turns on the water. She comes awake spluttering, eyes wild. "Professor, it's alive, we've created life," Daniel shouts. "It's all right," he soothes Marion. "We're ready to paint. Frank Stella would die."
He dips a brush into the bowl, then stands poised, contemplating. "Next stop, Glamourville," he announces.
Anatole watches Marion's face. Her faith in Daniel is touching. Out cold, face gone jelly, she looks like someone who's been expectingthe worst but is resigned to it, is convinced it's the best thing. With exaggerated flourishes, Daniel lays the eggplant purple on boldly, thickly.
Anatole hums along with the OMD tape, he mouths the words even though he doesn't know most of them. It exhilarates him, it seems just perfect--this moment, all these people here together. Marion unconscious, Daniel daubing eggplant purple, Lydia sitting on the window ledge sipping champagne. It's the kind of thing he likes more than anything else. At the same time he feels empty, he doesn't want to be here. He wants to be with Chris.
It's the secret he carries around all the time. Whatever he's doing, no matter how much fun he's having, it's empty unless Chris is there. His crush on Chris has dominated his life for two years, ever since he met him one June afternoon on the Metro North between New York and Poughkeepsie. He was coming back from a day spent shopping in the City. At Croton-Harmon, passengers for Poughkeepsie have to change trains. This particular afternoon, the connecting train hadn't pulled in yet, and as the passengers for Poughkeepsie stood waiting on the exposed platform, a thunderstorm sprang up--big drops of water, bolts of lightning that shot into the green hills around the station. The light was eerie the way light in sudden thunderstorms can be, and Anatole was terrified of the lightning. If you hear the thunder, you know it hasn't hit you, he remembered his father telling him when he was a child. Still, the waiting between thunderbursts was unbearable. The sky was alive with crackling bolts. Every instant, not knowing if it would strike you: this instant, or this--was it your last?
He stood shivering under his umbrella, resisting the urge to cower, wondering if it was true that an umbrella acts as a lightning rod. Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. Nervously, he turned to the person next to him to try to make contact with someone else who was in the same predicament.
"I just love risking my life to get to Poughkeepsie."
"I wouldn't stand so close to me," the stranger said. "God's got too many things against me for it to be safe."
Just then there was another flash of light, a blast of thunder, andAnatole looked at the man he'd spoken to. It was the oddest thing--at the instant of the thunderbolt it seemed as if he were looking at an angel who'd just flashed into being, golden hair slicked down by the rain, soaked through to the skin.
"God's not such a great shot." Anatole laughed nervously.
"You wait." Chris grinned. "He's got a lot of ammunition."
But at that moment the Poughkeepsie train pulled alongside the platform. They scurried inside, sat in seats across the aisle from each other. Wind and rain buffeted the silver Hudson, the gray-green hills. In a few minutes the sun came out. By the time the train got to Poughkeepsie Anatole had volunteered practically everything he could think of about himself, and in the process had managed to learn that this gorgeous stranger's name was Chris Havilland, that he worked in the record store on Academy Street and that the two of them shared the same birthday, July first, the exact middle of the year.
He phoned Lydia later that night.
"So how was New York?" She knew he hadn't looked forward to going down.
"You'll never guess. I'm a wreck. Lydia, sweetheart, I met the man of my dreams."
"Again? Is he over eighteen?"
"Lydia. You'll approve of him. He gave me his phone number, he asked me to call him. He looks like David Bowie."
"David Bowie's old."
"He looks the way David Bowie used to look. He looks like the cover of Station to Station."
A few days later he managed to work up the courage to call Chris. At first Chris seemed not to remember him, and Anatole's heart sank, but then something seemed to click and Chris sounded suddenly enthusiastic. "Oh. The train," he said. "Of course. How about dinner? I like the Milanese. Do you ever go there?"
After four glasses of wine, they're both relaxed, talkative. Anatole's content to sit in candlelight and watch the impossibly perfect face before him. I can't believe I'm this lucky, he tells himself. He means--just to be here. Anatole is thankful for small things. It's why people like him, even against their inclination.
"It's nice to meet somebody interesting in this city," Chris tells him. "You were funny in that little rain shower--"
"It was a thunderstorm--"
"--that little rain shower. I liked that. You know, I've been here in Poughkeepsie a year now, and I don't know anybody. I haven't met people I want to know. I didn't grow up here, I didn't grow up in the East at all. I'm from Denver."
"Denver." Anatole's never been west of Buffalo, where he used to visit cousins when he was a child. "So how'd you end up here?"
"I'm here on my father's business, you might say. What I mean is, the record store I manage, Immaculate Blue--it belongs to him. It's some kind of tax dodge or something like that--I don't know exactly, I don't want to know. I just look after it. I get to work with records, which is all I really like. Music records." He laughs nervously, lights a cigarette. "My dad's lawyers handle the other records."
"You must be close to your dad," Anatole observes.
"No," Chris laughs abrubtly, wryly. "Actually, we don't get along at all. My being here's a kind of deal, I think. My dad's very tough, very air force; he used to be a colonel, then he retired and went into real estate development--made incredible amounts of money. We were always moving to a bigger house, he kept buying boats and Winnebagos. He did it to get me out of his hair, see? I kept dropping out of schools. It was getting too embarrassing for him. He was afraid I'd end up in the East Village as a waiter or something. Dad wants a respectable son. So that's why I'm taking his money. I don't know. Maybe it's a way of getting back at him. Because he likes the wrong things about me. Or maybe it's because I'm afraid to do anything on my own because I know I'll fail, so I have to let him do it for me."
He looks in his wineglass, as if fascinated by some reflection in it. Anatole watches him, afraid to say anything that will sound stupid.
"No," Chris tells him abruptly, "I'll tell you what it is. When I was little--like, the first thing I remember--we were playing follow the leader, Dad and me; we were walking along this little brick wall, the edge of a patio; he was leading, I was following, and then I fell off the wall. I broke my arm. Chipped the elbow. I think that's the source of everything." He pauses, then groans loudly, almost despairingly."Oh, I don't really care. Anatole, usually I don't talk about these things. I'm not interested in them. I'm just doing this to test you."
"Oh?" It confuses Anatole a bit. "Do I pass?"
Chris looks at him across the tapering candle flame. "We'll see, won't we?"
They look at each other for a minute, neither looking away. Anatole feels dizzy, he feels scared. Then Chris looks down at the table, lights up a cigarette. Anatole's crazy about the way Chris handles his cigarettes. It's enough to make him want to smoke.
"I'm exhausted," Chris says. "I've had a bad day. I'm being too talkative."
"I love it."
"Oh, you'll get bored with it, don't worry."
Later, it's what Anatole holds on to, that phrase "you'll get bored with it." More than anything he wants a chance to get bored with Chris Havilland. He doesn't know if he'll see him again. He doesn't know if the evening has "passed."
But Chris does call. Over the course of that summer they meet once a week for drinks, or for dinner. Chris is never again quite so revealing. He banters, but seldom descends into seriousness. It's Anatole who does most of the talking.
Nevertheless--one humid August night they're standing in the restaurant parking lot beside their respective cars, but neither seems quite to want to go home. "Well," Anatole says. Suddenly he is very nervous. Is this what they've been edging toward over the slow summer? He was quick to admit liking to sleep with men, he has nothing to hide. Chris listened politely, but said nothing. That was two dinners ago; it seems not to have affected their relationship one way or the other. Now tonight Chris says, "We just go on and on like this, don't we?"
"What do you mean?"
"Circling." He laughs. "It's crazy."
Anatole doesn't know what to say. He knows he's supposed to say something, he's conscious of an opportunity and of missing that opportunity, but he can think of nothing that will catch it.
"You could come back to my place for a nightcap," he suggests.
There's a pause, he waits for Chris to say no. The night itself seems to have paused in its business, to be listening to them to see how it will turn out.
"Sure," Chris tells him, smiling. "A nightcap."
In Anatole's apartment--big Victorian rooms, dark wood, lots of furniture he inherited from a grandmother--Chris sits on a sofa while Anatole brings scotch in a cut-glass decanter, glasses and a bowl of ice on a tray.
"Fancy," Chris tells him.
"I just get nervous when I have guests. I overdo it."
They sit together on the sofa and drink in silence. The apartment feels big but intimate. Anatole tries to broach the difficult subject. "It's funny," he says, "when I think back to the beginning of summer. How I didn't know. How I couldn't ever have guessed." He looks at Chris; it's awkward, sitting side by side like this; so he plunges ahead. "It's always hard to talk about, isn't it?" He laughs, but then is grave. "Can I say you've sort of changed my life this summer? That I'm alive now. Is that okay to say?"
He watches Chris for signs of retreat, but there don't seem to be any.
"I guess what I'm saying is," he says, "I think I'm sort of in love with you."
As he says it he puts his hand on Chris's shoulder. His heart is beating so fast, he's afraid he'll have a heart attack.
"Okay." Chris's laugh is halfhearted but gentle. Anatole waits for him to say something more, to touch him, to do something. But nothing happens. Chris lifts Anatole's hand from his shoulder; he pats it. "I like you, Anatole," he says.
"Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" Anatole asks.
"I do understand." Chris is firm but tender. "Remember, you don't want to stand too close to me. Lightning."
"But I want it to strike. I've been waiting my whole life."
Chris smiles fondly, shakes his head. "I was afraid," he says. He takes a sip of his scotch. "I'm going to go now. Call me soon, okay?"
It's the closest they've gotten, that moment--a high-water markthey never reach again. But Anatole remembers it. He'll catch himself thinking of it at moments like this, and then feel far from everything that's happening around him, the chatter and bustle. He thinks about it all the time; even though more than two years have passed since that night and he and Chris have become, as they say, best friends, it makes a lump in his throat to remember. The highest moment of his life. He's slept with lots of other boys, he's slept with Daniel--it's not that. Rather, it's the closest he's ever gotten, he tells himself, to something--he can't name it, he doesn't even know for sure what it is. All he knows is that it matters more to him than anything else in his life.
"Here, doll," Daniel is saying. He pats Marion's cheek, then gives a deft slap to bring her around. She sputters as she hits consciousness again. "Keep your eyes closed, honey. Your heart just stopped for a while. You probably had an out-of-the-body experience, right?"
"Are we finished?" she murmurs groggily. Obedient, she keeps her eyes shut.
Daniel pauses to contemplate her. "They're going to take you right to heaven," he tells her. "You're not even going to have to wait. Patti LaBelle'll swoon when she hears about this."
"I'm afraid to look." Marion's trying hard to stay conscious long enough to savor that first glimpse in the mirror, the "You" she's asked for and never thought she'd really get.
It's a losing battle, though.
Daniel addresses the once more inert form in front of him. "Your self-control, darling, is admirable." He touches up the sides, then frowns, almost pouts while Anatole puts both hands to his temples, eyes wide, and mouths a silent Yikes.
Lydia watches it all coolly, pensively. She feels far from their antics. They're tiresome, their larks bore her after a while. But they're her friends. Anatole's her best friend in the world. "Fag hag"--Marion's words from earlier in the evening annoy Lydia, but they also haunt her.
It seems impossible that things can have lasted between her and Anatole as long as they have. But then, they've been through everythingtogether: between them there's a special understanding that survives her feelings of entrapment, of futility. I should be dating eligible men, she tells herself, I should find a man to make love to, to marry. But she's paralyzed. She wonders if it's Anatole who paralyzes her. After all, it's safer to tag along on a night like this--watch Anatole and Daniel carry on even though she doesn't entirely approve--than set out alone, stand forlorn on the edge of the action at Let's Dance (somewhere along the way she's lost her old courage) and wait to meet that one man who counts, who'll change everything, who never shows up.
Because it was Anatole who was there when, after taking a leave of absence from Bard her sophomore year and moving to New York for a resounding six-month disaster, she fled back to Poughkeepsie, the waiting arms of her mother, her old friends, the life she was accustomed to. A rat- and roach-infested apartment between Avenues A and B, broken into twice in the same month, her neighbors a sax player with a three-hundred-a-month heroin habit, and a drag queen whose shrieks kept her awake at night.
The defeat is something she seldom thinks about, it's a private failure she nurses much the same way she nurses the memory of a baby she had aborted her freshman year at Bard. Sometimes, even now, she wakes in the morning and feels an unbearable nostalgia for the Lower East Side, its colorful squalor, the shifting life of its streets.
She thinks sometimes of a boy she knew named Demian, a poet always dressed in drab work clothes, scuffed black leather shoes--he wore a Greek sailor's cap perched on the back of his head, his hair black, unwashed--she remembers spending a night with him, stroking his greasy-sweet hair, breathing in the scent of his tense body as he plunged furiously, heartbreakingly into her; later he cried and told her about his lover Marc, the only person he really loved, who was in Bellevue, who'd threatened to kill him. Sometimes (she thinks of Anatole) it's hard not to be bitter. Though of course it's not their fault; nothing's anybody's fault, or it's all God's fault, in which case who cares anyway?
She's always lived with the myth that she'll return one day, that she's only in Poughkeepsie getting her life together--but every yearthat goes by, it's harder to conceal from herself (and she suspects she's the last it's concealed from) that she's here for the duration, she'll never go back to the Lower East Side, she'll never go back to college; whatever her life is going to be--and she's twenty-nine, this is real life--this is it.
It's been Anatole who's somehow made it bearable, this long exile from whatever her life might otherwise have been. He's amused her, diverted her, he's cried with her and gotten drunk with her. Anatole and Daniel. What else do they signify other than how life might be possible anywhere, how like weeds it can spring up unexpectedly, even where there seems no place for it?
She watches as they pause in their ministrations about Marion to survey the extent of the damage.
"Do you think we should call the fire department?" Anatole asks. "Or at least have a hose ready when she wakes up?"
But Daniel is pleased, triumphant. With a final mad flourish he brings Marion back to life--two deft slaps on her cheeks. Then he is sitting her upright in her seat, now he spins her around to face the mirror. And in the mirror, transformed--her new self.
How exactly, Lydia wonders, would you describe that look on Marion's face when she glimpses her new self for the very first time?
Evening sun inundates the kitchen. Waiting for Anatole and Lydia to show up, Chris chops endives, tosses them into a blue ceramic bowl. He ladles in roasted peppers, six quartered sun-dried tomatoes. Squeezes lemon, crushes garlic, sprinkles dill. This might be one of those perfect moments: every surface, every utensil floats in light.
It may be that Chris is at his best this instant before other people see him. Everything gathers itself into a momentary coherence, the tensions balance as in music. There comes this brief space of calm, a perspective achieved and then forfeited.
Chris watches Anatole and Lydia as they get out of Lydia's Chevy, stroll up the sidewalk. The way they touch each other, gracefully, ironically--Chris imagines that they're married. He's the bachelor friend both are fond of, the one who's had an affair with the wife and the husband doesn't know about it.
He seldom thinks of the night he fucked Lydia. He can't let himself, because it's always there, he doesn't need to think about it to be aware of it: it hangs over perfect moments like a cloud threatening not only rain but storm, havoc, whole cities swept away.
Why did he move to Poughkeepsie in the first place, if not to get away from that other city where he'd hurt too many people? It's something he can't think about, that year in Ithaca with John, that summer with John and Michelle in the big, bare house. If you can bruise a soul, then that's what happened. And now, three and a half years later, Chris is afraid it's started to happen all over again right here, in different circumstances, with different people--but still just the same. After everything he told himself he'd learned painfully, disastrously, how can he have let it begin again here as well?
Anatole was the one who introduced him and Lydia in the first place. They'd have drinks together, the three of them, at Bertie's after work. Occasionally they'd go to a movie, or Anatole would make dinner for them. They'd known each other two or three months when her younger brother Craig drove down from Boston. Chris had always liked Lydia--she struck him from the first as quick, acidic, generous. But to glimpse her reflected in her brother--he was thinner, sharper in definition--well, it made Chris see her in a new light. Her relation to her brother changed her, it enlarged Chris's sense of her. If he could see her in him, he could also make out, just barely, him in her.
He had the two of them over for dinner; Anatole had something else to do; Chris can no longer remember why, fatefully, Anatole wasn't able to come.
It was late, the three of them--Chris and Lydia and her brother--listened to Chris's new CD player and drank scotch.
"I'm so tired," Lydia yawned. "It's pleasant. I feel like just fading away."
"We'll go," Craig told her.
"No. We don't have to go. I'll just stretch out on the bed and take a nap. You two keep on talking. I like listening to you. I'm just going to shut my eyes and listen to you talk from the next room."
They both watched her disappear. For a while they were silent,almost shy with each other. All evening they had talked animatedly, finding a connection in each other's words that led them into an immediate friendliness, even intimacy, that thrilled Chris and at the same time made him wary.
Craig lounged in an armchair, his legs draped over the side, barefoot, his sneakers cast off on the floor beside him. Were they, after all, strangers? Could they go on in Lydia's absence? For a moment they had nothing to say, it was hopeless. But then the next moment there was once again this quiet, electric flurry that sparked between them. He can't reconstruct now, almost two years later, what it might have been that they talked about. But beneath whatever foundation their sentences laid, an underground river roared--you could hear it, sometimes just barely, sometimes rising so near the surface it seemed in the next instant it must break through. But it didn't. Perhaps Craig was too young yet to be attuned to it--he was only a freshman at Boston University. Perhaps Chris was only inventing it all, scotch and the lateness of the hour collaborating to invest innocence with all sorts of nuances that weren't really there. It was three o'clock, then four.
At last Craig stood up to go. "It's so late," he said. He'd driven down for the weekend, he was driving back in a few hours: he had to write a philosophy paper. "It's been really great to talk to you," he told Chris. "I hope we'll see each other again." He seemed to have forgotten Lydia. Perhaps he assumed his sister and Chris were involved. He didn't ask if he should wake her, and Chris forgot about her too, in the intimate moment between them as they shook hands, their touch lingering an instant too long--Chris had learned to read such handshakes as secret, even unconscious gestures. Gestures he was never certain he could accurately interpret, but that he nonetheless thrilled, on occasion, to encounter--as if it gave him purchase on a buried self the other was as yet unaware of.
Back in his bedroom, he found Lydia fast asleep. She'd taken off her shoes, pulled a blanket over her. Chris sat down on the bed. "Lydia," he said quietly. "Lydia."
"Oh hi, Chris." She smiled up at him, groggily, contentedly. "Where's Craig?"
"He left. He went home." He wasn't going to say, We both forgot about you.
She only looked at him; he could see her trying to figure out exactly what this meant. Her eyes were dreamy, dilated with sleep.
"He left a while ago. You were sleeping. It's too late for you to go home. Go back to sleep."
"Where are you going to sleep?"
"I'll just lie down here beside you." He slipped off his shoes as she pulled the blanket aside for him. Fully clothed, he rolled in beside her. She put her arms around him, and he responded, holding her tight. It was like putting his arms around her brother.
They kissed. Her mouth tasted like old alcohol and cigarette smoke. Was that how Craig's mouth would taste? It surprised him how she was so shy with him, letting him put his hands everywhere but hardly reciprocating. He thought he'd understood from previous evenings that she'd be happy to make love to him. Was he once more only vain and stupid? Or was she just too sleepy? He worked his hands up under her skirt, pulled down her panties. She was her brother. He ran his fingertips across her brother's pubic hair. He cupped her brother's smooth buttocks. But it was also her. They kissed so they wouldn't have to say anything.
He entered her, whispering as he did, "I won't come inside you." It made her laugh. But he didn't come. He pumped inside her for a few minutes, then pulled out. It satisfied nothing. She wasn't her brother, of course. She was Anatole's best friend. He felt only panic, as if in a momentary confusion he had thrown everything away.
She was asleep before he could speak a single word to her and in the morning when he woke she was already up, swallowing a handful of aspirin tablets. They were ironic with each other as they arranged themselves to face the day's massive hangover. "We could do this again sometime if you wanted," she mentioned, looking not at him but at her reflection in the mirror.
He sat on the side of the bed, head pounding, in full panic. "Do what?" he said.
Chris knows Anatole would die if he ever found out about that night. Their relationship has reached a comfortable plateau of apparentfriendship--after that single night of honesty between them on Anatole's sofa two years ago, they've never quite approached the same dangerous intensity. Whatever his relief at their truce, it also disappoints Chris a little, how Anatole seemed to lose heart after that night. He can't decipher the reason for that retreat, but he feels the loss. If he wants Anatole's love, it's only so he can keep it at bay. He wants it the way he wants to be noticed--but he also dreads it, dreads the consequences for Anatole if, beneath the uncharged intimacy of their current friendship, the anguish he suspects is there still smolders, like those underground coal fires that linger for years beneath quiet Pennsylvania towns.
Whatever lies between them, his action with Lydia has been a betrayal. He is certain of that. Anatole has trusted him with his love, and he's betrayed him where it would hurt the most. There's no other way Anatole would be able to understand it if he were to find out. He and Lydia have never spoken further of it, and Chris is sure Anatole doesn't know a thing. Still--how can Chris expect her to be better than he'd be under the circumstances? He can imagine it with stinging clarity--late one night, culmination of some unimportant squabble they've had over the phone, one hurt escalating to the next, she'll blurt it out. She'll have to. "Well, he slept with me, Anatole--Chris Havilland fucked me."
It's too good not to use.
His fate: He sees it for an instant with absolute clarity--the sunlight only enhances it. He'll be the catalyst in some final uproar that will devastate Anatole. He can't believe, sometimes, that it'll come to this, that he'll be the cause of it. He'd like to think he doesn't matter that much. But he suspects the truth. It's because Anatole loved him that he had to betray Anatole with Lydia.
He'd give anything to take it back, but if he's learned anything, it's that very little can be taken back. So it lingers. Every moment the three of them are together, every moment Anatole and Lydia are alone together: it threatens.
Lydia is unsacking the wine she's brought. "It was on sale, three ninety-nine. And I brought some bread."
"You'll never believe the bread," Anatole says.
Chris looks at the dark round loaf.
"Pesto bread, with walnuts."
"My God, sounds wonderful. We're having pesto. We'll O.D. on it. They had fresh basil at Adams."
Mismatched plates on a blue checked tablecloth. Wine and bread, antipasto--they become holy acts. The Last Supper must have felt this way.
"Sun-dried tomatoes," Lydia admires. "Yum. They're so expensive."
Chris shrugs. He lives simply, in order to be as luxurious as possible within that simplicity.
"Sixteen ninety-five a pound at The Market Place," she says. "Can you imagine?" She spears one with her fork. "Such a treat for the peasants, Chris."
"We try," he tells her mildly.
Anatole interrupts them. "Oh my God," he says. He jumps up from the chair where he's sitting and runs his fingers through his hair. "I completely forgot. I knew there was something, Big News of the day. You'll never guess who I saw."
"We never will, no," Lydia says.
He pauses appropriately, then speaks with gravity. "Our Boy of the Mall."
"Are you kidding?" Lydia grins with complicity. It leaves Chris out, he feels angry with both of them for perpetuating this fantasy well beyond its half-life.
"I'm sure it was him. I was driving out by K-Mart, and he was walking on the sidewalk. I almost ran off the road. He was with about three girls. They were all laughing and talking and he was walking in the middle of them, like they were surrounding him, you know, his disciples or something, and he wasn't saying anything. At least I couldn't tell that he was. They were talking and laughing and he was looking very serious. I kept looking in the rearview mirror to see him as long as I could. I drove around the block so I could see him again, but he wasn't there when I got back."
Lydia teases. "Anatole, you let him get away! That's not good."
"But it was him. I know it was him."
"Well, he probably lives in Poughkeepsie, after all," Chris says. "It's not that surprising."
"Chris, you'll depress me if you say another word," Anatole cries. "Let me savor it."
Chris smiles, but he feels vaguely distressed. Perhaps it's only because he hasn't seen this boy and so doesn't know what they're talking about. But even if he had, he'd leave himself out. It's just something that goes on between Anatole and Lydia, and he doesn't allow himself to have any part in it.
"I want to tell you both about my dream," Anatole announces. "I think maybe it prophesied the Second Sighting."
He pours himself more wine, then begins.
"There were a lot of us. Both of you were there. Other people I didn't recognize but in the dream I knew who they were. We were standing on the shore of a lake--the ground was completely white, the lake was blue like a lake. A big lake, you couldn't see the other side. And there was a water plane--what do you call them? An aquaplane. Anyway, we were waiting for this plane. Somebody was saying something about how they'd dropped the atomic bomb on Syracuse. They were evacuating us to somewhere. And then in the distance there was this flash of light, and we knew it was another atomic bomb."
"Syracuse," Chris laughs. "They probably should drop an atomic bomb on Syracuse."
"When I woke up," Anatole says, "I felt this complete emptiness. I'm always having atomic bomb dreams."
"So what does that have to do with Our Boy of the Mall?" Lydia wonders.
"I don't know," Anatole tells her. "It just seemed like there might be some connection."
"Sometimes it's just really scary these days," Lydia admits. "I mean, about everything."
"I can't remember dreams," Chris tells them. In the only dream he can remember, a recurrent dream, he is filled with an unbearable tenderness and hopelessness. In the dream he is making love to Anatole.
They've driven to Rhinebeck to feast on sushi; in the aftermath of their binge--they've spent unbelievable sums on sea urchin with quail eggs, California rolls, abalone--they land at Bertie's around midnight. Wednesday night is Punk Night--the dance floor's full of slightly scary-looking kids who make Chris, at twenty-six, feel old. Already a generation is springing up to replace him.
Anatole can't take his eyes off Chris, who's dazzling in white: he looks so vulnerable against the tide of punks, and Anatole's in love all over again. He can't help it: every evening he's with Chris, part of him keeps hoping against hope that somehow, they'll end up in be d together. He never mentions it to Lydia, or to anyone.
Tonight Chris is withdrawn, making much of his cigarette, flirting with it, a flirtation that excludes everyone else. The music dazes him. He allows its heavy beat to inhabit him, as if his heartbeat is no more than another kind of drumming. He likes watching people dance; they become parts of a mechanism that has nothing to do with him, they don't threaten or move him.
Lydia nudges Anatole. "Who's Chris watching?" They joke privately about Chris's indifference, how he's always ready to be seen but is never interested in seeing. Through the jostling bodies she can't see who it is. But it touches Lydia to catch Chris suddenly alert to a face in a crowd; he's usually so self-contained, so reticent about giving too much away. A kind of selfishness. She'd like to know him, know where he's failed, what he's won--but he's careful to avoid giving it to her. Even when his penis was in her, that one time, he didn't come; he withdrew, leaving nothing of himself behind.
His wants, his frustrations take place in private.
"Lydia, dear, it's plain," Daniel once told her. "It's like animals when they're wounded. You never see dying animals. They hide themselves away. They have this natural, I don't know, discretion."
Chris is unaware of being watched. He's not even watching the boy anymore, he's moved back inside himself. The boy interested him just for a moment. Dancing with himself, he seemed perfect. Whirl of blondish hair, thin arms, preoccupied look. Lifting a vial to his nose, he took a whiff of popper. Chris feels futile. What can anythinglead to? He doesn't want to be close to anybody. He's known too many people in his life, and too disastrously, to want to know any more.
A break in the pattern of dancing, a rent in the solid wall of the crowd. Anatole grabs Lydia's arm. "Oh my God," he says. "Look."
Lydia sees instantly who he's noticed. She's a little amazed to find she hasn't really stopped thinking about him all week, hasn't stopped hoping she'd see him again. You never see boys like that again.
Suddenly she's intensely aware of needing--of all things--to pee. Great, she thinks. "This beer goes right through me," she tells Anatole. "Don't do anything rash till I get back." In the bathroom the graffiti reads U.S. Out of North America. When she comes back, Anatole's talking to the boy. They lean against the bar, they've known each other for ages. Anatole's talking animatedly, gesticulating. The boy laughs, takes a step back, tumbler in hand. Something Lydia always marvels at in Anatole: he looks a little goofy, a little gawky--but he has this talent, he knows how to meet anybody. There's a certain remarkable inadvertence to it. He just takes chances, and they work. She's listened to him talk to strangers. The sentences seem random, observations flung in panic and tempered by a wit that's always a little off. He laughs a lot, nervously, almost a giggle--at himself, it seems to say, at the ridiculous shyness of human beings. Perhaps that's what puts people at ease with him. They feel a sort of comfortable superiority to him, but also have to admire him for the way he surrenders himself, undergoes whatever humiliations are involved in making a new acquaintance.
It looks as if he's put this boy under his spell. He's bought him a drink. The boy drinks unsteadily--he's already pretty drunk, Lydia can tell. And there's something about him--he's been letting strangers talk to him all night, buy him drinks. He's used to that, comfortable with it. Deftly he maneuvers in and out of tricky situations without getting caught. At least, that's what she feels, watching him talk to Anatole. She takes a deep breath--there's always this moment that just kills her but that she loves, right before she meets somebody she really wants to meet. The last moment I'll not know him, she thinks--and cherishes it: the memory of the boy sitting on the Main Street mall eating a frozen chocolate bar. After this it's all going to change.
"Anatole," she says, going up to him, putting her hand familiarly on his arm. The tone of voice says they haven't seen each other in days.
"Oh Lydia," he says. "Meet Leigh."
"Hi," Leigh tells her. His smile is shy, skittish--at the same time blatant and flirtatious.
Antole's annoyed. She's moved in so quickly. He's still not sure, after these few sentences, what he thinks of Leigh. "You're a good dancer," he's told him. His first words, going up to him, touching him boldly on the shoulder (thrilling: his shoulder fragile, delicate, as if his bones are hollow--a bird's bones, the kind of bones angels have); Leigh turning, his look asking, Am I supposed to remember you from somewhere? "I was watching you. I admire good dancing."
"That? I was stumbling around, basically."
"I like the way you stumble around. Can I buy you a drink?"
Leigh might be eighteen, he might be seventeen. He might be twenty. Anatole can't tell. It makes his spine prickle, there's something so pure, so corrupt in the way Leigh handles his glass easily, swirls the Johnnie Walker Red, gulps it down. "Ahh," he exaggerates--it's wonderful. Anatole tries to take in every detail of Leigh's face. Youth's a miracle to him, a boy's face more perfect than, well, than anything else he can think of. He wants quickly to memorize it in case it disappears. The part of him that despairs is already sated: all it wants is to get home quickly and masturbate about Leigh before he forgets what he looks like.
This is the best, he thinks. Right now. Whatever happens from now on will only darken this.
Leigh's vague with the two of them. "Yeah, I'm from around here. Poughkeepsie, you know." It's as if he's not sure, or he's making it up. He could be intensely dumb, or have a refined, extraordinary intelligence.
"It's hard to talk here," Anatole says. "The music's always so loud." Bronski Beat's "Small Town Boy" is playing for the third time of the evening.
"I like it. Cool bar. I like the people. You come from Poughkeepsie too?"
"Honey, some people think we are Poughkeepsie," Anatole says.
"What do you do?"
"Moi? Hairstylist, Reflexion--"
"Don't know it."
"It's on the Main Street mall."
"I never go on Main Street," Leigh says. "I haven't been there in months."
Oh, Anatole thinks. Fine. That's the way we'll be, then.
"You should come sometime. Come by and I'll give you a haircut. Free."
"I just got my hair cut."
"I like it. Really I do. I never compliment unless I mean it. You can trust me on that. Where'd you get it?"
"This girl gave it to me. A friend. I don't remember her name."
"It's not professional?"
He can tell it's not professional, though it's not bad either.
"No, she just did it one afternoon."
"Well, it's nice-looking."
Leigh shrugs. He turns to Lydia. "And so who are you?" he asks--utterly, Lydia thinks, without curiosity.
"Just a friend of the deceased here," she says.
Leigh's got no reaction to that. "It's hot in here," he notices. He rubs a hand under the collar of his white T-shirt, examines the beads of sweat.
"See?" He shows them. His fingers glisten with droplets. His T-shirt clings to him.
"You are sweating a lot," Anatole confirms.
"I was dancing up a storm out there," Leigh reminds him. "Anyway, I hate hot weather. I can't wait for winter."
Lydia watches. The way he moves, there's a confidence, an electricity. Something invites you to reach out and touch him, stroke his wrist, put your arm around him. The sort of boy you want to whisper a secret to, your lips against his downy ear. There's also something crazy and disconnected about him.
"We could go somewhere else," Anatole says. "I've got liquor at my place. And a regular medicine cabinet. If that interests you."
"Okay." Leigh looks around--he doesn't want to miss anything.
Chris is leaning against the bar. He's not been watching Anatole or Lydia or the boy. He's not been watching anything. He's just been letting the room affect him as it will. All these people are parts of a machine. The mechanism that controls them is the music.
"Come play with us." Anatole is jubilant. "This is Leigh." They march past, Anatole and Lydia, with Leigh between them.
Chris looks at Leigh. Something inside him says, quietly, a kind of fateful certainty, Oh.
Outside, it's rained. The night is thick, it rises from the pavement like fog. There are no stars, only the sulfur glow of the city's streetlights.
In Anatole's apartment they fling themselves down on sofas, in chairs, on the floor. They've all drunk too much. Still, Anatole brings out an armload of different liquor bottles, gin, vodka, scotch, bourbon, deposits them on the coffee table.
"Such an impressive array," Lydia approves. She reaches for the gin, pours herself a glass. "Ice cubes, dear?" she wonders.
Meanwhile Leigh is slapping Echo and the Bunnymen on the turntable. He turns the stereo up loud--"Oh wow," he approves.
The neighbors, Lydia mouths, pantomiming a twist of the volume knob downward as the music begins to boom.
"Fuck the neighbors"--Anatole appearing in the doorway, bearing ice, dropping it into glasses. Usually he's careful, even paranoid about his neighbors; but tonight he feels like celebrating. This is a moment of fate, return of the prodigal son; what was lost is found.
"So this is how people in Poughkeepsie live." Leigh is cool, taking stock of the apartment. "I always wondered." He walks around comfortably, picking up various objects to examine--an old perfume bottle, a chinoiserie plate, a porcelain vase. He's a thief, a connoisseur, a curious kid. He's completely at home with himself, moving like a dancer who knows his body. That's what impresses Anatole; he can't keep his eyes off him. He can't believe this boy's actually inside his apartment.
But now that they have him: what to do? Anatole still knows nothing about him. Is he straight, is he bi? Could he be gay? Anatole wants Chris and Lydia to leave so he can find out; he's also terrified that they might actually do that at some point. The evening will have to end, after all--somehow. When the time comes, will he lose his nerve?
Lydia wonders if Leigh regrets having left Bertie's, where something might actually have happened. But he seems content to be exactly where he is. Of all of them, he's the most at home.
Chris sits and smokes in silence. Sips at a scotch, leafs through the new House and Garden he's picked up from the coffee table. He tries to focus on the magazine's featured excerpt, Billy Baldwin's autobiography. "Edith, without knowing what she had been doing on her European buying trip, had picked out the most ravishing suite of Louis XVI furniture that I have ever seen in my life." He tries to ignore Leigh, but it's difficult. His presence fills the room like the strong scent of exotic flowers. Chris is amazed at this boy's drunken composure, his quick smiles, the way he flicks his head back now and again to get that lock of hair out of his eyes. He watches as Lydia and Anatole circle Leigh like sleek beasts of prey.
The music is very loud. Leigh especially seems lost in it. Anatole and Lydia talk to him as if they're competing for his attention, even though it's Echo and the Bunnymen who have his whole attention at the moment. He could be anywhere--he's exactly as he was at Bertie's when Chris saw him sniffing popper.
Suddenly something Anatole says seems to draw him back. He looks around, as if already he can't remember how he got here, who these people are. "What's your names again?" he asks them. "I read a book once that had an Anatole in it. It was a book for kids. I don't remember the name of it. It had pictures." He's busy balancing his wineglass on his knee, screwing up one eye to get a fix on it. "Fuck," he says as it almost spills. "I bet the carpet's expensive. I bet you'd of killed me."
"Hardly. It's more old than expensive. Pakistani," Anatole explains. It makes him feel old as well. He has no idea what to talk to this boy about. They belong to different worlds, no matter how manycurrent albums Anatole may own. He has no idea what this boy might really want to talk about. If he even wants to talk. Is talking an adult thing? He's in a panic, he hates himself for having grown up and out of whatever this boy still knows about. And it'll get worse and worse, he'll be a fat old queer who jerks off behind the window curtains while watching the boy next door mow the lawn.
A higher wave of drunkenness seems to surge through the room, sweep them farther out to sea. They all feel it; suddenly they're all much drunker. All at once--it happens so quickly no one's sure what provokes it--Anatole's brought out a set of crayons. He and Lydia sit on the sofa, with Leigh between them, and they draw on his T-shirt. Perhaps he's asked them to autograph it.
"Tabula rasa," Lydia says.
"Tabula what? Don't talk dirty," Anatole admonishes.
Leigh simply sits between them, smiling, his eyes closed--clearly he's very, very drunk; he'll have to stay here tonight; he won't be able to make it home, wherever that is. YOU DRINK YOU DRIVE YOU DIE, Anatole writes in black, big block letters above Leigh's heart. Shoot Raygun, Lydia writes on his right sleeve. Beneath their touch Leigh is delicate as a deer, ready to bound away at any instant, held trembling in place only by his own curiosity to see what will happen next. They handle him gently, hands clambering to caress him into being. U.S. Out of North America, Lydia writes. It makes Chris laugh abruptly.
"That's really funny," he tells her. "Did you make that up?"
"It came to me."
Leigh's laugh is kidlike, shy, also calculating. Chris doesn't take part; he watches how this boy lets these avid strangers, these adults touch him. He's luxurious beneath their touch like a cat who's being rubbed down. It alarms Chris. He remembers--it surfaces without warning, something he hasn't thought of in years--he was five or six, visiting relatives, playing with a cousin of his, a little boy of two or three, in a school bus that was parked in a vacant lot next to his relatives' house. Chris had climbed up into the bus; now his little cousin wanted to climb up in it too. Chris sat in the driver's seat; with both hands he grasped the lever that opened and closed the bus'sfolding doors. The little boy--he was wearing just a diaper--tried to hoist himself up. The step was high, barely within his reach. Just when he was halfway into the bus, balanced on his stomach on the bottom step, his legs dangling, Chris pushed the lever and closed the door. It caught the little boy right at the waist. Trapped, he squirmed, he shrieked in surprise or pain. Chris pushed the lever tighter. He pushed and pushed. Then he opened it a little only to close it again, even harder. He wanted to push so hard that the doors would cut the little boy in half.
Pushing the lever made his penis get hard in his pants. He swooned with a strange excitement he'd never felt before. He felt an overwhelming tenderness and love, trying to squeeze the doors shut so tightly they'd slice that little boy in half. But he wasn't strong enough. He couldn't cut his cousin in half. He released the doors. The little boy wasn't hurt. He stopped crying in an instant, and clambered on into the bus. He wandered up the aisle, touching each of the seats, singing. Chris felt--he feels--abandoned, forlorn. He wanted--something. He didn't know what he wanted, and he still doesn't know.
But watching Anatole and Lydia draw on Leigh's T-shirt, this is what he thinks about. He realizes, with some surprise, he's as drunk as they are. His mind drifts, unmoored. With an effort he focuses on the room, the three of them seated on the sofa.
"What're you doing over there?" he asks Anatole, who's busy at work with the crayons. Holding three or four in reserve in his fist, Anatole concentrates on a spot along Leigh's left rib cage, just under his heart.
"Just a sec." Anatole slurs his words.
"His masterpiece," Lydia says.
Leigh has tilted his head back on the sofa. Eyes closed, legs stretched straight out. His long, almond-tanned throat is exposed, as if he's offered himself for sacrifice.
"Voilà." Anatole flings the crayons up into the air, lets them fall. They're all too drunk to care about anything except beauty. Chris manages to get out of his chair. He stands over Leigh--who looks dead, or asleep. On Leigh's T-shirt, under his heart, Anatole's drawna perfect cartoon portrait of Leigh, colored it in, bright yellow hair, red lips, flesh-colored flesh.
"That's very good, Anatole." It is good, even uncanny how Anatole's caught him, his cartoon good looks. There are a million boys out there like this boy. Somehow it all just happens to coalesce here.
"I don't know about everybody else," Lydia says, "but I have to go home. I can't believe I'm supposed to be at work in"--checking her watch--"Yikes, do you realize I have to get up in four hours? I'll still be drunk."
"At least you won't be hung over."
"I don't want to still be alive come noon."
"That's when it'll hit," Anatole agrees grimly. "Take lots of vitamins. Do you want me to get you some vitamins?"
"I have some at my place." She laughs as the dark empty policed streets unspool themselves inside her. She realizes how truly drunk she is. Drunk deep inside, in her soul. It's because this evening's made her panic. Now she can't even think about it. All she wants to do is get home. Let Anatole do what he will with this Leigh: she's not going to be an accomplice to statutory sodomy. In the morning, she thinks, she isn't going to like all this very much. It's going to taste a little bitter.
"Can you drive?" Anatole asks, anxious for her to say yes.
"We'll drive slow. I'll steer, Chris can push the gas pedal."
Leigh's unconscious. His mouth has fallen slightly open. He's vulnerable to roving lions, hyenas, vultures.
Anatole's thrilled, terrified, thrilled. Anything might happen. He wants to thank all sorts of gods he'll invent just for the purpose of thanking. There's something chaste and pure, very holy in his terror. Up in the heavens the gods are laughing with great roiling laughs, the stars are spinning in a darkness that has no ceiling.
"Call me first thing," Lydia tells him. She and Chris look disheveled in the wearying light of the hallway.
Anatole. He has what he wants. It's not his. He wanders around the apartment stealthily, he's a thief who's prowling. His whole life balances on this single moment. He'll find out, he thinks. He'll know whether all these years of waiting will come true.
In an armchair he sits across from Leigh and watches him sleep. The boy's untouchable. If Anatole touches him he will disappear. And Anatole doesn't want to touch him. He wants the moment to last forever--like a reflection in water, the least movement will fracture it. The room goes in and out of focus; unless he concentrates, his image of Leigh blurs to double. He becomes aware of the stereo needle clicking in the final, endless groove of the record, where it was allowed to lapse.
He shakes himself, takes a deep breath, then goes over to the sofa and sits down beside Leigh. Gently he touches him on the shoulder, massages his shoulder.
"Leigh," he says quietly. "It's time to go to bed."
"What?" Leigh is groggy, a little child after a nap. He looks around wide-eyed, rubbing his eyes with his fists. "Oh," he says. "Uh. Where is this?"
"It's okay, it's my apartment. Chris and Lydia had to leave."
"I should leave too."
"No. It's late. You should stay here."
Leigh settles his head on the back of the sofa and starts to pass out again.
"Come on, I'll help you to bed."
He helps Leigh up. The boy's docile, lets himself be led by the hand down the hallway to the bedroom, the big double bed that used to belong to Anatole's grandmother. "We'll crash here," he says, as if it's an ordinary thing. He tries to be as unalarming as he can.
Leigh kicks off his loafers, slips his T-shirt over his head. His chest is smooth, nipples brown as pennies. A feathering of light hair under his arms. He unzips his jeans and slides them down, almost falling in his attempt to free himself of their embrace. His eyes are closed, he is dreaming this, dreaming these actions, this being. Anatole stands breathless, afraid to move. Then quickly, Leigh is beneath the sheets, his body surrendered, his mind sunk too deep for harm.
Anatole collapses into a chair and puts his head in his hands. Suddenly he wants to cry, the world is so huge and empty. He thinks of his childhood--how once he was a little boy who had a mother and a father. He feels completely alone, the way people who are aboutto die must feel alone. There's nothing to tell him what to do next. There's nothing except this stillness here in the middle of this night that may never reach the other side of its journey through the desert, the mountains, wherever it is the dark night journeys.
It always surprises her, how from one hangover to the next she can really manage to forget. It's not possible this can be survived, is it? Meanwhile she says, "No, I think that looks right. It's supposed to be kind of blousy."
The woman looks at herself skeptically in the mirror. The corners of her mouth turn down in a moue. "I guess," she says. Her hair is dark red, her skin dried and pulled tight over her cheekbones. Too many beaches and sailboats. "Ever get in that mood where nothing looks right anymore, where you just can't tell?"
"But you should believe me," Lydia says. "It looks really nice. You'll see when you get it home. It'll be your favorite thing to wear this winter." She moves from one word to the next the way a rock climber moves, cautiously, looking for handholds to pull her through--while below, the abyss of her hangover gapes blackly. Her body alternates surges of hot and cold, mostly hot, a prickling in her skin, a welling in her stomach. For a moment she feels sure she's going to vomit, but then that's replaced by the throbbing behind her eyes. She can't believe she does this to herself.
"You don't look so good," Janet confides to her after she's rung up the sale, and ushered the woman out with a difficultly achieved "Have a nice day."
"Things got a little out of hand. I was out late." She and Janet are allies, they cover for each other's hangovers.
At noon Lydia rings Reflexion, but Anatole's not there. "He canceled all his appointments," Daniel reports.
When she reaches him at home--he picks up the phone on the first ring, as if he's waiting for a call--his voice is hushed, panicked. "I'm so glad to hear your voice," he tells her. "I was going to call you at the store."
"You're still alive?"
"I haven't decided. Actually, you know, I don't have a hangover. That's one of the four hundred and twelve signs, isn't it?"
"You always have a hangover, Anatole."
"True. Well, that's the nice thing about being an alcoholic. No matter what you do to yourself, you can't really make it much worse. Actually, I do feel a little the worse for wear."
"Um." Lydia doesn't quite know what to say next. "Dare I ask? How's Our Boy of the Mall?"
There's a pause. Suddenly she's afraid. She doesn't know what Anatole is going to say. It hasn't occurred to her that she might be jealous of Anatole.
"Oh--Leigh." Anatole tries to sound nonchalant. "That is what the child said his name was, isn't it?"
"You don't remember?"
"There are certain things I don't remember, no. Anyway, Leigh's out cold. He snores, but it's adorable. I don't think I want him to wake up. He really looks like Prince Charming."
"So wake him with a kiss. That's the way it's done."
"Lydia," Anatole asks, his voice childlike and grave, "what happened last night? I mean, exactly?"
"Don't ask me. I can't even remember driving home. That's the scary thing. I remember leaving your place, but I don't remember anything else. I hope I dropped Chris off at his apartment. We didn't do anything too terrible at your house, I don't think. Why?"
"Lydia, I feel awful this morning. I feel really scared. I don't know what's going to happen when this kid wakes up in my bed. I mean, we didn't do anything. We just went to sleep. We both just kind of fell unconscious. I couldn't go in to work today. But I'll let you know what happens. I'll give you an update if I'm still alive. Are you seeing Chris at Bertie's later?"
"I might be there. Who knows?"
"That's right," she says. "Who knows what might happen?"
He puts down the phone gently. All morning he's felt the incredible fragility of physical objects. It's part of the dream he's movingin, both awful and strange--like being suddenly holy, touched by God's fire and so removed just a little from the mundane comforting things.
Waking up sometime in the stingy light of dawn, raising himself on his elbow to gaze at the boy: not touching him. The way a cat's nose, quivering, will sniff right up to a surface but never graze it. Memorizing the details of his face--rim of eyelashes, sweep of nostrils, parted lips, various inessential blemishes in the impeccable skin. When he'd drunk his fill from the inexhaustible well of the boy's appearance, he got up and went into the bathroom, where, sitting on the toilet, he closed his eyes and re-created the boy's features and masturbated. Afterward, he felt completely empty, ashamed, scared. Making his way back to the bed he slid in beside Leigh carefully, sleeping for a couple more hours till daylight made it impossible to lie there anymore.
Then roaming the house--it's not his anymore, there's this other presence there, everything is contingent on that other presence, which till it wakes is completely mysterious. What will his reaction be? It won't be the first time Anatole's picked up trade with unfortunate reactions the next morning. He's learned to deal with that. That doesn't account in any way for the incredible anxiety, the trembling and flutter of the heart he feels as he waits to face Our Boy of the Mall by the haggard light of day.
It's possible there's nothing back there in his bedroom, the boy's vanished into air the way angels do. It's one in the afternoon, surely if he was alive he'd be stirring by now. So Anatole makes his way down the hallway, through the half-closed door. The boy is there. He's breathing, little puffs of warm air from his open mouth, there's a film of light sweat on his neck. Curled on his side like a question mark, he's thrown off all the covers, he's wearing nothing but briefs and a morning erection whose presence his posture nearly, but not quite, conceals.
Anatole stands in the doorway gazing at him, drinking him in. It feels forbidden, a shameful liberty. But then, Anatole doesn't care whether he takes shameful liberties. He's twenty-five. He's always been convinced he won't live past fifty. His life's half over.
Leigh's eyelids flutter, he's aware he's being watched, as sleepersare always aware. Perhaps Anatole is in his dream, perhaps his presence in the doorway is shaping whatever happens in Leigh's other, realer world. "Ohh," he murmurs, then opens his eyes till they're slits to let in the unwelcome world. "What time is it?"
"It's not too late. How do you feel?"
"I'm dead," Leigh says simply. "I died in my sleep." He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands, they're bloodshot, dilated. He looks at Anatole and grins broadly. "I've forgotten your name," he says. "I'm not even going to ask how I got here."
"Anatole. Make yourself at home. Want some tea?"
"That'd be great. I'm starved."
"I'll make breakfast, then. You go shower, whatever."
Making breakfast: with infinite care, Anatole fries bacon, cracks eggs into the skillet, eases them onto plates, their yolks perfect, unbroken. It's as if they made love, he thinks, as if they're lovers. Does it make any difference that they're not, that nothing happened? He's relieved, somehow. If they had, wouldn't this moment, right now, be by all odds terrible, frightening, not to be endured? Close call. Perhaps it's better--to share breakfast with Our Boy of the Mall instead of having made love to him. What would making love to him have gained? A momentary illusion of connection followed by recriminations that would have destroyed whatever truth the illusion might have sustained.
"I like feeling at home when it's a home I don't even know how I got to." Leigh stands in the door, a towel draped around his waist. The water's darkened his hair, spiked it. He points to breakfast. "That looks yum."
"Let me put on some clothes first." And with that he disappears--but then is back, almost instantly, in jeans but holding his T-shirt up like an artifact.
"Strange," he comments. "I thought I dreamed this."
"We got a little carried away," Anatole admits.
Leigh looks at the scrawled phrases as if unsure whether he likes what he sees. His sketched face on the white cotton seems to bother him. He screws up his own face in distaste, but then shrugs as if toaccept the desecrated T-shirt as part of whatever it is that goes on.
At the table he eats parsimoniously, picking at the egg yolk with the tip of his fork, pushing his toast around, breaking it into smaller bits without really swallowing anything. Like a little child he sits with one leg drawn under him. The way he handles his fork, it's almost as if it's too big for him.
Anatole tries desperately to think of things to say to him. It seems wrong to be blunt, to ask, Who are you? Where did you come from? All he can do is accept whatever appears to be true at the moment--that you are whoever we want you to be, that you came from nowhere, that you only just arrived. Anyway, Leigh looks as if he's in a bad mood. He'd have to be, wouldn't he? Waking up in a stranger's apartment, not knowing what he might have done last night?
But Anatole doesn't know these things. He knows nothing for sure. Let's be ironic, let's be cool, his instincts tell him.
"Do you do this often?" he asks.
"Do you?" Leigh looks at him with what might pass for sardonic amusement. The air is drying his water-darkened hair--imperceptibly, moment by moment that Anatole can't stop, can't even see, it resumes its former, lighter color. "I thought people stopped doing this after a while. I mean, I thought it was something kids do. You know, like drink too much, stay up all night."
"Hey--nobody grows up in Poughkeepsie. You keep thinking something might happen."
"It never does, does it?"
"No," Anatole says, "it never does. But you keep hoping."
They look at each other, quite seriously, across the table. It's extraordinary. Leigh holds a triangle of toast halfway to his mouth. We've arrested each other in something, Anatole thinks with a thrill. We understand each other. Then Leigh takes a bite from the toast, looks away, the moment's gone.
"So what about you? Do you go to school? I don't know a single thing about you, Leigh." He wants to say, I've slept all night in the same bed with you and I don't know a single thing about you, but he isn't sure that would be wise.
Leigh shakes his head; his hair tumbles down over his forehead--Anatole wants to brush it back with his fingertips. "Don't believe anything I say about me," Leigh says. All at once the serious moment's back between them. "Don't believe anything anybody says about me. Okay?"
"Sure." Anything Leigh wants. "What can I believe, then?"
"Only what you see. Not what you hear about me. Only what you see me do. Promise that. Then we can be friends."
"I'd like to be your friend. I'll promise anything."
"I don't want to sit here and talk to you about me, because you won't find out anything that's true that way."
Perhaps Our Boy of the Mall's smart as well as beautiful. Perhaps, Anatole thinks, he's beyond intelligence. What will Lydia have to say about all this? Will she believe anything he tells her? He almost resolves to lie about everything. Otherwise, he's not sure what he'll say.
The ritual of breakfast has accomplished its task--it's kept things at bay a little longer.
"So what now?" Anatole asks. "Want a beer? It's the only thing for a hangover."
The idea seems to take Leigh. He hops to the fridge. "I like beer in the afternoon," he says. "Now all we need's some music."
He's completely at home, completely in control. Anatole can only marvel.
In the living room, where Echo and the Bunnymen have been spinning all night, the needle clicking in the endless final groove, Leigh relieves the record of its futility, lifts the needle back to the beginning, back into the life of music. Anatole walks around clicking off the lamps, whose bulb light is wan in the hazy afternoon sunlight. The beer helps to buoy him; it blurs the edges of his hangover. Leigh has settled luxuriously into an armchair. He cradles his beer, smiles up at Anatole with enigmatic friendliness.
All day Chris has been the shell of himself, sluggish as business on this Thursday the nineteenth of September. Waking early in the humid dawn that promises a difficult day, he lay between the sheets a few minutes and took the kind of stock of himself he often takes after anight of heavy drinking. A little hollowness, a lightness of the soul, a vacancy somewhere vital--otherwise he seemed to be okay.
He was wrong, of course. There're two kinds of hangovers, he's learned, slammers and creepers. Today's is a creeper, the kind that's much worse by midafternoon than at midmorning. By five in the afternoon, he will need another drink or, he thinks, he's going to pass out.
But for a moment early in the morning everything was okay. He couldn't remember the night before, he couldn't remember Leigh. Then it came back, and with a sickening feeling that it had all been wrong, ugly. Our Boy of the Mall--so that was him, that was what the fuss was all about.
Funny. He can hardly remember what the boy looked like--he has only an impression of fragility, of fine-tuned, profligate grace, like a Donatello bronze studied in some forgotten art course, perhaps: it's more a sort of motion he remembers, a few chance gestures--a hand used fluently, a shrug, nothing more. But his voice--he hears his voice. Anything Leigh said, he can't remember--he didn't strike Chris as particularly talkative or even particularly articulate; mostly a compendium of "you know"s and "I mean"s. But the tone of the voice has lodged in him--it's airy, flippant, ironic, transparent--you can see right through it to a sort of nothingness. The equivalent of a shrug, it throws everything away.
Last night Anatole drew a picture on the boy's T-shirt. What it meant was that they were all three sitting there sketching pictures of him in their heads. And he'd be able to become each of those, wouldn't he? There's no body there at all, only the potential for--for what? Chris hears Leigh's voice as it changes coloration, accent, provenance--effortlessly, all in a hopeless effort to conceal its killing insubstantiality.
He's spent the day shifting the heavy-metal albums from a shelf on the wall to a bin at the rear of the store. This fall rap and hardcore are in, heavy metal and reggae are out. Meaningless distinctions. As a way of staying afloat, of not yielding to the waves of hangover that threaten to drown him, he concentrates on each album--Ratt, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, groups he has complete contempt for: they remindhim of the dreariest moments of high school, afternoons when he'd wander over to Ned Thompson's house and smoke dope in a basement that had been converted to a game room--dark worm-eaten plywood paneling, black-light posters of Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper. Of all the various selves he's been, this is one he particularly dislikes--that lost kid who might have been lost like that forever; who, in fact--there's no guarantee--might after all have been lost. Flipping through the album covers, he hates the way heavy metal, like Anatole, is essentially religious, its satanism only a frustrated embrace of the Christianity it so desperately wants to outrage.
Is he jealous that Anatole's slept with that boy? Is that what's disturbing him? He doesn't want it to, he doesn't think it does--but then he knows he can't be sure. The time before he lived in Poughkeepsie, when he lived in Ithaca in that house with John and John's sister Michelle: looking back on it, as he can seldom bring himself to do, he detects only a litany of lies stressed over and over as the truth. Even now it sickens him, the betrayals he perpetrated that opened the door to events, accidents--whatever they were. Chris can't, even three years later, bring himself to think about them.
It was an evening in July, John was back from Pittsburgh after a month spent away, in exile, trying to allow Chris and Michelle some space in that big empty house that was finally neither big enough nor empty enough to accommodate a brother and sister both in love with Chris, who in turn was in love with both of them. And with John's return, the unspoken strain, the reproach that had led John to flee in the first place: it wasn't John's fault--it was simply his presence. How to explain that, how to come to terms with it? But they both felt it, they both knew what the problem was. If Chris was going to be sleeping with Michelle, there was no way John could continue to live in that house.
Sitting out on the front steps--John saying, "I've got to go. You know that, don't you? I've got to disappear from here."
And Chris--"You've got to disappear from here." He felt he'd never lived through any moment so hopeless, and he wanted to tell John he loved him--but he couldn't because he didn't love him anymore. He'd decided--that was how it had to be. He used to lovehim and now he loved Michelle. Nothing else that happened now could count between them.
John sat on the steps pensively rubbing his bare ankles.
"Sometimes, Chris," he said, "you make me feel like I'm a piece of shit. You know that too, don't you?"
"I know that too," Chris said. "I guess I'm trying to make you feel that way." He'd never been so deliberately cruel in his life, and it hurt more than it thrilled. "It's impossible," he went on. "You know it's impossible, don't you?"
"Nothing's impossible," John told him. "I only know what I know."
"I can't love you." Chris was suddenly adamant: it was the one thing he knew for certain. "Whatever you may think," he said. "I thought I loved you, but I didn't. I was coerced."
Somewhere in the big house behind them Michelle would have been reading a book or watching TV, oblivious to everything she was winning and at the same time losing at that very moment on the front steps.
John didn't say anything. He stood up, the dark-haired graceful impossible boy Chris had fallen for as he'd fallen for no one else in his life. He couldn't look at him without that familiar pang he hated himself for.
"Bye," John said lightly, almost a whisper it was so insubstantial.
"What exactly is that supposed to mean?" Chris asked.
"I said 'bye'. That's what you want. That's what I said."
Chris winces to remember. Remember, he warns himself--you have to remember. Whatever you think you feel, you may not actually feel it. You may just think you feel it because it will help move you in the opposite direction from what you really feel but are mortally afraid to encounter.
Hangovers do this to Chris, so that he's relieved when five o'clock releases him to the safe harbor of Bertie's and a scotch. He's even a little drunk by the time Lydia gets there at a quarter to six. She settles into the booth, looking harassed, rummaging through her purse for a cigarette he holds his lighter out to ignite.
"So the wounded troops reassemble," he observes, lighting a cigarette for himself as well. She looks at his empty tumbler.
"You're on the road back, I see."
"Medicinal purposes." He toasts her with the empty glass.
"Well," she tells him when they've both been served, "I'm sure you're just dying to find out the latest on the Anatole front."
An old joke he remembers from some history class in one of those universities he flunked out of--World War I, the situation on the Prussian front is serious but not hopeless, on the Austrian front hopeless but not serious. Anatole as an Austrian front: he smiles bleakly and says, "I shudder to imagine. Please try to remember: I'm not as interested in Our Boy of the Mall as you and Anatole are."
"Of course you aren't. But sometimes you pretend curiosity so well, darling."
"Tell me everything," he says wearily, "since you will anyway." He's posing with his cigarette again. It annoys him about himself--he's sure Lydia must see right through it, to what it betrays. But he's so fraught today he doesn't know what else to do. What he really wants is to go home and collapse on his futon, stare at the blank ceiling, pretend not to exist for a while. Only there is this awful thing gnawing at him, the idea of Leigh is a splinter that's gotten stuck inside him and hasn't quite let him go all day long. He wants to hear everything, everything.
"Actually I have very little to report. He called in sick today. When I talked to him, Our Boy of the Mall was still passed out dead. I gather nothing particularly exciting happened. I think they both just blacked out last night."
"Our Boy, as you call him, was well on his way there when we left, if I remember."
"Chris, dear, he was the only one?"
Their banter, such as it is, somehow makes it easier for them. Lydia likes it that for once she and Chris are on equal footing. It brings back that short-lived time--a heartbreaking memory for her--when they were closer, she and Chris: before Chris, so to speak, turned his back on her.
"I thought he might be here," she says. "He said he might show up."
"Bearing trophies, no doubt."
"If I didn't know you were impervious to everything, Chris, I might think you were jealous."
"Jailbait boys just don't interest me. You know that."
My, she thinks, we've arrived at this quickly--we're awfully volatile this evening: Our Boy's had this effect, at least. She takes up the challenge. Her voice is flat and matter-of-fact--a stance she's rehearsed before, in private, usually with much ice-cold gin.
"I don't know anything about you, Chris. You won't let me. I don't have to remind you."
"Okay." He manages a smile, though it seems clear to Lydia that something pains him more than usual. "Then I'll just tell you. For the record: I'm very skeptical about this whole thing. I think Anatole's going to get hurt bad. I think it's going to be embarrassing."
"Come on, Lydia. You saw that kid. He's not going to be a savior to anybody, least of all to Anatole. And that's what he wants. Somebody to save him from himself. Well, nobody saves anybody from anything. Anatole can be such a silly faggot sometimes."
"I'll tell him you mentioned it."
"He already knows it. Lydia, we're grown-ups, this Leigh's a child. What are we supposed to be doing messing around with him? What can we possibly do except damage him?"
"I refuse, Chris, I absolutely refuse to be as dire as you are. Since when are you so fastidious? Everything doesn't have to end up in disaster, even if it is glamorous to think so."
"Oh, I'm being glamorous?"
"Of course you are. You're always glamorous."
It makes him laugh. He lights another cigarette, even though the one lying in the ashtray before him is only half smoked. "Yes, of course I am," he tells her bitterly. "I'm merely glamorous. I don't have any moral fiber."
"Lydia. I thought you'd call."
Just the tone of his voice tells her something's different, something's changed. He's moved through something that's left its mark on him. He won't be the same.
"You'll be happy to know I'm completely recovered, Anatole. Chris and I had a therapeutic session. Really, gin and tonics are the only cure. I thought you'd want to know that."
"You're such a fount of obscure knowledge."
"According to Chris, scotch works equally well."
"Is he there?"
"We just had dinner. We thought about you. We gossiped mercilessly."
"I'm sure it was all the truth."
"Give me a hint. Let me know."
He laughs--a dry, abrupt laugh. The thing is, Anatole realizes, he has no hints to offer. The afternoon's unfurled itself so complicatedly, he doesn't want to talk about it with Lydia. He doesn't know where to start--even worse, he doesn't know where it will end or even what it looks like at the moment. For the first time in their friendship, he finds himself wanting a privacy from her. For the first time he resents her familiarity with his life.
"Or maybe you can't talk now," she surmises. "I understand how it is."
"Leigh's not here," he tells her.
"You've been sitting there by yourself and you haven't called? Do you want me to come over? Is everything okay?"
"I don't know how to say it. Everything's wonderful, Lydia. Really, it's wonderful."
"Is it true love?"
"I think so," he lies.
She's silent for a moment. "You know, Anatole?"
"You should probably jump on the next train for Chicago. Savor what happened if it was beautiful. It won't be this good ever again."
Her words, meant as gently as possible, sting. They reinforce the extent of his lies.
"He's coming back," he tells her, relieved he can at least offer this as proof of the "wonderful." "He's just gone out to bring over some things."
"Things?" Lydia sounds suitably impressed.
"Well, like some clothes. Lydia, you won't believe this."
"He's moving in. We're going to try living together for a while."
"That's quick. So it really was a big success?"
Anatole feels he needs to back down just a little. "He's just going to stay here a few days," he amends. "He doesn't like where he's living. It's some house with these girls that are getting on his nerves."
What he doesn't say is that when he found out Leigh was having problems where he was living, he offered his apartment, offered it several times before Leigh picked up on it and said, reluctantly at first, "You mean I can really sleep on your sofa a few days till things work out?"
"That's great, Anatole. I'm happy for you." Lydia tries not to sound forced--though she shouldn't have to, she is happy for him. "Our Boy of the Mall. You've hooked a catch, face it. You'll be famous. Go on and gloat if you want to."
But Anatole doesn't feel like gloating. There's nothing to gloat about. He only feels a grave stillness in him, like a pool of dark water no stone can ripple. At the same time he feels on the verge of everything--it's like walking right toward the precipice, holding your breath, stepping over the edge and expecting to be in free-fall, only you're not--the precipice turns out to be one step farther along, always one step farther.
"You sound strange, Anatole. You don't sound like yourself. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm all right, Lydia. I'll talk to you later, okay? Too much has happened. I have to think."
When he hangs up the phone he's overcome by the feeling: already this is intolerable. Obviously Lydia thinks he's had sex with Leigh. Obviously he's allowed her to think that. Obviously he's alreadytrying to live two separate self-contradicting lives, which is clearly nothing more than a species of insanity. But he just can't bear to let her know that nothing's happened. It seems too much like a defeat, a humiliation--even though he knows it isn't. But he doesn't know how to say to Lydia--it should be simple but he just can't do it--we spent all afternoon drinking beer, Leigh and I, and he's just a friendly, relaxed, fearless kid. Lydia won't understand. She just won't get it. How to intimate to her that the question of sex never even came up? He realizes he can't tell her because it wouldn't make any sense. After everything has been led up to with such fanfare, to see it all turned aside into a different path entirely--how to account for that?
Every week or so--it balances in a domestic way his ritual biweekly dinners with Chris at the Milanese--Anatole spends the evening with Lydia at her mother's house. Mrs. Forman will cook manicotti, meat loaf, simple meals. Later they'll drink coffee and scotch, sit up late and talk. Her husband died fifteen years ago; with Lydia on her own and Craig in school, she lives alone in the neat little house she's lived in for thirty years. She grew up in Brooklyn, a second-generation American Jew. The first time Anatole met her--he suspected he was being brought home as a "date" to placate her--he couldn't think what to say, so he spent the whole evening asking her questions. What was it like to grow up in Brooklyn? What were her parents like? Did they speak English? Where did her family emigrate from? But she shrugged, and said a little brusquely, "Poland, Russia. Who can say?" Similarly to the question about the pork chops she served that night: "Leave my poor pork chops alone. Do I ask you to go eating fish on Fridays?"
"When I was little, my family did eat fish on Friday," Anatole admitted, "till the pope decided it was okay to eat meat."
"The pope decided that? The pope does the family menu?"
"It was sometime in the sixties. The pope was always deciding things."
"So everybody started eating meat on Fridays, which just the Friday before if they'd eaten it they'd have gone to hell? Did it feel different?"
"Well, that wouldn't exactly send you to hell. But yeah, that's sort of what happened. It's a complicated religion."
"Religions," Mrs. Forman sniffed. She had no time. It set her aside from her neighbors, endeared her to Anatole, who felt the same things, but in his heart of hearts was still afraid that if you really didn't believe it all, then what was left?
The only vestige of the faith of Mrs. Forman's fathers is that she buys Israel Bonds. She buys them in Lydia's name.
"Don't waste your money, Mom," Lydia tells her. "It won't help. Let rich people support Israel."
"Don't tell your mother what to spend her money on. I go to sleep at night and think, Every penny I send is a bullet. It makes me go to sleep content. How do you fall asleep, daughter?"
"You wouldn't want to know, Mom, really you wouldn't."
"Lydia never sleeps," Anatole says. "It's one of her beauty secrets. She read about it in How to Find a Husband, volume two."
"Oh you." Mrs. Forman taps his knee to reprove him. It's a habit of hers, a habit he likes.
In fact, he likes many of her habits, the way they become her. He likes that she hates--positively is terrified of--public places, crowds; that she's never set foot on the Main Street mall and doesn't intend to even though he invites her constantly--dares her, is more like it--to visit him in Reflexion, to see for herself what he calls the Salon de Scandale. Agoraphobia, she calls her disability. She reads books on how to overcome it--they're often lying around the house, on end tables, wedged between the sofa pillows, books with titles like You CAN Master Phobias and Diet to Overcome That Fear. Her doctor long ago prescribed Valium to help her Master Her Phobias and Overcome That Fear--she likes the Valium too much, however, to overcome the fear it's meant to overcome. As a consequence, there's always this residual vagueness about her, this retreat even when she's being sharp-witted.
He likes it that she's also a hairdresser: it's what she took up after her husband died as a way of supplementing the pension she got from Western Publishing Company, in whose purchasing department he'd worked for twenty-two years. She operates out of her basement, herclientele's limited to the other women of the neighborhood: the work she does and the work Anatole does belong to different worlds. Still, they're allies in a world that fails to understand the raptures and heartbreak of human hair. Each is always shocked by the things the other inflicts on his or her clients; the two love to trade stories, over coffee, of special dyes or perms--stories that make the other cringe. "You two," Lydia will say, as they giggle together: the way they're always trying to one-up the other with some shocking account.
What Anatole most likes about Mrs. Forman is what, given her advance press, initially surprised him the most--a liberality, a certain winning sympathy she shows with the unexpected, the unproved. He'd been coming around regularly for several months when Lydia reported a bit of mother-daughter dialogue:
MRS. F: Anatole's not interested in young ladies, is he?
L: He's interested in their hair.
MRS. F: That's what I thought. Well, that's fine. Life's hard for everybody.
It continues to mark an important moment for Anatole, given his relations with his own family--who, though they live in Poughkeepsie, refuse to have anything to do with him anymore. It's one of those wounds he's learned to live with. Every year for five years he's sent them a Christmas card, an appeal for the renewal of a son's ties, but every year it's greeted by silence. He's tried to understand their pain, their bafflement, but can't really, and as time goes by it only makes him angry to think about it. In recent years he's more or less given up any hope of being their son any longer. Only occasionally does he brood.
It all began trivially enough--he was at his family's house for dinner, he and his mother were lingering at the kitchen table over a last cup of coffee. He'd been out of high school two years--living on his own, working at Jonsef's, mastering the arcana of the trade, taking supplementary courses at Dutchess Community College. It wasn't that he announced he was gay--rather, he alluded to it, as if it were common property, accomplished fact: nothing to be startled by. Certainly he didn't expect any great reaction--he'd known about himself, it seemed, forever; he naturally assumed everyone else knew too. Soit just slipped out, as by the same token he saw no reason it shouldn't just slip into his mother's consciousness and that could be that. But his mother caught him up short. "What did you say?" she asked sharply, as if he'd tried to cheat her in making change. Perhaps he'd gotten too used to the impression that she never really listened to anything he told her.
"I said," he repeated deliberately, "there's this guy at work I have a crush on. He's cute, he's wonderful. Don't you think it's time for me to have a boyfriend? After all these years?"
"Don't talk like that, Anatole. You sound like a fairy or something."
"Well, of course I am a fairy or something. We all know that, Mom." He was still not taking the conversation all that seriously, until he saw his mother's look. It was as if a wall descended between her and him, in an instant they were no longer mother and son but deadly enemies.
"No, Anatole, no, no, no," she said to him, enunciating each word equally, injecting the full pure value of negation into each word. Her eyes narrowed into an expression of--hatred, there's no other way he can describe it to himself. The kind of hatred that could only have been building against him slowly, unconsciously over the years, and just now, with his words, was able to break into air and light and acknowledge itself for what it was. This was his mother: she'd carried him in her body, she bore him, she loved him.
At first he thinks it's a joke. "Mom," he says, grinning, reaching out to touch her wrist, to smooth over the gap--but she pulls away, knocks over her chair as she gets up, runs from the room.
Then it hits him--it's not a joke, it's real, it's happened and he can't take it back.
"What was that about?" His father looking into the kitchen from the den, where he's been watching television.
"Beats me. You'd better go talk to her."
He feels as if he's just signed his death warrant. He gets a beer out of the refrigerator and sits at the kitchen table to wait for the ax to fall. From the other side of the wall he can hear the dim, sillysounds of "Family Feud." The show's come to an end, the title theme's fiddle music that drives him crazy begins to play. He knows he should do something other than sit quietly, sipping beer--it almost seems callous--but he can't. He's paralyzed.
He remembers his father whipping him once when he was a child, with inexplicable fury, the leather belt hissing through the air to fall in loud stinging slaps across his bared bottom--all because he wouldn't eat mayonnaise on his bologna sandwich one Saturday at lunch. His father, who smelled of paint and turpentine, clothes splattered with the color of the thousand rooms he'd painted in his life, paint in his hair, under his fingernails, so that no matter how thoroughly he showered it was always there, a kind of residue of the big adult world that made Anatole fear his father as somehow tainted, unable to get entirely clean or pure.
His father takes a long time. When he does come back he walks stiffly, heavily, a man who's been shot and takes five or six last steps, a stricken look on his face, before pitching forward. He doesn't sit down, he stands in the doorway and says in a strange wooden voice, an almost unearthly voice, "Anatole, Anatole, how could you have said such things to your mother? Do you know how you've hurt her? Can you understand that?"
"Dad, this is crazy." It comes out as a disbelieving half laugh, shot through with jitters: how can the world be so absurd as this? He's amazed that he's even dared to forget that something like this might happen. He used to remember it all the time, used to be careful not to let it slip. Now, when it's too late, he remembers his dad watching the television news, a gay rights march in San Francisco--thousands, tens of thousands of men filling the avenue as far back as you could see, hundreds of thousands with banners and placards, and his father saying angrily--he always talked back to Walter Cronkite during the news--"Oh come on, Walter, why do you have to show us that garbage? They should all be shot. Every fucking one of them should be shot."
"Dad," Anatole pleads, "this is nineteen eighty."
"I don't care if it's twenty thousand and eighty. I'm not going tohave a son of mine parading around here telling his mother he's a fucking fairy. I'm not going to have my sons grow up with their older brother the faggot."
"Dad, this is ridiculous."
"Look," his father says. "Just go. I don't want to hear another word. Just go now." His father's voice is controlled to the point of breaking. His father is about to cry.
"Okay, okay"--Anatole suddenly trembling, suddenly scared as much for his father and his mother as for himself--their hidden lives he'll never discern, their fears. "I'm going," he says.
He stands in the doorway. "Remember, Dad," he says, "I love you and I love Mom. I'll call you in a few days. We'll talk, okay?"
"There's nothing to say, Anatole. Save yourself the dime. I hope you're proud of ruining this family for us."
"I'll call," Anatole says.
And he does, but they won't talk to him. He visits, but they won't see him. It's just like that, irrevocable as death. There's nothing he can do. "When I think about you as my little boy," his mother tells him the one time he gets through to her on the phone, "all the things I did for you, it just makes me sick. It was like everything was rotten all the time but I couldn't see it. It just makes me sick to my stomach, Anatole, to think that my own son would want to do this to me." His mother, who'd shielded him his whole life from his father's shadowing presence; who put her arms around him when he came home from school in the afternoons; with whom, after the dishes were cleared and his little brothers had disappeared into the other room to watch TV with his father, he'd sit at the supper table and chat, banter, as if they were best friends, mother and son, as if they understood each other's hearts.
He resigns himself. The years pass, five years now. Gradually they fade from him. He hears occasionally, from the acquaintances they still have in common, how they're doing--that his dad's retired; his mother still works religiously at the bazaars at Holy Trinity. Sometimes he imagines driving past the house, how he'll glimpse his little brother Colin, incredibly grown up since Anatole last saw him, out mowing the lawn; or his father standing in the driveway talking to a neighbor.But Anatole never does drive by--he feels as if he has no right, as if he never had any right.
It colors everything. Every time he goes to Mrs. Forman's, he thinks of it. Sometimes it seems to him that everything will end this same way, inexplicably, a suddenness born of malignant magic, a curtain that crashes down without his ever having had the chance or foresight to realize that it was coming. Somewhere inside himself he expects Mrs. Forman to cut him off without a word, unexpectedly, just as he expects one day to call Chris and find that Chris is no longer speaking to him for reasons he hasn't foreseen nor can fathom. He resigns himself to the truth that the world is capricious and treacherous beyond his ability to understand or control it in any way. When he's with Mrs. Forman and Lydia--or with Chris at their ritual, biweekly dinners at the Milanese--he often offers up a secret thanks, a prayer: We have this now; tomorrow we may not have it, even the next minute we may not have it, something unexpected and terrible may impose itself between us--but right now we have it and it's good, it's what counts.
Tonight Mrs. Forman has cooked meat loaf, mashed potatoes, a salad of greens and fresh onions. It's the kind of family food Anatole loves, the kind he grew up on. "So I don't have to be ashamed?" Lydia had asked him the first time he came home with her for dinner. His reassurance was absolute. "Don't worry, dear, I'm in heaven."
Afterward, after strawberry shortcake, they sit outside in lawn chairs. Bats swoop low, a water sprinkler's hissing over in the next yard. As the light fades, night seems to rise from the damp grass. And there's a breeze, a feeling the weather's going to change, the heat's going to break. Always there's that first moment when you know summer's over. Anatole forgets it every year, every year it touches him like a gentle reminder of time passing. He feels it tonight, an invisible wave that passes across the neighborhood, not breaking but just surging mildly forward.
They can't see one another, the dark has closed in on them entirely. It's peaceful to sit in darkness. For the moment Anatole feels safe, he feels protected.
"We're very thoughtful tonight," Mrs. Forman observes. "ButI'm glad you came by. The house feels so big and empty. There're too many rooms."
They all know it's Craig she misses, Lydia's brother, who in the summers is home from college, who just went back for his junior year two weeks ago--a handsome, athletic-looking boy who lounges about in flower-loud shorts and sneakers without socks, drifting in with a beer in hand, drifting out to go on a date in the orange VW bug he spends hours washing in the driveway with a hose and a bucket of endless suds. He and Anatole are on a friendly footing--though he intimidates Anatole, he's so well adjusted to the world through which he moves. Sometimes one of Craig's girlfriends will also be there for supper--he moves through them so quickly, they're all so alike, blond and giddy, that Anatole no longer bothers to learn their names; Craig must have had ten in the five years Anatole's been an honorary part of the Forman family.
Every year when Craig goes back to school, Mrs. Forman relives the death of her husband. One loss echoes the other, and for weeks she doubles her dosage of Valium, wanders the house in a delirious calm.
"You should be flattered tonight, Mom," Lydia says.
"That Anatole here's decided to grace you with his company. He's been very scarce recently."
"What--you've been hiding out, Anatole?"
Anatole can only smile--benevolently, enigmatically: too bad it's too dark for them to see. Things have been just a little off all evening--their friendship's shifted into a different key. Lydia's miffed with me, he realizes. It's barely visible, she conceals it almost perfectly, but he can guess its roots. It's a question of Leigh. For a week now this boy's been living in his apartment, for a week now Anatole's been existing at a subtle but tangible remove from Chris and Lydia, stopping in at Bertie's after work for a quick drink but then heading home to "cook dinner for Leigh," as he puts it. He knows they're making fun of him for it--they even do it to his face. But it's a domesticity he positively revels in--he pretends he's embarked on the love affair of his life, that the boy of his dreams is really living with him as a loverinstead of a lodger. He enjoys the corrupt thrill of suggesting to Chris and Lydia that this affair is fraught with unspeakable passions, nights spent in athletic lovemaking better left to the imagination. He's become, suddenly, elusive--a quality he's always been drawn to in others, but also driven crazy by: it's odd, it's even comic for him to find himself participating in it--as if he really has become a new person in the space of a few days, a person with qualities hitherto inaccessible to him.
He looks back with a kind of amazement--also a tinge of regret, even guilt--to think that just a week ago he was nightly confessing everything about his inner life to Lydia. Now he wouldn't even know where to begin.
It's like a dream, profound and resonant but finally without meaning--days at Reflexion, his mind all the time back at his apartment, anticipating the evening, when his and Leigh's bodies will occupy together the same cramped space of rooms. While at the same time the dream takes place in and around the ordinary, necessary things: earlier today he's gone to the Audi dealer to put his car through its sixty-thousand-mile checkup--he's disgruntled to have to spend three hundred dollars on a fuel pump, a water hose, brake shoes ... . It's hard to believe that these two Anatoles, the mundane one and the one an angel has touched, occupy the same space in the world. But driving back from the dealer in his expensively serviced automobile, he sees the hills across the river and thinks, seeing himself as if he is nothing more than a character in a movie (the radio's on, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is playing), how this time last year--or even this time last week--he couldn't have imagined the sort of magical state he's in now. The sunlight's golden, a harvest sunlight, it rests on the far hills, drapes their wooded slopes. The car for an instant seems to float in light, a vessel bearing him toward the earthly paradise of the Hudson Valley, and he thinks how he's happy, happy ... and then all at once he's sadder than he thinks he's ever been, the thought of Leigh depressing him because he knows it's all a lie, a game he's pretending, when really there's nothing between them at all, when really Leigh's just a kid he's taken in who doesn't even understand the first thing about what's going on. He feelsalone, even more alone than before, when there was nothing, when there was only him and Lydia and Chris. And these days he can't even turn to Lydia for her bracing consolation. He's too embarrassed by what he takes to be the authenticity of his present emotions.
It's the same old story: how it seems entirely possible, though not likely, every night when he goes home that this may be the night he and Leigh really will make love. As always, the world's impossible to read. The simplest acts are signposts pointing in too many directions at once. He'll be making dinner, Leigh will saunter in, put his hand on Anatole's shoulder, look into the skillet at the green vegetables and tofu he's stir-frying. His touch is at once electric and neutral. Confronted by such a gesture--and it occurs two or three times an evening--Anatole's simply helpless. He knows that in some sense he's nothing but the classic soft touch, that for all his naïveté Leigh's nothing more than a canny hustler. But another part of Anatole, knowing all this, wants simply to follow it to the end, see where it'll go.
"What about you, Anatole? Earth to Anatole." Lydia's voice is amused but impatient.
"Sorry," he says. "I was thinking. My brain's hyperactive tonight. I'll have some more wine. More, Mrs. Forman?"
"Thanks." She holds out her glass. Usually she doesn't drink this much after dinner, but she seems to have felt an edge to the evening as well.
"See, what's happened is, I'm letting this guy I met stay at my apartment," Anatole explains to her. "It's just for a few days, till he finds a place to live. But it's a little unsettling."
"Oh, you love it, Anatole," Lydia accuses.
"I do sort of, but it's still unsettling. Good things can be just as unsettling as anything else."
They're only voices in the dark. It allows some kind of impersonality, a shield behind which each can hide. It's like confessing truths over the telephone or, Anatole thinks, in the confession box.
"This boy's really cute, Mom. Anatole's keeping him locked away. He's cast a spell over him."
"You should bring him over for dinner," Mrs. Forman suggests.
"I'm not sure you'd like him, Mrs. Forman."
"Anatole, if I like most of the people I like, I can like anybody."
"Anatole won't even let me near him," Lydia complains.
"He's probably smart that way, Lydia. It's love." Mrs. Forman sighs. "One day you'll understand these things." One of Mrs. Forman's complaints about Lydia is that she's never been truly in love. She's had all sorts of relationships--that year she was at Bard any number of boys traipsed through. But she's never been in love. "I like you, Anatole," Mrs. Forman tells him. "You know about love. You believe in it. My own children--well, it's the great failing of the new generation of Formans. They have affairs right and left, I can't even keep track of them--but do they fall in love? Do they give themselves a chance? No. It's flit off to this person, that person. Never the one person."
"Mr. Forman was the one person?"
"Dan was the one person, yes," Mrs. Forman says gravely. "I knew the first time I ever saw him. I never wavered."
"When was that?" Anatole always wants Mrs. Forman to talk more: she fascinates him, he feels they're alike in subterranean ways, and he's always trying to track down the things they share.
"It was in the main office of the Jet Messenger Service on West Forty-second Street in Manhattan. I was secretary there--I'd dropped out of college because I wanted a job, I wanted to be able to buy new clothes. My job was to dispatch messengers. One day there was this new boy, they told me he was studying at CCNY Downtown, majoring in business, he was going places. He needed money to put himself through. Oh, he was fine-looking that morning. He was wearing a white shirt. He had such a smile."
"It was love at first sight?"
"Well, you might say I had to work on him a little. He lived near me. I used to wait in the evenings to ride the subway till I knew he was leaving. He was such a gentleman. He'd ride with me on the old Culver line, and then walk home. It was so sweet of him. He could have taken the Sea Beach and saved twenty blocks. A young man wouldn't do that for you these days."
"He saw you home every evening? That's great."
"I hated the subways. All those people, all that rush. I was always a nervous wreck."
"Love on the subway. It's wonderful," Anatole tells her. "I really like that story." He'd do that for someone he loved, wouldn't he? If he really loved them, if they were the one person, wouldn't he do anything?
"The subway. When he got the job with Western, I didn't even know where Spapiksie, Poughkeepsie was. I thought it was in New Jersey. It seemed so far away from everything."
"But you hated New York, Mom. You hate crowds."
"One day I'll move back," Mrs. Forman asserts. "See if I don't. The doctor says I'm getting better. He says I'll be cured soon. When that--"
There's a thump; Mrs. Forman's voice says, "Shit."
"What's wrong?" Lydia asks.
"I knocked over the wine. I was going to pour more."
"It's just as well," Lydia tells her. "We should go. And you should stop drinking. You're starting to slur your words."
"No, she's not," Anatole says--though he's started to notice it, in the last couple of minutes, as well. "You're completely lucid."
"Of course I'm completely lucid. I'm always completely lucid. You might say, I'm hopelessly lucid." But when she goes to stand up from the lawn chair, they have to help her. "My legs gave out," she laughs as they steer her, holding her up by her elbows, into the house, to her bed. Anatole sits in the living room and has a scotch while Lydia undresses her mother, puts her to bed. He feels calm. He thinks about Mr. Forman, how there must have been a single instant when she first saw him, and he saw her, and after that life could never be the same. He wants desperately to believe life is like that.
"Okay, that's done." Lydia emerges from the bedroom.
"She'll be okay? She's cute when she's drunk."
"She makes me so mad." Lydia walks around the house turning off the lights, locking the doors.
"I hate it when she does this. It's so embarrassing." They drive the empty streets.
"She was just enjoying herself, Lydia. She probably doesn't get that much of a chance. Anyway, it was a wonderful story she told. So romantic."
"It wasn't wonderful. Couldn't you tell? She hounded Dad into marrying her. She chased him like crazy. Carrying on, getting him to ride the subway home with her every night because she was afraid of crowds. My God, that's twenty blocks he walked home. My mother's a manipulator, Anatole. She's completely selfish."
"You're so cynical. And about your own mother."
"I know my mother too well, Anatole. There's too much of her inside here"--she taps her head--"for me not to know her. Anyway--looks like you have company." She slows, pulls over to the curb.
"I guess Leigh's home."
"You're not going to invite me up, are you?" She looks at him with something of a pout. In the orange streetlight, she looks completely unattractive to him.
"No," he says. "No I'm not. Sometime, though. I'll have a little brunch or something. You and Chris and me and Leigh. How does that sound?"
"Is it possible I don't like you as much as I used to?"
It makes him shudder, go cold in his heart. "God, I hope not. I know I'm being strange. Give me a few days, I'll be myself again."
"You'd better be." She flicks him a good-night kiss and then he's out of the car, the car's vanished down the still street. He looks up at the lights in the windows and thinks--it's the old familiar prayer of thanksgiving--Leigh's up there.
Leigh's up there. He's back from Denmarc, the restaurant where he waits tables four nights a week. Anatole's been there before, a brunch with Daniel; he found it pretentious--but he likes it that Leigh's working there. In his uniform of black trousers and white cotton shirt he looks like a schoolboy at a European academy. He'd be head of the school, he'd be adored by the other schoolboys, Anatole fantasizes.
Sprawled on the sofa with a beer, Leigh watches MTV. "I've been sitting here twenty minutes, I haven't seen a single thing that was interesting. But here I sit."
"See? It's the perfect product," Anatole tells him. "You don't want it, you tell yourself you don't want it, you even hate it, but you go on buying it anyway."
"I'll turn it off. But first I want to see who the next group's gonna be."
"It's hopeless." Anatole sinks down on the sofa beside him. "Had a good day?"
"A shitty day."
"What'd you do?"
"I'm in a bad mood. I went to Noah's Ark and did shots of scotch with Julie."
"Who's Julie?" Anatole's always afraid to learn anything new about Leigh. It threatens to disrupt the image he's distilled in his mind.
"Somebody from that house I moved out of. I don't even like her. You know, sometimes I think I'm crazy. I had this dream last night where I was having sex with her. It wasn't unpleasant, but I don't like her at all. She's manipulative. I don't trust her."
Anatole feels a chill clench itself around his heart--this intrusion of a past he can know nothing about except in fragments. He wants Leigh to himself, he realizes. He needs him living here in this apartment with no past, nothing hidden, everything simply ineffably accessible to the eye and ear. At the thought of Leigh out drinking with this girl, his security of possession--for the moment I have this, and it's good--threatens to disappear. He wonders bitterly how he has any right to feel possessive--he's known this boy for a week, he's done him the favor of putting him up for a few days, that's exactly as far as it goes: everything else takes place only in his head, his overexcited imagination. Still, he does feel possessive. He feels it's some sort of infidelity for Leigh to be out drinking shots of scotch with this Julie.
It comes to Anatole clearly. There's no way he can hold Leigh. Favors don't count, friends don't count: it's something else out in the world that matters, something that has to do with advantages andgain. Already he sees Leigh slipping from him. If I were more courageous, he thinks, if I were more selfish, I'd be able to hold him, I'd impress him, I'd entertain him, I'd manipulate him easily. This is what life is about, after all, this is why Julie, whoever she is, will win. It's only a matter of time till Leigh's won away--if not by Julie (and really, she's not so much a threat as a forecast), then by someone else. Anatole's never felt more precisely the extent of his failure to live. He's been a moment, a point of transition, nothing more. In a year Leigh won't remember a thing about him. He won't have made a mark.
"They're all lesbians in that house anyway," Leigh says suddenly. "Do you mind if I get violent for a minute?"
"No, of course not. Violence is my favorite pastime."
With a single fluid motion Leigh takes the beer bottle he's finished and flings it against the far wall. It shatters, leaves a mark on the wall, the stain of a last swallow of beer. The noise is explosive in the late-night stillness.
He shrugs. "I don't feel any better. See, they hated me because I didn't turn out to be what they thought I was going to be. That's why they wanted to throw me out."
"What did they think you were?"
"A male lesbian, something like that. A sister. They're all fucked up. I mean, they don't even know they're lesbians."
"I'm not sure I follow all this."
"It's not worth explaining. Explaining would only make it worse. My brain just sometimes goes around in circles. Do you have anything else I can break? No, I'm just joking."
Though he's suddenly on his feet, prowling as if he really does want to find something, a porcelain plate, an antique candlestick. Anatole's never seen him volatile like this, unless it was a volatility contained in the frenetic way he danced at Bertie's that first night.
When Leigh walks past the telephone, it rings as if on cue. He picks it up instantly. "No," he says, "Anatole's not home right now. No. You're right, we are a bit out of hand up here, aren't we?"
"That was your downstairs neighbor," he announces when he hangs up. "She says, 'Why, oh why do you have to make so muchnoise on a weeknight?' She says she's going to file a noise complaint."
"Oh great. You and I'll both be living in that house with the lesbians."
"They weren't really lesbians. Anyway, I'd rather sleep in the gutter than there. I'd rather sleep in the gutter," he shouts for the benefit of Anatole's downstairs neighbor.
Shh, Anatole pantomimes, though he's not really nervous. Somehow if it's Leigh who's making the noise it seems all right. It's cele-brative. Poor woman, he thinks--if only she knew, if only she understood. There're always people looking the other way when the miracles take place, people who want only a good night's sleep when the stars are dancing, comets falling, the angels leaning low out of midnight with their trumpets, their cantatas of longing.
Leigh's picked a copy of House and Garden off the coffee table. "Can I toss this?"
It hits the wall with a clatter of unfurling pages. "Not very satisfactory. Let me see"--he looks around--"Don't you have anything I can break?"
"I"ll see. In the meantime, more beer?"
"More beer. Yes, yes, yes. Or is there scotch left?"
"Like, I want to get ripped. I feel like flying off the handle. Do you ever feel like that? I mean, like hurting people for no reason. Yelling at the top of your lungs."
"Maybe you're right, Leigh. Maybe you have gone crazy."
"I warned you. You know, I was in Colorado once, there was this place where there were sand dunes. The wind picked up the sand in the valley and blew it against the mountains, so it piled up there, huge dunes. They went for miles, you could go out in them till you were completely alone, just piled-up sand and nothing else. So I went there and found this dune and stood on the top of it and yelled my head off. I mean, like, really yelled, the way you're too inhibited to ever yell with people around, even when you're completely angry. It didn't change anything. I had a sore throat next day, my friends thought I'd caught a cold."
Anatole's never heard this much about Leigh's life before. "You're so talkative tonight," he tells him.
"Remember, don't believe any of this tomorrow."
"Can I believe the broken beer bottle?" They sit on the sofa and share the scotch bottle, passing it back and forth between them.
"You can believe that, sure, I'll let you believe that. Anyway, it left a mark. You have to believe it, right?"
"I have to believe it."
Anatole feels drunk as they sit close to each other on the sofa. Their arms touch, their hands as they share the scotch bottle touch. Leigh's nails are long and shapely, the backs of his hands hairless; the sun has colored them the color of honey. Their legs touch. Leigh's fit of restlessness has passed, he seems resigned, even content. Anatole's glimpsed enough fissures in Leigh's personality to allow him to guess there's never any real ease there. Still, for the moment, he enjoys the illusion of content, a feeling of perfect intimacy.
The record they're listening to has lapsed. "You choose," Leigh commands. Already he's worked through Anatole's collection, already he's at a loss for anything new to play. Anatole kneels, flips through the albums, finds an old Psychedelic Furs issue that has one of his favorite songs ever, "Love My Way," a song whose voice his own singing voice matches perfectly in timbre and pitch--as Chris once pointed out to him when he sang along with it. Coked up, they were flying along the Taconic toward New York, Chris a relentless, implacable driver, taking the mountainous stretches at eighty even though it was snowing out. The radio was playing "Love My Way," and to contain his nervousness, his exhilaration--the lightning will strike--Anatole sang along.
"Anatole," Leigh says. A moment of absolute stillness between them, a pact of some kind. Perhaps Leigh detects Anatole in the momentary throes of a memory. The best moments of their week-old friendship consist of such pauses in the ordinary texture of activity. They invite something; perhaps they dare it. This time Anatole hesitates for an instant, still kneeling before the stereo turntable, then gathers his nerve to say simply, "I think we should go to bed together tonight."
He turns around to find Leigh looking dead at him.
"You don't really know anything about me, do you?" Leigh says.
"No, I don't. I never know anything about anybody till it's too late."
"I respect that." Leigh looks plunged into moodiness. He grimaces, draws his knees up and wraps his arms around them, rocking back and forth as if in deep thought, or in pain.
"If you knew anything about me, Anatole, I'd disappoint you."
Leigh shakes his head sadly.
"You knew I was gay, didn't you?" Anatole asks him.
"I knew I was taking a chance."
"And you went along with it?" He wants to ask, You moved in here in spite of or because of it?
"I figured I could take care of myself. And I can. Look, Anatole ..." He pauses to think, his brow furrows in something that passes as much for remorse as for thought. "I don't want to sleep with you. That's that, okay? If you're just after my ass, tell me and I'll leave. If it's something else ... well, otherwise, everything's the same. Just tell me which."
"Everything's the same, Leigh."
"Then let's don't talk about it anymore. It'll depress both of us. It'll just make both of us angry."
Anatole sees some chance receding before him, and he reaches out to try to grasp it as it fades. "I wish sometime we could talk about it," he says.
Leigh shakes his head slowly--it's more for his own sake than for Anatole's; this conversation's burrowed him deep into himself. "I'm too confused about too many things," he says. "I'll say things I don't mean. I'll talk myself into things I don't want."
It's Anatole's turn to respect. "Okay," he says. "Okay."
The Psych Furs album has reached "Love My Way." Anatole's flying along the Taconic next to Chris Havilland. He's sitting on the sofa next to Chris, this same sofa. Nothing changes, it just unfolds. Sitting down beside Leigh--"Love my way," Richard Butler sings, his voice rough-edged with longing--Anatole takes the scotch bottle fromhim, takes a long swallow. He doesn't say, "You've sort of changed my life." He's older, he doesn't say things like that anymore.
Till the song's over, they say nothing. Leigh seems to realize the song's importance as well, its forlomness. Perhaps he has his own memories. At last he breaks the morose silence.
"Look, Anatole, we could sleep together. I mean, like that first night. It's a big mattress."
"Right, it's a big mattress," Anatole says.
Under the blankets Anatole's laid down because of the coolness of the evening, that first hint of autumn in the air: Anatole feels Leigh's hand brush his thigh, a touch light yet warm like sunlight.
"You know," Leigh says, his voice quiet, composed, "like, I could give you a handjob." He settles his palm over Anatole's crotch, kneads it gently through the soft cotton.
"No," Anatole tells him. But Leigh only laughs softly.
"Well, well, well," he kids. "So it was already hard for me. You pervert."
"It was already hard," Anatole says quietly. He feels himself falling, free-fall, the precipice reached at last, the abyss opening wide to receive him. Leigh works his hand down into Anatole's underwear. "This isn't the first time, is it?" Anatole asks him. "I mean, you've done this sort of thing before."
"I've done everything before," Leigh says wearily. He knocks Anatole's exploratory hand away lightly. "Just don't touch me," he tells him. "I'll make you come, but just don't touch me. That's the rules."
In the middle of the dark building there's an air shaft that plunges down to a narrow courtyard, and someone's lined the floor and walls of the courtyard with brilliant blue tiles. Leigh's looking out a fourth- or fifth-floor window down into this courtyard that's more like a well than a courtyard, it's so narrow and deep. Someone, maybe the same person who put down the blue tiles, has strung a net of wire mesh to catch whatever might fall into the airshaft, and over the years it's caught loose roof tiles, geranium pots, tin cans, a variety of other debris.
It's a little like looking down into a deep swimming pool that's had its water drained. The blue tiles glimmer vaguely in the dim light. They fascinate him, these blue tiles--why someone would have put them down there, because the sun never shines there, it's always inshadow. But there has to be a reason, even if the reason is only that whoever put them down there thought they looked pretty.
Leigh doesn't think he dreamed that courtyard with the tiles. He thinks it may be his earliest memory, the apartment house where he lived as a small child. If he closes his eyes--as he does now in the dark room where he's lying in bed, drawn awake in the middle of the night as if for no other reason than to remember those blue tiles--he can see them so clearly, a photograph burned into his eyelids. But if that's where he lived as a small child, he can't remember anything else about it at all--which is why he sometimes thinks maybe he did dream it, and that's why it's so vivid, more vivid than anything else, because it never really happened.
Sometimes he tries to think back as far as he can into his memories, and then it's like falling into a well, falling and falling, and if he falls far enough he'll hit bottom and the bottom will be those blue tiles.
There's always that moment when you wake in the middle of the night and don't know where you are, what strange city or room or bed; what stranger is lying next to you, the way people stay strangers even after you've gotten to know them; and those are the times when what you remember is more real than you are--you're floating on the surface of these vivid memories and they're the only things buoying you up.
This fascinates and terrifies him, he can't resist peering into it as deeply as he can. Tonight he can see those blue tiles shining though the other, closer things he remembers, the way the water makes the bottom of a pool shimmer and distort. Tonight he sees those blue tiles shining through a field. At first he doesn't know where the field is, he thinks it's somewhere he's never been before, but then he remembers--it's the field behind Billy's grandmother's house, and he and Billy are out there for the weekend. They're standing behind the barn in the field peeing, and he's telling Billy what his father told him a few days ago, repeating it word for word as if it's extremely important to be accurate about such a strange thing as this. He's telling Billy how when men and women do it the women spread their legs openand the men put their thing right in there in the hole women have. It makes him shiver to tell Billy about it, the same way he shivered when his father told him about it and the other facts of life. It makes him clammy to think about putting his thing in a hole like that, but then Billy says it feels really good to put your thing in somebody's mouth too, which is one of the facts of life his father didn't tell him about, and would he like to put it in Billy's mouth? He thinks what a strange thing that is, since your mouth is just another kind of hole, but thinking about it makes him get hard and when Billy lets him put his thing in Billy's mouth it feels really good, even though he doesn't come because he's not old enough yet, he's only ten.
Then it's some other year and he's in a parking lot with Billy, they're on their bikes. Billy's got a joint, and he says they should go to his house and smoke it because his parents aren't there and so it's fine. They sit on Billy's bed and listen to the stereo, turning it up all the way and letting Bunny and the Wailers blast the room. Leigh's never smoked dope before, though he knows Billy has. Billy says to take the smoke deep down in your lungs and hold it there, and then Billy does it to show him how. He lets the smoke out very slowly and then hands the joint over.
Leigh follows his lead, holding in the smoke for as long as he can even though he wants to cough it out, and then finally when he can't hold it in anymore he lets it out. Billy looks at him and grins, and says, Take another puff and hold it longer. At first it's hard to tell anything's different, but then he's feeling hazy and good and everything seems to be a little deeper and more colorful than it was before. He never realized how much the bass line on the stereo thumps when you're listening to good reggae, and it occurs to him this must be what it means to get high.
See, Billy tells him, looking sorrowfully at the joint, which is almost smoked up, I have this idea. I mean, where I get this stuff, I could get more and we could cut it with something and sell it. I know these middle school types who'd really like to get their hands on some stuff, and they won't know whether they getting some kind of deal or not. Anyway, they trust me.
It sounds okay, because the big thing for both of them is always that they have to get money, they somehow have to figure out how to get their hands on money and live some life that's better than this one they're living. So they make plans all the time--mostly daydreams, this is just Billy's latest daydream. But he always goes along with Billy's plan, whatever it is--he doesn't really know why, he just does.
He tells Billy it sounds like a good idea, and then Billy says, his voice dreamy and hazy with the dope, Yeah, it's a great idea, so why don't you come on and lay up here beside me? He gets up--a little unsteadily--and walks over to the bed, where Billy's sprawled out, and sits on the edge of it. He lets Billy cup his crotch with his hand because he knows Billy knows it turns him on. This is five or six times a week--not something they think about, it's just what happens between them. He feels himself get hard beneath Billy's rummaging hand. I'll do you, Billy tells him, then you do me, okay? They unzip and when Billy goes down on him, his favorite sensation in the world how that warm slick mouth clamps down around him, he comes almost immediately. Then he does Billy, even though he doesn't like doing it all that much--though he likes doing it to Billy, even when Billy shoots it off in his mouth.
Neither of them has anything except his sex--no money, no things; their families, such as they are, live in barracks apartments whose rows look exactly alike, a jaundiced yellow color, and though they've been standing there fifty years or so nobody's bothered to plant any trees--as if whoever built those apartments forgot them as soon as they were built, put them out of their minds as something shameful. Billy tells the story how once when he was really stoned he wasn't paying attention and stood there trying to get into the apartment, only his key wouldn't fit and he was completely paranoid his family had locked him out till he realized it was completely the wrong building he was trying to get into.
They both think this story is very very funny when they're stoned together--which they are more and more often, especially since Leigh's mother is sick now. All her hair has fallen out from thechemotherapy, she spends half the day vomiting and the other half in bed moaning low moans you can hear no matter what room of the apartment you're in. He can hardly stand to look at her, she looks so terrible, shrunk down to half her size, and even her voice has changed. Even though he knows it's crazy, he's sure all of them in the apartment are going to catch her cancer, his father and his sisters and him--either from her, somehow, or from the nearby toxic waste dumps that are the reason she got cancer in the first place according to the doctor. Though his father doesn't believe that--he says it was her smoking, which he tried for years to make her give up. But nobody can be sure about these things, and now she's smoking more than ever--she can hardly breathe and hacks the smoke out when she exhales, but she's always asking Leigh to run to the store and pick up another pack, she's run out. When he asks her why she doesn't stop, she looks at him and says, Why the hell should I? and that's the day he realizes it doesn't matter for her anymore, they've done everything they can do and there's nothing to help, so why the hell not?
When he tells Billy about that, Billy says he wants to visit her, so he starts coming by in the afternoons. He'll go in and sit down on her bed and talk to her a while. Billy must know she never liked him much, she thinks he's a bad influence Leigh should stop hanging around with--but that doesn't stop Billy from being nice to her. Leigh can't figure it out, till one day he comes into the bedroom, where Billy is sitting on the side of the bed and his mother's propped up on pillows--and they're smoking dope together. He can't believe it--he just stands in the doorway and watches, till Billy sees him and says how he read somewhere how doctors sometimes give people dope to smoke to relieve the pain when they have cancer. So he just decided to give her some if she wanted it.
It's not something he'd have ever thought to do for his mother in a million years, but Billy thought to do it for her. And after that whenever Billy comes over he brings a little plastic bag to give to her for free, a gift, so she can smoke whenever she needs to. They never talk about it, he and Billy, or he and his mother, and he doesn't thinkhis father ever knows, because his father's the kind of person who's against illegal drugs no matter what. But he'll come home in the afternoon sometimes and there's his mother in her room smoking, and then he'll hear her spraying Lysol to get rid of the smell, and he knows it's only because of Billy that she ever felt like a person in those last couple of months before she died.
THE SALT POINT. Copyright © 1990 by Paul Russell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.