Book excerpt

The Salt Point

A Novel

Paul Russell

St. Martin's Press

THE SALT POINT
ISEPTEMBEROn 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.""Oh?""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.""Monster dongs.""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?""Like?""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."Marion considers."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 Paul Russell is the author of three previous novels—The Salt Point, Boys of Life, and Sea of Tranquillity—as well as The Gay 100, a work of non-fiction. He is Professor of English at Vassar College and lives in upstate New York.