My mother hung up the phone slowly; a strange look stole across her face.
"What?" I asked.
"I … think I may have a job this summer," she replied.
"Good," I answered. "Looks like we won't starve for a while."
She made another face. "We're not going to starve, Louis."
I smiled. "So, where's the job?"
"Up … north," she replied, sounding distracted, her mind, perhaps, still on the phone call.
"North," I repeated. "How far north? Albany? Plattsburgh? Montreal?"
She rolled her eyes. "A little closer to home. Near Tarrytown."
"Tarrytown? What the hell's in Tarrytown?"
"Language, Louis." A strange smile replaced the strange look. "What's in Tarrytown is the van Aalsburg estate."
"The van Aalsburg estate …" I repeat. Then, "The van Aalsburg van Aalsburgs?"
"I … think so," she replied. "At least, one of them. Henry, maybe?"
The van Aalsburgs were up there alongside the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, old money - very old money, the best kind - and everything that went along with it: power, prestige, influence, control. Corruption and shady deals, if you believed some of the darker stories. People who were into that sort of thing paid very close attention to people like the van Aalsburgs and what they did and said; that I and my mother did not told you where we stood in the grand scheme of things.
"What are you going to be doing for Henry van Aalsburg?"
"Teaching, I suppose."
"Teaching? Isn't he, like, your age, give or take? What are you going to teach Henry van Aalsburg?"
My mother grinned. "I'm not teaching him, you idiot. His son, I suppose. Paul."
I didn't know from Paul van Aalsburg. He must not have been all that old, since I couldn't conjure up any image of him from the papers or the news. The idiot part of her response didn't bother me; my mother and I had a certain relationship … although I knew enough not to respond in kind.
"Oh. Okay." I grinned. "I'll miss you, while you're gone. Gonna be lonely, around here, without you."
She grinned back at me. "Well, since you'll be staying at your grandparents …"
My grin vanished. The thought of spending three months with my mother's parents - as much as I loved them - was not a pleasant one, cooped up in their tiny co-op on the Upper West Side.
"Why can't I just stay here?" I tried to keep the whining out of my voice.
"Don't be ridiculous, Louis. You're not even sixteen, yet. You can't spend the summer here by yourself."
"I'll be fine."
"You'll be with me, or your grandparents. Those are your only choices." I knew enough to know that I wasn't going to convince her otherwise, but I still owed it to the both of us to fight the good fight.
"What am I gonna do in Tarrytown? I don't even know if I've been to Tarrytown."
My mother thought about that. "You haven't, as far as I know. First time for everything; it'll be a good experience."
"What's it like, then?"
"What, Tarrytown?" She shrugged. "No idea. It's probably nice."
"Well, what's there?"
"The van Aalsburg estate, apparently," she countered. "It's one of those big mansions that are all up and down the river."
"Sounds … fun." The tone of my voice indicating that I thought it would be anything but fun.
"Well, Louis, it might be, if you give it a chance." She sighed. "Look, maybe you'll like the son. I think he's about your age."
"I doubt it. He probably isn't all that smart, anyway."
"Louis. How can you possibly know that?"
I grinned. "Well, how can he be … if they picked you to tutor him?"
Three days later, we were on our way to Grand Central and the train that would take us up north. Besides my mother and me - and the taxi driver - was my grandfather, Eli. Neither my mother nor I were quite sure why he was along for the ride; my mother was perfectly capable of getting the two of us on a train and up to Tarrytown by herself. Papa - the name we all called him - was more or less retired; he was an architect, but lately he'd begun to turn more and more of the day-to-day operation of the firm to his son, my Uncle Nathan. Papa went in perhaps twice or three times a week; today, apparently, was one of his days off, so we got the dubious pleasure of his company.
"Where are you going, again?" From my grandfather.
I could hear my mother's suppressed sigh. "Tarrytown, Daddy." Something I was certain she'd told him a dozen times before.
"I can't imagine why anyone would want to go to Tarrytown …"
"Well, it's where this job is, Daddy."
"Job?" Said in much the same tone as if she'd said that she was going to walk the streets. Papa had somewhat archaic notions over the role of women in the workplace - my grandmother had never worked a day in her life - something he and my mother argued about constantly. "If it's money you need, Etty …"
"Daddy, we're fine. This'll just give us a little bit extra … and I don't mind." She had been a teacher before she had met and married my father, and was still one now.
"And you're taking Louis with you?"
"He can stay with us, you know."
Luckily, my grandfather couldn't see the sudden rictus of panic my face; my mother could, and grinned at me before she responded. "Well … thank you, Daddy … but I think Louis will have a good time. Might be good for him to get out of Manhattan once in a while and go spend some time somewhere else."
"In Tarrytown? I don't think so. What's he going to do while you're … well, doing whatever it is you'll be doing?"
"Teaching, Daddy. I'm going to tutor one of the van Aalsburg children. And, anyway - it's Tarrytown, Daddy. Not Siberia."
"Van Aalsburg, you say? Fancy …"
We were saved from any more of Papa's commentary by our arrival at the station; Papa stayed in the car while the driver hopped out and unloaded our bags from his trunk. My mother tipped him, then turned around to engage the services of a porter. We waved good-bye as the taxi trundled off and away to ferry my grandfather back to his apartment.
My mother and I stared at each other for a few seconds; she shook her head. "I love him, but sometimes …"
My mother and I watched the Hudson River flicker in and out of view as we sped northward along its eastern bank. Tarrytown was barely an hour out of the city, practically right next door to it; I could easily imagine people who lived there taking the train into the city daily for work, as they did up and down Long Island and even from the western part of Connecticut.
My mother had brought along the crossword from the Times; it lay half-done - in pen, a conceit she allowed herself - on her lap while she stared out of the window. She seemed distracted. Not quite herself. I picked up the paper, looked at some of the clues of the blank spaces, put the thing back down. A little beyond me, yet.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" I ventured.
She turned to me and smiled. "It is, actually. We should make it a habit to get out of the city more often."
"Central Park not cutting it, anymore?"
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, it's fine … if you don't mind sharing it with everybody and their mother."
It was something one got used to, the price for living in the city. People. Everywhere. With their noises and their habits and their smells and their … peopleness.
"Might be too quiet for us out here. You know I always need a good night's dose of sirens and random gunfire to get to sleep."
She chuckled. "Hadn't thought about that. I'll just walk around banging on pans until you drop off."
"The missus might not appreciate that." I thought about that. "Is there a Mrs. van Aalsburg?"
She nodded. "There is. Her name is … well, let me think … it's something not common. Celia … or Cordelia? No, that's not right, that's Shakespeare …" Her voice trailed off, came back. "Oh, I should know this!" She shook her head. "Anyway, there is. I think it's how I got this job."
She nodded again. "Sure. She's tied to the school, somehow. I think she's on the board of directors. Anyway, Maxine Wright heard from a friend of a friend that the son needed a tutor for the summer, and she put my name in."
"That was nice of her."
She blew out a nervous breath. "I hope so."
"And third, and fourth. Maybe I should have said no."
"Well, if Maxine Wright thought you were good enough for the van Aalsburgs …"
"Clea!" my mother shouted. "Her name is Clea."
"Well, good. I thought you were having a seizure, there, for a moment … might have had to put a stick in your mouth."
"Mind like a steel trap," she continued, grinning. "Completely rusted shut."
I chuckled. "So, this kid … Paul …"
"Why does he need to be tutored? Doesn't he go to, like, a private school or something?"
"I … think so. I'm not sure what happened. The father hinted at something, some kind of accident, and they brought him home to recuperate. I guess we'll find out more when we get there."
"I think you'll do fine," I offer, grinning. "After all, look how I turned out." It was awkward, having my mother as a teacher in the school I attended, something we had both gotten used to.
She turned to me, smiled again. "And that's what I'm most worried about."
Presently, the train slowed; over a crackling, staticky intercom, a bored voice drawled out "Tarrytown … Tarrytown station …" and we began to gather our things. We hadn't packed much; our suitcases were right over our heads, on a metal rack, saving us the bother of trying to get a porter. And if we'd forgotten anything, the city and our apartment were only an hour away.
"So, how do we get from here to there?" I asked.
"I'm supposed to call as soon as we get there. Here, I mean. They'll send a car around for us."
As soon as the train stopped, we stood up and pulled our suitcases from the overhead rack and joined a small crowd of people making for the door and the station platform. There weren't many of us and the stop here wouldn't be all that long.
Tarrytown station was a low slung stone building with a slate roof, and we made our way towards it with the other passengers. Inside, we claimed a couple of spots on a wooden bench and I waited with the luggage while my mother made her way towards a bank of telephones, digging in her purse for coins as she walked. For such a small town, the station was moderately busy for a Friday afternoon; shoppers returning from a day in the city, perhaps, or people on their way for a weekend matinée on Broadway and dinner after.
The interior of the station was clad almost entirely in wood; the whole place had a woodsy, cabiny kind of feel to it, very different from the Roman monumentality of Grand Central, the station we had left only an hour ago. Grand Central was one of my favorite places in the city, but I liked this place, too. As modest as it was, it still had an air of quiet luxury about it. Everything here seemed a little less crowded, a little more expansive, than Manhattan. I wondered what it was like to live here, in a real house, with a real yard and trees and grass, thought back to that day my mother and I had spent out at the house of my aunt and uncle in New Rochelle. Other things had presented themselves that day, as well.
I watched while my mother telephoned the number she had been given, watched as she started conversing with someone on the other end, watched as she hung up the phone and walked back to me and sat.
"Well, that's that. Somebody will be here for us in about fifteen minutes."
"So, we wait."
"We wait." She pulled her folded-over crossword out of her purse and started working at it.
"Can I get a soda?" There was a small cafeteria tucked away in one corner of the station.
"Umm … sure." She dug into her purse for some more coins, handed me some.
"You want anything?" I asked.
"No, I'm good."
I wandered off in the direction of the restaurant; it turned out that I had enough for a soda and a snack. I chose a cellophane-wrapped package of peanut butter crackers, the kind where the cracker was a bright-orange color that was supposed to indicate that it was positively bursting with cheddar-cheesiness. My dad had always liked these things and I'd picked up the habit from him. One of my earliest memories was of the two of us sitting out on the fire escape of our apartment eating these things, watching the city busy itself around us.
I took my purchases back to the bench and my mother, sat next to her, opened the crackers. She looked up at the crinkling sound, saw what I had, smiled.
I smiled back. "My favorite."
She fingered one out of the pack, popped it in her mouth, chewed for a bit, swallowed. "Reminds me of your father." There was a hint of sadness behind that, and I began to regret my choice; I hadn't wanted to bring up that bit of our past.
"Oh, it's okay." She sighed. "If I got upset over everything that reminded me of your father, I'd never leave the apartment."
I reached over, squeezed her hand; she squeezed back. I don't know if my father's passing had done anything to bring my mother and me closer together; sometimes it felt like the two of us against the world and I knew that most boys my age did not have this kind of relationship with their parents. I honestly wouldn't trade it for anything, because my mother had always treated me as … well, if not exactly an equal, at least as someone whose thoughts and ideas were worth sharing. She never talked down to me, she never held anything back if it needed to be said.
What made it all the more difficult, now, was the secret I was hiding.
We both saw it at the same time, gliding past the windows of the station, a Packard wagon, painted teal blue with wood panels framing its windows and the lower half of the doors. It was several years old, made right after the car companies had gone back to making passenger cars, after the war. This was one of those Packards that looked like upside-down bathtubs on wheels.
We turned to each other. "I bet that's our ride," my mother ventured.
"I think you're right."
We got up; I tossed the remains of my snack in a wastebasket, went about gathering my stuff. Together, we walked out of the station and into a small paved area serving as a drop-off station for passengers arriving by car.
The Packard had eased itself into a parking space and even now, its driver was just climbing out from behind the wheel. He was a man somewhere in his thirties, perhaps not as old as my mother, but close enough. He was dressed casually, in a short-sleeve Oxford shirt in light blue over khaki slacks and loafers; I imagined that he must be the van Aalsburg's chauffeur, because I doubted that Henry van Aalsburg would trouble himself to drive into town just to schlep the two of us back to his house. Certainly they were rich enough to afford to keep a guy like this on call. He probably even lived on the estate.
He smiled as he approached us. "Mrs. Adler?"
"Yes," my mother responded. "But, please - it's Esther."
"Ah. Very good. I'm Tom Stratford; I'm Mr. van Aalsburg's driver."
Bingo. Not that that took a lot of brain power to figure it out. Tom turned to me.
"You must be … Louis?"
"I … must be."
He grinned, reached out an arm. "Here … let me take your bags." His bare forearms were tanned and muscled.
We gladly surrendered our suitcases and followed Tom to the Packard. He set them down at the rear of the car, twisted a handle, and the top half of the tailgate swung up. He pulled another handle to lower the bottom part of it, revealing an interior clad in highly-polished plywood with bright stainless-steel rails screwed on top.
My mother and I stood behind Tom as he bent over to stow our baggage in the car … and, almost by habit, my gaze dropped to his middle and the hints of his man's body underneath his trousers, hated that I did that and made myself look away, hoping that my mother did not see what I did, or the flush of red on my face for having done so. It was something that I found myself doing more and more lately.
But Tom was pretty easy on the eyes. Perhaps my eyes shouldn't have been that easy, but they seemed to have ideas of their own, recently. When he was finished, he stood back up, turned to us. "Well, let's get you two back to the house. We've got lunch ready for you; Henry and Clea will want to meet you."
It interested me that he was on good-enough terms with his employers that he used their first names, but that was between them. Tom held the door for my mother; I figured the same courtesy didn't have to be extended to me, so I slipped into the other side … but then Tom surprised me.
"Louis? Would you like to ride up front, with me?"
Well, I wasn't going to say no to that. I got back out of the back seat, closed the door, slipped into the front seat.
Tom climbed in behind the wheel, turned a key and the Packard rumbled quietly to life. He backed out of the space and maneuvered us out of the station and into traffic.
At a busy road that threaded through town, Tom turned right, surprising us; we were heading back south, out of town.
My mother noticed this, too. "Oh, but … should we have gotten off at Irvington? I didn't realize …"
"Oh, no," Tom answered. "Belle Isle is nearer to Tarrytown than it is to Irvington."
"Belle Isle?" my mother asked.
"Oh. Sorry - the estate. It's called Belle Isle."
"Is it, then?" she asked. I had no idea what she meant.
Tom did; he chuckled. "Well, that'll be a surprise, won't it? You'll see."
Almost immediately, we turned right again, away from the highway, heading straight for the Hudson. In the middle distance, I noticed what appeared to be a low hill topped with a smear of grayish-white that might have been a house. But it looked too big.
As much as I was able, I stole glances of Tom driving the car. I had really no experience with cars other than taxis, although as a rule I took the (much cheaper) subway. It was fascinating to watch Tom do a kind of dance with his legs shifting gears in the big car; true to his profession, his driving was calm and measured and smooth. The late morning sunlight slanted obliquely across his figure, highlighting fine, chestnut brown hairs on his forearms. I hoped only that my mother was occupied by the scenery slipping by the windows … but I forced myself to look away from Tom.
As we neared the riverbank, we could see some kind of business to our right, upriver. And in the river.
"What is that?" I asked.
Tom glanced over, frowned. "Oh. That's going to be the new bridge across the Tappan Zee."
"Oh. Of course," my mother murmured from the back seat. "I remember hearing about it."
We rumbled over the train tracks, the same ones we'd traveled over barely half an hour ago. The low hill got nearer and the smear of gray-white began to resolve itself into a house. A very large house. In front of us, the road sloped down a bit as we neared the riverbank …and we dead-ended at the near end of a bridge, across which was a kind of cross-bar, on which hung a sign in bold yellow and black: No Trespassing. Private Property.
Tom brought the Packard to a halt, put it in park, opened the door, turned to us. "I have to let them know we're here."
My mother and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
Tom stepped over to a metal box affixed to a wooden post; he undid some kind of catch and opened the box to reveal a telephone. He picked up the receiver and pressed a button on the phone, then spoke into the mouthpiece.
"It's Tom. I'm back with the Adlers."
We heard the squawk of some kind of response, and Tom hung up the receiver, placed it back in the box, closed the door, got back into the car. As soon as the door was shut and the engine started, the cross-bar swung up and out of the way and we proceeded.
At the other end of the bridge, the road angled to the right and up the side of the hill, hugging the water's edge for a bit until turning away. Nearly at the top of the hill, Tom made one last sharp left turn, and we found ourselves on an arrow-straight and dead-level gravel drive, facing -
"Oh, my …" my mother murmured, and I had to agree.
The hard-to-discern gray and white blob we'd seen from the shore was now a magnificent, formal house clad in what might have been nearly-white limestone. It reminded me of some of the homes and buildings in the city, with its ornate columns and classical detailing. The house was two … no, three stories tall; the third story was artfully concealed by detailing, but I could see the tiny windows. The entry to the house was framed by two parallel rows of trees.
Tom had stopped the car, knowing that our first view of the house would be one to remember.
"Welcome to Belle Isle," he said, his voice soft.
"It truly is," my mother offered.
"Wow …" was the extent of my contribution.
Tom chuckled. "Truer words …" He slipped the car into gear and we headed towards the house.
At the end of the drive, it opened out into a circle and Tom maneuvered us opposite the front door and switched off the car, then sprang out from behind the wheel as I opened my door and my mother hers and we joined each other staring up at the house. Tom busied himself in the back of the wagon, sliding out our luggage and walking it over to the front door.
He let himself in and deposited our bags in the vestibule.
"I'll come back and put these upstairs in your rooms," he told us. "First I have to put the car away. But you folks can just go on and make yourselves at home." He smiled. "I think you're supposed to have lunch with Henry and Clea out on the terrace." With that, he stepped back outside; shortly, we heard the Packard sputter to life again and the fading sound of its engine as it moved away from the house.
My mother and I stared at each other; an expression of disbelief flickered across her face, mirrored my own.
"Well, you heard the man," she murmured. "Lead on."
We opened another set of doors and stepped into the house proper, into a hallway of sorts lined in walnut paneling; niches set into the paneling exhibited creamy white statuary executed in marble, of nude men and women, probably gods and goddesses, not representations of the owners of this place, I assumed. We went from there into the center of the house, into a two-story tall space dominated by a massive yet delicately-spiraling stair that curled around itself as it wound up to the second level. This room seemed dedicated solely to this stair; its walls were executed in off-white plaster with intricate moldings, and above our heads was a skylight that sent squares of sunlight down into the room, turning what could have been a dark and unpleasant space into a sun-washed gallery.
Beyond, that, though …
Massive columns of some kind of stone hinted at an even-larger room beyond and framed a view through enormous leaded-glass windows onto a stone-clad terrace ringed by a half-circle of more stone columns joined by an arcing molding.
This room, too - we would later learn that the van Aalsburgs called it the salon - was paneled in more of the walnut; on its walls were hung paintings and tapestries and my mother was drawn to them, walked along in front of them murmuring names.
"Renoir … Watteau … Turner … Aubusson …" It was almost like being in the Met on a quiet weekday. She turned to me, pantomimed being overcome with a heart attack. I smiled back, but my attention was drawn to the outside, and to a large rectangle of glittering blue that resolved itself into a pool. I hoped the van Aalsburgs wouldn't mind if I tried it out later.
But, beyond that, was something …
I frowned, trying to make it out, some kind of blocky, rectangular haze on the distant horizon, too regular to be natural. Mountains? The palisades along the river, up by the Cloisters? But they were in the wrong place …
"I'm … going outside," I announced. My mother joined me. We slipped through a pair of leaded-glass doors and onto the terrace. I kept walking to the edge of the semicircle of columns, past a table that had been set for four places (four? but …) and stopped at a series of steps that led down to the pool.
"What is that?" I asked, pointing to the hazy block shapes.
My mother studied the distant haze for a few seconds. "That … is where we just came from, I believe," she finally responded.
"You can see Manhattan from here?" I asked, not quite believing her.
"Well, yes. I think so. That's … well, there's the Empire State Building … and there's the Chrysler … and that, I think, is the Plaza Hotel …"
There was a noise behind us of the doors being opened and shut.
"It's magnificent, isn't it?" a voice boomed out. We turned, to see a tall, thin man walking towards us, accompanied by a woman a few paces behind him. They were so alike as to be nearly twins, both of them slender and elegant and blond. The man's face was long and bony, but pleasant, somehow, comfortable and friendly. The woman's face was a perfect oval punctuated by two pairs of parallel slashes: the upper pair her eyes, the lower pair her cheekbones; her hair was pulled back into a chignon at the base of her neck.
Even this early in the day, both were dressed impeccably, he in a dark blue jacket over gray trousers and a blue shirt, she in a summery kind of full white linen skirt that came to mid-calf, paired with white leather pumps. I couldn't imagine dressing like this every day; perhaps they had done this simply for this occasion. I was lucky to get out of the house with shoes on, and matching socks.
"It's … amazing," my mother answered. "I had no idea that you could see Manhattan from here."
"My grandfather - the man who built Belle Isle - always wanted his family to understand exactly where they came from. Luckily, he also had the perspicacity to put us on the right side of the bridge."
"Yes. That would rather spoil the view, wouldn't it? Thoughtful of him to locate the island where he did," she retorted. He chuckled, stepped forward, extended his hand.
"Welcome to our home, Mrs. Adler," he said.
My mother took his hand, clasped it, smiled. "Etty, please."
"It's short for Esther. At this point, the only people who have to call me Mrs. Adler are my students."
"Etty, then," he answered. "And you must call me Henry." He turned to me. "And what about this young man?"
"Oh, no," I answered, deliberately misunderstanding. "I just yell out 'hey, lady,' and she usually answers."
Henry van Aalsburg chuckled. "You must be Louis."
I bit back the answer I'd given Tom when he'd said the same thing to me. "Yes, sir." I took the proffered hand, shook it. I doubted that I would ever be granted license to call Mr. van Aalsburg by his first name.
Henry van Aalsburg turned to his wife; she had remained some distance behind him, as if waiting for him to acknowledge her. "And this is my wife, Clea." With that, she stepped forward to stand by her husband. Closer, she was startlingly beautiful; I could easily have imagined that she had been a model at some point in her life. She smiled, extended a hand to both of us … but the smile, I noticed, stopped at her mouth; I wondered if my mother saw that, as well. Clea van Aalsburg was not all that happy to see us, for some reason.
"It's wonderful to see you again, Etty. We met once at the school, at some fundraising event." Her voice was soft and cool, barely there, almost the voice of a young girl, breathy and winsome.
I saw a slight frown crease my mother's face, and then she smiled. "Ah, yes … of course."
Henry van Aalsburg turned again, gestured at the table. "Well? Shall we?"
The thing that I'd half-noticed earlier, while trying to figure out the view, had crossed my mother's mind, as well.
"But, won't we … I mean, will your son be joining us?"
Henry van Aalsburg's smile faltered, only briefly. "Well, I'm afraid not. Paul … well, he tends to stay in his room most of the day. He's recuperating, and it's going … slowly. But steadily - that's the important thing. He's getting better every day." He turned to Clea. "Isn't that right, dear?"
"Yes," she answered. "He's made amazing progress since the … accident."
Something there, in that, I thought … but even I wasn't rude enough to dwell on it. I assumed I would understand what had happened to Paul van Aalsburg at some point.
Mr. van Aalsburg turned to my mother as two of the household staff stepped out onto the terrace wheeling a cart upon which were covered dishes containing, I assumed, our lunch. "We thought you would start tomorrow, perhaps, with the lessons. Today is a day for simply settling in, if that's okay."
"That would be fine," my mother answered.
"We'll talk, after lunch," he promised.
What I would do with my time remained unsaid, although the pool did beckon.
Lunch was pleasant. Salad, for starters, followed by broasted chicken, asparagus with hollandaise, fingerling potatoes, some kind of french bread and rolls, and ice cream - sorbet, I was corrected, by Clea van Aalsburg - for dessert. The adults shared a bottle of white wine; I made do with lemonade.
"What, this again?" I quipped, when the meal was served.
"Louis," my mother answered. She turned to our hosts. "I must apologize for my son. He was only recently allowed back into society. He's not used to such fine dining. He usually makes do with gruel, I'm afraid."
Paul van Aalsburg smiled. "You, young man, are going to be trouble, I think."
Conversation was pleasant, as well … but I noticed that we didn't speak at all about the elephant not in the room: namely, Paul. It was as if his parents deliberately steered talk away from that subject, and again I wondered about the boy. Accident, they'd said. How bad, I wondered? Broken-leg kind of accident? Or hideously-disfigured kind of accident? I'd have to work my mother over for information at some point soon.
In the center of the table stood a tallish glass vase with a handful of white flowers whose name I didn't know. There was something exotic about them; I knew enough to know that they weren't just garden variety tulips or irises. They were pure white, curving intricately into a shape that struck me as somehow erotic; indeed, in the center of each flower was a prominent yellow protuberance whose function was unmistakable. My mother reached out, traced the contours of one of the flowers delicately with an index finger.
"These callas are lovely, Clea."
At that, the woman's expression brightened. "They are, aren't they?" she cooed. "I grow them here, at Belle Isle. There's a pond in the garden that's just perfect for them."
Something, at that point, made me glance up at the house looming just behind us; I might have imagined it, but there appeared to be some kind of motion at one of the windows of a corner room, as if someone had been looking through curtains and had stepped away when observed. I had the feeling that someone was watching us.
"So …" I ventured, one evening a few days later, out on the terrace, when it was just the two of us. Henry and Clea had retired for the evening, he to his study, she to her office.
My mother turned to me. "So?" she threw back at me. I made a face.
"So, what's he like?"
"Paul?" she asked. I grinned; she was stalling.
"No, the Pope," I threw back at her. "Yes, Paul."
"Oh, he's pleasant enough." She looked at me out of the corners of her eyes. "Polite. Well-mannered. Intelligent. Need I go on?"
I shook my head. "You've made your point. So … not missing any limbs, is he? All the bits and pieces still there?"
"Well, I mean … he's just a disembodied head in a glass jar, at this point, so there's that … and three of his eyes seem to work well enough, but the fourth one just tends to wander off in some other direction most of the time."
"Oh. That's neat."
"Really, Louis, he's fine."
"Am I ever going to meet him?"
"Well, I don't know," she answered. "That's up to him. And his parents, of course."
"What, am I a leper, or something?"
"Of course not. Unless you've been to Africa without me knowing. No … it's just that he seems … fine with being up there, right now. As if it's something he needs, or he's just afraid of … everything outside of that room. I didn't really ask him about this accident, but it seems to be something that he doesn't want to talk about. At least, not yet, and I'm not going to pry. And neither are you." She sipped a glass of wine, the leftover bit from lunch. "He … well, he looks like he's in some kind of brace, or something. I wonder if he's done something to his back. And he has to use a cane to get around. It all looks very serious … but he claims that it's not as bad as it was earlier."
"I can go up there, if he wants."
"Only if he wants you to, Louis. Please - don't … just give him his privacy. When he's ready - if he's ready - I'm sure he'll let us know."
"Okay, okay." I made a face. "Remind me again why I'm up here?"
"Because the alternative is spending the summer with your grandparents. In Manhattan. In their cramped apartment. Sleeping on the sofa. Listening to them day in and day out, over and over, on and on, endlessly …"
"Again, you've made your point. Thank you."
I would have to make do with things as they stood. No matter, really. I was spending the summer in a grand house on its own island, in the middle of the river, with a pool the size of Central Park completely for myself.
I thought I would do just fine.
Evenings were the hardest. After dinner, everyone in the house seemed to disappear into their own realms. My mother, tired after a long day teaching the reclusive and as-yet-unmet Paul, would retreat to the library to prepare for the next day and to relax with a glass of wine and some music. Henry and Clea were absent more often than not, gone to some affair or dinner with friends and acquaintances. Tom, of course, was by himself in a garret apartment over the garage.
And Paul was wherever Paul was; I had not quite yet figured that out.
Early on, I would go for a swim in the pool, almost always alone, although sometimes my mother would surprise me by coming out to relax in one of the chaise longues arrayed along one side of the pool, after the sun had set and the heat of the day had subsided.
But even swimming gets to be boring, especially when one is doing it by oneself.
Tonight found me prowling around the house.
Not rifling-through-drawers kind of prowling - I would never do that - but a kind of what do we have, here? exploration. I'd already explored the third floor, a series of small rooms arrayed along each side of a dark and dimly lighted hallway; each room had a small window - the ones I'd noticed the first day we got here - and I assumed that the rooms were intended for use by the help. The only things up here now seemed to be echoes and dust and rooms now used for storage.
The basement, too, had yielded to my experimentations; more dust, more storage, a coal furnace hulking like a hydra in one corner with a farrago of ducts and piping springing from its squat iron bulk. Eighty years of occupations by various van Aalsburgs had left in their wake a sea of cast-off items like the contents of a modern-day Tut's tomb: wicker baby carriages with age-rotted tires and moldering upholstery, leather golf club bags mottled with mildew and still carrying rust-spotted clubs with wooden handles, a wheelchair also made of wicker, pictures of grim and unsmiling men and women dressed in black, books in some foreign language - German, I thought? - whose yellowing pages crumbled as I leafed through them.
Back upstairs, then, before I succumbed to the dankness and mildew. I'd already familiarized myself with the first floor: foyer, stair hall, library, music room, den, morning room, kitchen, breakfast room, butler's pantry, and - star of the show - the two-story salon, whose elegant leaded glass windows looked south to the terrace, the pool, the unspooling river and the distant skyline of the city.
That left the second story, then. Two of the rooms were already known to me: my bedroom and that of my mother; we shared a bathroom. Most of the rest of it was off-limits to me: the west side of the level was given over to Mr. and Mrs. van Aalsburg's bedroom, dressing room and bath, and I would never dare set foot in there.
There were other bedrooms, each variations on a theme established by my own. One of these, I knew, must be Paul's room, and I knew I didn't dare start tapping on doors, trying doorknobs.
There was a space, however, that I thought I might be able to explore. I'd noticed it on our arrival, as Tom had guided the Packard up the side of the hill; it was some kind of covered outdoor space, a feature my mother had called a loggia, framed by corner bedrooms on each end of that part of the house.
I made my way down the hall and to where I knew the loggia to be, and there they were: a series of leaded-glass doors in a row, opening out into the outdoor room. I tried one of the doors; it opened with a quiet snick! of sound, and I stepped out.
The loggia was in darkness, with only twilight to give me any sense of its makeup. This room faced east into inky blueness. I stepped over to the low stone railing, looked out and down. In the distance, perhaps two miles or so, the lights of Tarrytown twinkled as the city slipped into darkness. I could see cars plying the route that ran south from the town, the same route we'd taken some few weeks ago. A long row of lights moving at a slow pace right at the river's edge puzzled me at first until I understood that it was a train - our train, or its twin - coming up out of Manhattan.
I stood there for a long moment, looking out at the scenery. I craned over the edge, looked down, could see the bridge connecting Belle Isle to the mainline and the start of the road up to the house, which lost itself quickly in a thicket of trees and undergrowth.
"Careful," a voice called out to me, an undertone of humor in it. "First step's a doozy."
I whirled to see a figure in the corner of the loggia. "I'm sorry," I said, when I found my voice. "I didn't mean to disturb you." I watched as a disembodied ember of light floated up and then back down, understood that this person - it must be Paul - was smoking; a few seconds later, the odor of burning tobacco reached my nose.
"Oh, it's fine," Paul said. "It's about time we met, anyway … right?"
"I can go, if you want," I responded, by way of not answering Paul's question.
"You can go if you want to. But I wouldn't mind if you stayed." Paul reached out, rattled a chair next to the chaise upon which he slouched. "You can sit with me."
I went over, perched on the chair. In the gloom, I could barely make out Paul's form, guessed that the smear of white on top of him must be blond hair … which made sense, given his parents. The rest of him was only a suggestion of eyes and nose and mouth, vague shapes in the smooth oval of his face.
The cigarette floated up again to Paul's mouth; when he inhaled, the light flared, throwing a little more relief into the boy's face … and I started, might even have gasped a little. Paul was beautiful. How beautiful remained to be seen, but there was something unearthly in the face thrown into a brief chiaroscuro by the orange light of the cigarette. Nothing my mother had said about their sessions had ever mentioned this.
Paul reached out, grabbed a pack sitting on a glass-topped table, extended it to me. "You want one?"
I shook my head, then realized that Paul couldn't probably see that. "No, thanks."
"I'm not supposed to be smoking, myself … but there's fuck-all else to do at this hour."
I chuckled. "If my mother knew I was smoking, she'd probably throw me over the edge of that railing."
"Well, we'll have to find some other vice for you, then. One that won't leave an obvious trace. I can sneak down and get us a bottle of cognac. We can be proper gentlemen."
"Well, I'm more of a gin-and-tonic man myself," I answered. In truth, I was nothing of the sort, but I tried to match what I saw as a kind of cavalier tone to Paul's words. Gratifyingly, the boy chuckled.
"I see. Good choice. My people invented gin, you know."
"The Dutch. Probably to take the edge off of living below sea level. If you're going to face the possibility of a death by drowning, it's better to be shit-faced when you do."
Well, that explained what I'd seen in the basement. Not German, but Dutch. It looked like an odd language, a mix of English and German.
"Do you speak it?"
"Dutch? God, no. I don't think anyone's spoken Dutch in my family for over a hundred years. My father doesn't, and my mother's people are Puritans from England … although I think they may have drifted." He chuckled quietly. "That's one thing we are good at, we van Aalsburgs. Drifting."
I didn't know quite what to make of that, so I said nothing. Then, because I could think of nothing else to say at the moment, "How's it going? With my mother?"
Paul tamped out the cigarette on the glass table top, then flicked the butt expertly over the edge of the balcony; I intuited probably hundreds of other cigarette butts waiting down below for this one to join their ranks. "Oh, that," he answered, finally.
"Sorry to ask."
"Oh, it's okay." Paul reached for the cigarette pack, tapped another one out, stuck it in his mouth, lighted it with a lighter … all of which I watched very carefully, for another chance to fill in the details of the boy in front of me. The blue-orange glow from the lighter - which glittered like gold in Paul's hand - brought to the surface another odd thing: there seemed to be, under Paul's clothes, some kind of unnatural bulkiness, as if they covered some kind of brace or framework … which jibed with what Mr. van Aalsburg had said earlier, the day they had arrived at Belle Isle, when they'd had lunch on the terrace, about his son's accident, something involving his back, his spine.
Paul went on. "Well, before she gets to you, she might just pitch me over the edge."
I chuckled. "I should have warned you. She's small but tough. I can show you scars."
Paul smiled. "She's actually doing much better than the other ones. Her problem is that she doesn't have a very motivated student."
With that, I understood that my mother had not been Paul's first tutor; Mr. van Aalsburg had not mentioned that during lunch … which made a certain sense, I supposed. Why would you bother to work hard when you knew that your replacement was only a phone call away? But this seemed like another topic best avoided; who wanted to be reminded of school and education and homework, especially in the summertime?
"Your, uh … well, I like your house," I ventured.
"Thanks. Not that I had a lot to do with it. My, uh … well, let me see, great-grandfather built this place, back in the 1860's, right after the war."
"Impressive. It's … huge."
"Well, it's supposed to be. It was actually full of people back then; my family tends to pop out a lot of kids. Except for my father and mother, I guess. Now, it's just the three of us. Seems like a waste, when you think about it. I'm pretty sure the help outnumber us, at this point. Hope they don't find out. Might get ugly."
"The storming of the Bastille," I quipped. "In Tarrytown."
"Exactly," Paul answered. "Place is full of revolting peasants." I laughed at that; Paul went on. "I … doubt that I'll ever have children, though."
I wondered about that; Paul seemed a year or so older than me, but that still made him too young to even begin thinking about starting a family. There was something else, though, in Paul's manner, in his way of speaking …
"Yeah, me either," I threw out. Paul glanced at me.
"Who needs all that, right? Especially now. Cold wars and bomb tests, Communists and saber rattling."
We fell silent for a bit, but it was a pleasant silence; we let the evening steal over us bit by bit. Through the view framed by the edges of the loggia, I could see stars beginning to show themselves in the sky. In the trees that framed the house, we could hear insects chirping, some frogs doing whatever it was that frogs did, down by the water's edge. A warm breeze drifted into the space; I could understand why Paul liked it out here.
"Can I ask you something, Louis?"
"I … didn't want to ask your mother about it, but … well, what about a Mr. Adler? Where might he be?"
There hadn't been much left of him after the crash, but there had been enough to put into a grave. Thinking about it still hurt; I coughed to clear my throat. "He's, uh … out on Long Island. He … died, during the war."
Paul said nothing for a long, awkward moment. Then, "Louis, I'm sorry."
I blew out a ragged breath. "It's okay. It was a while ago. I … barely remember him." But I did remember some things.
"But I can see that it still hurts. I'm … well, I'm glad I didn't ask your mother."
"Well, he's close by, at least. They offered her a spot for him in Arlington, but she wanted to be able to go see him every so often."
"What did he do during the war?"
I barked out a laugh. "Funny thing is, he wasn't even a soldier. They, uh … thought he was too smart for that. He volunteered, actually, if they would let him work on … well, we weren't supposed to know what it was, and he never did say it out loud, but we always assumed that he worked on codes. He was on his way to somewhere in Burma when his plane went down in a storm."
"I think he was," I responded. "I'm not sure I would ever do that." I chuckled. "Probably not smart enough, any way."
"Oh, I bet you are," Paul said. "With a mother like that …"
"I think she's given up on me."
Paul chuckled, said nothing for a bit. Then, "Know what my old man did during the war? Got up every morning, had Tom drive him to the station, and took the train into Manhattan to sit at a desk in a law office and make people's lives hell."
I winced at the bitterness in Paul's voice. "Well, not everybody is cut out for that kind of thing, I guess."
"Yeah, but he didn't even try." Paul made a noise with his tongue, something that signaled disgust. "It's what we do, I guess. Decide that the only way out is to fight and then find somebody else to do the dirty work."
It's not like that, I wanted to say, but then one of the doors opened up and Florence - one of the live-in maids who made do with a suite of rooms on the third floor - popped her head out, did a double-take when she noticed me, but turned back to Paul.
"Time you should be settling in for the night, Paul. You need your rest." She underlined this request by making it a point to stand by the open door until Paul, reaching over to grab a cane, managed to hoist himself up off the chaise and hobble over to the door. Obediently, I rose, stepped towards Paul with the intent of helping him, but Paul waved me back.
"Thanks," he said, the strain obvious in his voice. "I've got this."
I stepped inside while Florence shut the door behind him and locked it, turned to watch Paul make his way slowly down the hall and to his room. At the door, he turned back to me.
"Thanks for the evening, Louis. I'd … well, maybe I'll see you here tomorrow night."
And I smiled.
The days that followed were, at least for me, paradise. Now that the threshold had - perhaps literally as well as figuratively - been crossed, we spent most of our days together when Paul was not in the study with my mother. Paul, who had before this been taking his meals in his room, made it a point to show up more and more often for dinner with the rest of his family, and with me and my mother. I'm not sure what Henry and Clea made of our newly-minted friendship, if they made anything at all out of it … although they did seem gratified that he was no longer spending so much time alone in his room.
In full light, Paul revealed himself to be even more beautiful than I had first understood. Paul had the kind of beauty that one might imagine had involved the selling of one's soul; I wondered what it must be like to be in possession of that kind of beauty. Paul seemed unconscious of it, at any rate.
I thought, inexplicably, about the flowers - callas, she had called them - his mother had arranged for the lunch on our first day here. Something about them reminded me of Paul: the same icy delicacy and astonishing beauty, exotic and beguiling. Paul himself was pale built upon pale, hair so blond it was nearly white, skin nearly paper white … although I suspected that, under a summer sun, it might turn a surprising amber-gold. Even Paul's clothing shared that same otherworldly sensibility; he favored long-sleeved white dress shirts and white trousers, gray-white slippers of some soft, suede-like leather.
Every morning, I looked at myself in the mirror as I got ready for the day. I turned my face this way and that, trying to see it as Paul might see it: unruly brown hair held fast in place with the prodigious application of pomade over a face kind of face, with a prominent nose and a wide mouth that smiled easily, hazel eyes set deep under my brows. I had a certain workmanlike quality to my looks; not unhandsome, not a face that would repel someone, but … average, maybe, more like my father than not.
I grinned at myself, shook my head. Give it up, Louis. He's out of your league. Even if he's playing on the same team.
That Paul might indeed share my sensibilities had crossed my mind on more than a few occasions. Paul had a certain manner about him, a certain brash carelessness about the way he spoke and the way he carried himself that spoke volumes to me. For my part, I might have wanted to see such things even where they might not have been, but every time he and I were in the company of Paul's parents, I could see Henry and Clea both looking critically at their son and I could imagine the thoughts running through their heads as they watched.
One surprising aspect of Paul's behavior - at least around his parents and around my mother and me - was a certain … well, waspish quality to his speech. It wasn't anything that one could put a finger on: subtle digs and jibes and comments on the behavior of others that bordered on something that was not quite cruelty but a close cousin to it. I don't know if he had always been this way, but it was hard to ignore now. Of course, young men of his age - my age - spoke that way to and about their parents all the time; I was as guilty as that behavior as anyone, but Paul pushed boundaries that I dared not to, fearing a sharp reprimand - or worse - from my mother. I wanted to think that every liberty I took with my mother - liberties that she herself had granted - were motivated by love and respect for her. I was not sure the same was true for Paul. I once saw him lean over and stage-whisper something - I heard only breathy syllables bereft of meaning - into Florence's ear that made her utter a startled laugh at first and then watched as her eyes and mouth flared wide when she'd finally understood it ; it shocked her enough to make her leave the room quickly.
Well, no matter, I thought, if At the very least, Paul would prove an interesting distraction for the summer, even if things went nowhere.
But I would try. Not obviously - I was smart enough to know that that wouldn't work - but I would make it known to Paul that I would be a willing participant in whatever might happen, if Paul wanted it.
Our days fell into predictable routine. In the mornings, Paul would be awake and in his room with my mother until lunchtime, then the three of us might have lunch together before the two of them went back for an afternoon session that might last until nearly suppertime.
I would spend my mornings in the pool, lazily swimming laps back and forth … or lounging with a book on the terrace, shamefully indulgent only because my mother wasn't here to goad me to do something more productive with my time. Sometimes, I got bold enough to take a bicycle into Tarrytown and spend the morning going up and down the main drag window shopping. Once, when I had plans to do that, I was waylaid by the sight of Tom washing the family's cars in the driveway. He was dressed only in a swimsuit, an undershirt, and rubber thongs; his skin shone with beads of water from the hose. I ducked into a copse of trees and stared, transfixed, for nearly half an hour, hating myself even as I understood why I was doing it.
One day, though, caught everyone unawares. The day started overcast and gray and got only worse from there; the skies opened up, loosing a near-apocalyptic torrent of water upon us. The temperature dropped into the upper sixties - rare for July - and stubbornly stayed there. Swimming, of course, was out; I could do nothing but stay indoors, holed up in the library, watching the rain hammer down upon the river. The city was obscured from view; we seemed cut off from everything … the mansion became the wheelhouse of a great, green ship adrift on a sea of drizzle and fog.
After supper, I assumed that there would be more of the same, but then Paul, making his way over to the stairs, nicked his head at me - come on! I followed, dutifully, wondering where we might be going; I doubted that the loggia would be hospitable, given the weather.
To my surprise, he walked down to the door of his bedroom, opened it, and I followed. He shut the door behind us, didn't lock it.
The first thing that I noticed was, of course, the size of the room, easily three times the size of my tiny cubicle in our apartment back in the city. That in itself wasn't necessarily a surprise; everything in this house was two or three times bigger than it needed to be.
The second thing I notice was how neat everything was. I know the van Aalsburgs had maids that kept everything all tickety-boo … but this room was a complete contrast to my own back home. Every square inch of my room was crammed with whatever happened to interest me at any particular moment; periodically, my mother would descend on my room and demand that I muck it out, muttering something along the lines of this is how the Triangle Shirtwaist fire started, and I would spend an afternoon whittling things down until I could at least find my bed, and maybe the floor.
Paul's bedroom, though, could have been that in any good hotel, everything in its place, neat and orderly, tidily tasteful … and completely devoid of personality. There were a few things that indicated the age and sex of the room's occupant: books on shelves, some art on the walls, a model airplane displayed tastefully on another set of shelves, some bright brass sports trophies. No matter. I wasn't here to do a piece for the Sunday Times on the lifestyles of New York's elite. The only thing that seemed out of place was a pile of books and papers on a wooden desk against one wall: his schoolbooks and his notes. I realized with a start - although I had known this, of course - that this was where Paul and my mother held their sessions; my mother had been in this bedroom more times than I had, something I hoped to change.
Paul limped over to his bed, sat heavily on it, then slowly brought his legs up, laid down nearly flat upon the bed with a grunt of both pain and relief. I went to sit in one of a pair of chairs in the corner, but he glanced at me, shook his head.
"Come over and sit with me," he said. I did, kicking off my shoes and climbing onto the bed beside him, sitting up with my back against a headboard upholstered in gray linen.
"This'll have to do, I'm afraid," he said.
I glanced out through the French doors that led to the loggia, which now looked forlorn and drenched. "This is fine." Part of me thrilled to be here, in his room, next to him.
"I can't believe I've never asked you in here."
I shrugged. "It's okay." Paul shifted position on the bed, sighing audibly. "You look tired," I added.
He stared up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. "I am tired. This tutoring stuff is getting old." He glanced over at me, smiled. "No offense to your mother. But there are better ways of spending one's summer."
"Is this something you have to do?"
"Yes … if I want to have any chance in hell of getting into a halfway-decent college."
"Oh. But you can't go back to the school you were at and finish up?"
"Well, I could … but it's better if I don't."
Paul looked steadily at me. "I just … can't."
I knew that that was all the explanation I was going to get, left it at that, looked around the room. Now that I was here, now that opportunity seemed to present itself, I didn't know what to do.
But, then, that problem was taken out of my hands.
"We … have to talk, Louis," Paul said.
"Okay. About what?"
"About you. About what you're doing."
Uh-oh. Stay calm, Louis. "And what is it that I'm doing, Paul?"
He glanced over, grinned. "Really?" His voice was flat with irony.
I shrugged; he went on. "What you've been doing ever since we met on the loggia a few weeks ago. All the … well, flirting and carrying on. Did you really think I wouldn't notice?"
I blushed. "I … don't know what you're talking about."
He chuckled. "Please. I can tell you're embarrassed even now." He reached out, brushed a hand along my arm. "It's sweet, really. I'm … flattered, I suppose."
I drew my arm away from his hand. "Sorry …" There was, inside me, a brief surge of anger from having my feelings dismissed, rebuffed, like some stupid freshman girl in love with the senior quarterback, thinking that he would love her back, having no clue that he wasn't even aware of her existence.
He sighed. "If it means anything, it took me a while to understand that that was what you were trying to do. I doubt that my parents noticed anything out of the ordinary. But, you see - I … can see it. I can see the signs of it, because I've seen it before. I know what to look for."
Of course he had had to see that, I told myself. No one that beautiful is unaware that other people are attracted to him. "You're telling me you're not -"
"No, Louis, I'm not saying that at all. I know what to look for because … well, because that's what I am, as well. It takes one to know one, as they say."
Another thrill ran through me, hearing what I'd suspected confirmed so casually. I am, as well, he'd said, in the same tone of voice as if confirming that he was male, or Catholic, or blond. It felt good - wonderful, really - to share this news with someone finally.
"It's a strange thing," I volunteered.
He nodded. "It is."
"When did you know?"
He said nothing for a moment. Then, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe eleven or twelve. Well, I knew something was … different, inside me. I knew that I wasn't feeling what I thought I was supposed to be feeling, and then I noticed myself noticing, if you know what I mean. Other … boys. Men, sometimes, although that felt … strange."
"… yes. I caught myself looking at him, every so often, too." He glanced over at me. "You."
What? "What? When?"
He chuckled. "Every time you went swimming. I could see you going out to the pool, in your swimsuit, with your towel … and I looked."
"And?" What did you think, Paul?
I could hear him breathing, beside me, calmly. "When did you know?" he asked.
Something sour ran through me, the opposite of a thrill. A shock? Not quite, but something faintly off, at his equivocation. He wasn't going to answer my question.
"About the same age, I think. Twelve, thirteen, maybe. Not all that long ago."
One day, when I was twelve, my mother surprised me - and herself, as well, perhaps - with an impromptu trip up to New Rochelle, to see her sister - my aunt - Miriam's new ranch house, one that she and her husband Philip had just bought, choosing to ditch the noise and crowds of the city for the relative comforts of the suburbs. Miriam had insisted that she and Philip drive into the city to pick us up, but my mother insisted back, saying that we would take the train out and they could pick us up at the station. Although my mother and my aunt got along well, there had always been some kind of rivalry between them, and Miriam - my mother understood - wanted to show off the new place and how well she was doing. Miriam, to her credit, blinked first; she was pregnant, and it was with some relief that she conceded defeat to her older sister.
The trip was interesting, if uneventful … a fits-and-starts trip from Manhattan through the Bronx and then out of the city. It was fascinating to see the city change from the sardine-can density of Manhattan and the Bronx to more and more open spaces. I could begin to see why someone might want to get out of the city; I wondered what it would be like to grow up here.
Miriam and Philip were there when we arrived, parked out front of the station in their new Nash, a strange, humpbacked kind of car that was big enough for them and for their twin children, my cousins, Joel and Barbara, who, at six, were both younger than I by half.
We clambered into the car and puttered off, back towards the house; as we rode along, Miriam laid out the plans for the day; she and my mother would go shopping at one of the new malls near the house, while Philip would take me, Joel and Barbara to a swimming pool. Later, we'd all meet back at the house and Philip would fire up the grill for hot dogs and hamburgers.
When we got to the house, there was another car in the driveway of the house, a bright red bug-like sports coupe, tiny next to the lumbering, elephantine Nash. My mother turned to Aunt Miriam. "Oh," she started. "Is there company?" She hadn't expected to share her sister with anyone else.
"What?" Then she understood, chuckled. "Oh, no … that's our car, as well. Well, it's Philip's toy."
I knew what it was; I'd seen them in some of the car magazines in the library. "It's a Porsche, right? A 356?"
"Bingo," said Philip.
"You have two cars?" my mother asked, disbelief apparent in her voice.
"Well, yes, Etty," Miriam replied. "I mean, we use the Nash for everything. Philip shipped this back from Germany when he got out of the Army." She grinned at my mother. "We'll take this to go to the mall. Philip will have to drive the Nash, with all the kids."
"You … you can drive?" my mother asked. She, I knew, could not … but the same was true for a great many people in the city; no need to worry about where to keep a car if you could just take the subway or a taxi.
"Well, of course I can, Etty. You … well, you have to be able to drive to live in the suburbs. Trains don't go everywhere."
Philip nudged me. "I'll take you out in this later, after we all get back. It's a blast to drive."
The house was nice enough, spacious and modern, with up-to-date appliances and wall-to-wall carpet and pecky cypress paneling on the walls. It was perched neatly on a luxuriantly verdant, compact quarter-acre lot, bounded all around with other houses much like it, as if a giant mechanical hen had come along and popped these things out like eggs, each the same but for the color of their paint.
Miriam gave us all the cook's tour: living room, dining room, kitchen, den, kids' bedrooms, master bedroom; there was even a basement, given over to the twins and their toys. When the tour was done, I could see that my mother was overwhelmed. For that matter, so was I. This seemed like paradise, this much space.
"Goodness, Miriam! What are you going to do with all this room?"
Miriam laughed. "We're already thinking about a bigger place! When the twins get older, and this one comes along -" she patted her bulging midsection "- we'll probably start looking."
My mother scowled, something she often did when presented with another of Miriam's not-so-subtle comments about how well off she and Philip were … although I really didn't think Miriam meant anything by them. I liked Miriam and Philip; she was often a nice counterpoint to my mother's intransigence and reserved nature. It was she who had introduced my parents to each other; without her, I doubted that my mother would ever have married. Without her, I doubted that I would even be here.
"Don't you miss the city, Miriam?"
"Oh, I don't know," she replied. "I do and I don't … but I think the kids will do better up here, and we can always take the train in if we need to." Too late, she realized what she'd said (my mother's frown intensified) but Philip deftly intervened before the irresistible force and the immovable object collided. He glanced at his watch pointedly.
"Well, we better get these shows on the road, right?"
Although throwing my mother and Miriam together for most of the day might have been a less than reasonable proposal.
I sat beside my uncle as he navigated the Nash in and out of traffic like an ocean liner among lesser vessels. In the back, the twins prattled to each other about the outing.
My uncle nudged my arm. "Sorry about Miriam, earlier …"
I chuckled. "Oh, it's okay. I know she didn't mean it."
"She's just excited to see the both of you."
"I like your house."
"Thanks. It's pretty great." He sighed. "Although I do miss the city, sometimes."
"I'm not sure my mother will ever want to leave it."
"Well, if you're happy …"
Were we happy? I thought we were … but now that I'd seen what Miriam and Philip had, our little place suffered in comparison: cramped, tiny, old, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer. But I still wasn't sure that I'd trade it for this. I guessed that people could get used to anything.
In Manhattan, going for a swim usually meant going into a building; here, the pool - a vast expanse of diamond-clear water sparkling under the summer sun - was out in the open. It was ringed by a prairie of patterned, colored concrete and dotted with chairs and tables under brightly-colored umbrellas.
"We thought about putting a pool in for ourselves," Philip said, as he paid admission for all of us. "Might wait and do that on our next house."
"Well, you'll definitely see me more often," I quipped. Philip chuckled.
Joel and Barbara were already dressed in their swimsuits; Philip told them to go out and stake a claim for an umbrella and some chairs while he and I got ready, and to stay out of the water until he came back. I carried my suit and a towel under my arm; I wasn't sure what to do with my clothing until the attendant handed me a wire basket and directed me towards the men's locker room.
In the locker room, Philip and I claimed separate stalls and changed quickly into our suits. I put my street clothes in the basket and carried them back out to the teenaged attendant, handed them to him, and he wrote my name and the number of the basket on a sign-in sheet.
The pool was busy enough for a weekday summer late morning; the crowd seemed mostly to be women about the same age as Miriam, with children in tow and few husbands. Philip, I knew, worked nearby, at Fordham; this must have been one of the days where he had no classes to teach and didn't have to keep office hours for his students.
I slipped into the water; cold, at first, but it quickly warmed - or I quickly cooled, depending on how you wanted to look at it - as I forced myself into the deep end of the pool. I turned around in time to watch Philip come out of the locker room.
And the thing that had been tickling the back of my brain for the past year or so tickled again.
Philip was in his early thirties, still slender, still lightly muscled and lithe; he had not yet developed the slight paunch that a lot of men his age seemed to take on as they settled into sedentary careers. A white suit that hugged his slim hips contrasted with his smooth olive skin and the dusting of black-brown hair on his chest and belly and legs. He strode into the shallow end of the pool and made his way down to where his children were waiting, held his arms out as they hemmed and hawed about jumping into the pool.
I kicked myself into the deepest part of the pool, took a breath, dove down and down and down to the very bottom of the pool, feeling the pressure in my ears increase, until I could touch bottom. Part of me wanted to remain here, in the blue silence; I could look up and see the undersides of people, legs hanging down like stalactites in a cave, could trace the passage of swimmers over my head. I felt like some misfit creature of the deep, in my lair, unwilling and unable to rouse myself, content merely to watch and wait.
But, I needed oxygen; I cursed the gods who had not seen fit to give me gills with which to breathe. I kicked myself free of the bottom, rose up to the light and the heat and the air.
I stayed in the water as long as I could, but swimming by oneself was never all that fun. Philip spent most of the time here trying to get his children to swim, begging and cajoling them into the water, doing all that he could to turn them into creatures of the sea. I helped him with that for a bit, which also gave me an excuse to watch Philip out of the corner of my eye.
In a bit, I hauled myself out of the water, went over to our seats, dried myself, sprawled out upon the plastic upholstery of the chaise, watched the activity around me. Most of the children here were young, but there were some boys and girls my age and older, and I watched.
A group of boys held sway over the high dive that towered over the far end of the pool, an L-shaped area dedicated solely for divers, out of the way of the main part of the pool. I watched as they climbed the ladder up to the platform, watched as they made their way comically - pirates off the gangplank - to the edge of the board, watched as they launched themselves off its end to pirouette down into the water.
Sun-browned bodies turning and twisting, slicked-back hair hugging their scalps, bodies still in the astonishing freshness of their burgeoning adulthood, voices already a deep burr in their throats, preening and posturing with newly-minted musculature. They knew they were on display and proud of it. That the group of girls gathered on towels at the side of the pool had taken one more - me - into their midst went undiscovered. I watched from a distance.
Presently, Philip ordered Joel and Barbara from the pool; they stood before me, shivering with cold, teeth chattering, flesh goose-pimpled, wrapped like mummies in their towels.
Philip consulted his watch. "We should think about going. Miriam and your mom will be back soon."
"Okay. Thank you for doing this."
Philip turned to me, smiled. "It was fun, wasn't it?"
Philip blotted Joel and Barbara dry with their towels, but left them in their swimsuits.
"I can change them at home," he told me. "Why don't you go get your clothes and rinse off, and then you can watch the kids while I do the same."
"Okay." I set off towards the concrete block building containing the locker rooms and asked the attendant for the basket containing my clothes, waited while he pulled it out of the bank of baskets and deposited it on the counter.
I took the basket, went into the locker room, chose a stall and stripped out of my wet suit, wringing it out in the shower. The shower was little more than a concrete box with a drain in the middle of the floor; I left on my flip flops as Philip had recommended, hung my suit on a hook bolted into the wall, started up the shower, dialing it as hot as I could and started turning around, sluicing the chlorine-laced water from my body. The shower felt good on my skin.
I turned once again, about ready to get out and take over from Philip.
And discovered that I wasn't alone.
A boy - one of the ones from earlier, one of the gang clowning on the high dive, was there in the stall directly opposite mine; whoever had designed this place had not thought about privacy, assuming that men didn't much care one way or the other … and I'm sure most men didn't.
He was naked, of course; I knew he was older than me, maybe sixteen or seventeen, more developed. His skin was already tanned from a summer spent here, with only a swimsuit-sized patch of pale skin from his hips down to the tops of his thighs. He was tallish, skinny, his muscles etched onto his lanky frame, each one clearly defined, something coltish about them, about him; I stood transfixed, watching them jump and slide under his skin. His back was to me, giving me a view of his bottom, two compact handfuls of flesh, firm and full. He worked at his body with soap; I watched as he slipped a soaped-up hand up between his legs to wash there.
I looked down at myself to see what I knew was happening there; I had begun to unfurl myself and watched as it thickened and lengthened - as much as it could at my age - in reaction to what I was seeing. I told myself to look away before he turned and caught me staring at him, could not.
Of course, he turned.
Luckily his eyes were closed against the stinging onslaught of the steaming water. Soaped hands worked at his chest, ribs, belly … and there, between his legs. Pendant and nearly equal to that of a man … or how I imagined men to be. It seemed to move of its own accord, dancing and bobbling in tune with his motions under the little hood of flesh that I, myself, did not have … and that in itself was something to see.
The soaped hand didn't seem too ready to pull away; it lingered there, and I watched as he drew it along the shaft of his cock and under his balls, pushing them out like two eggs in a silk pouch.
Turn away, I told myself. Before you get -
- caught. I was caught. His eyes opened and he stared at me for a long second; his hands stopped and he stood there, under the shower, steam billowing out into the space between us. He licked his lips once; his eyes were hooded in his handsome, tanned face.
Then, a corner of his mouth curled up, in a sneer, and he made a kind of spitting noise with his mouth - disgust, no doubt, at this kid - this faggot - in front of him with his microscopic hard-on and his desire written there on his face and his body.
At me. On my face. On my body.
I turned away, face scarlet with my shame, stayed there until the boy was done, dressed and gone.
Only then did I dare leave.
"Jesus, Louis … what kept you?" Philip asked me … but I could tell he wasn't all that angry.
"Sorry," I mumbled. "Lost track of time."
"Well … okay. I got you a soda and a snack," he said as he got up. "Be back in a sec," he promised.
I reached out, took a draw of the soda, started opening the bag of chips. Joel and Barbara smiled at me, already well into their treats.
Just then, a shadow glanced over me and I turned; it was him, the kid from the shower, now dressed in a t-shirt that clung to his body like paint, and denims whose worn-white crotch telegraphed what I'd seen there earlier, and hole-pocked sneakers, back safely in the gang of other boys. As he passed, he turned to look at me … then raised a hand, raised one finger on that hand … a greeting, to me: fuck off. And he was gone.
Joel and Barbara giggled at this. I ignored them as I watched the boy walk away from me, watched how the pale blue cloth of his jeans molded itself to the boy underneath, firm and full and inviting. Even in this small defeat I took away my prize.
Later, on the train, I sat there quietly, watching the city slowly build up and up around us in the dusk, older foursquares replacing the ranches, duplexes and triplexes replacing the foursquares in turn, then five and six story walkups, then taller buildings, then across the river into Harlem and further south.
"Louis," my mother said to me.
I became aware that she had been speaking to me. I turned. "What?"
"I asked you if you had fun today."
I dragged myself away from the scene in the shower, which kept playing itself over and over in my head. "Oh. Sorry. Uh … yeah, I did."
She frowned. "You okay? Not sunstroke, I hope," she added, smiling.
If only, I thought. If only.
I let out a ragged breath at the end of my story. "And that's when I knew. Really knew, I guess."
Paul and I lay there, side by side in his bed.
"And you haven't …" he started.
"No. But I want to. More than anything in the world, it seems … strange as that may sound." I waited a few seconds, then, "You?"
"Yes," he answered … which made my heart to leap to hear, until I understood that that could have been an answer to two questions I'd alluded to in my answer to him. Yes, I want to? or Yes, I already have? Stupid, Louis. I took a deep breath, got ready to ask the question I needed to ask.
He turned his head to me. "But, I can't, Louis. I just … can't. Not now."
"You can't! You can't!" I echoed back to him, surprising some hitherto unknown talent for cruelty from some deep well inside myself. "Why did I know that you would say that to me?"
"Louis, I'm sorry. I just -"
"You just what?"
"Can't." To his credit, he winced as he said this.
"Won't," I countered.
"Can't," he repeated, more loudly.
To which I said nothing; silence stretched between us for a long, uncomfortable period.
"If it means anything, I want to," he said, finally, his voice quiet and small in the vast room.
"Well, then …" I started.
"Have you ever been in love, Louis?"
Had I? I didn't know. Something like it, perhaps … but never returned, because few people dared return that kind of love, my kind of love. Infatuations? Many, all of them single-sided, the product of some absurd adolescent whim, this boy or that boy or that boy, some single quality among them enough to raise the most elaborate and fragile of constructions, all of them - eventually - left to crumble under the weight of their ridiculous delusions.
"No," I replied. "I don't know."
"Well, then you haven't. If you had, you would know it." He paused, looked away from me, down to the floor. He looked back up; there was some glint in his eyes. Tears? I waited. He went on. "I have."
"Yes. Of course. How else?"
Paul looked down at himself. "It ended … badly."
"That's what happened to you?" I asked. "You fell in love and …?" I gestured at him.
Even in the dimness, I could see his smile, an even whiter white against the paleness of his skin. "Not directly, no. But, eventually, I guess." He made a noise in his throat, part grunt, part something else. "Not a direct cause and effect, but close enough. One could make a case for it."
I couldn't imagine what must have happened for this to have been the result. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"You know what happened."
"I know what your father said. Is that really what happened?"
"Does it matter?"
I sighed. "No, Paul, I guess it doesn't. But … you say the most outrageous things, and then you refuse to go any further. You know what I am; you know because we're the same, you and I. And I … I have feelings for you, Paul, even if you don't want to acknowledge it."
"I do acknowledge them, Louis. I just … I just don't want to act on them."
"Why? Do you not like me?"
"I like you just fine, Louis."
"Well, okay. Is it because you don't find me attractive?" I hated asking that; it sounded like I was begging for his approval, and maybe I was. No one could ever be as beautiful as Paul was - I certainly knew I was not - but I didn't think I was all that awful.
Paul sighed. "It's not that, Louis. You're … well, you're handsome, in your own way. I can see that. And, maybe in another life, or another place …"
"I don't understand. We're here, and it's … now. Why can't we -"
"Because I don't want to get hurt, again. And I don't want to hurt you."
"So you say."
"Again, you can't know until you've felt it."
"Maybe I'm feeling it now."
Paul shook his head. "No. What you're feeling is … I don't know … a crush, maybe. An infatuation. You think you're in love, but it's … well, it's something else. Physical attraction." He grinned. "Lust."
"Well, what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing. But it's not love."
"You think I want you because of the way you look."
He shrugged. "Isn't that true?"
I had to admit the truth in that. "Well, yes. But -"
"You know, I haven't been particularly nice to you, this summer."
It hadn't been any one particular thing, but a series of things, of comments meant to be clever and witty and more than a little cutting, delivered with a smile or a chuckle: I'm just joking. But underneath, there'd been a certain stinging rebuke to them, one that hurt. "No, you haven't."
"And yet, you persist."
"Love conquers all," I muttered.
"No, it does not. I know that for a fact."
Give it up, I told myself. It's not going to happen. I stood up.
"Where are you going?"
"Back to my room. Downstairs. Into the gardens. Anywhere but here."
"I'm not angry, Paul. I just … I give up."
"You think I'm being cruel … and I can see why. From your standpoint, I am. I'm behaving badly. If my father were here - and could get past the fact that I am what I am - he would have something to say about my manners. You're a guest in this house, and I'm treating you worse than I'd treat a dog. I don't want to; I wish you could understand that."
"You can do whatever you want, Paul. It's your house. Like you say, I'm only a guest."
"I wish I could make you understand it," he repeated.
"You can tell me what happened to you."
"You … you won't like it."
"No, I probably won't. But, at least I would know."
"I don't like talking about it."
"That's obvious. You've spent a lot of time not talking about it."
Paul fell silent. I looked at him, at his icy perfection, so like his mother, a crystalline, brittle beauty that would become something else in the near future. And, yes - I was in love with his beauty; no one like me could not fail to be seduced by his physical charms. He was everything I would ever hope to be. I wonder what he felt when he looked at me. I couldn't change my appearance any more than he could change his; we were both stuck being who we were.
I went over to the window, looked out onto the terrace, into the brightening summer morning. The pool glittered there, an invitation. I knew now that Paul had watched me swim, every day; what had he felt, watching me? Was there something in that, a voyeur unable to take his eyes off his prey?
Behind me, I heard Paul sigh.
"His name was Christopher," he began.
Christopher, Christopher …
Even the name itself bore promise: "the bearer of Christ." How could the bearer of Christ be anything less than perfection himself?
He was new, this year, to Atterbury; there were rumors, of course - as there always were - over his provenance, over some sort of whispered story of expulsion from some other school - St. Anselm's? - for some unnamed but alarming behavior. Christopher, himself, was either unaware of the rumors flitting between and among the boys or - if he knew - didn't concern himself with them, perhaps even enjoyed them.
For nearly a month, the school held itself in check over the new arrival. Eyes watched, ears listened, tongues wagged; Christopher sailed happily along in the wake of this.
To Paul, it appeared that he was waiting for something, perhaps for the boys to come to him, knowing that they would, each for his own reason.
And they did.
He was smart; regardless of his supposed behavior at this other school, they had, at least, done a creditable job educating him. His French was nearly perfect, his Latin and Greek less so but serviceable. He was good in English and history, adequate in mathematics and the sciences.
Impeccable as an athlete.
He was tall and lanky, broad in shoulder, slim in hip and waist, long-legged, built more for swimming and running and basketball, all of which he did well.
Those boys who valued academics soon found themselves relying on him for impromptu tutoring sessions in the dormitory, picking his brain carefully, pulling from it what they needed, what he would give them. And he gave, willingly, knowing that it was a way in to this place.
Those boys who valued athletics made a space for him on any team he chose to join, any sport he deigned to try. He found some success in tennis; those who watched him noted some similarity in form to Bill Tilden … although they kept to themselves any thoughts about the darker side of that man's history. One day, he wandered over to a foursome just starting out on the campus' golf course; by the end of the day, he was master of the course and fast friends with the others.
Of all the boys finding themselves drawn like moths to the candescence of Christopher Woolf, the last was Paul van Aalsburg.
The two boys circled each other warily for far longer than seemed proper; each seemed possessed of some deep indigo streak of jealousy enmeshed with contempt.
Almost unconsciously, the other boys in the school resolved themselves into two camps. The one camp was, of course, comprised of those boys who had found themselves unable or unwilling to resist the not-inconsiderable charms of the new boy. The other camp was made up of boys who had fallen, perhaps without noticing, into Paul's realm. Paul had spent nearly all of his young life at this school, having started here at the age of six, and had - perhaps without realizing it - become the de facto leader of the group. He hadn't necessarily wanted that to happen, but he hadn't done much to dissuade the others from it.
And so it was that, one day in October, Paul found himself alone and wandering the edges of the campus, where it tumbled over the edge of the palisade and into Long Island Sound. He sat on a sun-warmed rock, feeling the heat seeping up into his buttocks through the thin cotton of his trousers. He came here often, when, for whatever reason, he needed to be alone with his thoughts and with the emotions coursing through him. On most days, when he did this, he came to a swift and expedient solution to whatever problem vexed him. Away from the constant babble and noise and activity of the school, he could focus on the thing and tease it apart.
Today, though, that expedience deserted him.
This new thing, this dark thing inside him, had only recently made itself known … but had it always been there, waiting only for some trigger to set it off? Perhaps. He wasn't sure. What he was sure of was the event that had served to jostle the dark thing awake.
It had been the arrival of Christopher Wolff.
Even from that first day, when he'd noticed the boy alighting from the beetle-black and shining Cadillac, looking somehow Byronic with his mass of inky black curls and his olive skin, it had been there. There was a latent cruelty inherent in his saturnine, masculine beauty. Paul had been there only by the most mercurial of chances, had looked at the boy, looked away, looked back … to see him staring back, open and unashamed, in a kind of challenge.
And later, in class, when he watched the boy excel on test after test, besting even Paul, it had been there. And that day, in the pool, when the boy had beaten him again in swimming and Paul could only watch, from the water, as Christopher hauled himself out of the pool, diamonds of water glinting on his bare flesh, and turned to Paul and extended a hand to help him up, it had been there.
The one thought that Paul had been trying to outrun finally - here on the rock, in the warmth of an early October day - caught up to him and tagged him.
He was in love with Christopher Wolff.
He knew, now, that he had never been in love with anyone else, not anyone from St. Elizabeth's, a mile or so down the road, distaff twin facility to this, from which place girls and young women would be shuttled over, under the strict gaze of the sisters, for dances and social events; nor from anyone at home, during the summers, at his parents' garden parties at Belle Isle, when daughters of his parents' friends would smalltalk him on the portico or in the gardens and he had tried to respond as he knew he should.
He turned away from this thought, as he knew he should. It was wrong. But it found him, over and over again, twisting around to look at him face-to-face, eye-to-eye, inescapable and ineluctable.
It hurt, this thing. It racked his body, day and night; no Torquemada had ever devised a more perfect torture than this. In his room, his body betrayed him time and time again, stating the obvious until he took matters into his own hand, so to speak, and worked it back into submission, knowing that it would not be the last time, that it would happen again and again.
But it was more than that …
So, what to do?
He couldn't avoid Christopher, any more than he could avoid any of the boys in the school. He was there, all the time, everywhere Paul might go. They all lived together, ate together, slept together, bathed together, learned together, played together. Paul could no more avoid Christopher than he could avoid himself.
He couldn't leave school. His father would want to know why, and what reason could he give that would be acceptable? His grades were good, his teachers liked him, the other boys respected him … and, honestly, he liked it here. Starting over in some other school, at this point in his life, would be nearly intolerable. He would be at the bottom of the totem pole and would have to work his way up. Plus, his father and his grandfather had both attended this school when they were his age; how could he be the first one not to finish?
He looked down at the jagged line of rocks holding back the sea; the drop from here to the narrow strip of sand was easily a hundred feet. And that, too, was a possibility, but he knew he couldn't do it.
Paul sighed; there was no help for it but to try to get through this thing as easily as possible. He had only a year left here; after that, he would try to sort it out. And … who knew? This kind of thing was not uncommon in schools like this; he was not the only one to feel this kind of attraction to another boy. The whole thing might just blow over.
A breeze with just a hint of coolness behind it ruffled his hair, rattled the gold and red leaves that blazed in the trees just behind him … but there was another noise on top of that, and he turned. There was something coming towards him from the woods, something not bothering to mask the rustle of footsteps in fallen leaves.
As Paul watched, Christopher Woolf stepped out of the bank of trees, and he knew himself to be lost, again.
Christopher paused for a moment; the two boys stared at each other from a short distance. Christopher smiled, faintly, looked down, shook his head. Then he started towards Paul.
Here, he eased himself down upon the same rock Paul was perched on, close but not too close, not so close that they would be touching each other casually … but closer than two boys might ordinarily sit.
"So, this is where you come," Christopher said.
"I looked for you everywhere."
"Well, here I am."
Christopher glanced at him, looked away, out to sea. A long silence, not unpleasant, stretched between them. The sound of the water below them was a constant give and take against the granite boulders. "We … should talk," he ventured, finally.
He turned to face Paul directly. "Really?" It was hard to miss the sarcasm in his voice.
Paul chose to ignore it. "What is it, Christopher? What do you want?"
"I want to talk about us. About how we feel about each other."
"And how is that, Christopher? How do we feel about each other?"
"You don't see it? I do." He shifted on the rock, and suddenly, he was even closer to Paul; arm lay along arm, leg along leg. Paul resisted the urge to shift over. "I think you do, too."
Paul sighed. "Pretend I don't, Christopher. Be a genius and find the words to say what you want to say."
In response, Christopher chuckled. "See, now … that's part of it. You know as well as I do what's happening in this school. You and I … well, we're the two most popular boys in school right now. We've managed to split the rest of them down the middle. I have my team and you have yours. They may not realize what they've done, but it's only natural. Now, I don't give a fuck about that and I don't think you do either."
The obscenity didn't shock Paul as much as it should. He didn't regularly use such language himself, but others did. Apparently, so did Christopher. "Everything was fine until you showed up," he countered; somehow, when it came out of his mouth, it sounded more a challenge than an excuse.
Christopher grinned. "Yes. You thought you had everything sewn up, didn't you? Cock of the walk, so to speak. You thought you could get away with it."
"You're right. I don't care about that."
"What do you care about, Paul?"
Paul turned to glance at Christopher; his face was there, in profile, ruddy amber in the afternoon light. "I don't know," he answered. "Things. Like everybody else."
"Ah. But I don't think you're like everybody else. I know I'm not. I … feel things I'm not supposed to feel."
The first faint alarm start ringing in Paul's head. "What … things?" He wondered why Christopher felt free enough to admit this; did that mean he understood that the same things worked inside Paul, as well?
Christopher lay back, on the rock, holding himself up by his bent arms. Paul glanced over, almost as a reflex, let his gaze travel down the length of Christopher's body … but underneath what he wore - what they all wore, the wool trousers and the coarse cotton shirt and the scuffed black saddle oxfords - he could tell little. But there had been that day at the pool, Christopher in his suit, tight against his middle, revealing even as it concealed.
Something that Christopher had said came back to him. "Get away with what?"
"Earlier. You said that I thought I could get away with it. What did you mean?"
"Oh. Your secret."
"I don't ha-" But he did.
Christopher elbowed himself back up; he was now face to face with Paul. "It's okay to feel this way, Paul. It's not wrong. We aren't the only ones. I know others feel the same way. I know you do."
"How can you?" he whispered.
"I don't know," Christopher answered. "I just … do." He chuckled. "One of my many talents."
"It scares me," Paul whispered.
Christopher nodded. "I know. It scared me, too, until I just accepted it."
"I don't know that I can. It's wrong."
"No, it's not. I don't believe that and I don't think you do, either. Just let it happen."
"Lay back," Christopher commanded him. "Close your eyes."
Paul lay back on the rock, stretched his arms out. The rock was a rock, of course, but strangely comfortable for all that. He looked up at the sky; the faint fingernail of a crescent moon floated there.
He closed his eyes, waited, for the longest moment. He imagined some noise, some shifting, and then sensed that the sunlight on his face had gone away.
Still, he waited, until he felt the faintest brush of Christopher's mouth against his.
And he let it happen.
"That's it?" I scoffed. "You kissed a boy? Big deal."
Paul looked at me, his face blank. Then, "It's more than that. You know it is. That's just how it started." He shifted in the chair, trying to find a comfortable position. "Anyway, it's more than you've done."
I regretted, then, telling him about the boy in the community pool, wondered if instead I should have made up some fantasy about secret assignations at night, somewhere, under moonlight. Nothing had happened that day, other than confirming for me that which I had already sensed. "Well, I'm sorry I don't go to a fancy school," I shot back. "Looks like all kinds of things happen there."
"It can happen anywhere, Louis. And, I promise - it will happen to you."
"Just not with you."
It hurt, hearing that. "Just like that? No?"
"You can't … force it on someone, Louis. Not if it's not there."
"Well, I know that, Paul. I mean, if the guy isn't … well, if he doesn't want … I mean …" I could actually feel the flush of blood in my face, hated myself for it, was glad that I was in a darkened room so that Paul couldn't notice.
"See? You can't even talk about it, Louis. How do you possibly think that you could actually do it?"
"Well, I'm only fifteen, Paul."
"And I was barely sixteen. You're old enough."
We seemed to be at an impasse. Well, really, I understood, even less than that. Stalemate, perhaps? Impasse implied that there was something that could be overcome, that I might eventually be able to bend Paul to my will. Stalemate meant that the game was unplayable, unwinnable.
"I'm sorry," I muttered.
"I feel stupid."
"You're not. Never say that."
"It's … all I can think about, sometimes."
"I know. That's how I felt. It just … consumes you."
"But you found a way."
"And look at what happened. I paid a price for it."
"Is that what has to happen?" I asked.
Paul was silent for a long moment. Then, "It's different for us, I think. We have to be more careful. I … wasn't careful."
"And your parents don't know."
"Well, that's the thing," he answered, after a pause. "I don't really know what they know. I know what my father tells everyone, what he told you and your mother. It's … part of the truth. But … well, he's not stupid. He went to that school, did you know that? Well, of course you do; I told you that. Anyway, he knows as well as I do what happens sometimes at that kind of school. Put a bunch of hormonal adolescent boys together with no other outlet than each other, and you've got a sure-fire recipe for all kinds of behavior. And the schoolmaster isn't stupid, either. They may have put one and one together and got 'queer as a three dollar bill.' I don't know. We … don't talk about it."
"But he's locked you away."
"Oh, I don't know. At least for now, perhaps, until I heal. After that … I guess I'll be on my own."
He shrugged. "Maybe. If I want it. I'm not sure if I do."
I couldn't imagine telling my mother that I wasn't going to go to college. Education, for her, was the be-all and end-all of her existence. It was the reason she was here. Which reminded me … "So, my mother is wasting her time here."
Even in the dim light, I could see his puzzlement. "What?"
"Well … I mean … why is she here tutoring you if you have no intent on going to college?"
Paul looked levelly at me, his expression unreadable. "She's here because my father wants her here. Or someone like her." Some implication in that, as if to say that, with a word, Paul could have my mother sent home, and - by extension - me.
"But you're the one she's tutoring."
"Does it matter? Why do you care?"
"So you haven't told your father that you might not go to college."
"No, I haven't. I haven't decided, yet. Anyway, he's paying her. Again - why do you care?"
"I care … well, I care because I look at you and I see someone who's building his entire life on a bed of lies."
"Look at you. So high and mighty, all of a sudden."
"Screw you, Paul. You let some guy …" And, again, I couldn't say it.
"Fuck me," Paul supplied. "He fucked me. I let him fuck me. Again, if you can't say it …"
I barreled on. "And then you decide that you need to hole up here in what might as well be a cave, because you just can't stand to be around people … and, after that, you dupe my mother into coming up here to tutor you, one-on-one, even though you might not even go to college. Anything else? Did I leave anything out?"
Paul said nothing, stared at me for a long moment, still said nothing.
I waited him out. I knew that what I said was said out of anger; I knew, also, that mine was an indefensible position. I myself had engaged - was still engaged - in my own bit of subterfuge with my mother, and Paul knew it. If he wanted to, he could take me to task for it.
Seconds ticked by, each one more uncomfortable than the last.
Then, "When Christopher kissed me, it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. Everything I thought I wanted became real at that point. I knew that I could have it, that it would be granted to me. The most beautiful boy I'd ever met, and he wanted me. I hope you'll have that some day, Louis. I really do. It's the most extraordinary thing. But … you know what?" He trailed off.
"No," I begrudged him. "What?"
"For all of that … for all of the things we did with each other, there was one thing that I would have wanted more than anything in the world."
"A friend. I would have traded all of that for a friend."
"How … how could he not be your friend?" I asked. "If he made you do … that, with him … how could you not be friends?"
Paul chuckled. "Well, that's what I thought, at first."
I tried to imagine it: sex without love. Of course, I knew - theoretically - that such a thing was possible, but since I had experienced neither sex nor love, it remained only a theory. I knew people who were in love with each other; my own parents, obviously. I knew - again, theoretically - that they probably made love with each other; after all, I was proof positive of at least one instance. But I also knew that they loved each other very much; my mother had very nearly been done in by the news that my father's plane had been shot down.
"Nobody prepares you for it," Paul went on. "Not the physical part of it, of course; nobody wants to take you aside beforehand and explain to you the facts of that kind of life. But, the rest of it … the … well, the mental aspects of it, what it means to be this kind of person … nobody prepares you for that, either. Everything you hear about it is a variation on a common theme: you're sick, you're mentally deficient, you're not normal, you're damned to hell, you're a criminal, and so on, and so on, and so on."
"You make it sound terrible," I said.
"Well, it can be," he replied. "It doesn't have to be, of course. I know I didn't feel any of those things when I was with Christopher." He sighed. "But I never knew how he felt about it. About me. Not at first, at least. We would talk about it, afterwards, but I don't really know how much of what he said was real or was just to placate me."
"And you couldn't talk about it with anyone else."
"That's right. I don't know if a friend would have wanted to hear about that part of my life … but it might have helped. You may think that it's a great thing that I got to go to a private school, but you don't understand how … competitive it can be there. Just about everybody there is the son of some bigwig, like I am, and we're all expected to rise to the occasion and excel at everything we do. You may form relationships with other boys, if only because you can't avoid them … but I'm not sure I ever came away thinking that I had made a friend."
I understood then what Paul was asking of me. Did I want it? Did I want him simply as a friend? Would that be possible, knowing what I really wanted from him? How would I be able to look at him and see him only as a friend, and not as someone I wanted to be with?
I couldn't answer him; maybe he didn't want an answer. But I still wanted to know what happened between him and Christopher. There was that "… not at first …" phrase that stuck in my brain.
"So …" I started.
One might have thought that on a campus of some two dozen buildings of various sizes scattered over nearly a thousand acres that there would be someplace for the two of them to be alone with each other. But everywhere they ended up they were stymied. The most obvious choice - the dormitories - was the one most fraught with the danger of getting caught. Even though upperclassmen were allowed their own rooms, there were no locks on the doors; the school prided itself on its honor code. When the boys were in their own rooms, there was a tacit agreement among them that these doors would remain open until the boys retired for the night.
Two boys alone with each other in a room with its door closed would fall instantly under suspicion of being up to no good.
Classrooms were out of the question; too open, also unlocked. Ditto locker rooms. Storage closets were too small and too cramped; janitor's closets too dank and mildewy and reeking of any number of cleaning solutions. Basement boiler rooms were dusty and cobwebby and inhabited by creatures whose natures did not bear close observation.
Anywhere outside - with autumn's chill portending winter - was out of the question.
Which left the two of them working furtively at a basement door one late October evening, after dinner, in the dormitory given over to male teachers. Paul shivered in his woolen pea jacket while he watched Christopher attempt to open the door with a rusty key of unknown origin. It was already dark out; their efforts were lit with the glare from a security light attached to the wall over their heads and with the glow of a rising full moon.
"Damn it!" he whispered. "This is supposed to work! He promised -"
Paul knew enough not to press Christopher too closely on how he had acquired this key - after all, who was this unnamed he? - lest he abandon the project in frustration and whatever might have happened as a result of it would remain untested. His desire to be with Christopher had only increased ever since that kiss on the cliff overlooking the water.
"Can I try?" he asked. His breath came out as a thick cloud in the still night air. He glanced over his shoulder, as he had been doing ever since they'd slipped back here, but there was little chance of discovery. Behind this building was only woods: land, as yet, uncleared, held in store for future growth.
"No. I don't want to break the key," was the response.
Paul heard more faint scratching as Christopher tried the lock again.
"Fuck!" he whispered, his voice fierce with anger. "C'mon, you bitch …"
Paul was about to tell Christopher to give up - they'd find somewhere else, and he was freezing his ass off out here - when there was a different sort of sound and the key rasped in the lock as it turned. Christopher shouldered the door open as quietly as he could, and they stepped inside.
Behind them, Christopher shut the door, then fumbled in his pocket for something, and then a yellowish circle of light appeared in front of them, from a flashlight Christopher held in his hand. He turned to Paul, grinning.
"Home, sweet home."
The feeble light from the flashlight picked out strange shadows and reflections as it roamed around the basement. The shadows resolved themselves into expected and familiar shapes: stacked beds like the ones in their rooms, chairs, desks, mirrors, lamps, nightstands.
"Over here," Christopher whispered. "Follow me."
He led them away from the door deeper into the basement, nimbly picking out a path through and among the long-forgotten flotsam and jetsam. The basement smelled of dust and slowly rusting metal, but it wasn't as bad as Paul had expected. In the background, he could hear the steady low roar of the dormitory's massive furnace, fighting mightily against the cold.
They wound up in a corner of the space, relatively private because of stacked wardrobes and armoires that created a kind of room, in which was another of the beds. Paul shone the light around; on the bed was a stained mattress covered in blue and white ticking.
"I know it's not much," he began, "but it's better than nothing."
"It's fine," Paul answered. "It's perfect."
"We can bring down sheets and pillowcases, and towels, and stuff to clean up with." He gestured with the flashlight, sending a glare over to another part of the basement. "There's even a shower and a toilet, and they still work."
Paul had not thought about that, about the aftermath of whatever they might do with each other, about how he might have to clean himself. He realized then how little he actually knew about any of this … but that led to another observation.
"You've done this before."
Christopher said nothing, at first; he sat down on the bed, whose springs squeaked slightly. He looked up at Paul. "Well, yes, of course I have."
"I thought you understood that, Paul. I'm … well, I'm not a virgin."
"I know. I just thought …"
"It's okay, Paul. Really."
Did it matter, so much? He had had no right to expect that Christopher was as new to this as he was; once again, he thought of the rumors he had heard when the boy had first shown up at their school. Part of him wanted to know the truth behind it, but a greater part of him knew that prying too deeply into Christopher's history might deny him his own opportunity.
Abruptly, Christopher switched off the flashlight, plunging them into inky darkness. Slowly, Paul's eyes adjusted to the dimness; faint silver light from the moon and from the security light filtered into this part of the room, and he realized that he could see Christopher as a dark silhouette against the pale background of the mattress.
"Come over here," Christopher said.
He did. Christopher's arms came out and steered Paul into a position directly in front of him. His heart started pounding in his chest as he understood what was about to happen. Then, he could feel Christopher's hands at his waist, fumbling with his belt, and he reached out his own hand, grasped Christopher's.
"Wait …" he whispered.
Christopher chuckled. "Why?"
"I just … I didn't …"
"… think this was going to happen?"
Paul could feel his blood roaring in his ears, thought he might faint or pass out … but he wanted this, he realized, wanted it more than anything. He undid his belt, unzipped his fly, let his trousers fall down around his ankles in a slither of sound.
"Much better," Christopher murmured. He hooked the index fingers of both hands into the elastic waistband of Paul's underwear and slid the garment down, leaving Paul exposed, there, already hard and full and painfully erect.
Christopher grasped Paul, then, at the base of it, not roughly, let a finger or two tickle through the hair on his scrotum. Then, Christopher leaned forward, and Paul felt the faintest tickle of something wet against the head of his cock, knew it to be Christopher's tongue, working at the bead of slickness there.
"Well, that's lovely," the boy whispered, as he opened his mouth and took Paul inside, in one deft motion, not stopping until his lips tickled the hairs at the base of Paul's cock. He held himself there, working his tongue and mouth and throat around the length and girth of it, then pulled away only to take him inside again, into that warm, wet slickness. And again, and again.
And everything changed.
And, after that night and that first time, after he spent himself in a volley of uncontrollable spasms into Christopher's mouth, it was as if the floodgates were thrown open wide. He was no longer afraid of it. He wanted it all.
They worked their way through it, slowly, deliberately, comparing schedules and times, making opportunities to see each other as and when they could, mostly in the evenings, when they would normally have time to themselves after classes, after meals. They would each slip out of the dorm; not all that hard to do, with the excuse of the library or a workout or practice to dandle in front of the housemother. If she had ever thought to correlate their leavings with any anticipated arrivals at the library or the gym or the field, they would be found out, but she never did.
They made their trysting place as pleasant as they could. Stolen linens from the laundry found their way here, as did towels and washcloths. Each time they used the room, they took care to make the bed as they'd been taught, with crisply folded corners and almost military precision. After they were done, they would carefully fold the linen and stow it in one of the armoires lining their makeshift bedroom; one could never insure against a janitor or handyman bumbling through the space at odd hours. No real clue to their time spent here could be seen.
And, oh, that time!
Paul let Christopher lead him where he would, down whichever path Christopher wanted to blaze. And Paul was a willing scout; fearful, perhaps, but eager, as well, trusting Christopher not to take a wrong turn.
Quickly, Paul discovered what he liked best, and that was to open himself up to Christopher in all the ways possible. He loved the taste and feel of Christopher in his mouth, barely able to fit the boy in … loved the feel of Christopher moving down there, inside him, as he spread himself wide beneath the boy, helpless and defenseless, watching Christopher shuttle in and out of him, watching the expressions flicker and dance across Christopher's face, matching his own … loved straddling a Christopher sprawled out on the bed, reaching behind himself to take the boy there, at the root, and ease him inside, inch by delicious inch.
By tacit agreement, they learned to make love in near silence. It was strange, to be here in this place and doing things that made Paul want to shout out with the joy and the delight of it … but above them they could hear the sounds of their teachers in their rooms, in the evening. It was strange to be locked together with Christopher in wordless, silent lovemaking while over their heads could be heard footsteps, running water, voices, music.
What impressed itself most into Paul's mind was how much he loved this, how much he needed it.
What impressed itself secondly into that same mind was how right all of this felt. Everything he had ever heard about this thing - from the stentorian pronouncements of the church, to the veiled comments from his parents about the unfortunate arrest of a distant cousin living down in the city, to the not-so-veiled smutty jokes and leering comments of his classmates - he now knew to be wrong.
How could what he felt - these delicious, astonishing sensations, like running a tongue through honey or a finger along silken velvet - be wrong? His body felt made for this thing; what cruel and capricious god thought enough to lock this most amazing thing so deep inside the bodies of men so that only other men could discover it? No woman, he knew, would ever understand where or even how to coax this thing forth, and would not want to if she did.
He felt, too, like some kind of superhero: mild-mannered boy student by day, unrepentant and eager lover by night; he relished the duplicity of it, went to class each day buoyed by this secret knowledge, knew that his classmates - save for one - had no idea what went on almost every evening down in the basement of that dormitory.
Like a second home that place seemed to be, now. Far from being a place of cast-off things, of dust and decay, of ruin and abandonment, it had become a kind of minor paradise, a place of safety and refuge. After they made love, he and Christopher would nestle close to each other, still naked, and whisper about the things that boys whispered about: what they had been, what they were now, what they might be some day.
For Paul, that future revolved solely around Christopher and something they might be able to build upon, a kind of life. In that place, such a thing seemed reasonable, seemed doable. It didn't matter to him, now, that Christopher had had more experience in this thing than he; it seemed right, somehow, a certain kind of education, the learned teaching the learner in this arcane and delicate art. And never had a teacher had so adept and willing a student.
They marked time with their trysts; autumn tumbled into winter and into spring. They stopped only when forced to: the need to study for exams or write papers or breaks for Christmas and Easter, times when Paul could think of nothing but Christopher. He amazed his parents by how avid he was to return to school after each of these times apart.
And if, as spring approached with its promise of life and renewal, Christopher seemed more distracted than Paul would have wanted, or deflected Paul's more outrageous desires and dreams with an offhand remark, or begged off some night with one excuse or another conjured up on the spot … well, then Paul chose not to notice, counted himself as more than fortunate for the time that Christopher spent with him.
Which made its denouement all the more cruel.
"Stupid, I know," Paul said. "God, I was so stupid." He shook his head, jostling the bed.
"Not stupid," I offered. "Naive, maybe."
"Blind, more like it. All the signs were there. I just didn't want to read them."
"You were in love."
Paul nodded. "I had that, at least. Not that it did me any good, in the end."
"Did he love you?"
Paul said nothing for a moment. Then, "I don't know. I want to think he felt something for me. It may not have been love, but I needed for it to be more than convenience."
"What if he'd said yes, in the end? What if he'd said he wanted to make a life with you?"
"I don't know, Louis. It never got that far. Obviously."
"Yes, but - what if? What would you have done?"
"Well, I don't know. I … well, wait it out, I guess. Wait until I was done with school, figure out where I was going to college … figure out where he was going to college … try to get things to work, maybe find a place together somewhere. Men do that, you know. So I've heard."
"Make a life together."
"That sounds wonderful."
"Does it? I hope so. I hope it doesn't sound pathetic. I knew I didn't want to -"
Paul sighed. "End up like those pathetic old queens. I know you've seen them, in the city. Lonely and alone and bitter."
I had noticed men like that, hadn't thought much about them, since I hadn't understood anything much about myself until only recently. But I had wondered about them, from time to time, what their lives might have been like, how they'd gotten to this point in their lives, what their futures might hold.
"You wouldn't have."
"You don't know that."
True, I thought. I didn't. I hadn't a clue. But … "I'm just trying to be a friend." I jostled his arm with mine.
"I know," he answered. "Thanks."
Louis chuckled. "It's the very least I could do."
Paul chuckled, as well. They sat there, side by side, in silence, letting the sounds of the rain outside patter and tick against the glass.
"You could still do that, you know. If you wanted to," Louis murmured.
"Find someone. Make a life with him."
"With you, you mean."
"No," Louis answered. "I mean, yes, I would love that … but I know it's not going to happen. I can accept that. If the attraction's not there, it's not there. I understand that much, even if I don't know anything else."
"You're a smart boy, Louis."
I snickered. "All evidence to the contrary."
"No, I'm serious." Paul turned, hoisted himself up on one elbow; a slight groan of pain slipped out of him. I looked over at him. "You'll make some lucky boy a wonderful husband, one day," he quipped.
Despite myself, I laughed. "My mother will be so pleased."
"Well, she should be. You're smart, funny …"
I pretended to fan myself. "My, my, Mr. van Aalsburg … how you do go on!"
" … talented, capable …"
"… moderately good-looking …"
"Well, you look good in a swimsuit. I'll give you that."
"I wonder if your mother even knew what I was doing, staring out the window, pretending to concentrate … when all I was really doing was watching you swim laps in the pool."
"Not much else to do around here. You could have joined me."
"I wanted to, but …" He gestured at his torso, at the contraption hinted at underneath his shirt.
"What is that like?" I asked.
"Torture. You ever see pictures of that … oh, what's it called … that torture device. Oh - an iron maiden."
I nodded. "I … think so."
"Well, this is a lot like that. It's positively medieval, like something the Inquisition would use on people."
I reached out, traced a little bit of what I could see with my finger, feeling the hard ridges of it through the cloth of his shirt. "Sounds terrible," I said.
Paul stared at me for a long moment. Then, he rose up in bed, reached over for his cane, hoisted himself up into a standing position. When he was reasonably sure of his balance, he hung the cane over the top edge of his headboard … and started unbuttoning his shirt. I raised myself up and stared.
He said nothing, just worked his hands down the front of his shirt, slowly exposing something that did indeed look monstrous, something cobbled together out of bands of leather and hoops and straps of some dull metal, perhaps aluminum. When he was done, he shrugged out of the garment, wincing hard against what I knew now had to be excruciating pain, and laid it on the bed.
I could only continue staring, knowing that he wanted me to see this.
It was a kind of corset, but more than that, I could tell. It fitted itself tight to his torso, but I could see the pale skin of his chest and belly revealed beneath it. There appeared to be straps and other mechanisms that could be used to tighten and adjust the thing, to force the body to conform to whatever positions the doctors deemed necessary to coax Paul's body back to some semblance of what it had been in the beginning.
There was a pronounced … curve to him that I knew could not be natural, some break in the body's natural appearance. I thought of the boy in the shower of the New Rochelle pool, of how one surface had flowed into another and another, all of it making perfect, beautiful sense. Here, it was as if nature had undergone some terrible kind of hiccup and had been frozen mid-spasm.
And, yet, despite that, I could see hints and suggestions of what Paul had been like, from before, could still see the beauty of him, even in the too-thin, reed-like body he now inhabited, looking somehow diminished. I knew that he must have been majestic and proud and extraordinary.
I said nothing; there was nothing to be said. Paul would not meet my eyes. Presently, he leaned over, picked the shirt back up off the bed, pulled it back over his frame, started buttoning it back up.
"There's something similar on my left leg," he said, his voice quiet, barely audible. "Every week or so, a doctor comes in and makes me strip down to nothing but these things. He pokes and prods and measures and mutters to himself a lot, while I just stand there naked, and then he jots things down, and then he starts … tugging, and pulling, and tightening, and adjusting, and all I can do is stand there and grit my teeth against all of it, against all of the goddamned, fucking pain of it, and then he mutters some more to himself and jots more things down, and then he leaves. And, even so, I know that it will not be enough, that it will never be enough.
"He never says anything to me about it, about how it's going. He just stands there staring at me, as if I were some dead piece of meat, and then he smiles at me. You know what kind of smile it is, too. It's the kind of smile that's supposed to reassure the patient that, no, all is not lost when it really is and they don't want you to know. And then he goes and talks to my parents about what he's figured out so far and what he plans to do to me the next time he shows up."
"But your father said that you were making progress," I offered.
He sat on the bed. "Oh, I am. I know that. The biggest bit of progress was simply being able to stand up and start getting around on my own, again. I couldn't even bathe myself properly. Did you know that? Every other day or so, some other person would come in, some nurse from the hospital over in Tarrytown, and give me a sponge bath. And you never get clean with one of those, no matter how hard they try. It just feels like they're smearing your shit around to different places. The day that I was able to get myself to the bathroom and take a proper shower, I cried like a baby."
"My mother never said anything about any of this."
"Well, that's because I never told her any of it. Oh, I knew what my father had told her, and I knew also that she could see the thing beneath my shirt; nothing could hide that. But I never wanted that to be a part of what we were doing. I wanted to forget about it for as long as I could. I didn't want to burden her with it."
That he had burdened me with knowing it went unsaid. It hurt to see him this way, but I knew also that this was some indication of a new level of trust between us, that he had wanted me to see this, that this was what being a friend meant: sharing the pain as well as the joy.
"If it means anything, I want you to know that I like your mother very much. She has a …way about her that none of the other tutors had. She never talked down to me, she never judged me. She just … started in with the lessons, and it seemed easy. I wanted to do it. She made me want to do it."
"You know she works at the same school I go to."
He smiled. "That must be … interesting."
"As they say, it's been an adventure."
He laughed at that, then sobered. "But there's something else I want you to know. Maybe you see it, maybe you don't … but the way you have with each other, the teasing and the bantering. You're lucky you have that; my parents don't know what to say to each other half the time, let alone to me. It's like I'm some stranger with them, and I hate it." He sighed. "Your mother loves you very much, Louis. You should … trust her, if you need to. Mothers always know more than they let on. They're just waiting for us to say it."
I dabbed at my eye, flicking the tears away. We said nothing to each other for a long moment, and I understood that this, too, was as much a part of friendship as the bits where you talked to each other. Silence meant that you both understood something far past the point of needing to talk about it. I knew also that I would never trade any of what had just happened for any amount of physical interaction with Paul. This had been much more intimate than anything we could have done.
"Thank you," I whispered. "For …"
He nodded. "You're welcome. I've … never done that, with anyone."
"Can you … can you tell me the rest of it?"
A soft rain pattered on the leaves of the trees banked behind the dormitory. Paul rather liked the noise; there was something calm and fulfilling about it, a sense of propriety and growth. It had been raining on and off for most of a week, and the air was saturated with moisture and the smell of growing things. He liked also the longer days and the light that filtered into their space every evening, casting a golden glow over their laboring bodies, welcome contrast to the harsh, actinic glow of the security light.
He was here, but he wasn't sure why. He and Christopher had not been set to meet this evening … but earlier, from his room, he had seen Christopher striding across the quadrangle, looking purposeful and intent, definitely heading somewhere.
Had Paul missed an assignation? Had he forgotten? Not impossible, given the demands on his time: end-of-year term papers, tests, exams. The same, of course, was true for Christopher.
He got up, thought quickly, put together a reason for leaving the dorm. He didn't want to take the time for a true shower, swiped at himself there and there and there with soap and water and a towel; Christopher would have to make do with that.
At the desk, he explained to the headmistress his desire to go for a swim before bedtime; his trunks and a towel were rolled up and crooked in one arm. She smiled sweetly, let him go. He thanked her and got out of the building before she changed her mind, or before someone else saw him and waylaid him.
Outside, in the quadrangle, he walked quickly, towards the pool … then cut away from it as soon as he was out of sight and made for the men's dormitory.
A far-off flash of lightning was a barely-seen spark in his peripheral vision; some seconds later, a rumble of thunder echoed faintly across the campus.
He sped up his pace.
Christopher must be here, he told himself. He stepped into the concrete stairwell that led down to the door, eased it open; in the months since they'd started coming here, the door had begun to yield more easily to their arrivals and departures. The creak of the first few months was gone; the door opened quietly, and Paul shut it just as quietly behind him.
He stood there, for a few seconds, letting his eyes adjust. The light here was dim; the last few rays of the setting sun slanted obliquely through the windows, but the advancing storm had already blotted out half the sky, casting it into an eerie blue-blackness.
As always before he and Christopher made love, his body tingled with anticipation; he could already feel himself responding there in the knowledge of what they would do.
The sounds from the building over his head seemed especially pronounced, tonight; he wondered if it might be because as he'd approached the building, he'd seen that many of the rooms had their windows open to catch the cool breeze advancing in front of the impending storm. He could hear the usual patter of noise from above, smiled.
But there was something else, something rhythmic and low, and his skin prickled.
An animal? Not impossible; several times during their sessions here, they'd heard mice scurrying about in the walls. Once, they'd surprised a cat, feral and half-crazed, who'd somehow gotten trapped here and was gone in a flash the moment they opened the door.
Something about the sound was familiar. Paul crept quietly towards the source … which seemed to be coming from the direction of their bedroom. Some instinct told him to be quiet, although it seemed absurd to be sneaking around.
As he got nearer, though, the sounds resolved themselves into something more familiar … intimately familiar, sounds he himself had made, only recently, and he knew without a doubt what he would see when he rounded this last corner.
Christopher was there, of course, and naked, on his back in the tousled, rumpled bedclothes. Astride him - in the position Paul himself would normally take - was someone else, someone he could not yet recognize but someone he knew not to be a student.
One is not normally accustomed to seeing one's teachers naked, so it took an embarrassingly long time for him to understand that the figure straddling Christopher was Terence McDaniel, one of the junior members of the English department, a new hire only this year, barely out of college, barely older than the young men he taught. He was indeed one of Paul's teachers, a slender, sensitive man with the nature of a poet, bearded and brooding, handsome in an ascetic, monkish way. Of course, rumors about the man had been bruited about by the boys, but no direct evidence of his true nature had been discerned, until now.
From the shadows, Paul watched the two men make love. Terence rode Christopher with a quiet intensity, his head arched back, low moans escaping him with every thrust. Paul watched Christopher slide thickly in and out of the man, was fascinated to see the mechanics of it from this vantage point, knew exactly what Terence must be experiencing. He watched as Christopher reached out to play with the man's nipples, teasing and pinching them, watched as a hand dropped down to clench around Terence there, at his middle … it slapping and knocking against his belly with each downward lunge.
A low chuckle made its way up and out of Christopher, and there was something mean and ugly in it; Paul wondered if Terence knew exactly what deal he had struck with Christopher by asking for this in exchange for giving him the key to the basement. Two boys making love was one thing; a boy and a man was something entirely different. Paul thought again about the rumors surrounding Christopher; they had never discussed it between them, but Paul knew now that this had been what he'd done, why he'd been dismissed from St. Anselm's.
From the shadows, he watched as climax began to take Christopher; he was familiar with the signs of it: fluttering eyelids, a certain curl of his mouth, a flush on his chest, a hardening of his nipples, a certain roughness in his breathing. The signs could be seen, too, in Terence; indeed, the man sped up his bucking to an almost comical pace, desperate for the thing to happen, unable to stop it.
And there, there it was; from Christopher, a series of low, guttural grunts and a snarl and a whispered "… oh, fuck … yes, yes …" and much the same from Terence, and Paul watched as the man slapped Christopher's hand away and replaced it with his own, began working himself, harder and harder … and then a grunt of his own as a volley of pearlescent white drops arced out of him and through the air to land upon Christopher's chest and belly.
And then, only then, was Paul released. He stepped from the shadows into the flat, gray-amber light, and another peal of thunder seemed to announce his appearance.
"Christopher," he said. Not a question; no question about any of this.
It was as if he'd lobbed a bomb into a room. Terence whirled, his eyes going wide with confusion at first and then shock, a shouted "No!" from his bearded face. He levered himself off of Christopher (whose wet, glistening and still-hard cock fell plap! onto his belly), turned madly to his abandoned clothing draped over a desk chair, nearly tripped himself trying to dress. Some part of Paul detached itself as he watched the man's manic actions. Terence was surprisingly hairy - but the beard telegraphed that - and muscular enough, for an academic, although still thin and stringy and underdeveloped. Paul's gaze dropped to the man's midsection and his flagging erection waggling there … and even that was not a bad bit of business; not - he was perversely pleased to note - as big as he himself was and certainly not as big as Christopher … but few men were. Paul could understand the attraction.
Quickly, Terence gave up trying to dress himself, bundled his clothing in his arms and beat a hasty retreat to other parts of the basement, his bare feet thudding on the concrete, his boyish, hairy bottom bobbling, and then upstairs with the slamming of a door. He could hear Terence's footsteps over his head as he raced down the hallway to his rooms.
Paul turned back to Christopher, who lay there still in the bed, sprawled out in post-orgasmic torpor. He turned his head to face Paul, grinned, and chuckled. It had overtones of the laugh he'd offered to Terence only moments before, unpleasant and wanton. One of Christopher's hands tickled along his flat, muscular belly and through the liquefying remains of Terence's ejaculation there, played with it idly.
"Well, shit," he finally said. "Looks like I fucked up again."
Paul left him there.
But Christopher found him, on the rock, overlooking the gray, wind-wracked water. The rain had stopped for the evening, but everything was still wet, including the rock upon which Paul sat; he could feel the wetness seeping through his clothes … but they were already damp, anyway, from earlier. At this point, he didn't care. He didn't care about anything.
He heard someone approaching, knew who it had to be, refused to acknowledge his presence, even when Christopher eased himself down beside him, as he had done so long ago on that bright October afternoon, when his presence had seemed a blessing and a wonderful gift.
He could feel some bit of heat from Christopher's body, could even still smell a little bit of the funk of his lovemaking on him, some rank bit of cloying sweetness. He imagined that Christopher would always smell like this.
Christopher tried again. "Paul."
He sighed. "What?"
At that, Paul let a little sighing laugh slip out. "Are you? How, exactly, are you sorry? Are you sorry that you got caught, or that it was with a teacher, or that you even thought of doing it in the first place?"
"A little bit of all three, maybe."
"Was it worth it?"
"Don't be like this, Paul. You don't have to be."
"Because it's … well, because it's different, for us. You know that's true. We don't … well, the rules don't apply to people like us. We're not in it for marriage or for children; we'll never have that. We're in it … well, for what it is, I guess. A chance to be happy, for just a little bit."
"Were you not happy with me, Christopher? You seemed happy." The unwanted thought he'd been dancing around sneaked up, found its voice. "How many others are there, Christopher? Who else have you been with?"
"I was happy - I am happy," he corrected. "But … I don't know … I mean, why can't I make others happy, as well?"
Paul let another laugh slip out. "Do you think Terence is happy right now? Because, I'll tell you - he didn't seem all that happy, in the end. In fact, I bet he's scared absolutely shitless right now."
Christopher made a dismissive gesture with his hands. "Well, not if he's smart about it. Not if he shuts up about it."
Paul waited for more; it didn't come. "Is that it, then? You finished with this, now? Wiped your hands of it, have you?"
"You're making too much of this, Paul. Really, I think you need to get over it. It happens, you know?"
"It hasn't happened to me, Christopher. Not until now."
Christopher shrugged. "All I can say is that I'm sorry." He stood up, offered a hand to Paul. "Come on … let's go back to the dorm, call it a night. This will all blow over, I promise you. In the morning, it won't seem like so much."
Paul ignored the hand, hoisted himself up off the rock, took a step back from Christopher. "You go back, if you want. Go stick your head in the sand, or … up your ass, as far as I'm concerned."
Christopher grimaced, took a step towards Paul. "Jesus, Paul, c'mon …"
He took another step back. "No. I'm not going to. I'll come back when I'm ready."
"Paul, c'mon. Don't be an asshole."
To Christopher's surprise, Paul laughed. "Asshole. I guess that's all I was to you, right? Something to fuck." He opened his mouth again to speak, but a rumble of thunder interrupted them; another storm was soon to hit. As soon as it passed, he went on. "You go around with that -" and he pointed to Christopher's crotch "- and you think it's all you need to get by, that you can just whip it out and wave it around and we'll all -"
Christopher found himself to be the one laughing, now. "Are you even listening to yourself, Paul? 'Whip it out?' Really? You knew exactly what you were doing when you started following me around, just as much as Terence did. I gave you exactly what you wanted, and don't tell me you didn't enjoy it. I never promised that it would be only you." He took one more step towards Paul; Paul took one more step away.
"Yeah, but I never expected to -" His foot squelched into a morass of mud and water. "Jesus, it's muddy here … shit …" He pulled his foot out of the mess, turned his attention back to Christopher. "I never expected to fall in love wi-"
Christopher saw it, perhaps, before Paul did …The primitive part of his brain reacted to it before the rest of him could, as the ground - weakened by a week's onslaught of rain - gave way beneath him. He tried to flee, tried to pull himself free of the muck, but it held him fast. Christopher shouted, dove forward and down to the ground, trying to distribute his weight over a wider area, throwing an arm towards Paul … but he was too late, far too late.
Paul tipped backwards as the ground slumped away and towards the granite boulders below; his arms pinwheeled as the sky above hove into view. He tried to grab Christopher's outstretched hand; their fingertips brushed each other and Christopher made a fist, to no avail.
And Paul fell away and down to the chaos below as the darkness took him.
Paul and I sat looking at each other for a long, long interval. I didn't know what to say, now that the true horror of that day had been laid bare. For his part, Paul said nothing; there was nothing more to be said.
"He betrayed you," I finally managed. "He almost killed you."
"Yes … and no, I suppose. I mean, yes, he betrayed me; that's a very apt way of putting it. But, as to the other part … no, I don't think he did. He did try to save me. I don't think he cared, at that point, what he had done to me, but I don't think he wanted it to go as far as it did … and, truly, he almost got away with it. If I hadn't seen him walking across the quad that evening …" Paul's voice trailed off with the memory of it, then he shook his head, clearing the taint of it away. "Anyway, he knew that everybody understood that this was why he'd been kicked out of St. Anselm's, and he didn't care. He knew what he was doing there … just like he knew what he was doing here. He knew he would be kicked out again, just to end up somewhere else. The cruelest part of it was that he didn't care at all what would happen to Terence."
"What did happen?" Some part of me felt for the hapless young teacher, drawn into this by nothing more and less than a helpless attraction.
"Washed up, I suppose; I don't really know. I wasn't around for a lot of that, but I did hear that he just … well, he just left, without a word to anyone. But, something like that … I'm sure it must follow you around. I doubt he's teaching anywhere." Paul shrugged. "After all, who would want someone like that around your children, right?" He smiled, underscoring the irony.
"Yes. But, it was a choice he made. Although I'm sure Christopher was very persuasive. He certainly was for me."
I wanted to ask about Christopher, but I didn't want to run the risk of opening up that sore any more than necessary.
But Paul could see; he smiled, sadly. "I know you want to know. The answer is that I don't know. I never asked, and no one ever volunteered. Probably at some other school, screwing up someone else's life. But he's running out of time, and probably running out of places, too."
"Sad," I repeated.
Paul thought about it. "Yes, in a way, I suppose it is. In the end, I think it was something that he just couldn't control because he never understood the power of it. He just went where his body and his desires wanted him to go, and he always found some fool to follow him. Dangerous."
"Do you … do you remember any of it?" He knew I was talking about his accident.
Paul said nothing for a bit. Then, "I don't know. I'm not sure if what I remember is what I experienced or what people told me afterwards. I … they say that enough of the ground gave away that it cushioned most of the blow. I still broke my back and some other things, but they said it could have been a lot worse, that I could have smashed my skull, and then that would have been it. They say I'll be okay, although I may still limp a little. I really screwed up my left leg."
"You were lucky."
"Yes, well … luck …" He grimaced. "Everything's relative, I guess."
Another long silence stretched. I looked down upon the pond and the callas gathered there like sentinels. I understood, now, that whatever I might have wanted from Paul would never happen, would always be denied me. I understood as well that I would be fine with that.
"Paul, I'm sorry," I said, finally.
"I … wish you didn't have to be."
"If it's a friend you want, I will try."
"That's all I'm asking for. Thank you, Louis."
But … but …
I looked at myself in the mirror, in my bathroom, that night, after I left Paul's room. I looked at my face, the face distilled from the faces of a hundred hundred peasants in some foreign, war-weary land. My father's people, my mother's people, exiles, forever damned to wander the world.
I don't belong here, I told myself. I don't belong here. A pauper among princes.
I looked at the room around me, at the brocade and the damask and the watered silk and the broadloom. This is not what I am, I thought.
I'm sorry, I said to that lonely and tortured boy just down the hall, twisted and locked inside some terrible, craven device, trying to reclaim that which was torn from him on that day.
I'm sorry I can't be what you want me to be.
The next day, I told my mother that I wanted to go back to the city, that I would even agree to stay with Nana and Papa until she was done with Belle Isle and back in Manhattan.
She looked at me strangely. "I thought you wanted to stay."
"I did," I answered. "But, I think I'm done with this place." What I couldn't tell is that I needed time to myself to think about everything that had happened to me - was still happening to me - during this summer … and maybe even all the way back to that day in New Rochelle. I wasn't sure that I could find the time or the space here to do that. I hoped that Paul would understand.
Another strange look, but, "Okay. Well, I can have Tom run you down to the station later. You can call Nana from the station and let them know to pick you up."
"Okay." I went up to my room to pack; when I was done, I went over to Paul's room, but the door was shut, Paul likely asleep again, as was his habit in the afternoon, after his sessions with my mother. I went back to my room, penciled a quick note, folded it, slipped it under his door. I knew that I was running away from this; I vowed to make it up to him.
At the station, Tom carried my suitcase to the station, waited while I purchased a ticket with money my mother had given me and then called my grandparents.
I had assumed that Tom would leave me here and go back to the house, but he insisted on staying with me until the train arrived. We sat on a bench next to the platform, with me impatient for the train to arrive, looking every ten seconds to my left, to the north.
"Are you okay, Louis?" Tom asked.
I turned to him. Handsome, I thought again. Other thoughts remained unthought. "I'm fine."
"You … well, you don't have to go, not if you don't want to. You're welcome to stay as long as you like. You know that. It's … it's been good having you up here, you know. I think Paul appreciated having someone his own age to be around."
"I … was glad to meet him."
Tom opened his mouth, but then there was a blare of sound and the both of us turned to see the train there, nearly at the station, its headlight bright even in the glare of the afternoon. We watched silently as it coasted gracefully to a stop, then stood up. I hoisted his own suitcase before Tom could grab it and walked over to the door, but the man followed me like a lost puppy.
I heaved my suitcase up into the small vestibule when it was clear of arriving passengers, then stepped onto the lower step.
"Louis," Tom said. "At least … at least keep in touch."
"I will. I promise. But I think it's time for me to go."
To my credit, I did try.
Letters, at first, addressed to Belle Isle, interspersed with the odd phone call or two, although that was tricky because of the long-distance charges and the awkwardness of having to find times when I could be alone without my mother in the background, eavesdropping even if she didn't mean to.
But, then, our letters trickled down and down to nothing more than a card at birthdays and holidays; the phone calls stopped completely. The one thing that I wanted to talk most about was completely off the table and perhaps that was no small part of the reason that our correspondence faltered. The feelings I harbored for other men and the desire to be with them grew only stronger and stronger as I matured, and I knew that one day, very soon, I would be unwilling and unable to resist them. I desperately wanted to broach the subject again with Paul and even tried, once; he refused, referring to it only obliquely as "that bit of unpleasantness in his youth," and I dropped it.
And, we grew up.
One of Paul's last letters to me indicated that he had - miraculously, he said - been accepted to a small college upstate that, while not Ivy League, was well-respected for the quality of its education and specialized in teaching young men and women whose interests and abilities might lie outside of more traditional forms of higher education. He went out of his way again to thank my mother effusively for what she had been able to achieve; I told her this.
"Well, he's a smart boy," she responded. "When he wants to be," she added, with a grin. Whether or not that statement had been intended for me, as well, went unspoken.
I ended up much closer to home, at Pratt, intent on studying architecture so that I might follow in Uncle Ethan's and Papa Eli's footsteps. The decision to do this had been completely my own; I think it blindsided my mother when I told her, and she'd cried.
My father, she said, would be proud of me. And I cried.
One thing I insisted on, when I was accepted, was that I wanted a place of my own near campus.
"Nonsense," my mother said, when I was done with my proposal. "You can live here."
"I think it's important that I strike out on my own."
"You can strike out on your own on the subway," she countered. "How will you even pay for it?"
I grinned. "What? The subway? That's easy."
"No, you idiot. A place of your own."
"It's Brooklyn. It's cheap. I'll work."
"And go to school?"
"I can do this. I'll … I'll take a roommate," I answered. That that roommate might be a most-carefully chosen fellow with certain predilections went unsaid. "And, I'm on a scholarship, anyway."
She sat back and looked at me, her arms crossed … but even as she stared I could tell she really wasn't looking at me. She was off somewhere else, on her own, thinking over something. For a long moment, she said nothing; then, she got up, went to her bedroom. I thought I had offended her to the point of driving her away, but then she came back with something in her hand, handed it to me.
I did. It turned out to be a passbook from the bank, different from the one she used on a day-to-day basis. I flipped through it; it seemed to be nothing but deposits, small and large … but on the last page was the total, and it was surprising. I looked back up at her, the question obvious in my face.
"Your father started this when you were a baby. He knew that you'd be going to college one day. And … well, I've been adding to it over the years, as have your grandparents and your aunts and uncles."
I tapped the passbook against the palm of my hand. "This is a lot of money …"
"I know," she replied. "You're old enough for this, I think." She reached out, suddenly, took me in her arms, hugged me. "Don't blow it on horses," she whispered.
It took me some time to realize that something was going on in the office.
I wandered into the break room at mid-morning, drew myself a cup of coffee from the percolator, tasted it, grimaced at its burnt taste, dumped a generous amount of creamer and sugar into it. Natalie, our office manager, was there, as well, tidying up … even though it was early yet and we all knew what state the break room would be in by the end of day. We were not a terribly neat bunch of architects.
Natalie, I thought, understood me best; although we had never mentioned it, I think she knew more than anyone what went on inside me. Moreover, she seemed fine with it; of all of the people in our office, it was to her I was the closest, even closer than I was to my Uncle Nathan, whom I'd always found to be a bit formidable and off-putting, even as a child.
"What's up?" I asked her. "Can I help?"
She glanced at me, smiled. "Well, you can make a fresh batch of coffee, if you're not busy. We've got some special guests coming by shortly. New clients."
"Well, we can always use those," I said. "Can you tell me, or is it a secret?"
She screwed up her face. "Well … I don't think it's a secret. Anyway, you're the boss' grandson, so … it's one of the van Aalsburgs."
My heart skipped a beat. "Oh, really? Uh … which one? Do you know?"
"One of the young ones, I think. You probably don't know him; I didn't … well, only by name. Paul? With his wife and kids, I think." Her eyes went wide, alarmed at my sudden and startling reaction. "Louis? Are you okay?"
Paul van Aalsburg. More importantly, Paul van Aalsburg with some kind of family in tow. Family?
As soon as I could, I excused myself from Natalie and the break room, went back to my desk, sat at it, rifled through a stack of sketches from my uncle, ones that I would have to make some sense out of and turn into finished details, but my brain would have nothing of it. Instead, I slumped back in my chair, sipped my coffee without tasting anything, stared through the windows out into other windows of the office towers ranked around us like sentinels without seeing anything, let my mind drift back ten years, to the last time Paul and I saw each other …
… and resolutely pulled my mind back to the present.
It would do no good, I knew, to dwell on this, on us, on what might have happened but never did. I had promised friendship when I had wanted so much more, and I had failed even at that. But, I told myself, so had he. I had been someone and something he hadn't wanted to think about, in the end, and we had let each other drift away into separate futures, separate lives.
That he would be here soon had simply to be a coincidence, a dart thrown on a map of architectural firms practicing in Manhattan that happened to have stuck here. Moreover, I told myself, I was junior enough here - even though I was part of the owner's family - that I would likely not get dragged into any kind of meeting. I even doubted that I would be part of whatever project might result from such a meeting, except only in a peripheral fashion.
I turned back to the sketches, started working up more precise versions of them on tracing paper, would present them to Nathan at some point later in the day.
An hour later I noticed some kind of activity out of the corner of my eye, looked up to see Natalie stick her head into Nathan's office, heard her say something that I couldn't make out, watched as Nathan came out to follow her to the lobby. Paul and his family must have arrived. I went back to work.
I looked up again only when I heard my name stage-whispered from the front of our studio; Natalie stood there, crooked a come here! finger at me. I pantomimed a surprised who, me? back at her, grinning like an ingenue singled out for a chorus line, and she rolled her eyes.
"What is it?" I asked, when I went to her.
She grinned. "For reasons known only to themselves, they want you in there for this."
My heart started pounding. "Why?"
"Why? I should know from why," she responded. "I'm just the messenger."
I went back to my desk for my sketchbook and my fountain pen, went back up front, slipped into the conference room.
It was Paul, but it wasn't.
Ten years, I reminded myself. I was certain that I looked just as different to him as he did to me. Ten years was enough time for us both to have gone from teenagers on the cusp of adulthood to young men zeroing in on thirty.
Everyone looked at me as I entered the room.
"Ah, Louis, there you are," my uncle said. "Come in and have a seat." The room went quiet as I did as my uncle asked, slipping over to a chair in the corner of the room, very conscious of everyone's - well, perhaps only one person's - eyes on me. When I was seated, my uncle turned to me.
"Louis, this is Mr. and Mrs. van Aalsburg. They're thinking about bringing us on board to design their residence here in the city. Paul tells me that you two somehow … know each other?"
"Yes," I answered, opening my sketchbook. "My mother … worked for Mr. van Aalsburg's parents one summer, up in Tarrytown," and I left it at that. I wondered if my uncle perhaps thought that the fact that Paul and I knew each other might help strengthen any kind of client/architect relationship. I, myself, was not so certain … but I wasn't going to divulge the true nature of our relationship.
Nathan frowned, trying to remember, then his face brightened. "Ah, of course, of course. I remember Etty saying something about that."
This still didn't explain why I was in this room, but I knew enough simply to stay out of the way and let the grown-ups handle this. I glanced up to see Paul looking at me; a stunned expression made his face into a mask. I nodded my head slightly, in acknowledgement, hoped that I wasn't coming off as standoffish. He shook his head slightly, as if clearing out cobwebs, turned to his wife.
Ten years had taken Paul's beauty and honed it, focused it. The boyishness was gone; what had replaced it was not unattractive in its own right, unless one had known that boy. His face had sharpened into something very nearly predatory, lean and hawklike. Paul van Aalsburg still had the power to turn heads, as he must have turned the head of the woman next to him. Anne, I remembered, was how she'd introduced herself, in a clipped and very posh British voice. There was some veiled reference to her family, some distant offshoot of the Sitwells. She was tall and elegant and patrician, her long hair swept back from her forehead with a headband in the current style, her lashes full with artifice, her lips just the right shade of pink-red, also from artifice. Her eyes were her own, a rich emerald-green, complementing the icy-blue of her husband's.
Next to her were seated their children, a boy of five and a girl of three, drawing quietly on paper with colored pencils Natalie had given them, both of them sweet and beautiful … as they could only be, given their parents. And even though she was seated, I could tell that Anne was pregnant with a third. Paul had wasted no time in trying to separate himself from whatever aftermath had attached itself to him following the events at Atterbury.
The brief was simple; Paul and Anne had just purchased the upper floors of a building on Central Park West, in the mid-eighties, a few blocks up from the Museum of Natural History, nearly two thousand square feet of living space - almost unheard of for Manhattan - plus an outdoor terrace overlooking the park. They wanted us to design the interiors, completely gutting the existing space and going very modern with the renovations, with two-story spaces and as much glass and light as they might be permitted.
When they were done outlining their wishes, Nathan sat back and asked the question that was on my mind, as well.
"Why us?" It seemed almost a challenge, something Nathan was known for, something that had lost us as many clients as we'd taken on … but it had largely paid off; we weren't hungry for work.
In response, Paul gestured at Anne, who reached into a leather bag at her side and pulled out a copy of Architectural Record, an issue that had recently come out and was making the rounds of the office, for one very good reason … and, indeed, she turned to that article, flipped the magazine around, tapped the image that started the article.
We all knew the image very well; it was a house our firm had designed for a wealthy young couple out in the Hamptons. I was a small part of the team assigned to work on the house; it had been an interesting and satisfying experience.
Anne smiled. "We know the couple who own this house," she explained. "We stayed with them for a while, and grew to love the place. When we asked who the architect was, she told us it was your firm. I did some more research and found myself liking everything your firm has designed. It was just coincidence that Paul and -" She broke off, looked at me. "I'm sorry … what was your name, again?"
"- Louis happened to know each other."
At that, Paul flicked a quick glance in my direction, looked away. I kept my face neutral; I had no idea what to make of any of this, was too afraid that anything I might say would queer the deal. So to speak.
"We loved how … well, clean the place felt, how open and airy and full of light." She tapped Paul on the forearm. "We both grew up in very formal, very stuffy houses and we wanted something different for ourselves and our children."
That made me think of Belle Isle and how impressed I had been by it when I'd first seen it ten years ago. I knew that I was more impressionable back then - in more than just architecture - but I still liked the house. I thought of that golden summer, of the freedom I'd enjoyed, of those evenings overlooking the placid river, of the magical city far off in the distance, of Paul.
The meeting wound down quickly after that; Nathan and the other partners offered to take Paul and Anne and their children to lunch and the office emptied quickly. All of us milled together in the foyer, shaking hands, exchanging business cards and contact information and promises to meet again soon at the new apartment after Paul and Anne closed on it. Paul and I found ourselves face-to-face near the end, while Anne fussed with getting the children into their coats. She was hugely pregnant, probably ready for the final stage of it; I could see her fatigue lurking just under the forced smile.
"What are you doing here?" he whispered.
"I work here. I assumed you knew that. I assumed that that was why you'd picked us for your project."
"No, I didn't. I had no idea." He waved a hand around. "All of this has been Anne's doing. I'm just along for the ride."
"The owner … Nathan Ochs. That's my uncle."
"Oh," he said, digesting this bit of news. "Well …" he went on, extending a hand.
"It's good to see you again," I said, taking his hand. I kept my voice professional.
Paul winced, made a face. "I hope you're really a part of this."
"Well, I'd like to be. Should be an interesting project."
"Yes, I …" He stopped. He reached into his pocket, drew out a silver card case, opened it to reveal a dozen or so crisp white cards, gave one to me. "Just in case," he murmured. He tapped a number. "That goes directly to me. If you need to call. For any reason."
Two days later, I found myself sitting at a table in a bar at the Waldorf-Astoria, waiting for Paul to show up. I'd picked a table in the corner, out of the way, hoping to give us a little privacy for whatever might come up between us. Admittedly, I was early … partly from nerves - I hated to be late for anything, one of my mother's habits that had been passed down to her only child - and partly from a need to maintain some semblance of control over this.
This had not been my choice; I was not in the habit of frequenting this bar, because I simply couldn't afford it. Or didn't want to afford it, which may or may not have been different things. As a rule, I didn't go out much at all; Timothy and I frequented a small and very discreet bar near our apartment in the Village, but even that was fraught with the danger of too-frequent police raids. We usually spent nights at home.
That said, I appreciated the bar and its design; it was clubby and comfortable, if a little stuffy; there was an air of another era about it, and it felt a little under siege from the rapidly-changing city of the 1960's just outside the lobby doors. The choice of this place, of course, had been Paul's. I'm not sure he even thought much about it, so accustomed was he to places like this and the hotel in which it was located. I knew that I would never entice him down to the Village; I doubted he had much reason to go anywhere south of Midtown, although I'm sure he knew full well what kind of people lived in my neighborhood.
I congratulated myself on the choice of seating; I could scan the entry into the bar without being seen myself and without drawing too much attention. I nursed a gin-and-tonic, another one of my mother's many genetic legacies; she had begun drinking them when she married my father - but after she'd given birth to me - and kept the habit up when she became a widow. A bowl of mixed nuts sat at my elbow, but I was too nervous to eat. Maybe later, I thought, when we'd gotten through whatever this evening would bring.
I watched more and more people filter into the bar, all of them of a certain type I recognized. Paul's type, confident and handsome and composed, cream rising to the top.
And, then, there he was, at the entrance.
He leaned heavily on his cane, looking tired, I thought. I raised my hand as he craned his head across the field of tables and chairs; he missed me, on the first pass, so I half-stood up and waved again, and he saw me.
He limped over to the bar, first, gave his order to the bartender with a smile as he pointed over in the general direction of the corner, and me. I watched as he made his way towards me, making slow progress in the crowd, some of whom seemed to know him; he leaned in for a quick smile and a pat on a back or a forearm, or a murmured greeting in an ear.
Yes, this crowd was definitely Paul's type.
He fell heavily into the seat next to me, twisted to hang his cane over the back of his chair before turning back to me. We regarded each other for a long moment, not knowing who might go first. I didn't want this to be a contest of wills, but - then again - he was the one who had given me the card, asked me to call. He was the one to suggest this place, a place familiar to him and not to me.
The ice was broken by the appearance of a server, a young man in his twenties, hair slicked back over his handsome face. He set Paul's drink down in front of him - it looked to be whiskey or Scotch - and set another gin-and-tonic in front of me, then left, wordlessly, smiling at both of us.
When he was gone and out of earshot, Paul blew out a nervous breath. "So. Louis."
"Ten years, I guess?" So, he'd done the math, as well.
"Near enough, I suppose."
"You look good."
I smile, roll my eyes. "Thanks. I have my moments."
"No, you do." He smiled … but he seemed tired. "I always knew you would grow into that face."
I didn't know quite how to take that, so I didn't. "You've changed, I think."
He acknowledged that with a shrug. "I have. I know." He bumped the cane slung over the chair with an elbow. "Never quite did get rid of this damnable thing." He chuckled. "Funny thing is, it helps, sometimes. Gives me an edge … a little bit of sympathy, which has more influence than you might think."
"Well, in politics."
"Ah. I see," I answered. "Is that what you do, now?"
He nodded. "Well, soon. It's one reason why we're moving to Manhattan."
"You'll be good at that, I think."
He smiled. "I'll take that as a compliment."
I shrugged, not caring one way or the other. "I meant it as one." I looked at the crowd once more; more than a few of them seemed to be interested in Paul van Aalsburg and the mysterious stranger seated at his table. I knew that what they were probably thinking was nowhere near the truth of it, but I would not be the one to disabuse them of their assumptions. "People seem to know you, here."
He nodded. "They do. Well, of course, I'm here almost every night."
"I see. Expensive hobby."
"Well, it's convenient. We're right upstairs, so …" He saw me frown in confusion, chuckled. "We live here, Anne and I and the children."
"You live here? In the hotel?"
He nodded. "Well, until you get our place ready … so, hurry up."
I couldn't imagine how much living here must have been costing him … but the van Aalsburgs were one of those families to whom money meant very little because they'd never really had to worry about it.
"I've actually been over there, you know," I responded. "We're starting to take measurements so that we can start documenting what's there."
"Do you like it?"
"It's amazing. You picked well."
"Thank you. It didn't come cheaply. We had to raise our price, in the end."
"I imagine that it didn't," I responded.
"So, where are you, now?" he asked. "Not still with your mother, I hope?"
I smiled. "No. I moved out when I started at Pratt. Now I'm down in Greenwich Village."
"Really? Surprising …"
"Well, not really. It's a nice place to be. We're enjoying it." Clever me, I thought. Let's see if he picks up on that.
He was quiet for a long moment, digesting that. "So, you're seeing someone."
"I am." I knew he wouldn't ask, so I supplied the answer for him. "His name is Timothy. We met when I was still in school."
"What does he do?"
"He's an artist … painting and sculpting."
I nodded my head. "Well, getting there," I amended. "He's getting some showings, some sales. He's encouraged."
"Are you happy?"
"I'm the happiest I've ever been. He's a wonderful man. I'm very lucky." Sweet, shy Timothy with eyes the color of heaven and a shock of brilliant copper hair on his beautiful Irish head and skin the color of ripe peaches and the body of a young god.
"Good for you. Does -" He coughed delicately. "Does your mother know?"
"Well, we have an … understanding, she and I. She's met Timothy, she knows we share a place … and she's not stupid. But we don't address it directly. It's just … there, between us. She knows enough not to try to set me up with eligible young women. I don't know if she's happy with my situation, but she knows that it's what I want and that I'm happy, and that's enough for her."
"Lucky. All of you."
"Well, doubly so, for her. She got married again, a few years back."
"Oh! Good for her. Do you like him?"
I nodded. "He's a very nice man. He teaches at Columbia … languages, I think. She seems happy, at any rate."
"That's important," Paul murmured.
That statement sat there, between us, for a long moment. Paul looked at me, his face a blank. I took a sip of my drink. Then, "So, a family …"
"A wife. Two - no, three - children." I flicked my glass at him in a kind of salute. "Congratulations."
"Thank you. It was something I had to do."
"Had to do?"
"Well, wanted to do, of course. It … helps, though."
"Helps with what?"
"Well, the image …"
"… of a proper politician?"
He sighed. "Well, not in quite so cynical a way as that, but … yes."
"You're the one who used the word had."
"Please, Louis. Don't be like that."
"I'm not being like anything, Paul. I'm just trying to understand this. Are you happy?"
"Anne is a wonderful woman. I'm lucky to have found her."
"Yes. She's beautiful, and so are your children. But that's not what I asked."
He was silent for a moment. Then, "We can't all be happy, Louis."
"We can try, though. Seriously, Paul … I mean, look at me. I'm a queer man living with another queer man in a situation that can get me locked away for a long time if I make the slightest misstep. Our entire society would rather not have to put up with people like me or to treat as equals. I can't come out and tell my mother that, for all intents and purposes, Timothy and I are as married to each other as she was to my father. And yet, for all that, I'm happy."
He looked at me, said nothing.
"And you," I went on, "are the very model of what this country thinks of as the best its people can be. Handsome, successful, with a beautiful wife and children, able to do anything you want, deciding to go into public service … and I'll be honest, here, Paul - you don't seem all that happy, to me."
"I am what I have to be."
"What others want you to be."
"It's my choice to make, Louis."
"I understand that. I just wonder if you made the right choice."
"I made the only choice possible. You need to understand that."
"Okay, fine. Pretend that I understand that." I drained the last of my drink, quite ready for this evening to be over barely before it had even begun … but another question niggled at my brain.
"Why did you want to meet tonight, Paul? Does Anne know you're here?"
"Yes, she does." His answer was quick. Too quick.
"Does she know you're here with me?"
"Well …" he equivocated.
"I thought so."
He scowled. "You don't need to worry about Anne."
"I don't worry about Anne. That's your job, by the way. Does she know about Atterbury, and Christopher, and all the rest of it?"
"Jesus, Louis - what do you think? You think I told her any of that? I wouldn't be sitting here, if I had."
"Just another one of those choices you get to make?"
"If that's how you want to look at it."
And here was the server again, with drinks, knowing that the clientele at this bar would not balk at the quiet insistence of his service, would pay for the drinks without batting an eye, would even appreciate the gesture. I watched his gaze travel between me and Paul, trying to figure us out … because I was pretty sure he had me figured out. Again, we waited until he was gone.
Paul went on. "Does Timothy know you're here?"
I grinned. "You don't need to worry about Timothy," I threw back at him. "Unless you're going to make me an offer I won't want to refuse."
"The offer you wanted me to make ten years ago. Is that why you showed up tonight?"
"No," I responded. "I don't know. Probably not. My curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to hear what you had to say. I still do, by the way."
"It's not easy …" he started.
I knew what he meant. "I know. We all have to pretend to be something we're not. Even Timothy and I do, sometimes. To a lot of people, we're just friends, or roommates, two single guys just getting along. I don't know if we have anybody fooled, but that's where we are."
"At least you have each other."
"We do. It helps. It keeps us … well, grounded, I suppose. It helps to have somebody who can laugh at the absurdity of it all with you."
"I don't have that," he responded. He held up a hand before I could speak. "I'm not asking for anything like pity, Louis; I know that I've made my own bed with this. But, Anne … she's in this for everything. It's all win-or-lose with her, and she wants to make sure she's on the winning side. Maybe it's some part of being British … I don't know. Failing empires, and all that. It's all this giant … contest with her, and sometimes I don't know which side I'm on."
He worked at his Scotch, set it back down.
"You asked what I wanted. Fair enough. What I want -" He broke off, closed his eyes. "What I would like," he amended, "is for you to be what I asked you to be ten years ago. I would like you to be my friend. I understand that that's not what you wanted back then and maybe not what you want now, but that's all I can offer. I can offer my friendship in return for yours."
Could we do this, I wondered? Could two men like us be simply friends? And if so, what would that mean? Would Paul introduce me to Anne as a friend? Moreover, would he include Timothy in this thing, as well? Would we get together for cocktails, or dinner, or an evening at the theater, just two couples out for a night on the town? Would Anne wonder at this, wonder how her husband and the father of her children might have become friends with someone like me?
Too many questions, none of which had any easy answers.
I looked at Paul. I thought of Timothy. Tonight, I knew, I would tell him about all of this, from the beginning ten years ago all the way up to this point. I would not hold back. I could not do that and be true either to myself or to him.
"I will offer you the answer that I gave you ten years ago," I said. "I will try."
A faint smile ghosted his lips. "And I will offer you the answer that I gave you ten years ago: that's all I'm asking for."
With that, the rest of the evening played out as an evening between friends should have. We talked about many things, things each of us had experienced after we parted: my experiences with Pratt, with architecture, with Timothy. From him: his education upstate, returning to Belle Isle, deciding to go into politics.
"How did you meet? You and Anne?" I asked, at some point.
He smiled. "My parents left Belle Isle," he answered. He chuckled at another bit of my confusion. "There was really no reason to keep the house, not after I left, and I knew that I would not want to go back into it after I graduated. It had no special memories for me, and I didn't want to rattle around in it by myself. My parents decided to … well, give it to the state of New York for them to do whatever they wanted to do with it and then they went off to Europe for a summer. I went with them. In London, we all went out to dinner one night with some friends of friends, and Anne was there, and the rest is history. My parents are living in France, now, in Normandy … an American invasion, of sorts, only fifteen years too late."
I chuckled with him. One last question presented itself. I hesitated to ask it; it seemed to come of its own volition, some hovering thing that would not be appeased until it was teased out into the open.
"Paul …" I started. "Have you … I mean … well, what about Christopher? Do you know what might have happened to him?"
At that, Paul winced, his face falling into itself, knowing the question would come, hoping that it would not. He looked away from me, down to the tabletop, down into the treacly debris of his smoky, amber and topaz drink … and I waited. He seemed to be trying to stop this moment, to delay his answer, perhaps hoping that I might have forgotten that I'd even asked the question. Around us, the bar's hubbub rose and fell, rose and fell, as conversations did, all of them blending together into a white rush of noise and nonsense.
He had to understand why I needed to ask about Christopher, my unseen and unmet rival, the man who had had what had been denied me, who had taken Paul's delicate beauty and innocence and run with them, fast and hard into some unknown and rough country, who had made the man sitting here in front of me, a man afraid of himself and what he could have been but for expediency and the need to settle. I had to know what had happened to him, perhaps needed to hear that he had simply faded into obscurity.
But, then, I thought that perhaps I should withdraw the question. The past was the past, regrettable but unchangeable; all any of us could ever hope to do was learn from it, run our hands over the old scars, divining them like tea leaves or the entrails of animals, for what we might and might not do tomorrow and the next day and the next.
"Paul, I -"
"No," he mumbled, and I had to lean forward to hear this weakest of denials. He cleared his throat, looked up into the middle distance, his eyes unreadable, his face unreadable. "No," he continued, more loudly. "I … don't know what happened to him. I have no idea where he is."
But he would not meet my gaze.
Instead, he held up his glass, rattled it, catching the server's eye.
This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Tweet: Non Consent". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this tweet:
This challenge is to write a story based on reading the tweet and to write a tale within its spirit, albeit a male homosexual teenage tale.. There is no picture, Just the tweet.
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