Alone in this room...
Hand pressed to the cold dark screen
What did I do wrong?
Luca was used to evading the many gays who saw his looks as a turn-on. Their need for him was so automatic they wouldn't question how they felt about it: Did they actually want sex with him--or simply accept it as mandatory? Most such men were insecure about their own looks and would give away their nervousness as they made a grab for a chance of bedding him.
Jerry didn't give Luca an automaton vibe like that, either during their picnic or a few months earlier at the club where Matt had introduced them. Luca sensed that, by just acting like himself, expressing his ideas and feelings, he gave Jerry something that was wanted; and Luca found he wanted to do that, wanted it very much.
As a refugee from those stereotypes of male desirability by which he himself was judged, Luca looked at Jerry with fresh eyes, and he found him beautiful.
On Sunday, Luca took the long drive out to Jerry's house.
He was surprised at how well their picnic had gone. He was looking for a boyfriend to be serious with, and he'd known since that night at the club that Jerry was someone who could get to him. After meeting Jerry, he had started thinking about him frequently, more often than he should about someone who was off limits: a friend's boyfriend. Now that Jerry was single, Luca invited him for the picnic--and found he liked Jerry even more than he expected.
More surprising had been Jerry's interest in return. Luca usually had no trouble attracting men; but he knew that Jerry had calmly resisted someone as hot-looking as Matt. So Luca hadn't been that confident. Matt had complained to his friend Luca, at length, about how impossible Jerry's personality was, how difficult and impenetrable. Matt was bitter about all the years he felt he'd wasted longing to get Jerry back again and about how unreachable Jerry had been after they'd gotten together. Thus far, though, Jerry hadn't acted difficult to Luca at all: just as a very warm, very shy guy who responded and opened particularly to Luca as he got to know him.
Although not completely certain he was willing to risk a relationship with someone like Jerry, Luca was becoming hopeful, eager. He didn't want to go through what Matt had with Jerry; but he really only knew Matt's side of that story, and Jerry hadn't been like that with him.
Luca had no trouble finding the house, with Jerry's careful directions that included a hand-drawn map. It looked the way Luca expected. Not impressive. Not picturesque. Just rural, a little tumble down. The grounds and the farm were in worse shape, overgrown with spontaneous vegetation but not unpleasant as scenery.
Luca knocked on the front door, and Jerry appeared wearing old clothes.
Jerry gave Luca a quick kiss. "Hi," he said. "Hey, I've got to get back with this before it dries," gesturing with a wet paint roller he was holding. He led Luca through into the dining room, which was painted on three sides so far. "Sorry about the confusion. I wanted to have it ready for you, but there was too much to do."
"No. Don't worry about it. In fact, I'd like to help."
"No need. You'll mess up your nice clothes. You look great, by the way."
"You're good to see, too."
Jerry smiled. "Thanks." He worked smoothly to apply white paint to the remaining wall. He had already cut in around the edges, which he had protected with masking tape. Now he was rolling the large surfaces in between.
They talked while Jerry painted. There were dropcloths on the side of the room Jerry was still working on. On the finished side the threadbare rug appeared freshly vacuumed. The dining room table was polished. Near it, by the wall, stood a buffet that looked like it had been bought inexpensively from a catalog in the 1930s; but it too was polished and it held a cheerful vase of fresh flowers.
As they talked, Jerry's mind time-sliced, flicking between different trains of thought. Mostly he was still preoccupied with the details that he'd allowed to absorb him as he'd fixed the house for Luca, not willing to let them go yet and to pay enough attention to Luca himself. At times, though, just looking at Luca and listening to his words, feeling Luca's care for him, Jerry let his own liking for Luca take over and push those worries aside. At other moments, Jerry became too clearly conscious of the depth of his interest in Luca, and it made him uncomfortable. He wasn't used to depending on anyone else, and he didn't like anything like that. He'd built his life around avoiding it. These thoughts would be interrupted in turn by the practical need to attend to painting and to answering Luca.
When Jerry finished the wall, he said, "Excuse me, please, for a few minutes. I've got to clean these and then take a shower. There are books in the living room, and a kind of a semi-functioning stereo. I don't have a TV. When I come back, I'll start dinner. We can take a tour of the place and, by the time we finish, dinner should have cooked and the paint smell should be gone from the dining room."
Luca wandered through the front hall to the living room that Jerry had pointed to. It was actually a pair of rooms, one behind the other. The one in front was the only room in the house that had enough windows. It had a triple bay window facing the road and two tall windows facing the side. The thick drapes had been pushed aside, and light flooded in. There was so little furniture that the room was almost empty. Aside from a coffee table that was moved against one wall and used to hold the stereo that Jerry had mentioned, there was only a couch, a single stuffed chair, and an end table. There were a few scattered books. Despite the heavy, dark, flowered wallpaper, this sparseness, together with the light from the windows, made the room spacious and pleasant to be in. Air flowed in from the front windows, which were cracked open, and then out the windows on the side.
That room connected by a large, open archway to the room behind, which was darker, but not unpleasant, thanks to its view through the front room. This room had only one window, on the side wall; and it was furnished with a single chair, placed in the center. Its distinguishing feature was the collection of books that lined the walls. There were three old bookcases, filled with books and with books stacked on top. There were piles of books on small tables next to them and more piles on the floor. There were piles of books on the floor next the the chair.
Luca walked in to look closer at the books. Unlike the other contents of the house, which seemed to have come together haphazardly from various periods of the early and mid 20th century, the books all looked to have been bought in the last few years, some very recently. Luca doubted that they could have come from Jerry's parents.
There were no books on scientific subjects--and no mathematics, Luca noted. Generally there was little nonfiction: no self-help and no political theory. However, there were books on history--ancient Greece, the Renaissance in Florence, World War II--and there were biographies.
Most of the collection was fiction. There were current best-sellers: espionage and detective novels. Many more were classic literature: The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Lord Jim, Sons and Lovers, The Brothers Karamazov. There were anthologies of poetry and volumes of individual poets: Donne, Keats, Shelley, Marvell. It was as if Jerry had an older brother who was a graduate student in English and had left his books here. But, then again, perhaps the hypothetical brother majored in French. Many books were in French: Balzac, Stendahl. A pair of paperbound volumes held Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Dumas. The top book on the pile on the floor nearest the chair was Vingt Mille Lieues Sous Les Mers by Jules Verne, with a bookmark inside. From its author's name and from the illustration of Captain Nemo and his submarine, Nautilus, on the cover, Luca puzzled out that the French title must correspond to the one that he knew in English as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--or Seas.
Luca picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. He knew that the poet was supposed to have been gay and to have loved some of the young wounded soldiers he nursed tenderly during the Civil War. As Luca tried to find a gay poem among the many pages of the thick book, Jerry returned. pulling down his polo shirt and smoothing his damp hair with his hand.
Jerry said, "There's so little furniture in here. It's bare."
"I like these rooms a lot."
"Yeah. So do I, I guess. I went crazy after my mother died, throwing stuff out, giving it away. The house was always so full. Everything everywhere. Everything upholstered and covered. Flower patterns on everything. And knickknacks and figurines. Every square inch of every surface had something on it. So, maybe I went too far in the other direction. I don't know. You like Walt Whitman?"
"I haven't read him. I heard he wrote gay poems."
"He did. They're inspiring. Allen Ginsberg even wrote an homage to him in which he imagines Whitman in contemporary America--or, at least, in the 1950s, which was 'contemporary' for Ginsberg--and they're together in the supermarket checking out the stockboys, which is something I like to do too."
Luca giggled. "It depends on the supermarket. I think some have gay managers and they hire better looking boys."
Jerry looked around and he zeroed in on a pile of books on a table near the window. He took a book from it and read out loud.
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
Jerry gestured to Luca. "Let's head for the kitchen. We can talk while I make dinner."
Luca followed him. "That poem was nice. Weird--but nice. So much unexpected stuff in it."
"I'm not completely sure I know what it means--why all its different stuff goes together."
Jerry was pulling things out of the refrigerator. He put a fire under a heavy pan on the stove to preheat it. "I think that's what poems, and stories too, are supposed to do. When you first read them, you only partially get the picture; but then they're like delayed-action grenades that sit around in your head and slowly blow pieces of your mind apart as they do their thing for you. I find that sometimes a year or two will go by before I happen to find myself in some life situation--something I have to figure out--and a fragment of a poem I haven't been conscious of will return to me and suddenly I understand it--and also the thing I needed to figure out. But usually it leaves me with something new then to wonder about."
"Can I get you something to drink?"
"No, thanks. I'm happy just to talk and watch you cook. You sure you don't want help?"
"Nope. It's under control." He sharpened a professional-looking chef's knife.
While Jerry'd been showering, his thoughts about Luca had become increasingly confused and uncertain. He'd never before allowed himself to care for anyone as much as he now found himself caring for Luca. As he cut up vegetables and meat, he looked over at Luca, trying not to let show he was wondering what this man was doing in his house, why he could be there. He said, "I think you'll like this. It's going to be kind of a pot roast, but it'll have wine in it."
"Sounds good." Luca sensed Jerry's ambivalence but couldn't identify its meaning. He worried--he didn't want Jerry to be unhappy--but he didn't want to invade Jerry by asking hard questions. "So you really know how to cook?"
"When you live alone for years you have to either get good at cooking or happy eating out."
Luca asked, "All those books in the other room must be yours."
"I like to read."
"That's really something."
Jerry stopped dicing potatoes. "Why? Is there anything wrong with that?" A cold chill went through him.
"No. Not at all."
An edge of anger crept in, beneath the surface of Jerry's voice. "You mean it isn't appropriate? Of course. A high-school dropout isn't supposed to be able to read."
"I'm not entitled to do what I want? Because I'm not smart enough?"
Luca had known something was eating at Jerry but he was surprised at the quickness of Jerry's anger and taken off guard. "No, Jerry, listen to me." He moved forward and reached with his hand to touch Jerry's arm.
Jerry stepped back, away from Luca's hand.
Luca stopped and took in a breath. He spoke quietly. "Jerry, you're not listening. I'm saying the opposite of what you think. Your reading surprises me because it makes it hard to understand how you could be so insecure. Maybe you did drop out of high school, but you've obviously read more, and with more interest, than all the teachers in my school combined, including me. I admire you."
Jerry was immobilized by the coldness of his own anger. But he looked into Luca's eyes, and he compared what he saw with what had been there on other occasions. He'd seen many versions of the same thing: Luca sincerely liked him, believed in him--for whatever reason. Jerry calmed. He thought over the meaning of what Luca had just said. He stepped forward and reached out to hold the hand that he had backed away from. "I'm sorry. I misunderstood."
"I'm not your enemy. I'm your friend."
Jerry couldn't bring himself to verbalize his agreement with what Luca had just said; but he smiled to Luca and resumed dicing the potatoes.
Luca smiled back and said, "You even read books in French."
"Yes." Now it was himself that Jerry was angry with--for being so ready to mistrust, to misinterpret. He knew he liked Luca, and he hated the fact he had done something to hurt him. He wanted to do whatever necessary to prevent it happening again.
Luca said, "Pardon me for asking, but learning a language takes a lot of commitment. I mean, I speak Italian fluently, but I was brought up doing it at home. How did you learn enough French?"
Jerry came partially out of the memory of his previous anger with Luca and his new anger with himself. He chuckled a little. "Mrs. Fitzsimmons. My teacher in high school. French was the only subject I liked. I got A's in it."
"But you can't learn that much in a year or two of high school--and if you dropped out . . ."
"One day she called me to her desk after class. I was mad because I thought she was going to get on me for some homework I'd missed. But, far from it. She told me I was a good student. She wanted to work more with me." Jerry had finished cutting the vegetables. Now he put the beef in the preheated pan to sear it.
"She told me about the novelist André Gide. He wrote this book L'Immoraliste where the hero, Michel, had been raised strictly to follow the conventions of society. He'd never questioned them at all, and so now in the book he rebels, drops out, disappears. He was a homosexual."
The cubes of beef sizzled as Jerry stirred them. Luca moved behind Jerry at the stove and pressed into his back, resting a hand on his shoulder. Jerry reached behind with one hand to pull Luca closer.
Luca asked, "Mrs. Fitzsimmons talked to you about being gay?"
"No. We never talked about my personal life back then. She just presented Gide as a topic in French literature, something to study. She gave me a copy of the book. 'This is yours,' she said. I told her I was surprised, that none of my other teachers thought I was good for anything. She said that she didn't care what my other teachers thought, that I was good in French and that was enough for her."
"Wow! Maybe she was trying to tell you things--without telling you things."
"You must have been good in English too. You read so much."
"No, not in English. I got D's and F's. True, I was reading books then. I loved Silas Marner. But I hated those fuckers that taught me. I wouldn't have talked to them about anything."
"I wouldn't tell them nothing."
"I had a bitch of a time reading L'Immoraliste--there were way simpler books Mrs. Fitzsimmons could have picked for me--but I wanted to do it really bad and she kept helping me after school." Jerry added the vegetables to the meat in the pan and tossed them together. "Then, when I dropped out of school and moved to Batavia, I didn't inform anyone ahead of time. I didn't tell my mother, just left a letter for her to find after I was gone. I also definitely didn't tell Matt. The only one I told was Mrs. Fitzsimmons."
"She said she would be sorry to lose me, and I asked her if she would be willing to still keep helping me if I came back sometimes. She said she'd be happy to. So, a couple times a week, I'd take the bus or hitch a ride with someone. Eventually, I could afford a car."
"You did all that in order to learn French? Traveled back to school?"
"Yeah. Some of the students there laughed at me when they saw me coming back--because I was stupid--or crazy or something. It became an art to slip into the school without them noticing. Also without getting noticed by other people from the past--like Matt."
Luca felt Jerry's discomfort. "You're impressive," he said. "They must be growing a new kind of high-school dropout nowadays--nothing like we had when I was a boy."
"Uh, huh. I thought you were a boy somewhere around the same time I was."
They laughed together.
Jerry said, "It's nice that you know how to joke with me without laughing at me." He added water to the pan. "When I was reading L'Immoraliste, I liked the sense it gave you of completely stepping outside of society, leaving it behind. Also, the whole book was just so strange in comparison to anything I'd ever heard about. And I liked the writing a lot. I didn't respond so much to its homosexuality, though. The guy, Michel, was an adult college professor and he was into teen-aged Arab boys."
"Later I found a different one of André Gide's books, called Les Faux-Monnayeurs. It's more sophisticated and difficult, and longer, so I can see why Mrs. Fitzsimmons didn't give it to me first. In it, Edouard and his nephew Olivier are in love and haven't been able to tell each other. Olivier is at least an older teen, and you know that they eventually want to spend their adult lives together. The writing in it is great. It became my all-time favorite book--maybe along with Stendahl's La Chartreuse de Parme."
"Les Faux . . . Faux . . ." Luca stumbled over the name.
Jerry helped. "Les Faux-Monnayeurs. In English it's The Counterfeiters."
Luca tried again and got the pronunciation close to accurate.
Jerry said, "Sorry. I don't mean to come off like a French-pronunciation snob."
"It's not snobby at all. I can understand you wanting it right, when it's something you love. Just mess up a math problem and see how fast I correct you."
They laughed again, and Jerry turned down the flame under the pot. "C'mon. I'll show you around the farm--what of it there is that's worth seeing."
Jerry took Luca's hand.
They enjoyed their afternoon together, walking around the farm. Jerry made gently self-deprecating jokes about his house as he showed it to Luca; and Luca made reassuring jokes about Jerry's jokes and about the fact that Jerry was so attached to the house at the same time he was making fun of it.
Eventually dinner was ready, and Luca wasn't surprised that it tasted excellent. He was coming to expect the unexpected from Jerry: a drop-out who read, a loner who could entertain so pleasantly, so easily.
After eating, Luca took the white napkin from his lap and patted his mouth with it. "This is one liking that we definitely share in common: cloth napkins."
Luca folded the napkin, put it on his plate, and got up. Jerry rose too, and Luca walked around the table to kiss him.
"That dinner was absolutely great! Thank you."
"So, I have a little time before driving home. How about we go in the living room and snuggle on the couch while you read me some of those gay poems of Walt Whitman?"
Jerry giggled, "Wow! You certainly know how to spend a hot evening."
"Well, there isn't any TV for us to vegetate in front of, so I was trying to invent a not-too-bad substitute."
They both laughed.
Luca asked, "You don't like TV, or something?"
"I gave away four of them that were here when I moved in. My mother couldn't live without the tube. Every time she walked into a room, she had to turn a television on. Eventually, she'd change the station--without necessarily also changing the TVs she'd left on in the other rooms. Most of the day it'd be total cacophony--so loud everywhere you couldn't read, couldn't think."
"If I asked her to turn some of them off, she'd be insulted--say I was depriving her of her 'friends.' Notice my room is the one that's way in the back corner of the house? It was the only place reasonably quiet. Still, I played music most of the time to drown it out--or just stayed away from the house, which I wanted to anyway. No way I could enjoy peace and let the sounds of the outside world softly drift in my window."
"Okay. So, Walt Whitman it is."
Luca picked up his plate and silverware. "First, though, let's get rid of the dishes. I'll wash and you dry and put away."
Jerry took his wrist and made him put the dishes back down on the table. "No. I'll let the boy do them tomorrow."
"We don't have that much time together. Do you think I prefer you on the couch? Or in the sink?"
"Well, I wasn't actually going to get in the sink myself."
"C'mon." Still holding Luca's wrist, Jerry led him into the living room.
"We need to pick up a copy of the book."
"Not necessary. I have some poems memorized."
Jerry sat on the couch, pulled Luca next to him, and recited.
I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
Luca was quiet for a minute afterwards. Then, "That's something. He was able to write about 'manly love' back then? When was that written?"
"It was published just after the Civil War, but probably written before it. So, in the 1860s."
Luca kissed Jerry. "I didn't know you could be so open then."
"Things had a different meaning. The public wasn't conscious about homosexuality, and people weren't as guarded about how they expressed themselves. Most readers must have politely assumed that, by 'love,' Whitman only meant real close friendship. A few readers, who had reason to know what he meant, would have understood."
"That makes sense."
"I like that poem--or perhaps dislike it--because it makes me seriously wonder about myself. I mean, I'm the opposite of Whitman. I'm not 'rude, unbending, lusty.' Mostly I seem to try for 'invisible.' Whitman is so passionate about how he needs friends and lovers both, while I act like I couldn't care. But I do care--as much as he does. So the last line hits me hard, because he knows what he wants and he goes for it."
Luca agreed--at least as far as the obvious fact that Jerry often seemed confused about how to deal with other people. But it didn't seem productive for Luca to say so just then when Jerry was already recognizing it himself. Luca liked to approach people respectfully, and he would have rebelled at the idea of trying to rebuild someone he only knew comparatively little.
It was hard to understand the depths, the unexpected contradictions, in Jerry's personality. But Luca very much liked what he had seen so far and he wanted to try to comprehend Jerry more. One could probably never understand Jerry completely--and that lack of any limitation in Jerry seemed to Luca to be a good thing.
Luca kissed Jerry again and looked into his eyes.
Jerry asked, "Do the rules for these get-acquainted dates only allow kisses? Or is groping permitted?"
Luca said, "Gropes are legal. In fact, I'd like . . . " He put his hand on Jerry's crotch and massaged.
"That feels good."
"I know. . . . Can you remember other poems like that one?"
After a few more poems--and also a lot more making out--Jerry said, "I'm liking this."
"No. I mean, if we were planning sex, then I'd be impatient now--doing this stuff just to get you warmed up--and me warmed up. I'd want to move on to 'the good part.' But, since I know that this all I'm getting tonight, I'm actually paying attention to it. And it turns out to be great--by no means to be despised as 'mere foreplay.'"
"Uh, huh. I'm thinking the same thing--I feel you're doing the things you are because you like me--and I like that--if I'm expressing myself clearly."
"Hmm. When we finally do get to 'the good part'--it might be good to pay attention then too."
"That's the idea."
Jerry brushed his tongue along Luca's. "Will we eventually sometime do 'the good part?'"
This response--Luca's warm, definite reassurance that he wanted to go farther--didn't make Jerry feel comfortable, but nervous. It made him realize he wanted to reassure Luca in return. But that would involve obligation.
Luca felt Jerry mentally pull away.
Jerry saw that Luca knew, without words, what Jerry'd been thinking. Jerry remembered what he'd decided earlier--that he was unwilling to hurt Luca, no matter how slightly or how briefly. He moved close to demonstrate that fact with another kiss.
Luca kissed him and felt relief, like they had passed a milestone--although perhaps only one of many that they would need to pass--together. "Thanks," he said.
Then Luca stood up. "And, for now, that's as much groping as I can do--not without imperatively needing the next step."
They walked to the door.
Jerry looked at Luca. "Will you be able to drive safely with an erection like that?"
They laughed together, and then Luca went out into the night, worried and happy.
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