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Archive for the ‘love’ Category

Old Roads

Allan twirled his beer. He watched as the bottom of the bottle followed the ring of its own sweat on the concrete tabletop. His hand had internalized the sequence—wrist back, forefinger lunge, third finger twist, thumb tug, repeat, repeat—so that the bottle would adhere to its course without his further attention. It wouldn’t err as his mind focused on our conversation.

We were just shooting the shit, as we always had. Unlike most times before, however, this shit-shooting had taken coordination, planning and some costs. We had to shed our lives to come here, to a place we could only go together. It cost him four hours of driving and a tank of gas. It cost me excuses to my parents, apologies that I was missing one night of a vacation back home, and a bedtime assurance to my boys that I would come home after they were asleep to kiss them good night once more. Added to this was, thus far, the shared cost of six beers between us. But we paid the toll, glad for the fare.

I looked up at the clear night sky. Allan grinned, watching his bottle twirl.

“What?” I asked, catching his smile with my own.

“This.” He removed his bottle from its orbit and took a pull with his lips. “This, being with you. Man, it’s like I just saw you yesterday. Have we even been in the same place since my wedding?”

“Nope.” I sucked down warm beer. “No, and really, we barely spoke then. You kind of had other priorities, as I recall.”

“Yeah, I guess I did,” he nodded. “What with the ‘getting married’ thing and all.”

“That was a really nice event,” I nodded in turn. I took another drink. “Right nice.”

“Shit, yeah, well, you set the bar high.” He raised his bottle. I raised mine to clink the reference. He drained the last of his beer.

“Cheers,” I nodded, killing my own. “Fuck, wasn’t that some party?”

He laughed, covering his nose to avoid losing good beer. “Your wedding? Shit, yeah,” he finally managed. “I’m sorry, but I was so fucked up by the end of that thing.”

“We all were,” I laughed. “My poor dad. Did I tell you this? Okay, so Dad, he doesn’t drink. He stopped when we were kids. His folks were drunks and so on, but get this. So, he has a few too many beers at my wedding. He finds me dancing with David and some of the gay boys. He comes over, rolls up his pants and asks the queers to check out his legs.”

Allan fell back on his bench, laughing silently. When his laughter entered hearing range, it was well deep and barrel rich. My toes curled in my shoes. “Oh, fuck.” He gathered his breath. “Oh fuck, that’s so good. Your dad . . .” he began to laugh again.

“No, wait,” I grabbed his arm. “It gets better. So Dad, you know, he can’t drink. And he’s dancing with the gay boys . . .” We both break up. “No, no, wait.” We caught our breath. I begin to sing, reaching for an Elton John falsetto. I banged my fingers on the table. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy and the ga-aa-aa-ays.” I break up in his laughter. I watched him wipe tears from his eyes. “No, but come on, really,” I said. “Serious story here.” We each took a breath and settled down. “Are you ready?”

Allan pushed out one last laugh, deep in his belly. He drew a breath and exhaled. “Okay, no, wait.” He reached for his empty bottle, stared at it for a moment, and sat it back. “Okay, all right.” He folded his hands in his lap. He shook the curls from his forehead.” “All right. I’m ready.” He laughed again. I looked at him askance, as if impatient to finish my story. “No, no,” he laughed. He caught his breath again, “Okay,” he smirked. “Ready.”

“Okay.” I coughed, composing myself. “So, Dad asks the gay boys to check out his legs. Everyone agrees my dad has very nice legs, which he does. So then Dad pulls me over, bends down, and rolls up my pant’s leg.”

“Oh, shit,” Allan laughed.

“Right? It’s my wedding; I’m in my suit. He’s on his knees in the grass, rolling up my pants. His bare knees!” I laughed again. “So he turns to the boys and says, ‘And what do you think of the legs of my wonderful, wonderful son?’ And the boys are all laughing and agree that my legs are nice, too.”

Allan knocked on the table, his face contorted.

“No, wait for it, wait, wait. So my friend David says, ‘The only thing that could improve his legs is if they were wrapped around my neck.’”

We fell out. He banged the table and slapped my back. His laughter infected my own, sending it soaring.

“Oh shit, man,” he finally said, coming down. “Oh shit. He said that to your dad?”

I nodded. “He said that to my dad. About his son. At his son’s wedding. Luckily, I think it went over his head.”

“Lord. I hope so.” Allan shook his head. “God damn, that’s too good. Now, wait, who’s David?”

My fingernails picked at a bottle’s edge. “Hmm? Oh, David? You met him at the wedding—tall, good looking guy.”

“Oh, I was wondering if you two guys ever . . . you know.”

I looked up from the bottle and caught his eye. “Had sex? Well, shit yeah we did.” Allan laughed again. “Before we were married, of course. Baby, I had been naked with pretty much everyone at my wedding who didn’t share a last name with me or my bride. Of course, who’s to talk? You had fucked every girl there except the one I married.”

“You are too fucking funny, man.”

“Just talking ‘bout Shaft.” I reached for his bottle and stood. “And you look too fucking thirsty. Here, I’ll get this round.”

“No, sit down,” Allan took my arm. “There’s no bar here, they come to you.” He waved for the waiter.

The waiter nodded and made his way to us. “Yes? Oh hello, Allan. And my goodness, look who you’re with! How long as it been, guy?”

I smiled, not recognizing him. “Much too long,” I said warmly. “Much too long. How’ve you been?”

“Me, I’m good.” He looked at his feet, shuffling slightly. “I’ve got a new studio down near Daniel’s old place, and I’m doing some large-scale altar paintings, kind of thinking about Rothko, though, you know, more rooted in Byzantine iconography. And you? How’ve you been? How’s New York? I thought of you when the towers collapsed.”

“New York is fine,” I said. “You know, recovering. It’s been a tough year. Your paintings sound interesting in that context.”

“I’m pleased with them. You should come out to see them, if you have time. I’d really benefit from your critique.”

“Well, I’d like that,” I said. “If we can make the time.”

“He’s only here for a few days, visiting family,” Allan interjected, rescuing me. “They’re not even in town. Y’all are down on the lake, right?”

“That’s right. Tonight’s the anomaly.” I turned back to the waiter. “Maybe you could send me slides some time?”

“That would be great,” the waiter nodded. “I’ll get some paper to get your address.”

“Could you also being us two more Coronas?” Allan raised the empty bottles.

“Sure, sure.” The waiter took the empties. “Say, and why are you in town? Is your band playing?”

“Nah, I’m just here to sit for a while with my best friend in the world.” Allan patted my back in a gesture that communicated that this was a private party.

“Well, let me get your beers. And be sure I know when you’re playing, Allan. Your CD was great, just really great. Like Eddie Vedder meets Keith Richards.” The waiter grinned. Allan smiled blankly. “Well, okay, let me get your beers.”

We watched him amble past a large fern.

I leaned close to Allan. “Okay, now what’s his name?”

“Tommy. You remember him from seeing bands here.”

“Right. Tommy the Dweeb. He smoked clove cigarettes. Always did try too hard.”

Allan scowled. “I fucking hate being compared to Eddie Vedder.”

I patted his hand. “You do sound like Eddie Vedder. But you are much prettier.”

He took his hand and slapped my arm. “Fuck you, man. You know I sang the way I do before there was a damn Pearl Jam.”

“You could be bigger than Pearl Jam,” I went on. “You’ve got the voice and the face to go with it. You could front the boy band of grunge. You know, the version that’s safe for eighth-grade girls.”

“Fuck you, man,” he laughed.

Tommy the Dweeb returned with the beers. I wrote my address on the back of a paper coaster and shook his hand. Tommy refused my money, saying the beers were on him. We squeezed limes into our bottlenecks and toasted the waiter. We drank for a time, resting in our memories.

Allan twirled his beer, watching the bottle draw a new sweat ring. “I learned to sing in your car, man,” he said quietly.

I put a hand on the small of his back. “I remember.”

We talked about life, catching up on the gaps that eluded our infrequent long distance phone calls. I told him things were fine with Lucy and the new house. Lucy was there with our baby girl, actually, relieved that she had an excuse to avoid a visit with my family. The boys were still transitioning from city to suburbs, getting used to the idea that they could go outside without special permission.

He told me that he and his wife were having a rough patch. She really wanted a baby, and after years of trying, they had been to a doctor and learned that Allan was impotent. They were considering options, all of which were more complicated than they had hoped. Taking the next steps for in vitro fertilization or adoption had them questioning their commitment to one another; if they were going to redouble their efforts at becoming parents, they each needed to be sure the other was fully on board. At the moment, they were stuck at this crossroads—should they move forward together, or part company as friends?

We ordered another round and talked until eleven or so. Allan had driven over after work that day, and now had to drive two hours back home so he could get some sleep before heading to his shop by eight. I climbed in his truck and he drove me out to my parents. We sang along to George Jones.

The outside light flickered on automatically as he parked in the driveway. He got out of the truck to hug me goodbye.

“You sure you don’t want to crash here?” I asked. “I know we can get you up early. My grandmother wakes up at dawn.”

“Nah, I need to get home. It’s too late to call Alice, and I’d rather drive at night when there’s no traffic. Come here, let me get going.”

He took me into his arms. He pulled me close, squeezing my waist. “It’s been too long, man. Let’s not wait so long.”

I put my hands on his face and pulled back to look at him. His smile was so wide in his baby-faced cheeks. He still looked as he did at fifteen, but for the laugh lines around his eyes. I kissed him. He kissed me back, a warm peck, but I persisted. I caressed his lips with my tongue. He closed his mouth, surprised, but then parted his lips. His tongue met mine. I moaned softly, running my fingers through his hair.

After a while, he pulled back and grinned. “Well damn, I didn’t see that coming.” I was pleased to have taken him unaware. He put a hand on my shoulders. “Nobody else has done that. I love you, man.”

“I love you, too, Allan.” He patted my shoulder and turned to his truck. “Drive safe. Turn up the music. Stop if you need to.”

“I will, and you say hey to your folks for me.” He gave a wave as he drove off.

It was the last time I saw Allan. A few months later, his wife found him on the couch. He had died of an undiagnosed heart condition. We were all stunned to hear the news. Allan was vivacious and strong. It was inconceivable that he would simply pass.

“You have to go down there,” Lucy said when I told her the news. “Are you okay? God, he was like your brother.”

“Yeah, well, I’m shocked,” I told her. She hugged me. “He was only thirty-six, so young.” I thought of his mother and sobbed. Lucy cried with me.

My parents offered to meet me at the airport. I had a carry-on bag and my suit. I would be back home only for a few days, long enough to attend the funeral and check in with our friends. I wondered if it would be appropriate for me to kiss Allan one last time in his casket.

“Poor baby,” Mom cried, hugging me. “I just think of Allan’s mother. I don’t know what I would do if I lost one of mine. And he was her only baby.”

“Hi, Mom,” I mumbled, my cheek crushed by her neck. “Yes, it’s really sad.”

Dad wrapped his arms around us. “He was lucky to have you as a friend.”

“Yeah, we were both lucky,” I said, swallowing.

Dad drove us to the house as Mom filled me in on what had transpired with my nieces and nephews since my last visit a few months before. Essentially, nothing much had happened, but my mother had a gift for weaving elaborate narratives from rather banal threads. I wasn’t really listening, but I preferred the sound of her drawl to the chatter of talk radio. I stared out the window, watching the landscape whir along the new Interstate.

When we got home, I called Nora. She cried when she heard my voice. I told her I needed to see her, to be with someone else who understood. She gave me directions to her house and told me to bring wine, lots and lots of wine. My parents gave me the keys to my grandmother’s old Impala. I said I would likely stay at Nora’s if we got to drinking. Mom kissed me and told me to please be careful, as she would hate to lose me.

“Nora?” I called from her screen door. I could see strings of lights decorating her foyer. Music was playing from somewhere inside. The door was unlatched, but I didn’t want to just barge in.

“Oh my God!” Nora ran from her kitchen. “Oh my God, oh my God!” She opened the screen door and threw her arms around my neck. “Oh my God, you’re here, oh my God.” She began to cry. I lowered the bags of wine to the porch and held her. I kissed her head. She stood back, looked and me and smiled. She laughed. Tears filled her eyes as she clapped her hands. “Oh my God. Okay, you’re here. Okay.” She took my hand and pulled. “Okay, come in, come in, we’re going to the kitchen.”

“Wait, Nora.” I bent down. “I brought wine . . .”

“You did? Oh, thank God.” She bent to take two bottles, took my hand and pulled. “Come in, come in. Oh my God, you’re here!”

Nora’s husband Kevin stood in the kitchen, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on a television placed on the top of the refrigerator. “Hey, look who’s here!” He held out a hand. I took it and pulled him into a hug. “Good to see you, man.”

“You too, you lucky sumbitch.” I let go of him and put the bottles on a table. “Now, please tell me you have a corkscrew.”

“Here, you do it,” Nora said, fishing in a drawer. “I just don’t trust my hands.” She stopped and took my face in her grip. “Thank God, you’re here.”

“I wish we didn’t have to be here under these circumstances,” I said. “We’re too young to do weddings and funerals.”

“I know, I know,” Nora smiled. “And I look terrible in black.” We laughed. She put her lips to mine, and then jumped as she covered my face in kisses. “God, I love you so much!”

I giggled. “That tickles, sugar. And you know I’ll love you, ever and always.”

Kevin watched, smiling.

I poured Merlot for the three of us, filling Nora’s deep glasses nearly to the rims. She lit some candles and we sat to talk. Her phone rang. She left the room to take the call. Kevin’s eyes drifted back to the television. “You a fan?” He pointed at the set.

I looked over my shoulder. A Vulcan was upset. “I’ve actually never seen it.”

“Never watch it, then,” Kevin shook his head. “It will suck the life right out of you.”

Nora returned and sat, the phone still in her hands. “Okay, that was Lucinda. She’s on her way over.” She slumped and looked at me. “I’m wondering if we should call Timothy and all them.”

I fingered my glass. “Yeah? I don’t know. I mean, I want to see people, but . . . that’s going to become a bunch of people, very fast. And, I don’t know . . .” I took a sip of wine.

Nora put her hand in mine. “What, honey?”

I closed my eyes and winced. “I can’t make sense of any of this. And I’m not ready to have other people mediate my grief.”

I opened my eyes. Nora was inches from my face. “I know exactly what you mean. No one should take this from us until we process it.” She grabbed my arm and pulled closer. “But you know what? We’re all doing this. We’re all hurting. We don’t have to do it alone, either.” I leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “You’re not alone, honey,” she said. “None of us is.”

She pushed her forehead to mine. “Okay, baby, make the calls.”

Lucinda was the first to arrive. She brought more wine.

Timothy arrived with beer and three cars full of people who were, in my recollection, thirteen years old. During my senior year of high school, my circle of friends was very close. We were the smart set and all of the creative kids who read or spoke well gravitated to us. Somehow, into that clique of juniors and seniors came Timothy, a pudgy philosophical seventh grader. He kept up with our banter and if he didn’t get something, he asked follow-up questions until he did. We educated him as we went along, and pretty soon, we forgot his age and treated him like a peer. Still, we made a point of telling him he couldn’t join us at weekend parties.

“There’s beer and pot,” Allan told him.

“And sex,” I added.

“Please?” Timothy begged. “Seriously, my mom won’t mind. I can bring her if I have to. Come on, please let me come. Please?”

The prohibition stood firm so long as I was a senior. The next year, Allan was in charge. The newly-minted eighth graders flocked to him. He was their epitome of cool, all that they aspired to be. During his freshman year of college, Allan once said, “You know, I’ll never get laid like that again.”

“You never know,” I said. “This is the South.”

Our party grew too large for Nora’s kitchen. Kevin lit a fire in a cast iron stove on their deck and we moved outside. It was after midnight. Kevin went to bed, kissing Nora good night. He kissed my head. “Good to have you back, brother,” he said. He hooked my hand and took me into a bear hug. I kissed good night to his bearded cheek.

My hometown has distinctive sounds at night. Crickets and frogs are so voluminous you need to raise your voice to be heard. The trains that bisect the town ran close to Nora’s backyard, so that we were occasionally shushed by distant whistles and clacks that signaled the imminence of a deafening rumble.

“I’m sorry about that, guys,” Nora shouted as a train tore through the night.

“I like it!” I shouted back. I wanted to rush to the tracks and scream at the passing cars, to let out this tumor of grief for a boy I had lost and the longing for a man I didn’t know well enough to love as intently as I did.

It was quiet again as we sat near the stove. It got late but the wine held out, and no one showed any sign of leaving. So many years after high school, we were able to return to our familiar comfort with one another; we had gone on to other lives and places, but here, in this group, we remained the same people who had once imagined the future together.

Timothy looked content, his arm around my former girlfriend Lauren. She caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I grinned. He had been nursing a crush on her for twenty years. I could remember him following us through the halls at school, and watching as we made out in the parking lot. We were his first ideal of romance. In his young mind, Lauren became the very embodiment of love and desire. He had never married. Allan used to joke that he was waiting on Lauren to break up with her longtime boyfriend. Recently, she had.

Nora sat beside me. She poured me another glass, and rested her head on my shoulder. I massaged Linda’s foot in my lap. She smiled and raised her glass in response. I took a sip.

“I’ve got a question,” Linda said. “I was just thinking of Allan taking my virginity, and wondered: how many of us had sex with Allan? Come on, show of hands.”

Half the people in the circle raised hands: every woman and me. We collapsed into laughter. “Please don’t ask that question at the service tomorrow,” I begged.

“We should charter a bus,” Nora guffawed. “With a banner: ‘Allan Slept Here.’”

“You slept with Allan?” Lucinda asked me. “I had no idea. None.”

“Well, he didn’t much talk about it. He wasn’t really into guys, but you know, he and I . . .”

“He was so in love with you,” Nora interrupted.

“Yes,” Linda echoed.

“We loved each other. I mean, that was the deal. We were straight boys in love. And we were sexual. So we had sex.” I sipped my wine. The fire crackled. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, despite its truth. I wanted to wad it up, throw it into the fire, and start over.

Nora laughed. She bent over, grabbing her sides. “What, what?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, this is so inappropriate,” she giggled. “But that got me wet!” Everyone descended into gales.

I noticed Timothy wasn’t smiling. I hiccupped a few more giggles. “Hey, are you okay, Timothy?” I asked.

He looked into the fire. “I don’t think it’s very respectful.”

“What? The sex talk?” I sat up. “Hey, I’m sorry, it’s just . . .”

Timothy picked up a wood chip and dug into the deck. “I mean . . . if it was a secret, it should stay a secret.”

“Wait, are you talking about me and Allan? You knew about that, didn’t you?”

He nodded. “He told me, but that’s not the point. If you agreed to keep it a secret, it should be a secret.”

I sat back. “I tell it because I’m drunk, I’m tired, and I miss my friend. Forgive me.”

Nora sat forward. “Timothy, Allan’s dead. He won’t mind. And anyway, we all knew. He told all of us. Well, all of us except Lucinda, evidently.” Lucinda shrugged. Nora hit me. “Wait, why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Ask me later,” I nudged. “I’ve got a story that involves your bedroom.”

Nora covered her mouth and raised her eyebrows. “Oh, really?”

Nervous titters vibrated through the crowd. Timothy threw his wood chip into the fire. We fell quiet and watched the chip burn. Another train was heading down the line. After it passed, Lucinda spoke up. “Allan’s passing was so unexpected, so sudden. I guess it goes to show that you have to live each day like it’s your last.”

There were murmurs of assent. “I don’t know,” I said. “That seems too pessimistic. And maybe too complicated. Like, an anticipated last day might easily become a to-do list, a series of errands. Tell your mama you loved her. Write down the bank accounts. Open the good scotch. Watch the sunset. Kiss the wife and kids . . .”

“Get laid,” Lucinda added. We laughed.

“That too! But you know what I mean?” I continued. “It isn’t that any day could be your last. The point is that each day can be more fully appreciated. We spend so much time doing what we are supposed to do, and maybe we spend too little savoring the everyday things we would miss if they were gone. It’s not just about scaling Everest or whatever. It’s about tasting what you chew, listening when your children talk, laughing when . . . um . . .”

“Stop and smell the roses,” Linda nodded.

I reached for her hand. “Oh my God. Did you make that up? That’s it!” She grinned. “Well, I’m drunk and maudlin and talking in clichés. What the fuck do I know? But if I had Allan for just ten more minutes, I would tell him how much I loved him—which was so, so much—and then I would fuck the absolute living shit out of him until the meter ran down the time.”

“Here, here!” Linda laughed over the noise of convulsions. We clinked glasses.

“To love!” Nora echoed. “Je suis la lune!” She pedaled her feet in the air and handed me another bottle to open.

I woke up the next morning with a head full of rocks. I rolled over and squinted into the sun coming through a window. I was under a quilt on a day bed in a room lined with shelves. I could make out boxes on the shelves; focusing my eyes, I saw that they were action figures, each in their original packaging. I smelled bacon.

I sat up. I swung my feet to the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair.

“Do I look as bad as I feel?” I asked, stumbling into the kitchen.

Nora raised her head from the table. Her hair fell in her face. “I’d tell you, honey, but I can’t open my eyes.”

“Y’all had some party last night, judging from the bottles left over,” Kevin said from the stove. “Sounds like you sent Allan off real good.”

I sat at the table and buried my face in my hands. “Yeah, he got a fine bon voyage.” I dropped my hands and stared at Nora’s scalp.

Kevin put two cups of coffee in front of us. “Y’all best sober up. We have to be at the service in two hours.”

I looked at the clock. “Fuck, is it really ten? I have to go back to my parents house to get in my suit.”

“No problem,” Nora muttered into the table. “It’s thirty minutes on the Interstate.” Kevin served breakfast and we gradually came around. I kissed them each goodbye and walked out to my grandmother’s Impala. It was a bright morning. I drove into the sun, regretting my sunglasses.

I referred to Nora’s directions, trying to trace my way backward to my parents’ house. Somehow, I missed the turn onto the Interstate, which had opened in the two decades since I left home. Rather than double back to get directions, I decided to drive the way I knew, on the older highways and back roads. By the time I got home, I had been driving for over an hour.

“Isn’t the service at noon?” my mother asked as I came in the door.

“Yes,” I said, rushing upstairs. “I got turned around on the way back from Nora’s.”

“It’s twenty ‘til now!” she called.

“I know!” I shouted back.

“You’ll be late to your own funeral, son,” she said, walking back to the kitchen. “Good thing Lucy didn’t come, she’d cuss you out.”

Mom wrote out directions to the chapel so that I could take the Interstate. She gave me the directions, and then went over them with me as I stood in the kitchen tying my tie. “Mom, I could drive there in the time it takes you to explain these directions,” I said impatiently. I kissed her cheek and took the paper. She hollered at me to drive safe.

The chapel was standing room only. I closed the door behind me and shuffled to one side, taking care not to block the view of anyone behind me. Allan’s band was playing one of his songs, with the guitarist filling in the vocals. I looked over the heads of the seated mourners, but I couldn’t see a casket.

The door opened behind me. Jonathan stepped in, removing his sunglasses. I stepped over to hug him.

“You’re here,” he whispered.

“Yes,” I replied. “Thank God for you. No matter how late I am, I can always count on you to be later.”

He motioned for me to move closer and brought his lips to into my ear. “Fuck you,” he growled. I nearly giggled.

The service, or what was left of it, was short. As we were already standing by the door, Jonathan and I each stood to one side to act as ushers. Allan’s widow, Alice, came down the aisle holding a ceramic vase Allan had made. His mother, Barbara, held Alice’s arm. She wore large black sunglasses. She looked so small.

Alice leaned to kiss my cheek as she passed. “My husband is so heavy,” she whispered. He had been cremated. I would never see him again.

I squeezed Barbara’s hand. She turned her face to me. “Baby, are you coming to the house?” she croaked.

I cried and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Please, I need you there.”

I hugged her, trying not to cry so much. She had enough tears. She dropped her arms and turned to the door, resting a hand on Alice’s elbow. They shuffled outside. I put my hand to my mouth, suppressing my sobs. Barbara looked so drained of life.

Jonathan and I stayed in place as the mourners filed by. I recovered and folded my hands in front of my body. Following the line outside, we found our friends milling on the lawn outside the chapel. People were hugging, drying their eyes, and smoking, talking in hushed tones. Kids ran by, dressed in their Sunday school clothes. We watched as someone helped Barbara into a car.

“We should give them a good head start before we go to the house,” Jonathan said. “They’ll need to get her settled.” I nodded, reaching for his hand.

I followed Jonathan to Barbara’s place. We parked with the other cars along the side of the road and walked into the backyard. Some of the former seventh graders were seated in a circle, drinking beer and singing as the guitarist played. We nodded hellos and passed into the house. Allan’s aunts were in the kitchen. Linda helped them to bring food out to the dining room table. I took Linda to one side and hugged her. She broke down. “Stop, stop,” she said, slapping her hand to my chest. “I can’t do this, I need to help them.”

“Is she okay?” I asked. Linda shook her head, wiping her nose on a tissue. She turned and went back the kitchen. I followed the corridor to the living room.

Barbara was seated at the center of the couch, surrounded by people. “Mmph, there he is,” she said, drawing on her cigarette. “Come here, New York, and sit next to me. Y’all scoot over and make some room.” One of her sisters stood and took a glass from the coffee table. I made my way through the crowd to her side. I put my arms around her. Her head fell to my shoulder. “I buried my baby today,” she said, quietly.

I nodded, sniffling. “I know.” I held her.

“But you know what?” She sat up and waved her hand, guiding her cigarette through the air. “I’ve still got my other children. Allan’s friends. Y’all have all been so good to me, all his life. And now, even more so.”

Linda watched from the dining room. “We love you, Barbara,” she called. The words were picked up by other voices as heads nodded around the room. Linda wiped her eyes.

“Well, I love y’all,” Barbara said, her eyes raw and red. She turned to me and patted my leg. “You go call your mama and tell her you’re my son now, too.”

I sobbed. “You cruel bitch,” I wept. “Now, I think you’re purposefully trying to make me cry.”

A wry smile crossed her lips. “Honey, we’ve all been crying and we aren’t about to stop. I fully intend to sit here, get drunk, and cry myself dry.”

I laughed, kissing her cheek. I turned to Linda. “What do you have to do to get a vodka in this joint? Jesus Hosanna.”

“On its way,” Linda said, pointing over her shoulder to the kitchen. Barbara was already pretty soused, but no one was going to close her tab today. Her sister came back with a tall glass of vodka and orange juice. Barbara took a long sip. I took the glass and put if back on the table.

“You know what?” She drew on her cigarette and turned her head to exhale. “I always thought Allan would’ve been happier with you.”

I looked around. “You mean, with Linda?”

She patted my hand. “No honey, with you.” Several of us laughed. “No, now, I mean it. He loved you so much, baby, so very much. One time I asked him if he was in love with you. He shook his head and he said, “Naw, Mama. I love him, but I’m not in love with him.’ But you know what?” She lowered her voice. “I could tell he was.”

My face grew warm. “Well, Barbara, thanks for your blessing. A little late, perhaps, but . . . ”

Laughter burst from her. “Oh, baby, you made me laugh,” she said, patting her chest. “Oh heaven, thank you for that.”

I kissed her hand. “Seriously, though, I loved him, too. Still do. That’s the beautiful part. We still get to keep him with us, in our love for him.” I didn’t know where those words came from, but the sounded comforting and true, so I was grateful for them.

She squeezed my hand. “That is so right.” She reached for her vodka. “So right.”

I sat next to Barbara, talking with her and our friends, until she was good and drunk. Two of her sisters came over and helped her to the bedroom. We all wished her goodnight. The sun was starting to set.

We ate some food, sang some songs and drank some beer. We all kissed each other and said we’d get together soon, and not at a funeral. Linda’s brother Simon collected phone numbers, emails and addresses. The next day, I breakfasted with my parents and flew home to my wife and children.

A few days later, Simon sent an email to all of us, inviting us to join a Yahoo group he had created. Other friends were linked into the group, and soon, we were all catching up and carrying on in our message board.

Then, a funny thing happened. Former seventh-grader Timothy began corresponding with my former girlfriend Lauren. He had moved to New York a few years before, and she lived with her daughter in Maryland. He began to travel down to visit them on weekends. Pretty soon, he proposed. She accepted.

Twenty years after first meeting—one year after Allan’s death, two weeks into my separation—Timothy and Lauren were going to get married.

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“Oh, yesssss. Yes, Henn-rrrryyy! Bite me! Ooh-wn me-ee-ee!”

Bridget was at full volume as I chewed my way across her ribs.

She’s an alto. Her voice, at full volume, could peel the paint off the ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera.

I long ago found a tender area—just under her breasts, just above her belly—and I was working it, intent on giving her a deep, memorable bite for each orgasm she had given up so far. Trouble was, I kind of lost count. Who can keep track of so much shouting?

So instead, I decided to approximate by chewing one row across in an odd number—I estimated seven—and then a second row back in an even number—estimating six—all in a nice symmetrical pattern.

But that symmetry would be lost if she kept shouting as I bit her. I would have to add more bites, which might in turn add more orgasms. A never-ending spiral.

Not that it was such a big deal. I just happen to like symmetry. It was my own fault for losing count, really, as I was a little distracted. In the back of my mind, I was fantasizing about something new I wanted to try with Bridget.

As my teeth sank slowly deeper into her flesh, as her screams and shouts filled my ears, I allowed my mind to wander to my new fantasy. I lifted my mouth on lucky number thirteen, and surveyed my traces. Bridget panted. I smiled. These would be nice souvenirs.

“Please,” she panted, desperate. “More . . .”

“Yes, of course.” I gave up on biting and symmetry, moving on to other activities until my ears could take no more blistering. We fell apart, panting, She was soon asleep, snoring and sprawled on my bed. I lay awake, pondering my fantasy.

The next time she asked me out, I sprang it on her. “You want to get some dinner, and boink?” she asked. “Boink, boink, boink!”

“Dinner sounds good,” I replied, gulping. “But can we forgo the boinking? I want . . .”

“What?”

“May I bring the kids?”

I’m sure she hit the floor. Bridget knows I have a very firm rule. I keep my life as a parent far removed from my dating life. I do not want my kids to meet my lovers. I do not want them confused about who is and who isn’t “Dad’s girlfriend” and, in their minds, potentially a new Mom.

So far as the kids are concerned, Dad is just . . . Dad. Dad presumably goes back into a box when they are gone, waiting to reactivate upon their return. But Bridget has me thinking.

She asks me about the kids pretty much every day. She remembers details about them that even I can’t recall. She tells me about her godchild’s every landmark. Through her updates, I have come to feel that I know this child I’ve never met. She respects my rule, and she cares about my children.

I’ve also been pondering the future of my life after divorce.

I’m not at all interested in finding the Next Big Thing in a relationship. I don’t want a wife, or a new mother for my children, or anything like that. I’m a great parent, I tell myself. I can do this without muddying the waters with another adult in the mix.

Even so, it is hard work. I am grateful for every bit of help I get from friends, wishing my family lived closer. I regret that the kids have to grow up that much faster to compensate for the absent parent.

I’m smart enough to know that this is a unique time in my life, and in the lives of my children. And that makes me wonder: who, among the people I have met since my marriage ended, would I want in my life ten years from now? Who among those people would I want to integrate into my life with the children? Once I thought it over, I decided that Bridget made the cut.

I have no idea what our relationship will be in ten years. I have no way of knowing. But I do think we’ll remain constants, in some way or other.

It helps that we have a fake past.

We realized early on that during our college years, by chance, we had danced in the same club in the same town. We might have met back then. We might have been friends ever since.

We decided to adopt that false history as our cover story. If anyone asks, we met all those years ago. We’ve been friends forever. It’s a better fit than the real story: we actually picked up one another on Craig’s List. We met at a bar that same day. We went Dutch. She came over to get laid. I gave her two hours and then kicked her out. Who knew it would stick?

My fantasy took root one afternoon when she stopped by to drop off some things from a Costco shopping spree. “Just a few things,” she said, “to get you through the weekend with the kids.”

That afternoon, the kids were zoned out to Cartoon Network. Bridget called from the lobby. “Hey guys, I’m going downstairs to get a package,” I said.

“I’m coming!” Collie replied, jumping up.

“Me too!” Lillie said.

“No, please,” I stammered. “It’s just a few things . . .”

“I’ll get my shoes,” Collie replied.

“Me too,” Lillie said.

“Okay, fine,” I said, resigned to the inevitable. “A friend of mine is dropping off some stuff.”

“What friend?” Lillie asked, pulling on her socks. “You have a lot of friends, Dad. You need to use a name.”

“It’s Bridget,” I said, gathering her shoes. “She has some groceries and stuff.”

“Is she a weenie?” Lillie asked. “Weenie” is her term for anyone who might be considered Dad’s girlfriend.

“Be nice. Don’t say ‘weenie.’”

“Okay,” she giggled as I tied her shoes.

“Lillie . . .”

“I won’t!”

“Good.”

Bridget was surprised to see me as I arrived with a cart and two children. “Well, hello! Let me guess, you are Collie, and you are Lillie?”

Collie grinned. “Yes.”

“Yes,” Lillie echoed, “And you are a weenie!”

“Yes, I am a weenie,” Bridget smiled. “And you are a poopy head.”

“No!” Lillie laughed. “You are a weenie and a poopy head!”

“No, I’m a weenie and you are a poopy head. I’m Buttercup, and you are Blossom. See, I have black hair, and you have red hair. Weenie and poopy head, Buttercup and Blossom.”

Lillie was struck silent. Lillie! Silent!

“Here, help me unpack,” Bridget said to Collie. “Take this.” She handed over a tub of Cheese Balls. It was nearly the boy’s size.

“Whoa, this is huge!” he exclaimed. “Look, I’m holding it over my head!”

“Well, it weighs about two pounds, dear. It’s all air.”

“It’s huge!” He looked at the tub of Cheese Balls as though it were his first Emmy.

“It is huge, but if you don’t put it down, you can’t help me with the Fruit Loops.”

Lillie looked at Collie. “Fruit Loops?” they shouted.

“Hope their mom doesn’t mind,” she said to me, pulling out an enormous box.

“Ooh, she’ll hate that,” I smiled.

“Gee, you think?”

Lillie held the box aloft. “Wow!” she managed.

The kids helped me to bring up a cart full of stuff, but there was more to come. Bridget waited downstairs.

“Jason! Jason!” Collie shouted. “Look at these Cheese Balls!”

“And the Fruit Loops!” Lillie followed.

“Whoa, where did this come from?” Jason asked.

“Dad’s friend!” Lillie said.

“Bridget!” Collie added. “You want to meet her?”

“Uh, sure, where is she?”

“Downstairs!” Collie called, running to the door. “Get your shoes!”

“Oh, okay,” Jason replied. “Wait up!”

Collie helped me to push the cart we had just emptied. Jason stuffed his hands in his pockets as he approached Bridget’s car.

“Oh hi, you must be Jason.”

“Yeah . . .”

“I’m Bridget. How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Were you playing Madden?”

He smiled. “Yes . . .”

“Are you playing the team or the owner?” she asked, handing him a carton of Ramen noodles.

“Team.” Jason looked at me. How did she know this stuff?

“That’s a good game. You know ‘X-Men Legends?”

“No . . .”

“It’s awesome. You saw the movie?”

“No . . .”

Bridget punched me. “What kind of father are you?” Lillie laughed.

“I just . . . hey, I try,” I protested. I looked at Jason. “You see, the X-Men are a group of mutants who try to be good, though everyone thinks they are bad . . .”

Jason shook his head. “Dad, come on.”

“Don’t worry,” Bridget said to Jason. “You’ll see it.”

Jason shrugged. “Cool.”

I realized something that day. Raising kids can take a village. When I find good villagers, I need to let them help. Three children are a lot for one man. And so it was that Bridget crossed over my boundary, at my bidding.

Bridget came into my innermost circle. The kids.

I kept a close eye on things.

We took the kids to see Corpse Bride; for dinner, she suggested the kids compare Subway to Blimpies. Lillie preferred Subway, Jason preferred Blimpies, and Collie pretended that Corpse Bride was too babyish.

We took the kids bowling. We all scored high. It helped that we used bumpers on the lane.

We had a birthday dinner at a local sushi restaurant. Bridget’s birthday is the day before Jason’s. We combined the party and kept the waiter busy.

For her birthday, I gave Bridget a photograph of myself in college. “Here’s the evidence,” I said. “We’ve known each other a long time.”

At Christmas, I allowed gifts from Bridget under Bucky’s tree. Lillie opened a bag full of Hello Kitties from Bridget. “Wow,” she laughed, opening the fifth wrapped Kitty, with many more to go. “Bridget must really love me!”

“Who’s Bridget?” Richard asked me.

“A friend of ours,” I said. “Mine and the kids.” My ex wife noted that Bridget gave nice presents.

The other night, Bridget came over for dinner. Afterward, we played Clue with the kids. Game after game. Lillie stuck to Miss Scarlet, as always. Jason was indelibly Colonel Mustard. Collie switched Professor Plum for Mister Green, then switched to Mrs White. He tried every trick to work the angles.

Bridget watched the children’s faces and made careful notes in her detective’s handbook. She knew the murderer first, but held her deductions close to avoid guessing the children’s secrets.

After the kids were in bed, I discovered a split of champagne in the refrigerator. “You brought this?” I asked.

“Uh huh.”

“You ready?”

“Uh huh.”

I opened the split and poured two flutes. We clinked glasses.

“Happy anniversary,” I said.

“Happy anniversary,” she smiled.

Two years ago that night, we met for the first time. Legend has it we danced to New Order long before.

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On the drive south, and again on the return journey, my family charted a course through the Shenandoah Valley to visit with my daughter, Rachel.

Originally, the plan had been to pick up Rachel on the way down and return her on the way back, as is our annual custom. We were particularly keen for her to join us this year, for she is at an age—seventeen—which may offer one of her last flexible summers before her life is wrapped up in boyfriends, jobs and college.

Alas, Rachel has always been precocious. She already had too much on her plate to manage a three-week excursion to the Deep South.

Last spring, she graduated high school a year early, leaving her with a few divergent options. Should she stay at home and work for a year, to save money? Should she fulfill our shared fantasy and join me in New York?

She wondered: should she pursue college admissions in her home state, and live near her mom and dad, or in New York, to live with her dad, or maybe in California, near her other dad? And if she did move, what would that mean to her ten younger siblings?

Rachel’s family ties are complex, perhaps a fact of life when a girl has three fathers.

Rachel’s mother Emily and I were never formally in a relationship. The conception of our daughter was due to a certain convergence of coincidences.

The winter of nineteen-eighty-seven was unusually snowy. Because of this, classes were canceled at my college, and I found myself one night drinking at the bar tended by my roommate, Jetboy.

I had long blonde hair. Because of this, Emily felt compelled to braid my hair as I sat at the bar. While I didn’t know Emily very well, I did like her physical resemblance to Molly Ringwald. I also liked that she was so fond of my hair. It felt nice to have her touch it.

When Jetboy returned to our apartment that night, he walked in on Emily and me having sex.

He would get accustomed to the sight. For the rest of that winter and into the spring, Emily and I fucked and fucked.

She would hang out with her friends at the dorm, smoking pot and listening to bootlegged cassettes of Grateful Dead concerts. When she was good and baked, she would call me and ask to come over.

I always said yes.

Emily and I each had a “real” relationship back home. Our nights together provided a salutary opportunity for sex while we were at school.

Jetboy didn’t mind at all. He thought it was cool that we went at it regardless of his presence, though he declined our occasional entreaties to join us.

As the academic year drew to a close, Emily and I prepared to return to our lives back home. I happened to be at the dorm when her boyfriend arrived to help her move. I shook his hand and helped Emily load her things into his pickup truck. She waved goodbye and smiled as they drove away. I waved and smiled in return.

In July, I heard through the grapevine that Emily was two months pregnant.

I counted backwards.

I called her.

Emily confirmed that yes, she was pregnant and yes, the child was mine. But her boyfriend assumed it was his, and she preferred to keep it that way.

She said she would not be back in school for the coming year.

Emily was nineteen. I was twenty-two.

I had made an erroneous assumption. My real girlfriend Pablo and I relied on her birth control pills. I assumed that any woman who didn’t insist on condoms was on the pill. Emily seemed unconcerned about birth control, so I figured she was all set.

Turns out she wasn’t on the Pill. Turns out she was opposed to birth control. Abortion too, for that matter. So she was going to have my baby and raise it with her boyfriend.

I might never meet my child.

Needless to say, I was a little distracted as I began my senior year. I had a very big secret to keep.

When I returned home for Christmas break, my family was poised for a great milestone: my brother Jesse and his wife Teri were expecting their first child. My parents, then in their mid-forties, were about to become grandparents.

Just before New Year’s Day, I was with my family in a hospital waiting room when Jesse came out, his eyes tearing, to announce the birth of my nephew Tracy.

I hugged him, crying.

A week later, in a hospital in rural Virginia, my daughter was born. Emily named her Rachel Ann.

No one in my family knew. Very few friends knew.

I called Emily every few days to check on her and to listen to our baby gurgle and cry.

A few months later, after graduation, I began to date Lucy.

One summer night, as we lay in bed nude, sweating under a fan, listening to Wire, I told Lucy I had some things to confess.

First, I’m bisexual.

Second, I have a daughter I’ve never met.

I knew that her mother and brother were gay, and that her father had left the family when Lucy was four. I tried to joke that by being a queer absent father, I was either perfect for her, or the worst possible match.

She held my hand.

“You are not bisexual if you are with me,” she said into the night. “And you have to meet your daughter.”

She convinced me. I went to Virginia to meet my six-month-old baby girl.

Rachel had blue eyes like her mother and me. She had wispy blonde hair. She had her mother’s soft open mouth. I held her, scared and nervous.

I kissed them both goodbye at four that afternoon. I had to be out of the house when Rachel’s real father returned from work.

I told Lucy how amazing it had been to hold my daughter.

“I’m sure,” she said. “When will you see her again?” I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, I should see her again.

I invited Emily to bring the baby to visit me. She agreed, and I drove out to pick them up.

By this time, Rachel was walking.

I wasn’t ready for Lucy to meet Emily and Rachel. That was just too weird, I thought.

“I can wait,” Lucy said. “But will you be sleeping with Emily?”

“We haven’t had sex in over a year,” I said. “But what difference would it make if we did?”

“It will make a difference to me,” she said.

I agreed that my sexual relationship with Emily was over.

For a weekend, Emily and I took care of Rachel. Our baby toddled around my room, knocking down books and chewing on album covers. She slept between us at night. Rachel is blurry in every photograph from that weekend, unless she was sleeping.

In time, Lucy would meet Emily and Rachel. We traveled out to see them fairly often, always when her boyfriend was away. I took photographs of my beautiful baby, her beautiful mom, and my beautiful girlfriend, smiling, playing, enjoying one another.

This works, I thought. I can’t believe it, but it works.

One day Emily called to say she was leaving her boyfriend. She was in love with someone else, a guy I had never met named Phil. They were taking Rachel and driving to San Francisco the next day.

I tried to talk her out of doing anything rash. I realized I had absolutely no say in the matter. Emily could do whatever she wanted with our daughter.

Lucy convinced Emily to talk with a friend of ours, a family lawyer who would at least offer some advice. Emily agreed.

She took only one part of our friend’s advice. She left a note for her boyfriend saying she was gone for good, and she was taking the baby.

The baby, she added, is not yours. With that, she was gone.

A few months later, Lucy and I flew to San Francisco. We visited their tiny apartment in the shadow of a freeway overpass. We took Rachel to the Presidio and the zoo.

Emily was pregnant. She seemed very happy.

At Christmas, she received a summons. Her ex-boyfriend was suing for custody of Rachel.

Emily and the baby were to appear in court in Virginia, in a small town where the ex-boyfriend’s father was a leading figure. Of course, Lucy and I drove down for the hearings.

When the ex-boyfriend and his family arrived at court for the first hearing, they saw me with Emily. I was holding Rachel. His mother blanched. Rachel was a carbon copy of me.

The ex boyfriend had promised to be civil in these proceedings. He was a sweet guy, and he had my sympathy: his child had been taken away. But I also knew that if he had custody, my tenuous relationship with Rachel would be severed. He had no reason to keep me around as another father.

Emily had a court appointed lawyer who seemed unfamiliar with her case.

His lawyer stood to say that Emily was a pot dealer and devotee of the Grateful Dead. She represented a flight risk as she had already left for San Francisco; furthermore, she was obliged to follow the Grateful Dead to all concerts.

This was pure fabrication. Emily didn’t follow Dead shows. And while she and her ex boyfriend both smoked, it was he who was the dealer.

No matter. The judge concurred with his argument, and ruled that while the case was being decided, Rachel was better off with her father and his family, community members of good standing.

Rachel was taken from Emily’s arms and placed in those of her ex-boyfriend’s mother.

Emily screamed.

Lucy and I were shocked. Our friend the family lawyer had told us that babies generally remain with the mother during a custody battle unless there was a clear danger to the child.

Outside the courthouse, Lucy took Emily by the shoulders. Both were crying.

“Listen to me, Emily. Listen to me!” she said, looking to her eyes. “I am calling my family. We are paying for you to have a real lawyer. You are not losing Rachel. Do you hear me?”

Emily nodded, too stunned to do otherwise.

Lucy called her family. Lucy called lawyers. Lucy wrote checks.

I signed affidavits asserting my paternity. I offered myself for blood tests. I initiated my long relationship with the sovereign government of the State of Virginia.

When the judge issued a final ruling, Rachel stayed with Emily.

That summer, Lucy sat with me as I told my parents I had “important news.” I held Lucy’s hands in my lap.

I was with my girlfriend, but we looked somber. This was clearly not an announcement of our engagement.

My friend Donnie had already been diagnosed with AIDS. Mom looked as if she might cry.

“I’m sorry I have taken so long to tell you this,” I said, swallowing hard. “But you have another grandchild.”

Dad looked confused. Mom suddenly smiled. “You and Lucy are expecting?” she asked.

Lucy and I stumbled over one another to tell the story.

That night, the four of us were in a car driving toward Rachel.

As I made introductions, my parents shook hands with Phil. They rubbed Emily’s bulging belly.

And they fell in love with their granddaughter.

In time, Emily and her ex-boyfriend made peace. He remained a part of Rachel’s life. She refers to him as her “other dad.”

Emily and Phil got married. They traveled around for a while, then settled down in Virginia. They had seven children after Rachel, each pregnancy unplanned but welcome. Rachel helped to deliver each of her siblings.

Emily and I settled into a kind of fraternal relationship. I love her like a sister. We agree on very few things: my Deadhead hippy fuck buddy became a born-again fundamentalist who home schools her kids and insists that they attend rallies against gay marriage.

Whatever. We’re family.

My parents and children mingled with Rachel’s full family this summer. My kids played with Rachel’s other siblings, riding skateboards, chasing her dog, and holding the baby.

There were too few moments for Rachel and I to be alone, but we drank those moments in great gulps.

For now, Rachel has decided to wait about leaving her hometown. She loves New York, she told me, but this is home. She enrolled in a community college. She continues to work as a waitress at a cool café. And she got her own place. She lives in a cabin with a fireplace, a pool and a big Jacuzzi tub. Her Beatles memorabilia lines the walls.

She pays for school and her cabin with the money she earns. Her brothers and sisters take turns sleeping over, when she wants company.

My parents and I took her to Wal-Mart to help fix up her place. She asked me for a Bodum coffee carafe like mine.

Shortly after I returned to New York, I received a card from my daughter.

Hey Dad,

It was so great to see you and everybody last week. I am writing this on my patio with some great coffee—thanks!

I’m so sorry I couldn’t go south this year. When can I come up to New York? Maybe for my eighteenth birthday. Then we can smoke cigarettes and watch porn—you know, the usual, but now it will be legal.

I love you Dad. Call me!

Rachel

PS When is my boyfriend Marcus coming to New York? Maybe at my birthday? I know you think he is yours, but he is mine. Ha ha!

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“Hello?”

“Hello, Henry. It’s Lucy. Can I speak with the kids?”

“Sure, just a sec. Jason? Your mom is calling.”

Our typical exchange. A handful of words, the bare minimum necessary for Lucy to convey what she wants, and for me to meet her request.

Anyone else answering the phone would have received a more loquacious greeting, replete with “how are yous?” and “how’s the weathers?”

I don’t warrant such niceties. I am merely an obstacle, the thing that stands between my ex and a conversation with our children. Her tone made clear her regret I was the person closest to the phone when it rang.

She did not acknowledge the date. My parents had not mentioned it either, if they even noticed. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.

That day, one of the last of my visit back home, was our wedding anniversary. It was the fourteenth since the big day, and the second to pass since we separated.

For two years, we have been suspended in this limbo, no longer husband and wife, not yet divorced. And in each of those years, the calendar has thrust this date into our faces like a cruel insult.

Or into my face, at least. Lucy scarcely noted anniversaries when we were together. Perhaps they don’t haunt her now.

For me, it will be a while before this is a day like any other.

My wife was never one for sentiment. Indeed, her aversion to sentiment was a hallmark of our wedding ceremony.

We came to be engaged at her suggestion. We had been living together for about year when she allowed that if I proposed, she would not refuse.

I can take a hint. But, as she knew, I had a young anarchist’s distrust of the institution. Why should we seek state sanction for our love, I asked?

Because I prefer it, she answered.

But its just paper, a contract, I argued. Why not trust in one another? Why accept the rules of matrimony, the ideal of lifelong monogamy, when they seem so contrary to human nature?

Because I prefer it, she answered.

So it was that one evening, in a tavern, I proposed. I gave her a ring my mother had passed on to me. Lucy cried. She lost her breath. She threw the ring at me, saying she was “not worthy” of me. She ran to the street.

I picked up the ring. I followed her to the street. I put the ring on her finger. “I love you,” I said. “I am yours. Please, marry me.”

She nodded. She cried as she held me tight, as if I would evaporate if she let me go.

We set a date.

Marriage ceased to be abstract, something I supposed I would do some day, when I grew up. Now, at twenty-six, I was grown up. I was engaged to the woman I loved. We were entering into a sanctioned union.

We planned the wedding.

Of course, it would be a civil ceremony. My faith as an agnostic Methodist was no match for her firm convictions as an atheist. Her mother offered us the use of her home, a lovely Cape Cod situated on a bay in Long Island, for the wedding ceremony.

We accepted. Lucy and her mother began the time-honored tradition of mothers and daughters arguing over wedding details.

It was decided that the ceremony was to be performed by a local ferryboat captain.

“Do you want to say anything during the ceremony?” he asked us one afternoon as he guided his ferry across the bay.

“No,” Lucy said, looking at me. “We want the ceremony as short as you can make it.”

“We can do it in about, oh, five lines, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s what we want. Right, Henry?”

“Right,” I nodded, taking her newly expressed opinion as my own. “Four lines if you can manage it.”

My family was surprised that Lucy intended to keep her last name. “She’s the end of the line,” I explained. “I’m one of four boys. Our lineage is secure. She’s got one brother, and he’s gay. So she is keeping her name.”

They thought it odd that she rented her wedding gown. “Don’t be superstitious,” I chided. “Why buy a dress she will wear once?”

To me, these things made sense. Lucy’s decisions were consistent with her independence of mind, which I treasured. They also reflected her ambivalence about the ceremony, which I shared.

Still, there were some traditions we kept. I did not see Lucy in her gown until shortly before the ceremony.

“You are a stone cold fox,” I smiled, kissing her.

She looked so beautiful.

Lucy prefers her hair short, but knew that I liked it long. For her new husband, she grew her hair so that it flowed over her shoulders.

She had chosen an antique gown, in ivory white, with petticoats and layers of lace. Her smile radiated from her warm olive complexion. Her almond eyes sparkled.

“I’m so sorry about this,” she whispered, fingering the gash on my forehead.

“It’s okay,” I winced. “Looks much worse than it feels.”

“Has anyone noticed?” she asked, looking about.

“Everyone has noticed. But it’s okay.”

Following the reception on the previous evening, Lucy had stormed away from me, shouting obscenities as she hurled herself into the middle of a quiet street.

It was well after midnight. She was drunk. We both were.

She was scared to death. We both were.

“Shhh, shhh,” I shushed, running after her. “Please, don’t walk away.”

“I hate you! I hate you!” she screamed. “There is no way I am marrying you tomorrow, none!”

“Lucy, Lucy, please. Everyone is here. My family and friends are here. Your family is here. We love each other. We have to get married tomorrow. For us. For them!”

“What, I have to get married because your family got on a fucking plane? I don’t have to do anything!”

“Look,” I said, my anger rising over my dread of being overheard. “We are getting married tomorrow. That’s it. It’s settled.”

“I fucking HATE YOU!” she shouted, lashing at me. Her newly filed nails clawed into my face.

“Fuck!” I grabbed my head. I pulled back my hands and saw blood. “Oh, shit . . .”

“Oh my god,” Lucy gasped, shaking her hands like things she could no longer control. “I have to go. I have to go.” She ran down the street, away from her mother’s home, where we were to sleep that night.

“Don’t follow me!” she called back.

I looked at my bloody fingers, and wiped the mess coagulating on my eyebrow.

I had to take care of her.

I had to disguise this outburst. No one should know.

I was bleeding. How do I fix this?

I abandoned the reception party and headed to my future mother in law’s home. No one was there. I could sneak in and clean up the wound. Maybe it would look better in the morning.

I awoke alone. The pillow was streaked with blood. I washed my face and went downstairs to join in the wedding preparations. I had to be normal.

“Good morning,” Lucy’s brother Richard said as I approached him on the lawn. “Did you enjoy the . . . good Lord, what happened to your face?”

“Uh, nothing, just, you know. Say, have you seen Lucy?”

“You mean she’s not in your room?”

“No, and I’d like to find her quietly, okay?”

“I’ll find her,” he said. He understood. “You just try to, I don’t know, just avoid Mother until we find her.” That was good advice.

I visited my family. My mother expressed alarm at my scratched face. “Lucy did this to you, didn’t she?”

“Mom, please. She’s anxious. It’s a big deal. The wedding, I mean, not the scratch. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Sit on the bed,” she ordered, examining the wound. “Hmm. I don’t think you need stitches . . .”

“Mom, please,” I batted her hands. “I don’t need stitches. It’s a scratch. Anyway, I have to go. I have to help with the set up. I’ll see you at six, okay?”

She hugged me as I stood.

“I have to go, Mom.”

“I know,” she stroked my hair. “Just . . . don’t let her hit you again.”

“She won’t, Mom. Geez.”

When Lucy left me standing on the street, she ran to the house a friend was renting for the wedding. I had invited dozens of friends, and most had accepted.

Lucy invited very few friends, but this one in particular. Of course, she took Lucy in. She sat up with Lucy, calming her down.

The next morning, she woke Lucy and called her sister. Together, they did Lucy’s hair and make up—she was clueless about these things—and helped her into her gown.

They made her into a bride. I think Lucy was as surprised as anyone to see how ravishing she looked.

How much I loved her.

I put on my suit. I pinned a boutonniere into my lapel, then into the lapels of my father, brothers and future brothers-in-law, Richard and his partner.

My former professor, Whitman, was on hand to serve as my best man. I reserved flowers for his lapel and that of his partner.

A bus pulled up in front of the house, discharging my past. My friends from high school, from college, from work.

I hugged Allan. He told me I looked great in my suit. I thanked him for not wearing shorts, and took a swig from his flask.

“Man, I got to tell you, Lucy is really, really pretty.”

“That’s kind,” I said, swallowing his bourbon. “I mean, considering she is the only girlfriend of mine you haven’t fucked.”

“Henry, I am shocked, shocked,” he began, his mouth dropping. “But, you know . . .”

“I know, its true.” I handed the flask to my brother and greeted more arrivals.

Marcus was there, with his new wife.

Debra sat with Donnie, who was, by this time, so thin he was swallowed by his suit.

Guini was there, in a skirt so short my mother felt compelled to tug down the hem. (Later that night, my little brother Lee would feel compelled to lift her hem with his face.)

Everyone mingled, all these parts of my life coming together.

And I realized that with the exception of people sharing my last name or that of my bride, I had pretty much slept with all the wedding guests. It was time for me to settle down.

The ceremony was over fast. Whitman clocked it at under two minutes. We exchanged rings, we signed a paper, and we kissed.

Just like that, we were married.

“I love you,” she said. “Thanks for marrying me.”

“Thank you for accepting my proposal. I’ll love you forever.”

The wind was coming strong from the bay, anticipating the arrival of Hurricane Bob a few days later. It whipped everyone’s hair and clothes; as the drinks settled in, it blew away inhibitions.

We had hired a stomping swing band. In photographs from that night, everyone is contorted, windswept, dancing, laughing.

Everyone agreed: there has never been a better party, before or since.

My friends paired off as they stumbled back to their hotel rooms, or boarded the bus back to the city. The driver covered the sounds of kissing with a Marvin Gaye soundtrack.

That night, everybody got laid.

Well, almost everybody.

With the departure of our guests, Lucy decided we would not sleep at her mom’s house as planned. We loaded the wedding gifts into a car and drove, drunk as can be, to her friend’s house.

Over my objection, Lucy opened all the gifts that night as I tried, hopelessly, to match names to items.

We fell asleep on a couch as the sun rose, my wife in my arms.

Four days into the honeymoon, we made love for the first time as a married couple. I videotaped her afterwards, laying on the bed, still flush from sex, her slip pulled up over her belly. She laughed into my camera, “Now you have evidence that we had sex on our honeymoon.”

I laughed, though the comment made me rather sad.

A month after returning from the honeymoon, we were in couple’s therapy.

We would see our therapist every week for two years, until the birth of our first child.

We’d return to therapy many times afterward.

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Hugs And Kisses

I had not heard from Anna since she dumped me—again—in early July.

She had made it clear in her final note to me. If I were unwilling to try a six-week period of monogamy with her, then we were unlikely to have much of a future together, so she was done.

I was unwilling to try this experiment. I was annoyed that she continued to disregard my current disinterest in monogamy—it’s no secret that it’s just not for me right now—and even more annoyed at the blackmail implicit in the experiment: love me, on my terms, or leave me.

I bid her well.

I wanted her in my life somehow, but I was relieved to take a break from our cyclical on again/off again relationship.

Weeks passed, with nothing passing between us. Then, one day, an instant message.

Anna: Good morning.

Henry: Good morning.

Anna: How are you?

Henry: Well, and yourself?

Anna: Very good. The kids?

Henry: They are fine.

Nice, banal. I didn’t initiate anything, just responded to her questions in a casual tone. But I caught the whiff of an agenda: the beginning of on again.

Anna: So I will be in your neighborhood tomorrow.

Henry: Oh?

Anna: Yes, I am being interviewed to volunteer at the medical center.

Henry: That’s noble of you. What will you be doing?

I followed up with questions about her volunteer work.

I let it go that she would be near my place the next day; I didn’t extend an invitation to stop over.

Anna: I’ve been in rehearsals all month for a new performance. It’s a very physical piece—I’ve dropped a dress size from all the activity.

Henry: Gosh!

Anna: I guess that’s good though, as I appear on stage nearly nude.

Henry: I’m sure you will knock ‘em dead.

Anna: A naked girl on stage. What’s not to love?

Henry: Good point.

Anna: The timing is good, as I will look great in a bikini on vacation in a couple of weeks.

Henry: Yes, that is good timing.

Anna hurled steak after steak—enough red meat to choke a lion—but I wasn’t biting.

In time, she got back to her job, and I returned to what I was doing.

The next morning, I received another instant message.

Anna: Good morning.

Henry: Good morning.

Anna: How are you?

Henry: Well, and yourself?

Anna: Very good. The kids?

Henry: Good. They are with their mother.

Anna: So a little private time for Dad. I will be in your neighborhood this afternoon. Mind if I stop by?

Henry: I’ve got a deadline, but maybe for a little bit. What time?

Anna: Around one?

Henry: Okay. I’ll put on some lunch.

Anna: That would be nice. See you then.

She signed out. I shaved and showered, then got dressed. I returned to my work.

A little after one, Anna arrived. She did look a little thinner, her hair a little longer. We kissed hello at the door—a very continental buss, nothing overheated—and she removed her shoes.

I offered her a glass of water. She accepted. I brought two chill glasses to the sofa.

We talked. I asked her about her decision to be a volunteer. She spoke about her rehearsals, and her upcoming vacation. She noted with disapproval that I had a book of nude photographs on my coffee table. “Don’t you have the kids later? You should put that away.”

“Oh, thanks, I will.” I remained seated.

“So,” she asked. “Meeting any interesting women, Mister Polyamory?”

“I meet all kinds of interesting people.”

“You know, I’ve been reading about polyamory. Did you know that full disclosure is a big part of it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if you were truly polyamorous, you would be very open about who you are seeing.”

“Perhaps I am not truly polyamorous. At any rate, I think that tenet would apply to those with whom one shared a polyamorous relationship, not necessarily to those outside of it. I don’t think anyone is required to detail his sex life.”

She frowned. “You are just as circumspect as ever.”

“And you are just as nosey.”

“Huh.” She sat back. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I am seeing anyone?”

“Is there anything you would like to tell me?” I sipped my cold water.

“Well, I’ve been to a couple of cuddle parties, and those were fun.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Oh really? And I thought you were Mister Sex. Well, really I take that back, because a cuddle party isn’t about sex. People meet to cuddle—you know, to hug and caress.”

“That sounds like a sweet way to meet people.”

“I’m just there to cuddle. I don’t want to meet people.”

“Ah. And this is all clothed, I assume?”

“Yes, all clothed. The rules are really clear about that.”

“I’m sure they must be. Like, what are the rules?”

“Well, first, the most important rule is that you have to ask permission before you touch. Like this.” She sat up on her knees. “May I hug you?”

“You may.” I opened my arms.

With deliberate care, Anna slowly moved her body to drape over mine, wrapping an arm around my waist. “See how it works?” she asked.

“I see.”

“Feels nice, right?”

“It does.”

“Now, may I put my hand on your face?”

“You may.” She did, moving her face close to mine. I instinctively leaned in to kiss.

“No!” she pulled back. “You forgot to ask permission!”

“Terribly sorry,” I replied. I was losing interest in this game.

She smiled. “Is there anything you want to ask me?”

“Yes. I wanted to know if there was anything you cared to ask me.”

She closed her eyes and pondered. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Very good.”

She stayed in my arms as we talked. She looked away for a moment, then back to me. “You know, I have reevaluated my earlier statement.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, and now, I do have a question. May I kiss you?”

“Yes, you may.”

She closed her eyes and gently touched her lips to mine. I received her kiss, parting my lips slightly. She could feel me growing hard against her ribs. Her kiss became more passionate. Then her kiss ended. She looked into my eyes. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And you’re welcome. Now, are you hungry for lunch?”

“No, I’m not hungry.” She sat up. “In fact, I think I should be going.”

“If you like. Want something for the road?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“A sandwich or something? Maybe a bottle of water?”

“Um, sure. Water would be nice.”

“Easily done.” I stood and retrieved a bottle. I remained standing as I gave it to her.

“Thanks.” She took the bottle, then stood and passed me without touching. She walked to her shoes, slipping them on. “Okay. Thanks again for having me.”

“It was a pleasure.” I opened the door. She walked quickly out. I closed and locked the door. I ate lunch.

A few weeks later, I received a postcard from Anna. She was enjoying her vacation. “See you soon,” it concluded. “Hugs and kisses, Anna.”

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Tainted Love

In the autumn of my senior year of high school, my heart was broken for the first time.

Debra was a junior, a vivacious and silly girl, with freckles, porcelain skin and wavy hair. She was hanging out with Allan when she got to know me. We decided this was it, and fell fast in love. We held hands, wrote each other notes, the works.

She lost her virginity on the floor of my family’s den. My family was asleep. I built a fire. We had wine. It was so perfectly romantic.

My then nine-year-old brother discovered us the next morning, asleep, naked on a blanket. Poor Debra was mortified—she was a good girl, forever to be considered a slut by my mother.

Debra became the first woman with whom I had sexual intercourse on a regular basis.

I say “regular basis,” but that’s not quite right. See, she had a reason she wanted to lose her virginity that night—her parents were moving her to Seattle at the end of the semester. And she wanted to lose her virginity to someone she loved as intently as we loved one another.

We had a month remaining in which to be lovers.

Our friends became co-conspirators, sneaking me into the girl’s dorm, pretending she was at a sleepover when she was with me, anything we could dream up.

Just as intensely as Debra loved me, so too did she worship Donnie.

Donnie was much admired, without question the most talented actor in our school. I scarcely knew him—we had a few classes together—but everyone extolled his sense of humor. He was also very handsome, with blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. He was rail thin.

A skinny blond funny boy—those were my best attributes too. I was a little threatened by Debra adoration of Donnie, but he was gay, so I had no insecurities about our romance.

Debra desperately wanted Donnie and me to be friends. I was game, though the circumstances felt forced.

One evening, I saw him in the window of his dorm.

“Evidently we are supposed to be friends,” I called up.

“So I hear,” he replied. “We’ll see, huh?”

Debra’s last night came too soon. Donnie arranged for me to sleep in his dorm room, though I would actually be sneaking over to the girl’s hall.

Debra’s roommate slept elsewhere. Debra and I stayed up all night, talking, making love, crying.

At dawn, I crept back to Donnie’s room. I feel asleep on the floor.

Donnie woke at eight, and took Debra to the airport. She didn’t want me to do that.

When Donnie left, his friend Chuck felt me up as I slept. I stopped him. Geez, how insensitive. Chuck was a creep.

Donnie didn’t care for Chuck, but he felt responsible to watch out for the other gay kids.

The deflowering of Debra, and our subsequent torrid romance, was the soap opera of the season. Everyone followed it, and expressed their regrets to me when she was gone.

It also identified me the boy who could put an end to a girl’s virginity. Debra’s friends queued up. I was suddenly having a lot of sex.

One night, Donnie and I sat on a porch, watching a party across the street. We talked about Jesus, we talked about Tom Robbins. And just like that, we were friends.

I told him about my experiences with Allan. I had told no one else. He was touched that I confided in him, and asked all the right questions. It felt great to have him to talk with about how mixed up that felt.

He took me to my first gay bar, a small dive called Belle’s. We were underage, but that was no problem. I had free drinks and we danced. Donnie never drank.

It was only a matter of time before we were having sex.

The first time, in his dorm room, he blew me. He complained that it took so long to get me off. Think of it as staying power, I said.

The truth is, though, I was nervous. Donnie was gay. That struck me as somehow different than being with Allan, because we were both straight. Allan and I loved each other, but it was always pretty clear that our primary sexual partners were women.

It would be a while before I understood bisexuality.

Donnie and I traded notes throughout the days at school. He put his notes in interesting containers—a cup, a found envelope, a chocolate box. They grew increasingly elaborate in format, requiring me to open secret panels, or to fill in blank areas to read the full text.

I opened up to him in our correspondence.

Donnie fell in love. That scared the hell out of me.

A group of us went skinny-dipping at my house one night. It was late, and by some miracle, my family did not wake up.

We wound up in my room, splayed about naked on the floor, in pitch darkness. I was massaging Jamye, slipping my finger inside her.

Her sister wanted a massage too, so I rubbed her. It was nonsexual, as we didn’t go there.

Anyone else? I offered.

Donnie signed on. I straddled his buttocks and ran my fingers up his spine, branching outward along his muscles. He squirmed under me. He raised his ass. My hand traveled between his legs; he was hard.

Elsewhere in the room were the sounds of couples kissing. I could hear Peabo coo soothing words to Jamye’s sister.

Donnie was sucking me. Loud, wet and fierce.

His mouth felt so good on me. But I worried about the noise. If anyone heard the sounds of sex coming from this corner of the room, they would know it was us. I would be outed.

I lay back and stretched myself to reach Jamye. Her head was near mine, her body stretched in the other direction.

She was asleep, or feigning sleep. I found her face and kissed her lips. She pretended to sleep through it. I scooted back to suck her nipples, loudly. Donnie stayed on me as I moved, sucking me, loudly.

I wiggled to her hips. I raised a leg so that I could get my mouth down on her. She moaned softly and ran a hand down my chest, to my belly.

I stopped her hand before she reached between my legs. There would have been a surprise there.

Donnie worked me until I was about to come. I stopped him.

Light was coming in my window. The sun was rising.

I saw my friends off.

Once Donnie confessed his love for me to his best friend Michelle, she set her sights on me. It was a stupid thing, but she wanted anything he had.

She was a gorgeous black girl, and I was easy. We started having sex.

Donnie was hurt. His letters to me were filled with betrayal and anger. And, perversely, with the tenderest expressions of love.

He loved me too intensely. I didn’t know what to do with him.

He would be pissed at me because of Michelle, but forgive me immediately when I agreed that his new favorite song, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” was insanely great.

After graduation, Donnie moved to New York. I came up to see him often. It was a twenty-four hour trip by train, each way, but I couldn’t afford to fly. I was working for minimum wage in a movie theater.

I came to know the city through his eyes, by his side when I was here, through his words in the letters he wrote.

In the summer of nineteen-eighty-five, I was in New York with my parents and grandmother. After being a good tour guide all day, I was given the night off to hang out with Donnie.

He gave me a sex tour of the city. We were twenty-one.

He worked at the box office of a gay cinema in Times Square.

At his theater, men watched porn projected on a vast screen. I saw men walking onto the stage and going behind the screen. “Where are they going?” I asked.

“Behind the looking glass, Mary. Come on.”

I followed him. We walked along a narrow corridor behind the screen; looking up, I saw porn actors, seventeen feet high, as projected light.

We went upstairs. There, we found a park, created from stage props and Astroturf. Men were having sex on park benches. I had never seen men have sex, and now I saw dozens of them.

Donnie held my hand as we toured around.

He took me to a few of his haunts. We ended up at the Anvil, in the meatpacking district. We walked into a bar with a dance floor. Go-go boys in jock straps danced on the bar, and many of the dancers were shirtless. We swam into their midst to dance.

After we were good and sweaty, he took me downstairs.

Porn was being projected on a screen, as men blew each other on plush sofas.

We sat as far as we could from the action. As we talked, a man came over and jerked off in front of us.

Donnie took me further.

There was a narrow corridor, lined with men. They turned and smiled at us as we approached. It was pitch black at the opposite end.

I decided I had seen enough.

Back at Donnie’s tiny studio, we kissed as his roommate slept.

He asked me to keep my socks on as he blew me. Why, I wondered?

He wanted me to fuck him. He had just started to bottom. No, I can’t, I can’t.

I was just too freaked out.

I cabbed back to the hotel. My family was more than freaked to see me drag in at sunrise. I escaped into sleep.

Five years later, I was out of college, and Lucy and I moved to New York. Donnie, of course, was still here. Debra had moved to the city as well.

Donnie helped us unload the truck when we moved. We hung out as I settled into the city.

I was well into Lucy then, and certainly not up for sex outside of that relationship. Donnie never brought it up. We were good as friends.

One afternoon, I met Debra for coffee. We had a high time talking and catching up. We were both thrilled to be back in a place where we could be friends again.

After a while, she said, “I should get going. I told Donnie I’d visit him in the hospital.”

I knew what she was going to say next. I had to pretend otherwise. I had to.

“Hospital? What happened?”

Nothing had happened. I knew.

“Hank . . .”

Stop. Don’t.

“Donnie has AIDS.”

He had not told me.

I went with her to the hospital.

I saw Donnie almost every day for the next two years.

On the morning he died, I was in a cab, racing to the hospital.

It didn’t matter if I was there when he breathed his last. His family was there. Our friends were there. He was already doped to incomprehension. I had already been with him through the worst of it.

I needed to be there.

The cab’s radio was much too loud. The sun was too bright. The sky was shrill.

Three blocks from the hospital, the song on the radio ended. I heard the opening tones of “Tainted Love.”

He was gone.

I don’t believe in omens, but he did. Donnie delighted in good endings.

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Straight Boys In Love

Love at first sight is real.

September nineteen-eighty, early morning, still life drawing class. I was sixteen.

Allan was standing with some other jock sophomores, leaning against the flat files used to store our drawings. He had his fingers shoved into the pants of his tight jeans. He wore a clinging baseball jersey with red sleeves.

He was smiling.

His smile was broad, stretching between his full cheeks.

His dirty blond hair was wavy and long on top.

I could draw you a picture of how he looked in that moment, so imprinted is it in my memory.

We didn’t have many opportunities to talk initially, as we were in different classes. He already had a circle of friends, and I was just beginning to meet people at this new school.

One day he mentioned that he needed a ride home. I volunteered to drive him. Soon we were commuting together. I would pick him up in the mornings, and take him home in the afternoons.

During that drive, for about an hour every day, we were alone together. And during those drives, talking and singing along to the early Beatles, we fell in love.

I was sixteen, he was fifteen.

We didn’t talk much at first. I was a little nervous about his beauty and my attraction to him. He was shy, he would later tell me, because he thought I was one of the smart kids—what if I thought he was dumb?

This was before Allan came to realize how smart he was. He developed into a philosopher of sorts; there was nothing he couldn’t talk about until sunrise, thinking through every angle, every permutation, of the most abstract ideas.

But at fifteen, he was still unaware of his uniqueness.

He lived alone with his mom and her mother. To pick him up for school, I would pull up outside his building, honk my horn, and wait for him. If he took too long, I would get out to hurry him along.

One morning, I went to fetch him. He opened the door nude.

His mother and grandmother were gone.

He apologized for being late, saying he just woke up. He needed to iron a shirt and he’d be ready to go. Come sit in my room while I get ready.

I sat on his bed as he ironed. I tried to avert my eyes. The room was a mess, scattered with clothes and junk. He had a smooth body, naturally muscular, still growing out of his baby fat. His small patch of pubic hair was blondish, kind of salt and pepper. His cock was . . .

I couldn’t get over the fact that he was nude, right there, in front of me. My heart was racing.

He sat on the bed next to me.

He kissed me. He kissed me!

He asked me to take off my clothes.

I had never touched a boy. Neither had he.

I undressed and we kissed. I held him close. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with my desire. I only knew I wanted all of him, now, before this moment was taken away.

This might never happen again. How was it happening now? No one had done what we were doing.

I’m not sure if either of us came. Afterward, we lay in his bed. He said that would have been very hot if a girl had been there. I agreed. We dressed and went to school.

I was in a daze as the school day unfolded around me. The world was normal. I wasn’t. I was full of feelings about Allan and what we had done. We weren’t gay now, were we?

Things settled over time. Allan and I were very close. We loved each other, and said so, along the lines of saying “Ah love yew, man.”

We had sex now and then, always at his initiation, never as often as I wanted.

We were at a party a year later and had to do a beer run. He and I collected bills and change and headed out in my car.

He drove. He wanted to drive. I swallowed my father’s admonishment that under no circumstances was anyone other than me to drive my car.

A few beers often turned him sentimental. He grabbed my leg and proclaimed his love for me, his best friend.

I kiss his cheek and told him I loved him.

He changed course and drove to Jamye’s house. We knew the door was unlocked, and no one was home—Jamye and her sister were at the party we just left.

We went upstairs to her room. We undressed and kissed, making love in Jamye’s bed.

Allan never really had a girlfriend. As our circle of friends developed in common, and as he gained in confidence about his brains and his beauty, he tended to sleep with whichever girl was into him at the moment.

I always had a girlfriend. Allan slept with pretty much all of them.

Years later, at my wedding reception, Allan congratulated me on finding such a pretty bride. I thanked him, noting that she was the only girlfriend I had that he had not bedded.

He pushed me, laughing. We then realized this was only a slight exaggeration.

Allan finally found pretty bride of his own.

We grew up to be married men, but kissing and loving one another remained a part of our friendship. Everyone knew we loved each other. His mother used to wonder if he would have been happier with me.

In the summer of two-thousand-and-one, I was back home. He drove over from Atlanta to see me. We met for beer in a garden, and talked for hours.

He dropped me off at my parents afterward. We kissed. I pressed into it, taking his tongue in my mouth.

He laughed. “Ah love yew, man,” he said.

“I love you, baby. Always will.”

That was the last time I saw him. Allan died of a sudden heart attack a year later.

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