"Ghosts, Pockets, Traces, Necessary Clouds" finds me in a conventional-modernist mode. This story's a pretty good example of my more somber, "traditional" takes on the short story.
The title's a quotation from Roland Barthes' THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT.
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featured as one of the best short story collections of the Fall 2001 book season by The Washington Post Book World
"This is experimental fiction meant for wide audiences -- very accessible and entertaining. It is also queer fiction that has grown up past adolescence; it's affectionate and funny, but reasonable."
-- City Pages (news and arts weekly of the Twin Cities in MN)
From the kitchen, Mark heard the lock on his apartment door open with a sudden clunk. He turned a rubber band around four pieces of fan mail, and put a kettle on the stove to boil. He heard the soft rustling of his lover's jacket as it settled on the coatstand by the door.
It had been a few weeks since he last saw Jules; he could feel him slipping out of his grasp the last time he saw him, when Mark gave him a key to his apartment. Jules spent too much time talking about his wife. He said he really did not love her but he was inviolably married to. Still, Mark tolerated Jules' attempt at drawing pity and comfort from him, that was a minor drawback. To listen and maybe counsel was a small price to pay for a fairly consistent, unobstrusive affair.
They both wanted a sex life without the hassles. Mark in particular didn't want to spend all his money looking for sex anymore, but he wouldn't have told that to Jules. And Mark didn't want to put Jules on the spot by asking for some promise of security. It would be too much trouble to renegotiate their friendship. Mark had chosen to put out the flags that said he wanted to be fucked, no strings attached, no romance involved, and he wouldn't change his tune now.
Maybe this would encourage Jules to spend more time with him, after all, having Mark's apartment as a pocket of abandon in a universe of heavy burdens and responsibility. And it was up to Mark to keep things light. Hence: the unshod feet, the t-shirt too thin and shrunk to fold into shorts too tight for pockets, the ginseng tea in sweltering weather. And he would try the it's too hot to wear a suit, why don't you put on some shorts? gambit.
Jules was just right. Sweet or aggressive at just the right times, independent but not cold. Jules wore the suit but not the attitude. Mild in public, wild in private. Certainly not a fan boy: Mark's past fame would mean nothing to him, if he knew about it, nor did he care for music. He was a regular guy who liked to have sex with men, Mark in particular. Just what Mark wanted, nobody militant, especially overtly so -- a trustworthy man, straight-acting, for all the world innocent of secrets. That Jules liked to fall in love with men was something that wasn't an issue when they met late one night at a very expensive, selective bar in the Upper East Side. A place named Indiscretions, the kind of place that has no sign nor front window, just word of mouth.
"Hi," Jules said. "Sorry I'm late."
"I'm starting to get accustomed to it," Mark said. "Would you like to take a seat? I'm making some tea."
"Thank you," Jules said, pulling out a chair from the breakfast nook. "Isn't it too hot for tea?"
"No time to brew and chill it. I could pour it over ice, if you like." Mark pulled down two mugs from the cupboard, conscious of how Jules was taking quick, interested glances at his legs, and chest, and privates. Mark almost stopped to pose for him to stare at, but that would be too funny. Just a casual tease, an obvious attempt to seize Jules' attention, a flirt that Mark wouldn't allow himself in public -- being so obvious, demonstrative. Mark placed small tea strainers on the mouth of each mug. "But it's ginseng tea, it's meant to be hot," Mark added. He then shook tea leaves, from a tiny tin box, into the strainers. "Wouldn't want to upset any Chinese gods."
Then Mark shot Jules a 'what are you lookin' at?' eye, making Jules blush.
"Wouldn't want to do that," Jules said. Jules, fingering his tie loose under his collar, looked at the packet of letters. Mark felt urgently the need to take those letters away. He should have hidden them. And yet he couldn't stop Jules from undoing the rubber band.
"Fan letters," Mark said, coldly. "Pretty juvenile."
"You get fan mail? How come that doesn't surprise me?"
"Before we met, I was a recording artist."
"Before the small home repairs thing?"
"During," Mark said, sitting down, the water burbling in the kettle. "It's interesting how some people write to you, still."
"You a musician?" Jules said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's just something I did."
Jules began to unfold the flap of a beige envelope, addressed in purple ink. "Can I look?"
Mark quickly took the other letters from the table, and tapped the tabletop with the hard paper edge of the envelopes. Jules stopped short of pulling out a page or two of typed, sticky erasable bond.
"I prefer you don't," Mark said softly.
"I'm just curious," Jules said, "I don't mean to intrude."
Mark stood up to take the whistling teapot off the flame.
"Well, it isn't like I'm going to take over your life," Jules said.
"It isn't," Mark said. Mark brought over the mugs.
"It's not like I don't have a key to your place," Jules said.
"It's a privilege I give few."
Jules chuckled as Mark poured tea. "Mark, you can be so fuckin' imperious! If I've 'earned' your trust enough to let me in anytime I want to, you could at least feel comfortable."
Mark dipped the strainer in and out of the steaming cup with a slight shake of his wrist. "Would you want me to drop by your house?"
"No," Jules said. "Certainly that's not what we've agreed to."
"So don't read my mail," Mark said, removing the strainer and placing it on a paper napkin. "Sugar?"
"I don't need to explain," Mark said. "One or two spoons?"
"One," Jules said, with a finality to it.
They sipped the tea -- Mark without sugar, as Mark knew it was supposed to be taken. If the ginseng had its desired revitalizing effect on the two, it would be the worst time for it. The silence was unbearable.
Mark felt shamed into turning his eyes. When he was busy with music, recording and tours, he never even read them. Some agency just mailed them a glossy of him and his keyboard, all ripped leather and spiky brush hair, and mirrorshades, standing underneath a lonely streetlight near a pier, like a hustler.
"I'm sorry," Mark said, all of a sudden. "I can be very condescending."
"I thought you'd be different."
"I'm probably not that gay, I'm not so hung up."
"It's just me, then."
"It's not just you, it's all of this," Jules said. "All this fuckin' hide and seek. If you people weren't so full of shit, with your stupid lifestyle, and made it so hard for the rest of us, I'd probably be living with a guy now."
"I'm pretty ordinary."
"Not when I'm sticking it up your ass."
That flew by so quickly it made Mark shudder. Mark didn't see that one coming.
"It's a hard life," Mark said. "People won't back off. That's why I don't make music anymore."
"I can't understand why it's so important that they have to know."
"I don't know either... My wife and I were at a party last week. She made all these fag jokes, as if she were talking to me in front of these people... It slips out when you least expect it, like's she's got evidence against me in her pocket..."
"So you think she knows?"
"I think so," Jules said. "Anybody ever catch you?"
Mark stopped to consider what to reveal, and if he should.
"You don't have to if you don't want to," Jules said.
"There was this colleague of mine," Mark said. "Pretty open about it, I didn't resent him for it. But he was so bent on dragging people out in the open, I don't know why. We were at a bar, all the record people and the band and me, and this guy just said, in front of me, out loud for everyone to hear: 'Mark has to be gay, someone who writes songs like that has to be gay.' He was trying to provoke me. I almost punched his face in. I was just so in love with him, and I was waiting for the right moment, for when we would have privacy, for me to bring him home with me, and show him who I really am. Because I found his openness so attractive."
"You fall in love?"
"Not anymore," Mark said. "I'll never be open, especially if assholes like him get to feel good about themselves because I'm like them."
"I don't know," Jules said. "I don't get it with angry faggots. What did you say to him?"
"I said nothing, and somebody changed the subject quickly."
Mark noticed that his cup was empty. Mark quietly offered Jules a refill by lifting his tea strainer. Jules nodded.
"I hate it," Mark said.
"This gay thing?"
"No. That I silenced myself into oblivion."
Mark refilled his cup.
"'Silenced myself into oblivion.'" Jules reiterated, sugaring his tea. "I like how that sounds."
"So do the people who write to me," Mark said. "Not exactly what I felt."
"So you were faking it?"
"I never really said anything to begin with."
It was so very uncomfortable. Mark wanted to keep things like this a closed issue. He never thought that his sex life -- once anonymous, now more personable if discreet -- would ever ask him to open up like this. He just wanted to be wanted for himself, not for what he felt or thought or did. And yet to acquiesce, to give full access to someone else seemed desirable, and even necessary, in moments when his heart was really in it -- usually when he was meditating on it, while fixing a house, alone.
"Well...I didn't come here to talk," Jules said, taking Mark's forearm. "I'm not here to figure out my life, or figure out yours."
"I'm sorry to have pushed it. I should have respected your privacy."
"Someone's got to push the envelope," Mark said.
Mark pushed the letters to Jules' side of the table, putting a good, humbled face on.
Jules just glanced at them, not really reading them, like glancing at a memo to see if it did have something to say to him. By the time Jules sped through a few of them, Mark had cleared the table of his mug, rinsed the mug and the teapot, and set them to dry on a wooden dishrack.
"So?" Mark said.
"These kids must not have much of a life," Jules said. "What kind of a freak would write something like this?"
"I was afraid you'd say that," Mark said.
Because I am like those kids. "They're pretty weird," Mark said. "It's getting very hot in here...let me lend you a pair of shorts and a t-shirt."
"Okay," Jules said.
When Mark tried the shorts-and-t-shirt gambit on men he wasn't sure were in the mood, men never got a chance to try them on once they undressed.
It also worked this time.
Jan 6, 198-
Dear Mr. Mark Piper:
I hope my letter gets to you somehow.
I am a big fan of yours. When is your next record coming out? Will your old records be out on CD? (I just bought a used CD player. I've been buying most of my favorite stuff on CD since, wish is OK, since I don't have a lot of favoreites.) I haven't found anything at the record store; they just have Ghosts, your first album (in cassette). I miss having new music from you. None of the other kids in school listen that much to you lately. You are too "wierd". I like "wierd" music, and "wierd" vidios. I guess I'm pretty "wierd".
I think I am your biggest fan. I have everything of yours. I say I "love" your music, like I would love someone. I listen to your music and I feel at home. I read the lirics on the sleeves and sometimes, when I hear the songs, they make me cry.
I have a hard time explaining how your songs feel to me. It's like you sing the songs of my life, like my life is a movie and your songs are the songs in the soundtrack album. (I'm wierd!) I once even dressed up for Halloween as you. You say things for me that I cannot say like you say them. Like when I love somebody, it's like your songs say. And when I'm sad or angry or confused I feel like you feel, and I don't know what that means, like your songs say. And when I hear your music I don't feel so wierd or lonely, because I think if you met me you would like me and understand me. Because I understand the ghosts in your music:
"Silenced into oblivion
Please make more records.
Now it was as if he had jumped off the plane with all the thrill of the risk and the feeling of falling and the ground moving so fast towards him, and him ready to let his parachute unfurl, and let his feet touch the ground. But now, as soon as he jumped off the airplane, gravity stopped, and he just stayed still, in midair, with nowhere to go to, unable to land, desperate for that endless floating to be over, and touch land, touch what was real, if there were only land underneath him --
Mark streched on his back, his legs pulled tight to his chest, as Jules slowly entered him, the first feelings of penetration always uncomfortable, then that feeling of feeling full instead of empty, then, once in, Jules went in and out of him and the inarticulatable ardor was not there. Just the discomfort, just the feeling of being perforated like tissue paper, it was like shitting backwards, not a trace of that gut feeling of being loved and wanted and pleasured.
Mark looked beyond Jules' face straining with sweat and effort, at the ceiling, and it was as if he were really up there, watching himself with a cold eye, a strange feeling of being disembodied, as if Jules were fucking his body but not him, as if he was letting his body be usurped, but his spirit was not here with him, his body was hollow, just meat.
And the strange thing was how Mark had initiated sex, as if he wanted it after all -- as if he should want it. Because that was enough. Being fucked by someone less of a stranger was a consolation prize for not finding love, and certainly better than being fucked by a stranger. And yet didn't he let him in, in the privacy of his home, even let him look at things that he'd rather keep private, things that it would hurt to reveal, did he not let him inside him?
There was something fundamentally wrong with this, and he couldn't put his finger on it -- wait, Jules was catching on that his heart wasn't it in, Mark moaned and begged to be fucked harder, even though Jules was going at it as he had in the past.
And in the past, hadn't it been pleasurable? That he'd found someone reasonably right for him, with a minimum of haranguing about it. The thrill of it, the first few months, was immensely pleasurable to be overwhelmed by this man.
Now there was something missing which hadn't been missing before.
And he could see Jules's face grimace and feel Jules' roar growing slowly inside him, and Mark remembered to fake it, to fake the pleasure, to stretch and moan and clench his jaws and his bowels in rhythm as if he too was coming from being fucked.
Even though he didn't feel anything but some uncomfortable physical sensations.
Jules came inside him. With a few thrusts, each one deeper and slower and more finally exhausting than the next, Jules became still, and leaned down to kiss Mark.
"You're so hot," Jules said.
"You're hot, too," Mark said.
Mark still floated in the air, above ground masked by clouds that would not break. He breathed in silence for a few minutes while they cuddled, horrified by how easily he could deny himself, deny his feelings the dignity of their own truth, and pretend as if their denial could erase any trace of what they revealed to him about himself, as if he could make their gravity seem not all that real, as if this lie was better than knowing in full, undeniable clarity what the shame and pain was all about. But the illusion that this man, that any man could really fullfill him through sex just couldn't be maintained any longer.
The clouds broke. Maybe he was truly the weird one, the one unable to live like everyone else, with their secrets, their hypocrisies, their lies, their distractions, their easy satisfactions, all because he was a man and engaged in this kind of sex. It was not the kind of sex, but the kind of love he wanted that disturbed him. The ghost of an idea, the idea of being a man and wanting to love and be loved by a man filled him with far more shame than just sex. And nothing could fulfill him in the face of such an unexplainable, impossible love. And mere sex, in the face of this unresolvable longing, was worse than mere loneliness.
The clouds broke, and he fell, and finally touched ground.
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