My first lover was a much older man than myself, older, even, than my father was at that time. Will was a college professor, had been my Russian Lit instructor, but I had first met him when some friends of mine introduced us at a disco not far from campus. Will was, the year that I fell in love with him, fifty-five years old. I was barely eighteen, a college sophomore. Will was a tall, thin, elegant-looking man and before a classroom he was somewhat magnetic, expounding on the gifts of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Mayakovsky; he appealed, at first, to the bookish, academic student within me. The year after I first met him at the gay disco, I enrolled in his class, but when he invited me over to his house one evening, it was clear his intention was more than his offer to show me the photographs of Meyerhold's productions that had instigated the invitation. I, of course, had sensed that this would be the case, and I was, in those days, willing to accept him as my guide, needed him, in fact, to be my guide.
And what a guide he became. He changed the way I cut my hair, the clothes I wore, the courses I took, the books I read, the way I thought and spoke, and, especially, the way I looked upon sex. Our sexual sessions were long and explicit; he would talk to me as he made love to me, describing how he was touching my nipples, what my skin felt like, the way my ass would taste before his lips. And he was full of questions, too, wanting to know what I felt as he rubbed two fingers across the head of my cock, what I was thinking as he kneaded the muscles of my shoulders, if I was scared as he would slip first one finger into my rectum and then another. He did this all with a tenderness he would never admit to, of course, to do so would be to break one of his private vows, that of imbuing the sexual act with a sense of love. Will was always cautious of maintaining his distance from me; he would never refer to me as his lover, never, either, admit that he was in love. In fact, he would often invite other men -- mostly students, but once, even another professor -- to join us in bed. This was done not only for the pleasure it afforded us, but also, purposely at times for my sake, to make sure to keep me grounded, to keep us at a distance from one another, to make sure I was not falling in love with him, or, at least, not falling so hard that when the time for us came to conclude our affair, I would end up feeling hurt or misused, which, of course, I did.
"Imagine what your father must think about all this," Will would say when we were in bed together, before he would slip his mouth over my cock. My body would tense, of course; I had told Will all about my father. "Now imagine yourself as a bird in that tree," he would lift his head away from me and say, looking out at the window. "First flying into this room, looking at us on the bed, and then soaring back out into the world."
I did just has he suggested, and this was how, in those days, I began to distance myself from the shame my father had instilled in me, this visualization that I was free of feeling and restriction, liberated, as it were, and I discovered, too, the joy, the physical pleasures of sexuality; how I was able, too, months later when my affair with Will ended, to keep from feeling so abandoned and disheartened.
"Every question in the universe does not have an answer," Will said to me one night while he was cooking dinner, though for every fault or flaw I ever confronted him with, he tried to generate an explanation. What I liked about Will, no, what I loved about Will had a lot to do with the quantity of time we spent together, or, rather, the passage of time that we had together -- the longer I spent with Will the deeper I fell in love with him, despite the fact that the reverse was true for him. For one thing, there was the warmth and security I felt from sleeping with Will every night; two weeks after we started dating each other, I moved out of my dorm and into the house he owned behind the campus library. I spent every night for the next five months with him, even when I realized he had begun seeing someone else in the afternoons.
At first there were the intensely passionate nights -- often, we could not even make it through dinner before we tumbled into bed or, perhaps, began consuming one another on the rug or the kitchen floor, a pot or a plate crashing onto the tiles, heightening the brutish physicality of it all as we wrestled our bodies from one position to another. At night, exhausted from lying awake and just holding him in my arms, I would run my fingers lightly through the thick gray hair at his temples, or outline the profile of his nose and the cleft of his chin with the tip of a finger, listening to the rain tap against the black window panes or the wind lift and swing the rose bushes which grew outside and would brush up against the bedroom wall nearest the bed, and then, finally, I would fall into a light, conscious sleep, only to be aroused by him again nudging me into sex or asking me questions about what I wanted to become of my life with him. Lust, I learned, in those young days of mine, soon faded into feelings, feelings much deeper than I had ever imagined possible from myself, and I found I could not bear to be out of Will's presence. I showered with him, fixed breakfast with him, memorized the clothes he wore so that when I left the house with him when he went to his office, my mind could follow him throughout his day -- sit with him during his appointments with graduate students, know where he was going for lunch, what he would say before his classes to someone he was leaning over to and speaking with in the hall; I wanted to be entirely with him, wanted to know how he felt, how he reacted to everything in his world.
That desire, of course, turned into possessiveness, and that possessiveness turned into an ugly jealousy. But before that happened, before I reached that nasty point, I found a comfortable place with Will and how I came to need his body. There was something to the familiarity of his skin, night after night, that continued to arouse me, the way the hair grew sparsely around his navel, for instance, and traveled up his stomach in a thin line and then unfurled like an eagle's spread at his chest, covering two small brown nipples which I could suck and twist on in my mouth like the head of a pin. Some men, of course, find rapture through the variety or newness or anonymity of sexual partners -- strangers who quicken the pulse -- but what I loved about Will was the way I came to know how he felt in my hands, the nubby texture of his back, for instance, or the padded flesh at his shoulders which he had once built up with muscles, but most of all I loved how Will explained to me what he wanted, desired and needed physically from me, what he let me know felt good for him and to him. Communication was always Will's most admirable asset, even as we were breaking up, a fact that he would announce over and over, even as he would draw me more forcibly and desirably into sex.
I knew how he liked me to sweep my fingers through the hair of his chest, the tips of my fingers running along his shoulders, how he liked me to angle my body through the tweezers of his legs and go down on him, my hands buried beneath his ass, squeezing them forcibly as if kneading dough. I knew he liked me to graze my fingertips along the length of his body, that he enjoyed as much my massage of his feet as my licking the underside of his balls like a cat.
But what came to happen, though, was that he began to keep his body away from me, or, rather, he began to remove his mind from the physical act as mine buried itself profoundly within his skin. In bed, sex together came to be me having sex with him, me pleasing him almost selflessly, as if he were an inanimate object whose lust I would have to shake almost violently awake to arouse. It worked, of course; this was the way that Will had designed it to be, that I would have to knock him into his passion. But the passion was soon hardly ever reciprocal, however, and it came to feel as if it were a test for me to see how much it would take before I could make him feel for me. I would find myself hovering over him, straining with an erection, sucking him, rimming him, fucking him, pushing and pushing for him to feel me till my orgasm came like tears of animosity.
It was only when the photographs and magazines began appearing regularly in bed that my feelings really began to be hurt, not that I had shunned such visual aids before -- they had been hot, diverting scenarios at times, especially when Will would create one which included me within it -- a police officer or an army sergeant, for instance, interrogating me on some minor misdemeanor, making the good boy beg before the bad one -- but now he began to use them to exclude me -- as I would lean over and begin to blow him, for instance, he would enter into the fantasy of being with a Colt model, completely shutting my presence out of his head.
How do you keep a man's attention? I wondered in those days. By being distant? By pushing too much? Was there too much sex with Will, or, rather, too much emphasis on sex to make things work with Will? Did he desire not to be with me when we were outside the bedroom? Questions came to me in a frenzy in those days and I began to miss my classes, began to feel like I was going to jump out of my skin. I would sit in the library, trying to read, staring, fidgeting, could think of nothing but why Will was purposely hurting me. And then one evening he brought a young man home named Stephen -- tall, lanky, thick brown hair and a beautiful boyish face marred only by acne scars at his cheeks. When the three of us ended up later in bed I knew it was time for me to leave, that things could not be with Will as I wanted them to be in my life. I promised myself I would never let another man hurt me like that. Two months later, at the end of the term, I was on a train to New York City, promising myself I would never let another man have that much power over my life.
"Life is a journey of decisions," Will once said to me after I had shrugged my shoulders and replied, "I don't care, either one," when he had asked me one Saturday night if I wanted to go to a movie or out dancing. I didn't really care which one we did, I was eighteen years old at the time and blindly in love with everything about Will: his tall, slender, runner's build, the bookish eyeglasses he wore, the short, stubbly graying horseshoe pattern of his hair. All I wanted was to be with him, no matter what we did or where we went. Will, however, thrived on debate and confrontation. "You weren't put into the world to be pampered," he would say to me if he felt things were becoming too comfortable between us, if he felt, for instance, I was just floating along and enjoying our relationship, which is, well, just what I wanted. His intention was neither evil or devious; what he wanted was for me to be able to stand on my own two feet. He wanted me to decide, for instance, that we should go out dancing, but only so he could convince me that we should go to a movie instead. Thus was the illogical construct of our relationship which, in his fashioning, he never wanted termed or defined as a relationship. "We're falling into a trap," he would say about everything from my socks invading his underwear drawer to the way to gay life seemed to be defined by the late night disco schedule.
I grew to learn to argue with Will, and a couple of times he acquiesced to my decisions after willful pouting on my part, but I have often felt that the best thing that Will gave me was the knowledge of the subtle things about gay life. I picked up a sense of style from him, from a balance of color, fit and fabrics in clothing to why irises are so much more elegant than red roses. These things were never explained to me, of course; at a store, for instance, Will would pick out a shirt and tell me to go try it on. Standing in front of him in a tightly buttoned shirt with my hair all wild and curly and in my eyes, he would tip his chin down so his tiny brown eyes could look over the frame of his glasses. "That's better," he would say, not even adding a smile. And then we would end up at the barber's or the shoe store. And I learned to accept these opinions of Will's as new facts of my life.
Which is why I think the day I heard about Hank's death I found it so upsetting; Hank had been Nathan's guide into gay life as Will had been mine, and I knew the loss of him meant that Nathan must feel as if his past had been lost too, the creation and history of himself called into suspect as it were, as if all those questions and things one wonders about as they stumble into gay life had really happened at all.
They met on the beach in Harwich Port the summer before Nathan was a senior in high school. Nathan's parents had taken a house for a month on Cape Cod; Hank was rehearsing and performing in a summer stock production of The Comedy of Errors, which featured a roaming chorus of jugglers and mimes of which Hank was one. Hank wore only red suspenders and skin tight black tights in the play, but his costume was his short but magnificent body, all tensed and ribbed and striated and furry about the chest. Nathan never saw that performance, but he did meet Hank on the beach. Hank had settled near Nathan's towel one afternoon, though Nathan had not even noticed him then, absorbed, instead, in reading a book of science fiction stories by Isaac Asimov.
Like Nathan, Hank had a fascination for things fantastical, and at one point when Nathan looked up from his book, Hank smiled and asked if Nathan had read Foundation, which was his favorite Asimov book. Nathan nodded but said his favorite book was The End of Eternity, because it was about time travel, and they fell into a discussion of other authors and books from Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451 to Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five.
Hank was a restless spirit, never content to just lie on the beach, relax and talk about science fiction. At first he invited Nathan to join him for long walks along the foamy stretches of sand, but by the end of their first week of friendship Hank was teaching Nathan the movements of mime. Their relationship was not consummated sexually that year; Hank suspected all along that Nathan was gay, and their talks would often skirt around suspected topics of interest, from bodybuilding to dancing to what was trendy and exciting back in Manhattan where Hank lived. Nathan, however, was falling in love with Hank, fascinated with him in the same way I was with Will, from Hank's passion for blue snow cones to the smell of his underarms that would waft through the ocean breeze when they would lay side by side on beach towels. Hank aroused the gay man in the young Nathan, but he also charmed that adventurous boyish spirit.
They kept in touch by letter and phone, but their paths did not cross till two years later when Nathan moved to the city to begin his freshman year at New York University. Hank, by then, was wildly into the gay life and his openness both frightened and intrigued Nathan. Hank took Nathan to his first gay bar -- Julius's in the West Village -- a dark, somber bar frequented by a non-threatening neighborhood crowd, the kind of straight-looking men you would expect to see at ballgames or business meetings. But he also walked Nathan to the Hudson River piers and the Rambles in Central Park, explaining what all the looks and codes and signals between men meant. Hank knew all the stories of the tribe by then, passing along gay history like gossip as they walked through the streets of Manhattan and in and out of stores, explaining the kind of love they shared with Alexander the Great and the exploits of Oscar Wilde and James Baldwin, embellished, of course, with Hank's own history -- the details of his own tricks, from what he did to the guy who lived about the deli on Second Avenue to what type of furniture the man on 17th Street had in his duplex apartment.
And then, one night, he took Nathan back to his apartment in Gramercy Park, dimmed the lights and gave him enough wine till he was relaxed, then undressed him and led him into the bedroom. It is not hard for me to imagine the two of them together, Hank running his hands along Nathan's arms as if to warm a chill and then settling them about his waist; Nathan tensing first his back, then his buttocks, then relaxing as Hank drew him into a kiss -- his tongue, warm and ardent, easily parting Nathan's lips. I know how Nathan felt as Hank edged him slowly down onto the mattress: nervous and suspicious, but also wildly eager and thrilled. I felt the same way my first night with Will; Hank was the first man Nathan ever slept with.
For Nathan, this was a combination of mysteries revealed and lust requited. Hank explained, however, after they had been together a couple of times, that he wasn't "into" relationships and didn't intend to be in one with Nathan. He enjoyed the excitement and spontaneity of finding a new trick whenever he was eager for one, relished, too, the potential danger of anonymous encounters. Still Hank and Nathan got together occasionally, for dinner or movies, and then began going to the baths together -- Hank abandoning Nathan the moment he had undressed at the lockers, Nathan wandering around fitfully for hours till he ended up in Hank's embrace long after they had both used and abandoned other strangers.
Hank, eight years older than Nathan, always recognized that Nathan was becoming too attached to him, and he set about instead of opening up the possibilities of Manhattan to an inquisitive college boy, fixing Nathan up on blind dates with friends who were looking for boyfriends, for instance, as Vince had done for me as well, all those years ago. Hank took Nathan to the book store in the East Village where Nathan found a part-time job, went with him to the blood banks and sperm clinic in midtown where he showed Nathan how he could earn some extra cash. They went together to the revivals at the Thalia and the pool at the McBurney Y and in the summers, took the ferry out for day trips to Cherry Grove and the Pines. It was Hank's suggestion, too, that Nathan, for a lark, take the anatomy drawing class Hank modeled for at Parsons. Nathan, however, was angered by Hank's nudity in front of a classroom of artists and strangers, and in those days, could become close to tears because Hank was so unsympathetic, it seemed, of the feelings Nathan felt for him. Nathan still held the belief that one day Hank would realize the error of his ways and they would settle into a relationship.
At first Nathan's sketches in the class were wildly cartoonish and full of fury, the body all out of proportion, bulky and muscular, and often attached to a tiny, freakish-looking shiny bald head. This was before Hank began wearing that inexpensive toupee that Nathan so hated; in those days, Nathan would sometimes help shave Hank's scalp, a process that he found both ironic and erotic. At the end of the twelve weeks of the drawing class, the instructor politely suggested that Nathan try something like graphic arts instead of figure drawing, but Hank noticed in one of Nathan's drawings the way Nathan had exquisitely detailed the contents of classroom, the small desks and chairs and the concrete blocks of the wall in the background. And so it was Hank who suggested Nathan try his hand at drawing landscapes.
It was always easy for me to be jealous of Hank. He possessed a part and history of Nathan that I did not know and when glimpsed, aroused an immense jealousy within me; I always felt so intimately excluded from their friendship. I often heard stories of things they did together after the fact -- never invited to participate with them, always retold of the adventure. I felt, too, that Hank took advantage of Nathan's good nature, borrowing money, for example, when he couldn't scrape up enough funds to meet his rent, even though Nathan, himself, was struggling to meet his bills. In many ways I always wanted to believe that Nathan outgrew Hank, the way a child outgrows a toy, but I know as Nathan drifted farther from gay life and deeper into our relationship through the years, they saw less and less of one another because I did not care that much for Hank. But I knew they would occasionally talk and get together, knew, too, they got together more often than Nathan told me about, even if it was just Nathan showing up for the jazz classes Hank often taught around town. Hank was also still friendly with Jeff and I was invariably being told second-hand of his exploits about town. The times that Hank found work in an off-Broadway play or showcase, Nathan and I always went to see it and visited with Hank backstage.
This then, is what happened to Hank. Two years ago he was first hospitalized for pneumonia, then eleven months later he was back again fighting another bout when a doctor diagnosed the presence of meningitis in his spinal fluid. He also had a bacterial infection of his left ear, and his T cell count fell below 50. After three weeks in the hospital he returned home with a hospital bill of over $15,000. I knew all of this from phone conversations with Vince and Jeff. Nathan and I never discussed this, however; we avoided the subject of Hank like we hoped to avoid the plague, though I know, too, that Nathan had visited Hank in the hospital several times. The next year Hank developed an abscess beneath his left armpit which required surgery and was treated at the same time for another ear infection. He had begun, then, to feel dizzy and light-headed and had trouble maintaining his balance. He continued to work part-time at a card store on Seventh Avenue, occasionally landing a role in a TV commercial; the residuals he earned from the dancing in a 30-second spot for a fast food chain nearly carried him out of debt.
But his memory began to increasingly fail him and he became lethargic and confused, till a friend, Tom, finally took him to the emergency room at St. Luke's-Roosevelt. A CT scan revealed an infection similar to Toxoplasma gondii, even though it could not be confirmed through a blood test ordered by his doctor. When he slipped into a coma, the doctors began treatment for toxoplasmosis. After a biopsy of his brain could still not detect the specific protozoa which causes toxoplasmosis, another doctor recommended radiation therapy for lymphoma of the brain. At first Hank responded by partial awakening and even reached a point where he was able to swallow small amounts of baby food that his mother, who had flown in from Iowa, had been able to feed him. Eventually, however, the coma returned and a week later, still unconscious and living off of life-support machinery, he developed a bacterial pneumonia and died two days later.
It was Mrs. Solloway who gave me the news of Hank's death, filled me in with the more gruesome details of his illness when I came home one afternoon from Alex's studio, having taken a quick job of building a loft bed for an apartment in Chinatown, though the whole time my concentration had been on worrying about Nathan and I felt I had done a sloppy job with the assignment. Mrs. Solloway had taken the call from Jeff, who had called from Los Angeles and who knew Tom, the guy who had been helping Hank at St. Luke's, and she had repeated the story to Nathan earlier in the day. Mrs. Solloway had known Hank as long as Nathan had; she had met him that summer in Cape Cod and had, in fact, even seen him perform in The Comedy of Errors. It always made me feel so guilty that Mrs. Solloway had liked Hank where I had not; I felt so small and judgmental knowing she was not.
"He took it well," she said, looking down on me sitting on the sofa where I had landed to absorb all the facts of Hank. "I think he took it well. Don't wake him up just yet, though, he finally fell asleep."
I slipped into the bathroom and took a long, steaming shower, though at the end I was still agitated, wanting to wake Nathan and hold him and let him know I was holding him. I felt that the only thing I could give him at that moment was the warmth of physical comfort.
He was awake when I entered the bedroom and I slipped the towel on the back of the chair and began to dress. We did not speak to each other but I was conscious of him studying my body as I bent over to put on socks and then a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt. It was then, I think, that I first recognized a small microbe of hate inside myself, a disgust for the way things had changed for us, really, as if Nathan were to be blamed -- but I refused to believe it, pushed the idea of it back down inside of me, burying it beneath the skin and tissues and cells of my body, hoping it would never be found again.
"I don't want that to happen to me," he said, his voice cracking the silence of the room like a misfitted floorboard. I looked over at him and met his eyes, which were fixed and determined but reddened by sleep or crying, or, perhaps, a little of both.
"Promise me that you'll pull the plug," he said succinctly. It was, I think, the first moment between us that we had ever acknowledged the possibility of our own mortality, and I looked determinedly through the top drawer of the dresser for my hairbrush, not wanting to imagine the possibility of Nathan's death.
"And what happens if I go first?" I asked, hearing a tone of bitterness creep into my voice.
His eyes narrowed, and he replied, "Don't be cruel."
"I'm sorry about Hank," I said.
"I'm sorry, too."
"We should have," I heard myself breathe in air, "helped more," I said and shook my head.
"How?" he asked and I heard, then, an edge of bitterness within his own voice. "We can't face our own facts."
"I'm sorry I'm scared," I said, remembering, then, the day I had finally walked away from Will, angry and hurt because I knew he could not give me the irresolute attention I wanted, scared, though, to find myself a young gay man so vulnerable and lonely within the world. By the time I had met Nathan I knew that I could never expect the kind of love that I had wanted of Will to happen with any man. I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to calmly brush my hair, noticing, however, the creases of tension across my brow. Moments passed between us like years till I finally heard Nathan saying, "I could never give him up, you know."
"I can't make those clean breaks like you," he said, referring as much, I believed, to my father as to Will.
"I never expected you to."
And then his demeanor shifted entirely, as if all the tension that held him into place had evaporated. "I didn't want Hank to be the reason why you left."
"I remember the first night I met you," I said, looking at the image of Nathan sitting up in the bed which was reflected in the mirror. "Christmas night, remember? It was like a gift, you know. I felt so lucky that Hank brought you to that party."
And then I felt myself turning and moving toward the bed, hearing myself say, as if an echo shouted across a ravine, as I slipped into the bed beside him, "But I always knew it would be a fight to keep you."
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