Friday, hurtling along at sixty-five miles-per-hour on the LIE, racing to get as far away from his teenage years as he could, Jaime Casado sat in the passenger seat of Dr. Stephen F. Sharpe's car preoccupied -- not with his best friend Brian's performance, which he was going to miss this weekend; not with his family who would continue to live their small, limited lives (his words) with or without him, on 161st and Edgecombe; not with his new camera or his new silk shirt or Calvin Klein underwear or all of his other newly acquired possessions, all coated in layers of shiny plastic. Jaime was preoccupied with bigger things, things of consequence: a few quick moments of not very satisfying unsafe sex. He'd fucked up and now there was nothing he could do about it. It was a stupid thing, a fucking silly notion for him to think a doctor could be trusted just because he saved lives everyday. At least one a day -- or so Stephen said. Even during this short getaway, Dr. Steve would ask Jaime to give all of himself to a stringy-haired white boy who happened by one night. Do you fancy him in the slightest bit, Jaime? Stephen would ask. Let's have a vanilla and chocolate swirl for a change tonight. Some Jello pudding. Haagen-Daz Cookies and Creme.
Now, though, besides being scared about going away with Stephen for almost a week, Jaime felt stupid for trusting Stephen in that way. There's no such thing as trust, he had to keep telling himself, no place for trust when you're trying to make a living; hustling means you have to protect yourself first, trust no one, and make the transaction as simple as possible: cash and gifts for services rendered. Brian had entered into some complicated agreement with Stephen, a pact, a contract, he liked to think of it even though it would never be drafted and never signed. If you die, I die -- that's all it would say.
As they drove out to Stephen's beach house for the week, Stephen was indulging, as he would say, treating himself. It didn't matter if it was a single malt scotch or an ice cold gin and tonic or a forty ounce of Old English, Jaime knew that drinking had helped Stephen break their unwritten agreement. As he made his way up Second Avenue, across 125th Street and over the Triboro Bridge, Stephen cursed at every car that got in his way, all the while sipping the first of many Glenfiddiches on the rocks even though he always said that something so fine, so smooth as an aged single malt shouldn't be diluted. He wallowed in the luxury of having a filled ice bucket in the back of his car. It calmed his nerves, he said, especially in the Friday got-to-get-out-to-the-country-in-a-rush traffic jam.
Jaime couldn't relax either, but he didn't want a drink. He kept the new 35mm Nikon Stephen had given him last week in his lap, ready to shoot. Out the window he watched as crumbling tenements and soot-covered high-rises gave way to almost suburban Queens, to real suburban Long Island, filled with little bungalow houses painted white or mint green or dusty yellow, just like the ones on TV, but much smaller.
"Why don't you put your mouth down here, Jaime?" Stephen said while fixing himself another drink. "Come on. Come on. I'll buy you a Leica for a blow job. You know I'm only kidding. You know how much I get into it. We'd have an accident."
As he tried to fit his head comfortably between belly and steering wheel, Jaime listened to the opera music , Puccini or Mozart or Wagner, that filled the car. Jaime liked the Wagner -- the instrumentals more than the singing -- but it all made him sleepy, all this singing in foreign languages, the car engine humming in his ear, and the air conditioning blowing wafts of bitter smelling alcohol right in his face. He sat up, wiped his mouth, leaned his seat back and drifted off to sleep.
And when he opened his eyes again, it looked as if he were in a storybook village. Opera land. A giant white goose with a big yellow bill -- a swan or duck, maybe; he couldn't tell -- stood by itself on the side of the road. As it slid by the window, he couldn't believe what he was seeing, Mother Goose or some creature out of a mad Englishman's mind. Maybe it was all part of a dream, but it looked so solid. Maybe he'd eaten a sweet biscuit that was making him hallucinate, but it looked so three-dimensional. Still driving like a maniac, Stephen hummed and sang to himself in a trembling falsetto voice until he noticed Jaime was awake.
"Too much air on you?" Stephen asked during a pause in his singing. Even though he was from Kew Gardens, after a few drinks Stephen always spoke in the upper limits of his vocal range, with a slight British accent. "Want me to close the windows? Smell this fresh air, my good friend. Can you smell it?"
Unsure if he could speak, Jaime shook his head no. But it was nice to be asked, he thought. When Stephen showed real concern, Jaime didn't think of him as just being polite, or fake, or anything like that. Jaime liked Stephen's attentiveness as much as he liked Stephen's long-pinched nose pressing behind his ears, or Stephen's scruffy beard tickling his nipples, or Stephen's thick squared-off hands, which looked more like paws than the hands of a well respected doctor, squeezing the back of his neck, pushing him down, harder.
"So what do you think?" Stephen asked, his dusk-blue eyes glancing sideways at Jaime. "Better keep your little camera handy. We're almost there. You haven't taken a picture of me driving yet. Want me to pose? I could put on a driving cap. Ahh, smell that? Why do we have to slave and drag ourselves around that dreary little city when we could just stay here and breathe this air? Fresh air. Do you smell it, Jaime? Just wait, I think you'll like this place a lot. Just wait, we'll find wild grapes so sweet they'll make you drunk and blueberries right off the bush."
Jaime didn't say a word and he didn't think Stephen expected him to. He looked out the car window at an oversized windmill looming over a black pond surrounded by gingerbread houses and little shops grouped together in twos and threes, made to look old-fashioned and new and pristine at the same time. Renovated and freshly painted. Gentrified and antiqued. Mark, Fore & Strike. BookHampton. The Palm. And the one Jaime coveted the most: the Ralph Lauren Country Store.
Stephen's house was located on Further Lane, the most beautiful street in East Hampton -- or so Stephen said. Because he had expected a mansion, a house made of stone with cut-glass windows, or a Tudor-style house with an East Wing and a West Wing, Jaime was disappointed. It wasn't a small house, either. It was a grey, wood-shingled house, with lots of white shuttered windows in the front and a large porch on the side that went around back where you could see a small triangle of the ocean that looked to Jaime as if it was years away. Even though Stephen had told him the beach was a short walk away, he'd imagined the house to be right on the water, or on top of a large dune, a cliff that looked out over the endless blue sea. But he'd forgotten.
They carried their bags into the house and it seemed larger to Jaime from the inside than the outside. For the rest of the week, he would always feel lost in the house, as if he could turn the wrong way and end up in the basement instead of the bathroom when he really need to take a piss. He immediately wanted to take a few pictures, but it was too dark inside to use the 200 ASA film already loaded in the camera.
They ate a dinner of cold chicken and salad left in the refrigerator by the housekeeper, Tamina, a recent Czech immigrant whom Stephen praised continuously during the meal. "You'll get to meet Tamina on Monday. She makes the most fabulous meals, very simple French cooking (they're Francophiles over there), homemade soups and salads, a nice cut of beef in raspberry sauce. She gets the best breads at the bakery, the best fruits. And she's already mastered American lobster. I'm afraid to report, though, that she's homesick or lovesick for a life totally unlike her life today. Somewhere a man's been left behind, killed by the Communists for being an intellectual or killed for staying and writing and doing the right thing. I tell you, sometimes I want to hold her chin in my hand and make her look me in the eye, let her know that I care, it's all right, just by looking in her eyes. She's so so lovely. Her eyes are a clear golden brown, almost yellow. I wouldn't mind, ummm, you know, she's so lovely, but I haven't cooked fish in a long time. She hums Beethoven all the time too. So sweet. And Satie. Can you imagine anyone humming Satie?"
"I'm tired," Jaime said bluntly, changing the subject. "I can't believe I'm so tired. I didn't do anything but sleep all the way out here."
"It's the air, my friend, the sweet air of the sea and the woods. Let's turn in early, OK?, and ride to the beach in the morning. The beach is so much better in the morning. Make yourself at home. There are a ton of videos in the house to choose from and lots of books. Our stuff's in the big bedroom."
Jaime went to the bedroom and immediately fell asleep. But he was awakened three times during the night. The first time he woke from a strange dream in which he couldn't stop washing his hands, the water felt so good, the soap smelled so sweet, he rubbed and rubbed his hands together until he started dissolving, melting away like the bar of soap itself, then he woke up. The second time he awakened to Stephen's head prodding between his legs, which were later held in the air, feet suspended. The third time he woke to the sound of whistling, someone whistling outside. He got up and went over to the window. Outside, leaning against a tree, he thought he saw a dark figure, but after staring at it for a while and seeing that it hadn't moved at all he decided it was only a bush or a shadow of a bush. When he turned to get back in bed he heard the whistling again, louder, the melody sounding more familiar this time although he didn't know if it was because he knew the song or he was just remembering it from a few minutes ago. He opened the window and a freezing cold wind, unusually cold for August, pushed its way in. Maybe it was the sea air Stephen had praised so much all day. Completely chilled after only a few seconds, he closed the window and slid quickly under the covers. It must be the wind, he thought, the wind blowing down a chimney or through a crack in the windowsill. Jaime decided he didn't like houses: they were too big. Each night of his stay, he would be disturbed by the whistling. He would come to know the melody so well he'd whistle it to himself all day; over and over; but he never got it just right. He wasn't a very good whistler and the melody he'd create would never matched the one in his head, the one he heard every night.
By Tuesday, his fourth day in his seven day getaway in the country, Jaime had grown bored. He missed being at home -- he couldn't believe that -- missed St. Nicholas Avenue and missed his mother and brother and sisters. The smell of the rose garden on the side of the house made him feel sicker each day; it smelled of something very sweet, of strawberry jam on dark toast baking in the sun, wafting around outside and inside the house. He should've seen Brian sing his solo. He'd thought about it all day Sunday: Brian standing in front of this large audience, the church filled up to the rafters with people eager to hear Brian sing; he steps out in front of the rest of the choir and takes the microphone off the stand; with his eyes closed, lids pressed tight, he begins singing, whaling away like an opera singer, a countertenor hitting all the high notes (without the assistance of a cheatin' falsetto); his voice rising, rising higher and higher as he ends with his face raised to the Lord. Jaime hoped it turned out all right. He knew Brian didn't have much talent but lots of guts. He wouldn't have done it himself. He told himself to remember to call Brian before going back, make plans, find out how the recital went, but he forgot.
Instead of seeing Brian's first concert Sunday, Jaime had read magazines on the beach. He watched, then photographed, a large black Labrador retriever playing in the foaming water, chasing waves up and down the sandy shore -- the first descent pictures he'd taken with his new camera. Like the little boy that he really was, or had never been, Jaime made little sand mounds adorned with sea shell balconies. Growing up in northern Manhattan, in a family of eight, makes you advance beyond your years: by age six Jaime had had his first girlfriend; by age seven he had tried to have sex with both a boy and a girl, and in a way, he had succeeded; by age eight he'd witnesses his first stabbing, a wire hanger through the throat of a TV repairman; by age ten he was stealing cigarettes and taking sips from his mother's gin. While he played in the sand, Jaime listening to Stephen talk about everything he was experiencing but really nothing in particular.
"The water's freezing and it's August," Stephen complained soon after they had settled into their spot on the beach. Within an hour, though, it was too hot. "Jaime, maybe we should seek some shade, put up an umbrella. Take a picture of me now, Jaime." Stephen moaned and grunted as he twisted the umbrella's shaft deeper and deeper into the sand. "Take a picture of me jumping waves. I packed a great lunch, don't you think? Everything's sodelicious. Tell me if I'm tiring you with my talk." Jaime quickly nodded his head; but Stephen wasn't deterred. "Take a picture, Jaime. It's so beautiful how the water changes: the sea in the morning's iridescent purple, then green, then a solid mist of blue all day and then it's just dark in the evening -- no color at all -- and by night its completely black." Stephen plucked several large green Italian grapes into his mouth. "I'm insatiable. I could eat everything in sight."
Tuesday evening Stephen suggested they go see a movie in town, "The one everyone's been talking about: sex, lies & videotape." They waited in line for two hours because the first show was sold out and Stephen didn't want to see anything else. Jaime stood apart from Stephen while standing in line. When they finally got in the theater, Stephen insisted on sitting up close, fifth row -- he said he wouldn't be able to concentrate unless he sat up close. He didn't have to worry about concentration, because a woman sitting behind them talked through the whole movie just like Stephen would have been doing if he wasn't being so indignant about her impoliteness. ("I can't believe this male fantasy....Of course she's frigid; look at her....Obviously, the hot sister's ethnic, Italian, and the other, who knows....How can they be sisters anyway?") Jaime agreed with the woman's continuous commentary but he didn't say anything after the movie while Stephen went on and on about how good it was to see people talking in movies, discussing, the lost art: conversation. Jaime couldn't get a word in edgewise.
"Let's be daring, Jaime," Stephen said while driving home after the movie. "What do you say? Let's go for a quick dip. This is going to be great." Stephen seemed so animated, even as he talked about skinnydipping; it was as if he were telling his parents exactly what he wanted before a big holiday and just by telling them, just by making the list, it insured he would get everything. In fact, everything was already his. "The best time to go to the beach is at night. You can see the phosphorescence in the white water and you can hear the detonation of each wave crashing but you don't have to put the two together -- seeing the waves and hearing them. You can't see yourself in the dark and you can barely make out the difference between land and water. There's no color, no real color with a name, and when you look out at the ocean it seems as if you can just walk out there, walk right across, walk to the darkest part where there's no horizon line, no divide between sea and sky."
Stephen parked away from the light so the cops wouldn't notice the car unless they looked closely. It was foggier on the beach than it was in town, Stephen said; or maybe the fog had just settled in for the night. He raced in front of Jaime calling out, "Isn't this great? Boy, it's really foggy. Let's be careful. Stay close. Jaime? Where are you?"
"Boo," Jaime yelled before he took off running. He couldn't take any more of Stephen's commentary. Five days had been enough. At the lifeguard stand closest to the parking lot, Jaime stopped and pulled off his clothes. "Come on, slow poke." He jumped up and down feeling the air directly on his skin. He had to admit, even though he didn't want to, that Stephen was right: all boundaries were blurred on the darkened beach -- the sea and the sky, the body and the night. Jumping up and down on the beach in the nude felt the same to Jaime as quietly trying to jerk off while lying in bed, at home, without waking his brother in the next bed: private but out in the open.
"Jaime. Jaime," Stephen whispered loudly. "Wait for me. It's really dark. I think we should hold hands so we don't get lost. The buddy system. Come on. Let's hold hands."
Jaime gave in quickly to shut Stephen up. His eyes had adjusted to the dark now and he could see the edge of the water, smooth and clear, rushing in on top of the sand then disappearing. Stephen held Jaime's hand tightly. The water felt surprisingly warm to Jaime as they walked slowly into the water, jumping waves too big to wade through. They moved cautiously out to the horizon, apprehensive of the blackness of the water in front of them (the boundaries between Stephen and Jaime no longer existed) until they couldn't resist taking another step.
But Stephen broke apart. "Maybe we've gone too far."
"Oh, come on, Dr. Steve. Isn't it nice? I can't find myself. It's so great. You don't know what it's like to be, just be without everyone around you, seven brothers and sisters. Everybody's got something to say about what you do even if they don't know anything. They talk about the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you eat your food, what you eat. You can't get away from it. You even start filling in their bullshit your own self."
"You never talk about yourself or your family."
"I know. I don't want to talk about them 'cause I'm usually trying to get away from them. Families just fuck you up. Well, sometimes it's great. My family. You never have to worry about being alone. That's for sure." He took a deep, calming breath. "Khisha, my little sister's great, she's my favorite. We're like best friends. She doesn't mind that I'm into guys or anything. My brother Danny doesn't mind either. He just doesn't want to deal with it, or anything -- except smoking weed. Nowadays. But Khisha's cool. She likes to go out with me sometimes and hang out with my friends. I even dated one of her friends. Once." Jaime shifted the truth; he didn't want Stephen to know about his little boyfriend Brian. They were more like friends, anyway. Brian was too young, fifteen going on ten. "He's so cute, but real young. Like puppy love, for him. He wants to talk on the phone all the time or see me every day, pick me up after work."
"That sounds sweet, Jaime. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing's wrong with that." Jaime didn't like the way this was going, being cross-examined by Stephen, which was exactly what Stephen liked. "I took pictures of him."
"I'd like to see them," Stephen said quietly.
"Right. I'm sure you would. But I take pictures of lots of people and he gets jealous of that." The truth had turned to complete fantasy now.
"Are you still seeing him?"
"Why'd you say that?"
"'Cause you just said it as if it were in the present. You know, you never tell me about what's going on in there. What's on your mind. You make it clear what you don't like, but you don't share yourself. I think you don't want to say things because you know its not exactly right, one way's never right. There are too many shades of grey. It's never black or white, either/or to you. I'm going to send you to college. And therapy."
Jaime couldn't get any more words out. He shut himself off. But he still felt the pressure of his thoughts -- of Brian, of his family back in the city, of his photography and his lack of confidence in himself and how Stephen knew he was vulnerable and how Stephen would never get his big paws on him. Why'd he have to ruin it?
Jaime looked back and saw that the lifeguard stand was very small, faint, they'd walked outaways, fifty feet maybe, but the water only came up to their waists. It lapped around their bodies, sometimes splashing on their chests and chins. The lifeguard stand reminded Jaime of the Empire State Building, the landmark that always lets you know exactly where you are when you get turned around. Maybe if they walked back to shore, he thought, they would be back in the city, he could hop on the train and be home.
"Jaime?" Stephen said like Jaime might not be there. "Jaime? I think we should go back."
"Shhhhh. Be quiet. Let's just stand here for a while." Jaime didn't know why he said that. "Listen to the water. Doesn't it sound like...it sounds like its saying something. It sounds like --"
"It sounds like," Stephen over-anxiously continued Jaime's sentence, "it's saying 'hurrah, hurrah, hurrahs' over and over again, doesn't it? 'Hurrah. Hurrah.'"
Jaime thought Stephen hadn't figured that out right there, that he hadn't made that up; he'd read it somewhere. Maybe it sounded more like 'hiss boo, hiss boo' he thought, but he agreed with Stephen anyway. "Yeah, it does. Hurrah...hurrah...hurrah," he said, trying to match the rhythm of the waves. "Who wrote that?" he asked. But before he could get an answer he dove into the black warm water.
By Thursday evening, their last night at the beach, Jaime had gathered all of his belongings, his sneakers, his camera, his J. Weston's that Stephen had bought him one day on the spur of the moment as they were walking down 57th Street, his sweatshirt and sweater, the three swimsuits he'd worn during his stay, his cobalt blue silk shirt Stephen had given him as a present to wear to their first opera together at the Met. Jaime didn't care if he ever went back to the opera again and he didn't want to go to the beach again until next summer; he was tan enough. Stephen had even commented on his color: "You're getting darker and sweeter every day. I could just eat you alive." He'd even pointed out Jaime's tan to the housekeeper, Tamina, when they were all in the kitchen one morning. He completely embarrassed Jaime. Not that Jaime really cared or even liked Tamina. She seemed more self-absorbed than homesick to Jaime, nothing as wonderful as Stephen's buildup. Every time he tried to take her picture she flinched, ruining the shot.
When it came to Stephen, Jaime let lots of things slide. Even Stephen's drinking. Jaime hated the taste and smell of alcohol on Stephen's breath when they kissed, the taste of liquor on Stephen's skin -- it came out of his pores some days -- the way it made Stephen too insistent during sex. All paws. A couple of times Jaime'd even asked Stephen not to drink, but five minutes wouldn't go by before Stephen would start fixing himself a drink. At least, Jaime thought, he's not a violent drunk, a sloppy drunk. Jaime hadn't come to the realization yet that when you meet someone in a bar, what some might call a hustler bar in midtown Manhattan, you shouldn't be surprised that that someone likes to drink a lot. And likes to get his money's worth. Hustling's a lot easier when there's a flat fee (approximately $100) for a predetermined amount of time (two hours, at the most), than when you try to add trust.
Wednesday night, two days before their last day, Jaime took off right after dinner so he wouldn't have to see Stephen filling himself up. He didn't come back until after midnight and he found Stephen sleep in the sunroom, his red, sunburned body splayed on the couch, his head tipping over the edge, his mouth wide open. A black hole in the middle of a peaceful, pasty face. Jaime left him there for the night and he would leave him downstairs Thursday, their last night in the Hamptons.
Their relationship -- if it can be called that -- was over; he knew that. But it wouldn't end for another two weeks of frantic fucking back in the city. For some reason Jaime still wanted to trust Stephen. And if not trust him, then continue to deny that unprotected sex was stupid. (Jaime had no problem with condoms when it came to a trick.) Stephen would have to stop the relationship himself, cut all ties, not return phone calls, never come back to Rounds, the bar Jaime worked almost every night.
After dinner on Thursday night, their last night in East Hampton, Stephen decided to go to a bar and enjoy his last bit of freedom in the country.
"Don't you want to come along?" Stephen asked Jaime.
"I don't think so. Who needs to go to some corny bar out in this fucking place?" Jaime picked up his camera, started circling Stephen and taking his picture.
"Well, there's a fucking opinion. Bravo. You might like it, you know. There's a restaurant, a bar and a dance floor. I'd like to see you shake your black bottom." Stephen kept turning to face Jaime and the clicking camera.
That's right, Jaime thought, Stephen could show me off a bit on the dance floor. That was all. "Well, this black Dominican butt ain't putting on a show tonight for a bunch of stuck-up fags. I'm on vacation, remember?"
"That's right. I guess you're right there: a paid vacation."
"Which doesn't mean I'm not still working it." He'd finally gotten Stephen to not pose, play to the camera, but to respond to him.
"You're right. You're right there, Jaime. Here, let me fix you something to drink before I go."
"Coke. The real thing," Jaime said, putting his camera down and ending the conversation. He wanted to be alone since that was why he'd come here in the first place: to get away from his little boyfriend Brian and his own fucked-up family. Wasn't it?
He went for a long walk on the beach and sat for a long time, watched the last of the light change from violet to blue, and played with the sand sifting through his toes and hands. He watched a couple walk past him, their bodies collapsing against each other as they laughed conspiratorially. They kissed as they continued walking. How he envied them: their togetherness. It was so easy from them to just be, to show affection, touch -- something fags could never have but want nonetheless: equal love and uncomplicated public displays of affection.
He tried to figure out what went wrong, how he'd started having unsafe sex, how he'd grown to dislike, resent, even hate the man he was so obsessed with a few months ago. That's what it had been. In June, he'd met a guy at a bar and started having an affair with him -- which meant accepting gifts instead of cash. He loved the way the man consumed him in bed, his fingers, his toes, filling him quickly after adding some spit and inserting a finger. It was selfish. Unsafe. And Jaime sometimes felt like being selfish, mean, and cruel: the money he stole out of Stephen's wallet was just Jaime being mean and selfish and cruel.
He stayed out until his feet were numb with cold and sand had gotten in his underwear. He walked slowly along the tree-lined path, down Further Lane, shaking sand off and scratching his ass. It was indeed the most beautiful street in East Hampton, Further Lane, the most beautiful street he'd ever seen, with perfect model houses carefully placed in the thick bramble and tall grasses before the wide open sea.
He walked in the house shivering, ran upstairs and put on a sweatshirt before returning downstairs to find something to snack on. He heard glasses clinking and someone whistling in the sunroom, expertly whistling, with clarity of tone and phrasing. Jaime knew it couldn't have been Stephen whistling every night; he'd been in bed. Jaime was sure it was the same melody. Wasn't it? He followed the sounds to the sunroom, where, surrounded by lighted candles placed on top of every available surface, Stephen stood at the bar fixing a drink. He didn't see anyone else.
"Oh Jaime, is that you?" Stephen asked in an almost British accent. "I've brought home a friend for us. This is Axel, Axel..." Jaime scanned the room but didn't see anyone.
The whistling stopped. "Rex."
"Are you sure that's your name?" Stephen asked. "It sounds like you're some kind of hybrid rock star."
"Yeah, funny. When I was young, people used to always say my mom liked either mechanics or vets too much."
"That's rich. Would you like something, Jaime?"
"No. Thanks." Jaime approached slowly, not sure if he'd been ambushed already or not. He couldn't tell where the unfamiliar voice was coming from. Who could possess such a flat voice? He changed his mind about the drink. "Sure. Sure. I'll have one. A gin and tonic."
"Thataboy. Jaime's going to join us for a drink, Axel. What a treat. What a treat. Gin and tonic for Jaime. JD for Axel and a scotch for me. Now that says it all, doesn't it? Oh boy, Jaime's going to loosen up tonight. It's about time, Jaime. You need to unwind. All this salt air and sun can get to you, you know? Axel here's used to it. Aren't you, my friend? He's been coming out here for four, five years. Haven't you, Axel?"
"'Bout that long. Shit, I'm not counting," said Axel.
"Right, you don't need to count. When you're as much of a free spirit as you are, Axel, you don't need to count. At least not yet. Someday you will. When you get to be my age."
"You're not old."
"Sure I'm not," Stephen said, turning around, barely managing the three glasses in his hands. In the flickering candlelight, Jaime could see Stephen in his white tennis shorts and blue and white striped pullover well enough, but he now wanted to turn on the lights to rid the room of all of its mysterious atmosphere. He watched Stephen walk across the room to a large, overstuffed chair, extend a glass, then turn and walk towards him. "And for my prince, a gin and tonic. Now isn't this nice? I think I'll turn on some music and we'll all be set. Any suggestions? Jaime? I know, I'll play the Wagner for Jaime, the one without singing. Compromise. See, Axel, Jaime doesn't care for opera singing, too unnatural for him, so we compromised one day and bought this. I, of course, am not quite satisfied with it. The voice, the great voice of Kathleen Battle or Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Teresa Stratas. Opera without the voice ain't much."
Axel added, "Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant."
They sat in the candlelight brightness listening to the low whir of violins being pushed, accelerated, by deep bass drums, tubas, trumpets and French horns, calling out the theme, gliding mellifluously from Stephen, sitting on the couch alone, his head rested against the back, to Axel, still hidden in the dark shadow of a chair, to Jaime, standing, suspended in time and space, not knowing what to do except hold his cool drink in his hand.
"Yeah, man," Axel said, "this is like Pink Floyd orchestrated, the best part of "Stairway to Heaven," or Metallica. Yeah, fuckin' A. This is Wagner?"
"The antisemitic genius," added Stephen.
"Well, you can't be perfect, you know," Axel said. "You can't go around leading your life on other people's faults. I got this friend," Axel said, shifting in his seat, preparing what he was going to say next, Jaime thought, "lives out on Shelter Island. Some kind of artist or something. You know what he did? Know what he did? Dude went and married the ugliest woman you could imagine. With a hunchback. This woman's so ugly he had to be taking pity on her 'cause I didn't even think he was into women. I pitied him, man. I don't know what happened over the winter, but when the season starts, I like to see how my old faithfuls are doing. I go around and play catch up, visit everyone. So I'm going out on the ferry and the guy that works there (he lets me ride for free) tells me this guy and his hunchback wife just packed up one day, they packed up, two suitcases, one for each, and went and checked into the crazy farm. Do you believe it?"
"Well, okay, my friend, but what's that got to do with Wagner?" Stephen asked.
"Don't you get it? He was this painter and he'd lost it."
"All an artist's got is a sense of beauty. And you can't count on anything else. Yeah? Don't judge them on their art and expect them to be like that too. Scwartzenegger's a Republican. Michael Jackson's a Christian. Like, they might be serial killers, antisemites, fucking --"
"See here," Stephen interrupted. He'd had more than a few drinks and it showed. "We are in the presence of a philosophical genius here. Next he's going to explain to us the existential properties of heavy metal."
Jaime didn't say anything. He thought Axel had made perfect sense and, even though he thought Axel wasn't on the up and up, his disliking of Axel lessened. But he'd already thought of words that he didn't want to use to describe Axel, words like cracker, honky and poor white trash. He had the feeling that Axel was also holding his breath in Jaime's presence; nigger had crossed Axel's mind more than once, Jaime thought. But his repulsion weakened because of Stephen's response. He knew Stephen would do this to him too if he voiced some of his own opinions: not listen, condescend, smother it all with superficiality, quick judgments. Jaime had tried it, talking about photography, his work, but Stephen quickly compared him to other photographers and artists -- Jean-Michel Basquiat, for no particular reason besides the obvious. Jaime had not shown any of his photos to Stephen, not even the snapshots he took of them together.
"Death," Axel continued. He'd gone on to a different subject that Jaime didn't know how he'd gotten there; Jaime had been too involved in his own thoughts. Or Axel was just following his script. "Death's like a bad habit that you can't get over.
"This other friend of mine -- I guess I should call them acquaintances, customers or something. Not clients. Anyway, he was hot, young, angelic face, hot body; he cut himself while opening a can of chocolate pudding. You know, those puddings that come in six-packs, artificial flavors, they make your throat feel chalky afterwards? He died of blood poisoning. Didn't go to the doctor or anything. He was so beautiful -- is so beautiful, his life cut off just like that. If his life was a piece of art, a sculpture or a good movie, it would be closer to perfect than any old life that grows old. Death makes it work. Like when a movie melts right in the projector and you can watch it melting and bubbling, and then everybody groans."
Jaime knew this even staggered Stephen, sitting in silence with nothing to say. Unusual. Jaime didn't want to agree with Axel on this one though. Was this jealousy? Jaime didn't think so, but it was: an emotion he couldn't control, that filled him with anger and, something he knew he had a lot of, meanness. It came from being part of a large family. It came from always having to share, always having to compromise, never being alone, growing up poor and wanting. Hustling. Having unsafe sex. He shouldn't have cared about sharing Stephen with some fancyass Hampton's hustler, but he had to.
Life's not art, death's not art, Jaime thought: there's no comparison. He got the feeling that somebody had told these stories to Axel -- or maybe Axel, like Stephen, had read them somewhere and used them all the time to impress people. Well it wasn't going to work on Jaime, who thought it incredible that someone could compare death with art. Death's more than tragic. And it's more than art. Life's more than tragic and death's more than art. Dying young, of a car accident, of a drug overdose, of a viral infection, wasn't going to make anyone -- or anyone's life -- more or less beautiful. The thoughts went over and over in Jaime's head, becoming clearer and clearer until he finally said, almost whispered it was so low, "If you were dying of some terminal disease, you wouldn't think death was art." He wasn't sure that he'd said anything; he wasn't sure if anyone had heard him. He would never know, for neither Stephen nor Axel responded.
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