loved to lift my wiry body off the ground and swing me head over heels in the
"Wanna take a swim, Matt?" he teased, dangling me above the foamy surf that washed up to his feet.
My stomach hadn't felt right during the drive up to Ogunquit from Boston. The pills weren't sitting well with breakfast on the road. Diluted apple juice and oatmeal were my doctor's orders but my desire for hot coffee and honey-dipped donuts had been too strong. Bouncing along the highway for two hours in Jack's Jeep had taken its toll. When we'd finally pulled into the beach parking lot, I'd needed a minute's rest.
Instead, we'd trudged across the sand immediately in search of our friends, who'd come up the previous night in another car. We'd hardly rolled out our towels beside Alex and Dan when Jack took my hand and jogged me down to the surf, where we stopped at last to hold each other for a fleeting moment before I realized what he was doing.
As the world tumbled over, the sickness in my stomach pounded into my head. Burying my face into the bottom of Jack's sweatshirt, I wrapped my arms around his thighs. A moment later I was right-side-up again with the breeze in my face, my legs straddling his hips, and my feet dangling in midair.
"You gonna put me down now?" I asked.
"Not on your life," said Jack, pressing his cheek against my neck.
Although it was August, the beach was cold. The sea looked wild, kicked up from a storm that passed ninety miles offshore the day before. Breakers rolled across a sandy ledge that stretched fifty yards out hidden beneath the dark green waves. The sky, too, was reeling.
A chill ran up my spine. I felt a fever coming on. I thought of the Tylenol and water bottle tucked in my bag beside the towels. "Okay," I said, trying to work myself free. "The ride's over."
Jack whipped me upright but didn't let me down. Cradling my body in his arms, he lowered me butt-first toward the surf as a big wave rolled over the sandy ledge and the tide surged. Ignoring the oncoming threat, I looked into his blue eyes. Jack had a certain power over my fevers that sometimes staved off their ache and chill.
The excitement in his eyes registered every detail of the approaching surge. At the last possible moment he hopped backwards, yanking us out of its path.
"All right, all right," I laughed. "Now. Put me down?"
Reluctantly, he returned my feet to dry sand, twisted me around by the shoulders and kissed me on the mouth before sprinting off to join the others. My lips buzzed from his soft, wet kiss as I watched him go. I regained my balance before following in his wake.
There weren't many people on the beach except around the area below the parking lot and concession stands, where families clustered with umbrellas and folding chairs and children dug moats around lumpy sand castles. Further down, past a few pockets of straight adults, the gay section was practically empty. On a day like this, brunch-serving restaurants and antique barns would be burgeoning with activity. I imagined myself relaxing in some warm café instead of freezing out here on a cold beach -- but then I thought what a plate of pancakes and more coffee would do to my stomach.
The way I'd been feeling lately I wasn't sure if I shouldn't have just stayed in bed. I'd been out of the hospital for only a couple weeks and while the pneumonia had been cleared from my lungs, fevers and fatigue kept me under the weather. I was afraid there must be some new infection brewing under my skin. This morning, when I gazed back at myself in the bathroom mirror, I noticed my right eye shot through with red streaks. Retinitis?
"Pollen," said Jack, reading my mind from the bathroom doorway. "It's from that ailanthus tree out the window -- the one that smells like cum. My eyes are itchy too." He snagged a bottle of drops from the back of the medicine cabinet and stuck them in my hand. "C'mon. We gotta hurry if we wanna beat the traffic."
While I dripped the solution into my eye Jack gathered our gear and packed up the Jeep before I could give the matter a second thought. He had a talent for distracting me from worrying too much about things. Two hours later, I wasn't sure whether to thank Jack or blame him for bringing me out here.
Trudging up the sand to join the other guys, I noticed that Alex and Dan had stripped to their briefs despite the cold. Sunbathing in underwear was in fashion that season. Jack tugged off his sweatshirt, preparing to join them.
"You're looking well, Matthew," Alex observed through thick, round glasses as I dropped to my knees on the towel. "Something must be agreeing with you."
Jack shot me a see-I-told-you-so look and folded away his sweatshirt.
I turned to Alex. "It's a combination of drugs and Jack," I told him as I rifled through my bag for the Tylenol.
I smiled at Dan. Jack and I had met him only once before and I still felt a little formal around him. "I went through a rough period earlier this summer. AIDS," I explained. I kept my voice cool -- like my status was something I revealed to strangers every day. "I'm a lot better now."
Dan nodded. "You got a nice tan," he offered.
"That's the drugs too," I said, relieved that Dan took my news in stride. "It's not a bad side effect."
He laughed. I found the Tylenol and swallowed it dry.
"You're the one who's got the nice tan," I told him. He had a nice everything. A good-looking guy to begin with, Dan had the cut, clean look of someone who worked out several times a weeks, read the men's style magazines and put their tips and tricks into practice. Stretched out on a striped blanket, he made good health seem easy. He rolled onto his belly. Poking skyward, his butt reminded me of a pair of muskmelons ready to rip through his white cotton briefs. I glanced at Jack. His eyes were on the melons and he was looking happy-hungry.
"Dan just came off a singles cruise," said Alex, dog-earing his paperback Brothers Karamazov -- his idea of a good beach read. "He's got himself a Caribbean tan."
"The Caribbean," mused Jack, wiggling out of his jeans. "Spectacular. Farthest south I've ever been is Cocoa Beach, right Matt?"
"How could I forget?" Only three years ago. Jack had some business down in Cocoa Beach and though we'd been together for only a month or two, he asked me along. It turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life -- a beautiful beach, bodysurfing, plenty of food and sex, and lots of time with Jack. Now, shivering in the sea air, I wondered if I'd ever be able to take another trip like that.
"I've always wanted to take a Caribbean cruise," said Jack. "Nothing but blue sky, miles of ocean, a boatload of beautiful boys. . . . Wow." He peeled off his T-shirt.
Dan smiled. "You should," he said.
"Too busy," said Jack. "But I can always content myself with an occasional cruise through the woods around the Blue Hills."
"A friend of mine got arrested out there," said Dan. "He tried to pick up a state trooper."
"Really?" said Jack with a mischievous grin. "What was the trooper's name? Do you remember?"
Dan didn't know quite how to take Jack's question.
"Sometimes we go on nature hikes," I interjected.
Alex put his book aside and gave me a curious look. He must have heard the insecurity in my voice. Aware I hadn't been well enough to cruise any parks lately, he also knew how my passion, shall we say, had suffered during my recent illness and while it was gradually coming back to me, I'd been feeling, frankly, insecure around my boyfriend. Jack's sex-drive seemed to me -- especially at that time -- as vast as the ocean and as self-replenishing as the tide -- only I didn't have to wait twelve hours for it to come back up. My own, on the other hand, seemed more in line with the lunar cycle. Alex and I had discussed this. One of my oldest friends, Alex was like a big brother. He would have stepped in at any time to take care of me if Jack hadn't been there. He was constantly peering into Jack's and my almost-four-year relationship, making sure everything was all right. Alex invariably advised me to relax. Jack loved me. If he wanted to find another boyfriend he probably would have done so long ago; he'd stuck with me through more than one episode -- although this last time, which included my first hospital stay, certainly had been the worst.
Jack took out his tanning lotion and twisted off the cap. His eyes wandered up Dan's back to his chiseled shoulders. "Need some lotion, Dan?"
"No thanks," Dan said with a slightly reproachful smile.
I snagged the container from Jack's fingers. Crouching behind him, I raised it high above his shoulders and squeezed out a long strand of the cold lotion. "Hey!" he protested when it hit his skin, but I knew he secretly loved the sensation. I rubbed it in, massaging his muscles with my thumbs, hitting all his favorite tense spots. "Aa-aah," he sighed and turned to Dan. "No one's got better hands than my buddy, here."
Dan gave me an appreciative nod. Suddenly I was embarrassed for feeling insecure around him. Here was a nice guy who also happened to be very sexy. What might it be like to rub lotion on this new friend's back? The thought gave me a little thrill, something I hadn't felt for months. I couldn't hold it against Jack if the same thoughts crossed his mind. I stopped a minute to tug off my sweatshirt before squeezing some more lotion across the lower part of Jack's back.
"Mmmm," said Jack. "Lower, lower. Right there. Yeah, right there."
The sun cut through a weak spot in the clouds and we rolled back on our towels. I let Jack unbutton my jeans and tug them off. He draped a big arm across my chest. Nestled against him, I took stock of myself. My stomach was calm and no real fever had emerged although I still felt on the verge of one. Jack's breathing slowed, became deeper. Alex flipped the pages of his book. I sensed Dan adjusting himself on his towel; he snapped the elastic of his shorts and I wondered if Jack heard it too.
Clouds moved back across the sun. I buried my face into Jack's neck and as my whole body took in his familiar warmth, my mind wandered back to our trip to Florida four years earlier. We stayed at a terrific resort hotel on the ocean and our room was right on the beach; the first night we drifted off to the sound of lapping waves. After his presentation the next day, Jack skipped the rest of the conference and we spent the afternoon playing in the water. The waves were perfect for bodysurfing -- big four-footers that started rolling far enough out to give us one good ride after another. We had to swim through a few weak waves that washed over us and we ran into some rough ones that tried to twist us under, but most of the breakers carried us all the way to the shore.
After an hour or so, we lay down on the soft, white sand and caught our breath. That's when we saw him -- the beautiful Puerto Rican man who sauntered down to the water's edge and who turned and flashed us a smile. Splashing into the surf, his coppery skin glittered against the turquoise sea. Jack turned to me. His eyes lit up. "You want him?"
"Do I -- What?"
"Don't you think he's hot?" he asked with a sly grin.
"Well, yeah, sure," I said slowly. "But I'm here with you."
The grin disappeared. "Course you're here with me. You're here with me and I'm here with you." He lowered his voice. "But we could still have him," he said." You and me."
"I don't know . . . ."
"C'mon, buddy. What's the matter?" He propped himself up on one elbow and stroked my arm. "That guy couldn't come between us, he's someone we could share." He looked me in the eye. "I don't want us to be one of those couples who define their relationships solely on the basis of their monogamy. One guy slips and has sex with someone else and Bam! The relationship's over. You don't want that, do you?"
"Well, no -- "
"Sex with you and me is great, but what we've got -- It's so much more than that. Life's short," said Jack. "Don't be afraid to dive in."
Jack's eyes sparkled like the sea. Trust me, they said.
I looked down at the man as he pulled himself up from a wave. Beads of water glistened on his sinewy lats. "Let's get him," said Jack.
The man's name was Leo (pronounced Lay-oh), and when I stuck out my hand to introduce myself he slipped his arm around me and turned my handshake into an embrace. A nice local custom, I thought until I felt his wonderful skin, smooth and wet. Then I knew: here was a custom anyone could enjoy. Anywhere.
At some point during my daydream Jack's arm had slipped off my body. Now I reached out for him but he was not there. I opened my eyes. Jack was sitting up, alert, looking down at the water, where a few dozen boys were traipsing along with beach bags, blankets, and chairs. But these boys hadn't captured Jack's attention. It was one in the water he was watching. A tall, dark one with a lanky body.
Knee-deep in the waves the guy waded out into deeper water, then dunked himself under and swam out to the edge of the sandy ledge where the breakers started rolling. He was bodysurfing, out there on a day like this.
"Now that's a man," said Jack to the others, who sat up to see what he found so interesting. I knew Jack was comparing the man in the water to the buff puffs strutting along with their beach gear but I couldn't help wondering if Alex and Dan might think he was comparing the man to me. I turned to Dan, who gave me a slight, comforting smile that told me he was thinking exactly that. "That's a man," repeated Jack.
"Yes," I said as if to a small child just learning to identify every object he saw, "that is a man. And those are clouds and that is the ocean."
Jack turned to me with a curious grin. He tousled my hair playfully. Before I could smile back he had his briefs down around his ankles and was fishing through our bags for his bathing suit. "I'm going swimming!" he announced. Suited up, he sprinted away.
"There's no stopping Jack," I said, trying to squeeze the nervousness out of my laughter. "That's my boyfriend." I shook my head.
"That's Jack," agreed Alex, laying aside his book once again.
"If my boyfriend looked at another guy like that I'd be worried," said Dan. Alex shot him a warning glance.
But you don't have a boyfriend, I thought. You've probably never had a relationship that lasted more than a few months. You don't understand.
And yet, something twisted inside me as I watched Jack sprint away.
Last summer, I might have climbed into my bathing suit and followed him into the water. No big deal. I'd have gone anywhere with him. We would have swum out there together and made a new friend. But since I'd been sick things had changed for me. My weight, for example: I no longer had a layer of fat to insulate me in the cold ocean. Once, I had been among the first in the water each summer. My all-time record was late April at Herring-Cove Beach in Provincetown. My skin stung all afternoon from that single quick dip. It felt great. But now I just wanted to stretch out on the sand and relax with my boyfriend.
I tried to lay back on my towel but without Jack beside me my digestive system tumbled around like I was back in the Jeep. I reached for my bathing suit, a short-sleeved wetsuit that Jack had bought for me after my first bout of pneumonia last summer. I'd successfully swum in it on the Cape, where the water was much warmer. I tugged it on now and, with a sheepish nod to my friends, trotted down to the edge of the surf, where Jack had plunged in and was swimming out in the direction of the tall, dark man.
"Good luck -- " I heard Dan call out to me.
And then my toes hit the water.
This was not the ocean but a vast caldron of icy fire. My ankles, my knees, my thighs ignited; my entire body blazed down to the bone. Wait, I told myself. Be strong. Your skin will grow numb. It always does. In a minute, in just another minute it will feel good. Soothing. But it didn't. I took the torso plunge, dipping my rubber-encased scrotum, belly, and chest beneath the surface all the way up to my shoulders. I intended to dunk my face, my ears, my scalp under too, but flames rolled up my back and seared through my extra skin.
Out near the breakers Jack had met up with the other guy. They dove together; he was showing Jack a new way to catch the best part of the wave. I was completely out of the water now and shivering on the sand. The burning had eased only a little. It felt like a terrible fever racing up my spine, but the adrenaline was still kicking around, fighting the chill.
The two in the water caught a good wave and rode it to shore not far away from where I stood but still too far for me to reach. They were laughing and panting together, lifting themselves out. The other man seemed to be instructing Jack, and Jack seemed to be eating it up. He turned and waved for me to come out and join them before diving back in.
The sun broke through the clouds again and for a moment I felt warm enough to try once more. But the water was as merciless as before. All I could do was fall back on the sand, the embers of my smoldering skin fanned by the cool breeze, as clouds rolled back across the sun.
A peculiar sensation began to gnaw at my belly. It was something I'd never felt before. A hollowness, an ache. It expanded throughout my body. Was this some sort of reaction to my new drugs? No, it was more of an emotional thing -- a sadness that carried the weight of nostalgia.
The feeling surged. Flooded my chest. I couldn't breath. Grasping for something tangible, I focused on a fleck of spindrift, a bit of foam torn off the waves by the wind. Skipping across sand, it caught itself on my toe before splitting apart and flying away.
I yearned to be out there with Jack and the guy. I wanted to be out there with Jack instead of the guy. I looked back at our spot on the beach. Alex was reading his book. Dan was sitting up staring at Jack and the guy. I turned away when Dan's gaze met mine. I hated the handsome man in the water with my boyfriend. With each wave that pounded the shore, I hoped the undertow would suck him down and hold him under till his lungs burst open and filled with brine.
I didn't want to be feeling this way. Did I really expect Jack to stay out of the water just because I couldn't get in? For a relationship to survive didn't certain sacrifices have to be made? Hadn't Jack made more than a few for me?
Jack loved me. I thought of the night I was admitted to the hospital and how Jack sat by my bed holding up one New Yorker cartoon after another, reading each caption aloud and describing its illustration to me when he saw I was too tired to turn my head and look for myself. I thought of how he'd flipped me upside-down on the beach and how sometimes he made my fevers disappear. So what if I couldn't swim with him today. At least I'd tried. Maybe I'd do it again sometime, maybe I wouldn't. We could always fly down to Florida, where the water was warmer.
I scooped up a handful of sand and let the grains fall between my fingers. I thought of the sand on Cocoa Beach and how much softer it was, and then I recalled how smooth Leo's skin had felt -- how soft Jack's and mine had been too after our day playing in the semitropical sea. How all three of us wrestled around together back in our room that night, and how good it felt to share this man with Jack and to share Jack with this man. And I remembered how at some point that night I happened to look up and see Jack gazing back at me in the moonlight. I love you, he mouthed.
Out by the breakers the two caught another wave and this time Jack got it all perfectly right: the tuck of the head, the arch of the back -- whatever it was the beautiful, lanky man was teaching him. This time, Jack was taking the other guy for all he was worth as they rode in together and hit the beach tumbling into each other's arms not ten yards from where I sat.
Disentangling himself, Jack rose and jogged over to me. He hoisted me up and dragged me toward the surf. "No, Jack!" I said. "I'm serious. I can't." He stopped and looked at me, his eyes becoming gentle. "Too cold?" he said. "Okay, then. I'll be back in a few -- "
As the other guy scrambled to his feet he gave me a quick nod and a tentative smile before jogging back into the waves.
I didn't try to go in again after that. I knew Jack would come back to me before long. He'd lay himself down beside me, breathing with some difficulty. He'd press his icy skin against mine eager to tell me all about it, and perhaps my jealousy would begin to fade. Jack had the power to stave off all kinds of fevers. Maybe he'd introduce me to the guy while our friends warily watched my reaction. Seeing everything was all right, they'd relax too. We could all have a drink together at the piano bar in town. Beers for Jack and the guy. Sodas for me and Dan. Alex would order his scotch on the rocks.
I dug my heels into the sand. Propping myself back on my elbows, I watched Jack and the other guy tumble through the waves as the strong, wild current carried them back to shore.
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