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Troll Boy
C. Bard Cole

Crayola-green fields of soybean in close stripes, foot-high leafy stalks flickering in the breeze: a vista that's stretched out on either side of the highway since Wilmington. The car's not air conditioned; Kevin Cimino has his feet propped up, left blue Converse All Star hightop pressed against the dashboard, right hightop wedged in the corner of the window. It looks uncomfortable, the way he's sitting with his knee against his chest, but he likes sitting that way. The wind blows up his shorts. His right hand rests on the rolled-down window's black rubber slot. He makes the effort to flick his cigarette ash out and down but frequently enough bits blow inside, whipping around the back seat like gray snowflakes in an updraft.

"Use the ashtray or something," says Rob Landry, who's driving. "If I get an ash in my eye I'm gonna get pissed off."

Kevin moves his hand down to the armrest without any other acknowledgement. He stares out the window, staring through the deep blue lenses of his drugstore sunglasses, staring at turquoise fields of soybeans, an ultramarine sky, a navy-blue highway edged with cornflower stripes. To Rob, glancing over, seeing him in profile, it looks like Kevin has a magical black eye, a lurid dancing bruise that sometimes spills over his cheekbone for an instant before retreating. Kevin has started to pull his hair back in an elastic but golden-brown strands around his face have come loose and blow around. It's still too short for a ponytail.

Rob turns up the CD player, a Blondie greatest hits album. He starts to sing along. He doesn't know the words but he likes making new ones up. "I met a girl with a lovely teat, thought that she'd be on easy street," he smiles, nodding his head in time with the music. "Hide your shame Sunday girl."

Kevin flicks his cigarette out the window. Rob looks over the top of his Ray-Bans to the rear view mirror, sees the butt skitter and spark across the trunk before tumbling to the asphalt and blowing away. "I like that song," Kevin says abruptly, reaching across his knee to turn the volume knob down. "Why do you have to make fun of everything?"

Rob purses his lips. "If you don't want to talk," he says, "it would be nice to listen to some music."

"You're going to change that shirt the next time we stop," Kevin says.

"What's wrong with this shirt, Kev? That's what I'm supposed to say, right? You want me to ask you."

Kevin's head is still aimed out the window as if he’s not having this conversation. He notices a billboard, a sign for a roadside produce market a few miles down the road. "Okay, we have to stop there. I gotta get some corn or something."

"What's the next exit we're looking for?" Rob says.

Kevin brings his feet down to the floor, reaches down for the map. "We can just stay on 301 until 50," he says, wrestling with the unfolding sheet of paper. "But I think we can save like twenty minutes or so if we get off on, um, 300."

"I told you, you're navigating, this is your trip."

"I don't know how well they're marked or anything," Kevin says. "You should have let me get that strawberry pie."

Rob shakes his head. "Honey, that was near Trenton. It would be fucking baking in here by now. It would get spoiled."

"You said there'd be another one."

"I'm sure your mom woulda been real impressed with a pie from Bob's Big Boy. Come on." Rob takes his right hand off the wheel and, somewhat blindly, reaches over to pat Kevin's bare knee. "Don't bug out, okay? It's not a big deal."

"Corn would be nicer anyhow. Get like a dozen ears of silver corn."

Rob and Kevin are driving from New Paltz, New York, to Tilghman Island, Maryland, to spend a week's vacation with Kevin's family in a summer house Kevin's brother and sister-in-law have rented for a couple weeks. This week, the rest of his family are joining them: his mother, sister, little brother. Kevin hasn't gone on a family vacation since he was fourteen years old. His sister Veronica instigated this deviation from the norm, calling him to warn him, she said, that their mother had her heart set on his coming. "You know how she gets about things," Ronnie had said offhandedly, as if she herself would never dream of asking Kevin to drag his ass down for some silly family vacation. "With Dad’s birthday coming up, and it being exactly ten years now. She’s all, ‘Well, maybe this year Kevin will come.’"

He had a hard time saying no when his mother telephoned a couple days later. He wonders if it was a conspiracy. Ronnie even managed to get Rob on the phone one Saturday afternoon while Kevin was out shopping, and she got him on the bandwagon too. Kevin didn’t care for that at all. Nobody in his family's ever met anyone he's been dating, not since high school and prom and Youth Group and girls and all.

Kevin is thinking, Shit: I am going to be with my boyfriend and with my family.

He is thinking, my mother is going to notice that Rob is older than me. My mother is going to ask Rob a lot of questions. My mother is going to ask Rob how we met.

He is thinking, my brother is going to be real uncomfortable around Rob.

He is thinking, Rob is going to hear how my family talks. He's going to think they're rednecky, or something. He's going to see where I come from.

"I know it's stupid," Kevin says. "But I would really like you to put on a regular tee shirt before we get there."

"What's wrong with you?" Rob says. "This is Valentino."

Rob's wearing black denim shorts, eight-hole doc martens with white socks, and a black tank top, form-fitting with a center seam and stretchy side panels under the arms.

Kevin gives him a once-over, trying not to sound snotty. "It's so International Male," he says. "It's so circuit-party."

"Yeah," Rob says. "I'm sure your mother knows the International Male catalog."

"It's just real faggy, okay?" Kevin cups his chin in his hand.

Kevin has worked out his story. Rob is a freelance video editor and website designer. They met when Kevin was at school, working part-time at a copy shop. Rob graduated a few years earlier and had a job doing microfilm archiving work at the SUNY New Paltz library. They saw each other around for a while before becoming friends and, then, boyfriends. Kevin's an assistant manager at one of those big-chain bookstores in a shopping center.

This story is easy to keep in mind because it is basically true. Rob is a freelance video editor, he is a website designer. Kevin's assistant manager at the bookstore. They did meet when Rob was working at the library.

The truth which needs to be avoided is: Rob is a pornographer. Rob shoots dirty movies. While he does actually edit corporate product videos and stuff like that, what Rob's really known for, among their friends and acquaintences, is his 'reality' porn videos. In fact, he's sort of famous, or notorious, in an underground way: a celebrity, with his great big porn website. Rob is The Generation Triple-X Guy. He is proud of being The Generation Triple-X Guy. And how he met Kevin is he asked Kevin to be in a porn movie.

It is hard to say whether or not this is all a big joke to them. Rob's got some vague masters degree in Cultural Studies, whatever the hell that is, and can explain the importance of his work in elaborate, tortuous terms involving heterosexist hegemony and the doxology of the phallus, a subversion of the male gaze. "And what about the female gays? Don't they deserve pomo porno too?" Kevin likes to say, with a feigned ignorance that Rob often suspects conceals actual stupidity. Kevin's undergraduate major, when Rob met him, was Communications.

Rob's work has fans, some of whom are intellectual-pretentious art farts and into that whole angle and the rest of whom are horny college students and whatever other kind of perverts there are. Rob writes columns for different sex magazines and underground zines, and in 1997 he was profiled in a flashy picture-heavy profile in one of those "edgy" magazines started by some publishing millionaire’s greenhorn son. Rob Landry is The Generation Triple-X Guy, that's his identity. Kevin's just kind of a slut. He didn't used to be. In college he was a nice college gay boy who believed that men got arrested having sex in public parks because society made it so hard for gay men to have decent relationships. He used to wonder at the self-hatred of guys who slept with him but never called him afterwards. He used to think it was sad, that they didn’t think they were good enough to deserve love.

Rob is back to making up fake words to the Blondie song, Kevin notices. He decides to ignore it. If he inclines his head just so, the wind rushing past his ear sounds like the ocean and he can barely hear Rob singing, "I’ve got no job, please come see, how your monkey seems to be…!"

The flabby-armed old woman at the produce stand has one monster of an Eastern Shore accent. Kevin wonders if Rob hears it and what he thinks. He's disappointed that she has no silver corn but he buys a dozen ears of the golden. Rob's sitting on the hood of the car, slipping into a dark red velour cabana shirt, almost a golf shirt: tolerable, from Kevin's point of view.

"The corn's from right here," the woman’s explaining. She's wearing a thin white scoop-neck tee shirt, her sweat-jeweled décolletage veined in red and blue like a faded roadmap. "The berries and fruit are coming up from Georgia and North Carolina."

"Wow," Kevin says, looking in the refrigerated cases. "Are those mulberries?"

"They're just blackberries."

Kevin smiles with his mouth hanging open, a caricatured expression of wonder and delight. "They're sooo big."

His clothes rearranged, Rob ambles over. "I wanna get a couple apples," he says.

"Let me get two pints of those blackberries," Kevin says, fiddling with a stray lock of hair that's fallen out of the elastic.

"Are we supposed to make dinner one night?" Rob asks.

"I told my brother we'd buy crabs one night." The woman starts packing their purchases. A blackberry squishes, leaving a purple smear on the inside of the white plastic bag. Kevin hands her a five dollar bill. "I can't believe how cheap this stuff is. We live in upstate New York," he tells the woman as she hands him change back. "We don't get fruit this fresh. Apples in the fall but – not peaches, not berries. Not for these prices anyhow."

"You boys from New York?" she says politely, her teeth smoker-yellowed.

"I'm from Harford County, actually," Kevin says. "But I live up there now. My family's rented a place down the bay is where we're going."

"Must be a change of pace," she says. "I’m a country girl myself."

Rob lets out a snicker, while smiling pleasantly.

"Thanks," Kevin says with a little wave as they walk back to the car. He's already digging in the bag for the blackberries, popping a couple in his mouth.

"You know what?" Rob says. "I really ought to call Raymond before it gets any later." Kevin makes an irritated snort as he opens the car door. "While I’m still getting a carrier signal."

Rob sits in the car, talking to his lawyer on his cell phone, as Kevin leans against the hood, eating blackberries. Kevin doesn't want to hear about it – plea-bargaining some mail-order obscenity charges in Florida. He says it's boring, he means it makes him afraid. It's costing a lot of money, too. Porn's no fun when bad things happen.

Kevin recognizes his older brother's Saturn in the driveway of a cedar-shingled A-frame house and Rob pulls in behind it. They're sighing in relief, relaxing, going limp in their seats for a moment, making a show out of their exhaustion. Kevin had announced "Almost there!" when they reached the town of St. Michael's, picturesque with its Victorian houses, handpainted signs, pastel-colored boutiques. He was wrong, and began to feel embarrassed as they continued driving along the increasingly narrow, sinuous road with no end in sight. They could hear but not see water until they came to the Knapps Narrows drawbridge and the little village at Tilghman Island unfolded before them.

Kevin ate too many blackberries and really needs to take a dump. He gets out of the car.

There are only a few streets on Tilghman Island. It doesn't look really like a beachfront town. Flat expanses of threadbare lawns and straight spindly trees like anyplace else on the Eastern Shore. The houses are pretty close together, with an impermanent vacation-house feel. Sander Cimino's sitting on the small front deck in his bathing trunks, untangle the line on the detached reel of a fishing rod. He stands up, squinting, and walks towards the car.

Sander's twenty, just finished his sophomore year at Towson. He's got his brother's small frame but a little more meat. He does weight training and exercises in specific ways. "Hey man," he says as Kevin walks toward him. Sander brushes the hair out of his eyes. It's longish but not as long as Kevin's, and right now stiff and sundried from swimming earlier. He's tanned. He's got a thin black tribal armband on his right arm.

Rob watches the brothers clap each other on the back as he opens his door and steps out onto the gravel. Peeking past Kevin's shoulder, Sander catches Rob's glance, his hazel eyes shining green. Sander grins and opens his mouth to say something but Mrs. Cimino appears at the screen door and calls out, "Hey there, strangers!" Barefoot and sun-rouged in a yellow gingham sundress, white embroidered daisies the size of dinner plates scattered round the skirt, she waves cheerfully. Sander's animated expression goes dull as he turns, with Kevin, to look at her.

Rob thinks, wow I didn't think Sander would be so grown up. He knew how old Sander was but he visualized him from photos in Kevin's albums. What he really means is he liked that instant of eye contact. Sander's either consciously charming or guilelessly amiable. Or both, Rob thinks. Sander's like any other guy his age. Boys want men to like them. "How was the drive down?" Sander says, letting Kevin unload the bag of produce into his arms.

"Too fuckin' hot," Kevin says under his breath. "We don't have air conditioning." Rob has popped the trunk, is lifting their duffle bags out. Mrs. Cimino's gliding across the lawn towards them, gingham and daisies gently swaying around her knees. "Hey Mom."

She kisses Kevin on the cheek. "I smell like a Piña Colada," she says. Meaning her suntan lotion, Rob deduces. "Is this Robert?" she says, smiling at Rob.

"No," Kevin says, kicking gravel. "It's some new guy I picked up at a rest stop on the way down. What was your name again?"

Rob steps towards Kevin's mom, offering his right hand. "It's good to finally meet you," he says. Her emphatically pleasant expression is now somewhat frozen with suspicion. She knows her son is teasing her but she does not know what reaction he’d like her to show or why he wants to inflict even this minor suffering on her.

"Yeah Mom, it's Rob," Kevin says, in order to unfreeze her pained smile. "Duh."

"Call me Ellie, please, Rob. It's good to meet you." Mrs. Cimino takes Rob's right hand with her left, more of a hand-holding than a hand-shaking. "Everybody's out back on the pier," she says. "Why don't you go say hi? Sander can take these bags in."

Kevin picks his duffle bag up from where Rob's set it. "We may as well get changed. Plus," he says through a bared-teeth grimace, "I have to get to the bathroom quick."

The house's insides are decorated like any seaside cottage at the edge of an expanse of white sand and blue sea, even though the ground around it is dirt, not sand, and the brackish water decidedly unblue. Wicker furniture with seashell-print cushions, all white and coral-pink and powder blue. Framed prints of lighthouses, sailboats. Sleeper sofa with white end tables, lamps with glass bases filled with seashells. There's an impressive assembly of snack foods arrayed across the kitchen counter, pretzels and potato chips and peanuts and an economy-sized box of cherry pop tarts. Sander grabs a pop tart as he passes. Kevin holes himself up in the first-floor bathroom. Rob stands in the living room with their bags, looking out the windows that stretch up to the pointed ceiling. Beyond the front deck with its white plastic lounge chairs, a slender dock of silvered wood stretches out into the bay. A man and a woman stand chest-high in the dark-green water while a short-haired girl in a pink bikini dangles her feet over the edge.

Sander says, "Let me show you you-guys's room," chewing on the corner of a pop tart, crumbs tumbling down his bare chest.

Mrs. Cimino says, "Oh, corn!" as she unpacks the produce Kevin brought. "Nice."

Changed into his bathing suit, Rob tries to dawdle waiting for Kevin before meeting the rest of his family, but Sander's going out to swim, tells Rob to come along, they've got a cooler of beer out on the pier. Since Rob's already got a tiny crush on Sander, he does what he's asked. He's trusting the kid with his social safety.

The girl in the bikini stands up as Sander and Rob walk the creaky boards towards her. She's drinking a Budweiser out of a can and is not as young as she looked in the distance -- not a girl at all, just slender and short, is all. She’s about Rob’s age. Her layered haircut is a bit severe. "Hey, what's cookin'?" she says cheerfully. "You're Kevin's friend, right?"

Rob nods. "Yeah, I'm Rob."

"Veronica," she says, offering her hand. "We talked on the phone." Kevin was right, Rob does feel silly in his little speedo trunks. He does feel slightly International Male in them. He feels like his dick and ass are totally on anatomical display as Ronnie smirks at him.

What's really happening is Ronnie has thought of a dirty joke to embarrass Rob but she's reconsidered saying it since she doesn't know him well enough to know how he'd take it. "That's my brother Greg and his wife Jen," she says instead, gesturing to the couple down in the water.

Greg's the only blond Cimino, blond turning gray. Stocky and hairy-chested, he nods seriously while looking in Rob’s general direction. His wife, mouth open pleasantly, trudges forward in the water, towards the wooden ladder hanging down. She's a little heavy, her long hair plastered down flat against her neck and back. "Hey," she says, starting up the latter. "So I'm not the only in-law anymore!"

Rob notices Greg’s eyes cast down toward the surface of the water. It’s too murky to see through so it must be the surface he’s staring at so sullenly. Sander takes a sip of his sister's beer, leaps into the water with a tremendous splash. Greg says, "Dumb-ass, watch it." Sander flails around without standing up. Rob laughs.

Sander makes a show of gulping a big breath, then flips backwards, submerging. Two hairy, tanned legs emerge vertically. He tilts to one side, kicking the air, before falling over. He bobs to the surface, pushing his hair out of his face.

"Nice," says Ronnie, pursing her lips.

"We've never met one of Kevin's boyfriends before," says Jen Cimino as she climbs to the deck.

Rob nods and smiles uneasily. Ronnie winks at him. He wonders why. "Kevin probably remembers Nancy," Ronnie says.

Jen laughs. "Ronnie, you're awful."

"Come on," Greg says. "Don't get started."

Ronnie's still amused but looked chastened. "Yeah," she says to Rob. "That's not very nice of me." To Jen she adds, "At least she's not down here with us, doll."

"Ronnie, you're such a bitch," Jen says with evident pleasure. Ronnie smiles, rather flattered at being called a bitch in this context.

Sander's doing more handstands, further out.

Rob is bewildered: who is Nancy?

"Nancy was Greg's fiancée," Ronnie says, quietly, to Rob. "She's like our mom's best friend now, or something. They go hiking together and stuff. They go to the outlet malls."

Jen takes a beer out of the cooler. It opens with a crisp hiss. "Ohmygod," she says, touching Rob's arm confidentially. "She came to our wedding and everything. She's there at Thanksgiving."

Greg turns his back, looking down the coast. "Do you know what a couple of hens you sound like?"

"Oh come on," says Jen.

"It's just real nice, is all," he says crisply. "I’m sure that’s exactly the kind of stuff Rob wants to hear about."

Sander calls out, "Greg, Greg," before diving under again, trying to walk around on his hands, this time, with his legs sticking out of the water. He sustains it for maybe fifteen, twenty seconds. Greg's not watching. "Hey Rob, Rob," Sander calls, trying it again.

"That must be it," Jen says. "Kevin doesn't want Ellie to steal you away." She smiles, her eyes scanning him. Jen's checking him out, he realizes. "I wish I could get Greg into a pair of those. He only likes the big burlap bag kind of swimsuits."

"Kevin!" Sander yells. "Hey Kevin!"

Rob turns around; Kevin's ambling towards them, his hair blowing loosely. His skin looks pale and goosebumpy next to the dark blue nylon of his surfer shorts.


"Sander, shut up, man," Kevin yells. He gives Rob a kind of play-punch in the side. "Sorry, I just had to take out my contact lenses and stuff."

Jen kisses him. "Jeeze, Kev. Your hair's getting so long." She runs her hand through Kevin's hair, grasping it into a bunch. "You could braid this," she says.

Ronnie climbs down into the water. She swims up to the edge of the dock, holding her arms up. "Come on, Kevin," she says. "Come on, jump." Kevin shakes his head. "I'll catch you," she says.

Kevin says, to Rob, "Ack!" He lets his tongue loll out of his open mouth as if he were a corpse in a cartoon.

"Is Ellie starting dinner?" Jen asks. "I was going to make the potato salad. Greg, do you want to start the grill?"

Greg turns around, starts sloshing towards the pier. "I guess I better," he says.

"Ack!" Kevin says, jumping into the water as Ronnie ducks away. Sander doggie-paddles towards them, humming the Jaws theme loudly. He dives under the surface, grabbing Ronnie's leg or something. She smacks the water with her open palm.

Greg pushes past them to the ladder. Rob steps aside as he climbs to the deck. Greg throws a towel around his shoulder and walks toward the house.

"Come on in, Rob," Ronnie says. "It's going to get cold soon."

In the water, Rob can't get used to the feel of mud against his feet. He thought it would feel sandy, not slimy. He's never swum in the Chesapeake Bay before. "Ew," he says. "Ew, a crab!" he yelps. He's aware of his nipples hardening.

Sander's foot accidentally strikes his thigh. "Chicken fight," Sander yells, seizing Kevin by the shoulders and pulling him backwards, under the water. Kevin jumps back to his feet. "Let's chicken fight," Sander taunts. "Chicken fight. Come on Ronnie!"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," says Kevin. He motions Rob over, puts an arm around his neck. Rob's not sure what's happening. Kevin puts his other hand on Rob's arm, starts scrambling up his back. "Hold my legs," he orders as he seats himself on Rob's shoulders. "Come on, stand up now."

Ronnie's climbing on top of Sander's back, similarly. Sander straightens up, they lunge toward Kevin and Rob, Sander grimacing and growling. "I'm gonna so get you, Kevin," Ronnie says. She's trying to seize Kevin while he flails his arms back at her, trying to unseat her.

"Shit," Kevin says, when Ronnie grabs at his hair. With an intent look, he wrests her backwards by her shoulder. Sander tries to hold his sister's legs but the momentum's too great, she falls backs, and he barely avoids being dunked with her. Lacking a better move, Sander butts Rob with his head until his squirming around makes Kevin fall off, too.

Laughing, Rob raises his arms. Sander's laughing too, and splashing; he butts Rob with his shoulder and they both go underwater. Turning like a porpoise as he swims away, Sander glides over Rob, his slippery skin making multiple, minor contacts with Rob's. By the time Rob's to his feet, Sander's four or five yards away, standing between his brother and sister, shaking the water from his hair.

Kevin's dad, missing from this portrait of a family on vacation, has been dead for ten years, a span of time that is in some ways shorter, in other ways longer, than it seems to his family. Greg was twenty-three, Veronica twenty, Kevin fourteen and Sander nine. Eleanor Cimino was forty-six. Rob Landry, three hundred miles away in upstate New York with no idea who these people were, was turning nineteen. Rob doesn't know how much pleasure he's entitled to take from Sander's attentions. Rob's an expert on boy psychology but only to one end. "Your brother is really sweet," Rob says to Kevin as Kevin steps out of his wet bathing suit. They're talking quietly. Ronnie's changing in the next room.

"He's my little brother, " Kevin says, naked.

Rob tosses him his towel. "Yeah," he says. "I know."

Kevin ruffles his hair with the towel, swipes it over his ass, pats down his legs. "Just so you act like you know," Kevin says.

"How am I acting, Kevin?" Rob raised his eyebrows. "If I'm doing anything at all out of line I'd like you to point it out to me." He says this with a certain self-satisfaction. No matter what thoughts may have crossed his mind for a brief span of time, he has not done anything at all out of line.

But Kevin knows what kinds of thoughts cross Rob’s mind and this annoys him. He knows it shouldn’t, that Rob’s sense of propriety is finely tuned, that Rob truly believes in propriety, which is the main reason he can successfully live the life he leads. Kevin slips into a pair of jockey shorts, smells the tee shirt he was wearing before and decides to put that on too.

"He's straight," Kevin says, a laconic response which creeps right under Rob’s skin.

Rob wishes he understood why Kevin gets pissed off at him like this. Although he knows the best way to respond to Kevin’s moods, his impulses lead him to say things he already knows will make everything worse. Such as: "You know this is totally pointless and I shouldn’t even say it. But I bet a million dollars he's never told you he’s straight, has he?"

Kevin pulls on a pair of drawstring fleece pants, ignoring this provocative comment. Rob reclines on the bed. He puts his hands over his eyes and yawns.

"He's got a girlfriend," Kevin says.

"God, Kevin, you’re totally missing my point. I'm not going to seduce your brother. I can’t believe you need me to say that." Rob thinks Sander's sexy and sweet and he can't help that. Kevin should in fact be grateful that Rob likes his family at all, in any way. That’s what Rob thinks. "You're just mad," he says, "because you don't know what his deal is."

"Whatever," Kevin says in an unconvincing tone of voice. "I’m not even mad."

"That's totally it," Rob says. "You're mad 'cause you have this cool sexy brother and you're not even close to him."

"I’m not fucking mad." Kevin glares at him. "You know, it's only fags who don't have siblings who get all these fantasies about sexual tension between brothers." He turns his back to Rob, starts brushing his hair out. "It's gross, man. And if you're going to act that way, I would rather just drive home tomorrow before you embarrass me."

"Kevin, don't be an asshole."

Kevin hurls his hairbrush across the room. It hits the louvered folding doors of the closet with a clatter and bounces to the floor.

Rob gapes. He didn’t see that coming. Kevin sits down silently on the bed.

"Kevin, I'm sorry," Rob says.

"I don't care," Kevin says.

Rob bites his lip. "Kevin, I'm sorry."

Kevin lets himself fall backwards on the bed, rigid. If they were home, Rob would nurse his resentment by refusing to apologize but in view of the social circumstances, he turns on his side, facing Kevin, and says, "What you said…" He smoothes the wrinkles from Kevin’s tee shirt. "I felt like you don't trust me. And that hurt me so I said shit to hurt you. I'm sorry. We're both a little tense about this. I'm sorry."

Kevin purses his lips, shuts his eyes. "We better go downstairs before Mom calls us for dinner," he says.

"Kevin I love you," Rob says, reaching out to stroke Kevin's hair. "I love this boy Kevin Patrick Cimino like you wouldn't believe, man. I fucking adore him. Kevin, I love you. I love you. Okay?"

Kevin takes Rob's hand and holds it over his mouth, his lips against Rob's palm. He sighs. "We better go downstairs," he says, "before my mom calls us."

Dinner's the barbecued chicken Greg made, served at the picnic table on the screened side porch. Rob sits himself, with consideration, next to Jen and Ronnie, away from Sander, who nevertheless talks to him past Mrs. Cimino's face -- talks about drafting, digital 3-D design and stuff like that. He'd been interested in architecture but, over the year of school he's just finished, he "fell in love" with the technology itself. Rob does a good job of talking shop, he's kind of a technology geek himself. Listening to Rob ascribe every interesting thing he knows about webcasting and computer animation to the handful of boring corporate jobs he's done, Kevin wonders if his boyfriend sounds more like a fraud or more like a dork.

Ronnie and Jen seem impressed enough; Jen regrets that she and Greg hadn't had such good facilities when they were in college because Greg had been good at video games and all. "But back then, all that high-tech stuff, if you weren't a math genius at a big science college -- we knew it existed's a shame, because Greg had a knack."

"It's not like we're doing badly," Greg says.

"Yeah, but…" Jen says. Greg grimaces. "I'm not criticizing your breadwinning skills, Greg. I just think of all the stuff you liked to do with art and computers and all and how it's sad no one could have guided you into a career that maybe you would have really loved."

"My job is fine," Greg says.

"Kevin wet his bed," Ronnie interjects suddenly, bored with job talk. "Kevin had Lady Di paper dolls. Once he shaved his eyebrows off with Mom’s Lady Remington."

Rob laughs nervously. It was clear she was directing this to him. "Do you think you’re done?" Kevin asks.

"That was three," Ronnie says. "I want three back."

"Ronnie, stop," Mrs. Cimino says.

"I don’t…" Rob says. "What?"

"I gave you three prime embarrassments," she says, bumping her fist into Rob’s deltoid muscle. "Come on, Rob. I know you have the dirt."

"I don’t know what I could tell you that you’d want to hear at the dinner table," Rob says, not having anything specific in mind. What is embarrassing? He can’t come up with anything, is not sure he wants to.

"Ronnie," Kevin warns, noticing that Greg’s gritting his teeth. "You remember the summer the jellyfish stung your china?" Ronnie laughs and slaps her hand on her leg. Greg puts his fingers on the edge of the table as if he’s about to push himself away in disgust.

"Oh now, come on!" Mrs. Cimino says, brandishing a fork. "You are not going to!" She is struggling not to laugh at her children. She is trying to look angry and authoritative. "Both of you. Both of you…" Her lips strain to produce the next word: "…fuckers!"

Ronnie and Jen fall into hysterics. Jen manages to say, "Miss Ellie, I’m going to pee myself!"

"Well, they are." Mrs. Cimino sits down with a look of grim satisfaction. "I can say ‘fuckers’ if I want. Is it so very funny to hear me say it? Let’s just sit down and eat this delicious food, all right? Damn it!"

After dinner, when everyone's drunker, Greg starts asking Rob questions about video and computer animation. The bullshit angle, the emphasis on the instructional films and corporate promos, seems to make Greg comfortable -- Rob's job is interesting but not all that interesting, not interesting for reasons of glamour or status. Greg likes to talk about things and so does Rob: how do you do this or that? What's the best way? Who taught you? Rob ends up drawing something on a paper towel with a pen from Jen's purse. He and Greg are communicating through lines. Sander says to Kevin that he wants to come up to New York and visit sometime, and Kevin feels guilty. Rob was nearly right, or right enough. Greg's his dickhead older brother, his natural predator and enemy, and it’s never bothered him one way or the other whether Greg approves of him or likes him or whatever, he’s never given a shit. As adults, they get along fine. But Sander's the baby, a rambunctious, affectionate kid, a beauty, a treasure, his younger brother, and as much as Kevin loves him, he's always been cautious not to get too close. He's afraid to say or do anything to disillusion or disappoint him. He's afraid to be himself.

Kevin feels pretty sure Sander is, actually, straight -- as straight as most guys, at least. But if Rob was right even a little, Kevin thinks: Jesus Fuck, what kind of dumb-ass would that make me, if it came down to that?

Rob asks Mrs. Cimino about this ring she wears, five colored stones. She holds her hand out for him, tells him it's a mother's ring, with her children's birthstones. He asks which one is Kevin's. The emerald, she says. Kevin is watching with some anxiety, he notices Ronnie, sipping her beer watching too. Rob doesn't process the idea of five stones and four children. He doesn't say, is there someone else I haven't met?

When they go to bed, Kevin isn't mad at Rob anymore, but he isn't sleepy either. He wakes up at three-thirty, four o'clock with Rob snoring away next to him, decides to walk out on the porch and have a smoke.

He carefully treads down the stairs without turning on the light. The sofa bed's unfurled and occupied. "Ronnie?" It's his mother's voice.

"God, Mom," Kevin says. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"That's okay."

"I'm just going outside to smoke a cigarette." He walks to the glass doors, stops and squints toward his mother in the moonlit darkness. "Mom, why are you sleeping on that thing?"

She giggles drowsily into her pillow. "Where did you think I was sleeping?"

"I don't know, upstairs with Ronnie. Sander could've slept down here. Rob and I -- why aren't Rob and I sleeping down here?"

"Oh honey," she says dismissively. "I'm up at dawn. You kids like to lie in bed." She props herself up. "Don't worry, it's a real mattress and everything, it's not one of those foam things with the metal bar in your back."

Kevin just stands there.

"You wanna see?" She pats the empty space next to her. Kevin walks over and gingerly stretches out diagonally, on top of the floral bedsheet, with his feet hanging off. "I like Rob," she says quietly.

"Thank you," Kevin says.

She snuggles back down in her sheet. "Can I ask you something personal?" she says.

"Mmm-hmm," Kevin says, gazing out the window. The sky appears to be black until his eyes adjust to the moon's presence. Then clusters of tiny stars emerge. Kevin is thinking of his dead brother.

"Is Rob your first serious relationship," she says, "or have you just never told us before? I mean…" she adds awkwardly, remembering high school girlfriends, "since you came out as gay and everything."

Kevin smiles to himself. "Yeah," he says. "Rob's the first worth mentioning."

"That's not what I asked you," she says.

Kevin makes a noncommital noise.

"I love you," she says. "Anything that's important to you is something I'd like to hear about." For a second it occurs to Kevin to be paranoid, to fret about the secret insights his mother might have into his life. But he realizes she doesn't know anything in particular. She just knows he doesn't tell her much.

"Oh, go have your cigarette," she says.

The unattributed birthstone on Miss Ellie's ring, Daniel Alexander Cimino has been dead for more than twenty years now. He would be about Rob's age. Unlike their father -- who remains a living memory, as if he has just left the house for a minute to go to the store and might conceivably come through the door at any moment; whose name is evoked with the same casual seriousness in the present as it was years ago when Mrs. Cimino would warn her miscreant children, "You just wait and see what your father has to say about this!" -- Daniel dwells among the forsaken dead whose names do not stay on the lips of those who loved them.

Kevin sits on the steps of the porch and lights his cigarette.

They’ve never talked about it, as a general rule. It is actually amazing how little it’s come up over the years. Kevin had some high school friends who knew, kids whose parents were friends with his parents, or who had older brothers or sisters in Greg's or Ronnie's or Danny's grade. They knew, vaguely, that Kevin had an older brother who died of leukemia. The silence was their parents’ fault. When the new baby came out male, they just went ahead and did it: Alexander Daniel. No one could talk about it, ever, without reminding everyone that Sander was the human equivalent of Cocoa II the chocolate lab or Petey Jr. the hamster: a replacement.

And maybe, Kevin thinks, that's why we don't talk about anything.

Though he doesn’t quite know what he wants to say that he hasn’t, and he’s not sure why the idea makes him feel so angry.

Kevin’s eyes are irritated. A painful tear trickles over his cheekbone. He doesn't wipe it because his fingers are dirty and they'd make his eyes sting worse. I'm crying, he thinks. Am I sad or am I doing this on purpose to make myself sad?

Mrs. Cimino comes back from church the next morning, a Sunday. She'd asked if anyone wanted to come with her but no one did. Over lunch -- chicken salad sandwiches -- she enlists Rob, Jen and Ronnie to come with her to town, to St. Michael's, to go antiquing through the little secondhand and knickknack places. In an antique store presided over by a tiny, cheerful white-haired lady, Jen finds a set of silver shrimp forks that match her mother's pattern. Another place has handmade quilts displayed over the porch railings. The white one with the interlocking patchwork circles is called a Wedding Ring quilt. Mrs. Cimino asks Rob if he and Kevin could use something like that -- was it to his taste? She wants to buy them a present for their house. Rob says he likes the quilt, sure, it's pretty, but his bedroom's basically a dump, nothing but castoffs from his grandfather's place. He means no, he doesn't want it, like it, or want her to buy it for them. He doesn't want this particular gift from Kevin's mother: a quaint coverlet for the bed he screws her son in. Weird. "It'd be the nicest thing we owned," he protests. "I'd have to redo the whole house around it." She buys it, it's two hundred dollars. Rob says he's sure she'd rather have it for herself. Mrs. Cimino doesn't relent.

Rob’s expected to spot some old queen somewhere on this resort shopping street but so far he hasn’t, not even as proprietor of the flamingly fruity ice cream parlor which, in its unrelenting cuteness, could have been transported board-by-board from Provincetown or Key West or any other gay resort town. Handpainted nursery-rhyme animals waltz across bubblegum-pink walls hung with old movie posters and a blackboard listing quirkily-named flavors like "Goin’ Bananas." The traditional wrought-iron ice cream parlor chairs are painted sorbet shades, dinged up and chipped. "Shabby chic," Kevin’s mom calls it. She purchases a single scoop of pistachio in a paper cup, and then she and Rob sit down at one of the tables. Ronnie and Jen go to look at the clothing store next door. Rob says he doesn't want anything, but gets up again and orders a chocolate cone. While eating it, he drips ice cream onto the crotch of his pale blue shorts.

Mrs. Cimino asks him what kind of family he has. Rob says his parents live in Rochester, divorced now; no siblings, no nearby cousins. He doesn't have much in the way of family. It interests Rob that the Ciminos are so much better off financially than anything Kevin’s ever said led him to believe. Kevin always sounds vaguely ashamed of his origins. The two younger women come back to find them, clattering around the door with their packages until Miss Ellie has gathered her things and is ready to go. As they begin the walk back to the parking lot, Ronnie leans into Rob, forcing him off-course in order to whisper confidentially at him."Mom must have given you the third degree," she says.

"No," Rob says. "She didn't."

"Oh you're kidding me," Ronnie says. "I know our mother."

"She really didn't," Rob says. "She asked about my family."

"Aha." Ronnie nods knowingly.

Meanwhile, Greg's gone down to the carryout bar by the Knapps Narrows drawbridge to pick up a bushel of steamed crabs. Sander's smoking and drinking a beer on the end of the pier. Kevin's riding his brother's bike around the island's back roads. Sander finishes his cigarette, goes inside the house to call his girlfriend Laura back in Bel Air. He tells her he thinks his brother's boyfriend has the hots for him. She teases him, mentioning a gay friend of theirs from college who spent an annoying semester in love with him. Sander tells her he's holding his dick -- which he is, hand stuck down the front of his bathing suit. "I'm all alone here and I have a hard-on," he says. She laughs and calls him a pig.

"Is that for me," she says, "or for your brother's boyfriend?"

"Aw, Jesus," he says. "Two days and I'll be back. Okay? Two days."

Kevin's riding through some woods, older clapboard farmhouses set on tiny inlets with their own little docks and motorboats -- past a little white church with a squat wooden steeple. Back on the main route, he drives towards the more developed end of the island. Greg's Saturn passes him and honks. Kevin waves.

Parking his bike on the porch of the carryout by the drawbridge, Kevin goes in and orders a beer. The bartender's a middle-aged woman, stringy blond hair and a Harley Davidson tee shirt, a sun-red face. Kevin orders a crabcake sandwich. There’s a teenage boy, black-haired and silent, skulking around the back of the room, looking vaguely like one of those troll dolls, with beady eyes, a broad turned-up nose, a wide mouth with rubbery, thick lips. Troll boy scans Kevin with a vague, disapproving curiosity as he uses a sponge mop to push a film of brackish water around the cracked green linoleum floor.

With an absent-minded gesture, Kevin places his hand on his crotch. His other hand's resting on the bar, holding a cigarette; the bartender can't see what he's doing down there. He can tell the boy's looked his way once or twice. Kevin tugs at his dick like he's got a mild itch, like he's recovering from body lice or something, without changing his facial expression. The boy actually pauses and gapes, his eyes darting nervously towards the bartender while a slight smile creeps to his lips.

Kevin doesn’t really know why he’s doing this, acting like he’s trying to start something.

He’s testing the theory Rob has explained about a million times, in print, in conversation, on video. One, you attract their notice; two, you do something vaguely sexual then check to see if they've noticed. You make sure they notice you noticing. Even if they're embarrassed, a little freaked out, or just amused by the unexpected strangeness of it, they may very well go along further, intrigued to see what's going to happen. This is what Rob says, anyhow. Kevin never quite believes him it’s as easy as that. It never quite works when Kevin does it and Rob says that’s because he’s too self-conscious, because he can never comfortably accept the idea that someone’s looking at him because he’s sexually attractive, rather than because he’s weird-looking, or looks like a faggot, or some other negative reason: that they are disgusted to imagine him attracted to them. "Despite the fact," Rob will point out, "that people pay forty-nine dollars per videocassette to watch you get laid." As if that settles everything. Kevin’s problem is just he refuses to believe. If you believe, according to Rob, everyone believes along with you.

While the bartender's wiping the far end of the bar with her back turned, Kevin smiles and nods at the kid. The kid flinches, stares, eventually nods back with a sullen expression. He goes back to mopping with a little extra vigor. He really is a rube, Kevin thinks, an Eastern Shore redneck. He has no fucking clue what’s going on. People here buy their clothes at discount marts and drug stores, the kid's bowl hairstyle wouldn't have been fashionable anywhere, not on any guy as grown up as him. Kevin wants to make him speak next. He can't imagine what the kid's voice is like. Appalling somehow, he’s certain.

It's not like he and Rob don't pick up and fuck other guys all the time. They do it when they go out together, nowadays when they go out separately too. Used to be that Kevin was just along for the ride, ready to three-way with whoever, but Rob’s hardly interested in sex anymore unless they're trying to find guys for their movies. Rob says it's his chosen art form -- finding unlikely boys and coaxing them into doing the things they've secretly wanted someone to coax them into all along.

This boy is exceedingly unlikely. Kevin's not thinking of art, though. He just wants to touch someone he doesn't know. Someone who looks innocent, who isn’t a slut, who’d never let a strange man fingerfuck him in a nightclub bathroom for a bump of K, who’s just wrong and not a part of his life and not Rob and not anyone Rob would ever know or think of knowing or imagine knowing or want to know.

He wants to be the inexplicable occurrence in someone else's life for a change.

This is stupid, he decides, stupid and reckless. Even if he could seduce this boy by an exchange of glances and gestures, where could they possibly go to have sex? Kevin has to cool it. Unless you can attend to them right away, straight boys feel cornered by the feelings you've aroused and, lacking anything else to do, get violent or start saying shit. Rob knows this, it’s part of the theory. Usually just saying shit is all they’ll do, but even that could be dangerous here. Maybe the huge biker-looking guy around the side of the building is the kid’s dad or something. Bad news. Gay-bashed on the Eastern Shore while vacationing with his family and boyfriend -- no thank you.

Kevin slips his cigarettes back in his pocket, collects the change from his twenty, leaving a couple bucks as tip, and exits the bar. If you have to give up the hunt, Rob says, you should at least look back and nail your prey with one good pointed stare, so that he’ll remember you and think about you and you can think about him remembering you. But Kevin's not merely giving up, he's aborting the whole operation. Bailing. It’s all been a mistake. Pedaling furiously towards his family's vacation house, Kevin feels monstrous, disgusted with himself.

Kevin's thinking about home. About the little bisque statuette that sits on his mother's bedside table. A rosy-cheeked boy rolling a ball to his little terrier: a music box, except someone’s unscrewed and removed the key from its underside so that it can never be wound, so that it will not slowly rotate to the plinking mental notes of "Danny Boy." Sander used to wind it. Kids wind things. Kevin remembers watching Sander getting spanked for it by their dad. He could have just moved it to a higher shelf. Why did she even buy it if she didn’t want to hear it? Did Dad give her that fucking thing? A tacky music box that plays "Danny Boy" -- whoever thought that was a good idea? What is wrong with these people? Did they not see how camp that was? Did they think life is a joke? Questions never asked.

"I just loved those -- Ronnie what do you call those nautical things?" says Mrs. Cimino. She's talking with her head tilted funny because Ronnie and Jen are in the back seat. "Those instruments. Like your uncle had. And probably threw out. Did you see that? Five hundred dollars?"

Jen's fighting to keep Ronnie’s hands off of the salt water taffy she means to take back to her co-workers back home. "Hey," she says. "That's Kevin on Greg's bike."

Rob taps on the passenger side window of the yellow Lincoln. He starts to wind it down to call out when Kevin veers into the road. His front wheel strikes the car fender and glances off and Kevin turns with a surprised look as he’s thrown to the asphalt. "Oh my god," says Mrs. Cimino, bringing a hand to her mouth, throwing all her weight onto the break, snapping the heel of her shoe. At the same instant Ronnie's saying "Mom…!" and Jen says "Look out!" Rob says, "Fuck -- Kevin!"

Rob's out of the car in a second, on the ground. Kevin's not hurt bad, of course. Nobody was going that fast. He just fell on the gravely asphalt by the side of the road, rolled into the ditch grasping at his ankle. His knees are raw, bright red with embedded black flecks, blood streaming. His palms are raw. "Kevin, what hurts?" Rob says, trying to feel him everywhere at once. "Kevin, what hurts?"

Kevin looks down at his knees and starts to laugh, an idiot laugh. When he smiles, his teeth appear pink, blood in the corners. "I busted my lip," he sputters, blood dribbling down his chin. "The handle hit me in the mouth."

The car sits in the middle of the road, all four doors open. The three women approach anxiously, slinking over like shades of the dead. The bike is upturned in the gulley, its front wheel spinning. Mrs. Cimino gathers great clumps of white kleenex from her lime green canvas purse, offering them to her son's lover like a bouquet of peonies.




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