Nelson read somewhere -- years ago, in some dismal Village cafť, helplessly skimming a wretched, tell-all, unauthorized biography, no doubt -- that somewhere toward the end of his life Rock Hudson developed a rudimentary Morse with which to secretly communicate his love to his lover. Three raps: I -- love -- you. That was the complete lexicon. He used it in public at first, rapping out the love that dared not speak its name in front of studio executives, knocking it out discreetly on restaurant tables, airplane windows, various movie set pieces. But then, apparently, he started using it in private as well, as though it had become not just a translation of words, but a whole new way of communicating, devised to express some whole new, untranslatable message.
Rap rap rap.
The memory of that sweet little anecdote came to Nelson one late afternoon while Jonathan was boiling pasta. Not that Jonathan looked a thing like Rock Hudson -- Jonathanís blondish hair was mixed with large amounts of an unattractive yellowish gray, and his features hung loose and fleshy on the frame, well used over the years, laugh lines well ingrained, sad-happy bags under the eyes, nothing like either Hudsonís youthful beauty or his final disintegration. Nelson tried to describe to himself his loverís eyes, and decided that what they were was honest and loving. How loving Rock had been, code or no code, was of course impossible for a member of the general movie-going public to tell. Honest he certainly had not been.
But Jonathan certainly was. He had been honestly spilling his thoughts and feelings to Nelson for thirty-two years now. Honestly criticizing Nelsonís wardrobe, honestly examining ad nauseam their shared loss of religious faith, honestly confessing to an affair with a leather-bound bartender ages ago in another world, and honestly, Nelson was sure, promising never to stray again.
Forthrightly, lovingly, honestly giving the pasta a stir.
Nelson had enjoyed a brief, anonymous encounter with a roughly handsome, youngish black man in a park that afternoon, and was not feeling particularly honest himself. As he watched Jonathan stir the pasta and realized that he had absolutely no intention of mentioning that encounter, the memory, circa 1986, of Rock Hudsonís encrypted I-love-yous popped into his head and he came up behind Jonathan at the stove and rapped him lightly three times on the nape of the neck with a knuckle.
Jonathan turned and gave him a smiling look that seemed somehow knowing. Nelson was momentarily afraid that something guilty had been evident in his gesture, but Jonathan only said, innocently, "Go away. We eat in ten minutes."
But that night in bed, when Nelson turned away to set his Agatha Christie on his night stand, he felt three soft raps on the nape of his neck. They sent a shiver down the length of his body. He froze for a moment, deeply certain that he had understood the transmission correctly, just as Jonathan must have somehow correctly understood it while cooking dinner. He reached back and gave Jonathanís hand a little squeeze. He could think of no other appropriate response, nothing really worthy to transmit in return, even though he knew something more meaningful was called for. He clicked off the light and settled guiltily down into the mattress without turning around, and it was a long time before he fell asleep, with Jonathan peacefully snoring behind him.
In the seventies they were both still married and a certain amount of skulking was necessarily involved. Nelson had returned from Vietnam with several horrifying experiences and a few enlightening ones under his belt, and he gradually faded away from his wife and kids. Eventually it was as if he waved to them now and then across a border, from the country of dark, quiet bars and lusty young men and hasty grapplings, where his citizenship was pending. His wife knew something had happened to her husband, maybe more even than had happened to other men in Vietnam. She tried to learn, to help him. But whenever he saw that look on her face that meant she wanted to talk, that the subject of the war was about to rear its head, he said simply, "Nope," a one-syllable approximation of all that was left to say.
It was not in the bars or alleyways that he met Jonathan. They met at a party in the Village. Nelson looked up through a haze of marijuana smoke and a throng of beautiful men to see an average-looking blond man, a little older than the others, like Nelson himself, standing next to a ficus tree, trying to look haughty and unconcerned that no one was talking to him. Although the thrill of the chase grew on him in later years, in those days Nelson had a special taste for fish in a barrel. He took Jonathan to a motel and they had sex. It turned out to have a kind of happiness in it.
Two married men could never call each other at home, of course, and Jonathan, an on-site inspector for the electric company, was rarely near a phone during the day. As much as possible they ended each rendezvous by making plans for the next one, knowing they were unlikely to speak in between, but it quickly became obvious that their desire for each other would spill over whatever boundaries they tried to create for it. Letting the home phone ring only once came to mean, "Iíll be at the China Cafť for the next couple hours, if you can get away."
About a year later Nelson and Jonathan moved into a small apartment of their own and procured simultaneous divorces. Ten years later they moved to a big old house in almost-rustic Springfield, Massachusetts, and installed a pool.
The change that made itself felt in their life after Nelson rapped his message on Jonathanís neck was certainly slight. At the next dinner party they attended they were seated next to each other as usual, and when dessert was served Nelson quietly tapped his fork on his own plate three times. Jonathan was politely listening to the hostessís tale of how she finally found a dog-sitter she could trust, but the corners of his eyes smiled. When they got to the car that night, Jonathan knocked three times, slowly and deliberately, on the passenger seat window to get Nelson to unlock the door.
As they each read sections of the paper one Sunday morning, Jonathan said, without looking up, "Peas, please." Nelson frowned over his paper at him. All he could think of was the time, almost a year before, when Jonathan spilled a whole pan of peas on the kitchen floor. They had had unusually memorable sex that night. Why Nelson connected the peas with the sex he could not say, but when Jonathan looked up from his paper, it was clear that he made the same connection, and was making a request that had nothing to do with vegetables, a request that Nelson granted. A week later in the grocery store Nelson found himself turned on watching a pair of young men shop together. He turned to Jonathan and said, "We forgot the peas." They hurried out of the store and home to bed, laughing like children, skipping the produce aisle altogether.
"Aspirin" came, logically, to mean, "Not tonight." It was not far-fetched that a vigorous shake of the head should convey, unambiguously, that someone in the room was wearing something ghastly. But why "loofah" casually inserted into a conversation should represent money problems, neither of them could have explained, although they both understood it as fully and reliably as any less obscure vocabulary word. Sometimes, as with the peas, they could have traced the etymology, but more often than not it was simply a case of years and years of neurons traversing the same paths in their two brains. Almost without their help, a private dictionary compiled itself.
"Rita Moreno," invoked after dinner, signaled exemption from the washing of dishes. They used it on each other only rarely, but it was always respected.
A single cough with the hand held tightly over the mouth meant, "Iím too ill to welcome your ministrations right now."
There may well have been misunderstandings -- a slight discrepancy in the perceived meaning of "ratchet" now and then -- but no serious communication problems ever arose. They understood each other to the extent that they needed to. And the risk involved, slight though it was, was part of the allure of this game that came, for Nelson at least, to be the hallmark of their last years together. They dared now, if only a little, to risk misunderstanding each other, just as they had dared before, if only a little, to risk having others understand.
One of them would die before the other. It was Jonathan, of a heart attack. Nelson was summoned to the tennis court where it had happened, and he surprised himself with his efficiency throughout the day. He took care of everything. He cried only when alone.
Ten nights later, exhausted, Nelson put on a clean shirt and went to a gay bar, for the first time in seventeen years.
The music was illogical and deafening, the lack of smoke in the air, mysterious. He wasnít sure why he was there, but it wasnít to pick someone up, so he found three empty seats at the bar and put himself in the middle one and started to drink. He drank and drank -- Manhattans as in the old days.
After awhile a sweet young thing in a tight undershirt sat beside him and said, "Hey." Nelson thought he looked about fourteen, but guessed he was actually in his early twenties. He was necessarily one of three types: a hustler, a waif who was never loved by his father (or grandfather), or a Good Samaritan.
Nelson had profoundly nothing to say. He was so drunk he wasnít sure he could speak intelligibly even if he wanted to, but he also had so little understanding of this boy with two earrings and hardly any hair, who seemed simultaneously from the distant past and from the distant future, so distant did he feel, that the word "Hey" might have meant anything between them, or nothing at all. It could mean "nice shirt" or "whatís a funny old guy like you doing in a place like this?" or "letís fuck" or "fuck you."
"Hey," Nelson said.
The boy nodded, as if in compulsory acknowledgment of the minimal human connection, then raised his eyes to a video of a woman shrieking out some sort of song on a motorcycle, then in a swimming pool, then on horseback.
Nelson turned and watched the boyís profile. The face gave away no hint that it was being stared at, but it must have known. The skin of the cheek was preternaturally smooth. The nose perhaps a little large, teasable in junior high, but surely no one ever commented on it now. The one blue eye Nelson could see flickered in the frantic light of the video screen. The boy sat and allowed himself to be admired, never in his life having needed to hide. Nelson decided he was possibly very sweet.
Without knowing why, maybe just for the physical contact, Nelson tapped the boyís shoulder. The face turned to him, good-natured. Then impulsively, laughing a little bit, Nelson tapped twice more.
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