Sherman keeps forgetting the camera. Every time his partner Lucas asks him to go on a short road trip or to wander the bird sanctuary, they end up turning back, half way down the sandy beach road. Last weekend, the batteries were mysteriously absent in the digital Nikon. Then just last night, when they went to search though the red coral coves under the causeway, Sherman dropped the lens kit into a tidepool.
"I like to take pictures in my head anyway," Sherman would insist.
Lucas tried to ignore his companionís forgetfulness and be soft with him. He knew that Sherman has been complaining of exhaustion, and losing himself in reruns of old "Hollywood Squares" episodes on the Game Show Network, or lounging for hours on the divan with his knitting bag and Carly Simon cassettes playing.
"Canít we just be like a normal couple and go shopping in town for some salmon and Merlot for dinner tonight?" Lucas had a slight nasal whine to his inquiry.
"Iím fine with avocado dip on celery sticks sweetheart, but if you want fish, then just go get some."
Lucas kept thinking that Sherman was falling into a kind of entropy. After nine years of living together, he wondered if the two of them had fallen into a kind of somnambulism. While Lucas still maintains his antique warehouse through the Internet, Sherman gave up his financial consulting business after September 11th and the two of them retreated to their summer beach house in Florida permanently. For the last several years, they have found themselves wrapped in Madras and sunscreen, looking for shells and pirate coins in the morning surf. But of late it was only Lucas who dug for the sand dollars and dried starfish, while Sherman slept through breakfast and well past Oprah.
"Do you have to keep that bucket of bleaching shells by the front door?" Sherman moaned.
"Last time I had it on the lanai you kicked it over when you sat on the folding chaise, so where would you like me to put it?"
"Itís not like we need another shell in this house," Sherman motioned to the overcrowded white ledges next to the bay windows. "I mean not even Martha Stewart wants to house a nature museum in her living room."
Lucas was silent, shaking his head. Then, after Sherman had crumpled onto the sofa, he folded his arms in a defiant posture. "You used to love them because they reminded you of our long walks together. Telling each other stories and losing ourselves in the morning hours with the foamy Gulf and the fog burning off the palms."
Sherman punched on Carly singing "Boys in the Trees" and returned a blank stare. Lucas backed into a gilded bamboo stool and scrutinized his partner. It was as if Shermanís body had been suddenly drained of its life force, as if Lucas could break off one of his partnerís arms as though he were a mannequin or a brittle statue.
"Iím going into town to get some groceries, do you want anything?" Lucas could not compete with Carlyís voice, which seemed to be braided onto the cottage walls and wicker furniture. He grabbed the car keys from the flamingo ashtray and headed for the Impala.
Lucas liked to wander through the gaudy tourist malls and stare at the postcard racks. He liked to try on faux alligator sandals and Hawaiian shirts and sample the citrus aftershave balm and Key Lime Cologne. Even though they had a stacked linen closet, he bought a new beach towel with a mermaid on it. He thought Sherman would like it because it could remind his partner of when they met at a piano bar on karaoke night and Sherman was singing "Under the Sea" from Disneyís "Little Mermaid" and the whole crowd was riveted.
Sherman was exuberant when they met. He collected almost everything: souvenir snow globes, match covers from restaurants, vinyl records from the forties and fifties, National Geographic magazines. He was an avid photographer and often wrote mini essays on the back of the photos, which documented where he was when he took the picture. He liked to go to the cinema in Chicago at least three times a week and he kept up with all the trendy gallery openings near the river district. His address book was crowded with acquaintances and friends from places all over the world where he had traveled and he was famous for his overnight parties that began with supper and ended with a noon brunch the following day. But when they moved from their loft in Printerís Row to Sanibel, Sherman gave everything away.
"Iím saturated," he stated the day the Paulist Missions truck pulled up to take away his collectables. "I donít need to keep looking back, memorializing my randy youth."
Lucas interpreted the vast donation as either an early midlife crisis or a desire to begin afresh. Either way, they were heading for South Florida and all Lucas wanted to imagine for them were purple sunsets, flip-flops, and barbeque shrimp parties under glowing tiki lamps. For a while, all of that seemed to unfold, like a selection of slides seen through a childís Viewmaster. But when he thought of their life together now, he thought of a flurry of days hallmarked by separate meals and nostalgic television sitcoms and his partnerís reclining body on the couch, motionless under a half-finished afghan.
When Lucas arrived back at the house, he noticed Sherman had gone to bed. He listened for a moment at the door to hear his partnerís familiar snoring.
"Itís only 9 oíclock," Lucas remarked to himself, then shuffled back to the unkempt living room.
Lucas made himself a light salad of baby spinach and figs and poured himself a glass of Sangria with extra fruit. He moved around some plants on the patio where his toe accidentally caught onto some loose tiles on the floor of the raised lanai. As he bent over to examine the disheveled terra cotta, he noticed a deeper hole in the flooring. Underneath a layer of boards and gravel was a black metal box. The latched chest was about the size of a small coffin. "You could put a four year old in here," Lucas said out loud as he unhooked the lid.
It was Shermanís treasure. Fragments from a lifetime crammed into what seemed like the kind of jumbo safety deposit box someone might rent out at a savings and loan. But there were no war bonds or rare coins or legal documents in the metal cavity. It was his partnerís memory. Sherman had buried a sacred portion of his life under the patio.
Lucasí fingers twitched for a moment. At first, he felt a powerful urge to slam the lid closed. How could he even begin to intrude on his partnerís private past? But something made him lift out the bubble wrap and examine the cherished bounty.
"What could provoke someone to save all this?" he spoke as though an observant stranger were watching. "And then to bury it here, no less."
Things seemed scattered and thrown in haphazardly. A map from the eighties to the Metro system in Paris. A sample vial of Karl Lagerfeld cologne and an invitation to a Sunday Tea Dance at the Bistro dance palace in downtown Chicago. A skinny black leather necktie with a gold hoop earring stuck through it. A vinyl 45 of Gloria Gaynor singing "Honeybee." A champagne flute with a clove cigarette inside of it. A keychain from the Lucky Clover Motel with the number 131 on it.
These were items that could only hold sentimental value for the one who held them as keepsakes. Lucas felt like a voyeur but couldnít resist rummaging through the nostalgia, wondering what memory was inscribed on a toothbrush wrapped with orange dental floss. Or a tortoise shell comb and brush set that seemed to still hold someoneís hair strands. Or a nearly indecipherable ticket stub from a plane ride to Las Vegas.
For a long while, Lucas held in his hand a photograph of a man heíd never seen before. He set the picture down on the patio table then held up his glass of melted ice and orange rinds. He went inside and came back with a bottle of Campari and poured himself a generous helping. He took in the cooling salt air and paused to listen to a gullís cry past a hedge of trees.
"Summer is over," he conceded. He looked at the stranger in the picture through his half-glass of liquor. He was handsome, perhaps no more than twenty-two, with a full head of strawberry blonde hair and impossible broad shoulders. It certainly wasnít Sherman, but it looked like him in a way. Something in the eyes. Something captured in the click of the camera, something like poured honey reflecting out of those deep blue orbs, some kind of unearthly light that seemed to say, "Take me in. I want to hold you and be yours. Be possessed by you and share this secret ecstasy."
Lucas felt his heart racing. After all these years, could it be a kind of jealousy? It was the only procured photograph in the box. Just scattered memorabilia filling the rest of the chest, cresting the young manís image: a Snoopy Christmas ornament with the famous beagle holding out a red heart, an envelope with no letter in it, addressed to Sherman when he lived by himself in an apartment near Evanston, loose confetti and a cocktail napkin with "New Yearís 1981" embossed on it, an old concert program from the Chicago Symphony.
Lucas took another long drink of his Campari. He imagined the lost love letter. The look in Shermanís eyes when he had caressed the young manís cheek. He imagined the stench and the disco music at the late night clubs, the woozy stumble into each otherís heat, then the tuft of the bedspread at the Lucky Clover Motel, where they remained tangled in each otherís arms for hours.
Lucas wanted to remember his own secret entry into joy with Sherman. He wanted to remember their urgent wet kisses, the way theyíd stare into each other for hours. But it seemed so distant from where he sat now, with mosquitoes biting at his wrists and a wilted arbutus on the sill. He felt like Ariel, the voiceless little mermaid, submerged into a dark, inert ocean.
As he scrutinized the photo, he tried to untangle the mystery behind the passionate glance that Sherman had captured in this photograph, but he knew he would remain barred from that romance. It was someone else. Someone his partner had wooed and savored. Someone Sherman loved, not Lucas.
He held the photograph tenderly in his hands, and then placed it back into the memory chest. Delicately, he set the little relics like a halo around the sanctified Apostle of Love. The saint in this sarcophagus hadnít grown old, would never age. He was still all stealth and bluster. An aura of potent sexuality seemed to radiate from him. His smile, his desirous grin, deified forever under this cottage patio.
Lucas sealed the box and replaced it back in its grave. He walked back into the house and looked over the divan, which was layered with cracker crumbs and loose yarn scraps. He tiptoed up the stairs to the bedroom, to his lover. His bare feet were chapped from walking over driftwood and rough stones and he scratched at the sunburned outline of a sandal strap. He ached to feel an urgent tide swelling over his ankles. For a warm wave to curl over him and pull him out to some remote island. For an undercurrent to sweep him into Neptuneís arms. To be engulfed once again.
He knelt over his aging companion and stared at Shermanís mouth agape in the enveloping darkness. His companion was breathing steadily, the air rushing to fill his lungs, to fuel his dreaming. "Where are you now?" Lucas whispered to his half-wheezing lover. "Duganís Bistro near Hubbard? Some old smoky casino on the strip? A cheap motel with your secret lover?"
Lucas moved his face closely over Shermanís. "Nine years and not a word about the man in the little box under the patio." Lucas spoke quietly above the blowing air conditioner. "Nine years and you never spoke of him."
He thought of how he and Sherman met. Moved in with each other so quickly. How together they talked of this early retirement and of antique hunting and reading lists. How Sherman would have time to take photographs of seascapes and Lucas would take up his old hobby of painting, and replicate those ocean views onto canvas. Lucas panned the room and saw that the walls were still empty. Only a frameless mirror reflecting back indigo shadows and his face, which at the moment seemed barely recognizable.
He gently curled next to Sherman the way he always slept next to him, and placed his husbandís hand into his own. He stared at the patterns of light that danced on the ceiling of their bedroom. Shermanís rhythmic snoring soothed him and he liked the way his partner always smelled like buttercream frosting on a cake. He thought that tomorrow he would try and coax Sherman to get up for breakfast. He would bring him a sliced pink grapefruit, cut into little sections and sprinkled with granulated sugar the way he liked it. He would set out Shermanís favorite safari hat and persuade him back to the beach. Back to the tidewaters and the soft haze and the careless mornings. Together, he anticipated, they would find the perfect shell specimen.
"And pictures." He spoke out loud, though Sherman continued to snooze. "Honey, you will have to take more pictures."
Lucas imagined that he could hear the sound of the ocean coming in through the whirring air vents, even though the house was closed up and they were miles from the beach. He nuzzled into Shermanís musky armpit. After a long while, he drifted off into his own dreams, and the hand that held onto his belovedís so tightly, gently opened, though neither one moved.
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