John Morgan Wilson
Youre growing a mustache, the man said.
Angel smiled self-consciously and his soft brown eyes drifted away, out the passenger window of the mans Mercedes to watch the Sunset Strip passing like the dream that it was. A stretch of sparkling shops and restaurants blurred behind the pretty people in their stylish clothes. Angel saw the clothes in sharp relief, even more than the faces of the good-looking older men, which he always noticed. He had a special way of seeing clothes, like the X-ray vision of a cartoon superhero each color, line, and stitch, and fabrics he could identify without a second glance. Except for his family and Jesus, Angel loved clothes more than anything.
I didnt know you could grow a mustache, the man said. Angel looked over, pulled away from the dream. The man glanced at the sparse, dark fuzz on his upper lip and smiled teasingly. Can you?
Angel shrugged and looked out the window again. They were passing Tower Records; a huge electronic sign out front advertised rock bands and rap artists with names Angel didnt recognize. Next door, the portrait of a rock star rose several stories on the side of a high-rise building. Angel stared up, studying the skin-tight outfit, admiring the sleek design.
Its wispy, the man said, stealing a sideways glance at the nascent mustache again. His voice had lost its teasing tone. Im not really sure I like it.
The mans name was Ray. He was in his late fifties and owned a jewelry store in Beverly Hills. Once or twice a week, as prearranged, he picked Angel up in Hollywood, as Angel stood on the corner two blocks from the old building where he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his two sisters and their babies. The paint was flaking off the walls and the plumbing was bad and during rush hour they could hear traffic noise drifting up from the nearby freeway. But there were no rats and the rent was only eight-hundred a month, so Angel was happy to have the place. He didnt want Ray to know where he lived, and Ray never asked. But Ray knew about the sisters and the babies, and Angels poor parents back in Mexico, and his married brothers, who had families of their own to feed. He understood that it was Angels duty his destiny, Angel called it to send money home and take care of his sisters and their babies here because Angel was the gay son who would never be burdened with a family of his own. Angel had made sure Ray knew about this; it was a crucial part of the equation, the ballast that gave their relationship its delicate equilibrium, the core truth that gave it purpose.
Maybe you should shave it off before it gets scraggly, Ray said, sounding irritable. You dress so nicely. What a shame to ruin it with unattractive facial hair.
Angel was twenty-three but could pass for a teenager. He was slim and pretty, with smooth, brown skin, and dark, straight hair that he wore almost to his shoulders. Once, Ray had told him he looked like a young Indian, and Angel could tell Ray liked that. When they were in bed, Ray liked to stroke Angels beardless face and kiss his smooth body, sometimes for hours on end, moaning rapturously, before turning Angel over and fucking him while Angel buried his face in the pillow, feeling utterly passive yet strangely powerful at the same time. These were the only moments Ray revealed himself beneath the surface, allowing himself to become excited and to express genuine emotion. Angel realized that he possessed the key that could unlock Rays secret inner life, at least until Ray replaced him with someone new, which was sure to happen.
As they approached the Viper Room, Ray turned off Sunset and drove down the hill toward the pricey West Hollywood neighborhood where he owned a house. Theyd already gone to dinner, at a small restaurant in Thai Town where Ray knew all the waiters, the pretty ones, anyway. Before theyd gone in, Ray had slipped Angel a hundred dollar bill so he could pay when the check came; it was something Angel had insisted on the first time theyd dined out, letting Ray know it was one of his rules. During dinner tonight, Ray had presented Angel with a new watch from his store, nothing extravagant, but not a Timex, either. Angel had slipped it proudly on his slender wrist; he loved the gleaming look of it, the delicate numerals and hands, the slight weight on his wrist that hadnt been there before. Ray had talked all through dinner while Angel pretended to listen as he discreetly surveyed the men and women around them, the ones who had taste and an eye for good clothes. The only time Angel had spoken was to discuss fashion, suggesting Ray get more color into his wardrobe to offset his pale look. Ray knew how fascinated Angel was with clothing, and didnt mind; it gave them something to talk about until the check arrived. With the tip, the bill had come to about forty dollars. Angel had kept the change; that went without saying.
I dont understand why you want to spoil your face with a mustache, Ray said, even though he had one of his own, a gray one that was thick but neatly trimmed. You have such a lovely face.
They crossed busy Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the gay boys were out and about, club-hopping and looking for action. Angels eyes scanned the sidewalks, concentrating on the shoes. He got most of his clothes at Out of the Closet, the nonprofit thrift store up the boulevard about a mile, where you could find flawless Armani jackets for twenty dollars and beautiful Ferragamo shirts for half that if you browsed regularly and got lucky. Sometimes, on weekends, he rode the bus into Chinatown, where a Vietnamese family ran a side street clothing store filled with perfectly good seconds whose flaws were barely noticeable. Thats where Angel got his pants; he favored silk and wore his pants snug, to show off his butt and his boyish frame.
Maybe you should shave it off when we get to my place, Ray said, making it sound like an order. Half a minute and youll be rid of it.
Angel had told Ray about his family, but only what was useful. Hed never told him about being repeatedly raped by his oldest brother when he was a child, how his brother had used him in place of the virginal girls in their small Sonora town who were saving themselves for marriage. He hadnt told Ray about the night hed walked into town with his father to a cantina and had his first beer, and left for home with his fathers best friend because his father had wanted to stay and drink, and how the man had taken Angel into an alley and forced him to suck him off, and how, when his father found out, hed gotten his gun and gone to the mans house and shot him in both knees. He hadnt told Ray about the time his father had taken him to a whorehouse when Angel was seventeen, worried about his sensitive manner and disinterest in girls, and how Angel had run away, sobbing, when a heavily perfumed woman with large breasts had tried to take him up to her room. Hed never told Ray that only recently his grandmother had warned Angel sternly that the next time she saw him she expected him to be wearing a mustache.
Maybe in a few years, Ray said, when it fills in a little. Maybe then you could grow one. He pulled into the driveway of his two-story house just south of the Pacific Design Center and shut off the ignition. But I dont think youre ready for a mustache just yet.
Angel kept his eyes averted, out the window. He began to cry. His narrow shoulders trembled and he sniffled softly, while tears streaked his brown face. Ray sat behind the wheel in silence, looking uncomfortable.
Finally, he said, Im sorry. I shouldnt have badgered you. Tentatively, he reached out and touched Angels long, silky hair. Please dont cry. If you want to grow a mustache, then thats what you should do. It isnt for me to say. Either way, I think youre very nice looking.
When Angel turned his head, tears still puddled in his large, brown eyes. Hed never seen Ray look so flustered, although it didnt surprise him. Angel had learned that men like Ray were big knots of tension and confusion, so terrified of their feelings they worked constantly to control them, which invariably left them fragile and weak, like angry little boys clenching their fists and trying mightily to hold back their tears. Smart women knew this about certain men, and Angel knew it too.
He found a tissue and blew his nose. Ray wiped a tear from his cheek with the back of his finger. Angel shivered with pleasure at the touch.
I have a friend who works in the fashion industry, Ray said. If youd like, I could talk to him. He might be able to find you some work. Maybe he could teach you something about designing clothes. Would you like that?
Angel nodded and smiled a little, blinking back his tears. They climbed from the Mercedes and went into the house. While Ray checked his phone messages, Angel played with Rays little dogs, laughing like nothing bad had ever happened to him and nothing ever would. Life was perfect at that moment, and nothing else mattered, not even the near certainty that Ray would start looking for someone else before too long, now that theyd crossed an unacceptable line and grown closer. He would miss Ray when it happened and he would be sad for awhile but he wouldnt hate him. He understood Ray, and he accepted that this was how life was.
As for the mustache, Angel would keep it until he saw his grandmother. After she returned to Mexico, carrying Angels new watch with her as a gift to his father, Angel would have his photograph taken and sent to her. Then hed shave the mustache off and tell Ray that hed been right all along, that he wasnt ready yet to have one. After that, hed hang his head and softly cry. Ray would grow concerned and ask what was wrong. Angel would tell him something terrible had happened, that while he was shaving off his mustache someone had stolen his watch, the really nice one Ray had given him, and he didnt know how hed ever afford another one.