In high school I was friends with two girls, Ida Kowalchuk and Fiona Petrowsky. Ida and Fiona had known each other since elementary, and shortly after I entered their lives the three of us became thick as thieves. Wherever we went, whatever we did, it was always as a trio. But Ida and I shared something undeniably special. We clicked from the get-go, as they say, while Fiona—a quiet, diffident girl, boringly polite—slowly moved from center stage to the darkened corners of the background. So when she and Ida quarrelled and our trio became a duo, it never occurred to me that Fiona might have resented me or considered me an interloper. Instead, I saw their falling out as just part of the natural ebb and flow that all relationships go through and didn’t think much more about it. And yet I was also certain that what Ida and I shared would guarantee a lifetime of friendship, that even when we were well into old age and confined to wheelchairs at the retirement home, we’d still be best friends.
We went to St. Ignatius Secondary, a Catholic school, which meant uniforms. Grey trousers and white Oxford button-downs for the boys, blue-and-green plaid kilts and white blouses for the girls. A blue cardigan with two bands of yellow on one sleeve was unisex. Everyone hated the uniform, or claimed to hate it, but I secretly loved it. It was, in fact, what attracted me to the school even though I wasn’t Catholic myself. I’d gone to another high school—a public one under the Protestant board—for the first couple of years, but I had a hard time there. It was a rough place and I was often the target of what we called metal-heads and stoners. A uniform, I believed, would allow me to blend in, like a cover behind which I could hide. Of course, I was fooling no one but myself.
Far from blending in, Ida did her best to stand out. She was a pretty, slightly chubby girl with large dark brown eyes and reams of long straight hair dyed a very artificial but cool-looking-blue-black. Both in school and out, she liked to adorn herself with an abundance of silver jewellery: multiple earrings and elaborate, multifaceted rings and bracelets, and almost all of it adorned with skulls and crossbones. She owned numerous necklaces and even antique lockets containing the sepia-toned daguerreotypes of stone-faced strangers, long dead and forgotten, but as jewellery served as charming trinkets. On her feet she wore shiny black Doc Martins, and she often painted her nails and lips a deep, dark wine colour. Out of uniform, she had a preference for the kind of vintage-style clothing sold in thrift stores, and almost all of it black. It was all very Goth, which seemed so edgy to me then, and this fearlessness—to stand out, to be herself—was what drew me to her in the first place.
During our lunch breaks and spares, Ida and I stood among the smokers on the edge of the student parking lot, just off school property, and chain-smoked menthols. Sometimes we skipped class and wandered down to the mall where we shoplifted hair gel (me) or nail polish (Ida), or we hung out in coffee shops on East Main, annoying the waitresses by ordering endless cups of bottomless coffee and dirtying up ashtrays, only to leave a few nickels and dimes as a tip. We talked about people at school, girls we thought were stuck-up and teachers we couldn’t stand. We talked about music and movies, countries we hoped to travel to one day, famous people—both living and dead—we wished we could meet. Above all, we were steadfastly honest with each other and divulged our deepest, darkest secrets. She told me she could truly say she hated her father, and I told her I was gay.
In grade eleven, shortly after she turned sixteen, Ida was “kicked out” of the house. Her father, she said, was “super conservative.” They fought endlessly about how she dressed and dyed her hair; and with the assistance of Principal Bellamy and Father Faley, the school chaplain, she moved into a furnished apartment a short bus ride away from school. (Although, to be fair, her father ended up co-signing the lease and paying her rent.) The apartment was in a large, plain, slightly run-down Victorian house. She had the top floor—“the garret,” as she liked to call it—to herself, and the layout was in something of a cross shape. In one quadrant was her bedroom, in another her living room, in the third the kitchen and bathroom, while the fourth was an extra bedroom where she piled up her dirty laundry and sometimes did homework. I thought it marvellous that she lived on her own and I envied her, because more than anything that’s what I also wanted: to live on my own, independent and free, and I couldn’t wait for the day when it would happen.
Given our respective situations (though we never would have admitted it), we considered ourselves misfits and rebels, the unique products of a certain time and place, misunderstood and alone. To have actually said this out loud would have been what we called “massive.” This was something of a code word between us and which we applied to anything we deemed tacky, corny, silly. “Oh, that’s so massive,” we’d say haughtily if we spotted a couple French kissing in the back stairwell at school or were subjected to Mr. Keller’s Donald Duck impersonation in class, something he alone found amusing. “Tom, don’t be massive,” Ida might even say to me if I was trying to be funny by drinking my coffee with my pinkie sticking out. Yet we shared the tacit understanding that no one in the world felt as we felt, thought as we thought—completely unaware of how commonplace these teenage sentiments really were.
The other thing that united us was our burning desire to get out of that small Ontario town. We might not have known what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives, but our more immediate goal was clear: to graduate from high school and go to university in a big city far away from there. In the meantime, we sprawled out on her musty-smelling furniture as the whiny, self-pitying strains of The Smiths keened in the background and pledged that, no matter what, we would go to the same school, rent a two-bedroom apartment together and be roommates. We talked about the kind of place we wanted (a high rise, nothing lower than the tenth floor, with a balcony, and a view of course) and how much money we’d save and who would be responsible for the cooking and cleaning. There would be the fantastic parties we’d have and the many new friends we’d make.
“Doesn’t that sound amazing?” Ida said, puffing out a long stream of blue smoke.
“Can you imagine?” I said. But for some reason I couldn’t imagine it. It seemed like a dream, far away and unreal, like trying to plan for Christmas in the middle of summer.
Until then, we still had to contend with the drudgery of school, not to mention the annoying presence of people like Brad McNeil, Travis Carmichael, Mike Simmons, and Anthony Petronelli: a popular, athletic, obnoxious crew who, for the most part, inhabited the periphery of my life but occasionally intruded into the centre of it. Sometimes, when I passed them in the hallways, they spat out all the usual sorts of names—“fag,” “queer,” “fairy”—that I heard at my old high school. It always startled me to hear those words, as if they could see something buried deep inside me yet clearly obvious. But lacking any real evidence, their one-word taunts were empty and short-lived. What gave them greater satisfaction, however, was to adopt the lisped voices and limp-wristed gesticulations that adolescent heterosexual males often employ when mimicking gay men.
“Hi Tommy, honey,” McNeil would drawl whenever he saw me in the hallways.
Of the four, Brad McNeil was the worst (by which I mean, the most flamboyant) when it came to this game. He was also, it had to be admitted, impressively good looking, which only fuelled my resentment, and in English class I often found myself surreptitiously gazing at his handsome profile and that firm, boxlike jaw of his. The others—Carmichael, Simmons, and Petronelli—were a homely bunch. They had mullet haircuts and faces stippled with pimples, and their rambunctious reminded me of a pack of wild, slobbering dogs. But McNeil, with his clean-cut good looks, winning smile and short preppy hair, stood apart. He was cocky, but also smart, and even a favourite among the teachers. The only flaw that detracted from his handsome features—if it could be considered a flaw at all—was a prominent Marilyn Monroe-style mole on his left cheek.
“I like your car” was the kind of thing he’d say in a voice slurry with sarcasm. “When are you going to take me for a ride?”—a comment that never failed to elicit chuffs of laughter.
That was the other thing I was often razzed about, my car, a tan-coloured, loudly sputtering ’68 Chevy El Camino that, even then, already had the antiquated look of something from a bygone era. With its faux-wood panelling and useless flatbed, I too had to agree it was about the ugliest set of four wheels on the planet. But as far as cars go, it had been a relatively cheap purchase, even though I’d blown most of my savings on it. What I hadn’t anticipated was how closely associated with me it would become, that because of it my movements around town were easily observed and noted.
“Saw you driving down Prince Charles yesterday.”
“What about it?”
“Where were you going?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Probably to get his hair done,” Petronelli pitched in, his mongrel face cracking into a grotesque smile.
It was true. I’d been on my way to the mall to get a haircut. Ida’s aesthetic tastes had greatly influenced me, and it didn’t take long before I too began wearing Doc Martins and second-hand trench coats bought in thrift stores. As for my hair, I modelled myself on the lead singers of The Cure and The Thompson Twins. I kept it long on the top and front, teasing and spraying it so that my hair hung, spider plant-like, in front of my eyes, a style that may have been in keeping with those who play synthesizers and sing in music videos but was unseen in small, out-of-the-way towns lacking in any real industry.
“Oh, I adore his hair,” McNeil said, reaching out for what must have been a stray filament, and gave it a sharp yank, which left a stinging pinprick where it had been uprooted from the scalp. Flicking the hair off his fingers, he looked me full in the face and blew a loud, smacking kiss before he and the rest of his pack vanished down the hall.
My father, too, often made a fuss about my hair and would sometimes ask me if I was trying to look like a sheepdog or if I didn’t need eyes to see with. “No one I knew did his hair like that when I was your age,” he said once.
“Ach, how many years ago was that?” my mother said. “Things were different then,” she said, and added in my defense that I was just following the latest trends.
Like a lot of people of their generation, my parents fled the ruins of post-war Europe (West Germany in their case) and immigrated to Canada in the late 50s. And like most newcomers in search of a better life, they struggled to get by. My father was a chicken farmer, and inasmuch as he may have disapproved of my hair, his big concern was with money, so as soon as I’d bought the El Camino, he insisted I get a part-time job to pay for its upkeep. “A car costs a lot of money, y’know,” he liked to remind me. “What with all the gas and insurance and whatnot.” And so I got a job at the mall, at Kmart, where I promptly stopped shoplifting.
My title was stock boy, though I seldom worked with any merchandise. Instead, my chief duties involved handling the garbage. So when I came in the afternoons, the four-to-closing shift, I went round the store collecting the trash from the various departments. From the in-house restaurant, I removed a heavy bucket of leftover oil from the fryer, lugged it over to the ditch behind the mall, and poured it into the grey, murky water below. I then scouted the parking lot for stray shopping carts, mated them together, and wheeled the whole train back into the store. But the biggest task involved tackling the mountainous stack of empty boxes that came in all sizes and had contained much of the store’s inventory. The boxes all had to be flattened and tossed into the baler, an intimidating, wide-jawed machine that tightly compressed the layers of cardboard, bound them in wire, and spat them out in large, unwieldy cubes. I’d then call Security—a woman named Sally was usually on duty in the afternoons—to open up the back door. She’d watch me roll out the bales and line them up beside the dumpster where they would be picked up the next day. “Lotsa cardboard today” was the kind of thing Sally would say. “It’s ’cause of all that Halloween candy that’s come in.” Or “It’s ’cause the store’s getting ready for Christmas.” With the door still open, I’d then heave the day’s garbage into the dumpster. The bags were often wet and foul smelling, and sometimes there’d be a tear. And because they were heavy, I’d have to use both hands to lob them over the edge. Invariably, some bilious liquid would drip onto my hands and clothes. “Oh, that was disgusting!” Sally would say with great joy, as she stood off to the side, her walkie-talkie making its scratchy, crackling sounds. “A rip-roaring stinky one that was!”
Sally was a stout, blowsy woman with cropped, dun-coloured hair she kept largely hidden under a ball cap. While we were out there, she often griped about her ex-husband (she was in the process of going through a divorce) and what an awful man he was, a pathetic liar, drinker, and cheat. She said that all men were scum—present company excluded, of course—and that she hoped I’d turn out to be different. In fact, she said, she could already tell I was different. There was something gentlemanly about me. I wasn’t rough and crass like the other boys who worked this job. I never muttered anything lewd to her, and she liked that I always said “please” and “thank you.” But to drive home her point about the moral inferiority of men, she looked to what was going on in the States.
“What’s going on?”
“And even here, too. Especially up in Toronto.”
“AIDS,” she said, as if I were stupid for not catching her drift. “An epidemic, they’re calling it. It’s disgusting, isn’t it,” she said, though with none of the same relish she had for the leaky garbage bags. “They say they can’t find a cure, but to me it’s simple. If these men didn’t do those things with each other, there’d be no AIDS. So what you think that tells you?”
I pitched the last bag into the dumpster, looked at her, and shook my head.
“It’s God’s punishment is what it is,” she said.
As often happened whenever I tossed a bag into the dumpster, something was belched back up into the air. In this case, a small, yellow plastic shopping bag got caught on the breeze and whirled out into the parking lot. I’m still ashamed of my response when I think about it now. Instead of ignoring the errant bag, I ran out in pursuit, jumping up like a fool to try to catch it—a tempting target for the green Chevy Malibu that came careening toward me blaring its horn. I can just imagine the wide-eyed frightened look on my face when I stood frozen in its path before dodging out of the way, not realizing until it sped past that it was Brad McNeil trying to scare me; Simmons, Carmichael, and Petronelli his passengers. All of them wild with laughter.
“See?” Sally said. “This is what I’m talking about. Men! They’re all the same!”
When I later told Ida about the things Sally had said about AIDS (I didn’t mention the incident with the car), she summed her up this way:
“She sounds massive.”
In January of grade thirteen, not long after we had sent off our university applications, Ida started seeing someone, a boy named Frank Morel. His real name, the name that appeared in the yearbook, was Francis, and if you wanted to tease him, if you really wanted to get him riled up, that’s what you called him. He was on the school’s volleyball and football teams but was only loosely friends with McNeil and his set. I also happened to dislike Frank. For one thing, he too reminded me of a dog, a hyperactive one with its ceaseless panting, barking, and tail wagging, ever insistent on pawing you for attention. He had a constant need to be doing something. Talking, moving, joking, pretend-punching. The latter was especially irritating. He often made feints that came within inches of my face and were often followed by “C’mon, c’mon, try hitting me back, try hitting me back,” as he bounced on his toes the way boxers do when warming up for a match. I would have liked to hit him, only I didn’t know how. Except once when I got so fed up that I did try to slug him. But somehow he not only deflected my punch but also twisted my arm behind my back, and the next thing I knew I was pinned to the ground, which triggered a whole lot of chuckling among the smokers on the edge of the parking lot.
“Okay, that’s enough, tough guy,” Ida said, barely repressing a smile herself.
What did she see in him? I often wondered and even told her straight up that I thought he was massive. “No, he’s not!” she said, and the fiery look she scorched me with suggested I must have been blind to something that was stunningly obvious.
But when I gazed at Frank, what I saw was that perpetual open-mouthed expression characteristic of the stupid. That and the heavy, dark brow that hung over his eyes reminded me of the kinds of illustrations often seen in encyclopaedias, ones usually entitled Early Man. On top of everything else, he was always mooching cigarettes off me or borrowing money without paying me back. And, like McNeil, Carmichael, Simmons, and Petronelli, he also called me “fag” and “queer,” though mostly when Ida was out of earshot. “Yeah, so what if I am?” I once shot back, a response I hadn’t planned on offering any more than he had on hearing it. He was dumbfounded, you could tell, and looked at me as if I were some rare and unusual bird that had accidentally strayed from its natural habitat. “So what if I am, Fran-cis?” I said, relishing that liberating feeling that comes with the release of something that’s been bottled up for too long. But that’s when he delivered a hard, swift blow straight to my gut that left me bent and winded, but at least gave me the satisfaction of having gotten under his skin.
Sometimes, after I’d drop Ida off at home, she would tell me I had to skedaddle because Frank was coming over and she needed to tidy up. I knew what that really meant, that they would be having sex, and the thought of the two of them together was repellent to me. But it was what she told me he did afterwards that really stirred my imagination, how he (never Ida, she was too shy) would casually lounge about naked on the couch to watch TV and drink beer. Or how, still unclothed, he’d concoct some kind of delicious meal out of the few ingredients in her fridge, not the least bit uncomfortable at sitting at the table without a stitch of clothes on. “And the sexiest thing about him,” she confided, almost whispering it, “is his treasure trail.”
I’d never heard this expression before and erupted into laughter the moment she said it. It sounded like a promise of sorts, like a pot of gold at the bottom of a rainbow—no, better yet, like a hidden forest path leading to a garden of earthly delights.
But hearing all this also reminded me of Sally and her theory about AIDS being God’s punishment. It never angered me what she’d said, nor was I able to easily dismiss her claim the way Ida had. I knew next to nothing about AIDS back then—who did?—yet there seemed to be a ring of truth to her claim. And in calculus class, when I should have been focussing on the explanation of some problem, I’d think about it. All my life I’d been told that the kinds of feelings and thoughts I had were wrong, so it only seemed logical and correct, obvious even, that AIDS was a kind of punishment—a gay man’s punishment—meted out for promiscuity. That Frank and Ida could indulge and play as much as they liked without consequence (provided some sort of contraceptives were involved) never struck me as contradictory or unfair. Rather, I saw the threat of AIDS as a kind of burden I had to bear, something that would forever loom, both near and far, throughout my life, and that I always needed to be careful, knowing too how it would destroy my mother if I ever fell victim to that intractable disease.
Naturally, I didn’t like Frank’s incursion into our lives. Not only did I see less of Ida, but I was also horribly jealous, because that was the other thing I most wanted, to have a relationship with someone, to have a boyfriend. I know, it sounds silly to say that, so commonplace, but at the time it seemed unheard of: that what should so easily be taken for granted by most people, even expected and openly encouraged, should be denied me. Or, at the very least, was something that had to be conducted in secret.
But to cast an antagonist in an entirely one-dimensional light would be unfair. Frank could at times (i.e., off school property) be tolerable, even generous. In Ida’s front yard, for example, he tried teaching me (if this could be considered generosity) how to throw a punch, though I suspected it was really about turning me into a more worthwhile opponent. He taught me how to block, jab, and throw an uppercut, skills I never truly mastered and felt foolish even attempting. “C’mon, harder, harder,” he’d say, daring me to strike his open palm which, surprisingly, was never a ruse to leave me hurt and face down on the ground as he’d done at school.
To his credit, he was also fair about taking turns when it came to driving on Saturday nights when the three of us went out. He taught me how to drive his car, a shiny red Mazda RX7. It was a manual transmission, and one Sunday afternoon (stores were closed on Sundays then), he showed me how to handle the stick shift in the vast expanse of the empty mall parking lot as Ida sat squeezed in the back, although I imagined this was really about making me the back-up driver should he ever get too drunk to drive home on a Saturday night.
But there is an instance for which I’m at a loss to discern a hidden motive. One afternoon, when he was making a pasta sauce in Ida’s apartment (fully clothed, of course), he taught me what his own mother had once taught him: how to properly peel and dice an onion, that one should crush a clove of garlic with the flat side of the knife before peeling and chopping, and that one must never scrape the blade across the cutting board, but use the spine instead—practices I still abide by to this day.
“Your friend seems so … different,” my mother said after she’d met Frank and witnessed the usual one-two jabs to my midsection that had become his version of a salutation. “He’s seems so”—again a pause—“rough.”
“He’s not my friend, he’s Ida’s friend,” I clarified, deliberately avoiding the word “boyfriend” lest I’d rouse her curiosity about the whereabouts of any girlfriends in my own life—a subject I wanted to avoid for as long as possible. I also knew, as soon as she’d said it, that she deemed Frank a bad seed, someone who might influence me to take drugs, spray-paint graffiti, rob old ladies of their purses, or otherwise lead me down the wrong path in life. But I had no way of assuring her that she truly had nothing to worry about when it came to Frank and how little he actually meant to me.
My father, on the other hand, took a liking to Frank Morel and, in not so many words, intimated that someone like him might toughen me up a little. “He’s all right that one,” he chuckled, after witnessing the same hook and jab.
But on those Saturday nights when it was Frank’s turn to do the driving and he came to pick me up, my mother bore a look of concern.
“Where you going?” she’d say.
“To a friend’s,” I’d replied as I fled out the door. “Don’t worry, I won’t be too late.”
“Be careful!” she’d often call out, a mystifying comment that left me feeling I was about to commit some act involving a significant degree of risk.
And so to various friends’ houses we went: friends of friends, people we barely knew, from St. Ignatius or some other high school. House parties, usually, sometimes a barn party, or other similar gatherings alongside the river where large bonfires had been built and crowds had gathered to drink beer, smoke pot, couple up, or make loud, drunken spectacles of themselves. While in something of a drunken stupor myself, I’d watch Frank put his arm around Ida and (in the kind of gesture redolent of Hollywood male leads) pull her in tight and start kissing her in the manner Ida and I ordinarily would have condemned as “massive.” It was actually the one thing about Frank that I admired: his strength of character, his boldness, his sheer moxie. Once when they were kissing—I must have been staring, not realizing it—he winked at me over her shoulder. Deformed with embarrassment, I quickly stood up and walked away.
“How was it?” my mother would whisper whenever I’d come home, wary not to wake my father. No matter how quietly I’d let myself in, she always lay awake waiting for me, quick to tiptoe into the kitchen in her nightgown and slippers the moment she heard the key rattle in the door. “Did you have a good time?” she’d say, visibly relieved I’d made it home sober, uninjured, and without a warrant out for my arrest.
“It was okay,” I’d say, and just leave it at that.
At the end of April, Frank invited us to his house, a place he and his father and his father’s girlfriend (his parents divorced when he was still a kid) had moved into a few weeks earlier. Like Ida, Frank also didn’t get along with his father. But if he hated the man, he hated his father’s girlfriends even more, and this one in particular. She had the unlikely name of Dee, but Frank often referred to her as “Number 7” behind her back, the seventh since his parents’ divorce.
“Can you please give her an iota of the respect she deserves and stop calling her that,” Ida said on the car ride over. “She’s still a human being, you know, not a number.”
It was a hot, bright Saturday afternoon, and we were in Frank’s Mazda, I in the back, while Ida sat shotgun next to Frank.
“Hey, ease up, babe,” Frank said, and the bemused look on his face suggested he considered her reproach an example of some mysterious “woman thing” beyond his comprehension. Turning to the road, he went on to say that it was obvious that Dee was using his father for his money, like all the other girlfriends before her had, only his father never realized it until it was too late.
He also said he could hear them having sex at night.
“They’re like two dogs going at it,” he said, and proceeded to make a series of emphatic ugh-ugh-ugh sounds that, had they been applied to anyone else, he’d have found comical, but in their case he deemed disgusting. All these women, he said, were nothing more than interlopers and intruders. Every single one of them.
“But Number 7—Dee”—Frank corrected himself—“she acts real stupid, but she’s smart as a hawk that one.”
“I thought hawks were known for their vision,” I piped up.
“You know what I mean,” Frank said, narrowing his eyes at me in the rear-view. “She’s not as dumb as she looks.”
It turned out that Mr. Morel had bought the old Petersen farm out on Highway 140, a plain, two-storey brick house that sat on a small patch of grass but was surrounded by acres of vast fields that had long not seen a horse or cow graze on them. I was familiar with the place (I’d driven by it any number of times), and from the nearby overpass that crossed the CN tracks you could see not only the house and an unpainted, weathered barn, but also an enormous rectangular pond: the product of excavation work that went into the building of the overpass. No longer the Petersen farm, Frank dubbed his new home “The Land,” a not particularly imaginative name, but one he managed to endow with a certain amount of grandeur, at least when spoken in his dumbstruck, wondrous way.
Two cars sat in the gravel driveway, a brand-new Audi 5000 and a yellow Camaro, also new. “Dee’s car,” Frank explained. “A birthday present for my special girl,” he said in a mocking tone I took to be in imitation of his father.
We heard a heavy hammering sound when we got out, and when we walked up the porch and stepped into the hall, we discovered its source: a man and woman in paint-speckled overalls, workman’s goggles, and construction-style masks were knocking down a wall with sledgehammers.
“Well, well, well, look who’s here!” Mr. Morel said, removing the mask and goggles from his face. “So here she is! The woman of the hour! Good to finally meet you, Ida.” He thrust out his hand and vigorously shook hers. “I’m telling you, for months all it’s been round here is Ida this, Ida that. Sounds pretty serious, if you know what I mean,” he said, offering a playful wink.
I was stunned at how much Frank resembled his father. It was as if the living, breathing version of Frank at middle age stood right before us. Like his son, Mr. Morel wasn’t a tall man, but he was still trim and athletic-looking, and darkly tanned (recently returned from the Dominican Republic, he’d later inform us). He also had a similarly booming voice and exuberant character. But he possessed what Frank had yet to grow into, a certain natural charm and open friendliness that one sensed immediately.
“And you must be Tom,” he said, vigorously pumping my hand while taking a good, long look at me. It was as if he were studying me, and I knew at once that Frank had told him that his girlfriend’s friend was gay. “Good to meetcha, good to meetcha,” he kept saying without taking his eyes off me, as if I were a curiosity or an object in a museum: something he’d only ever heard talked about but never knew how to identify (So that’s what they look like).
At last, convinced I was harmless, he released my hand.
“And I’m Dee-Ann,” said Mr. Morel’s girlfriend, a tall, blond-haired woman, also darkly tanned, with noticeably large breasts. “It’s actually spelt the same as Diane, but it’s pronounced Dee-Ann. But you can just call me Dee. Everyone else does,” she said, and added that she was the owner of Dee’s Hair Dee-Sign on King Street. She too took stock of me and, judging by the twitching, scissor-like movements of her fingers, seemed to contemplate the means by which she could lure me into her chair and chop my hair down to something more appropriate for a boy my age.
“It’s cute, isn’t it?” she said. “The name, I mean.”
“So”—Mr. Morel loudly clapped his hands together (did I sense embarrassment?)—“Tour of the house?”
I knew that Mr. Morel—Frank Senior—was a realtor. “But this!” he said, gesturing vaguely as we moved from living room to kitchen. “This is the real moneymaker, the real cash cow.” What he did was buy up old houses like this one, renovate them while living in them, then flip them. It had become a passion of his, he said, doing renovation work, installing drywall and cabinetry, laying down flooring, doing the caulking, the painting. Except for the electricity and some of the plumbing, he’d taught himself how to do pretty much everything. In the last ten years, he said, since the divorce, he and Frank hadn’t lived in any single house for more than a year or two.
“Y’see here?” he said, as we entered the kitchen. “Y’see these old counters? Formica. Who wants that now? Going to tear it all out and put in granite. And look at these cupboards. One word comes to mind when I see them. Old school.”
“That’s two words,” Frank said.
Mr. Morel turned to Ida and me and gave us a beseeching look. “You see what I gotta put up with? You see what it’s like living with a smartass? How many words is that, by the way? Smart. Ass. One word or two?” Without waiting for an answer, he added, “Too bad your grades aren’t as hot as what comes out of your mouth.” He gave Frank a hard stare, and I suspected that if Ida and I weren’t there harsher words would have been exchanged.
Mr. Morel went on to describe the new cupboards he was going to install. Quality wood, he said, maple or oak, stained dark, which would contrast nicely with the heavy, brushed-steel handles he planned on installing. “That’s what people want nowadays when it comes to fixtures,” he said. “Something big and heavy, something that stands out. And easy to clean too.”
Mr. Morel’s volubility was something he’d clearly passed on to his son. He was a smooth talker, enthusiastic about the house and his vision for it. You could tell he was good at what he did. He pointed out the old-fashioned linoleum on the kitchen floor and vowed to tear it out and lay down tile, a nice black-and-white chessboard pattern. As for the carpets in the rest of the house, “Gonna tear them out. Who wants carpets now, anyway? Not good for you either. Full of allergens. Now everybody wants hardwood. The real stuff.” Upon entering the dining room, he drew our attention to the wall he and Dee had started knocking down between it and the living room. “Open concept is what people want now. Makes the house look bigger, too.”
Ida and I nodded politely.
“But don’t you want to stay here when it’s done?” Ida asked.
“Stay here?” Mr. Morel said, and the expression on his face suggested that the girl dressed in funereal black standing in front of him had suddenly slipped several notches in his estimation. “You kidding me?” he said. “Gonna sell this place the minute we’re done. I can make practically double what I paid for this dump. Just you wait. I’ve done it before and I’m going to do it again. This place is going to look so fantastic people are going to fight each other senseless trying to buy it. Then we’ll move on to the next house.”
Like Ida, I also couldn’t understand why they’d want to sell after putting so much work into it. While they might have had nice cars and went on expensive vacations, they had nowhere comfortable to sit or truly call their own. Everywhere I looked I saw walls and floors shrouded in sheets of plastic or paint-spattered tarps. Where they did have furniture, much of it conveyed temporariness. Plastic patio furniture instead of a real dining set, a futon for a couch, a TV sitting on a big cardboard box of something that had yet to be unpacked. The large packages of paper plates and plastic knives and forks I’d seen on the kitchen counter seemed to suggest they’d sooner discard their cutlery and flatware than go through the rigmarole of unpacking items that would need to be washed, stacked, and eventually packed up again. The only exception to all this was the liquor cabinet, which stood in the corner of the living room, proudly displaying enough liquors, wines, and spirits to satisfy the needs of any serious drinker. In a way, theirs seemed like a life on the run, but what they were running from I couldn’t tell.
Frank took over the tour upstairs where no renovation work had yet begun but was still dominated by chaos. In Mr. Morel and Dee’s room the unmade, king-sized brass bed was a tangle of sheets, while clothes lay spilled out of garbage bags or carelessly hung on wire hangers in the closets. In Frank’s room a foldable card table, littered with textbooks and binders overflowing with paper, was what he had for a desk. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. The sheets were a twisted mess and the impress of his head still marked the pillow. I could easily picture Frank sleeping there. Like a little boy, I thought for some reason, and for the first time I felt something like a stab of affection for him.
“You like?” Frank said, making a broad, sweeping gesture before pulling Ida in toward him. “You wanna lie down? Maybe we should take a nap.”
“Ow, cut it out,” she said, wiggling out of his grasp. “You’re being massive. Stop it. Not here.”
“Frank?” Mr. Morel called from downstairs. “No horsing around, y’hear?”
Frank returned his hands to her hips in a gentler way and pressed his brow to hers. “Let’s go outside,” he said. “I wanna show you the pond.”
We made a pitstop at the barn—a shadowy, empty building—where Frank grabbed a couple of fishing rods and a margarine container of worms he kept there and proceeded in single file through a field of scrub grass that ended at the pond. From up-close it seemed enormous. So vast, in fact—more than an acre, according to Frank—that if it weren’t for its unnatural rectangular shape, it would be easy to mistake it for an actual small lake.
Near the water’s edge, where the grass had been trampled down, sat several foldable lawn chairs arranged in a circle around a firepit. Bulrushes marked the perimeter of the pond, except where a short wooden dock extended into the water. A tiny rowboat was fastened to the end.
“So what’d you think?” Frank said.
“Nice,” Ida said, noncommittally. But I could tell Frank was disappointed by her reaction. I knew what he liked about the pond. There was a boyish sense of adventure in having a rowboat and a body of water this size all to oneself, and I shared Frank’s enthusiasm for it.
“Let’s go in the boat. Only big enough for two.” He tried taking Ida by the hand, but she resisted.
“I don’t want to go,” she said. “Take Tom with you.”
Frank let go of her hand. “I don’t want to go with Tom, I wanna go with you.”
She grimaced and shook her head.
I knew she was afraid of being out on the water with Frank (who wouldn’t?), but my sense of adventure got the better of me, and I followed Frank into the rowboat. With the two fishing rods and the container of worms between us, we set off, Frank paddling out to the middle of the pond while Ida stood on the shore, cupping her eyes from the sun and slowly diminishing in size as we drew farther away.
It was hot for April, the water shimmered brightly, and after he’d been rowing for a while, Frank paused to pull off his T-shirt. I was sitting facing him, and it was the first time I saw him bare-chested. He had a tight, compact body. Muscular, but not bulkily so, his arms and shoulders ropey and taut. When I saw what Ida had called his treasure trail, I snorted a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he said, but I just shook my head.
“This should be good,” he said when we glided into the shadow of the overpass. He pulled in the oars and dropped an anchor over the side. It seemed to take forever for the rope to reach the bottom. “Twenty feet,” he said, catching the look of amazement on my face. As he baited the hooks with the worms, he said there were plenty of minnows in the pond, some three to five inches long, and that the Petersens had stocked the pond with catfish and even carp, but they stayed down near the bottom and were hard to catch. He said he couldn’t wait for summer, when the water would be warm enough to go swimming. “Skinny dipping,” he said, and he winked at me, just as he had the night he caught me staring at him kissing Ida.
It was the first time that Frank and I were alone together, and I understood then what Ida liked about him; that without an audience, if it was just you and him, he could be a different sort of person. Normal even.
I told him that I liked the pond and his father’s plans for the house, and Frank said that he could easily live here. “I mean always. Even after they finish renovating.” He said that of all the houses he had lived in, this was his favourite. He liked being out in the country, having all this land, and would love to have a Skidoo to ride through all those big, empty fields when they were covered in snow. But what would be the point if they were always moving from one house to another every year or two? That was one thing he hated about his father, he said, his constant need to move, never settling anywhere. Why couldn’t they just stay put for once? As for his father’s passion for renovation, it was all just talk, a joke really. He only botched things up and would have to call a professional to finish the job. Mostly, he just punched holes in walls, then spent the rest of the day drinking. It would be nice to have something permanent, Frank said, returning to the subject of a home, even if it was just something to go back to at Christmas and summer vacation now that he’d be moving away to go to technical college in September. Unlike Ida and me, Frank had no plans to go to university (he wouldn’t have gotten in, his marks were too low), but he did plan on following her to whichever city we would end up moving to for school.
“So you gotta do it like this,” he said, casting his line out into the water, the little red-and-white bobber hitting the surface with barely a splash. “Now you try.” As he passed me the other pole, a strange thought, like an electrical current, surged through me. It was the idea that Frank and I really were friends—had been all along—only I didn’t recognize it until now. And our fishing together like this, reminding me of those boys’ adventure stories I’d read as a kid, was what spawned this realization.
“Not bad,” he said, nodding approvingly.
“Now wait till you feel something and start reeling her in.”
I turned to face the shore. Look, I’m fishing, I wanted in some way to communicate to Ida. But I could barely make out the oval of her face. She was lying back in one of the lawn chairs, taking in the sun. I waved but she didn’t see me.
“How long does it take?”
“How long does what take?”
“Before you feel something.” I turned to Frank and saw that he was leaning back on his elbows, the rod propped up on one knee while the other foot held it in place. I had a clearer view of the ripple of his abdominals and the hair sprouting out of the top of his gym shorts. I felt as though I were looking at something I shouldn’t be and turned away again as a wave of anger washed over me, snuffing out whatever tender thoughts of friendship I may have just had. He’s doing it on purpose, I thought. He can’t ever stop tormenting me.
“I dunno,” he said. “Depends.”
For a while we were quiet, the only sounds were the slap and gurgle of the water, broken just then by the rumble of an eighteen-wheeler rounding the overpass.
“Hey,” he said, and jabbed my ribs with his foot, the boat rocking in response. “Relax. You look like you need to take a dump.”
“I am relaxed,” I said, and turned to face him again. His mouth hung open as it usually did, only instead of looking stupid it gave him a sultry quality. It was as if he were deliberately enticing me to gaze at his body, as if that was what he wanted me to do. So that’s what I did, I looked at him.
A minute must have passed before he spoke. “So you’ve never been with a girl? Like at all?”
“But don’t you wonder what it’s like? Don’t you even want to try it?”
When I shook my head, he stared at me the same way his father had, as if I were an oddity, like one of those people who preferred rainy days to sunny ones, winter to summer, solitude to companionship. He then asked me if I’d ever been with a guy, and I nodded that I had.
“You have?” he said, and sat upright, the boat rocking a little. He seemed stunned. “What’s it like?”
I was shy about answering. It felt strange to be talking about it because what had happened amounted to very little. Just experimental touching, really, involving a boy who lived down the road from me a few summers ago. It was just something that lasted no more than a minute or two after we’d gone swimming in his pool and were changing in his bedroom. It had left such a mark on me, the way brushing past someone can sometimes be felt on one’s skin, even long after contact. But I’m sure it had meant nothing to him. Maybe he’d forgotten it. I also remember worrying that what we’d done would lead to AIDS. That’s how naïve I was then.
“Like how many times?” Frank said when I didn’t answer.
“I don’t know. Lots of times.”
I too was surprised by my answer, and I’m not sure why I said it. Maybe it was because I didn’t want Frank to think I was as inexperienced as he believed I was. But when I saw his mouth hang open, looking stupid again, I became aware of something new in terms of where I stood with Frank: a burgeoning sense of power, just an iota of it, had shifted in my favour. Something that, for once, didn’t involve physical strength.
“About ten times,” I said. “No, wait. Probably more than that. Yes, much more. About twenty times.”
“What’d you do?”
“Do?” I shrugged, unsure how to reply. I thought about various answers, then settled on the easiest one. “Everything,” I said.
His eyes widened. “Every-thing?”
I was acting now and proudly sat up.
“What’s it like?”
“To… you know.” He leaned in a little closer. “To…”
“Oh!” I said, feeling a tug on the line. “I think I caught something. What do I do?”
When he saw the bobber dance on the water, Frank remembered where we were and again became the adrenalized child he usually was. “Reel ’er in!” he said excitedly. “Reel ’er in!” But in the confusion, when I accidentally let out more line and it started to tangle, he grabbed the rod out of my hands and did it himself, cursing loudly when the lure re-emerged with neither its wormy bait nor the coveted prize.
“Let’s row back,” he said, sullen now.
It was turning out to be one of the most glorious springs in memory. Every day heralded blue skies and warm temperatures. My father worried this foreshadowed a hot, dry summer, and if it kept up like this, the chicken coops would overheat, the birds would stop laying normally and, one by one, they’d drop dead from heat exhaustion. But such things didn’t concern me. I welcomed the warm weather and, unless I had to go to work, Ida and I went out to The Land every Saturday afternoon, only now she insisted on going out on the water with Frank while I stayed on shore. (She must have decided after my own foray that it was safe to be in a rickety rowboat with him.) I didn’t mind, really. I wanted to avoid Frank asking me more of those probing questions and having to make up more and more complex lies. And so, after Ida had set off on her own maiden voyage, I pulled off my T-shirt and lay back on one of the lawn chairs. Basking under the warm sun, I studied my own pale, skinny body. I tried flexing arms and squeezing stomach muscles, but there was no comparison to Frank. Where things ought to have been taut and smooth, there was only a disappointing jiggling.
I’d brought a novel with me, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept glancing up from the page to watch Frank and Ida, their voices floating to me from across the water. It was a playful sound, the sound of them laughing and splashing each other. But what they were saying I couldn’t make out. I also kept reliving the quarrel Ida and I had had the other day in the school cafeteria. At last we’d received those long-awaited replies in the mail, and the university we most wanted to go to, in Montreal, accepted us both. We were terribly excited. “Montreal, here we come!” I’d said. But that was when Ida announced she was thinking that she and Frank would move in together come September. At first I thought she meant the three of us would be living together, and I was about to tell her no way, we had already agreed. It was going to be just the two of us, three’s a crowd. But when she said, “You’re not mad at me, are you?”, I understood what she really meant.
“No, no,” I said, though of course I was furious. I felt betrayed.
“Well, you understand. It would be awkward, y’know. With three people. You know what I mean.”
“You mean with the two of you going at it,” I said. “Like dogs,” I added.
I walked out of the cafeteria and didn’t talk to her for the rest of the day. But like something left to marinate in the fridge overnight, my anger had not just settled by the next morning but had also congealed into the knowledge that their living together would never happen. I couldn’t picture it. She’d change her mind. It was one thing to date Frank, but to live with him? Who would do it? She would see the light of day, I told myself, and back out before it was too late. Although we were on speaking terms again the next day, we avoided talking about it.
“We caught a fish!” Frank shouted as he rowed close to shore again. I set the book aside and pulled my T-shirt back on.
“Look at what Ida caught,” Frank said when they stepped onto the wooden dock. Instead of grasping the fish by the gills, he proudly clutched it round the middle, the dark, banana-sized thing still glistening wet and writhing madly. “A catfish,” he said, his face rapturous at the size and beauty of the thing in his hand.
“I did not,” Ida said. “You caught it.”
“You’re the one who caught it, babe. I just helped you reel ’er in.”
“Oh, God, you and your ‘reel ’er in’.”
He put an arm around her and planted a wet kiss forcefully on her cheek.
“Ow, take it easy,” she said, and shoved him away.
Those Saturday nights, we often ate with Mr. Morel and Dee. Wearing an apron with the words hot stuff coming through stitched across the front, Frank’s father would fire up the barbeque on the front porch and flip burgers or salmon steaks, while Dee got the salad and drinks ready; sangria for her and Mr. Morel, Sprite for Frank, Ida, and me.
“House is coming right along,” Mr. Morel proudly declared the evening Ida and Frank had caught their catfish. “Yup, coming right along. Next year at this time, if all goes well, I’m predicting we’ll be out of here and onto the next house. Right, Frank?” he asked, as if this were in reference to some argument they may have had. “Eh, Frank? Onwards and upwards, I always say, right?”
I glanced up at Frank, but he ignored his father.
“Would be nice with some fresh dill” was what he said instead, referring to the grilled catfish that he alone was willing to eat.
One Saturday night at the beginning of June, when Mr. Morel and Dee went up to Toronto for the weekend, Frank decided to throw a party. “A pond party!” was how he excitedly went around school that week inviting everybody, bearing the same gleeful expression golden retrievers have when fetching a stick. “A Pond Party on The Land!”
A lot of people from St. Ignatius came (even Fiona Petrowsky, Ida’s old friend, was there, though neither Ida nor I talked to her) and the driveway was crammed with cars. A large bonfire blazed in the firepit and, as typically happens with fires, people sat round it, mesmerized, poking at it with sticks or adding whatever bits of garbage they had on hand. Every now and then, some goon would heave a big, heavy log into the middle of it, sending a cloud of sparks billowing into the night.
Frank was the first to get drunk (he was drinking before anyone had even arrived), and he was a bad, sloppy drunk.
“If ya gotta do yer bissniss,” he said, stumbling from group to group. “If ya gotta do yer beeswax, go do it in the goddamn bushes behin the barn. I dowan anya goin’ near the house. The house’s off-limis. Got tha?”
This injunction may have been obeyed, but beyond that no one paid him much attention.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” Frank shouted when some jokers started urinating off the edge of the dock. “There’s fish in tha pon, y’know.”
But they either ignored him or didn’t hear him, as someone upped the volume on a ghetto blaster and the metallic screeches of AC/DC sent shockwaves across the water, no doubt startling the fish far below.
Ida too ignored Frank. She was angry with him.
“I hate it when you get drunk,” she said. “You’re all hands and mouth.” She struggled out of his grasp, slapped him on the shoulder, and stalked off.
“Well, fuck you!” Frank shouted, and gulped down the rest of his beer. He lobbed the bottle into the field and called her something vulgar.
“Frank,” came a voice from out of the dark. “I think you need to cool off.”
It was Petronelli who’d spoken. I’d seen him, Simmons, Carmichael and McNeil pull up earlier in the green Malibu, and I was doing my best to avoid them by sticking to the shadows.
“I think we should throw him in the pond,” I heard Carmichael say.
“Throw him in the pond!” Simmons echoed, also from somewhere in the dark, and it quickly got taken up as a chant.
There was a tussle and not a little hilarity, as Petronelli put a strangle hold on Frank, while Carmichael dove for the legs. Frank wriggled and kicked, just like the catfish he’d caught, but it was no use. He was going in the water.
Brad McNeil had moved from wherever he’d been and was now standing almost beside me, the firelight casting him in an even more handsome glow than usual. Out of uniform, as he was now, he often wore polo shirts with tiny equestrians embroidered on the breast, the collar flipped up, radiating the moneyed background he’d come from. His father was a lawyer of some distinction in the area, his mother a respected paediatrician. They lived not in Fenhill, where all the rich people lived, but in an enormous house out in the country, which I used to pass by every day on the school bus before I got my driver’s licence. He hadn’t taken up the chant. And with his beer bottle in hand, slightly removed from the skirmish, he came across as aloof, as if he were above these childish shenanigans. I deeply admired him at that moment—in spite of his hostility toward me—and determined he was someone I ought to model myself upon. What I’d give to switch places with him, I thought. How much easier life would be. Yes, I concluded as I studied his face, the black mole on his cheek only added to his good looks, not detracted from them.
“What?” he said, when he noticed me staring, and his demeanour suddenly shifted from annoyance to proud smugness. “You like me. Don’t you.”
These words came as such a shock that the time it took me to absorb them was like the lag between the initial visuals of an explosion and the report of its detonation inside one’s chest cavity.
“C’mon, say it. I know you do. Don’t think I don’t see you watching me in class.”
There was a big splash and a resounding outburst of laughter.
“C’mon, just say it. I promise I won’t tell anybody.”
I walked away.
“Tom, where you going?” Ida said, emerging from the crowd gathered around the fire. She sounded drunk.
“Washroom,” I said.
“Come sit with me,” she said, eager now for my company. “They threw Frank in the water.”
“I know,” I said, but I kept moving toward the barn, angry with her too, all over again.
I had no need to relieve myself, and when I got to the barn, I found a couple pressed up against the weathered planks. And so I kept moving, toward the house and onto the porch steps. As soon as I sat down, I heard a second splash and more laughter. I’m not sure why, but after a minute I stood up and tried the front door. I expected it to be locked, but it wasn’t, and so I went inside.
I didn’t turn on any lights, but the moon was bright enough to easily navigate my way through the house. In the dusty, dim light, the partially knocked-down walls and exposed floorboards gave the impression of a building that had been under siege, suffered extensive damage, and now stood abandoned. There was no hint that any progress had been made, only more devastation.
I went up the stairs to where the bedrooms were. In Mr. Morel and Dee’s room the clutter was no different from when I last saw it. Frank’s room, too, remained more or less in situ: the pile of textbooks on the card table, the twisted sheets on the mattress, the indented pillow. I’m not sure what compelled me, but I decided to lie down on the bed, resting my head in the same place where his had been, and breathed in his smell. A slightly stale, musky scent, like that of old sweat, plus the greasy fug of unwashed hair, all of which I ordinarily would have found disagreeable but was pleasant to me now, both familiar and strange.
I needed to use the washroom and got up and moved down the hall. When I finished my business, I flushed the toilet and stared at myself in the mirror, at the hair that all at once struck me as ridiculous. No wonder people said the things they did, I thought, as I brushed the mop away from my eyes, feeling a sudden and overwhelming urge to get out of this town. I was sick of these parties and the people who went to them. I was ready to begin my new life, with or without Ida, far away from here.
Downstairs, the front door squealed open and shut, followed by the pounding of feet on the stairs.
“Jesus!” he said when he flipped on the light. “What’re you doing here?”
He was dripping from head to toe, and shivering, exuding a wet, piscine smell, like something plucked out of a bog.
“I had to use the washroom,” I said, but he seemed uninterested in my answer and quickly peeled off his sopping T-shirt, dropping it to the floor with a wet splat.
“They threw me in three times,” he said, sober now.
He was all gooseflesh, and his nipples were like brown raisins. He ran the hot water tap in the shower and soon steam started to rise above the curtain.
“Bunch of idiots,” he mumbled as he closed the door. He dropped his shorts but left his underwear on as the mirrors clouded up with steam.
I thought it strange that he hadn’t asked me to leave the room, and I took his willingness to shower in front of me to be no different than the locker room scenario he was familiar with. But that’s not at all what this was about. Instead, he turned the little lock in the knob and stood in front of me for what seemed like a long time, looking at me in a way he’d never done before, an almost predatory stare, as if he were searching for some sign, some confirmation of something. I felt nervous, aware of that same confused feeling I had the afternoon we were in the rowboat together, when I’d tried not to look at his body, but something about him had invited me to do just that.
“I know we weren’t supposed to come into the house—” I said, just to say something, but broke off the instant his hand grazed my zipper. His fingers moved lightly at first, experimentally, permission-seeking, becoming definitive and exploratory once that permission had silently been granted. But when he put a hand on the back of my neck, I thought he was going to hurt me in some way. So when he leaned in and pressed his lips against mine, I struggled at first, until I understood what was happening, and eased into it, hungrily taking everything I could.
“Not like that,” he said. “You’re too rough.”
I was astonished by these words. I thought that’s how I ought to be, because everything about him was like that. Rough, as my mother had said.
“Like this,” he said, and we kissed again, gently and slowly, the water dripping off his body and soaking my shirt through to the skin.
Sometime later, when I returned to the bonfire, Ida once again emerged from the dark.
“Tom, where were you? I was looking all over for you. I want to go home now. I’m not feeling well. Have you seen Frank? They threw him in the water.”
Her eyes were heavy-lidded, and she wobbled unsteadily.
“What happened to your shirt? Why’s it all wet?”
I started to say something, but she wasn’t listening.
“Let’s just go home,” she said. “I feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of dogs.”
For a long time, until the end of my twenties—that crazy decade in our lives when many of us are willing to try just about anything—this sort of thing, in which an ostensibly heterosexual male would learn of my sexuality and something might come of it, intermittently reoccurred in my life. Sometimes it was a classmate—a fellow undergrad or grad student—or a co-worker at whatever part-time job I was holding down at the time. Once, it was a guy I frequently saw on the jogging trails in the evenings and with whom I’d struck up a conversation. Sometimes alcohol was involved, though not always. And often these things took place at night, but again that varied. The essential thing in all these situations was words, the seemingly endless Q-&-A that exposed deeper and deeper revelations on my part (I’d slowly shed my innocence over the years), leading to the billowing of sparks in my companion’s imagination. It also involved shame—his, never mine—and the mysterious disappearance of that person from my life; the classmate now sitting at the back of the room, too busy to go for coffee after class; the co-worker first calling in sick, then quitting altogether; the fellow jogger no longer frequenting the trails at the usual hour. Once, while studying for a final exam with a thick-legged, red-haired boy from our Chaucer class, we’d gotten no further than opening our Canterbury Tales when the endless stream of questions began and he nervously smoked one cigarette after another, attentively taking in my little stories until, at some point in the middle of the night, I made the same bold move that Frank had made on me. Although he scuttled out of the apartment the moment it was over and I ended up failing the exam, I had no regrets.
And so it was with Frank. The moment it was over, his mood shifted. “I can’t believe I did that!” he cried out, not once but three or four times. Did it mean he was queer now too? he asked, as if I were the one who knew the answer to that. And then his eyes widened with the spectre of an even greater threat, AIDS. He remembered how many times I’d claimed to have done it—“What was it? Fifty? A hundred?”—and the look of disgust that passed across his face suggested I was a quagmire of disease he’d accidentally slipped into. This was then followed by a number of accusations, that it was my fault, that he was drunk and I’d taken advantage of him, that I couldn’t wait to get my “dirty paws” all over him. He told me to never come near him again, never to talk to him again. “Don’t even look at me!” he yelled.
I started down the stairs. “Get the hell out of here and don’t ever come back!” he shouted. “You faggot! You fucking queer! You—”
But I wasn’t listening anymore. Those words couldn’t touch me, because I knew he was really calling himself all those things.
I was afraid of what would happen at school on Monday and imagined the worst. The fierce tension, more name-calling, and Ida caught in the middle, begging for an explanation. Most of all, I was afraid Frank would beat me to a pulp in the student parking lot.
Instead, he more or less avoided me and Ida, not in an any conspicuous way, nor was he any more hostile to me than usual. In fact, he really just seemed tired more than anything, maybe a little preoccupied. “Moody,” Ida said, and chalked it up to his childhood, offering a lengthy explanation on the effect of growing up without a stable home or a mother figure in his life. I nodded obligingly. But when I gazed across the cafeteria and watched Frank, who had now chosen to spend time with the very people who had hurled him into the water, I knew he was trying to prove, both to himself and to the world around him, that he was a certain kind of man, a straight man, and this was his way of putting distance between the person he wanted the world to believe he was and the one he feared he might be.
But then came Tuesday. I was at home after school, watching Golden Girls on TV, when the phone rang.
“What are you doing?”
“Math test tomorrow.”
“Did you study?”
“No. Wanna come over and study?”
“Where are you going?” my mother said as I rushed out of my room with my school bag.
“To Frank’s house, to study.”
“You and Ida?”
“No, just me and Frank.”
My mother gave me a curious look, one bordering on concern.
“But we’re going to have supper soon,” she said.
“I’m eating there,” I said, knowing it wasn’t true.
For a moment, this appeared to please my mother, as if not having to feed me would save her money. But she also must have felt guilty, because she followed this with, “You’ve been going there so often lately, why don’t you bring them some fresh eggs?”
“Be careful,” she said as she handed me a flat of eggs through the car window, the expression on her face strangely anxious, as if I’d never handled eggs before.
“What’s this?” Frank said, after I pulled up to the house and he opened the door.
“It’s a gift,” I said, embarrassed. “From my mother.”
“Could make a frittata or two,” he said, setting the eggs in the fridge, though I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not.
Apart from Frank, no one else was home, as I knew would be the case, and we proceeded to go upstairs to his room and sit at the card table, our calculus textbooks open in front of us. It was remarkable the extent to which we both pretended to forget the ugly scene from the other night. Also remarkable was the idea of us studying together—of Frank even studying at all. Of course, I knew why I’d been summoned, what this was really all about, but we were like two bad actors, stumbling awkwardly with our assigned roles. What was lacking was some natural segue going from one scene to another. But we were too young and inexperienced to know that skill.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked. “I’m thirsty.”
He was nervous, agitated, his whole body twitched. He got up, went downstairs, then returned with two icy cans of Coke. He sat down, then stood up again. “It’s hot in here. Are you hot?” He pulled off his T-shirt, but instead of sitting down, he began to pace. He was practically shaking, like a man about to plunge from a great height. And the more he shook, the more at ease—the more powerful, in fact—I felt, as if I could do anything I wanted. And so I did. I brushed the tips of my fingers across what Ida had called his treasure trail. He flinched, but immediately pulled me down onto the mattress, where we began all those slow, wonderful kisses before moving on to other things.
“Francis,” I breathed, gazing at him—for the first time, it seemed—right in the eyes. But he didn’t seem to hear or care.
The screen door screeched open downstairs.
“Hello, Frank? Who’s in the drive?”
“Shit,” he whispered, and we hurried to get our clothes back on. “What’s she doing back?”
“You wanna come down and help me with the groceries?”
We went down the stairs and found Dee at the newly installed granite kitchen counter, taking produce out of paper shopping bags. “I didn’t have any more appointments for the rest of the day, so I just closed up early and went over to Miracle Mart. Oh hello,” she said when she saw me looking flushed and dishevelled. “You didn’t tell me, Frank, your friends were coming over.”
“We were studying,” Frank said, an oddly defensive, nonsensical answer.
An arched eyebrow was the form her response took. No matter. It was instantly dismissed. Frank and I began unpacking the bags, while Dee bent to put a carton of orange juice in the fridge. “Oh, I see someone brought some eggs,” she said. “Thank you so much, Tom. But really, this is too much. Maybe Ida would like to take some home. You want to go ask her, Frank, if she’d like half?”
“She’s not here,” Frank said.
Dee straightened up from the fridge and looked at Frank, then over at me, then resumed putting away the groceries, looking at neither of us. In the gravid silence that followed, two things immediately became clear: that not only did she suspect what was going on, but that she also considered me a bad seed, a bad influence.
“We were studying for calculus,” Frank added for no reason, so horribly unskilled at telling fibs I felt myself redden.
“I was just on my way out,” I said, and slunk past her and out the door, sooner forfeiting my books and bag than stay there another minute.
I was certain it wouldn’t happen after that, that these were just anomalies, and eventually life would return to normal again. But it did happen. It happened the next day, at school, when we ran into each other in the back stairwell and no one else was about. Without warning, he took my face in his hands and kissed me in that “massive” way until we both became aware of a distant clicking of heels down the hall and broke away. Later, that same afternoon, he pulled up to the house.
“Wanna go fishing?” he said, his brawny, bare arm leaning out the window, golden in the afternoon sun.
“At this time?” my mother said when I told her where I was going. “What about supper?”
But sure enough, within an hour he had driven me to and from The Land (no one was home this time), just as my parents were about to sit down to eat.
And on Thursday night, as I was leaving work, I discovered his fiery little red Mazda parked next to my big, clunky El Camino at the edge of the mall parking lot. I got in beside him, then slipped back into my own car a short while later.
The entire week these things were happening I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about Frank. In class I was inattentive and distracted and often found myself staring out the window. Like Frank, I too fretted about AIDS after what we’d done. I had no idea what to expect, but I naïvely imagined spots, something like chickenpox, slowly appearing, growing, multiplying, festering. There’d be the inevitable sickbed, my body deathly pale and wasting away, and my mother kneeling beside me, in tears. And I told myself that if I didn’t put a stop to it, it was just a matter of time before it would happen, before I’d be punished.
And yet, part of me—maybe the bigger part—just couldn’t buy it. Not to belittle the reality of that disease, but I couldn’t help feeling that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with me—with us—because I failed to see what was risky or filthy or otherwise immoral with what we did or how I was beginning to feel. And when I started paying closer attention to the news reports (turning up the volume to my mother’s annoyance), I came to realize this: Frank was my first, and I was his—at least as far as that was concerned. And as long as we kept it that way, it made us both unsusceptible to that terrible disease that was spreading around the globe. We could indulge and play as much as we liked, and without consequence. AIDS, I slowly understood, wasn’t the punitive response of an angry God after all.
But it was at night, when I lay in bed, that I vividly relived those scenes, again and again, changing them, adding to them, making up new ones. I concocted a fantasy in which Mr. Morel and Dee are away on vacation and Frank has the whole house to himself. I am living there with him too, and I see Frank walking around naked, the way he does at Ida’s, smoking, watching TV, cooking, even doing the renovation work his father had bungled and left unfinished. Such prosaic things, yet why they possessed such charge for me it’s hard to say. And of course, I see us doing all those other things together, that and much more. Everything, really. Even sleeping together in that tiny bed of his.
“Hello? Earth to Tom?” Ida said that Thursday at lunch, waving her hand in front of my eyes. “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you talking? Are you mad at me? This has to do with the whole apartment thing, doesn’t it?”
Scrambling for conversation, I mentioned the other thing I had been thinking about, joining a gym.
“Are you serious?” Ida said, and she started to laugh. “You? Lifting weights?”
“Sorry, I can’t picture it. And what brought this on, anyways?”
“Nothing,” I said, although what I’d started telling myself was that the only way Frank would like me, I mean really like me, was if my body was more like his, leaner and more muscular. If I had that kind of body, everything else would fall in step, the interest would be more mutual, and that’s how I could make him mine.
“I don’t know what’s up with Frank lately,” Ida said, changing the subject. It was one thing for Frank to spend time with his other friends at the start of the week, but her original theory no longer held water and this protracted behaviour was now cause for concern.
“He hardly comes over anymore,” she said, sounding so forlorn that I almost felt sorry for her. “And when he does, he mostly just sits there watching TV.” Oh, but when he did want to do it, she added, he now wanted her to do things—disgusting things, things she’d never done before and flatly refused to do.
I nodded, taking this information in. I knew exactly what she was talking about because those were things I had done.
“I think he’s seeing someone else,” she said. “It’s that Tiffany Bellmore girl. I just know it.”
I have to admit that while all this was going on, I never once felt guilty or believed that I was betraying Ida. One can rationalize just about anything, I’ve long since discovered, and what I told myself was that our friendship needn’t be imperilled by these events. Why should it? What was happening was just part of the natural ebb and flow that all relationships go through, and I was helpless in stopping it. And that was the last thing I wanted, to stop it. In fact, that this was even happening at all, I considered myself extremely lucky. An opportunity had presented itself and I took advantage of it. Who wouldn’t? Besides, this was something I’d waited a very long time for. And now, finally, something important was happening in my life, something monumental. Something massive.
“You’re quiet lately,” my mother said one night, coming into my room as I stared blankly at my calculus textbook. She sat on my bed next to me and I felt as if all my thoughts lay exposed, like a diary left open for anyone to read.
“I want you to know,” she said, “that you can always talk to me about anything. You don’t need to be afraid.”
It was the kind of thing she started saying to me then, forced and unnatural words, the “how-to-talk-to-your-teenager” advice she must have picked up from the radio or daytime television. At the time, I interpreted this speech to be about drugs and feared that she would cross-question me about marijuana usage, ready to offer the advice to “Just say no.” But what I didn’t realize—what I denied myself from realizing—was that her real message was simply this: I know.
“Anything you want to tell me?” she said.
I shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I’m just happy, that’s all.”
It surprised us both that I said that. And it was true, too. I was exceedingly happy.
But on Friday night, that mood was spoiled at work with Sally’s usual vitriol. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about it. Every day on the news. ‘The gay cancer,’ they’re calling it. ‘Millions of people dying’! Well, you know what? Let ’em die. It’s God’s punishment, is what it is.”
I threw the last garbage bag into the dumpster and stared at her, seething, until it struck me how lonely she was, lonely and unhappy. Poor you, I thought. And once again, when I left work that night, I found the little red Mazda parked beside my El Camino.
But on Saturday everything changes.
It’s a cloudy, rainy morning, the first in ages, our weekly sojourn to The Land cancelled. But late that afternoon, after the rain has stopped and the sky starts to clear, I get a phone call, Ida’s voice on the line.
“Don’t be mad, but me and Frank, we were drinking and—”
She knows , I think, and my heart starts racing. But what she says is that she and Frank have had a fight and now he’s too drunk to drive home.
“So is it okay,” she says in a wheedling tone. “I mean, do you think you can come pick him up and drive him home? He can get his car tomorrow.”
Had this happened a week earlier, I would have complained. I would have said it’s not my problem. Tell him to walk, I would have said. Tell him to take a taxi. Instead, I simply say, “Okay.”
“Oh!” she says. “That was easy.”
I arrive at Ida’s place. Empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays litter the coffee table. But the air is tense, the subject of their spat I can easily guess. Ida is in the armchair, facing the television, while Frank is sprawled on the couch, wearing only a pair of gym shorts, stunning, as always.
“Gotta get going, babe,” Frank says, his speech a little slurred. “Ride’s here.” He rises from the couch and bends to give her a kiss, but she turns away. He scowls in response, as if she disgusts him now, as if he hates her, and hisses something crass under his breath. He grabs his beer bottle and stomps down the stairs.
“You wanna go home?” I ask when I start the car.
“Not really,” he says. “They’re home.”
His head lolls in a drunken way as we drive through town, but I know he’s shamming. It’s just something he can tell himself later. One can, after all, rationalize anything.
“I know of a spot,” I say, feeling bold and sure of myself. But he says nothing, allowing himself to be borne away, helpless, and out of control.
I drive past the town line and down gravel-packed roads and past my parents’ farm. My mother, as it happens, is in the front yard, on her knees and weeding the flowerbeds. I could have driven past without her noticing, but for some reason I toot the horn. She looks up, and both Frank and I wave. It feels daring, our waving, almost as if I’m hinting at what we’re up to. My mother waves back. But am I imagining things when I see her smile turn into that familiar expression of concern as we drive past? (“Where were you going?” she will in fact ask me later, and I’ll invent some flimsy story, knowing it’s flimsy and not caring either. “You two are getting to be close lately” is another thing she’ll say.)
I turn down an even quieter road and drive past that enormous fort-like edifice that is the McNeil residence with its three-car garage and expansive lawn, the familiar green Malibu sitting out front. Frank and I turn to look, but neither of us says anything as we head deep into country in which corn fields dominate one side of the road, acres of forest the other. We come upon a dirt road that cuts its way through the trees and I pull in. It isn’t a real road at all, but more like a track that hydro crews cut years ago to install power lines and has since become overgrown with vegetation. I drive in as far as I can, which isn’t very far at all, and kill the engine.
He abandons any pretence of drunkenness and immediately wiggles out of his shorts to sit fully illuminated in the afternoon sunshine, strikingly beautiful, masculine. I touch his bare chest and as soon as our mouths meet, I know that Ida is no longer in the picture. He’s lost interest in her. They’ll never move in together. They’re as good as broken up already, and the chances are he’ll now want to move in with me come September. I can even see it too, Frank and I roommates.
And I have a brief vision of an alternate universe, one in which what we’re doing is not considered immoral or unnatural or dangerous in any way. It’s a place in which people like Sally and McNeil and all those others don’t exist, because no one cares or makes a fuss about whom one loves. And in that naïve, adolescent way, I think that’s how I’m starting to feel about Frank, that I love him—the all-important ingredient that, in the logic of this universe, adds yet another layer of immunity against that virus ravaging so many lives. And in this world Frank and I can freely do all the things he and Ida do in public. We don’t need to hide or be ashamed or keep secrets. It’s a world in which Mr. Morel can proudly shake my hand and say, “All it’s been round here lately is Tom this, Tom that. Sounds pretty serious if you ask me.” And I believe that in some secret, private place, this is what Frank wants too.
“Holy shit!” he whispers after some minutes. I sit up and peer out the back window where a car is parked at the end of the dirt track. A green car, a Chevy Malibu—the tittering faces of McNeil, Simmons, Carmichael, and Petronelli filling its windows.
“Get down,” Frank says, but it’s too late. We’ve already been spotted, and for a minute I’m afraid they’ll saunter over and start saying things, taunting us, maybe even dragging us out of the car, a bloody fight ensuing. Instead, the Malibu squeals its tires, shooting up bits of gravel, and disappears down the road. Although we cannot hear it, I imagine the howls of laughter inside that car, just like the day they sped past me in the mall parking lot when I was chasing that plastic shopping bag caught in the wind.
It was over, of course. Our bubble had been burst; our secret life exposed. We were silent as I drove him home. Frank adamantly kept his head turned away, refusing to even talk to me. And I could feel his shame and the fear of what was to come next. Curiously, what had just happened was something I felt separate from, as if I were a witness to this whole thing rather than one of the implicated. Maybe it was because the stakes were higher for him than they were for me. Strangely, I felt sorry for him.
When I pulled up to the house, Frank got out without a word, slammed the car door shut, and marched off in the direction of the pond. Dee and Mr. Morel were sitting on the porch, drinking something colourful out of cocktail glasses, all smiles until I appeared.
“Frank?” Mr. Morel called. “What’s a matter?” But Frank had disappeared into the field.
I put the car in reverse and started backing out, afraid suddenly of Mr. Morel.
“Stop right there, young man,” he said, as he came down the porch steps still clutching his drink. “I wanna talk to you.”
Why did I obey this man who was neither my father nor a figure of authority? Why didn’t I just pull out and drive away? The answer is that I was a good kid, taught to respect my elders, and as such I stopped and rolled down the window.
“Ida’s not with you?” he said, bending toward me like a border patrolman, and made a cursory inspection of the vehicle.
“No, sir.” My hands were wet and I felt self-conscious of my hair and what I must look like to him.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said, leaning closer still. “And I don’t like it. I don’t want you coming near my son. You got that? You’re a bad influence. You set foot on this property again I’m going to call your parents. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and just as I was backing out, I noticed Dee on the porch, raising the glass to her lips, as if attempting to hide a smile.
But the real bombshell came on Monday at school. The jeering, the snickering, the name-calling. You can imagine. I found the words queer, faggot, cocksucker scratched into my locker. Those words followed me down the halls. I heard them catcalled after me, sometimes sung, when I sat down in class or entered the cafeteria. The whole school knew. Everybody knew. Everybody had found out about the unmistakable El Camino parked in the dirt track, Frank and I in it, although what exactly we were doing and where (some said we were in the flatbed) varied from teller to teller. Soon other rumours spread regarding similar sightings, not only of the El Camino but also the Mazda, the two vehicles parked side by side in the mall parking lot late at night, the former rocking wildly. There were even reports of back-stairwell indiscretions. “Like dogs” was another thing I heard whispered. In any case, what had formerly been a suspicion, some childish tittle-tattle—a joke, really—was now a known fact. I had gone from being a mere sissy boy to a confirmed homosexual.
That day and in the days that followed, Petronelli and Carmichael began slamming into me in the hallways and shoving me into the lockers. “Oh, sorry,” they’d say, “didn’t see you there.” Then they’d wander off, snickering. And in Modern Man in Society class, Simmons turned to me and made an obscene gesture while lewdly licking his lips.
“Matthew,” Father Faley said in his nasally voice. “Eyes toward the front, please.”
Curiously, Brad McNeil was the only one who didn’t participate in any of this. And I wondered if, as the driver of the car, he felt guilty for everything that was subsequently unleashed. He wouldn’t even meet my eye.
In an almost anthropological way, I found all this fascinating, as if I stood outside myself, watching. Odder still, I felt a sense of superiority, even power. In spite of all the taunts and jeers, the name-calling, I knew I was a marvel to them, unafraid to do what they might have only secretly desired. I understood, too, that in hiding one is weak, but now that I’d been outed, what more did I have to lose? You’ll never leave this place, I silently said to them whenever they foolishly pantomimed me or called me those ugly words. You’ll live out your days here in this backward town. A no one. A nothing. I saw their small domestic lives, their mediocre ambitions, their split-level suburban homes with their pick-up trucks and rider lawnmowers. Their bodies gone to pot.
“Wanna suck my dick too?” Petronelli said that first morning when everything changed. He had cornered me against a bank of lockers while grabbing himself, grinning idiotically. He wasn’t at all prepared for the uppercut that landed in his gut, a move that Frank himself had taught me but was so poorly executed he would have called it a “pansy punch” had he seen me throw it. But it didn’t matter. Petronelli never saw it coming, and what prevented an all-out brawl was McNeil’s unlikely intervention. “Guys,” he said in the same nasally voice as Father Faley’s. “Please don’t.” Yet his word was law, and it was all that was needed to quell the whole thing.
Naturally, it was over with Ida. She spoke to me only once after this. She was with Fiona Petrowsky, her old friend, when she approached me in the cafeteria where I was eating by myself.
“I had a hunch something was going on, but I didn’t want to believe it. I assumed you had an iota of respect for me.” She looked like she’d been crying, her eyes heavily streaked with make-up, a little theatrically so, I thought. “I always knew you were massive,” she added, as if that could hurt me, as if that were a real word.
And then they walked away, Fiona glancing at me over her shoulder, radiating the same satisfied look that Dee had on the porch just a few days earlier.
And what about Frank? In the days that followed I was asked again and again, “Where’s your boy-friend? Where’s Fran-cis?” But he never came to school that Monday, or the next day, or the day after that. In fact, he never came back at all. Not even to write his exams. (Years would go by before I finally learned that he ended up transferring schools to take grade thirteen over again.) In the meantime, that Saturday afternoon, for reasons I still don’t understand, I drove out to The Land like I used to, only without Ida. But instead of turning into the driveway, I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, just short of the overpass. Frank, I saw, was in the rowboat in the middle of the pond, casting a line. “Frank!” I called out, standing at the edge of the ditch, my hands cupped to my mouth. He sat up, glanced about, uncertain where the voice was coming from, until he saw me beside the highway, waving my arms.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. I think I still had hope in that alternate universe, and that I could somehow meld the two into one. Perhaps I was hoping he’d row to the near shore and run over to me. “C’mon, let’s get in the car, before my father sees us,” he’d say in this imaginary world, taking me by the hand. “Hurry up, let’s go.” And together we’d drive away, perhaps up to Toronto where we’d hide out. I saw us staying in motels at first, getting odd jobs, moving around, saving enough money until we could get an apartment. Slowly, we’d build a life together and worry our parents to no end. It would be a life on the run. But that was the universe of my imagination. It was this one, the real one, that imposed its will, as Frank turned his back to me and raised his middle finger, before casting out a new line.
“You haven’t seen Ida or Frank in a while,” my mother said some days later. “Things okay? You guys didn’t fight, did you?”
“Things are okay,” I said, and left it at that.
As it turned out, that summer was no hotter or drier than usual, and the chickens never ended up dropping dead as my father had predicted. By the end of August, I quit my job at Kmart, cut my hair down to something more normal, and sold the El Camino. A week later, I loaded up my things in the truck my father used for hauling the eggs and vegetables to the market, and the three of us—my parents and myself—drove up to Montreal where I got settled into my bachelor’s apartment before starting school. My mother undoubtedly guessed that I’d fallen out with Ida and Frank, but thankfully she never asked me any questions about it. Whatever worries and concerns she’d had were over now.
And so, at last, I began my new life. But once again I’d been naïve in my assumptions. I thought things would change for the better the minute I was on my own. I had not anticipated the loneliness I would feel, especially at first, nor did I realize that the great new friendships I was hoping to make, the love I would find, would take time, sometimes a long time, in arriving.
I only ever ran into Ida Kowalchuk once during my time in Montreal and that was in the campus bookstore in my third year. She’d grown chubbier than I remembered, but otherwise she was the same, still dressed all in black, still wearing cheap jewellery and the kind of combat-style footwear I once considered edgy but now seemed tiresome. Even her hair was still dyed that same awful blue-black colour. I could see her going through her entire life like this, considering herself so bohemian, yet never realizing what a cliché she in fact was. I suspect she saw me too but pretended not to, for she seemed to be making a showy display of holding hands with a lanky, similarly clad clown I took to be her boyfriend, tightly gripping his hand as if to ensure I wouldn’t try to snatch him away.
In all this time I never once felt guilty. And although she had good reason to hate me, Ida too had let me down. Seeing her again, only confirmed something I hadn’t known until then, that she was a fickle person, selfish, childish. A silly girl. I’d never known that before, and it was as if my eyes had at last been opened. Grow up, I wanted to tell her. I was glad to be rid of her.
That same year I was in for an even bigger surprise when I went to a dance put on by the university’s LGB association (such was the brevity of its acronym then). While waiting in the long line to get in, my attention was drawn to the drag queen who was stuffing condoms into the hands of patrons as they entered. She had the usual garish drag queen-style makeup, the towering blond wig, the blue sequin dress, all of which stood in comic contrast with her wide, meaty shoulders and the dark, curly chest hair pouring out the neckline. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, not until the line advanced and I recognized the Marilyn Monroe-like mole on her cheek. For some minutes I watched her flinging her arms about dramatically, saying things like “Fah-bulous,” and “Dah-ling,” reminding us to “Be safe, girls!”, until I was next in line and McNeil recognized me too. His mouth fell open, embarrassed, speechless.
Much could have been said then. Angry, bitter words. But much also became clear too in that moment. And I realized I no longer hated him or his ilk. That was all in the past. Water under the bridge, as they say.
“I adore your hair,” I said, and grabbed a handful of condoms before striding into the crowded hall.
I don’t know what became of Sally, but I soon discovered that the notion she had first introduced to me, that AIDS was divine punishment, was in fact something of a common sentiment back then. Even now I sometimes still hear people voicing that opinion, the sort of thing people have been saying for millennia when trying to make sense of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other such calamities, not realizing that these things too are part of the world’s cruel but natural ebb and flow.
The discussion I’d long avoided having with my parents did eventually take place. Full of the politics I’d absorbed at school, I more or less blurted it out one day when I came home for a long weekend, essentially confirming what my mother had always known, but forcing my father to consider the unthinkable—in the sense that he had never thought of it before. My father took it hard, as if my being gay were a failing on his part, and for a few years he barely even spoke to me. But as far as my mother went, that look of concern that perpetually haunted her face turned to smug satisfaction, like that of one who’d correctly predicted the outcome of a tight race or an election. “But are you careful?” was the first thing she asked me, and at once I understood what she had really meant when I was eighteen, that she’d been more concerned about AIDS than anything else Frank and I might have gotten ourselves entangled in.
During my undergrad I took a creative writing course, but it was difficult not to take the ruthless criticism that defined the workshop personally. I was much more at ease with academic writing, and when I completed my bachelor’s, I went on to do an M.A., then a Ph.D. After spending a number of years as an adjunct professor, I finally got tenure at a university in Toronto. In that time, I’d written a few academic books that garnered next to no attention, except for one, a reader’s guide to Proust that was designed for a general audience and which included among its chapters a lengthy discussion on the Baron de Charlus’s kept man, the despicable, venal, bisexual lover, Charlie Morel. I’d created a website for the book, and it was through the contact page that had led to the email one day appearing in my inbox.
It was a surprisingly long message. He said he often wondered what had become of me and had googled me to find out. He still lived in town, he wrote, and after high school he studied Culinary Arts at the local college. For a while he worked as a cook in various restaurants and hotels. And then, ten years ago, he bought his own establishment, a steakhouse. Now he owned three restaurants in the area, one of which specialized in French cuisine. Yup, can you believe it? he wrote. I’m a foodie. He said he’d been married for twelve years but had recently divorced, and that he had three children, all girls—nine, seven, and five. His father had remarried, though it wasn’t with Dee, but with another woman—Carolyn, he wrote, adding Number 10 in parentheses. And when the opportunity arose, he said, he ended up buying The Land, and that’s where he lived now with his dog, a Labrador retriever. And the girls too, of course, when it’s my turn. He said he drove up to Toronto often to pick up equipment or to get a sense of what was new in the restaurant scene, and that he’d love to get together for dinner and drinks the next time he was in town. It’s almost summer, the start of patio season. Would be nice to catch up.
My heart raced as I read it. I hadn’t thought of Frank in twenty-five years. No, that wasn’t at all true. Didn’t I think of him each time I kissed someone for the first time? No, like this. Or when I scraped potatoes peels into the garbage using the spine of the knife? And sometimes, while lying in bed in the early morning, the light pouring in, the image would come back to me, of Frank sitting beside me in the El Camino, brightly illuminated on that sunny spring afternoon, shortly before the green Malibu pulled up behind us. And of course, whenever I wrote that name—Morel—in connection with my book, I thought of him.
And yet I was uneasy about replying. That was all in the past, and what was the point in returning to it now? Instead, I turned to that most public of public spaces, Facebook, where I found him easily enough. I scrolled through the many posts and pictures, shocked to discover the face I saw was no longer the one I remembered. He was a middle-aged man now, like myself, only he looked just like his father. Yet I recognized in him something eternal, a certain boyishness, that familiar air of mischievousness.
In one selfie, the stubble of his beard is streaked with grey, and so is the hair above his ears, while an outstretched arm proudly points to the restaurant behind him—a place named, appropriately enough, Frank’s. In others he is with his friends, all men, all lounging in deck chairs and drinking beer out of bottles, the deeply embedded crow’s feet and laugh lines clearly visible on his face. The photos reveal a man who is evidently outdoorsy, sporty. In one he is wearing a helmet and ski jacket and he’s mounted on the back of a snowmobile, giving the thumbs-up to the viewer. Vast snowy fields extend behind him, while that familiar house stands in the far distance. In another, two of his girls are seated in a tiny rowboat (the same house in the background), while Frank, bare-chested and waist-deep in water, is carrying the youngest on his shoulders, all of them laughing.
He was still proud of his body, and in a number of shots—the four of them out camping, canoeing, barbequing—he is posing shirtless or wearing a tank top, clearly more muscular than he was in high school; his wide shoulders now scrimshawed in tattoos. But it was his middle-aged man’s paunch, his wrinkles, his receding hair and slackening skin that indicated a man past his prime, the perfection he once possessed now slipping from his grasp. If I were eighteen again, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this man. I would only have seen the flaws. But that was precisely what I found attractive about him now, the combination of being both flawed and flawless, that and the implied traces of life’s successes and failures that would have made him humbler now, less cocky than he used to be. Modest perhaps. I saw, too, a man clearly devoted to his children and who was obviously loved by them in return. He was unafraid to be silly with them, goofy—“massive,” as we once would have said. And for the first time I wondered if being massive wasn’t also about taking chances, about not being afraid of looking foolish in order to endear oneself to the other, and without fear of consequences. And maybe, in this sense, I wondered if I hadn’t been massive enough back then, if I hadn’t taken any real chances to say or do the things that might have yielded a different, happier outcome.
But among the numerous posts, an unsettling number were reiterations of trite inspirational phrases. “Just be yourself.” “You are responsible for your own happiness.” “If you don’t like your life, change it.” “Seize the day!” All of which seemed to speak of some deep turmoil. What personal crisis, I wondered, had led to his divorce and caused him to turn to the past and contact me? So when I came upon the photos of him and his children standing amid a tightly packed crowd on a summer’s day, the four of them wearing outlandishly large sunglasses and waving Pride flags, I was tempted to think I’d stumbled upon evidence of something.
But then again, evidence of what? A turnaround in how he saw himself? A midlife crisis? Or was it just wishful thinking on my part? If anything, what I saw was evidence of his being a liberal-minded role model, of the fluidity—the natural ebb and flow, as it were—that is human sexuality. If so, well, I already knew that about him. And besides, everyone loves a good parade.
By the way, that Morel guy sounds like a real jerk, not like me , was how he signed off by way of a P.S., followed by a series of punctuation marks indicative of a wink. Was this some kind of subtle apology? There’s nothing to apologize for, I would have told him. All that was a very long time ago. Water under the bridge, I thought, and clicked on Reply. Good to hear from you, I typed into the computer after telling him a little about myself and the intervening years. But then I backspaced, dissatisfied with what I’d written and began again, choosing instead to say something a little more forthright, a little more “massive.” Yes, I typed, it would be nice to catch up after all this time. Yes, I’d like that very much.