My Last Good Year
He comes when he comes. He calls first, of course, but sometimes that phone call is made from the truck that he's just pulled up in front of my house. Sometimes I think he drops in when he's in the neighborhood and sometimes I think he's made a special trip to see me, that he needed to come to me, his desire was such that he had to come to me.
I've never seen him in anything but his uniform, but that's not quite right: what I should say is the only clothes I have ever seen him in is that uniform. Dark blue pants, light blue short-sleeved shirt with his name stitched black on a white patch over his heart.
This is how we met: He knocked on my door, though not very loudly. I had to dress and such in order to answer, and he waited there, a patient man, and didn't keep knocking like some people would.
I might have looked confused. As I recall, I dressed hastily and missed some fastenings; my zipper, for instance, and quite a few buttons. I saw where his eyes went.
I'm sorry, he said. I'm working over there, he told me, pointing to the apartment building across the street. I looked over there then back at the man. He had dark eyes and hair, was fit, and had the thick, fuzzy arms of someone who worked with his hands.
Of course, I knew where he was working and that he could see me, what I was doing. I mean, why else would I be doing that there at the window. What surprised me was his speed and his gumption. I mean, to drop what you are doing!
I'm working on the a/c, he said and then he felt compelled to explain what he meant by "a/c." His patch identified him as Ollie. I put one bare foot on top of the other and leaned against the door frame.
HVAC, he said, making two words of it: "Aitch" and then "Vac."
I can see into your windows, he told me, and I followed his gist, nodding.
His forehead was damp, his gaze intent. He did not look like so bold a man, but there he was, standing on my doorstep with the press of his erection showing.
Frankly, and I'm almost embarrassed to admit to this, I was flattered.
I am an artist.
One of my paintings hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I only say this because I'm afraid you might think I am some dilettante, some trust-funded hack with rich, dead parents. I assure you this is not the case, although my parents are, in fact, dead. I also have shown at the Venice Biennale, but this was years ago.
My work, oil and mixed media on canvas, is, as I was once catalogued, a lively mix of vibrancy and studied inaccuracy. I have been compared to a number of more famous artists, including Georgia O'Keefe, although I never quite got that one.
Jeff Koons, I am told, has a piece of mine in one of his bathrooms.
Do you think less of me, knowing that a man in a uniform can simply knock on my door and be admitted into my home to kill an hour's time in my bed?
Would it have helped, made the event less salacious, if we'd met at a bar over cocktails first? Or at the gymnasium? Over the Internet?
You see my point, don't you?
It's all the same these days.
And the uniform didn't hurt.
He's a hairy man. He wears white briefs, so white they always look brand new. I want to ask him how she accomplishes this, his wife. I like watching him undress because he reminds me of my uncle, the one who died of liver cancer. He was a kind man, a real gentleman, my uncle, and for some reason he was the first grown man I'd ever seen naked, and whenever I see a man undress, he comes to mind.
We played tennis one hot summer day, my uncle and I, a long time ago. I was just a boy, then. He was teaching me about cross-court shots and wearing your partner down by running him back and forth, back and forth. He kept me running back and forth and wore me down. We were both of us hot and sweating. I walked back to the locker room with him and he had his hand on my shoulder. I'd come dressed in my tennis whites, but Uncle had insisted a shower was in order, and even though I didn't see the logic, showering only to put on the sweaty tennis clothes again, I agreed with him that a shower was indeed in order. We got ourselves out of our clothes and stood together, completely naked. He had always reminded me of a movie star, my uncle did, say someone like Troy Donahue or Farley Granger. Not that he resembled either one in any way—he was bigger, brighter, than those two. Maybe it was the way he talked or the way he looked at you. He was looking at me that day, in that movie star way. It was awkward, I recall, standing there with him. I recall a wish for a towel, but there weren't any. He put one foot up onto the wooden bench and leaned over, putting an elbow on his raised knee, thinking about something. It seemed to me then that he didn't mind being looked at. He stood there, statue-like, posed. His torso was covered with blond hairs. I found his nipples to be strangely large, hanging from the undersides of meaty pectoral muscles. He nodded at me then and called for towels, brought to us by a small black fellow, and I followed him into the showers.
It was not one of those moments for me. Nothing dawned on me. I recall admiring the heft and swing of his crotch, especially when he lathered it again and again. That was all.
Ollie!—oh, how I wish he had a different name, Oliver even, but he won't have it. He is handsome in a manly way that has nothing to do with movies. He washes his hands first off when he comes by, using the sink in the kitchen; then he excuses himself to use the bathroom. More often than not, he returns with hands re-washed-and-dried and the jut of his erection leaning heavily against the front of his navy work pants.
We are neither one of us conversationalists, but every now and then, when there isn't anything more pressing for him to attend to he lingers, naked, and tells me bits and pieces about himself. He has a daughter who plays basketball, a son who uses drugs. And, yes, and a wife. He doesn't like to talk about her and he doesn't ask me many questions about myself or what I want from life or had for dinner. He says he likes my paintings, but I don't think he understands them.
He asked me once if I was famous. I told him I was in certain circles. He nodded at this and seemed to be thinking it over. And then he said, Circles?
I do not mean to make him sound simple or stupid. He's neither.
I want to ask him questions about his wife because I have a lot of them. She is a mysterious woman to me and I want to learn more about her so that I might understand (understudy?) her. Is she the same age as he is? Did she go to college? Does she work and what kind of work is it? Is she an Asian? Because I can picture him with an Asian wife, and in fact, she exists in my mind as one, an Asian woman, the one on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, the housekeeper. If you can remember that far back.
I guess that dates me, makes me of a certain age, being able to remember that. I was very young, suffice it to say, and I really don't remember any details, per se, except for Jody Foster.
What's her name? Does she fix him breakfast? Pack his lunch?
I imagine his half-Asian children being very beautiful, even the daughter who plays basketball. I imagine him looking at his son coming out of the bathroom, fresh from his shower and still a little high from whatever drugs he's been using, not at all ashamed of his own nakedness and completely indifferent to his father's scrutiny. How does Ollie react to his son's flesh, his genitals, the black shock of hair there and under his arms on his otherwise hairless body. He is ashamed of his own skin, Ollie is, his swarthiness, the fur-cover he wears. He feels clumsy and inarticulate, a bear in a house of full- and half-Asians who are small, moon-skinned, beautiful.
Me, I love a man covered with hair like that—on his shoulders, the pale, heavy orbs of his ass.
I am always finding his pubic hairs after he leaves. I find them in strange places, which leads me to believe he leaves them there purposely, places them for me to find. On the back of the toilet, on my kitchen counter top, my fireplace mantle. Between the pages of whatever book I am reading.
The last thing I want is to have him catch me knitting. I hide all of that whenever he calls, even if it's only under the cushions of the sofa. It's not like we're going to be sitting on it.
I knit when Art becomes too overwhelming and when there's nothing good to watch on television. Actually, what I do is called crocheting—a hook, no needles. I call it knitting because crocheting sounds a little too grandmotherly. I only knit (crochet) big blanket-y things, never anything wearable save for the occasional muffler.
My paintings aren't selling. I'm not sure if I am doing something wrong or if the public's taste has changed or maybe painting has died again and someone forgot to let me know. I don't know. I see all kinds of painting out there, all sorts. I cannot believe my work has become insignificant, will not believe it when I see paintings of trippy Mickey Mouses and silhouettes of gingko leaves, when a naked light bulb is heralded as The Next Big Thing. My agent tells me it's the market. He tells me it's the fiscal climate. He tells me it is global warming. He suggests I go to some galleries in which my work is not hanging to see what's happening. Buy some art magazines, he says; take vacation; take up a hobby.
I've only just come back from Greece, I tell him. His name is Hannibal and he wears jeans that are uncomfortable-looking to me.
And, I say, continuing, I subscribe to every art magazine that is published, even the German ones, which of course I can't read, but do I really need to know what they're saying?
I do not tell him about my knitting hobby as it is clearly beside the point.
Because of the market's climate, its strange and confounding atmospheric and barometric pressures, I decide to do something completely different: I start sketching. I haven't drawn since school, favoring a more spontaneous approach to my work that requires little to no planning. I start to carry a sketchbook everywhere I go and make little drawings in it with pencils, with pens. I go through them quickly, filling them with series of renderings of my feet and people who sit in coffee shops and that pretty bridge that crosses the Schuylkill. I find it as relaxing as knitting and much less embarrassing. Here, I am thinking, is something I can do anywhere without shame. Here is something I can do right in front of Ollie.
Stay right there, I tell him. He's standing naked by the window; his uniform is hanging on the valet stand I used to keep an ancient smoking jacket on for show. I like having his things here, even if he's only going to put them on again when he's ready to leave, taking everything with him (save for whatever pubic hair he has left for me to find). I move a chair over to where he's standing and I move his body, posing him, telling him to lean against the side of the chair.
Put your knee up on the chair's arm, I tell him, not that one, the other.
Satisfied, I grab a sketchbook and a pencil and sit on the bed, making a quick drawing of him. Do you have time for this, I ask him, and he nods. As I draw, he gets hard again.
Look at you, I say, aren't you something, and he nods again, a sly smile curling his lips and darkening his eyes.
It's a hasty, sloppy sketch; I don't want to keep him (I don't?) from his work. But still, you can see his likeness, his Ollie-ness, although I've omitted the erection.
I want to paint you, I tell him one afternoon. He's been very busy these doggish summer days with temperatures spiking into the nineties and hundreds for over a week. He looks tired to me as he sips iced tea, leaning back against the bed's headboard. He's had a haircut that makes him look like a state trooper. His cheeks are blue like Brutus's in a Popeye cartoon.
You would, he says—neither a question nor an accusation.
Yes, I say, it would only take a little while to get it started; I'm not talking about long modeling sessions or anything; and I'm certainly not suggesting we swap painting for our other pastime.
At this he smiles. I press him: And I could take a photograph of you to use as reference when you're not here.
At this he makes a little face.
You don't trust me?
One side of his mouth moves, tugged by an invisible line. I don't know you, he replies.
Sad but true, I say.
Isn't it, he murmurs.
What is it like for you and your lovers, he asks.
Suddenly, he has curiosities, is inquisitive; two of my favorite traits in a man. I love a man who wants to get to know me better.
What is it like, I wonder. How do you mean, I ask. I am leaning against his chest, and he has his arms around me. Every now and then he kisses the back of my neck and I think—you do this too well.
What do you do, out in public? Do you vacation together with your families? Do you kiss on the streets? Hold hands in cafes?
In some cafes, I tell him, the more moderate ones.
You've never known the love of a good woman, have you, Ollie says to me.
Sometimes he lingers, I've said, and now that the season is changing and the sun is dropping out well before dinner-time and it feels as though he hasn't anywhere else to go, that he's home now, here with me, and I start thinking about cooking and what wine to have with dinner, but it never gets to that, to vintage and repast.
It's one of those late afternoons and the windows are dusky blue and remind me of Van Gogh.
My mother loved me, I tell him, which makes him shake his head and smile a sad little smile that really only occurs at the corners of his mouth, little parentheses.
I was in love once, I tell him, with a woman. Her name was Fiona and she was British. I met her in Paris, I tell him. She wore her hair in a bob and wrote novels and died of a heroin overdose. It's true, I lie.
Like in a movie, he says; I believe you, he says. His hand twitches on my chest. He rolls me over and covers me with his body, he covers me like a blanket and presses his face into my neck.
Let me see, he says, meaning the painting.
It isn't finished yet, I tell him.
When will it be done?
I shrug, stepping away from the canvas. Soon, I say, thinking: Never. I look at him surrounded by my things, a part of them. I want him like that, like those things that have caught my eye and became a part of my collection; I want to collect him, keep him.
Imagine his wife, the little Asian, her round, moony face under black bangs, weeping, weeping, his children consoling her. Where he go? Why? Neither children can answer. Their father has always been a mystery to them. What kind of man abandons the love of a good woman? She has the comfort of her children, though, and their dull routine to keep up with: dinners to cook; their piles of dirty clothes; basketball games and al-anon meetings. Leave Ollie to me.
He's dressed without my even noticing and leaves with that little salute he does. I watch him drive away. The neighbors shake their heads at their windows, grateful not to be having the issues I appear to be suffering.
So that's what this is, I think—an HVAC issue.
I dream of her. I dream I call her and have a conversation with her and all the while I'm thinking she doesn't know who I am and I keep laughing because I'm also, I realize, a little high, and she keeps asking, Why you laugh? Why so funny? And then she goes on with the story she's telling me, and I can see us like you see two people on the phone on TV, my dream is split down the middle like that, like we're Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, only we're not taking simultaneous baths, and I see her on her phone and me on mine, and she tells me about going to see the new Harry Potter movie, and I'm laughing again because I think it's hysterical that she's going to see a Harry Potter movie, and then the dream changes and I can't remember what happens after that.
You wake up after something like that and you wonder: What does this mean? You wake and think: It means he's going to leave her. You curl up in your own damp heat and press your lips to the inside of your wrist, picturing the small of his back, the backs of his thighs, the imprints your thumbs make there. You think: He'll never leave her.
He has hair everywhere but the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet and certain places on his face. I love all of it, every curl and comma.
Was there some boy? I ask him; some special boy when you were growing up? Did you grow close to him, put your arm around him or rub his neck when he complained about its tightness? Did you admire the girth of his thighs or the way his behind looked in his jeans? Was there a night when you were both drunk (for the first time, maybe) on pilfered ponies of Miller Lites, sitting beside a campfire, your hands falling together, or a hot summer afternoon when a wrestling match turned into something else, something slightly less combative? Was there a cousin, then, with pretty eyes and a warm willingness to please? Was there an art teacher pressing up behind you while you tried very hard to reproduce a still life of summer squashes and ears of corn with crumbling sticks of vine charcoal? A department store salesman following you into the changing room? A priest with Irish whiskey breath? Did you delight in your father's (your uncle's, your brother's) nakedness? Was there a moment in your growing up when you felt a compelling desire to put your erection anywhere, just anywhere—the dewy lawn of the backyard, between two bed pillows encased in percale, into some sort of melon? Did you have a bachelor relative with whom you spent a week in the Adirondacks, learning how to control a canoe and perform a proper breast stroke? Can you recall a time when you stayed longer than necessary in a public restroom, washing and re-washing your hands? Or when you passed a window and saw into room in which a naked man was performing calisthenics? When you realized you couldn't get up from your desk at that moment? When all you ever really wanted to do was press your face against the sweat-soaked tee shirt of Clinton Whittaker?
Who is Clinton Whittaker, Ollie asks.
I look down at my hands. No one, I tell him, an example.
And then he says, the wit: Is that what you call what you were doing that day I met you? Calisthenics?
The painting was finished a long time ago; now it is over-worked. Still, you see him there, my Ollie, sitting on a chair in what is recognizably my bedroom. He's undressed, and sits like a man—that is, spread-legged—and his sex spills onto the upholstery. He looks amused, post-coital, peckish. He looks like he's ready for more.
I haven't done a portrait in years. This isn't my best work, but it's not bad. When I show Ollie, his eyes go to his genitals first.
Am I really so big like that, he asks.
He asks me if there is anyone else, others.
Of course, there should be others, there should be cadres, troupes, a parade of men coming and going. He shouldn't be reaping what will most likely be my last good year, hoarding me for his own selfish pleasure. Would that I were spread about like jam, sticky on a dozen men's fingers.
No one, I tell him truthfully, not a single soul.
Do you like your life, he wants to know.
What's not to like? I say, shrugging.
I want you to be happy, he tells me.
And then he grabs my hand, surprising me. His grip is firm. His eyes are on our grasp. I would like to hold your hand like this out there, he says quietly. He pushes his chin toward the door. I see that my fingers are dirty with the dust of Conte crayon. He kisses my hand, and it comes to me like a vision, like a fever, that I will not see him again after this, that this confession of his, his wanting to hold my hand, scares him to death, that he feels this way at all and that he has said it aloud and to me scares him to death, and I want more than anything for time to stop dead and rewind, erasing his words and this destruction, the end of us, but there's nothing to do now but wait for the moment to pass, to let go, for him to take leave and drive home; for me to stay behind, to change the sheets and do a load of laundry, to pick up a book and set it down, to think about making some tea and opening a bottle instead and pouring bourbon into a glass, to drink it down and pour some more and take the glass over to the window, the window through which he had watched me, had become transfixed and erect, emboldened to make my acquaintance and take me to bed, to help me finish what I had started on my own.
I had wanted to tell him something, something compelling and secret, something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. I had wanted him to never forget me, to carry me on him, a hidden scar, and for him to offer me something of his own, something personal and sacred, say one of his fingers to wear on a chain around my neck. It never occurred to me that it would be the other way around, that he would whisper the dark secrets, that I would be the one to feel as though I were missing something vital.
These stories always end the same way, don't they? You think you're doing something differently, that you've cracked the code, changed the tide. The simple, undeniable truth is that you cannot compete with an Asian wife. She'll win every time.
|Copyright © 1999-2017 Juked|