He was beautiful. And the tragedy was, he didn’t know it. He knew he was smart and that he loved men, but he wasn’t sure of much of anything else. At 18 maybe he didn’t have to.
He never saw the desire in the eyes of the men who cruised him in the parks or the city streets. Never saw their hunger. Never understood his allure. He thought the ease with which he could have sex had to do with the city itself, as if there were some aphrodisiacal vapor wafting over the bay and into the heart of the Castro. There were times he felt he could sense the city’s heartbeat quicken in the early twilight, the hills ever so slightly rise in yearning. Or maybe it was just the fact that there were somany men here.
He had taken a year off before college and hitched here from the East Coast. To see California, he told people when they asked what he was doing in San Francisco. It’s what he told the intake counselor at the halfway house where he crashed when he first arrived. It’s what he told Martin, who also worked at the house and was gay and who gave him a place to stay in his oversize apartment in the Marina, a gift from his father who was a businessman with a chain of fast-food restaurants in Oregon. Actually, if it hadn’t been for Martin’s generosity, he would probably be back in New York by now.
The truth was that he was here because he hadn’t any other place to go. His parents had refused to cash in some of their investments to pay for his freshman tuition at Columbia. There had been a scene, of course, when the acceptance letter came without a scholarship offer but an analysis of the financial statement that his father had filled out and that showed how there was enough money to pay tuition. He wound up screaming at his father, something about paternal responsibility, his father muttering something about the stocks being tied up in a mortgage. It was a lie. But he was too confused and hurt and angry to challenge his father. He stomped up to his room in tears. He would never forgive his father. Not just for letting him down but for making him cry. He knew he wouldn’t stay in the house longer than he needed. He left a week after high school graduation.
He was too ashamed to tell anyone about this. Ashamed at his father’s meanness. His lack of interest or concern. But mostly ashamed at his own stupidity for not asking the obvious questions before applying to Ivy League schools, like “how are we going to pay for this?” Even if it was something the parent was supposed to ask.
And here he was, now sitting at a café bar in the Mission. I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was wearing a cycling cap atop his unruly mane of curly dark-brown hair, the haberdashery equivalent of a finger in the dyke. Satiny ringlets of hair streamed from the brim of the cap, pirouetting over his ears and down his neck. He had the start of a beard, denser at the chin but hopelessly spare on his cheeks. His thick eyebrows—he would have to begin trimming them before he even turned forty—crowned the ridge above his pale moss-green eyes.
He had this beguiling mix of grace and vulnerability, but sharpened by a subtle sexual energy that you could see coursed just below the surface. It was physical, this energy, but it wasn’t a matter of his body, which I guess by today’s buffed gym standards was almost ordinary. Or not in the way we think of our bodies nowadays, as something that needs to be worked out, bulked up, toned and ripped. It was just there, his body. He didn’t really pay much attention to it. Or even thought of it as something distinct. He would never be more at ease with his body.
He was wearing as salmon-colored t-shirt, the kind you’d pick up in a discount department store, the ones sold three to a packet, with a pocket where men of an earlier generation used to keep their cigarettes. It hung loose on his wiry frame, drooping enough to reveal a tuft of chest hair and a trace of a thin silver chain.
He was sitting with a woman five or ten years his senior. She had a dancer’s carriage and long blond hair that would shift and shimmer as she rotated her torso, like the gossamer cape of a matador-angel. She was his best friend, his guide not just to the city and beyond—she had taken him on trips to Napa Valley and Big Sur and the Russian River—but also to poetry and good food and philosophy and most of all relationships. She was married to a man preparing for the Lutheran ministry, but they never spent much time together the three of them.
He would always have a woman in his life, even when he was involved in a relationship with a guy. Gerry, Susan, Liz, Anna, Helen. Maybe he was more than that for the women. He was an adventure for them, but a safe one, a man who wouldn’t threaten their marriage or their sense of priorities even when they made love.
I could see what attracted them to him. He was playful and earnest at the same time. But most of all he was attentive. I noticed how intently he looked into his companion’s eyes, how closely he followed her words, how engaged he was in their conversation, how completely he had tuned out his surroundings to devote himself to her. It was as if she was the most important person in the world, as if there was no other place he wanted to be than at her side. I saw how he wrapped her in the embrace of his presence and affection. I was envious.
I don’t remember how long I sat there looking at him. My coffee had gotten cold. God, he was beautiful. I wanted so desperately to tell him. If he knew, maybe he would be more assertive, less likely to suppress his own needs in his eagerness to please the men who picked him up.
But I knew telling him wouldn’t do any good. He’d think it was just flattery or a come-on. It saddened me that he didn’t know. He’d never know. I felt a rivulet of tears trickle down my cheeks. One drop landed on the photograph I held in my hands. I dabbed it with the cuff of my shirt and slipped it back in the pocket at the back of my notebook. I tried to remember the name of the woman in San Francisco. It began with a J., that much I knew. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the silver chain, though.
I was sitting on a chair in his bedroom, watching him as he lay sleeping, sprawled out on the bed in his boxer shorts, the summer sheets tangled in a nest of linen around his feet. I called out his name.
“Nathan?” Louder this time, “Nathan?” I had forgotten how soundly he used to sleep.
“What?!” It took a few seconds for him to grasp what has happening. He sprang up and started calling for help. I knew he’d scream. I knew his heart was pounding harder than it ever had before, harder than during the last 220 meters of the cross-country races he ran in high school, harder than he even thought possible.
“Stop shrieking like a hysterical woman and listen tome.” I said it as calmly and firmly as I could. I knew how submissive he became in the face of male authority. Unless he felt he had nothing to lose. In which case he made a point of fucking up on a grand scale. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He stopped screaming and moved towards the bay windows.
“Now that’s just silly. You’re on the fourth floor. What are you going to do, jump?”
“Who are you?” he asked. I knew he would. He had to know. “And what the hell are you doing here?”
“Let’s just say I’m someone who knows a lot about you. And that’s because I’m a lot like you. Or rather, a lot like you’ll become. Or maybe exactly like you’ll become.”
“I’m going to call the police,” but he didn’t move. The phone was in the hall, and I was between him and the door to the hall.
“Now that would put a rather abrupt and pedestrian end to what promises to be an extraordinary night. Aren’t you in the least bit curious about me? ” I said.
“What I know is that you’re one sick… pervert! Get out of my house.” he yelled.
“You wanted to say ‘sick motherfucker’, but of course you couldn’t. You never learned to curse. And it’s Martin’s house”
“You know shit about me.” he said, partly in defiance but partly as a gambit to find out if I did.
“Oh, I know you invited two different girls to your 8th grade dance but really wanted to go with Billy Chance. I know you jerked off in the basement den and worry that masturbation was making you too anti-social.”
He slumped down on the floor. “This is just too weird. This must be an acid flashback.”
“We know you never really did any acid. And that time with Faye didn’t count.”
“Oh yeah? How could I have been climbing the ladder of God if I hadn’t been high?”
“You stopped three rungs short of Enlightenment, don’t you remember?”
“Ok, so I’m having a psychotic episode.” He stretched over to the bedside commode to turn on the lamp.
“No, don’t turn on the light.” I said. “Not yet.”
“Why, do I have some horrible accident and get disfigured or something?” I could see his face relax ever so slightly.
“No, but you’re too young to be confronted with the image of your own mortality. You have a right to believe you’ll never die. At least for now,” I said. “But you should really take better care of your teeth.”
He picked up his shorts off the floor and wriggled into his t-shirt. “You don’t mind, do you? I’m not that comfortable taking to figments of my imagination half-naked.”
“Joke if you want. It’s your time.” I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my voice and didn’t try. I thought he’d be more curious about what awaited him. I thought he’d be able to put aside his usual reserve and ultra-rationalism to just, I don’t know, give in to the moment. And this was one extraordinary moment.
“Well, if this isn’t an acid flashback or a schizophrenic delusion than it’s really a bummer meeting you if all you remember when you meet me are a couple of embarrassing moments from my adolescence. Tell me, what can I do so that I won’t grow up to be you?”
“Sorry. I just wanted to convince you. And I knew these were the kinds of things you never confided in anyone.”
“Don’t you remember anything nice about me?” he asked.
“Oh, lots and lots of things,” I said.
“Like what?” he said.
“You’re a good friend. You’re loyal and trustworthy. You’ve got principles—“
“—Those are characteristics, for Chrissakes. They could be yours, for all I know. No, I meant, specific things, things I’ve done, things I’ve said. Like the prom dates, but the other way around. Nice. Don’t you remember any?”
I couldn’t, at least not right then and there, on command. Maybe it’s the embarrassing moments that stick out the most.
“I’ve offended you now. Sorry. This isn’t working out like I thought it would.” I said.
“How did you expect it would?”
“I don’t know really. Not like this”
“Fine fucking ghost of Nathan future you are.”
“Now you’re being sarcastic,” I said. “It was never a quality that suited you–”
“Ok, us. Sarcasm was always just a defense.”
“Against what?” he asked.
“Oh no.,” I laughed. “You don’t get the answer to that that easily.”
We talked till the early morning. He didn’t ask me the things I thought he would. Whether he’d fall in love. If he’d find a job that fulfilled him. Which cities he’d live in. If he’d be happy. Maybe he really did think this was all a hallucination and didn’t want to put too much store in it. Or maybe he was content with getting to know the man he’d become.
He was charming. Feisty, witty, playful, engaging. In the end, seductive without a trace of artifice.
I wanted to tell him how beautiful he was, but it would have sounded sordid and perverse and seedy, something a much older man of dishonorable intentions would say to an 18-year-old. There was no way I could make it sound right. Nathan would never know how beautiful he was. But when I woke up, in those precious seconds before I opened my eyes and the images and feelings from the dream drained from working memory, I felt, with a certainty that still is with me, that he was fine as he was.
Image: Girodet de Roucy-Triosson, The Sleep of Endymion (1791)