He was a pianist by training, but he no longer gave concerts. Instead, Thomas put together music for others. He organized chamber music concerts, song recitals, nights of musical theatre. He was an impresario of sorts, even if the university subsidized the production costs. He made things happen for the pleasure of others.
He was that way in bed, too, an enabler. He was that rare lover who is so attentive to the language of the other’s body that he can read his lover’s longings before they find shape in words, longings the other may not even be aware of. Thomas surprised me in bed with the revelation of my own desire.
He was still that wondrous lover the afternoon I went to his apartment to tell him I was ending our relationship.
It was one of those decisions you make in therapy that seem so important and right at the time, but in retrospect are little more than an object lesson in how therapy is supposed to work. Spencer was a good therapist, as far as I could tell, but now I know he missed this call. He couldn’t see how eager I was to sacrifice my relationship with Thomas simply to please him. He failed to see how desperately I wanted to be a good patient and make him proud of me.
When Thomas opened the door I saw that I had come at the wrong time. Not that there is ever a right time for what I was about to tell him. He was wearing a neatly pressed white dress shirt and grey flannel trousers and I realized he probably had a music event at the college organized for that evening, or tickets for the theatre. I had never seen him in business attire before. He had always worn jeans or corduroys, t-shirts and sweatshirts.
He led me away from the door, toward the center of the large central room where he kept his desk and dumbbells and bed. The last was a futon that could serve as a couch, but it wasn’t folded up, so there was nowhere to sit except for the kitchen. But kitchen tables are made for more ordinary conversations, for the recounting of dreams and the minor travails of the day at work. So we wound up standing in the middle of the room, face to face, like a pair of musicians on an empty stage.
We kissed, the way we always kissed when we met up, deep and hungry, as if we were already in bed and making love. His mouth had an unfamiliar and unpleasant taste this time, vaguely metallic and dirty, with a trace of the menthol I associated with cough drops.
“I started again,” he said. “Stress.”
He meant me. How I hadn’t called. How I’d been avoiding him.
I kissed him again, harder, the taste of stale smoke receding. And then I drew back.
“No, I don’t… I need to say this.” I said.
He knew what I was about to say. I had called to tell him I wanted to talk to him. No one ever says, “I need to talk to you” about something good. Good news spills out. Bad news announces itself in steps, and I had already taken the first with that call.
“It’s not that. I mean, I like you and the sex is amazing” I said. “That’s the problem, really, or part of it anyway” And then I went on to recite the script I had prepared in my mind after those late afternoon therapy sessions with Spencer, half hoping to convince myself that the decision was the right one. I thought of Spencer and the appointment I would have with him later that week. I thought of him so vividly he could have been in the room, sitting on the futon bed watching me “take responsibility for my life.”
I told Thomas I didn’t love him. I didn’t use those words exactly, but the ones I chose hurt just as much.
I said there were men I loved and guys I loved having sex with, but they weren’t the same men, and that was something I needed—no, wanted—to change.
It would have been kinder to say, “I’m not in love with you.” There’s no logic to infatuation, no calculus of worth in romantic love. It’s all chemistry and rapport, a quirk of fate or mismatched pheromones, and it either happens or it doesn’t.
But I wasn’t kind. Instead I told him I wanted to integrate these two halves of my life. The words rang thin and pretentious the moment I said them but I couldn’t take them back.
“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?” Thomas said.
“Of course not” I said immediately. Because it was the truth. Because that is the only answer to the question.
He could have asked “Is it something I’ve done or said?” “Have I disappointed you?” “Don’t I turn you on any more?” or any of the other questions rejected lovers ask in the hope of negotiating an extension to a relationship that is already fated to end. Questions as promises that say: I am willing to make amends, to do better, to be different. Questions that look with naïve and fragile hope to a second chance.
Thomas’s question was a statement, too, but of a very different kind. It said, I have been found wanting. You are leaving me not because of what I have done or said, but because of who I am. He had resigned himself to the end of our relationship and his question sealed this end more irrevocably than what I had said a few minutes earlier. For he must have known that even if I hadn’t thought of him in this way before, now that he had said this word, I could not but see him in this light from now on.
The truth is, I hadn’t really thought of him that way before. Ugly, I mean. There were moments at breakfast or in the car when I’d look at him and be struck by the rough-hewn features of his face. I saw the largish nose and thick lips, the high broad forehead and lantern jaw. His skin was slightly pitted from acne scars. Though in his 20s he had lost most of his hair, and what was left he wore closely shorn. There was a harshness and disharmony to his features, but they were not misshapen or deformed. If he was ugly, then in the way that Serge Gainsbourg was, coarse and rough and excessive, as if nature had too quickly pumped his young body with the hormones of sex and growth, and then spent by the effort, retreated before these features could be more gracefully shaped.
It was only his saying it that made me think of him that way. The word itself and the fug of self-doubt it suggested.
And then there was the white shirt. It was the kind of shirt he might wear at my mother’s 60th birthday party or a friend’s wedding. An evening together at Tanglewood or a relative’s funeral. There was something formal and unnatural about the shirt, as he had worn it to pose for a portrait. A portrait of a future spouse, like the ones that centuries ago dukes would send of their daughters in the hope of concluding a marriage compact with a prince in a distant land. It made me think of the elaborate ruff collars of Amsterdam burgers that I had seen in paintings. But this starched linen frame of unblemished whiteness, like the gauze for a soldier’s gaping wound, only accentuated the pitted flesh and roughness of his features.
It was wrong, all wrong. The word and the shirt and the stink of tobacco on his breath. If only he had kept me longer in his arms. If only he had drawn me just a few steps further onto his bed. If he had said, let’s fuck, things might have been different. Maybe then Spencer would have left the room. But I left without our making love.
It was only later that I realized his question arose not from the lack of self-confidence but precisely the opposite. It was only because he was sure of his inner worth that he could ask what others would be too afraid to ask. He already knew the answer: by common standards of physical beauty he was a deviant, an outlier with a face scarred and disharmonious in its proportions, and he had come to terms with his handicap. His question was simply a fact check.
In my failure of heart I betrayed him as much as I did my desire for him, and the shame I still feel is no less a disfigurement than pockmarks or a misshapen cast of facial features. Ironically I would later meet uglier men than Thomas, but their deformities—their pettiness and arrogance, their vanity and selfishness—could be more easily concealed, at least for a time.
Long after that day, years after he died, Thomas began to haunt my dreams. I could never fix his image when I awoke. The landscape of memory, however fraught with intense feeling, is a hushed funereal plain of unending greyness, interrupted at points by pulses of weak light that reveal, ever so briefly and only in incomplete and faint detail, a face or a place. Thomas’s visage, harsh as it was, quickly receded from my consciousness.
I tried to find traces of him on the Internet, but he had left almost none. There was just this single quote from the University newspaper, 49 words in total.
I tried to recreate him. I have written only three porn stories in my life and they were all about him. They’re not good pornography. Too baroque, as my friend Natalie would say. They were erotic only in the act of writing them, and in those moments I thought I could take hold of him. But the word did not become flesh, and the more I wrote, the more acutely I felt his absence.
“Memory is the place where something happens for the second time,” Paul Aster once wrote. But if it is, then it happens only in the shadows. Nothing really ‘happens’ in memory. It is a series of stills and the stories they tell are only vignettes. All I have left are 49 words, my shame and the extraordinary feeling of his making love to me.
Image: Konstantin Somov, Portrait of Mikhail Kuzmin, (1909).
Konstantin Andreyevich Somov was a Russian artist, homosexual and co-founder (along with Sergei Diaghilev) of the influential group of artists and publication Mir Iskusstva (World of Art). The reproduction in this post is a portrait Somov painted in 1909 of the Russian poet, musician and novelist Mihail Alekseevich Kuzmin, who was also a contributor to The World of Art. Kuzmin has been called “Russia’s Oscar Wilde”, in large part because of the notoriety he earned as the author of the Wings, the first Russian novel to attempt to sympathetically depict same-sex love. For more on this unusual novel, see Evgenii Bershtein’s article, “An English in the Russian Bathhouse: Kuzmin’s Wings and the Russian Tradition of Homoerotic Writing”.