Marcus didn’t moan much during sex. It was only in the last few minutes before he climaxed that I could hear him in my apartment, late at night as I lay in bed reading.
Odd, really. In other circumstances his voice boomed through the apartment, especially when he laughed. People would have called it a hearty laugh, but I think it was all gut, a resounding crackle and thunder.
I was embarrassed to hear it, and even more so to tell Marcus that I had. The moan of lovemaking may be the most intimate sound of all, laden with entreaty and abandonment and gratitude, and is never even vaguely approximated in the post-production dubbed moans of porn, which are more like props and sets and lighting, the theater of sex without its intimacy.
I was new in the city and he had taken me under his wings, not, I think, from neighborliness but from an innate generosity and curiosity to meet new people. I had arrived with just a suitcase and didn’t even have a proper stove yet, just a hotplate on which I’d fix the omelets and stir-fries that were my standard fare. The apartment was missing that skin of comfort, the drapes and rugs, pillows and coverlets that one accumulates through the years and that invite friends to linger. I soon started taking my shoes off as soon as I got into the apartment so as not to hear the echo of my heels striking the cold terrazzo floor.
He cooked for me and introduced me to his friends, a good number of whom were my age, a couple of decades his junior, and some of whom would find their way to his bed, and one to mine. I wasn’t surprised that guys my age would find him attractive. I had seen pictures of him in his apartment when he was younger. He’d put on a lot of weight since then and grown a salt-and-pepper beard, and he never looked sexier. Fat Marcus was the body he was born to grow into. He had a large head, thick neck and big hands, all of which looked out of place in the photographs of his earlier, thinner self, as if they had been stuck onto his body from a set of appendages destined for another torso.
His apartment was one I imagined a grand-aunt from a once prosperous family that had fallen on hard times might have. It was a roomy high-ceiling space outfitted with solid and elaborately carved furniture passed down in the family from an earlier century. The dining room boasted a vintage chandelier and a sideboard that spanned most of one wall, with upper cabinets through whose glass doors one could see Marcus’ service of gold-rimmed ruby-tinted wine glasses and his collection of marionettes, artfully lit with small spotlights. The ochre-walled living room was host to a gallery of vintage theatre posters and cluttered with a wealth of places to sit: a pair of comfortable sofas and armchairs, a bergère and a pair of footrests that doubled as stools for guests, of which he had many. I’d never met anyone who had so many friends.
Marcus was large in more ways than his girth. He entertained often, fixing hearty meals of food as reminiscent of the last century as his furniture, the food his grandmother cooked, Sunday roasts and after-theatre suppers. My apartment would fill with the aroma of oven-baked lamb and braised okra, the comfort food of bean soup and fried meatballs.
The traces of Marcus’ food and sex visited me in the late evenings when I lay in bed. They seemed to me like the lights of a prosperous city that lay just beyond the borders.
“Of course they adore you,” I told Marcus one evening when talk turned to his boyfriends. “You’re witty and charming and know half the people in the theatre.”
It was true. Not only was he was the funniest person I knew, he made others feel witty as well, the way some people make you feel smart or loved.
“Oh, they’re not interested in the theatre. They just want to be told what to do,” he said.
I knew he was being modest, playing down his charm for my benefit, as old money refrains from speaking of its wealth in the presence of the less fortunate.
Marcus was a daddy, long before hirsute hefty men became a trope in gay discourse and a genre in porn.
I’m now Marcus’ age, and though I haven’t put on weight, I’ve grown a beard. Like the one he sported, it’s sprinkled with grey hairs, more so than I expected would appear. Having shaved my head for the last decade, the only indication of the color that might emerge were my eyebrows and public hair, and those were decidedly more pepper.
Apart from the color, it looks pretty much like the beard I had in graduate school, full above the lips and patchy in the cheeks. I’d expected a bushier growth now that I’m older, seeing that hair had started growing in all sorts of places where it hadn’t before, like of all places on my fingers. Apparently the geography of aging is as variegated as a field of rye; some patches prosper, others grow to weed more quickly than others.
A few friends said the beard added a few years to my face, but most said it made me look distinguished. I thought I had too much gravitas already, and another ounce of seriousness would make me all but unapproachable, but all this talk about seriousness made me wonder if I indeed lacked it. Nobody said it made me look cool, which was what I was secretly hoping for. Apparently there’s an upper bound to hip and I had long exceeded it.
I’ve not yet made full peace with growing older as Marcus had. My age is like the suit I’m uncomfortable wearing and only do so on those occasions at work when I’m invited to a meeting with a “very important person,” or the pajamas and slippers I’ve stored in my closet in case I need to go into surgery.
I haven’t shaved off my beard, though. I suppose that’s progress of a sort.
“You can’t imagine how many younger guys are attracted to older men,” Marcus once told me.”
I couldn’t. As I said, I was always attracted to men my own age, and still am, though they are harder to find. Where have they all gone? Have they gone into hibernation, like aging knights who have retreated to a monastery?
If I was going to be a daddy, since I have gradually realized this was the only currency I have left, I’d have to get used to being called sir. Not the word, really, but its equivalent in the informal-formal division of forms of address in the language of my adopted land. Like French and German and Dutch and I imagine practically every other language except English, there are different verb forms that mark formality and informality. Greek has them too. You use the second person plural form when speaking to anyone other one than friends, lovers, family and animals.
Or maybe I would actually be called sir. Are daddies expected to top, I wondered. I wish Marcus were still around to ask.
Knowing the moment to shift from esis to esi, or tu to vous, or Sie to du can’t be taught, not in the way the words to say at a funeral or christening can, or how locals eat watermelon (here with a fork and knife) or fried pickerel (with your fingers). It’s like a combination lock that natives can pick because they have a kind of fingertip sensitivity that non-native speakers don’t. We usually err on one side or the other. My friend Natalie addresses everyone with the familiar, bank clerks, doctors, even the provost of the university she teaches at. I tend to overuse the formal form, deploying it when rank and age would entitle me to the familiar.
I used to tutor the younger cousins or nephews of friends preparing for tests like the GMAT, and I always used the formal, though they were twenty years my junior. I figured anyone who was at the age of conscription deserved some kind of formality. If anyone warranted a sir, it was a man in uniform holding a gun. But I suspect my students were confused.
The choice of formal/informal is determined by all sorts of factors that can’t be quantified exactly. It’s like a single equation for four unknowns. Age, rank, familiarity, and setting come to mind.
After much persuasion, a younger, brilliant and impressively competent colleague of mine now speaks to me in the familiar when we’re à deux, though she persists with the formal when we’re not. All the secretaries at work use esis, except the ones who work for the CEO, prestige apparently a commodity that is easily borrowed. My fishmonger uses the familiar, the butcher the formal. But then again I buy fish more often than meat.
Of the four factors, age is perhaps the most decisive. (My friend Sofia still addresses her mother with the formal form). Even more so than the grey wisps of hair on my face, being addressed with esis is a proclamation of my seniority.
The cute young barista at the café I sometimes hang out in on the weekend has been serving me for a couple of years and still uses the formal esis, though we’ve exchanged stories of movies and books and city politics, nothing too personal but enough for me to think we’ve slipped into a familiarity that justified the less formal form of address. I liked him. If he were serving me in Boston, we’d already be on a first-name basis, the American equivalent of the familiar esi. Actually the café follows the practice of its mother company in which the barista writes down the customer’s first name to be called out when the order is ready, but Giorgos’ partner at the espresso bar adds a Mister to the name. “Freddo espresso for Mr. Stephen.”
I used the formal form for a while with Giorgos. “How was your vacation?” I asked, and he said, “We had a great time.”
I expect esis in shops and demand it at public agencies (this is not a given—maybe power is the fifth element), but Giorgos’ insistence on esis bothered me. It was a line of demarcation that pointed to my location on the other side of a border as marked as the difference between Marcus’ and my apartments. You are different, it said.
I eventually gave up and started addressing him in the familiar, as he expected me to. I could have ventured the equivalent of “call me Stephen”, but I sensed he would have found it creepy, as if I were asking to be friends with him, which I was hoping we would be. My use of the familiar and his retention of the formal kept our relations comfortably enclosed in the transactional language of a chain coffee shop. He’d smile and joke with me, but I was still esis.
Marcus would have been comfortable with it and bedded him by now, but I wasn’t. My chances of being a daddy, I realized, was as spare as the beard hair on my cheek.
I look like a daddy, minus the girth, and have the markings of one: a nice place to live, though much less imposing than Marcus’s but with coverlets and pillows, a rewarding job and good friends, if fewer in number than Marcus had. If I am not wise, I have survived break-ups, friendships gone awry and an operation or two. I’ve lost and found jobs, settled into and left homes and cities, recovered from grave mistakes. These are not accomplishments in themselves, but merely a record of a life lived to the point where a beard becomes streaked with grey. Experience, some would say. I have what it takes to be a daddy, except the will to be one.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso, “Nus masculins (les trois âges de l’homme), 1942