Part 1 of 2
"I adored the man. You know that, Kell. And I wouldn't have done anything in the world to hurt him.
"How was I to know that that cruel Bartholomew was lurking like a spy in the Wetworks, or that he would tell Armand he ran into me there? 'Ran into me,' ha! He was looking!"
I've heard Carlisle's goat-song of Armand so often I could almost add a refrain; but I don't come for the music. He peeks at me innocently from behind his white-on-velveteen menu, his oceanic eyes just visible atop the Doric columns that support the restaurant's banner-logo, etched with the sharp-edged words: CALPVRNIA CAFE—WHERE ALL THE CVSTOMERS ARE ABOVE SVSPICION.
Carlisle's gaze is two half-hooded headlights, country bright, paralyzing and inflaming me where I sit. I wrench one eye away to the menu. The soup of the day is carrot.
Our connection is severed by an edgy waiter, a mere sprig in faux Roman drag, with Birkenstock sandals, a white cotton toga shabbied to dinge by overwashing, golden laurel leaves, and a button that says "I'd Rather Be Acting."
"Thank you so much for waiting, gentlemen," he says, aggrieved. "May I take your order?"
The toga exposes one delicate rosy-pearl nipple, which Carlisle considers speculatively, his long black lashes bobbing like fronds at the edge of the water. I experience the absence of his attention like a whirlpool, a dark, silent vortex. I'm going down. Carlisle, take my hand!
After we order he returns to me. His cheekbones are like pink marble eggs, smooth, rounded, translucent. If you were to press them, you would leave no mark.
His ass is exactly the same.
He parts his lips, red as a full-bodied, fruity Merlot, displaying perfect tombstone teeth and just a sliver of his talented red-worm tongue. "So looking forward to our little tête-à-tête tonight," he says. "I realize the date is a trifle awkward, but it's the only time Juliana and my ghastly brother-in-law will leave me the house. And it's not as if we can go to your place."
"That wouldn't do," I agree. Ah, how I remember the bordello-lair of Juliana and Jordan, site of our last enrapture. Carlisle and I utterly, unbearably intertwined, hands clutching thighs and mouths Twinkie-crammed nearly to overbrimming, our garments abandoned over leather love seats and Tiffany lamps. We rolled over and over each other through the thick mauve shag, veering heedlessly close to spouting marble statues of women holding jugs and little boys peeing. Later, atop the round canopied bed, his knees sinking into silk and his mouth bent in a fallen angel's grin, Carlisle thrummed my prepuce like a banjo. Every pore in my body joined the sing-along, Hee-Haw Hallelujah!
I raise my nonagonal cut-crystal tumbler and taste burning Scotch. "But no problem. All is arranged."
"What did you tell Jaime?"
How intrusive! I command my face not to betray pique. No sense risking a squabble. "That I'm wining and dining a nouveau geek chip-Midas from Oregon, his Rubenesque wife, and her personal trainer, who are all drooling with Pavlove for a crepe-paper-and-cantaloupe-skin postminimalist Klenstein. And that he and I will celebrate Valentine's Day on Friday at the Pomeranian Grille. And not to wait up."
"See, we're so alike. You wouldn't do anything in the world to hurt him, either." He stands up, bumping the table with his knee. As though his face were the moon, tides sweep across the blond surface of his wine. My Scotch is in my hand, safe as a distant asteroid. "I would like to use the little boys' room," he announces.
I would like to watch. Oh no, not the act itself, I'm too jaded for that, but the magnetic moment when he releases his other talented red worm through the tame teeth of his Italian linen trousers, and the other urinals' clients—be they sailors, accountants, beardless boys, legally blind codgers—swivel their heads like a chorus line to glimpse the quiescent libidinous source that tweaked the corner of their eye. Even middle-aged het urologists stare, pretending to read the corporate name on the side of the porcelain as if for some professional survey. It's not that it's unusually large, oddly shaped, or—St. Sebastian forfend!—threaded with metal hoops. It's just somehow so clearly a center of demiurgic force. It practically glows, I swear it.
Instead I casually dismiss him with a Katharine Hepburn wave, and lubricate my thought processes once again. I'm considering my options. I take the love potion out of my left inner breast pocket, holding the little blue plastic container between my right thumb and forefinger.
With Carlisle gone, I notice once again the ballet of waiters weaving among the patrons, trays of lamb kebabs and salmon mousse held aloft like so many heads of the Baptist. At the table next to me a man in a pale, conspicuous trench coat explains to his female companion that he can no longer ethically remain in her employ because he's fallen in love with her husband, who he was hired to investigate. He gives her the cards of three other detectives, all of whom he personally recommends.
Across the room at the bar I notice the personal trainer from Oregon waving to me and smiling. I trust that she's enjoying her gilt, the cut of my commission I gave her after she so eloquently betokened her enthusiasm for the Klenstein.
After I sold the painting last week, it seemed strange, and sad, not to tell the story to Jaime when he bounded into the house after work that day, excited that some pimply troll with an overbite had pretended to really grok Pythagoras. Strange, and sad, not to hear my triumph echoed by his oohs and ahhs. And perturbingly dishonest, although surely it's not dishonest to merely omit a story. And I knew I'd need it later.
I wave back to the trainer, concealing the blue bottle behind my curved fingers like a conjurer. She toasts me with her orange-juice-and-protein-powder energy blend. In her other hand she clutches the wrist of a lithe, frightened waiter. She is not letting go.
Earlier today I was rushing down Chesspea, near Third, to the Li'l Buddha Briochery, hoping to squeeze in a saffron bear claw before my staff meeting at Eidolon's. As I passed the old First Vesuvian Bank building, I noticed a legless dwarf propped up against the wall. A cracked wooden salad bowl rested on his negligible lap, and he held up a sign, charcoal on corrugated burnt umber cardboard, reading "HAVE A HEART."
In my mind, freed from tyrannical time, I was already scrubbing Carlisle's cygnetic back in Juliana's mirror-tiled bathtub. This rich vision loosed a frothy spirit of generosity in me, a desire to share the wealth, as it were. I tossed a handful of coins into the bowl. My feet were halfway to Fourth before I heard someone say, in a melodious honeysuckle-and-silver voice that would make a nightingale weep jade tears, "Thanks, Kell."
I spun half-circle widdershins and skipped like a stone back to the little man. "Cupid! What a delightful surprise!"
"Ain't it just," he said, using the cardboard sign to smooth out the colorful Bolivian serape cushioning him from the concrete. "How's it hangin', Kell?"
I crouched eye-level, making sure my fawn woolen slacks didn't actually touch the grimy blanket, and discreetly looked him over. It had been a long time. He was wearing a lime green sports jacket with sleeves cut short by a hacksaw, a velour shirt out of Star Trek: The Original Series, and dungarees with the legs clothespinned up. His wings had shrunk to quantum fluctuations, and his teeth were yellowed and cracked, like Scrabble tiles in some ancient runic language—Lemurian, or Old Norse. Half a damp Te-Amo cigar dangled from the side of his mouth, unlit and unwholesome.
But I could never mistake his eyes, flocked red hearts like the covers of candy boxes. And nobody else has those cheekbones.
Not everybody can see him the way I can, of course. Granma Clothilde explained it to me when I was a lad: "It's a family thing. Just like being an invert. Why, your Great-Uncle Gareth met Hercules drinking with the janitor once, when he was your age. Wound up sleeping with him on and off his whole last year at middle school. Not always bottom either, the way I hear it."
Great-Uncle Gareth is ninety-two, a largely quiescent resident of a Floridan burg that resembles the set of Cocoon, and it's hard to imagine a demigod, or anyone, laving their amorous attentions over him. But in his youth he was quite fetching.
I have pictures.
"Quite well, Cupid," I responded. "Things are good. And you?" Instantly regretting the question, which he might not take rhetorically.
"Eh. You know. Some years are better than others."
There followed a lengthy, awkward silence, as often occurs when two acquaintances, now in quite different stations in life—different than before, and different from each other's—meet after a long separation. He took the stub cigar from his mouth, spit out some shreds of leaf and wrapper, and placed it carefully on a helipad-like square of tinfoil on his serape. Near the tinfoil was a toy plastic bow-and-arrow set, with five suction-cup arrows splayed like a winning poker hand, and a red bow with a white nylon string. Pensively he ran one pudgy forefinger up and down the surprisingly taut string, until I thought I could hear a high-pitched sound, as though from the rim of a Waterford wineglass.
I had a bow-and-arrow set like that when I was younger. I would lick the arrows, stick them to the outside of my mother's kitchen window, then run in and open the puffy orange drapes. From the other side, their moist coral concavities were oddly, grotesquely, entrancingly organic, like lips or assholes.
The high-pitched sound seemed to be behind me now. I looked over my shoulder. It was the whine of a reluctant cairn terrier being dragged along by a thick, twitchy-nosed man with a lion's mane of yellow hair, fearfully rushing past us as if the dwarf's condition might be contagious.
Finally I said, "I recently sold a magnificent Klenstein. I expect the new owners will be very happy with it, and of course the Gallery is thrilled. I'm actually on my—"
"Mmm," Cupid said, as if deep in thought, "mmm." His rubied eyes darted searchingly to his hands, his frayed sleeves, his hypothetical lap. "Kell, I think I got somethin' for you. Ah!" A toroidal light bulb flashed on over his ringlets. He leaned forward with some difficulty, removed a clothespin from his right pants leg, and fished out a little blue bottle, like the kind you buy contact-lens cleansers in.
(You, because my eyes are perfect.)
"Kell," he said, holding it up, "I want you to have this. It's a love potion. Whoever drinks it will fall in love with the next person he sees." His fluted voice took on a strong, professional tone. "Deep, committed, devoted, unselfish love. For the rest of his life."
He handed me the bottle, his Play-Doh fingers wrapping briefly about mine. It felt like any other bottle. I tucked it away in my left inner breast pocket, and smiled, I hope, gratefully. Cupid smiled back. His teeth were worse than I'd first thought.
"Umm, by 'next person,' I mean the next person of a matching gender for the subject's psychosexual matrix," he added, still professional but hurriedly, as though he thought I might accuse him of heterosexism if he didn't get it in quick.
Fear not, dear cherub! I have seen too many uranians crumble helplessly to their knees from the sting of your inerrant shafts—treacle dripping like blood from their mouths, all sentience fading from their faces, vacuity overtaking their blinded eyes—to think of you as anything but an equal opportunity assailant.
"Well, thank you," I said, standing up, my knees performing their staccato adjustments. "I appreciate it, I truly do." I arched my back, teed my arms, looked at the sun's smudged reflections in the windows of First Vesuvian's gingerbread façade. It would be impolite to check my watch.
"Only good today," said Cupid. There's always fine print.
"I'll be sure to remember that." My hips swiveled to leave, but my torso paused, torquing them back. There was still one question on my mind.
"Cupid, forgive me. But . . . ?" My sweeping hand took in the salad bowl, the regrettable sports jacket, the drowned decaying cigar.
"Hey, man, you know. Love goes beggin' in this town."
Sad but too, too true. I inclined my head respectfully, sympathetically, and angled in the direction of the Eidolon Gallery, feeling blessed and hungry.