Part 2 of 2
And so did my day wend to this moment: the Calpurnia Cafe, Cupid's vial at hand, beauteous Carlisle briefly away from the table.
The personal trainer winks at me and turns away, wrapping her anacondan arms around the vainly struggling waiter. At the table next to me, the detective rises, tenderly kisses his former employer good-bye, and throws a few bills on the table. "This one's on me, kiddo," he says, and exits, although he gets trapped by the revolving door for two orbits before breaking free.
I carefully balance the little plastic bottle on top of a malachite salt shaker. My gaze narrows to Carlisle's wine glass, and I raise first one eyebrow, then the other. I shake the table with slight but increasing vibrations until the plastic bottle tumbles onto the tablecloth.
Now would be the right time to put it in.
Now, while Carlisle is still turning heads in the head, wielding his magic wand like a Hamelin symphony conductor.
Now, before the afternoon introduces him to someone he foolishly deems more congenial company than me—a handsome long-fingered swimmer, perhaps—and the phone rings to tell me, sorry, "something terribly urgent has come up at work." (Carlisle is currently employed as a hand model at the downtown Mosaics-N-More.)
Now, as Rosey Pearlnipple the Waiter approaches our table from across the room, bearing two orders of Calpurnia's Goat Cheese Moussaka, a creamy, salty dish that will surely set Carlisle to gulping his wine for relief.
And Carlisle will down his wine, and look up at my patient eyes, and his smile will ignite like the Hindenburg, flattening this restaurant with shock waves of adoration, the adoration that Armand had and threw away.
He will pack up his tank tops and tuxedo and books of pornographic stamps, and transfer them from his sister's tawdry abode to my humble but exquisite split-level, where we will proceed to devour each other in every room of the house: the library, the confessional half-bath in the basement, my darkroom (where the morbid crimson glow will accentuate the highlights of his teeth, fingernails, toenails), let's not neglect all three bedrooms, the cozy den, in the kitchen arched against the free-standing woodblock chopping table (can Carlisle cook, I wonder?), at the base of the stairs, the middle, the top, both landings.
Afterwards we will stand naked on the balcony, side by side and marinating in each other's juices, uplifting the spirits of passers-by with the sacred vision of just how good we look together.
Foolish Armand! I didn't dislike him, really, but I did spend many playful hours fantasizing various ways he might die.
For a while car crashes dominated, with their blazing heat and gratifying finality. I had him smash head-on into the sinewy old oak that stands sentinel near the entrance to Entmoot Plaza. Then, he went off the side of the road up on Route 668, near the statue of the Laughing Nun (a missionary to our valley almost two hundred years ago).
A truck hauling diesel fuel overturned on him, followed by an armored Brink's (the guards were unhurt), a mobile home, and a stealth bomber from which the pilot had ejected moments before.
Childish, wasn't it? Next he tripped and fell into the crusty crater of Mt. St. Helens, breaking through to the roiling orange magma beneath. Vesuvius. Krakatau. Chokai. Then an aneurysm; cardiac arrest; fatal complications from St. Vitus' dance.
I almost asked Hela about it, once, at Edmund's memorial service. Not to do anything, of course; I just wanted some advance delph so I could, as it were, set my expectations.
But I didn't. I learned at my granma's knee that it is unwise to ask them favors. They do as they will.
I resented Armand because he was a horizonless sponge soaking up the exhilarating waters of Carlisle's affections. Parched outsiders such as myself could barely score a dram. But his true sin was that, ultimately, he didn't appreciate it. Even as I benefit from his drear wages, I know it is a sin for which he can never be forgiven.
But I am not Armand. Even armed with the lovesprite's gift, I understand that I will not own Carlisle seven & twenty-four. Nor will his occasional, inevitable, insignificant adventure with some bathhouse beauty or another disturb my contentment. I know how to amuse myself in the off hours. And frankly, I feel certain that the fruit of Eden is even more of a paradisiac when you can get a few hours to yourself now and then, outside the Garden.
The glass-walled grapefruit sections of the revolving door propel us into February's watery sun. Squinting like a spinach addict, I feel Carlisle's fingers clasp my shoulders. He is softly drumming the tune to YMCA.
Carlisle knows all my secret dreams. Perhaps tonight I'll bring the jockstraps and the tennis racket.
He kisses the fortunate air on either side of my head and says, his goat cheese breath muskily enticing, "Til eight, then. You haven't forgotten the way?"
"To my home away from home? Unmöglich!" Carlisle has lived there for seven weeks, ever since the tinglingly melodramatic episode that ended with him and Armand dividing up the stamp collection. I've been there precisely once.
"Bon! Give my best to Jaime."
It does not suit me that they be too chummy, so I say, "Certainly. He's making dinner for Bartholomew tonight. Since they're both alone on Valentine's Day."
Carlisle purses his lips like a woman preparing to kiss a fish, and stamps his foot in exasperation. "I do not understand how a decent boy like Jaime"—he pauses for air—"could trust someone who has so little integrity"—pause—"that he tells people who he runs into in a bathhouse!"
"Til eight, then."
I watch Carlisle sail away, deftly flowing around diurnal hookers, schoolchildren fieldtripping to the Leary Museum & Oddity Shoppe, construction workers who mutter curses at his passing, newly aware of their own inadequacies. Even under his clothes every muscle seems distinct but cooperative, firm but accommodating. Even his shoes ripple.
Once, at a costume party, I saw a walk that held my gaze more tightly. An alley cat, wearing black tights with white and tawny spots (and nothing underneath), a black leather vest, body paint continuing the feline pattern, a painted papier-mâché mask with cunning ears. Walking across the room, picking up a drink, bending over to purr at a pirate.
My chest warmed and swelled beneath my Sir Walter Raleigh doublet, and my codpiece bobbed precariously.
It turned out it was Carlisle in a cat suit.
So why didn't I give it to him at lunch?
I had several reasons, qualms that bound my hands like chains.
First, we didn't have the restaurant to ourselves. It was possible that, upon drinking his wine, Carlisle would look up and see somebody else's eyes, and find himself forever in thrall to, say, Zorba the Manager, or the waiter in the personal trainer's arms, or the chunky tomato-haired teenager by the door being cruelly stood up on his first date. This threat seemed greater than the threat of the late-afternoon long-fingered swimmer. Better to wait for tonight, when our only company will be Dorwinda, Juliana's dour, flat-faced Manx, who to the best of my knowledge does not match Carlisle's psychosexual matrix.
Second, as I sat across the table from his empty, still-warm chair, rotating the plastic bottle between my fingers, I felt my curiosity and my vanity rear up together in a double helix, manifesting a question hardwired in the mind of man-the-hunter since mastodon days: Do you really need magic to bring him to ground? The possibility tugged at me that, under the right circumstances, I might be able to snare Carlisle's enduring ardor with the lasso of my natural charms: wit, good looks, erotic expertise, and a welcoming, comfortable home with an original Picasso. (Match that, casa de Juliana!)
Once I feed him Cupid's Patented Conquers-All Joy Drops, however, I'd never be able to test the hypothesis.
Third, re: "enduring" and "[f]or the rest of his life." Falling across my intentions like an entropic shadow was the fear that, after some span of years—not five or ten, certainly, but perhaps twenty or thirty—my darling Carlisle might lose some of his stunning, storied attractiveness. Some of his muscle tone. Body parts might begin to dribble southward. The depths of his eyes obscured by corneal clouds, his once-smooth skin netted by veins and creases, only the endless fire of his love for me undiminished.
And if that happens, and my sympathetic nature impels me to look away, to seek my pleasures elsewhere, lest he see the hint of disappointment in my brow, well, won't I feel a wee bit, let us say, responsible for him, having utterly usurped his free will one distant Valentine's Day?
That would be a three-headed bitch. Of course, Carlisle is the archetype of the "live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse" school. But it's not the kind of thing you can count on.
But these are all mere trivialities, paper-clip manacles, mosquitoes buzzing around my head as I sink into the swamp of my real dilemma:
What am I going to do about Jaime?
I can't just throw him out.
Oh, I could, I suppose. And he would go: droopy-headed as a Regency streetlamp, carrying his beige corduroy valise with the teddy bear decal in one hand and Bourbaki's shrouded cage in the other, his brown bovine eyes becoming little murky kiddie pools in which someone has left the hose running, his lips decently, unreproachfully silent.
A click of the dead bolt, and Carlisle could come up the back stairs. We would start in the library.
But no. My friends would never forgive me. Even now I can hear their voices, wafting down the hallways of time from potential, unrealized futures. "How could you treat him that way? The sweet man!"
That's what they call him, "the sweet man." I imagine him in a gray uniform, canvas bag full of marzipan and chocolate truffles, delivering door to door. "He's so sweet," Iduna said to me over decaf and apple tarts at Dessert Storm just last week. And he is. But I prefer meat.
My friends, cousin Ada, Mama and Granma—I would never hear the end of it. And Jaime himself, trying to understand, never an unkind word; but always there: at dinner parties, brunches, opening night at the Opera, hanging out at San Godiva Beach, sipping ice tea on Jockey Shorts Night at the Moon Beat. . . . Barring an unfortunate accident or an unlikely career move to Phoenix, there would be no avoiding him. Ultimately his silence would seem the most shrill accusation.
My crime against Jaime (justified by extenuating circumstances, but try that in the court of public opinion) would blight my life with Carlisle, sending aphids of gossip and disapproval to suck the sap of our relationship, leaching the soil of our deserved happiness, preventing our tree of bliss from ever coming to its fullest fruition. And all because I acted, quite rightly, on the perfectly obvious fact that Jaime—due to certain personal traits that, truly, are not his fault—is not the right man for me.
Jaime is absurdly tall. Six-seven or six-nine. I never remember which, but it's an odd number. When we walk down Goldpupp Street together, his arm draped over my shoulder and across my body in a fashion that romantics would see as companionable but realists recognize as possessive, I feel like a Munchkin.
It's not clear how I originally missed this. Admittedly, I was drinking heavily when we met. (Discovering the truth about Martin Landau had been a devastating blow, and I was coping as best I could.) Perhaps, in my scotched blur, I thought he was standing on stepladders or crates most of the time. Platform shoes. And of course, horizontally it was less noticeable.
By the time we dried me out, he had settled in: a gentle giant, towering in a blue caftan over my stove, frying eggs most weekend mornings with onions, garlic, and just a touch of dill. Installing a drip system for my fuchsia and lantana so we could cut down on Mr. Ngan's noisy visits. Delighting my friends with his elephantine hands and naïveté. Taking my nieces on the Dragon Whirl at Deegan's World (after I refused due to a deep-set conviction that any amusement ride that rotates you more than ninety degrees from your accustomed orientation is, simply put, unnatural).
And I confess, I didn't object. It wasn't Heaven, but it wasn't the Other Place either, at first. I enjoyed having someone around to listen to the tales of my odyssey through the realms of art, commerce, and society; someone who appreciated my efforts and applauded my successes; someone who liked to make dinner. Jaime was better than a faithful Labrador—he had thumbs and a sizable vocabulary.
But that doesn't mean I should be consigned to an eternity of listening to mannerless, ill-dressed strangers ask repetitive questions—"how's the air up there?"; "play much basketball?"—or to Jaime's consistently polite replies.
So large yet so passive. Were I at that altitude, I would rain my contempt down upon them like the Flood. They would soak in irony, drown in sarcasm, cower under my thunderous sneers. People like that don't deserve an ark, Jaime!
Jaime is clumsy. Three times now he has collided with the glass door to the balcony, thinking it open, or not thinking at all. Three times! Lab rats flirting with electrodes learn faster. Will I be obligated to put up silhouettes of falcons and televangelists?
The bruises have led his fellow teachers at Mordor High to lurid assumptions about our proclivities, and prompted insulting questions from intimates who should know better. Last Christmas the chairman of his department, who is chronically apologetic and regretful over his own, conventional playlist, gifted us with a pair of velvet-padded handcuffs. "For . . . you know," he said.
No, I don't know! Bunny police officers? Bank robbers with eczema?
And what if Jaime lost the key down the garbage disposal? He's done worse.
They were an awful color, too, a sort of brownish off-puce that calls out to be flushed.
At my family's Christmas Party & Solstice Celebration, Jaime was sporting a particularly vivid squidmark under his left eye. I'm sure everyone noticed. My cousin Ada, who had been smooching with Baldur under the mistletoe for twenty minutes (nothing romantic, just desensitization therapy; I've done it for him myself), sidled over to me almost the instant Mama spirited Jaime away to help with the stuffed mushrooms. She hugged me, kissed my cheek, and whispered, "Have you been hitting him?"
Even Ada, soulmate of my child years, who I thought could see right through to the gray rigatoni of my mind! "Hitting him? My dear cousin," I replied coolly, "I can't even reach him."
Jaime is unfocused in bed. An example:
Just a few months ago, on St. Swithin's Day, after a delightful dinner at T'Pring's Thai Court and two hours of visual foreplay at the Moon Beat, Jaime and I proceeded to my—our—largish redwood four-poster.
Following the usual friendly preliminaries, I began to render service unto his urgently upright staff. Let me not suggest that this is an onerous task. Though Jaime's penis is not built precisely to the scale of his height—something to do with the square-cube law, I believe—and, admittedly, does not glow, it is still larger than most, flatteringly sensitive, and nicely flared at its cherry-red lollipop top. It's one of the many things I'll miss when he's gone.
My mouth gave extensive testimony on the delectability of his balls and wended slowly and purposefully halfway up the steep slope to the corona when, suddenly, Jaime began to tremble, then shake, then writhe like a coiffure of snakes. He was also laughing, an open-mouthed belly-quaking laugh as though Harpo Marx were behind me doing his best bits.
Despite his undulations I stayed on center, so my lips were too busy for me to ask what was so funny; but naturally I assumed the train had arrived at the station, an iota earlier than expected, and would be unloading its tadpolar passengers (probably guffawing as well) posthaste.
Instead Jaime subsided, his body's Richter value dropping towards zero, laughs giving way to chuckles, then to calm breaths. His pole was still pointing straight up, and I could taste the tadpoles' demands to disembark, luggage and all. But he said, "Let's stop for a minute," and pulled me towards the headboard, gently but firmly moving my head to his chest. He stroked my hair, one hand covering nearly my entire crown, and sighed.
"Let's stop for a minute"?!? Why not rewind, fast-forward, freeze-frame? There is an order to good sex, a rhythm as patterned as a sonata, one that I have worked hard to master and was working hard to achieve with Jaime that St. Swithin's Day. Would you interrupt Aida for a catchpenny singing cuddlegram?
Explaining that to the gentle giant, however, is like talking to the Great Wall.
Frequently, after we're all done, and all I want is a washup followed by Glenlivet and steak tartare, he'll try to shift us into that same position. Jaime's chest is a thick brown fleece, tapering to fractal flows around his nipples and down his belly. Which is all right, I suppose, if you're halfway to Nod and the goosedowns are in the wash. But I've begun to notice that it captures every bodily fluid, and by the late innings he smells like a wet aardvark.
Usually I tell him I have to move my bowels, or something else that he won't take personally, and pop off to the gents to rinse in peace and privacy.
So there you have it, not my fault and not his. Sometimes I wish I appreciated him more—I seem to remember that I did, once—but facts are facts.
Honestly, I am as concerned for Jaime as I am for myself. There are many men who actively admire Esau's pelt, and he would be better off with one of those. But despite my subtle encouragements, he's developed no outside interests. Sometimes on Thursdays, if I'm otherwise engaged, he'll go to Jack o' Hearts Night at the Wetworks. He enjoys large groups of naked men with plenty of running hot water—a hopeful sign. But anything more personal than that he reserves for me, will I nill I.
Jaime deserves someone who finds that level of devotion more endearing than inundating. Someone, perhaps, like Bartholomew, who has for Jaime the same moo-eyed gaze that Jaime has for me, and I have for no one. Not even Carlisle; it's not in my repertoire.
And Jaime, I am sure, could see the wisdom of change, if only he would stop staring at me like a Cro-Magnon burning out his retinas at the eclipse. Which, in a roundabout way, not to mention circuitous, convoluted, and labyrinthine, leads me to the real reason why I didn't give Carlisle the potion at lunch:
I'm going to give it to Jaime.
The idea was but an attractive stranger at the Calpurnia Cafe, to be cruised and considered, but now, driving south on the Laceway, I embrace it like a lover, opening myself to it, entering it, making it one with my soul.
It's perfect. And practical. Jaime has a favorite drink, an oolong, ginger, and brine ice sun tea he concocts, which he drinks with almost every meal and no one else can stomach. He keeps it in the refrigerator in an old orange juice bottle labeled OGB with indelible lime magic marker.
I'll pop in early, while he's still at Mordor High handing out tests rated with little stick-on stars—gold, silver, bronze, green, red dwarfs for warning, black holes for failing—add the love potion to his tea, stir, and light out like a bat.
Later in the evening, when Carlisle and I are rising to our ecstatic ascension, Jaime and Bartholomew will sit down to sup. Bartholomew will, as usual, drink my best Chardonnay, to which, revoltingly, he adds a tablespoon of sugar. Jaime will have tea. They will look upon each other. Even if there's a power failure, we have strategically stored flashlights and candles.
And then he can be the villain, and I can be the victim; he Sammael, and I Emmanuel. For once in my life. How long, I wonder, will it take him to stammer out the crushing news? How long to move into Bartholomew's studio walk-up?
Shall I beg him to stay? Or at least to leave Bourbaki, as a token of what we once had together? I think not. After Jaime's gone, there'll be no one to clean up after the bird.
Ada, Mama, Stewart and Stuart, Benjamin, Iduna—I can hear their voices again, wafting down an alternate hallway of time, one that leads to a staircase, which leads to a trap door, which opens to the tar-shingled roof of time, where the air is brisk and clean and the sky stretches out forever in all directions. "How could you treat him that way?" they'll ask Jaime. "The interesting man!"
No one calls me sweet, and I'd just as soon keep it that way. But I'll let Jaime off the hook a lot sooner than he would me. "No," I'll tell everyone, "he's entitled to the life he chooses. It just wasn't . . . meant to be."
Jaime and Bartholomew can cuddle til the Kali Yuga, safe and warm in each other's arms in their little poorly-heated love nest. It's what I want for them. No guilt.
And who will fault me if, after an appropriate period of mourning (egg timer, please), I turn to another for succor? With Jaime out of the house, I can woo Carlisle right and proper. He'll love the feel of the library's soft, grassy carpeting against his bare skin; and perhaps I'll enlarge the tub in the master bath.
Storm clouds like black cows' udders dangle over the hills as I trudge up to my front door. Inside, the house smells of garlic and birdshit. Bourbaki greets me with a flourish of his red-feathered tail. "I am not, awkk, a number, I am, awkk, a free parrot."
Three weeks and two jars of peanut butter for that accomplishment. I leave the cage locked.
My acupressurist complains that I overanalyze, leading to a blockage of energy flow between the hypothalamus and the intestines. He may be correct. For I have been staring compulsively down a narrow, dismal path, littered with regret and old newspapers, a path that cuts between the two clean, modern edifices I've constructed in my thoughts this afternoon.
What if I dismiss Jaime, and I don't get Carlisle?
Yes it could. Carlisle is unpredictable, as is the world.
A man with sparkling blue eyes and an island villa off the coast of Portugal might be passing through town, might crook his finger. Carlisle would be gone by cock's crow.
Hollywood might come fishing in our pond, luring Carlisle with a tied fly of great price. After that I'd only see him in seventy millimeter.
Hustlers with access to interesting hallucinogens. A gray-bearded, Tonied playwright exploring his bisexuality. The ripe-thighed boy in the next stall. There are pitfalls at every crossroads.
This house would seem terribly empty then, echoing only to the feeble moans of my self-abuse. Jaime and Bartholomew's happiness would sear my eyes, draw forth tears of bitterness to burn my face. The pity of my friends would be bottomless and unbearable.
What would I do then? Who would I turn to? Carlisles are not a dime a dozen, nor even to be had for a dollar-twenty per. Even Jaimes aren't easily obtained.
The only protection against this lonely fate is to slip Carlisle the magic Mickey. But then I'm back where I started, with Jaime lingering like Banquo's ghost.
Oh, Cupid! Your gift is two-edged! As are all the gifts of your kind. To Carlisle, or to Jaime? Two lovers, or none?
I might have been better off with a saffron bear claw. At least my belly would not feel so hollow.
I wander through the house, avoiding the kitchen. The clouds block what little sunlight remains, making shadow boxes out of the unlit rooms.
I find myself in the little den, really my favorite room in the house. A couch, a desk, two Greek wrestlers in alabaster. Cozy. A large globe huddles on a polished wood frame in the corner. Turquoise oceans, sepia lands. Jaime gave it to me for my birthday years ago. He knew exactly what I wanted, then.
I spin it beneath my hand, forcing twilight and dawn at an unholy pace. Finally it slows and stops. The Soviet borders are woefully outdated.
The couch sags in exactly the right places, amiably accepting my shoulder blades and buttocks. My head sinks into the wool-and-foam-rubber pillow my niece made in shop class. I cross my arms over my chest, corpse-like, the little plastic bottle resting in my hands like a hyacinth.
In my dream I am a Tin Munchkin, supine on the tinsmith's workbench. The tinsmith, played by Mark Spitz, is adjusting my knees and elbows with various tools: screwdriver, socket wrench, awl. They tickle. His seven Olympic medals swing past my eyes, to and fro like a hypnotist's coins.
Just beyond my gray gleaming feet is a pedestal of scalloped Etruscan marble, with a brown Food King grocery bag upside down on top of it. From inside the bag comes a muffled squawk: "Erl King, Erl—awkk—King."
The Tin Man, played by Buddy Ebsen, squirts something on my cheeks and thighs. At first I think he's peeing on me, but then I see the yellow-and-black Pennzoil can strapped to his wrist. I feel empty and light, and I think: I can eat anything I want and never get fat.
The Tin Man's chest swings open. A digital clock floats in the empty space like a monolith, bright red numbers like blood. It doesn't tickle. Tick.
A tiny terrier runs up the side of the pedestal and starts ripping the grocery bag with its teeth, ferociously shaking its head back and forth. Bourbaki, new-born from the bag, hops from foot to foot. "Oh no, my child, I'm a very good parrot. I'm just a very bad wizard. Awkk!" The dog, larger now, reduces the bag to confetti.
I wake up to the same ripping sound, and Jaime's distant voice: "Shit!" I hear something metallic hitting the hardwood floor, followed by three citric thumps.
I wonder what Jaime's cooking for dinner. He makes a quite passable Szechuan chicken with orange peel.
Darkness has fallen over me and my globe; the room is black. Drops of rain tap imploringly at my window, seeking refuge from the low thunder that chases them.
I sit up, scooting backwards to lean against the arm of the couch. Only the LED digits of the desk clock are visible, neon tetras in the aquarium of night. 7:34.
I can hear Jaime gathering up spilled groceries, and Bourbaki singing. "It's my party, and I'll—awwk! Awwk!" More canned goods hit the floor and roll, making a sound like bowling pins picked off in an easy spare.
Working by touch, I unstop the bottle, position myself in a classic Dr. Jekyll, and squeeze. Jelly-thick and warm from body heat, the potion shimmies down my throat like a hula dancer, leaving shallow footsteps of vanilla on my sand-rough tongue.
People use vanilla to mean ordinary, neutral, boring—vanilla sex, vanilla geopolitics, vanilla Catholicism—but in fact it has a lovely flavor all its own, just north of coconut and redolent of fifth-grade art class: rainbows of construction paper, snub-nosed scissors, Elmer's Glue.
"Honey? Are you still home?" Jaime's voice from the kitchen. No doubt my Infiniti whispered to his Saturn, nestled side-by-side in the carport. The refrigerator opens, closes.
In the hive that is my heart, bees taste fresh nectar. There is buzzing; complex, information-rich dances (every movement has a meaning); the call to take wing. I can feel them stinging in my throat, my chest, my loins. Painful, but not entirely unpleasant.
Jaime's size-sixteen Rockports clomp down the darkened hallway to my den. "Kell? I thought you had a business meeting."
I can feel his massive form fill the doorway. "Are you in there? I can't see a thing."
"I'm here," I say, tilting my head up towards the source of his voice. "Turn the light on."