A Short Story (1766 words)
By Jack A. Urquhart ©2012
Here is something I want to share: today I found a faded snapshot of you—and it felt like disaster. Which made me think of Roland Barthes. Wasn’t it he who said every photograph is a catastrophe?
Holding that photo in my hands, I thought, here is the confirmation: you on Muir Beach. Walking away.
There. I’ve written it. A wise man would call it quits right here, eschew verbosity. But I am not wise. And not so frightened as I once was—even though you are probably thinking: Here is an odd beginning to an unsolicited communication—odd and presumptuous to commence with pretentious literary reference and unseemly displays of emotion.
I can understand how you might feel that way.
Who, after all, needs a letter from a former lover, let alone one that begins with “Dear Friend”? That’s rather like receiving one of those personalized sales fliers, isn’t it—the kind merchants send after you’ve abandoned them for reasons of shoddy service:
“We Miss You! Come back and check out our Big Clearance Sale!”
The difference is I’m not selling anything, at least I don’t think I am. And you aren’t coming back.
There is, however, a bit of ‘clearance’ at the heart of this act of contrition and that’s quite a gamble for me. Then again, there is the chance this will never see the post. That would be like me, wouldn’t it—all talk and no do? Proof positive of my formidable ‘risk avoidance factor’—my RAF as you used to call it?
“It’s somewhere between 9 and 10, your RAF. And that’s on a 10 point scale!” you once said (somewhat peevishly) toward the end of our time. “You rely too much on others to skirt the brink.”
Truer words. And you see—I haven’t forgotten them.
There are other things I haven’t forgotten. Things that haven’t faded with time.
Here is one—the main one, in fact; an image still clear and sharp:
The way you looked at me across the table that afternoon years ago: your eyes arching into lunettes, the ambered irises whorled away to black. Like aperture openings. Do you remember that day—the lunch that changed everything? That dark little Asian restaurant on Golden Gate Avenue?
We’d been hashing over the institution of marriage, talking in generalities over Thai coffees, neither of us mentioning our respective mates by name, never referencing your separation, already a fait accompli by then. You let me take the lead, let me keep it easy—everything in abstract man vs. woman terms. But you must’ve known what I was about, that I was vivisecting my choices—the ones that were still alive and kicking.
I would’ve been pontificating, trying to impress you—probably saying something like:
“The thing that differentiates men from women in relationships is that men are born to leave someone while women are born to lose someone.”
Words to that effect.
I expect I barely drew breath before plunging ahead:
“Maybe it’s endemic—that men come into the world expecting loneliness. Maybe we count on a succession of fractures. Rather like Beckett’s play—“Krapp’s Last Tape”? That might account for the poor choices we make.”
Lord, but I loved the sound of my voice, didn’t I; loved sneaking in those literary references to remind everyone that I was a writer, that only the poet, the ‘artiste’ could find words for our abiding loneliness, tell us what we were missing, what we really wanted.
What a hack I was.
You were kind not to say so, not to shine a light on my phony ‘poetics,’ which we both know never packed more wattage than required for a second-rate regional magazine.
So you see how I’ve changed, how I can say that now—admit that I never had what it took to illuminate anything.
But you did.
You brought us out of the shadows that day—changed our lives with a few words. I still wonder what made you do it? Was it you’d had enough of my BS? Is that what made you reach across the table to grab my wrist, catch me mid-pretense?
“I know what you really want.”
That’s how you began.
And then, “You want too much. I wonder how you’d handle it—having your heart’s desire?”
What I wanted, of course, was you—wanted you and was scared to death of what that meant. Me, ten years married to Cori, yet suddenly, irrefutably in love with a man.
I couldn’t tell you, of course.
I couldn’t imagine admitting how easily you attracted me, how standing next to you in an elevator was a lesson in astrophysics, how I could feel myself careening toward you, succumbing to your gravitational pull.
I’d never have said that. But you must’ve known.
Because you repeated yourself.
“You want too much.” And then, something astonishing. “I wonder if we want the same thing. Maybe we should find out?”
There was a moment of silence before you settled the matter—slapping bills onto the table, leading me out of the restaurant, sealing our fate with a simple, “let’s go.”
Down Golden Gate past Van Ness must’ve been our route, and from thence, to Franklin walking fast and in silence, like anything less than speed, anything more than the traffic’s white noise would break the spell. True north it would’ve been, all the way to Turk, our destination, never in question. No need to say anything until we’d set upon each other inside your tiny apartment.
I remember belt buckles clanging against hardwood, shoes kicked into the corner, loose change rolling about our feet. None of it mattered. Only getting past the reticence and wasted time, the months, years of fears and pretending.
Our inhibitions fell into heaps that afternoon—until we were buck-naked but for the comedic fashion statement of our socks.
We were both wearing navy blue argyles.
Remember how we stooped to stare at them—our prudish feet? And then you laughed, said something like, “Is there anything as ridiculous as a man—tumescent, naked but for dark socks?”
I always loved you for that—how you could make light of the cringing moment.
My self-consciousness was never so easily banished, nor was it localized in my stocking feet. You were so beautiful, so stunning that I couldn’t imagine how you’d want a man like me—given the pounds creeping ‘round my middle. I must’ve attempted apology, something dismissive, because you stopped me with a finger against my lips.
“The human body is geographic,” you said. And then using the same finger, you played cartographer, traced a map on my skin, citing where grassy plateaus yielded to arid plains, that rose into rounded hills, that gave ground to verdant valleys.
“The terrain of your body is varied, ever-changing,” you said. “The way the Gods intended.”
It couldn’t have taken you more than sixty seconds to do it—to make me there in your hallway. The way the Gods intended.
Later, lying entwined in your ruined bed, you created something else—a mood: an atmosphere, domestic and comic, sensual and pensive.
“Most people don’t think of us like this—like two normal people,” you said, my fingers making a playground of your hair. “Like any other post coital couple.”
Couple, you said.
I wonder if you knew how that affected me—how my mind went reeling.
But you were lost in thought, staring at the ceiling, your thigh resting heavily against my hip. “They say, those gay guys—all they do is get-it-on in sleazy motels and back alleys.” And then you looked at me, hair sticking up in whirligigs. “They say all we do is come and go. Well, for the record,” you murmured, voice like maple syrup, “I don’t want to go. However, as for the other…”
Is there anything more life affirming than laughter? Any greater testament to the divine than discovering a person can vanish into white light, die and go to heaven, be born again—exhausted, tearful, joyful, more nakedly alive than a babe in arms?
We must’ve lain hours, drowsing in our birthday suits. Holding each other. Telling stories.
“Used to be, when I was a kid in Catholic school,” I remember you said, “the priest would take us boys on camping retreats. We’d be roasting marshmallows and weenies,” you sniggered at the memory, “and suddenly, Father Nicolas would say, ‘you know boys, your dick is not a muscle. It doesn’t need to be exercised.’”
How I laughed. Till my sides ached. Until, as if by way of counter argument, you rolled over me.
“Shows how much the good Father knew,” you said, silencing me with your mouth.
There was no lack of exercise that afternoon.
I recall it vividly—how you loved me. I recall thinking how I’d remember it for the rest of my life. And I remember thinking of Cori at home. Ironic, don’t you agree—that it should’ve been one of the few times when the lag between life-changing experience and comprehension was minimal?
That things went slack in the aftermath, in the months that followed, was my fault. I know that. I mark it down to cowardice, to my sorry RAF.
How I must’ve disappointed you; how it must’ve hurt when I wasn’t ready—wasn’t courageous enough—to match you risk for risk. It was shoddy of me—not to push myself when it would’ve mattered; stupid not to realize what it meant when you walked away.
I could say that I’m sorry, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough, would it?
Instead, I’ll offer cliché: maybe it was for the best?
I hear you are partnered now—another writer, a newspaperman, that the two of you have settled near Denver, and that you’ve adopted a son. I’ve seen the photos on the Internet—the three of you in close up, smiling ear-to-ear.
Which brings me back to that snapshot of you on Muir Beach.
I want you to know, Dear Friend, how that photo has helped me understand something—something that has caught up to me after all these years: that my worst fears don’t reside in the future; they live on in the recurring past.
I want you to know that should I gaze at your photograph every day for the rest of my life, it will always be like re-encountering that catastrophe—the you who will not, who cannot return—all over again.
And that I’ll still be able to carry on.
That is something, don’t you agree?
Something worth sharing?