Little Mercies

©2011

1987, Colorado

 (4000 words)

Maybe Tom is what he appears to be, Rex thinks—one of those lucky breaks he’s heard about: the rare as hen’s teeth “arranged introduction” that actually goes somewhere.  Maybe this is the miracle he wants it to be.

It is just over a month now, yet the little things still manage to engage Rex.  Like watching Tom stoop to look at the new releases in the bookstore where they’ve stopped to browse.

“I’ve been meaning to pick up some real reading material for weeks now,” Tom tells him, kneeling to scan the dust jacket of a bottom shelf best seller—one that Rex has himself only recently finished.  “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been living in a cultural vacuum—a hermit in my own apartment.  All this bedtime perusal of medical journals doesn’t make for a well-rounded life, so they say.”

Rex can’t imagine who they are, but he is certainly glad that Tom has come out to play.

Looking at the man—which he does with as much discretion as possible—is a pleasure.

There is just the slightest thinning of hair at the crown of Tom’s head—just enough to cast a sheen under the fluorescent lights.  Dr. Thomas Waters (an internist, for Christ’s sake!) is almost as tall as Rex and a good 20 pounds heavier, most of that in his thighs and calves from what Rex can see.

Rex has always admired men with well-formed legs—not like his own that have gotten so skinny and stretched-tight in the last few months.

“Rapid weight loss,” Dr. Tom had laughed when Rex mentioned his predicament, the way none of his clothes fit anymore, “or weight gain, if you’re less fortunate, like me—that’s the telltale mark of the recently or soon-to-be divorced male!  The “Scarlet ‘D’!”

Rex had wanted to say that his new friend had nothing to be ashamed of on that score and how much he preferred the hard, bunched masses of the naturally mesomorphic.  Instead, he’d kept silent, shaking his head dismissively at Tom’s self deprecation, worrying that it was perhaps too soon to go revealing personal tastes and attractions—and too familiar.  His thoughts of the moment are fixed on what Tom’s legs might look like beneath his corduroys.

Whether this new man is more or less handsome than others Rex has known he cannot say.  It is too difficult to be objective.  Lee, his business partner and former lover until their recent parting of the ways, is the closest point of comparison.  Rex is aware of the physical similarities of the two men.  Both Tom and Lee are tall and well but firmly fleshed out—with the same longish, vaguely equine facial structure.  But that, given the current messiness with Lee, is as far as Rex will allow comparison, as much as he is willing to consider the two men in the same moment.  Not now.  Not in this new, and unexpected, and rarefied atmosphere—host to a living, breathing possibility that might actually turn out right.  Rex doesn’t want to jinx what seems to be shaping into a good thing.

Granted, until tonight it has all been very friendly, very hands off.  But who knows where it could be leading, for tonight Tom has touched him for the first time, reaching right across the table at an awkward moment to take his hand—and just when that small act of kindness was most needed.

Of course, Rex reminds himself as he watches Tom thumbing pages, there is no certainty in any of this.  Past experience has taught him to be wary of early impressions.  And yet, it is hard to imagine that the man he is with is anything other than he appears—calm and kind, a man who is not afraid to be who he is.

According to Rex’s friend Hillie, who all but forced their introduction, there are always at least six people at the table early in a relationship.  But then, Hillie, his accountant for over a decade, is almost as big on pop psychology as she is on numbers.

“Imagine any new relationship as a mathematical sum, and then multiply it times two,” she’d instructed once when, after a long session over the sorry state of his finances, the subject had veered unexpectedly toward the personal, toward the possibility of a new relationship, toward the possibility of life after divorce.

“In any new relationship, there’s more than two people at play,” Hillie had insisted.  “There’s the person we think we are, the person they think we are, and the person we would like to be,” she told him, probably paraphrasing her argument from some all but forgotten magazine piece.  “It can get confusing, not to mention crowded.”

Rex does not feel crowded when he is with Tom.

So what if he looks his age.  The good doctor is 47, nearly eight years his senior—but what a very nice 47 it is.  Tom is solid, the muscles of his back clearly visible where his turtleneck stretches tight over a wedge-shaped torso; and there is only the slightest thickening at the waist.  This last does not constitute a liability in Rex’s mind.  Other matters compel him.

All night long Tom has stayed close at hand and attentive.  Even when the Pearl Street gym gods pass in close quarters, Tom’s eyes do not wander.  Rex notices these things.

“Should’ve done this months ago,” Tom says, placing a small literary cache on the checkout counter, “instead of hiding behind the notion that the hospital had me too snowed under for self-improvement.”

A doctor, Rex marvels anew!  And one who’s not afraid to admit human frailties!  Rex has always had difficulty communicating with medical professionals.  To this day, he can barely make eye contact with his personal physician during a routine office visit.

“Oh com’on!” Hillie scolded when he’d expressed his initial misgivings about an introduction.  “I’m just inviting you to meet him at a brunch I’m giving.  It’s not an HMO transaction, not a goddamn physical exam—unless, that is, God willing, you should really hit it off!” she’d leered, her expensively tinted silver curls bouncing to the rhythm of an evil laugh.

“Yeah, well, sex is the last thing on my mind these days,” Rex claimed, only to suffer near instantaneous embarrassment at the obviousness of the lie.

“Right!  Next you’ll be telling me you’ve a bridge in Brooklyn to sell.  You should get over yourself, Mister,” she deadpanned.  “Nobody’s expecting you to perform for the camera.”

Rex could depend on Hillie to debunk his deepest fears, to make light of even the most supercharged, potentially mortifying social situations.  What amazing self-confidence she must have, Rex had thought at the time, to even consider gay matchmaking a man fresh off a heterosexual divorce.

Rex had long theorized Hildegarde Hausen—her real name, but God help the person who used anything other than the diminutive, less “old-ladyish,” Hillie—just couldn’t shut off the accountant part of her that was always eager to be balancing “x” with “y”, or even “XY” with “XY” as the situation dictated!

How convenient for her that the monthly client-laden Sunday gatherings she and her husband Karl hosted provided the perfect forum for this hobby—one that seemed to border on a near obsession with bringing something, anything, to summation.

That Hillie had a talent for it Rex had to admit.  Offhand, he could think of three couples that owed apparently happy relationships to Hillie’s meddling.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that Hausen fêtes harmonized an unusually diverse social/professional mix.  On a given Sunday afternoon, one might encounter a skinny Latina graduate student, no more than a degree removed from the barrio, holding her own with a white-bread loving, crew-cut college professor from Omaha; a grand boubou-wearing West-African d’jembe drummer tête-à-têting a Denver country-club housewife in the latest Donna Karan; or an inscrutably smiling Asian-born auto mechanic debating crash-test ratings with a corporate attorney whose voice still brayed seventy-six trombones of Brooklyn brass—even a good-looking, down-to-earth physician willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to an anxious, middle-age architect.

Such skill at bringing people together, Rex had long since decided, was so much more than the simple matter of adding this subset to that and probably accounted in part for the fact that Hillie and husband Karl (a CPA and a Stanford J. D.) had built Hausen & Hausen into one of the most successful professional management firms in the metro area.  An added plus was the fact that Hillie and Karl provided a magnificent spread catered and bartended to the nines; the gathering at which he’d met Tom was peopled with folks thirsting for an oasis in the middle of a tedious, dragging Indian summer.  Except for Tom, that is.

Dr. Waters had been cool and sober and remarkably unpretentious the Sunday afternoon of their first meeting.

“So you’re the architect Hillie’s been telling me about.  I’m afraid I don’t know a thing about architecture,” Tom had begun over the unlikely combination of crêpes pesto and a Doctor Pepper.  “Tell me what it’s like for you; envisioning your structures, making them fit their occupants.  Seeing them built from the plans up?”

With Tom, there had been none of the usual dishing on styles and inspirations intended to suggest knowledge where it didn’t exist—not even a single reference to I. M. Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hillie had been right about him from the start.  “I’m telling you, Doctor Tom’s a good guy.  Very solid and safe, very unpretentious,” she’d insisted there in her office weeks earlier when the subject first came up.  “Do you think I’d let any other kind of man feel up my boobs twice a year!” she’d thrown in for emphasis.  “Besides, when have I ever steered you wrong?  What is it?  Almost ten years now I’ve been cookin’ your books,” she joked, her square little face and bean-brown eyes a consummate study in tenacity, “and when was the last time you had to pay the piper?”

“Talk to me after the divorce settlement is finalized,” Rex quipped, thankful for an opening into what was clearly intended to be a one-sided discussion.

“Yes, well, you should’ve played straight with me on that score from the beginning—not to mention Marcia!”

“I think that … was the problem,” he’d countered, wincing at the mention of his soon to be ex-wife’s name.  “I was miscast in that role—just couldn’t cut it as a straight man.”

“Well, orientation is not the issue anymore, Kiddo,” Hillie had reminded him.  “The issue is that you need a companion, someone who’ll provide a good return on the investment you make in time and attention.  And we both know that means a really good man.”

What point would there have been, Hillie must surely have reasoned, in mincing around the fact that the brunch invitation was just the latest, blatant sortie in what turned out to be a three-month campaign to find him a husband.  She’d undertaken the task with typical ebullience, all but spouting encouragement.  “You’re working again now.  Steady at the university.  Nice little apartment.  You’re still in good shape and working order,” she said arching her eyebrows devilishly.  “It’s time for the next step.  It’s not good for you to go on holing up this way just because relationships have gone wrong in the past.”

Rex appreciated Hillie’s skill, and the discretion with which she exercised it—especially since the impending divorce had brought things to a head with Lee on both professional and personal levels.  How politic of Hillie to pretend, given all she’d seen of his shambled financial affairs, that she didn’t understand how deeply those affairs included his former business partner.

“Here’s a chance to move on,” Hillie reminded him in pressing her argument about Doctor Tom to conclusion.  “You’re both professionals; both gay men detoured for a while into straight relationships.  Both fathers.  There’s a lot of common ground between you.  Who knows?  It could be good.  Perhaps not the love of your life, but something smaller,” she said giving him a rare glimpse into the heart beating beneath the chic, accessorized exterior.  “Maybe one of those little mercies in the wasteland?  Why not drop by Sunday afternoon and find out.  Why not take the chance?”

Rex is glad that he did, that he has.

Tom is a grown-up man, two-years divorced, an internist with a large practice.  He has a son at U. C. Berkeley.

It is good to be with a man who is a father; Rex is glad of the opportunity to swap kid stories, which they’ve done on several occasions.  He is also pleased that Tom is satisfied with the précis version of his recent life story.  Of course, it’s likely that Hillie has filled Tom in on this score.  Rex isn’t sure, but it speaks well that the man hasn’t pressed him for the more sordid details of his divorce from Marcia—not even a single question about third parties in the proceedings.  Doctor Tom had navigated even the evening’s shakiest moments with skill and genuine sensitivity.

Rex’s abbreviated version of the family history—including his son Alec’s decision to reside with Marcia, and worst of all, the few details he’d volunteered about his son Peter, the terrifying ordinariness of the accident that had claimed his life—produced an effortless flow of pure, parental empathy.

“My boy was a tree climber, too.  Rock outcroppings.  Just about anything tall.  I can only imagine what hell it must’ve been for all of you,” Tom said, graciously including Marcia and Alec in his condolences.  “Losing a child, well—it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, isn’t it?” he’d said, reaching across the table to cover Rex’s hands with his own.  “And for Alec—losing his only sibling, his twin.  How to fathom it?”

Tom’s remarks had gone well beyond the usual embarrassed, perfunctory attempts most people exhibited when they learned of Peter’s death.  Never once had Tom tried to steer away from Peter, to move the conversation on to something less real.  Instead, he’d taken his cues on the matter from Rex.  This, it seems to Rex, is a very good sign.

Likewise, it is encouraging that Tom shows no reticence in providing the most relevant details of his life—his coming out (“three years of hell and spilling my guts to shrinks, not to mention the financial drain that one can expect to weather”), the two-year ordeal of his divorce (“a relief for us all, by the end”).  Tom is not afraid to reveal any of this, but he doesn’t go overboard either.  Instead, he steps lightly through the details of his life and always with grace and generous candor.

“Would you like to go up to my place for coffee or a drink,” Tom says, confirming this assessment, as they go out into the cold night air.

Rex’s pulse quickly moves from foxtrot to two-step.  He takes a deep breath determined to keep up.  “I’d like that very much,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound too eager.

West of town the moon has frosted the Flatirons silver blue.  A light dusting of early Colorado snow covers the foothill dwellings where people are sleeping and waking and talking and making love.

“You’re sure it’s not too late?”

“I wouldn’t ask if it were too late,” Tom says, smiling at him from under his dense brows.  “Let’s go,” he says.  “It’s just a short walk.”

Rex falls in half a step behind Tom as he heads down Pearl Street toward Ninth, thinking it charming the way the man routinely says just instead of the more reductive only.  Tom has a surprisingly long stride, which makes it a challenge to keep up.  At the end of each step when Tom’s leg is left momentarily behind, Rex can see the shape of his calf against corduroy.

“My place is a bit of a mess,” Tom apologizes in advance, “but then, usually nobody sees it but me.”

Ten minutes later, Rex is able to judge for himself.  Nobody would ever claim that Tom’s apartment is a mess.  It is as neat as a pin.  Rex is certain the white glove nanny herself couldn’t find a smudge or a wisp of dust.  Located on the fourth floor of a new condo building, the pleasant flat fronts on Portland Place and is, he notes, very conveniently near the hospital.

The silence impresses Rex almost immediately.  He finds himself listening for the muted cacophony he has grown used to over the last months in his own much more modest apartment building.  That there is none of it here he attributes to the advantages of a reinforced concrete structure.  The background noises of other people living their lives in close proximity do not intrude on Tom’s space—there are no muffled hallway voices, no stereo bass tones, or kitchen clatterings.  How different from his own recent experience.  Only this morning his downstairs neighbor—a known doper and pothead, according to building gossip—could be heard caterwauling in the shower.  The racket had made Rex long for the days of home ownership, one of the many economic casualties of his current “change of pace,” as Hillie terms it.

Rex imagines Tom’s place must’ve cost a princely sum.  “Great location,” he says.  “You can roll out of bed and be at work in no time.”

Tom smiles.  “Yeah.  Even so, there are mornings when one doesn’t feel like rolling anywhere,” he pauses, “but over.”

Rex feels a shiver run up his spine—a budding embarrassment, or is it excitement?  How fortunate that the lights are dim, he thinks.

“Will you have cognac or coffee, or both,” Tom calls to him from the kitchen, which is a small, compact affair with marble countertops.

“Both,” Rex answers.  “Might as well have it all,” he volunteers.

It is obvious that Tom is at home in his kitchen.  Rex watches his moves, the way he pivots on the ball of his foot from one cupboard to another with maximum efficiency, loading up the Coffee Master, uncorking a bottle of Courvoisier, laying out the cups and saucers.  Tom brings the tray into the living room and soon they are sitting opposite each other in over-stuffed chairs positioned before a gas fireplace.

“You are the first person I’ve had up here since my sister-in-law insisted on redoing the place,” Tom says.  “Actually, I liked it better before.”  Tom sips his coffee with the slightest slurp.  “I’m not sure there’s much of me left here anymore.”

Rex looks around the room and thinks how well suited the surroundings seem to the man across from him.  How odd that Tom can’t see how perfectly the furnishings match his personality: the staid plaids, the eggshell-white walls, the patternless, double-looped rugs; all just as comforting and solid, and as non-threatening as their owner.

“Actually, I’d say she’s done a nice job; certainly beats what I’m used to,” Rex says.

He is just about to ask how the room looked before when the telephone rings.  A slight frown passes over Tom’s face at the interruption, like a wisp of cloud across the sun.  Then he is up, excusing himself.

Off in the kitchen Rex can hear him answer, can hear the slight pause before the greeting.

“Oh … Hi,” Tom says.  “It’s good to hear from you again.”

Rex feels an odd moment of déjà vu, as if he’s been in this exact place before.  He tries to shake the feeling by focusing on the painting that hangs above the fireplace.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.  Maybe the next production.”

Eavesdropping makes Rex uncomfortable; he tries not to listen.  Unfortunately, the highly muted landscape of the California coast, perhaps Big Sur, is not particularly engaging.  The colors are so modulated, so bland—just as noncommittal as the sound of Tom’s voice in the next room.

“We’ll talk again soon,” he tells the person on the other end of the line obviously preparing to ring off.

Somehow it is all a bit unnerving for Rex.  He sips his laced coffee and waits for the warmth of the cognac to ease an unaccountable skittishness.  Amazingly, it only takes a few moments.  And then Tom is standing there in the archway, leaning against the wall, looking at him, raising his cup to his lips.  He does not speak right away.  Just stands there while Rex holds his breath.

When Tom crosses the room, Rex feels his own involuntary movement forward as to a magnet.

“I’m sorry,” Tom says in a voice much smaller than Rex expects.  “It was rude of me to answer that.”  And then the words Rex has been waiting for.  “Would you like to be with me for a while?”

Very simple.  Very direct.  So much so that Rex is halfway out of his chair before he notices that Tom has extended his hand—that the man actually intends to lead him.  How astonishing is this, he thinks—to be with a man who wants to make things easier?

And then Tom’s hands close on his for the second time in a single evening.  They are cool and very dry, the grip comfortable, neither too firm nor too loose.  Before Rex can take his mind off the sensation, he is being led.

In the bedroom there are more sensations.  The same plaid fabric on the comforter as on the living room chairs, the modest double bed already turned down.  And now, Tom’s hands on his chest.  Unbuttoning his shirt, loosening his belt.

Rex’s hands respond as if they have minds of their own, as if for once they know just how to move with something like grace.  He thinks that he wants this to go on and on, the two of them proceeding in silence up to the moment of the first embrace, that moment of skin on skin.

When it comes, Tom sighs close by Rex’s ear.  There is the scent of Tom’s breath followed closely by the first coffee-sweet taste of him.  And then, the complex fragrance of Tom’s skin—like Ivory soap, like a man’s laundered shirt worn only a few hours—as their garments fall away.

Afterward, in the dark, breathing the musk of spent bodies, Rex contemplates the mystery of rarefied consciousness—those odd moments of intense presence that penetrate the terrifying fog of everyday existence to make memory.  They are the moments that return without coaxing even years later.  This moment, he knows, will be one of them.  Others come rushing back at him.

He remembers his morning ablutions, and the thrill of being struck stock-still in his bath: a junkie angel is singing in the shower downstairs—what heart-rending courage in the unremarkable voice, so willing to bleed, to be impaled on the sharpest, most unreachable notes.

There is, Rex remembers, beauty that cannot be long endured, that hurts even as it reminds the heart to go on beating.  Like Marcia panting her way through the ancient rites of womanhood, begging for distraction, for some justification to her labors, forcing him to witness and narrate the glistening, blood-bathed entrance of their boys into the world—that first glimpse of their heads crowning into life one after the other.

More horrific, but no less magnificent, is the blinding wonder of Peter, broken and lost in his mother’s arms, the waxen death mask congealing even as the living child slips away—every awkward trace of adolescence obliterated by a fall into grace.

There are so many of these—things too fast and sharp and heavy to hold.  They bombard Rex as he lies in a new man’s arms.  Stealthy, unforecastable, these are the moments, he understands, that freeze time in glacial milliseconds so consequential that it can take months, years, decades for them to thaw.

Still, in all the stupefying meantime, there comes the surprising now, and the quiet calm of longed-for intimacy, the instant memory couched in words that come wrapped in a lover’s arms.

“I’d like you to stay,” Tom says.

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