Never Take a Hostage You’re Not Willing to Shoot
Scott and Dan shared no values concerning what mattered most: poetry, monogamy, straight guys, religion, jazz music, old friends, filial loyalty, children, the contents of dreams, the importance of particular memories, having actual data to back-up one’s bald assertions, and the appropriate method of dispatching a wounded animal. Not a single fucking thing in common. They didn’t even look the least thing like one another: Dan was a lanky roadrunner with a mop of untamed hair he wore too long. Scott was all curves (shoulders, face, skull) and always fighting (against gravity, against extra pounds, against balding).
In the first year they shacked up, their differences had seemed fundamental and dooming. They were perpetually on the verge of a break-up. As the years passed, miraculous, peculiar concordances on very particular and inconsequential matters had blunted the fundamental differences—they shared surprisingly similar viewpoints on Edison lightbulbs, endless cormorant shit, the ubiquity of roasted Brussels sprouts on modern restaurant menus, the fabulous Cyndi Lauper, the vanity of holiday cards, the perfect house on Provincetown Harbor, and the venality of the younger President Bush.
Yet just at the point in their seven-year relationship when it therefore seemed Dan and Scott might after all be soulmates, they hosted another disastrous mixed-orientation Provincetown dinner party and all hell broke loose.
As usual, Dan placed a hot, young, uncomprehending and uncompromisingly straight graphic artist at his immediate right, drank too much, and launched into an improbable tale of having once stopped a street fight among Vietnamese taxi drivers by quoting poetry:
the wise man shuts his mouth /
the strong man folds his arms.
Scott called bullshit.
Dan appealed to their guests like a lawyer to a jury.
“Really! Swear to God! This actually happened,” he said. “In the lives of the Vietnamese, poetry has power we Americans can scarcely conceive of. It’s used for courting, for entertainment, for chicanery. Even for winning political debates.”
“Oh, puh-lease!” said Scott.
“You’ll frequently hear a Vietnamese politician say, ‘And there’s a poem to prove it!’ That’s his punch line! That’s how he wins the debate!”
“I guess the nearest thing we have to a Vietnamese poem is the Tweet,” volunteered the hot-young-straight graphic artist.
“Tweets,” Dan gushed. “Um. I never thought of that. That’s brilliant.”
The graphic artist stiffened with pride. Scott noisily plopped gougères on dessert plates with all the ceremony of a morning shit.
Putting his creepy hand on the shoulder of the graphic artist, Dan declared that he had dreamed of a land in which poetry had such force. A native land. Not simply because everyone dreams of being king—the winner of hot young lovers and political arguments and spontaneous street fights—but because there was something noble—or perhaps neither noble nor ignoble but more true—in the world where poetry ruled. In that world, a man got his hands dirty and sweated and felt honest, even if he was up to no good.
“Remember, for example,” Dan said, appealing again to their hot-young-straight guest, “the first time you smelled your girlfriend’s vagina on your fingers? You wanted to tell everyone about it and at the same time you wanted to keep the secret, holding your fingers to your nose again and again because you can’t quite believe your luck. Am I right?”
The other gay couple recoiled and the straight wives looked miffed, but the graphic designer grinned broadly.
“Enough!” Scott cried.
“See? I knew it! Even I had this sense of triumph with the girls,” Dan crowed, gazing at close range into the graphic artist’s eyes.
The moment the last guest had said his goodbye, Scott declared, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m leaving you and taking up with the first man I meet in the street.”
Dan glanced up from his Provincetown Banner.
“Can you pick up scented candles and vinegar when you’re out?” he asked. “Those disgusting heathens stubbed their cigarettes out on the deck rail and I hear vinegar’s quite effective.”
“Only one of those so-called heathens smokes. Try at least to be a little fair when you make these pronouncements about people,” Scott scolded. Scott detested Dan’s bald-faced pronouncements, which were unconscionably durable, yet based (even Dan conceded) on the least possible information for fear some new data would challenge his thesis. “And you didn’t seem to mind when the graphic artist was hanging on your every word between puffs.”
“Really? He was hanging on my words?” Dan asked eagerly.
Dan turned back to the Banner’s wine column.
“Do we like Slovenian wine?” he asked.
Scott considered the question carefully, because Dan constantly tested Scott on aspects of their seven-year relationship that Dan believed required remembrance for validation.
“We do,” Scott said carefully. “We had a bottle of Slovenian wine at Aspen Gay Ski.”
Dan folded away his Banner and gazed raptly at Scott as if he were a hot-young-straight guy reciting poetry. But his smile faded as Scott rattled on, recounting the particular occasion in bright color and amplified surround-sound, identifying every morsel of food consumed and every person present and the naked snow angels and Frette sheets and sex on the bearskin rug before the cabin’s grand fireplace.
Dan was powerless to refute these details that Scott had just invented, because everyone acknowledged that Scott had the longer memory, and Dan was plagued by an intense unspoken fear that he would end up like his father, a man whose fine brain had degraded over time to shredded cheese, and whose new, inane, bright-eyed good humor rendered him entirely unable to take care of himself, equally accommodating and vacuously cheerful to all comers, God bless him, and the home where he was cared for, which Dan only visited when Scott nagged him into resentful submission.
* * *
The morning after the dinner party, Dan reviewed the email he had composed to a poet who years earlier had been a budding writer-in-residence at the university where Dan headed the legal department and was now reported to be at a writer’s retreat in Barnstable for the summer:
Knowing you (however briefly, however many years ago) was confusing—it’s harder to read a book truthfully when you know the poet.
Your poems seem unfinished—unfinished, that is, only to that pedestrian, legalistic me that wants resolution, who’s not satisfied with effect or truth or nobility. I want to hear the rest of the story: your wife comes back or is punished, you crumble or you find a new higher love with a man. Or whatever. That pedestrian me has a strong impulse toward tidiness. Toward trains that run on time and apt words and finished thoughts and complete sentences.
Speaking of trains—as I write, a train whistle elicits the companion hollow sound of trucks passing two dunes over. Nothing’s a mere coincidence!
Dan re-read what he had written and promptly deleted the reference to “love with a man.”
Immediately the email’s lines seemed more crisp, and he knew the poet would appreciate the internal rhyme of elicit and whistle.
He quickly added:
Scott’s brother’s in hospital in Alabama. His family sits and waits by the bedside. Scott waits by the phone here fifteen hundred miles away. Near or far, we’re all metaphorically staring at this young strong man’s hand lying still on a white starched sheet. We’re looking for a twitch. All of us depend on it moving.
“Did you see it? Did you see it move?” Scott’s brother asks their mother. “I made it move.”
I’m sure we all debated the same thing, a conspiracy that’s loud as mosquitos after the rain: should we lie and confirm it? An impulse more true than honesty?
Dan stared at what he had written and wondered whether these words were a betrayal of trust, but he consoled himself that at least he hadn’t revealed the truly disturbing exchange between Scott and his brother that Dan had witnessed immediately after the accident:
“Kill me,” Scott’s brother had begged. “I don’t want to be like this.”
“Maybe ….,” whispered Scott.
“Shh. Not now, not yet.”
This exchange had revealed that there was something decidedly cold and essentially unpleasant about Scott. After seven years, Dan had finally put his finger on it: Scott was a cold fish. It was he who had insisted on putting down their Bassenge while he still had a few good months left in him. It was he who had fired their cleaning woman because she had requested to come on Thursdays instead of Mondays to accommodate her daughter’s dialysis. This coldness was what drove Dan to flirt virtually with this poet, who wasn’t Dan’s usual type, just to win the affection and validation that was missing in his relationship.
Have you read about the Chinese artist Xu Bing, who scooped up dust from the streets of Chinatown after 9/11? He carried it in an airtight Ziploc bag for two years. He made a mold, mixed the dust with water and poured it in. The doll he cast was a primitive, a bellied thing with blind eyes and stubbed feet. Twice he’s ground the doll back to dust and reconstituted it, once to analyze its chemical properties for safety’s sake, once because someone from the TSA believed it to be plastic explosive.
His project belies the notion that gathering dust is a passive or bad thing. There was once a Zen monk known as the Sixth Patriarch who wrote a poem refuting a rival monk’s poem declaring the mind to be a mirror that should be kept dust-free. Said the Sixth Patriarch in response: “The mirror bright is nowhere shining. As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust itself collect?”
I’m not sure what that means, but I do like the idea of dueling poems, and it was the Sixth Patriarch who won out, whose name is remembered. I have aspirations of becoming dusty (does that make me sound old?). Mirrors reflect—perhaps deflect—the world; a dusty mirror is just another object dwelling therein.
Which brings me to the point: In your book, you stand on a moor spouting poems against a swift wind, poems as potent as the bubbles a child blows from a wand dipped in a rubber jar.
But where are the fists? The knot swollen up beneath your eye? When am I going to see you again?
Suzanna shuffled into the breezeway and peered over his shoulder.
“Who’s Dusty?” she asked.
Dan powered down his tablet and opened the well-used copy of the Banner in front of his face.
Having heard Suzanna’s voice, Scott dashed from the kitchen and kissed her on both cheeks. She was his best friend. They had known each other since kindergarten. Dan did not believe in best friends. His was a constantly shifting circle of acquaintance. It kept things fresh.
“Good morning,” Scott said. “Welcome! So glad you’re here. Sorry you missed the dinner party. You look fabulous.”
“Bullshit,” Suzanna said. “I look like death. Any word?”
“On my brother? Surgery today to reduce the swelling. Long drive?”
“Jack drove. I slept.”
“When’d you get in?”
“Two,” snapped Dan.
“Oh, did I wake you?”
“I’m glad you came,” Scott said.
“Yes,” Dan said. “You woke me.”
Suzanna smiled benevolently at Scott. “I always come when my boys are in need.”
What a bitch, thought Dan. Suzanna had a knack for backstabbing and choosing favorites, an absolute corrosive dislike for those who thwarted her, and a possessiveness over male friends like Scott that was pointed and furious. But she never once subjected these male friends to the same standards, or to her fury, and consequently Scott and each of her other special male friends maintained a jealously loyal, outsized regard for her. She drove Dan nuts.
“Should we go down there?” she suggested. “To Alabama?”
“We just got back,” Dan objected.
“Maybe,” said Scott.
“It’s our vacation,” Dan said. “We’re not doctors. There’s nothing we can do.”
Scott frowned and crossed his arms as if he had more to say or do, and Suzanna chewed off Dan’s ear about giving moral comfort to the sick and their families.
Dan heard “mortal” comfort. He thought: Scott resorts too easily to killing things off. That’s his problem. He doesn’t know how to make things last.
* * *
In Suzanna’s humble opinion, men watch women for one of three reasons:
(1) to show other men they watch women;
(2) to intimidate women; or
(3) because they cannot do otherwise, so great is their admiration for the female figure.
Suzanna’s latest boyfriend Jack was of the first variety. It wasn’t that he was indifferent, like a gay guy. He liked fucking women, and Suzanna in particular, so far as she could tell. Yet he wasn’t so particularly passionate about the female figure as to notice a woman passing on the street.
Unless another man were present. Then Jack leered and pointed and sought acknowledgment of shared manliness, or at least of the so-called “fact” that Jack was what he clearly was not: a man who appreciates a shockingly lovely set of ta-tas. Which Suzanna still had, notwithstanding the autoimmune disease that seemed intent on killing her slowly, despite the rolodex of doctors she had consulted and discarded.
At some point soon, Suzanna thought, I’ll have to dump Jack, too. Which was what was so goddamn maddening about Scott’s eight-year-old nephew Lyle, who clung to Jack all morning, jabbering in a secret language only Jack seemed to understand. Lyle’s devotion was proof Jack wasn’t unlovable. She trusted Lyle implicitly in these judgments: he did not, for example, love her so much.
“Jack,” she chided, “can’t you see you’re making poor Lyle wear out his welcome with his gay uncles? You guys have got that dog cradled to your breast like a baby, tits up, cooch displayed, and a shithole of animal dander flying over the breakfast table. Dan over there is becoming positively beside himself, worrying about the security deposit.”
“There is no security deposit,” Dan snapped. “We own.”
“What a simple idiot I am!” Jack murmured. “Sorry, Daniel.”
He expelled the dog (which was the neighbor’s) through the screen door and brushed the dander from his hands.
Suppressing a triumphant smile, Suzanna felt compelled to take Jack in her arms and tell him something she didn’t really believe: that she’d never wanted anyone besides him.
“That’s not true!” Jack cried. “Why would you say that?”
Jack was really a simple sort. He took people at their word. In fact, he had so long taken people at their word that he had no talent for discounting what people said and examining motives for the truth. He regularly became exasperated that people could not—as he put it—make proper use of the mouths God gave them, but would instead be constantly putting up all kinds of lies in the desperate hope someone would see through to what was really sought.
Pleased in some queer, selfish way she couldn’t quite place, Suzanna wished, maybe, that Jack would be a little less literal. She had no doubt Scott would liberally Facebook pics of this weekend and, if she was still alive, she would no longer remember Jack’s name a few years later, nor—until Scott reminded her—that Jack had been her guest.
* * *
At the corner of the yard was a surveying stake, a white chum bucket, and stairs that dropped down over the sea wall. Mottled ocean grays matched a pattern of skylight and cloud. The halyards were silent against the empty flagpole.
Noting these details one by one, remembering names he had known years ago. Seven long years. Holy shit. What had he done with his life? Scott was forty-six, and he didn’t feel old, but he felt embarrassed for feeling this way. His twenty-year-old self would have scoffed at him.
Suzanna slipped up behind him and murmured, “One look at your face, and I see a storm coming. What are you plotting?”
Scott took her hand. Suzanna loved intrigues more than anyone he knew. He nodded toward the wet bar on the back deck, where Dan was preparing cocktails and pontificating to Jack about Kidjo, whose fabulous jazz standards in French and Yoruba and Swahili spilled forth from the sea-facing speakers. Dan had conspired to make Kidjo this summer’s background music, so he could reveal to guests a good taste that was at once particular, peculiar, and pure. No garden variety Blue Note bullshit or smooth jazz stylings for him, and nothing so thoroughly irritated Dan as guests who failed to ask: Who is this fabulous African Grammy-award-winning chanteuse and lyrical poet I’ve never heard before? Dan regarded such uninquisitive guests as children who didn’t want to learn, similar to clients who wouldn’t heed his advice or straight boys who declined his overtures.
“We should fuck with him,” Scott said.
Suzanna was game.
* * *
The word God was spelled out on the beach in a clump of seaweed that had weathered high tide. Jack and Lyle raced to spell their own names in seaweed, but Dan turned back to the house. Having forgotten his pocket notebook, he worried he would forget his clever rant about the fuckers forcing their skymonster mythologies into seaweed, which he could parlay into additional lengthy, flirty emails to the poet.
The breezeway showed signs of hurry. Dan’s tablet was tipped sideways in the cushions. The tray of the DVD player was extended. Near the laptop was a pad of paper on which Scott had scribbled notes in Russian, so that Dan couldn’t decipher them, though it was plain he had tried to track Dan’s internet history. His obsession with the concept of monogamy would have been positively quaint if it weren’t so annoying.
Otherwise, the house was a quiet preserve. One of the cormorants that had taken roost on the four pilings at the end of the jetty spread his drying wings like a risen phoenix. His black webbed feet look like thin wrists thrust in elegant leather ladies driving gloves. Suzanna was huddled in a deck chair, swaddled in towels for warmth, a white cardigan pulled close. To Dan, she looked more frightened than cold, more surprised than frightened, more aggrieved than both, because she couldn’t accept that—who? The seaweed God?—would let this happen to her. Death and decay happened to everyone. Look at his father. If he got any more demented, they’d have to water him like a houseplant.
Suzanna said, “I’m betting those cormorants have ugly faces, but they’re too far to be sure. Can you swim out and see?”
“Some things you don’t have to look at too close to know they’re ugly,” Dan said.
Dan smiled, pleased with himself.
“Scott told me to tell you he’s left,” she said sharply. “Gone to see his brother without you. He said you wouldn’t understand family loyalty.”
Initially stunned, Dan nevertheless refused to give her the satisfaction of asking if this news was true. He checked his inbox and was delighted to see the poet had written him back.
Dear Dusty, I’ve been studying family history. It seems there’s been just one soul in the family, a great big oversized one divided among my ancestors’ children, and then again among their children, divided and partitioned with each generation, and now hardly anything left but a sliver at best. What’s wrong with this new generation? Don’t the grandchildren see that they ought to clear out the Valley and start again anew, knock down the crisscross of fences that divided farm from farm, land that had once been without division? Bring them under one roof! Raise the young in a manner that produced some pride and self-respect that was more than mere stubbornness!
Grandchildren! thought Dan. Had the poet got that old? Why can’t I remember a single fucking thing about him? If it wasn’t for Wikipedia, I’d be doomed.
Nevertheless, Dan wrote, When are you coming to see us in Provincetown?
The poet responded instantly: 2nite.
The shorthand was oddly disturbing. Dan briefly wondered whether Scott had, just to fuck with him, somehow contrived to impersonate the poet online and invent these grandchildren and this unfortunate pedestrian rendering of tonight, which ill-fit a man of letters.
* * *
Scott had come up with the idea of writing God in the seaweed, and pretending he had gone back to Alabama, and stealing the Kidjo CD, because he knew each of these things would drive Dan peculiarly crazy, but Suzanna pooh-poohed his ambition. She called him a pansy and told him he needed the courage of his convictions.
“You’ve got to do something really big, for God’s sake,” she said, “and …. Hey! Why don't you blow the poet? Wouldn't that be a lark?”
“You know I don’t like cheating.”
“If you don’t,” she warned, “I swear I will.”
“Now that would be funny. Dan’d be so pissed,” Scott said, but he felt glum. His loneliness seemed enormous. To keep the peace with Daniel, he had given up everything. Monogamy. Children (excepting the summer visits from Lyle). A spiritual life. Dignity. Mostly dignity. What was so galling about Dan’s obsession with and pursuit of straight guys, aside from the fact that he did it right in Scott’s face, was that Scott hated straight guys. With an unholy passion. He had never felt quite right among them. Had never understood their jokes or consolations. Other than his little brother, of course, to whom Scott was fiercely loyal.
He wandered down Commercial Street. A man was tying balloon toys on the sidewalk. A caricaturist rendered furiously. A human statue was holding still until a quarter dropped in her tip jar and she gently curtsied. A white teen banged on an upright piano set on shopping cart wheels so it could be whisked away at the end of the night. Tipsy gay guys shrieked with glee.
Cutting through all the frivolity and noise and glee, Scott decided he didn’t mind that Dan doesn’t love him. He supposed Dan experienced feelings far more permanent than love:
Like lust, maybe? Or a chronic need for attention? Or fear of becoming inane and happy, like his father? Or just raw embarrassment about being gay (which was the source of his humiliating obsession with conquering straight guys)?
None of these—lust, attention, fear, embarrassment—squarely fit the facts. It felt as if Scott were waking from a coma language-impaired—able to recognize things for what they were, but not quite capable of assigning a name to them.
As dusk fell, Scott dropped onto a bench in front of City Hall. He took the Kidjo CD from his pocket and raised it up like a priest at the altar. In the name of the father, the son, the brother, the gay soulmate, Amen. Be thankful. God would want you to be grateful for what you have. There were starving children in Africa. There were quadriplegic brothers in Alabama. Your lot could be worse.
Hours passed. The streets got drunker. Scott wished he could have seen Dan’s face when he saw God in the seaweed. No doubt he had started cursing and yelling and predicting that the religious lunatics had landed in Provincetown, second time in 450 years, first the pilgrims, now those who would write His Name in sand, and next thing you know they’ll be rounding up the gays for burning. Dan’s hatred of anything religious got worse as he got older and his father’s disease progressed. As if it made him heroic, Dan resolutely refused to take comfort in any sort of deeper and enduring meaning. For this reason, Scott had never admitted to Dan that he had prayed for his father. Prayers for his own brother hadn’t proved as easy to generate.
When the clock struck midnight, Scott waylaid the first reasonably attractive man on the street and invited him to drink at the bar at George’s Pizza. The man talked, but Scott didn’t hear a word. His mind alternately veered between images of Dan getting the poet drunk enough to make a pass at him and questions about whether his brother really wanted to be killed, and whether Scott would have the courage, and whether his search history would show he had googled the best ways to get away with it, and whether God would forgive him for doing this terrible thing.
Truth be told, Scott’s motives were suspect. Scott had once changed the kid’s diaper and now faced the prospect of doing it all over again, except now without end, so help me God. His brother was too old to start again. He was too young for immobility.
No doubt Dan was blowing the poet as they spoke.
Avoiding Commercial Street, Scott took the beach route back to their house. Halfway there, just beyond Dick Dock, he took the Kidjo CD from his pocket and flung it overhand toward the ocean. It went two yards before skittering to the sand. The sea breeze turned it over once and then it lay still.
Scott picked it up and flung it again. Same result. And again. No matter how hard he threw it.
Finally, just steps from their house, he side-armed it like a Frisbee and achieved the goal of getting it as far from his body as humanly possible.
“So, how is this brother doing?” he overheard the poet ask.
Scott crept up to the last bit of darkness outside the ring of light thrown by the fire.
“Standing now,” Suzanna said, exactly as Scott had instructed her. “With assistance. He wants them to fly him back here so he can get wasted on one can of beer.”
“Standing? Are you sure?” asked Dan uneasily. “I don’t remember Scott telling me that. Did he call you?”
“Walking even. They say he saw God written in the soft pudding that was all he could eat lying down. Next thing you know, he moved a finger, a toe.”
“We saw God, too,” Lyle chirped. “Down on the beach!”
“There is no God, Lyle,” Dan muttered. “Maybe I should go to Alabama.”
Suzanna said, “Maybe Scott wants to be alone with his brother.”
“No!” said Dan.
“The boy’ll be fine,” the poet declared. “I knew a guy once who got tossed from a horse in a rodeo and beaten under the horse’s hooves. Never got out of bed again. He blows through a straw to move his chair.”
He extended his wineglass for a refill. Suzanna tipped the bottle over his glass.
“You have a girlfriend?” she asked.
The poet swished the wine around in his mouth and then swallowed.
“I don't need steady company,” he said. “It's worse than lonely.”
* * *
At the fire pit, the poet offered the occasional self-consciously folksy commentary on stories Dan told (“Never take a hostage you’re not willing to shoot” or “There’s no wisdom in the second kick of the mule.”) and contented himself with copious quantities of Dolcetto. As the hours passed, however, the poet’s competitive streak showed. He proved a master of the rural macabre, compulsively outdoing everyone else’s stories:
- Lyle said he wanted to ride an ATV in the dunes, and the poet told the story of his niece whose long hair had come loose from her helmet and got caught up in the ATV’s wheels, which scalped her in two seconds flat.
- Jack proposed they charter a boat for tuna fishing, and the poet countered with a story of a friend of his who spent a stormy night at sea with a capsized boat and what was left of another man’s torso, the rest having been consumed by sharks.
- Suzanna made reference to her illness, and the poet recalled the ravages of leprosy among the population of Borneo, where he had served as a medical missionary for a year.
- He said, “God written in seaweed? Try Chinese curses written in raised bumps on your skin. Entire fucking spells. It happened to me in Shanghai. Indelible for forty days and then disappeared as mysteriously as they’d come.”
Like the puniness of the poet’s hands, this competitiveness was another quality that Dan hadn’t quite remembered, which induced a panic to find some familiar detail Dan could fix in place. He steered the poet to the topic of their earlier email correspondence.
Nodding, the poet said, “When you get to be my age, you sense there’s an end to the quantity of souls available for distribution, and you wonder whether you were born before or after the supply ran low. We all assume ourselves to possess what is good, but no doubt the soulless don’t recognize the absence of soul. They presume souls. We also assume a soul is good, when it could be of course black as night.”
“No such thing as a soul,” Dan said. “If there were, I wouldn’t be so afraid of getting old.”
“And demented,” added Suzanna cheerfully.
He glared at her, and the poet, too, considered her for a long time before standing and leaving the fire without a word. No one took his place, as if he was still sitting there or might return and change his mind, or rescind the implicit judgment.
Dan took a long drink from the neck of the bottle of Dolcetto and muttered, “Motherfucker’s crazy.”
“I bet you thought you were going to get to blow him, didn’t you?” Suzanna remarked.
Jack hissed, jabbed her in the ribs, and nodded fiercely at Lyle, who continued to stare raptly into the fire.
“Don’t talk crazy, woman,” Dan said. “This is still my house.”
“He seems like the kind of guy who’d let you blow him, so long as nobody found out about it. Bet he didn’t figure on so many house guests.”
* * *
At breakfast the next morning, the poet raked Suzanna’s nightgown up and down with his eyes. He was a young fifty, she guessed. His hair was too long, a mix of dark and gray. His cheekbones and nose were reddened with sun. He said Dolcetto was fine, but he preferred Beaujolais with a slight chill. It went well, he said, with a certain Vermont cheddar he bought at a farm so filthy that the stench stopped you short at the door. But the cheese was worth dying for, served by a proprietor with a huge knife, the flat side of which he used to swat flies, which he wiped off on his apron and smiled and asked how large a slice.
The poet presented Suzanna with an edition of his poems. She noticed pencil marks on some of the verses.
“It’s used,” she said, returning it to him. “You must have given it to some other girl.”
“I fixed it,” he said. “It wasn’t right when it went to press, but I needed it to make tenure. So, roll the presses!”
“You defaced your own work?” she asked, rifling through the pages. An unexpected rage filled her throat. She wasn’t sure whether she was upset because he had let the book go to press too soon or because his alterations seemed like a disloyalty or because she had consented to sleep with him.
The poet held his hands above his head.
“Don’t shoot,” he said. “Mea culpa.”
The Latin reference took the wind from her sails. She wasn’t a believer. Not like Scott. But she didn’t trust herself either. At life’s end, maybe, she would go back to the Church and disgust herself. Smells and bells. Beads and the sign of the cross. Sometimes she suspected her illness was the price God extracted for playing on Dan’s superstitions and whoring around and putting God’s name in the seaweed in the sand and all the other shit she had pulled just for because she could.
“I wish I had been born after the Apocalypse,” the poet was saying. “The great thing about a post-apocalyptic world is all that shit that you wished you had done way back when? You could do it as a matter of course. Create a neologism or just use a word plain wrong? Correct a poem after it was done? Fuck the girl you wanted to fuck? Go ahead. You could even kill her with impunity now, after the Apocalypse.”
She could see he was waiting for her to be charmed by his crudeness. It would certainly have been the polite thing to do, since he was a guest, but Suzanna refused to give him another happy ending.
Disappointed, he muttered, “I didn’t mean to take you away from your boyfriend. Sorry about that.”
“Nothing, my friend, is what you expected,” she said. “You came here to be entertained. You’re too stupid to know that's not what I do. I’m no entertainer. I tell the truth. And someone at this table is going to be embarrassed or worse by the time we’re done here.”
She pushed the book of poems to the middle of table and leaned forward, a little pulse in her temple.
“Shall we begin anyhow?” she asked. “Shall we take the risk?”
The poet grinned. “I like you,” he said.
“Congratulations on getting laid. Now, get your ass out of here before the others get up.”
* * *
Scott was so used to looking for hidden meanings to Dan’s gestures as proofs of their unshared core values, that when Dan had brought home this impossibly young, impossibly gorgeous Provincetown club kid as a gift for Scott’s forty-sixth birthday, Scott felt somehow deceived, as he scarcely dared allow that something Dan did or said meant exactly what it appeared to mean, even if what it meant was fuck you and your heteronormative monogamy.
“Is he a hooker?” Scott had whispered. “Gay for pay?”
“No. Just a Daddy fetish. He wants to get double stuffed.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” Scott had shrugged and approached the young man and extended his hand. At least the queeny son of a bitch had been gay and not, for example, a fledgling poet, which would have been a disaster for all concerned. “Pleased to meet you. Take off your clothes.”
When they finished with him, the boy had asked for money.
“Not for this,” he’d explained. “I had fun. Just need some cash, you know. You guys won't miss it.”
His eyes had shifted back and forth like beads on an abacus. Click click click. Adding up price tags of the carefully chosen furnishings and the Tag Heuer Dan had left on the side table.
“Get out,” Scott had said.
“Don't listen to him,” Dan had corrected, stuffing money in the boy’s jeans like it was something he’d always wanted to do. “He’s grumpy.”
After the boy was gone, Scott had sat out on the deck near the sea. The blueberry bushes had shivered, and the beach grass danced. Cormorants had flown in formation inches above the moonlit waves. There had been a sudden urgency to their movement, as if they had been called to imperatives Scott could only dream of.
While Scott sat on the deck, Dan had busied himself with the sheets and lube and used condoms. He had always been a saver: of minor infatuations, old envelopes, dead batteries, sea shore knickknacks, used cell phones, you name it. Next thing you know, Scott thought bitterly, he’d be collecting his tricks’ condoms in a gilt frame.
Scott prided himself on being a chucker. When Dan had finally joined him on the deck, Scott had smiled and said softly, “I think I should leave you.”
He hadn’t meant to mark the end of their relationship. It had been just the beginning of the end. Scott had thought: We’ll stay together but apart, and nothing will ever been the same. Every conversation will snake back to this one declaration in the dark. This unfinished sentence. This incomplete thought. He’d scarce dared move a finger. Or whisper. Or breathe a breath.
Dan had muttered, “You don't even know me.”
The words hadn’t the ring of accusation. They were instead a bald truth in which Scott was somehow complicit, and after all these years it was suddenly terrible and shaming for each of them to be unknown to the other.
* * *
The fat nurse at the Alabama hospital had been a close talker. She and Dan had danced: every step she closed the distance, Dan had moved away, until he’d finally determined to hold his ground, and she drew so close he could only focus on her with one eye at a time.
His experience with the poet was much the same, only roles reversed. Dan couldn’t pin him down or get him to sit still and talk. The conversation with the poet was like seeking money from a rich person you’re fond of but secretly resent. The poet wouldn’t part with anything worthwhile, not a single bon mot. Or mot juste. Or whatever. French had never been Dan’s strongest language.
He finally cornered him at the stand of beach grass near the breakwater.
“I think I’m glad I didn’t choose your life,” Dan said. “The life of grants and creative writing positions at small colleges and students and the alleged freedom of not having a real job.”
“Why?” the poet asked without interest.
“I’d probably be dead with AIDS. Just given when I came out, in the 80s.”
The poet grunted, unzipped his fly and pissed heartily into the cross breeze.
“But,” Dan hastened to add, scrambling to avoid stray spray, and position himself between the poet and his neighbors, “living that life would have made me better read, which would have been a great satisfaction. That’s my poverty: I don’t get to read as much as I wish. My book covers are dusty.”
The poet broke off mid-stream. He glanced out over the water and then up at the clouds as if he were measuring the possibility of fair weather.
“I’ve always felt uneasy in the flatlands where the sky’s large,” he said. “That kind of generous is always untrustworthy. Time I got back to the mountains where the sky's small enough to convince yourself you know the names of all the clouds, and the valley’s cupped hands and you feel for the first time the touch of a greater understanding that’s a kind of divinity.”
“There’s no such thing as divinity,” Dan said automatically and without much enthusiasm.
Spotting something glinting, the poet crouched and plucked it from the beach grass like a magician taking nickel from behind a child's ear. It was the Kidjo CD.
He handed it to Dan and said, “I’m never going to fuck you, you know.”
He crouched again, drew in the sand with a piece of stiff breach grass, and blew the words away as if he was extinguishing birthday candles.
Dan was too polite to tell the poet to go fuck himself. Scott would have told him off in a heartbeat. Cut off his head. Pissed down his throat. Dan wished he had the killer instinct. He wished the two Vietnamese cab drivers had stabbed one another in the heart.
He stalked back to the kitchen and found Scott there with his arms crossed and a cup of coffee in one hand.
“You’re not in Alabama,” Dan observed.
“So … your brother’s not walking, is he?”
“Why would Suzanna say such a thing?”
“Aren’t you upset your best friend would say such a thing?” Dan pressed.
Scott shook his head.
“Well, I’m upset for you. I am,” Dan said.
Ignoring him, Scott pointed out a schooner in full sail cresting the horizon, which Dan pretended to see even though he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Scott swore he could hear Kidjo over the crashing waves, an assertion with which Dan readily agreed though he held the wrecked CD in his hands. Scott conjured up a vision of their old age on this very spot, every bit as detailed as any memory of their past, with brilliant conversation and brains intact and wines the likes of which never before tasted and a cure for dementia and brothers who could walk—a better world than the one they lived in, perhaps one in which even Scott would concede that poetry was supreme.
Scott David has published dozens of short stories, novels, a memoir, and a guide to wine and cocktails under various pseudonyms. He lives in Boston and Provincetown.