A False Step
– Robert Glück
A man watched me shower and followed me into the sauna. The fragrance of hot cedar. He said, “I’m always watching the clock.”
“The clock?” I looked around.
“For work?” He was a short man with large features, glossy black curls, and a narrow waist fanning into cheeks as cantilevered as the drawer of a file cabinet.
“Work,” he confirmed. He settled onto a bench below a small yellow light and a temperature gauge. I wanted to interest him in me, I began to see him as a destination.
“You work at night?”
He considered this. “The night shift.” His voice was precise and deep. He spread his legs and the tip of his cock rested on the wooden slats. My skin prickled; we began to sweat.
I said, “I used to work at night. In New York. On the night shift unloading trucks at the Grand Central Station Post Office.”
“Oh and you went around New York during the day.”
I wanted to interest him, but he was not being very interesting himself. Was talking in the sauna inappropriate, dumb-friendly? Three citizens filed in, smiles from the outside not yet faded, and draped themselves on the benches; in ten minutes they were dazed and suffering, their genitals poaching on their white laps. I could not smell my own sweat, but I watched the shine on a drop that for some reason didn’t evaporate. Sighing, the men hauled themselves to their feet and left as one. The metal furnace made shifting clicks; the flame popped. He did continue to look at me. Expectation translated into a pressure in my groin. I sat in such a way as to attract myself, my legs crossed like a greyhound’s, my head tipped back, innocent intelligence, about thirty years old, though he would have seen a middle aged man. I began again and told him I was a writer, but that didn’t get us very far. I told him I left New York, but that was obvious. As though to defend myself, I told him about my ruinous love affair.
He said, “You always complain!” That was too accurate. He’d known me, what, nine minutes? Was he referring to something in his own life? I asked him what he did.
“I’m a nurse.”
“Where do you work?”
“At St. Luke’s.”
“Oh, I have a friend who worked there… who just died.” I couldn’t remember my friend’s name. I felt a jolt of fear.
“What’s his name?”
“Terrance.” Terrance returned as though entering the little room, his gestures, his plump face and enthusiasm, his roses— bleak lollypops in the overcast suburb.
“Terry”—he gave the ghost a nickname. “I didn’t know him. In pharmacy?”
“Administration. He died quickly.”
As though correcting my grammar: “Has died.”
“Your actual brother?”
“In a few months. He didn’t want to take anything. He thought his mind was strong enough.”
“To cure him?
“He had a belief system: the moment is all you have, why put a condom on it?” I am interested in people who believe the spirit has orientation. What I understood: his brother could project himself into an ectoplasmic medium through a calm that had direction like the eye of a sex hurricane, then spiritually freeze the medium and evaporate it until he was sort of freeze-dried and displayed as an essence. Like any fanatic, he needed to show the world what he had become: a glimpse of shadow fucking hard and sped up.
The system of the brother’s thought is a story for another time, but I was amazed to hear the name Michel Foucault, his brother’s friend and mentor, so wildly out of context.
We were silent for a while. He added, “There’s something beyond this.”
His body seemed complete—the moons of his fingernails. I thought this talk of AIDS had shifted us hopelessly away from each other. I lay against the wooden wall, my head tilted back as though relaxing into the empty heat, the arousing sedative, so he could look at me. I muted my own judgement of my soft larval body and let fear speed up my heart and pleasure flow in the skin on my chest, belly and thighs. I would face him, we would be on our knees, impossible, face to face because of the emotion there, his legs spread, out of the way. I would feel perpetual whirring sweetness on a broiling day. We’d sweat freely, mightily awake.
Meanwhile we sat quietly with my old familiar cock and his, like a mood ring, a bag at one point, floppy, the connection to his body a slim hinge, then surprisingly blunt and meaty, an assertion. I smelled hot wood and chlorine. My locker key was burning the skin on my thigh. Oil from countless backs had stained a dark wainscot on the wall I leaned against. Michelangelo carved this man’s foot. That is, it had a level of articulation that created a dissonance—that perfection could hide. It made me feel helpless in a way that leads to sex.
Touching him intimately would equal eternal life. Lewd wonder—I would be allowed to separate his legs, dark shimmer. I push him over, then raise his torso so his ass unfolds, a place where everything is visible. Don’t avert your eyes: it must be seen to be believed. He does not struggle against me, but against his own openness, jaw dropped, grunting as I slide in just a bit further. I want to be inside. His rigorous beauty (tenderness and accuracy) is half of a difficult theorem. I want to prove that my life stands on the other side of the equals sign. The proof of this theorem is his orgasm.
My fantasy sort of replaced my man. To my surprise, he slid over onto the bench below mine and said, “Is this okay? I couldn’t tell.” He barely touched me.
I barely touched him, touched his shoulder, we were folding into each other without contact, like the two halves of a tackle box. I thought he was going to blow me. The human race fixed its eyes on that possibility. I blurted, “Would you like a date?” It was such a random thing to say that we both sat stumped for a minute. I tried to regain my footing—“that is, you’re a handsome man.”
He said, “my heart is beating so fast. It’s so hot in here.”
“Mine too. That is, I’d like to sleep with you.” Why didn’t I say have sex?
“Sure,” he offered, “that would be fun.”
He looked a little caved in, teary. He raised his head and I tipped it farther back with a finger, and brushed his lips with mine. His position emphasised his size; I could lift and hold him.
“Sweet,” he said. Then, after a moment, “my name’s Pete.”
“What? Oh, Bob.” But now my voice sounded strange, high and taut.
“I’ll be here the same time for the next three days.”
“The same time?” Weird voice.
“For the next three days.” My ears were starting to burn. Rills of sweat ran off Pete’s face and chest. He seemed to be getting up, but when I suggested we go out together he seemed to be staying. First the heat aroused us, then it punched a hole in our arousal, though we both had semis. He stood up; the flesh on his lean body was intelligent and knew what it was doing except for the mounds of his ass, which were ignorant and required tenderness, direction and education. Ignorant in that they gave blind access and needed to be organised. That’s the penis orating as it disorganises its—owner? I slid my hand down Pete’s slick back. My lips brushed the most beautiful mouth in the world. I could have stayed, touched him, no problem, but I was urgent to go, to contain this rather than fall into it.
“Bye Pete.” Cold air and a rushing noise flowed in.
At my gym, cruising is so intense it makes a loud noise, like the hollow clanging in a factory. We sort of avoided each other, though I watched him shower and the two parts of myself that debate were in agreement. When he blew his nose it echoed. I laughed, possessing a little of him as though I’d got a private joke. Factory clangs, the smell of deodorant. Pete’s ass was cheerful and unreal, like balloons. He might be too much of a twink, I warned myself. I’ve always been attracted to shallow men; it’s a lucky accident if they turn out to have character. I saw myself explaining that to Denny ‘over my shoulder’ as Pete and I step into the future. Pete doesn’t read but that’s okay. I had presented myself as a Boho, confident in the power of a simple heart, comfortable with my self-worth and inevitable failure. Someone who writes in cafés and is charmed by the weather. In a way, HIV and the death of his brother were the most neutral things we could discuss.