By Ian Wood
Shelley sat alone in a dark-leathered corner booth at Cartwright’s, sipping his tumbler of icy vodka and appreciating the separation between those who wanted to be seen dancing and those who wanted to be seen having a drink or three. The dancers reigned on an acoustically isolated dance floor, insulated from the rest of the club by technological sleight-of-hand. On Shelley’s side of that invisible barrier, the low murmur of conversation floated above a soundtrack of one-hundred-and-fifty-year old jazz standards. He couldn’t hear the music that accompanied the flickering rainbow of laser strobes on the dance floor. The dancers were silent, like darting tropical fish.
One dancer glided away from the others and sought Shelley’s gaze from across the room, catching it for a few heartbeats before stepping up to the mahogany bar and ordering a pint of something dark. The dancers he left behind remained synchronized with the driving club rhythms, the silent beats locked away behind cleverly-placed baffles and noise-canceling loudspeakers. Seen from Shelley’s booth in the corner, the dancers slid and posed in silence, out of phase, oblivious to the low sounds of muted trumpet, slinky bass and brushwork traps that drifted through the air just a few yards away. Bare-chested revelers strutted and preened, displaying the groomed pectoral pelts and luminescent tattoos that were de rigueur for the cruising set that season.
Shelley watched the man with the pint glass as he weaved among the votive-lit obsidian tables-for-two on the quiet side of the club. He arrived at Shelley’s booth and paused for a moment, then took an audible breath. “I’m Matt,” he said. His cobalt shirt of sweat-wicking fabric could have been his own skin. Droplets of moisture gleamed on his temples, and Shelley smiled.
“Shelley,” he said.
“Mind if I sit down?”
With his glass, Shelley gestured towards the empty seat across the table, and Matt slid into the booth, setting his own glass down for a moment before picking it up again. He took a long pull of his beer and then inhaled through slightly parted lips, in the manner of someone opening his nose and palette to appreciate a flavor. “You’re Shelley Curtis, right?” he asked. Shelley raised an eyebrow. “The writer?”
“Not if you’re going to berate me for being a traitor to gay men everywhere,” he said. “In that case I’m Shelley Lowenstein, the seller of used recreational vehicles and campers.”
Matt grinned. “I recognized you from your author photo,” He squinted at Shelley in the dim light. “In fact, I think you were wearing the same jacket.”
“I like this jacket,” Shelley said. He smoothed at its suede lapels with his fingertips and downed the last of his drink, wondering if he wanted another. He watched Matt lick a bit of foam from his upper lip.
“Listen, I should probably do this right away before I lose my nerve,” Matt said. He cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter in his seat. “I read The Homophile’s Book of Lies when I was sixteen, and it changed my life, and then I came out, and do you want to come back to my place?” The words tumbled out, and Matt blinked, as though unsure about whether he had said them aloud.
Shelley tipped his glass back again and took a smooth-edged ice cube into his mouth, using the crunch and cold pain on his molars for a moment’s worth of cover. He studied Matt’s open face: his dark eyes were clear, with pupils no more dilated than the lighting required; his chin and jaw were strong, but not surgically so; his mouth was set with youthful confidence and the lingering hint of a nervous smile. As the ice melted against his tongue, Shelley said, “There should probably be a bit more conversation, don’t you think?” Matt blinked again. “Ask me something.”
“Ask you something?” Matt’s eyes focused on his glass. “Okay. How about, ‘Where have you been?’ Since the book, I mean. You made all this noise, and then kind of—”
“Disappeared, yeah,” Shelley finished. “Having someone burn down your office makes Europe look rather attractive.” He was pleased that Matt hadn’t asked him about New York. Everyone had their New York stories: where they were when it happened, who they’d lost. Shelley was tired of telling his New York story.
Matt nodded. “I read about that.”
“I spent a year in France. Lectured in England for a semester.” Shelley bit his lip and glanced toward the ceiling, feigning a struggle to recall his recent history. “I think that’s it. I’ve only been in L.A. since April.”
“Lucky me,” Matt said.
“Possibly,” Shelley flirted back. “What about you? What do you like to do when you’re not picking up men who wear unfashionable jackets?”
“I work for Gencor,” Matt said with a shrug. “In the assay lab, punching buttons to pay the bills.”
“That’s what you like to do?”
“Oh. Well, no.” Matt flushed, just a little, and Shelley felt a small, peculiar burst of affection for him, what he used to call a crushlet. “Opera. I’m kind of a buff. Well, more than a buff, actually. I belong to an amateur company.”
Shelley raised his brows.
“I didn’t know there were such things.”
“Those are the ‘bills’ I was talking about,” Matt said, contemplating their empty glasses. “It’s mostly my company. I rent the rehearsal space so I get to sing the title roles. I’m singing Rigoletto next month.” Shelley cocked his head and peered across the table at him.
“No,” he said after a long pause, during which Matt held his gaze with clear, dark eyes.
“When I look at you, I don’t see ‘hunchback.’”
“You’d be surprised what you can do with some foam padding and a decent libretto.”
Shelley laughed, and decided that yes, he would have another vodka. He asked Matt what he was drinking, and if he wanted another, which he did. Shelley rose from his seat and then cut across one corner of the dance floor on his way towards the bar, passing through the sonic dampener’s invisible acoustic boundary. For several steps, the thumping bass rhythm of the music there filled his chest. He let his shoulders roll with the beat, his stride lengthened into the coy, sensual strut he remembered from a time of poppers, pills, and pretty boys, in a city that had died by fire.
He broke through the dampener’s boundary again as he approached the bar. On the other side of that ephemeral barrier, the sudden comparative silence of jazz almost made him stumble as he caught the bartender’s eye. He ordered another vodka over ice for himself and a pint for Matt, then picked his way along the wall opposite the dance floor, bearing fresh, cold glasses back to the booth. “So tell me,” he said, setting them down as he resumed his seat, “do you collect authors? Or am I a special case?”
“Special,” Matt said. Shelley brought his glass to his lips, and the chilled, flavorless vodka became warm as it slid down his throat. “I hardly ever meet any of my—” Matt stopped and sought refuge in his glass, gulping nearly half the pint.
Matt fluttered his hand in the air near his head. “Now I’m all embarrassed.” Shelley said nothing and kept looking at him with a knowing, close-lipped smile. Matt relented. “Fine. You’re kind of my hero.”
Shelley chuckled. “I can guarantee that you’ll be disappointed. Pretend I’m just a moderately good-looking gentleman of a certain age that you’d like to take home with you, if that helps.”
“No, I think that makes it worse.” Matt affected such a miserable tone that they both burst into laughter, and some of the tension fled.
Their conversation meandered, flitting from one common interest to another, and they batted it between them like a fat balloon. As they talked, a slow warmth bloomed in Shelley’s chest and harmonized with the voice of the alcohol in his head. The stories Matt told intrigued him, so different from the clubsters of his younger days. No one of Matt’s age in his former circle would have been enough of a raconteur to properly tell a rousing tale about the cascading consequences of breaking wind onstage during an audition for La forza del destino. Shelley enjoyed watching the play of Matt’s eyes as he became engaged in his stories, retreating into his memory, then alighting on Shelley’s face from behind a thin scrim of self-awareness and concern: Is this working? Does he like me?
Shelley indicated the dwindling contents of their glasses. “Do we want any more of these?” he asked, then paused in contemplation of his own question. He had come to the club for nothing more than a drink and perhaps some eye candy, but prospects had certainly improved. He tipped the last chilly bit of vodka into his mouth, and bit down on the ice.
“Actually, I think that what we’re wanting now is a cab.” Matt said. Shelley swallowed his ice by way of agreement.
Leaving the club, they strolled for a few blocks in the city’s evening light, finally hailing a lone taxi that seemed yoked to the sharp cones of diode headlight illumination that preceded it along the humid street. Matt announced his address. The dashboard navigator chimed with recognition, and whispered at the driver, telling him where to turn next. Matt pressed close to Shelley in the taxi’s seat. The flash of passing streetlights illuminated the interior as they headed uptown, and Matt reached over in the semi-darkness, turning Shelley’s head towards his own. The kiss, when they shared it, was surprisingly good. Good lord, it’s chemistry! Shelley thought. It had been awhile.
The taxi pulled up to the curb in front of a well-kept apartment building and murmured their arrival. Shelley pressed his thumb onto the paypad, but Matt batted his hand away and pressed his own thumb there, opening the door and pulling Shelley out after him like a prom date. There were kisses in the building’s foyer, more kisses in front of the elevator, still more in the elevator itself.
Shelley pressed Matt against the door to his apartment, while Matt slapped blindly at the palmlock behind him. When the door snicked open they nearly fell into the front hallway. Soft and indirect illumination faded up in the living room, where an expanse of crimson couch waited for them with inviting upholstery. Barely separating from each other, they tumbled into its cushions. Matt peeled off his shirt, revealing a tangle of thorny vines inked in midnight green that flowed across his left shoulder and onto his chest, adorned with a spray of blood-red rosebuds that flashed and sparked with metallic inks. He pulled Shelley out of his author’s photo jacket, tossing it in the direction of the television. Shelley murmured his appreciation, low in his throat, gliding his hands around Matt’s shoulders and down along the smooth curve of his spine, slipping all of his fingers below the thick leather belt and the waistband of his jeans.
Matt reared up like a lion and Shelley slid one hand around his hip, towards the warmth of his thighs. “How safe do we need to be?” Matt murmured.
“I’m vaccinated,” Shelley said. “It doesn’t get much safer.” After a moment, Shelley’s hand resumed its travel, and lingered at its destination. With his other hand, he fumbled at Matt’s belt buckle, then at the buttons on his jeans. They seemed to resist his efforts, confounding his fingers.
“You’re tested too, right?” Matt asked, his eyes half-lidded. Shelley tried to hold the moment, to stop the question with a caress. But it was too late for that. His answer needed to be given.
“Yeah. I’ve been tested.” Matt opened his eyes, hearing the tone in Shelley’s voice.
“And you were positive, right?” Shelley didn’t answer immediately, and Matt, still sitting astride Shelley’s hips, pushed himself upwards. “Right?” he repeated.
“More kissing, less talk,” Shelley said, trying to keep an edge of pleading out of his voice, wincing as he heard it. He pulled his hands from the warmth of Matt’s skin, and reached up towards him, but Matt did not come within his reach. He pushed himself further away, realization and disbelief on his face.
“You’re negative.” A short, sharp breath emerged from his mouth, somewhere between a laugh and a snort. The two of them remained frozen in tableau for several moments, Shelley on his back, hands beckoning, Matt upright over him, one foot planted on the floor beside the couch, his other leg bent at the knee, pressed deep into the crimson cushions, his inner thigh encompassing Shelley’s waist. Then, Matt pushed himself off Shelley entirely, towards his feet, and leaned up against the far arm of the couch. “Shelley Curtis.” He shook his head, mouth slightly open. He stared at Shelley, still lying on his back with his belt unbuckled, his pants unzipped and pushed below the curve of his belly. “Shelly fucking Curtis doesn’t have the genes.”
Shelley sighed, dropped his hands, and propped himself up on his elbows. “Matt, come on,” he said, trying to reach into some of the confidence he had felt back at the club, watching Matt stammer and blush. “Come back here.”
“When did you know?” Matt asked, his voice low, the shy club boy fading, being replaced by someone sullen and wounded. “Before or after the book?”
Shelley flopped back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. “After. They identified all of the DNA markers about six months after it was published. I got tested in France.”
“So you made your career writing about identity and authenticity—and then they actually came out with a test.” Matt stood up away from the arm of the couch. He laughed without humor. “Really put the science into social science for you, didn’t it?” He retrieved his shirt from the floor and pulled it on, doing it so quickly that he got it on backwards, and had to pull his arms from its sleeves again and spin it around his neck to get it right. “Is that why you stayed in Europe? Because you found out you aren’t really gay?”
Shelley scooted backwards, retreating to the other side of the couch, his fists clenched. “I was out a decade and a half before you started fantasizing about the high school quarterback,” he said, wrenching himself upright, trying to stand before realizing that his pants would drop to his ankles if he did. “Don’t tell me what I’m not.”
Shelley relaxed his fists, tended to his pants and his belt, and stood. He walked over to the television, and picked up his jacket. As he put it on, he saw a framed poster on the wall there, a blocky, stylized pink revolutionary fist, with a legend in jagged white letters beneath it: July 23, 2069. Washington, D.C. Tucked into the corner of the frame was a printed photograph. In it, Matt, no more than seventeen, was arm in arm with two other young men of equally pleasing aesthetics, each wearing black tee-shirts bearing the pink fist logo, a vast crowd stretching out behind them, the stark obelisk of the Washington monument rising in the hazy distance. That makes sense, he thought. Of course. “Queer Identity,” he said. “You don’t seem the sort.” He glanced back towards the couch. “Avoided any mention of politics at the table, in fact.”
“We are as God has made us,” Matt said, quoting Shelley’s own work back at him, “and one day soon science will attend the revelation of that fact.” He sagged further against the arm of the couch, then slid down onto the cushions and sat there, hunched, his arms resting on his thighs. “They set your office on fire for writing that. Jesus.”
“I also wrote that confusing identity with genetics would break hearts.” He took a couple of steps towards Matt, one hand slightly raised, palm open, then stopped. “I suppose you missed that part.” He dropped his hand back to his side.
“Yeah.” Matt didn’t look up, wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I guess a lot of people did.” After a moment, Shelley stopped looking at him and looked out the window towards the glimmering expanse of Los Angeles at night.
“When I was fifteen,” Shelley said, “I fell in love with the boy who delivered pizza to my apartment.”
Shelley didn’t turn around. He peered into the photograph, trying to put himself into the crowd, somewhere in the distance on the Mall. “He was odd-looking. Skinny. Bit of a hawk nose, pocked skin. Black hair that he slicked back. But he had these eyes.” He heard Matt shift on the couch behind him, but he remained focused on the image in the poster. It had been just four years ago when all those people had marched and danced on a sunny, hot and humid day in the former swamp. Shelley had been in France then, ensconced in a ratty hotel off of Rue La Fayette, taking refuge from his arsonist-critics, and from crystalline memories of the still-smoldering wreckage of New York. “From somewhere in the Middle East, I think. Those dark Levantine eyes.” Shelley turned around, and saw what he expected to see in Matt’s face: incomprehension. Lingering disappointment. He returned to the couch and sat back down, resuming his place on the voluminous crimson cushions at the far end, away from Matt. “I ordered pizza just so I could see him at the doorway for a few moments.” Shelley smiled, a private smile for himself, and glanced sidelong at Matt. “I gained fifteen pounds that summer. My face looked like the god damn moon.” The corners of Matt’s mouth twitched, a natural smile fighting against his deliberate mood. “September rolled around, and someone else started showing up at the doorway. I actually went to the pizza shop, trying to find him, but he didn’t work there anymore. Never even knew his name.”
Shelley chuckled. “Oh, yeah.” His smile faded and he looked at Matt, meeting his gaze and holding it. “I thought, who would choose this? Bush Three was running, and all the fundies were out and screaming bloody baby Jesus murder because of the marriage amendment, but it wasn’t about any of that. It was about lying on my bed, night after night—ever had that? Ball of lead in the chest, can’t sleep, all that?”
“Yeah.” The reluctant smile returned.
After a moment, Shelley stood, and looked out the window again. He rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand, remembering the recent warmth of Matt’s eager fingers there. “You know, I don’t feel quite myself, this evening,” he said. “Shouldn’t have had that last drink, maybe.”
He could feel Matt considering whether to ask him to stay. Aloud, Matt said, “I don’t think either of us is who we are right now.”
“Well, isn’t that something,” Shelley said, so quietly he wasn’t sure that Matt had heard him.
“I mean—I don’t know what to think,” Matt continued. “About this. Or you.”
“You’ll figure it out,” Shelly said. “Later, after I’ve gone.”
By the time he’d closed the apartment door behind him, he no longer wanted Matt to stop him. The elevator bore him downwards, humming to itself. Outside, the mist of the street enveloped him, as he sought a taxi in the darkness.