Jones Was the Guy
Jones was the guy he most wanted to fuck, and couldn't. Days would slip by between times they hung out, days filled with thoughts of Jones. How Jones was: the laugh, the Jones laugh, big, outlandish, Ahhhh -- ha-ha-ha-ha, and then the silent, almost embarrassed snickers that followed. Jones got embarrassed by the parts of him that were most alive. It was boyish and adorable. When he was away from Jones, Manny tried to remember funny things to tell him, to induce the Jones laugh. Oh, it was sweet, thinking about the thin wide lips, two streaks of red against pale skin, breaking into a lopsided smile, and his sharp nose scrunching up, and one of the eyes every now and then lazy. The way Manny talked about Jones's funny face, hovering in his mind when they were apart -- of course I could tell right away he was hooked.
When they were apart too long Manny felt the absence of Jones like a shortness of breath, like he was on guard against an intruder, like fear. He'd talked to no one about how intense it could get. He had always told his closest friends -- Ken and Scott -- about the boys in his life, the dates and fucks and of course the one or two actual relationships; he told them about his crushes and faraway obsessions. But all he'd said about Jones was, "He's this kid I met. We hang out sometimes. No big deal." To talk about Jones was to risk exposure -- overexposure, actually. To ruin it with too much light. There was nothing to gain by explaining.
Jones was younger, 11 years younger, 22 to Manny's 33. "Two thirds my age," Manny pointed out. He knew, sensibly, that the gap was too wide. But Jones was so special that it couldn't possibly matter, right? Rules were helpful in the regular world, but the world of just them, of Manny and Jones, wasn't the regular world. They laughed more than most people. They got close to each other with jokes and stories, with cigarettes and wrestling. They lost their breath tickling each other and then just laid there together, spent and thumping under the skin. Jones would curl into him -- spine to sternum, tailbone to pelvis -- and start a conversation, a new topic, just like that. No one else had ever been so close and so casual all at once.
Sometimes Manny hinted at what ached inside and made it clear, or tried to, that he wanted to go further, but Jones would just get quiet. Jones quiet was Jones confused. Unsure how to respond. Possibly disapproving. And so why push it? Jones never mentioned he was having sex with anyone. Manny had stopped having sex; it had been months by then. They shared a delicate thing, and Manny liked it better this way. That's what he told himself. No sex meant no spillage, no breakage. No sex kept you in suspension, close to each other, but not too -- like birds in a flight pattern.
But he wanted it all the same. Like I said, it made him ache. What if he never tried, and always felt the terrible hunger and the failure of never having asked? He was getting jittery -- Ken and Scott had started to notice. Other people, used to seeing him one way -- telling detailed stories in funny voices, up for a bit of social drinking, nearly broke but buying the next round (this is the kind of guy my brother's always been) -- they started to wonder about the moodiness, the distraction. He told everyone, "Things at work aren't going well." That was all it took. Who couldn't understand that, the stress of making a living? No one pushed deeper, and no one learned about Jones.
Which makes me the first. We've always had that between us -- brother and sister, coming to each other in trouble. Early on we figured out we had the same kinds of secrets: his crushes on boys, mine on girls. I live hours up the coast from the city; when he showed up at my house with his bags, I'd figured he'd have lots to say. I was looking forward to listening. My girlfriend's been overseas, and I don't like so much quiet. Instead he's spent his time sitting on the back porch, staring out at the gray September ocean, while I worked on the garden. He's been holding it in all month.
Jones had a sister, too, and she was sick. Very sick -- a bone disease that kept her in the hospital, getting marrow transfusions, too weak to recover quickly. They said it was genetic. Jones started spending all his time there. Manny said, "I want to help." Jones said, "I can handle it." Jones didn't want to wrestle and tickle as much, but who would? With that kind of thing going on, you give a guy some space.
So what happened was, Manny invited Jones out to dinner, to cheer him up, he said. He borrowed Ken's car for the night and picked Jones up. Ahead of time, Manny told him it was a comp -- a freebie from a friend in the restaurant business -- but he lied. Manny would pay for the entire thing, and it would be expensive. Why not? They'd never had a "date" before.
When he got to Jones's place there was no answer at the buzzer. He called Jones's cell. Turns out he was just leaving the gym.
"Since when do you go to a gym?"
"You just joined up?"
He'd hoped for an explanation, but Jones was silent. Manny tried to picture Jones in mid-curl, sweat beading on his crooked crimson lip. "Did you forget about dinner?"
"No, I'm coming."
"Well, don't dawdle, because I made a reservation."
He hated that he'd used "dawdle," like an old matron. He hated the way "I made a reservation" stank of injury.
He puffed on a Marlboro Light, even though Ken had forbidden smoking in the car. He was nervous and it was cold. It was August, San Francisco's coldest month. The foggiest, dampest, grayest. Smoking in the fog could turn your throat raw. He was imagining the fight he would have with Ken when he returned the car reeking of ash. He yelled at Ken in his mind: Why are you always so bossy and uptight? When he snapped out of it, he was clenching a fist, the one without the cigarette. He felt blue, a vast sadness stretching back in time. It had nothing to do with Ken. When the cigarette burned down he reached for another right away. I could picture that, my brother chain-smoking in a car, in the fog.
Jones emerged at last, down the block. It had been easily twenty minutes since they spoke. Manny'd already called the restaurant to plead for time. The restaurant was noisy, bustling. He worried he was pushing their patience, the table was lost, the wait would go on and on. Jones wouldn't like that, standing at the bar with the money people -- that's what Jones would call them, "the money people" -- waiting to be served, feeling ignored. Jones didn't even like to drink. He'd want to get high.
Jones walked past the car without noticing Manny. He seemed preoccupied. His sister, Manny remembered, and breathed deeply. A big soft emotion welled up in him: protective, nurturing. He started the car, hit the electric window. "Jones," he called. "Hey, guy."
"Oh, hey, M." Only Jones called him that. "You have a car?"
"I told you I was borrowing. Remember?"
Jones nodded, smiled. He didn't remember; this was the smile he reserved for when he'd goofed up about something. "Should I get in?" he asked.
Jones wore old, tight jeans -- they had designer stitching on the pockets -- that showed you just how small his ass was. His T-shirt was pale yellow with a silvery, iron-on decal -- the cast of a childhood TV show. His denim jacket was acid wash. Usually Manny liked Jones's silly style, but tonight he'd expected him to dress. He himself had donned a button-up shiny shirt and trousers. It was all second-hand, but still, he'd ironed everything. He'd shaved carefully. He'd used product in his hair.
He asked Jones, "Are you going to change?"
Jones was lowering himself into the passenger seat; he paused and let his nose scrunch up. "Is it that kind of restaurant?" His eyes scanned Manny, taking in the shiny shirt, the hair goo.
"Well, yeah. I mean, didn't I tell you? Fancy."
"Maybe you did, maybe you didn't."
"Maybe you just didn't think it mattered."
"Maybe this is a bad idea -- "
Manny took a breath to steady himself. He didn't want to make a big deal. "It's San Francisco. You can wear anything you want."
Jones looked at him with uncertainty but got in the car.
"I'm just wound up, Jones. You're late, and I was worried we'd lose the reservation." He started the engine, looked over his shoulder for traffic. I can save this, he thought to himself, if I just stop fucking worrying about everything. "You know, I get to be a worry wart sometimes." Worry wart. Another old-lady expression.
"Worrying kills the buzz. Every time." Jones was scavenging through the tapes piled between the seat. A glut of women singers with acoustic guitars. "Did you borrow this car from your sister?"
"It's Ken's. A fag with a lesbian lifestyle. He lives with his ex-boyfriend and his ex-boyfriend's ex-boyfriend. Notice this is a Honda."
"For a dyke it should be a Toyota."
"Who can keep track?"
Things were better now. They smoked cigarettes and sang along with the Indigo Girls: There's more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in crooked line... Everybody likes that song.
Jones's discomfort was immediate, as predicted. Shoulders slumped, nails were gnawed, knees bounced under the table. Manny struggled through conversation about the menu, which seemed to offend Jones: the prices, the specialty ingredients. "Gee, I've never had confit before," Jones snarled, pronouncing it KHAN-fitt. He said this in front of their good-looking waiter, who stood by, patient but not amused.
Manny ordered wine, and toasted their meal: "To free food!" Jones frowned and lowered the glass without drinking. Manny wondered if he knew the meal wasn't really a comp; but how could he know? "Drink up," he said.
"Could I get a vodka and cranberry?" Jones asked.
It was irritating that he'd waited until after the wine had been delivered, but yeah, sure. "Coming right up," Manny said, still forcing good cheer. What he really wanted to do was ask -- demand -- "Why are you being a dick?" But he kept coming back to Jones's sick sister, and that seemed to even things out.
He tried another tactic. "Sorry if I'm being weird. I'm really aware of your situation, and I want to be a good friend, but I get clumsy. It makes me nervous, sick people. I know that's stupid, but I'm overcompensating."
"I wish I'd had time to shower," Jones said, eagerly taking the cocktail from the waiter.
"You didn't shower at the gym?" This was definitely exciting for Manny, flashing ahead to later, when Jones would curl into him, the ripe smell of exertion still lingering. Maybe after imbibing a few cocktails Jones would see things differently, and finally give him what he wanted --
"I went into a stall and sucked off this guy."
"I was heading toward the shower, and he was coming out, and we had eye contact. So I followed him into a stall. I think -- " He paused to drain the vodka-cranberry down to the ice, a long, long chug.
Manny waited, clawing the bell of the wine glass. He prompted, "You think?"
Jones glanced to the tables at either side. Then he leaned forward and lifted up his T-shirt. His stomach was white, lean lean lean, except for the tiniest curve of softness over each hipbone. Dark, sparse hair around his belly button. He pulled the shirt higher, revealing one plummy nipple. He flicked at the skin, sending a flake flying. He raised his eyebrows, let his voice drop to a whisper: "He shot on me."
Manny nearly gagged, right there. Stinging acid burned his throat. He swallowed it back down, speechless. Outraged. He stifled everything he considered saying; it all would have sounded bitchy. Wasn't the point of hanging out with Jones to not act like a bitchy boyfriend? They had something special, something apart from the rules of possession and disappointment. Didn't they?
"Let's go smoke," he said, pushing back from the table.
Around the corner from the restaurant they stood in an alley, taking Jones's pipe from each other. The high hit Manny hard, all coughs and head-rush, and he leaned back against the brick. The lone spotlight ten yards down the alley bore into his eyes, and when he closed them he saw colors. Under his skin he was burning up from anxiety, like when he was apart from Jones for too long. Except Jones was standing right there. The awareness of that was awful.
Opening his eyes, he watched Jones exhale, lit from behind by streetlight. The boyish throat with its fine fringe of hair. Manny absorbed this beautiful, rarefied, photographic image and knew he needed to say something. "I don't really want to hear the sex story at the gym, Jones. I don't want to think about it."
Jones smiled and narrowed his eyes. "You were a big slut when you were my age." He grabbed his crotch and squeezed. It was not something Manny had ever seen him do before, and here he was, so brazen.
"I can still be a big slut," Manny said, and lifted himself off the wall. He moved nearer to Jones, and then didn't know what to do: Lay a mitt on his shoulder? Demand a kiss?
Jones leapt into a boxer's stance, one leg behind him, weight on the forward knee, fists raised (though not correctly; even Manny, who knew nothing about boxing, could tell that). "Let's fight it out," Jones said.
"I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"Fighting is like fucking."
"We don't do that either."
"I want to take everything out on you, Manny. Come on. Just indulge me." He was bobbing around now, still insisting on this boxer business. The smile, usually so endearing, menaced. The lazy eye focused. The frail fists taunted.
Manny felt it all well up, then, everything that was poisonous, unequal, terrifying about his feelings for Jones. He stepped forward, grabbed Jones's wrist and twisted. He spun Jones around, pinned him from behind. The pot pipe fell to the pavement and bounced once, metallic. He got the other arm, too, and leaned in with all his weight, a move he learned in a self-defense class, years ago, a move he'd once practiced over and over, and now here it was, still a reflex.
He rammed Jones against the wall. The impact shook Jones, shuddering those genetically vulnerable bones. Manny felt the force.
"Ow, fuck. Hell, Manny, what the fuck."
"Shit." Manny hissed into Jones's ear, a little steam hinting at everything boiling inside. He let go of Jones's arms but his body still pressed. He was the heavier guy by far. He felt like a man, an actual man, not just a guy growing into manhood, which is how he usually felt.
But Jones wanted free. He pushed away, put his finger to his chin, touched blood. "You cut my face, asshole."
"You asked for it, Jones. Literally."
"You didn't have to go all psycho."
"You didn't have to be such a punk."
"You're a fucking brute."
"I'm a fighter, not your lover," Manny said, but Jones didn't crack a smile.
Jones trotted off down the alley, and Manny just figured it was over. The dinner, of course, but also the friendship. Not even a shiver of his earlier anxiety remained. It had been replaced by its truer aspect, anger, coursing upward and out. Now Manny was tall as a statue, wide as an electric fence. He was happy to have hurt Jones, and he felt so calm it was like being caught in an evil trance. That was his phrase -- an evil trance. Like a spell had been cast, but from within.
Turns out Jones didn't leave. He went back into the restaurant and asked the hostess for a first aid kit, and went into the men's room to clean the gash on his chin, where his face had smacked the brick. Manny returned to the table and dove into the wine. The waiter and the hostess conferred, looking his way with alarm.
Sitting there, alone, knowing Jones was in the bathroom trying to stop the bleeding, knowing he'd caused it, knowing that other people knew it, too, Manny felt marked. Abuser! Batterer! Bully! That one over there! That man! He absorbed the voices. He supposed he was now a fearsome stranger in the eyes of the hostess. Would she make him leave? Call the police? No -- she'd send the good-looking waiter into the men's room, where he'd tend to Jones's wound. The waiter would offer to call Jones a cab, but slutty little Jones would lead him into the stall instead. Manny told me how he pictured it: Jones shirtless, sucking; the waiter pulling out to aim at his chest.
No one knows Manny like I do, and I swear: he's not a violent guy. Men have it in them, though, don't they? He once threw an ashtray at a boyfriend during a breakup. He used to scream like a crazy person at strangers and cops during Queer Nation protests. When we were kids he pulled a kitchen knife on me, and waved it around, close to my face, and yelled at me. I don't remember why, we were just a couple of brats. Ten, eleven years old, something like that. He scared me that night, but it never happened again. As far as I know that's it, the sum total of his violence. Why do you think he took that self-defense class? He'd been mugged, and gay-bashed. He'd been a victim more than anything else. He's a big guy, so you might not mess with him if you didn't know better. But if you knew better, you'd figure you could kick his ass.
Something about Jones, though. This time he'd drawn blood.
Manny drank more wine, waiting, waiting, waiting for Jones. God, Jones was in there a long time. Finally he came out, two Band Aids crisscrossing his chin. "I'm not mad," Jones said. "I stayed in there long enough to not be mad. I didn't know if you'd wait."
"I'm sorry," Manny said.
"Don't be. I'm a punk."
"Yeah, but I exploded."
"I asked for it. You said so yourself."
The good-looking waiter was there, asking if everything was OK. Asking Jones.
Manny said, "Is our food ready? We're prepared to eat now."
The waiter's face expressed shock. Manny and Jones caught each other's eyes and burst out laughing. Prepared to eat. Another fussy phrase, but well chosen. Sarcastic. They were good together when they could be sarcastic. Manny felt a billion times better. He decided it would be possible to be Jones's friend after all. He didn't need sex with him. He just needed to not take any shit. One little cut on the chin and now things would be okay.
Apparently they enjoyed the meal and Jones opened up and talked seriously about the sick sister, who was very far along, and afterwards they went to Jones's room and sat in front of the TV. They watched Charlie Rose talk to some actress plugging her memoirs, Charlie looking like a fool with his blustery interview style. Jones could imitate Charlie's Carolina inflections just right. Harmless stuff, making fun of a talk show host. Everything was fine until Jones curled up into Manny -- spine to sternum, tailbone to pelvis. As if he still had the right.
That was August, just before he came to stay with me. San Francisco had worn him down, he'd said. He was "sick of the people." He'd quit his job. I hadn't expected such a long visit, but of course I've been happy for his company, with my girlfriend away and the skies so gray for September. I write poems at my desk in the mornings, and work in the garden after that. We find recipes in cookbooks for dinner. Still, I've been worried. There's been no spark, no stories with funny voices. No explanation.
Then today the phone rang, and I heard him gasp, and he stayed on for a long time. He started crying. I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but this is a small house. I got the gist -- someone had died. I asked who. He said, "Jones's sister."
For many hours, he stayed on the back porch. When it got dark and cold I brought a candle into the salty air. I sat next to him.
"What do you want to know?" he asked.
"You could tell me who he is to you -- this Jones."
He took a minute to think. He lit a cigarette off the candle. "Jones is the guy I most wanted to fuck," he began, "and couldn't."