Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 5 • Spring 2003 • Fiction

Study in Sepia

Michael Carroll

So much for the novel of the overgrown boy. Anyone with time enough can mill through New York, glancing into windows to see what's in store for himself, in what's reflected.

So much for the future, enough about the past.

I've been in this city with E. for nearly two years. It was my childhood dream, but dreams develop into banal dramas; their comedy pales from daily repetition, their tragedies are tossed into the gutter and washed -- along with the garbage -- down the sewers.

Only the ending is unwritten.

A walk downtown leads only to regrets for histories I was never able to insert myself into. And yet when I was still down in Thornyduke, in the kudzu heat of ripe slushy summers lived long and with longing with another man, but we were boys then, I was content even as we were contemptible to many: the only two gay guys in the department.

No sitcoms or websites for us then; just ourselves.

In Los Angeles with E. three years ago (where a writer has said autumn is the only season to make any lasting claim on the emotions, and where mine were under arrest), in a house with an enclosed terra cotta patio open to the morning sun angular and full, magenta bougainvillea and oxblood tile, sun over everything pouring into the coffee on the iron table standing at the center of the patio and so the house, I swear I felt no shame. I swear I was without any great feeling whatsoever, but whatsoever I felt I was beholden to L.A.

A boy on the patio had never known what it was like in the days before. Already AIDS and liberation had swept through every plain and valley, like the valley this twenty-year-old had driven in from over the Hollywood Hills, where he worked at a taco stand and went to junior college and where being gay was rightly just another circumstance of life -- like being a student with a part-time job. He stood in the French doors between the patio and the bedroom (doors the owner had said to keep open, whether you were at home or running to the store), the sun was going down in its pale lovely way, almost imperceptibly at first, light failing in the cloudless powder sky more than it changed its colors; when everything was seized and we were whirled in a dense filtered light that splashed the cyclorama behind Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Drive, then shifted, intensified as it gathered more and more layers of dust and exhaust and bombarded us thickly from a low angle, a diagonal rain of fattened pastel gels and liquids that made our flesh fleshier, saturated my Anglo-Irish pallor, made his caramel hue duskier, deepened the scene, rendered the quiet of the evening still more somber.

He stood in the French doors between the patio and the bedroom, nude, a pre-Columbian Cimabue expelled from the San Fernando Valley, having gone all the way to Hollywood in his pickup truck for the day looking for sex. But looking more casual than that, even bored. Yet still expectant.

He asked me for a condom, easy as that. E. was gone for the week and I thought of us -- E. and me -- as different levels of a pyramid moving up to the point where this young man, an immigrant, a Catholic with his crucifix, stared out over a desert of razed then buried events in history with not-indifferent eyes, but with eyes as dark as the charring of seasoned wood, the burned-off growth of the past, eyes that absorbed the colors of the desert reflected at sunset.

I had to hurry. I couldn't lose this opportunity, thinking it might be my last. I had to run to the store. I literally jogged, since to get into my rented car, drive to Melrose, get out and run in would have taken just as much time. I remember regretting on the way not kissing him good-bye and, convinced he might not be there when I returned, nearly losing heart -- though heart wasn't the jailer of my emotions.

At the counter I deliberated over size. The man renting out porn didn't lose a beat, was patient, acted understanding. "Do you even know your date yet?" he said. He had the droopy eyes of a bloodhound, grazing every part of the room with them except the part where I stood. Then he trained them on me with a wry smile, and he winked and lit a cigarette in a no-smoking zone.

I ran back with renewed purpose, my stride eager. It had always been one with my excitement: the possibility, the certitude, of my failure. Not so for the boy, whose repose, whose almost insouciance, I found him languishing in under the sheets in the bedroom. I stopped outside on the tile just to look. He lay naked on his side, his back spreading darkly in the gray, one leg on top of the covers and the curve of his hip gently falling to intersect with the line that rose boldly to form the strokes of his torso (complex variegations that only the anatomist and artist could observe); he'd have suggested a charcoal were it not for the opaque gouache daub of his head. Another shifting of the light, the sun's filter cranking down behind the rooftops to the west, and the boy's head receded into the shadows of the room, the last of the colors were drained into the monochrome chiaroscuro, and the boy become pure shadings of black and gray -- together with the rest of the room. I thought my shadow disturbed this perfect composition, blocking the last of the light's reflection off the stucco walls of the patio and the abandoned eastern sky above them. Only a crack in the bathroom doorway leaked the balance of sunlight in, but it was feeble now. Only the air moved from outside, effecting the final frisson. When I clicked on a lamp beside the bed, the boy turned his head and reached up to me. The September light and the clacking of the date palms and royals outside return as vividly to me each fall as the moment when the boy became my last pleasure in the rented house -- a final bid for that sensation confused, in the transient delirium of each summer, as freedom.

Now when I want to own the feeling again, I have to wait for the ripened autumn light to cool against the brick and stone sides of Manhattan buildings before enjoying a moment's lease. On the trees in vacant lots, falling leaves begin to stir. A light breeze tugs at them, and loosened from the bonds that fasten them to frantic life they're freefalling kites, undone and flung against the enamel sky -- one final flight before the crash.

The city pace slows, drawing the race out agonizingly. Time is suddenly unreal, the way it was that evening three years ago. The way it was when we were boys. The way, attenuated and supercharged with feelings unnameable, its meaning looms over everything, engulfing us in its shadow -- and though we turn and look, we can't determine the shape or size of it. We shade our eyes because the penumbra of the sun behind it shines in them.

But it's in this shade of unknowing that we find each other. I wander it with E., with twenty-five Septembers' difference between us. The sensation catches us both, like in some dual dream where each of us is falling; we wake in each other's arms, then turn in bed together laughing -- nearly incredulous; relieved it was a dream, though it's not. Lying awake musing in the blue-gray of our room I think of him at all those island parties summers ago. When did he first feel the chill of September? Late August, when already the light has begun to change its color and the water brings a new freshness onto the land and everyone's reminded of everything? Or before in the arms of a burningly beautiful guy whose youth and grace was the medium in which E. thrived -- but whose frozen childhood began sending out cool fronts, causing the storms of conflict that finally drove them apart? In the unstable weather of that room upstairs in a house on stilts he must have learned his fleeing. The first signs of change, the first wrong wind, these are the nor'easter to his inland dash.

And so we shelter together. Taking umbrage under one roof we listen to the music of the tiny carcasses below as they're dragged and rattle along the concrete, the rhythm of this cycle jealous and unappeasable, dependable. And so much for the novel of the overgrown boy. The redness of the brick, the glint of quartz in cut stone suffice under a brilliant September sky cured by summer and cooled by the polar tilt and the sudden, icy autumn winds. This mood swells in the new angular light, mellow and ripe -- a time of reaping, a reminder of July and December. But a miracle at the same time, this bitter joy.

Michael Carroll's fiction has appeared in The Ontario Review and such anthologies as M2M (AttaGirl Press), Men on Men 7, Boys Like Us, and, most recently, The New Penguin Anthology of Gay Short Stories (editors David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell). He is at work on a novel, October: A Romance.

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