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Giuseppe and Me
A Short Story
Greetings, fellow fiction-lovers!
Today, I’m very excited to bring you.
In her newsletter, the aptly named, Robin writes multi-layered stories about people whose destinies are not determined solely by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Today, she shares one of those stories with us — part coming-of-age, part journey of self-discovery, this one had me on the edge of my seat right to the end. Enjoy!
In an effort to encourage gay men to practice safe sex, especially young gay men who seemed not to understand how profoundly HIV takes over one’s life, author Brent Hartinger created The Real Story Safe Sex Project. He asked me to contribute a short story. Giuseppe and Me is my contribution. [NOTE: Contains some explicit language.]
"Your turn to wash the dishes, Alex."
Derek's grin isn't a pleasant one. The message it sends is like, And you know what that means, you skinny twerp. Or maybe it would be you skinny faggot. But, no; he doesn't use that term when the Dunlaps can hear him, and they're right here at the table with us. I don't know whether he knows I'm gay. I think faggot is just a term he throws around a lot.
I do know what the ugly grin means, though. Because when it's my turn to wash dishes, I'm stuck at the sink. And Derek will be drying, which means he's not only mobile but also he has a weapon in his hands. Maybe tonight I'll be able to do—I don't know, something, anything, to make him leave me alone.
Mr. and Mrs. Dunlap stay at the kitchen table, deep into some financial discussion, and as soon as I'm up to my wrists in hot, soapy water Derek starts up his usual taunts. He opens with verbal abuse, so quiet that only I can hear him. I do my best to ignore him and don’t reply at all. That’s supposed to make him give up, or so I’m told, but in my experience it makes him go to the next level. Which is snapping the towel at me. This time, for some reason—he probably doesn’t know how much it will bother me or why—he decides to aim at my ass. Snap. Snap. Snap. Pretty soon he figures out how to get it to strike right at my crack. Again. And again. I can see my hands start to shake, and inside my head I'm shouting, Stop it! Stop it! But it won't come out.
Finally Mrs. Dunlap gets out of her chair, comes over, and yanks the towel away from Derek.
"What will it take to make you stop terrorizing Alex? Will you tell me that?” He has no answer, of course, because there's almost certainly nothing that would make him stop, but he has more sense than to say that out loud. She bunches the towel up and shoves it at his chest hard enough to make him take a couple of steps backward. “Knock it off! Now finish the job, and don’t you do anything with that towel other than dry the dishes.”
He waits until she sits down again before he leans toward me. “Chicken shit.”
She must have heard that one. “Derek!”
Chores complete, he goes out as soon as he can get away, and I have a few moments alone in the bedroom we share to stop shaking. Why the fuck hadn’t I hit him? Or at least threatened to? No wonder he calls me chicken shit. Leaning against the door, eyes closed, I take a breath in for two beats, let it out for four, in for two… And then I hear a nearly-whispered conversation start up in the kitchen.
“Honestly, Bill, why am I always the one who has to deal with this problem? Why can’t you ever say anything?”
“Alex needs to learn to stand up for himself. You know what Dr. Tomkins said.”
“Have you forgotten what happened to him? It’s not something he’s going to recover from right away, and always getting beaten down by that bully will only make it worse.”
“Maybe, but if you always come to his rescue like that, he never has to take action. He’ll always be a coward.”
“Coward? He was abused! Horribly abused!”
I shove away from the door; don't want to hear any more. Christ, but I wish I were bigger! At fifteen, Derek is a year younger than me, but he's taller and heavier. And a bully. Barring bigger, could I maybe at least get some courage? Where's the Wizard of Oz when you need him?
I never had a lot of courage, but I feel like I lost all of it at the last foster home. The one before this one. As many problems as Derek makes for me here, the Dunlaps' apartment on St. Marks Place is the best of all of them so far, and there have been quite a few. I mean, it’s a little crowded, what with her and Mr. Dunlap in one bedroom and both of us foster kids sharing the other, but it’s sure as hell better than the last place, where Mr. Ellis started coming after me.
He only got me twice before Children’s Services got me out of there, but it was enough that I had to get tested. Twice, a few months apart, just to be sure. Something about HIV taking three months to show up, maybe. And I sure heard a lot about condoms from the people at the clinic, like the whole thing had been my idea to begin with.
I wasn’t nervous, waiting for the first test results; probably still too traumatized over what had happened to focus on getting sick. By the second test, though, I'd done some research. It had started after I'd seen the movie Philadelphia at the Film Forum over on West Houston, where I've gone many times to see Italian films, always with subtitles so I can close my eyes and just listen to the Italian. But this was a different experience, watching Tom Hanks wasting away, covered in plum-colored lesions, walking around with an IV attached to him like some kind of feeding tube. That scared the shit out of me, and although a little more research showed that HIV isn't quite the death sentence it was when they shot that movie, it totally takes control of your life. And I've had little enough control of my life so far, thank you very much.
So I was nervous as hell through the months of waiting until it was time for the second test. What if I had HIV? My life already sucks, but I know better than to think there’s any fair play about how things happen that would keep this curse away from me. I prayed to God, I prayed to my dead mother, I prayed to the father I never knew. It’s hard to tell you what the relief was like when I found out I was negative.
I won’t say Mr. Ellis did me any favors, but I already knew I was gay, and now I know that the experience can only get better from here. But it looks like I’ll have to testify at his trial. I already went to some court thing, I forget what it was called. He wasn’t there, but I had to answer all these questions about what happened, and—man, it was like reliving it all over again. And if what I’ve seen on TV shows is anything like real life, it will be even worse at the trial. I might fall apart. I might not be able to go through with it. The prosecutor, Mr. Lewis, tried to help; he told me to lean on my anger. The trouble is, all I feel is afraid.
So I hate to admit Mr. Dunlap is right. Shit.
Well, if I don't go out, if I stay here, I'll just be a ball of nerves, not knowing when Derek will return or what mood he'll be in. It's Saturday, and I can't think of a reason not to go someplace where I'm more comfortable, someplace I'm more in control. So I grab a hoodie, fly down the two flights of stairs to the street level, and head west toward Greenwich Village.
I especially like to hang out in Christopher Park, which is right across the street from Stonewall Inn, where everything got started. I love that St. Marks, my current “home,” is so close to where those riots happened, where enough men finally got so pissed off about getting treated like shit and thought of like even worse than that, that they just refused to take any more. Gay men are still men; sometimes I think straight people forget that.
By the time I get to Christopher Park, I'm feeling calmer. I always feel better when I'm alone. That way I don't have to keep up the act. You know the one? It's where I won't be shocked. By anything. My persona is not to react, not to give away that something has hurt me or startled me or even surprised me. I guess there's a certain level of that, a kind of undertow, all the time, especially walking around the city at night. But it goes into high gear when there's someone else with me, someone who might just do one of those things—shock me, startle me, hurt me.
There’s not much I can actually do in the West Village at night, at only sixteen. But I love strolling around, looking in the sex toy shop windows, standing where I can watch the entrance to a gay bar to see who goes in, who comes out, and who he’s with. I try to guess where they’ll go next, and of course what I imagine is one of them has a cool apartment someplace close by. He leads his guest up three flights of stairs, and once safely inside the kissing and the touching start, and before long...
Sometimes when I'm walking around like this, I look for people I might like to be related to. My mother died when I was five—drug OD—and I never knew my father, but I do know that both my parents were Italian. So if I see someone who looks really Italian, I look hard at him: Does he have my nose? The shape of my mouth? The eyebrows that start out as a slight squiggle near my nose and arch strongly toward my temples? Lots of people think my last name—which was my mother's—is Latino. But Lupo is Italian. I suppose it doesn’t help the confusion that everyone has always shortened Alessandro to Alex, which could be from almost anywhere. Alessandro means “defender of men.” Lupo means “wolf.” If only I could apply those meanings to my life.
I read this article once about how many people who've come to the U.S. from Italy become landscapers, or start plant nursery businesses. It seems Italians have a passion for plants in general and flowers in particular. So when I'm wandering around the West Village looking for Italian people, if I end up on a block of apartments where lots of people have planted flowers in window boxes, I walk up one side of the street and back on the other and pretend I'm in Italy.
There’s this one guy I’ve been seeing a lot. I'm pretty sure he’s Italian: long, straight nose, full lips, strong jaw, dark brown hair just long enough to show waves. Lots of times, I’ve seen him go into Stonewall. Sometimes I’ve been there long enough to see him come out again, and if he’s with someone it’s often someone different from the last time I saw him. Sometimes it looks like he’s with a friend, and maybe they’re going someplace else to have a drink and look for more opportunities. Other times I know he’s headed for that three-flights-up-to-heaven climb. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want him. I want to be him.
After I've made a few circuits of my favorite blocks, I'm still not ready to go home, but I know I'll be in trouble if I'm out too late, and I'm just about back at Stonewall when I see my guy. He's talking with someone, not paying much attention, and he practically runs into me.
"Sorry." He looks like he might be going to say something else, but then he takes a closer look at me. Then, "I've seen you before."
No doubt he's seen me enough to think I'm stalking him. I have no voice. I have no words. But I can't take my eyes off his face.
"It's kind of late for you to be here, isn't it?" Again, that hesitation. Is he about to tell me to go home, or something? Or is it that he's trying not to say that? "Are you okay?"
I nod and start walking around him. "Yeah. Fine."
I don't turn around. I don't want him to see the tears in my eyes, the ones I refuse to shed, let alone show. Right there. He was right there, and I couldn't speak. I couldn't ask his name, tell him mine. I couldn't even say that meaningless phrase, How's it going? I couldn't say a fucking thing!
See, this is the downside of never revealing anything, never letting anyone see what I'm thinking or feeling. It might help protect me from bad things, but it also means I can't respond to the good things. 'Cause you can't filter like that, you know? You either block out everything, or you let everything in.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Today, Sunday, is one of those days when I can't wait to get out of the apartment. It's not just that the place feels more crowded on weekends, either. It's that today is one of those sunny spring days when you can almost bring yourself to believe that good things happen.
My crouching walk, designed to protect me from—whatever, is a little less hunched today, and by the time I get to Washington Square Park (a.k.a., WSP), maybe I'm not actually skipping, but I can't help feeling at least a little up. Lots of trees have those flowers with delicate white or pink petals, and it's just that part of the season when enough flowers are still on the branches that walking under a tree practically lifts you off the ground. And when you get past the tree, you have petals in your hair and on your shoulders.
It's a perfect day to find a good bench to sit on and have one of my silent conversations with a famous Italian, Giuseppe Garibaldi. I was initially attracted to this statue because he's Italian, like me. And then for a while I felt a little disloyal to him, because I couldn't help thinking he was kind of funny-looking, with a face almost like one of the seven dwarves. And he’s in this weird posture, legs at an odd angle, right hand on the hilt of his sword, and the blade is sort of half in, half out of the scabbard. Then one day something just clicked. Some mystical connection between us. It happened not long after I'd been sent to the Dunlaps, between the two HIV tests, and I was feeling particularly frightened. I looked up at him and wondered if my sword would ever have a chance to really come out. And this applied to my courage as well as my dick.
These days I like to stare up at him and try to imagine what his life was like. Because just like I’ve moved around from home to home, his life, too, was all over the place. Seriously. I looked it up. He spent the 1800s going from France to Italy, to Brazil, he went to Uruguay—anyplace some country was fighting for independence. At one point he lived on Staten Island, having arrived there by way of Switzerland. Eventually he went home, still fighting the good fight, and ended up helping to unify Italy. So he died a hero. And, in any event, he was no coward. Kind of gives me hope.
Giuseppe. Joseph. Joe. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but instead he ended up fighting the Pope over how Italy would be governed. So we have that in common, too, at least as far as some kind of split with our mothers.
So, under the flowering trees, I sit for a while, communing with Giuseppe, and then wander around the park. The guy who wheels his baby grand piano into the park is here today. And all alone, on a bench nearby, is this Greek god. Okay, so that’s a little dramatic, but he does have a full head of curly blond hair, and he is gorgeous. He looks like one of those statues you see—Adonis? He’s my age, or pretty close to it, anyway. When I notice him, he's watching the piano guy, who's playing one of his typical classical pieces.
Like I usually do with something that catches my attention, I walk past and pretend not to notice the god, but when I'm sure I'm far enough past, I half-turn, pretending to be looking at something off to the side but really gauging whether he's looking toward me. He isn’t; why would he? So I turn fully around, now walking backward. As soon as I'm looking right at him, he looks at me.
I wheel around again, hands deep in my pockets, and keep going. When I get to the fountain I start a trip around it, past some guy kissing the pigeon on his shoulder, past people selling smelly food, past some college singing group sounding awful, past a mime, and a juggler, and an artist sketching some little girl while her parents watch and make cooing noises. When I’ve made a full circuit, there he is again. He's sitting on the edge of the pool around the fountain, jeans rolled up, feet in the water, leaning back on his arms, and watching me.
My mind bounces back and forth between It’s not exactly warm enough to go wading and Is he really looking at me, or at someone behind me? I stand stock still. And then he smiles. At me.
Holy crap. My first impulse is to go back the way I had come, past the piano, past Giuseppe. But I don’t. Maybe feeling so ashamed at not being able to speak to that guy last night is still haunting me. In any case, when the god tilts his head away from me, like, “Come on over,” I do.
Cross-legged, hands still in my jacket pockets, I sit just close enough to him so that we can hear each other talk, though for several minutes we don’t. We sort of stare at different things around us, all the people doing wacky things, just sitting together like old friends hanging out, friends who would talk when something occurs to us but otherwise don’t need to fill the air with chatter.
Then he looks at me. “I’m Ron.”
“You live near here?”
“St. Marks. You?”
He nods in the direction across the fountain, through the arch, up Fifth Avenue. I take another look at his clothes. Yeah, he lives in one of those posh places with a doorman and an elevator and maybe even a balcony or a rooftop garden. Before I have time to figure out what I think of that, he makes a suggestion.
“Wanna go to the dog run?”
“Large or small dogs?” Like it matters; I’d have followed him anywhere. But there are two different runs.
I watch while he brushes water off his feet and puts on athletic shoes that probably cost as much as my whole wardrobe, and we head toward the south side of the park. Neither of us says anything until we're inside the fenced area, watching dogs run and jump and pant and generally make merry. Ron gestures toward a bench, and we sit down.
He doesn't say anything, so I get things started. “Do you have a dog?”
He shakes his head. “I had one. She died.”
“Oh.” Way to step in it, Alex.
“Her name was Bella. She was a Yorkie. My parents got her about a year after I was born, and she died last year.”
I spend a couple of seconds wondering why he hadn’t suggested the small dog run and get about as far as thinking maybe he didn’t want to be reminded about Bella dying. “Bella’s Italian,” I offer.
“I’m Italian. My last name means ‘wolf.’”
I can't quite tell whether he's interested or not, and he doesn’t ask what the Italian word for wolf might be. And he doesn’t give me his last name. That's okay with me, really. Maybe we aren't going to fall in love and get married, but it would be nice if he could get to like me before he finds out any more about how different our lives are.
We sit silently for a bit, watching the dogs, when out of nowhere he says, “Wanna go make out?”
I keep watching the dogs, like what he said was the most normal thing in the world. Calm, Alex. Breathe. Breathe again. OMG. Did he really just ask me that? Don't panic! Right. Like not panicking is an option. But—it's not like he's another Mr. Ellis. And, really, how far can we go, here in the park? Maybe I should just test those waters first. So I say, “Where?”
He doesn't answer. Doesn't even look at me. He gets up, and given that my only options at this point are to follow him or lose this chance to find out if I can tolerate having someone touch me even a little, I follow.
He doesn't head in the direction of the arch, which would lead up Fifth Avenue to where he lives. He's staying in the park, then? There’s not really anyplace secluded in WSP. It was renovated a few years ago, and part of the goal, I think, was to be sure there weren’t any good places for things like drug buys to happen.
Finally he steps off the path onto the grass near a large tree and sits on the ground on the side away from the walkway. I stand in front of him, not quite knowing what comes next, until he reaches up and pulls me by the hand until we're both fully down on the grass. Holding my eyes with his, he strokes my arm with a hand, down and then up and then down. Suddenly, he hooks a finger on my waistband and pulls, and he reaches for my mouth with his.
I'm kissing another boy. I'm kissing another boy. It thunders through my brain until I have the mental strength to silence it so I can enjoy the softness of his mouth, the warmth of it. And then the softness gives way to a harder pressure, a strong, firm, masculine feeling. I grab his head with my hands, barely aware of the way the seams of our jeans are catching together at our crotches.
Another sudden move, and he's flipped me onto my back. He hovers over me, poised there, breathing through his open mouth, eyes boring into mine, and then his tongue is deep inside my mouth, my face caught in a vise grip between his hands.
My hands find a new place, and I grab his ass and press our hips together, and I don't know how long it is before we come up for air, or how I manage to hold onto my cum.
Both on our backs, now, panting and gazing up through the bright, spring green of the leaves overhead, we lie for maybe five minutes before he sits up, elbows on bent knees. Gazing into the distance a little, not at me, he asks, “Will you be here next Sunday?”
“Meet at the fountain.” And he's gone.
Back at the Dunlaps', it's everything I can do that night to act natural, so I just go through the motions, desperate not to give anything away or provide Derek with any ammunition. And that’s what it would be, even if he didn’t manage to figure out any details. Because I’d just made out with a guy. For the very first time. Just like that: no fuss, no muss. And what's really getting to me, in a really good way, is that I had liked it. Because, you know, I’d hated what that monster Mr. Ellis had done to me.
I know I’ve said that it can only get better, but the truth is I haven't been entirely sure it ever would. Just imagine, if you can, that you’re a guy who doesn’t know a whole lot about yourself except that you’re Italian and gay, who doesn’t have any reason to think there’s anything worth knowing, and then you’re tortured by this man who does something horrible to you that gay guys actually choose to do together (in concept, anyway). You hate what the man did. And this horrible thing that happened to you is something you’re supposed to like. Something you’re supposed to want to do a lot of.
Now, I get that two guys who actually want to fuck are going to do it in a way that they both like, not like Mr. Ellis did to me. The point is, I’d really liked making out with Ron. True, no one had touched anything intimate without a couple of layers of cloth in the way, but—I’d wanted to. And I’d wanted Ron to touch me, too. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if we do that next time, I'm pretty sure I'll like it. A lot. This is some kind of epiphany. And if that isn’t enough for me to be over the moon about, it's happened with a great-looking guy, a rich guy—someone I would never in a million years have expected would have anything to do with me.
Thoughts of “next time” going through my mind, I go to the fountain next Sunday at the appointed time, even though it's raining. Ron doesn't show. Guess if all he wants to do is roll around on the grass, it's not a day for that. I wait for a long time, getting wetter and colder, not sure whether I'm more disappointed about missing the make-out session or missing just being with someone who likes me.
But in my heart I know that focusing on those two disappointments is just a smoke screen. What I really feel like is that poster I've seen, about homeless children. It says, "Go ahead. Throw me away. I'm used to it."
. . . . . . . . . .
Ron doesn't throw me away. When I see him the next Sunday, when he smiles at me, sun practically glinting off his white teeth like you might see in a very different kind of poster—teeth that probably cost the gross national product of a small nation—something gets behind my shield. Something warm worms its way into cracks I hadn't known were there and softens that hard shell so much that it's everything I can do not to wrap my arms around Ron and hold him tight.
But I don't. I can't. It would chase him away for sure. So I do my best to reconstruct enough of my shield to help me maintain at least an appearance of detachment.
Neither of us says anything about our missed connection the previous Sunday. We do basically the same thing, without the dogs this time. Then we sit on the grass, leaning against the tree—which means we can't look at each other very well.
After a few minutes during which I'm trying to decide what I can do to keep him here a little longer, he says, “Are you out?”
“No way. My folks would kill me.”
I let the sounds of the park fill the space between us, trying to decide if now would be a good time to say something about what the word “folks” means to me. Or, more accurately, doesn't mean. But it seems Ron isn’t waiting for me to reveal anything one way or another, and he goes on with his own story.
“I’m the only son. The only kid, actually. My dad has my future all planned out. Columbia, then Columbia Law, then his law firm, then marriage to some woman he and Mom deem appropriate. In that order.”
I know this sort of thing exists, where you might have parents who’ve planned out your whole life. But it still feels pretty foreign to me. Hoping he'll interpret it however he needs to hear it, I say, “Wow.”
Ron’s mention of lawyers makes my mind go to the trial where I’ll have to testify. “Your dad… um, what kind of lawyer is he?”
“He wouldn’t, you know, have anything to do with—oh, I don’t know, like, a rape trial, or something like that?”
Ron snorts. “No way. There’s no money in that sort of thing, unless you’re Alan Dershowitz.”
Whew; at least I won't be facing Ron’s father in the courtroom. And now I want to change the subject, totally. So I ask, “What if your folks weren’t so specific about your future? What would you change, other than marriage to an appropriate woman?”
“I’d go about as far away as I could. And do something as non-directional as possible. Maybe become a windsurfer in Hawai’i. I’d have to support myself somehow, I guess, maybe as a waiter or something.”
“Well, if it’s any encouragement, you look the part.” He turns a puzzled face toward me. “I mean, you look as much like a surfer as any guy I know.”
He looks back across the park and nods. Then, “What about you?”
Decision time. What to say? But, I figured, he hadn’t known anything more than my first name when he’d asked me to make out; I could have been anybody, or nobody. So I told him the truth. “Never knew my father. My mom died of a drug overdose when I was five. I’m in a foster home in the East Village, now.” No need for gory details; that would be enough for him to mull over.
He turns his whole body toward me. “Wow.” Somehow his “wow” carries more meaning than mine had. He makes it seem like he actually thinks what I’d just said is cool. Or at least interesting. “For real?”
“For real.” I wait to see what else he might say.
For a minute he just stares at me. Then, “So there’s no one pushing you. Checking up on you all the time. You don’t have to answer to anyone. Oh, man…” He leans back hard against the tree, facing into the park once more.
Somehow I want him to know it's far from heaven. “Yeah, but there’s no one who cares, either. And, I mean, there’s no money.”
"Yeah, it shows." He picks up a stick, staring out at nothing, tears little bits of wood and flings them at that same nothing.
I struggle like mad to get back into my shell, away from the pain of what he's just thrown at me like it doesn't matter any more than the stick—like I don't matter any more, either. Then he says, “So either there’s money and prison, or you get nothing in either department. Somewhere, somehow, there’s got to be a middle ground.” There's no arguing with that. Then he says, “Next week? Unless it’s raining.”
I'm still stinging, but it lessens a little with the knowledge that he wants to see me again. But—why does he want to see me again? And do I want to see him?
It takes nanoseconds for me to go through a scenario where I tell him to go to hell and then realize that if I do that, I'll regret it. Maybe he didn't really mean that comment the way it had sounded. Maybe it really doesn't matter to him. Because, really, if it did, would he want to see me again?
Trying to deny—to him, and to myself—that anything is bothering me, that I have any conflicting feelings about next week, I stand, nod at him, and walk off. Not toward home, but west toward Greenwich Village. Maybe I don’t have money, but it’s true that I have freedom.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Our make-out sessions, Ron’s and mine, continue with no particular regularity; mostly we meet up casually. But they see us through the change of season from spring to summer in WSP. Some days when we meet up there are enough boy-girl combinations trying to hide behind the larger trees that it's challenging to find a good spot.
I guess it's predictable that it doesn't take us long to move beyond kissing and panting and general groping. We can't exactly strip in public, but we can reach into each other’s jeans. Usually Ron comes prepared with a few cheap washcloths he’s picked up from the CVS at Eighth Street and University Place. We use these to catch our cum and then dump them into one of the trash barrels that are everywhere. Keep the park clean, eh?
I never stumble upon him making out with anyone else, so as far as I know I'm the only one. So many times I almost ask him for a telephone number, but since he never asks for mine, I just keep my mouth shut. Plus, it still isn’t clear to me whether he actually, you know, likes me or anything. And I'm terrified that if I appear needy, it will all end. Whatever "it" is. But whatever it is, I need it.
There's one really awkward day when some old biddy sees us. You’d think she’d just keep going, mind her own business. But, no, she comes right over to us.
“What are you boys doing? Stop that this minute. Do you want me to bring a policeman over here?”
Ron is quicker than I am. He says, “Why? Do you think he’d like to join us?”
But she just stands there, hands on hips, glaring, until we stand up and put ourselves back together. Then she moves on.
“Old bitch,” Ron says. “Bet she wouldn’t have interrupted us if you’d been a girl.”
I almost say, “Or if you had.” It's right there. But it won't come out.
“Shit,” he goes on. “Well, the mood’s fucked.” I'm wondering if my thinking it would be great for us to just spend some time together is in vain when he does something he’s never done. He strokes one of my eyebrows with his thumb and gives me a light kiss. “See you next time.”
I watch him walk away, feeling like we’ve turned some kind of corner. Up to now, our partings have had nothing sweet or tender in them. It's been just tongues, groping, and “See you.” He must like me. He must. It must not matter to him that I'm just some foster kid with no family, and no money, and no class.
When the weather gets warmer we start meeting after dinner; it's dark enough that what we're doing is harder for passers-by to see, and when he leaves—somehow he's always the one who turns away first—he does that eyebrow stroke and the sweet kiss.
Then one day he says he’ll be away for a couple of weeks. His parents are taking him with them on their vacation to Europe.
"We're going to Florence first, and then over to Cannes to visit some relatives of my mom's."
"Florence? Italy?" The musical sound of that name pronounced as I've heard it in Italian films—Firenze—echoes in my brain.
I'm not sure whether I'm more irritated that he either doesn't remember or doesn't care that I'm Italian, or that I'll probably never get to Italy. It sure sours my mood, either way. We've already been inside each other's pants for the day, and he's let me know not to look for him for a while, so I get up and leave. "Fine. See you." No stroke of the eyebrow, today. And I'm the one leaving first.
. . . . . . . . . . .
While he's gone, I spend a lot of time with Giuseppe. I sit on a shady bench in the afternoon, watching kids break-dancing under his nose or watching some random group of performers in the open space in front of the statue. Or in the evenings, when the sun's gone down and things are starting to cool off, I sometimes sit right on the stone platform at his feet. I have these imaginary conversations with him. Like, how it feels not to have a home (in my case) and not to be able to go home (which was the case for so much of his life). I ask what it means to him to be Italian, how it feels to have a strong connection to the generations before him (like I don't), how it feels to know what home is even if he couldn’t always be there. How it feels to be able to do what you know you have to do, even if you're afraid. Or, maybe, how it feels not even to be afraid. And how it feels, through it all, to have a conviction about who he is and what he's supposed to be doing. Because it looks as though he always did. And I sure as hell don’t.
And I decide that when Ron gets back, as much fun as all this kissing and groping is, I'll tell him that I want more. Up to now, talking with Ron has been not much better than talking with a statue. As purging as these silent conversations with Giuseppe are, I want someone real to talk to. Or, that is, someone alive. Someone who might actually care how I feel, care what my life is like. Someone who'll understand why what had happened to me makes me worry about having sex.
The idea of pushing in this direction terrifies me. But—why should it? I mean, what am I afraid of, anyway? That he’ll stop wanting to meet with me? I can almost hear Giuseppe’s voice say, If he doesn’t want to meet with you, why would you want to meet with him? But I can't afford to be that proud. That picky. I have to take what I can get.
So on the first full day I know Ron is back, I hang out in the park from noon until dinner time. I walk around a lot, I sit by the fountain a lot, I lean against the arches gazing up Fifth Avenue a lot. I practice a few conversational openings that have the potential to lead to a meaningful conversation. Ron doesn't show, but I don’t let that discourage me. I'm on a mission: no games, no playing it cool, no pretending that I'm not looking for a real connection with someone. And anyway, we hadn’t said when we’d hook up again, so it isn’t like he's standing me up this time.
The next day, Saturday, just before noon, I'm sitting on a bench near Giuseppe, thinking about getting up to look around, when Ron sits down beside me. He says nothing, doesn't even look at me, and I realize in a wave of frustration that none of my rehearsed openings will work. He’s just too… defended, maybe? Has too much anti-emotional armor. And I’m too much of a coward to try to break through. I could tell him about the statue, about what it means to me, but would he care? Or would revealing this yearning make me seem vulnerable and soft and somehow even less desirable that I already am?
I decide not to wait for him to take the lead, even if my opening is meaningless. I shift on the bench so I'm turned toward him. "Fun trip?”
He shrugs. "Italy was a waste of time."
It almost gets to me. Chill, Alex; no surprise, no pain. Don't react. But I can't let that go completely unchallenged. "Why?"
"Oh, you know. Museums, architecture, concerts. Boring stuff.” Then his voice, his posture—everything—changes. “But France, on the other hand… There was this guy on the beach in Cannes. I got far enough away from the parental units, and he and I disappeared for a while. More than once. More than twice. More than—you get the picture.”
I'm dying to ask how far they’d gone together, if they’d done more than he and I had, but evidently he's dying even more to tell me. “We, uh, well…” His face takes on a look I think he means to be knowing or worldly or something. “Let’s just say I’ve grown up a lot.” He drapes an arm behind me along the back of the bench, crosses an ankle on the opposite knee, and stares toward the trees.
There's a bit of silence after that, while I imagine him and his beau going at it. Then he adds, “And,” and it's his turn to shift on the bench, to face me, “I have a few things I’d like to show you. But it would have to be today. Right now, in fact.”
A few things to show me. At his home? He’s inviting me to his home? Really? But— “Why right now?”
“My parents went out to Long Island to visit my grandmother. She’s in a home. I don’t have to go, because she never knows who I am anymore, and I’ve put up enough of a stink about it that they leave me at home. So we have until…” he looks at his watch, a gorgeous gold thing I can't identify for lack of experience, “probably around five or so. Come with?”
I stand and gesture with an arm for him to rise and lead the way. He walks casually toward and then around the fountain, heading for Fifth Avenue. I pretend to look around at all the craziness that is WSP on a hot summer day, but really I see nothing.
Not only is the entrance to his apartment building presided over by a doorman who knows his name and holds the door, but also there's a guard desk inside with another uniformed man behind it, who also greets Ron by name. The apartment itself isn’t the penthouse, but it's high enough to have great views of the park and beyond, to the south of Manhattan.
Ron doesn't give me any time to stand and gawk; he heads straight for his bedroom. On the way, though, through the front hall, through the enormous living room with the massive picture windows, and even down the hall to the bedrooms, there are vases and vases of fresh flowers. Each arrangement is different, and each one picks up colors from the area it's in. Something about this pulls at my heart. Pulls at my soul. There's beauty, but also sadness, much more powerful than anything I'd felt walking up and down streets with flower boxes at the windows.
This good/bad feeling is still with me when Ron shuts the door to his room behind me. The room is about twice the size of the one I share with Derek. The bed is twice the size of mine, at least. As for Ron… it's hard to tell whether he's putting extra effort into trying to appear casual about all this luxury, or if I'm so overwhelmed by it that my take on him is skewed, but there's definitely something different about him.
He puts on a pair of sunglasses. “From Florence. You like?”
“Looks great.” He goes to Firenze, and he buys sunglasses? I don't dare say more.
He throws them onto an overstuffed chair and goes to a bureau. Opening a drawer, he pulls out a piece of bright red cloth that turns out to be a pair of swimming trunks. He tosses them onto the bed. “Try it on. I want to see you in it.”
My whole body tingles. It's just short of a tremble, really, and I can't quite tell of it's a good feeling or a bad one. He watches as I lift my T-shirt over my head and start to work on my jeans. “Shoes first,” he says. So I do that, and then undo my waistband. “Slower. And look at me.” There's a tone of command in his voice. I slow down and hold his eyes.
It's hard to describe the conflict I'm feeling. Undressing slowly for someone who's obviously admiring me is a huge, huge, huge—did I say huge? turn-on. On the other hand, though, there's this fear gnawing at the edges of the fun. This fear grows until it's nearly overwhelming. And then everything seems better when he says, “God, you’re beautiful.”
Naked, half-erect, I walk to the bed and pick up the trunks. Speedo. Of course. When I have it worked it on (and around my nearly-hard dick), Ron goes to stand in front of a full-length mirror. “Come look.” He stands behind me, hands on my bare shoulders, while we both admire the reflection. He sighs. "Too bad you can't afford anything like this."
My head snaps toward him, and it's on the tip of my tongue to tell him to go to hell when he steps back against a wall, holds his arms out to the sides, and gives me another command. “Undress me. Slowly.”
I can't help wondering if slowing things down was something he’d learned from his friend in Cannes—another thing he’d wanted to show me perhaps? New moves?
Putting his comment about my lack of finances aside in favor of testing my ability to go forward with what was promising to be a sexual encounter well beyond anything I'd experienced since Mr. Ellis, I do as I'm told, holding Ron's eyes with mine as much as I can. I realize with a start that I’ve never actually seen his dick before. I can't say why, but I'm getting more anxious by the second. His erection is complete, but mine has actually deflated. This should be fun; what's wrong with me?
“Kneel,” he commands, eyes closed. “Suck me.”
You’d think this would be no problem. I’ve held his hard dick in my hand many times by now, used his own cum as after-cum lube, rubbed it on his balls. But my heart is in my throat, and my hands shake. To try and calm down, I remind myself that he knows so much more about this than I do, and what he's having me do is how it's supposed to happen. He hasn’t led me wrong so far, has he?
So I kneel, take his dick in my hand, and point it toward my face. As I take the end into my mouth, he says, “Wrap your lips over your teeth,” and suddenly his hands are on my head, forcing him deep into my mouth. Partly from surprise and partly from inexperience, I choke, and my teeth graze him. He cries out, “Imbecile!” only with a French accent, and pushes me away. I fall backward onto my ass.
The look on his face softens, and he holds a hand out. “Sorry. I forgot you don’t know what you’re doing yet. Come on.” He holds a hand out and pulls me to my feet, leading toward the bed. Relief, fear, and desperate hope are fighting for attention in my brain.
He throws the covers back and turns to me, arms draped on my shoulders, our noses touching. “I’m going to teach you how to fuck, Alex.”
Maybe it's that he’s never said my name before. Maybe it's the sweet way he kisses me after he says it. Maybe it's my wanting so much to know how to fuck. Whatever it is, I don't say anything to stop him from pulling the Speedo down and off. He has me lie on my back.
“Here’s how you suck somebody,” he tells me, knees on either side of my legs, and he proceeds to do so.
Oh, my God. Ecstasy replaces fear as he works me to just short of coming. Then he stops, brings his face up toward mine, strokes the inside of my mouth with his tongue, and flips me over.
Immediately my ass clenches, and my hands form tight fists. What is he going to do? How far will I let him go? The words Wait! and Stop! bounce around my brain but won't come out. I'll have a few seconds to think, while he puts on a condom, right? I know enough to expect that. But he starts to knead my ass, and the next thing I know there's lube in my crack. I'm still waiting for the crinkle of the condom wrapper when I feel his dick poke me.
My clenched fists grip the sheet, and I pull myself up and away from him. He follows. I flip myself over, onto my back. I barely manage to say, “What are you doing?”
“I told you. I’m going to teach you how to fuck. Now turn over.”
“Why the fuck not?”
Now doesn't seem like the time to tell him about Mr. Ellis. So I say, “You don’t have a condom.”
He sits back on his heels, lube-slimed dick pointing at me. “Are you kidding me with this shit? That’s for sissies.”
Am I crazy? Am I really going to turn down this opportunity to learn what I desperately need to know? I want to shout at him, to tell him I'm not a sissy, to tell him I want to know how to fuck but I'm not going to go through that hell of wondering if I'm sick, ever again. But I can't speak. All I can do is shake my head.
He throws the tube of lube at me. It bounces off my neck. “You really are a piece of trash, you know that? Shit.” He gets off the bed, finds my clothes, and throws them at me. “I can’t believe I ever touched you. Get out of here, you little nobody.”
He stands there, naked and deflated, while I struggle to dress myself with hands that shake so badly I can barely fasten my jeans. I pick up my shoes and socks, but before I can put them on, Ron pushes me toward the door. “Get out. Now. Do that in the hall.” Then, more to himself, “Jesus.”
Feeling like some disgraced servant who’s been caught pilfering silver spoons, I stumble down the hall and collapse into a chair in a clump of furniture in a lobby near the elevator. I sit there, heaving breaths to keep from screaming or crying or both, until I'm calm enough to put my shoes on.
What the fuck had just happened? Had Ron really almost fucked me and then thrown me out of his house? Out of his life? And is it because I didn't have the guts to let him do it to me bare? Or is it also because of who I am, or who I’m not? You really are a piece of trash. You really are. The way he’d said that had made it sound like there’d been some kind of debate he’d gone through in his head. Am I worthy of him, or am I too much of a piece of trash for him to touch? I can’t believe I ever touched you.
Eyes closed, I see Ron's face when he’d said Suck me. The next thing I see is his dick, slimed and waiting, and my brain skitters away from that image, like it's something that's too hot to touch without getting burned. And burned is kind of how I feel. And Ron wouldn't care. He'd never cared about how I feel.
Fuck him. I don't care how he feels, either. Trash, am I? He doesn't want to know what I think about him, right now. He can't touch me. He can't hurt me.
Outside on the sidewalk, my old, reliable shell firmly in place, there's no thought about where I'm going. My feet turn me automatically toward the West Village, toward Stonewall, where gay men who'd been treated like shit yelled Fuck you! at the world. Where, as one voice, they'd said, You can't hurt us.
At Christopher Park I go in and sit on one of the benches, intending to soak up that Fuck you feeling from Stonewall across the street, expecting to feel better and better as I push the pain of Ron's rejection further and further away from me. My face feels like a hard mask, but it feels brittle, not strong. I fold my arms hard across my chest; maybe that will help.
But I don't care! I don't care that I'll never have enough money to go to Italy. I don't care that I'll never live anyplace like Ron's. I don't care that I'll never live anyplace where there are fresh flowers in every room.
My breathing is odd. Because as soon as I remember the flowers, that same warm, soft feeling is there, that feeling that had made my heart swell when I'd seen all those flowers. What the fuck is it about flowers?
So fucking what?
But that soft warmth won't leave. And it's threatening my shield. It's seeping in between those cracks I can't even see.
My head falls back. I stare overhead, seeing nothing, breath starting to rasp. I close my eyes and send up a silent prayer for strength, for courage: Giuseppe, help me!
Suddenly I hear a soft voice to my right, beside me on the bench. “You okay, kid?”
It's him. My Italian guy, the one I want to become. The one I want to be right now.
“You don’t look so good.” He sounds like he actually cares, like he actually wants to know what's wrong. But I can't speak. So he speaks again. “What’s your name, kid?”
I manage, “Alex.” And then, to test our mutual Italian heritage, I add, “Alessandro.”
He nods, grins, and says, “I’m Joe. Giuseppe.”
I don’t know why that opens the floodgates, but suddenly I can't stop crying. Every time I try to stop sobbing, I can't breathe, and every time I breathe I sob. He just lets me go on, doesn't move, doesn't say anything.
He waits until I can speak. Then he says, “So, Alessandro, you wanna tell me what’s upset you so much?”
Out of everything that's upsetting me, what do I want Giuseppe to know? What can I tell him that won't make him turn his back on me, too? All I manage to say is, “I’m gay.”
“Okay, me too. So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t—I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to have sex.”
He scowls, like he's trying to figure out whether I have some physical disability or might be missing critical body parts. Then he says, “Are you positive?” I know he means HIV positive. I shake my head. “What’s the issue, then?”
What is the issue? Well, it hasn't changed. “I couldn’t have sex with this guy I know. He was all ready, and we were alone. His parents were out. And… and I couldn’t do it.”
Giuseppe nods. “Well, you’re still a little young, aren’t you?”
It comes out of me like it's someone else's voice: “Not too young to have been raped.”
“Ah. So your boyfriend was ready, and you weren’t?”
Boyfriend? I set that aside. “I guess so. I don’t know. Maybe if he’d had a condom…”
Giuseppe’s posture changes, and it seems like he's holding himself back. The look on his face makes me brace myself for another lecture on condoms like I’d heard from the clinic. But then his body relaxes. Both arms resting along the back of the bench, he says, “No one gets inside me without one. And I wear one when I'm top.”
I stare at the side of his face for a few seconds. Then, “What if it’s someone you really like, and he doesn’t want to wear one?”
“Tough shit. It goes on, or he doesn’t get in.” He shifts his posture just enough to watch my face. “Sometimes it takes guts to say that. But you say it, Alessandro.” And he relaxes again, gazing forward at nothing in particular. Then, “Shall I tell you about my first sexual encounter? It wasn’t with another boy.”
“Sure.” I’ll listen to anything he wants to say to me.
He watches people stroll past while he speaks and I sniffle. “I was fifteen. My parents owned a two-family in Brooklyn. We lived in one unit, and a young married couple lived in the other. I don’t remember the guy’s name; he was a merchant seaman, gone for weeks at a time. His wife’s name was Rhonda.” He chuckles. “Anyway, she seduced me. Mind you, back then everything from barking dogs to howling wind turned me on, so it wasn’t a problem that she was a woman. Also, she knew what pleased her and wasn’t too shy to tell me what to do. It did a lot to increase my confidence about sex generally.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “But the most important thing she taught me was this: Do not ever be without a condom. She told me that when I started doing this with my little girlfriends from school, one of them might say not to worry, because she’d taken care of everything. By which she would mean contraception. But Rhonda said to be aware of two really bad possibilities. One is that the girl doesn’t really know what would prevent a baby, and the other is that she knows very well because she’s done this often enough to have picked up an STD or two. Rhonda said, ‘If she tells you she has things covered, you smile sweetly, you say that’s great, and you put on your condom.’”
He looks at me again. “So, Alessandro, here’s what I’m telling you, now. If some guy doesn’t want to use a condom, you smile sweetly, and you say you’re not going forward without one. If he tries to pressure you, you tell him, ‘My life is worth more than a few minutes of anyone’s pleasure.’ You say that. And you mean it. And if he doesn’t get with the program, you leave.”
We watch more people walk by while I think about that last thing he said: My life is worth more than a few minutes of anyone’s pleasure. My life. Mine. The life of Alessandro Lupo. The wolf, the defender of men. And in another epiphany it comes to me that I need to start defending myself. I'm ready.
Then he says, “As for whether you’ll be able to have sex? It’s my guess that when the time is right, you’ll know. You might need to go easy, and the guy you’re with will have to be okay with that, but I think you’ll be fine.” He winks. “I’d be willing to bet on it. And meantime, console yourself with the knowledge that with your looks, there will be lots of guys to choose from.”
I blink stupidly at him. It's the second time today someone has told me I'm attractive. I almost say, “Really? Are you sure?” Because I'm not. Or, I haven’t been.
Joe stands, lays one hand on my shoulder, and with the other he hands me a condom packet. “For when you need one. Go into any free clinic, and they’ll give you more. But, Alex,” and he waits until I lift my eyes from the condom to his face, “don’t use it until you’re with someone who deserves you.” He pats the side of my face once and walks away. I watch him as long as I can see him.
Walking back through WSP, all the craziness seems harmless and funny. Of course, I'm still flying a little high after my conversation with a real, live Giuseppe. And then I see something I really didn’t think I’d see—at least, not so soon. It's Ron, half hidden behind a tree off to the side of the walkway, on the grass with another guy, no doubt another victim of his experimentation. At first there's a painful stab, kind of a jealous feeling. But the phrase "piece of trash" sounds in my brain, and the pain is gone. There's anger next, then it's gone, too. And then I hear quiet laughter. It's me.
I stick a thumb into my pocket, feel for the condom, and head toward the tangled bodies on the grass.
Ron doesn't see me until I'm standing over them. He pushes the other boy away hard and stares at me like I'm some kind of avenging angel. I ignore him.
“Here,” I say to the other boy, handing him the condom. “You’re going to need this. He doesn’t give a fuck about you one way or the other. Ask him if he’s positive. I bet he doesn’t even know.” And without waiting to see if anyone has anything to say, I turn and walk east.
As I pass the Garibaldi statue, I salute Giuseppe.
Over dinner that night, I don't have a lot to say, per usual. But unlike usual, my silence comes not from a place of fear but from a kind of validation. Even hopeful anticipation, based on what Joe had said.
It must show, because Mrs. Dunlap smiles at me and says, “You’re in a good mood, Alex. Anything in particular?”
I smile back and shake my head. “Just enjoying life.”
Derek snorts. “Dork.”
I laugh; he didn't expect that. And he doesn't expect what happens while I'm washing dishes. He starts in with the nearly-whispered verbal taunts, as usual. And just as quietly I tell him, “Go fuck yourself.”
He steps back and begins twisting the towel. But I'm ready for him. Like lightning, I scoop a measuring cup full of hot, soapy water and fling it square in his face. Over his howl I hear Mr. Dunlap laughing.
Derek uses the towel to wipe his stinging eyes. “I’ll get you for that!” he shouts at me.
I shrug. “You can try.”
He storms out of the kitchen. Mrs. Dunlap gets up, locates another towel, drops a kiss on my cheek, and takes over the drying chore.
Yeah. He can try. But that’s as far as he’ll get. He doesn’t yet know who he’s dealing with.
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