Like many Midwesterners, Mrs. McCallister started the workday early. By four fifteen she’d put in an hour of overtime and headed home to her half-acre garden and a multicourse dinner cooked by Mr. McCallister, whose fall from a tree stand three deer seasons ago had smashed his left hip and forced him to retire. Now he grew vegetables in the McCallisters’ garden, cooked them into sauce for his homemade pasta. Often Mrs. McCallister would slide a plate onto Affenlight’s desk at noontime; even reheated in the office microwave, it always tasted exquisite.
It became Owen’s habit to drop by Affenlight’s office around four thirty, post–Mrs. McCallister, on days when the Harpooners didn’t have a home game; because of his injuries he wasn’t yet traveling or practicing with the team. Owen would enter without a word, shut the door behind him, and slide out from under his messenger bag, the strap of which held a rainbow pin, a pink-triangle pin, a black-and-white taijitu pin, and pins that read CARBON NEUTRALITY NOW, PAY A LIVING WAGE, and WESTISH BASEBALL. Then he lay down on the love seat, which wasn’t quite long enough to lie down on and too stiff to be comfortable anyway, but Owen didn’t seem to mind. He slipped off his shoes, crossed his slender ankles on the love seat’s far arm, and closed his eyes, fingers interlaced atop the soft swell of his childlike belly. The only sign of wakefulness would be the slow, thoughtful tap of his thumb pads against each other. He wanted Affenlight to read to him.
This was what Affenlight wanted too. The original pretense for these sessions was that the aftereffects of Owen’s concussion made it hard for him to focus. Now, two weeks removed from Owen’s injury, Affenlight wasn’t sure whether this was still the case—often Owen would turn his head and follow along on the page anyway—but he didn’t want to break the spell by asking. He rose from his desk chair, which was too antique and massive to move around, and shifted to one of the spindle-backed Westish-insignia visitors’ chairs, which he drew up close to the love seat. Owen extracted his homework from his bag and handed it to Affenlight—on this particular day, the last two acts of The Cherry Orchard and a turgid dramaturgical essay from a poorly xeroxed course packet. Affenlight began to read.
“Don’t you think this is strange?” Owen murmured sometime later, as Affenlight turned a page.
Owen rubbed his belly, eyes still serenely closed. “You know. The way we do this every afternoon. I lie here, and you read to me, and we talk.”
“I’m sure it’s very unusual,” Affenlight agreed. “I’ve certainly never done anything like it.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Owen swung up to a sitting position, opened his eyes, and fixed them on Affenlight. “What I mean is… it’s almost as if you didn’t like me.”
“I do.” Affenlight reached out and brushed his fingertips against the little knob of bone at the base of Owen’s skull, but the gesture seemed insufficient, if not utterly false. He felt schoolboyish, intimidated. Since that first tentative moment on the moonlit linoleum, they had not touched.
“I don’t know if you know what you’re doing.”
Part of Affenlight felt peeved at Owen for interrupting or dismissing his bliss. Because it was bliss, he felt, to be here with Owen and to read to him, even when he was reading dry-as-dust sentences from a poorly xeroxed course packet. Of all the activities two people could do together in private, Affenlight had a special fondness for reading aloud. Maybe this was part of his instinct for solitude and self-enclosure; a way to reveal himself while hiding behind someone else’s words. Maybe he should have gone into acting. He’d often thought that Pella would make an excellent actress.
Owen slid closer to him and leaned toward him and took his face in two hands and kissed him, a proper and unambiguous kiss but also a soft and careful one, as he tilted the damaged part of his face away. Affenlight realized in what was as close to an epiphanic flash as he’d ever dared to come that there were many ways of living that had never been named or tried. The chapel bells tolled a long slow song of six o’clock. His tongue, Owen’s tongue, two tongues. At least he wasn’t quite so old that he didn’t have lips to kiss. He thought of Whitman’s adhesion: the liking of like for like. Although he and Owen were not much alike and in a way kissing Owen was much like kissing a woman, you could close your eyes and find the same softness, same brush of noses, same thick wetness of the inner walls of cheeks. Except with women Affenlight leaned forward, and now he leaned back.
Owen slipped out of his sweater, which was seafoam green, soft to the touch, with a hole at one elbow. Affenlight traced his fingertips up and down Owen’s bare arm below his T-shirt. The two of them kissed again, kept kissing, and it was, still, surprisingly like what happened between a man and a woman—although, thought Affenlight, perhaps I’m the only person in the world naive enough to be surprised by this—and then Owen cupped one hand over the bulge that had appeared in the inseam of Affenlight’s herringbone slacks. Affenlight flinched. Owen stopped and looked at him. “Are you okay?”
Was he okay? He was nervous, certainly. Even frightened. If Owen were a girl, Affenlight would have been worried about the politics, the ethics, the power relations of the situation—that was largely why it had never happened with a girl—but here there was too much else to worry about, and it was clear where the power lay: with Owen. Affenlight felt dazed, vertiginous. But he’d come this far, and there seemed no reason to stop right here. He nodded.
“Are you sure?”
Owen undid the slacks’ clasp and unzipped the zipper, dainty silver tooth by dainty silver tooth, with a guileful smile on his face, a very complex smile, mischievous and beatific and maybe a tiny bit malicious, a beautiful smooth-skinned person—did he ever even shave?—who would not necessarily grow old but would certainly someday die. He used his hands to work out the intricacies of slacks and undershorts and brought Affenlight out into the open—Affenlight, strange synecdoche!—and bent and kissed him on the tip of the penis in a womanly way. And kissed for a few more seconds before looking up. “I guess I can’t,” he said, lifting his head, the smile categorizable now, rueful and tender and a little wry. He tapped a finger against his injured jaw. “I can barely open my mouth.”
“That’s okay.” Affenlight said, and meant it, though his voice sounded strange and hoarse. He picked Owen’s sweater off the couch and began to fold it, matching sleeve to sleeve. He pinched the medial crease and draped the sweater over his forearm, all the while feeling a swell of delight at the fastidiousness of this delay, so different from the frenzied garment-rending of cinematic lovers. He’d long ago learned that he found a twinge of erotic joy in the act of buttoning a girlfriend’s jacket, zipping her sweater to the chin, bundling her up against the northern cold of Westish, New Haven, Cambridge, Westish again. After folding the sweater neatly he placed it on the warped wooden floorboards between Owen’s two-toned shoes, which looked like the saddle shoes of old, and, with the limberness of a man no older than forty, the soundly thrumming heart of seventeen, slid down from his chair and knelt upon it, a hand on each of Owen’s knees. Kneeling, whatever the circumstances, could hardly fail to remind him, however ironically, of childhood bedside prayer, the old Latin Mass—he’d hardly been since Vatican II—and, given the hour, vespers; ad cereum benedicendum, as they used to say.