Are you okay?”
“No, really. You look stricken. Like you might be ill.”
“I’m fine,” Affenlight said. He and Owen were side by side on the love seat now, Owen’s left leg flipped over Affenlight’s right, their arms curled around each other’s shoulders.
“If you’re not okay just tell me.”
“Shhh.” Affenlight’s stomach did feel a little funny, but he wasn’t about to say so.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No,” Affenlight said. “Not at all.” But he wasn’t displeased when Owen withdrew his leg and arm to leave a space between them on the love seat. He even felt relieved. He didn’t want Owen to leave, but he didn’t really want him there either.
Owen eyed him warily, tied the drawstring on his martial artist’s pants. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“I’m fine,” Affenlight said. “Just give me a second.”
“I don’t want you to do things you don’t want to do. I don’t want to force you.”
“You didn’t. You aren’t.” Affenlight’s stomach grumbled nastily. He felt confused and inarticulate. He wished Owen would go, just for a little while, but he couldn’t stand to see him walk out the door.
“If you’re straight, you’re straight,” Owen said. “C’est la vie.”
Well, wasn’t he? It was true that Affenlight thought of himself as straight. Or, at least, he didn’t think of himself as gay. But he also knew he’d never be with a woman again. Or another man either. He was only so old, but it seemed he’d reached the final movement of his sexual life—from here on out, he’d be with Owen or no one. No one or Owen.
“Say something,” Owen said.
“I’m not sure what to say.” Affenlight noticed his right hand clutching his stomach in a way that indicated discomfort. He tucked the hand under his thigh. “I’ve never done that before.”
“Well, sure,” Owen said. “That’s obvious.”
Affenlight blanched. Not only was what he was doing strange and shameful and somehow wrong—wrong not in any conventional ethical sense but simply because he felt so strange and scraped and speechless now—not only all that, but he wasn’t any good at it either. “It was that bad?”
“It was fine.”
“Better than fine. It was wonderful. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Affenlight nodded, looked at Owen beseechingly. He wanted Owen to comprehend everything he lacked the courage or clarity of mind to say outright right now, to read it in his eyes without being told, to comprehend it without getting mad, but that was too much to ask of anyone, even Owen. Or maybe Owen understood precisely how he felt, and that was the problem. Owen stood up, patted Affenlight’s shoulder consolingly, and walked out of the room.
After a few minutes Affenlight’s stomachache passed. He went to the window. Dusk was falling. A soft spring rain was filling the flower beds, a soft wind trembling the new-leafed trees. No lights came on in Phumber 405. Where had Owen gone if not to his room? To dinner, perhaps. Or the library. Or the arms of another, better, more appropriate lover. Affenlight missed him already. Why couldn’t he have acted more normal, hid his confusion until it passed? Why couldn’t he have explained himself to Owen? Didn’t love sometimes have to explain itself?
Affenlight resolved, there at the window in his darkening office, to take himself out of the running for Owen’s affections. Not that he was in the running, after today. Owen wouldn’t be back, and that was for the best. Owen would be happier with someone his own age, someone better at being gay. Affenlight would call Pella, take her to Maison Robert for dinner—that was the sort of thing he should be doing anyway. The two of them had spent so little time together. His stomachache had been a sign.
He went to his desk, dialed the phone upstairs to see if Pella was there, listened to the first two rings. The office door reopened. There stood Owen, his damaged face bathed in lamplight, his soft, one-sided smile more saintly than anything an old master ever did. Affenlight placed the phone back on the hook just as Pella said hello. “I thought you’d gone,” he said.
“Gone? Without my shoes?” Owen nodded toward his saddlebacks, which were right there beside the love seat, heels aligned. Stupid, foolish Affenlight! “I went to make some coffee.” He handed Affenlight a steaming mug. IF MOMMA AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NO ONE HAPPY, read its weathered pink lettering. “Should we have a cigarette?”
Affenlight smiled. This was the thought that had been eluding him, the little switch deep in his head that needed to be flipped to restore him from his vague fears to his actual physical life: after sex, after oral sex, with your saintly lover, your saintly twenty-one-year-old lover, your saintly twenty-one-year-old male lover, you should get to smoke a cigarette. Of course! Things were simpler than they seemed. Repeat it like a mantra, Guert: Things are simpler than they seem.
“Smoking in the parlor,” he said, nodding up at the hand-painted sign as he slapped his overcoat pockets for his cigarettes, “is expressly prohibited.”
The routine became entrenched: After they did whatever they did that day, Owen would go out into the hallway and return eight minutes later, always bearing the same two steaming mugs from the particleboard shelf above the coffeemaker: KISS ME, I’M IRISH for himself, IF MOMMA AIN’T HAPPY for Affenlight. They sipped their coffee and smoked a cigarette, chatted, read Chekhov together, passing the book back and forth once Owen’s headaches subsided. The kitschy mugs had been culled, over the years, from Mrs. McCallister’s home kitchen cupboards. It might have sounded silly, but Affenlight loved the way Owen always picked these same two mugs and even, presumably, went so far as to rinse them in the sink when they were dirty. Such consistency suggested, or seemed to suggest, that Owen found their afternoons worth repeating, even down to the smallest detail. This was the dreamy, paradisiacal side of domestic ritual: when all the days were possessed of the same minutiae precisely because you wanted them to be.
Affenlight told Mrs. McCallister that he’d resumed a daily exercise regimen and so needed to keep the late-afternoon hours clear of appointments. He laid awake nights thinking of Owen, half listening for Pella to come home from Mike Schwartz’s house, always relieved when he heard the clap of her flip-flops on the stairs. He arose before dawn, walked his usual route along the lake he loved, went to the office to plow through the work he’d been neglecting. He rarely slept and he rarely tired. His heart in his chest felt dangerously full, swollen and tender, like a fruit so ripe it threatens to split its skin. He wanted every day and every moment, the moments with Owen, the moments between Owen, to last and last and last. In his life he’d passed through long periods of gratefulness and good cheer, but he’d scarcely even imagined this level of thorough contentment with things as they were. His chronic restlessness had fled. He wanted nothing new. He wanted only to hang on to what he had. It was almost excruciating. Everything that floated through his life’s width—a sunny day or a sudden cloudburst, an e-mail from an old colleague, a conversation with Pella that didn’t turn into a fight—seemed loaded with such poignance that he found himself on the verge of country-music tears, and could cope with his own ridiculousness only by making fun of himself. Affenlight, you maudlin old coot. Affenlight, you fool.