“And then I came in and switched places,” says Blake, “and she thought I was Chris for quite some time and—”
“Which would justify her enjoyment,” says Chris.
Blake rolls his eyes with mock contempt which Chris either doesn’t notice or doesn’t acknowledge, his own gaze steady through the green lenses of his Ray Bans, through the windshield of his Saab which he guides through the flashing turns of the road which leads us toward Newport. Blake returns his full attention to me in the back seat.
“So I let her think that for a while,” he says. “Why not? There’s something erotic about contrived identity, am I right Jer?”
“Gant,” I say.
“Oh sorry, Gant. You know what I mean, though, don’t you?”
And then he pauses as though waiting for me to concede or confess. I just stare back at him, my face (hopefully) impassive, with the vulnerable parts protected by my own sunglasses. I feel fairly protected all over. I’m wearing black jeans and, even though it’s mid-summer (a blinding hot day outside of the air-conditioned car), a black silk shirt buttoned to my throat, and the sunglasses over my eyes, and a round-brimmed black gaucho hat which I almost never take off. I’m aware that this whole outfit lends an air of spectacle to my persona. On a day like today, anywhere outside of the East Village, I become a walking exhibition. People tend to stare. And the ironic truth is that my desire couldn’t be more the opposite. I’m hiding in these clothes. I know that.
The mystery excited her because she showed no interest in removing the blindfold.
I exhale smoke, more or less, in Blake’s face. Blake licks his lips, glances at Chris again, then continues his account, self-satisfaction edging immediately back into his tone. “Then I whispered something in her ear, I don’t know, some quote from Camus.” He cuts his eyes with false modesty although I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling. It’s no secret Delts fancy themselves intellectual. They were first, after all, to allow blacks and queers into the brotherhood, before it had become unanimously hip to be black or queer or, preferably, both, “ … and she jumped when she heard my voice,” he continues. “I mean, she jumped as best she could given the circumstances. And then she started saying, real hot and passionate, breathing it, you know, like, through her teeth, through the leading edge of her orgasm, she’s saying, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’”
“Excellent.” I drag hard on my cigarette.
“So, I guess the mystery excited her because she showed no interest in removing the blindfold and as for me, well I’m not one to ruin a surprise so I just let her ponder as I … ” here Blake smirks to validate the pun, “ … drove the point home.”
Chris says, “Meanwhile—”
“Meanwhile,” asserts Blake, “this guy” (thumbing toward Chris) “has been watching the whole thing, jerking off in the corner.”
“I was preparing myself,” says Chris. “Priming the pump.”
“Excellent,” I say. “So you took turns raping her.”
“Hey!” Chris lifts his chin and I can tell that his eyes are focused through the rear view mirror more or less at my own. We’re both wearing sunglasses, however, so it’s not like we’re really looking at each other. Chris says, “She asked me to blindfold her.”
“Did she ask for Blake to fuck her too?”
“Man,” says Blake. “If that was rape then rapists deserve some special badge of distinction. I’ve never seen one girl have so many orgasms.”
But when I’m getting out of the car, at the hospital (this hospital is more like a country club—long low brick buildings with rolling hills of grass, and shaded paths and everywhere the smell of the sea), Chris presses my chest with the palm of his hand so I step back against the frame of the open door. He stands very close. I can almost see his eyes beyond the dazzling blue sky which coats the lenses of his sunglasses. Behind him, Blake moves across the parking lot, wind flapping through his blazer.
“She had a choice,” Chris says. “She chose to enjoy it. There was no rape involved.”
“That’s good,” I say.
He watches me, his eyes, I know, moving across my features. Then his face relaxes into the familiar, easy, grin. “You’ve just got to breathe a bit there, Jerry.” His hand moves up and grips the back of my neck, at my hairline. He shakes my head as he says this.
“Gant,” I say.
“Oh.” He’s still grinning, nodding. “Yeah,” he says. “Gant Player. Very poetic.”
“How is he?” I say.
“Who, Carter? He’s great. Come on.” Chris releases my neck and turns after Blake, his voice immediately lost in the wind. I swing the Saab door closed and jog to catch up.
“He’s really healthy,” says Chris, sliding his keys into the pocket of his slacks. Both he and Blake are wearing blazers and ties—much more appropriate attire. “Last time I was here,” says Chris, “he looked like a marathon runner. He needed to lose weight anyway.”
“When was that?” I say. “That you were here.”
“March, I think.”
“You haven’t been here since March?”
Chris swings to a stop so I almost bump into him. “When were you here last?” he asks.
“I live in New York. I can’t—”
“Save it. You’re his best friend, aren’t you? Or did you forget that?” Chris abruptly turns and continues toward the block of shade which hides the double glass doors. The wind blows his thick blond hair across his face and with one hand he rakes it back and holds it out of his eyes. “We’re all accountable, Jerry,” he says.
“My name is Gan—”
And whatever marathon runner had lain where Carter lies now is long gone, leaving a dying, sick and pale, purely Auschwitz victim in his wake.
“Hey,” he says. He reaches one languid hand toward me. Even his voice is fragile, fading. “It’s the movie star.”
“I believe in God and God will restore me.”
“Hardly,” I say. Then I realize that he expects the handshake. His skin is loose and dry around the bones of his hand but his grip has frightening insistence. I’ve managed to remove my sunglasses, now that we’re in the pale green fluorescent room, but I can’t quite look at his face. I’m having a hard time catching my breath. But I can’t get myself to sit down, either, like Blake or Chris, sprawled in the soft leather chairs that surround the bed. Instead, I circle the room, noting the monitors, the wires, the tubes and funnels, the spectrum of vials which literally fill half the Churchill desk that’s pushed against one wall. The desk supports his computer and printer as well as the pills, and a fax machine and a phone, just like it did when it was in his apartment a year and a half ago, but the walls of the room emit that vaguely antiseptic smell which, apparently, no amount of wealth can vanquish. “Just a commercial,” I say.
“It’s not a commercial.” His voice quivers, high pitched, rising to battle the injustice. I look at him, surprised. His features are sharp, pronounced—shadowed scoops and ridges. His hair falls limp and dark across his forehead. “I saw it three times today,” he adds.
It might as well have been a commercial, given the extent of product placement involved, from hair-spray to jeans to cola to toothpaste. But I shouldn’t complain. The fact that my face is seen (even if only for three minutes and twelve seconds) seventeen times every twenty-four hour period on a channel which is broadcast throughout the world, provides exposure which would have seemed unbelievable three months ago. It got me the J. Crew spread, and then the jeans shoot. My body (torso—neck to hips, in full hard-edged prominence) even now adorns the side of half the buses in New York. I have offers also for speaking parts in films, not leading roles, but parts still that other actors would kill for, that other black actors would die for. My agent is ecstatic. He’s convinced that he’s solely responsible for the next Esposito.
“How are you?” I ask Carter, trying to look at him. “I mean, how do you feel?”
“I’m great,” says Carter. His head bobs in the shaky periphery of my vision. “I’m releasing into prayer and it’s working.”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? My dad hired a C. S. healer to promote me full time. I feel it working. I believe in God and God will restore me.”
“That’s … good.” I find his eyes, black and shiny, and then wish I hadn’t. His eyes are naked and charged with terrifying urgency. For a horrible flash I see him inside, trapped.
“I was looking in all the wrong places. All those pills. The blood treatments. As if anyone could be healed by medicine. As if it isn’t obvious that healing comes through faith and faith alone.”
“That’s right,” I say. “I can see that.”
“You do?” His body tenses toward me, lifting from the pillow, his stare barbarous, dissecting.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes. I do.”
“Ah.” He falls back, spent and disappointed. His eyes close. “Are you still with that model?”
“No.” I shiver with the same empty panic which rises whenever I feel myself recognized now on the street. I look to Chris for support but he’s lost in some glossy page of the latest Cosmo. “I never really was.”
In retrospect I know it was probably all part of the promotional campaign. We looked good together, everyone agreed. Even the model, Megan Precious, seemed to like the idea, but then again, it’s quite likely that she was just following the instructions (and collecting the money) of whatever agency masterminded the grand design.
She came on to me, once. At least I think she did. It seemed pretty obvious, even though I thought I had made my sexual inclination (or lacking thereof as the case, lately, has been) clear. Maybe she forgot. Maybe she was drunk. Maybe she was simply following orders. Maybe she was sincerely attracted to me. Maybe all, or none, of the above. Regardless, the media picked up on it and started billing us as the next “hot” model couple, having met on the shoot of the latest video for this “hot” new band, and the target audience loved the concept (surrogate passion—vicarious satisfaction), apparently loved watching our nearly naked bodies entwine at the beach, in the surf, on the rocks, in bed; and the video, subsequently, climbed to number one, our faces (our bodies) shown seventeen times every twenty-four hour period in seventy-eight countries around the world.
Back in the car, nobody says anything for quite some time. The air-conditioner whirs its steady exhale. Chris thumbs the stereo into an R.E.M. tune that shakes my seat. The sun is so bright, even through my sunglasses and through the tinted windows, that the outside landscape appears bleached and pale, sucked of color. I light another cigarette.
“He looks great,” says Blake, lowering the volume. “Don’t you think so?”
“Who?” says Chris. “Carter? He’s going to make it. He’s a fighter.” He touches the stereo again, raising the volume beyond even the previous level.
“I don’t want to go to the beach,” I say.
“We’re in Newport,” says Chris. “We’re going to the beach.” But when they stop at some small surf shop, near Second Beach, I refuse to even get out of the car, never mind shop for a bathing suit. I sit sideways in the back seat, semi-reclined, with my head against one window (my hat tipped forward over my eyes—I’m on siesta, I tell myself) and my boots laterally propped against the opposite. I light another cigarette. Chris and Blake are both outside of the car. I can hear them, distant through the glass and plastic, discussing my reluctance. One of them raps on the window by my head but I don’t look.
“If I had your body,” says Blake, back in the car, “I would display it every chance I had.” He’s staring out his own window, his tone sullen, contentious.
I don’t respond. I pretend, perhaps, to not even have heard.
I used to enjoy the beach. My skin registers ‘Latté’ on the J. Crew spectrum (another dubious distinction for my resumé) and it reacts well to the sun. There was a time when I could luxuriate with the best of them—stretched to embrace the heat of the sky on a long summer day with nothing ahead but a cool night of dark dance hall throbbing rhythm, frozen drinks, some dark eyed blond boy to eventually remind me how beautiful I am. Now they (beaches and most blond boys) serve only to depress me. It’s the myth laid bare, peeled open and exposed as nothing but further waste of time. All the reclining, naked bodies wasting time, baking cancerous pink beneath the empty scorching sky.
“From college,” says Blake. “We met in the house of Delta Chi.”
“A frat,” says one of the girls. It’s not really a question, but I still feel Blake’s smirking glance and I hear his pause which is subtle enough to tell only us (his brothers) of the full weight of his contempt.
“Right,” he says (a cordial agreement to the undiscriminating ear). “A frat. At Penn.”
This time even I, inadvertently, flinch. “Right,” says Blake again. “Penn State.”
“No,” says the first girl. “University of Pennsylvania, right?” Then, to her friend, “They don’t like to be confused.”
“It matters not!” says Blake with a dismissive flap of his hand. “Really. It’s only school after all. Correct?”
“You probably watch a lot of MTV.”
They all laugh, together, sharing something. I squint across the beach, across the greasy bodies reclined on blankets beside coolers and radios and books—the paraphernalia of distraction. Even through my sunglasses and beneath the shading brim of my hat it’s all almost too bright to look at. Too bare and brilliant, as though illuminated by an atomic flash—the pulse before annihilation—which removes all shadow and leaves the world electric-silent, flat and white.
“You probably watch a lot of MTV,” says Blake. He’s been dying to tell them who I am, even though I specifically asked him not to mention it. His agitation is palpable, and the girls have been glancing at me, probably wondering why I don’t speak or why I’m sitting cross-legged on the blanket, wrapped head to toe in black instead of spread out half-naked like I ought to be. “You know the band ‘Sex and Death’?” Blake asks.
“Come on,” I say to Chris. He’s on his back, beside me, the same magazine he lifted from Carter’s room held above his face, to the side, however, so as not to block the sun. His sunglasses have been similarly sacrificed in the quest for an even tan, and his eyes, exposed and squinting, shift to my own. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Do you ever consider,” says Chris, “how lucky you are.”
His words are a nearly verbatim quotation of the refrain from the video, but if he intended this reference he gives no indication. He has returned his sunglasses to their perch and behind them his expression is blank. Other than the sunglasses he wears only a bathing suit. Just shorts, young, tanned skin, sunglasses, and blond hair. That’s what he is: skin, muscle, bone, and a few pints of blood all connected by a tenuous current.
“You were together with Michael-Paul for a while,” he says. “Weren’t you? Before Carter was?”
I look out over the waves to the vast, unending sweep of horizon. Michael-Paul is seven months dead.
“Very lucky,” says Chris.
In the video, the model lip-synchs those words into my ear as she strokes my chest with her fingernails: “Do you ever imagine / do you ever imagine / how lucky you are.” The scene is intercut with flashes of a smoldering, post-riot ghetto, as though that’s where I come from. As though that’s who I really am. I sit down in the sand and I take the pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket and shake one between my lips and with considerable effort I manage to light it.
“And what’s with the smoking?” says Chris. “You of all people. So body-conscious.”
I remove the cigarette and study my saliva drying on the filter. “I quit,” I announce.
I start to nod because it seems the easiest response, but then I take a deep breath and I shake my head. Then I close my eyes and hug my knees to my chest, waiting for whatever comes next.