The Sound That Forevermore Separates the Old from the Newwritten by julads - illustrated by Hausinge and Isobel
I wish to sincerely thank SekritOMG for her great excitement for this story since day one, her comments on gay life and the Holocaust during this time period, and her help in retrieving articles from the New York Times archives.
I really didn't want to be hanging out with my dad again, not after what happened on my birthday. But then, that was the whole reason for this stupid outing: he drank too much and caused a scene at Alex & Henry's Steak House, getting all fired up about the usual crap, Mom's job, my sister's mess of a life, that sort of thing. Mom was ticked off and humiliated, and after an uncomfortably silent ride home, she told him he'd better make it up to me somehow. And also that she didn't know why she married him. So that was my nineteenth birthday. And that was also why my dad was now "making it up to me" by taking me to the top of the R.C.A. Building to see the Soviet rocket. His idea, not mine.
"This thing flies over us twice a day," he said in the elevator. I didn't say anything, so he went on: "You'd have to be a real idiot to think the Reds are just ‘collecting scientific data.' I even heard its ‘beep-beep' transmission might be some kind of code."
"I doubt it," I said, not so much because I didn't believe it, but because I wasn't going to jump on his bandwagon.
"You can't put anything past commies, Stan."
He made this incredulous throaty noise and shook his head, like I was dumb for not being real concerned about Russian spying. Okay, Dad. I don't care.
The door opened at the 67th floor, and then we took the stairs up to the 70th floor, the top level of the Observation Deck. The sky was faded blue, the horizon orangey where the sun would set, and the city was sprawled out in the foreground. There were already a dozen or so people here. At the other end of the deck, two people—a father and a son, it looked like—even had a telescope set up, which was sort of embarrassing. Looking closer, I realized I knew the son, this guy with curly red hair in my English class. Well, I didn't know him personally; I just knew his name was Kyle Broflovski and that he was the kind of nerd who always has to flaunt how smart he is.
Horribly, our eyes met for about a second, just long enough for him to recognize me and look away frowning. Jesus. No wonder nobody liked him.
I went to sit down on one of the deck chairs. My dad was messing with his binoculars.
"So when's the rocket gonna show up?" I asked him.
"7:04. And it's not a rocket, Stan, it's a satellite."
I ignored that part. "Well, what time is it now?"
He checked his watch. "Quarter past six."
I groaned and dragged my hand across my face. Now more than ever, I wished I hadn't agreed to this, that I had tried to convince Mom it wasn't a big deal that Dad had been such a spaz on my birthday. But it wasn't like I could tell her I preferred to spend as little time as possible around him—that'd kill her, and I didn't need to make her life any harder. Plus, she'd be over the moon to learn me and dad had such a good old time together seeing the Soviet rocket. Satellite. Whatever. (Pun not intended, by the way.)
The temperature began to drop, and more people showed up. I sat there watching the sun set and not engaging with my dad's attempts to have a conversation. So instead he just talked at me about the satellite and Russian spying and that sort of thing, stuff I don't care about. Eventually he shut up.
Every once in a while, I looked out of the corner of my eye at Kyle and his dad. Kyle didn't seem that interested in the spyglass; he was leaning against the fence, looking dramatically bored and sighing a lot, like he was too good to be here. I may not have mentioned it before, but he was very clearly rich. He wore three-piece suits every day and had probably gone to some fancy private high school; he was always bringing up the Latin origin of this or that word, especially when it wasn't relevant. That annoyed people, the professor included, but Kyle either didn't notice or didn't care.
This isn't to say that I was well liked at college—I wasn't. While there were a couple people I knew from high school, people I was even friendly enough with to say "hi" to, in the month since classes started, I hadn't made a single friend, and I really didn't care to, either. I went to class (usually), did my schoolwork (tried to), and then spent most of my time with my friends. Because I did have friends. Just not at school.
"Almost show time," my dad said. "Better get those binoculars out."
I did, begrudgingly, and was somewhat uplifted to find that the binoculars really worked; I could see the brightest stars and the crescent moon in a lot more detail.
"It'll be coming up from the southeast, over the harbor," my dad said.
With all this build-up, I was starting to get a little excited, anticipating something big and spectacular, like an explosion or a U.F.O. Someone said "Look, there it is!" and then I saw it: a little dot of light climbing up through the night sky, barely visible, hardly important, just going along its merry way. The roof was silent as everyone took in this modern marvel, probably thinking about how tiny and terrestrial they were, maybe getting romantic or paranoid about it. A few minutes later, the dot disappeared in the opposite corner of the sky. All in all, it was pretty underwhelming.
But I'd be telling my mom a different story.
The next morning, I went to my ten o'clock Spanish class then left campus afterwards. I had plans for the afternoon, which sort of justified it in my mind that I was skipping my three o'clock trigonometry class again. I really hated having to stick around campus for four hours just to go to that stupid class. While I could've gone home for a few hours instead, the times I did that, I ended up watching T.V. or reading comic books or taking a nap and completely losing track of time. So if I was able to get myself to campus on time in the first place, it was worth just staying here. Except it wasn't. I hated being here.
It was in the sixties like it had been all week, and the leaves were beginning to change colors. The air smelled good, crisp and breezy, that fall smell that marks the days before Halloween. It was nice. It was also nice to be alone for a while. The subway wasn't crowded either. I sat on the yellow seat leaning up against the wall and thought about lunch, about what Kenny and Bebe's new apartment looked like, and about whether I'd be in the mood later for circling the usual haunts with Kenny.
I got off at Lex and 59th and walked the couple blocks to their new address, 403 E. 58th, which turned out to be neatly wedged between a couple other tidy-looking (but certainly not glamorous) walk-ups. Either way, it was a huge upgrade from the cramped railroad flat they'd been renting in Hell's Kitchen. This area on the East Side was apparently pretty gay, too. Kenny had even said that some such apartment building in the east sixties was entirely gay. It was close to the bars, after all. Looking at this place though, you'd expect to see some young couple stroll out with their arms linked. Although I suppose that's what it'd look like if Bebe and Kenny left together, sans the linked arms. Unless maybe they were horribly drunk, which, to be fair, wasn't uncommon for any of us.
Bebe was happy to see me. She gave me a big hug and wished me a happy birthday then showed me around the apartment.
"Two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen!" she exclaimed as she led me down the hallway to show me each room, none of which had much furniture. Bebe had gotten their old bed, whereas Kenny was sleeping in a pile of blankets on the floor, it looked like. Acknowledging this, she said: "We do need to get some more furniture, yeah. I had a mind to go up to the Salvation Army after lunch and see if they had anything good. What d'ya think?"
But first, the plan was to go to the zoo for my birthday lunch, or more specifically, my "golden birthday lunch," as Bebe was saying. I hadn't thought about that, but it was true. I'd turned nineteen on the nineteenth on October. I guess that was special. Nineteen still felt very young though—Bebe was twenty-six, and Kenny was twenty-four. So I did always feel like a kid around them (this was in fact a running gag). But that wasn't such a bad thing. It was nice having two people who cared about me and looked out for me.
Bebe lit a cigarette as we walked to the zoo. She regularly used this short silver cigarette holder, slightly dinged, with an amethyst rhinestone on top. It was classy. Bebe always looked classy. Today she was wearing a camel-colored knit dress with a collar and three-quarters length sleeves and this big, glittery necklace that resembled a chandelier. She didn't look like a lesbian, and while there were femme lesbians, there was nobody like her.
"So how was your actual birthday?" she inevitably asked.
"Ugh. Terrible," I said, and then told her about Saturday and last night, finding it nice to tell somebody about it.
"Your dad..." she began, and this is when she'd usually start going on about him right along with me, saying what a lunatic he was, but today she just shook her head. "I'm sorry, sugar."
She didn't just mean about my birthday. She meant everything about my family and how she couldn't do anything about it.
"My life isn't really that bad, Bebe, but thank you."
Bebe had never been to a zoo before, not in her whole life. For that reason, and also because the restaurant patio would be closing soon for the winter, I'd suggested we come here. She seemed pretty excited about it. When we arrived, she was adamant about paying my fifty cent admission. Well, she actually didn't give me much of a choice in the matter; she just produced a one dollar bill and paid, coolly ignoring my protests. First, we went to the elephant house and then we went to eat lunch. The novelty of the zoo restaurant was that you could watch the sea lions while you ate. But I guess they were all hiding underwater. Maybe it was too cold out for them.
Bebe was staring at the sea lion pool, too, her wavy blond bob shadowing her face.
"It says they feed them at one-thirty," I said. "So we can stick around for that."
And that's what we did. The sea lions had indeed been hiding underwater. Little kids supplied the enthusiasm—watching sea lions get fed wasn't as remotely exhilarating as I'd remembered. In fact, it was pretty depressing: the sea lions surfaced from the water to snag fish from the zookeeper and then immediately dived back down. Were they cold? Bored? Just sick of it? Where were sea lions even from, anyway? I had no idea, but certainly not Manhattan.
We went through the rest of the zoo after that and then walked through the park to Columbus Circle.
"I don't think those animals are very happy, Stan." There was reluctance to her words, the bitterness of needing to say something you didn't really want to.
"I think you're right," I admitted, and it bothered me that I hadn't thought so before.
She tried to apologize for it, saying she didn't want to put a damper on the day, as if her observation was anything like my dad's outburst on Saturday. Bebe wasn't like my mom though, always straining to smooth things over and then getting exasperated when it still didn't work out. Some things were just bad, and Bebe knew that even better than I did.
The Salvation Army store was in Uptown. This one was pretty big and had furniture. Wonderfully, we found a twin bed frame. It was gold and fancy in a regal sort of way, like it had either belonged to a little girl or an old woman. But it was in good shape and only five dollars. So Bebe bought it, and we carried the parts back with us on the subway, which was not great, as it was now rush hour.
It was about six when we finally made it back to the apartment, and Kenny was home taking a shower, like he always did after work, because otherwise he smelled like sewage.
We set the pieces of the bed frame down in his room and then slumped up against the wall, tired from the trip. Through the square window, I could see it was getting dimmer outside, the sky and clouds above the rooftops becoming saturated and sleepy. I closed my eyes.
"I just hope there's enough in here," Bebe said, thumbing the crumpled plastic baggie of bolts before tossing it onto the bed frame. "Thanks for your help, Stan. I'll just get a cab next time. It's too hard carryin' this stuff on the subway."
"It wasn't a big deal," I said, and I meant it, because now Kenny had a bed. But he still needed a mattress.
Kenny came out of the shower then, making a lot of noise whilst doing so (it sounded like maybe the door was jammed). "Bebe? Bebe?" he called out. "You home?"
She called out into the hallway: "We're in here!"
"Oh! That's right!" he said when he came in the room and saw me. "You took the birthday boy out today!" Then he squatted down and ruffled my hair with his damp hand, sniffling and saying in this goofy falsetto, "Can you believe it, darlin'? Our little boy is all grown up. Nineteen years old! Seems like only yesterday he was in diap—"
"Oh, shut up!" I said, swatting him away and failing to keep a straight face.
"We got you a bed," Bebe said, gesturing towards the pile of metal.
"Oh, is that what that is?"
"Yep. Got it at the Salvation Army for five bucks. We have to put it together though."
"Well, we'll figure it out."
That stuck in my head, Kenny kneeling there in a towel, looking at Bebe and saying, "We'll figure it out." It was true of them overall. They worked things out together. They could look at a problem, like the apartment in Hell's Kitchen, and say, "I know you're unhappy, and I don't want you to be, so what can we do to fix this?" They weren't each other's adversaries. Was it because they were gay, the strange partnership of a gay and a lesbian? I couldn't remember if my mom and dad had ever treated each other like partners, like they could solve a problem together, even before they started fighting so much. Was that just them, or was there something about a husband and wife that easily slipped over into dysfunction, despite all the outward happy façades? These were bitter thoughts to have while eating my dinner in a place where everything worked perfectly, where you put your token in the slot and turned the knob and the glass door opened with your food. You could always count on it.
But the other side of the coin wasn't so great, either. Maybe it was inevitable when you had to keep everything hidden, but I'm not just talking about that; I'm talking about the swarming mess that was the gay underground. The novelty of finding out there are other people like you eventually wears off. And that's when you realize this is it, these are your people, and it doesn't matter how you feel about it: you're a queer just like the doped-up drag queens in size sixteen pumps, just like the vapid models who cycle through two boyfriends a week, just like the guys fucking and getting fucked like it's the only thing in the whole world that matters. (And I'm not damning anyone for having sex, but if you knew the sheer amount of fucking I was talking about, you'd think it was crazy, too.)
This was painting an awful image of it, which made me feel bad because that was the whole idea about us, that we were just sex perverts. But that was actually the problem: what I frequently saw, heard, and knew about only proved the point. (And I hated to say it, but Kenny was sometimes like this, too, although at least he had a lot of self-awareness about it.) See, it wasn't so much about forbidden love but forbidden fucking. It was like some long, ridiculous game of Chutes and Ladders: endless ups-and-downs, no level ground, no peace of mind, and the omnipresent fear that any minute, somebody's going to bust through the door and shut the whole thing down. So I found myself going to the bars and clubs and parties with a nagging ambivalence, hoping for the best but knowing to expect the worst, nevertheless managing to be horribly offended when somebody wondered out loud what I was like "in bed," as if I was the Virgin Mary, so naïvely unaware that copulation was the only goal, love being utterly unnecessary, incidental if it ever happened.
There would be months at a time where I'd avoid the gay scene, feeling so alienated by it that shoving this part of myself back under the carpet was preferential. Sure, I was still a sex pervert in the strictly objective sense, always had been and probably always would be, but taking a break put things in perspective for me, reminded me that the outside world had heaps of its own bad. I hadn't been on a break since last year though; I guess the bars were a way to escape my life in the Bronx, which recently included college, as horrible as that was to admit. So that was why tonight, Kenny had been surprised when I declined to go out with him. Bebe had said, "I'll bet he has a lotta schoolwork to do, dontcha Stan?" and oh, God, was it ever true!
My homework never seemed to end. College was definitely harder. I was always behind on something in one class or another, never getting up to speed before more was piled on. And it seemed like what I did manage to get done hardly counted for anything. I thought about buying more tokens for a cup of coffee then heading over to the school library to do some work, but the idea of going back to campus at this hour was utterly repulsive to me. And then I would just have to go right back there tomorrow morning! So instead I told myself that if only mom or dad (not both) were home, I'd do some stuff at home before bed. Since neither of them ended up being home, I forced myself to write a few sentences for the English assignment due tomorrow. (It had to be a persuasive writing, so I wrote about why you should donate to the ASPCA.) I didn't finish it, but I was running out of steam and didn't know what else to write, so I watched What's My Line and took a bath. Mom came home as I was getting ready for bed, so I talked with her a bit about her day at the hospital. She asked me if Dad was home, and I said no, but that he must have been at some point, because the mail was on the kitchen table.
She looked at the letters strewn across the green tablecloth with a stony face. I would've thought she'd be glad Dad wasn't home, but she seemed almost bitter, maybe because there was still the question of where Dad was.
I hugged her and told her I was going to bed.
My Wednesday schedule was like Monday's and Friday's: English Rhetoric Comp. at ten; P.E. at noon; and Sociology at two. Because this schedule was more compact, and because I liked P.E., I was less inclined to leave campus and skip class. Another good thing was that my English class was in MacCracken Hall, the northernmost building on campus, meaning I didn't have to go all throughout campus to get there; I just had to walk straight down Sedgwick. Today I left home a bit earlier so I could get to class early and finish that writing assignment. I felt proud of myself for doing this and was in a good mood until I arrived at the classroom and saw Kyle Broflovski standing outside the door. Frowning, he looked straight at me and said that the class before us hadn't let out yet.
"Okay," I said, then went to stand on the opposite side of the door as him.
"You'll get hit by the door if you stand there."
He didn't say it very nicely, but he was right, so, feeling a bit dumb, I went to stand on the same side of the door as him, about two feet away, and prayed that either someone else in our class would arrive or the other class would let out.
A minute or two passed when Kyle cleared his throat and said, "So... What did you think of Sputnik?" I was surprised to hear him acknowledge Monday night, but this was no friendly conversation starter; it sounded like he was testing me, like he was expecting me to say something dumb, like, "I thought it was neat-o, but gee whiz, how'd the Reds get it up there, anyway?" so he could then educate me on it. He squinted at me from behind his thick Buddy Holly glasses, waiting for an answer with this smug look on his face.
"I thought it was stupid," I finally said.
Beautifully, that seemed to catch him off guard. Then he pushed his glasses up and said, "Is that so?" in this haughty voice. But he was also smiling a little to himself, which was strange. He was strange.
Thursday and Friday were kind of a mess. I went to both Spanish and Trigonometry on Thursday then surprised even myself by going back to campus to work on some math in the library after grabbing a pastrami sandwich down on Burnside. After a few hours trying to do homework, I felt I should reward myself somehow, so I went out with Kenny and got sloshed at the Lodge, this seedy, candlelit place on Third Avenue that oozed sultriness and attracted a rather distasteful crowd of leather creeps and drag queens. (I hated it, to be honest, but they had cheap booze.) After that, we went up the street to Annex, where I drank more and Kenny chatted up this out-of-place sweater type who had ventured out of the Village to "see what'd been exposed when they tore down the El." ("It's like when you pick up a rock and see ants crawling around," I'd said, which made Kenny howl laughing and then call me a bastard.)
We ended up leaving with that guy to go to a party in the Village, where a bunch of us smoked in the bedroom of this ritzy little apartment. At some point throughout all this, I lost track of Kenny. There was another blond guy there who I kept mistaking for him and accidentally making eye contact with. He approached me as I was leaving, and I panicked, ready to spit out an explanation about him looking just like my friend, but before I could speak, he very swiftly handed me a little folded piece of paper and said something cheesy like, "If you're ever interested," before walking away. Out on the sidewalk, I took the slip out of my pocket. It read AL 4-5842 and nothing else, not even a flirty compliment. I threw it away in the first trashcan I saw, not so much to avoid littering but to make a point to myself that such a thing was trashy and therefore belonged in the trash.
None of what I've said so far is what made that night and the next day so bad. See, usually if it was a school night, I'd try to be home by three, or I'd go to Kenny and Bebe's and crash there, usually also by three (I'd had a key to their old apartment for this very reason). What was strange about Thursday night was that I didn't think it was very late at all when I was leaving the Village, maybe around two, but when I came up to street level on the Concourse, I was completely stunned to see that it was light out and the Dollar Savings Bank clock read half past eight. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how that could be, and I stood there completely baffled, wondering how the hell it was already morning. Worse yet, there was only an hour and a half to go until fucking English! (Later I reasoned it must have been the pot in combination with my truly abysmal concept of time.) So while the only thing I wanted to do then was drag my stupid ass down the street to stupid Fordham Hill and pass out in bed, instead I walked into the snack bar on the corner, ordered two cups of black coffee, chugged them, then went home only to shower and change for another bright and cheery day at New York University.
Needless to say, I was on the verge of death by noon and ended up sleeping all throughout Sociology.
Monday started out normal: I rested a lot over the weekend and even got a decent chunk of work done, so I was feeling good about going to class. Well, I guess I couldn't truthfully say that was normal for me, but what I mean is that it started out like any other boring Monday. But then something sort of interesting happened in English class.
We'd had another short writing exercise due today, this time a descriptive piece, and what we always did on these days was peer edit each other's writing in assigned pairs before turning it in at the end of class. That way, you had a chance to fix your mistakes and get a better grade. My writing partner was this guy named Charlie, who was smart and shared his grammar tips with me, which I appreciated, because my grammar wasn't very good. Anyway, not too long after we started, I heard Kyle's voice from the other side of the room getting really loud. I looked over and saw him rising up in his chair and glaring at his writing partner.
"Do you think you're insulting me?" Kyle said, practically growling. "You're ignorant! Completely ignorant! You don't even know how to use a semicolon!" He was standing now, his face and ears beet red. It looked like his head was going to explode.
"Oh, God, a semicolon," his partner said in a ridiculous, mocking tone. "Well, good thing I've got an Ivy League-reject here to tell me I'm using a semicolon wrong!"
This is what made Kyle lose it. At first, I really thought he was going to pound the guy, that's how mad he looked, but instead he knocked his writing partner's paper off his desk, making it float down lamely to the floor. Then he grabbed his briefcase and stormed out of the room. Professor Foyer called after him just before he was out the door, but Kyle ignored him. I couldn't help but feel a little impressed by that.
Professor Foyer, still sitting at his desk, took off his glasses and rubbed his temple. "Mr. Corey, please stay after class," he said, sounding either tired or annoyed.
"He's the one who flipped out on me," Kyle's writing partner contended.
"Yes, and because Mr. Broflovski decided to leave, you'll have the privilege of telling me your side of the story first."
I wondered what exactly his partner had said that made him so mad. Apparently, it was something about Ivy League schools. I was under the impression you had to be a genius to get into those. Having connections was good, too (and boy, did I know that). But NYU was a great school. It wasn't City College, for God's sake (not that I'd be doing any better there, but I may have at least been able to get in on my own). So to me, making fun of someone for not being an Ivy Leaguer seemed so completely stupid, like saying, "I bet you don't even have a Nobel Prize."
Another thing: I didn't know how to correctly use a semicolon until this class. But I'm sure Kyle learned in kindergarten.
I left English still mulling over the incident, thinking about how stupid all this college stuff really was. This hour I had after English and before P.E. was when I ate lunch, so I was walking down the street to University Woods, where I could stare at the river and eat my apple and turkey sandwich in peace. I was nearly there, passing by the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, when, lo-and-behold, in the driver's seat of a beige Cadillac parked on the side of the road, was Kyle. His head was down, pressed into the steering wheel, but I knew it was him because of his hair. I stood there on the sidewalk wondering if I should say something or just leave him be. Against my better judgment, I went over and knocked on his passenger seat window. He looked up immediately, appearing furious, intimidated, and shaken all at once; his face was all blotchy and red, and he wasn't wearing his glasses. Then, he flicked me off with more intensity than I've ever seen anyone do, like he was putting his whole soul into it.
Any sympathy I had for him instantly disintegrated, and I flicked him off right back. He seemed surprised. Hey, if you can dish it out, you can take it. I walked in front of his stupid car and crossed the street, pissed at him but also at myself for even bothering.
I turned around to see him looking over at me from the driver's seat window. "Where are you going?" he asked after a stunted beat.
"Why do you care?"
"It was just a question!" he replied hotly.
We stared at each other for a moment. Then I started walking again, and he called out after me again.
"Can you just c'mere for a second?!" he said. "Please?"
I crossed back over to his side of the street, not knowing what to make of this. "What is it?" I said, looking down at him through his car window.
He cleared his throat, and then in this almost professional tone said, "Could I speak with you for a moment?"
"Well. Could you get in the car?"
"Are you going to abduct me?"
"The car isn't even on..." he said, as if that answered the question. Either way, I did get in his car.
Kyle had his hand on his face, his fingernails digging into his skin. "What happened after I left?" he asked.
"Professor Foyer said he was going to talk to your writing partner after class."
"Pretty much," I said, then added, "He also said he'd be able to tell his side of the story first, since you left."
Kyle sighed tremendously and drooped down to the steering wheel. "Do you know what he said to me?"
"Who? Your writing partner?"
"What?" I asked.
"He said, ‘If you're so smart, why aren't you at Columbia?'" Kyle said, imitating his writing partner with disgust.
I had no idea how to respond to that, maybe because it was actually a good question. "Well, why'd he say that?"
Kyle scoffed. "He was mad I was correcting his grammar, i.e. doing exactly what an editor is supposed to do. Ugh! Some people just think they know everything."
The irony of this struck me so hard I couldn't not say, "What about you? Don't you think you know everything?"
His squinted at me. "Of course not. I wouldn't be a student if I knew everything."
"I guess that's true."
Neither of us said anything for a moment.
Then I said, "I thought for a second there you were gonna punch him."
"Ooh, I wanted to. I really wanted to," Kyle said darkly. "I'm not above that sort of thing. It's the consequences that give me restraint—and, yes, that sounds horrible, but that's how a lot of things are. Everyone likes to think they're so moral and righteous and good, always doing the right thing, blah, blah, blah. But it's not true. People are necessarily selfish. And I'm not a liar, so I'm not going to say I refrained from hitting him because I'm such a great person. Because I'm not."
Have you ever been watching T.V. or listening to the radio out of boredom when all of the sudden, the program grabs your attention, and just like that, you're hooked? That's how I felt then, sitting in Kyle's car and listening to him talk about goodness and selfishness and not being a liar. It all really clicked in my head.
"But what if somebody has to lie?" I asked him. "I don't just mean a little white lie not to hurt somebody's feelings, but more than that."
"Give me an example."
I sure as hell wasn't going to give him the example I was thinking of, so I tried to come up with something similar. "Umm. Like a spy in the Soviet Union—an American spy, I mean—who has to lie about his identity over there."
"You wouldn't have much of a choice but to lie about that," he said. "But I'm not just talking about straight-up lying here. I'm also talking about the lies people tell themselves, the lies they might not even know are lies."
Another thing about T.V.: you ever watch Looney Tunes? When the anvil drops on the Coyote's head? When Kyle was saying this stuff about lies that people don't even know are lies, I felt like I was being whacked over the head with the massive weight of I didn't even know what—some kind of rare awareness into the human condition, something like that. I didn't consider myself someone easily impressed, either. And maybe if we'd been having this conversation anywhere else in any other context, I would've dismissed it as cynical bullshit. But the fact of the matter was that Kyle had been so grievously offended he had come out to his car to cry. So this was a realer version of him, probably.
"Anyway," he began, smoothing down his suit and straightening up in the seat, "I'm starving. And today has been so awful that I'm going to go somewhere nice for lunch. You're welcome to come with me, if you'd like." Then he added, "My treat, of course."
Even Horn & Hardart's beat a bag lunch, and Kyle clearly had money, so I accepted. I also wanted to keep talking to him, so much so that I didn't care about missing the one class I enjoyed. (I enjoyed it for all the wrong reasons, anyway.)
"I need to go to this French place in the city," Kyle said as we were getting on the highway. "I just do."
"That's fine," I told him, never eager to stick around campus. Thankfully, Kyle didn't ask me when my next class was—I could almost see him driving me straight back to University Heights if he knew I had class at noon. Or maybe not. Nerds were notorious for hating P.E., right? And anyway, Kyle himself had skipped the second half of English, so there was blood on his hands, too (what a figure of speech).
We ended up on the East Side, at this place called Charles' à La Pomme Soufflée. It was very charming, with perfectly potted shrubbery and a skinny tree eclipsing the front of the building, all of it contained by black wrought-iron. A painted sign of a towering soufflée hung between the two bottom windows, giving the place even more of a fairytale appeal.
We were seated by the window, and then Kyle went to the restroom. He came back looking refreshed, having washed his face. "Order whatever you want," he told me when he sat down.
The menu was all in French. "I'll have whatever you're having."
He peered at me. "Well, alright," he eventually said.
After the waiter took our orders (or rather, Kyle's order times two), Kyle folded his hands over the table and took a long breath. Then he said, "See, the thing about Columbia—or any Ivy League university, for that matter—is that they have certain quotas they want to fill. They only want so many kids from the city, so many kids from outside of it, et cetera. And they only want so many Jews."
"Yes. So it's really ignorant to believe that getting into an Ivy League school is simply a matter of I.Q.," Kyle explained. "You know the guy who invented the polio vaccine? Jonas Salk? He could've done his research at any Ivy League medical institution, but he didn't; he ended up at NYU. You know why?"
"Because he's Jewish."
"Au contraire—we get presents for eight days instead of just one," Kyle said, smiling.
It took me a moment to understand this, but when I got it, I laughed. "You know what I meant," I said.
"I do," he said, still smiling a bit as he seeped his tea bag.
"So you're Jewish?"
"And you applied to Columbia but didn't get in?"
"Oh. I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "It is what it is, I suppose."
"Well, do you like NYU?"
"Oh, it's fine. I definitely don't like commuting all the way from Forest Hills, but my parents got me a car for that reason. Granted, I would've liked a 1909 Lozier, but the road of excess is probably better traveled with synchronized transmission."
I had no idea what any of that meant, so I just said, "That's pretty far, Queens."
"Yes, it's miserable," he lamented before starting up again: "You know Butler Hall? The old mansion by the Language Hall? I heard it once served as a residence hall. I wouldn't have minded living there. That's the one thing I like about University Heights, these old Victorian mansions. They have so much character, unlike all that cookie-cutter trash out in the suburbs. You know how old people say, ‘they don't make things how they used to'? Well, it's true; they don't. Take this, for example," he said, taking something out of his pocket and handing it to me. "This is a pocket watch I found in a pawn shop in London. Can you believe that, a pawn shop? Open it up."
I did so and saw that the face of the watch was a tree with three massive roots. On the right side beneath its branches was a tiny sun with orange triangle rays, like how little kids draw suns. The colors reminded me of a children's book, like Goodnight, Moon.
"That's Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology," Kyle said. "And see the sun? It gradually disappears so that by eight o'clock, a little crescent moon comes up on the other side. This isn't the kind of thing you can mass produce in some factory. This is something that was especially made for someone."
"It's cool," I said, handing it back to him.
He took it back and then began stirring his still-steaming tea. "I have a question for you."
"Why, exactly, do you think the Russian satellite is stupid?"
"Maybe stupid wasn't the best word. I mean, I guess it's cool that they were able to put it up there, but I don't think shooting hunks of metal into space really does anything or helps anybody."
"Well, technology has never been about helping people."
"It hasn't?" When I thought about technology, I thought of dishwashers, typewriters, calculators. Hell, even electricity. Those things helped people.
Kyle opened his mouth to answer, but then our salads arrived. "Oh, I don't know," he said, stabbing his fork through the lettuce. "I probably shouldn't get into that now. I've already talked your ear off about all sorts of jejune things and generally been a poor conversationalist. I haven't asked you anything about yourself."
It was true; he hadn't, but I didn't care. I felt like I could sit here all day and listen to him talk.
"So what's your story, Stan?"
He squeezed the information out of me throughout the deviled eggs and potato poofs (the "pommes soufflées" themselves). I didn't mind talking about myself, though I rarely did it, and usually only with Bebe and Kenny. Kyle seemed interested in what I told him of my pretty mundane existence, how I'd grown up in the Bronx and gone to P.S. 26, J.H.S. 82, and Theodore Roosevelt High School. Perhaps naturally, the topic of conversation kept coming back to school, especially after I told him my dad was a geology professor.
"I'm not a very good student," I admitted. "I try, but I'm not like you."
It bothered me a bit to see his face flicker with disappointment. Then he asked, "What do you mean, like me?"
"You seem like a straight A student."
"Well, I was valedictorian," he revealed.
"That's cool. I'm just glad I graduated high school."
"School isn't that hard."
Sighing, I said, "Maybe not for you."
"What do you find hard about it?"
"I don't know. I've just never been very good at it. I never seem to be able to get on top of the homework. It just keeps piling up," I responded, mumbling by the end of it. I didn't even know why I was saying any of this shit. Suddenly I felt very dumb.
"Do you have a way to keep track of your assignments for each class?"
"Like what? A calendar?"
"Well, yes, but in the form of a personal planner you can carry around with you."
"Oh, no, I don't. I usually just write them down in a notebook or something."
"That's your problem right there," Kyle said. "You should get a planner."
Sighing again, I admitted, "That could probably help, but my bigger problem is actually getting the work done. And studying—ugh. Studying is even worse because you don't have a real assignment to do; you're just supposed to look at the stuff ‘til you know it, I guess."
"Okay," Kyle said, nodding a little. "Those are all skills that anyone can learn, and it's not your fault you don't know them—it's the public school system's fault. So, if you're interested, I could impart upon you some of my methods for studying, note-taking, outlining, researching, et cetera."
"Oh, no, you don't have to do that."
"I know I don't. And you don't have to accept, either, but I'm letting you know that the offer is on the table."
"Well. Okay then. Sure."
We scheduled the first study session for Halloween. Kyle told me he also planned to use the time to do his own schoolwork; he would not just be tutoring me, and furthermore, at least for English, we could collaborate on assignments. Still, he was going out of his way for me, and while I was grateful, I didn't understand why. We weren't really friends, were we? I wasn't sure. Maybe we were. After all, Kyle had hounded me down after English yesterday to gripe about Professor Foyer reprimanding him for what happened Monday, so I suppose that meant something. But he may have just wanted someone to rant to, behavior I was unfortunately familiar with. No, let me take that back: listening to the stupid shit my dad says was nothing like listening to Kyle. Maybe it was because Kyle was so righteous about stuff, and, I don't know, dramatic in the way a Greek play is dramatic—not the stupid drag queen kind of dramatic, but the good, exhilarating kind you get when you see a movie like War of the Worlds.
Anyway, we planned to meet up at the library at four thirty. My God forsaken trig class ended at quarter after, so I went to wait for Kyle outside the library. It was another beautiful fall day, and I took a moment to appreciate University Heights for once, the green quad, the cushioning of red, orange, and gold trees. This place had been so familiar to me for so long that it was either unremarkable, or more recently, a kind of foresty prison that kept me from the gay party circuit. Speaking of which, I wondered if there were any Halloween things going on tonight? Then again, I had just gone out on Tuesday and spent yesterday hungover as a result.
"Hey," Kyle said, having appeared rather suddenly. He wasn't wearing his typical three-piece suit, but rather a navy blue sports jacket with a violet argyle sweater underneath. I just hoped it wasn't cashmere, but even if it was, that was only because Kyle was rich. God though, if he didn't look like your run-of-the-mill sweater type, just a bit nerdier. God.
"What's wrong with you?" Kyle asked. "Are you sick or something?"
"No, I'm fine," I said quickly. Then I felt the need to add, "You look different today."
"Ugh! Don't even mention it!" he said so loudly that a student coming up the steps looked at us. "There's nothing like walking into your closet in the morning and realizing that all your suits are either dirty or at the cleaner's. I'm dressed for lounging around the house eating bonbons, not school."
"You look fine," I said, laughing a little—I was dressed more or less exactly like him, but with a shirt instead of a sweater. It was sort of funny how he went all out for school, like he was meeting the Queen of England or something. I didn't know if it was a rich person thing, or just a Kyle thing, although, hmm, maybe it was a Jewish thing? Regardless, he was right about school clothes: while there wasn't a formal dress code, the general idea was that you should dress nice for school, not like you were off to spend the day at Joyland.
Inside the library, we went up the steps to the balcony, where Kyle poked his head in a few of the department study rooms, forgoing the occupied Latin, English, and Romance rooms until discovering that the Greek room, with its view of the river, was empty. Kyle plopped his briefcase down on the wooden table like he was about to conduct a business meeting, then he took out a thin blue thing that looked like a journal. Handing it to me, he said, "I took the risk of assuming you hadn't purchased a planner yet."
In other words, it was a gift. Without reaching to take it, I stared at the planner and wondered if it was leather.
"Oh, so you did get one?" he asked me.
"No, I didn't."
"Well then," Kyle said, placing the planner down in front of me.
I looked up at him and, bracing myself, said, "I don't understand why you're being so nice to me."
He frowned and was about to speak but didn't; instead he sat down, folded his hands, and looked straight ahead out the window. When he spoke, it was slower than how he usually talked: "I was grateful you listened to me on Monday. I had the impression you would be understanding of my plight. Or just, I don't know, nice about it?" Then, deflating further, he said, "I feel very alienated here."
"Oh," I said, somewhat taken aback by the deeply personal nature of his response. Awkwardly, I went on to say, "Well, we can certainly be friends, if you'd like."
"I would like that very much."
And so we became friends.
I think Kyle began to realize during the study session that he had his work cut out for him. His eyes bugged out when he flipped through my notebooks, and then he seemed flabbergasted that I didn't have much of an answer for him when he asked me how I studied. He seemed pretty patient though, as well as determined to teach me. So initially I left the library feeling good: I now had some skills with which tackle the relentless beast that was my homework. But I still had the fear that Kyle would get frustrated when I didn't turn into a straight A student overnight. Or ever.
Then as I was heading over to University Avenue to grab some pizza for dinner, meandering through the crowds of trick-or-treaters, I also began to worry that maybe Kyle thought he had to bribe people into being his friend with tutoring sessions and leather-bound planners. He said he felt alienated here, so I was probably right in assuming he didn't have other friends. But I'm sure he must still have friends from high school, since he'd gone to some Jewish school in the city. Surely he'd had his own little niche there? Yet somehow I couldn't convince myself of this, maybe because I personally hadn't been very chummy with anybody in high school, instead managing to meander through various groups like a social nomad, never forming real ties beyond the meager commonalities of having gone to J.H.S. 82, or enduring detention together, or being totally lost on the material. If it hadn't been for those empty acquaintanceships, I would've certainly been a loner. And now at college, I did feel like Kyle said he did: alienated. The difference was that it didn't bother me like it clearly bothered him, and anyway, I often felt alienated in many situations by many things, so I generally just dealt with it. I was also very lucky I had two people in my life that I could be myself around. I guess Kyle didn't have that.
That Sunday, I went over to Kenny and Bebe's. Both of them had Sundays off. Since the last time I visited, they had acquired much more furniture and fixings, and the place was beginning to look pretty homey, even sort of stylish—it was very them, Southern and cozy, yet with a touch of New York flair. They still hadn't gotten chairs for the kitchen table though, so we were eating the pigs-in-a-blanket we had just made while sitting on the couch. I had also brought over a gallon of orange juice, so we were drinking that.
"Oh, God! Stan! I just remembered!" Bebe said suddenly, food still in her mouth. "Did you see the Times today?"
"Jesus, you scared me," I said after very purposefully swallowing my food. "But no, I didn't. Why? What'd it say?"
"The Russians sent up another moon, this time with a dog in it," she said, her blue eyes wide as disks.
"We shoulda bought a copy to show you," Kenny commented. "I remember it sayin' they're able to track the dog's condition up there."
Bebe shook her head and said, "That poor animal." Then her eyes got a little glossy. She had told me once about the black and white Border Collie named Sally she'd gotten for her tenth birthday. Bebe had only agreed to leave their small South Carolina town after Sally had died.
While I believed Kenny and Bebe about the new moon, I also kind of didn't; I just couldn't fathom that real scientists would put a dog—a dog!—in a rocket ship and shoot it up into space. It just seemed preposterous, like something out of a stupid movie.
Right after I left Kenny and Bebe's apartment, I went to buy the Sunday edition of the Times, and yep, there it was, splashed across the front page: "SOVIET FIRES NEW SATELLITE, CARRYING DOG; HALF-TON SPHERE IS REPORTED 9000 MILES UP." My stomach sank even further when I read that the moon was moving at 18,000 miles per hour. That was insane. How could a living creature survive that for days on end? The article said the dog was alive, sealed in an air-conditioned container, but how long did they plan to keep her up there? Did she have enough food, water? Were the scientists able to communicate with her and tell her everything would be okay?
It said the dog's name was Kudryavka. She was "small and shaggy" and had even been on the radio in Russia, barking gleefully for the audience from the Soviet laboratory where they were training dogs—plural dogs!—for space flight. Kudryavka had had no idea what was going to happen to her. Worse yet, the article went on and on about stupid shit like them sending up a permanent earth satellite. Who cared? What about Kudryavka? Was she going to be okay?
I wished so badly I could save her. She was probably terrified. I almost started crying on the subway but made sure I held in the tears at whatever cost. Horribly, when I made it back home, my dad was there, plopped on the couch with a beer watching T.V. He tried to talk to me about the new moon, but I walked right past him and went to my room, where I cried into my pillow about Kudryavka as quietly as I could. I tried not to cry too often because it made me feel bad about myself, and I never did it in front of anybody else. But there were times like these where I just couldn't help it.
Kudryavka's story reminded me of the poor animals that turned up at the ASPCA. Cats and dogs that people had hit, beat, burned, tortured, abused. They were petrified and couldn't trust anybody at first. It sounded like the Russian scientists had initially been nice to Kudryavka, taking care of her and training her, only to cruelly shove her in a metal box and shoot her up into space. How could they? I realized then that I had severely underestimated how evil Communists were. My dad was right. I felt so stupid and angry and heartbroken.
I thought of Sparky, my Uncle Jimbo's dog. Sparky had been lucky: he'd had a good life, which is what every dog deserved. Every Fourth of July, we used to have a cookout at my Uncle Jimbo's dairy farm in Susquehanna County, PA, and the whole time I would run around playing with Sparky. He was big and gray and a little dopey, but so playful and sweet; he loved curling up with you on the couch and licking your face (my sister always said that was disgusting). I loved Sparky, and I'd plead with my mom and dad for a dog of my own, but they told me that a dog wouldn't like living in the Bronx; they said a dog needed lots of open space to run around. I knew they were right, but it still made me sad.
Then one year when we went to visit—I must have been around eight or nine—Sparky didn't come running to the door when we rang the doorbell. My uncle told me that he'd died of old age. I started crying, and my dad yelled at me in such a mean, shitty way that it's stuck with me ever since: "Quit crying, Stan," he'd snapped. "It wasn't even your dog." My mom may have yelled at him for that, but I can't remember. I was also very hurt that my uncle didn't call and tell me beforehand. It was like some fucking Fourth of July surprise: hey, Stan, Sparky's dead, but check out this neat gravestone I got him.
I spent that whole day sitting at Sparky's grave under the dogwood tree, at the far end of my uncle's property, hating my dad and my uncle and crying indignantly.
People were talking about the new moon at school the next day. Some jackass was even saying that they might be feeding the dog through a feeding tube. It made me want to go somewhere and get plastered. I looked over to see if Kyle was hearing any of this shit, but he was scrutinizing his personal planner like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was bursting at the seams to talk to him about the new moon, and assuming we repeated what we did Friday, I'd be able to do so in the relative privacy of University Woods while we ate lunch.
But God, did class drag on when we weren't doing those peer editing activities. Today it was a lecture on literary tone, and I tried really hard to take good notes because I thought Kyle might be watching me, but I was struggling to mimic the outline layout he'd showed me. It was hard to know when Professor Foyer was moving onto a new point. I looked over at Charlie's notes and saw that he was just keeping a straight-down list of bullet points, which seemed totally fine, so I wondered how necessary it was to do Kyle's outline style with Roman numerals. It was probably more important to just get everything written down, so that's what I did. Then after class when I was talking to Kyle on our way to the woods, I made sure that the topic of note-taking didn't come up, instead asking him how his weekend was.
"Oh, fine," he said. "And yours? Did you go to church or something?"
"Me? Uh, no. We stopped going after I got confirmed."
"Confirmed for what?"
"For, uh, being a Catholic," I said, then clarified, "It's a sacrament where you tell them you believe in God and Jesus and all that."
"So you're a confirmed Catholic who doesn't go to church on Sundays," Kyle stated, apparently skeptical.
"Well. Yes," I confessed. Still, I felt like I had to justify myself; I didn't want him to think I was some kind of heathen, at least not for such a trivial reason, so I said, "Things are different now in my family. We don't all wake up on Sunday mornings and go to eleven o'clock mass. Nowadays, my dad's at school all the time, my mom works weird hours as a nurse, and my sister lives on Staten Island with her husband and two kids. We're all kind of doing our own thing now. So it'd be weird for me to go by myself. It was really more of a family thing."
"Oh, I completely understand," Kyle said.
I thought maybe he'd say more, like about being Jewish, but he didn't. He hadn't said anything about it since the day he told me about the Ivy League quotas. So I didn't ask.
Near the end of the trail, we sat down on a somewhat secluded bench and began eating our packed lunches. Kyle agreed it was horrible eating in the student center, this big goofy beige building that stood out like a sore thumb amongst its regal-looking neighbors.
So as I sat there eating my turkey sandwich and watching the cars zip by on the new highway, I tried to think of how to bring up the new moon without sounding like Saint Francis of Assisi or something, but then Kyle beat me to the punch: "So, Satellite Number Two," he said, "more or less stupid than its antecedent?"
"More. Way more. But not stupid so much as downright fucking evil." His green eyes shot wide open when I said that, almost making me regret swearing. But I really wanted to impress upon him that I was disgusted by the new moon; I didn't just think it was some stupid thing.
"I'm assuming because of the dog," Kyle said carefully.
"Of course because of the dog!"
"Okay, okay," Kyle said in this voice like he was trying to calm down a five-year-old, which embarrassed me because it was justified, seeing as how fast I'd gotten worked up, something that didn't happen with me often and never had with Kyle. "I have to admit I hadn't thought much about the dog," he said. Then he grimaced and made a sound like he'd just seen something really disgusting. "Shit, how could I not have? Shit. I even listened to the news last night."
"What did the news say?"
"Umm, they said the dog was in an air-conditioned container, had enough food and water, and had been especially trained for space flight."
"So not much more than what the Times said."
"I just don't understand how they could put a dog in one of those fucking satellites."
My words hung over us for a moment like a storm cloud. Then Kyle said, "Do you remember what I said about technology? How it's never been about helping people?"
"Okay. Now, let me preface this by saying that these are ideas in development. So, I believe technology itself is a neutral thing, but more often than not, it's been used as a means of destruction, of destroying people, places, things, whole cities, even. This isn't because people are more ‘evil' now than before, but because technology has advanced so rapidly since the Industrial Revolution. So, powerful people—heads of states, dictators, et cetera—have better tools in their arsenal. And if those powerful people are also evil people, then said tools become weapons. Since with power comes access to the most advanced technology, the relationship between a person's power and the destruction he can enact is moderated by how evil he is. Very simply put, a good powerful person will use technology for good, but a bad powerful person will use technology for bad. The sad thing is that the bad seems to vastly overshadow the good."
I was taking this all in. "So how do the Russian satellites fit into all that?" I asked him.
"That, I don't know yet. I don't know what their ultimate goal is with these satellites, but I have a very bad feeling about it. The Soviets are capable of a lot, and now they're making sure we know it. Meanwhile, everyone's buying binoculars, going to the Hayden Planetarium, la-di-da, la-di-do, like this is just some kid's science project. And the few people who are taking it seriously aren't even critiquing it per se; they're just antsy that Project Vanguard can't keep up. No one is questioning whether any of this is ethical. I think the dog is symbolic of that; I think the answer once again is that life doesn't matter."
I didn't know what to say. I felt like I had swallowed ash—I believed every word he said, and I didn't want to live in a world where life didn't matter. I thought about the Russian scientists putting Kudryavka in the satellite and feeling in their hearts that she didn't matter. She was just a dog, after all. Who cared about her? The Russians had just wanted to say they'd sent a living creature into space. But they'd entirely forgotten she was a living creature. I was starting to understand what Kyle meant about technology, but I still didn't understand how people could do such terrible things.
"I'm really depressed now," I admitted.
"Reality is depressing. Try not to think about it too much," Kyle said. He wasn't being tongue-and-cheek about it, but he didn't seem completely serious, either.
Maybe I felt a little better once we were out of the woods, in the sun. This, too, was reality, in the totally mundane sense of seeing campus up ahead and knowing that was where I'd be stuck the rest of the day. I could deal with that reality even though I didn't love it. But the reality outside my reality, the big one, where cities got blown up and people were tortured and little dogs got shoved into satellites, well, there wasn't anything I could do about that. And that's what made it so awful. So maybe Kyle was right. Maybe all you could do was not think about it too much.
We planned another study session for tomorrow, Tuesday, since we were off for Election Day. I readily agreed even though I'd been entertaining the idea of spending the day drunk and moping over Kudryavka. Kyle said for us to meet at ten a.m. at the school library, and we exchanged phone numbers in case something came up. I wrote his down in my planner: BOulevard 8-8672.
It seemed like the more time I spent with Kyle, the more time I wanted to spend with him. Maybe that didn't make sense, but even so, I found myself disproportionality sad when Kyle and I parted ways on the quad. So on top of still feeling uneasy about all the Sputnik shit, I felt completely hollow as I walked over the field, like a pumpkin gutted into a jack-o-lantern rotting on somebody's front porch days after Halloween. Was I just unaccustomed to having a friend at school? I hoped it was just that, because knowing that I was in awe of Kyle, I didn't want to accidentally develop a crush on him. That would just be bad all around. I wouldn't know how to behave around him anymore. It was bad enough when I had a crush on a guy I didn't interact with, like when I was a freshman in high school and was completely enamored with this guy named Paul, a senior who also went to my church. He was really tall (like extremely tall, maybe three inches taller than me), thin but athletic, and had this beautiful boyish face, clean-shaven with brown hair and hazel eyes. Smiled a lot, very friendly, very popular. I think I had one conversation total with him, and I'm pretty sure he had no idea who I was, but I spent a ludicrous amount of time thinking about him regardless, and I was sad when he graduated.
I knew it was totally pointless to have crushes on guys who most likely weren't gay, but since you could only tell a guy was that way if he was very clearly nelly, what was I supposed to do, force myself to only like those guys? I just wasn't into guys like that, you know, the ones who act dainty and work in hair salons and stuff. I guess it was cool that they did their own gay thing without apology, but I couldn't help but feel that they were needlessly excessive about it. I thought of myself as a normal guy, and I knew lots of gay men who weren't plain-as-day fairies, so my hope was that one day, I'd come across someone like me, just a normal guy who happens to be gay. And also doesn't see fucking as the be-all-and-end-all. That was important, too. At the end of the day, what I wanted most was to have a mutual crush on a guy, but that seemed about as likely as winning the lottery.
I began to worry that thinking about having a crush on Kyle might be making me have a crush on him. Did I have a crush on him? He wasn't like anybody I'd ever met, and I was blown away by how smart he was. But anyone would be; he was taking all these upper level classes, like Latin 30 and Analytic Geometry, and he knew five languages. I was also very deeply affected by his generosity, but again, who wouldn't be? So maybe I should've been asking myself the hard-hitting questions, like did I want to kiss him or did I want him to kiss me? I didn't really know, to be honest. All I knew was that I liked being around him, and he seemed to like being around me, so as long as I could keep myself in check, everything would be fine.
Yet I seemed unable to resist stoking the fire, and so as I was doing the laundry that night, I deliberated over the possibility that Kyle might be gay. This was tough though, because certain things—the French restaurant, the gushing over Victorian mansions—could easily be written off as him being rich, you know, cultured. While there were definitely rich gays, I didn't frequent their enclaves, so I didn't know enough to say if they were rich and incidentally gay or gay and incidentally rich.
The phone rang later as I was getting ready for bed. I got excited thinking it was Kyle, although that would've been bad seeing as he'd only be calling if he was canceling. It turned out to be my sister, sounding grouchy and possibly drunk.
"Put Mom on," she said.
"She's not home."
"Then where the hell is she? I tried calling three times today and nobody picked up!"
"She's at work."
My sister growled. "Well, is Dad there?"
"Christ," she spat. "Fine. Bye." Then she hung up.
I don't think I've ever really liked my sister. She's always been mean, and she definitely got meaner after having the twins. She was like this toxic cloud that poisoned everything around her. It made me worried for my niece and nephew. They were only four, and my sister was the only one around them all day. Well, my mom had been around them a lot when they were first born, back when my sister and her husband lived in Mott Haven and before my mom enrolled in nursing school, but my sister was just so terrible to my mom that after about a year, she was completely worn down. She had to stop helping her so much, which just made my sister madder and meaner. It really ticked me off that my sister could be so mean and ungrateful to my mom, but then again, my sister didn't discriminate. Thankfully, my mom became a lot happier once she started school, but that also turned my father against her, which was just disgusting. How could he give her a hard time for wanting to help people? Maybe things were a little better now that my parents were around each other less, but then when they were around each other, like on my birthday, things were even worse. My mom was also making real money now, and I know my dad didn't like that one bit, maybe in part because he still hadn't gotten tenure.
Thinking about all this made me really depressed. Your family was supposed to be nice to each other. My sister had never been nice to me, and my mom and dad seemed less and less nice to each other in recent years. But it was my dad and sister who always started it; they were the bad eggs. Why couldn't they just be nice? It got me thinking about how God says homosexuality is a sin, but honestly, if I had a boyfriend, somebody I really loved, I'd treat him a thousand times better than my dad treats my mom. I just didn't see how loving somebody so much could ever be a bad thing. That's all being gay was really about, anyway: loving another guy. I don't know how or why it had morphed into this superficial, off-the-rails, boozy sex culture. Maybe that's what happens when you force people underground—things get kind of dark.
Campus was eerily vacant the next morning. I headed over to the library, and as I was coming up towards it, I saw Kyle leaning against one of the pillars reading the newspaper. His ankles were crossed. He peered up over the paper and saw me. I waved, but he'd looked away to fold up the newspaper and tuck it under his arm.
"I have three pieces of bad news," he said, standing up straight. "Do you want them in order of least bad to most bad or most bad to least bad?"
I didn't feel prepared for whatever they might be. "Umm, most to least, I guess."
"Okay. One, the dog is going to die. Two, the Russians are shooting a rocket with a bomb on it to the moon. Three, the library's closed."
"Jesus," was all I could say.
Kyle shifted. "Some good news though: it turns out you're not alone in your sympathy for Limonchik. There've been protests in London and here in New York as well."
"That's what they're saying the dog's name is, ‘Little Lemon.'"
So Kudryavka was really Limonchik, Little Lemon. That somehow made everything worse. "How do they know she's going to die?"
"Do you want to read the article?" Kyle said, already handing me the paper.
"Not really, no." I didn't think I could handle it. "Just tell me, please."
"Okay, so, the satellite is anywhere between 150 and a thousand miles up, traveling at a speed of nearly 18,000 miles per hour. It doesn't have brakes. So even if they were to eject the dog in a capsule, he'd accelerate back to earth at such a phenomenal speed that a parachute would be altogether inconsequential. It wouldn't end well."
"Well maybe they should've thought of that before they put her in there!"
"It's a male dog, but yes, I agree."
"Well you don't seem very upset about it," I said, which was unfair of me, but I was extraordinarily upset and Kyle just seemed so damn relaxed about the whole thing.
"I'm very upset about it," he said. "Please don't think otherwise."
"It's fine. But, look, I really have been increasingly concerned about these satellites, not so much in the sense that I'm petrified of the Russians bombing us—although that's a very real and very terrifying possibility—but because I see it for what it is: a misguided and unnecessary use of technology in whose name living beings are being exploited." He paused and then said even more gravely, "They said they want to eventually send people into space."
"Ugh. Though I'm sure by then, they'll have figured out how to get them down safely."
"You'd think, huh? But you never know. If a Soviet scientist's own pet can be sacrificed in the name of ‘space exploration,' why not a human?"
It was haunting hearing such things. I didn't know what to think or say. I just rubbed my face and took into consideration for once that my feet were firmly on the ground. "So you said the library is closed?"
"Yes, unfortunately. I should've checked yesterday to make sure it was open," Kyle said.
My first thought was that we could go to my place to study, but then I remembered my mom was sleeping, and, since faculty was apparently also off today, my dad was probably there, too, eating Sugar Frosted Flakes in his underwear or something equally embarrassing. So I suggested we go to the new public library on University Avenue.
"I didn't tell you about the rocket with the bomb on it," Kyle said as we were leaving the quad. "Care to hear?"
I really didn't, but I also didn't want to not know, so I said, "Yeah, sure."
"It's this perverse fireworks display for the anniversary of the October Revolution. They're launching a rocket with an H-bomb on it up to the moon so that it explodes in front of the eclipse on Thursday," Kyle explained, scoffing.
"But what if they blow up the moon?"
"Well, then I suppose there'd be no moon," Kyle said simply.
I imagined chunks of the moon crashing down to earth. Ugh.
"In all seriousness though, they can't reach the moon. It's over two hundred thousand miles away," Kyle said. "Besides, they wouldn't be able to put someone on it if they blew it up."
I'd once seen this weird cartoon on T.V. where a green clay guy goes to the moon and comes across these triangle-shaped creatures. It was pretty creepy for a kids show. Going to the moon seemed like a terrible idea. Kyle was really right about this space stuff. There was no point to it.
The Francis Martin Library was across the street from Gould Hall, just down past the University Heights Presbyterian Church. It had a kind of modern, curvy design to it. I'd never actually been in here, although this location was now probably the closest one to Fordham Hill. Inside, it was almost completely empty, but I still wished the school library hadn't been closed, because then we could've gotten one of those department study rooms instead of having to sit out here in the open. We took one of the tables in the corner by the window, and Kyle requested to look at my notebook, which was awful because then he was seeing all my failed attempts at doing outlines. (They all devolved into bullet points.) So what he did, at least for English, was show me how he had organized his notes, and that helped me see where I could've separated the lecture into different subheadings. I didn't know if I'd be able to do it in class though.
Kyle also told me about using flashcards to study. I'd heard people suggesting this before, but I guess I thought it was kind of childish or something, and I also never had any index cards on hand, so I'd never done it. But Kyle said this was an "indispensable study method" and was especially good for foreign languages, so I planned to buy some soon. In fact, I even wrote it down in my planner to buy index cards.
I felt like I was starting to get better at this school stuff. It wasn't so unwieldy when you had the right tools. But this good feeling didn't last for too long, because after that, we both did some of our own work for a while, and I couldn't for the life of me focus on my sociology book. What would happen is I'd read a sentence or two, then I'd start thinking I was hungry, or I'd start watching Kyle writing in Latin, looking at his neat script and well-groomed fingernails and thin wrist and wondering if any of it meant anything, or if I was just a sex pervert reading into things that weren't there. So then I'd go back to my book and find myself reading the same three sentences over and over again without even knowing what they were saying. Then I'd end up spacing out again. Eventually, I gave up.
"Hey," I whispered to Kyle. "Do you want to go get some lunch?"
"Oh. Um, sure." He took out his pocket watch, and it must have been a suitable lunch time, because he started packing up his stuff. "Where do you want to go?" he asked me, and like back on the quad when the school library was closed, it struck me that maybe he was looking to me for guidance, which on one hand was unusual since he was the smart one, but on the other hand made sense because the Bronx was my home, and Kyle probably hadn't spent much time up here if any before attending college. So I said we could go to this deli down on Burnside. Trying to be casual about it, I added that it was a kosher deli, one of many great kosher delis in the Bronx, and that I ate there all the time. Kyle was agreeable, saying that he'd heard the Bronx had good kosher delis, and so we left the library and headed down the Aqueduct to Spivack's Kosher Delicatessen.
"Let me treat you," I told him, "for helping me so much. Okay?"
"If you really want to," Kyle said, shrugging.
I got a hot pastrami sandwich on rye and a bottle of root beer like I usually do, and I also got an order of fries for us to share. Kyle got corn beef on club and a glass of water. I paid with a one dollar bill and got two quarters back, but then I thought I better get some nickels and dimes for the subway, so the cashier traded me for three dimes and four nickels.
"What'd you do that for?" Kyle asked.
"Oh," he said, maybe a little sheepishly. It was kind of funny to me that a New Yorker didn't automatically think "subway fare" about nickels and dimes. Even my mom would think that, and she was now taking the car to the city for work, which my dad certainly didn't like, even though he had zero need for a car, living at Fordham Hill and working at NYU Heights.
Then I remembered Kyle had gone to a private Jewish high school in the city, so I asked him, "How'd you get to high school if you didn't take the subway?"
"My dad drove me on his way to work."
He'd told me before that his family had a corporate law firm in the city. It was founded by his maternal great-grandfather, so its name was his mother's maiden name, though I'd forgotten what that was. His dad had gotten a job there fresh out of law school and that's how he met his mother, who had been working there as a secretary.
We ate lunch without saying much else. Kyle had three French fries total, so I ate the rest.
"Did you want to go back to the library?" I reluctantly asked him as we were leaving.
He groaned and said, "Not really, no. Something about that library was really unappealing. Maybe the lighting? I don't know. But I appreciate your having suggested it as a substitute." Then he said, "Let's go back to campus. I want to ask you something."
This made me equal parts curious and nervous, though I realized it was totally ridiculous to even think that Kyle would ask me something like, "You're a fag, aren't you?" And in the highly unlikely scenario that that did happen, I could just deny it.
So we made it back to campus and went to sit on the bleachers by the field. It was totally empty here, nobody running around, no whistles blowing.
Kyle set his briefcase down and leaned forward with his chin in his hand. Looking straight ahead, he said, "The counterman at the deli... Did you see the tattoo on his arm?"
I hadn't looked at it too carefully today, but I went to that deli often enough that I knew what he was talking about: a couple of numbers on the guy's forearm. "Yeah. What about it?"
"Do you know what it is?"
I'd assumed it was some kind of army tattoo, but maybe it was something else, and Kyle was so serious right now that I didn't want to be wrong, so I said, "Umm, no, not really."
"It's an identification number. The Nazis tattooed numbers onto the prisoners' arms at Auschwitz," Kyle explained.
"I didn't know that."
He didn't say anything for a moment, but then he cleared his throat and said, "The reason I bring this up is because the Nazi concentration camps were my starting point for thinking about power, evil, and technology. That scale of industrialized murder was unprecedented in history. So while I do see it as a specific, repetitious event, I've also come to understand that technology has historically been used to facilitate murder. Because, see, the Final Solution wasn't just anti-Semitism—it was a scientific process carefully engineered and perfected over time." He briefly glanced at me. "But of course, I'm an American, so I can think about this in the abstract, at least until I see something like that man's tattoo, and then I'm struck by how close and how real it is, and I almost want to say something, but what could I possibly say?" Then he rubbed his eye beneath the lens of his glasses and mumbled, "I probably shouldn't have said any of this."
"No, no," I said quickly. "I like listening to what you have to say. And it sounds like this is important to you."
He peered at me. "It is," he conceded, and then, sighing, he said, "My mother tells me I think too much."
"You think she's right?"
"Oh, absolutely. But it's only a burden at two a.m. when you can't sleep," he said, smiling a bit.
Kyle didn't go back to talking about the concentration camps. Instead, we talked about other things, like how he wished the University College of Arts and Sciences was at Washington Square instead. He thought University Heights was alright, he said, but that the Bronx was unfamiliar to him, and he felt displaced up here, surrounded by streets he didn't know the names of as well as gentile classmates. This was the first time he'd gone to a regular school.
"I hated it when I first started here," he said, "but things have been improving."
"Well, I have a friend now." He said it in this superficially nonchalant way, like he was trying to hide what it really meant to him.
I thought about saying, "If somebody had told me a month ago we'd become friends, I wouldn't have believed it," but then if Kyle asked why, I'd have to say because I used to think he was a huge prick, which he might not like. So instead I ended up saying something totally cheesy: "I'm really glad we became friends."
"Yeah. Me, too," Kyle said. Not quite looking at me, he smiled a little, maybe even "shyly," and I was completely blindsided by how it made me feel. It was like all the air got sucked out of my lungs and all the blood in my body suddenly got warmer, like I'd taken some sort of drug.
Kyle checked his pocket watch and then said he had to get going or he'd hit the worst of rush hour traffic. Somehow, it was already almost four o'clock. I walked him down to his car and then waved goodbye as he drove away. I felt like I was in a movie or something, looking up the street as his beige Cadillac made a right and then disappeared down Hall of Fame Terrace. It seemed like the day had just flown by. I still had a trace of that floaty, hot feeling, like tea that'd been cooling for a while, but now I also had that scooped-out pumpkin feeling again, and the only thing that made me feel better was knowing I'd be seeing Kyle again tomorrow morning.
I realized, though, that these feelings were a problem. So as I walked home, I tried very hard to make it absolute in my mind that we were just friends, literally setting it in stone by visualizing someone writing the word with his finger in wet concrete: F-R-I-E-N-D-S. This was to serve as further warning to myself to quit thinking about Kyle in unnecessary ways, to quit wondering if the way he sat or a particular word he used meant anything. Because the more I thought about him like that, the more I was allowing myself to, and that was just going to make the crush bigger and harder to hide. Right now the crush existed—I had to at least admit that much—but it was still small enough that I could cram it into a bottle and put it on the shelf, or better yet, lock it up in a cupboard.
But I couldn't bring myself to throw away the key. I just couldn't. I kept going back to the cupboard and taking out that bottle. This was even despite the fact that I was thinking very seriously about the consequences for once: I knew it'd be bad to have a crush on Kyle, and yet I apparently couldn't keep myself from thinking about him all damn night. And even if I thought about Limonchik or the Russians sending a fucking bomb to the moon, my thoughts would easily circle back to the things Kyle had said about them, and then I'd start thinking about Kyle more generally. In the end, though, I was spending far more time thinking about Kyle himself than the things he'd said. I felt guilty about this with regard to what the Nazis had done to the Jews, because that plainly mattered to Kyle and I didn't know much about it. I remembered when the Allies had liberated the Nazi concentration camps, and then I'd learned a little bit about Nazi Germany later in high school, but we didn't learn much about the camps, and we certainly didn't learn that they'd tattooed the prisoners.
Honestly, I rarely thought about the war, unless it was in the context of remembering my childhood, which—and you can laugh about this—feels like a very long time ago. I was in elementary school then, and we were living in that apartment over on Montgomery Avenue. My grandma was still alive, and she used to watch me and my sister after school before my mom got home from work as a welder in Brooklyn. My dad was in the Pacific, but it never once entered my mind that he wouldn't come back, because my mom and grandma were always telling me he would, and he said as much himself in his letters. I obviously knew we were at war, but all the bad things were happening far away. Even Pearl Harbor was far away. I was safe in New York, and soon, my mom told me, the Allies were going to win the war and then Dad would come home. And that's exactly what happened.
Years later, when I saw some of the really bad pictures from the concentration camps and Hiroshima, I realized that my mom and grandma had (somehow) managed to shield my young eyes from much of the gruesomeness. It was Hiroshima that bothered me most: if we could do that to them, I wondered, then what was stopping the Soviet Union from doing it to us? That was the point of commonality for me, the fear of nuclear holocaust. As for the Nazi concentration camps, I thought of it as this terrible thing that the Nazis had done to people, many of them Jewish. But now Nazi Germany was gone and Hitler was dead, so it wasn't something we had to worry about anymore—we had to worry about Communism and nuclear war.
But Kyle thought about those camps very differently, I'm sure because he was Jewish. I got the impression that this was very personal to him, but that he thought maybe it shouldn't be, since, as he'd said, he was an American. I'd also gotten the feeling that he was wary about discussing this topic at length with me, which hurt a little, as I always tried to be empathetic, and I was particularly eager to offer Kyle my empathy. I realized, though, that Kyle was like a pineapple: he was prickly on the outside, and it was hard to get him to open up, but he was so rich and vibrant on the inside that it was well worth the patience. So I would wait.
The next morning, I woke up at seven thirty, got ready, and went to school. Deep down, I knew the real reason why I was doing this, but I told myself it was so I could go buy index cards at the student center. That only ended up taking a whopping five minutes though, and it was now only quarter past eight. So I went back inside the student center and got a muffin and a coffee then spent about an hour in there making flashcards for my Spanish test tomorrow: el avión, el autobús, la camioneta, el cinturón de seguridad... Some of these words I'd remembered from high school, but others were new, like el barco de vela and el despacho de billetes.
At nine thirty, I left to head over to MacCracken Hall and wait outside my English classroom. I figured I might as well continue to review my flashcards instead of just standing here twiddling my thumbs. So that's what I did, although I wasn't focusing too good—anytime anyone came through the front door, I had to look up and see if it was Kyle. Then, almost too soon, it was Kyle walking through the front door, looking pristine as ever in one of his three-piece suits, his eyes flashing with recognition when he saw me.
"Hey," I said, and of course my voice cracked, so I said it again more clearly.
"Hi," he said slowly, eying my flashcards. "How are you?"
"Fine, thank you." After a pause, he said, "So I see you got flashcards. What are they for?"
I wanted to read into that like he was proud of me for it, but it was really more of an observation. "A Spanish test I have tomorrow on transportation stuff," I answered, and then we started talking about foreign languages, since like I've probably said before, Kyle knew five fluently: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Ladino, and Spanish. Not to mention English, of course.
It felt like there was some kind of time lapse where at least twenty minutes just vanished, because the next thing I knew, the class before us was letting out, and then we had to go inside and sit in our assigned seats, which were on opposite sides of the room. But it was just an intermission: after class, we went to University Woods to eat lunch and talked some more. I would've thought most people would be bored to spend so much time with one person, but Kyle seemed to enjoy my company, and I was of course soaking up every minute of this. Again, the time seemed to go by too quickly, because we were already having to pack up to go to our twelve o'clock classes. I considered asking him to ditch his afternoon classes so we could go over to the Concourse for ice cream or something, but I knew he'd never go for it; that one day had been a special case.
We were on the street when Kyle said, "Too bad tomorrow's eclipse won't be visible on the East Coast. I might've had the perverse desire to go back to the top of the R.C.A. Building and see the moon's demise myself." Then he added, "I'm joking."
But I wasn't even hung up on the Russian bomb; I had zeroed in on Kyle's use of the term "perverse desire." If only he knew. If only he knew that I was now in the locker room with a dozen other half-naked boys wishing he was in my P.E. class so I could steal glances at him while he changed. If only he knew that I wondered what it'd be like to hug and kiss him. If only he knew how much I liked him.
Thursday was a drag. I didn't see Kyle. I went out with Kenny that night and ended up telling him about Kyle. We were at The Lodge again, sitting in a booth and working on our first drinks of the night. It was early, only nine o'clock, so hardly anyone was here.
"I'm obsessed with him all of the sudden," I lamented, my face in my hands. "I can't help it. I haven't felt like this about anyone in a long time."
Kenny was twisting his lips, pensive. "You think he can tell?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"So why dontcha try puttin' some distance between you then? You've only got one class together, right?"
"Well, he seems to want to hang out with me just as much, and he doesn't have any other friends at school, so..."
"Bingo," Kenny said, pointing at me. "He's just happy to have a friend."
I frowned at him. That hurt, even though it was probably true.
"Hey, don't look at me like that," Kenny chastised me. "I'm tellin' you this ‘cuz me and Bebe care about you. We want you to come outta that school with a nice, shiny diploma, not a newspaper headline sayin', ‘Professor's son presumed homosexual.'"
"I'm not stupid," I muttered.
"Didn't say you were," Kenny said. "Bein' in love can make you do stupid things though."
"I'm definitely not in love."
"Alls I'm sayin' is for you to stay on your toes. I got faith in you, Stan. I'm just remindin' you."
"Gee. Thanks, paw," I said in a fake southern accent.
Smiling, he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Don't mention it, son."
Friday morning came, the moon did not seem to have blown up, and there was a letter for me on my desk. The return label, which had been written across the back, read:
91 Puritan Avenue
Forest Hills Gardens, Forest Hills, NY
Despite my excitement, I went to grab a butter knife from the kitchen so I wouldn't destroy the envelope. Inside was an ivory card with a raised cursive B within a big loopy swirl on the cover. In neat black script the note said:
As I was sitting in traffic after spending the day with you, I had the macabre realization that I neglected to thank you for lunch at the delicatessen. I pride myself on my etiquette, so I'm sure you can imagine how I felt. Thus, I am writing you this thank-you note to thank you for taking me out to lunch. Thank you. While I would not blame you if you had thought me extremely rude, my hope is that this message both explains my thoughtlessness and conveys my gratitude.
I have to be honest, I was positively swooning. The way this was written, with him signing off with his last name, and the mere fact that he would send me a thank-you note to begin with, was all so very Kyle-like that it lit up my whole soul. I held the note to my chest and sighed, thinking about the way his green eyes shone when he talked about something he was passionate about; the way the corner of his lips curved into a tiny smile when he said something sarcastic; the way he took his pocket watch out to gaze upon that mythic tree and check the time.
When I told him before English I'd gotten his note, the tips of his ears turned a little red. "Well, I didn't want you to think I was rude," he said, mumbling a bit.
"I didn't think you were rude—I actually didn't even realize you hadn't thanked me. Besides, I was the one thanking you to begin with," I told him. "It was a nice note though."
"Yes, well, my mother raised me to write nice thank-you notes." He said this like it was just a fact, that he was just telling me the truth, that's all. This, too, had me deeply, stupidly charmed.
All I could do was smile.
On Monday, Kyle told me that Limonchik hadn't been right either—the dog's name was in fact Laika, the same as her breed, and she was female. ("Sheesh, could reporting get any sloppier?" he'd said.) I hadn't been keeping up with the news personally: I didn't want to read or hear about any of this shit firsthand, unlike Kyle, who had a fixation on it despite being disgusted by it, which I didn't understand. Still, I was glad to have him parse the news for me into pieces I could digest, and I was glad to know that Kudryavka and then Limonchik was really Laika. But I'd also been distracted lately, absorbed by a now Godzilla-sized crush, which served to color my world in rosy hues as well as bring my worries back to earth. Maybe it was that my mind didn't really accept what Kyle had told me last week about Laika dying in the satellite. Besides, now that the bomb to the moon thing had turned out to be a huge charade, who's to say that Laika wouldn't be okay? Or, hell, that the Soviets had even put a dog in a satellite to begin with? Maybe they lied. "You can't put anything past commies, Stan," my dad's voice rang through my head.
But I couldn't not believe it on Wednesday when Kyle told me Laika was definitely dead. Everything in my mind came to an abrupt stop. I stared at him, waiting for him to say that she'd died peacefully in her sleep or some bullshit like that, but instead he said, "Sorry, should I not have told you?"
"No, it's...fine," I replied lamely. "I'll be right back."
I'd already begun tearing up, and I was afraid Kyle would give me more details about Laika's death, which would've undoubtedly had me crying right then and there, in the narrow hallway in front of our English class, in front of him. So I ran to the bathroom and thanked God it was a single-occupancy one, this way I could get some tears out in private and then compose myself before class. I really didn't want to go to class though; I didn't want to hear anyone talk about Laika. Goddamn it, why was I like this? Why couldn't I pull myself together? Why couldn't I have shrugged like any other guy and said, "That's too bad," then moved on? I felt so stupid, and in my head, my dad was telling me as much in that nasty fucking voice of his: "Quit crying, Stan. It wasn't even your dog."
I knew Laika wasn't my fucking dog—if she was, I wouldn't have let them put her in a fucking satellite! God! Fuck my dad, fuck the Soviets, fuck people who hurt animals, fuck the satellites! Fuck every bad thing that's ever happened and fuck the people who do them!
Then there was a knock on the door, because of course. "Somebody's in here!" I shouted.
"Stan?" a voice said so softly and meekly that I was surprised it was Kyle. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine," I lied through the door frame, hoping my voice wasn't so broken as to give me away.
"Are you coming to class?"
"Can't right now. You go ahead," I mumbled. "Please don't tell them I'm going to be late though."
"You're going to skip class?" he asked, sounding a touch scandalized.
"Maybe! I don't know!"
To my shock, he then asked, "Can I come with you if you do?"
"Would you really do that?"
"Yes," he said, his voice low, covert. "I'll go wait for you outside."
I took some deep breaths and blinked all the tears out then washed my face with cold water. I felt a little better now that I was going to be playing hooky with Kyle, but it was also sort of pathetic that I could just change gears like that, as if my grief for Laika could so easily be washed away. Then again, I couldn't sit here crying all day.
Outside, Kyle was by the steps, leaning up against the porch. We walked down the driveway then across the street and through the main entrance of campus. "Are you sure you want to skip class?" I asked him.
"Well, I'm already out here. And I don't like being late," he said. "I also regret telling you about Laika, especially right before class. I should've waited."
"No, don't—don't worry about that. Please."
The student center loomed before us, with the other option being the library. "I gotta get outta here," I said.
"Where do you want to go?" He seemed so concerned, and in the purest way, too, his eyes wide and searching behind those thick glasses. It made me want to squeeze his shoulder and comfort him, but I would never do such a thing.
I wanted to be truly alone with him, unbothered by the drone of cars speeding down the highway or the busts of Great Americans calling us back to campus, so I thought of the one place in the Bronx where I'd encountered such solitude: the New York Botanical Garden.
We drove there, since it would've taken too long to walk and get back in time. The trees were still brimming with gold, red, and orange leaves, so the gardens still felt dense, secretive. We headed down the trail to the Old Snuff Mill and sat on the railings of the back patio, overlooking the waterfall. Then I told Kyle about Sparky.
"Your uncle should've called you. Or at least sent a letter," Kyle said.
"I was mad at him for years. Then he died when I was a freshman in high school, and I felt bad I'd held a grudge for so long."
"Oh... Was he old?"
"No, he was only forty or so, a little older than my dad," I said. "He accidentally shot himself while cleaning his rifle."
"Oh! How awful. I'm sorry."
I shrugged; I didn't know how to respond to the sympathy people gave you when you told them one of your relatives died. Then I admitted, "It's not right, but I was a lot more upset about Sparky dying than my uncle dying."
"That's not such a bad thing. Freud said dogs are the only ones capable of pure love—people always mix love with hate."
I looked at him. "Do you believe that?"
"About what, dogs or people?"
"Ambivalence has some truth to it, insofar as you can certainly have conflicting feelings about something. But the love-hate dualism is a pretty dramatic example of that. Freud was very dramatic, after all," he explained. "Personally, I think if you start hating someone—really, truly, hating them—any feelings of love you have will be eclipsed by that hate. So it won't really be ‘love' anymore; it'll be something else, something sullied and tarnished. Because hate is very powerful. It tends to consume."
I wondered if that's what happened with my dad and sister, if I'd grown to despise them so much that I was also complicit in our family's bitter relations. Was I? Maybe. "I'd rather focus on love than hate," I said. "I think there's still a lot of goodness in the world, but we stop being able to see it when we get so caught up with the bad. Maybe it's because badness and hate and evil really are more powerful, or maybe it's because they shock us and demand our attention. I'm not sure. But at the end of the day, I still think most people are good."
Kyle smiled a little. "That's what Anne Frank says at the end of her diary: ‘in spite of everything, I still believe that people are truly good at heart.' That bothered me when I first read it—I was sure she wouldn't have felt the same once she was at Bergen-Belsen," he said. "But then, she couldn't base her whole worldview on suffering and destruction. Who can? Cynicism itself destroys people. And maybe you think I come across as a huge pessimist, but I'm really not. I recognize the problems in the world, yes, but I have a lot of ideas for how to improve things. And while I'm not yet sure how exactly to go about enacting change, I hardly believe I'm powerless to. After all, the world has been changed by one man time and time again."
I stood up and put my hands on the railing as I looked out at the waterfall. "You know what? You're right. I haven't thought about what I can do to change things. I just get depressed and try to not to think about them."
"Avoidance is an easy trap to fall into," Kyle said, "but things don't change on their own."
So with Kyle's help, I thought of how I could take power into my own hands. He said that some animal rights organizations had condemned the Russians for sending Laika into space, but what could they do beyond that? They couldn't make the Soviet Union stop—not even the government could do that.
But one thing we could do was try to prevent our space program from sending dogs into space. We could get a bunch of signatures and then send a letter to the president, saying, hey, us Americans love our dogs—please don't send them into space to die! Kyle said he'd read that the National Anti-Vivisection Society had sent a letter about Laika to the Secretary of State, which might be a better idea since he probably gets less mail than the president. Kyle also said that people had picketed outside the United Nations Plaza, so maybe I could get in touch with them somehow.
The next day, Friday, I told Kyle how I'd called all those people and had it set up for us to collect signatures at the Festival of Pets next week, which was running from Thursday the 21st to Sunday the 24th. I said I was thinking of doing it Saturday afternoon, when there'd probably be the most people.
"Saturday, huh?" he said, frowning a little.
"You can't do Saturday?"
He peered at me out of the corner of his eye. "I'll have to see. I may be able to," he replied. "Can I call you Sunday and let you know? That way, you'll be able to get back to the other two people."
Kyle called me on Sunday just like he said he would. Horribly though, my dad beat me to the phone.
I heard Kyle stating he was my classmate, and I very loudly interjected and said, "It's for me, Dad," then waited for the click of the phone as it dropped into the holder.
"Hey," I greeted him, then put my hand in my pocket so I wouldn't start twirling the cord—my mom was in the kitchen making a casserole.
"Hello," he replied politely. "I'm calling to inform you that I will in fact be able to attend the festival on Saturday, thanks to some tactical maneuvering on my part. I also wanted to make sure we had at least a day set aside to draft up our letter—maybe Wednesday? I'm thinking it should be concise and not excessively political, but should definitely highlight that killing dogs is antithetical to American values."
"Um, yeah, okay, that sounds great. For both days, I mean," I blubbered.
"What time were you thinking for Saturday?" he asked me.
"I don't know, after lunch?"
"One? Two? Three?"
"Uh, one should be good."
"And for Wednesday? How about we meet at the library after your sociology class?"
I was impressed he remembered my class schedule. "Yeah, that's perfect," I said. "I'll see you then."
"I won't be seeing you tomorrow morning?" Kyle inquired.
"Oh, wait, yeah. Forgot about that," I said, a little embarrassed.
"I thought you were saying you planned to skip English again tomorrow."
"No, no, I'm not gonna do that," I replied, then jokingly said, "I'd never do that."
"Yeah, me neither," Kyle said, also jokingly.
"I'll definitely see you tomorrow morning."
"Definitely," Kyle said, his voice cheery and smart. I imagined him smiling on the other end, and it made me feel like I'd eaten a cloud: light, floaty, and a little stupid.
"Who was that?" my mom asked once I'd hung up the phone.
"Just a friend from school," I told her and then hurried back to my room. Maybe later I'd tell her about our plans for next weekend, or hell, tell her about Kyle himself, but right now I felt like it was written all over my face how much I was into him.
Later that afternoon, I called George and Betty about the festival and told them we'd meet outside the Coliseum at one o'clock on Saturday. Then that night, I spent a couple frustrating hours doing Trig. I hadn't done spectacularly on the last test and wanted to come out of there with at least a C. I'd probably have to go to my professor's office hours at one point—I really didn't want to have Kyle end up tutoring me in math on top of everything else. Plus, this Wednesday was for drafting our letter to the Secretary of State, not my academic struggles. And that's what we did. I think our letter turned out really good. Here's what we said:
Dear Mr. Dulles,
We are two students at NYU who are writing to you to request that the United States' space program does not send animals into space unless their safety, comfort, and return to Earth can be assured. Like many Americans, we were appalled to learn that the U.S.S.R. had sent a dog into space knowing full well she would not survive the journey. We consider the humane treatment of animals a core American value. Dogs, specifically, are known as "man's best friend" and should be treated as such. Thus, if Project Vanguard decides to use animals for space exploration, we urge you to hold tantamount their survival and wellbeing.
We have collected __ signatures from other New Yorkers who support this cause.
I wished we could've asked him not to send animals into space at all, but Kyle said asking for their safety was more practical. That did make sense—the problem was that Laika had suffered and fucking died up in space; it would've been a different story if she'd gone up and come back down unscathed.
We also came up with the idea to have a little memorial for Laika set up at the festival. Kyle said he'd do that part. Everything was coming together, and it was pretty exciting. I didn't feel so distraught about Laika's death now that we were doing something to keep such a thing from ever happening in America.
Seeing an actual photo of Laika really hit me though. It was a large newspaper clipping Kyle had fastened inside a wreath of blue flowers on his memorial stand. Laika was inside this weird, scary-looking metal container that resembled an iron lung. Worst of all, she looked so happy and cute; she had no clue what was going to happen to her. She fucking trusted those evil Soviet scientists, because she was a dog and that's what dogs do, they trust people. Ugh.
"Well? What do you think of my memorial?" Kyle demanded. He had set it down next to him on the sidewalk in front of the Coliseum.
"It's very nice," I said, and it was true, it was nice, with little white letters around the wreath that said "R.I.P. LAIKA."
"They're forget-me-not flowers," Kyle said proudly. "And those letters are for cakes, actually—I got them at a bakery. How's that for ingenuity?"
"Looks swell. Thanks for doing this," I told him. Then I admitted, "I just hadn't seen a picture of her before."
"Ah, yeah. It was in the paper last week," Kyle said, studying the photo. "I was going back and forth on whether or not to include it, since it has the potential to upset the very people who'd come to an event like this. But then I thought, well, it isn't really that disturbing, and more importantly, it's visual evidence of the very thing we hope to prevent here in the United States."
"That's a good point."
"Does it upset you though?" Kyle asked.
"It doesn't ‘upset' me; it's just a little unnerving when I think about her dying in there. But I agree with you. If people see that picture, they'll realize how serious this is."
We were actually early—it wasn't quite one yet. Kyle started telling me about how some fool had almost crashed into him in the parking lot, which made him realize that he'd left the legal pads and pens in his car, so he went back to get them. It hadn't even occurred to me that we'd need pens and paper to collect signatures. I was really grateful for Kyle's foresight.
Before Kyle came back, George, an older gentleman, showed up, and then right when Kyle came back, Betty, who was maybe a couple years older than me, showed up with this big, gorgeous white Siberian husky with light blue eyes. I asked if I could pet him and when she said yes, I knelt down and scratched him a lot and called him a good boy, but it turns out she was a girl dog named Blanca. I told Betty that was such a great name, one of the best dog names I'd ever heard.
"Are we ready to go in and get started?" Kyle asked.
So we went inside and talked a little more about the letter we'd written and about what we'd say to people when we asked for their signatures. George said that he thought Kyle's memorial stand was a nice touch, which I was glad for, because it obviously made him feel good. We went over to the first floor exhibition hall, and wow, let me tell you, there were a lot of pets here! I saw cats, dogs, snakes, bunnies, ferrets, birds. There were even kids getting rides on ponies!
I would've loved to spend the whole day here just hanging out and petting people's dogs, but we had work to do.
We claimed an area near where you entered the maze of booths and just started asking people if they'd sign our petition. Lots of people felt really strongly about it and signed immediately. I talked to tons of animal lovers about how awful it was that the Soviets killed Laika, how they looked up into the night sky and prayed for her, how they wouldn't stand for it if the United States tortured a dog like that. It felt good to turn over page after page of signatures from people: all those names meant something; they were the voices of Americans who believed in the humane treatment of animals.
I was surprised when George said it was six o'clock, so he'd be heading home—the afternoon had just flown by. I figured this was probably a good time to stop, seeing as we had tons of signatures. So I thanked Betty and George for their help and said I'd let them know if we got word back from John Foster Dulles.
Me and Kyle left soon after that. It was dark and cold out now. I was sad that such an exciting day was ending, but then Kyle said he was starving and suggested we go get dinner. I readily agreed, because I wanted to keep spending time with him, but I didn't want to be the one to ask.
First, we went to his car behind the Coliseum and dropped off the memorial and legal pads, and then we walked up the street to The Tavern on the Green.
It was crowded, but we didn't have to wait too long to be seated. Kyle ordered Poached Kennebec Salmon, Hollandaise and a Blackberry Cordial, and I ordered Creamed Chicken and Fresh Mushrooms, Tetrazzine. It was nice, going out with him like this. But then I had the bad thought that going out on dinner dates was something you did with a boyfriend, so I had to stop thinking about it.
"Do you keep kosher?" I asked him.
"Yes, but I break the rules sometimes, like when I eat out," he said. "Salmon is kosher anyway though."
"Are there a lot of rules you have to follow?"
"Kind of, but when you grow up with it, it's normal to you," he said, then he took a sip of his Blackberry Cordial and pointed his finger. "Actually, now that I think about it, there sort of are a lot of rules. For example, you're not supposed to eat dairy for six hours after eating meat. I've been consistently slipping up on that one since school started, but then again, not really, because my dad would tell you you only need to wait three hours."
"Is that like how you're supposed to wait an hour after you eat before swimming?"
"The rationale is similar, yes."
"But your parents disagree about the amount of time?"
"My mother is from an old Sephardic family, and my father's side of the family is Ashkenazi, having emigrated from Poland only in the last century. So the rules they followed growing up vary in some ways, but my mother is the cook, so she wins on that front." Then he asked, "Are you an Italian Catholic? Your last name is English."
"Funny story about my last name," I began, then told him about how when my great-grandparents came over from Italy, their last name got changed from Marchegiani to Marsh at Ellis Island. We continued talking about our family origins and traditions, and I learned more about Kyle, like how he could trace his mother's side of the family back to the colonial days and how he had taught himself Ladino so he could study how the Judaic language had evolved over time in America. It was interesting hearing him speak Ladino, because it sounded just like Spanish but in a weird accent.
Dinner was great. Afterwards, I walked Kyle back to his car behind the Coliseum. He asked me if I wanted a ride home, but I said it was fine, the D would take me home. He told me we did something that mattered today, and I said I felt the same way. We said our goodbyes, and then he got in his car and drove away, and I had that stupid scooped-out pumpkin feeling again as I walked to the subway station alone.
The following week, I typed up our letter using my dad's typewriter and, along with over six hundred signatures, we mailed it to John Foster Dulles in Washington, D.C. It felt great, but then Thursday was Thanksgiving, which I had been dreading. It was going to be a nightmare, and I wanted nothing more than to not be here for it, but that would mean leaving my mom on her own, and I couldn't do that, not when she seemed so fucking depressed—I could just tell, even though she was hiding it, asking me in the sweetest voice if I could go get the good silverware under her bed. I did so then went back to cleaning. It had been a while since the apartment had really been cleaned. I probably should've gotten started earlier.
My dad soon left for Staten Island to pick up my sister, her husband, and the twins, and then get Grandpa at the home on the way back. I guess if there was one good thing about today, it was that I'd get to see my niece and nephew. I hadn't seen them since summertime. Oh, and also, we had bought a ton of wine—thank God, because I couldn't imagine tolerating this sober. Yet this could also be bad, seeing as how obnoxious my dad got when he drank. But he had to drive everybody back, so he couldn't get too drunk and therefore too obnoxious. Then again, my dad could be, and often was, obnoxious sober.
Everyone came busting in at five thirty, right as I was finishing the bathroom, which was awful, because I was sweaty and smelled like chemicals. So I said a quick hello to everybody then excused myself to take a shower before my niece even had the opportunity to latch onto my legs. I sort of wished I could hide out in here forever, but I got out of the shower and put some clothes on.
My niece and nephew hounded me when I came back out. Everyone else was at the dining room table eating garlic bread and drinking.
"Uncle Stan, Uncle Stan!" Daisy was saying, practically singing.
"Hey!" I said then kneeled down to hug both her and her brother. My nephew, Luke, was very shy and much less talkative than his sister, but he seemed to be buzzing with internal excitement, his hazel eyes bright and gleeful. I was so glad they seemed to be such happy kids.
"Did you see the satellite?" Daisy asked, pronouncing satellite very carefully despite her enthusiasm.
Oh, God. "Grandpa took me to see the first one," I said honestly, and this had my niece zipping over to my dad in the blink of a fucking eye, saying, "Grandpa, Grandpa! Take me to go see the satellite!"
"You didn't take your kids to see Sputnik?" my dad said to Jack, my sister's husband, using this fake surprised tone.
"No, Randy, I didn't," Jack retorted.
My dad scoffed and then said to Daisy, "Sure, sweetheart, Grandpa will take you and your brother moonwatching sometime. Would you like that?"
"Yes!" my niece practically shrieked. "Can we go now?"
"Nope. Today's Thanksgiving."
This really ticked me off, because I knew my dad would never actually take them. He was lying to her so he could one-up Jack. It was sick.
I went to help my mom put the food on the table, hating my dad especially as he sat on his ass drinking whiskey and getting little droplets of it on his mustache while he went on about the new interstate highway system, which nobody gave a shit about except him. While the interstate highway system was at least a benign topic, it was still grating hearing him talk.
Before we sat down to say grace, I poured myself a massive glass of wine. Then, horribly, and for God knows what shitty reason, my dad said, "Why don't we all go around the table and say what we're thankful for?" It wasn't a suggestion. I looked at my mom, but she was looking at him, narrowing her eyes.
"I'll start," my dad said. "I'm grateful for my family, my career, and that we live in the best country in the world." Then he looked at my mom to his right and said, "Sharon?"
She stared at him, not in a particularly intense or even angry way, but like she was just sick of it. When she eventually spoke, she said, "I'm grateful that every day I wake up and do something meaningful with my life instead of staying cooped up in this apartment cleaning up after you."
My dad seemed taken aback for a moment before bitterly saying, "But that's what you're supposed to do."
My mom ignored him and took a sip of her wine.
"Fine. Christ," my dad spat. "Stan? What about you?"
Jesus. He never quits. I wanted to chew him out, or at least give a sarcastic answer, but my niece and nephew looked petrified, and I didn't want my dad to escalate. So, feeling completely nauseated about it, I muttered, "I'm grateful I go to a good school."
"That you do, Stanley, that you do," my dad said satisfactorily. Then he moved on to my sister, her husband, my niece and nephew, who all said boring, acceptable things, and then lastly Grandpa, who said he wasn't grateful for anything.
The only person who really spoke during dinner was my dad. He was almost aggressively complimenting my mom on every single food item: "Wow, this turkey is incredible, Sharon," and "These mashed potatoes are perfect, Sharon," and then the worst, "Isn't grandma a good cook, Daisy? Don't you want to grow up and be a good cook for your husband?" I don't think I'd ever been so repulsed by him as I was now. I wanted to scream and tell him what a piece of shit he was, then I wanted him to grovel and apologize and go to St. Tolentine's and tell the priest what a horrible fucking prick he'd been to my saint of a mother all these years, and then I wanted him to say eight thousand Hail Mary's and never, ever, ever behave like this ever again.
But instead, I kept refilling my glass of wine and bit my tongue, sometimes literally. I just wanted everyone to get through this. Afterward, me and my sister helped my mom clean up, and everyone left not too long after that, since Grandpa and the kids were worn out. Suddenly, it was very quiet. Me and my mom sat on the couch and uncorked another bottle of wine.
The only thing I could think to say was, "I'm sorry, Mom."
"Me, too," she said. That put a lump in my throat, and tears started welling up in my eyes. I wished my dad would just fucking die. But then I felt bad for thinking that. Ugh.
I wanted to surround myself with love and only love, and I wanted to love in the purest sense of the word. I was beginning to realize that the love I had for certain people was tinged with either sorrow or anxiety, so loving them also hurt. But I didn't think things had to be that way. I knew for one that my dad could choose to not be an asshole, thus making my love for my mom less wounded. For the other, well, that was a lot more complicated, but even if it was likely to end badly, I at least had the power to change it, so that's what I very, very stupidly decided to do.
I grabbed my planner from my room and then went to my dad's room to make a telephone call, and thank God nobody was on the line, because I had to get through right away.
After five rings, a woman picked up the phone and said, "Broflovski residence. May I ask who's speaking?"
"Um, Stan. Stan Marsh. I, uh, go to school with your son. Is he there?"
"Ah, yes, he is. One moment, please." Then I heard her muffled voice calling his name.
My hand was sweating now as I held the big, clunky phone to my face.
"Hello?" Kyle's voice came in through the earpiece.
"Stan? What's wrong? Why are you calling?"
"Nothing's wrong! I was just calling to see if you were busy."
"What? Right now?"
"Um. Yes? It's Thanksgiving, I know, and you're probably busy, and I was, too, until just a bit ago. Ugh, God, it was awful, but it got me thinking about what you said a while ago about people always mixing love with hate, and I'm just so sick of things getting mixed up like that."
"You had a bad Thanksgiving?" he asked after a beat.
"Well, yeah, but it doesn't matter," I said, and then was not able to stop myself from repeating, "So are you free, by chance? I could come down to Queens, if you want."
"I'm available, yes... And no, that's okay; I can come to the Bronx. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yes, I'm sure," I said emphatically. "We could meet at school? I'll wait for you in front of the library."
"Okay. I'll be there in about forty minutes," Kyle said.
"Okay, great! See you soon."
"Alright. Goodbye," he said neatly, then hung up.
My whole body was sweating now, and I was even shaking a little. I tore my sweater off so I was just in my undershirt, then I went to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. Distantly, I remembered what Kenny had told me about not being stupid. It seemed irrelevant now. Kyle would be here soon. I didn't know what I'd say exactly, but I couldn't possibly plan it out; my brain was simmering with uncontainable excitement, the Christmas morning kind. I guess this was some kind of crazy bravery, the kind you had to have to do crazy, stupid things like go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But bravery wasn't really the right word; maybe it was just an impulse, fired up by booze and shot up to the sky like a Fourth of July firework, hanging up there for a split second before breaking apart and scattering flecks of color across the blue-black sky, no hope of ever going back to one unit.
When I told my mom I was going out, she got up off the couch and hugged me tight. "You're such a good boy, Stanley," she said, a little choked up. "You're going to make some girl very happy one day."
Of all times for her to say such a thing! It was both depressing and amusing, but more than anything, it hurt me to see her like this. "I love you, Mom," I said, squeezing back.
"I love you, too, baby. Very, very, much."
The cold night air was icy and delicious, and I took big gulps of it, feeling even more exhilarated. I was still very drunk, of course, but not so drunk that I was having trouble walking. I headed down to where Kyle usually parked his car, but he wasn't here yet, so I hopped the fence and went up under the Hall of Fame to the quad.
The only lights were from the lampposts on the buildings, so it was pretty dark and spooky up here. I went to sit on the steps of the library and looked up at the sky. You could see a couple stars twinkling dimly, its thousands of siblings hiding from us city dwellers. Laika was up there, too, her body in that metal death-cage and her soul in heaven where God was taking care of her.
I felt like I was waiting a long time for Kyle. I knew he'd be here eventually—that wasn't the problem; the problem was that I was sobering up a little, coming down from that crazy high feeling and was now just sitting here on the steps of the Gould Memorial Library wondering what the fuck I was going to say to him once he got here. What the fuck was I going to say to him?
Then I heard footsteps, and my heart skipped a beat when I looked up and saw Kyle coming down the path from the Philosophy Hall. I stood up and walked over to him, maybe a little fast, and said, "Hey."
"Hey," he echoed back, his breathing a little labored. "I'm sorry it took me so long. My mom was badgering me."
"She didn't want you to go out?"
"No, it wasn't that," he said. "She was just playing twenty questions with me, wanting to know where I was going, what I'd be doing, when I'd be back, blah, blah, blah."
"Sounds exhausting," I said, grateful my mom never did that sort of thing.
"Oh, inarguably," Kyle replied, then said, "So was there something you wanted to talk about?"
Sure, I'd orchestrated this whole mess, but when he said that, I stared at him like a deer in headlights. "Uh, yeah, I did," I eventually said. "I guess I wanted to ask you more about what you said about mixing love and hate. But say it wasn't hate, say it was love and fear or love and sadness. Would that be similar?"
"I'm almost afraid to say," he said, eying me. "You seem disproportionately worried about it, and it's really not something to worry about. Psychoanalysis is just one way of looking at things. It's not the absolute truth."
"But it's true that I feel this way. I mean, I'll have good feelings towards someone, but they're always bordered by these not-so-good feelings, and I just—I hate that!"
"Then, uh, try to absolve the not-so-good feelings?" he suggested, and hell, that was why I was here in the first place. As I looked at him in the darkness, my heart felt like it was being shuttered down a mineshaft; this was no glorious about-to-explode feeling, but one of getting close to death, like having a rope around your neck and then kicking the chair out from under you, which I guess is what I could do if my name ended up in the paper.
"Can I trust you? In the sense that if I tell you this and you think I'm disgusting, you'll just leave me alone and not tell anybody else?"
"Of course you can trust me," he said, then asked, "But why would I think you're disgusting? I know you're drunk, by the way, in case that's it."
"No, it's not that, but yes, I am, sort of," I understated. "I'm also a homosexual, and I've, uh, managed to become fixated on you despite my better judgment, and now I'm doing the awful thing of telling you about it when I should've just listened and put some distance between us. But, well, here we are. I'm sorry." The words had flown out of my mouth like something bursting through a too-small space, jutting over my tongue like razor blades.
I couldn't look at him.
"Who put you up to this?" Kyle said, his voice low and kind of scary.
"This is a really dirty trick, Stan. I thought you were better than this, but apparently not."
"Wait, are you saying you don't believe me?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying."
"Why would I lie about something like this?"
"To play a trick on me!" Kyle shot back, getting loud. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were some guys hiding somewhere around here watching us."
As calmly as I could I said, "I would never, ever do something like that to you. So I don't understand why you don't believe me."
"Let's just say you don't look the part," Kyle replied hotly.
"That doesn't mean anything," I said, refraining from giving examples.
"So you mean to tell me that you, Stan Marsh, are in fact that way?" he asked, still sounding very skeptical.
"Yes! I really, truly am!"
Then, bewilderingly, he burst out laughing. "This is bashert!" he exclaimed, and then after laughing some more, he managed to sputter out, "Did the planets align tonight or something?!"
At this point, I was completely baffled. "Why are you laughing?" I asked him. "Doesn't this bother you?"
"No, not at all," he said, still laughing. "How could it? I'm the same way."
I looked at him and said, "Really."
This is when he kind of faltered and turned away from me. "It's unfortunate, but yes."
"You think it's unfortunate?" I asked, hurt.
"Yes? Why wouldn't I? Do you enjoy the burden of having to keep such a big secret?"
"No," I said, "but I have friends who know, so that helps."
"Um, other gay people."
"Oh, I see," Kyle said disdainfully. "Well, I wouldn't know anything about that. I've never told anyone before today."
"Why would I?"
"I guess you wouldn't."
We were still outside the Philosophy Hall. The wind had kicked up a bit, shuffling leaves over the pavement and making scratchy sounds.
"I don't hate myself for being this way," I said. "I feel okay about it for the most part."
"Look, I don't hate myself, either; I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that it's not practical being this way under common sexual morality, which is so stringent as to be totalitarian," he explained. "It's anti-American, in my opinion."
I'd never heard such a perspective before. "It is kind of like totalitarianism..."
"America is about ideals. But practice has its limits, I guess." He shrugged and was quiet for a few moments. Then, tentatively, he asked, "What did you mean when you said you've become ‘fixated' on me?"
"Oh, that," I replied, feeling my face getting hot. "I guess what I meant is that I like you very much."
"As a friend," he stated.
"More than that."
"Ah." Maybe he was smiling, but it was dark and hard to see. "I feel similarly towards you," he eventually said.
"I don't lie."
"I wasn't accusing you of lying."
We both stood there for a while occasionally glancing at each other and laughing awkwardly.
"Well," Kyle began, "now what?"
"I'm not sure, to be honest. I've never had this happen to me before."
"Me neither, obviously."
"I don't think we need to do anything different. If anyone asks why we're spending so much time together, we can just say we're best friends."
"Best friends?" Kyle said, his voice lighting up.
"Yeah. How's that?"
"Wonderful," he said, and then I could tell by his voice he was definitely smiling.
So me and Kyle went from classmates to friends to best friends. While the best friends label was a sort of cover, it wasn't untrue, either: we were best friends; we just also happened to be enamored with each other. We'd talk about this when we were absolutely alone, using hushed, giddy voices. I'd tell him how all I did was think about him; he'd tell me now he woke up every day overjoyed he'd get to see me again. We spent as much time as possible together in the following weeks, even if we were just sitting together at the library doing homework. Kyle was still keeping school stuff in perspective for us, since December was a busy month, with a lot of important things due as well as finals before Christmas. If it wasn't for him, I probably would've lost sight of things, because I was so caught up by how I felt about him. It wasn't like the crushes I'd had on guys before. That had been like looking at the cakes behind the glass at the Garden Bakery; this was like actually getting to eat the cake. And let me tell you, this cake was better than I could've ever imagined.
It was really warm for December, in the fifties, which was nice. Hanukkah began exactly a week before Christmas, but Kyle didn't go home early that Thursday or Friday, instead staying at campus to study with me until at least nine. I think his mom may have been giving him grief for that, contributing to his stress. On top of that, the library was packed during finals, which really drove him up the wall. He also developed an eye twitch. I didn't grasp how anyone could take school this seriously. Yes, I wanted to turn everything in and get good grades, but I didn't feel that my life depended on it. Yet the one time I tried to tell Kyle to relax a bit, it didn't go over well, so I just waited it out.
Monday was the last day of finals, and now, finally, we could take a breather. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, the first day of Christmas break. Since it was still nice out, we walked to the Concourse for pizza for dinner and then went to Jahn's afterwards for ice cream. But now it was dark and kind of cold as we were heading back to campus.
"What do you think of us going on a little trip during break?" Kyle asked.
"A trip? Where?"
"Not a real trip—a little trip. What do they call it? ‘Getting away for the weekend'?"
"Oh, like going to Bear Mountain or something."
"Yes, that," Kyle said. "Is Bear Mountain nice? I've never been."
"Yeah, it's pretty nice. My parents took us up there a couple times when we were little. It's probably not as much fun in winter though."
He paused before asking, "Do you understand why I'm suggesting this?"
"Maybe?" I said. I didn't want to be presumptuous here.
"Okay. Let's continue this conversation in my car."
So that's what we did. Kyle's car was parked in the usual place on Sedgwick by The Hall of Fame.
Kyle probed his temple. "Let me backtrack and ask if you even have the desire to do, um, things? With me, that is? Not extreme things, but maybe not-so-extreme things?"
"Oh, ah, yes. I definitely do."
"Okay. Great. Me too," Kyle said, not looking at me. "So would you want to go somewhere where we could do those things?"
"I'd love to."
We made plans to drive up to Bear Mountain and stay at the inn for three days, Saturday the 28th through the morning of New Year's Eve. My mom didn't understand why I wanted to go there when there wasn't even snow on the ground to ski, so I made up some bullshit about fishing with a couple guys from school, not that I think she really cared. But when my dad found out about my trip, he sat me down and told me I better not do anything stupid with girls. This was highly annoying yet also very hilarious—little did he know I'd be following his advice exactly, but in the wrong way. (In the end though, it was a good thing he thought I was going up there to mess around with girls.)
The next couple days went by really slow. On Tuesday, my mom guilted me and my dad into going to midnight mass at St. Tolentine's, which was actually quite nice with all the decorations. Then Christmas wasn't bad either, probably because everyone was focused on presents. I didn't get anything real exciting, just money, some clothes, and a new pair of shoes. Thursday I was so bored I ended up calling Kyle and we went to Loew's Paradise Theatre to see Witness for the Prosecution, which was pretty interesting. Then on Friday I did the laundry and reread some of The City and the Pillar. This book was the only incriminating thing I owned. I kept it hidden in my closet, inside a pair of pants that I never wore. I had also torn off the cover and blacked out the title on the spine. To be honest, I despised this book for its ending, but I loved the beginning when Jim and Bob go camping and have sex. It made me wonder what Kyle had meant when he said he didn't want to do anything "extreme." I knew of some truly extreme things, but I sort of doubted he knew about that stuff. So what was he referring to, sex? Was that so extreme? Maybe. If it was, I'd probably become desensitized to it, because I heard it talked about so often and so casually.
The next day, Kyle picked me up at two. As we drove up to Bear Mountain, I decided to ask him what he thought "extreme" things were.
"You know!" he said, shooting me a sharp glance. Then he hissed, "Intercourse."
"Oh, okay. Yeah, I guess that's kind of extreme."
"Well," I began, not sure if I should tell him what I knew about it.
"People find ways to make it not disgusting."
"That's not possible," Kyle retorted, then a beat later asked, "How?"
"Fasting and, um. Enemas."
"Ugh!" Kyle exclaimed loudly. His face was bright red. I didn't really know what to make of this but figured it was best to just drop it.
Instead, we talked about the upcoming semester and how great it would be to have P.E. together. Neither of us said anything about changing in the locker room beforehand, and I began to wonder if it was just me who'd think such a thing, if I was a sex pervert whereas Kyle was a pure homosexual. Of course, then I started thinking about that one time, and then I felt completely miserable, like tainted and bitter and disgusting, all because I'd been an idiot at sixteen. I tried my very best not to let this show though. We were supposed to be having fun.
We got to the Bear Mountain Inn around four and checked in and went up to our room. Kyle was shocked we didn't have our own bathroom and then was very ticked off about it, saying it was a disgrace that there were still places like this, which honestly was extremely upsetting for me, like it was my fault for forgetting to tell him and now we were here and there was nothing we could do about it. I told him I was very sorry and we could go home if he wanted, and I guess he realized how upset I was, because then he sat right next to me on the bed, our thighs touching and everything, and said it wasn't the end of the world and, above all, he was just happy to be here with me.
I looked at him, and he smiled that cute little smile that made me feel completely ridiculous on the inside. I wished I could kiss him, but it didn't seem possible. The blinds were open, anyway.
We unpacked our stuff and then went downstairs for dinner. Afterward, Kyle wanted to go look at the lake. It wasn't even seven o'clock yet, but it was dark and totally quiet out, like it was the middle of the night. A half-moon hung in the sky at what seemed an odd angle. I felt like there were a lot of things I wasn't saying, and I told myself it was because we were out in the open, as if my words could fly out and get us in trouble, but then when we got back to our room, I felt the same way.
We were playing cards. I tried to focus. Our hands brushed together once or twice. I wanted to ask him what were the not-so-extreme things he wanted to do, and then I wanted to do them with him. That's why we were here, right? But maybe he didn't want to do them today, in which case I shouldn't even ask.
As Kyle was putting the cards back in the deck, he said, "We could go to bed early."
It was eight thirty. "I don't think I can fall asleep this early," I told him.
"Oh, me neither," he replied. Then, confusingly, he said, "So we could go to bed but not sleep."
"I mean we can turn off the lights and get under the covers then do things besides sleeping."
He did slightly emphasize "things," so I felt obnoxious asking, "What kinds of things?"
"Well, kissing, for starters," he replied hotly.
"Okay," I said, suddenly thrilled. "Should we put on our pajamas?"
"Umm. We don't...have to," he said. "We could just not wear anything at all." He laughed like this was so utterly ludicrous he couldn't even believe he was saying it, but it made me feel magnitudes better that he had, and of course I readily agreed while trying to sound normal about it, like my brain wasn't short-circuiting from excitement.
First, Kyle got a towel and rolled it up and put it up against the bottom of the door, which was smart, then he shut off the two lamps, leaving us in total darkness. I heard him step over between the beds, and I started taking off my clothes, and then I got under the covers and waited for him. I think he was folding his clothes. The moment he got under the covers, my mind completely exploded. Our bodies weren't touching or anything, it was just the knowledge that he was naked under here with me. We were turned facing each other, our heads maybe a foot or so apart.
"This is really embarrassing, and I wasn't even going to tell you, but I've never actually kissed anyone before," Kyle said very quickly, laughing in this self-deprecating sort of way.
"I'll kiss you," I said.
And so that's what I did. At first I sort of missed his mouth, but it didn't matter, because then I was kissing him, gently and sort of chastely at first, but then he started opening his mouth a little and sighing, so I started kissing him harder, with some tongue. I had that eaten-a-cloud feeling, but like it was a raincloud filled with some stupefying pink aphrodisiac. I was also insanely hard and knew I wouldn't be able to hide it if we got even a tiny bit closer, but he had to be hard, too, right? He sounded very worked up, which was in turn getting me even more worked up. I felt drunk. I broke the kiss for a moment and our labored breathing mixed together, our mouths close but not quite touching. Then he whimpered, and I had to kiss him some more.
Under the covers, I reached out to put my hand on his arm, and that was when he scooted right up against me, such that his dick—which was most definitely rock hard—was pressing up against my thigh, very close to mine as it pressed up against his body. He spread his hand out over my chest and sighed almost dreamily into my mouth. I felt his cock throb when he did that.
"I love this," he breathed, sounding almost delirious.
"Me too," I said, catching myself from saying, "I love you." He shuddered and squirmed against me, and then, God knows why, the thought of fucking him popped into my head.
"How about I, uh, I spit on my hand and touch them together? Or I could blow you?" I asked him, scrambling for acceptable alternatives.
Kyle gasped at that, and then said, "Um, the first one."
So I spit into my left palm and put my hand down under the covers and held our cocks together. I'd heard about this but never done it, so I didn't really know what to do, but I was really excited to be touching Kyle's dick, that's for sure. I just sort of squeezed them together at first, which felt good. He groaned, twitching a little. Then I tried jerking us both off at the same time, as if I was jerking off a kind of super double cock. This turned out to be really difficult though, I think because our dicks were different sizes.
"Ugh, no, that hurts," he said, and I stopped. "I don't think it's supposed to hurt."
"No, yeah—it's bad if it hurts," I said, then asked, "What do you want me to do instead?"
"I–I don't know."
"Do you want me to just touch you?"
"Yes," he said instantly.
So I did that, wrapping my left hand around him and reveling in feeling all of it from the base to the tip. (This is when I realized he was circumcised.) It felt insanely good, just holding him in my hand like this. He'd sort of curled up against me, and his breathing was coming out in shallow huffs. He was leaking a lot, much more than I ever did, and the texture of it was really nice, thin and slick. I smeared some of it down his shaft with my fingertips.
Sounding impatient (I guess I'd been teasing him), he said, "Can you just move your hand normally, please? You know, up and down?"
"Yeah." I started more towards the base than I had to for myself, that way I'd be able to gather more skin, then I began moving my hand up and down pretty deliberately, loving that he gasped with every single stroke. I felt like I could do this forever.
It wasn't long though before he was fidgeting tremendously, thrusting into my hand and whimpering as he said, "Oh no, oh no." I didn't let up; instead, I squeezed him a little tighter and went a little faster, and then he exploded like a volcano all over my fingers and stomach, shuddering and sobbing as his cock continued to pulse in my grip. I kissed him on his open mouth, really happy that I was able to make him feel so good.
As we were kissing, I decided to get myself off, because I needed to, and I felt like I could do it quickly. I groaned as I came, and it was so intense that I didn't even try to catch it; I just came everywhere, probably on Kyle, too. But he slunk his arm up around my back, squishing our bodies together. This, too, felt perfect. Everything was perfect. He was perfect.
We kept going that night, jerking the other off or jerking each other off at the same time, until we were both completely spent, lying in each other's arms semi-hard but too exhausted for more. "I wish we could shower together," Kyle said.
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
"I wasn't blaming you."
"I know. But it'd be nice."
Then he said, "I used to get so sad after we came back from eating lunch and had to part ways. Then I'd drive home later and know I was getting farther and farther away from you and wouldn't even get to see you the next day. It was awful."
"Wow, really? Me too," I said. "I felt like I could never spend enough time with you. I still feel that way."
Kyle snorted. "It's funny because I don't understand how anyone could want to spend so much time with me, yet that's how I feel about you, so much so that I can't even bear to be away from you to go shower."
Eventually, he did go get a shower, and I got one after him. It was long past midnight now, and we went to sleep in the other, clean bed. The next day, we went to see the bears at the zoo, then came back, shared a bottle of wine with dinner and spent all evening fooling around again, this time including blow jobs, which was a lot of fun. I really loved touching him and kissing him and holding him, and I wanted to do it all the time forever, but I knew we had to go back home on Tuesday, and who knew when we'd get this opportunity again? I already loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone in my entire life, and although that was more than I could've ever asked for, it was also stupid and unfair that it would always have to be a secret. Then again, even if one of us was a girl, we still probably wouldn't be able to run off and fool around very easily. So at least we got to play by our own rules. We didn't have to worry about babies, either.
On Tuesday, I woke up with a heavy heart, knowing we had to leave. I lay there, watching Kyle as he slept. They always say people look peaceful when they're asleep, but this was especially appropriate for Kyle: he was so lively and dynamic when he was awake that when he was sleeping like this, he looked so angelically calm, every muscle in his face relaxed, his breathing even. He was so cute. I wondered how I'd gotten so lucky.
I was about to get luckier though: it turned out that it had snowed a lot overnight and was in fact still snowing, so it wasn't safe to drive home. We got to spend another day and night at the inn, and we made sure it counted, spending the entire day in bed, kissing and talking and messing around.
"We have to come back here soon," I said later that evening. We were in bed, and I was hugging him from behind, my arms around his chest.
"We don't necessarily have to come back here. We could go other places, though ideally still outside the city," he said. "Guess that car is really starting to come in handy."
The next morning we were both kind of sad, knowing we had to go home for real this time. We kissed and held hands in bed for a while but didn't do any sex stuff, then packed up and checked out. It was a brilliant day out though, one of those fresh and bright winter days more typical of January, with perfect snow on the ground and a cloudless blue sky up above. I told myself not to be depressed, that we had to go back to life in the city, where I was lucky to be able to go to school with him and spend time with him and secretly love him.
We'd been in the car for a little while when Kyle said, "You know that ‘beep-beep' transmission from the first Sputnik?" I told him I did, and he said, "I was listening to a program on the radio after it launched, and they called that noise ‘the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.' That's an exact quotation, by the way—I remember because it was so pitifully melodramatic. ‘Really?' I thought. ‘You mean to tell me that that stupid little sound symbolizes a massive temporal divide?' It was the tackiest thing I'd ever heard." He continued: "It's funny to me now though, on an equally tacky level, because that line became like a message in a fortune cookie for me. True, things had begun to change in my life beforehand with going to college and everything, but Sputnik—wretched hunk of metal that it is—seemed to serve as catalyst for even more change. First I saw you at the R.C.A. Tower that night, then later I was impressed when you said it was stupid, and then lots of other things happened in between, but look at where we are now. Everything's completely new, like I've opened up this part of myself that I thought I'd have to keep locked away forever. I can't go back to ‘the old.' I don't want to, even if it means my life is harder now in some ways with having to worry about getting found out. I don't care though. I just want to be with you."
I was very touched by this, and I told him I just wanted to be with him, too, that he mattered more to me than I could put into words. It felt like the dawn of a new era for me as well, coming back from this trip where I hadn't "engaged in illicit homosexual behavior," but rather had simply been together with someone I loved. While I'd thought so before, now I knew in my heart of hearts that there wasn't anything remotely immoral or bad or indecent about being gay. There couldn't be—this love was like the white sun shining on the snow-covered hills: pure in the absolute sense of the word. I would walk on solid ground with him out in the open, not through dark passages to seedy bars accessible only by password. I would live my real life as a student at the school on the hill in the Bronx, spending my days with the person I loved most, learning and growing with him as we headed towards the future, into the year 1958 and hopefully well beyond that.