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Rougarou, an online literary journal. Fall 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 2

The Letter

Lucian Childs

Neutra had been fearing this moment. To ward it off, to not be taken unawares, he had sketched it out in his mind. A chance encounter in the steam room at the Y, or, worse yet, an act that required planning — giving head at Club Eros, say, or mixing it up at the San Francisco Jacks. Neutra had stayed away from these places but hadn’t been prepared for a location so mundane as this: a bakery. And he with a bag of scones and two coffees going cold in a gummy papier-mâché tray, his heart pounding, his resolve to be faithful to Phillip crumbled, like cinnamon sugar pinched onto coffeecakes in the display case.

Perhaps it was the excitement of being back in the City after all these years that threw him, perhaps the guilt and tedium he felt over fighting with Phillip the previous night.

The man across the bakery grinned at Neutra, a bag of pastries of his own, a small white pendulum, swinging lazily in one hand. He winked. I’m around the corner, the man said. If you’re ready. If you’re free.

Neutra was both, Phillip asleep on that Sunday in their new apartment up the hill, and Neutra’s peace offering of lattés and sweets now set haphazardly on the man’s kitchen table, indifferent to the moans, the sound of slaps on ass cheeks.

If Neutra had been truthful, he would have known the infidelity’s repeated imaging was instead a foretelling. Such stories are inevitable in the City.

It was in San Francisco, at a party that he had hooked up with Phillip. A heady time, the late 80s — ACTUP, demonstrations at the opera, Grace Cathedral, die-ins. Neutra had been in the middle of it — chalking “dead” bodies on the street, manning bullhorns.

As counterpoint, he fell in with the Radical Faeries, that lighthearted, libertine bunch helping him to finally shed his puritanical skin. At the Faery party, men in canvas kilts and braided hair discussed Madonna and Zen Buddhism. Leaning against a wall, sipping a bottle of Calistoga, squeaky-clean Phillip stood out with his short crop, his impressive youth. He feigned casual, pursed-lipped, smiling slightly.

Neutra and Phillip had a glancing acquaintanceship, both volunteers at the Gay Men’s Hotline. Phillip was startlingly handsome: darkly complected Portuguese skin, eyes deep-set under heavy brows, and an aquiline nose. This square-jawed masculinity gave off a palpable heat, but it was belied by a painfully shy manner. Phillip carried himself stiffly, as though holding an egg he feared might shatter. It put off Neutra, but evoked his protective reflexes as well, and he threaded through the crowd at the party that night to Phillip’s corner. Shall I rescue you? Neutra asked with a playful smile. Phillip’s face brightened.
Around them, raucous laughter. A man took up a beat on a large drum, while some began to chant.

Please, yes. I’m at a loss here, Phillip said. I’m not a witty person.

Oh, honey, Neutra told him. You’re a sly one; you’re one of the wittiest people I know. You just don’t like to tell stories, and that’s what people thrive on here. No worries. They won’t bite. Let’s introduce you around.

Neutra found this sort of thing thrilling, not the chase exactly, or even the final blistering connect, but the magnetic small talk beforehand, fingers drifting onto biceps, lingering with a squeeze, the tiny gestures that signify intent.

In this regard, Neutra was practiced. Though he never pursued closet cases (his experience with Randy had cured him of that), he was awash in bankers, lawyers, accountants, designers, plumbers, all of them possessed by a single reductive purpose. Cock.

He wouldn’t put it so crudely. His goal was experience, liaison, friendship even — but through the prism of the body — and that night, too, took on the familiar trajectory.

It had, of course, been a lie. Phillip was capable of the odd witty remark while Neutra held forth at the table, but he never sought to draw attention. Whereas Neutra’s stories, his, as he liked to say, embellishments were legend, boundless. He had presence, like the eye of a hurricane, a tumult of words whirling around him.

By then, they were living in a purple gingerbread Victorian, in a little apartment overlooking the Castro neighborhood, not far from the one they lived in now—a conjugal setup and new to Neutra. Their first days—even now he had difficulty describing them—the air felt palpable, and gravity too, the way their bodies lapped against each other. Although it hadn’t endured, there had been an idealism about Neutra’s sexual life then: He wasn’t just some plodding appetite. He had only ever felt that way with Randy.

Naked in the man’s kitchen, Neutra poured the coffee down the sink—he would only take his hot, and the man was not a coffee drinker. Didn’t put impure things into his body, he said.

They exchanged cards; the man’s embossed name ended with a pert Esq., a silly affectation. Neutra noticed he really wasn’t that hot. He was broad-shouldered with beefy arms and a bulbous hairy chest that merged into a stomach taut and round as a watermelon, so unlike the slender beauties Neutra preferred.

The man glanced at the twin paper cups and the lumpy gray holder in the trash, the gold band on Neutra’s finger. You’re married, he said.

We’ve been together eighteen years. Neutra twisted the band.

Fourteen, myself. He’s away a lot. We have an arrangement. Monogamy’s popular now but call me old-fashioned. I believe we were sent here to fuck. Turn this quotidian world into something special, something wild.

I used to think that, Neutra said.

What happened?

I made a promise to Phillip.

Well, the man asked, his eyebrows arching, head tilted toward clothing that seemed to have exploded about the room. Want to do this again, anyway?

Neutra worried he might. After all, he’d set out on a mission of reconciliation, and look what had happened.

The man drew Neutra to him and licked the length of his jaw, leaving a viscous snail trail. Neutra practiced a fussy cleanliness after sex, and, in the past, this might have repelled him, but it didn’t now.

A kiss good-bye, not like their previous ones, but languorous, unhurried, bearing promises. Neutra marched outside with his shirt still off, an advertisement of this escapade of which he felt both guilty and unexpectedly proud.

Above, lacy clouds, the morning’s stragglers, raced toward dissipation over the Castro. It seemed as though nothing had changed—electrical lines chattering overhead as streetcars pounded by, lovers bickering outside the Laundromat—the neighborhood still as they had left it when he and Phillip moved to Alaska.

That had been the end of the 90s, an end of freedom as well. So many men had died; it was no longer possible for Neutra to make a case for sexual athleticism. Besides, it made Phillip unhappy. Neutra took a job in Alaska—a small AIDS service organization—where he could build his résumé and where he hoped there would be less temptation. He made his promise to Phillip.

Through his belt loop, Neutra unthreaded his T-shirt, the name of his organization silkscreened on the back: AIDS FOUNDATION. On the shirt’s front, CAPTAIN STOLLAR in big Helvetica Bold and, below, Neutra’s face superimposed on Cary Grant’s crisply uniformed frame—as B. F. Pinkerton from Madame Butterfly.

Neutra knew his staff misidentifying Pinkerton’s rank should be endearing, but the lack of attention to detail irked him. He would start by firing a few of them—the dour lesbian, certainly. He could do that now. Twenty years in public health had led him here: a gifted fundraiser, a creative clinician, an executive director of a large agency.

None of this had been suggested by his upbringing. His father had christened him after the California architect of the modern style. A designer of local note in Dallas—not only of buildings, but furniture, household objects—his father had regularly taken Neutra with him to his office. Once, the staff had stared in rapt concentration at a model of a chair. After what seemed an eternity, a woman with tortoiseshell glasses and a severe haircut solemnly opined: The curve of the back should be more convex.

Though little more than a boy, Neutra had been appalled. He desired then, as he did now, to do good, to reform, not the visual, tactile world, but broken bodies. Hearts. Families living on the edge. People dying or in grief.

He had even come to understand the connection between his desiring to do good and the whirlwind profligate sex he engaged in: the same body that needed, that lusted, grew ill, wasted away. Death = Sex = Life.

And life was pulsing through him now as he strode down the hill back toward the bakery. His ass still stinging, Neutra smelled the man’s aftershave on his clothes, saw the bay-windowed facades lining the street. Before he moved to Alaska, he had returned home many mornings from houses such as these smelling of beer and cologne.

Neutra had tried to get Phillip on board with all that then. Joie de vivre, that’s what I’m talking about. I mean, do you look at yourself when you’re at the mirror? It’d be such a snap.

These pep talks had succeeded, fleetingly, the two separating to discover what Saturday night had in store. In the City, Neutra found it easy to get laid, even with his plain looks and so-so body. Not a single one of those men lined up outside the bar at two a.m. Sunday wanted to make the trip home alone. They were a determined lot.

But not Phillip. Neutra would rush back to their apartment, some lanky overgrown teenager in tow, to come across Phillip curled up on the couch, a computer training manual in his hand. Clearly, he needed a jumpstart.

Neutra struck upon the idea that Phillip should appear in a porn film. An obvious choice, perhaps, but he thought it might loosen Phillip up, help him get in touch with his inner performer, give him confidence. Plenty of men were doing it. They had made a new acquaintance, a director. The man gushed how Phillip could be a star, if he spent more time in the gym and played his cards correctly, which, they inferred, meant having sex with him. It would be for Phillip’s benefit, of course. Though he had balked at the last moment, Neutra still thought it might be hot to rent a DVD with his lover’s photo on the jacket, to stream a preview on the Internet of Phillip getting fucked. Life seemed more interesting when a frame was around it.

The previous evening, they had gone to a film, not this tawdry sort, but cinema, as Neutra preferred to call it. When the movie debuted, reviews had been mixed. Some considered it wryly observed, a snapshot of the times, others, too cool a recounting of its characters’ predicament.

Afterward, Neutra and Phillip stood on the sidewalk under the marquee, jostled by passersby. Neutra pronounced the film admirable in every way: an important subject matter, gorgeous men, and a soundtrack that gave no quarter.

For Phillip, stories needed to be simple, heartfelt, sentimental even. He found the film’s ironic tone enervating. He lifted his hands in the air and shrugged. Another story told at a distance, he said. He laughed gamely, but he had felt excluded and this hurt him.

Sneakers striking the pavement, Neutra stalled his momentum down the hill. He was overcome by a stabbing regret, remembering the event and the argument they’d had afterward. He wasn’t blind to Phillip’s moods, but he frequently noticed them in retrospect, when it was too late to say anything about it, or his inattentiveness be revealed. It was his habit to make up with flowers which he’d present with kisses and great fanfare.

This morning, coffee and scones should appease Phillip who, above all, it seemed to Neutra, craved affection and the promise of stability. Rounding the corner onto 18th Street, Neutra vowed the morning’s adventure would never be repeated. He would redouble his efforts, embrace monogamy, reawaken his passion for Phillip.

There was a long line of people back at the bakery. The wait allowed Neutra to observe the barista; he’d barely noticed him before. He was a tall, angular, disaffected beauty, with long arms, droopy eyelids and a broad, delicate chest. A paintbrush of brown whiskers sprouted from his chin. He was the very image of who? A lover. Yes. His first.

Randy. Tall and tanned, his long hair flying, galloping across the playing field at the boys camp in the Smoky Mountains where they had worked as counselors their sophomore year at college.

Strange how he would recall Randy over the years, that difficult time indelible. Always it came up, inopportune, at moments of greatest exhilaration: accepting an award for an innovative program he had designed and implemented, when his sister named him godfather of the nephew he doted upon, when he officiated at a friend’s wedding in Alaska.

At some such moment, through the car window, he’d see Randy, the spring they had fallen apart, standing by the highway at the edge of Dallas where Neutra had let him off. His thumb out to passing cars, bound for God knows, the Where Are They Now of cheap reality programs.

After camp ended and the children had gone home, he and Randy hiked the roly-poly Smokies, through fields of Turk’s-cap lily and columbine, in streams where salamander slowly roamed. Lying on the floor of the library, they discovered themselves staring into each others’ eyes. It had been a revelation of the sort only the young can have, and it had thrilled Neutra, sent small electrical charges up his spine.

They lingered, and, when the snow came, retreated to a cabin on a ridge overlooking the camp, and, rubbing against each other, crammed into a small bunk, not even bold enough to kiss, Neutra had come instantly. Instantly, he wanted more.

It seemed clichéd now—first love, cast in memory’s golden hue—but so, Neutra reminded himself, were all great stories. Truths always repeated. Fueled by hormones at twenty, this first love radiated a special magic, each moment and place infused with that particular feeling of Randy, specific to the way he moved, his smell, his silky skin. All that winter, Neutra was back and forth between North Carolina and his home in Texas, traveling through a foreign country of stolen glances, hands brushed against each other under tables, and sleeping bags shyly zipped together. That this was difficult, Neutra didn’t like to recall: Sex furtive, infrequent, guilt nipping at them afterward for what they had done.

How different things were now, Neutra thought, another two paper coffee cups snug in another paper tray, a white sack dangling from one hand. He took the concrete steps by twos up to Market Street. He dodged cars that bulleted down the wide boulevard. Striding past the little ratty park peppered with scattered trash, he whistled the jaunty “Big Yellow Taxi.”

In the one-room apartment he shared with Phillip, Neutra placed the tray and the sack on the kitchen table, his lover asleep in their bed set in an alcove under the stairs. Pages of The Chronicle lay scattered across the floor, want ads circled in red. As if defeated, a photo of their holiday in Saint Johns slumped to one side by the door from Neutra slamming out the previous night. The bad feeling begun with the movie had escalated into the only thing he and Phillip fought about openly: money. They needed a second income.

Neutra crossed to the alcove. A pencil peeking out from between the sheets, Phillip cradled his journal, the leather book falling open at his thumb: Nothing for me here. Too old to work temp jobs. I don’t know anyone anymore. Remorse spiraled into guilt and, as Neutra read the entry, he remembered the letter.

That summer at camp, Neutra had been unable to govern his boys. As head of Nature Lore, his knowledge of the subject had been scant, the children idling in the Nature Shack tormenting snakes, or making wallets and lanyards from kits.

At the mid-term, he was pulled into the office. He might have been fired and there would have been an end to it had it not been for his ability to type: one-hundred words-a-minute.

Neutra had met Randy at counselors’ orientation before the start of camp but had failed to make an impression on account of Randy’s best friend, Mitch. Bad-boy Mitch. Built like a fire plug, freckled and boisterous Mitch. So unlike his bashful, taciturn amigo. They had been inseparable, even so; since third grade, fast, improbable friends.

When Neutra would greet the two, they’d offer thin smiles, make some remark and turn away. When Neutra would attempt a joke, they’d exchange glances, say that was a good one, but would seldom laugh. When with Mitch, Randy was animated, hands fluttering in the air as he spoke, full-throated, describing to those assembled some stunt by his kids or relating one of his and Mitch’s high school indiscretions.

When alone, Randy was unapproachable, buried in a book or listening quietly to Joni Mitchell on the library’s stereo. It was as if he were either on or off and Mitch the switch that made him so.

In the office, Neutra liked to open the camp mail, crisp white paper scrawled with parents’ thanks for another summer well-spent, a pleasant reprieve from the raucous, incessant task that was their boy.

One day, Neutra composed a glowing letter about himself, mimicking a mother’s curlicued handwriting. In his story, little Johnny had been made to do laps in payment for some indiscretion, and Neutra had run with him. As they jogged, they discussed comportment, purpose, with a sense of humor that impressed the boy. Back home, Johnny made his bed and took out the trash now without even being asked.

This letter was a success with his boss, a gruff, unpleasant former marine who had recently purchased the camp. Neutra composed others, lauding a version of himself that might have been, if only for his many imperfections, trying on a better self so one day it might fit.

A letter arrived regarding Mitch, meandering, with vague complaints of inattentiveness, but nothing approaching slander. This Neutra supplied. From a storage room, he pulled an old manual typewriter. On this trusty instrument from the camp’s former days, Neutra began to copy the letter, amplifying the parents’ gripes. Though they weren’t sure and didn’t like to complain, the parents felt some of Mitch’s comments to the boy might be abusive. After taps, according to their son, the children are often unsupervised, up at all hours so that their David wanders listlessly through his activities the following day. They are concerned there might be an accident, as a result, on the rifle range. Finally, and of this also they are uncertain, but think they should relay, frequently this counselor listens to one of those Walkmans. He pumps his fist and hums. They worry that drugs might be involved.

Which, of course, Neutra knew perfectly well there were, had seen Mitch slink into the woods and return red-eyed, with a glazed look, and a smile played too broadly across his face.

Within days Mitch was gone, his big Chevy pickup kicking up dust in the long tunnel through the trees that led back to the main road.

The trick worked. It turned out Randy was under the sway of Walt Whitman, a champion of the Victorian ideal, the romantic friendship between men. Within a week, with some prodding, Randy and Neutra were soulful companions, listening to Joni over Constant Comment Tea and long looks in the library.

In the shower, Neutra washed off the man’s scent as the story of the letter spooled out in his mind. Drying himself at the kitchen table, shame overtook him again. He flicked the corner of the man’s card Neutra had reluctantly accepted. Tearing it in two, he pitched the pieces in the trash. He wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped out the sliding doors onto the deck.

Later, all forgiven, there would be microwaved coffee and scones at the table tucked into the corner, and a sunny San Francisco midday over The Chronicle and the making of afternoon plans. He looked past the blocky white skyscrapers of downtown, eyes tracing the loopy catenaries of the Bay Bridge and, through the haze, saw the cranes at the Oakland docks standing like trebuchets on a battlefield, saw again Randy by the side of the road.

It doesn’t have to end like this, Neutra had pleaded.

Randy surveyed the Texas skyline. I’m not like you.

I don’t understand. What about the sex?

I didn’t mean it to go down like that. You tricked me.

For a moment Neutra thought Randy meant the letter, but it was something he had never spoken about.

I thought it was just an experiment. You never told me you were queer. Randy held his thumb out in advance of an approaching car, and there he remained in memory, a mystery even now.

Reentering the apartment, Neutra let the towel slip to the floor and crossed naked to the sleeping alcove. He peeled back the sheets: Phillip naked as well, clutching a pillow with one arm. Neutra looked down at him as if he were examining an expensive gift he’d just bought himself.

Lying next to Phillip, Neutra threaded one arm under the crook of his neck. Drawing his lover close, and cupping a hand in one of his, Neutra wondered what new treacheries he was capable of now.