Mike and Danny: Straight Crush
OK, my friend Barry, from the Great White North, keeps telling me I'm a pansy for shrinking from the cold. But the only way he can get me out on a winter day is to head for our favorite redneck bar, Bob's, known by students as the Bucket of Blooda place with a reputation for violence in the parking lot that I'm sure has little basis in factand drink a pitcher of whatever manages to approach the majesty of Molson, the king of beers in Barry's unswerving judgment.
Bob's on most any afternoon is deserted. We could sit in a corner booth in the back and talk like we had the place to ourselves.
Sitting there one leaden afternoon with the promise of more snow in the wind, Barry changed the subject he'd been lamenting the sorry state of the plumbing in the house he was rentingand he said, "How old were you when you met Mike?"
"I was in college. Twenty, I guess."
"How did ityou knowget started?"
I sensed him fishing around for somethingwhat he called his professional interest at work again.
"What are you really asking me?"
He hemmed and hawed and finally said there was a student coming to him for counseling, a kid who was having some problem with feelings aboutwell, forhis roommate. Barry wasn't sure how to help him.
Seems the boy pined away when the two of them weren't together. If they had a disagreement, he felt lost until they'd smoothed things over again.
"His roommate is going to Florida over spring break to see his dad," Barry said. "He's already having separation anxiety."
I wasn't sure what that was, but I could guess.
"Not so strange," I told him. "Could be another one of your straight crushes." I loaded this last remark withy plenty of irony.
Barry ignored it. "Sometimes he wears his roommate's underwear and his socks."
"He runs out of his own?"
"He gets them out of his roommate's laundry."
"Sounds serious," I saidmore irony in case you missed itand I tell him how Henry Miller once wrote he'd get a hard-on riding the bus when he was a boy, but luckily it hadn't turned him into a bus fucker.
Barry ignored that, too. "You're not helping," he said. And then he just grinned and shrugged. "Hell, you know more about this stuff than I do."
"Oh, sure." Barry dealt with my being queer like it was some minor disagreement over the relative merits of hockey versus football as a national sport.
Then Barry said, "Maybe you know this kid, Brian? A history major, blond hair, kind of stocky."
"Whoa." I put one hand up to stop him.
"Athletic scholarship. Plays baseball."
"Aren't you breaking a confidence telling me this?" I said.
He just laughed. "I think it would do him good if he knew youyou and Mike."
"Stop right there," I said, looking around the room, which was empty but for the usual pair of old-timers at the bar, slouching over beers they were drinking in a kind of wordless slow motion.
But Barry wouldn't stop. "I think if he knew you, it would help let him see something about himself."
"I'm guessing you want him to come out of this liking girls."
He let the grin fade and looked at me with something more like weary patience for my ignorance of what he knew of the world.
"I don't care what he comes out of this liking. I want him to know it's OK."
It went on like this, until I finally just said, "No, Barry," and changed the subject again.
Like this would make any difference.
In a week, the kid was standing at my office door, signing up for a book discussion series I had organizeda half dozen faculty talking about their favorite novelsI was kicking it off with a discussion of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
He was a handsome kida detail Barry had left outand well built, not "stocky." His handshake was firm as he introduced himself.
I knew without asking that Barry had a put him up to this. What baseball player reads novels or hangs out with anyone who does?
"Your mother must be an English teacher," I told him.
"How'd you know?" he said, surprised, and his face went through this transformation like I'd somehow been able to read his mind.
"Wild guess," I said.
He was a clean-cut kid, with a deep voice, his eyes steady and watching me, with that almost animal presence of athletesalive under his skin, at ease in his body.
He was wearing a fleece-lined coat that he'd unbuttoned, and under it was a dark blue ski sweater with a pattern of snowflakes. Real snow was caked around the cuffs of his jeans and melting from his boots.
Hanging around in the corridor behind him was another kid.
"You signing up, too?" I asked.
"Oh, no," he said, shaking his head. "I'm just with him."
"Allergic to books," Brian said. "Afraid he might learn something." And then he introduced us.
His name was Virgil. It was his roommate.
Virgil had that same manner of barely contained energylike he was only half dressed without a uniform on and a jock with a hard cup. Together they were a couple of guysthey had guyness down cold, a self-confident bearing I could never quite master when I was an undergraduate.
But I also noticed a difference about Brian. Beneath his easy-going appearance, there was a nervous alertness. He was taking things in, while Virgil stood there impatiently like he knew enough about everything already.
Another difference between them was the tight, wired, high pitch of Virgil's voice, that tension ringing in his nasal cavities that made people from out here sound like they were used to calling in children, dogs, and range animals from long, flat distances. Or aspiring to careers as country music singers.
Brian seemed altogether mellow beside him, his long vocal chords so relaxed, if you closed your eyes listening to him, you could imagine a man much older.
As Brian and I talkedmostly about him being a teacher's son in a small high schoolI watched Virgil from the corner of my eye and tried to figure how Brian could be so attached to him.
He was kind of a shambles, the pocket of his big army coat torn, his jeans wrinkled, cuffs frayed over wet, heel-worn sneakers, ears and nose red from the cold, and what looked like a chipped tooth.
His hair stuck out from under a lint-covered knit cap in short curls that looked like they didn't get exposed to either shampoo or a barber very often.
But I also knew that it might have been no more than a studied neglect. A real guy, as you and I know, doesn't risk appearing to be too neat.
Who knows, maybe that's exactly what Brian liked about him. His not giving a fuck about all that. Just being his ballsy, unwashed self.
And maybe that was the appeal of Virgil's underwear, too.
"What do you think," Barry wanted to know the next time we had lunch together at the cafeteria.
"Brian. He was at your office." Barry was biting into an egg salad sandwich.
"I can't believe you do this," I said. "If you were my shrink, would you be talking to somebody I know about me?"
"Not just anybody," he said and wiped mayo from the corner of his mouth with one knuckle.
Three students came by with cafeteria trays and sat down at the next table. I lowered my voice. "So what do you mean? Do I think he's queer?" I said.
He shook his head. "I just wanted to know what you made of him," he said. "He likes you. Could you tell?"
"He hardly knows me."
"Oh, he knows you, all right."
"As what exactly?" And for a moment I thought Barry really had been spilling the beans about me.
"Relax." Barry had dropped egg salad onto his pants and was picking it up with his fingers. "I just meant he's noticed you. You know how kids talk about teachers."
This alarmed me even more. "And what are they saying about me?"
He looked at me through his glasses, grinning as he licked his fingers. "They think you're a nice guy. That kind of thing. I've had to deal with a couple of crushes on you already."
"Not more of your straight ones, I hope."
"No, girls. As if you didn't know."
"See, I don't tell you everything."
And it went on like this. I enjoyed Barry's company a lot more when we talked about stuff where he didn't get to play psychologist.
I realized talking to him that I was content to accept things the way they appear to be, not go looking under rocks, and speculating about people's personal lives. It was a deal I was willing to make with the world in exchange for keeping its nose out of my business.
But with Brian, at least, it was too late now. Barry was doing his best to push the two of us together.
The book discussion had a big turnout, even though it was a snowy night and people came in with their faces wrapped in scarves and tramping snow from their shoes.
Priscilla had come and taken a chair near me in the circle. Every other chair was taken, and a bench got brought in from the hallway to sit on.
Brian got there early and gave me a little wave when he saw me. He'd dressed up for the evening in a pair of chinos and a black turtleneck sweater. I glanced at Priscilla, who seemed not to notice him, her smiling attention always on me when I looked her way.
"You know I'm your biggest fan," she'd said when she arrived, giving me a big smile. And I began to believe that Barry had said nothing to her about Brian. But I was still irritated with him for putting me on the spot like thisinvolving me in this kid's mental health.
He was standing now at the table along the wall where a couple of English majors had set out plates of cookies and urns of coffee and hot chocolate. He'd taken off his coat, and from behind I could see his broad shoulders and the snug fit of his pants over his butt.
I would have noticed him in any circumstances, don't get me wrong, but knowing what I knew about him made me uncomfortably aware of his presence in the roomand made the normal case of nerves I'd be going through even worse.
When he turned to face me, sipping from the paper cup in his hand, I realized it was going to take an effort to keep from looking at him. I glanced quickly away, although not before noticing the way his fly rose and fell over the bulge in the front of his pants. And then I knew it was going to be even tougher.
I got things started by reading a section from the book, and I was glad I had something to read, to take my focus away from him. He'd taken a chair directly across the circle from me, and I had a clear view between his legs, where his balls fell evenly and neatly on either side of the seam in his crotch.
In the section I read, Sal and his traveling companion Dean are driving through Nebraska on one of their many cross country trips. I was trying to make the book seem closer to home. My students, I learned, had rarely ventured far from where they grew up. Driving from one end of the country to the other just for the hell of it was going to seem plain idiotic to some of themand I talked about how the two men would have taken Highway 30, right through Kearney, since the interstate hadn't been built yet.
Yeah, everything pretty safe and matter of fact, like this wasn't a story about guys hell-bent on living life with all the intensity of a raging hard-on.
For the most part, it was a polite discussion, and with my remarks I'd pretty much set the limits of just how candid we were going to beexcept for Brian, who raised his hand after several had spoken, and began talking of the friendship between Sal and Dean.
If you've read the book (and if you haven't, you should; it's classic), you know that though Sal and Dean have girlfriends, they are intensely wrapped up in each other. There's more than a little of the homo in each of them.
"They aren't just buddies," Brian was saying. "They're almost likewellthey're a whole lot closer than that."
I think the hair must have jumped up on the back of my neck at that point. He didn't say the word "lovers," but he'd been about to, and as you can imaginethis being Nebraska and females being presentthe room was suddenly swallowed up in a wave of uncomfortable silence.
I glanced at Priscilla, who was watching him, her expression unchanged. I wondered if she was thinking of Mike and me.
"What I mean is," Brian said, "at the end Sal walks away from his friend, you know, after they run into each other on the street." And he explained, in his deep voice, that left me almost speechless, how Sal ended the relationship like Dean had been an old girlfriend real hard and unfeeling, they way you break off with someone who refuses to accept that it's over between you.
"It's like he's saying, `We're history; get over it'," Brian said. "Two guys who were just friends wouldn't have to break up like that. There'd be an understanding, or they'd just drift apart."
There was a moment or two without a word from anyone, and I was trying to muster the courage to say somethingwithout making it seem like he had talked us into a dead-end.
"I can see what he means," Priscilla abruptly said, breaking the silence. "I think Sal is afraid of the feelings he's had for Dean." And she gracefully came to Brian's rescue.
"I don't know if she said it for Brian or for me," I explained to Mike later, but when she was done, she'd expressed an idea that everyone else in the room had seemed to find impossible to conceivethat one man could love another too much for his own comfort.
Mike and I were warming our pillows on the propane heater, heading for bed. He was still dressed in his work clothes, and I was already in my flannel pajamas.
Mike didn't have anything to say about Kerouac. He left books up to me the same way I left running the farm up to him.
But he was listening as he started unbuttoning his shirt. "Do you think the boy heard what she was saying?" he wondered.
While it was happening, I couldn't tell. But Brian was looking at her with this blank expression, like maybe he finally heard what he'd been saying.
The mood in the room shifted a bit. Or maybe people just shifted in their chairs.
Then Brian blinked a couple times and turned to me. "What do you think, sir?" he asked.
Mike had reached the bottom shirt button and was unbuckling his belt. "What did you say?" he wanted to know.
I told him I had no memory of what I said. But in that moment I realized that in a few spoken words about two characters in a novel, for godsake, my responsibility to this very real and non-fictional boy had been sealed. Once again for better or worse, a young man's psyche had been handed to me to look after.
Well, OK, that's overstating it. But that's how I felt at the time.
Mike flipped our pillows over on the heater to warm the other sides and unzipped his jeans.
"This teaching business doesn't ever stay simple for you, does it, bud," he said. "Ever think you might have it the wrong way around?"
"How do you mean?"
He scratched his chest now through his thermal underwear and gave out a mighty yawn. "I don't remember much from school that my teachers taught me, but I sure as hell remember how they made me feel."
I wasn't sure what that had to do with me, but I didn't disagree with him. He was usually right in a way that would come to me sooner or later.
He slipped the point of his finger between the buttons of my pajama top, pressing it against my bare chest. "Maybe the man you are is worth more to your students than what you have to say to them."
This, of course, didn't make me feel any better. I was more comfortable talking and letting others provide the manly examples. Like Mike. He was all over that.
"Tell you what," I said, putting my index finger into his chest. "You think it's so easy, you do it."
But he was done saying what he had to say. He took my fingermy whole handand pulled me to him. "I got a better idea," he said grinning at me. "Let's concentrate on warming up your dick now." And then he was putting his arms around me in one of his bear hugs.
In bed together, the lights out, warm pillows for our heads, and Mike pulling the draw string on my pajamas to reach in and take my cock, I let it all slip away for a while and surrendered to desire. Barry, Brian, Virgil, Sal, Dean, Kerouac, they could all wait until morning.
Continued . . .