We were driving up Interstate 5 from San Diego. My car did not have air conditioning, and hot wind streamed through the open window across my face and through my hair. Eric -- or Jessie, rather -- passed me the joint. I took a long drag and held the smoke in my lungs. His eyes were red and half closed from all that we had smoked. In the rear-view mirror, my eyes were just as bloodshot. I took another hit and passed the joint back to Eric. Jessie. Eric.
I was searching for a word or a memory to renew the conversation, about the beach or the desert, how we had once followed a coyote into a cave. But the connection from my brain to my mouth had collapsed somewhere back there. Neither of us now spoke. The radio played loudly over the rush of air and traffic, and I was worn out from what he had told me. Ahead rose a dirty gray cloud. Los Angeles, our destination, was inside.
It was the Labor Day weekend, and Caroline had persuaded me to go to the nudist beach. We settled on a vacant patch of sand among several hundred bare bodies already oiled in anticipation of the sun's appearance. A stubborn layer of fog did not make the weather seem ideal for taking off all our clothes, but this did not stop Caroline: she stripped and laid down on a towel. She had been practicing nudism with her family since childhood. She seemed comfortable unclothed and was, I observed, completely tan.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" she asked.
I had never removed my clothes in front of so many people, and I was having second thoughts (and not because of the weather). Certain parts of me were very pale and, somehow, vulnerable. I was down to my swimsuit. It was not Caroline's presence that was making me self-conscious, though. I held my breath, undid the cord and let my trunks drop to my ankles. A cool breeze tickled my body, a strangely delightful feeling. I quickly fell on my towel and opened an Agatha Christie. Fear of arousal kept me on my stomach.
When the sun finally broke through, the crowd flexed with activity: more tanning lotion was slathered on, men in baseball caps lifted tabs off beer cans. Two obese women with large floppy breasts and thighs rippling with cellulite threw a Frisbee back and forth. At first I tried not to appear interested in the others, as if I were a seasoned nudist who had not found the time that summer to work on my tan. Within a half an hour, though, I was intently scanning the crowd. There were few kids. The other beachgoers were, for the most part, between forty and sixty years old. Their age, along with the fat and tattoos, jarred my 1950 magazine image of fit, trim youths exuberantly tossing a medicine ball to each other. Caroline and I appeared to be the youngest couple there.
"Oh shit," Caroline said, rummaging through her bag.
"What is it?" I was still on my stomach, rereading the same paragraph. Some boys building a sand castle along the water's edge drew my eyes away from Hercules Poirot and his exclamations of Mon dieu. "Did you lose something?" Again, I nearly added. She was always losing and finding things.
"My keys."She was still digging through her bag. "Can you do me a favor and see if they're in the car? And then try the front gate if they're not?" She put a stick of gum in her mouth then lay back down and opened a magazine. "Maybe they fell out of my bag and some good Samaritan turned them in."
"Sure, no problem," I told her. I did not mind the chance to explore on my own.
I stood up and, after reconfirming the status of what had to be the palest region of my body, headed toward the parking lot. A quick search under the seat and around the car turned up nothing. I then began walking down the driveway that led to the gate and the clothed world beyond.
Coming from the other direction limped a boy carrying a can of soda who appeared to be talking to himself. As he came nearer, I realized he was saying "ouch ooch ouch ouch."
"Something wrong?" I asked.
He stopped and took a sip from his can of orange soda. "I didn't put on shoes and these rocks are hurting my feet. Where you going?"
"The front gate. I lost some keys and I'm going to see if someone found them and turned them in."
The boy was ten or eleven years old, with brown hair combed straight down over his green eyes and tan from head to foot. Freckles were scattered across his nose. He took another drink from the can and burped.
"Oops! Excuse me. Didn't mean to be gross."
"That's okay. As my father says, `it saves wear and tear on the other end.'"
He wrinkled his nose. "Now that's real gross!"
"Sorry. I couldn't resist." I looked down at him and smiled, and he smiled back. I didn't want the conversation to stop there. "Is there a coke machine up there?" I asked, nodding toward the gate.
"Yeah. But they're expensive. This cost me sixty cents!" he said, holding up the can. "Want me to show you where?"
"Sure." We began walking down the dirt road. He was hobbling again and saying ouch ooch ouch ouch" with each step. "So what's your name?"
"Mine's Jeff. You been here all week?"
"Yeah. With my brother and my mom and dad." He was examining the entire length of my body. "Boy, you sure are white."
"I guess you can tell this is my first time here." I glanced at my pale area. So far so good: it was behaving.
Eric stopped and handed me the soft drink can. "Hold this for me, will you? These rocks are hurting my toes." He grabbed my arm for balance and lifted his foot. He began picking some sharp pebbles out of the very white skin. I looked around to see if anyone was watching us but saw no one.
"Do you go to college?"
"Not yet. I just graduated from high school, but I'll be starting UCLA in two weeks."
"When I saw you on the beach I thought you were like twenty-one or something." He put his foot down and lifted the other one.
"How about you?" I asked. "Are you in college?"
"Come on, I'm only ten. I'm going into the fifth grade. Hey, is that person you're with your girl friend?" He rubbed the bottom of his foot then set it down but continued to hold my arm.
"You sure know a lot about me," I said, then poked him in the side.
"Hey cut it out!" He released my arm, and we began walking again.
When we arrived at the gate, I was surprised to discover that someone had indeed found and turned in the keys. Caroline's good luck seemed unfair; she could be so careless and get away with it. Whenever I lost something, it rarely turned up afterwards.
"Aren't you going to get a coke?" he asked. I had started making my way back to the beach.
"I didn't bring any change. Look!" I pointed to my thighs. "No pockets." He stared at me and grinned.
Eric followed me back to the beach and lay down in the sand beside me. He did not stray from our spot that entire afternoon. It was clear that Eric loved to talk about himself. He told us that he had a dog named Elmo, his favorite subject was history, he loved enchiladas, and the Beach Boys were the greatest group in the world. Caroline did not seem to mind his presence. In fact, she thought he was cute. With his even features and green eyes, he was cute. There was something lively about him that I found appealing, and his obvious attraction to me was flattering, yet I also sensed a need, something that I had not yet identified. During a quiet moment, I watched him gaze at the ocean and wondered what was going on in his head.
Caroline asked me to put some lotion on her back, and Eric wanted me to put some on his, too. I pointed out that with his tan he didn't need any, but he insisted. I squirted a glob of the milky liquid onto his back.
"It's all warm," he said. I began to rub the creamy lotion over his smooth brown skin. "Don't forget my legs. And my you-know-what." I squirted some more on his upper thighs and slowly worked it in. Then I spread some on his bottom. This I tried to do very matter of factly, but my eroding self-control made it impossible. I quickly sought refuge on my stomach. Had Caroline noticed?
"Who's going to put some on my back?" I asked.
"I'm reading a magazine. I don't want to get my hands dirty," Caroline said.
"And I'm too comfy," Eric replied sleepily.
His brother and some other boys came by to see if he wanted to investigate a nearby cave, but Eric could not be lured away. Later, when Caroline and I went into the water, he came too and jumped screaming into the icy waves.
"Look what happened to your dingleberries," he said, pointing to my testicles and laughing. "They shrunk!"
By the end of the afternoon, he had introduced Caroline and me to his parents and an older couple named Betty and Joe, whom he had adopted as grandparents. Before we left, he made me promise to come back the next day.
The following morning I returned alone. I went directly to the tents belonging to Eric's family. Eric and Kenny were having cereal at a picnic table. It was foggy and a slight breeze made it chilly. Eric was wearing jeans and a gray sweat shirt, and clothed he was hardly recognizable. When he saw me, a smile brightened his face. Mine too.
"Hey! It's my big brother Jeff!"
He patted the bench beside him and called me over. I sat down, and he squeezed up next to me. His mother brought some coffee.
"Jesus, Eric. Give Jeff some breathing room."
I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but her scowl told me that her ill humor was genuine. Eric scooted a couple inches away and sulked. Beneath the table my bare foot found his and rubbed it reassuringly. He cocked his head at me sideways -- the cereal spoon frozen half way between the bowl and his mouth and dripping milk -- and smiled.
The fog dissipated, and it grew hot. By lunch time Eric and I had stripped off our clothes and swam in the cold water. Afterwards, we walked down the long stretch of deserted beach. He took my hand and held it tightly, which made me recall our private moment the day before when he had clutched my arm to pick rocks from the bottom of his feet.
I could not help but marvel at the fact that if Caroline had not lost her keys, or if I had gone to look for them five minutes sooner or later, I would not be walking and holding hands with this naked ten-year-old boy now.
He told me that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up and that he was starting to learn sign language. He and his brother did not get along very well, and he thought his parents were stricter with him than with Kenny. He asked me why Caroline had a hair growing out of one boob (which she did), and he said that I sure had big dingleberries. I looked down at his and told him that they were invisible to the naked eye.
"Get it? The naked eye?"
He rolled his eyes at my bad joke.
He climbed up a large boulder, and I observed from below his fleshy buttocks and the smooth pinkness inside.
Joe and Betty invited us to lunch. More questions were asked about Caroline. (It was assumed she was my girl friend.) They were surprised that an eighteen-year old would be interested in nudism. They were even more impressed by how Caroline and I met, as high school foreign exchange students in France, and that she was a student at Yale and that I would be entering UCLA in a couple of weeks. None of them had been outside North America, and their education did not go beyond high school: Eric's father Art was a cashier in a supermarket, Dee was a typist, Joe had been a plumber and Betty still worked in a school cafeteria.
While Eric was helping Joe light the fire for the barbecue, Betty took me aside and told me that Eric had talked about me all evening and that he would have been heart broken if I had not come back that day. She also mentioned that he was bright and very friendly and that there was no reason why Dee should be so hard on him.
Dee took two photographs of Eric, Kenny and me, that I still have. In both photos, Kenny has a silly grin. Eric looks fixedly at the camera and does not smile.
When it was time to go, Eric accompanied me to the car. I put on my clothes then sat in the driver's seat and left the door open. He asked me again if I would be back the next day. His family was not leaving until Wednesday, but my mother needed the car for work and I had no way of driving the twenty-five miles to the beach.
He leaned over and gave me a hug, and I rubbed my hand up and down his smooth and very brown back while he tightly held my neck. When he finally let go, his eyes were wet with tears. He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I promised to send him a letter soon and reminded him that we would see each again other next year. Reluctantly, I started the engine. I shut the door and drove off. In the rear-view mirror and through the dust kicked up by the car I could see him waving. Then he slowly dropped his arm and stood there. I turned out of the parking lot, and Eric disappeared from the mirror.
Eric wrote me twice. His first letter began "Dear big brother." He described his new class and how much he liked his teacher. He thanked me for spending so much time with him and told me that I had "better be at the beach next year." Included were the two photos that his mother had taken. On the back of the envelope, Eric had drawn in pencil a naked man, complete with pubic hair. The second letter arrived shortly before summer. He informed me of the dates that he and his family were planning on being at the beach, and he begged me to see him.
Eric was eleven and had begun to grow. Some of the previous summer's baby fat had disappeared: he was taller and leaner. His voice had not yet begun to change, and I thought he had not yet started growing pubic hair, but he proudly showed me a single strand that had sprouted. I made like I was going to yank it out, and he cupped his groin and called me a pervert. He removed his hand and pointed to it and said "look! look!" and I grabbed for it again.
He introduced me to several of his friends as his big brother. We had lunch with his parents and dinner with Betty and Joe. They asked questions about Caroline. . . where was she this summer? (She now lived in New Haven.) What were the girls in the dormitory like?
Eric, his brother Kenny, two other boys and I climbed atop some cliffs. I had my pocket camera with me, and Kenny took of photo of me with Eric sitting on my lap. He placed a hand on each of my thighs. When I look closely at the picture now, I can see that I was fighting a losing battle with self-control.
He and his family were leaving early the next morning, so it was the only day we had together. When I left that evening, my feelings were hurt when the teary farewell of the previous year was not repeated.
I spent the next summer in Europe and did not return to the beach. I had not forgotten him, though, and he did not forgot me. We had always exchanged a few letters: they were innocent, full of stories about teachers, friends, his dog or a weekend at camp. Around my name he drew hearts, and in each letter there were declarations of how much he loved me as a big brother.
Then, before the end of the year, there was shift in tone and content. Included with his Christmas card was a wad of paper that had been folded several times on which he had written "I need help." On another letter, Eric had drawn a picture of a forest with a river running through it. A fish was sticking its tail out of the water, and beside it there was the caption "Me, a lonely fish in a giant river." The letters that followed sketched a painful existence: hatred of his parents and brother, depression, thoughts of suicide.
I took him seriously for the most part -- I wanted to take him seriously -- but I dismissed some of his anguish as merely the troubling changes produced by adolescence, which I knew so well and had overcome myself. It was difficult reconciling the image of Eric laughing and jumping in the waves or giving me a hug with these cries for help. There were also questions about sex. At first they were cautious and vague, and he asked "what a boy should do when his body began changing." I encouraged him to feel free to ask me anything, and soon he wanted to know about masturbation and wet dreams.
That Easter vacation, I arranged for Eric and me to spend a week together with Betty and Joe. His parents, to everyone's surprise, consented. He flew down, and I took a bus from Los Angeles to San Bernardino. When he padded into the station wearing socks and no shoes, I could sense his excitement in seeing me.
We had not seen each other in nearly two years. I was twenty-one, a senior at UCLA. He was thirteen and in the seventh grade. He still looked like the same Eric I had met three years before: his hair was still combed forward, but he was much taller, with bigger hands and feet, and there were braces on his teeth. In the station he gave me a quick hug.
The four of us drove in Joe and Betty's van to Joshua Tree National Monument. There Eric and I climbed boulders and some dangerous cliffs, explored a shallow cave and even tracked a coyote. He discussed openly his situation, how he wanted to run away from home, a suicide attempt where he had cut his wrists. I was the only person who took him seriously and listened to his problems.
After one particularly difficult climb, I suggested we become "blood brothers." It was an idea that I had lifted from a French novel I had read when I was seventeen, and back then it seemed like a very romantic gesture (and not at all corny like it does now). With a disposable razor I had brought on the trip, we each made a small cut on our arm. I put my mouth to his arm and licked the blood running from the cut; and then he tasted mine. I told him it meant we were now real brothers and that we really loved each other and that if there was ever a problem, I was there to help him. It was a very powerful moment for both of us. That evening our love went one step further. We shared a sexual experience that left him feeling at first disoriented and awkward and me guilty.
In the letters and cassette tapes I received over the next two months, he continued to talk about his love for me and how important it was that we were blood brothers and how positive our experience in the desert had been. He proposed a scheme where he was going to ask his parents if he could live with me and have them pay me for his food and clothing. He wondered if I would give him allowance money to go to the movies. He also became bolder about discussing sex. On a cassette tape he told me how he had tried "jerking-off with a tampon up his bottom," and that I should try it because "it felt great!"
Six months before the trip to Joshua Tree, I had applied to the Peace Corps. Caroline had spent two years in Africa, and her experience sounded exciting. I was informed that I would be sent to West Africa, and when I phoned Eric with the news, his response was "What about me?"
Then his letters stopped. Had we been discovered? Had his attitude about the nature of our relationship changed? Perhaps his home life had become so unbearable that he finally ran away or, worse, committed suicide. My anguished seemed to increase exponentially. Several times I contemplated driving to his home but it was impossible to get a car, and packing and good-bye's became a full-time occupation. The departure date rolled around, and I had not done anything.
Upon my arrival at the Peace Corps training center outside capital, I sent a self-addressed stamped envelope attached to a brief letter asking him to either write me a letter or return the envelope empty, in which case I would cease all contact with him. It was a last attempt that I had to make to give our relationship a kind of finality, an ending. Receiving that empty envelope was like teetering on the edge of a pit and then falling in.
Training ended, and one rainy afternoon I was dropped off at cluster of mud huts in the middle of the bush. I found myself surrounded by naked kids and women with porcupine quills through their noses, curious about the white man who had come to live with them. Despite the overwhelming intensity of this new setting, I continued to think of Eric, to wonder what had gone wrong, to blame myself for abandoning him at a time when he probably needed me most. In my hut late one night, by the light of a hurricane lamp, I feverishly scribbled out a pornographic account of our experience in the desert.
We had zipped both sleeping bags together into one and were lying on our backs. It was a cloudless night. The immense sky above us was brightly speckled. Down on earth the sandstone boulders and joshua trees were dark cutouts.
"You know what I used to think the moon was?" Betty and Joe were asleep in the van less than thirty feet away, so we kept our voices low.
"No, what?" I whispered back.
I saw Eric shiver and asked him if he was cold. He said he was, so I moved closer until our bodies were touching. I pulled the sleeping bag up to our chins.
"This is what people do in the snow when someone gets too cold. They take off their clothes and get real close together and their body heat is supposed to keep them warm."
"Well, we're almost doing that."
We were wearing only underwear. He snuggled closer, and I put one arm under his head, and with my free hand I caressed his naked chest.
"Is this better? You were shivering."
"Yeah," he whispered. "I didn't think it would be so cold. I thought deserts were supposed to be hot."
"Well, once the sun goes down there's no source of heat to keep it from getting cold. It can even snow here in the winter, you know." My hand was rubbing his chest. My fingers traced circles around his nipples then wandered down his stomach and played inside his navel. He put his hand on my chest and let it rest there.
"Is that what you learn in college?"
"No, I think I got that from TV" I replied, laughing.
"So what were you telling me about the moon?"
"Oh yeah. When I was six or seven, just a little kid, I used to believe that the moon was a hole made by God for all the dead people to get to heaven. You know, they fly through it. The bright light was heaven on the other side."
"And the stars?" My fingers were still caressing his stomach and navel, and I inched my way down to the elastic band of his underwear. My hand brushed against his crotch. He dick was hard.
"Those were the holes the angels looked through." His hand copied mine, movement for movement. First he stroked my chest. Then his fingers explored my navel and then worked down to my underwear. His hand bumped into my hard dick and he moved quickly away. "To see if we're being bad."
"You're still shivering," I told him.
"I'm cold. I wish I'd brought some pajamas."
"I know what we can do. Roll onto your side. Right, like that. See? Now I can hold you against me." We were now facing the same direction. His back was pressed against my stomach, and his rear was pushing into my crotch.
I buried my nose in his hair. We had not bathed in three days, and his hair was slightly dusty and smelled like sage. I breathed the smell again.
"Better?" I whispered into his ear. My hands glided easily down the smooth skin of his chest and legs and up to his chest again. "Are you getting warmer?"
"Yeah," he said, but I could feel him shake.
"Good. Then I'll do this!" I tickled his sides and his bare stomach. Eric was laughing and squirming and trying to push my hands away.
"Hey, cut it out," he whispered. "You're going to wake up Betty and Joe."
"What do you mean me? You're the one making all the noise," I said and grabbed his cock. It was hard and straining against his underwear. I tickled his sides again and then stopped. Both of us were breathing fast.
I began rubbing his stiff penis through his underwear. He pushed my hand away, gently.
"What's wrong? You embarrassed?"
"I thought you had done this with your friends. You told me you and what's-his-name. . . ."
"You mean Ricky."
"Yeah. You said you and Ricky would sneak out of the house late at night and walk around naked."
"We do. Once in a while. But only to go over to a girl's house and knock on her window. Ricky'll moon 'em. One time I even saw him hard.
"And?" I asked.
"Didn't you guys, you know, jerk off?"
"No. . . ."
"But in one of your letters you wrote that you had wet dreams. And you talked about using some kind of cream."
My hand had slipped down and was caressing his hard-on again. This time he did not protest but pushed himself against my hand. He reached behind and squeezed me through my underwear.
"I have those kinds of dreams. But I wake up and it's over."
"Do you want me to" I began. This was it: "to show you how to do it?"
I was shaking more now, and my hard-on was peeking beyond the elastic band of my underwear. I reached out of the sleeping bag for the flashlight then pulled the top of the bag over our heads. I turned on the light.
"First," I said, "We need to take off our underwear."
I slipped mine off completely, and he pulled his only down to his knees. I told him to take them all the way off, and when he did, I moved closer.
"Just like the pioneers," he said.
I bounced the flashlight up and down his body. In the yellow beam his skin was pale; I had only seen him with a dark and complete tan before. Now that he was thirteen the expected changes had taken place: he was taller, his baby fat had completely disappeared, and a wispy patch of black public hair curled around his hard cock. I flicked his hard-on with my fingers.
"You've grown a lot."
"Haw haw haw. Very funny."
"Seriously. What are you, 5 foot 3?"
"5 foot 5."
"Your dad's tall. Maybe you'll be as tall as me in a couple of years."
"If he's really my dad. . . ."
"What do you mean by that? Are you an abandoned prince or something?"
"No, I don't mean that. Forget I ever mentioned it." He wrapped his fingers around my dick and began squeezing. "I sure look dinky compared to you. Yours is so big." His hand was hot and each squeeze gave me a jolt.
"Okay, now you move your hand like this, see?" My thumb and two fingers pinched his cock, slowly jacking it up and down.
He tightened his grip around mine and began pumping his hand. I told him it would slide easier with saliva. He spit on his hand and once again worked it up and down the length of my hard-on.
"It's so huge," he whispered. He was breathing rapidly. His trembling words came out in gasps of air.
I shined the flashlight on his dick, which was thin and pink, probably about four inches long, then to mine, and followed his hand slowly rise and descend its length. My cock did look monstrous compared to his. I set the flashlight down but left it on.
"Yours will be. . . uh. . . will be that big sooner than you think."
I was breathing hard, and already I could feel my body tensing. My hand, which was now holding only loosely onto his cock, let go. Eric intently watched his hand slide up and down, then I saw him look at my face. I knew my mouth was twisting and grimacing.
"Jesus, Eric. Slow down a bit. I think I'm about to come."
He slowed his hand movement but. . . too late. . . I sucked in my breath hard and arched my back then my toes curled and the burning spurts. . . I rolled over on my side and grasped his shoulders, groaning, and the large white globs spilled onto his chest and splattered his cheek. His hand moved easier and quicker along my slickened dick. He let go and looked at his hand.
"It's warm," he said, but did not wipe it off. He grabbed hold of me again and squeezed.
My hands were still holding his shoulders, and he had not let go of my cock. I pulled him closer and hugged him. His dick was pressing into mine, and his hand was somewhere in between. Another spasm rippled through my body. I hugged him again, crushing our groins together harder. My mouth sought his lips. I kissed him with my mouth open. He finally let go and wrenched his hand from the sticky mess.
"You once kissed me. Do you remember?" I asked, recalling that first summer at the beach. I turned onto my side and leaned on one elbow. My free hand was jacking his dick. His hairless balls were tight.
"Of course." He propped himself up and watched my hand. "You were leaving and I was sad. I hugged you and gave you a kiss."
Still holding onto his cock, I leaned over and kissed his cheek, his lips and then his neck. I sucked rapidly both his nipples. I swirled my tongue inside his navel and tasted some of my own sperm.
"Cut it out!" he said, squirming. "You know that tickles. They'll wake up."
I put more spit on my hand, but it dried and my fingers stuck to the skin.
"This isn't working. It's too dry. I'll have to do something else."
I told him to close his eyes, and when he did, I sucked his cock completely into my mouth. There was a salty taste, and I could smell his sweat. My head bobbed up and down slowly at first, all the way to his downy hair. Then I sucked the head and jabbed my tongue into his piss hole.
Eric sucked some air into his lungs. He was beginning to squirm. I took my mouth off his dick. "I know something else we can do. Spread your legs apart a little."
In the dim light I could see inside his smooth, pink asshole. I wet my index finger and slowly inserted it up to the first knuckle. I took his dick into my mouth again, wiggling my finger in the tight, warm hole.
"I have this feeling in my stomach," he whispered. His eyes were tightly shut. He pressed his lips together. His hands reached out and grabbed hold of the back of my head. I swabbed his head with my tongue then jammed his whole dick into my mouth. His ass clenched tightly my finger. He arched his back, and three warm drops of his cum squirted onto my tongue. He groaned with each spasm.
His penis slipped from my mouth. I nibbled the head, and he shivered again. I rubbed my hand along his side, down to his rear and tried to pull him to me.
"I'm tired now. I'm going to sleep," he said and edged away.
I figured he was feeling empty, perhaps somewhat awkward about what we had done. I needed to be patint; he would get over it. I stuck my head out of the bag into the cool night air. I was wide awake and did not realize how much I had been shaking until then.
When I thought Eric had fallen asleep, I heard him ask softly if I were still awake. He then snuggled closer to me and nuzzled his head against my neck. The sky was clear, and every few minutes a shooting star etched a thin line across the sky.
The mystery of Eric's fate puzzled me. Years afterward, I continued to anguish over the sex that had occurred so naturally and wonder -- thanks to the media's focus on such relationships -- if I had been responsible for some kind of psychological harm. And my weakness disgusted me: I was a coward for having never attempted to see him, either before my departure to Africa or upon my return. I contemplated calling him, hoping that he would be the one to answer the phone, but figured it was not worth the risk. He, or someone, had wanted me to stay away.
And then there was the shock of hearing a message from him on my answering machine one evening five years after the trip to the desert. I had just missed his call, but as I was playing his message back to make sure I had correctly understood the name, the phone rang. He was calling again to leave his number.
"Jesus, Eric. I can't believe it's really you." My voice was wavering.
"I was curious about what happened to you. I remembered where your parents lived, so I got their number from information, then I called them and they gave me yours."
"This is such a. . . surprise. It's been what, five years? What happened?"
"It's kind of complicated. But I saw something on TV about Joshua Tree. Remember Joshua Tree?"
"When I saw it, I thought about you and me going there, and us climbing those cliffs. Remember how high they were? Shit, I was so scared." I was unable to invent a face to match this deep voice. "And when we became blood brothers, and sleeping outside, with all those stars? I have such a good memory of that trip."
"Do you remember everything? Like when we put both our sleeping bags together?"
"Yes. . . ." I said, wondering where he was going with this.
"That was very important for me. Do you see what I am trying to say?"
"Maybe." My stomach tightened.
"I mean, I learned something about myself that night, and afterwards I guess I acted kind of stupid, you know? I should have told you back then: I'm gay."
"You know, I wasn't sure. And afterwards, I felt very bad about it. I was afraid I had, well, perverted you."
He laughed and said, "You didn't pervert me. There's no reason to feel bad. It couldn't have happened in a nicer way. The sex, I mean. I wanted to see what it was like. And when I think about it now, it seems special."
"But I don't understand. Why then did you stop writing? I had always thought you wanted me to stay away because you'd, well, because you'd figured things out and it made you afraid. Were you mad at me because I left for Africa? That empty envelope. . ."
"Envelope? What envelope?"
"I sent you a letter when I arrived in Africa. In April, I think. I put an envelope in it and asked you to mail it back empty if you didn't want me to write you anymore."
"In April? Then it must have been my mom and dad who mailed it. I'd run away the August before."
He then explained what had happened, and as I listened to his story, my outrage swelled.
"You see, my parents found all the letters you sent. I was in the hospital having my stomach pumped. This was just a couple months after our trip to the desert. I swallowed some detergent. I don't know why I didn't tell you. Maybe it was because you were leaving. I don't know. I just couldn't take living at home anymore. But I didn't really want, you know, to die, and I knew that I didn't swallow enough. So while I was in the hospital they went through my bedroom. They looked in all my drawers, and under my mattress and in the closet. Your letters were in a box in the closet, but those assholes found them. So here I am in the hospital, I'd almost died, and they bring all your letters. My dad throws them at me and goes `So, are you a queer?' Shit. Can you believe it? I'm thinking what difference does it make. So I told them I was."
"That really made him blow his lid, and when I got out of the hospital, they became strict. They said I couldn't see any friends, that I had to come home right after school. They cut off my allowance. And I bet Kenny told them everything I did, whenever I snuck out through my bedroom window or called someone on the phone. I bet he even stole some of the letters you wrote. Kenny was a real asshole, too. I was glad to find out he was only a half-brother and not a real brother.
"I began cutting school almost every day. I dyed my hair green and purple and got my ear pierced. Three times. In L.A. or San Francisco you wouldn't even notice someone like me. But our town is real small, and everyone knew who I was and probably felt sorry for poor Art and Dee. Remember my friend Ricky? His parents said he couldn't see me anymore. Then these cops picked me up for not going to school, and when they brought me home my parents got real pissed off and said that they're going to kick me out of the house. I don't know if I told you this, but the guy you met, Art, he's not my real dad. My mom once split up from him and ran off with another guy and got pregnant. So I don't know who my real dad is. And Art really hated me. Every time he got mad he took it out on me. He once broke a lamp over my head. I was thinking, fuck this shit. So I ran away. I got caught again and this time they sent me to a juvenile center in Gilroy. I was there for about a year before getting out. I went to San Francisco, and there I, well, I was only fifteen and no one would hire me. I couldn't get a job, not even at fucking McDonald's. So I started doing other stuff. I met some friends and they showed me how to get paid for doing things with men. Do you see what I am trying to say? I couldn't get a normal job. I'm a. . . .
"Yes?" I asked, although I now knew what he was going to say.
"I'm a hustler. A godamn hustler."
Eric recounted these misfortunes in a very detached manner, and he seemed almost as startled by all he had endured and the absurd outcome as me. My immediate reaction was guilt: if I had been around, perhaps none of this would never have happened, or at least not to such a degree. That night, guilt would gnaw at me and prevent me from falling asleep. We spoke on the phone for over an hour. Before hanging up, we arranged to meet that weekend.
Despite what I had learned about Eric, I somehow expected a thirteen-year old boy to answer the door.
The eighteen-year old who greeted me was over six feet tall and very handsome. He was young enough for his body to withstand the abuse of drugs and life on the street; there was enough of the boy left in him to attract men willing to pay. His hair was no longer combed straight down but parted on the side. He was clean shaven. His mannerism were not at all feminine, nor were did his movements have the exaggerated masculinity that I had seen before. He was wearing jeans and some kind of mesh jersey that revealed a smooth chest, a flat stomach and a thin line of dark hair that climbed to his navel. It was his eyes, though, that were so different. They gazed at me with an impassive wisdom that lacked any kind of warmth. I wondered if I would have recognized him if we had walked by each other on the street.
He recounted in greater detail about his parents and how they mistreated him, about running away, the time he spent in the juvenile center and his life on the street. We talked for over an hour about the trip to the desert. He repeated several times that the experience was very special for him, especially the sex we'd had. I asked him who the second person was he had been involved with sexually, and he replied it was with his friend Ricky.
When he was still living at home, Eric had often mentioned his friend Ricky Gonzales, a Latino boy his age who lived across the street. It was a Saturday afternoon, shortly after the trip to desert and before he swallowed the detergent, when he and Ricky were exploring the basement of a building under construction. Eric asked if he had ever jerked off before, and when Ricky said no, Eric said he should try it. A round of "You go firsts" ended up with both boys pulling their pants down to their knees, with their hard-ons springing loose like uncaged animals. They had seen each other naked before, hard even, but never sitting close together like that. Eric saw that Ricky had a little more hair above his cock, and this his balls were bigger, which turned Eric on even more. He reached over and took hold of Ricky's cock and squeezed. You should have seen him jump! Then Eric moved his hand up and down, pulling the foreskin up to the top of the head and over before sliding his hand down, going faster and faster. Ricky, who had only looked at Eric's hard-on until then, tentatively wrapped his fingers around it. Both boys were red faced and breathing hard with their mouths gaping open. In no time at all, Ricky groaned loudly and his load of cum spilled over Eric's hand. Eric closed his eyes and imagined that Ricky's cock was in his mouth and that his mouth was filling up with his cum. Then he came all over Ricky's hand. When Ricky wasn't looking, he secretly licked some of his friend's cum to see what it tasted like. Ricky quickly pulled up his pants and underwear. Afterward, Ricky acted distant when they were together and refused to jerk off again. Eric said that the experience confirmed what he had been afraid to admit to me.
He then described a series of "husbands" and how, only a few weeks earlier, he had escaped from an S&M "master" who had held him captive and abused him for six months. He had legally changed his name to Jessie because of that experience but feared that this maniac would still be able to track him down. He was the father of a two-year-old daughter, the product of a relationship with a runaway girl he had met in San Francisco. Crack and other drugs were a problem. As he spoke, the Eric I knew faded. The tan, freckle-faced boy who drew hearts around my name, who once thought that angels peered at human beings through stars, had been assassinated long ago.
"We're almost out of gas," I told him. We were not far from where he wanted to be dropped off. "I'll pull into a station."
I stopped in front of an unleaded pump and turned off the engine. I sat there, staring at the keys. Did I leave them in the ignition or not? Eric I could trust; Jessie I did not know. I took the keys with me.
"Anything you want from inside? A coke or something? Cigarettes?"
He shook his head no. I wondered if he had been hurt by my lack of trust. Perhaps he did not notice at all: after all, some gas caps are locked by a key. The marijuana was making me paranoid.
We decided to get together a second time. While driving to San Diego, I prepared a monologue and played it backward and forward and rehearsed phrases out loud. I had finally decided to say everything I had failed to tell him the last time we met, about how much I had loved him and how important our relationship had been. More than anything, though, I needed to know if he harbored any bitterness toward me, to release my mushrooming guilt. But this second meeting proved stranger and more unsettling than the first. He had not slept the night before because he had "smoked some kind of speed" -- which I suspect to have been crack -- he was aggressive and not always coherent. His roommate Carlos was there, and I did not feel comfortable speaking openly in front of this stranger. We had run out of words.
Later, he asked me to drive him to Hollywood to "meet a friend." I hoped that once we were alone in the car, I would be able to free myself of all the words and phrases that had been bottled up.
"Drop me off after the next light," he said. We were on Santa Monica Blvd. I pulled the car to the curb a hundred yards beyond Oki Dogs, a fast food stand that was known as a hangout for male hustlers.
"Are you sure?" I turned and looked directly at Jessie. He was staring ahead. "Yeah. You did me a big favor by driving me here. I've got to find a friend. He'll be in there."
It was not too late to give some sort of meaning to the time we had spent together, that both he and I could hold onto as a keepsake. I opened my mouth, expecting those rehearsed words to flow out. Nothing came. It struck me that to him, I was nothing more than an unsettled affair (just as he was to me). Getting together was a last look at his old self before he completely assumed the role of Jessie. This relationship could never go beyond remembering better times, like two old people turning the pages of a brittle and yellowing family album full of dead aunts and cousins. He had told me his story, and I ran out of questions. Our conversation had become stuck. Finally, I held out my hand.
"I'll call you soon."
"That'd be great," he replied, shaking my hand. "I'll catch you later."
He got out of the car and started walking down the street. In the rear-view mirror I watched him disappear into a crowd of boys and men standing around a table outside the restaurant.
I tried his number three or four times after that, but there was never an answer. A couple months later his roommate called, frantic. Jessie had disappeared five weeks earlier, and Carlos was hoping I knew where he had gone. And then I heard no more.
The events I have described are true: it is a story of chance meetings, mysterious disappearances, the disturbances caused by turns of events. If Jessie is still alive, he would be 28 years old today, but the fact that he started hustling when he was so young, at a time when "safe sex" was not yet part of our vocabulary, has me imagining only the worse.
But who knows? Life is full of surprises.