Mike and Danny: Straight Crush
OK, Barry didn't mention Brian again for a while, and I got to thinking that whatever it was, it had blown over. Brian kept coming to the book discussions, and each time he sat quietly and intently until we'd hear his deep voice raise some question or make a point no one had thought of. This happened with Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and even To Kill a Mockingbird.
When we got to Of Mice and Men, I figured he'd weigh in with how George and Lenny werewell, more than just friendswithout really saying so. Their affection for each other is such an exception to the lonely, disconnected lives of the rest of the characters in the story.
But he missed that night, and when I saw Barry the next morning, I had to mention it.
He poured his coffee and made like he didn't know what I was talking about. So I figured he was back to keeping tight-lipped about his patients.
But it didn't take me long to find out what happened. When I got back to my office, Brian was there waiting for me.
"Sorry about last night," he said, standing beside me as I unlocked my door. "Mice and Men's my favorite book. I really wanted to be there."
He crowded into my office after me, and once again I was struck by the bulk of his presence in small quarters, a panther in a cage.
The weather was still coldat least it seemed that way to mebut Brian was wearing a Yankees cap and instead of a heavy winter coat he had put on his letter jacket, green with white leather sleeves.
"It's my roomy," he said and sat in a chair, holding a chemistry textbook and a spiral notebook on one knee. "He did a dumb thing last night."
"Yeah, him." He shook his head. "The one and only." His face softened briefly into a smile. I could see that he looked tired, like he'd been up most of the night.
"Aw, he got upset about something. He does that. And he disappeared for awhile." He glanced around at my bookshelves. "He went for a long walk, I guess, and ran into some rough characters outside a liquor store across town."
"Is he OK?" I was sitting down now, thinking that I had a class to go to in ten minutes.
"Would be if he hadn't picked a fight. By the time the cops found him he was all bunged up and half froze to death."
Brian was trying to make light of it, but I could tell he was more concerned than he wanted to let on.
"This happen before?" I wondered.
"Once or twice." He paused for a moment, studying the back of his hand. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I found out he's been seeing a counselor."
Puzzled for a moment, I just stared back at him.
"He's got this work-study job at the cafeteria, but sometimes when he says he's going there, he's really not."
I'm still looking at him, thinking fast but my thoughts are going in circles about a mile a minute. What was he trying to tell me? I decided to fake ignorance (which for me requires little effort).
"Where is he now?"
"Virg? He's in the infirmary. I think they're just keeping an eye on him."
"Sounds like it's a good thing he's seeing a counselor," I said.
He looked at me, a little oddly. "Yeah," he said. "I hadn't thought of that."
Then he looked at his watch and stood up. "I gotta get to class," he said and turned to go.
"Listen," I said. "Maybe you ought to go have a talk with his counselor."
"Oh, I don't think there's any call for that. Virg'll be fine." And he said goodbye and left.
For a moment I watched him stride off, his butt filling out the backside of his levi's like it was the simplest thing in the world. Then he turned sharply through a door into the hallway and was gone.
Now I was mystified. Had he entirely faked me out just now?
I replayed all the conversations I'd had with Barry and realized that maybe it wasn't Brian he'd been talking about after all. I'd just assumed all along, and he let me.
"I think you've been bullshitting me," I said when I saw Barry at lunchtime in the cafeteria. And I told him what I'd found out.
"OK, OK. Calm down," he said and put up both hands, like he was surrendering.
And he gave me some half-assed explanation that shifted quickly into a defense of himself that had something to do with Brian and Virgil, but I couldn't tell what. He was talking between his teeth so anyone sitting near enough couldn't overhear him.
I was still pissed off at him, and I said so.
"Just clear one thing up for me," I said. "It's Virgil who's been coming to you for counseling and not Brian."
He gave me an awkward expression like telling me even that would violate some professional scruple. But he didn't have to answer my question. I'd figured it out.
"Can we talk about this later?" He was wiping up some coffee he'd spilled on his tray with a paper napkin.
He was looking genuinely pained now, like he knew he'd screwed up, so I let him off the hook and agreed to see him later at Bob's.
Late that afternoon, I was at the bar, waiting for him to show up. I'd taken along a stack of freshman essays and was trying to grade them, my eye drifting up every now and then to a couple of guys at the pool table.
They were playing a slow, lazy game, smoking cigarettessharing a Zippo lighterand lining up empties of Ballantine's as they drank them. They said nothing, studying the table and then bending to line up a shot. There was just the clacking of balls and soft thumps of bank shots.
I wondered, watching them, as I often do about the friendships between men. How close do they let themselves get to each other? And is the line they don't cross something that comes naturally, or do they have to make an effort to stay on their side of it? And what happensafter a few too many Ballantine's, for instancewhen the line gets a little fuzzy for one of them?
These two guys, I'm thinking, glancing up between pages of a paper so full of comma splices and misspelled words I'm feeling hopelessthese two guys were maybe workers at the New Holland plant, old enough to be married with a kid on the way, but neither of them was wearing a ring.
They were in jeans and work boots and heavy flannel shirts. One of them was wearing a camou vest and cap, and the way they handled the pool cues, it was easy to see them as hunterspheasant, ducks, deer.
Without looking at each other, touching or talking, they seemed to be in a world of their own, a world so private I had to wonder what went on between them when they were truly alone together.
One of them had a buzz cut and a studied expression that was supposed to look sullen and slack-jawed, except when a quick sly grin crossed his face and for a second you could see there was another personality somewhere insidemaybe a boy he'd been once in high school.
He stood now, both hands around the end of the pool cue, leaning into it as he watched his partner take a turn. Pressed along his fly, it produced a bulge in his jeans, where the denim had been faded from what must have been a lot of rubbing against what or who you could only guess. It went with his sly grinproof of a constant, smoldering horniness.
It might fade as he grew olderor got marriedbut you kind of doubted it. I'd seen older versions of him slouched on the bar stools in here and elsewhere, the nerves connecting their dick to the rest of them always on alert. The movies playing in back of their eyelids would probably make you shudder.
This guy hadn't got there yet. His quick grins had more of innocence than he'd care to admit, but in time they could get colder, falser. And, who knows, that could depend a lot on his buddy, who had just dropped a shot into a side pocket and was moving around the table for the next one.
This one was harder to read. He was taking the game more seriously, concentrating harder. Eyes squinting in the smoke from his cigarette, he was always watching the table, and the shifting configuration of the balls. Like there was money on the game.
I went back to reading papers, but found myself picturing them together later on, in the brightly lighted kitchen of a furnished apartment somewhere in town, a TV turned on in the next roomprofessional wrestling? Probably not "Masterpiece Theatre"and I listen hard to what they are saying as one of them mixes Seven-and-Sevens and the other lights another cigarette. But I can't hear them.
I can see them drifting into the darkened room and sitting on either end of a sagging sofa, watching the TV in silence, until after a while one of them gets up and goes home. The one left behind turns off the TV, takes a last piss in the john, and then goes to bed alone. Lights out.
Eventually one of them will leave town, take a job somewhere else, move on. And that will leave the other, sitting at the bar, trading remarks with the bartender, getting older and wondering what the hell happened.
Or maybe not. What do I know?
The guy with the buzz cut had just dropped the last ball in a corner pocket, and this time the grin lasted a little longer. He set his cue against the wall and pulled another cigarette from his shirt pocket.
"Rack `em up," he said, tugging on the front of his jeans.
I studied them again and thought about writing a story some day with a happier ending. Maybe they go on a hunting trip together, and some night in a cabin on some lonely stretch of Sandhills river even lonelier than they are, they fetch up in the same sleeping bag.
The story has something to do with that faded patch of denim. I'm sure about that. But how do they finally cross the line that's kept them apartboth together and apart, really.
Something happens that tips the balance. Something believable but unexpected.
I try to picture where it goes next. The buzz cut guy had started a new game, bending low over one end of the table to break open the racked balls with a sharp thrust of his cue. Then he walked around as the balls rolled to a stop, picking a spot for his next play, pausing with his back to his buddy and drawing the cue behind him, the end of it aimed at his buddy's crotch. The other guy's hands closed quickly over his testicles, and he pulled away.
The buzz cut guy glanced over his shoulder, with a grin, and said, "Watch it."
I saw now how it might get started between them, after half a case of beers, one grabbing the other, laughing, the other making a defensive move that turns into a wrestling match that after some grunting, sweating and swearing evolves into a no holds barred struggle.
One of them, I don't know which yet, finally has the other face-down on the floor and pinned under him. "Give? Give?" he's saying through clenched teeth, and he starts bucking with his hips against the other guy's ass.
This enrages the one on the bottom, and with a kick he rolls onto his sidetable, chairs, and empty beer cans flyingand he manages to slip from the hold. Now face to face on the floor, arms locked, they trade insults until one says, "Loser blows the winner," and they go at it now tooth and nail, like everything is at stake.
And this is how they cross the line, already getting hard in their jeans, precum starting to soak through the faded patch of denim.
Skip ahead and I can see one of them lying across a rumpled sleeping bag, still breathing heavy, as he unbuckles his belt and pulls down his zipper, a long erection pushing up in his shorts as he opens his jeans.
And it has to end up being something mutual, so they wake up the next morning side by side, with a hard-won bond that keeps them just as the are, never to part again.
I looked at the two of themthese guys smoking cigarettes and absorbed in their gameand I wondered if they were capable of all that . . .
"OK, I admit it was unprofessional." It was Barry suddenly sliding into the seat across from me. He had a bulky leather briefcase and set it beside him. "But I never lied to you."
"I don't care about that," I said. "It was a lousy thing to do to a friend."
And he agreed some more and kept apologizing until I finally said, "Enough, enough. Forget it. Just don't get me involved in anything like that again."
And simple-minded guy that I am, I thought this really was going to be the end of it.
"Well," he said making a face. "Problem is you are involved." He waved to the bartender and called for a beer.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. It's just not over yet."
"Well, I tell you what. That's your problem."
"Just hold your horses," he said. "You're the only practicing homosexual I know here that I can go to for advice."
"You gotta be kidding."
And he kept talking and, whether I wanted to hear it or not, finally told me enough that I could begin piecing things together.
I'm filling in some of the blanks here, but according to Barry, Virgil's adventurethe long walkabout and the fight at the liquor storewere the acts of a desperate young man. His long-time friend, Brian, had revealed that he'd found out Virgil was coming to Barry for counseling.
It was some kind of last straw. They'd gone as far as they could go as friends, and it was over. No more being there for Virgil always to lean on. No more doing his homework. No more looking after him like he couldn't take care of himself. No more making excuses for him.
"Excuses?" I said.
"Yeah. And no more roommates." Seems that Brian was tired of carrying him.
Whatever happened to "He ain't heavy, he's my brother," I wondered.
Brian's remarks that night about On the Road began to make a new kind of sense. And George shooting Lenny at the end of Of Mice and Men probably had its own logic for him, too.
Virgil was in a panic last night. He'd swallowed a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, and they'd had to pump his stomach.
"Fortunately, he doesn't have much of an idea of how to kill himself," Barry said. "But I'm not counting on that."
I thought of Virgil that day outside my office, and in spite of myself I realized that I cared what happened to him. Mike's influence, no doubt. He has the capacity to find the good in almost anyone. His nephew Kirk has been about the only exception, and when it comes to being a pain in the ass, Kirk has seldom let Mike down.
"Why did this happen now, I ask myself," Barry was saying. "And the answer is simple."
And when Barry explained it, I could sort of see his point. Virgil talking to Barry got Brian worried. "There must be some stuff there Brian doesn't want him talking aboutyou know, secrets."
"Boys fool around with each other."
"Well, read your Kinsey," he said. "And most boys move on and find fooling around with girls even more fun."
"We're not talking about you," Barry said, and he explained that boys more or less agree to forget the boy stuff ever happened.
"Then maybe it happened and I just forgot," I said, beginning to be annoyed that I was Barry's one practicing homosexual.
Of course, he ignored that.
Brian had reason to believe Virgil was ready to start talking, and he wanted to end their long friendship before it came out that his best friend was queer.
"Is he?" I asked.
"Who knows? He's unformed. He could be anything." Barry threw up his hands in a kind of exasperation.
"OK, that's fine. Why do you say I'm involved?"
Barry took a long drink of his beer. "How can I put this? Virgil kind of blames you for what happened."
"Don't look for any logic here. But he knows how much Brian admires you."
"Do you live under a rock?"
"Apparently." I'm forever being taken by surprise like this. "So what am I supposed to do about it?"
"Nothing," Barry said. He just wanted me to know what was going on, so when I had the opportunity to do some fool thing, I guess, I'd think twice. "All I'm saying is, you have good sense. Use it." And he said that in a way that made me feel like a complete idiot.
"Thanks, I'll try to keep that in mind," I said. "One last question. Why did you want me to think it was Brian and not Virgil?"
"I didn't. It just turned out that way," he said. But if Brian had got to know me and Mike, he might have seen it was OK to give himself and his roommate some slack. Becomewell, more than friends.
"That would have been icing on the cake," he said.
"Too bad it didn't work out," I said.
I looked over at the pool table and saw that the two players were still at it. One was bent far over the table, stretching both arms to make a shot. As he steadied himself, the other guy, standing behind him, lifted the thick end of his cue and stroked it between his partner's legs to break his concentration.
Yeah, I thought, those two will probably find a way.
Continued . . .