Charles wanted an English Sheepdog — a giant, furry, slobbery mess of a dog, the kind his mother and father had denied him when he was a boy. Lonnie wanted a tiny dog such as a Chihuahua or a miniature Dachshund that he could carry in his arms up and down the staircase or place inside a bag when he went inside the bodega on Eighth Avenue. The disagreement began when Lonnie asked Charles if he intended to vacuum up all the stay hairs that such a big dog was sure to shed around the apartment. Charles responded that he didn’t want a dog that was so obviously gay. “After all,” he added, “you hardly need that kind of an accessory.”
They settled on an eight-week old Cocker Spaniel puppy. A luxurious, silky black puppy with a faint touch of white at her throat. They found her in a litter of a friend of a friend of a friend’s dog while they were weekending in the Hamptons. Lonnie thought her adorable and elegant. Charles found her intelligence curious and precocious. On the drive back to Manhattan in their rental car they argued over what to name her. Charles suggested Lucky, since she was lucky to have two fathers. Lonnie thought that Beauty or Princess were more appropriate, though again Charles found the names too uncomfortably gay.
They settled on “Inky,” which the puppy responded appropriately to by wagging the stub of her tail and leaking her bladder onto Lonnie’s lap as he held her in the car. It caused a great deal of laughter and shrieking and a sense of comradery between the fathers.
The puppy’s first week with her new fathers was full of drama (or “mothers,” since Lonnie often greeted her in the morning with, “Come say hello to your Mama with a big fat kiss!”). Her parents argued over what to feed her (Charles didn’t want her raised on table scraps; Lonnie couldn’t bear to give her anything labeled “Chow”); how many times a day to walk her (twice was obviously not enough, since puddles were discovered around the apartment); what her favorite toy was (Lonnie thought it was the new squeaky rubber bone he had bought; Charles was certain it was the old wool sock he had given her to teeth on); and who would take her to the vet for shots (Charles couldn’t cancel his patients; Lonnie refused to reschedule his clients). Neither wanted to give her up, abandon her, return her or see her suffer in any way. She was too charming and precious and they already loved her more than they now regarded each other. In the end Inky’s argumentative parents sought help and advice to reach a compromise. They posted a note on the bulletin board in the lobby of their apartment building that read: “Our New Puppy Needs a Playmate. Full-time Dog Sitter, Trainer, Walker and Best Friend wanted.” And which is how they found Jesse.
Jesse was already right across the hall, in fact. Or had been so for about two weeks, since their neighbor Joe’s second stroke. Jesse was a registered nurse who had been arranged by a coalition of a social worker, a homecare agency, a gay men’s support group, and Joe’s insurance company. Jesse’s shift with Joe began at eight in the morning and finished at four in the afternoon and coincided nicely with the hours he was needed to keep Inky from staining her parents’ carpets and chewing up their furniture. As a boy, Jesse had had several dogs (two Collies, and a German Shepard) and he didn’t believe that potty training a dog could be any harder than being a nurse. Jesse had become a nurse the hard way. Born to Mormon parents in Idaho, his father had committed suicide when he was six, and when his mother had re-entered the dating scene, Jesse was sexually abused by his babysitters (both female and male). In high school he was an exceptional student, receiving top grades and becoming an Eagle Scout, earning a scholarship to a religious-affiliated university. At college, when he came out to a classmate and was expelled, he moved to California to finish school at UCLA. He found a very different sort of life in Los Angeles and West Hollywood — easy sex and easier drugs. He became a meth addict, seroconverted, and finally pushed himself into a rehab program where he met Mark, a young black man who had grown up in Brooklyn. When Mark became ill, Jesse became his carepartner, and after Mark’s funeral, Jesse decided to remain on the east coast, enrolling in a nursing program and taking up the small corner of an apartment in the East Village that he shared with three other younger roommates. Through the odd luck of genetics, he looked a good decade younger than a man in his early forties without any savings and whose immune system could be easily compromised by stress and exhaustion. He didn’t care much for the bureaucracy of the city, or the state or the federal government, for that matter, and found work in the private sector doing what he liked best, hands-on nursing and assisting the terminally ill. Death did not frighten him; his own hard luck had toughened him up but had never removed his basic faith in the human and divine spirits. By the time he was given a new client, the patient was already in trouble. His job was to keep them comfortable and to help them prepare for what would happen next. Sometimes he would just sit and read out loud to his patient or hold their hands. Sometimes he would console family members, partners, friends or spouses. Jesse’s preference was to assist AIDS patients and gay men, and it was rare that he was given someone as elderly as Joe.
Ole Joe had outlived his family. Both of his parents had died in the Eighties and his unmarried, older sister has passed away on the day Clinton had been inaugurated President. Joe had lived in his apartment since the building was constructed in the 1950s and Jesse treasured his new client like a piece of living history. Each day while Joe napped or watched television, Jesse read through Joe’s old magazines or looked through his bookshelf. Long before Chelsea had become a haven for gay bars and restaurants, Joe and his friends were giving private dinner parties to meet other gay men. Milton, Joe’s first and only lover, had died of a heart attack the year before Stonewall. Jesse had found his death certificate in a filing cabinet in Joe’s hall closet. The world of Joe’s photos and postcards and books held images of men dressed in white shirts and narrow ties and who spoke in coded languages of secrets and riddles. Jesse’s own personal life revolved around group therapy sessions and twelve-step meetings, spending time at a coffee shop or in an empty basement room of a church listening to the confessions of another ex-addict.
In the mornings before he began with Joe, Jesse tapped on the door of Lonnie and Charles’s apartment, which was enough to send Inky racing to the door to greet him when he used the key the couple had given to him for easy access. (Sometimes the puppy’s parents were awake and arguing, though most likely only one would be up and fumbling with coffee in the kitchen or shaving in the bathroom.) Jesse would walk Inky along Nineteenth Street, around the corner and over to Twentieth, making a full circle of a city block before returning to the building. Inky stayed with Jesse while he settled in with Joe. Lonnie and Charles had bought a small doggie bed for Joe’s apartment where Inky could sit and gnaw her bone or sock while Jesse looked after Joe. Jesse did his best to train the puppy on newspaper, then in the hallway, and then to relieve herself on the sidewalk, and, by the end of his first week on the job, Inky showed signs of being an excellent pupil. In the evenings, before walking across town to his own apartment or elsewhere in the city for a twelve-step meeting, Jesse would leave notes for Lonnie and Charles on their kitchen counter, things like: “Inky needs to do number two before she goes to sleep,” or “Don’t forget to leave Inky a dish of fresh water!” or “If Inky starts chewing the furniture, give her a little bit of ice to play with.”
Inky was always a bit accident prone around her volatile parents, though this did not make them love their puppy any less. And Lonnie believed that Jesse had a heart of gold; Charles thought he was smart and thoughtful and cute. They knew nothing of his past and did not ask, except if he was seeing anyone “special.” At night, they talked about him as much as they did their jobs and their pet. Soon they were determined to find Jesse a boyfriend. It was what they felt he deserved.
“Did you swallow it whole?” Jonathan asked. He was two floors below, in Liam and Philip’s kitchen, clowning around with a tangerine, pulling out a slice and placing it against his teeth to create an orange smile. On the kitchen counter were bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey, and cough syrup. Jonathan was testing out the potency of each in Philip’s bong, an adolescent experiment, or so Liam thought, while Philip was soaking whatever fruit he could find in the refrigerator with the same liquids, an equally adolescent experiment according to Liam.
Philip was finding the tangerine task amusing. He was playing along with the smile, lacing his fruit with a little bit more vodka before inserting it into his mouth. Soon, Jonathan was mimicking him, though he was already high from smoking a joint an hour earlier. “It’s like an animal wiggling down your windpipe,” Jonathan said. “Then sort of fluttering in your stomach.”
Liam was finding the behavior aggravating. It was one thing to smoke a joint or get drunk, but the obnoxious clowning had to stop. He was attempting to stay out of the way, watching TV in his bedroom but yanked back into the experiment by Jonathan or Philip rushing in to ask him a question or see what his opinion was, as if they were trying out a new recipe for chocolate chip cookies and wanting to know how much sugar or flour or chocolate chips to add. He half-expected and hoped the police would bust in at any moment — a neighbor reporting their raucous behavior as disturbing the tranquil peace of Chelsea.
And it wasn’t that Liam had turned prudish or dried out or given up his own recreational use of “doing a little something to get a party going” — he might still reach for a bottle of poppers during sex or take a bump of something before he went out clubbing or kick back a few beers after a stressful day at work or smoke some dope before listening to a new CD. But the truth was that it was no longer as much fun, or, rather, Jonathan was taking the fun out of it. Jonathan, Liam’s co-worker and his roommate Philip’s unofficial boyfriend, was becoming reckless and intolerant with his combination of drugs and liquor, and Liam didn’t like being put into the position of referee or coach or chaperone or “designated driver” or, like tonight, the sober assembly line worker doing quality control.
“You’re not really going to try to smoke any of that stuff, are you?” Liam asked when he was tugged back into the kitchen, his tone parental, as he looked at the amber colored liquid now in Philip’s bong. Liam felt sure they had now added a hit of crystal meth to the mix.
“Sure,” Philip said. “We’re not baking a pie to give it a way.”
“Or try to sell it at a church fair,” Jonathan added, snickering at himself.
“Hope you know how to dial for help,” Liam said. He went back into his room and Jonathan followed him to the doorway.
“We’ll call you when we start the orgy,” Jonathan said.
Liam smiled. He knew the effects of meth. He’d done it a handful of times and found it awesome and energizing, making him feel as if he could stay high as long as he wanted to and dance as long as could and have as many orgasms with as many guys as he could hook up with. It made skin feel like silk and hair become fluid and music become visual clouds of notes. But he had also done it enough times for the novelty to wear off and to know that to do it again was to be one step closer to becoming an addict. He could feel the ache of it in his chest. It was this thought that made him truly jealous of Jonathan and Philip. Jealous that he wouldn’t let himself go, to just flat out give in to temptation and desire and yearning and lust and to get up and join in the fun and help them cook up a terrific batch of something kick-ass potent. Jealous, too, that Philip and Jonathan were now more deeply involved with each other than with him. He felt left out, a third wheel, like a babysitter in the other room trying to ignore two little boys playing with firecrackers.
He reached for a jacket, put it on, and in the kitchen tried to joke with Jonathan and Philip before leaving, saying, “Don’t eat all the cookies at once. You’ll get a stomach ache.”
“I can’t promise that we’ll save any for you to try,” Jonathan said.
“Then keep the recipe handy,” he answered. “I’ll boil up my own high when I need it.”
Jesse was grateful that the job kept him busy. There were always the smell of feces and urine to contend with: bedpans to wash, urinals to disinfect, supplies to inventory, and Nina’s notes from the night before to check. Jesse often gave Joe a sponge bath in the morning and dressed him in dry, clean clothing. One of Joe’s eyes was worse than the other, and Jesse would often shift his gaze between the two when he leaned down to talk to Joe. It was important to talk to the patient, Jesse felt, even though there was never any response expected. The stroke had paralyzed Joe, left him with only the ability to breathe and shift his eyes. Even his eating was compromised; nutrition arriving into his body via his veins. Since the weather was cold and the steam heat in the apartment dry, Jesse placed pans of water on the radiators in an attempt to keep more moisture in the air. And any idle moment he found meant there was also Inky to attend to and he was grateful for the tiny companion. Jesse often felt that it was laziness and boredom that sent him into trouble for so many years. “Don’t look for validation from without,” he would remind himself when he fretted about isolating himself from others. If he thought too much about being around the dying. “Find it from within.”
Even reading was now a way to keep his mind from straying towards any potential relapse of addiction, thinking about things that he shouldn’t — what it felt like to be high, where he might find a drink, where he might meet a guy for a fast, anonymous trick. (He always seemed to forget the meltdowns and hangovers and crashes and depressions, so he felt it was important to find ways to prevent his initial addictive behavior.) He was grateful that technology had advanced far enough that it allowed him to carry a cellphone. There was always someone on a phone tree to talk to, to commiserate with or listen to, or to find out the time and place of the nearest support group meeting.
Even sitting in the chair beside Joe’s bed Jesse knew how to keep his mind active and distracted. There were pedestrians on the sidewalk below, cars and taxis and delivery trucks traveling to the east on the street, even a pigeon now and then to watch swooping down from the roof to peck at a grain of something that no one else had been able to spot.
Joe’s apartment was orderly and full of magazines and books to read: Time, TV Guide, Out, People, Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker. The back issues of Traveler would have been enough to keep Jesse occupied and dreaming for months. He’d never been out of the country, never been to Europe or Asia or even Puerto Rico. Whatever money he had ever had or earned had always been used up for living expenses and education (once he had shucked the addictions). In Joe’s bedroom closet were stacks of ancient pornography — old issues of Honchoand Mandate and crumbling, yellowed issues of Tomorrow’s Man, Vim, and Physique Pictorial. In the corner of the closet was a crate of dildos of varying sizes and shapes and colors and at the back of the closet was a rack of leather outfits and caps for someone who had clearly been larger than Joe. Jesse had not discovered these items while snooping. He had been looking for clothing Joe might wear — T-shirts and socks and boxer shorts — items that Joe might feel more at ease with wearing than the hospital gowns that were sitting in a box on the bedroom floor, and he had been grateful for the distraction of the discovery of the pornography, though he found the magazines more powerful and intoxicating than he had expected and now had to rely on his will power to ignore studying them too closely.
On the dresser in the bedroom were framed photos of Joe with other men. Joe, probably thirty or forty years younger, in the center of a group of five men, all with incredibly short, neat haircuts and old-fashioned plastic-framed eyeglasses. The 1960s, Jesse estimated. Maybe even the Fifties. A black and white snapshot of Joe, shirtless, at the beach with another man. A handsomely framed photo of Joe and the same man again, taken in the dining room of this apartment. Beside it was an inscribed mug with Joe’s initials — JEG — and beneath it MEB — which held pens and pencils and colored markers, and a small scented candle rimmed in darkening colors. A lacquered wooden box held spare keys, foreign coins, and a St. Christopher medal, and a stack of other old photos, black-and-white or faded Polaroid color prints labeled on the back with captions like, “Joe and Milton. Beach, 1967,” or “Milton’s birthday, 1962.” Inside the box was also a folded letter dated June 16, 1958. Jesse had read the letter several times privately, each time swept up in the unexpected romance of it, and, once the importance of it had sunk in, he had begun to take it out and read it out loud daily to Joe, placing the snapshots in front of Joe’s cloudy gaze.
“Dear Joe,” the letter began. “What luck that Sam brought me as his guest to your dinner party, that out of all the craziness of this planet and the wild orgy of Manhattan that the two of us were to meet by that simple stroke of chance. I’ve circled and circled my feelings and desires for men for so many years and I count myself grateful to have found a careful friend like Sam who could shepherd me into such places as the dinner party in your new home. Isn’t that just like life? Being at the right place at the right time to meet the right guy? I was lucky to survive the D-Day atrocities because I had been sent back to America after the Dresden campaign. But Dresden was also how I met Sam, and now (indirectly) how I’ve met you. Cause and effect, just like in all those dreadful Victorian novels I try to teach to thankless young minds — because of a war, because of a friendship, because of a chance invitation and the unpredictability of luck you meet the most important person in your life. Most of what happens in life is random and uncertain, no matter how well it is planned out. Faith and God and hope only keep you on a certain track, no matter how many prayers you might say or scriptures you might read. What luck it was that I met you, and you were right when you said that I was scared to continue on the path we took those next few days of my visit — scared of my leaving the security of Chicago, scared of inching into this provocative gay life you talk about, so if your offer of continuing together still holds, I’m writing to let you know I’ll take you up on it and we’ll give it a try. More than that, we’ll make it work. I’ve already begun my packing.
All my love,
“What a wonderful way to meet the love of your life,” Jesse would tell Joe as he replaced the letter and the photos back into the lacquered box and sat it on the dresser. If Joe were conscious, his eyes would wander towards the bedroom door, as if he were seeing Milton enter and greet him. If Joe were asleep by then, Jesse would reach out and hold him at the wrist. He’d think a moment about chance and luck and being at the right place at the right time, before he set about doing the next thing he needed to do.
As soon as Jesse dropped Inky back off at his home, Inky stained the carpet. It seemed to Lonnie like a cry for help. “What’s the matter, pumpkin?” Lonnie asked the puppy. “You afraid of something?”
Charles arrived home later with a large shopping bag. Inside, was a blue and green quilt in a repeating pattern of stars. “Pennsylvania, circa 1910,” Charles told Lonnie as he laid it across the bed. “Should we keep it here on the bed or have it framed?”
“We can’t afford this,” Lonnie said. “We’ve got another mouth to feed. And too many cleaning bills.”
Charles lifted the puppy in his arms and snuggled her to his face. The puppy licked Charles’s chin. “And we’ll have a few more hungry mouths tomorrow night,” he said. “I invited Heller and Weston over for dinner.”
“So you bought this from them?” Heller and Weston were a pair of elderly queens who ran a gallery in west Chelsea, near the waterfront.
Charles’s response was to hold the puppy tighter, rubbing his nose against the dog’s stomach.
“I told you they were milking you for all they can get.”
“I got a deal on it,” Charles said. “Because I bought you a new dresser.”
“A new dresser? I don’t need a new dresser. We don’t need a new dresser.”
“It’s particle board,” Charles said. “I’m replacing it with an antique.”
“But I love my dresser. It’s the perfect size. It’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t want another dresser.”
Charles lifted the puppy above his head, as if he were holding a baby. Lonnie watched him for a moment until his blood pressure rose to the appropriate battle stage. “So what are you fixing your guests tomorrow night?”
“What do you mean?”
“For dinner. You invited Heller and Watson over for dinner. What are you going to cook them?”
“You’ll make your strudel, won’t you?”
“Moi? You want moi to cook for you and your guests? So now I’m the hired help?”
“No, you’re a drama queen whose getting a little too big around her britches. Invite another couple, if you want. Invite Mike and Wesley. We haven’t seen them in months.”
“Mike and Wesley are bores. All they do is talk about themselves and fight.”
“Then ask Jesse over.”
“I think Joe’s on his last wind.”
“Then he might be grateful to have a reason to stay close by. That evening nurse is a witch.”
“Jesse thinks she’s stealing things.
“What kind of things?”
“Cufflinks, books. Silverware.”
“Why don’t you invite Kyle, to see if you can hook the two of them up.”
“Kyle and Jesse? Then Jack would hate us.”
“Then Ari. Ask Ari over.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’ll let you work out the details, then,” Charles said. “The strudel will be nice. I love your strudel.” He pressed his nose against the puppy’s belly again and added, “And I love you, too, you pretty little thing.” He did not place the puppy on the floor but on the bed, on top of the new quilt, where she cocked her head as if she were posing for a portrait.
“Look at her,” Lonnie said. “How could you not love something as beautiful at that?”
“They look perfect together, don’t you think? New puppy and old quilt. We should take a picture.”
Inky responded with playful bark, a wag of her stump, and a puddle on the quilt.
“Oh my god,” Charles said, staring at the wet, yellowish stain growing bigger. “Do you know how much that cost?”
“Whatever it was, you paid too much for it, I’m sure.”
“Are you ever going to train that dog?”
“She’s never a problem with Jesse.”
“But she’s not minding you.”
“She’s too young for obedience school. You know that.”
“But aren’t you teaching her that she needs to do her business outside?”
“And what are you doing? I don’t see you lifting a finger to clean up the crap.”
“She’s your dog,” Charles said. “You wanted a tiny dog. You clean up her big mess!”
“Did you hear that, honey?” Lonnie said directly to the puppy. “Your Daddy is disowning you. Why don’t you take another little squirt on that expensive patch of old rags.”
“All right, all right,” Charles said. “I’ll take her for a walk.”
“No, no, no,” Lonnie answered. “Let me clean up this mess, wash the blanket, vacuum the rug, plan out the recipes for dinner tomorrow night, and do all the grocery shopping, and then I’llwalk her. She is my dog.”
“I’ll walk her,” Charles said. “But only because I know she loves me more than you do.”
Liam was defeated the moment he left the apartment. He waited for the elevator, grew anxious that Philip would try to coerce him back inside, then raced down the staircase and reached Eighth Avenue before he thought about where to go. He wasn’t hungry — no, he was tired, and wished he were back in his bedroom relaxing, watching television, even smoking a joint so he could mellow out. He decided to walk up to Twenty-third Street and check out the movies, maybe there was something he might want to watch or, if not, just buy a ticket and fall asleep in a seat. At Twenty-second, he changed his mind, and walked up the block and entered a bar.
Inside it was dark and crowded, some kind of special night with a special crowd watching a special show on the tiny box of a stage in the back of the bar. He thought about leaving, but suddenly wanted the rush of a drink. He leaned against the wall and sipped a beer, hoping someone might show up to divert his sinking mood. A lanky guy with yellow hair and dark roots stood next to him and after a few minutes of checking Liam out leaned into him and asked, over the loud dance music that was playing on the sound system, if Liam had any K. Liam grinned and shook his head “no,” but added, “Let me know if you find any.”
This didn’t make the guy disappear, only lean in and tell Liam that he had just tried coke for the first time the night before. Liam nodded and said something truly banal, like, “It’s a good place to start.” The lanky guy was exactly the kind of eager-to-please guy that Jonathan was, the reason why Liam was here and not at home tonight. The lanky fellow offered to buy Liam another drink, and Liam accepted, but before he had finished it they were riding in a cab uptown to Hell’s Kitchen and climbing six flights of stairs to have sex in the back room of a railroad-car style apartment, where the mattress was on the floor and clothing was sorted in brown shipping boxes.
His name was Javier and he offered Liam a split of Valium, which Liam took simply so that the fellow wouldn’t feel offended. Liam fucked him on the mattress, lifting and shifting Javier’s bony legs over his shoulders to get a better and deeper angle. They snuggled and talked before Liam cleaned up and left, though Liam remembered nothing except the yellow hair and the roots when he hit Ninth Avenue and walked towards the subway.
His headache began when he reached Nineteenth Street. He wished he had taken up Javier’s offer of staying the night, even though he knew that it would only be full of complications and hurt feelings in the morning when he announced he had to leave. He wanted to be alone, to be away from the desire of needing the company of someone else. No telling what havoc Philip and Jonathan had wrecked since Liam had been out of the apartment. He thought a moment about turning around and going back to a bar for another drink, just to fortify himself for what lay ahead (or perhaps find another willing bed for the night), when out of the night a furry little black thing came running up to his legs. Frightened, he thought it was a mouse, or worse, a large rat running for cover, and was just about to kick it out of his path, when a tall thin man came running out of the night with a leash on his hands.
“Sorry,” he said to Liam. “She’s so tiny she just slipped right out of her collar. I’m not used to walking her.”
It was Charles, Liam’s upstairs’ neighbor. He bent down and lifted the black puppy off the sidewalk and cradled it into his arms. “Where’s Philip?” Charles asked. Liam and Philip had gone to a Christmas gathering of neighbors at Ginger Belle’s apartment on the second floor, where they had met Charles and his lover, Lonnie. “I thought the two of you were inseparable.”
“Entertaining,” Liam said.
“Ah,” Charles said. “Do you guys tie socks on the door or that sort of thing?”
“Hardly,” Liam laughed. He reached out and patted the puppy. “Cute dog. I almost did her in.”
“She’s a bit of a handful.”
“Did you ever find a Walker? I saw the notice you had on the bulletin board.”
Charles nodded and said that Joe’s day nurse was helping out with their new puppy, adding a few praises about Jesse’s character and good nature and cute appearance. “Come over for dinner tomorrow night and you can meet him,” Charles added. “You could spare us all a lot of misery.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lonnie’s desperately trying to hook him up with someone.”
“I’m not really on the market,” Liam said.
“You don’t to have to be,” Charles answered. “At this point, we’ll settle for a breathing body. No offense, of course, but Lonnie hates an uneven number at the table.”
The fireworks began the next morning. Charles was up early, as he was every Saturday morning, to go to the gym. When he got out of bed, he headed towards the kitchen for a cup of coffee and walked across his antique Persian rug and right into a fresh pile of crap. The scream awoke Lonnie and he soon found himself holding the adorable puppy and re-assuring Charles that everything would be cleaned up by the time he returned to the apartment that afternoon.
Jesse arrived at the door just as Charles was leaving. “Do you want a new puppy and a rather used-up old boyfriend?” Charles asked him dryly. “If so, I’m taking bids. I’ll even accept your lowest offer.”
Lonnie confessed to Jesse when Charles left that he felt miserable about the puppy messes but that he couldn’t help find some sort of satisfaction in the fact that they were ruining Charles’s favorite possessions. Jesse helped scrub the rug before he took Inky on her morning walk, listening to Lonnie’s complaints about having to cook an elaborate meal for Charles’s guests. “I need some more sleep,” was Lonnie’s parting words. “You’ll keep Inky for a while today, too, won’t you? Until I can pull myself together.”
Across the hall, Inky settled into her bed with her favorite sock. Joe was in and out of consciousness, which Jesse did not take as a good sign. He read through the notes that Nina, the night nurse, had left about Joe’s vitals of the prior evening. He replaced the bag of fluids on the IV and sat in the chair and read a magazine. An hour later, he was asleep himself.
Liam spent the day avoiding Philip and Jonathan. He went to the gym, sat in a coffee shop and used his cellphone to talk with his parents in Seattle and his sister in Denver, walked down to a bookstore and read through the new issues of Out, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly, then decided to go to the movies. When he returned to the apartment to shower and change into a nicer outfit for the dinner party, Jonathan was in Liam’s bedroom, on Liam’s bed, watching television, wearing only his briefs. His eyes were bright and fiery and he grinned immodestly when Liam entered. “Where’s Philip?” Liam asked.
Jonathan playfully rolled around the bed, gathering up pillows and sheets in his arms as if he were a centerfold model posing for a photographer, and said in a breathy, girlish whisper, “Wanna have some fun?”
“Tempting,” Liam smiled. He always found Jonathan tempting. “But I’ve got plans.”
“I’ve got a few myself.”
Liam smiled nervously and looked away from Jonathan, opening his dresser drawer.
“I can help you take the edge off,” Jonathan said.
“I like having a little edge.”
“But it makes you seem strange.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like you don’t care,” Jonathan said, curling his lower lip into a pout. “Like you’re avoiding us.”
“You seem to be having a lot of fun without me.”
“It’s always better with you.”
“I don’t think Philip would appreciate you saying that.”
“He doesn’t care the way I do.”
“Let me show you,” Jonathan said. He was at the edge of the bed, pressing his lips against the crotch of Liam’s jeans.
Liam was aroused and couldn’t find the will power to resist Jonathan. Jonathan used a hand to knead Liam’s groin and feel him stiffening. He looked up at Liam, caught his eyes, and began a slow, dramatic unbuttoning of Liam’s jeans. “Let me show you how much I care.”
“You’re just high,” Liam said, though he did nothing to stop Jonathan’s next movements.
“Show me how you much you care,” Jonathan said. “Show me how much you’ve missed me.”
Upstairs, cocktails orbited around the small black puppy. Liam was the last guest to arrive, and he did his best to hide that he was stoned and uninterested. After showering, he had smoked half a joint with Jonathan before putting on an expensive sweater and nice slacks. Heller and Weston, the antique dealers, were a well-dressed couple with moustaches and receding hair lines, and were describing a kitten they had adopted, a tabby-colored cat they had named Tabitha, or Tabby, for short. Charles had uncorked an expensive vintage wine and Lonnie was passing out drinks to their guests in large goblets, all except to Jesse, who was already drinking a club soda in a glass that might ordinarily hold a large, stiff cocktail. Liam disliked Jesse the moment they were introduced; he was older and more attractive than Liam expected, but he also felt that Jesse could see right through him, detect his addicted soul and sniff out his recent sexual romp with Jonathan.
Luckily neither of them needed to maintain the conversation; there was enough talk about infant pets and potty training and obedience school for them not to have to mingle with each other. Jesse found Liam darkly attractive, but dangerously so, the kind of guy he might lose his self-control with, and he held in his disappointment that he would not even attempt to be charming or personable with this guy and wondered why Lonnie would deliberately try to fix him up with such a man.
Tempers escalated when dinner was being served; Lonnie politely admonished Charles in front of his guests for not helping him carry out the salad plates to the table. Charles responded with a dramatic gesture of opening another bottle of wine because the prior one had been so rapidly consumed by his partner. Lonnie had been sipping all afternoon while he cleaned and cooked and seethed, and, though he adored entertaining and cooking, he resented being treated like a servant by his significant other in front of company, and his displeasure surfaced when he sat down at the table and delivered a long and wavering monologue about how a man without a love of pets was a man devoid of any appreciation and understanding of human emotions.
Charles, of course, countered that this was a very narrow and uneducated view, and that his years and years of medical training had taught him the merits of detachment, both personal and animal. This, of course, infuriated Lonnie, and his fury rose in pitch when he cleared the table without any assistance from Charles and served the main courses, also without help, a delicious combination of grilled salmon, herb-roasted potatoes, and julienned vegetables. (Lonnie had refused to cave-in and serve his strudel, or, rather, he had prepared the strudel and Charles had discovered he had heated it into a brick, and the salmon and potatoes were last-minute replacements from a gourmet delivery service.) By the time he was serving dessert, a homemade raspberry-chocolate tart with ice cream, Lonnie was using his eyes as weapons and looking steadily at Charles with the expression of someone who is watching a botched surgical operation. They sat in a moody and brooding silence for a long time, without moving a muscle, while the antique dealers told an elaborate anecdote about their new kitten, at the end of which, getting a hold on himself, Lonnie asked one of the antique dealers, Weston, just exactly what animal shelter they had found their new cat. The dealers went pale and said she was a purebred and though they did not announce it, it was underscored that they had paid a considerable amount to get the pick of the litter. Lonnie responded blithely, “A tabby purebred. Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
The dealers were unable to display or articulate their wounded feelings because two things happened almost at once. First, there was a loud crash against the window, and everyone turned to see a young man standing outside on the fire escape trying to climb inside through the window but hampered because it was shut.
“My god,” Lonnie muttered. “He’s going to kill himself if he shatters the glass.”
“Do we know who he is?” Charles asked.
It was Jonathan, dressed exactly as Liam had left him downstairs in the apartment, in jeans and a T-shirt because Jonathan had complained while smoking the joint that he was growing hungry and wanted to go out to eat with Liam. He had pressed Liam to bring him along to the dinner party, but Liam had said no. Now it looked as if Jonathan had become high on something stronger but had not forgotten that he was still hungry and wanted to join the dinner party. Liam told no one that he knew who the young man outside the window on the fire escape was. He stood there, alarmed, frightened, and silent, as Jonathan banged his body against the glass.
“Maybe we should call the police,” Lonnie said, moving towards the phone.
The phone call was never made because there was a knock at the front door of the apartment. Inky, who had been lying in her bed in a corner of the kitchen, responded with a defensive bark and raced to the door with Charles close behind. It was Nina, looking for Jesse. Joe was passing and she did not want to be alone in the apartment with the body.
Jesse missed the drama across the hall. Jonathan disappeared as quickly as he arrived, but not without first peering into the apartment by shading his eyes and pressing his face to the glass window. The antique dealers maintained their grace because Charles was one of their best clients. Lonnie dropped a plate and Inky offered a nervous and sympathetic puddle.
In the bedroom of Joe’s apartment, Joe’s last moments were marked with heavy breaths and trembles. Jesse called the funeral home and notified the police and his agency. He removed the IV from Joe’s arm and packed up the medical supplies that were in the bedroom and told Nina to inventory the supplies they had been keeping in the refrigerator. It was close to midnight when two police officers arrived to take their statements and allow the morticians to remove the body from the apartment. When Jesse and Nina left the apartment, the police sealed the apartment door with yellow tape, preventing any further entry without a court order.
On the street, Jesse helped Nina flag down a cab and promised to let her know if the agency had any further questions about Joe’s case. As he walked towards Seventh Avenue to find a cab for himself he realized that he was immensely tired. A thought of guilt and insecurity washed over him, and, as he worried about all the stuff that had been left behind in Joe’s apartment, he knew that no one would ever again read or understand Milton’s letter, that it would be lost forever once the landlord had cleaned out the apartment. He wished he had thought to save it as his own before he had left the building.
Ahead, he was distracted by the stumbling movements of a slim guy in jeans and a T-shirt. It was the same fellow who had been at Lonnie and Charles’s window and Jesse felt another crush of guilt — he had forgotten to go across the hall to thank the couple and tell them of Joe’s passing or to check in on Inky. He tried to remind himself that he would need to call them in the morning — he would no longer be able to walk their dog; he knew he would soon be assigned to a new case. And hadn’t been able to help out when the chaos hit and the young man had appeared at the window.
Now, it was clear that the young man was having a bad drug reaction and that he needed help. He must be cold. The temperature had dropped considerably since the morning. Jesse approached the young man and said, “Are you okay? You need to see a doctor?”
“You’re a doctor?” the young man asked.
“Where are you going?” Jesse asked. “You live around here?”
“Where are you going?” Jonathan answered back like an echo. He sat down on the sidewalk. “Where do you live?”
Jesse looked around for help, but the street was empty. He couldn’t leave the fellow alone. He couldn’t abandon someone who needed help. Was this to become one of those random moments of life that held future repercussions, like Joe meeting Milton at a dinner party?
“What’s your name?” Jesse asked. “Can you remember your name?”
“Of course,” Jonathan answered. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“Why don’t you let me buy you one?” Jesse answered.
“Martini,” Jonathan answered. “Ice on the side.”
“Let’s try some coffee first,” Jesse answered. “You think you can handle a cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” Jonathan answered and stumbled to his feet. “There’s always a first time for everything.”