Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Moving Week Repost: David

While I'm settling into my new home this week and don't have much in the way of internet access, I'm reposting a few favorite entries that shorter-term readers might not have encountered, and that longer-term fans might remember fondly. This entry is from April of 2010, and is about someone whose presence in my life profoundly changed my philosophy.

“Don’t get up,” he told me.

I was already pulling on a shirt, panicked at the sound of the back door opening at the other side of the condo. It was the first time I’d been in a man’s bed and heard someone unexpected enter his home. “Someone’s coming,” I said, panicked. Was it a lover? A wife? A policeman?

“Seriously. Don’t get dressed,” said my friend. After twenty-two years, I’ve forgotten his name. He was one of those alumni of the college who never seemed to leave Williamsburg after graduation, loving the little city so much that he’d stayed there for twenty years. Although he worked in Richmond and spent large portions of each month in the D.C. area, his home was townhouse on Jamestown Road. His advice came too late, though. I’d already pulled on my t-shirt. When I heard steps at the top of the staircase, I pulled the hem of my shirt over my erection. “You didn’t have to do that. It’s just my buddy David. He’s picking up some stuff. You know David?”

It was 1981. I was seventeen and in my first month as a freshman. I barely knew anyone who wasn’t on my dorm hallway. I certainly didn’t know the older kid standing in front of me. David had hair in a shade of light copper, like a penny new from the press; the skin of his lightly muscled arms was pink and creamy. He wore a grey t-shirt with the sleeves cut-off, jeans, and tennis shoes. “I didn’t know you had someone here,” he said. The apology was honest. I could tell how uncomfortable he had been, seeing me.

“That’s okay. Let me get your stuff.” The man stood. His penis was still dripping semen from the tip as he ambled off downstairs.

“I’m David,” said the redhead. He stared at me with eyes of the most intense blue hue I've ever seen. I introduced myself, frightened to move. My t-shirt was covering my still-raging, unsatisfied erection, but any movement would reveal it. I wasn’t entirely stupid. I knew it was obvious what we’d been doing, but I kept hoping for some less embarrassing solution to the situation. “Are you a student?” he asked. When I didn’t answer, he put a hand to his chest. “I’m a junior.”

“Freshman,” I admitted.

David looked at the staircase just outside the bedroom, and hesitated. Then he took a step closer. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered. His hand trembled as he reached out to touch my cheek. The stroke’s arc took him to the neck of my shirt. He rested his fingers on it and paused, waiting for me to protest.

I did not.

He lifted the t-shirt up and over my erection. I was unsatisfied and still hard, despite the fright. The sensation of his skin’s warmth along my neck made my cock even harder. When it popped out from under the cloth, unrestrained at last, he drew in his breath sharply, surprised at my size. It sounded as if he was hissing. Those blue eyes regarded my cock for a few seconds before he caught my gaze once more and cupped me under the chin. “I wish I had a boyfriend like you,” he whispered to me, his voice barely audible. “Meet me tonight.”

My heart pounded in my chest so hard that my sight seemed to dim. I wish I could explain the way of my thoughts, twenty-two years ago. These days I would’ve said, “Sure!” My seventeen-year old self, however, I could only wish myself gone, away from the embarrassment of that situation, gone from David’s blue eyes and from my friend’s bed. He must have seen the conflict in my face. “Just meet me tonight. Promise. Ten o’clock, Crim Dell. I’ll wait for you. I just want to talk.” The condo’s owner started back up the stairs. “He used to fuck me too,” he whispered. “Ten o’clock?”

“Here you go.” Our friend held out a plastic grocery bag. I don’t think I ever actually saw what it contained, but from the way it hung, my impression was that it held some clothing.

David had taken a step back, away from me. My cock was back under the t-shirt. The man yawned and launched himself back into bed, not bothering to cover up. “Want to stick around?” he asked David. “Boy’s got a prime mouth.”

The red-head looked at me and shook his head. “I have to do things. Later.”

“Come here,” said the man, grabbing at my shirt. I felt the stitching protest at the seams as he pulled me back and guided me down on him. I performed automatically after that, though, wondering how soon was soon enough to make an excuse to leave and hike the mile back to campus, but not too soon so that I wouldn’t run into David on the way out.

I don’t know why meeting David had mortified me. I can hazard a few guesses, but my perspective has changed so greatly over the last two decades any one of them would be difficult to explain. All the sex I’d had in the five years before, by and large, had been with men older than myself. I’d been used, photographed, banged, passed around, and never really felt any shame when it happened.

When David walked into that house, however, and appeared in the bedroom door, it was the first time my slutting around had been laid bare for someone my own age. My life had been neatly compartmentalized to that point. I had my friends and peers, and I had the collection of men I’d slept with. I might be friendly with the men fucking me, but they weren’t my friends. Likewise, my friends didn’t fuck me.

David frightened me, I think, by being my peer, wanting to be my friend, and wanting so obviously to enjoy sex with me. It was too much for me to handle. From what I recall, I went back to my dorm room that afternoon and hid. As it grew darker, I badly wanted to go down to Crim Dell and meet him, but every time I imagined him there, waiting in the campus’s most picturesque and romantic spot, my stomach churned with fear. I pictured him leaning against the fence overlooking the duck pond, its Japanese bridge framing his impatient silhouette. I pictured him looking at his watch and waiting for me.

I also pictured myself showing up and not finding him there, and returning to my dormitory disappointed and shaking.

I stayed in that night. I didn’t go down to meet him. Ten o’clock came and went and I remained curled up in the corner of my room where my bed met the wall. Midnight passed, and one, then two. I didn’t fall asleep until nearly dawn.

When I look at David’s photograph in my old college yearbooks, he appears slightly cross-eyed. That puzzles me; the expression was nothing like the David I knew. I could see his approach on campus after that from far away—the red of his hair allowed me to spot him long before I could make out his features.. When I could, I’d duck down some byway or gravel path and avoid him. When I couldn’t, our eyes would lock as we passed. If he was in the middle of a conversation with a friend, he would stop talking so that he could stare at me as I walked by. When I looked over my shoulder, I would see him craning his neck to gaze after me.

I yearned for David all that year, but never said a word to him. His attention mortified me, but not as much as the knowledge that I had stood him up that autumn evening.

By my sophomore year, I was involved in the theatre department and co-starring in a two-person drama written by one of the more talented student playwrights. It was part of an evening of one-act plays. David turned out to be in one of the other productions. Our paths, however, didn’t cross until the night we ran technical rehearsals on all three plays. While we waited for our turns, we sat ten feet apart. Though we pretended not to be noticing each other, he was all I could think about. I feared him getting up and speaking to me. I worried he still wanted an apology for never meeting him. He watched me from the corners of his eyes the entire time. When I was onstage for my play during the performances, standing at attention in a soldier’s role, eyes straight ahead, I could see him standing above the bleachers of spectators in the walkway that ran around the room’s edge. He stood there, watching no one but me, for every performance. And then he would disappear.

During David’s last semester on campus we shared a class in seventeenth-century poetry together. He sat in the row ahead of me, one seat over, next to his friend Shana from the theatre department. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would both go through an elaborate charade in which we’d pretend not to know the other existed. He would swivel in his chair and pretend to look out the window, even while his eyes would sidle in my direction. I would flush a deep, deep crimson and pretend I was listening to our short, frizzle-haired female professor. He would talk loudly about going up to New York on his spring break and visiting a gay bar. His friend Shana would hush him, worried that someone might overhear. He’d meant for me to overhear, however. Maybe he’d thought I’d forgotten how I knew him.

How could I forget, though? Whenever David was around, he was I could think about. My skin seemed to blush, warm, and grow tight in his presence, like a grape swollen to bursting in the afternoon sun. If he turned suddenly in his seat, I would flinch as if I’d been struck.

Toward the end of the semester he appeared in our class carrying a single white rose. It lay next to his notebook throughout the lecture, but from time to time he would pick it up with his soft, small hands and hold the bud to his nose. Twice he turned around in my direction and let his eyes flick to mine as he held the rose on his lips, casually, offhandedly, as if bored with the lecture and having a private muse on some other topic. I nearly had a stroke.

At the end of the class he turned to Shana. “This is for you, sweetie,” he told her. She beamed and took it. They left the seminar room together. David very deliberately scanned my direction to see if I watched, yet refused to meet my eyes. I just wanted to slink back to my room and hide.

The day of the final exam, David was in a giddy, playful mood. He toyed with Shana’s hair and cracked jokes I couldn’t hear. Shortly before the professor walked in, he grabbed a mug of water she’d brought with her, walked over the window, and fished something out of his pocket. While Shana protested, he poured the water over the something and brought it back to where they sat. “I found this in the river,” he said. “See how beautiful it is when it’s wet?” Shana didn’t seem overly impressed, but she agreed with him and hushed him so the professor could begin her lecture.

The course had been tremendously difficult for me, and of course I’d never been able to concentrate during the lectures. I was pulling nothing but Cs on my papers and tests, and the only way I’d been able to tackle the final exam had been to memorize vast quantities of the professor’s favorite poems and to regurgitate them back into the blue book. I was the only sophomore in what was a senior-level class. I was also one of the last people to hand in his test booklet and leave the classroom. I walked down the arched hallway and down the stairs and through the front door of the Tucker building and out into the sweet Virginia sunshine, relishing mingling sensations of apprehension at my performance and relief at the class’ completion.

I felt a touch on my arm. David had been leaning against the old brick wall of the entrance, waiting for me. He barely looked at me as he pressed something into my hand. “Had we but world enough, and time,” he said. I was still so surprised that I could barely comprehend him, but I did note how stiff he sounded. It was as if he had practiced his line thoroughly, but barely had the courage to speak it. Before I could reply, he sprinted down the steps without a word more. When I opened my hand, I saw that he had given me the stone he’d earlier shown Shana. It was dry and still warm from his hand, and it was plain and ugly.

I never saw him again.

I was angry with him for that moment for months. The line was from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem we had studied in class. Every negative interpretation I could attach to the quotation and his dubious gift, I attached. Mentally I railed at him for suggesting I’d been my Jamestown road friend’s whore. I resented David for thinking me coy and calculating, rather than merely frightened to death of him. I thought he had given me a stone as a booby prize—it was the rock in Charlie Brown’s trick-or-treat bag, or a representation of how hard he thought my heart.

I kept the stone, though. I buried it in a Godiva chocolate tin from the 1950s that had belonged to my father and where I kept other small treasures. I didn’t look at it again until a year later, however, when I found out that David was dead.

He had moved to his beloved New York right after his graduation in 1983; the obituary I ran across in my father’s alumni newspaper said he’d died of complications related to pneumonia—probably a euphemism, I realized even then. David was most likely the first man I knew to die from AIDS-related infections.

David's stone was still there in the Godiva tin, smooth and round and a speckled, anonymous grey. It wasn’t until after I learned of his death that I thought to put it under water. It came alive then with layers of rosy pink and deep, chocolate browns. Flecks on its surface reflected light back at me. It really was a beautiful thing to behold.

When David comes to mind these days, it’s always with a sense of loss—both the loss of his life and the loss of my missed opportunities. Certain things remind me of him. A certain shade of red hair. Light blue eyes the color of the sky. A particular tilt of the head, or an aroused hiss of breath. A white rose.

Every couple of years I take my Godiva tin and dig to its bottom where sits a plain, round, undistinguished stone—the kind of pebble I might kick out of my way if it rested on the sidewalk. I let the water run over it, and I admire its colors. Its rose-colored strata endure and never change, unlike youth or shame or even fear. And I wonder not so much why I feared David, or why we never really spoke or touched again, but how I should ever have thought that he could give me a gift that wasn’t truly beautiful.


  1. I've read this particular entry maybe 3 or 4 times as a long time follower but it still brings me to incredible tears. Even as I type they stream down my face uncontrollably.

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  2. This is the second time I have read this post. I have a thing for red-heads, so my attention in this story is more alert. I read it today, as I did, the first time, as the embodiment of the word "bitter-sweet," --- a word for that taste experience apparently appearing in every language. And I read the trajectory of the story as I did the first time, seeing all the mistakes you made in David's presence, finally realizing the beauty of his pebbly gift, his death too young, so much beauty gone.

    But this time on reflection, I realized that David made his mistakes in reading you. The initial invitation, given so softly and clearly and unambiguously, yet sent over an ocean of fear which he did not intuit. And I imagine his waiting for you at 10 o'clock that night, feeling his invitation rejected, feeling himself rejected, probably feeling that there was something wrong with him. Hence the steely eyes, the brittleness of your occasional meetings -- even the last one.

    Could he have been more welcoming? Found some way to whisper into your heart? Could you then have spent 10,000 years on one another's nipples; a millions years on the flowers, the glans, of the thornless roses?

  3. This my first time reading this one. I thought that I've read all of your entries. How did i miss this one? I have no idea. It was very beautiful and sad. To look back at the life of someone you knew who died young is a very strange thing. Things could have been done or said differently. They are just frozen in your memory at that time.

  4. I had read this post before, but forgotten how it ends and was struck again by how bittersweet it is. You've made me cry, but not tears of sorrow. Just tears at the beauty of your writing and the emotions it brought up.

    In high school I had a friend who was a senior when I was a Sophomore. He was probably the first truly out gay at our school, he started the GSA and helped open minds at the school. I remember before my senior year was over he had died of AIDS-related issues. They put a picture of him on the wall of the nurse's office to memorialize him and also to warn students of the dangers of AIDS. I still miss him deeply.

    Thank you for the beautiful post and for reminding me of a man I once had the honor of calling a friend.


  5. Rob, this continues to be one of my all time favorite posts... I, like WHarton above, have a thing for gingers (i've often called them my "kryptonite"). I just love the whole story... the sadness, the missed opportunity, and the realization after the fact.... Love it.

    Do you still look at the stone?

  6. Beautiful. Echoes so many missed opportunities and regrets of my own.

  7. I guess moving and all the upheaval that it entails will prompt a fair amount of reviewing and reliving, the vulnerability of situation prompting even more 'what if's' than ordinarily.... The retrieval of semi-hidden possessions and minor treasures stimulating the replay almost forgotten memories. Once again thanks for sharing!