(This entry is a continuation of the Earl soap opera about my relationship with an older man in my teens, and of the complications caused by a peer named Topher. It's a direct sequel to An Empty Collar, from December.)
When now I think about what happened in my teens with Topher, it makes me melancholy. One of the reasons writing out these episodes has been so protracted is that I really don't like facing the memories for any length of time. I can't think about Earl without thinking about Topher; I can't think for long about Topher without feeling guilt, and sorrow, and the confusion of a loss so sudden that it still bewilders me.
I know I'm not responsible for anything that happened to the kid. He made his own decisions, picked his own path. I know on an intellectual level that I couldn't have stopped him from running away from home. His motivations for leaving went far deeper than anything I could see—deeper than his relationships with Earl and with Jim, deeper certainly than any relationship he and I might have had.
I've lost or separated from most of my childhood friends and acquaintances in one way or another. I think of one close friend who died from cancer in the middle of the seventh grade. I think of Mark, my former friend who came to see me as his mortal enemy, taken away by a drunk driver during our college years. Others have passed since. Most have simply drifted away, freed of the tethers of time and my memory, to life their own lives.
But Topher's the only person I knew from my youth whose timeline simply trailed off into nothingness. It wasn't truncated too soon; it didn't diverge in a simple way and go out of sight, as if they might had we parted ways to head to separate colleges. Once he was gone, he was the object of curiosity and speculation. Adults talked about him in front of us like a statistic, ignoring that there were a lot of us who'd known him from the neighborhood.
Other kids discussed him with wild speculation. He'd run away to DC, some said. He was a prostitute there. (In this version of the rumors, he was a prostitute for female clients. Their little minds never could stretch around the idea of a gay Topher.) He'd run away to Atlanta and had gotten a job. He'd been picked up hitchhiking and was living in California under an assumed name. He'd been kidnapped; he was dead. No one knew anything certain, nor did we ever. I still don't know, and neither do the few friends from that era I've asked on Facebook.
A mythos sprung up around Topher. He hadn't been just some stoner kid with bad grades. He'd been cool, acerbic, a wit, fun to be around. A rebel. Larger than life. People claimed to have been his best friend, claimed to have hung out and shared a joint with him the night before he'd fled town. People claimed to know him, to understand him, to have talked about running away with him.
It was all bullshit.
Nobody had known Topher. They hadn't really known him. They hadn't hung out with him when he'd been around, hadn't noticed him, hadn't cared. I was the only kid who knew what Topher did with a lot of his time outside of school, the only one who knew where he got all his pot and the money to buy more of it. I knew Topher's secrets—some of them—better than anyone. And I didn't know him at all. He wasn’t knowable.
Still. Even during the days when we were polite and unspoken rivals in Earl's household, I knew there was a certain kinship between us. We were the same age and the same build, though he was darker and I was fair. We'd shared the same role in the same play at the local community theater, when first I'd known him. We performed the same submissive, receptive role for Earl and for Jim and for the men they'd invite to their parties. Then Topher had vanished and left the first indelible question mark in my life.
Every time I thought of him, I had to question why it hadn't happened to me, too. Was I smarter? Better equipped to cope? Or had I been, as I deeply suspected and still think, just plain lucky?
I still don't know.
I've written about Topher for the last dozen paragraphs, but I'd not intended to write about him at all when I sat down in front of the blank screen. Even my title was about someone else. All my rumination and melancholy is simply to avoid writing about what comes next, as this saga of Earl comes to a head.
I'm going to take a deep breath and try to get through it, over the next week.
I hadn't realized until Topher was well and truly gone for some time how much time Jim had spent with him. For several years I'd been visiting Earl's house a few times a week, and only infrequently had to deal with Jim's hateful presence. Either he and Topher would be hanging out and fucking and reading comic books in Jim's little garret attic room, or else Jim would be sated and numb enough from their last session that he wouldn't feel compelled to taunt and annoy me any more than a bored older brother, passing on his way to some better activity.
With Topher gone, though, I started to see a lot more of Jim. He'd wander into the bedroom when Earl and I were fucking and smoke a cigarette while he waited for his turn inside me—which he'd take with quick, rabbit-like stabs of his thin dick that felt like the painful probings of a long-nailed finger. He'd sit in one of the armchairs in the bedroom, naked, his skin covered with freckles and ash, smoking and talking about inanities. He rarely stayed in his room, or spent time in the house's living room or den. He followed us around like an puppy, intent not on getting real affection, but upon annoying us.
Never leaving Earl and I alone accomplished something else, as well. We never got to talk about Topher, or what had happened to him, or what had been Jim's role in Topher's departure. I knew, beyond any doubt, that Jim had aided Topher in rifling the house of Jim's valuables. It had been some grand, awful move in the chess game of their complicated and unfathomable relationship, the sacrifice of a seemingly worthless piece in order to gain control of the board.
In the days immediately following Topher's disappearance, I'd been too sore and shy to ask Earl about what it had meant, and why Jim had done any such thing. Although Earl and I didn't get back to the level of intimacy we'd shared before the event, in the couple of months after, by the time I might have said something, we never had the privacy. Jim never left us the fuck alone.
It got to the point that I couldn't see Jim without feeling my heartbeat race with anger and annoyance. It got to the point—and this was probably Jim's ultimate goal—that I started going to Earl's house less and less.
But I kept going. And then one day—the last day—I went when I shouldn't have, when no one was in the house but Jim.