We rode into the city together, Rock Star and I. At the train station he rested his head on my shoulder, his lids heavy with sleep. On the train his long hair covered my shoulder and arm like a cape as he dozed all the way to Grand Central. His dog lay between us on the seat, his head in my lap. At Port Chester and Rye the dog sat up to observe who boarded the commuter train. Most of the time, though, he joined his human companion in a deep sleep, both them using me as a pillow.
A family of four sat across the aisle. The two girls bounced in their seats at the sight of the dog, but soon they were too busy looking at the speeding landscape outside the window to pay his sleeping form attention. The husband and wife, though, regard us with smiles; she spent a long time gazing at the sight of my hand in his, of his cheek against my shoulder, of the warm and comfortable tangle of human and canine limbs on our seat.
She thought we were a couple. They all do, when we’re together in the city. When Rock Star and I walk down the street—or rather, when Rock Star and I run after the dog on the street, pulled by his lead as he lunges from one potential pee spot to the next—Rock Star looms over me with a hand around my shoulders, or around my waist, or his fingers intertwined with mine. Of course they think we’re a couple. Maybe we are.
The first time he did this, I automatically pulled away. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
I struggled with the words. I grew up in a time in which public displays of affection between men were inconceivable. The taboo is deeply branded into my psyche. I can’t overcome it automatically, even though I know I ought.
“Are you worried you’ll get beat up?” he said. Then, with his arm encircling me, he pulled me close for a hug and a kiss to the top of my head, right in front of a mass of tourists emerging from the subway to see the Empire State Building. “Sweetheart, I’ll be right there to protect you.”
So of course, now I let him hold my hand as we walk down the street. I melt when he does. Even my huge mitts are tiny in his palm. I always feel like a child when he slips his grasp around mine. I feel taken care of.
When we stopped at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park to get the dog some water and to share a lemonade, he had me sit with the dog on a bench and wait for him. He returned with two giant iced lemonades and three ice creams—two for us, and something called a Pooch-ini for the dog. We relaxed in the dappled shade, trying to eat the frozen concoctions before they melt into nothingness.
He told me a story while we ate. He’d visited a bar with friends one night, several years back. An older man tried to pick him up. That part doesn’t surprise me. Rock Star has a look that draws glances. Men and women alike stare at him as he strides down the street on his impossibly long legs with his hair billowing out behind him. They wonder if he’s a Somebody. I can see how they’re taken aback at his beauty. And when we’re together, and he’s whispering in my ear or clasping my hand in his, I see them staring at me, too. Some of them have envy in their eyes. I’ve always imagined that they’re wondering how a guy like me can land a Rock Star.
But the point of the story wasn’t that he had to suffer some random come-on. The hapless older man was named Bert. He sounded like a paunchy old-timer with faded looks and a conviction that he’d have to pay for the time of anyone as attractive as Rock Star. When Rock Star’s friends began to roll their eyes and snicker at the guy behind his back, Rock Star defied their expectation that he’d join in the derision. Instead, he left his friends and talked to the man for a long time, then spent time dancing with him on the floor. They didn’t have sex, but Rock Star generously gave up a portion of his evening simply to make the guy feel more attractive, and less alone. He does things like that.
When he told me this story, I sat there and thought to myself, Oh shit. Am I a Bert?
Because that’s what our brains do, isn’t it? It didn’t matter that we’d spent hours together that Saturday summer morning acting like boyfriends, that we’d kissed and hugged and held hands in front of total strangers from Bryant Park to Madison Square. It didn’t matter that he’d bought my train ticket and surprised me with ice cream. I’d had a hundred and seventy pounds of sheer good fall into my lap—two hundred and ten, if you counted the dog—and I allowed my happiness to be upset by a tiny grain of black doubt. Try as I might to banish bad thoughts, they kept assailing me. I was no match for Rock Star’s comeliness. I was too fat, too old. Too sheltered. Too ugly to be with him.
I tried to dismiss all nonsense from my mind. Mostly I did, as we ducked into one air-conditioned shop after another. But sunny as the day was, shadow still lurked close to the horizon. The doubt that for six months I’d been some kind of contemptible exception, a pity fuck, a charity case, kept trying to eat away at my happiness.
Later in the day we went to an art gallery run by one of his friends. An artist was taking portraits there all afternoon with a camera that was over a hundred years old. She’d pry off the back of the wooden contraption, insert a modern portrait studio plate in the back. The camera had no lens, or perhaps had one that was very primitive (I was too busy with the dog to listen to the entire lecture); she had to control the exposure length herself, manually. Well, Rock Star wanted his portrait taken. I didn’t, but I accompanied him and the artist outside, as we moved the heavy camera and its wooden tripod from the upstairs gallery onto a creaky old elevator and out onto the street. We wandered for a few minutes while the photographer attempted to find the right light and the right spot to take her portrait. Then when finally she settled Rock Star into a seat on a cement pillar, I stood back and took snapshots of her preparing him for a photograph.
There was something intimate and almost erotic about the process—even surrounded as we were by tourists and diners and heavy traffic. She had to position the camera mere inches from Rock Star’s face in order to get him into the frame. Then she spent several long moments helping him adjust his hair, or to reach out and turn his his skull a few degrees in a different direction. As always, I was struck by his handsome good looks as she took first one photo, then changed the plate to take another. On my phone, I captured several images of her peering through a pinhole in the wooden box, and of Rock Star looking dreamily off into space, his legs spread, his hands folded peacefully between them.
I wanted to remember that moment.
We had to part soon after that. I was meeting other people; he needed to get the dog to his apartment in the city. But it was funny. I had a quiet moment to myself a couple of hours later, and thought I’d send him the photos I’d taken of him having his portrait done.
At the very same instant, Rock Star messaged me. I hadn’t realized it, but when he’d been sitting there, allowing the photographer to adjust the tilt and incline of his face, centimeter by centimeter, his hands had been folded over his own phone, and that he’d been taking photos of me. In some of them I’m staring with concentration at my phone’s screen as I point its lens in his direction. In several others, I’m straight and tall, shoulders back, as I stare off at something distant, while 9th Avenue and its old historic buildings recede to a vanishing point where I stand. As I captured photos of him, and of a moment I wanted to preserve, he was doing the very same of me. Without my knowledge, he’d collected images of me the way he saw me—the way wanted to remember me.
I honestly gasped when I saw them. In those images, I’m attractive. I’m impossibly tall, and lean, and more handsome than ever I considered myself. I look strong, and capable. I look as if I’d turn heads. I flipped through those photos, which I received at the same moment I sent the ones I’d taken of him. Instantly all the shadows that had attempted to ruin my afternoon vanished. I was no Bert. Not in those photos. I was no pity fuck. No charity case. I understood why Rock Star wanted me. It occurred to me for the first time that perhaps when I caught men and women looking at the pair of us, that some of their regard might have been for me. Or at least, how radiantly I glow in Rock Star’s presence.
Two men, capturing fleeting photographs of a moment we both wanted to remember for a long time to come. Two perspectives on the same instant, each from the other end of the telescope. Maybe—I hope—we’ve fixed that afternoon for all time to come. Suspended it in an amber of our own making. Age will never alter the moment; it’s immutable to time.
Whenever in the future I look at those photos, I know my heart will beat a little faster at the memory. For I will remember that once I found this man impossibly fair, and know that in his eyes, I was equally as beautiful.