That Sunday afternoon, Roy and I met up at the public library. I’d wanted to pick up a few new books that I was excited about, Gilded Age histories, and we’d agreed that a walk in neighboring Crown Hill Park sounded like a good idea afterward.
A curious thing happened on the way out. We were rolling out through the front lobby, Roy’s footsteps and those of other patrons echoing off of the polished stone around us, and before I could hit the handicapped button for the double set of glass doors out front, a man started holding the first set open for me.
He was quite striking – almost Roy’s height, lean, swimmerish in build, with sandy hair, a wide mouth, and an eyebrow piercing. As I turned to say “thank you,” I looked him over, as you do, but his pale, cattish eyes had already moved behind me and up to Roy. I saw his brows lift slightly in recognition. Then his eyes moved down to Roy’s hand, which he had rested lightly on one of my shoulders, and the pierced eyebrow flickered up fractionally. “Hey,” he said to Roy. The slight smile on his lips was hard to read.
Behind me, Roy said nothing. Belatedly, the man said “you’re welcome” to me as we moved out through the first set of doors; Roy leaned around me to hit the button for the second set, still silent. I resisted the temptation to look behind me at the man.
We emerged into brilliant sunshine; the library’s steep front steps led out onto a stone plaza still set up with café tables and chairs, and beyond that, the initially gentle, eventually precipitous slope of Crown Hill Park, threaded with winding, paved paths. The white belvedere that topped the hill, itself topped with a tiny American flag (in bad taste, I thought), looked absurdly picturesque in the bright sunshine, surrounded by mostly bare oak trees and strolling parkgoers.
The view did a good job of distracting me from the man who’d held the door. I felt a freshness move through me. I looked up to my left, where Roy had stepped forward next to me: he seemed to feel similarly, rocking back on his heels with a slight smile lifting the corner of his mouth. Then he swept his gaze over the two flights of steps down, and the long, switchbacked wheelchair ramp to one side, deeply sunken within concrete walls. “Race you?” he said to me, his smile deepening.
I gave a snort of laughter. “Oh, come on, how is that even fair? I’m locked in to like four miles an hour here.”
He looked at the steep stairs again. “I’ll go backwards,” he said decisively.
I opened my mouth to say something, paused, raised my eyebrows, and said instead, “You’re on. ‘Three-two-one’ and then on ‘go’?”
Roy gave me an open-mouthed, doggish grin. My heart flipped in my chest.
I began the countdown. “Alright – three, two, one, go.”
Roy burst into a sprint towards the steps, startling a middle-aged couple, each laden with an armful of books, who were about to enter the library. “Sorry!” he twisted around to exclaim at them as they recomposed themselves fussily, like small birds. Meanwhile, I had jammed my hand down on my joystick, but could hardly have claimed to have leapt into motion; when Roy was already a couple steps down, jogging backwards with one hand lightly on the railing, his eyes locked on me, I was just hitting the ramp’s initial incline. By the time I was about to round the first switchback, I was close to doubled over in laughter at the sight of him bouncing backwards down the stairs, staring with wide-eyed intensity at me – the thing was, I genuinely couldn’t tell if he was faking it – and blissfully oblivious to the variously amused and skeptical looks of the library patrons passing by in either direction.
I emerged from the final slope to find Roy jogging determinedly in place on the last step; he watched carefully to see when my wheels hit level, and only then did he deliberately step down onto the ground. He turned to me and thrust both arms up in the air to mime “winner!” on my behalf.
We kissed in full sight of a gaggle of passing teenage girls, who watched with wide eyes and immediately turned to whisper to one another. I closed my eyes.
“Temporary gravitational sinkhole got ahold of you?” I inquired as we broke.
“Must be,” he said. “Damnedest thing. They should have that s-step looked at.” We kissed again, and then moved off into the park.
It was much later in the afternoon before I dared to ask Roy, “Who was the man in the library?” We were sitting side-by-side near the top of Crown Hill, Roy on a park bench, massive arms and legs sprawled out in the sun, me pulled up alongside the bench.
He picked his head up from the back of the bench and looked at me blankly. He looked slightly sun-dazed; it was remarkably warm for November.
I tried not to get distracted by his heavy-lidded gaze. “The man who held the door for us,” I said, succeeding, I thought, in keeping my tone light.
He looked blank for another moment, before a grim cast came over his face. He immediately sat up, put his legs together, and dropped his chin to his chest. I wondered for the tenth time whether he was aware of how legible his body language always was; I was only surprised that he hadn’t crossed his arms.
“Someone I used to sss – ss… spend time with,” he said finally.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I was relieved of the choice between either a further diplomatic inquiry or a breezy, falsely unconcerned “oh” when he continued, “I shhhh – should w-warn you that I used to be…” his head dropped further towards his chest, both in thought and, I expected, with the effort of working around his stutter, “ – quite p-p-promiscuous for a www – while.”
He was growing visibly frustrated, and for a few seconds seemed to sort of hum without being able to actually produce any words.
Eventually he was able to continue: “Jjjjj… just for about a year, when I was m-much yyyy – yuh – younger. But… what happened at the library – th-that may not be the last t-time that hhhh – happens.” He shook his head sharply once at the end, as if trying to exorcise himself. A college-aged kid walking by with a dog looked at Roy curiously, then looked away quickly when he saw me noticing, only to look back again to give my wheelchair a once-over. That time, I pretended not to notice.
I let out a breath. “Thank you for telling me,” I said to Roy, again succeeding, I thought, in maintaining an even tone. I felt slightly detached, out-of-frame with the sunny afternoon around us, the sounds of laughter and idle conversation, the occasional hum of weekend traffic. Roy had leaned forward onto his forearms and interlaced his fingers, holding them tightly and stiffly, and looked between them at the ground.
I had, I realized, been projecting the image of a certain kind of midcentury gay man onto him – secluded, furtive, his life ruled by an unspoken intensity and punctuated by sexual encounters that were as scarce as they were ferocious. I had, it had to be admitted, also gotten off several times imagining such desperate back-alley encounters, feat. Midcentury Roy.
It was true that Roy’s conversation was noticeably absent of any mention of past relationships – none of the “this guy I used to date” that tended to come up easily in the conversation of twenty- and thirty-somethings. It confounded me now that I had been ready to imagine few, or even no, serious relationships and a little casual sex – but not a lot of casual sex. I felt almost sickened by my own naiveté.
Roy was looking at me now, searching my face anxiously for a reaction. “I’m not sure what to say,” I said, finally. Being honest always worked best for me. “I’m a little out of my depth with this. I think I’ve pretty much said this before, but in case it wasn’t clear, I have never… been in any kind of relationship before, anything beyond a little flirting.” Roy nodded. “So I apologize if I say anything that sounds… dumb, or judgmental – and you should tell me if I do. But I’d really like to ask you some more questions. Is that okay?” He nodded again, his brows furrowed.
I started rubbing the tops of my thighs with my gloved hand, partly because I was getting chilly as the sun descended, partly to burn off nervous energy; at least I hadn’t started spasming.
“How do you feel about that time in your life?” I said after a pause.
He grimaced, then unlaced his hands and sat up to face me more fully. He gestured roughly towards his mouth: “Not gggg – gonna be g-good,” he warned me. I nodded. “B-but I’m nnn-not yyy-using it t-to… get out of talking to y-you.”
I was aghast. “I would never think that.”
He shrugged, and I had to wonder how many times he had been accused of that before.
We both sat back and looked further down the hill, where the college kid I’d noted before was now keeping his gleefully zig-zagging dog occupied with the help of another guy, and a tennis ball. I briefly, wistfully, wondered if the two guys were dating.
“It w-wasn’t a gggg – g – good time,” Roy said beside me. “Th-there were a ffff – f – few years when I was a-angry all – all the time. The sss-sex phase came ttt – tuhh – toward the end of it. For a while I thought I was just h-having fun, that I was happier. I think ssss – s – sometimes I was. But mostly it was a way of –” he mimed angrily shoving something away from himself; I nodded, and reached out to take one of his hands without thinking about it. He looked at my hand with genuine surprise, as if it had come from somewhere else entirely, and then paused, giving me a grateful look. As usual, his hand was ungloved, chilled, and made mine feel absurdly small when he squeezed.
“I sss – ss – stopped after I had some… health scares.” I flinched, and the pit of my stomach sank. “Not… the big one,” he said, seeing my face. I relaxed, a little. “B-but I was stupid enough that it took more than one sss – s – scare for me to actually stop. Th-the fact that I didn’t stop af – afff – after one, when I cleared my head, th – that told me how b-bad it had rrrr – rr – really gotten.
“Around then – was also when I s-started boxing. That helped a lot to – get me out.” He mimed lifting something cleanly out of a box and setting it to one side.
He stopped then, seemingly exhausted. I was genuinely getting cold now, I was growing aware, and my legs, arm, and back were contracting in response, the familiar pain pulling through muscle and joints, setting me slightly askew in my chair. But I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation.
On the hillside below us, the dog was lolling on its side in the grass, as the two guys rubbed its white belly from either side. Good living.
Roy took my hand in both of his and stroked it gently with his thumbs. He was staring off over his right shoulder; the sun was drawing close to setting behind the hill in that direction. Everything around us was tinted a heavy gold; his slightly grown-out stubble glinted.
After a time I said, “Thank you for telling me. I really appreciate your honesty. This is... a lot for me to think about. But I’m sorry that you felt so much… so much pain and anger.” Dimly, I was aware that I was already getting ready to shy away, to seal off the conversation with kindness and courtesy when I could have, and partly wanted to, push ahead, know more, ask more. But I felt unequal, I was flinching away, just as when I longed to touch him more, and didn’t.
From the queasy swirl of anxiety, fearful curiosity, shame (whose shame?) inside myself, I fished up a distinct thought: Coward. Ask him another question.
I went for the most immediate: “Can I ask – was the man at the library anyone in particular?”
“His name is Cyrus,” Roy said with surprising immediacy, and a strange emphasis, as if the name spoke for itself. I could look at his eyes because he wasn’t looking at me; they were tense, slightly narrowed. If anything, he looked angry. “He was ppp – parrr… part of the bad sssside of things. I don’t talk to him anymore,” he said, crisply, swinging his head around to look at me again.
I held myself against the impulse to flinch away from his gaze. “The bad side of things,” I repeated, without really knowing what I was saying.
His eyes slid away to the side, and he made an ambiguous noise, a hmmm that could have been agreement, frustration, a signal that more was to come. After a moment he returned his gaze to me and said, “I don’t t-t-talk to anyone from that time anymore, don’t ggg - go looking.” There was no more anger in his face, just – I thought – a serious desire for me to believe him. And then he gave a hint of a smile and said, “I’m ggg – gg – good at not talking to pp-people.” At the end he lifted his eyes to me in a way that implied other than you.
I smiled reluctantly, gently freed my hand from his to run it through my hair, and then pushed myself to the left to offset the rightward skew of my back. I hated it when my back spasmed, possibly even more than when my arm or legs did – it was the loss of control, on top of the pain; I felt as if I’d tip over if someone gave me a hard enough push.
I kept my good hand on the opposite armrest so I could keep the sensation of bracing myself. All of the physical sensation, the involuntary jerks and slow contractions everywhere but my good arm, I used it now as a distraction to drown out the second-guessing and buzzing nervousness, I pushed myself to just talk through all of it.
“Roy, I want you to be happy. And I want to be part of that. It hurts me when I’ve seen things like this that seem to say… that say that you were hurting yourself. I’m scared trying to talk about this because I have no way of… knowing what any of that would be like, I don’t have a way of seeing into that kind of… experience.
“I don’t even know if you feel like you need me to be able to understand that about you. But I do want to.”
I paused, looked to him for a response, still bracing myself against my right armrest.
He was hunched forward over his knees and looking back at the sunset again, but nodding slowly at what I said. “What do you need from me?” he said finally, simply.
I felt a deep and immediate sense of gratitude, which was quickly stained with guilt. “I need to know that I can trust you,” I admitted.
He nodded to himself again, and then looked back at me and nodded again, more deeply this time. His lips were compressed.
I think we both felt that we had said everything we could say in that moment. Nothing felt closed; everything hung around us. It felt harder but also more truthful than if we had attempted to reach any kind of conclusion.
Finally, Roy reached out his hand for mine again; as quickly as I could, I pulled it off of my armrest to extend it to him. (My back was maybe, maybe relaxing again.) Exhaling, he held onto my hand, hung his head.
I couldn’t stand him looking so abject. I shook his hand until he looked up at me, and I gave him a smile. I glanced over his shoulder – “Propriety police incoming,” I said. Approaching us there was a large family with a father whose gaze was pinned on us, face was screwed into such a sour expression that he looked like the Judginess addition to the Greek Comedy/Tragedy masks.
Roy glanced back, turned to me with an eyebrow lifted and the hint of a smirk. On an unspoken cue, just as the family drew level with us, we leaned forward and kissed. From the disagreeable patriarch, there was an audible gasp.
I doubted either of us would normally have gone for exhibitionism for the sake of it, but the mood needed to break. As the family hurried by under the patriarch’s wing, we shared a silent laugh. The air seemed to clear a bit, until I just felt sore and chilled, no longer anxious to the point of near-nausea.
I became aware that the sun had entirely disappeared below the crest of the hill. There were deep shadows around Roy’s eyes, under his cheekbones.
He looked at me questioningly, without a trace of wariness. I felt a little surge of gratitude again. I can trust you, was my immediate thought, unfair or not, unwise or not.
“I was going to ask… can I go with you to your boxing gym? Sometime soon?”
He tipped his head back slightly, startled. It took a moment before he said, “Shh-sure. Th-that could be fun.”
The way he said “fun,” I hoped he wasn’t overestimating either my willingness or ability to actually participate in… anything. “Just tell me before the next time you go, okay?” I said. I wondered what I was getting myself into, but I was desperately eager now to see into this part of his life.
He abruptly stood and held his hands out to me. The way he was looking at me, I think he would have picked me up by my hands and swung me, if he could have – if I could have. “Let’s go,” he said. “You’re cold.”
The way he was looking at me was intoxicating. I smiled gratefully at him and pushed down on my joystick; he fell into place alongside me, running his hand up my arm until it rested on my shoulder. Around us, blue shadows grew.
About halfway down the hill, Roy suddenly stepped back and dropped to his hands in the grass to one side. There he did about twenty push-ups in rapid succession. I watched, bewildered and fascinated by the display of what I guessed were some sort of high spirits. Roy bounced up to his feet again, breathing heavily and shaking grass off of his hands. His eyes shone strangely in the twilight, and he was grinning a little.
“I could do that too if I wanted to; but I’m so above it,” I said languidly, and propped my chin on my hand in a superior attitude. I wished I could cross my legs for additional effect; to my surprise, I managed to jerk them towards each other enough that I could cross my ankles.
He gave a gust of laughter, bouncing slightly from foot to foot, a big man acting like a boy. He had so much energy.
Do you feel free now? I wanted to ask him, but didn’t. I couldn’t help feeling that a burden had been passed on to me.
Still, I looked at him in the twilight, and knew that I loved him.