I kissed him first, I’ll tell her. Later, after she’s chosen me, we’ll laugh about him—the young man who was gaping at her. In a few minutes, I’ll slip onto the sofa beside her, kick off my heels, and tuck my legs under me like she has, maybe let our thighs touch. I’ll know what to say. And even later, maybe in bed, after sex, after we’ve gotten to know each other, after I know her name, maybe to get to know each other, I’ll give her the Carl Walchuk tutorial.
But I’m still hanging on this party’s fringes, hidden in half-light, absorbed by the jazz. Carl doesn’t recognize me. He wouldn’t. It’s been almost ten years; I’ve changed, and he’s only got eyes for her, those eyes that made him famous when he was a kid. But they’ve lost their luster. The other cute parts never matured, like his short chin and narrow shoulders, or disappeared, like too much of his hair. His “once upon a time” was already over when we met in college, his last film the pre-adolescent Jesus thing, in French and forgotten.
His attention is riveted to this woman with lips parted like a baby doll’s waiting for a bottle, and he doesn’t sense she’s not his type; his desire gets in the way. I feel what he must suffer, and because I knew him, a nostalgic sympathy. He’ll fail with her, sidle off, fade toward a chip bowl, the kitchen, spill his words in conversations about politics, baseball, bedbugs, each topic a breadcrumb leading him out the door. He’ll never touch her bobbed hair; her earrings swing like daggers as she scoops me from the periphery in the net her gray eyes cast. My sour beer is warm from my grip on the bottle.
Freshman year, back at the turn of the century, I fell hard for my RA—an older woman. “Let me see your eyes” she said, safe in our lair behind the doors of our two-room suite. She slid my glasses from my face with such tender authority I couldn’t speak and kissed her instead. RA Tina knew where and how to touch. Now I trade my contacts for my glasses when intimacy lurks so my lovers can seduce me by removing them.
It was Tina who clued me in to Carl’s history. She was pre-law, and had figured out that a “film and theatre” major yielded the easiest A’s. She read plays, watched movies, and learned stagecraft unnecessary to corporate law.
“You know, that’s the Carl Walchuk,” Tina said of the boy from our floor we graced with our smiles as we passed him in the cafeteria. He’d slide his tray over in hopes we’d sit, but we moved on without a word and took another table.
“Come on— Teddy? Les Jeunes?” I disappointed Tina when I didn’t know something. She said expectation was respect, but often I felt like a failed part of her memory.
“Blank,” I said and passed my hand over my face. Our intimacy was as obvious as an open robe. Our foreheads nearly touched over our trays. I felt the warmth of Tina’s cheek when we turned to look at Carl.
“The movies. Carl Walchuk—” He was laughing with food in his mouth, his fork poised effeminately. “He was a child star. You know,” Tina urged. “His father was that director, Raymond Walchuk. Didn’t you ever see Son of Kong? Not the old one, the remake. And he made all those slasher movies too, the ones always on TV during Halloween week?”
Son of Kong I’d heard of, though I’d never seen it. “Carl was in Son of Kong?”
“Noo—” and Tina wrinkled her nose, sexy in the way anything can seem when love is fresh. “What role would he have played in that? An island boy?”
“Teddy’s a cult classic. It’s based on the J.D. Salinger story. We’ll rent it for the weekend. They say Salinger picked Carl to be in it just before he died.” We watched Carl stare at his plate. “He’s reading a message in the gravy,” Tina whispered. He hadn’t the shine of fame. His surface didn’t even reflect light, as if he were porous. He was on his way to total invisibility.
“Don’t you remember about his father?” Tina’s eyes popped ecstatically, like they did when we made love. Like paintings of saints, they showed us on slides in Renaissance Art, a course she’d recommended during orientation. Saints pierced by arrows, crucified, stretched on wheels, torn by beasts. Aroused by their own suffering— ravaged enlightenment. I never knew if Tina’s eye popping was true inspiration or only imitated from those paintings. When I bulged my own, I felt a rush, like a hurried toke.
I wagged my head no, side to side, like a bell. When we lay together, Tina would cup one hand under my leg, her face inches from my kneecap, and trace with a fingertip the small scar from my high school field hockey days. “Little dimply-wimply,” she would purr at the moon-sliver and dab it with her tongue.
“He was a pervert or something,” she said. “He was making a movie that had to do with child pornography in some way. It had a Russian title. . .”
Tina shut her eyes. I’d let her down again. “Russian title. Apparently, he did something or said something to the little girl, the one who was supposed to be a prostitute—oh—it was Ann Hadley! She was just a kid then— before she became a big star and a rehab slut. I guess there were lawsuits. But Carl’s daddy sort of disappeared after that.”
Carl had left his table; I stared at the empty seat, forcing my eyes nearly out of their sockets. “So his father was some kind of pervert.”
“A sex offender,” Tina said, “no doubt. Probably had to register wherever they lived. Can you imagine that, your father having to register when you moved into a new neighborhood?”
Our knees bumped. Mention of my parents back then evoked slideshow scenes of the moment I would tell them I was gay. Would I sit them down in the den and turn off the TV? Would we be driving in the car, with me in the backseat so I couldn’t see their eyes, except for maybe Dad’s in the rearview? Would I tell them one at a time? (They’d be competitive—which had I told first?) But I never imagined myself actually speaking; I’ve still never said anything explicit, though they’ve stopped asking me if I’m dating anyone when they call.
Tina’s father lived in Florida, and she hadn’t seen him since she was a toddler; for all she knew, he was a pervert. Tina said her mother asked her if she “liked girls” when she was fourteen.
“What do you have now?” Tina smiled, pushing my knee with hers. “You can get the notes on line, can’t you?”
That afternoon we came up with our cruel plan. We lay in Tina’s bed, snug behind the suite door.
“I liked Les Jeunes, his ‘Jesus as a kid’ movie,” she said. “Carl and two other pre-teens, little Mohammed and little Buddha. It was obvious that he didn’t understand a word of French—he was just mouthing syllables. The other two spoke perfectly.
“You know French?”
“Bien sur. I’m a mystery, girl. You’ll never get to the bottom of all I know—but you better keep watching, there’s a lot to learn— don’t ever let anyone get to the bottom.” Her hand slid down my ass, and I wasn’t sure if what she’d said was anything more than a bad pun. She rolled toward me. I loved the tiny pimple on the chin that nearly touched mine and offered my own imperfect face. “Let’s fuck with his head,” she said.
I didn’t know cruelty until Tina taught me. Deliberate cruelty, not the accidental meannesses we exhale with almost every breath.
“Why?” I giggled-choked. Her eyes were a blur, her nostrils black and moist.
“Just because. How about because his father’s a pervert? How about because he used to be famous and now he’s just a nothing? How about because he’s defenseless?” My face tingled from her breath and the scent of her herbal shampoo. “But you’re not really anybody ‘til you don’t need a reason.”
I didn’t have a reason, which I guess made me somebody. But for Tina, fucking with Carl turned out to be a way of finishing a final exam project.
“We all get the same two-page script, ambiguous lines exchanged by a couple, and I’ve got to direct what the characters do and how they say their lines. Carl and you will do the scene.”
“Carl and me?” We were walking across campus with our coats wrapped around us and our collars pulled up over our ears. Our hair, her blond, my brown, whipped behind us like the manes of galloping horses. I told her I didn’t act.
“You don’t?” Tina’s face crimped against the wind. “We could have used performance majors, but I don’t really know any of them, and it’ll be easier if you and Carl do it. He will. He’ll be flattered. He’ll consider it a last, desperate chance. Trust me, he will.”
“But I don’t act,” I repeated.
“You’re going to kiss him,” she said, lowering her voice. We both grinned at passing acquaintances. “Passionately. It’ll be the climax. We’ll blow his mind either way.”
Tina was out of breath from talking or the pace or the wind. Her saint-eyes swelled and watered. “If he’s gay,” which we’d wondered, “he’ll hate it. If he’s not, we’ll let you break his heart.”
Of course, Carl accepted. When Tina praised his films, he blushed. “That was a long time ago,” he said, as if he was looking at a photo album his grandchildren had brought to his nursing home. She didn’t tell him yet about the passionate kiss, but for the two days before our first and only rehearsal, it was all I could think of. I’d kissed boys before. Madly and deeply, drunk at high school parties. I’d even gone all the way once with a guy as stoned as I was, a friend of a friend, at one of those events where the parents are away for a weekend. I remembered that male taste, metallic, complicated with whatever we’d been drinking and smoking. Like an exercise, really, like pre-Botox face stretches my mother did. Like a trip to the dentist—the war with a foreign object, fighting a gag reflex.
We rehearsed in Tina’s room. The “couch” where we would exchange our lines and then our kiss was her bed, where she and I clung together nightly. When Carl shuffled in, did he notice the smell of sex the scented candle didn’t mask? We smoked a joint while Tina explained the simple premise she designed around the required lines: boy and girl argue over an undefined misunderstanding, break up, but share one last kiss that’s so meaningful it renews their love. “It’s got to be some fucking kiss,” Tina said. “You’ve got to kiss like you’re saving the world from a terrorist attack. Remember,” she smiled as if she were anticipating an exquisite pain, “my grade depends on it.” She took the joint from Carl. “Your hand’s shaking. Are you cold?”
Carl held his toke and shook his head. Or shuddered. He didn’t seem any more like an actor than I did.
“Put your arm around her,” Tina said. “Get used to it. It’s how the scene begins. Would you both please sit up straight?” Carl laid his hand on my shoulder. I felt his cold palm through my shirt. We’d memorized our lines in minutes: “I don’t know anymore,” “Neither do I.” “Well, then,” “Yes, well, I guess that means . . .” “You’re beautiful,” “Is that enough?”
Carl rubbed my back. It was an awkward, but kind gesture. His damp hand stuck to the fabric. We’re fucking with him, I told myself. Tina was deadpan, but amped. We said our lines. My mind was on the kiss at first, and I only said words, until I found myself listening to Carl—his voice was a surprise, soothing and natural, and I responded easily. When he got to “You’re beautiful,” I forgot we were rehearsing a scene. I believed him. I felt beautiful. Once in Sunday school I was given a plastic cross. If you held it up to a light bulb and counted to a hundred, then took it into a dark place like a closet, it glowed a faint blue. I felt as beautiful as that cross. “I’m gay,” I almost said a moment before our lips met. Parting mine, I parted his, and I expected a certain taste, but instead, it was sweet, like a vanilla wafer. Our tongues met, and I probed his, and he responded. The kiss evolved, and I felt Carl following my lead, then embellishing. He was taking something from me, learning. When we pulled apart, flushed and breathless, I knew that Carl had just finished his first kiss.
“Cut! Cut! That’s the end, blackout here,” Tina called. She was studying us. She peered into my eyes like an optometrist. “Really good, guys. But I think we’ll just fake the kiss. Or not even—just go cheek to cheek. Carl, keep your back to the audience. It’ll be easier.”
So good-by passion and terrorist threat. Carl’s first kiss was my secret, but I told Tina later I was one hundred percent sure he wasn’t gay.
“No kidding,” she laughed. “Enter has-been, exit, lovesick fool. Did you see his eyes? He almost walked into the wall!” When she embraced me, I imagined a fresh scalp pressed between our hips, but I couldn’t tell from which of our belts it hung.
Tina got a B: her own fault, not Carl’s or mine. Her professor expected more sophisticated blocking, better lighting cues, and “Why didn’t they really kiss?” During the scene, I had submitted to a numbing humiliation that lifted when Carl told me again that I was beautiful.
Had I really stolen his heart? He and I barely spoke in the weeks following our performance. When we passed, our eyes pushed away like magnets of the same pole. After winter break, he slid a Valentine under my door: a paper heart, folded and cut inexpertly out of red paper—instead of a point at the bottom were two little bulges. He’d written a poem: “If we saw the air with different eyes, / We’d ride the wake of butterflies. / XXXOOO, Carl.” Maybe the cutout wasn’t a heart—maybe it was a red butterfly.
Hearts can atrophy. Not long after Valentine’s Day Tina and I made the nature of our relationship public. We held hands. We sat even closer. We nibbled little kisses when we met or parted. After three weeks, we broke up, quietly, behind our closed suite door. Things had never really been the same since we’d fucked with Carl. I’m sure Tina blamed me for the grade that ruined her perfect GPA.
You wouldn’t be the first to break his heart, I want to say to the woman I’ve joined on the sofa. Jazz fills the Park Slope apartment like blue cotton. Why wouldn’t an upscale, hybrid party like this—husband the director of my financial management team, wife a professor, apparently someone Carl knows—fall under the shadow of the past? In a disguise accretes: my hair’s a different color; my tailored clothes boast the loss of twenty pounds; my nose is improved. Carl couldn’t possibly know me now, but the woman regards me with interest, and I smile at her frankly.
“Do you know who that guy was?” I ask. “The one who was staring at you before I sat down?”
“Who?” she asks, but she doesn’t take her eyes from mine, doesn’t pretend to scan the room, and the air is humming.
“That was Carl Walchuk,” I say. “He was a movie star.” I don’t say: sweet, but weak. Weakness fronting as gentleness. Or kindness. Someone who would always find himself on the wrong side of cruelties. Tina taught me that. It’s a hell of a world.
This woman’s gray eyes drop mine, and I feel myself fall. She’s looking up at Carl, who’s returned, like a ghost. He holds a beer in each hand. Up close, I can see the lines years of disappointments have etched around his mouth and over his brow. Until he hands a beer to my sofa partner and to me, I’m sure he’ll drift off, defeated. I brace for recognition.
“I don’t know anymore,” he says. He closes his eyes. His silent suffering is thrilling.
“Neither do I.” It’s a reflex—the next line from Tina’s scene. Like a prayer you haven’t said in years but will never forget. I smile. I never acknowledged Carl’s Valentine. He disappeared after freshman year.
“Well then—”she says. To Carl.
“Yes, well, I guess that means—” My words break in my throat.
“You’re beautiful,” Carl says to the woman with the dagger earrings. She’s glowing, lit from inside, and I shiver, as if whatever fuels her has been drained from me. That’s enough, I think. I stand, surrendering my seat to Carl, who hasn’t looked at me since handing me the beer. It’s a hell of a world.