Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Play Right

As a pedigreed bodysurfer, it was embarrassing to have misjudged so badly.

When he was a kid they called it getting scrambled, being hit so hard by a wave that you were tossed around like a rag doll, no sense of which way up, limbs spiraling then washed onto the sand like a starfish or a dead crab. Thrilling.
But in Montauk, he wasn’t thrilled. There was a steep drop-off from beach to water, a shelf really, and he slammed into it, not knowing where air was, plus an added complication of a flare of pain from the base of his neck to the small of his back. He thought about Rich Havermeyer as he pushed away from the bank and tried to determine what the hell was what.

Then, out of his nowhere, a big arm reached around his waist and pulled him to the surface. Such amazing sunshine above; he’d forgotten how beautiful the day was.Sam hauled him to the shore and they climbed out like athletes in a sport yet to be invented, 56 years of exercised biceps and triceps between them, collapsed on their backs on the meager slip of high-tide beach.

Gasping, dying, but somehow still alive

“That was… stupid,” Jack said through heaves.
“We didn’t… know,” said Sam through his.

They panted, panted, panted some more, then rolled and kissed.  They’d known each other two hours.
When sturdier, they climbed the steep stairs back to the party, stood by the pool, the only men with shirts off and wet bathing suits. They drank drinks someone handed them. Vodka and cranberry juice, a ridiculous punch, Pimm’s and soda? Jack had no idea; it wasn’t working anyway because of his adrenaline. 

Somehow still alive

He couldn’t talk, so stood focused on the doubles match. Sam’s shoulder was against his and he said, “You should go play.”
“They’ve already got four.”
“They’ll let you in.”
“I don’t have a racket.”
 “They’ll give you one.”

So Jack went to the court and they did gave him a racket and let him play. He was erratic but elegant, had no volley to speak of but an excellent serve. They seemed to like him. He was handsome and friendly too.

It did the trick: he calmed down. An hour later, back poolside, he had another something and was instantly drunk as hell. Sam’s arm half around him, his palm on Sam’s back.
Guys were talking the South Fork. Silly stuff about Southampton as the only place that mattered, Wainscot and Sagaponack byways, East Hampton Hollywood, Amagansett rusticity. Everyone agreed that Montauk was where to be in this gorgeous instant, where their host was the most famous playwright going. Where he had almost drowned.

Jack’s contribution, met with silence: “Harriet the Spy lived in Water Mill.”
Maybe not his crowd.

They weren’t allowed in the house. The host was inside with his aversion to sun and his distaste for parties. He loved his boyfriend but did not love his boyfriend’s friends.

That night, though, he came to their party. Six shared a very pretty, shabby, salt-soaked shingled house off Main Street in East Hampton, backing up to ye olde farm. Jack had just been along for the ride, sleeping on a couch, but was now upgraded to Sam’s room. He showered with him, laughing into his good ear. Sam was half-deaf and had a kind of funny voice because of it. He worked out more than most, had an impressive chest. Later that night, Jack learned that Sam thought sex meant fucking, which was not part of his repertoire.

Not a good volleyer, nor fucker.

Sam and Jack put on different polo shirts and different Bermuda shorts. New and improved, and still alive.

It was a true old house with crazy staircases where you didn’t expect to find them and at least three levels on any given floor. It was very easy to get lost. After a couple of drinks of whatever anybody handed him, Jack was finished with small talk and so just wandered around. He was thinking about his friend in high school who had gone away on a weekend fishing trip and never come back. He was thinking about Havermeyer, his friend in college who missed his final semester because of a bodysurfing accident, paralyzed, airlifted from Florida to Ohio.

Where was the shore? Buddy died, Rich went on, Jack came to the Hamptons, to a Montauk party, to the beach with Sam. Unscathed, except for that persistent pain from head to lower back, dulled now by vodka and cranberry juice, or punch, or Pimm’s and soda.

Plunging down a staircase, he found himself in the kitchen, not as nice as you might think, and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. When he turned around, the playwright was there. It was just the two of them, a bad song playing in the next room, maybe Billy Joel?

“Hello,” the fellow said. He had small lively eyes.

“Hi,” Jack said. “Thanks for this afternoon. I almost died, but otherwise it was a lot of fun.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t. That would have been inconvenient.”
“You don’t seem like the rest of this crowd.”
“I look like them.”
“Maybe, but angular. Anyway, I said seem.”
“I’ll take it as a compliment.”
“You’re with the big guy.”
“No. Not yet.”
“Trying it on?”
“I don’t know another approach.”
“Definitely different.”
“They all try each other on.”
‘But don’t admit it.”
“Maybe not.”
“You are a very nice tennis player.”

"My dad taught me. I’ve got old-fashioned strokes. I’m not very consistent. Sometimes I hit my backhand with two hands and sometimes with one. And I never know what I’m going to do until the ball is coming right at me.”

“You’re a writer.” Jack bowed his head. If he weren't so ruddy from the sun, his blush would have shown.“Film school, screenwriting.”
“Why would you do that? They’ll change your words.”
“If they ever give me a job, I’ll test the theory.”
“It’s not a theory, it’s the truth. But I hope they give you a job.”

Then Sam, of everyone, came into the kitchen.
“Hey.  Hi. What are you guys talking about??

The thing about Sam was that he didn’t really enunciate very well. He might save your life in the afternoon but talk indistinctly later. It was hard to say what Jack most responded to. Chest, saved life, speech impediment.He really wanted Sam to shine in the playwright’s mind. It was intolerable that… Anyway, Sam started talking about real estate and Jack reached in the refrigerator and got him a beer, and the night went on just fine. Except that when he glanced back after grabbing the Heineken, the playwright’s head was cocked, his small eyes saying I don’t believe that this is who you really are.

Up in bed at four a.m., Jack said buddy buddy buddy. And Sam said that Jack was making him feel like a pervert.

“I don’t think that.”
“You act like it.”
“I feel close to you.”
“You don’t act like it.”
“I just… I’m kind of basic. Hey, tell me about the time you were on the swim team.”
“I wasn’t on the swim team.”
“Oh? I was.”
“Go on.”

“I wasn’t good. I could only swim breaststroke, and even then just competed in the city meets. A lot of the guys swam state, even nationals. The coach was this very handsome man in his early thirties, a real asshole…”
“He threw kickboards at your head when you were slow. Which I was. All the time.”
Sam rubbed Jack’s head.
“I ended up quitting because my friend…”
Suddenly Jack felt emotional. It had been a very long day. But he regrouped. “This seems like a fake story,” he said. “But it’s not.”
“No,” Sam said. “Your fake story would be sexier.”
Jack laughed, then dove in:

“My friend died, drowned on a fishing trip. He and his father and another boy and his father. The drowning part of it didn’t really affect me. My mind. I just didn’t like the silence in the pool. When you are swimming laps, there’s noise, of course. You hear the water and when you’re taking breaths, the echoes in the natatorium. But you tune those out, so it just seems like silence.  Before, I’d sing songs to myself, but after I couldn’t get Buddy out of my head.”

“Buddy? Is that why you called me Buddy?”
“No, I just meant you’re my friend.”
“So, when I quit it happened that the coach was also my homeroom teacher. My morning warden. He sure as hell didn’t teach anything. And he said in front of everybody, “Today, Jack is going to move. He’s going to sit with the girls.”  For some reason, maybe natural selection, the guys were on one side of the room and the girls on the other.
“What did you do?”
“I moved.”
“What’s weird is that I don’t remember anything about him for the rest of tenth grade. Literally don’t remember another day in homeroom. Years later, after I’d finished college, there was a big scandal. Turned out he’d been sleeping with a bunch of girls, including my babysitter. She had to testify in the trial. He went to jail.”
“Man. You had it rough.”
“Well, I was pretty popular, and I guess that mattered more.”

“Were you popular?”
“Umm… I had the hearing problem and had to take speech therapy. So got made fun of.”  Sam dropped his voice: “Saahhmm.”
“Aw, come on!” Jack kissed him.
“But then I got big, so they had to stop.”
“And I wasn’t smart like you.”
“I’m only okay.”
“What’s his name seemed to like you pretty well.”
“What does he know?”
Sam trapped his leg. “I’m not tired. How about you?
“Exhausted, not tired. What do you want to do?”
“Talk. Kiss.”
“Kiss. Talk.”

Of course they fell asleep right after that, mid-kiss, mid-word. Jack slept dreamlessly, his favorite way. When he woke up it was past eleven and Sam was snoring. Attractively snoring. Jack extracted himself from that that big lion paw and retrieved his clothes, surprised by how shockingly orange his Lacoste was.

He had absolutely no idea where he was in the House of Seven Gables, padded barefoot down splintery halls and tripped slippery stairs until he refound the kitchen.
There were three guys there, all smiling.
“Bloody Mary?” said one.
“Cajun!” said another.
“Coffee?” said Jack, and it turned out they had that too. With chicory; there seemed to be a theme going on.
“Hey, you’ve got a fan,” said the third.
“Good to know. He’s still asleep.”
“No, not Sam.”
The playwright had been singing his praises.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Jack said.
“Oh, the opposite,” said one.
“He’s really mean,” said another.  “We go because of Brian, and because it’s cool to say you’ve been, but it’s always the worst. It’s insane that you can’t go in the house. And insane that he stays inside and watches through the window.”
“But he certainly likes you.”
Jack sat on a stool and changed the subject. He was dense in morning fog and they were chipper, skittering around subjects like hummingbirds. There was a hummingbird feeder right outside the window, so Jack didn’t have to look very far for his metaphor.
Sam came down yawning and tickled his orange belly.
“Boys,” he said, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat on the stool next to Jack.
Then: “You, buddy, talk in your sleep.”
“What do I say?”
“Pretty much gibberish, but kind of singing.”
Later, Sam told him that he’d been working in a grocery store. And drowning.
In the kitchen they talked about oysters and gumbo and JazzFest, and ultimately drank very good Bloody Marys with spicy pickled green beans. The gents were gearing up for another pool party, but Jack was headed home and Sam was going to take the ferry across the North Fork to drive back to Connecticut. Jack was relieved about that, but sad too. Maybe more sad than relieved, which was promising.
Sam dropped him off at the station. They didn’t talk on the way there, just held hands, but when they got out they faced each other across the Audi trunk and said their stuff.
 “I didn’t expect this,” Sam said. “I mean, of course. But when I saw you yesterday I thought you were… “
“Not going to be somebody who liked somebody like me.”
“A snorer?”
“I do like you.”
“Great to hear. But.”
“Please don’t make me say more things.”
“I won’t ever make you do anything. But.”
“You can’t be embarrassed by me.”
There were mothers and children around the parking lot, businessmen headed back for the big week ahead.
“You are smart. You speak well.”
“And last night in the kitchen…”
“Last night in the kitchen, you were kind of embarrassed by me. Because I’m loud and my voice…”
“Sam. You don’t embarrass me.”
“No, really?
“Really. Nobody embarrasses me, not even my parents.”
“Cool. So I can fuck you?”
Jack smiled as big as he’d ever smiled.

Jack came around the car and kissed him, not even thinking about the parking-lot people, then got on the dirty train.

He drank a beer in the bar car and hung out in-between things, scanning potato fields. There were two teenage girls running around laughing, Manhattan private school girls, Chapin probably, Harriet the Spies, who seemed to think he was somebody, kept coming by him. He bummed a cigarette from a lawyer and stood staring at the flat land, smelling it, his addled mind mixing up Sam and Buddy and Havermeyer, wanting to be home again.

The Chapin girls kept coming out and singing a rhyme that made no sense. He rather hated them.
In the bar car, the lawyer was talking New York City. “This is what everybody knows but nobody will say. We are drowning. We are drowning in a sea of self-righteousness, of pandered children, of ineptitude. We are under water.”

Jack rather hated him.

But back in the Village, all was good again. There were porn stars headed to Julius, drug addicts under the trees, and Joyce in her usual spot next to his apartment door, in a clean white nightgown, brown legs outstretched, enormous melanoma still there on her cheek.
“Some people like to move around a lot!” she told West 10th Street. “But I like to stay in one place.”

Jack waved and went inside.

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