The Margins of Tolerance
by Eric Sasson
We used to have sex on the dining table. We used to drop to our knees in the kitchen, fuck like convicts against the bathroom walls. The curtains of our apartment in Chelsea would be only half-drawn in whatever room we were in, a mocking gesture towards modesty. It made Parker hot to think one of our neighbors might be watching.
But then we moved out to Paragon, New Jersey. Two months ago we settled into our charming house, with all the accoutrements: picket fence, backyard, trimmed hedges, cheerful neighbors. A house, because houses mean responsibility, maturity, normalcy. Still, to be fair, a gay house, at least on the inside, with wainscoting and accent walls, Barcelona chairs and Lucite chandeliers. Paragon is known to be a bastion of liberalism, a community as averse to bible-thumpers as any zip code in Manhattan.
So it shocked me when, within a few weeks, our fucking was sequestered to the bedroom. “It seems pretentious, don’t you think?” Parker said when I made a comment about it. It was a Saturday night. We’d normally have gone out dancing; instead we were retouching paint on the molding. “Like we’re trying to be these wild young studs.”
But Parker had never been ok with sex in the bedroom before. The new house had large windows in almost every room, practically floor to ceiling. “I love all the light,” Parker said, when we’d scoped it out that first time.
We’d first discussed moving six months ago. Parker took me out to Babbo, a fancy Italian place in the Village, and with a mouthful of beef cheeks, said that it was time for us to settle down. To become a part of the fabric of society. To which I replied that our fabric choices seemed appropriate enough thus far, as I arched a brow and took a sip of my Amarone. You know what I mean, he said, revealing those sexy folds in his forehead that still bewitched me after all these years together.
Of course I knew what he meant. When you reach your late thirties, certain things are expected of you. Parker and I had already done the bar circuit, the clubs, the parties, Fire Island, Provincetown. We had tweaked, X-ed, G-ed, snorted, sniffed, passed out, blacked out, ménage-d and beyond. Sometimes we still did, but four years into our relationship, we knew that, for the most part, this would soon be behind us. Still, I had to wonder what was ahead. When Parker said settling down, was he expecting us to follow the model of straight society? Were we going to tie the knot now, raise a family in the ‘burbs, scope out pre-K schools and have bi-monthly bowling nights with the Jensens and McGuires?
He asked me to come out with him to inspect some towns near the GWB the following day, and I paused, swirling my glass a few times. Then I told him I’d love to. I may have been ambivalent, but I was moved. He was picturing the rest of his life with me. Which was pretty wild. Parker’s amazing. How many times have I heard it from friends: you’re so lucky to have Parker in your life. He’s so solid, so responsible. I’ve tried not to read too much between the lines. But they’re right: Parker provides. Parker plans, and things turn out well. He also makes seven times as much as I do. Which is probably why I always felt like I didn’t have the same say as he did in making these decisions. I was concerned about falling victim to suburban malaise, but I suppose what reassured me was that while Parker didn’t discuss his tendencies much—his preference for being tied up, for instance, or the fair share of anal cream-pie and bukkake videos in his porn collection—it never stopped him from indulging in them with gusto. We also had a six-month rule, where each of us was allowed one night of outside-the-relationship sex. Condoms strictly enforced, no repeats, or follow-up hey-how’s-it-goings. He never mentioned taking any of this off the table.
It didn’t take long to get used to the idea. We found the right house, the next-to-last nouveau Victorian on a cul-de-sac lined with elms that radiated wisdom. The house had an enormous sunroom in the back, which would serve as my studio. And then there was all the planning: I hate to admit to such a cliché, but we were two gay men decorating our first home. Needless to say we were beyond excited, and Parker’s smile—if one can still call something that large and radiant a smile—was euphoric and infectious. Watching him as he directed the movers around the house, assigning each box to its appropriate destination—it was like he had been waiting for this opportunity all his life. Parker had grown up in the suburbs; I suppose this was sort of a return home for him. I remember closing my eyes: the air smelled woodsy, sharp and cool. Birds were warbling in the trees. I felt soothed, and still, somewhat uneasy. Was this just Parker’s fantasy, or could I share in it? Manhattan was noisy, and messy, but what if I were just as messy and noisy myself?
Later that day, Barbra and Stan Shiner appeared at our doorstep. We had waved hello to them a few times before, when we had come to take measurements on weekends. Stan was a hulking man, certainly a football player in his day. He shook our hands vigorously and his smile was warm and mellow. Barbra was a bit harder to appraise. Tall, and quite thin, her sunken, dark eyes were both probing and uncertain, as if they bored deep into your soul but weren’t sure what they saw there.
She had a bottle of merlot in her hand, which she handed to Parker. “It’s not a pie,” she said. “But then again, this isn’t Georgia.”
“We figured you two for red drinkers,” Stan said.
“We don’t discriminate,” I said, inviting them in.
“Neither do we, trust me,” Stan said, and then laughed at his own joke.
“I love your color palette,” Barbra said, as her eyes scanned across our living room. “So soothing.”
“Thank you.” Parker beamed. We had argued about the sea foam green, and he’d won out in the end.
“So,” Stan said, clapping his hands together. “You guys up for dinner sometime? We’d love to have you over. Barbra makes a mean Beef Bourguignon.”
“How’s next Tuesday sound?” Barbra asked.
“Next Tuesday it is,” Parker said. I nodded along, and the Shiners wished us the best of luck getting settled.
“My, aren’t they pleasant,” Parker said, grabbing two glasses once they had left.
I laughed. “Far too pleasant.” I had unwrapped one of my more recent works, a painting I jokingly entitled When Hell Freezes Over, a Chagallesque collage that included, among other scenes, a female priest presiding over a wedding of two male rabbis. I wanted to see how Parker felt about setting it above the fireplace.
“Hmm,” Parker said, holding a finger to his lips. “I don’t really see it there. Do you?”
“It’s basically in the same location it was at the apartment,” I said.
“Maybe we should change things up a bit,” Parker said. “New house and all. Plus wouldn’t Midnight Picture Show look better with the Nakashima bench and the womb chair?”
“It’s my favorite piece,” I said.
“Of course,” Parker reached for my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “Mine too. I just thought it would showcase better in the study. Much softer lighting there. But hey, artist knows best, after all.”
I smiled, but inside I was cringing. Softer lighting, my ass. Still, his logic was sound. It would look better in the study. “No. You’re right. Midnight Picture Show it is,” I said. I sorted through my other canvasses to find his suggestion. Midnight Picture Show featured a drive-in theater with mostly straight couples watching Brokeback Mountain. Some of the couples were making out. The figures were natural, the hues soft, almost muted, as if to suggest how ordinary the whole scene was.
“So what do you think?” I said.
“Of course. Exactly there,” Parker said. He was busy rearranging the fruit in a bowl on our dining table and hadn’t bothered to turn around. It angered me, but I said nothing.
“So you’re ok with dinner?” he asked.
“With our new neighbors. Stan and Barbra.”
“Oh,” I said. “Of course.”
When people ask me what kind of artist I am, I tell them the fucked-up directionless kind. Which I suppose is true, given my experimentation. I get bored easily. Primarily I paint, but I’ve dabbled in sculpture, and collage, even anime. Last year I designed my own video game, the first gay-themed RPG I’m aware of. In it, you choose from an assortment of characters—gym queens to yuppie HRC lawyers to librarian-chic lesbians—and follow their journeys as they fight discrimination, eating-disorders, bitchy friends and drag queens hogging up the stalls at the Roxy. Last year a gallery in Soho offered me a spot in an upcoming show. The promotional materials were going to describe me as a “new-wave provocateur”. Looking up the other artists in the show I knew I couldn’t allow myself to be pigeonholed. So I turned them down. Of course Parker was disappointed. Imagine all the exposure, he said. What he meant, but didn’t say, was how I could turn down all the money the show might have brought in.
As for Parker, he works in Midtown as the operations coordinator of a company responsible for the inspection of new claims. When a detergent company claims, for instance, that its formula is “Even sudsier!”, Parker sends his workers out to make sure that the formula is, in fact, sudsier. Not too long before our move I noticed Parker began accepting lots of invitations to corporate gatherings, be they potluck picnics, after-work drinks or weekend brunches. It baffled me, since Parker usually talked about his co-workers behind their backs, like bleached-mustache Paula, his boss, or Long Island Andy who added a W to words like dog and song. I didn’t get why he wanted to be accepted by people he didn’t particularly like, and I teased him about it.
“Houses are expensive, Chase,” he said, taking me far too seriously. “And I’m due for a promotion.”
I didn’t challenge him on that point. Of course I got the schmoozing. But I’d been to some of these events and Parker was faking it, shooting the shit about sports and cars like he really cared. It made me wonder if he’d ever give people enough credit to meet him on his own terms. How did he know all that effort was even necessary?
The first week passed by like a summer storm. When we weren’t filling up bookshelves or grouting bathroom tiles, Parker saw to learning more about our neighbors. I found out that Lou was the manager of the deli three blocks over, and that Molly our dry cleaner had a crush on Anderson Cooper. We had a Turkish restaurant not too far away, although the owners, apparently, were Armenian. There was something seductive about this newfound sense of community. I could see why Parker liked it.
Parker even stopped by the local Episcopal church and picked up a flyer about an upcoming bake-off. “The revenge of my white chocolate brownies!” he said, while mounting a sconce onto the wall above the sofa. I asked him if the church ordained gay ministers.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “But even if they don’t, they will, one day.”
“Ah,” I said, somewhat shocked that he had found his way inside a church. We had never visited one when we lived in Chelsea. “One day.”
“They just need time to acclimate,” Parker said. And then he flashed his dimples. “Look, Chase. They’ll fear us less once they see we’re really just like them.”
I looked at him sideways. We weren’t those types of gay men, the TV-sitcom-kind-hearted-next-door-eunuch types who made the world safe for faggotry. No, we were not just like them. “Since when do we want to be?”
Parker looked up at me, long enough for me to catch the glint of unease in his eyes before he adjusted himself. He was laughing as he grabbed me from behind and kissed me on the neck. “You know what I mean.”
I put on a friendly smirk. I think I did know. That was the problem.
That Tuesday we headed next-door to the Shiners with a rhubarb cheesecake from the local bakery and a bottle of Prosecco. Stan greeted us at the door, and we men exchanged hearty handshakes. He took us on a mini-tour while Barbra, poking a newly-coiffed head from out of the kitchen, told us she’d join us in a minute. The house was inoffensive and tasteful the way only a furniture catalog could be. Clean lines, lots of safe, potted plants, the occasional vaguely ethnic tchotchke, with a serigraph thrown in here and there to add accent and color to the room. On the coffee table, I noticed an old Vanity Fair with Ellen DeGeneres on the cover. I wondered if the gesture was purposeful.
Barbra came out with a tray of plum wine fizzes. We sat down on their couch, which was, Stan assured us, made of recyclable materials, although he didn’t specify what kind. We chitchatted for a while before Barbra retreated to the kitchen. Then Parker got Stan into a discussion about the Giants, and how his office had season tickets on the thirty-yard line and he could easily score a pair, if Stan was interested. Stan laughed and said that although he was from Pittsburgh and the Steelers were his boys that he’d love to go sometime.
I nodded along for a while but couldn’t help but feel relief when Barbra finally popped out from the kitchen. “Dylan! We’re ready for dinner,” she shouted.
A minute later a boy slumped down the stairs. Dylan Shiner was tall and broad-shouldered like his father, but his pale skin and jet-black eyes were all Barbra. His haircut was choppy and asymmetrical, but his clothes were safely Abercrombie. When Barbra told us he was thirteen, Parker protested that they both looked far too young to have a teenage child. I was also shocked, but more because Dylan seemed older at first. Upon second and third glance, though, I realized my initial impression was misleading. Tall as he was, there was something small about him; he took up a lot less space than his body would have you believe.
“Parker and Chase just moved in next door,” Barbra said.
“So how long have you boys been together?” Stan asked.
“Almost four years,” Parker said, looking at me to confirm the number.
“That’s fantastic!” Barbra said. “I hope this isn’t too personal, but have you guys thought about going to Massachusetts and tying the knot?”
Parker’s eyes widened. “We’ve thought about it,” I said. The safest response, I told myself. Just vague enough to be true.
“Of course,” Barbra said. “One step at a time.”
I nodded my head, imagining us as the latest in a series of diversity exhibits the Shiners were putting on for their son. Had they invited the African American couple last week? Were atheists next on the list?
“Dylan, honey, Chase is a painter,” Barbra said, resting her palm on her son’s closed fist once we were seated at the dinner table. Dylan looked at his mother, and then at me, through the hair covering his eyes. His lips tumbled into a smile, although I wasn’t sure if it really was a smile, because his eyes seemed angry. Not just uncomfortable, which I could understand, but actually angry. “Dylan also likes to paint,” Barbra said, sheepishly.
“So what, mom,” Dylan said. “I also like to watch TV.”
Stan laughed, and then punched his son in the arm. “He also plays guitar, and he’s a yellow belt in Judo. A regular Renaissance man.”
“Right,” Dylan said, rolling his eyes. I had to stifle a laugh.
“We encourage him to try new things,” Barbra said.
“But hey, no pressure,” Stan added. “It’s all about options, right? Not like when I grew up. At his age, after school, I did my homework and played stickball with my friends in the driveway. Or maybe some Atari. You remember Atari? Not like that anymore. They’re doing a million different things now.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. The more they talked about him, the more Dylan seemed to recede, slumping down in his chair as if about to disappear under the table. Of course I understood his frustration. I looked over at Parker, wondering if he was feeling as uncomfortable as I was, but his body language was all sunny skies.
“Dylan’s thinking about taking art history next semester,” Barbra said.
“He might as well,” Stan said. “Probably lots of cute girls in that class, right, D?”
Stan laughed, nervously. Parker joined in while Barbra looked down at her plate. I caught Dylan glancing at me, a look that puzzled me, a cross between fear and anticipation. I tried to put on a reassuring face, my adults-are-annoying-don’t-worry-this-will-soon-be-over face, but I wasn’t met with relief. If anything, his stares became even more intense.
After dinner Dylan took off upstairs and Parker got Stan into talking property taxes, so I joined Barbra in the kitchen to help with the coffee. I could hear Stan guffawing through the door as I watched Barbra take out our cheesecake and slice four perfect triangles. She was curious about our kitchen remodel, asking whether we were going to install a backsplash and what I thought about heated concrete floors, and even though I usually adored remodeling talk, I was still peeved. Was this my role now, to retire with the wives to the kitchen and chitchat between courses?
“Don’t mind Stan,” Barbra said, shooting me a look of concern.
I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to. “I really like your dress,” I said. I had noticed it earlier, but now had a better view of it up close: a Bavarian housedress, with yellows brighter than I imagined Barbra normally wore.
“Thanks,” she said, reaching for the Prosecco. “I made it myself.”
“Really?” I hoped I didn’t sound too astonished. “The workmanship is exquisite. I adore the ruching at the sleeves.”
“I shouldn’t say myself,” she said, refilling my glass. “Dylan helped.”
She smiled, but I wasn’t sure if it was a smile of pride, or disappointment.
“That’s fantastic,” I said. “You guys should go into business together someday.”
Barbra took a large swig from her glass, looking up at the ceiling as she let out a taut, anxious giggle. “We’ll see about that.”
Suddenly the air in the room seemed heavier. “So tell me about Paragon. Any salacious gossip I should know about?”
“You didn’t move out of the city for the gossip, did you?” Barbra said. “It’s a cozy town. The people are friendly and relaxed. It’s just easier here.”
“Easier?” I said. “Easier than what?”
Barbra shrugged. “We lived in Gramercy a few years ago. Stan and I just felt… there’s a unique danger to raising kids in Manhattan. It’s not just the money. It’s the expectations. The precociousness. Kids in Manhattan can be frighteningly blasé. Stan… didn’t want that for Dylan. He convinced me the suburbs would be better.”
“Hmm. That sounds familiar,” I said, smiling. “So are they?”
Barbra looked down to her glass. “There’s a real sense of community. It’s different. It’s nice. Stan’s very happy. Dylan seems to be adjusting well.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Me?” Barbra chuckled. “What’s not to like? It’s comfortable here. You’ll see.”
The tone of her words hardly struck me as comfortable. “But…” I said, wondering if I was opening a door I wasn’t supposed to.
Barbra decided not to walk through it. Instead she took hold of my wrist and gave it a sharp squeeze. “I’m happy you boys came tonight, Chase. Really.” She looked right at me as she tossed back her glass, her eyes searching mine for a tacit, elusive response. Then she lifted up the tray holding the cheesecake and coffee. “Shall we rejoin the boys in the parlor?”
The next time I noticed Dylan Shiner staring at me I was pacing the sunroom one afternoon, having just thrown off my smock in surrender to another tiresome bout with self-doubt. Weeks had passed and I hadn’t progressed on any of my new pieces, and now, standing by the full-length mirror leaning against the wall, I was hit with another blow. The person staring back was old. I took a moment to study him. His skin seemed less vibrant than mine. There were purple purses under his eyes, and a pudginess around his mid-section which was hard to reconcile, since if anything he worked out more often than he used to and ate far better. Who was this man and where had he come from?
And then I noticed it, reflected over my shoulder: a pair of binoculars. Another person besides me was checking this guy out. As soon as I turned around, Dylan had already run off, out of the room which I guessed was his bedroom, judging from the bright posters adorning the wall. I chuckled; his timidity was precious. I went about my business. He could just be trying to catch a glimpse of my work, I told myself. Unlikely, but possible.
The next time I saw him, I was in the den doing butterfly curls on our Soloflex, an early Christmas present from Parker, who was worried that now that the gym wasn’t two blocks away we “would get too comfortable.” (I didn’t remind him that his gym was still two blocks away from his office.) None of my pieces were hanging there, and when I looked up, briefly, the binoculars and the boy behind them didn’t disappear. I realized that from his high vantage point Dylan could look into many rooms of our house, if he wanted to.
Still I did nothing to change my routine. I wasn’t going to embarrass the boy. I didn’t want him to feel ashamed. Parker and I had both grown up with enough shame.
For the next several days, around 3 p.m., I could count on a pair of eyes watching me. Aside from Dylan, the Shiners kept their blinds closed, so he was free to let his eyes roam. It didn’t bother me. If anything, it was amusing. Parker never offered himself as audience to my process, possibly because he thought I might find it irritating, but more likely because he would. Now with someone watching, it was like I had no choice but to concentrate.
Within these new states of absorption I’d often forget he was even there. One afternoon, after toiling for a few hours on a new piece, I decided to jump in the shower for a much-needed break. I was toweling myself off when I headed to the kitchen to fix myself a coffee. While the pot brewed I took off the towel and began to wipe under my arms, and that’s when I looked out across the way, and there Dylan was, standing by the window of his bedroom. His chest bare, his underwear around his knees. His hands on his crotch. Moving.
We locked eyes. Briefly. It was like telepathy. The look on his face was pleading, heartfelt and tender, but sort of angry, too. His mouth hung open, dumbstruck and hungry. Not half a second, but it still sent shivers through me.
I knew I had to draw the blinds. I could have at least headed to the bedroom to put on some clothes. Every thought, instinct and reflex unanimously said go, and yet I didn’t. I had made myself a cup of coffee and I was going to drink it, in my house, on my couch, naked. I’d walked around naked in our apartment before. Parker and I both. It wasn’t such a big deal. Did I know what Dylan was doing? Of course. Still I didn’t leave the room.
A jumble of thoughts entered my brain. Lacrosse captain Steven Bishop in my 8th grade locker room, whispering to me after he caught me staring that I was welcome to suck his dick as long as I asked him nicely in front of his friends. The plush new couch I was sitting on, how Parker and I hadn’t even christened it since we’d moved in. I thought about our sex life back in Chelsea, and for a moment, I got carried away with nostalgia. My heart was thundering and I could feel myself getting erect. I don’t like little boys, never have. If anything, Parker’s the one with the twink fetish. But there I was, getting hard. I didn’t move. I didn’t touch myself. And I never looked back at him. It’s creepy to admit this, but what I kept telling myself was: just give him enough time to finish. Just this once, let the fantasy be consummated. Wouldn’t it be healthier? Even if I never walked around naked again, at least he would have that. I didn’t want to scare him several years deeper into the closet, like me and my years of torture in high school and college.
Ten minutes later I went to the bedroom and put on a pair of pants.
Of course I felt weird the next day. For the next few days, I avoided the studio at certain hours, busying myself with errands around town. Parker was convinced he was going to land his promotion any day now, and he wanted us to throw a housewarming barbeque to “cinch the deal.” We were going to invite a bunch of our neighbors too: people Parker had met on his train rides into the city, at the Stop and Shop, even the “delightful” older woman who had given him the application to the bake-off at the church. He wanted me to search the nearby stores and find some hometown specialties that would add that extra dash of authenticity to our shindig. “Nothing too Manhattan,” he said. “The boys have had enough of artisanal cheeses. Let’s go locavore.”
He also mentioned installing a pool in the backyard. “Paula and Kevin’s kids might like it,” he said. “And what’s his name, the Shiner boy.”
“Dylan,” I said.
“Right,” Parker said. “Dylan.”
Ironically, as much as these capitulations to domesticity were repulsing me, thanks to Dylan, the time I spent down in the studio was finally beginning to bear fruit. In some unexpected way, I had hatched a seed of inspiration from our moments together, nursing it into what I thought might become a breakthrough piece for me. It was more abstract, darker than usual, not as flippant as a lot of my work. I knew it was just plain strange, and yet, in its refusal to be anything, it was somehow managing to be completely itself.
After switching to morning studio hours, however, I began hitting walls, and I panicked. I couldn’t give up, not when I was so close. Maybe I was being irrational, but I went back to the sunroom several days later at 3 p.m., only to find Dylan no longer watching. Not that day, or the next, or the day after. Had my absence scared him away? Or had he simply moved on? I was so anxious to finish I began to get superstitious. What if I needed Dylan’s eyes for motivation? What if without them I would lapse back into the creative void? I closed my eyes and stared at my near-finished canvas. I pictured it in my mind, and then I pictured myself finishing it, and the person finishing it didn’t have any clothes on.
So I took mine off and kept working.
Three days later I was in the sunroom when I noticed Dylan walk out into the Shiner’s backyard. He held an easel and a small canvas in his hands, and he set them down by the fence, beside Barbra’s rhododendrons, facing our house. It was strange seeing him outside, at eye level. He looked more substantial in the daylight.
I was wearing my smock and nothing else. Dylan looked at me. He smiled, a smile that told me I needn’t be embarrassed. I stood behind my canvas and smiled back. He laughed and began mixing his paints. He set them down, made a frame with his thumbs and index fingers, and held them against his left eye. I pointed at myself. He nodded. I guess he intended to paint me.
I watched him. Every so often he’d look back towards his house with what I imagined was fear or suspicion. He made a few broad brushstrokes, and then he paused, holding his thumb against his mouth. He looked right at me, put his hands on his shirt, and mimed pulling it off. I hesitated. Was he serious? I tugged at the strings of my smock and he nodded. I shook my head. He mimed again, his gestures more exaggerated this time. I shook my head again. He laughed. Blood was filling my head. I sneezed out of nervousness.
There was no excuse for taking off my smock, but it’s what I did. I stood there for a few seconds, and the whole time I was thinking, I’m letting this happen. This might help me get somewhere. I thought back to the first time Parker convinced me to eat a steak after I’d gone vegetarian for almost two years, how the tender flesh and salty juices awakened something in me I hadn’t even realized was dormant, how different my work became after that day. So I found a chair, turned it so it faced Dylan and sat down. I closed my eyes. I would be the subject now.
I guess I didn’t hear the screen door open. When I opened my eyes I saw Stan, eyes bright and wide, tossing a football in his hands. “Heads up,” he said, throwing the ball, which landed by Dylan’s feet. I heard it bounce and wobble against the ground. Dylan froze. He looked at me one last time and then dashed inside his house. I reached for my smock as quickly as I could but I wasn’t fast enough. Stan’s eyes had followed his son’s over to me, and I knew what he saw. I knew what he was thinking.
When the doorbell rang I almost didn’t answer it. Parker was out running errands for the BBQ and I was afraid to handle this alone. Sighing, I threw on a sweatshirt and jeans and headed to the door.
Stan Shiner’s breath smelled sour and hot, like pickles peeled off a hamburger. He pushed me against the wall as soon as I let him in. “What were you doing?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said. “Painting,” I said. “Listen, Stan, it’s not…”
“You were naked.” Stan shook his head, like the word stupefied him. “Why were you naked?”
“I’m sorry. I guess it was inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate? Inappropriate? My son is thirteen years old.”
“I’ll draw the blinds from now on,” I said, curling my head away from his face.
“Have you done something with my son?” Stan’s voice was cracking. He picked me up by my armpits and held me off the ground, his eyes centimeters away from mine and seething with the kind of pure disgust I had thought only possible on stage, in an Arthur Miller play. My arms, which should’ve been pushing him away, instead lay dead at my side, and my mouth, which should’ve been denying his accusation, instead called out, in vain, for Parker. I was being slammed against my own wall and my first thought was about the vase on the credenza, how Parker’s aunt had given it to us as a “future housewarming present” six months ago and how upset Parker would be if it fell.
“What have you done with my son?” Stan growled. He threw me across the room. I landed hard, just a few inches from the glass coffee table. I was too disoriented to get up, let alone to answer him. For a second I imagined having done things with Dylan, if only to justify Stan’s blind rage. I wondered why he was home from work so early that day. I wondered if Dylan knew he would be.
Stan pulled my head off the ground by the back of my shirt. “You think this is fun and games, you sick fuck? You move into our neighborhood and this is what you do?”
My eyes stayed shut, anticipating a blow to my face. I could hear noises in the background, beyond Stan’s vindictive barks, past the spit which had landed on my left cheek. Parker had come home, and from the question mark after “Stan, what’s going on?” I could tell he had yet to accept the reality of what was happening.
“Whoa, guys, easy does it now…” Parker dropped his bags down and circled back towards the fireplace, his palms out in front of him in a gesture of civilized arbitration.
“Easy does it?” Stan spat each syllable. “Your fucking boyfriend is a pedophile!”
“I am not,” I said. “Parker?” I looked at him, hoping something would trigger inside him.
“Listen, Stan,” Parker said, his hands up in the air, his tone slow and deliberate. “We’ll talk this out, ok, buddy? But you’re gonna have to let go of Chase first.”
And then I saw a woman’s legs, standing by our door. “Stanley. What in God’s name!” Barbra’s wail was low, very low. If Stan’s face spelled outrage, hers spelled it in even bolder letters. She rushed over and grabbed the arm that was still clutching my collar. “Let go of him, Stan. Now!”
“Can’t we just talk this out?” Parker’s voice had gotten squeaky. He had moved closer and I could tell he was afraid, but it wasn’t clear of what, exactly. I couldn’t believe he was still lingering there, with half of me on the floor.
“Stanley!” Barbra continued to wrestle Stan’s hand off of me. But he just gripped harder onto my shirt, and when I tried to reach around and break free, he grabbed both my hands with his fist and shackled me. I felt small, helpless, humiliated.
“Talk about what? Fuck you both, you and your faggot boyfriend.”
“Now wait just one second,” Parker said, seemingly about to get involved. But it was too late. Because that smack—oh it was something. Even though I saw it make contact, it was more the sound of it than the sight, this awesome collision of palm and cheek producing an echo so hideous, so brutal, so startling and real.
“Stan Shiner, let go.” The poison in Barbra’s eyes, the fury that possessed her at that moment, like she had been waiting to give that smack for so long. “Get out, and walk home. You will never use that word again. Got it?”
Stan looked confused. His eyebrows did a little dance and the muscles on his neck pulsated. He looked at Barbra like he didn’t recognize her. Finally he let go of me. His lips sputtered, and his breath came out staccato, alternating between winces and mumbled words. “Barbra, he’s our son,” he blubbered, like a lost child. “Our son,” he repeated, his eyes beginning to tear.
“It’s ok, Stan.” She reached for her husband, and as she took him he collapsed into her arms. “Let’s go home.”
Barbra held fast to him. The vinegar had gone from her voice. She looked possessed, the way her eyes fixed on Stan, like she wasn’t sure where her rage had come from and how she’d managed to switch back to compassion so quickly. Stan turned to face Parker and me one last time, a wounded drunk in a bar fight, eager for more but content enough with the damage done. Before he stepped out the door, he banged his hand against our wall. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t understand.”
Stan tore away from his wife and stumbled out our door. I tried to stand up. Parker approached Barbra with his hands cradling his face. “I’m so sorry,” he said to her.
“Why are you apologizing to me?” she said, looking at him with pity.
“I’m sure it’s just a huge misunderstanding,” Parker continued.
“I have to go,” Barbra said, looking at me. She reached out to pat my shoulder, but then pulled back before making contact, her hand retreating back to her own forehead. I could sense her embarrassment. The woman she was seconds before had left, and here was Barbra again. She headed out our door.
“Are you all right?” Parker said. He helped me back to my feet and guided me to the sofa.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“What the hell got into him?” Parker asked. “Why did he call you a pedophile?”
I didn’t want to speak. I searched his expression but apparently my silence irritated him—he sauntered off to the kitchen for some paper towels to clean the mark Stan had left on the wall. I watched him open several cabinets until he found the Windex. He should be helping me, I thought. He should be getting me an ice pack, making tea.
“I was painting in the back. I was…I wasn’t wearing clothes and Dylan saw me.”
“Seriously? That’s it?”
“That psycho barged into our house for that?”
“But there’s nothing more to this story.”
I looked at Parker hard. Was this his idea of comfort? He was furiously rubbing the wall.
“You think I fucked around with our neighbor’s son?”
“I never said that,” Parker said. “It’s just…the whole naked thing, Chase.”
I walked over, still unsteady, to the sofa, and stared at him with disgust. “I walk around naked, Parker. I did it all the time in Chelsea. So did you.”
Parker went over to the kitchen and unhooked the Dirt Devil; apparently Stan had set free some dust mites in his wake. “We didn’t have thirteen-year-olds next door in Chelsea.”
“Are you serious?”
“Don’t get worked up. Of course he was wrong. But I’m going to call Barbra. We’ll talk things out. No big deal.”
“Right,” I said. “I think I’ll call the cops instead.”
Parker folded his arms. “And tell them what, Chase? Stan will make up some story about how we’re fucking recruiting their kids.”
I watched as he vacuumed around the edges of the carpet. It crossed my mind that if someone were to look into our house at that moment they would have no idea we were fighting. Maybe that was the point. But I wouldn’t have that. Not anymore. “This is fucking ridiculous. Do you hear yourself, Parker? Recruiting? Dylan is gay. He’s old enough to know. He was fucking masturbating—”
Parker put down the Dirt Devil. He looked at me like I had just thrown up on him. “You saw him masturbating?”
I closed my eyes. The truth was prickly and suffocating when it should have been liberating. Did Parker even deserve it? Did I even care anymore? “Once. He leaves his shades open.”
“You watched him masturbate. A barely teenage boy.”
“I didn’t watch.” I hated the fact that I was explaining. Why was I the one explaining myself? “It was a split second. And I’ve never seen it since. Thirteen-year-olds masturbate, Parker. I certainly did. So did you.”
Parker’s composure was beginning to crack, the colors of his face continuously distorting, like a mood ring gone haywire. “So, what? Did it make you feel attractive? Do you somehow feel young again?”
Maybe if he had raped me right then and there I could have forgiven him. Maybe if he had thrown me over the kitchen countertop, my hands searching for purchase on the unfinished surface where adobe tiles would soon be arranged in classic geometric patterns, maybe if he entered me without lubrication or warning or apology, in front of our large windows, I could have discounted his betrayal, traded the pain I felt for a pain I longed to feel. Instead Parker looked at me like I was the only air-conditioner on the assembly line that had failed the EnergyStar emissions threshold. Where was his new, improved, mature boyfriend, the one that was supposed to come with the house? I half-expected a white glove to come out of Parker’s pocket, but I knew he wouldn’t use it the way I wanted him to. Instead he’d snap it on and run his fingers across the surface of our relationship and find the filthy dust that had been gathering for months now, dust that only now he was willing or able to notice, no doubt surprised to see how careless he had become.
“Did you get hard when Stan hit me, Parker?” I got up and planted my face inches away from his, whispering in his ear while I rubbed his crotch. There was no going back now. “Was that hot for you? Is that why you didn’t even raise a fucking finger to stop him?”
Parker broke free and walked away. I watched him as he paced around, stopping to rearrange the azaleas in the vase on the dining table, stalling to come up with the perfect response. “If Dylan wants to masturbate he could go on the fucking internet. You knew that. But you encouraged him. You did this on purpose. You don’t want to be normal. You want us to fail.”
“Is the piss-loving part of you normal, Parker? Or the fisting collection on your computer? Or does that part not count, because you hide it?”
“He’s a child, Chase. Don’t you get that?”
“He’s their gay child. This is preposterous.”
“You’re preposterous!” Parker’s eyes were foaming. He was finally shouting, too. “You think you’ve made a statement with your behavior? You’ve accomplished nothing. You’ll just be hated. And now they’ll have reason to hate us more. How does the cause advance?”
I flinched. So this was what our relationship was reduced to. “What if I don’t want to be part of your cause, Parker? What if I just want to be me?”
“How you lie to yourself.” He ripped the azaleas from the vase and threw them on the floor. “You think you don’t want acceptance? Your art is all about acceptance! You want it just as much as I do. You just want it on your terms. But no one gets those terms, Chase. You could’ve had a show last year. You didn’t because you didn’t want to compromise on the fucking wording in a brochure. You’re completely out of touch with reality.”
I swallowed hard. Finally, some truth, ugly as it may be. “My whole being here is a compromise,” I said. “I did it for you.”
“Exactly,” Parker said, jerking his head in disgust. “Good thing you won’t have to compromise anymore.”
He looked at me one final time before going up the stairs. I heard a door slam, and the sound of drawers opening and closing furiously. Was he packing his things, or mine? A swarm of thoughts buzzed through my mind. We weren’t married—what was to stop him from kicking me out? I had no rights to anything in this house. Other than my canvases and clothing, everything was Parker’s. I could be the fall guy, and Parker could keep his fantasy home and new neighbors and make amends, because he wasn’t one of those fags, no sir, not good old Parker, he was the right kind of homosexual, the safe kind. He’d even believe it himself until one day he’ll go to shake Dylan’s hand and Stan will cringe ever so slightly, and he’d know just how narrow the margins of tolerance really are.
Dazed, I went downstairs to the sun room. Removing the burlap covering the easel, I studied the image I had created, the naked figures in the void, their distorted faces and bodies, their over-sized genitals, their faces frozen in screams. At first I had imagined these men were representing Dylan. But now I saw that they could be any one of us—Parker, Stan, Barbra, me. Certainly me. There was no point in hiding, and even less of a point in being free. The piece didn’t need any more work. It was ready.
And I am ready. Ready to cast Midnight Picture Show out of our living room. Or better yet, put the new piece right on our lawn, so everyone can see it. I know it’s a pointless gesture. But my rage is defining me, and I’m eager for a pointless gesture.
Outside a mild breeze blows through the elms, a tranquil rustling that stabs at me. The stillness of our neighborhood is supreme, and here I am, with a canvas in my hand, feeling awkward, as if on stage. I sit down in the middle of our lawn, and lean the painting against me. The sun is making me squint. I look up to Dylan’s bedroom. The blinds are tightly shut, and will likely remain that way for a long time. Is Parker right? Was I just looking for an out? And what about Dylan? Was I really trying to save him, or had I only used him? He’s going to feel great shame for what he did, a shame he’ll soon associate with sex, and sooner or later, he’ll end up like Parker, wallowing in private fetishes, deifying the normal because he can never feel part of it.
The sun doesn’t let up. I can feel my face tremble in the heat. In a few minutes I’ll have to go back inside my house. In a few minutes I’ll pack my meager belongings and leave my coward of a boyfriend forever. But for now I look up at Barbra’s bedroom window, and I think, maybe it’s ok. Maybe Barbra will change things. I imagine her sneaking a peek at me through the blinds, and I picture the look on her face, a savage, desperate look just on the verge of finding peace. She’s looking down at me, but she isn’t angry or upset. She’s even giving me a little wave.
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