Last week there was a story on the news about a tropical storm that had damaged a stretch of vacation homes on Fire Island. As the camera panned slowly up the beach, surveying the scene, I immediately recognized one of the battered structures. I didn’t gasp or anything, but the memories came back to me in a sort of deluge. The funny part is that Ray wouldn’t even recognize me now and not just because I’ve gotten older, lost most of my hair and put on a few pounds. You could say it’s the whole househusband picture. I think about Ray as I pour pancake batter on the griddle, as I stand here with a spatula in my hand and watch the milky pools bubble up and congeal. My son had a sleepover here last night. Now I’m grilling up breakfast for him and his four buddies. The X-box is blaring upstairs, accompanied by some cries of muffled hilarity. We don’t usually allow sleepovers when Jackson has a game the next day, but the boys were so persistent and all the other parents agreed (as they tend to do if it’s a sleepover at somebody else’s house!) and today’s game isn’t until late this afternoon. It’s Little League. Jackson is scheduled to pitch. He’s playing lacrosse this spring too. We had to get special permission for him to do both because the practice schedules overlap, but since Jackson is such a nimble athlete and an asset to both these teams, his coaches quickly agreed.
Talent has its privileges.
Our lives, at this time in the world, are mainly about shuttling our son to and from his sports and activities, then sticking around to cheer him on. I don’t think we’d have it any other way, but this morning Philip, my husband, had to wake up super early to get a head start on the grocery shopping and other weekend errands because later on there won’t be any time and tomorrow there’s a lacrosse tournament in another part of the state. We live in a leafy New Jersey suburb where the downtown area looks like it was designed by the love child of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney, complete with cobblestone sidewalks and faux gas lamps. We came here from the city on the strength of this calculated charm when Jackson was an infant, somehow figuring it meant safety and security for our son, and it’s been great in its way, but we were also more optimistic and naïve about the move than we’d now care to admit. We’ve made lots of friends here, but even in this progressive little community, there have been challenges, even a moment or two of outrage.
Outside the grocery store once, when Jackson was still young enough to be in a stroller, a woman came up to us and hissed that we were deceiving the laws of nature. This happened while Philip and I were standing on the sidewalk discussing brands of organic baby food. She asked us how it felt to pilfer a child from his own mother. This woman had the harried and deranged look of someone who’d been stranded too long at an airport. Her eyes flashed like wet coins in the sun. She careened away from us before we had time to respond. This might have been the worst part, the lost opportunity to take her on. For the record, Jackson’s bio mom was a friend of Philip’s sister, a levelheaded and happy surrogate. Fortunately, the truly ugly encounters have been rare. Our lives are steady and uncomplicated most of the time, which is how I would also describe Philip, even if last night he got a little grouchy when I approved the sleepover.
“It’s all on you then, Keith,” my husband said, referring to the pain in the ass prep work―the rearranging of Jackson’s room, the fishing out of sleeping bags, the care and feeding of five high-spirited 6th graders.
He said this in a stuffy, professorial way, which I guess comes naturally, as he teaches in the history department at a local college. He didn’t mention that a houseful of hooting kids seriously diminished the chances of our hooking up, which is usually a Friday night option for us. That probably irritated him too. A scattershot sex life is one long-married suburban cliché we have not been able to avoid, but I think we’re still ahead of the curve in that area.
If Philip used a tone I didn’t like when we first got together, I’d say “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” and go for a pissed-off walk or head to a downtown bar. Occasionally, I’d stay out all night. I was another person back then. It was some other life. Philip was finishing his doctorate at Columbia and I’d moved into his cluttered studio uptown. For a year or two after we met (I was at Hunter taking some classes and Philip had come to a history conference there called Beyond the French Revolution!) we went on like this, riding the tsunami of my reactions to pretty much everything he said or did. Until something in me just shifted and I realized he was the right guy for me after all. It was like how at the end of The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller finally figures it all out, after her years of hurling chaos and bedlam. That’s a dramatic way to look at it, but my life had been pretty out of control for a time.
My parents were conspicuously unsupportive when I came out to them, and then they were furious a little while later when I dropped out of Northwestern and moved to New York City. They cut me off financially and ceased communication. These were added benefits. It pleased me to raise their blood pressure and stir things up back in Illinois. Coming out had made me rebellious and angry. The fact that I had to jump through hoops for acceptance infuriated me. That I should feel grateful for being tolerated made me shake with rage. I was too superficial to turn this passion into anything productive or political at the time. I couldn’t get out of the way of my own feelings. When I arrived in New York, I was just an angry person without a plan. So I went out dancing in bars and clubs and slept around a lot. That’s how I met Ray. He was a hookup who stuck around or actually I was the one who stuck because we’d gone back to his place, a 5th floor walk-up near Penn Station with a bathtub in the kitchen and roach traps covering every surface of the place.
It wasn’t like some love match had suddenly blossomed between us. Ray’s roommate had moved out the previous week and he needed someone else to pick up half the rent. We had talked more than usual, before and after the messing around. Ray thought this was a good sign. He felt we could get along. He said we’d be like roommates, but with the advantage of sleeping together whenever we felt like it. The label Friends with Benefits had not yet been attributed to anything at that time. I had been living on the Lower East Side in a worse apartment than Ray’s ― but with the added drawback of four other guys to live with. I slept in a pantry off the kitchen there, on a futon that stunk like sour milk. I was willing to give Ray’s idea a shot because I clearly didn’t have anything to lose. Ray probably also saw me as a project of sorts, a blank slate he could spray-paint on. I was twenty-two by then but still new to things. He was older and had been in the city for a while. He once told me he felt like a cat that had nine lives. This was not an original thing to say, but his manner was so jaded when he said it, that it sounded brand new.
I knew something of Ray’s shady side before making the decision to move in with him. On our very first night together, after we’d met in the bar and had come back to his place, as things were heating up between us and clothes were coming off, the door buzzer rang. Ray apologized and excused himself.
“Some business” he mumbled.
He buzzed somebody in and then we waited around until they climbed the five flights. I had tugged my jeans back on, but Ray answered the door in his briefs. An anxious frat boy type came into the apartment breathing hard, either from nervousness or scaling the stairs. Ray held out his hand and the kid gave him an envelope. Then Ray went to the hall closet, rifled through an old shoe box on the top shelf and came back with a small sandwich bag of coke. He counted the money in the envelope and then he handed over the bag. The kid left. We went back to the bedroom and peeled off the rest of our clothes. I’d never known anybody who sold drugs before. I’d been sort of a Boy Scout in that department. People would pass me a joint at keg parties in college, but up until then my alcohol and weed intake had been negligible by any normal standard and I’d never tried anything else. Ray’s business deal had added a bad boy jolt to everything we were doing to each other that night.
When we met, Ray told me he was twenty-eight, but a couple of months later when I was going through his wallet, looking for some cash he owed me, I found an ID that put him a few years older than that. Ray was hot enough to pull off this lie or at least make it not matter. He had a vulpine look to his face and his smile was crafty and restless. His toned and muscular body swaggered along with a feral sexiness too. People always noticed him in clubs and bars and while walking down the sidewalks of the real world too. Early on, Ray gave me an unsparing assessment of my own appearance, as we sat on his wrecked sofa. He told me I just missed having the kind of looks that might write my own ticket. He put his fingers an inch apart and said, “This close.” I was certainly handsome enough, he said, and my body was perfectly fine. Being tall and broad-shouldered was always a bonus, though in his opinion I should bulk up some more. But ultimately, my features, he thought, were a tad too ordinary and wholesome to really get me anywhere, though I could still make the most of them while they lasted, and this was at least something. I was trying to sort out the insult from the compliment in all this. Ray saw the confusion pass across my face and tried to make it right by telling me I was still way ahead of the game compared to the general population. He said this as he nibbled my neck and stuck his hand down the front of my pants.
Ray was a fairly minor coke dealer, as it turned out, and was doing it strictly on the side. He had other financial pursuits. He worked a real job in the office of an interior design firm, handling purchases and deliveries. Ray liked this job. He was getting kickbacks from a furniture supplier in the Bronx and occasionally he’d sell a piece on the open market that he reported as broken in shipment. The important thing, he said, was not to get too greedy, so the chosen article couldn’t be too rare or expensive. And you couldn’t do it too often either―maybe once every couple of months. Ray also worked some shifts for a catering company in the evenings, where he lifted silverware and linen from certain jobs when he thought he could get away with it. He’d bring the stuff home and pawn it at a shop in midtown. He came home once with an enormous soup tureen stashed under his coat and I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair, as he danced and danced with the stolen thing around the kitchen.
I was working as a waiter at a trendy Italian place on the Upper East Side. Ray had done a lot of restaurant work and he knew how you could dip into the cash register and not get caught, how to ring up inflated sales or change the tip amount on credit card receipts to skim money off the top. He taught me how to do these things and this was how I began to supplement my own income too. We weren’t getting rich on any of these little schemes, but we were eating well and going out a lot. Ray bought designer clothes for us at knock off prices from some friend he had in the garment district. We could take cabs everywhere and had memberships to an exclusive and snooty gym. Our looks got us past the ropes at most clubs and we would dance with our shirts off until dawn, coming back to the apartment sweaty and addled from whatever drugs someone had given us on the dance floor. I wasn’t crazy about coke and Ray didn’t believe in free samples. I had to pay like everybody else. I didn’t like the drug because it made me feel jittery and unhinged, like the sky was falling. I had experimented with other stuff, but Ecstasy was the best fit for me, with its special brand of horny euphoria.
Ray and I weren’t monogamous. We weren’t even a real couple. We each hooked up with other people from time to time. I didn’t want to think of it as jealousy, but occasionally I was aware of a shift in my attitude if I returned to the apartment and heard sex sounds coming from the bedroom. This surprised and embarrassed me about myself. Ray was eager to give me the raw specifics of these encounters, but I never wanted to hear the details, a fact that really amused him. Now and then we’d bring some guy home with us after a night at the clubs. Once it was a cocky and wasted stockbroker, who’d bragged about his cars and boats on the way back to our apartment in the cab and then made snide remarks about our ramshackle building as we led him up the stairs. Later, while he was going down on me, I looked over to see Ray reaching into the guy’s discarded pants on the floor, fumbling through his wallet and extracting a wad of cash. This moment said a lot about our life together.
Occasionally, I tried to set some boundaries or at least put the stamp of my own fading personality on something. The second summer we were together, Ray scored an invitation to Fire Island from an older banker friend who had a house on the beach. We’d been out there on our own the previous summer, but on a shoestring, and had stayed in a shitty guesthouse. I had met this banker once before. He had taken us out to dinner at a famous steak house in Brooklyn. His name was Frank and he must have been over seventy, a prim and gentlemanly type with painstakingly manicured eyebrows, which I studied with some curiosity over my menu. Frank wore a red bow tie and had an elfin, elderly charm. He and Ray were both evasive that night when I asked them how they knew each other. I had asked the question mischievously, knowing the answer probably involved Ray’s murky past, a place where anything might have happened.
Over dinner, Frank was complaining that there were no real movie stars anymore. Barbara Stanwyck had recently passed away and he spent some time getting wistful about her, lamenting the loss of her talent and style. He shook his head with regret. He was surprised that I knew who she was (“A youngster like you!”) and this got us talking about other old, long gone stars and how the world was a dark and gloomy place without them. Frank swallowed hard thinking about this. His tie quivered up and down. He was impressed with my knowledge and sensitivity. He didn’t know I’d gotten through a dull Midwestern childhood watching old movies on television when I should have been gathering other types of knowledge that might have helped me better navigate the world.
A few weeks after this, Frank paid to have us fly out to Fire Island and meet him there. This was a luxury and I was excited about it. Others had to take the long train ride and a crowded ferry―“The riff raff,” I joked to Ray, referring to them, “the peasants.”
We went to a pier on the East River and boarded a small seaplane, where a grizzled pilot had us strap ourselves in. There was only one other passenger other than Ray and myself, a ditzy, middle-aged queen with the look of spoiled wealth about him. He eyed us both with an unhappy mixture of desire and contempt. The flight itself turned out to be harrowing, or at least the beginning of it was. When we took off from the river the plane hadn’t lifted off properly or reached its correct altitude by the time we got to the 59th Street Bridge, and so the pilot had to make a quick adjustment and fly underneath it, a risky and illegal maneuver. I didn’t realize the danger we’d averted until he turned to us as we leveled off and shouted that it was the closest he’d ever come to crashing in forty years of flying. The queen, who was seated in back of us, was murmuring a prayer from what was probably his Catholic boyhood and Ray looked pale and unsettled, with a comically bamboozled expression on his face. Seeing Ray like this, in a human context, might have been worth the threat to all our lives.
We landed gently in Great South Bay on a glorious summer afternoon, but there was no pier on which to disembark. We had to get out in the shallow waters and wade to the beach with shoes in one hand and luggage balanced precariously on our heads. Sometime between reaching the beach and finding our way to Frank’s vacation home in the Pines, as we tread along the wooden walkways that covered the beautiful, auto-free island, Ray merrily explained that Frank would be expecting an expression of personal gratitude from me for our flight and weekend getaway. It took me a second to understand what he was really telling me and that’s when I blew my top.
“You pimped me out!?” I screamed at Ray.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Keith,” he laughed.
“No. I’m serious, did you arrange for him to fuck me or something? Is that really why we’re here?”
“No one said anything about the particulars,” Ray answered; in what he must have thought was a conciliatory tone.
“Well, there’s no way. I wouldn’t even shake his hand at this point. It’s not happening. Forget it!”
“What?” Ray said mocking me. “Give me a break. A month ago you were going to do a jerk off video for that creep we met at The Limelight. The only reason it didn’t happen is because he wouldn’t meet your quote!”
This was an exaggeration, but I knew I was on shaky ground if he was going to pursue this kind of argument.
“The point is,” I said, “I get to choose who I screw around with, not you. You do him!”
“Apparently his interest lies elsewhere,” he said coyly.
“The guy’s like a hundred. I’m not that generous. You’re at the outside limit of my acceptable age range for pity fucks as it is!”
I had found Ray’s ID by this time and knew he was shaving off a few years, but if he was insulted by what I said, he didn’t act like it.
“Well, Keith,” he said, “it seems like a small price to pay. You’ve done worse. I mean, we both have.”
I was fuming. It was the sort of anger that bubbles up in you when you are told something you don’t want to believe about yourself, but know in your heart to be undeniably true. Ray was right. We had done worse. We’d become something of a team in this respect when I thought back to some of our adventures. Hustling, in its various forms, was hard to define. The line of demarcation kept moving all over the map. We walked on without another word. When we got to Frank’s house, a stunning glass and steel structure near the sea, with a pool the size of a small pond, I was too upset and embarrassed to make eye contact with the host. There were some other guests milling about and some vague introductions were made, but I didn’t take any of it in. Frank didn’t seem to notice or care about my discomfort and he chattered away in his proper and amiable manner as he gave us a tour of the place. I was to have my own room as it turned out, a clean, stark space with a pine dresser and a freshly made bed. A vase on the nightstand held some drooping lilies and the walls were bare and painted linen white. It resembled a monk’s cell, ironically enough, except for the nice view of the pool.
I didn’t want to stick around the house, so eventually Ray and I went out to dinner. I was still mad and we couldn’t get a conversation going. Rare for us. I left him when he got fake-jolly and tried to get me to go out dancing at Pavilion. I took a long, solitary walk on the beach instead. When I got back to the house it was quite late. I was lying awake in my room when I heard the soft knocking at my door. I got up and answered it immediately. My manner was resigned and bitter, but it didn’t dampen Frank’s resolve. This was familiar territory for him, no doubt, and I imagine he’d had worse responses before various scenarios had played out in the past.
Ray and I lived together for another year after Fire Island, while other things happened to us. I lost my job at the restaurant after they hired a new bookkeeper who discovered my financial shenanigans right away. I was fortunate not to be prosecuted. And a couple of strung out addicts robbed us one night in the apartment when a coke deal disintegrated right in front of us, just as it happens on television shows. Ray was pistol-whipped and lost a tooth and I had the barrel of the gun held to my forehead with such force that it left a crescent-shaped mark for days. We were back to our usual activities and laughing about the incident within the week. We turned it into a comedy skit for people we knew in the bars and the neighbors we liked in our building, but secretly I was freaked out about what might happen next. I had trouble sleeping and began to drink heavily and do more drugs. The truth is I went a little insane for a while. Ray used to joke, “There’s nothing wrong with Keith that a good lobotomy wouldn’t cure.”
It could have gone on like this, I suppose, but my parents intervened and that’s really what changed things. We had barely spoken during the three years I’d lived in the city. They didn’t know anything about my life, but they likely imagined something even worse (it was still the height of the AIDS crisis) and wanted to reconcile. They phoned me one day and in hushed, golf announcer whispers, asked if I might finally be willing to finish my degree. If so, they said, they’d pay for courses and support me while I was going to school. They happened to reach me during one of my saner and soberer moments. It was the morning after a drunken blackout, not my first. I was sitting in the kitchen surrounded by the dirty chaos of my life with Ray, the grim panorama of it. I took them up on their offer before they had even finished talking.
It meant I could move out, but I suppose nothing had been stopping me before. I rented a studio in East Harlem and cleaned myself up. It was the summer again and my classes at Hunter would start in the fall. I left Ray with a minimum of fuss. We didn’t talk much the day I moved, but brandished tight smiles. He’d found another roommate, Ray said, but he told me it was someone he never intended to sleep with . . . not ever. We both laughed at that in a low-key manner. We’d been through some things, but in the end we acted more like strangers who’d spent a few hours trapped in a stalled elevator together. It felt strange to say goodbye. Maybe because we both knew we weren’t going to see each other again.
But when I think about Ray, it’s the morning after Frank came to my room on Fire Island I remember most. I was up early and anxious to slip out of the house. I put on shorts and a T-shirt and walked down that flawless beach again. I went about fifty yards and then stood there watching the ocean, its reeling blueness. After a while, Ray came out to find me.
“How ya doing?” he said, as he approached.
“How do you think?”
“It couldn’t have been that bad.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
And I meant it.
Ray started to say something, but then he seemed to think better of it.
The sky had a gauzy, overcast look, but it felt like this thin layer would burn off soon and then we’d have another fine August day to get through. The waves were rolling up on the shore and I had the silly idea for a second that they were crashing to the rhythm of my heart. Just then a naked man jogged by. There was a lot of that out there, nudity for the sake of it. This guy was young and very handsome, golden and ripped, ideally proportioned ― a parody of perfection. Our eyes followed his shining progress down the beach.
“Now there’s somebody who can write his own ticket,” I said.
“And probably already has,” Ray laughed. He paused for a bit and then added, “But you haven’t really done so bad, have you, Keith?”
“I don’t know how you can even say that,” I told him.
“You’re here aren’t you?” he said.
“For now, I suppose,” I answered tiredly. “Like everybody else.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you, kid. I’m sorry about Frank.”
“I’m not even angry at you anymore,” I said. “It’s all on me. All part of the journey.”
When I said the word journey I stretched out the syllables and used a sarcastic tone.
Ray smiled. We were quiet for a few minutes after that, watching the ocean together. There was a tanker a distance offshore and some birds I couldn’t identify soaring above us, not gulls, something else.
“I think maybe I’ve misunderstood you all along,” Ray said.
“I think maybe I’ve misunderstood me too.”
But I wasn’t sure what aspects of myself we were really talking about.
“You’re a funny guy.” Ray sighed.
Then he did the strangest thing. He put his hand on the back of my neck and began to rub it gently. I was surprised by this casual affection, which was not like Ray at all. Soon he was pulling me toward him and leaning in to kiss me. We hadn’t done much kissing during the times we’d messed around, but on this occasion, it was a real kiss, long and passionate. My heart was racing from it, like it never had with anyone else before, and in those moments I let myself wonder if this might be the start of our very own love story. Maybe everything that had come before had been leading us to this. The possibility felt as real as the water or the sky. Even after the kiss had ended and we were walking silently back to the house I was quite happy for a time, believing that something had really transpired between us. I was happy for the rest of that day in fact, and even, as I remember it, for part of the next one.
Bill Gaythwaite’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, Chicago Quarterly Review, Grist, Lunch Ticket, Oyster River Pages, Atticus Review, The Meadow and other publications, including the first two volumes of Hashtag Queer: an LGBTQ+ Creative Anthology. Bill’s work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
Photograph by Sean Sinclair