I am grateful to the tenant who left the lavender liquor in the kitchen drawer. Right away, it feels fabulous, a sensation I might never have again, especially if I go to law school to escape poverty. Apart from euphoria, nothing remarkable occurs as I walk onto the porch of my humble rowhouse and then onto the drizzle-spattered sidewalk. But in front of Grossman’s ornate building, near the community garden with the broken fence and trampled flowers, there is a car with two officers on patrol. I can’t decide if I want to puncture their necks and swill down their lives or just ask Dr. Cooper to rip the lips off their faces. I am sure Dr. Cooper will say good-bye to Grossman’s fiancé, Giselle.
“Dr. Manolo, you alright?” Grossman says when he answers the door. He calls me Doctor because we have been working toward Ph.D.’s in the English Department at Homewood University. Staying focused on the title was the only way to endure the program. Although I am leaving, Grossman continues to call me Doctor. “I want to know how things went in D.C. yesterday with your friend from the Peace Corps in Africa,” Grossman says then drops his voice to a whisper, “Don´t worry if Giselle tells you anything about her past lives, but call immediately if she starts sharing personal stuff about this one. I´ll be in the bedroom on a call with my family.”
“I heard that,” Giselle says. “Grossman can tolerate my Catholicism, but he recoils at my having been Saint Joan in a previous life.” Giselle is beautiful, and none of her eccentricities can diminish Grossman´s attraction to her.
“I ignore the other incarnations,” Grossman says, “but the Maid of Orleans won´t let me rest.” He turns to Giselle and implores half in jest, “Please use our separation to sever your connection with her. There must be some way to expiate this karma.”
“I’m sure there is, dear,” Giselle says, “but not likely without Joan in the mix.”
Grossman´s eyes are a darker brown than the beard along a jaw he immodestly claims is just like Jussi Bjoerling’s. But Grossman’s vanity does not extend to his Swedish idol’s lungs or throat: Grossman is asthmatic and baritone. In good weather, nonetheless, Grossman claims he can deliver a dozen A’s any evening, solid. At Princeton, he has repeatedly reminisced, he received enthusiastic applause for his Purcell and Britten.
“I fear Joan’s being around less often. We may miss important guidance. Now please give me a moment with Dr. Manolo,” Giselle waves Grossman away then turns to me. “Come here.” She beckons me to the chair next to the sofa where she is smoking an unfiltered cigarette. She wears a gray wool dress, knit like mail armor from her past lives as a warrior. It is the same shade as her eyes. “Tell me truthfully,” she says, “does my Catholicism impair my charm?”
“You are sleeping with a man you’re not married to,” I say, “and you believe in reincarnation. Either you are deluded in considering yourself Catholic or you are practicing a novel form of it.”
“In this life only,” Giselle defends herself, “and I am wary of its novelty.”
Giselle savors the friendship of gay men, and Grossman seldom exhibits jealousy. I like the candor the three of us have approximated or dissembled in the two weeks since Giselle arrived.
“Nor does your charm impair your Catholicism,” I say.
Giselle smiles, “At convent school in Rouen, almost every girl passed through a reincarnation as Joan, generally during a lesbian dalliance.”
“Your connection lingered?”
“Yes,” she says, “but at increasing cost. Do you know what feast we celebrate tomorrow?”
“A wild guess,” I hazard, “Saint Joan?”
“Later this month, but not tomorrow.”
For me, between Easter and Christmas, the calendar is a blur. “I don´t know,” I concede then add, “Grossman says Cooper may come over to wish you good-bye.”
“I think Dr. Cooper is going to Annapolis before dawn,” Giselle says. “Anyway, I hope he doesn’t come while you’re here. You sink into anguished longing around him.”
“Maybe,” I say “but it´s what´s available to savor.”
“If you wish,” Giselle says, “I can summon Joan for guidance. Hers is a perspective from centuries away.”
“No.” I say. “She may attack the only pleasure I have — as pure or tainted as it may be.”
“Then you´ll have to defend it.” Giselle says. “Summon your courage.”
“I have lost all courage in matters concerning Cooper.”
“My point exactly,” Giselle smiles triumphantly, “although tonight you seem different.”
“I am a little,” I say. “And as the lavender extends its sway, I will become increasingly bold.”
“I told you to throw that poison away,” she scolds then continues, “now back to tomorrow´s feast? Guess again.”
“Is it a protectress of the Franco-American imperialists in Viet Nam?”
“No! It is Pentecost, the feast of bondage to language and literature. The Holy Spirit sets fire to the scalp of everyone in the upper room and impresses them into service. Each head burns with a different flame; each flame confers facility in one of the tongues of the world – facility sufficient to preach a gospel and not do much of value. In Paris, we still see them strap-hanging on the Metro. They paraphrase the same few paragraphs in an idiom too foreign to connect with their own hearts or ours.”
“A first thrust into effortless language learning,” I say, never having learned anything effortlessly. “Unfortunately, very few upgrade to the premium version of the program, so misunderstanding is inevitable.”
“With legalese,” Giselle says, “the premium versions of the program create the most misunderstanding.”
Grossman returns, reading glasses down a little on his nose. “My family is still disappointed that I didn’t accept Uncle Richard’s invitation to join him at Cambridge. They hope I’ll transfer after the M.A. here.”
“England is much closer to France,” Giselle says. “Why are American men reluctant to accept help?”
Grossman pleads for understanding, “I hadn’t met you yet.”
“Had we met, would you have decided differently?” Giselle asks then addresses a more important issue. “How will you decide now?”
Grossman turns to me, “Dr. Manolo, can I fix you something to drink?”
“Bring us the chilled champagne,” Giselle says then turns to me, “You see how pleased he is be rid of me.”
Grossman blushes, “What does that mean?”
“O, he does not love me!”
An arm out, loose and abrupt, Grossman falls backward onto the sofa, his mouth open, tongue lolling.
“No,” she says, “he is not amusing. For two weeks I have cleaned the flat. Yesterday I made beef burgundy in the mode of Rouen, a secret convent recipe, after scavenging for ingredients throughout this distressing neighborhood. And today, when I ask if I should wash his socks, he yells, ‘Are you crazy?!?’”
Grossman covers his face a moment then raises a hand and waves to me, “Would you like some champagne?”
“Yes, please” I say, “to show how happy Giselle’s visit has made us.”
“Have you written today?” Grossman asks.
I frown how little by suggesting, between my thumb and index, the smallest wafer of text. Most law school applications require an essay on the aspirant’s motivation and skill. I have been composing a mock-heroic about the incipient struggle for gay rights. “Today, I worked a little on the invocation.”
“An invocation! Rather daring, no?” Grossman says as he backs into the kitchen.
“Or pretentious,” Giselle says, “and probably the manifestation of desperate desire.”
“All three,” I agree then ask if Giselle is excited about returning home.
“Yes, perhaps,” Giselle sighs then says, “Grossman won’t ask why you are leaving the Ph.D. program and applying to law school. He is so tactful it’s embarrassing.”
“No secret,” I say, “I couldn’t read fast enough to complete the seminar assignments.” For a second, my chest fills with the self-revulsion that often accompanies disclosure of weakness. I will seal the channels by which it invades my life. Law school should help.
“What seminar was that?” Giselle asks.
“The Victorian novel.”
Giselle coughs, tries not to choke. “Bad choice for a slow reader.”
“The other courses too,” I say, “If I read fast, I don’t enjoy the literature. And no matter how fast I read, I never complete the assignments.” One more weakness out of the closet. The lavender has started to fortify my candor, as well as my cravings for Cooper and my impatience for his arrival.
Grossman sticks his head into the living room, “Did someone say enjoy literature? That’s not for teaching professionals. Enjoyment is how we market our courses to students so enough will enroll to protect our jobs.”
“Something beyond enjoyment,” I counter. “Cooper says that, when he was in Viet Nam, he survived by reciting poetry.”
“Imprisoned by Viet Cong?” Giselle asks.
“That, yes,” I fib, “and later tethered to a desk in Saigon while his mother was dying back in the States.” No harm in puffing up the beloved’s credentials, especially in a competitive job market.
“I didn’t know that,” Grossman says. “The retired lieutenant and you have become close friends.”
I blush at the mention of the bond I have created with Cooper, despite mistakes in raising sensitive subjects with him. Cooper quickly flees any praise, so I have learned to resist comparing myself unfavorably. But I miss triggering panic in his large chestnut eyes. “The poetry is why Cooper is here to get a Ph.D. – to repay his debt of gratitude to literature and impart its survival skills.”
“He is a beautiful man,” Giselle says, “but I don’t understand how someone with so many muscles can have such a tiny waist.”
Tiny waist is an odd point of entry, I think. There probably is a thick blue vein running along his stomach. But my interests lie in nether parts, the richest blood, the most exquisite agony as it leaves the body.
“What happened in D.C yesterday?” Grossman says. “Is your friend from the Peace Corps okay?”
“I still don´t know why he couldn´t complete his assignment in Africa,” I lie, “but he´s a resilient guy, and now he´s safe from the draft.”
“Then why are you depressed?”
“Something happened while my friend was finishing his exit interview. I was waiting in a park near the building. It was sunny, near noon. There were people eating picnic lunches on the lawn and pigeons gathering around for crumbs. On the other side of the park, there was a homeless man stretched out on a bench. It bothered me.”
“War and academia are hell,” Grossman says, “but don´t surrender.”
“Not at my farewell,” Giselle pleads.
“The homeless man rolled off the bench,” I say. “I could almost feel the thud when he hit the ground. He lay there, dead, I think. I was too fearful of contagion to approach him, and nobody else seemed to notice at all. Not even the pigeons bothered to come around and peck at him. After a while, the park police showed up with a stretcher and hauled him away.”
“Such terrible indifference,” Grossman says, “You won´t see that in Paris.”
“No,” Giselle says, “our pigeons are more aggressive.”
Grossman moves to a less morbid subject. “What poems did Dr. Cooper recite in Viet Nam?”
“I never asked,” I say. “I thought that might be prying.”
Giselle cannot conceal her frustration. “Another male paralyzed by tact!”
I laugh, “I was afraid he might say Coleridge or Tennyson.”
“And then,” Giselle smiles, “his choices would have hurled you more deeply into love.”
“Dr. Manolo, I can handle your being gay,” Grossman says, “but if Dr. Cooper also is gay.”
The doorbell rings. Cooper, at last. “Sorry, I’m late,” he says upon entering the apartment and produces a bottle of Evan Williams. Another confirmation of our shared tastes. Cooper probably can spend a lot more on liquor.
Grossman holds up the bottle. “Bourbon after Giselle has gone. Tonight, we’re serving champagne — ersatz alas. This late in the semester my stipend’s run thin.”
Giselle greets Cooper and points him to the chair a distance from mine. “Dr. Manolo is about to declaim the invocation he composed today.” From the kitchen, Grossman calls Giselle to help with the glasses. “Excuse me,” she says. Hands up, fingers resting at her shoulders, she sashays from the room.
Cooper remains seated but leans forward and says, “May I ask how things went at the draft board this morning?” Cooper is the last surviving male of a wealthy family from Mt. Zoar, a community in rural Virginia. He has just finished military service that allowed him to avoid combat, perhaps through the network of alumni at Sewanee or another citadel of the Confederacy.
“No surprises,” I avert my gaze. I have never desired anyone as much as I do Cooper. I can almost taste tearing into his flesh when we leave. I anticipate devouring with such abandon that one of us will render the other enslaved or dead. “The draft board questionnaire asked whether I am sexually attracted to other men; and I answered, under penalty of perjury, yes.”
“It’s an unjust law that excludes gay men from the military,” Dr. Cooper says.
“But it also spares cowards the risks of combat,” I say.
“I’m indebted to I don’t know what for my own survival,” he responds, “and it comes with less stigma than yours is likely to receive. As a lawyer, you can advocate changing such things.”
“As a lawyer, I hope to do every good thing that won´t interfere with making money,” and, unable to control my candor, add, “I am afraid of remaining as poor as the parents who conceived me this time around.”
“Teaching literature, I won’t earn a lot,” Dr. Cooper says.
“I can earn enough,” I say, “but my slaving that many hours won’t leave much leisure.”
Dr. Cooper smiles, “No one could survive frequent bouts of the kind of leisure you’ll likely need.”
I recall the bus ride to the army depot that morning, past a cemetery hill, one of the oldest in Baltimore. What once were terraces have blurred into sinking plots of land. The white and gray tombstones are no longer erect. They lean in all directions and look like monstrous maggots burrowing out from the ground where they’ve been gnawing at bodies beneath the surface. Thoughts of carrion spike the warm feeling that the lavender has produced.
Giselle interrupts with a smile, “Grossman wants to know whether you would like something to eat.”
Cooper smiles yes. “Okay,” I say. I remember a girl across the table in the library earlier that evening. She slipped a large yellow gum drop from her purse and held it a moment between her teeth, like congealed bile, then chewed her way slowly toward the exit. Across the room, at his assigned carrel, Dr. Cooper, in brown boots and tight khaki trousers, stood up and stretched every half hour or so, then shifted from side to side. To display his glutes, I guess, or ward off cramps in his legs. On the lawn behind the library, there was a protest against the University’s military research. The assembly raised candles for the dead and wailed like an animal helpless on its back.
The bright clinking of glasses, their stems down through Giselle’s fingers distract me from reverie. “Champagne!” comes Grossman from the kitchen and places, on the table next to Cooper, a bottle stopped in a saucepan filled with ice. Delighted, Giselle applauds the sommelier from Tour d ’Argent. Tossing his hair loose across his brow, his arm out, Grossman beams, “Three stars! Five forks! and other things that make mad the guilty and appall the free.” Then he suggests other things, “Piper Heidsieck? Veuve Cliquot? No, gentlefolk, my stipend’s run aground.” Nonetheless, he offers a glass of generic sparkling, “to Giselle’s safe return to France and to Dr. Manolo’s invocation.”
“Yes, let’s drink first,” I say, valor threatening to desert this post.
Grossman kneels in front of the stereo and his large collection of vinyl. He ushers an Angel recording from the ranks and shows it to Giselle. Hair in check at her temple, she examines the cardboard jacket then urges Grossman to release John McCormack, his other opera idol, into the evening. Giselle herself has freed Grossman from his own restraints by pulling out all stops a few weeks the previous summer, as only a French girl can, Grossman has boasted. She had risked finding herself alone in an airport terminal; but Grossman was waiting to help with the luggage. He eases the record down the spindle of the turntable, then lowers the diamond stylus into the wax grooves. While McCormack sings “Il Mio Tesoro,” I drift into a vision of Cooper’s interior, all sinew and silk, and peopled with magical, pastoral creatures whose long tresses emerge as hair along his stomach and chest.
When the song ends, I force myself to recite. The invocation takes longer to lumber through than I had imagined it would. Half-way in, all audience interest has fled. But I continue to the end. Grossman displays disapproval with, “Massive and concrete! And Saint Joan? Her appraisal?”
“Joan is enthralled by its boulevard monumentalism,” Giselle says,” but apprehends it may be too cluttered for any rational traffic plan.”
“And yours, Dr. Cooper?” Grossman probes.
“Dr. Manolo,” Cooper asks, “do you really think that will get you into Harvard?”
“Not the prose alone, but it’s followed by an anagogic jingle.” Before I can resume my recitation, Grossman moves to another track. With one hand on Giselle’s knee, the other at his chin, he mimes drawing from his chest the lure of “Cara Selve”:
Come, my beloved,
Through the Sylvan gloom,
I wander day and night;
Oft I call thee,
Come, my joy and my delight.
Gentle zephyrs, fan her,
Banish love’s alarms.
Tell her how I languish here.
Guide me safely to her arms.
Cooper says he has never heard longing as elevated as Handel’s and asks to hear the aria again. Grossman obliges then narrates an apocryphal encounter between Jussi Bjoerling and John McCormack. “Bjoerling asks, ‘How is history’s greatest tenor today?’ McCormack answers, ‘When did you become a soprano?’” Grossman laughs at his own irreverence. Soon it is time for Giselle to finish packing for a morning flight. Thoughts about her own lives have softened her disapproval of my love for Cooper. Perhaps too late for me, her final admonition is against timidity.
Outside, the earlier drizzle has become a storm. I begin to waiver, but there may be no other opportunity to be this close again before the end of the term. I ask Cooper what poetry he recited in Viet Nam.
“Whatever I could retrieve from memory.” He is eager to get out of the rain but adds, “Marvell, Herbert, Donne.”
A man of such refined taste. The thought propels my cravings beyond any the lavender alone could have wrought. We reach the community garden and are about to separate for shelter.
“One more thing,” I blurt, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”
“Don’t worry,” Cooper says, “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“It’s not the crush that’s secret,” I say. “It’s the underlying appetite. At first, I just wanted to become friends because most of the other students were married. Then this longing arose and messed things up between us.”
“From the start you fixed on me,” Cooper says, “then damaged our chances by concealing what you craved.”
“It’s too late now, I guess.”
“In a few hours, our veterans’ group leaves for Annapolis.” Cooper offers to shake hands and says, “You’re wise to give up literature. But don’t ruin your law school application. And if you’re serious about money, no quirks at interviews.”
“Law school should require less reading,” I say, “and pose fewer risks of infatuation with competitive classmates.”
“Classmates!” Cooper teases, “You mean I’m not the only man you’ve been stalking here.” Both of us laugh. Cooper pauses at the garden gate. I touch his shoulder. He doesn’t wince or resist. I examine then caress his bull neck.
When my mind and the night sky clear, I can retrieve nothing of the pleasure or pain for which I had hoped, but our clothes are spattered with dirt and blood. “I’m high maintenance,” Cooper says.
“I can earn enough,” I say, but the idea of working that hard has become as insipid as too much to read or the ability to feign.
“Not with money,” Cooper says. Although he has to rush away, he asks about seeing me again, after the wounds have healed completely or, at least, enough to arouse. This early he avoids risking boredom. None of my friends would understand this disappointment, except perhaps the one gone mad in the Peace Corps in Africa. I head back to my rowhouse, the wretched law school application and the other aids or snares prior tenants may have left.
Chuck Teixeira grew up amid the anthracite collieries of northeastern Pennsylvania. Early on, he earned four university degrees, including an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For many years, Chuck worked as a tax attorney in San Francisco, California. Now he teaches English in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review, Two Thirds North and Jonathan. Collections of his work are available at Amazon.com.