Cartman

by Richard Natale

illustrated by Caitlin Hogan

Hoodie by Caitlin Hogan illustration for story Cartman - Richard Natale 2011

Jeremy sleeps less than five hours a night and never more than two or three hours at a stretch.  He’s tried everything from meditation to counting sheep but his body just flaps like a caught flounder and his brain goes round and round and round, rebounding from one memory to another without reason, without resolution. 

At four a.m., long after he’s given up hope, he slides out of bed and splashes his face and brushes his teeth in the bathroom down the hall.  He dons his uniform, a royal blue polo, black cotton slacks and sneakers, and skateboards down Hollywood Boulevard, empty at that hour, silent except for the occasional sputter of a failing neon sign.   He usually arrives at the health club in more than enough time to open up at five, flicking on the overhead lights, logging into the mainframe and stacking two piles of fresh white towels on a folding table beside the front desk. 

Groggy and out of sorts when he enters, the moment Jeremy assumes his perch behind the front desk, he becomes cordial, even effusive.  It’s a trick he learned from Cartman.  No matter what was roiling him, Cartman’s face was always a mask of composure and good cheer as if it operated independent of its owner’s emotional encumbrances.  

As members sleepily trickle in, Jeremy greets them with a chipper good morning and the occasional high-five.  His mind is already racing ahead to his eleven o’clock lunch break when he will disappear into a darkened corner of the empty Spin Class room, bunch up his hoodie and catch forty.  It’s the only clean sleep he gets.  The vibrations from the music in the adjacent workout area soothe him like a heartbeat.  He is awoken at exactly five minutes before noon by the faint blue buzz of his wrist-watch, a garish old Japanese-make LCD he purchased at Out of the Closet for $2.  It’s where he buys most of his wardrobe.  He’s thin enough and slight enough to wear women’s or men’s sportswear, which doubles his choices. He tends toward dark colors and muted prints.  He once had a handsome mane of dense, tightly curled auburn hair but now shaves his head once a week with an electric trimmer he also bought at the thrift shop.  A solid gold stud, his most prized possession, dots his right ear and there’s a slight chip in one of his front teeth dating back to a childhood accident.  Anytime he’s on the street after dark or before dawn, he keeps his sweatshirt hood pulled up, which gives him a slightly menacing look, the kind of young punk who despite his size, you grapple with at your peril — another handy tip from Cartman.  

The contrast between his daunting outward appearance and his affable, good humor makes for a sexy combination and he’s frequently hit on by the gym’s gay regulars.  A couple of the older men have even made vague Sugar-Daddy offers.  He tells them all the same thing: He’s involved, which in his mind he is.  The women and the straight guys are also drawn to him but in a more protective way and they are always trying to get him to open up.  Fortunately, Cartman taught him the art of dancing around a question and then quickly changing the subject.  

“Where you from, Jeremy?”

“Kinda nowhere.  We moved around a lot growing up.  Hey, have you checked out the new chocolate protein shake?  Awesome.”  

“How old are you, Jeremy?” 

“Like my mom used to say, ‘older than I look, younger than I feel.’  Wow, look at you.  You’re getting so much definition. I’m impressed.”

The only person to whom he’s confided even the barest details of his life – she wouldn’t have hired him otherwise – is the club’s unforgiving manager Magdalena, a middle-aged, overly-Botoxed and collagened termagant with a flash temper and a flaying tongue.  Once she starts in, she doesn’t stop until the employee has been whittled down to a twig.  No surprise that the place is a revolving door and Jeremy is constantly breaking in new hires.  Though Magdalena is well-aware of his midday catnaps she has, for some reason, let this infraction slide.  She rarely snaps at Jeremy and then it’s usually something innocuous like “Shape up” or “You should know better than that.” He immediately apologizes, even if he can’t figure out what he’s done wrong.  Some days she leaves part of her lunch next to him at the front desk.  “I can’t finish this.  It’s disgusting.  Does anyone want it?”  No one ventures near the half-eaten sandwich or salad.  They either refuse to touch anything that’s been near her foul mouth or are afraid it’s some sort of trap: “Who told you, you could help yourself to my lunch you moron?” Jeremy lets the plate sit there for a while then quietly slips it into a drawer and finishes it later in the storeroom or on the way home. 

From time to time, Magdalena tries to get him to talk about himself simply and she’s harder to elude than the rest.  “Answer the question and don’t change the subject,” she barks.  So far all she really knows is where he was born and that his parents are still alive.  He’s pretty sure they are, not that it would matter one way or the other.  If he bears them no ill feelings it’s only because he has no feelings for them at all. 

Jeremy grew up in one of the many anonymous one-and-a-half street towns in the Mojave Desert along the highway to and from Vegas which cars drive by without ever noticing.  Neither rural, nor suburban, they’re not even real towns, simply designated post offices encircled by a litter of shacks and double-wides.  The kids in his town and the three or four adjacent ones all attend the same schools from elementary through twelfth grade and are picked up every morning by an industrial gray school bus with unpadded wooden seats.

Cartman lived about two miles away on foot.  They started talking to each other on the bus in fourth grade and were rarely apart after that.  There was an immediate kinship, though it took awhile to divine its true nature.  

Cartman’s real name was Thomas Fontana, though that wasn’t his real name either.  He was officially adopted when he was twelve by Salvatore and Irita Fontana, his fourth set of foster parents, and then only because Salvatore needed someone to attend to his invalid wife, to cook, clean, bathe and feed her.  Salvatore put in insane hours at his gas station, the only one on the highway for twenty miles in either direction.

The nickname Cartman came from his dead-on impression of squeaky-voiced Eric Cartman, the rotund, self-absorbed character on “SouthPark.”

“Hey, Tommy, do Cartman,” the kids would shout across the dusty, sun-scorched playground.

“Respect my authoratay!,” he’d scream and everyone would crack up.

He eventually stopped answering to Tommy and insisted everyone call him Cartman, even the teachers, who readily acquiesced, because in addition to being a bit of a clown, he was a born cajoler with a Tom Sawyer-like knack for getting others to do his bidding.

Cartman was almost pretty with soft, feminine features – an unblemished, creamy complexion, shoulder length sandy hair and translucent blue eyes.  It was hard to refuse him anything even if you suspected you were being snowed.  On the rare occasions that his wheedling didn’t do the trick, he could tap into a submerged rage that was all the more unnerving because it contorted his angelic features and caused his body to flail unpredictably in every direction.

The first time Jeremy witnessed Cartman’s temper was in junior high.  Some older boys started picking on him in the schoolyard during recess, ping-ponging Jeremy from one kid to the next until he was bruised and disoriented.  Then Cartman appeared out of nowhere like a thunderclap, his face a fiendish red, spittle flying from his mouth.  A couple of the larger boys tried to swat him away but he ducked their fists with the agility of a prizefighter.  Then he let go a banshee yell and jumped on the back of the biggest boy, Fred Ellman, and tried to gouge his eyes out with his thumbs.  Fred threw him off easily but was clearly traumatized and from then on the group avoided all contact with him or Jeremy – which suited them both just fine.  No man is an island.  But two can be an archipelago.

Mostly, however, Cartman kept his anger in check, preferring to seduce with honey sweetness and endearing befuddlement.  He somehow talked his reclusive neighbor, Mrs. Dolgen, across the street into helping him with the house chores and to check in on Irita until he got home from school even though she couldn’t stand the Fontanas and had her car serviced by Salvatore only because there were no other options.  In return for the odd chore and picking up his mail every day from the post office old Gus Sherman prepared him a tuna noodle casserole, a beef stew and a tin of Ziti every Saturday, which Cartman stored in the freezer and popped in the oven during the week. The other nights he barbequed hamburgers and hot dogs on the backyard grill while he did his homework, although usually it was Jeremy who did the grilling and most of Cartman’s homework as well.

Cartman was naturally bright and might have been a better than average student but he had only two passions, cars and, later, sex.  When the Fontanas first took him in, he became besotted with Salvatore’s garage, always hanging around, watching and learning, jumping in to lend a hand any time he could, pumping gas if Salvatore was too busy.  He wore out the pages of car magazines and pored through auto parts catalogues like they were juicy detective stories.  He taught himself how to drive a stick shift when he was ten, practicing on an old loaner Salvatore kept behind the garage.  He took the car apart and put it back together, not once but three or four times.  Even though he had no license, not even a learner’s permit, it was Cartman who drove Irita to the hospital in Barstow, got her admitted and visited her every day for the next two weeks until she died.  After that Salvatore let him work at the station after school and on weekends.  At first he refused to pay him, arguing that Cartman was getting free room and board.  Then customers started asking for him specifically and Cartman went on strike until Salvatore agreed to cut him in for 25 percent.

In sixth grade Cartman asked Jeremy to be his Valentine, presenting him with a goopy greeting card with a giant red satin heart in the middle.  Jeremy was flattered but somewhat flummoxed until Cartman explained that a Valentine was supposed to be for someone special, and who could be more special than your best friend?  That made sense and he didn’t want to be a jerk so he accepted.

At the beginning of the summer, Cartman suggested Jeremy sleep over at his house so he wouldn’t have to walk him home and back in the dark.  “Come on, be a pal.  It’s wearing out my shoes and I can’t afford a new pair every couple of months.”

Jeremy saw no reason to refuse. His parents certainly didn’t mind.  They hardly noticed him when he was around, as if he was some white noise they’d tuned out long ago.  Jeremy’s father worked on a Vegas hotel loading dock and came home only on weekends, most of which he spent splayed on a dark blue vinyl Barcalounger watching television and snoring.  On Sunday, he or his wife would pick a fight and his father would drive back to Vegas early and his mother would go out for a long walk in the desert, usually to Jacob Tunstull’s trailer.  She would return in the middle of the night smelling of stale beer, her face abraded from Jacob’s permanent five o’clock shadow.

Jeremy had never shared a bed with anyone before, not even as a child and he enjoyed lying on his back and talking to Cartman for hours until they feel asleep.  In the middle of the night, Cartman would entreat “Spoon me” and they would huddle together.  Though neither had reached puberty yet, they easily got erections, which they casually showed off and occasionally touched.  Nothing more than that.  Mostly they talked and laughed and spooned, especially in winter when they were startled awake by the eerie howls of the unbridled desert winds.

Then something changed and they were never boys again.  With puberty – Cartman first and Jeremy shortly thereafter – came experimentation.  It didn’t occur to them to feel self-conscious or different.  They were friends, not fags, not queers, and were just having fun with their new toys.  They would search the internet for free porn – men with women, men with men, didn’t matter. Everything excited them.

Then things changed again. After tossing a football in the backyard for an hour or so, Cartman grabbed hold of Jeremy’s hand like he was taking possession.  He walked him inside, shut the bedroom door and kissed him.  Not a porn kiss, a romantic movie kiss, extended and deep.  Cartman’s mouth tasted rancid but Jeremy didn’t want him to stop.  Kissing made everything before seem childish, inconsequential.  There was an intensity and purpose to the sex now, and few boundaries.  It was another language and they acted as if they’d invented it.

When Salvatore was awakened one night by their unreserved moans, he barged into the room and began cursing at them, the usual deprecations about sin and perversion.  Cartman jumped up on the bed and pierced the air with his index finger.  “This is the person I’m going to be with until I die, so get used to it, you fucking Dago.”

 

Sometimes, when it’s slow behind the desk at the gym, Jeremy wanders back to that night lying with his head on Cartman’s bare chest in that small, double bed, sweating and still out of breath. 

“Why did you say that before?”  he remembers asking.  

“Because it’s true,” Cartman replied, “isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Jeremy said though he had never thought about it, never given any consideration to life beyond tomorrow or the next day.

 

By senior year in high school, Cartman had matured into an idealized portrait of the eternal California youth.  His features were still soft and pretty but the scruff on his chin showed a promise of virility.  He was tall, but not too tall, and willowy but with broad, muscular shoulders.  When his hair started to darken he dyed it, first strawberry and then “Billy Idol” white.  Girls shamelessly threw themselves at him and sometimes after school he’d disappear behind the bleachers and let them go down on him and joke with Jeremy later about it.  “Pitiful,” he’d laugh, “like their gag reflex was just behind their teeth.  I don’t even know why I bother.”

Sometimes Cartman would vanish for hours claiming he had to tow in a stranded car from outside Barstow or make a run for Salvatore to Henderson.  Jeremy would stay awake into the night waiting for the tow truck’s goose-honk.  Then he’d grab his satchel and a change of clothes and jump in beside him.  “God, I missed you,” Cartman would say and pull Jeremy to him.  “We’re going to have a blast tonight,” he’d laugh and jiggle a paper bag with the distinctive clicking sound of a can of spray paint.

In early July, two weeks after graduation, Jeremy was alone in his room waiting for Cartman, listening to Jay Z’s “Collision Course” when the phone rang.  “Hey, I’m going to be held up tonight but I’ll be there first thing in the morning.  Pack your things, everything you need.  We’re going away and we’re never coming back to this shit hole.”

As he was taking a suitcase down from the attic, Jeremy thought to tell his mother but her bedroom was empty.  Probably still over at Jacob Tunstull’s.  He wrote her a note, just a few lines since he didn’t know where he was going and Cartman said they were never coming back.

Perched on the edge of his bed, he smoked a couple of roaches he’d found at the back of his desk drawer.  They made him drowsy and he remembered drifting off for what seemed like a moment before being roused by a three-blast honk.  It was just after dawn, the only time of day in summer when the desert air isn’t super-heated.  From the hallway he noticed that his mother’s bedroom door was shut and the note was lying open on the kitchen table.  He let himself out the back door.

Cartman was parked in the driveway behind the wheel of a pearl grey Audi SUV and the sight of it addled Jeremy.  He popped the rear door and jumped out.  Jeremy threw his belongings in next to Cartman’s and before he could inquire, his friend anticipated him.  “Relax, I didn’t steal it.  It’s mine.  The paperwork’s in the glove compartment if you don’t believe me.”

“I believe you,” Jeremy said.  And he did, which was even more troubling.

“It was a trade.  I’ll tell you all about it sometime. Now let’s get out of here.”

Jeremy hesitated, but not for long.  The idea of being separated from Cartman for even a day was of far more consequence than any law he might have broken.

Sometime later, during one of his dark moments, when his normally unshakeable confidence was crumbling, Cartman told him how he’d come to own the car.  It had indeed been a trade.  One of Cartman’s towing jobs was a middle-aged man whose gleaming white Eldorado had stalled thirty miles outside of Vegas.  The man was distinctive and well groomed.  His custom light wool suit and diamond pinky ring pegged him as a high roller.  And from the increasingly personal questions he asked Cartman on the way to the garage, gambling wasn’t his only recreation.

One afternoon, Cartman rolled out of a king-sized hotel bed and glanced down at the Strip through a floor-to-ceiling window.  “Buy me a new car,” Cartman said, “and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”  The man, who had some experience with idle threats, tried to laugh it off.

“I lied and told him I was 16,” he told Jeremy, though he took no pleasure in admitting it. “That got his attention.  I said, ‘Look, all you have to do is buy this car and sign it over to me.’  I showed him the ad I kept in the back pocket of my jeans. I said, ‘I promise you’ll never see or hear from me again. I like you. I don’t want to see your name end up on a sexual predators list.’  I don’t know if he believed me, but he’d won big the night before, so it wasn’t as if he was hurting. I guess he decided not to take the chance.”

He needn’t have bothered confessing.  Jeremy had already forgiven him.  Still, he was glad he hadn’t told him earlier in the days when they were flying high and invulnerable.  Cartman would likely have bragged or even made a joke of it and that would have broken Jeremy’s heart because back then he loved Cartman for who he thought he was.  Now he loved him in spite of it.

 

One day at the gym, Jeremy overhears a lover’s quarrel.  “I did it for you,” the young man tells his girlfriend.  “I did it for us.”  It was a familiar refrain, one that Cartman used whenever he screwed up or, more likely, whenever he got caught.  It was all for love.  “Love is a temple, babe.  Love is a higher law.”  Jeremy had been taken with the phrase and fancied Cartman had made it up.  Then he heard it sung over the sound system at the gym and realized Cartman had appropriated lyrics from a U2 song but, as usual, hadn’t gotten it quite right. 

Cartman had a knack for strange utterances, particularly when he was strung out.  “When I’m inside you or you’re inside me it’s more than sex,” he said one night as Jeremy was drifting off.  “It’s like an umbilical cord tying us together, feeding us.  Don’t you feel that way?”

Jeremy didn’t answer but the curious image stuck in his mind.

 

At the start, Cartman seemed to have all the answers.  The reason he wanted a new, expensive car (actually it had just come off lease though it looked pristine) wasn’t to show off.  Until they got jobs and saved up enough money to rent an apartment, they would be living in it. And if you’re going to be living out of your car in Los Angeles, he reasoned, it needed to be an upscale model, one that didn’t attract the cops.  They were unlikely to be suspicious of a luxury SUV parked on the street in a good neighborhood.  And if they did scope it out, Cartman had that all worked out too.  He’d say they’d been at a party up the street and were too drunk or sleepy to get behind the wheel so they pulled over to avoid getting into an accident.  “It’s what they tell you to do in the driver’s manual, officer.  I was only trying to obey the law,” he chirped, batting his eyes in mock innocence.  “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll offer to suck his cock.”

They never parked more than one night in the same area.  But Los Angeles is rich with nice neighborhoods stretching from Pasadena out to the ocean, from the flats to the hills to the outer edges of the San Fernando Valley, thousands of well maintained, tree-shaded streets where their shiny vehicle seemed right at home.  The windows were heavily tinted so they could sleep and have sex in the back undisturbed, though they usually kept their clothes on just in case, which actually made it feel more illicit and exciting.

When they first got to town, they shopped around for an inexpensive gym membership, which gave them a place to shower and for Jeremy to hang out during the day while Cartman went off to look for garage work.  When he got bored with the gym, Jeremy would wander over to the West Hollywood library or nurse a salad at Koo Koo Roo and pore over the L.A. Weekly.

After a few disheartening weeks – the mechanics didn’t buy that a mere teenager was seasoned enough to know his way around cars –  an old Russian man on Santa Monica Boulevard agreed to give him a try.  They celebrated by dropping Ecstasy and dancing until morning at a club downtown that had a gay night every Friday.  They splurged on an inexpensive motel room in Hollywood, the first time they had slept on a mattress – or naked – since leaving home.  The next night, using their fake IDs, they got into an underwear party at a bar in Silver Lake and were invited to a “Lautner house” (whatever that meant) across from the reservoir where there was grass and coke and crystal and soon the guys were pairing off into couples and groups, though it was very low key and no one was obliged to participate.  Cartman and Jeremy raided the fridge and absconded with some leftover pizza which they chowed down as they walked around the reservoir and struck up conversations with insomniacs walking their dogs at all hours.

The gay scene in L.A. was an adjustment.  They’d gone from being practically the only gay guys in the world to being part of a significant minority.  They were constantly being hit on separately and together.  Cartman’s response was friendly but firm.  He would snake his arm around Jeremy’s neck, kiss him on the side of the head and say “Thanks, but I’m good.”  If a heart could literally burst out of a chest, Jeremy’s would have exploded, though he felt guilty the few times he wished Cartman had said yes.  It wasn’t as if he wanted or needed anyone else, but it was flattering to be asked and he was, understandably, curious.

Two Iranian brothers who ran a 7-Eleven type shop in EchoPark took Jeremy on part time, welcoming an employee whose command of English was more than rudimentary.  The two men, in their late 20s, constantly bickered in Farsi though they never snapped at Jeremy, who was so uncomplicated and serene that they sometimes became self-conscious when they goaded each other, as if they feared his disapproval.

Since Cartman didn’t need the car during the day, Jeremy drove it to work and sometimes made a quick stop in Chinatown for some take-out.  Cartman was normally waiting for him on a bus bench outside the garage and when the weather was nice, they dined on a picnic table in PlummerPark and occasionally took in a late movie at the Grove where they’d share a tub of popcorn and hold hands like on a date.  The headiness of being on their own for the first time, responsible to no one but each other, smoothed over any bumps in their path.

Though they were both employed, they were getting no closer to their goal.  Every penny was eaten up by gas, car insurance, food and other necessities and, in addition to movies there was also the occasional night of clubbing or sleeping in a real bed.  Without credit or a long employment history, landlords demanded the first six months in advance even for a half-decent studio in Koreatown or the Mid-Wilshire area, much less West Hollywood.  After an especially rainy and cold winter when sharing the same sleeping bag was not enough to keep them warm, Cartman would start to pick at his fingernail cuticles until they bled, a sure sign that he was getting anxious.  Jeremy did his best to stay out of his way.  He was sure that if he gave Cartman the space, he would figure a way out.  He always did.

“We finally caught a break,” Cartman crowed, holding up two crisp one-hundred dollar bills he claimed the Russian had given him as an advance on “a substantial raise.”  Jeremy chose to believe him despite the fact that the previous evening, while waiting for him in the usual spot, he had spied Cartman getting out of someone’s car through his rearview mirror.

“Sorry I’m late. I had an emergency repair that had to get done tonight,” he had said, leaning over for an especially deep and protracted kiss.  Then he reached in his pocket and pulled out two small caplets and placed one on Jeremy’s tongue.  “I got it from one of the guys at work.  Let’s get a room at the baths and fuck each other’s brains out,” he laughed.

The wait times outside the garage grew longer and Cartman would slink off for hours at a time on weekends to run an urgent errand, always returning energized, eroticized.  It was always followed by all-consuming sex the way it had been at the start with Cartman moaning “I love you, I love you so much” like an incantation.

They were now partying more frequently, taking more drugs and eating better, yet there was still money left over each week.  The growing wad was hidden in a recess under the hood and Cartman showed Jeremy how to access it, “in case of an emergency, like if you need to bail me out of jail or something.”  He pretended it was a joke and Jeremy bit down on his tongue and pretended to laugh along but resolved that once they got an apartment, he would think of a way to get Cartman to stop all this.

One night, Jeremy was parked outside the garage when the Russian knocked on the passenger window.  “Why you come here every night?  I let him go last week.  Too bad.  He was a good mechanic.  But he’s a bad boy.  You be careful.  Now go.  I don’t want to see you here no more.”

Jeremy moved the car up a block and continued to wait.  He was hardly surprised but he was sorry the man had told him because now he’d have to say something to Cartman.

“Fucking piece of Russian garbage,” Cartman snorted.  “Shove over.  I want to drive.”

Jeremy tried to remain silent until Cartman had calmed down but somehow the words “I

know” escaped.

“You know shit,” Cartman screamed as he ran the light at Sunset and barreled up LaurelCanyon.  He’d never directed his anger at Jeremy before, and it stung.

“I’m sorry.  Can we talk about this later?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, relieved.  Cartman was probably working on a way to avoid lying without having to tell the truth.  He was good at that.

“You still love me, don’t you?” Cartman said with a slightly defeated tone.

“Of course I do.”

“How much?”

“A million jillion.  Maybe more.”

Cartman forced a smile.  “We’re almost there, babe. We’re almost there.”  As he reached out to caress Jeremy’s cheek, he misjudged a curve and when he tried to right the car, the front end plowed into a hydrant.

“Shit, shit, shit.”

Cartman turned off LaurelCanyon and up a side street to survey the damage.  One of the headlights was smashed and the fender was bent but the car was still drivable.  He got back behind the wheel and began fret, picking at himself and biting his lip.  Jeremy moved into the back and slipped into the sleeping bag.  When he awoke next morning, Cartman was still in the front seat but his face was composed, almost happy.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.  I’m no good at bodywork but I think I can get one of Salvatore’s mechanics to work on it on his day off.  We’ll drive out to the desert.  I’ll drop you off at your folks for a few days and…”

Jeremy stopped him. “No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“I’m not going back there.  I’ll wait for you here.”  When Cartman hesitated, he added, “I can manage for a few days on my own.  Really.”

“You sure?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Cartman dropped him off at work, peeled off some bills and, after scooping out a handful for himself, a Ziploc full of pills.  “And look, if you have to find a place to crash for the night, I’ll understand.  Just don’t tell me about it.”

Jeremy loved it when Cartman’s jealousy flared, especially since he rarely gave him any reason.  He kissed his cheek and opened the car door.  “I’ll be back in a week tops,” he promised.  As Jeremy entered the grocery, he yelled out, “How much?”

“A million jillion. Maybe more,” Jeremy yelled back.

Before Cartman drove off, Jeremy had considered hooking up with someone just so he’d have somewhere to spend the night.  There were a number of standing offers he could cash in on.  But even with Cartman’s blessing, the idea now seemed less appealing.  Perhaps he’d hit up one of the divorced or single older women he’d befriended at the gym.  If he looked pitiable enough, they might let him crash on their couch.  After all, he’d learned how to elicit sympathy from the master.

Another option was Pedro who worked behind the desk at the baths and had never made any attempt to conceal his interest.  Pedro wasn’t remotely his type – though he was not sure he actually had a type.  But he was sweet enough and with the right stimulant he could bring himself to do it and maybe Pedro would give a him special room rate for the week.  With all the new faces going by his desk, Pedro was not likely to knock on his door more than once.

After picking up earplugs at the drugstore, he hopped the bus to the Melrose Baths right off the freeway.  He was in luck.  Though Pedro was thrilled to learn that Jeremy was flying solo for a few days, he’d already succumbed to temptation earlier and was comfortably sated.  Moreover, he would be on vacation for the remainder of the week, headed for Merced to see his parents.  Jeremy was able to negotiate a discounted room rate merely on the vague promise of a hook-up the next time Cartman was away.

Cartman returned ten days later refreshed, pockets bulging and presented Jeremy with a diamond stud earring “to make up for abandoning you.”  Pleased that he looked none the worse for wear, Cartman said he wasn’t going to ask what happened during his absence, by which Jeremy understood he was to extend the same courtesy.

The car was buffed and looked like new and Cartman lamented having had to “hang around that pitiful cesspool where we grew up.”  He didn’t even bother to conceal the bars of Vegas hotel soaps in his backpack.

Over some overpriced sushi, Cartman estimated that maybe in a month or so they’d have enough saved up to start looking for a place.  That weekend there was a trio of Memorial Day weekend dance parties.  Jeremy called in sick and they both temporarily forgot they lived in the back seat of a car.  They also forgot to sleep, forgot to eat and never seemed to run out of caplets to pop or powder to inhale.

The following weekend they drove out to Palm Springs and checked into one of those “clothing optional” hotels.  Cartman dropped a tab on Jeremy’s tongue and vanished for several hours after he fell asleep.  He returned beaming with confidence and carried Jeremy piggyback up to the room for noisy sex.  They walked around and swam naked most of the day and always seemed to wind up at someone’s home after the bars closed.

Jeremy lost track of the hours and weeks that followed and seemed blithely unfazed when the Iranian brothers fired him.  His body so craved sleep that even the Audi appealed.  He remembered asking Cartman once if they had enough for an apartment yet, and he either pretended not to hear or his answer got lost in the noise of the merry-go-round.

After a brief early fall respite, the Santa Ana winds hit full force in late October and the entire city seemed to have a collective nervous twitch.  They were stumbling along Santa Monica Boulevard, which was closed off for the Halloween parade.  What had once been a truly gay dress-up party (in the old sense of the word) had devolved over the years into an excuse for rowdy straights to descend on West Hollywood and gawk at the occasional drag queen.

Encapsulated in their own little world, however, Cartman and Jeremy ambled through the crowd hand in hand.  A tall, silver-haired older man with a frighteningly large grin approached and wrapped himself around Cartman.

“Hey Tommy boy,” the man said.

“And who is this?” he asked pointing at Jeremy as if he had a right know.  Cartman’s back stiffened.  “This is my boyfriend.  And this is…  I’m sorry, I’m blanking,” he said, and even Jeremy could tell he was lying.

“Tommy, you’re too young for short term memory loss,” he said with a snooty laugh.  “My name’s Jonathan.”  He nodded at Jeremy and reached for his hand, which Cartman promptly smacked away.

“No touching,” he admonished the man.

“Fair enough,” Jonathan said.  “You know I’m having some people over later.  Why don’t you two come by?  Maybe we can work something out.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Cartman said, his jaw tight.

“No, silly, I don’t mean us.  Just the two of you.  It’s easy to see why you’re sweet on him.  We just want to watch.”

“Goodnight,” Cartman said brushing past Jonathan, who grabbed his shoulder firmly.  Cartman turned and raised his fist but Jonathan caught a lucky punch and Jeremy heard a slight cracking noise.  Cartman’s fall was broken by two passersby who, assuming he was drunk, pushed him away and he fell face forward right on the spot where he’d been hit.

None of the area hospitals would take him, so they had to drive all the way downtown to L.A.CountyHospital where he wasn’t admitted until mid-morning.  By then the right side of his face was distended and the admissions nurse made an off-hand reference to the Elephant Man.  When she asked how he intended to pay, Cartman managed to force the word “homeless” through his swollen mouth and tongue.  She let out a long sigh and disappeared.

Cartman leaned in and instructed Jeremy to take some money from under the hood and drive the car to a safe parking lot, fearing they’d hold it in lieu of payment.  He handed Jeremy a vial of pills and his registration “in case they look through my pockets and I wouldn’t put it past them.”

While searching for a secure lot, Jeremy almost fell asleep behind the wheel and decided to ingest what looked like an amphetamine.  After leaving the car in a garage on the USC campus, he tried to find his way back on foot and got hopelessly turned around.  He finally hopped a taxi and when they arrived at the hospital he was fast asleep and the driver had some difficulty rousing him.

Roaming the jammed corridors, he found Cartman in a wheelchair shaking like a leaf and threw his coat over him.  His face was bandaged and they’d given him a shot for the swelling.  He tracked down a nurse who said that he had a hairline cheek fracture that would require plastic surgery “and we don’t do that here.  But the swelling should go down in a few days and I’m also giving you something for the pain.”  She handed him a vial of anti-inflammatory pills, and sample packets of Percocet and Vicodin as well as a prescription for when they ran out.

They took a cab back to USC and Jeremy sat Cartman on a bench while he went looking for the car.  He couldn’t remember which garage he’d parked in or even the floor, and after two hours of searching he panicked and started to hyperventilate.  When he finally found it, he again got lost and by the time he finally located Cartman, he was passed out on the bench, a USC guard hovering over him.

“I’m sorry,” he told the guard.  “I couldn’t find my car.  The campus is very confusing.”

“Your friend don’t look so good.  You might want to take him to a hospital,” the man said.

“We just came from the hospital.  They said there was nothing more they could do.”

“Then get him home and throw some blankets on him and get some food into him.  He’s pale as a sheet.  He’s not hypoglycemic, is he?”

“I don’t know.  I truly don’t know.”

At the MacDonald’s drive-through, Jeremy ordered several Big Macs, some fries and two large milkshakes, then checked them into the nearest motel.  He propped Cartman up in the bed and asked the front desk for an extra blanket.  His face was still too swollen for him to eat any solid food but he managed to down the milkshake through a straw and swallowed a couple more Vicodins and an anti-inflammatory.

Jeremy put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, took a Percocet and passed out next to him.  When he awoke he wasn’t sure whether it was the next day or the day after.  He ran a hot bath.  They both smelled terrible and Jeremy couldn’t remember the last time they’d washed.  He had trouble undressing Cartman and getting him into the tub.  The nurse had cautioned him to keep the dressing dry but it was a huge struggle to wash him and hold his head up.

The warm water seemed to soothe Cartman but he was soon trembling again and Jeremy quickly dried him off and dressed him in several layers and two pairs of socks and piled on the blankets.  The bandage adhesive had come loose, allowing Jeremy to peek underneath.  Now that the swelling had gone down, he could clearly see the damage.  The right cheekbone had caved in and what would be a minor flaw on most faces seemed like an outrage on one as delicately proportioned as Cartman’s.

Jeremy took a quick shower and when he emerged from the bathroom, Cartman was munching on the dried-out burgers and fries.  “Don’t eat that.  It’s been sitting for who knows how long.  I’ll go across to Carl’s Jr. and get you something.”

Cartman grabbed his hand and said “No.  Don’t leave me here.  Please.”  And then he did something Jeremy had never seen him do before.  He cried.  “I’m in pain,” he moaned, clutching the side of his face.

“I’ve still got a couple of Vicodin and some Percocet and I have a scrip for more.”

Jeremy handed him a couple of pills and a glass of water.

“I really need to get something to eat,” Jeremy said, suddenly feeling woozy.

“Not yet,” Cartman said.  “Just lay down next to me until I fall asleep.”

Jeremy got on the bed and Cartman nestled into him.

“I want you to know that the only reason I let those guys do all those awful things to me was for you, for us,” he said slowly, mumbling, slurring his words.  “That’s the only reason.”

Jeremy tried to shush him.  He didn’t want to hear it.  He didn’t really believe Cartman, though he knew that on some level he thought he was telling the truth.

Jeremy’s sleep was dreamless, as inky and quiescent as the bottom of the sea.  When he awoke next morning, he had rolled away from Cartman to the other side of the bed.  Eyes still closed, he groped for his hand, which was ice cold.   As he wiped the sleep from his lids with his shirtsleeve, he noticed Cartman lying on his back, a trickle of dried vomit running up from his chest to his mouth which was caked full.  His right eye was still swollen shut but the left one was open and lifeless and his back was slightly arched as if he had been trying to sit up.

The shock was mixed with a feeling of wonderment as if he had been summoned to witness a miraculous event, and Jeremy remained fixated until the image of Cartman’s lifeless body was engraved in his mind.

He wiped Cartman’s mouth with a damp washcloth and did his best to remove the stains from his clothing.  He let himself out and walked down the archway to the main office and told the desk clerk someone in his room had died and would she please call the police.  Before they arrived he sat on the edge of the bed facing away from Cartman and took a Percocet, just enough to numb him without slurring his words.

As Cartman’s bagged body was being removed, the police officer informed him that the death would have to be ruled suspicious pending an autopsy and he might be contacted for further questioning.  He would need a way to get in touch with him.  Jeremy didn’t want to admit that he didn’t live anywhere so he offered the address and phone number of the Melrose Baths and said to ask for Pedro.

Fortunately, Pedro was behind the glass partition when he stumbled in.  He was expecting to be greeted with the usual satyr-smile but Pedro’s jaw dropped.  Jeremy glanced at the full-length mirror in the entryway and almost didn’t recognize himself.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” Pedro asked over the scratchy mike.  He asked a second time and a third, and all Jeremy could think to say was “Huh?”  Then his legs buckled under him.

After a three-month stint in rehab, he was assigned to a halfway house in Hollywood.  He needed special permission from his counselor to be out after dark or to leave for any period of time.  One of the first places he visited was the baths.  Pedro was happy to see him and Jeremy gave him a generous kiss on the mouth to thank him.  It was an odd sensation.  He had never kissed anyone but Cartman in his entire life.  Pedro had kept the Audi and it was parked at his sister’s house in East L.A.  There was almost $3,000 under the hood and he immediately opened a savings account at Bank of America before heading out to the Mojave Desert.  He was only signed out until six the following evening and if he was late, he’d be locked out and not allowed in again.

Through the police, Salvatore Fontana reached him at the rehab center.  “I got Tommy’s ashes here,” he told Jeremy.  “You should come and get them or I’m just going to throw them out.”

The ashes were in a plain brown cardboard box.  Salvatore hadn’t even bothered to purchase an urn and Jeremy resolved to dip into his savings to buy a really nice one, ceramic or brushed metal.

“I guess the car belongs to you,” Jeremy said, handing Salvatore the registration.

“I don’t need a fancy car like that.  I could sign it over to you,” Salvatore volunteered.

“I don’t ever want to see it again,” Jeremy said.

“How about I buy it from you?”

Salvatore gave him $300, the most he could get from the ATM at any one time and promised to send him some more money when he sold the car.  Jeremy thanked him though he didn’t anticipate seeing another penny.  “I would appreciate it, though, if you’d drive me to Barstow so I can get the bus back to L.A.”

Cartman was positioned between the two of them in the front seat of Salvatore’s pick-up and they didn’t utter a word all the way to the bus station.  As he got out, Salvatore said, “He was such a beautiful boy,” and Jeremy heard his voice crack.

Jeremy clutched the box to his chest for the entire trip to Los Angeles.

 

Jeremy knocks off work at two, does a light workout and sometimes takes a yoga class.  On Sundays he stops at the Farmer’s Market to buy fresh produce.  The halfway house has a decent kitchen and with one of his housemates, Cicely, he prepares a vegetarian dinner.  Cicely is planning to open a restaurant with a small loan her father promised her if she got clean.  She has invited Jeremy to join her and the thought of cooking for a living sounds appealing.  He’s also considering a course in computer programming. 

Magdalena had agreed to employ him on a trial basis, but now that he is working full time and collecting a paycheck, he will have to move.  He has almost enough saved up for an apartment, and once he’s settled in, he’ll find a permanent spot for Cartman’s urn, someplace prominent yet close enough at hand that he’ll be able to see Jeremy at all times.  Maybe then Cartman will forgive him for falling asleep instead of watching over him so he didn’t choke to death and, for the first time in a year, Jeremy will finally be able to sleep through the night.  

What Cartman had said about the umbilical cord no longer sounded so bizarre.  Being cared for so deeply was like lifeblood coursing through him, exhilarating but also terrifying.  Jeremy was certain he would never be loved that fiercely again and not sure he would want to be.  He looked forward to breathing on his own.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s