Illustrated by Zaza
[This story first appeared in Forbidden Fruit]
Mr. Williams?” The doctor’s face was neutral, a mask over his impersonal compassion. I already knew what he had to say.
Afterwards, I went and sat in the car and rested my head on the steering wheel, my eyes closed. At a time like that, you’re supposed to think about your family, your wife and kids, your own life and its ending.
But I didn’t. I thought of Josh.
He used to call me Toss. It was his joke, because my name is Thomas. Thos., in all the old abbreviations. When he was pissed at me he called me Thoss. “Thoss, don’t be, like, so boring.” And his blue eyes would smolder.
We met when we were surfing, at a small beach several kilometers from the nearest country town, where the only other people were surfers or their hangers-on. We’d been surfing all morning, from before dawn, when the sea was still glassy, and had ignored each other, the way one does. We finished at almost the same time. He sat down next to me.
“Want some weed?”
We shared a joint. That was the beginning.
It was a long weekend, and by the end of it we were, well, not quite friends, but certainly mates. Those were good times, those years, before responsibility and doing the right thing and worries about our future and our health. We lived for each day. We didn’t have career worries, because we had no careers. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier and more relaxed than I was then. And Josh was a key reason for that.
He was a classic surfer – hair bleached to dry straw by the sun and salt, like Struwwelpeter, pointing every which way, its roots still dark with his natural color. His skin was tanned a deep caramel. I suppose he has moles and skin tags and keratoses, now. But he was beautiful then. Even I knew that, and I was straight. His shoulders were surfer-broad, his waist and hips as narrow as an energetic boy’s.
He had a wayward kindness. Things you’d expect him to care about, that other people cared about, for example if you were depressed or sick, he didn’t even notice. “Don’t, like, wallow, dude. People in Biafra” (or Bangladesh, I can’t remember what the current fashionable disaster zone was then) “have a fuckin’ shit time.” But he was a vegetarian, and even the occasional stray dogs he took in were fed on vegetables and cheese and wheat germ, never meat. They used to sneak out and get it from rubbish bins and gutters, and when they did he would look at them sadly and solemnly. “That’s, like, dead animal flesh, dude. Don’t add to the world’s suffering.” On the other hand, once I was sick in bed with the flu, and shivering and shaking with fever, and he wouldn’t even make me a cup of tea. “Like, it’s good for you to get up.” But in the end he relented. He always did, with me.
His hands were kind. Big hands, callused, warm, with strong spatulate fingers and bitten down fingernails. Hands which could wring pleasure from my body, pleasure I hadn’t known was possible.
We met again in the city, a week or two after the surfing trip. I was walking down one of those streets that climbs the side of the mountain, I forget the name now, when I heard a yell. “Hey, Toss, dude! Cool!”
It was Josh. He was in his incredible rust-bucket Morris 1100, which, while it never seemed safe or reliable, just kept going, like some wheezy and asthmatic old dog. The car smelled of engine oil and rotting plastics and the peculiar hand cleaner he always used after he’d fixed the engine – or the gear box – or the diff – yet again. It smelled of him, of Brut aftershave, of the sweet-scented toasted American cigarettes he used to smoke.
“Josh!” I was glad to see him.
“Dude! It’s, like, ace to see you again.”
I shared the ground floor of a Victorian slum house with a gorgeous Yugoslav girl, Yelena, who rebuffed all my advances; and a shifty medical supplies salesman, with bulging blue eyes, who left abruptly one day, one jump ahead of the police. The landlord, Mr. Lipshitz, was a very ancient Lithuanian immigrant, who would stare at us rheumy-eyed and querulous when we complained about the geyser, or the sink which didn’t drain, or the cracked toilet seat. We didn’t mention the whores who lived upstairs and brought back sailors late at night, men who tried to steal our stash or have sex with us. That would have gotten them into trouble, and they were kind and funny. And Josh and I didn’t faze them – the haphazard tolerance of fringe-dwellers.
Josh moved in, taking the salesman’s old room.
Within a few days, we got into the habit of smoking a joint or two every night. Yelena usually went out with her boyfriend, a married man who had left his wife for her. It was just the two of us.
One night, we were sitting side-by-side on his bed, our backs against the wall, after a fat joint, our shoulders almost touching. Out of the blue, Josh said, “Like, what do you do when you don’t have a girlfriend?” Which I didn’t. As he knew.
I just shrugged the question off.
“No, really, Toss, what?”
This was dangerous territory. Actually, when I pulled my wire, it was Josh’s body I thought of, but not in any specific or explicit way, for I was without the experience that turns us into fetishists. I was in love with him, all of him, the idea of him. It was enough for me that he was my friend, in my house, that we spent time together, not just in the house smoking dope, but surfing, and going for long walks along the beach, the latest stray racing ahead and back, exhilarated by freedom and breakers and seaside odors and the helpless intoxication of being loved.
“I think of you,” I said, made bold by dope, by the situation. But I couldn’t meet his look. I stared straight ahead, looking at the shapes of damp on the faded wallpaper, mysterious fantastical continents, complete with bays and promontories, rivers and estuaries, a whole secret invisible life.
“Me too,” he said. I could feel the fierce intensity of his gaze, his eyes on my face.
I turned to look at him and with a surprising gentleness he cupped my face in his big rough hands and kissed me. His mouth tasted smoky and sour, not the sourness of dirt or illness but more a citrus astringency, a peculiar Josh smell that I never encountered with anybody else.
He moved into my room soon afterwards
At first we made love inexpertly and unadventurously, mere schoolboys in our haste and need. But soon Josh led me into more sophisticated byways. “It’s, like, love, you know, dude? Like, love doesn’t draw lines. Like, it just is.” We didn’t know fucking was supposed to hurt. So we did it. And it didn’t.
Gradually my whole focus came to be Josh, Josh in me, me in Josh, kissing, smoking dope, sucking him, being sucked by him, tasting him, loving him. Spending every spare moment with him. Funny. I didn’t think about what it implied for my sexuality. It just was. As far as I was concerned, I was straight. Even when he fucked me and I climaxed with my first hands-free orgasm, an explosion of sensation and bliss deep inside me, it didn’t seem “gay”. It was simply wonderful and absolutely right. I don’t think I consciously elaborated my attitude. I loved him, I knew. But it seemed no different, really, to what I’d felt for Billy, who was my best friend in Grade One. And I was still turned on by women. Only – I didn’t want them, now. Josh was my whole life.
One day I came back from work and found his meager possessions gone. There was a note, a classic Josh scrawl, on a frontispiece torn out of one of my books. His scribbles were mostly in block capitals, and always in separated letters. He wrote without the “likes” and “dudes”. Perhaps he felt that writing was serious stuff. That it had to have a special style. Or perhaps he could only pretend to be American when he spoke.
TOss. I LOVE YOU So Much. BUT I NEEd to MOvE oN. aND You DO, Too. NeVER FORgET.
All mY LOVE
His signature was his usual distinctive and unreadable scribble, the only part of the note not in block letters. Numbly, I went to the front door, looking for the clapped-out old Morris. I walked up and down the streets outside, my heart pounding, my stomach churning. I walked for hours. I didn’t cry. The hurt was too deep for that. When I got home, I fell into a dreamless sleep. In the morning, I reached over to his side of the bed, and there, in the depression where his body should have been, there was just some dried cum from our sex the night before. I pushed my nose into it, and breathed in his secret essence.
I looked for him for months. I heard reports, that he’d been seen here, in our city, or far away, in London or San Francisco, or Paris; that he’d taken up with a millionaire, who gave him enough money to start a dogs’ home; that he’d turned straight. I investigated all the rumors I was able to.
I never saw him again.
I never had sex with another man. Oh, from time to time, I would meet someone’s eyes and there’d be a spark. But it was Josh I wanted. Josh whom I loved. His gender was irrelevant. And other men – well, I just never connected in the same way. Curious, really. I’ve not found another bloke to take his place. I’m straight, mostly. Yet Josh was the great love of my life.
I often wonder what would have happened if we’d stayed together, a proper gay couple. Would we still be together now, aging hippies, overweight and grey-haired, with our muscles sagging, our hearts hard? Or trim and handsome, buying classy furniture together from Ikea? I know he loved me. I could see it in his eyes when he emptied himself into me, my legs wrapped tight round his slim waist, when he’d say, not exulting or triumphant, but as if it was an ineluctable fact, taken entirely for granted, “Toss.” His voice warm with emotion, his eyes dark with pleasure, back arched, chest and shoulders sheened with sweat. Toss.
I never forgot, Josh. Never.
I got married to a woman I met when I was walking Josh’s last stray on the beach, there where the Blue Whale skeleton is, prehistoric, numinous, unimaginably giant. Josh and I often went there and shared a joint. That’s where I want my ashes scattered. As if that shit matters. But somehow it represents the nexus where both people I’ve loved came together.
I’d gone there because that beach was normally deserted, especially in winter. I didn’t want to meet anyone. Anne appeared out of the mist with her little fox terrier, and our dogs sniffed each other and made friends, and we got to talking. This was, oh, a year and a half, maybe two years after he disappeared. Anne didn’t smoke dope or pick up stray dogs. She played the viola. She made me stop weed, and encouraged me to do the twelve-step program – I’d become a drunk after Josh had gone. I never surfed again. It hurt too much. But I did become a vegetarian. Josh’s rough philosophies, his erratic values, remained with me always.
Anne and I married a year or so later. I settled down and got a good job, and now we’re quite rich, with a house in the suburbs and his and her Mercs. Four children, all of them gifted, and lovable, and loved. But dull, so dull. My life, I mean.
Josh sent me a postcard a couple of months after he left, from Seattle, of all places. (It was unfashionable then. But that never bothered him. And he always wanted to go to America.)
I LOVE yOU, TOSS. AlwaYS.
It was unsigned. But he’d drawn a smiley face in one corner.
I lifted my head off the steering wheel, and took the card out of my jacket pocket. I studied it for a long time, caressing its dog-eared familiarity, a talisman against the sharp stones of life. Only then did I weep, thirty years too late, for Josh and for his going. Unreliable saint, whose skin was too thin for this world, who’d loved me too much. Wept, for what might have been and now never would be. Wept, most of all, for me, and my imminent ending, one I didn’t doubt he’d have helped make more bearable, with his big hands and his patient, ungrudging love and his heart as deep as the sea