Peter tried to murder his brother only once, which, by the standards of brothers, is modest. He was seven, which would have made Matthew ten.
Most little boys are girlish; Matthew’s… Matthew-ness wasn’t fully apparent until he got a bit older. By the age of ten he could sing (badly) every song ever recorded by Cat Stevens. He insisted on a paisley bathrobe, which he wore constantly around the house. He seemed, at times, to be developing an English accent. He was a fine-featured boy walking through the rooms of a stolid beige-brick house in Milwaukee, dressed in a green paisley robe that fell just above his ankles, singing “Morning Has Broken” or “Wild World,” softly, wistfully, clearly meant to be overheard.
Their parents—Lutherans, Republicans, members of various clubs—did not torment Matthew, maybe because they suspected the world would torment him sufficiently on its own, or maybe because they weren’t yet ready to abandon the notion that their older son was a prodigy, expressing random if rather peculiar enthusiasms that would solidify, over time, into a significant, remunerative career. Their mother was a handsome, hefty, big-jawed woman, pure Swede, whose profoundest fear was of being cheated and whose deepest conviction was that everyone was trying to cheat her. Their father, handsome but a little blank, unfinished-looking, vaguely Finnish, never fully adapted to his good fortune in marrying their mother, and lived in his marriage the way an impoverished relation might live in the spare room. It’s possible that their mother refused to be cheated out of two healthy, unalarming Wisconsin sons, and that their father simply went along with her. For whatever reasons, they were uncensorious with Matthew. They did not object when he started wearing knickers to school, or when he declared his intention to take up figure skating.
It was left to Peter, then, to torment him.
Peter lacked the focus and ambition of a true sadist. Nor did he hate Matthew, at least not in the purest sense. He did, however, spend most of his early years in an almost constant state of apology. He was loved but he could not, at the age of six, read aloud from their parents’
Most infuriating to Peter, though, was Matthew’s innocent and untroubled affection for him. Matthew, it seemed, considered Peter to be a kind of pet, trainable but limited. One can teach a dog to sit, fetch, and stay; it would be silly to try to teach it to play chess. When Peter was a toddler, Matthew made outfits for him and paraded him around in them. Peter can’t remember any of that, but there are photographs: little Peter in a bee suit, with goggles and antennae; in a toga made from a pillowcase, with a circle of ivy obscuring his eyes. When Peter was a bit older (he has fleeting memories of this), Matthew devised for him an alter ego: Giles the manservant who, despite his humble origins, was determined to prosper in the world by dint of hard work, which generally involved keeping his and Matthew’s room tidy, performing household tasks for their mother, and running errands for Matthew.
What Peter found most appalling: he liked being Giles. He liked fulfilling modest expectations. He went about his assigned tasks with prim satisfaction, and actually believed he
It wasn’t until around the time he turned seven that he began to fully understand that he was the lowest member of the household, and always had been. He was the reliable, unexceptional one; the good-enough boy.
The attempted murder took place unexpectedly, on a bright, cold day in March. Peter was crouched on the flagstone patio in the winter-browned backyard, a tiny figure in a red plaid jacket under an ice blue sky. He had illicitly taken one of his father’s screwdrivers out of the garage, in order to work unsupervised on the gift he was making for his mother’s birthday: a birdhouse from a kit. He was hopeful, but troubled. He suspected his mother didn’t want a birdhouse (she’d never expressed any interest in birds), but he’d been at the hobby shop with his father and had seen the box, which depicted a perfect little gabled house on a field of pale turquoise, encircled by ecstatic cardinals and bluebirds and finches. It seemed to Peter a vision of heavenly reward, and he was struck—he was transported, really—by the notion that he could convey this sliver of perfection to his mother and that in some way both he and she would be changed, he into a boy who could guess her secret desires and she into someone who ardently wanted what he had to give. Peter’s father frowned over the fact that it was meant to be assembled by children ten or older, and before agreeing to buy it extracted from Peter the promise that the two of them would build it together.
Which vow Peter disregarded, as soon as he was home alone. He needed to produce something marvelous, by his own hand. His mother would tear up with joy and his father would nod, judiciously and affectionately—sure enough, our younger boy is capable beyond his years.
Naturally, the birdhouse, when taken from the box, proved to be made of dull brown fiberboard. It came with exactly the required number of silver screws, a single sheet of instructions printed on pale green paper, and—somehow, most dispiriting of all—a small cellophane packet of birdseed.
Squatting over the pieces, which he’d laid out on the flagstones, Peter struggled to retain his optimism. He would paint it some brilliant color. He might decorate it with pictures of birds. Still, at the moment, the components—two gabled ends and various rectangles meant to be walls, floor, and roof—were so inert and unpromising he found himself fighting off the urge to go inside and take a nap. The pale, biscuity brown of the fiberboard might have been the color of discouragement itself.
Nothing to do, though, but begin. Peter matched a gabled end with a wall piece, put a screw into the predrilled hole, and turned it.
“What are you making?” Delivered from above and behind, with the faintest hint of an Oxford accent.
It couldn’t be. No one was home.
Peter said, without looking up, “What’re you doing here?”
“Mrs. Fletcher is sick. What are you making?”
“It’s a surprise.”
He glanced back at Matthew. Matthew’s face was flushed with the cold, which gave it a cherubic incandescence. He wore a bright green scarf knotted around his neck.
“Is it a present for Mom?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Peter returned his attention to the pieces of birdhouse.
Matthew leaned in close, behind him. “Look,” he said, “it’s a little house.”
It’s a little house. Four innocent words. But when Matthew pronounced them, with lilting precision, some vortex came whirling down around Peter, some funnel of soured air that sucked the breath out of him. He was trapped here, pinned to these cold stones and this sad little project; there was no chance for him, no hope, he who enjoyed being a manservant, who was without brilliance, who contentedly ran the most trivial errands. He had been caught by Matthew in the act of making
He will prefer, later, to remember it as an act of pure rage, unthinking, barely conscious, but in fact he passed over into a state of white-hot clarity in which he understood that he could not be there at that moment, he couldn’t survive Matthew watching him and saying, “Look, it’s a little house,” but there was no way to escape and so he needed to take the screwdriver and gouge a hole in the air around Matthew, through which Matthew would disappear. Peter turned and leaped up with the screwdriver in his hand. He caught Matthew on the temple, an inch above his left eye. He would be grateful for the rest of his life that he had only scarred his brother, and not blinded him.
Although nothing as dramatic as the screwdriver attack ever occurred again, it did seem to subtly but permanently alter Peter’s domestic reputation. It established him as dangerous, possibly unstable, which was on one hand discomfiting and on the other an improvement. He had, at the very least, demonstrated to everyone that he was a bad pet. The game of Giles the manservant was abandoned without comment.
He and Matthew lived together for several years afterward as a supposedly tame fox might live with a peacock. Matthew was for the most part nervously gracious to Peter. Peter for the most part pressed his new advantage. It had not occurred to him until then that a single act of brute violence—with a
Three years passed in the reign of Peter the Terrible.
Matthew at fifteen.
Tall fey figure walking with ardent steps past the brick and stone housefronts of Milwaukee, books held to his chest. Inexplicably optimistic, much of the time, though as he grew from childhood to adolescence he had the good sense to develop irony. Taunted by the local goons but not with the venom and devotion you might expect. Peter has always believed that Matthew possessed some aspect of the immaculate. Although there was nothing in any way saintly about him he did have an innocence of purpose that must have been evident in the more modest saints. Matthew was so entirely himself, so enraptured by his interests (by age fifteen: movies, the novels of Charles Dickens, skating, and the acoustic guitar), so harmless, so cordially indifferent to everyone but the two girls who were his only friends, that although he was teased occasionally and smacked around exactly once, by a gaggle of seventh-grade boys looking to establish a reputation, he was never the object of the prolonged campaigns of annihilation some of the boys waged against the handful of true unfortunates. Matthew was also, surely, kept at least relatively safe by his skater’s body, with its implication of coiled power (though he’d have had no idea how to punch anyone), and by his friendship with Joanna Hurst, a celebrated beauty. Whether it was calculated or spontaneous, he had been since the fifth grade the friend and confidant of a powerful, desired girl, and so somehow, in the admittedly rather rudimentary local estimation, was able to pass as an athlete (skating, but still) and a boyfriend (no scintilla of sex between them, but still). If Matthew was quite possibly the most effeminate person in Milwaukee, he was increasingly possessed of what Peter can only call a precocious grandeur. Peter’s aspect of nascent threat, unsupported by any further attacks, had by then solidified into what was generally regarded as cantankerousness, which his mother further diminished by calling him Mr. Grumpy whenever he was in a mood. His skin erupted, his hair went lank, and he found himself, to his surprise, a member of a small boy-band of malcontents, geekily devoted to rock music and
With an uneasy truce declared between them, once Peter had been stripped of his dangerousness, he and Matthew began having brotherly talks at night. Their conversations were wide-ranging but oddly consistent. Decades later, Peter can patch together a meta-conversation, made up of bits and pieces from hundreds of them.
“I think Mom’s just about had it,” Matthew says.
“Everything. Her life.”
This is semiplausible. Their mother can be brusque and short-tempered, she carries about her an almost constant air of incipient exasperation, but she’s always seemed, to Peter, to have “had it” not with her life but with endless particulars: her sons’ domestic lassitude, the dishonest and incompetent mailman, taxes, governments, all her friends, the price of just about everything.
“Why do you think that?”
Matthew sighs. He’s invented a long, low, sloughing sigh; something of woodwind about it.
“She’s stuck here,” he says.
I mean, we’re all stuck here, right?
“She’s still a beautiful woman. There’s nothing for her here. She’s like Madame Bovary.”
Peter at the time had no idea who Madame Bovary was, but imagined her to be an infamous figure who presaged doom—he had in all likelihood mixed her up with Madame Defarge.
“Do you think you could talk to her about her hair? She won’t listen to me.”
“How’s it going with Emily?”
“How’s what going?”
“I don’t like
“Why not?” Matthew says. “She’s cute.”
“She’s not my type.”
“You’re too young to have a type. Emily likes you.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“And it would be a bad thing if she did? You’ve got to stop underestimating your own charms.”
“Can I tell you a secret fact about girls?”
“They like kindness. You’d be surprised how far you can get with a lot of girls if you just walk up to them and say, ‘I think you’re great, I think you’re beautiful.’ Because they’re all afraid that they’re not.”
“Like you’d know.”
“I have my sources.”
“Right. Did, like, Joanna tell you that?”
“Mm-hm. She did.”
Joanna Hurst. Light of the northern sky.
A more impossible object is difficult to imagine. She is slender and graceful and heartbreakingly modest; she has long, roan-colored hair which she flicks occasionally out of her eyes. She has a way of lowering her head when she listens to others, as if she knows that her beauty—her wide-set eyes and lush lower lip, the creamy glow of her—must be withdrawn slightly if anyone else is to have any chance at all. She has recently begun dating a senior boy so popular and athletic and generally accomplished he doesn’t need to be cruel, and their union is as celebrated as would be the betrothal of an heir apparent to a young princess from a powerful, wealthy nation of uncertain loyalties. Joanna would be out of Peter’s league even if she weren’t three years older, and already taken.
And yet. And still. She’s Matthew’s best friend; surely she could, if given a chance, see in Peter some of what she sees in his brother. Surely the boy she’s dating (who bears the ludicrous name Benton) is at least a little insipid for her, a little obvious, one of those bland, hunky local heroes who never prevails in the movies; who always loses out to someone plainer but smarter, someone with rounder depths of soul, someone like, well, Peter.
“Are you in love with Joanna?” he asks Matthew.
“Do you think she’s in love with Benton?”
“She isn’t sure. Which means she’s not.”
Peter has, poised on the tip of his tongue, the impossible, unaskable questions.
He can’t. A no would be too unbearable. He has already, at twelve, grown all too accustomed to the idea that the main chance will never be offered him; that he’s one of the people who pick their way through whatever the warriors and marauders have left behind.
He doesn’t pursue the subject. He contents himself, over the next three years, with making sure he’s home, and attractively arrayed, on the relatively rare occasions when Joanna comes over (he and Matthew have long understood that their friends are never eager to spend much time at their house—there’s nothing to eat, and their mother seems to believe that their friends will steal if not carefully supervised). Peter will tell Emily Dawson that she’s beautiful, which will result in a hand job several nights later under the bleachers at a football game, after which she will never speak to him again. He will find himself, at odd moments, acting studly and seductive around Matthew, in the hope that Matthew will convey it to Joanna:
As months pass, however, and Matthew fails utterly to remark on Peter’s new manliness, Peter is driven to greater extremes. He starts simply by sitting (a much-practiced, cowboyish slinging of his elbows across the backs of sofas and chairs, legs spread wide with knees slightly bent, as if he might be called at any moment to spring into action), and by speaking in a slightly slurred, sporadically faltering baritone, which he pulls up, to the best of his ability, from deep within his diaphragm. Receiving no recognition, Peter steps up the campaign. He abandons his habitual shyness and strips immediately to his briefs whenever he and Matthew are alone in their room together (
In retrospect, Peter can’t imagine how or why it never occurred to him that Matthew would believe these little come-ons to be directed at him. Later on, this singularity of purpose will make Peter good at business, and terrible at poker and chess. At twelve, pushing hard on thirteen, he will suddenly, one winter night, realize that the entire sustained performance has, at best, not been relayed to Joanna at all, and, at worst, has been conveyed in disastrous form (
On that February night (Milwaukee February, dark since just after three in the afternoon, the windows pelted by hard little balls of sleet-hail that might as well be particles of frozen oxygen) as Peter and Matthew lie side by side in their twin beds, talking as they usually do before Matthew turns out the light; as Matthew is going on about some foolish fumble on the part of Benton the boyfriend, Peter will get up out of his bed (wearing only his briefs and, as a concession to the cold, a pair of woolen socks) and sit on the edge of Matthew’s, wearing his deep-souled listening face.
Matthew is saying, “… he’s a decent guy, I mean, he’s
He stops, and looks in surprise at Peter, as if Peter has appeared magically on his, Matthew’s, bed. The gesture is so without precedent that it’s taken Matthew a few seconds to apprehend it at all.
He speaks into Peter’s softened, tell-me-everything face. He says, “You okay?”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’m listening to you.”
Go out on a limb here and… TELL YOU JOANNA HURST IS IN LOVE WITH YOU.
Matthew says, “Have you been having some… this is embarrassing… feelings lately?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.”
“It’s okay. I understand.”
“I think so. You want to tell me a little about it?”
“I don’t think I can.”
“I understand that, too. Hey, brothers. DNA, what can you do?”
A silence passes. Peter summons himself.
He manages to say, “So you love her, too.”
Another silence passes, a terrible one. Frozen air particles fling against the window glass as if they are being hurled by a giant.
Peter understands. Not fully, but. He understands in an inchoate, stomach-swirling way that an error has been made, a wrong door opened. Matthew looks at him with exactly the same soft-eyed expression Peter has been practicing these past couple of months. Peter, it seems, did not invent the gesture at all—he merely picked it up from Matthew. DNA, what can you do?
“No,” Matthew says. “I’m not in love with Joanna. You are, huh?”
“Please please please please don’t tell her.”
And that, implausibly, is the end of the conversation, not just for the night but forever. Peter gets up, returns to his own bed, and pulls the covers high. Matthew turns out the light.
Peter falls into… something… love?… with Matthew on a beach in Michigan, a month before Matthew’s sixteenth birthday.
They are on their annual family summer vacation, a week in a musky pine-paneled cabin on Mackinac Island. Matthew is by now, and Peter is about to be, too old to delight in these trips. The cabin is no longer a repository of familiar wonders (the beds still shrouded in mosquito netting, all the board games still there!) but a dreary and tedious exile, a full week of their mother’s quiet fury over the fun they don’t seem to be having and their father’s dogged attempts to provide it; spiders in the bathrooms and cold little wavelets plashing and plashing against the gravelly beach.
This summer, however—marvel of marvels—Joanna has been permitted to come up for the weekend.
There’s no accounting, in retrospect, for this lapse in the Harris tradition. Until Matthew graduated from high school, the Harrises maintained an almost patriotic devotion to what they called family time—sacrosanct periods of four-member isolation that were insisted on with increasing fervor as it became more and more apparent that no one particularly enjoyed them. None of Peter’s or Matthew’s friends was ever invited to stay for dinner or spend the night, and so Joanna’s presence for three entire days of the annual week on Mackinac was a true enigma. Now, as an adult, Peter suspects that their parents had belatedly begun to apprehend Matthew’s true inclinations, and were, at the last minute, eager to become, or at least to impersonate, parents whose handsome, popular older boy might just get some girl into trouble if he wasn’t carefully watched, and he could only, of course, be carefully watched if the girl was actually present. Peter had overheard a telephone conversation between his mother and Joanna’s, in which his mother assured the other that Matthew’s and Joanna’s movements would be strictly accounted for, and that Joanna would sleep in a room right next to her own.
Was it possible that either of these women believed precautions to be necessary?
And why, as a matter of fact, did no one seem concerned about Peter’s behavior? He was the one who, without question or hesitation, would put his eye to the doorcrack when Joanna was in the bathroom, would sniff any bathing suit or towel left out to dry, and who, if he had the nerve (which he clearly did not) would creep into the virginal little alcove bedroom next to the one his parents used, and risk everything—Joanna’s screams, his parents’ mortification—just to get the briefest look at her, asleep, partially covered by a moon-gray sheet.
It was a case of mistaken identity. It was another of the apparently infinite mysteries.
Of Peter’s excitement, there is too much and too little to say. He vomited twice from nervousness, once during the days before the five of them left for Mackinac, and again (surreptitiously, he hoped) in a gas station men’s room along the way. He felt the inner spasm, but did not vomit, after they’d reached the cabin and Joanna stood, amid her scent and the other emanations of her personhood, in the until-then-familiar knotty-pine-paneled living room, rendering it profound and eternal: its smoke-blackened stone fireplace, its swaybacked sofa and fiendishly uncomfortable rattan armchairs, its ineradicable underlying aspect of long winter disuse, its smells of weedy damp and faint mothball and something Peter had never smelled before and has never smelled since, a feral odor like that which he imagines must reside in a raccoon’s pelt.
“This is so sweet,” Joanna says. Peter still swears, decades later, that she put out a faint, scented pinkish illumination in that sad brown room.
Yes, he masturbated five or six times a day. Yes, he not only sniffed the bikini bottoms she’d slung over the porch rail to dry (not much smell to them, lakewater and something clean, elusive, and vaguely metallic, like an iron fence on a winter day) but, with the queasy disregard of an alcoholic at a dinner party, put them over his head. Yes, he felt life cracking open all around him and yes, there were times when he wished Joanna would go away because he wasn’t certain he could bear his own deep knowledge, which he disavowed with every fiber, that he would never have any more of her than this, that he was and would always be a little boy with a bikini bottom stretched over his head, and that as intoxicating as these days of Joanna were they were also the beginning of a lifelong, congenital disappointment. Some god had seen fit to bring him this close to what he meant by happiness (Joanna biting delicately but with real appetite—she wasn’t prissy—into a cheeseburger; Joanna sitting on the porch steps in cutoffs and a white tank top, painting her toenails pink; Joanna laughing, like any mortal, at an old episode of
He will be in love with Joanna all his life, though as time goes on he will augment and supplant and reimagine her, enough so that, years later, when he is going through Matthew’s things in Milwaukee and finds his old yearbook, he will not at first recognize Joanna in her senior photo—a kind-looking, round-faced, conventional Midwestern beauty, with lovely full lips but rather narrow eyes, her hair lustrous and abundant but curtained down over her face so that it all but obscures her forehead and right eye, a style of the time that has been wisely abandoned for decades now. This is not the Lady of the Lake, not even close, and for a moment Peter will actually believe that Joanna’s photo must have gotten mixed up with someone else’s, some sturdy, reliable Milwaukee girl meant to (as in fact Joanna does) marry a handsome, luggish boy she meets at the local junior college, have three children in quick succession, and live quietly enough and happily enough in what will be called a planned community.
He will recall vividly on his deathbed (or, more specifically, on the stretch of pavement onto which he will collapse when his heart implodes) the following episode on an indolent Saturday afternoon.
He, Matthew, and Joanna have gone to the beach—where else is there for them to go?—and Peter sits on the coarse sand as Matthew and Joanna wade aimlessly in the shallows of the lake, speaking to each other in low but urgent-sounding tones. Joanna is demonstrating the concept of desire by way of rounded buttocks half covered by the V of her cantaloupe-colored bikini bottom. Matthew is taut and muscular from skating; his dark blond hair curls almost to the nape of his neck. The two of them stand in the blue-black water with their backs to Peter, looking out at the milky haze of the horizon, and as Peter watches from the sand he is taken by a sea-swell of feeling, utterly unexpected, a sensation that starts in his bowels and fluoresces through his body, dizzying, giddying. It’s not lust, not precisely lust, though it has lust in it. It’s a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty, though the word is insufficient. It’s a tingling sense of divine presence, of the unspeakable perfection of everything that exists now and will exist in the future, embodied by Joanna and his brother (there’s no denying that his brother is part of it) standing ankle deep in lakewater, under a pallid gray sky that will soon produce a scattering of rain. Time fails. Out of Joanna and Matthew and the lake and sky emanates the sense memory of the bathing suit Joanna is wearing right now, along with the smell of balsam pine that’s currently in Peter’s nose; their father’s helpless ardor and their mother’s ravenous attention and how they will both age and fade (he embittered, she gentled, liberated, by having less and less to lose); Emily making Peter come under the bleachers and his flirtations with sly, red-haired Carol, who will be his girlfriend until just before graduation; the school clock lit like a harvest moon under a twilight sky and the powder-scented air-conditioning at Hendrix Pharmacy and more and more and more. Matthew and Joanna have waded into Lake Michigan on a listless Saturday afternoon and summoned the vast, astonishing world. In another moment they’ll both turn, walk back up the beach, sit next to Peter. Joanna will tie her hair back with a coated rubber band, Matthew will examine a blister on his left foot. The local will reestablish itself, though Peter will put a hand, gently, on the back of Matthew’s neck, and Matthew will let go of his own blistered foot and reach over to squeeze Peter’s right knee, as if he understands (as he could not possibly have understood) that Peter has had a vision. Peter will never fully understand why, at that ordinary moment, the world decided to reveal itself, briefly, to him, but he will associate it with Matthew and Joanna together, an enchanted couple, mythic, perfect and eternal and chaste as Dante and Beatrice.
Peter has been lying in his darkened bedroom for over half an hour, which, after a two-hour nap, is unconscionable. He should be back at the gallery. He seems, though, to have passed into some condition of semiparalysis, something Snow White–ish, a condition of waking slumber, waiting for… true love’s first kiss isn’t going to do much at this point, is it?
He can hear Mizzy moving around in the living room.
He’s not a fool. He knows that Mizzy is in some way his brother, resurrected.
The funny thing is, knowing it doesn’t seem to make much difference. He’s learned this from years of psychoanalysis. Okay. You can be overbearing because you feel insecure, and you feel insecure because your parents preferred your older brother. You love your wife for many reasons, among them her resemblance (which you exaggerate in your own mind) to the unattainable girl of your adolescence, who preferred your older brother, and you (fuck you) love her ever so slightly less now that she’s not that girl any longer. You’re drawn (erotically?) to her little brother because on one hand he reminds you of Matthew and, on the other, allows you for the first time in your life to
All this is useful information. Now what?
Lying here on the bed he finds himself thinking about Dan Weissman, whom Peter saw only that once, in Matthew’s hospital room (Matthew’s body was shipped to Milwaukee for burial, Dan wasn’t at the service, Peter could never bring himself to ask his parents whether they’d invited him or not). Dan, who died a little over a year after Matthew did. Whose entire life, as far as Peter is concerned, was devoted to that twenty minutes in St. Vincent’s in 1985, when he helped Peter say goodbye.
On the other side of the wall, Peter hears Mizzy walk into the kitchen. He probably doesn’t know Peter is here. How would he? There is something subtly delicious about being unapprehended and, better still, about hiding without culpability. If discovered, he can simply tell Mizzy the truth. He got sick, came home to lie down.
Mizzy returns to the living room. The walls, being non-load-bearing, are thin. Peter can hear pretty much everything. Which is, of course, part of what drove poor Bea crazy when they moved here, when she was eleven. What exactly had possessed them to think that living in such close proximity to her parents would be a good idea for an adolescent girl? Well, okay. The loft had been such an amazingly good deal, it would have been crazy to pass it up. And, right, at the time they didn’t have the money to put in thicker walls.
A brief interlude of silence—Mizzy has probably sat down on the sofa. And then, faintly, his voice. He’s called someone on his cell.
Peter should not, of course, be listening. He should get up right now, and let Mizzy know that he’s here. The temptation, however, is too great. And in the age of cell phones, all our conversations are public, aren’t they? Besides, Peter can always pretend to have been asleep.
Mizzy’s voice is barely intelligible.
“Hey. It’s Ethan.”
“A while, I’m not sure. Yeah.”
“Like, just a gram? I’m not so
“Great. See you in a little bit.”
Okay. He’s using again.
What now, Polonius?
Peter lies in mortified, fascinated silence.
At seven past four, he hears Mizzy buzz the dealer in, buy the drugs, and close the door—it’s a quick and almost silent transaction. It is, of course, outrageous that Mizzy has given their address to a drug dealer, and let him into the loft, however briefly, but at the same time… it’s not as if Peter has never bought drugs before (the occasional gram of cocaine, the odd half dozen hits of Ecstasy), and he knows well enough who it is who sells drugs in small quantities to people like Mizzy (or himself). Somewhere along that unimaginable chain of supply and demand there are dangerous, desperate men, men who are capable of just about anything, but the guy who hops into a cab to sell you a little coke or crystal or a few hits of X is likely to be a young or, even likelier, a no-longer-young actor/model/waiter, who needs the extra cash. Peter could simulate righteous fury at Mizzy, and really, Mizzy should have arranged to meet this guy somewhere else (yes, he’s spoiled and entitled, no denying it), but a fit of anger would be at least something of an act.
And so, he remains.
He hears Mizzy move around in the other room, the soft slide of his footsteps as he goes into the kitchen, goes back to put on a CD (Sigur R?s), returns to the kitchen. Then it’s twenty-three minutes of quiet, only the low tones and ghost voice of the music. Is Mizzy doing the crystal? Uh, what do you think? Finally, more footfalls, coming through the living room, getting closer… for a moment it seems that Mizzy is going to come into Peter’s room. Peter’s skin prickles with fear (he’ll have to pretend to be asleep) and anger (
And… yes. A minute passes, another minute commences, and it’s clear that Mizzy is masturbating. Peter can sense it. He thinks he can. Sex alters the air, right? And he swears he can hear Mizzy emit a soft little moan, though it might be Sigur R?s. But really. What would a twenty-three-year-old be doing in bed in mid-afternoon after a bump of crystal?
And what, Peter Harris, are you to do now?
The decent thing. Get up immediately, go loudly out of your room and announce, all sleepy and yawning, that you have been in deep slumber until moments ago. Express surprise at finding Mizzy on the premises.
The subvert thing. Get up and slip quietly away, out of your room and out of the loft. Mizzy is occupied, he probably won’t hear you (Did he close his bedroom door? Mm, didn’t hear that). Walk around the neighborhood for a while, pretend to come home at your usual hour.
The unconscionable thing. Stay where you are, and keep listening.
Accept that, like many men, you have a streak of the homoerotic in you. Why would you, why would anyone, want to be
Plus it’s… what?… amazing, okay, in a fucked-up way, but still, it’s amazing to slip into someone else’s privacy like this. A few feet away is that rarest of entities—another being who believes himself to be alone. I mean yes, okay, we are probably not, when alone, profoundly or maybe even noticeably different, but how can you know that, really, about anyone, save yourself? Isn’t this part of what you keep looking for in art—rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened: by Giotto’s expelled Adam and Eve, by Rembrandt’s final self-portraits, by Walker Evans’s photos from Hale County. The art of the past tried to give us something like what’s happening to Peter right now—a look into the depths of the human other. Videos of passersby aren’t the same. Nor are obscene urns or dead sharks or anything, really, that’s wry or detached or ironic, that’s meant to shock or provoke. It doesn’t offer anything like a beautiful messed-up boy with a drug problem spinning unknowable fantasies for himself right there, on the other side of the veil.
Or, okay, maybe Peter is gay after all, and just wants to get off on the free porn.
Was that a long sigh from the far side of the wall, or a swell of music?
What would Mizzy’s fantasies be?
It’s impossible to imagine, isn’t it? Most men probably go through the same motions, more or less, but what’s in their minds, what agitates their blood? What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?
Peter finds himself thinking of Joanna in the lake. Joanna was a fantasy mainstay for years, though she has, of course, been replaced for decades now by other women. The image of Joanna in the lake (she’s turning around, she’s unfastening the top of her bikini) is complicated by what she became, as witnessed by Peter on a trip to Milwaukee years ago: hale and handsome, cheerfully pushing forty with a wallet full of photos, a pretty and sturdy woman with no hint of sex about her. Peter’s vision of her seems to include Matthew as well, Matthew at the lake, in his pale blue trunks, though Matthew is complicated by what he became: dead. Peter is visited by a sense of annihilating fire. He is surprised to find it sexy—a blinding heat that wants to devour every part of you. Yeah, the cremation fire, but still. It’s a classic, isn’t it, it’s eternal, the Cyclops or wolf or witch that wants to eat you; it’s been frightening and titillating us forever, the entity that hungers for your body, that couldn’t care less about possession of your soul. We insist, of course, on punishing our predators; we stab out their eyes or fill their bellies with stones or push them into their own ovens, but they’re our favorite enemies, we fear and love them, why wouldn’t we, when they find us so delectable, when they care only for our flesh and give not one shit about our secret inner parts? Why do you think it’s a shark that made Damien Hirst’s career?
A virus ate Matthew. Time ate Joanna. What’s eating Peter?
He’s got a hard-on now. How weird is that? He passes through a moment of vertigo, a gut-flight over certain… possibilities. Come on, if he were gay he’d have known it, wouldn’t he? Still, he’s a man with an erection, an erection inspired by this particular boy, his wife in boy-drag, and he’s listening to the boy jerk off. Yeah, god help him, he’s aroused by Mizzy’s youth and Mizzy’s probable doom and he’s aroused (still, after all this time) by a single nanosecond’s glimpse, more than thirty years ago, of Joanna’s pale pink nipple as she readjusted her bathing suit, though that nipple is utterly changed by now; he’s aroused by the memory of having been young, of the slim but wiry hope that the briefest look at Joanna’s nipple promised an erotic future more abundant and transporting than he could fully imagine; he’s aroused (how weird is this?) by death’s patient eating of the living and by the sweetly determined young waitress at JoJo’s yesterday and by the strangeness of where he is and who he seems at this moment to be—the word “pervert” comes to mind, doesn’t it? (Surprise, it seems that maybe fetishists and other such get off on