20. Life on Venus
We slept together. He would get up in the morning and rush off to work, scrabbling through piles of our mingled trousers and briefs, running his head under the sink, slamming the front door in farewell, and after he was gone I would spend the luxury of my extra hour by bathing in the Weatherwoman's claw-foot tub and in the strangeness of it all. We lived well. Arthur cooked elaborate dinners; in the refrigerator there was always pasta in the colors of the Italian flag, a variety of weird wines, capers, kiwis, unheard-of fish with Hawaiian names, and stacks of asparagus, Arthur's favorite food, in the rubber-banded bundles that he never failed to refer to as fagots. We sent our dirty clothes out to be cleaned and they came back as gifts, tied up in blue paper. And, as often as possible, we went to bed. I did not consider myself to be gay; I did not consider myself, as a rule. But all day long, from the white instant when I opened my eyes in the morning until my last black second of awareness of Arthur's fading breath against my shoulder, I was always nervous, full of energy, afraid. The city was new again, and newly dangerous, and I would walk its streets quickly, eyes averted from those of passersby, like a spy in the employ of lust and happiness, carrying the secret deep within me but always on the tip of my tongue.
The rich young couple-who were due to return on the last day of July-employed a black woman to clean their house. Her name was Velva. At eight o'clock on my only Wednesday morning at the Weatherwoman House, she entered the bedroom and screamed. After a moment of keen observation, she ran from the room, shouting that she was sorry. Arthur and I separated, went soft, laughed. We lit cigarettes and discussed strategy.
"Maybe I should go downstairs," he said.
"Put some pants on."
"What will she do?" he said. "I don't know her well enough to predict. Black people confuse me."
"Pick up the extension."
"Maybe she's calling the police."
"Or an ambulance."
I thought of my fat friends from Boardwalk, arriving in their van to attach their electric paddles to the outraged, apopleptic cleaning lady collapsed on the living-room floor. Arthur picked up the extension, listened, set it down again.
"Dial tone," he said. "And I'm not going downstairs. You go. Slip her a five or something." He pushed me, and I fell out of the bed, trailing the bedclothes behind me. A tendril of cotton blanket wrapped itself around a lamp, pulled the lamp to the floor after it, and then muffled the bang! of the shattered light bulb. We stared at each other, eyes round, muscles tensed, listening, like two boys who have been warned not to wake the baby. But the pop of the bulb was the incident's only repercussion. Velva contrived to be in another part of the house throughout our respective breakfasts and departures, and subsequent events indicated that she never said anything to anyone. Perhaps she did not care-I fantasized that she was Lurch's long-resigned mother. In any case, we were lucky. Like any successful spy, I felt frightened and lucky all the time.
Pittsburgh, too, was in the grip of a humid frenzy. The day after my flip of the coin, the sun had disappeared behind a perpetual gray wall of vapor, which never managed to form itself into rain, and yet the sun's heat remained as strong as ever, so that the thick, wet, sulfury air seemed to boil around you, and in the late morning veils of steam rose from the blacktop. Arthur said that it was like living on Venus. When I walked to work-arriving sapped and with my damp shirt an alien thing clinging to me-the Cathedral of Learning, ordinarily brown, would look black with wetness, dank, submerged, Atlantean. There were three irrational shootings that week, and two multiple-car pileups on the freeway; a Pirate, in a much-discussed lapse of sportsmanship, broke three teeth belonging to a hapless Phillie; a live infant was found in a Bloomfield garbage can.
And in bed, as our last week in the Weatherwoman House drew to a close, our dealings with each other became distinctly more Venusian. The stranglehold, the bite, even the light blow, found their way into our sexual repertoire: I discovered purple marks along the tops of my shoulders. It's the weather, I said to myself; or else, I added-once, and only for an instant, since I was so firmly opposed to consideration-this is just the way it is with another man.
I'd given my father the phone number at the Weather-woman House, and I wondered what he imagined I was doing there, since I had a perfectly good house of my own. I'd been putting him off for days now, uncomfortable with him not only because of Cleveland and Punicki and Phlox and my mother and my new, willfully unconsidered activities, but because of the edge of pleading in his voice when we briefly spoke, because of the blatant genuineness of his desire to see me. Our seeing each other during his previous visits had always been neither a priority nor something to be missed. We just saw each other if we could, and then he would leave again for Washington. This time he'd gone so far as to extend the length of his visit by a few needless days, and the strangeness of his determination not to leave without taking me to the movies made me feel more acutely the distance between us, the sorry pass things had come to. I did not like to see my father bending over backward; it didn't suit him. And in the late afternoon of that Wednesday on which Velva was horrified, I got in from work and found a message from my father on the Weather-woman's answering machine, and I trembled at the sad charm in my father's voice, his amusement with the machine, his terrible confusion.
"Ahem. Art, this is your father," said his voice. "Can you hear me? Ahem. Well, I'm glad to know you're moving among the phone-machine set. It's the-ahem-last night of the Joe Bechstein Festival and our records show that you still haven't used your ticket. What about this science fiction film that everyone is so crazy for?"
"Is that your dad?" said Arthur, coming up from behind and surprising me, wrapping his arms around my throat.
"Does that sound like a good idea?" said the voice.
"Yes," I said. "Shh."
"He has a high-pitched voice!"
"Quiet, you made me miss it. " I rewound the tape. "He wants to go to the movies."
"He sounds like the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh."
"-a good idea? Because I'm leaving town tomorrow morning. Art-"
"Sure, let's go. I'd love to meet him."
"Quiet! Don't make fun of his voice." I rewound the tape again.
"-town tomorrow morning, Art-"
"Does he know?"
"Please," I said.
"-is everything okay?"
I called him back and told him I'd be bringing a friend along. A different friend.
"Indeed," said my father, and suddenly, again, I didn't want to see him. "Is that necessary? Couldn't we be alone for once?"
I was sitting on the edge of the bed, and now Arthur knelt before me and began to undo my pants.
"Are you afraid to be alone with me, Art?"
"That must be it, Dad. Don't." I pushed at Arthur's burrowing head.
"Nothing. Oh. Yes. I don't know."
"Art, there's a good deal I have to say to you, and it isn't the sort of thing I want to discuss with one of your friends around."
"Ah," I whispered, pushing, grasping. "Please."
Jesus. "Yeah, then let's, ah, forget it, Dad, okay? I probably wouldn't want to hear what you have to say, anyway, would I? No, I wouldn't." Jesus! "Go back to Washington. Say hi to Grandma. Ah." Ah!
"Art." There was a terrible shrillness in the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh, the note of dispossession, of loss of control. "What's happening to you?"
"I'm sorry, Dad," I said, feeling myself slip, slip, through fingers and fingers, into the pitiless wave. I fell back onto the bed; Arthur very precisely hung up on my father. He stood, wiped the corner of his mouth, then put me back together and zipped me up, with neat, rather waiterly gestures.
"Which other friend did he meet?" he said.
I slid forward and knelt before the telephone, head hung.
"Oh? Why didn't I know that?"
"I suppose your intelligence service failed you." I stared at him. Didn't he know what he-what I-had just done? What had I just done?
"I guess I'm not paying those fellows enough," he said, and smiled unhappily.
"Well. I must have forgotten to mention it."
Cleveland. When I'd thought of him at all in the past few days, it was only with a vague anxiety, easily dispelled by Arthur's slightest syllable or caress, and at that moment it seemed possible-no, forgive me, but it seemed desirable-that Cleveland, with his new career, was lost to us forever, vanished into the vanishing world of my father, two polar bears on an ice floe drifting off into a waste of white fog. I might never see anyone but Arthur, my fancy Arthur, ever again.
"Why are you smiling?"
"I'm free," I said.
Arthur was polishing off the last half-inch of wine, I was rinsing the speckled film of herb butter from our dinner plates, and we'd just decided to go for a walk, when the doorbell rang.
"Who could that be?"
"'I must have forgotten to mention it,'" he said, rising and heading for the hall. I turned the water off, so I could listen, but Arthur had swung shut the door to the kitchen, something he never did. Who could it be? I thought I heard him say hello, in an uncharacteristically morose tone of voice, then thought I heard a woman say, '"Lo." Something heavy was dropped in the hallway, and then there was the sound of a loud kiss, a real smacker. I set the sponge down, dried my hands on my pants, and went out into the hall.
Arthur, blushing deeply, was tugging at a woman, trying to draw her into the living room. Her eyes were blue and cold as his, though ringed with dark circles; she had his straight nose, and his mouth, set between two deep lines, and his blond hair, though long and full and veined with the colorless strands of age; her faded clothes fit her poorly; and a tiny silver Jesus writhed on a cross that hung from her neck. There were, in the ducking motion of her head, in the red devastation of her hands, the marks of submission to hard work and sorrow, and she looked at me now as though she expected me to deliver some very unhappy news.
"Art Bechstein, this is my mother, Mrs. Ondine Lecomte. Mother, this is my friend Art." He made the introductions quickly, with an odd chopping motion of his hands, then began almost literally to push her out of the hallway, into the living room.
"Wow, hello, Mrs. Lecomte, how great to meet you," I said, coming on strong. I didn't want Arthur to deny me this clue, this glimpse into the most secret of secret worlds. Mrs. Lecomte would not, however, look me in the face; her eyes went to her ruined hands, and she turned bright pink, a mannerism of Arthur's whose source I might have been charmed to discover, had it not made me feel painfully ashamed of myself. I felt as though it were I who'd corrupted Arthur; I felt the word "corruption."
"I just came over with some of Arthur's mending," she muttered. "Your shirts, honey. I sewed new buttons. Fixed that collar."
"Great, Mom, thanks. Okay, let's go into the living room, here. What a nice house." As they went out, he turned back toward me and said, "I'll be back to help you with the dishes in a few minutes. Then we can go for a walk."
"I get the message," I said, but I was determined. I put the kettle on, and in five minutes got pot, cups, spoons, and a sugar bowl on a little tray and out into the living room, where I caught them as they were about to stand up.
"Coffee?" I said.
Slowly they lowered themselves back onto their science-furniture chairs, at the same time and with an identical air of being trapped. I served the coffee and was disappointed, shocked, indicted, and disturbed by the plain fact of Arthur's mother. I had mythologized her, and this might have accounted for my feeling so disillusioned and at sea, but the really disturbing thing was that her sad, wrinkled face and worn smock forced me to recognize that, in some fundamental way, I knew absolutely nothing about Arthur. I had assumed, without his ever having said so, that his manners, dress, and taste were the product of a wealthy, summer-house, three-car, private-tutor, dancing-tea background. Now I began to see that he was largely his own invention.
"I don't know how you get yourself into these kind of houses," said Mrs. Lecomte with a thin smile, looking around her at the pretty-art on the walls. "Always so big and empty and fine. They're like-"
"Mrs. Lecomte," I said, "I really am glad to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
"Oh." She slurped her coffee, wincing, and stared deep into it. We gripped our cups and sat watching as four or five angels of silence passed through the room. "Did you go to Mass Sunday?" she said at last, already ducking her head in anticipation of her son's reply.
"Ah, no, Mom, I didn't. I haven't been since Ash Wednesday." This was a lie, and I was surprised at him. He'd been to Mass several times that I knew about, and he always claimed, without embarrassment, that it made him feel Good. "Do you know about Ash Wednesday, Art?" he said. "All the priests get together Tuesday night-"
"Please," his mother said, her cup rattling faintly on its dainty flat saucer.
"-and they have this really big party."
"Arthur." She set the coffee down.
"And then Wednesday morning," he said, smiling his hardest smile, "they empty all the ashtrays into this big bowl-"
"I'm leaving, Arthur," she said, and stood up, trembling, and I saw then that this, like all of Arthur's relations, was a game they played. He probably came as close to blasphemy as he needed to until she started to cry. Then maybe they had a forgiveness ritual.
"Oh, please don't go," I said. "Here, Mrs. Lecomte, have some more coffee."
"No, I should go," she said, finally looking at me-for a second or two-with her laughless eyes. "I've got to get up early tomorrow, but thank you, honey."
The last word was barely audible and probably automatic, but it touched me. She was, after all, Arthur's mother, and I didn't want her thinking I was some Emissary from Hell sent to despoil her son, or something. Mothers usually thought I was swell.
"Oh?" I said. "What do you do?"
Arthur came over and put his arm around her shoulders. He started to tow his mother again.
"Thanks for coming by, Mom. Thanks for doing the shirts."
"I clean houses," she said. "Like this one."
She cast a last wistful and derisive glance across the glittering brass and the rubber plants of the Weatherwoman's salon, and then Arthur kissed her cheek and got her out the door. After he'd shut it, he leaned back against it, outspreading his arms, panting slightly, as people do in the movies when they have at last got rid of the boring date or the terrible creature of slime.
We wound up, as usual, in the bedroom, only this time, for the first time, our rhythms were out of phase, the tongues and touching without effect, and it quickly became apparent that something was wrong.
"I don't attract you anymore," he said, throwing an arm across his eyes.
"Nonsense," I said. "You're more fascinating than ever. "
"Because my mother's a maid?"
"Because your dream mother's a duchess," I said, and I described the childhood and upbringing that his ways and looks so clearly suggested.
"That's Cleveland," he said. "Private tutors, the summer house. He had all those things. Ha. And look at him."
"Maybe you were switched at birth."
"What you saw tonight is not who I am." He sat up on one arm and fixed me sternly with his eyes, as though administering an important lesson or a reprimand.
"You turn into whoever you're supposed to turn into."
"I hope you're right," I said, thinking of him and not of myself.
"Why, what is your father, anyway? A Jewish neo-Nazi? A proctologist?"
"Let's get dressed," I said. "Let's take that walk."
"No, just a minute. What is your father, Art? Tell me. Come on, it's only fair. You're one up on me now."
"I love you," I said, getting up to pull my trousers on.
We walked a long way, leaving behind the fragrant, dark streets of Shadyside, where you had to push aside low and wild'growing branches and to pass through curtains of spiderweb that overhung the sidewalks and left ticklish strands across your lips and eyelashes. We came far into East Liberty, where the neighborhood began to deteriorate, the vegetation dwindled then finally disappeared, and we found ourselves on a commercial street corner, amid a loose cloud of unhappy black men laughing outside the corner saloon and along the closed, barred, steel-shuttered row of storefronts. As we stood poised on the edge of the shutdown neighborhood, and Arthur said that we should turn around, I heard a snarling dog. A pickup truck had stopped at the traffic light, and in its bed was an enraged Doberman pinscher, doing near backflips of fluid hate. Each burst of nervous laughter from the street-corner men sent the dog over again.
"Jesus," said Arthur.
"I know," I said. "That dog's gone mad."
"Oh, come on," I said, "not quite," thinking maybe he'd had an encounter with Cleveland, like my last one, that he hadn't told me about, but then I looked into the cab of the pickup and saw Cleveland, on the passenger's side, laughing, holding his cigarette out the window.
"What's he doing? Who's he with?" I said, trying to recognize the man sitting behind the wheel of the pickup. The dog continued to emit the same slavering snarl over and over again, without variation, like a machine specially designed to snarl at laughing black men.
"He doesn't see us," said Arthur. "Hey, Cleveland!"
Cleveland turned, his jaw dropped, and then he grinned, waving delightedly, and said something that I didn't catch. The light changed and the pickup truck squealed off, the Doberman clambering to put its forelegs on the lip of the truck bed and to thrust its head into the onrush of wind.
"What's he up to now?" said Arthur, laughing. "What a dog!"
"What a dog!" I said. "Who knows?"
We laughed, but on the way home, while Arthur continued to exclaim and narrate, I hardly spoke, and there was nothing he could do to cheer me-indeed, his chatter annoyed me, for forgetting everything I had felt only that afternoon, I was gripped by the fear that I would never see Cleveland again. Later we did make love, and it was hard and wordless as ever, but when we were through, and he reminded me that we had only three more days before the rich young couple came home, I tensed.
"Then what?" I said, the question occurring to me for the first time.
"Yes, then what?"
"Where will you go?"
"Well, I was thinking of that perfectly nice place you have on the Terrace, which has been so empty lately."
"I don't know," I said, beginning to feel, with an inward groan, the return of a familiar feeling of pressure, but he said only, "Fine," and rolled over.
So, on the following Sunday, very early and half-awake, we left the Weatherwoman House, and, because I did not know what I wanted, Arthur stayed with me for three strained, unerotic days before the house-sitting grapevine came through for him again, and he moved out.