As they rose onto the bridge, Brendan leaned against the taxi window, gazing into the towers lit against the night sky, just as they are in the beginning of all the Miramax films, or the shots from the blimp when they show evening games at the U.S. Open—only now he could see the red-and-white streams of car lights rushing along the river's edge, beacons on the prows of ships jetting the waterway, a helicopter's taillights cruising down the glittering shore. His hand tightened on the wallet in his pocket, the $300 he'd saved from afternoon shifts at OfficeMax secured in the inner fold. This must be what it's like, he thought, for diplomats and stars—Roddick returning from another victory at Flushing, an actor weary from a foreign shoot, night travelers longing for the comfort of lovers and apartments back in the gilded city.
"I hope this man doesn't get us lost," his mother whispered across the back seat.
"Jesus, Mom. Like he's never been to the Plaza."
"What do you know about the Plaza Hotel?"
"I know what everyone else in the world knows, which is that it's at Fifty-ninth and Park Avenue, and it used to be owned by Donald Trump."
"Feeth," the driver said through the Plexiglas slot. "Thee Plaza eez on Feeth."
"Thank you, sir," his mother yelled.
Brendan glared at her, hardly able to stand the sight: tan sneakers, stonewashed jeans, a green fleece sweater. Under his rule her entire wardrobe would be drowned in a vat of black dye. But none of these dreadful choices came close to the offense of the item strapped to her waist. His eyes snared on the teal nylon of the fanny pack, and it felt as if all sixteen years of his life he'd worn her naivete through the streets like a crown of thorns. He'd pleaded with her since yesterday not to carry her valuables in that eyesore. He'd even recited the latest crime statistics; forced her to acknowledge that New York was one of the safest cities in the country, and that more people per capita had been murdered in their own state of Missouri than in the five boroughs last year. But still she wouldn't relent. Having to share his first entrance into a world-class hotel with that placard of ignorance struck him as more than anyone should have to bear.
"Won't you please take it off?" he implored again now, glaring down at her hand, which seemed to have unconsciously migrated to the defense of the wretched bulge.
A year ago she would have looked him in the eye and told him he was on thin ice. Now she just turned her head away and said, "Brendan, you need to calm down."
As if calm were an option! Every waking hour for two months had been burned up in anticipation of this weekend. The day his sad-sack, pale-faced, depresso father had finally moved out of the house and into an apartment closer to his job, his mother had got on the phone to his grandmother, and when she hung up she told Brendan he was getting the present he'd asked for each birthday and Christmas for the past two years: they were going to New York City, and they were staying in a hotel.
That same evening he'd sent an e-mail to Tom, the guy he'd spent so much time imagining since they'd met on the Web a few months before, whose pictures were so gorgeous: curly black hair, green eyes, a chest sculpted and smooth and strong. This wasn't one of those pathetic online non-affairs his friend Tanya was still having, where you fell in love with some 400-pound food-service worker in Jefferson City, believing he was Brad Pitt's nephew. Brendan had taken a bus to a few of those dates. The only relief they'd given him was the knowledge that some people on this earth were more desperate than himself. Sitting in the back row of Language Arts on the first day of school this year, the pothead desperadoes nodding beside him, he'd watched the teacher shift his saucer-sized red-plastic glasses up the bridge of his nose, and it seemed as obvious as the sentence diagrammed on the board that Brendan could become either a lonely, sad-assed middle-aged fag like Mr. Growley, up there in his cardigan, his perm, his yellowed moustache, as anxious and bitter an inmate of that place as the worst of them; or someone who got out, someone who lived in an apartment in a famous city.
Since Tom had replied, saying this weekend would be fine, his greatest fear had been that he would go all the way to New York City and be unable to lose his mother long enough to get down to the East Village on his own. To his surprise, what had seemed the most difficult step turned out to be the easiest. A week after she'd booked their tickets, he asked her if on the Saturday afternoon of their visit he could go to Tanya's nonexistent cousin's house, ten blocks from the hotel. He'd anticipated a grilling, and had a map ready to show her. But rather than asking questions, she'd kept on with the dinner dishes, this resigned look on her face, as if she'd expected him to ask such a thing.
As the cab descended from the bridge and turned on to the avenue, Brendan looked at his watch and realized he had less than twenty hours left to wait.
Life at the Plaza consisted mainly of trying to keep at least ten yards between him and his mother when they were not either in the room with the door closed or forced into proximity by a restaurant table. As soon as they'd pulled up, he'd leaped out of the taxi and ascended the steps past the doorman. As he looked back from the doorway, he could almost believe that the miserably attired woman looking frantically over her shoulder, as if bracing for the onslaught of al-Qaeda, was just some tourist one had to expect at such places. After she registered them and handed him a key, they rode the elevator to their floor and he walked well ahead of her down the plush hallway and into the room. The sound of her knocking after repeated failure to operate the lock properly led him to contemplate what she would do if he simply didn't respond. She would either begin one of her shouting whispers or call a manager, he decided, crossing to the door to let her in.
"Well, I think it'll be very good," she said, when he protested her hotel-dining plans. "I'm sure a place as nice as this is very reliable." For two short days they would reside on an island with perhaps the greatest variety of food in the world. But no. Not for the Blankenburgs. The Blankenburgs would eat chicken Kiev in a foyer.
"You're just afraid you're going to be shot," he said. "You might as well take that fleece off and put on a bulletproof vest. At least it would be the right color."
As it turned out, the Oak Room was pretty fancy, and when he saw the prices of the entrees Brendan became alarmed. He waited for his mother to whisper something about how they might need to find another restaurant, but she said nothing. They weren't poor, but they didn't eat out and they didn't travel, and his mother was always stressed about the bank account, about any purchases more significant than groceries. It wasn't as if his dad could afford to pitch in, and his mother's job at the mall didn't pay much more than Brendan's at OfficeMax.
Ever since a year ago, when his father lost his sales job and started sleeping half the day, she'd gone sort of quiet, not even getting after Brendan to do his schoolwork the way she used to. She'd started going to church three or four days a week, and praying more at home. On the kitchen table he'd see the literature she brought back, encouraging people to support the marriage amendment because homosexuals were trying to undermine Missouri families. He couldn't remember her ever voting before, but she'd gone down to his old elementary school on primary day, back in August, and when she came home she sat at the kitchen table and cried. Brendan had paid for the pizza that night and rented her favorite movie, this old black-and-white thing she loved called The Philadelphia Story.
Their entrees arrived, and they ate together in silence in the windowless, paneled room, glancing around at the other diners. She shook her head no when the waiter asked if she'd like dessert, but said Brendan should go ahead if he wanted to. As he sometimes did when she became silent, he felt his chest go tight, a kind of caged feeling. He hadn't meant to yell at her so much today; it was just that he'd been so nervous.
"Thanks for the trip," he said. His twelve-dollar brownie sundae was placed before him in a white bowl set on a gold-rimmed plate.
She nodded, looking over his shoulder, sipping her Diet Coke.
After dinner they took a brief walk along Fifty-ninth Street, and he managed to drag her six yards into the bottom entrance to Central Park before she mentioned some woman who'd been raped while jogging at night and said, "You know, we really shouldn't." The fanny pack had been left in the room's safe, replaced by a hooded windbreaker tied around her waist in case of bad weather. Looking back at her in the lamplight as she peered into the trees, her head covered with a rain hat, Brendan felt the anger flaring again, that leading edge of the bitter promise to himself never to become her, never to stay in the middle of nowhere as she had, never to live like his family, with money so tight. His grandfather watched C-span in a nursing home in St. Louis, damning the spineless Democrats, telling Brendan whenever they visited that in the fifties the union knew how to get things done—crack a few heads when the time came, none of this liberal crap, solid people on a pay scale they were willing to stand up and defend. And when the set-piece tirade was over, he'd stare bewildered at his semi-employed, divorcing daughter as though she were some strange inhabitant of the ruined future. Hurrying back down those corridors of airless linoleum cells, Brendan felt like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, fleeing the menaced ship, life clarifying itself into the pure struggle for survival, only to get into the escape car with his mother and realize that the beast of anonymity and defeat remained nestled right there beside him.
He kept three steps ahead all the way back to the hotel.
At one o'clock the next day he carried all his outfit choices into the bathroom, locked the door, took a long, soapy shower, and then tried to decide. For the past week he'd been set on the plan of dark jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a no-logo baseball cap. But now he saw that the sweatshirt came down too far past his waist, and tucked in it looked totally retarded. The blue button-down was cute in a way, preppy, which, given that Tom was a law student, seemed okay. But everything he'd read about the East Village made him think you should look as much like Lou Reed as possible, at least clothing-wise. He decided on a long-sleeved dark-blue T-shirt and his black waist-length zip-up jacket. He put some gel in his hair, but other than some moisturizer to keep his skin from flaking he couldn't do much about his face. At least the clothing covered his spindly body for now.
He grabbed his wallet from the bedside table and stuffed it deep in his pocket. Across the room his mother sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, facing out the window that overlooked the park.
"It's your grandmother you have to thank for all this, you know," she said. "She wanted to give us—you and me—she wanted to give us a treat after your father left. You're going to write her a thank-you note."
"Sure," he said, wishing she'd look at him when she spoke. "I'll be back later, okay?"
The white-brick building at 228 East Thirteenth Street stood five stories high, across from an empty lot. Steps led up to a silver panel of buzzers. Tom Fairly's name didn't appear on the list. Brendan had been told to expect this. A sublet, Tom had said. He just had to ring buzzer No. 12 and he'd be let in. He sat on a stoop a few doors down, not wanting Tom to see him out the window and think him a nerd for arriving early. Checking to make sure no one suspicious was looking on, he took out his wallet and counted the money again. Tom charged $200 for a date, but he'd brought the extra hundred just in case he wanted more, given Brendan's looks. The money helped pay for law school and Tom's debt from college.
Sounds like you just need to get your confidence going. I can be gentle like that. Don't worry. His breath went shallow at the memory of the words in the e-mail. He'd jacked off so many times to the idea of being kissed by Tom that he didn't know what he'd do when he got in there. The last minutes remaining between him and their meeting felt as if they would never pass. Then suddenly they had, and he was standing in the entryway holding his finger to the buzzer.
"Who is it?" a man's low, garbled voice asked through the speaker grate.
"Brendan. Brendan Blankenburg."
"All right. Come on up. Fourth floor."
He pushed the door open and walked down the black-and-white-tiled hall.
Every night for months he'd visited the Web site, read Tom's journals, looked at pictures of Tom in his baseball cap and Columbia sweatshirt, or in the shower, water running down his smooth, rippling back. He'd met lots of guys in chat rooms who advertised with homepages like Tom's, but most of them were older, and all they had were pictures and a cell-phone number, maybe some lame paragraph about how hot they were. Tom was the only one he'd found who had a story: Growing up in a banker's family in Ohio. His father discovering him with another boy senior year in high school, cutting him off from the money. Coming to New York, finding a job working for a film director, putting himself through college and now law school. Some of the journal entries were dated a while ago, but they talked about how hard it had been at first, not knowing how the city worked, the parties and the clothes, how everyone seemed to know everything already and be bored with it. Brendan knew from the site that Tom dated other guys in a normal, romantic way; that he never mixed that up with dates like Brendan. He kept reminding himself of this. A jolting, shaking motion rattled in his chest as he climbed the stairs.
The door of 4F stood slightly ajar. As he knocked, it swung farther open.
"Come on in," Tom said, stepping into the kitchen from the next room. He reached out his hand and they shook, Brendan managing through an extreme force of will to keep his arm steady. Tom wore a pair of shiny red track pants with a white stripe running down the leg, and a white T-shirt that hugged the muscles of his chest and arms. He seemed a little older than in the pictures—maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven, Brendan guessed—but just as beautiful, his hair moist and curly, his eyes greener than on the Web, the lightly tanned skin of his face perfectly smooth. No one in Moberly, Missouri, looked anything like this. Like they could be in a magazine.
"Thanks for having me over."
"No problem," he said, reaching behind Brendan to close the door. "Want something to drink?"
Brendan looked quickly around the room for a cue about what to request at three in the afternoon in the East Village. Finding none, he said in a voice as casual as he could muster, "I'll have a Seven-and-Seven." Tom smiled. "Let's see. I don't think I have any Seagram's. How about a Tanqueray and tonic?"
His host turned to the refrigerator, giving Brendan a chance to take in the apartment. The kitchen they stood in was tiny but immaculate, the counters nearly bare, the cabinets polished steel. Through the doorway Tom had emerged from Brendan could see into a small living room with a wood floor and a bright-red sofa, a modern-looking, colorful abstract painting on the wall above it. Beyond that, through another open door, was a large bed made up like the ones in the hotel—a beige comforter, lots of pillows arranged upright against the headboard. The place looked like a miniature version of something you'd see in a decorating magazine. He'd imagined Tom's apartment as a college dorm room: sports stuff lying around, sweatshirts and sneakers, law books, posters of his favorite bands on the wall. This seemed like an older person's home.
"This your first time in the city?" Tom asked, handing Brendan a glass.
"No, I came once with my dad when I was nine. We live in Missouri." Jesus! he thought. Could he say anything dorkier?
"Yeah, you mentioned that in your e-mail," Tom said. "Here, let's go in the other room." He led Brendan through and took a seat on the red couch. An armchair was on the other side of the coffee table. Brendan froze, not knowing where to go. Tom looked up at him and patted the couch with his hand. "Come over here." Feeling the shaking again, he perched on the opposite end of the sofa.
Since steeling his courage that evening two months ago to send Tom an e-mail asking for a date, he'd wondered again and again if his horny loneliness had driven him temporarily insane. Going to New York City and paying a guy to have sex? What the fuck was he doing? I think it's gutsy, Tanya had said in the cafeteria the day he told her. You're a freak, of course, but it's gutsy. The subway map and condoms she'd bought him as a going-away gift were tucked in the inside pocket of his jacket. Just don't let him murder you, okay?
He took another swallow of his drink.
"So … have you ever been with a guy?" Tom asked.
He'd rehearsed an answer for this and, not looking up, managed to get it out without his voice breaking. "A couple times," he lied. "No serious boyfriend right now."
"It's cool either way. I've had guys come for their first time. I think it's hot."
He slid closer to Brendan and put an arm over his shoulders. "Come here," he said. "Give me a hug." Brendan put down his drink and leaned into him, his head over Tom's shoulder, Tom's arms coming around his back.
He'd never in his life been held like this before.
The sensation made him suddenly woozy. He thought he was going to pass out, but then the months of waiting burst inside and he had to scrunch his eyes closed and clench the muscles deep in his groin to prevent himself from coming in his jeans.
"This is, like, your exam period, right?" he whispered.
"How do you mean?" Tom asked softly in his ear.
They sat back from their hug, close together still, facing each other.
"On the Columbia Web site. It said you guys had your exams next week."
Tom put a hand on Brendan's bouncing knee. "You're cute," he said.
Tom nodded. Brendan could feel his cheeks burning, and he bowed his head. "It must be really hard to remember all the laws. My friend Tanya's stepdad's a lawyer, and he says they change all the time." Tom's hand touched the back of Brendan's neck, fingers brushing through his hair, pressing gently on his scalp.
"Is it all right," Brendan whispered even more quietly now, "is it all right if we don't go all the way?"
"Of course. Only what you want. Go ahead and finish up your drink."
Brendan drained the rest of his glass and looked back into Tom's face, which seemed more serious now, his lips closed in a flat line. "You go in there," he said, nodding toward the bedroom. "Take off your jacket and shoes. I'll be in in a minute."
Brendan walked into the bedroom and, doing as he was told, removed his jacket and laid it down on a chair in the corner. It would be all right, he told himself, looking at the tidy surface of the dresser: a bowl of change, keys, a tray of cufflinks, a bottle of what looked like some kind of fancy aftershave. Next to these lay a small, neat stack of envelopes. Glancing down, he saw the name Greg DeMarino printed above the address of the apartment. A boyfriend, probably? Someone who'd lived here once? Together there on the dark wood surface, the objects appeared so masculine somehow. It was nothing like his father's dresser, with its crumpled receipts and dog-eared copies of the catalogues he used to sell to his customers from. His mind leaped to the forbidden idea that Tom might be more of a man than his father: stronger, more powerful, richer. At that moment, more than wanting to be touched by Tom, Brendan wanted to be him, to live inside the sculpture of his body, inside the life he'd made here, surrounded by these clean things. When the older kids had pushed him against the lockers last year and started kicking, they kept saying she. "She's a pussy." "She's a fag." "Look at her." He couldn't forget that word: she. It wasn't true.
He took off his shoes and sat on the edge of the bed. From there he could see through into the kitchen, into the mirror on the back of the bathroom door, and in the mirror Tom standing at the sink, lighting a small pipe close to his mouth, tilting his head back and releasing a stream of white smoke. Brendan looked away, out the window, across an airshaft to a brick wall and a strip of sky above. He was probably just smoking pot, which Brendan wouldn't have minded doing himself right now, but asking would be too awkward. When he looked back a minute later, Tom was standing in the doorway. He'd taken his T-shirt off and stood with his arms hanging at his sides, a little trail of dark hair leading down from his belly button into the waist of his track pants.
A lot of the pictures of sex that Brendan had seen on the Web left him scared or grossed out, especially the close-ups; they looked more like photographs out of some veterinary textbook than something two people would want to do together. The ones he liked were of two cute boys, their faces visible, some of their clothing still on—a T-shirt, or maybe their jeans, pulled down—kissing or about to kiss. On countless nights when he had nothing to do he'd spend hours searching for the right image, clicking again and again, waiting for the stupid dial-up connection so that he could download one gallery after another, scanning the faces and bodies, his brain twitching forward like some small caged animal trapped on an endlessly turning wheel, his saliva stale with impatience. And when he was done, he'd feel nothing but dull-headed and alone. He thought of all the men in the chat rooms, the ones who, excited by how young he was, wanted to meet up, and who wrote line after dirty line about all the things they wanted to do to him. Disgusting things, sometimes. Things he wished he didn't know lived in other people's hearts.
"You should take off your shirt," Tom said, coming to stand at the edge of the bed, between Brendan's legs. He could smell the musky, slightly perfumed warmth of Tom's bare stomach and chest. It was stupid, so stupid, but all he could think now was that if he took his shirt off, Tom would see his skinny body and never fall in love with him, never want Brendan to come back and help him study, or help him as he started out as a lawyer or tried one day to reconcile with his father, traveling back to the family in Ohio to let them know who he was and that he had a boyfriend now.
When Brendan made no move to lift his shirt off, Tom rested his hands on his shoulders.
"It's your first time, isn't it?"
Brendan nodded, looking down at the floor. "I guess it was different for you, being with that guy from high school. More natural, I guess."
For a moment Tom didn't say anything, and Brendan wondered if he had hurt him by reminding him of some-thing painful.
"You're talking about the journals?"
He nodded again, looking up for the first time into Tom's eyes, which he noticed were now bloodshot.
"Brendan. Listen. A lot of guys who visit me, guys older than you, they like to pretend stuff, pretend they're different than they are. Or they like me to act a certain way. That homepage—it's one of the ones I keep up because some guys like that student thing. It turns them on. I'm not in law school or anything, but I've got all the sweatshirts—the undergrad ones, too. It's weird—some guys actually want to sleep with someone from a particular school. All I'm saying is, we don't need to do any of that. You seem like a sweet kid. You just need to know you look okay, and maybe you can learn how to suck a guy's cock so that when you get with someone, you won't be as nervous. Does that sound okay?"
Brendan fixed his eyes on the dresser: the polished cherry wood, the opaque glass of the aftershave bottle, the dark leather box that might once have contained cigars like the ones his grandfather wasn't allowed to smoke anymore. As Tom's words filtered into his mind, he felt as if a heavy serum that must have long been pooled beneath the crown of his head was beginning to soak down now into his brain, filling in around the backs of his eyes, pressing against his skull—some primitive inoculant against sudden loss.
He made no reply. Tom took Brendan's hand and pressed it against the bulge in his track pants.
"How does that feel?" he said in a low voice.
Frightening, actually, Brendan wanted to say, but didn't. The scent of Tom he'd noticed before was gone. Now it was as if he were watching the image before him on a monitor: a pretty man with a bare chest, a hand coming up from the bottom of the frame—an image he'd like if he found it late enough in his hunt and was tired of searching for the perfect kiss. No one in his life, except maybe Tanya, would recognize him now, sitting on this stranger's bed, about to have sex with a man. He didn't have to do it. He could get up and leave. But as soon as this thought occurred, he saw Mr. Growley, his teacher, in a room a thousand miles away, sitting in front of his own computer, pictures of naked men flashing on the surface of his giant lenses. Brendan wished he could reach into his mind and stab the image dead, but it persisted as he kept going, letting his other hand touch Tom's stomach.
"And what if I want to pretend?" he said.
Tom looked down at him with a curious tilt of the head. His expression had gone bleary, his pupils dilated.
The words Brendan had just uttered felt like the most adult he'd ever spoken, coldly thrilling, lonely in a new, more masculine way. He was hard now, very hard.
"We could do that, I guess," Tom said. "It's your hour."
"Kiss me, then," Brendan said. "Kiss me."
And then, with some of their clothes still on, the light from the window slanting across Tom's smooth muscled arm, the picture just about right, Brendan closed his eyes and waited.
Along Third Avenue twilight had fallen; people were speeding past him, carting grocery bags, or knapsacks slung over their shoulders. Some wore headsets; others talked into phones; two balding men in brown suits jabbered in some clipped foreign tongue, hands poking the cold air. The only people standing still were some Latino grocery boys smoking cigarettes by a stack of milk crates and, next to them, an old black man with a whitened beard mumbling at the pavement.
Brendan crossed Fourteenth Street with the light and stood under the bus shelter. Beside him was an ancient woman who came barely above his waist, her head covered with a polka-dotted scarf; under her arm she held a perforated box with a whining cat inside. The bus arrived soon enough and carried them slowly up the avenue, block after block of restaurants, pet stores, pharmacies, as anonymous, it struck him, as the strip malls out on the highway near his school. Taller buildings began filling the view as they entered midtown, the sidewalks emptier here late on a Saturday afternoon. Through plate-glass windows he could see into darkened hair salons and sandwich shops, stools turned upside down on the counters. Every few blocks men in red-and-white vests were moving slowly past the storefronts, sweeping litter into little boxes dangling from the ends of poles. The old woman had fallen asleep in one of the handicapped seats at the front. Brendan moved by her as he stepped off the bus, and turned past Bloomingdale's toward the hotel.
He was halfway through the lobby when he realized he'd forgotten to notice what it felt like coming up the steps, past the doorman, through the revolving door on his own, a guest like any other. Recessed bulbs lit the plush hall; his footsteps were silent on the carpet. He inserted the key into its slot, opened the door to their room, and paused on the threshold.
If his mother had moved, she showed no sign of it. She was sitting in the same chair, facing the window, looking out at the expanse of bare trees in the park and the low, dimming sky. She hadn't turned at the sound of his entrance.
Back in the spring the vice-principal had called her the day Brendan was caught fighting with the kids who'd kicked him up against the lockers. Though he had no way of knowing what the man had reported to her, he sensed it was enough to blow whatever cover he'd managed until then. Her only child. But she'd never said anything, never demanded to know, never told him he had to go to church when he didn't want to. The men in the congregation were almost all married, and sometimes, when Brendan got tired of dogging in his own mind the awful suits his mother wore on Sunday mornings, he'd think it must sort of suck for her, too, how the others might look at her and feel pity.
"How was your visit?" she asked, still without turning to see him.
Could she ever know him now? After what he'd done? How could the raw facts of the past few hours of his life exist in the same world as her?
"Fine," he said. "It was fine."
"You know I'll always love you," she said.
To prevent himself from crying, he took a step backwards into the hallway and closed the door.
Opposite the elevators two chairs stood on either side of a table decked with flowers. He unzipped his jacket and sat, his legs stretched out in front of him, his head resting against the cushioned upholstery. At the apartment he'd left his $200 on the kitchen counter while the guy, whose name turned out to be Greg, was still in the shower, and then he'd shut the front door behind himself as he left. In the moments before he came, he'd experienced giddiness and this awful fear, a disbelief that someone so handsome would touch him along with the sensation that he was departing forever a world he understood. Lying on his back afterward, listening to the stranger wash his hands in the bathroom, a rectangle of the fading sky visible above the parapet, he'd thought of how invincible the glittering towers looked when they came over the bridge, how total seemed their promise of fame.
The elevator doors slid open before him and a couple in their thirties, dressed in elegant coats and scarves, emerged with bright cheeks and shopping bags. The man smiled and offered a nod as they passed by, and the thought occurred to Brendan that it probably gave this guy some small, barely recognized satisfaction to make such a gesture, to meet another person in this world of the hotel, to give and briefly gain the sense that yes, here is where we all belong.