Michael came to visit me once, showing up unannounced at my house in Miami, on a day early in July of 1966, the year after his father and I had our parting of the ways. It was in the morning from what I remember, a time when I didn’t get a lot of visitors, and I was busy packing since I was leaving that afternoon for New Orleans. I opened the door in answer to the bell, and there he was on the other side of the screen. I guess something of surprise showed in my face. He looked to the side, hands on his hips.
“Hey, Mr. Warner. I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by for a little visit, say hello.”
In the driveway behind, I could see his sky-blue Mustang, a birthday gift from Honey and Jim when he’d turned seventeen in January. Michael waited on the step for me to let him in, but something in his manner put me on guard.
“Michael, you’ve caught me at a bad time. I’m just packing for a trip.”
“Well, I heard you might be leaving and that’s one reason I’m here. Bon voyage and all that.”
His eyes went to the handle of the screen door. I opened it but stepped forward at the same time to keep him from entering.
“Is there something wrong?” I said.
“No, no, no—not a thing. What could be wrong?”
He raised both hands in the air and shook his head, so that his long black hair, which he parted in the middle, fell in front of his eyes. He was an attractive kid, maybe more so than he realized.
“Just felt like talking, and you were the first person came to mind. For whatever reason.”
“You’re okay?” I said. “I mean, you haven’t been drinking or smoking up or anything like that.”
“Well, let’s see.” He laughed, looking off to the side. “I did have a cigarette on the way over. But I promise not to smoke in your house, cause I know you’re against it.”
I could smell the tobacco on him, and there was a whiff of incense coming off his orange tee-shirt and the smell of sweat and soap on this summer morning. I opened the door wider and made room for him to enter.
“Come in for a minute, and then I have some errands to run. Does your mother know where you are?"
“Don’t think so,” he said and smiled, relaxing once he was inside. I couldn’t keep myself from looking to see if anyone was on the street, watching.
“Hey, it’s nice and cool in here. You have central? And neither does my father, if that’s what you’re wondering. I don’t have to tell them everything I do.”
“It’s just a window unit,” I said, ignoring the rest. My bags were on the living room sofa, and there was a basket of ironed laundry on the floor I was packing into them. The whole place was more disordered than usual because I was trying to decide what to take and what to leave.
“Have a seat.” I nodded at a bamboo chair that was free.
“Yeah, thanks.” But he walked over to the tall bookcase that served as a divider between the living and dining rooms. He examined the framed photos on one shelf.
“These are your folks, I bet. That where you’re going, to visit them?”
“Those are my parents,” I said, folding a pair of slacks and packing them away.
“Uh-huh.” He was noting that I hadn’t answered his question.
He picked up a picture frame and gazed at the shot of my parents when they were young.
“You don’t look much like either of them. Ever wonder if you might be adopted?”
“I happen to know I wasn’t. Michael?”
“I wonder that about myself sometimes. It comforts me, the thought I might have come from someone else, from somewhere else. But everyone says I’m the spitting image of Dad.”
“You are, and you ought to be proud of that.”
He replaced the photo on the shelf and moved to the table in the corner that held a vase and several pieces of Rosenthal porcelain. He picked up the finest piece, a dancing Columbine with her skirts aswirl, something I’d found the year before in a shop on Magazine Street.
“Actually I don’t see it myself. And even if I am, what’s to be proud about looking like someone else? I know you’re not going to see your folks anyway. They’re still in Georgia from what I hear.”
“That is where they live.”
“And Mom says you’re running away to New Orleans again, like you do every summer.”
“Is that what she says?” It was an effort to keep my voice steady.
“Yep. Those are her exact words, actually. He runs away, she says. So I guess that’s where you’re going now.”
He shot me a glance and then looked down at the figurine in his hands, and his hair fell forward so I couldn’t see his eyes. He was wearing faded bell bottoms so long and wide they covered the sandals on his feet. The jeans were tight on his hips and thighs.
“If you drop that, I’ll break your neck.”
“Don’t get mad at me. That’s what she says, and I know she doesn’t mean anything by it.”
He replaced the figurine on the table top and turned to examine another bookcase.
“It’s funny, but I’ve always wondered what teachers do in the summertime. You see them around all year long, then school closes, and wham! Disappear like zombies going back into their coffins. This your yearbook collection?”
He crouched in front of the bookcase to see better.
“Looks like you got a book for every year you been teaching.”
“I suppose I do. Listen, Michael, why are you here? I thought there was something you wanted to talk about.”
He stood up with a book in his hands, one of the older yearbooks in my collection, and let it fall open at random. He whistled softly.
“Look at those haircuts. The girls all look like Betty Crocker and the guys like marines. Yeah, there is something I guess we should talk about, but I’m working around to it gradually, sort of feeling my way. I thought someone as smart as you would sense that.”
He gave me another glance and started flipping the pages of the book. I wasn’t sure whether he was flirting with me or not. There was something undeclared about Michael’s sexuality then, as if he were waiting for somebody else to tell him how to feel. I knew a few teachers who wouldn’t have hesitated to get aggressive in a situation like that, but something kept me from pressing the advantage of age and experience. I could feel the tension between us, and it made me angry, a little rash.
“Do teachers sign each other’s yearbooks the way we do? With funny messages and all that stuff?”
“Of course not. What would be the point of doing something stupid like that?”
“My dad really hates your guts,” he said.
He stopped flipping the pages and stared at the open book, refusing to look at me.
“I understand that, yes.”
“But do you know why?”
“Yes, I know exactly why. He’s taken pains to let me know why.”
“So, what is it he has against you?”
This coyness infuriated me.
“Oh, Michael. I’m sure he’s made it plain to you too.”
“Not really. We don’t seem to talk a lot these days.”
He closed the book and put it under his arm, as if he meant to take it along when he left. He stared at me, waiting for a reply, but I refused to give him the satisfaction.
“Listen, I’m trying to get packed here. So if there’s nothing else?”
He gave me a disappointed look and put the book back into its slot on the shelf, then stood with his arms folded and looked at a point somewhere to the side of me.
“My mother, though—she loves you.”
I was zipping together one of the bags and considered pretending I hadn’t heard the remark, but instead said, “Yes, and I’m very fond of her too.”
I zipped the other bag together and put them both on the floor in front of the china cabinet. Something had broken the rhythm of the conversation because it took Michael longer than expected to reply.
“No,” he said, “you’re not hearing what I’m telling you.”
And when I looked I saw his blue eyes directly on me. He was forcing himself to speak the piece he’d rehearsed before coming over.
“She’s in love with you, haven’t you ever noticed that?”
I didn’t say anything for a minute, standing there by my bags. Then I said, “Michael, you’re in way over your head here. You don’t really know what it is you’re talking about.”
“My mother says …”
“I don’t care what your mother says.” My voice was shaking.
“… that I’m the only person she’s ever known who can read her mind. And vice-versa, and that’s because we’re flesh and blood.”
He swallowed and forced himself to go on.
“How long have you known my mother?”
“Since before you were born. Now isn’t that enough for today? Isn’t it time you were going?” I took a step in his direction.
“I’m not going till you tell me the truth.” He’d started to tremble and was biting his lip.
“What truth is that? What is it you want to know?”
“How many times have you fucked my mother?”
By then I was close enough that I didn’t have to lean forward to slap his face, and since I slapped him automatically, without thinking and without giving him time to shield his face, I caught him flat on the cheek and hard. He started crying, but didn’t back off or look away.
“Isn’t that why my father hates you so?” he sobbed.
“No.” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Isn’t that why he hates me?”
Without thinking of what I was doing, I put my hands on his shoulders and then drew him to me, felt him relax and lose himself in the crying. I was consumed by tenderness once I realized what he was asking, but the intensity of the emotion had the odd effect of shutting me up within myself, the way a physical shock will do sometimes. Instead of drawing closer to him, I seemed to be standing at a distance, watching an older and a younger man fumble an embrace.
“My boy,” I said, “you understand exactly nothing.”
He drew back and looked at me, his eyes swimming, but the sobbing had stopped. I could see he was in the process of deciding something, on the verge of collecting himself or letting go, and for that moment there was nothing defensive, nothing guarded in his look, it was entirely open and therefore inviting.
I whispered I was sorry before kissing his face, kissing him more than once, tasting the salt of his tears on my tongue, before he wrenched an elbow into my neck and pulled away, stumbling backwards onto the couch where my bags had been. He looked something like a dog lying there panting, a strange dog whose mind you couldn’t know.
“A withered old fag,” he said.
I knew that this was a phrase he’d heard his father use in reference to me, that this knowledge, which he’d been able to trick me into thinking he lacked, underlay everything he’d said to me since he first arrived. And in one sense, this was what I’d been hoping for—a clean and permanent break—because I knew, I’d always known since the first time I’d felt an interest in him years before, that Michael was more than I could deal with. He would have demanded everything from me, I would have given it to him, and he would have ruined me in the process.
“You better go,” I told him, and this time there was no attempt at argument or evasion. I didn’t turn to lock the front door until I heard his car spray gravel in the driveway.
--One chapter from a novel-in progress.