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It was the cold tag end of winter. Valentine’s Day was close, and that means spring will arrive soon. In this part of the country. But, so far, there was still snow on the ground and the temperatures hovered around the freezing mark. Mary had come to see me at my university apartment. I had fixed her and myself some tea. There was soft rock on the Ipod. We were sitting on the brown hand me down sofa I had bought at the thrift shop. There was a large window, in front of us, and the small TV on a stand to the right of it. The sun glared in now and then, so I closed the curtains a little tighter.
We were talking of classes and professors and the end of semester, what we would do on our breaks, anything. Me close to the edge of the right, she close to the edge of the left, of the sofa that sagged a bit in the middle, that was propped up haphazardly with a stack of schoolbooks.
“Tim,” she said, the tea having gotten tepid, of she had drunk little of it, and now placed it on the scarred coffee table from that same thrift shop, “you know I’m a Lesbian, don’t you?”
My stomach shuddered. I had been hoping always to avoid this. To be friends. To go to movies with her and Dianne and our other friends. She had been married once, and though we were both reaching tenured positions on the faculty, still she looked young, still her hair was blonde, still her face was porcelain seeming, with no lines of age, even the tell tale beginnings of them. I knew she was my last chance at sexuality. I knew that with her rested love. And there it began and ended. I now knew it was ending. It was easy for me, and I smiled later, thinking of that phrase I had unwittingly stolen from Mike Hammer—”it was easy, baby.” But that was when Hammer had killed the femme fatale. Not me, trying to save a friendship of over two years, getting closer and closer. Dianne was a good person and I found myself feeling utterly foolish being jealous of them.
I had spent most of my life, which really had not begun till I had started university as a freshman, as the proverbial third wheel. I never liked it. But my roommate was a nice guy and he had a girlfriend and we palled around together. Then there was a friend I met in theatre and she had had a boyfriend, and we had become friends. But I was always like a puppy dog. I had learned suppression. I had learned to take what was given to me, and be quiet about it. No one had ever been sure about me, if anyone had ever wondered, but in Mary’s eyes, I had seen love, and her heart was my heart. So we sat in the too warm apartment, our coats on the bed, me wearing a heavy sweater and thick jeans and boots, and she in almost the same accoutrements. I put down the tea and waited.
“It’s hard enough with Toby,” she said, referring to her son. “It’s not easy having two moms, though he’s had us for seven years.” She was facing forward, bent over a bit, silent between bites of words. “I mean,” and she looked at me for a moment, then turned away again, “I never led you on, you know. I led Toby on though. I always told him, when he was very young, that he would have a new Dad, that divorce did not mean the world’s end for him.” She sighed and shrugged helplessly. “I was such a coward. I always kept it hidden about Dianne, who was a peach, and who understood. And in time I had to tell him. He’s this liberal kid, all the right records, all the right politics, and all the right writers. He knows what to say and what not to say. But he’s never accepted this. I never led you on.”
I put my own cup down next to hers, far away from hers. “I know, Mary. I’ve never not known. I have always accepted you with Dianne. I” (helplessly) “know.”
She didn’t have to say she was ending our friendship. She didn’t have to say anything at all. I would see her on campus, on the quad, between classes, in the hallway, nodding at her perfunctorily, and it truly was my own fault. But then, how could I have done it any other way? It was all I knew. And there was Erica. And there was Erica. It was pretty ridiculous sounding. Who the hell is named Erica, other than soap opera actresses? But Erica had latched onto me this past semester, and I had her in class this term too. She was somehow in love with me. She was tall and gaunt and hollow eyed. She never seemed to be anything but darkly dressed, with ivory pale, verging on, sickly bone white skin. She had done what had never been done to me before. She scared me to death, truthfully. I could not wait to get away from her. It was, however nice in its way, harrowing.
She looked at me in class, stared at me, talked to me, invited me to the Hearth, for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, she acknowledged my existence, not as a part of others, not as a third wheel, but ataşehir escort me alone. Mary had her in a class an hour later than mine. Mary said Erica (was it indeed her real name? Or borrowed from the heaths of the likes of Wuthering Height’s love loaded denizens?, and the eighteenth century, all crammed with dying for love and not feeling robbed by it; all those crannies of words that strained into maudlin sentimentality and prose indistinct the words were smudged by so much purple?) talked about me with her, knowing Mary and I were friends-what books did I like?,when was my birthday?, was I straight?, was I interested in her; did I ever talk about her with Mary? What was I? What would be a great Christmas gift? And the flurry of questions Mary tried to calm down, to say she really didn’t know, we were just acquaintances and she would have to ask me herself.
Embarrassingly, frizzy haired dark midnight haired Erica had become a joke between Mary, Dianne and me. Especially awful of me because I had always been a joke like that, when the other two of my party were away from me, and sometimes when they were with me, the little hurtful words, the little pitying glances, the knowing that I would spend my life masturbating alone and thinking my nothing thoughts in a nothing land the world had little to do with, for I never expressed myself, always hid, always did what I felt others wanted me to do, and when they wanted me to go away, I did so. But this time, Mary, this time, please let me not go away.
Mary was talking as I came back to the surface, almost, for a moment, thinking I was alone and she had gone away, how horribly easy it is to get used to this kind of thing, and how horribly difficult it is to stop the pattern, to be what is tolerated for a time and then not. She was telling me how Toby liked to play football with me in the arena when no one else was around, how the boy was shy because he was himself and that was not the thing to be, because he had a Lesbian for a mother and another one for a Father, and one time, they had caught him peeking in their bedroom late night, when they were fucking. Mary was ashamed and covered up her entire body with the quilt. Dianne pulled on a nightgown and screamed at him to get out now, this instant.
Toby had waited for his mother to come comfort him. He had curled up into a ball in bed, waiting in futility, but mom was too goddam busy, he had told me later, to come and comfort him, so he had cried himself to sleep instead. He had never forgiven her for that. I didn’t blame him at all. But lied and said for his own sake, he should.
So there was me. And I was fairly good at touch football, and here was I again, but this time part of four, instead of three.
“I always liked football,” I said, the colors of Autumn, snow in the air. I was oddly good at it in high school, being bookish and alone and silent and solemn, I had been blessed with good coordination, which I demonstrated at Phys. Ed., thus the coach and players various intramural teams asking me to try out, and I said no, sorry. Some of the coaches begged, and I said no, a little louder, and always refused, feeling quite good that this time it was I turning them down.
Toby was 19 now and was here as a sophomore, and lonely and angry a lot, so when Mary introduced me to her son, I fell deeper in love with her than I ever had before. Toby, had as of late, been coming round with her to see me; he never wanted to be seen in public with Dianne and his mom, so we would take in a movie, or Mary would send him alone to visit me. Tobe and I would take walks down town and we’d talk. He asked about a weekend sleepover with me, because mom and Dianne wanted to be alone for a while, and would it be okay? I said, hesitantly, yes, for that way I could love Mary far more deeply than I had before, and I had all the memories of her I could stand without my heart breaking like always.
We had been sitting in a fast food restaurant that Friday night, Toby and I, over burgers, after having seen a splatter film at the theatre with a college crowd of screamers and makers out and filled to the gills with the kind of moviegoers who called out to the actors on the dark grainy screen. I hated that kind of crap, and took heart that it affected him the same way. I was tingly and surprised when his hand reached over the armrest where mine was, and held it. Unknowingly, I felt then, the reasons he had were– the movie, the irritation at the popcorn and card board cup throwing jerks, the gore on screen, constant loneliness like I felt to—and had nothing to do with me as a pathetic friend or surrogate dad. Just reflex, really. I had looked at him quickly, as he looked at me, our expressions hidden kadıköy escort in the dark, and each of us pulled our hands away.
“Toby,” I started as he bit his braces filled mouth into his cheeseburger, “look, don’t, ah—”
He put his burger on the tray, dropped the burger, really, and told me to not say anything, really, okay?–just don’t, and his eyes were sad as hell, and I wished Mary was here so she could put her arms around him, and I could pretend they were my arms around him, and later that night, in my apartment (he was to stay with me till Sunday), when I was asleep on the couch, he had woken me up, by standing there, breathing not at all it seemed, not real, apparently, like a statue, or a fleeting ghost, and my breath seemed to somehow sink in as I opened my eyes because his were staring at me. That old gambit of the primitive that kept us and perhaps keeps us to this day alive.
He was thin and in his white briefs. He was tall and had golden hair like Mary. He was broad in the shoulders and his legs were firm. He had turned on a small table light as he had come to the room and stood there before me. And I reached up, because I was a weary man, and tired and ashamed of being a virgin, and being a second rate everything, never having a friend to call my very own, always a trace through carbon paper on the people of the real world, that was me. And Toby bent down and then kneeled and we put our arms around each other. His chest and back were warm and he kissed me in that daring dart and peck I guess kids do, having no earthly idea what to expect in return, a slap or a kiss back to them, and I held him on top of me. I felt him hard.
He slithered out of his briefs and I took his daunting erection in my hand as he traced my face with the fingers of his left hand. It was so enormously arousing having him naked on nearly naked me. To feel our skin together. To take his round rimmed glasses off and mine not round rimmed, as well, and clumsily drop them on the worn carpeting. We felt every part of each other. I think somewhere in there we wept a bit. All the right and all the wrong it was.
We masturbated each other that night. And slept in the same bed. And I awoke early morning as Toby, beautiful Toby, was giving me a blow job, easing my penis, awake if I wasn’t for a moment, in and out of his mouth, kissing the tip of it, touching my balls as I reached down and touched his and his buttocks and their crease and it was us not being alone, paint the picture and leave it there for us to live in forever. We were not ashamed.
It was serene and easy and tender and lyrical and blood rush and happy for both of us, as I discovered then and there, I had never been happy a day in my life, till this, and this made it worth it. It was all done in a sure and natural way that you don’t mind to see spring turn to summer and everything killed by the heat. It was a secret world I had never entered before. It was all the cave dwelling drawings and the heat of bodies wanting each other and taking us along for the ride as well.
And we lay in each other’s arms, just like lovers are said to do, until mid-morning. I got him up and we made love again after brushing our teeth and using the bathroom. It was in the middle of my cooking scrambled eggs while he came up behind me. I was dressed, and I was disappointed that he was also. He was back to being Toby.
Except for one thing. One particular moment that had not been in him before, and putting it together later on, it seemed at that very second, as he put his arms around me and nuzzled my neck, he was not a kid playing games like pretend, and what if? And maybe if I can convince myself? And can’t I live happily this way? It is life and it is not that bizarre, if you stop to think about it. We had found each other, really, Mary, had pushed us together, and especially so, for her Lesbian weekend with Dianne, for a moment, in order to be torn from each other the next moment.
Though he was not torn. I was. And it was not Toby I loved. But it was. I was always to be at a distance. Always asking one of my two friends for help. And never getting it. Just allowed to tag along for a while. And I remembered all the times I had seen him with Mary and sometimes when he had to put up with it, because his mother insisted, with Dianne, as we went to movies, or bookstores or the miniature golf place or the pool or driving around or skating or walking in Autumn’s burnished woods. How I would look at Mary especially hard, lean close to her when she talked to me, pointedly ignoring Toby, who was so close to me, I thought I would die, this is all for you, don’t you see? I wanted to scream it at him, but it wasn’t, thus giving her and Dianne bostancı escort the impression, how could it not, that I was in love with Mary.
When it was not so. Not. How angry Dianne would get at these times. The scowls she tried to hide. Sometimes when I was trying to impress Toby, by turning from him, by seeming angry with him, and when I saw his hurt at being excluded (Good. There. How do you like it? Like he was my enemy, which made no sense. He had been hurt over and over by people. Why was I doing this to him? To me?) Or at least, believed I saw hurt, momentarily in his eyes, I wanted to cry, and I felt so goddam important and horrible, for it was Toby who I tried to find in Mary, and Mary who I found in Toby, as the two women would look at each other and smile, in that “Oh he’s head over heels in love.” And then they would turn to me and smile again in a catty self-satisfied way. How I hated the both of them then. They thought they knew. They were incredibly wrong.
It was nothing new to me. It was neither gay nor straight. And yet it was both at once. I sat on that sofa this late winter’s afternoon, with Mary at the far end and me at the other. She was trying to tell me that she knew I was in love with her, that she and Dianne had hoped I would get the right idea eventually. That they had made no secret of their relationship, though they never talked of it with me. They had kissed in front of me. They lived together. What else was I to think? She asked. But, she went on to tell me, Dianne had gotten, well, tired of me trying to horn in, trying to get between them, and using Toby as a device to get closer to her. And it was not really ironic to me, because I had been using Toby as a device to get to Mary, not because I any more than liked her, but because I wanted Toby so badly, my balls hurt all the time.
Ever since I had first seen them together, walking cross to the student center, but I had to door open Toby through Mary, in a way that was not unique in my world of one. I had to make Mary Toby, and Toby had to be his mother, in order for him to be real to me and me to myself, in order to get him in my mind correctly, for that is what the third wheel does in order to survive.
That is what the third wheel does to compensate. To have Toby would be not to have Mary and if that happened, there would be no Toby.
Mary sighed now. I asked her if Toby had talked ever about Erica? She was standing now, rubbing her hands together, even though the room was warm, she was a cold person, though not in that way, and she asked me what I had said. I told her that Toby had mentioned more than a few times the other weekend Erica, wanted to know if she had seen him looking at her, wanted to know—and then I froze.
Iced spine, the whole kit and caboodle. It was not pronounced in him, it was not something he would be forced by his own experiences and fears to do for the rest of his life, like I did, but he had wanted to get close to Erica. He knew I was one of her teachers. He was practicing on me, and something in him that had not formulated it yet, and maybe never would, for Erica, and at that precise moment, I wondered who Mary secretly loved and was sublimating it with Dianne, and the other way round. I sighed. I stood. Maybe it was lots more common than I thought. Though far more pronounced for me.
She got her coat, and of course would not even dream of letting me help her on with it, feminist to the bitter end and in my view, the point of absurdity, and she said goodbye and asked if I would like to have Toby visit next weekend. She and Dianne were going out of town. Dianne’s mom was in the hospital and it was pretty serious. We chatted about that for a moment. I told her please give Dianne’s mom my best wishes, and a pause, a beat, Dianne as well. We arranged the time for Toby to be here next weekend. I should have been elated. I felt, instead, hollow.
Mary opened the door and we said goodbye as the cold air rushed in and I watched to be sure she didn’t slip on the icy steps down to the ground level. I closed the door.
I would be with Toby. But I would not be. Nothing sexual would occur. He would be making plans for Erica and then after Erica someone else and someone else, for he was an attractive young man, looked like his mom a little bit, though definitely masculine, while his mom was very feminine. I would be with Toby, I thought; as I took the cups of tea to the sink, emptied them and washed them, then put them in the cupboard. But I would not be at all. Now that Mary was gone. There was only Toby in her eyes, for me. And that was how it would always be. There were other permutations on the theme, but I decided to leave it there, so it would not become so ridiculously complicated.
I turned on the TV. A basketball game was on. I sat down to watch. I might have been a sports star, had I half tried. But I was always the last leg of the tripod, and we learn early on to be that, and never to try our own.
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