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at last, something beautiful

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"Nice place you've got here. No, really, I mean it, I've been thinking about getting my own place, even if it's just a room, and look, you've got a window—"

Someplace that'll rent to Jews and mental patients. Why does he think that way? Not about mental patients but about Jews — this is the city, there's got to be places. Living with Morris was sometimes easy, they were both lousy roommates in the exact same ways. Bad with money, bad at getting the laundry done, scared of everything, scared of cops. His mouth is running now, half smartassed and half painfully genuine; this guy doesn't know the difference and he doesn't care. They're not coworkers, they're not friends, they're not neighbors. They're strangers. Ginsberg trails off, feeling the silence like a hand.

"—I'll shut up now."

"Don't worry about it. Make yourself at home, really."

The man slips off his shirt, lets his pants drop to the floor. Should Ginsberg be stripping too? Do they both have to be naked for this? There's some things he'd rather not explain. Ginsberg watches him undress with uneasy fascination, as the shape of his naked body carves out against the yellow light from the desk lamp. The man's body is heavy but not slack — just broad, big, butch. He glances at Ginsberg, but the expectation is immediate and palpable.

Ginsberg fumbles at his shirt buttons.

"So what do you do? For — for a living."

That was the wrong question. This isn't a date, with sandwiches and water glasses and paper napkins, this is a pick-up. They should know as little about each other as possible.

What do you do — how do you like to fuck? What does this guy do to somebody like Ginsberg? Something flickers across the man's face, as he bends over to tug down his shorts.

"I'm an artist," he says. "Illustrations, posters, graphic design."

"Oh," Ginsberg says. His throat constricts a little. "Well, I'm not working."

"Then why don't we quit talking about work?" The man straightens his back and smiles like a wolf. He is naked now, his dick hangs heavy and crooked against his leg; his big hand is resting against his big thigh, one fingertip drumming. There's a ring on his little finger.

Don't look at him, don't look at him, don't look at him. Michael is sweating, but he's always sweating — he doesn't know why, he doesn't feel hot, he doesn't feel cold. They should have done it in the park. There were guys there — all those shapes — and it wasn't even dark yet. Like something out of the Divine Comedy. The vale of the damned.

"Forget I said anything. I just want to get this over with. No offense to you, but I, uh — I've got places to go after this."

His father's in the hospital with a bad heart that's killing him and a son who's here in the gutter, right where he shouldn't be. Go home, get some rest. Pick up the mail. Stomp some cockroaches. See what's new from the Columbia Record Club. Ginsberg scratches the outside of his arm with the backs of his fingernails, under his shirt cuff. Maybe you were supposed to wear something different — a tighter shirt, different jeans. The man's posture shifts at the sound of this, it becomes less inviting. Standing there in his socks, judging the shit out of his Friday night pickup. Trying to get a read on damaged goods.

"You haven't — taken anything, have you? Not that it's any of my business, of course."

Because of the sweat, because of his darting eyes. Because of the way his hands shake, and his feet won't hold still. Michael shakes his head like a spooked horse. "No, I'm not — I never fuck around with that stuff. It turns you schizo. I've just had a long day. That's all."

"Haven't we all." He's smiling — you can hear it in his voice, he's smiling. Why the fuck is he smiling?

Ginsberg makes himself look, and he tries to make himself remember it all for later, for when he's guiltily beating off in the bathtub. The man has broad shoulders and a broad chest — he's dark, Italian maybe or Latin, he could be any age north of forty and he has a face like one of those old movie-theater heavies, like he'd put out a cigarette on you maybe. The whiff of strange sex hangs on him, like he's just stepped out of a dirty magazine — he's a Greek god straight from the art department, a faded aging beefcake, turning a little and shifting his weight onto one leg to give you a better look at the goods. But it's spoiled by the apprehension in his face, when Ginsberg makes it that far with his eyes — beneath the smile, he's got that look people get when you tell them something they don't want to hear and they're trying to play it cool and act disinterested but they can't. This guy is afraid of him, deep down, in the bottom of his heart.

Ginsberg holds up a hand. "Hey, look. I know I look bad. I know I'm not — I'm not going to hurt you."

And that was a fuckup, because that's what people who hurt you say, right before they do. He looks like a fucking junkie, he looks like a knife-wielding psycho, because that's what he is — a lunatic, a mental case. He could die here, and no one would ever find him — and he'd probably deserve it for wandering around the Village after dark like a fucking tourist. The man advances on him like Frankenstein's monster, raising his hands to Ginsberg's throat as the distance between them closes like the teeth of a zipper. The pulse of his blood is ready to burst through his skin, he can feel it against the man's fingertips — he has broad hands, big hands.

Ginsberg swallows. His eyes are prickling.

The man strokes Ginsberg's hair away from his temple with his thumb. At close range maybe he looks better; maybe he looks worse. His naked skin is very close, close enough for Ginsberg to feel the heat of it. Ginsberg presses his mouth to the heel of the man's hand, making his mustache prickle, and tries to still his shudders.

The man asks, "Is this your first time?"

"Why, is it obvious?" His mouth is moving faster than the rest of him, his thoughts are running even faster than his heartbeat. He could end up dead, he could end up chopped up in bits and rolled up in trash bags, or he could just get the shit beat out of him and have to limp all the way home with a broken arm. A broken mouthful of teeth. It must be obvious, it must hang on him like a stink — that he's a virgin, he's never even gotten his rocks off with a girl. He has to steel himself.

"No, no." The man has sad eyes, dark heavy eyes, and they're looking at him with unbelievable tolerance. "Not at all. Why don't you sit down?"

There's no tables and no chairs, only the bed.

*

Jesus Christ — Jesus fucking Christ. He's going to black out right here, he's going to cream his jeans, grinding his hips against the man's thick thigh where the muscle is. Ginsberg is shaking — not just the tremors this time, the tremors that came with the dreams and the headaches and that plastic-doll fake feeling that leaves him wandering public parks at night, practically begging to get mugged and murdered, but trembles of anticipation. That wedding-night feeling. He doesn't know what to do with his mouth — it opens and shuts uselessly as the man's hands rove over him, feeling his chest, his waist, his hips. e doesn't know what to do with his hands, either. Ginsberg grabs at his wrist, but only to guide his hands where he needs him to touch. Which are, haha, the same places nobody touches. His shirt comes off over his head, but the undershirt stays. Thumbs hook in his belt loops, but he hasn't worn a belt since—

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" he gasps, too broken to sound smart-assed, and the man buries his face in the side of his neck. The sensation is immediate, like sticking a wet finger where a lightbulb should be. The man levers him back against the bed and Ginsberg arches rigidly against him the whole way, trying to keep the link between their bodies from breaking — he hits his back hard enough that it knocks the breath out of him a little, but the guy's propped up on his arms while Ginsberg squirms beneath him, pressed by his thighs. His hands make fists; the muscles stand out in his forearms like cables.

This is what his body wants, this is what he's wanted more than anything. This is it, unmistakable front and center — the thing they couldn't wash out of him with Haldol and group therapy. This is what he's afraid of.

Ginsberg makes an embarrassing embarrassed sound, as he twists against him. He's just done it in his pants, that's what happened. Quick on the draw. Ginsberg jerks his head upward, out from under the guy's grasping arm. "Did I ruin it?"

"Do you want me to stop?"

"No, I like it, I like it." Ginsberg flaps a hand uselessly at him, and the man makes an amused sound deep in his throat.

Ginsberg's heart is rattling around in his chest like a pinball; his zipper's down, his jeans slide down past his ass. Everything here can be felt more acutely, like he's been blindfolded and has to fumble to get around. Chest hair prickles against Michael's palm, against his mouth when he drops his head down to do something that seems like the right thing to do under the circumstances.

(What would the doctors say about this, I wonder—)

The man presses him back against the mattress, deep down between his legs with the breadth of his body levering Ginsberg's knees apart and his erection pressing Ginsberg's belly. If he reaches up he can span the muscles of his back, the thick arc of his neck. Ginsberg's eyelids are twitching, his eyelashes are fluttering.

It's gonna hurt, because of course it's gonna hurt, why else do people do it to each other? The man works over his soft cock with one hand, like he's humoring him. There's a tube of Vaseline on the bedside table, like that's just a normal thing for a person to have next to your water glass and your wristwatch— the man twists off the top with one hand and Ginsberg has to avert his eyes again. Make an ad campaign out of that, if you can. Vaseline: when nothing else does the trick. Put that spot on Days of our Lives. He imagines those big fingers inside of him.

The man kisses him on the mouth, a real, hard soul kiss with tongue, and his hand catches at the corner of Michael's jaw to tilt his head. When it breaks it leaves Michael gasping.

"Remember to breathe," he says against Ginsberg's mouth. "You're going to want to hold your breath, but you shouldn't."

Michael won't look away. No, he won't look away. He wants to see what happens.

*

Afterward, the man opens the window and smokes a cigarette. The muscles of his back stand out. Totally naked, he's like one of those statues of worn-out boxers or dying gladiators.

He's disgusted with himself — who wouldn't be, after what they did?

Ginsberg gets up and fumbles his way to the door in the half-dark; he must blurt something about the bathroom, or maybe he just thinks about it. A wet slick of come is drying on his belly, and there's more between his legs. He has to tug up his undershirt to keep it from glueing itself to his skin. It feels dirty. All of this feels dirty.

His eyes won't focus quite right. There's a lock on the door that's been broken and then repaired again. To the left there's a tiny sink in an alcove, and a hot plate, and an enamel coffee pot. Behind him there's a nice painting of a wet cityscape with sailors, and a nightstand with typical things for a man to have on his nightstand, home-type things. To his right there's a dresser with all the things you'd think a man would have on his dresser — a money clip, a single cufflink, a boar-bristle hairbrush that smells dark and spicy. There's a gold wedding ring in the glass ashtray. A man's ring.

Ginsberg is frozen in horror, frozen in place with his bare feet on the waxy parquet floor. He doesn't even hear the man get up. He's graceful, for a big guy.

"She's living at her sister's."

His voice is coming from right behind him, and the spicy smell of his hair, fainter now. Ginsberg's spine stiffens.

His mouth has gone dry. Like he's casing this place — this guy let him in and now he's casing the place. He's going to clean him out. He's going to start busting up the furniture any second and put a fist through that painting on the wall and give his host a bloody nose. Like he's going to cause a scene.

(You're causing a scene, Michael. What doctor said that?)

"I wasn't looking—"

A hand settles on the sticky small of his back. Instead of startling and swiping it away Michael lets it settle there.

"Don't worry about it. Let's go get you cleaned up."

*

There's a sad gray bathroom when you turn the corner, down the hall, with posters on the walls for dance clubs and concerts and a shower with no curtain. Nobody saw them in the hallway; nobody'll see them here. Nobody cares. The possibility occurs to him that every other occupant in this building lives exactly like this — homos. A whole apartment building for homos.

This guy is too tolerant. He's a sad sack — there must be something wrong with him, to go home with Ginsberg like this. Under the water, Ginsberg shuts his eyes. There's not enough room in there for the two of them, there's barely enough room for one of them — out of the periphery of his vision he can watch the man washing his face in the chipped sink, the same institutional sink as before in the room. The water beads up along the edge of his jaw, the prickling edge of his sideburns, the crook between his shoulder and his neck.

The soreness sluices away with the hot water, and when the hot water runs out he dries himself off with a stranger's towel — still saturated with the smell of a stranger's body — and tries not to look in the mirror.

*

The window looks out on a little courtyard, as dark and cramped as the bedroom. Someone's listening to a comedy record with the window open, somebody is having festive sex. Somewhere not far off a police siren is sounding.

The man takes up most of the bed with his big arms crooked behind him, the heels of his hands against his gray temples. He's listening to the sounds of the city, like he's listening to the radio. Ginsberg lies there in his shorts with one arm bent up at a fakey angle to camouflage the stitches. If this guy's noticed he's short one nipple, he hasn't said anything. They could make it here for a second time, but they haven't. They're just resting.

He should go. If this were a dirty book, somebody could describe the two of them as oiled with sweat, but in the dark they're just wet. Ginsberg rolls over, breathing against the man's neck — there's gray in his hair, not just at the temples but at his nape now and across his chest. He smells sexy — not like the barbershop but like a cigar shop, there in the dark breathing the smell of the wooden boxes and the dead leaves wrapped in paper.

"Why do you smell so nice, huh? What'd you do that for?"

"You've heard of cologne. Were you brought up in a barn?"

"No, an orphanage."

He laughs, a big affable cocktail-party laugh, until he realizes he's not joking. "Jesus, you know, you can't say things like that. I thought they closed those places down. Where?"

"Doesn't matter. It was after the war, there were worse places to be. I don't remember it — I don't remember anything. I had to learn English, learn all the street names, everything. I didn't talk at all, not until I was seven years old."

"That's a little hard to believe."

"Hey, fuck you."

"I've gathered that you like to talk." His voice is charitable. His hand is on Ginsberg's back.

Ginsberg shuts his eyes.

"After that nobody could get me to shut up. Somebody came along, picked me up, raised me. I think he thought I'd be a little troublemaker. He wanted that, I think. But this was what he got." And now look, Morris got his wish, little Michael making trouble. "So it's really just been institution to institution for me. It's done wonders for my manners."

Some godawful place where they stamp on your soul all day. What's the difference between one of those places and a fucking concentration camp? They lock you up to die. The difference is, sometimes they let you out.

The guy's hand tugs upward to play in the curls at the nape of Ginsberg's neck. "That explains it. You're a waif."

The silence throbs up, soft instead of hard. This place is like a confessional booth must be — a narrow little box where you pour out your secrets to some sage homo old enough to be your father. He's spilling secrets like water. His edges have gone blurry; he's smudging.

"So, uh." Ginsberg coughs. "What did you do in the war?"

Maybe he doesn't like that question either. Ginsberg's calling him old, or saying he looks like a baby killer, a cut-rate Don Draper. He shifts languidly against the mattress. "What makes you say that?"

"You look like the type, that's all. Distinguished. You know, rugged."

"I've never heard that one before. How flattering." The man smiles at him with faint amusement, even with pride. It makes the corners of his eyes crease affably. "I'm a Navy man. South Pacific."

"Wow, really?" Paging Roger Sterling. He could be sleeping with a war hero. All those men around, and death raining down on them every day — it could turn anybody a little funny, probably. Ginsberg leans forward. "When you were there, did you, uh—"

"No, I didn't." The man's expression is arch, wasn't I stupid back then. "I didn't uh, not at all.. What a crying shame, all those sailors. I wanted to, but I didn't."

Ginsberg sits up, still crossing his arm over his chest self-consciously. Like a woman. The man passes him his cigarette.

Somebody lives in this apartment, somebody really lives here — there's books piled up on the windowsill, and a foot locker ringed by the shapes of drinking-glasses, stained in red wine. There's a big brown paper folder with graphite smudges propped up on edge, and an ink-stained desk with no chair. One of those long skinny rulers, propped up against the lamp. A sequence of drawings is tacked up on the plaster, four views of the same man. The guy is good. Maybe he's not lying about being an artist. On Monday morning he'll go back to some windowless lounge and sketch logos for bubble gum. Is he happy like this? Does he know what other men don't?

"I had to get out," Ginsberg says darkly. "I couldn't fucking stand it. I had to get out."

There could be another night like this, another night with two strangers. Next time it might be — out in the dark, in a public toilet or out in the Ramble with the broken streetlights or wherever men go. This guy could probably tell him. He moves like a fruit, like a man who knows just what he's doing, and he sounds like one, but he doesn't look like one — his voice is pitched to that register Ginsberg wants to hear, like scratching for an unknown station on the AM band. And he lives alone here in a single room, with nice paintings on the walls and inkstains on the bedsheets and nobody to bother him. He has money. Hell, he has taste. Men can live like this; this man is proof.

The man is looking at him, with his beautiful understanding eyes. "You know, this doesn't say anything about you. Quite the opposite, really."

"Like fuck it doesn't," Ginsberg snaps. "I'm a fucking homo, so let me be a homo, all right?"

It's a slick maneuver, a verbal caress aimed at his ego. Instead it stings like a split lip. Michael takes a bitter drag, trying to extinguish the obvious interpretation, trying to drown it in smoke. If he's not a homo, then this is actually worse. This is a whole lot of taxpayer money down the drain. What would it mean to want this? If that's not the sickness talking or the machines trying to turn him around but a real want?

Silence settles on the pair of them uneasily. The cigarette paper has the trace of the man's mouth on it, indelible as pigment. Ginsberg exhales through his nose. "They told me to start smoking these. Trying to kill me faster, can you believe that?"

No dice. The man's legs are crossed at the ankle, stretching out in front of him with perfect ease. "Will you be able to make it back all right?"

"Sure."

"I'll make you a coffee."

*

The coffee is thin and black, the enamel percolator looks like it's been kicking around since the Truman administration, the bottom of the mug is coated in black crystals, and it's still the best coffee Ginsberg has ever tasted. First and foremost, it is hot. He drinks deeply, one-handled, and roves around in the pool of dark to gather his shirt, his coat, his shoes.

The man, his host, turns his back on him for a moment — oh yeah, here we fucking go — and rattles around in a desk drawer. Even his bare ass is suntanned — where the fuck can you skinny dip in New York? Where are the sunbathers? Michael snatches his shirt from the end of the bed, and tugs it on. His shirt, his shoes, his coat, his jeans — his jeans, his shoes, his coat. His coat, his shirt, his shoes. Where are his socks? Did he come here without any socks on? Why?

The man clears his throat, decorously. He's half-dressed again by the time Michael notices him, still dressed for bed, with a comfortably threadbare robe wrapped around him like an ancient roué.

"What can I call you?"

His throat is dry again. He could feint; he could lie. "Michael."

"It's been a pleasure, Michael."

The fear that this man is going to give him money squeezes his heart like a fist, and for a moment he cannot breathe. He gives him something else. Rubbed into the inside of a matchbook with a 4B pencil — a street address, an apartment number, a secret sign.

Come see me any time you want to get out.
Salvatore

*

Ginsberg turns the fold of cardboard over in his hand like a card trick when he's out on the street, in the gray light of day. The air is dry on his face, his hair sticks to the nape of his neck in wet tongues. It's only paper; he could strike a match and burn it up, right here, and the guy who gave it to him wouldn't even take offense. One and done; just to see what it was like. Just to see what all the noise is about. Salvatore — a name like that, in a different decade they'd be living on the same block, shopping at the same grocery stores. They could be working in the same office block and never know it. He hadn't thought to tell him good night. Here it's already morning.