The night they first met in The Starboard Side, they didn't go to the beach—they stayed inside, sheltering from the sudden rain, leaning close to talk in the crush by the crowded bar, with no eyes or ears for anyone else until it closed and they went their separate ways.
The beach was where they kept seeing each other after that first night, not quite by design but not quite by accident either. That summer, the beach was where everybody was, driven by a sense of freedom carried over from the war as well as a new postwar defiance for a future that wouldn't be anything like the faintly remembered pre-war past. That summer was enchanted; the police never came to break things up even if the newspapers were occasionally spurred on to write about the threat of the deviant and what they called blatant and dangerous licentiousness that would swallow up everything good and proper if it went unchecked. But unchecked it went. Perhaps the police had better things to do, perhaps they thought the end of the war, the subsequent demobilization and simply feeling free were excuses enough. It wasn't just the beach; bars, clubs and dance halls all were teeming and lovers' lanes saw an unending stream of traffic every evening all over the city that summer. Perhaps someone somewhere had decided to turn a blind eye until the inevitable cold light hit some Monday morning and regular work hours caught up with a large enough number of the beach-goers and the frenzy would finally die down.
But until then, the beach was full of life every night and going there made George feel more alive than he'd felt in years. Evening after evening, he and countless others made their way there, seeking the camaraderie, the spectacle, the escape from daily grind, the release. And sometimes, he was looking for Jim. More often than not, Jim was there too and they gravitated towards each other sooner or later in the course of the night.
As the weeks passed, they found themselves spending more time together - nights on the beach didn't end with a parting of the ways in the small hours, often covered in sand, each other's bodies mapped out with eager hands in the flicker of firelight at a distance but with a breakfast in a diner, reluctant to let the other go. Or they might make plans to find a beach during weekend afternoons, seeking out private spots to sunbathe nude or if it wasn't warm enough, to lay down on a sun-warmed slab of rock and talk, about everything and nothing, about their hopes and dreams, about George's students and Jim’s roommates and colleagues, about the dogs and cats and other pets Jim wanted to have once he had the space for them. It was easy then to start imagining that Jim’s house would be his house too, how he and Jim would build a life together.
The description the real estate agent had given them didn’t sound promising. They had spent so long talking about the dream house they'd find to share, complete with old trees in the garden and something to keep the world at an arm’s length, like the stairs leading to Charley’s house. Then there was suddenly this house, described as modern and that seemed wrong—the real estate agent had said it had been designed by an architect for himself, but he had only lived in it briefly because his wife hadn't liked the area. But it was the right area for George and Jim and they went because they could combine the viewing with another house in the same area.
Afterwards, George could barely remember seeing the other house. Seeing the first house from the street was falling in love at the first sight. It looked very modern: rectangular with large windows, nothing like his dream cottage surrounded by a slightly unkempt garden. But for all its angles and glass surfaces, it seemed to blend with the trees and nature surrounding it nonetheless in the glorious spring sunshine. Facing a row of regularly spaced-out pastel-coloured identikit houses on the other side of the street, it looked like a brave soldier standing alone, defiant in the face of the enemy, determined to resist the conformity and dullness of the lives it saw on the other side.
Jim, on the other hand, didn't share his delight when they stood outside. He liked the inside much better than the outside, the airy brightness, the clever use of space, the simplicity and lack of fussiness, the breakfast nook that would have the morning light. He liked the garden too and imagined playing there with their dogs (still in the hypothetical stage). But he thought the windows made it look like an aquarium from the outside, as if they were on display.
"Won't it look very conspicuous, us in this house?" he asked, pensive, when they were taking their final look from the outside.
It was a question he returned to once they were comparing notes about the houses over dinner. He'd caught George's obvious excitement about the modern house, he could see himself inside it, or in its garden, but he explained that imagining himself with a house that looked like that was a stumbling block.
"Imagine us in the other house then. Or the houses we saw opposite this. They are calling for 2.4 children with a mother and a father, ballgames in the garden, getting the kids to school and back, similarly coupled-up friends for dinner every now and then and all the other conventional suburban routines. With a house like that, the house wouldn't be conspicuous but we'd be, the square peg in a round hole, trying its damnedest to be square. In the modern house, precisely because it stands out from its neighbours, nobody expects its occupants to be fit the mould. We could just be ourselves. Hiding in the plain sight, if you like."
Jim still looked thoughtful and undecided and soon moved the conversation to the other house and their plans for tomorrow. In the morning, he had made up his mind and they put in an offer for the modern house.
Sharing the house with Jim was a journey of discovery filled with joy and contentment.
He had caught glimpses of it before, but it wasn't until they had moved in that he found out how much of a morning person Jim was. When he was still blinking to get his eyes open, to get out of bed and stumble to the bathroom with the essence of George slowly asserting itself over the sleeping creature he became at night, Jim always seemed to be glowing in the mornings, brisk and brilliant, taking charge in the kitchen. The toast never burnt, the eggs were perfect and the coffee was always delicious and the sun shone through the large windows to bathe the kitchen table in warm light. As often as they could, they lingered over their second or third cups of coffee and talked, about anything and everything.
Evenings tended to be quieter. The dogs lying in a pile on the ugly rug that Jim had insisted on buying on a trip to San Diego one time, the two of them curled in the opposite ends of the sofa, feet tangled in the middle, engrossed in their books, occasionally breaking the happy silence to talk a little. Moments like that captured the heart of sharing a life with Jim, the coming together of two people who didn’t have everything in common but fitted their separate selves into something that was one and whole and lasting.