I was leafing through the magazines at my dentist’s office, seeing but barely registering the images on the page, when I ran across the ad. Her waiting room is small and windowless and crowded with furniture. I have never seen more than one other person in the waiting room, usually a parent waiting for a child or an adult child waiting for an aged parent, yet there is seating for eight. Even so, it is difficult to sit without one’s legs intruding into the other person’s space. Between the chairs are small tables. None of the chairs or the tables match. The room appears to have been assembled from discarded furniture recycled from tips. Toys spill out of a box in the corner, and dusty arrangements of silk flowers compete with the magazines for space on the tables. The prints on the wall depict happy children displaying even, dazzlingly white teeth at friendly dentists. I am not fooled. The dentists in the pictures may not be holding those scimitars they use to pick at teeth, but they are there.
My general dread of dentists makes the room seem smaller than it is. At such moments, I can understand how a claustrophobic feels. I was entertaining a fantasy of sliding open the frosted glass window behind which the receptionist sits and announcing a suddenly remembered, urgent appointment elsewhere. I could hear her speaking to another patient, arranging a follow-up visit. Shortly, I knew, the door to the inner offices would open and the visitor would emerge and cross quickly to the hallway door that leads to freedom. After another endless minute, the glass would slide open and the receptionist would announce, “Mr Edwards, we’re ready for you in Room 3.”
The man in the ad was not so much nude as unclothed. A strategically positioned bit of cloth partially hid his buttocks. He sat on a padded bench with his back toward the viewer. His arms faced outward and were bent at the elbow so that both hands rested on the top of head, forming two upturned V’s that continued the line of his torso. It was his backbone that reminded me of Benjamin. Well, not his backbone—the bumps of the vertebrae weren’t visible. What caught my eye was the sinuous curve of that groove over the backbone. The image was lit from one side and the centre furrow was deep in shadow.
It was the lighting and the shadow that brought Benjamin to mind. He had sat on the edge of the bed with his back toward me, looking out the window. His body had been lit from the same angle, and his backbone was similarly shadowed.
It was late afternoon, and we were in my bedroom in my parents’ home. We had left the heavier drapes open—no one could have seen in the window without being on a ladder—but the inner curtains were, as always, pulled across the window. They were made of some sheer net-like fabric, and the curtains undulated and parted as they stirred in the faint breeze coming through the open window.
The window itself was shadowed, and the light in the room was grey and blue. The sun blazed on the trees at the end of the back garden, but that may be only a trick of memory, a scene superimposed on the image of Benjamin sitting in front of the window. I do remember piano music coming from a neighbour’s house. It was probably the younger Fowler child practicing—Adriana, I think her name was. Whoever was playing was practicing scales but was better at ascending than at descending. The music would flow upward easily, the two hands playing in unison, but then falter as the player moved down the keyboard, the even rhythm broken and the hands ceasing to work together. Finally the notes would grow slower and more tentative before the upward scales began again.
Both Benjamin and I had returned from university a few days earlier. We had been close friends since childhood. We had shared everything from secrets on the playground to our deepest plans for our lives. We had attended the same schools, always been part of the same group. Our first separation came when we began attending different universities. We had even missed each other during the vacations because our schools had different schedules. We had met briefly just before Christmas but my family’s annual visit to my mother’s parents meant that we saw each other only for an hour. This was in the early 1980s, long before email and texting or mobiles and cheap telephone rates. Early in our first year at university, we had exchanged letters, but that had gradually stopped.
My parents were away for a few days. Benjamin rang to check if I were in and then came over to our house. That was the first time we had been alone together since the preceding summer. At first we talked about our classes and our experiences. We were sitting at the table in the kitchen drinking coffee, Benjamin at one end and me next to him along one side of the table. Both of us were leaning forward, supporting ourselves on our elbows, our heads bent toward each other. There had been some stiffness at first as we felt our way back into our easy relationship, but that soon dissipated and our earlier camaraderie was restored.
At some point our elbows touched, and then one of us made a joke. Benjamin punched me lightly on the upper arm and then his hand came to rest on my shoulder. The casualness of the action answered the question I had silently been asking myself since Benjamin had rang earlier. I covered his hand with mine, and our eyes locked. Neither of us spoke for a moment, and then Benjamin smiled at me and said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I replied, and then I started laughing. Benjamin joined in and we rushed upstairs to my bedroom, both laughing until we fell on to the bed. We were in such a hurry that I didn’t even lock the doors to the house. Benjamin ended up on top of me, and he kissed me fiercely. “I have missed you so much.” The hunger in his voice was new. In later years, in one of my many, frequent reviews of the events of the day, I came to realise that was the first indication that something had changed, that this was no longer adolescent play.
Benjamin and I began experimenting with sex the summer we were both thirteen. At first, it was only simultaneous masturbation. Benjamin had two beds in his room, and I would lie on one and he on the other with our trousers and pants pushed down to our ankles while we competed to see who would be the first to cum, then who could hold out the longest, who could produce the most, who could shoot the furthest. We would excite ourselves by looking at pictures of women in the tabloid papers. Our games were spiced by the knowledge that his mother and grandmother were downstairs watching the telly or working in the kitchen. The sounds of a suburban afternoon were the only cover for our stifled groans and giggles and the squeaking of the bedsprings.
Then one afternoon the two of us were sitting next to each other on a bed making what we thought were clever, adult comments on the page 3 lovely of the day. Benjamin took my cock in his hand and after some hesitation I held his. I was surprised by the feeling of his hand on my cock. The sensation was concentrated in my cock rather than being shared between my hand and my cock. Somehow that made the feeling all the more intense. When he started to stroke me, I came almost immediately. I was so shocked that I shouted out, and Benjamin’s mother called up the stairs asking if anything was wrong. We jerked our pants and trousers on, and Benjamin yelled that we were fine, that I had just stubbed a toe. We sat there swallowing our laughter.
Thereafter our play expanded. We gradually began to do more, all the while looking at pictures of women. We soon acquired a secret stock of photos, and we would rush home after school every day to indulge ourselves. At least for me, the knowledge that we used pictures of women papered over the homosexual aspects of our actions. As long as we were stimulating ourselves visually with women, what our bodies were doing together didn’t matter. We weren’t “gay” or, worse, “queer.” What Benjamin and I were doing was, I told myself, simply a temporary expedient, nothing more.
“I have missed you so much.” Benjamin and I were stretched out lengthwise on the bed, his body half covering mine and one arm pressing down on my chest. He slid his other arm under my back and held me closely as he kissed me on the neck. “I have missed talking with you, and being with you.” And then Benjamin began making love to me. We weren’t just having sex. By turns gentle, wondrous, whimsical, humorous, Benjamin showed me the difference between love and sex.
I was hesitant at first but Benjamin’s passion soon drove everything but the moment from my mind. When it was over, I lay with my head pressed into his shoulder and one of his arms around me pulling me close to his body. His skin felt dry and cool against my face, and softer—as if my lips could melt into that flesh. He was lying on his back, with one of my hands on his stomach. His breathing was ragged and deep at first but then calmed and smoothed out. My hand rose and fell as he breathed in and out. The motion calmed me and drew me into sleep. It was as if the shared slumber was simply an extension of our joint life.
Some time later, I became half aware that Benjamin was carefully easing himself out from beneath my body. He was trying not to wake me. I was still spent and drained, and I allowed my hand to slip off his body. He moved to the edge of the bed and sat there. My eyes were closed, but I knew that he was looking at me. After a few minutes, he turned away.
I had pretended to be asleep while he was looking at me, but I think he knew that I was awake. I did not want to risk meeting his eyes, and all that might ensue from an open, defenceless, accepting gaze into Benjamin’s eyes. ‘We are here, together. We can look into each other’s eyes because we are a unity whose parts need not hide from each other.’ So much would have been engendered by that look, and I was not ready to hazard that.
When Benjamin turned away, I opened my eyes enough to be able to see him but I remained ready to close them should he begin to look back towards me. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the window. I don’t know if he was looking at anything in particular. I felt that he was thinking about what had just happened. A deep shadow arched down his back, marking the furrow over his spine.
My hand that had lain on his stomach stretched across the bed to within inches of his back. It would have taken only a slight twisting of my body for me to touch him, to draw him back to me, to acknowledge a possibility of more, to ask him to accept the gift of myself.
The inches separating us felt impossibly heavy to me. That first year at university I had had sex with one of the women in my college. I don’t know what it meant to her. Frankly I hadn’t been concerned about her feelings except as they allowed me an entry to her body. But I had enjoyed it, and I wanted more. I thought about that, and I thought about all the joking, superior remarks about ‘queers’ that I had heard, that I had made. I didn’t want that sniggering disdain. My vision for my life included a wife and children in a suburban home, not a half-concealed love between ‘good’ friends. There were so many possibilities, so many things I thought I wanted, that a simple gesture would have closed. I wasn’t ready to make that gesture, to open myself to another future, and I drew my arm back and bent it around my body.
Benjamin sat there for ten-fifteen minutes, and I continued to pretend to sleep. Then he stood up and quietly pulled his clothes on. He closed the door to my bedroom when he left. A moment later, I heard the faint sound of the front door opening and closing and then the louder sound of a car starting in the street.
I ran into him on the high street a week later. We were polite to each other and made vague statements about ‘getting together sometime’. I never saw him again.
All of us have moments we would like to relive. A chance to put things right, to act or perhaps not to act. Not the grand evils—we seldom, if ever, encounter those—but the ceaseless surrenders to the temptations of pettiness and the failures of courage that lead to the sins of omission, the small actions we should do but don’t. I should like to think that experience has taught me how to handle awkward moments better. Maybe not. One could easily conflate the mastery of social skills with achieving a better outcome, when all it does is paper over the rude, undesired result with the patina of smoothness, the glossy paint covering the dry rot beneath.
“Mr Edwards. Mr Edwards?” I was dragged back to the dentist’s waiting room by the repetition of my name. The receptionist was holding the door to the inner offices open and looking at me expectantly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was wool-gathering. It happens when you get older.” I tossed the magazine back onto a table and then stood up and walked through the door.