© by the author
“There’s a package for you, Mr. Bryant.”
The doorman pulled a large box from beneath the counter by the elevators. James sighed when he recognized it as a gift from Taz. This was the first one in three or four months. He thought Taz had finally become discouraged and stopped sending him presents. “Thank you, Henry.”
“Couldn’t help but notice it’s from Fernishings Unlimited, Mr. Bryant. My wife never misses one of Fern’s shows on the Home Channel. Jean even wrote to her once with a question about fixing up our living room. Fern read her letter on the show and gave her some ideas. We have it on tape.”
“I never watch the Home Channel, Henry.” James’s dismay at receiving another gift from Taz spilled over into disdain for people who regarded Fern Holmes as an expert on interior decorating or bought things from her store with its pretentiously clever name. “The package is from someone I met. I can guess what’s in it. Some garish, insipid object he thinks is ‘pretty.’ He really has the most awful taste.”
Henry’s face snapped into the blank look that James had identified as his way of indicating disapproval. In this case, James guessed that Henry was trying to hide his contempt for James’s life and friends—his gay life and his gay friends. James tossed his mail atop the box and picked it up. Even though James’s hands were full and he had to balance the box carefully to avoid tipping his letters to the floor, he had to press the elevator call button for himself. Henry could have reached the button in one step, but he suddenly found a spot on the floor that required his attention. As the elevator door closed, James made a mental note to raise the issue of Henry’s continued employment at the next co-op association meeting. More than a third of us are gay, thought James, and we don’t need an employee who thinks we’re sinners. We also don’t need someone who tries to be our friend, someone who keeps crossing the boundary between the owners and the staff. Really, did he think James had any interest in his wife?
Physically the box was much lighter than its size would lead one to expect, but it weighed heavily on James’s mind. Another gift from Taz. Another demand for attention that James did not want to supply. Another attempt to make a claim on James that James had no intention of acknowledging.
He set the box on the table in the hallway and then dropped his mail on a chair in the living room. He changed out of his suit, poured himself a generous glass of wine, and then sat down on the sofa to look through the mail. He sorted out the bills and the junk mail and stacked them into separate piles. His mother’s letter occupied his attention for several minutes. It was her usual weekly report on the weather and his sister’s family. Once she had mistakenly sent him the letter destined for his sister, and he had discovered to his amusement that it contained the same news about the weather and a report on his activities. She had summarized the contents of the letter he had written her the week before. He surmised that the information on his sister derived from the last letter she had written their mother. There was a postcard from Oliver and Lucas. They were enjoying their vacation in Italy. Florence was stupendous. They were eating too much, but the food was too good to resist—and the waiters were so handsome one had to order lots to make them return again and again. James stood up and carried the mail to his desk. He tore the envelopes with the junk mail in half and threw them away. The bills went into the cubbyhole reserved for them. He reread his mother’s letter and the postcard. He would write his mother later. He made a note on his calendar to call Oliver and Lucas after they returned and invite them over for drinks.
None of these activities had served its intended function of helping him forget Taz’s gift. The box on the hall table still intruded into his thoughts. While he was standing at his desk, a thought occurred to him. He pulled open the center drawer and found a black marking pen. He crossed into the hall and wrote “RETURN TO SENDER” in thick letters on top of the box and then circled the address for Fernishings and drew three arrows pointing at it. He would leave the box with Henry tomorrow morning on the way to work. He recapped the pen and regarded his handiwork with satisfaction. He wished he had thought of that sooner. Better to return these unwanted objects than stack them in the hall closet. He would take Taz’s other gifts down to his car this Saturday when he went out to do the weekly shopping and donate them to a charity store.
The evening they met, James had been by himself at Capers. He had wandered over to the dance floor to watch. He stood there with a half-drunk glass of wine in one hand, twisting his torso in time to the beat and bending his legs back and forth at the knees just enough to draw attention to himself. One of the dancers looked barely old enough to be allowed in a bar. Cute, dark-haired, short, nice smile, trim body—just the physical type James liked. The boy was wearing on old fedora, so old that the brim was ragged and the crown collapsed on one side. A tie dangled loose around his neck and a vest from a suit hung unbuttoned and open over his bare chest. His jeans were cut so low that crotch hair spilled out over the waistband. Every move he made was accented by the swaying of the tie over his hairless chest. The couple in front of James moved out of the way, and James stepped forward till he was at the edge of the dance floor. The boy was a much better dancer than average, and James began to ape his movements.
The boy was dancing alone, circling the outer edge of the dance floor. As he danced, he mouthed the words to the song being played. When he passed James, he looked up and saw James watching him. He smiled and gestured an invitation. James set his glass on a table and moved forward. The boy reached out and pulled James onto to the dance floor with both hands. He lifted James’s arms so that James’s hands were clasped around the back of his neck. “Hi, I’m …” The boy apparently said his name, but just at that moment the music jumped in volume and drowned him out.
James bent over and said, “I’m James,” in the young man’s ear. In answer he found himself grasped securely around the waist and a very lithe, firm body pressed up against his. He felt the boy’s hot breath through the fabric of his shirt as the boy sang along with the record in a falsetto voice. Now that they were closer, James could see that the boy was a few years older than he had thought—closer to twenty-five than to eighteen. His height and his looks were deceptive. Still, James found it hard to think of him as anything other than a boy.
After they had danced a few more numbers, James asked the boy if he wanted to go back to his place. He didn’t often do that. That night lust overcame his usual scruples about inviting a stranger into his home. The boy laughed with delight. He pulled James over to a table, grabbed a leather jacket off the back of a chair, squeezed the shoulder of one of the men sitting at the table, and then drew James outside. The two of them almost sprinted to James’s car.
On the ride to his place, the boy chatted happily about the types of music he liked to dance to. James didn’t have to do much more than nod occasionally and say a word here and there. It did surprise him that the boy said nothing about his car. He would have expected him at least to show some curiosity about the Mercedes. Usually when James gave a boy like this a ride, the kid would compulsively operate whatever switches were in reach and then hint repeatedly that he wanted to drive. Nor did the other expensive cars in the building’s parking garage receive more than a quick glance.
When James unlocked his door, he showed the boy into his living room and asked if he wanted a glass of wine. “All I have” he explained. The boy shook his head. He took off his jacket and draped it over the back of one of the chairs. That was the first thing he did that irritated James. James didn’t like the casual way the black jacket intruded into his life. He picked up the jacket and went back into the entrance hallway to hang it in the closet. When he returned, he found the boy examining the room. The boy didn’t bother to hide his interest in the objects James had chosen to live with. He walked about touching the furniture and lifting things to take a closer look at them, as if they held some clue to James.
When the boy passed the mantel, he picked up the crystal sculpture. It was one of James’s favorite pieces. The irregular, tear-shaped blob of glass was clear except in the center. Somewhere inside the glass—it was hard to tell where because of the distortion caused by the wavy surface—there was a white mist of opaque material. It was a nuisance to keep it clean, however. The smooth glass picked up every fingerprint. When the boy set it back in place, James could see the oil from his fingers on the glass. He would have to wipe it off later.
“That’s nice. I like that.” He looked at James as if he were entitled to voice an opinion of James’s possessions. James didn’t welcome the judgment. The boy was presuming a right he didn’t have.
The boy continued walking about the room. He tilted his head and drew a finger along the spines of James’s CD collection. He seemed to find nothing he liked. “You’re not a fan of recent music then?” James shook his head no. The boy’s voice was beginning to grate on his nerves. Ah, well, a sexy body was a sexy body. It wasn’t as if he were going to attempt an intellectual discussion with the boy.
James suddenly found the boy’s presence invasive. He decided that they should proceed to the main business and then he would find some excuse to get rid of the boy as soon as they had finished. The boy had other plans, however. He was in no hurry, and he proved to be so good in bed that James felt no need to hurry matters along either. They fell asleep in a tangle of sheets and limbs.
James awoke the next morning to the noise of the shower running. The volume and the quality of the sound varied as the boy stepped in and out of the spray. The boy’s failure to ask permission rekindled James’s irritation. Shortly the water was turned off and then a few minutes later the boy emerged from the bathroom patting his hair dry with one of James’s towels. “We overslept. I’ve got a meeting in an hour. Otherwise I’d ask you to breakfast. I’m sorry, but I have to leave right away. Then I’m taking the shuttle to New York this afternoon. I left my cell phone number for you.” The boy pointed to the pad beside the bedroom phone. “I don’t get to Boston often, but give me a call if you’re going to be in New York. Maybe we can get together.”
James picked the pad up. It contained only the single word “Taz” and the phone number. “Is that your name? Taz? I couldn’t hear it last night when you said it.”
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” The boy’s face lit up with a smile. “That’s wonderful.”
“Should I know you?”
“No. It’s cool that you don’t. I don’t often get that kind of privacy.” The boy babbled happily on as he pulled on his clothes. He reminded James of some pet bird chirping in the morning. When he was dressed, he walked over to James and gave him a final hug. “I’ll get my coat and let myself out.” Then he was gone. A few seconds later James heard the front door open and close.
James walked into the hallway and turned the deadbolt to lock the door. On the way back to the bedroom, he checked the living room to make sure that everything was there. The pillow on the sofa lay flat on the middle cushion. At one point while they had chatted briefly the previous evening, Taz has picked it up and held it against his stomach, kneading it. James patted it back into shape and then placed it back in its proper place in the left corner.
His first thought was to shower and wash the residue of the boy off his body. The bathroom was still steamy from Taz’s shower. He turned the exhaust fan on and spread the towel Taz has used out on the rack to dry. It annoyed him that he couldn’t put it in the dirty clothes hamper immediately and thus rid the room of all reminders of Taz’s presence. As he was about to step into the shower, he saw a black hair stuck to the soap. He picked the dish holding the soap up by its base and upended the soap into the waste basket. Then he unwrapped a fresh bar for his own use and turned the water on as hot as he could stand.
The bedroom still held the faint odor of sex. James wrinkled his nose in disdain. God, if only there were some way to satisfy his sexual desires without lowering himself to picking a guy up in a bar. If only. If wishes were horses … He opened the windows to air out the room and pulled the sheets off the bed and stuffed them into the washing machine off the kitchen. He consulted the back panel on the box of detergent and added the maximum amount recommended for “heavily soiled items.” It took him only a few minutes to remove all remaining traces of Taz from his flat. He carried the crystal sculpture into the kitchen and sprayed it with glass cleaner and then polished it with the special cloth he kept just for that task. He ended by tearing the sheet of paper with Taz’s number off the pad and ripping it into several pieces before throwing it away.
He found, however, that it was easier to erase Taz from his apartment than from his life. The first indication came later that day when Andrew phoned. “I hear you got very lucky last night and took home the prize.” James could hear the smirk in Andrew’s voice. “You must come round and tell us all about Taz. You’ll be able to dine out on that story for months.”
“What are you talking about, Andrew?”
“Who is Taz?”
“Taz. The man you were dancing with last night. The man you left Capers with. Everyone is quite jealous over your conquest. Didn’t you recognize him? Oh, this is so funny. You don’t know, do you?” Andrew’s fruity voice signaled that he was in his bitch-queen mode. “He’s the star of Coolidge Corner. That’s a hit show on TV, in case you don’t know. Were you in such a hurry that you didn’t exchange names or information about yourselves? I didn’t realize you were such a slut, James. This is a new side of you. Your reputation increased enormously last night after being seen with him. The man who had sex with Taz. Everyone will want to go to bed with you now.” Andrew laughed gleefully. James had the feeling that many others would soon be laughing at his expense. He hung up as soon as he could.
The next reminder of Taz came several days later. A large package was waiting for him when he arrived back from work. Inside, within a thick casing of molded Styrofoam, was another box. When he opened that, he found a bright red glass vase. He set it on the table in the living room, and it immediately caught all the light in the room and covered the walls and furniture with scarlet blotches. It was if someone had tossed a can of red paint into the room. James had chosen all the furnishings in the room carefully. The muted shades of taupe and ecru and oatmeal suited his tastes. The only touches of color were the painting over the fireplace, which was done in shades of blue, and a pale blue pillow on the sofa, which complimented the colors in the painting. To James’s mind, the serenity and quiet, confident taste of his apartment made the vase look even more lurid and ostentatious.
It wasn’t until he was clearing away the wrappings that he found the card. “The other night was more important to me than you can imagine. It taught me something about myself that I should have learned a long time ago. With gratitude and love, Taz. PS. The vase is from Venice. I bought it the last time we shot the show in Europe.”
The “love” and the presumptuousness of the gift galled James. The casual reference to the show also betrayed Taz’s assumption that he had made an effort to find out who Taz was. The fact that Taz was right irked him even more. After speaking with Andrew, he had Googled Coolidge Corner and read the Wikipedia article about the show. He had even watched a video of a scene from the show on YouTube. As he anticipated from the gushing comments left by fans, he found it bland and uninteresting.
He tossed the card away and repacked the vase. He stowed the box at the back of the hall closet. Taz called that night wanting to know if he had received the gift. It wasn’t until the phone rang and he heard Taz’s voice that he realized that Taz had taken the trouble to learn not only his full name and address but his phone number as well. He thanked Taz perfunctorily and then cut short Taz’s inquiries about his activities since the night they had been together with the excuse that he would be late for a meeting if they talked further.
The vase was only the first of many gifts to arrive over the next two weeks. Each was followed by a phone call in which Taz tried to interest James in his life. After the third gift, James began screening his calls. He felt as if he were being chased by a nightmarish version of a celebrity stalker. When he stopped answering Taz’s calls, the boy took to leaving messages on his voicemail at odd hours. After one such call, James waited to phone Taz until he knew from Taz’s latest Twitter that he was currently at a movie premiere. He hoped that Taz had turned off his cell phone while he was watching the movie and that he would reach Taz’s voicemail. If anyone answered, he planned to pretend it was a wrong number. He had rehearsed the message he wanted to leave. “Taz, thank you for all the presents. But really I can’t accept any more. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any interest in continuing this.”
The message had the desired effect. The gifts and the calls stopped. James was both relieved and a bit disappointed. They had been an annoyance, and he was glad that he had discouraged Taz. Still, it was not unflattering to be desired by someone who, if the stories in the online gossip columns were correct, was thought desirable by millions, even if most of them were prepubescent girls and young teens. He had to admit that he could understand Taz’s attractions after he had watched a video in which the camera had lingered on his face. But, he told himself, he was better off out of it. Letting it continue would have made it only harder on Taz when James did send him packing. He had been wise to break it off before anything serious could start. It really was the kindest thing to do. The YouTube video of the Very Late Late Show interview with Taz had made the young man’s intellectual and social limitations clear. Well, what could you expect from a boy from some small town in Iowa?
James even made the encounter into an amusing anecdote—his evening with someone he discovered only later to be a famous person. The self-deprecating humor with which he revealed his utter ignorance of popular entertainments sounded perfect to his ears. He was even careful not to tell the story too often, lest he be thought to be boasting of his conquest. Only three select groups of different people got to hear it firsthand. He knew his auditors well enough to trust them to spread the word.
The morning after receiving the latest gift, he handed it back to Henry with instructions to give it to the UPS man on his next appearance. That Saturday he removed the other boxes of gifts from the hall closet and left them at the charity resale shop near Cleveland Circle. He warned the woman in the shop that the red vase was Venetian glass and “might be” quite valuable. He didn’t tell her that it was a gift from Taz. That would, he imagined, increase its resale value considerably. He thought it commendable of himself not to boast of the relationship.
He almost missed the announcement. It came at the end of the news. The woman with the curly blond hair—James could never remember her name—beamed at the camera in the way that indicated that the next story would be light-hearted. “One hundred lucky people received a present this week and an invitation to what promises to be one of the most spectacular events of this year. Taz, the star of Coolidge Corner and the heartthrob of teenage girls everywhere, and his long-time companion Kevin Colman announced their upcoming marriage by sending a crystal sculpture specially designed by their good friend Fern Holmes to one hundred of their closest friends along with an invitation to attend the ceremony, which will take place on Cape Cod on September 8.”
The screen briefly showed an irregularly shaped slab of crystal with a faint mist of opaque glass in the middle. The image then shifted to a street scene. Taz and another young man stood with their arms around each other’s waists. Both were smiling and laughing. “Well,” said Taz, “we decided that after four years we knew each other well enough to know that we wanted to make our commitment formal.”
The man interviewing them pointed the microphone toward himself. “Earlier this year there were rumors that the two of you had separated.”
The young man with Taz shrugged and looked serious for a second. “Yeah, we went through a rough patch. We both dated other people for a week or so, but then we talked it over and found that nobody else came close to meaning as much to us.”
“Kevin is being kind. The truth is, I was being an ass and was worried about committing myself. I was in Boston and picked someone up for a night. That was all I needed to learn what’s important and what’s not.” James snapped the television off just as Taz looked up and smiled radiantly at his partner. His look of adoration lingered for a second on the screen and then abruptly disappeared, leaving only the reflection of James’s face.