Michael and I have rented a car for the day to see the countryside outside of Paris. A whim, he called it, an adventure. He has neither been whimsical nor adventurous in the twenty odd years we’ve known one another, but neither am I ever surprised at much, so we carry on. Perhaps this long overdue trip to Paris has made him feel free, unfettered and alive. Ha. There’s Joni Mitchell, insinuating herself into our lives once again, a reminder that we were young once. It was during Joni’s 1968 performance at The Bitter End on Bleecker St that Michael and I met. If a time machine is invented before I die, it is to that night I will return. We were two men in our early twenties, trading rounds of old-fashioneds at the bar and swooning over an angelic, powerful, hippy poet diva--what could be more gay? But that was before I knew anything about such things.
We are speeding north along the A16 now, approaching Amiens. It is like driving through a giant unmade bed, with rolling quilts of farmland on either side, pillowy clouds on the horizon. I want to pull that crisp blue sheet of sky up over my shoulders and pass into the heaven of ten-thousand-thread-count dreams. But I may not, cannot, because Michael, like some whimsical adventurer, has suddenly exited the highway and turned on to a smaller side road.
“Where are we going?” I say.
“Wouldn’t you like see some of the small towns out here?”
He has a habit of replying to my questions with questions, and I suppose I am used to that, but nevertheless a small part of me would, one day, enjoy some answers.
This is quite a contrast to the thrilling openness of the landscape flanking the highway. We are traveling within a box canyon of foliage and timber, a gray stripe of road below us, a parallel stripe of blue sky above. Michael slows, as much for the ‘rustic’ pavement, I suppose, as for the possibility of a cow wandering onto the road. But I see now he is pulling over in front of an abandoned house. He gets out of the car and reluctantly I follow suit.
“James, how old do you think it is?” he says.
“Who do you think lived there?” I say. Two can play at that game.
There is a low stone wall out front, its gap-toothed smile inviting us to lean in, but not too closely. The broad scabrous facade was once painted a handsome shade of daffodil or more likely cornmeal, to my eye. But now it just looks jaundiced, like the yellow edge of a bruise. A pair of windows stare back at us, each a face with its own expression. Their louvered shutters, broken out in places, become eyes, and the window on the right, its lower half having been opened part way, has a mouth as well. It’s as if the two are engaged in conversation but must never turn to face one another lest the fragile wall between them buckle and collapse.
Michael is standing with his hands on his hips, captivated by something in this sad tableau that I, apparently, have missed. This happens all the time. His ability to hone in on hidden details, to wade into the visual minutiae of a scene, is remarkable. Then again, maybe he is simply conjuring these things up in his imagination, projecting them into our reality. He insists they’re real. A stalemate, I say, impossible to prove or disprove. My mounting impatience is being channeled into a drum roll of fingertips on stone, but the finale is no crash of cymbals, just my ridiculous sigh, as Michael quietly turns and says “Ready?”
I nod, “On to Amiens, then?”
“Yes...but humor me a moment?” he says.
Our little blue Renault has been heating up in the sun, and I roll down my window in anticipation of the cool air that will accompany our rapid acceleration away from here. But hold on. Michael is reaching across my lap to retrieve something from the glove box. The exhilaration of the wind rushing through my thinning hair will have to wait. But I’m not bothered. I’m taking deep breaths and “being spacious”, which is a kind of meditation according to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Cheery little volume that is, also lodged in the glove box, and chock full of travel tips for those of us on the last leg of their one-way trip to elsewhere.
“Ah, here it is,” says Michael, tapping a spot on the map.
I’ve forgotten my reading glasses again, but look over out of habit. For all I know, he is pointing at the location of a remote solar system on a map of the milky way.
“Oisemont. It’s only 40km or so west. We can get lunch there.” He looks up at me briefly as if to gauge my appetite without the bother of having to ask. “And there’s supposed to be an interesting old Templar hospital site, big stone cross and all. Only now most of it’s buried under an old folks’ home apparently. What do you say?”
What do I say? No way? Not on your nelly? Thank you, dear sir, no?
“Michael, that sounds lovely, but you know I don’t care for hospitals--no, no--” I raise my hand as he starts to object, “even, ancient, half buried ones. And I’m afraid a rapidly fading geriatric sunset does not add to the romantic allure or historical interest.”
His hands are on the wheel now, and he has let the map fall onto his lap. I love his hands. He is disappointed and I love his hands, always have.
“Is it--” Michael clears his throat. “Is this because of your--” He finishes his sentence with a two finger tap to his temple.
“No,” I say. “It is because the “elderly” depress me--read into that if you want--and that makes me want to drink. Care for a drink?”
“It’s too early.”
“We’re on vacation.”
“It’s still too early.”
“You’re right,” I say. Now, that is something I don’t like to admit, but there it is. Let him think he has won a debate over drinking etiquette, but the truth is he is right about the other thing. I simply don’t care to talk about my failing body. Who would?
He is disappointed.
“Are you disappointed?” I say. A long time ago his hands put a flame in this Eskimo.
Now it is Michael who is taking a deep breath, being spacious.
“How about that drink?” he says.
“Oisemont it is,” I say.
We are rolling along once again. The wind in my hair is not refreshing after all--I am wet with perspiration from our brief tete-a-tete in the hot car and now must roll up my window to fend off a wave of chills. Careful what you wish for, never more true. I used to wish for a lot of things, but I suppose we all did back then. It was the 60s--everything was in flux, so much seemed so possible. It was in that fog of heady optimism that Michael and I found one another. We stayed through Joni’s second set that night at The Bitter End. There couldn’t have been more than twenty people in the whole place, but the power of her voice filled into the empty spaces, rising up like floodwaters until we were soaked to the skin. A few weeks later, when Michael kissed me, I felt a similar torrent. The first wave smashed my small raft of resistance to tinder. Then, with rough seas rising, I opened my lungs, fearless and foolish youth, to delicious drowning and bewildering rebirth.
We are driving down the main street of Oisemont and Michael pulls the car over as we pass a small cafe.
“Hungry?” he says
“No,” I say, folding my arms.
“You should probably eat something,” he says.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’ll get you a pastry.” Michael is getting out of the car. “You can have it for later.”
I feel like a petulant seven year old who is being cajoled into visiting the old aunt who smells of hominy and lysol. Grow up, James. Michael is doing his best to make a nice vacation for us, to take care of he who shall not be taken care of. I should be grateful for this time with him. I should be grateful for this time. I should be grateful, period. What would Joni do? With heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord on death row. I reach into the glove box for some helpful hints from the best-selling lama.
Taking the path of least resistance--my advice, not the lama’s--I let the book fall open to where I’d randomly stuck my boarding pass on the flight over. Even holding the text at arm’s length, this is too much work without my glasses, squinting and stretching for some blurry words of wisdom, some vague comfort. When did I become so lazy? Or maybe I am, as ever, simply afraid. And, like Joni, I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t. Michael. That first year we were together I’d wake sometimes in the gauzy pre-dawn light of his bedroom, naked and happy, unrecognizable to myself. After twenty two years of managing only a tenuous hold on life, I was suddenly engaged in a real embrace. It was terrifying and wonderful, the vulnerability. That was a gift Michael gave, and apparently one that keeps on giving, as I am now more terrified than ever.
Michael appears at my window. “Pain au chocolat, monsieur,” he says, handing me a paper bag already blotchy where butter has soaked through.
“Thank you,” I say.
“I thought you’d given up on that one,” he says, nodding at the book in my lap.
“It has some nuggets.” Nuggets of what I will not say. He is smiling and I am all but batting my eyelashes to makes things right between us again. When Michael smiles, his good looks shift into overdrive--his eyes become greener, his hair fuller, and his chin stronger, with soft lips set in a firm jaw, he is Michelangelo’s David made manifest. There was a time I would do anything to bask in the warmth of that smile. But now I shy away, feeling undeserving of such radiance and, to be honest, a tad jealous. And that is just the top layer of nuggets.
“I’m glad. How about a stroll,” he says, winking at me, “to take in the many sights of grand Oisemont?”
“Yes, let’s,” I say.
Even in remote towns such as this one, when people see two well-groomed older gentlemen traveling together, appreciating architecture and drinking white wine, it can mean only one thing: the gays have arrived. And when one of those men is a touch too thin, perhaps ashen, and unable to negotiate a simple set of stairs without the careful guiding arm of his “companion”, well then, it can only be AIDS. It’s as if we are somehow immune to all other diseases, a race of fastidious but promiscuous Supermen, HIV our kryptonite. It makes me angry. It also makes me laugh. I want to slap on one of those “Hello, I’m...” name tags with “Brain Tumor, You Homophobe” written in the chubby, looping script of an eighth grade girl. Michael tells me he doesn’t think that would be a good idea. What does he know?
The Templar hospital site is a predictable snooze. It seems Edward III slept here as well. Michael is reading to me from his Michelin guide to Picardy, but I’m finding it hard to follow. Either the tumor is pressing into my temporal lobe, gumming up my ability to process language or, more likely, I simply have no interest in what he is saying. But love and physical disability ensure a captive audience like none other.
I remember, in those first years with Michael, when my fountain pen would issue a deep blue river of words, sparkles of sunlight on the surface belying cooler, darker depths of mud and sleepy bottom feeders below. Reading my poems to Michael as we lay in bed, don’t laugh, I would say. I remember how he looked at me so intently, how I was held aloft by his earnest attention, floating and magnificent, loved in my bones. Loved in my bones. I felt as unworthy then as I do now.
It is late afternoon. We have seen the cathedrals of Amiens and are winding along yet another side road heading back to the A16, south to Paris and our little room in the Latin Quarter. Blunt extrusions of low sun shoot through openings in the landscape where trees have been cleared, settlements carved out. This gentle light passes through our car as well, in through Michael’s window and out of my own, and then on its way. Where does it all go, I wonder.
The setting sun is grazing the clouds and I’m looking up at a sky the color of creamsicles and cotton candy and pecan brittle. After no real appetite for months, how funny to be craving the tastes of my childhood summers. Whole days spent out on the lake, with Wayne or Joey, one or other of the Sullivan boys. Cans of pop and ham sandwiches. Jackknives, swans and cannonballs into the cool water, whooping on our way in, emerging quietly with unspoken reverence for the feeling of silty mud between our toes. We’d lay out on the rocks, our bodies sleek and tanned, the color of a toasted marshmallow just before it catches fire. Oh, those bodies and that heat--indeed, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. But if there was desire or longing or even some inchoate fear in those moments, I wasn’t aware of it. So many things unnamed and unknown remained so for a long time. I wonder if this hasn’t changed, if I haven’t changed, as much as I’d like to imagine. Maybe I’ve mistaken acts of desperation for moments of courage, felt love only as a refraction of light from another. Maybe I’ve always been a coward, but now I am just hungry as well.
Eager to get back, I am grateful when Michael keeps pace as we approach another crumbling structure. This one is a marvel of entropy--bricks from collapsed walls lay in heaps like fallen soldiers. Wooden beams stand at arms against charging regiments of juniper and hawthorn. Nature is winning this battle. But nature always wins, I suppose.
I crane my head around to get a final look as we pass.
Michael reaches over to squeeze my knee. “What is it, James?”
“Nothing,” I say. I take his hand in mine. This is where all the light goes.