The sky was a plate above the earth, hard and cloudless and shimmering with heat. The sun was a pressing thing, sitting like an eye high up, seeing everything within its reach. And down below, far down below, the people were like ants on the sand under its indifferent gaze.
Somewhere between the shoreline and the startings of civilisation Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock lay on the crowded sand, doing nothing but soaking up the far off sun and letting the heat penetrate to their bones.
'How often do we get to spend time at the beach?' Tod asked idly, staring up at the empty sky. 'I mean, just spend time – not selling ice creams or unhooking barges or stacking deckchairs?'
He was stretched back on the sand, his arms behind his head, just lifting his shirt enough that a soft line of belly showed under the fabric.
Buz let his eyes slip sideways and a shiver ran through him. He shouldn't let himself think like that. He tried so hard not to think like that. But that thin slip of skin, vulnerable and soft and spidered with hair, stirred something inside him that was almost impossible to suppress. The midday sun was turning those hairs golden and glinting and Tod's skin was slowly gaining a red flush from the heat.
He closed his eyes and thought of girls instead. The beach was littered with girls. Girls in bikinis, girls in swimsuits, girls walking up out of the water with the droplets beaded on their skin.
It was no good. Every one of those girls with the golden skin shimmered somehow and turned into Tod, into his sandy hair and freckled face and arms. Those freckles made him think of the shadows of leaves on the sidewalk on a hot day, of the ripples on the surface of a river when the wind blew. He thought of a girl with waist-length blonde hair and a bikini and sand beaded on her body, and instead he felt the trail of fingertips on his arm and opened his eyes and saw Tod.
He had rolled onto his side and the sand was light and falling silently from his arms and there was sand in his hair and on his cheek and Buz wanted to reach out and brush the silica beads from his skin.
'Ice cream?' Tod asked, and Buz blinked confusedly.
'Uh – um – yeah,' he said eventually. 'Yeah, I need something to cool me down.'
He watched as Tod stood and a fine rain of sand fell. Impulsively he held out his hand and caught some grains and held them, imagining that they were warm from Tod's body heat. Tiny as they were, they had probably lost all that heat as they fell, but he could pretend. He spent half his life pretending.
He watched Tod walk away. He was wearing no more than swimming trunks and a light shirt to stop his shoulders burning, and Buz wondered if he could persuade him to slip that shirt off and go swimming – not because he wanted to swim with Tod, but because he wanted his fair, freckled shoulders to burn and for Tod to sit in their room in the evening, glowing heat and pleading for Buz to rub cream into the burn.
The longing hurt so much it felt like something growing inside him. He didn't know how to describe it, because it was beautiful and terrible all at once. He wouldn't have given it up for the world. In some ways it was the only thing that linked him and Tod together in the way that he wanted to be joined.
'Hey, buddy. Buz!'
He jerked his head up, and was dazzled by the dark silhouette of Tod standing against the sun, a halo of blinding light shimmering about his head, catching the auburn tones in his hair and making it seem on fire. He didn't realise that Tod had been gone long enough to line up, buy ice creams, and come all the way back again.
'Would you like to take yours before it melts, tiger?' Tod asked him, un-eclipsing the sun as he sat back down on the sand. 'I want to eat this and get in the water before I die of heat stroke.'
Buz blinked the blotches of light out of his eyes and took the cone from Tod's outstretched hand. The ice cream had started to run down the sides and was trickling milkily over the crook between Tod's thumb and fingers and Buz bit his lip into his mouth, overcome by the urge to dart out his tongue and lick that slow-moving creamy river from Tod's skin.
'I don't know what's up with you today,' Tod sighed, starting on his own ice as if it were a personal challenge to consume it as soon as possible. 'I mean, I ask you if you want an ice cream. You say yes. I bring you said delight and you sit there with it melting all over your fingers as if you'd forgotten I'd even given it to you. What are you doing? Waiting for a fair maiden to come over and offer to clean up your fingers with her tongue? Or do you want me to do it?'
Buz almost choked at Tod verbalising his fantasy with such almost-accuracy.
'I mean with a handkerchief,' Tod clarified as Buz coughed and tried to keep from dropping the ice cream. 'Much as finger-sucking is pretty high on my list of favourite activities, I prefer to do it with the Janes and Sandras and Betties of this world. Don't you?'
Buz busied himself with the ice cream, licking up a large dollop that was about to fall and holding it in his mouth until the shivers ran through him. He grabbed at a towel and pulled it over his lap, as if to stop the ice cream dripping on his naked thighs. In skin tight Speedos and with the image of Tod sucking his at fingers, that wasn't the only reason he needed protection.
'I said, don't you?' Tod repeated casually, leaning back on the sand again and turning his grey-green eyes fully on Buz's face.
He couldn't take it – not that soul-deep, piercing look while such thoughts were running through his head. Buz smiled and shrugged and gestured at his own mouth and then said thickly, 'Numb dongue. Thorry.'
Tod shook his head in mock exasperation. He crammed the rest of his own ice cream into his mouth and swallowed and then began to unbutton his shirt, button by button. Buz watched, trying not to look as if he were watching, as Tod's soft skin and freckled chest appeared inch by inch. Collarbones… Oh, he could melt into those collarbones. He wanted to run his tongue along them, chilled with the ice cream, and elicit a noise halfway between shock and pleasure. He wanted to touch the nipples that had stood proud with the cold of the ice Tod had just eaten, the forearms that were softly downed with hair and scattered with freckles and looked so strong and gentle all at once.
'I'm going swimming,' Tod said in a slow, clear voice, as if he thought that Buz had got a touch of sunstroke. 'Feel free to join me. You look like you could do with cooling off.'
'Yeah. Yeah, sure,' Buz said, licking another melting slick from his ice cream and swallowing it down hastily. 'I'll – er – I'll be right – '
Tod looked over his own shoulder.
'What are you looking at?' he asked curiously.
'Oh – ' He took a full bite of the ice cream this time and shivered as the cold pressed from his throat out into his body. 'There was a chick there – I mean, a real babe. Just – ' And he outlined an hourglass in the air with his hands. 'She's gone,' he said quickly as Tod turned to look again. 'Must have gone for a swim, or – '
'Maybe I'll catch her in the water,' Tod grinned, flinging his shirt down onto the sand. 'See you in the waves, tiger.'
Buz nodded and lifted his ice cream cone in acknowledgement, and then slumped back down onto the sand as Tod jogged away.
'Now I know what it feels like to be a baked Alaska,' he murmured. Somewhere in the centre of him he was ice cold, but the rest of him seemed to be melting, and he wasn't sure it was entirely to do with the ice cream and the heat of the sun.
He watched as Tod entered the water, at first with the froth of the waves splashing about his calves, then just to the point where each swell reared up at wetted the tight pair of white shorts that he was wearing. And then he was chest deep and swimming, and Buz closed his eyes and lay back on the sand and sighed.
'It's a bitch being in the closet, isn't it?'
Buz's eyes snapped open. A guy had sat down on the sand very near him and was looking at him with sympathetic eyes.
'What?' he asked dazedly. His mind had been far from imagining random strangers striking up conversations like this.
'I said it's a bitch being in the closet,' the guy repeated, smiling this time. 'Aw, come on,' he said then. 'I saw you watching him. I mean, most guys it'd go right over their heads, but you start to get a sense for these things.'
'Look, buddy,' Buz began, sitting up, some kind of panicking sense of threat starting in him as he realised what the guy was talking about. He had always had these thoughts and feelings rising in him and he had always struggled to push them down and hide them away. He wouldn't have lasted long in Hell's Kitchen if anyone had ever suspected the unnatural desires that ran through his head.
'He's your friend, isn't he?' the guy asked, unfazed by the tension in Buz's stance. 'That guy in the water, the one you were watching? He's your friend?'
'Yeah, he's my friend,' Buz nodded, his eyes straying to the water again.
'You think you can trust him?'
'Look, I don't even know who you are,' Buz began, anger rising in his voice again. 'I mean, you come and sit down here and start talking about my buddy and me like that. Haven't you ever heard of privacy? Of comfort zones?'
The guy smiled at him and leaned a little closer. He wasn't good looking or striking or ugly, or anything that would have caused Buz to pick him out a line-up. He was just a guy from the beach who had appeared and sat down to talk.
'Look,' the man said. 'You can say what you like, but I'm just going to assume I'm right. You like him. I mean, you really like him – not like going to the ball game and sharing a corn dog like him, but lying in each other's arms in the night when everything's quiet and knowing there's no one else in the world like him. But you're scared. You scared of yourself and you're scared of him. You're scared of the law and of god and nice society and all those things. You're scared that if you tell him then he'll never forgive you and your friendship will never be the same again.'
Buz stared at him, his mouth part open, lost for words. He didn't need to speak since this guy seemed to be voicing everything that ran through his mind in those dark times just before he fell asleep, and in those times in the shower and waiting for Tod to wake up in the morning, and whenever he was working at some mindless task in a factory or walking along the sidewalk to buy something for dinner.
'Look, just tell him,' the guy said in an insistent, confidential tone. 'It's not worth a lifetime of what-ifs and counting stars, looking for hook-ups in public conveniences with strangers just because it's the only way you can feel something that's close to love.'
'Oh, and it's that easy, is it?' Buz asked with acerbic anger, forgetting that he had been denying that he even knew what the man was talking about. 'Just tell him, huh? It's that easy?'
'It'll be the hardest thing you've ever done,' the guy said. 'But it's better than living behind a curtain all your life.'
Buz stared at the man as he stood up and walked away. He didn't know what to think. He felt as if he had been pitched over into a hole in the sand and he didn't know which way was up.
He turned his eyes toward a group of college girls, giggling and throwing sand as if they were far younger than they really were. They were tanned and wearing no more than bikinis, some of them dripping with seawater and some of them bone dry. He tried to feel something for them. He had always been able to feel enough for girls to put on a façade. Sometimes he had even gotten as far as falling in love. He could imagine settling down with a girl one day, having kids maybe, with the obligatory station wagon and a house with a gas cooker and refrigerator and hi-fidelity stereo unit at the side of the lounge. But he didn't set alight for them – not like he did for guys like Tod.
'I think I'm burned,' Tod said mournfully late that evening, turning his head to try to see his own shoulders. He winced aloud as his skin crinkled.
'Yeah, you're burned all right,' Buz said gleefully. The glee felt like a thin layer of frosting on the top of a cake made of foam. Somewhere deep down he was terrified. 'Seeing as how you didn't pick up a Jane or a Sandra or a Betty between high tide and low tide, you want me to rub some lotion into it?'
'Yeah, sure,' Tod said, easing his arms out of his shirt with great care. 'Anything – I'd do anything to stop feeling like my back's on fire.'
'You stay there,' Buz said. 'I'll go get the cream.'
He stood in the bathroom with the medicine cabinet open, staring at the various ointments and liniments inside. Something rattled as he reached in to grab a brown glass bottle, and he realised that his hands were shaking. He took the bottle and put it down carefully on top of the cistern and then pushed his hands down hard onto the bathroom windowsill and stared out through the cracked glass, trying to steady himself.
This was a beautiful place to live – only a few hundred yards from the beach, airy and spacious and decorated with tired old furniture and ornaments that felt as if they had been lived with for years. In winter it would be terrible, he was sure. The damage to the boards and the cracks in the windows and the peeling of the paint were testament to that – but in the summer it felt as if nothing could be more perfect than this place.
He turned his head toward the ocean and stared. The sun that had so viciously attacked Tod's shoulders was touching the horizon now, flaming across the ripples of the waves. The air was still hot and every breath felt like it had come from an open fire. It was a perfect world out there – so why did Buz's insides feel like they were falling apart?
'Hey, are you getting that cream from the bathroom or are you going out to the factory that made it?' Tod called from outside, and Buz jumped.
'Coming,' he said, grabbing the bottle and hurrying back out into the lounge.
Tod was sitting in his chair still, skewed sideways so that his back was exposed, his shoulders seeming to glow with the same intensity of the setting sun outside.
'Are you ready for this?' Buz asked, pouring a little of the lotion out into his palm and letting it warm against his skin. He tilted it about his palm and remembered the melting ice cream again, and willed self-control. As he touched the lotion to Tod's shoulders Tod gave a low groan of relief.
'Do you have to make those noises?' Buz asked, freezing in his movements. 'I'm not Jane or Betty, you know.'
'I'm sorry – it just feels so good on that burn,' Tod said. 'Don't stop – carry on.'
Buz smiled and poured a little more lotion onto his hand. He warmed it carefully and watched Tod flinch at he touched it to his skin as if it were still cold. It was, in comparison to the sunburn that was radiating a heat that Buz could feel even without touching.
'Don't I always tell you not to go in the water at midday?' he murmured, circling the lotion in gently with his fingertips. 'And don't you always ignore me and come out burned to a crisp?'
He smoothed the lotion over each freckle in turn, watching Tod's dry and painful back slowly become smooth and glistening.
'Yes, you always tell me,' Tod laughed without turning his head.
Buz began to rub lotion into his neck and up toward his ears.
'So why don't you listen?' he asked. He could feel his own heart beating in his fingertips. His lips were tingling. He was sure that Tod should be able to hear his heart beat or the raggedness of his breathing.
'I guess I just love the water too much,' Tod told him, leaning his head forward so that Buz could better access his neck.
'You should love yourself more than the water,' Buz said. 'Water's indifferent. It doesn't care if you get fried by the sun. The water doesn't care that you're going to be sore all night, that you'll be peeling like a snake in a few days.'
He remembered what Tod had said once about parataxic distortion. He tried to count the people in this one room. The Tod who was sunburnt, the Tod that Buz saw sitting before him, the Tod that Buz hoped he could be. As for himself – there could be a thousand of him filling up that room for the amount of pretence that was layered about him. Pretending to Tod, pretending to himself, wishing and dreaming and coming up short. There was hardly room to breathe in here for all those versions of himself.
'I care if you're going to be in pain all night,' he said.
He stood outside himself and watched himself speak. He watched himself pour out more lotion and touch it to Tod's skin. He watched himself watching Tod wince as he touched a particularly angry place at the top of his left shoulder.
'Tod, I think maybe – I think I love you.'
There. He had said it. His heart sounded like an ocean in his ears. He withdrew his hands an inch from Tod's back. He didn't feel like he had the right to touch him now. He stood listening to the waves of blood in his ears, waiting for a response.