I posted, I'll post the second section and let you
look at it. The first one was purposefully short.
Maybe too short, but that can always change. I guess
I'm trying for a 'cinematic' feel. Whether that's
the right approach or not, we'll have to see. I don't
want to spill the whole backstory yet. It's good that
most of you aren't thinking "Nowhere Man" because I
want the reader to wonder why this relationship is
the way it is. That's what Shea will have to figure
out, too. That's his dilemma. Well, one of them!
I was tired after spending most of the day meeting students about their final papers, and now, after hearing Aaron's news, I was hardly in the mood to make a fancy, celebratory dinner. Sorry, Aar.
I thought about calling for a pizza, but I knew what my partner would have to say about that. So I took a couple of lamb chops out of the freezer, defrosted them in the microwave, and threw them under the broiler. Then I got out one of those bags of ripped up endive and iceberg and made what passed for a salad.
Ordinarily Aaron would have made some snarky comment about my lack of culinary effort for such an important occasion, but we'd barely sat down to eat when the phone began to ring. It was one of Aaron's pals from the Gay Filmmakers' Forum calling from Chicago. The Tell-a-Queen grapevine was in full swing, which meant that the phone calls didn't stop until almost midnight. Everyone who was anyone in Queer Film Studies, documentary filmmaking, or who might want a favor from Aaron somewhere down the line had to let him know how thrilled they were with his new appointment -- even if they were silently cursing because they didn't get it instead.
After the first two calls, Aaron went into the office and shut the door so he could gab in peace. I cleaned up the remnants of dinner and washed the dishes. Maybe in Indiana I'd finally have a dishwasher. And maybe we would live in a real house. With a yard. A front porch, like in the MGM Freed Unit musicals Aaron would never admit he adored. And a garage, too. As much as I loved Boston, I hated parking on the street and constantly having to move the car around, especially in the punishing New England winters.
I tried to consider other advantages of this new job. More money. That was always good. And if all the perks of the new position panned out, Aaron would be able to finish his gay adoption project. That would not only make him less tense and bitchy at home, but it might finally get him that production deal his agent, the weasel-like Kenny out in Los Angeles, had promised him was lurking right around the next corner.
It was still early, but Aaron looked like he was riveted to the phone in the office for the duration. The bottle of champagne was still sitting on the counter, unchilled, unopened, and unsung. I left it there. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day. Whatever.
I took my Land's End bag into the bedroom, got undressed, tuned the radio to NPR like a good little liberal academic, and got into bed with my lapboard. I had about forty final paper outlines for my two Freshman English sections to turn back tomorrow, plus seventeen rough drafts for my Advanced Expository Writing class to read and critique by Monday. I got out my trusty red pen and began slogging away.
There's a crushing irony to the saga of Aaron's new job. Well, crushing to me, if to no one else.
I'm a hired gun. I'm only a 'part-time instructor' -- a misnomer if there ever was one, since I teach more classes than my 'full-time' partner. I also have my Ph. D. from Columbia, 'in hand' as they say, while Aaron only has an M.F.A. from the Film School at New York University.
But none of that matters. Because Aaron is a superstar in the academic world. His documentaries have won acclaim at film festivals all over the world. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his film, 'The Monkey Puzzle,' about AIDS in Africa (although we never talk about the fact that he lost the Oscar to what he referred to bitterly as "that piece of shit tearjerker" -- a documentary about retarded children on a camping trip). It also doesn't hurt that he's an openly gay and very political filmmaker. That gets him attention. That gets him on Charlie Rose's show. On CNN. Gets him quoted in 'Newsweek.' And 'The Advocate.' And even 'The National Review.' It makes him in demand as a speaker at GLBT conferences. Now it's landed him this extremely desired Special Chair in Documentary Film at Eastern Indiana University. E.I.U. recently received a huge endowment for their Media Studies Program from an alum who made a killing in cable television. Which means that Aaron is like a cat who just landed in a swimming pool full of cream.
Of course, I'm younger than Aaron by almost a decade. I'm just starting out in the Wonderful World of Academia. I've only published a couple of articles, but no books. And I've yet to land that coveted tenure-track job that means you're a Real Person. A Real Professor. Because although my students call me 'Professor Desmond' I'm not a professor. I'm only an instructor, as the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department at Boston State University never fails to remind all of us lowly ones at the beginning of each semester. But I'm lucky to have an office, which I share with three other instructors. Or to have free access to the copy machine. Those are my perks. While Aaron has a huge office, teaching assistants, and a travel allowance larger than my yearly salary. I'm also lucky that BSU has domestic partner benefits. That means Aaron can claim me for his university health benefits, since part-time instructors aren't eligible for them. That makes me more fortunate than my office-mate, Barbara, a single mother who teaches at two different universities in Boston and doesn't get any benefits at either of them. But in 1999 that's the reality of college teaching.
I know this all sounds like sour grapes. It's not. Aaron earned all of the success he's achieved. He worked his ass off and nothing was handed to him on a silver platter. For years he couldn't get funding, couldn't get recognition, couldn't get taken seriously. Homophobia is still alive and well, especially in the movie business. That's one reason Aaron moved into academia. It was a safer place. A place to stand while he found his footing. A place to retreat to when he'd been shot down. And he was shot down a lot. He was a fag in a macho world. An in-your-face queer, making films on queer subjects. AIDS. Bar culture. The history of the Pride Movement. Gay adoption. And teenage hustlers living on the streets of New York. That was his first major film.
So I know what Aaron's had to deal with. Because I've been with him from the beginning. Since I was 16 years old and he was 25. And now I've just turned 28. I'm an adult. A would-be professor. Sort of. Whatever.
And Aaron is a star professor.
Who hates teaching. Who hates students and papers and exams and meetings and the whole academic world.
That's the crushing irony. Because I love all of it. And the chances that I'll ever be the kind of star Aaron is are... well, about zero.
For Aaron being a professor is an annoying necessity. It's a way to get funding for his films, not to mention free equipment, free assistants, free travel, and an impressive title. Aaron teaches for the perks and the prestige. And over the past eleven years that we've been together he's learned to look and act the part of the perfect professor. If only those freaking students wouldn't keep getting in the way!
Do I sound jealous? Of course I'm jealous! I'd love to have a fancy title. A big office with Stickley furniture and oriental carpets. Graduate assistants who do most of the teaching and all of the grading.
Wait. No, actually, I wouldn't want the last one. Because that's one of the things I like about being a teacher. And that's teaching. The students. Talking to them. Trying to get them to feel the excitement I feel when I read something really great. Discussing books and stories with them. Helping them with their writing. Watching them get better. Watching them grow.
I even like holding office hours, as exhausting as that can be. I love the long afternoons when I can sit back in my broken chair and look out the dirty window of my fourth floor office (the one I share with three other instructors) onto the Quad. Watching the trees turn red and gold. Watching the snow fall. Watching the trees go green again. Opening the window to let in the fresh air on a late April day. Hearing the students laugh as they throw frisbees across the grass, their dogs barking, their music blasting. Listening to my students complain about their grade on the midterm, or try to understand why they need more transitions in their argumentative essay on the death penalty, or cry to me because they just broke up with their boyfriend and that's why they couldn't finish their rough draft on time. It often happens that way. The student comes in to discuss her essay and ends up telling me her life story.
And it's usually the girls who come in to talk to me. Maybe they feel more comfortable talking to a gay man. It's like all those films and television shows about a girl and her gay best friend. 'Will and Grace.' 'The Object of My Affection.' 'My Best Friend's Wedding.' The sympathetic gay man as the newest straight girl accessory. Aaron hates those films. Detests them, in fact. He feels that it marginalizes gay men and renders them acceptable to a heteronormative hegemony. In other words, you're a good little pet if you can lend a shoulder for a straight person to cry on. Whatever. I like my girls and I'm happy to dry their tears if I have to. It's easier than the ones who have a major crush on me and try to convert me. Or the occasional male student who tries the same thing. That also happens more often than I'd ever dare to tell the wildly possessive Aaron. Sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut. I learned that lesson early in my life.
But I guess I'm naive in the belief that I'm actually helping my students to become better readers and better writers. Naive in the belief that I'm really teaching them something important. Who really gives a damn if they can write a decent sentence? Or understand the social underpinnings of courtship rituals in 'Pride and Prejudice'? Or, when I'm actually allowed to teach my main subject, which is Contemporary Gay Literature, to see how the struggle of GLBT people is a mirror to the struggle of all people for their rights and for acceptance in the larger world. Yes, that is important. That's why I keep plugging away. That's why I still believe that I have something worth teaching them.
The truth is that I never wanted to teach. The thought of standing in front of students petrified me. The first day I had to face them was in Philadelphia. Aaron had a year-long fellowship and I got a fill-in position for a young professor who was on maternity leave. Up until that point I'd always worked as a teaching assistant, helping the prof with preparing the material, grading, and leading discussion sessions. But now I had to tackle a class on my own. Naked, as it were.
That morning I threw up twice and was certain I'd do it again in the classroom, effectively ending my teaching career before it had begun. But I had to do it. Otherwise the only alternative was to quit and get a job as a waiter or a retail clerk. Or something else. Something I didn't ever want to consider again. So I forced myself to walk into the room. It was a tiny classroom in a crumbling building -- the shade was hanging by a thread in the window and one of the florescent lights was buzzing annoyingly above my head. Sitting and waiting for me were twenty kids only a couple of years younger than I was.
"This is 'Introduction to the Novel' -- English 125," I managed to croak out. "And, believe it or not, I'm your teacher!"
Maybe it was the way I said it. Or maybe it was the stunned look on my pale, sweaty face. But they all laughed. And then I laughed, too. After that it was easy. I was the teacher. They were the students. They looked up to me. They believed that I knew something that was worth their time to learn. And that gave me confidence. It gave me a purpose.
And it gave me an identity separate from Aaron. I was no longer 'Aaron Blumenthal's pretty little boyfriend' -- or boytoy, as many of his friends said behind his back. My students didn't know Aaron and they didn't care. I was their teacher and that's all that mattered. And I loved it.
"Are you still grading?" said Aaron as he walked into the bedroom. It was almost 1:00 a.m.
"Just finishing." I set the lapboard and the pile of papers on the floor next to the bed.
Aaron stretched and took off his glasses. "Man, I thought I'd never get off the phone with Frank Tucker! He was up for that job, too, you know. He was congratulating me all over the place, but I could tell his teeth were clenched the whole time!"
"There's no way they'd have hired Tucker over you," I said. "He doesn't have the resume you have. Where's his Oscar nomination?"
Aaron grinned. "I know! Tucker's got ten years on me. I think he expects that to get him the premium jobs. But what's he made lately? A couple of public service pieces for PBS? He hasn't made a full-length documentary in seven years! He's coasting on work he did ten years ago. That doesn't cut it these days."
I watched as Aaron talked trash about Frank Tucker while he got undressed. When we first met he was so much bigger than I was -- 6 foot 2 in his stocking feet, and taller in his favorite pair of old cowboy boots. I loved looking up at his face. Loved feeling his protective arms around me. Loved the feeling that he'd always take care of me and make everything right. Was it a Daddy fantasy? Maybe, but I didn't give a damn then and I still don't. It felt right and, as far as I'm concerned, it was right. The fact that I was only 16 and he was 25 was beside the point. Aaron saved my life. End of story.
Back then Aaron was a gawky graduate student in the Film Program at NYU. When I first saw him I thought he was a total geek. He looked like a tall, awkward bird trying to take off, all long arms and legs, his wire-rimmed glasses perched crookedly on a prominent nose, his curly auburn hair uncombed and undomesticated. But it was his eyes, large and amber and piercing, that got to me. Those eyes could look right through you and know exactly what you were thinking. That's what I fell in love with first -- those eyes. The rest came later.
A few years ago Aaron and I really began to pay our dues as gay men -- we started going to the gym. It didn't make that much of a difference for me. I'd always been slender, with that typical Black Irish body, lean and smooth like a perpetual adolescent. Even as I grew to my final height -- a sliver under 5 foot 10 -- it was obvious that I'd never be a buff gym bunny. It just wasn't in my genes. However, Aaron's body was transformed. In a matter of months he went from dweeb to stud. His scrawny form filled out, his arms got rock hard, and his hairy chest took on a definition neither of us had imagined possible. Aaron embraced the gym with the same fervor he gave to his film projects. As in everything, he became a star. And I loved this new aspect of my partner. When other guys drooled over him, I puffed up with pride. Step back, boys -- this is mine!
"Hey," I said, interrupting his savage dissection of Frank Tucker's pathetic body of work.
"Huh?" Aar blinked at me. Without his glasses or contacts, my partner is blind as a day-old kitten. "What?"
"Did you know that you're hot?" I stated.
He smiled slowly. "Really? You think so?" He tossed his undershirt onto the chair and stepped out of his briefs. Then he stood, allowing me to take him in.
Aaron has a beautiful cock. Not too big, but thick and perfectly cut.
"I know so."
He turned off the lamp on the nightstand and got into bed. "Damn it. We forgot the champagne!"
"It doesn't matter, Aar," I replied, running my hands up his chest. Feeling the curving muscles of his pecs. The thick mat of hair. He smelled like sweat and cinnamon. "It won't go to waste. There's always tomorrow. Or Saturday night."
"You're so beautiful, Baby," he whispered as he moved on top of me. "So soft." He twisted my straight black hair between his fingers. "Like silk."
As we made love all I could think about was that as long as we were together everything would be okay. That it didn't matter where we were. Boston, Indiana, or Outer Mongolia -- it didn't make any difference. We were partners. A committed couple with matching rings, vows before the Reform rabbi who had also married Aaron's two sisters, a huge reception at a party center in Parkville, Long Island, and the whole nine yards. That's about as together as two guys can be without an official marriage license and a joint income tax return. Although I'd had crushes on guys before Aaron, I'd never been in love before I met him. And I knew he felt the same way about me. I knew that was true. And always would be true.
That's what I knew.
At least, that's what I thought I knew.
And that was enough until there was reason to wonder otherwise.