Two grad students were lounging in front of the tent, plastic cups of beer in their hands.
"Have you seen Professor Blumenthal?" I asked.
"Inside," said one, tossing his head. "But students aren't supposed to go in there. It's for professors only."
"It's okay. I brought my passport," I said, pushing aside the net door.
Aaron was inside all right. He was standing at the back of the tent, a glass of sherry in his hand and an intense look on his face, having a whispered conversation.
I watched them for a minute or two. They might have been arguing. Or having a very focused discussion. I didn't know what the hell they were saying and I didn't really care. All I knew was that there they were.
Sometimes you have moments that you've imagined many times in your dreams -- or nightmares-- but when they actually happen it's never like you thought it would be. It's either a huge disappointment, or else it's far, far worse than you ever dreamed.
The moment you knew the truth. That crushing moment.
Aaron looked up and saw me. He started, almost dropping his drink. Lowell gaped and then jumped away from Aaron as if he'd been stung. It wasn't so much what they were actually doing -- which was talking, only talking -- it was the context. I immediately understood that everyone in the tent, all of Aaron's new colleagues in Media Studies, knew what was going on. Lowell was at this party and that meant he was a grad student here. Undoubtedly Aaron's grad student, maybe even Aaron's TA. And Aaron couldn't have acted more guilty if I had walked in on Lowell blowing him. It was a picture I would never erase from my mind.
"Oops," I heard one of the other professors say behind me. "Somebody's busted!" And someone else laughed.
That was the worse part. It was bad enough to be humiliated in my own heart, but to have it so public, to be laughed at so openly. That was the last straw.
I rushed out of the tent, knocking into someone on the way out -- I didn't even see who it was, only heard an annoyed voice say, "Hey! Watch it!"
I hurried across the lawn and around to the front of the house. The car. I didn't know where the car was. The chairman had hired some students to park all the cars. Fuck it. It didn't matter. I'd walk. I headed down the long driveway, trying to remember the way home. Trying to remember how far it was. There was no sidewalk in this part of town, so I walked along the edge of the road, one foot on the asphalt and the other on the gravel.
I had gone about a half a mile when the Honda pulled up next to me. I just kept walking and didn't look over.
I kept walking.
"Shea! Please stop!"
"Why?" I said. I didn't stop.
"Please talk to me!"
I looked directly ahead. "You get out and walk if you want to talk to me, Aaron. l think it's about five miles back to the house and I don't want to waste any time getting there."
"Shea, don't be ridiculous! Get in the car and I'll drive us home."
"No," I said firmly. "I don't want to look at you, I don't want to be with you right now, Aaron, so just leave me alone." I kept walking and the car inched along next to me.
"Shea!" he shouted
I finally paused and looked at my partner. "What?" I shouted back.
Aaron put the Honda in park and got out. "We need to talk about this."
I just stared at my partner. "We are talking. See? I'm opening my mouth and words are coming out. You are opening your mouth and bullshit is coming out! What more do we need to say?"
"It's not what you think! You don't understand!"
"Oh? What part don't I understand?" I turned my face away. I couldn't bear to look at him. "The part about what a fool I've been? The part about how funny the two of you think it is to have fooled me for so long? The part about how much you enjoy fucking Lowell? Well, you can fuck him all you want once I'm gone! But you'll have to look at him, too. And even talk to him. That should be a thrill for you, Aaron, since he's not only homely as shit, but he's the about the dullest person who ever lived! So have fun." I started walking again, stumbling slightly on the uneven edge of the road.
"Shea!" Aaron yelled after me. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Home. Or where I've been living up to now, if you'd call that home. But not for long." I went on and didn't look back.
Raskin's house was in an exclusive neighborhood on the other side of the university from our more middle class street, but the long walk gave me time to clear my head. Pure physical activity always makes me feel better -- walking, exercising, fucking. It makes me aware that my body is still working, even if my mind is totally fucked up.
As I approached EIU, the sidewalks began. I cut through the middle of campus, which was quiet on the Saturday before classes began. The dorms were open and most of the students had moved in, but they were still settling in.
A car with two girls in it slowed down. They might have been students, but were more likely townies looking for someone to party with. They whistled and motioned me over, smiling. It must have been the black wifebeater. For a few seconds I thought about going with them. It might be something different. Something new. An adventure. I'd never fucked a woman in my entire life, never even tried, although I'd been on a few semi-dates in high school. It might give me a whole new outlook. But I really wasn't interested. Even if I could perform as required, it would probably be depressing. I waved at the girls and walked on.
What would I have done, I wondered, if it had been a couple of hot guys in the car? Probably the same thing. Nothing. A quickie would just make me feel worse. I would be doing it to get back at Aaron. Cheap payback. And I didn't want to work that way.
I got to the house and let himself in. I went upstairs and started throwing clothes into my suitcase, not even bothering to look at them. When the suitcase was full, I pulled out my gym bag and began filling that, too.
Aaron came in while I was packing.
"Party over so soon?" I said, not glancing up.
"I didn't go back to the party! I've just been driving around." Aaron stood in the doorway, trying to make me meet his eyes.
"Oh? You should have gone back and picked up Lowell. I'm sure he would have blown you in the car while you were anguishing."
Aaron flinched. "Shea... I'm so sorry...."
I finally looked up at my partner, really looked at him. He was older, but still so handsome. He's always been smart and talented, but I know he's never thought of himself as handsome. He'd gone out with a few girls in high school, but never been comfortable with them. Then he hooked up with Jane, his future fiancée, in college. She was also obsessed with film, Jewish, another smart, talented nerd, just like Aaron. A perfect match. She was also the first girl he had real sex with. But she never told him he was handsome. Never told him he was desirable. But he was to me. He was then and he still was now. I guess I'd always feel that way, even though at that moment I hated him so much it burned inside.
"Oh my God! The 's' word!" I slammed a few more items into the gym bag. "That makes it all better!"
"What can I say? What can I do, I?" Aaron really did look guilty. Good. He fucking should feel guilty. The worst thing was that the thought of him fucking someone else wasn't as bad as the thought of the way he'd lied to me. After all, I'd fucked Raj Kumar -- or rather, Raj Kumar had fucked me. It was only sex. But the lying was the real betrayal. And the fact that Lowell was here, right under my nose.
"What you always do, Aaron. Nothing. Obviously." I put my hand up to my forehead. Behind my eyes, my head was pounding like a bitch.
"Shea... just so you know. I... I always used protection. I mean... with anyone else."
I froze. Just fucking great! "Wow, thanks a bunch, Aaron!" I knew I should stop and count to ten, but I couldn't. Instead, I picked up the nearest object, the remote for the bedroom television, and threw it against the wall as hard as I could.
Aaron jumped as if he'd been shot. "Christ, Shea! Be careful!"
"Be careful?" I whipped around to face him. "I ought to punch your fucking face in! Do you know that? I ought to put you in the fucking hospital!"
Aaron, to my amazement, cowered from me, his eyes wide. I suddenly felt powerful. Like all the men who'd shit on me all of life -- my father, my friend Greg, Stan, the guy who pimped me out in New York, all the tricks and scumbags and dealers, all the professors who'd talked down to me -- could no longer harm me. Could no longer touch me.
Aaron swallowed and stepped back. He was afraid. Afraid of me. Of Shea. Or of Jack. I wasn't sure which of us it was.
I turned away and stripped off the black wifebeater.
"Where are you going?" Aaron stared at me like he was beginning to realize exactly what he'd done. And how it couldn't be undone. Ever. No matter what happened otherwise, the entire dynamic of our relationship had just changed.
"I'm not sure," I said, turning the black tee shirt in my hands. The black material made a stark contrast with the pale skin of my arms, my chest. "Maybe Chicago. Or back to New York. Maybe I'll buy a whole drawer full of these, in every color." I shoved it into my gym bag. "Red would be good. I like red. I know you think red looks trashy, but who cares what you think, right, Aaron? Who gives a fuck?"
"I know how upset you are, Shea, but please sit down for a moment and..."
"I know I'm a little out of practice, but I'm sure that it will all come back to me. I mean, once I get into the right mood and get the right clothes. Some leather pants. Really tight ones. And my black leather jacket, of course. I can't forget to take that. It'll be just like old times. I mean, I've got to make a living somehow. Once a whore, always a whore. That's what you've always thought, isn't it, Aaron? That you can clean me up to your satisfaction, dress me like your fucking clone, and take me out in public without being too embarrassed by me. Teach me the right things to say and the right way to act. I've learned the drill so well it's second nature. But at home, I'm still your personal whore, right? Isn't that the way you've always seen it? The way you've always treated me? I might be Shea to the outside world, but in your head, I'll always be Jack. And Jack is nothing but a little hustler."
"That's not fair!" Aaron insisted. "That's not true in any way -- and you know it! I don't treat you like a whore! I've never treated you like a whore! Not even when...." Aaron stopped short and took a ragged breath.
"Not even when I was one? Is that what you were going to say, Aaron?" I stared down, trying to think of a way to get out of the room, out of the house, without passing him. Without touching him.
"That wasn't what I was going to say!" Aaron muttered. "I... I don't even know what I was going to say."
"My God! He finally admits that he doesn't know something! Hell just fucking froze over! If you want to get lucky with a better class of guy than Lowell, Aar, you should try the gym. I always get hit on by at least one good prospect every time I go. Mostly straight boys, but they are certainly curious and willing to experiment. I'm sorry now that I never took advantage of any of my opportunities there. What a fucking waste! Of course, you have Lowell. Are you going to move him in here right away? Besides sucking cock, I hope he knows how to cook and clean up your shit and reschedule your dentist appointments! Because that's a requirement of the position!"
"Lowell is meaningless! You know that, Baby!" Aaron was pleading with his eyes.
I felt my heart race. "Meaningless. So meaningless. It's nice that you'd jeopardize everything we have for something so meaningless. That makes me feel so much better!" I looked around for something else to slam against the wall, besides Aaron's head, but I thought better of it. I went into the bathroom and gathered up my toothbrush and other toiletries, dropping them into my kit, which only just fit into the bulging gym bag.
"I mean... that Lowell... he doesn't mean... he...." Aaron stammered. "Shit!"
"You're just making it worse, you know," I said quietly. "I only wish I'd made a list of all the guys you know who have wanted to fuck me over the years. Your pals in the Queer Theory Study Group at NYU, that agent in California, that friend of yours in Provincetown, even your cousin Milt who came to visit from Chicago -- all of them put the moves on me! I wish to God I'd fucked every one of them! Yeah, now I don't feel half so bad about sleeping with that guy in Cleveland."
I think time stood still for a moment in that room. "You... What? You don't mean that!" Aaron sputtered. "I don't believe it."
I only stared back at him and he knew it was true.
"Who? Who the fuck was it?" Aaron demanded. "Rich Sharpe? Did you fuck Sharpe? You know he's HIV+! Shea! Answer me!"
"No," I said, zipping up the gym bag. "Not Rich. Some older guy I met in Cleveland. A one night stand. But I didn't move him to Indiana so we could see each other on the sly." I picked up the suitcase and gym bag and carried them out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out the door to the Toyota, which was parked in front of the garage. I opened the truck.
"Shea!" Aaron was right behind me. "Stop!" He tried to close the trunk before I could put the bags in. Now he really believed that I was going. And so did I.
"Go inside," I said. "You don't want to make a scene in front of all the neighbors, do you?"
Aaron shook his head and retreated. I put the bags in and went back upstairs with some plastic shopping bags I got out of the pantry. I put on a clean shirt and then took everything else I thought was mine. There wasn't time to sort through everything -- all my books, my files, my photos, odds and ends of junk collected in a decade of living together. Anything I forgot would have to remain forgotten.
The material for my Rechy book was all in the living room. I got a couple of boxes out of the basement and filled them with reference books, folders full of notes, computer disks -- all of my research material. Then I got my leather jacket and winter coat out of the hall closet and took them out to the car. The very last thing I did was unplug my printer and then my laptop. I put the laptop into its case.
Aaron sat on the couch the entire time, watching me, his eyes red. "Are you really going?" he said, finally.
"Yes, I'm going. But this time I'm not running out of here like a terrified child. Like a boy who has nowhere to go, with no options and no future. I'm leaving like a man, Aaron. So I'd like you to let me leave like a man. That way we both win -- you'll have whatever it is you want and I'll have my freedom."
"Shea, please!" he begged. "I want you! Just stay tonight. Sleep on this. Think about it. Stay with me... one more time. Then, if you still want to go, I won't stop you. I won't. I... I promise."
Part of me wanted to stay. Wanted to spend one more night next to Aaron, like I'd always wanted to spend every night next to him. But I knew that if I stayed even one night, then I'd stay forever. I'd never again work up the courage, the anger, to leave. I was still in love with Aaron -- and that's why I had to get away from him.
"I have to go," I said. "Now."
"Baby, I..." But he couldn't get any more words out. They caught in his throat and died there.
I walked out the door without looking back.