Friday morning I got up, had some toast, walked Gorcey, and then took the old guitar over to the music store. The guy was just unlocking the door as I pulled up. It was five after 11. Musicians are not early risers.
"Not bad," said the guy, examining the Gibson.
"How old do you think it is?"
He peered into the sound hole. "Late '50's, I'd say. But it's in good condition. How long have you had it?"
"A while. My cousin had it before that, but I'm sure he got it used. Do you think you could put some new strings on it for me?"
"Sure." He put the strings on deftly, in a fraction of the time it would have taken me. Then he took out a rag and polished the brown body until it glistened. "Nice tone," he said, striking a G chord.
"How's the neck? It's been sitting in a closet for a long time."
He sighted down the neck and then tried a few licks. "Seems fine. These little guitars were built for wear and tear. I'll give you 50 bucks for it."
"I don't think so." I reached to take it back.
"No, I want to keep it. At least for now."
When I got home I sat on the front porch and took out the guitar. A Xeroxed sheet of chords my guitar teacher had given me a million years ago was still in the case, so I propped it up and tried an A, then a C, then a G. It was a little like getting on a bicycle after you hadn't ridden in years, my fingers remembering the chords instinctively. But after a few minutes they hurt like a bitch: the strings had dug deep trenches into the tips. I remembered that, too. My guitar teacher had told me to soak my fingers in brine to toughen them until I built up calluses, but until then no pain, no gain. Isn't that what they always told boys, no matter what you did?
No pain, no gain.
"What are you doing, honey?" My mother came out onto the porch. She was putting on a sweater even though it was 75 degrees.
"Just fooling around."
"Where did you find that old thing?"
"In the closet."
She shrugged. "I'm going to the store. Anything you need?"
"No," I said. "I don't need anything." Famous last words.
She went off to the store and I heard the old man's television turn up a notch. It sounded like a baseball game.
"Hey! Shea!" he yelled a few minutes later. "The phone is ringing!"
"Let it go to the machine!"
"Did you hear me? The goddamn phone is ringing!"
I set down the guitar and went inside. The answering machine was in the kitchen and I caught the tail end of the message. It was Aaron. I didn't pick up.
When he'd finished his message and hung up, I played it back.
"Shea, it's me. I didn't hear from you last night, so I decided to call today. Are you coming in on Sunday? Let me know what flight you're taking. I'm exhausted from unpacking all these boxes, so... HELP! Ha! But seriously, I miss you. Well, that's it. Be good, Baby. Not that you'd ever be anything but good. I know I can count on you. Call me. Bye."
The machine beeped and I hit the erase button.
Of course. What else would I be?
I was wearing the same jeans I'd had on the day before. I reached into my pocket and took out a sheet of prescription paper. I looked at the number. Out in the living room I heard the old man griping at some play he was watching. "Son of a bitch!" I heard him say.
I called Dr. Kumar and told him I'd love to go out with him that night.
At 7:00 on the dot a black BMW pulled up in front of the house.
"Your ride is here," said my mother, peeking through the curtains. A short, dark man got out of the car. She turned to me. "Why would the doctor be wearing a uniform?"
I looked out over her shoulder. "That's a driver, Mom."
"A driver?" She frowned.
Thank God I had a good shirt, a dark green Perry Ellis I'd bought in Boston, and freshly pressed trousers. I was holding a black tie with a green stripe in my hand. I hadn't been sure if I should wear a tie. Now I knew. I put on the tie. But I also put on my black leather jacket. I hadn't worn it in a long time, but now I wanted to. I felt secure in that jacket, like I was wearing armor.
The driver was named Sanjay. He stood by the car door and opened it for me when I came out. Dr. Kumar was in the backseat. He was dressed in a dark blue suit that looked very expensive. By the time we reached the restaurant I'd found out that his first name was Raj.
"I am a horrible driver," Raj explained. "With all of this starting and stopping and terrible traffic, it is easier to leave it to Sanjay. And I can always have Sanjay take you home before your virtue is compromised... if you wish."
"It's about twelve years too late for my virtue to be compromised," I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. "But thanks for the reassurance."
Raj grinned and casually fingered the sleeve of my jacket, as if testing the heft of the leather. I looked good and I knew it. And it gave me a thrill that this man was so openly admiring me.
We drove across town to a dimly lit Indian restaurant in Cleveland Height called the Cafe Tandoor. Rich lived not far from there, but we'd never been to this particular place before. It was upscale, but comfortable. And the food was excellent, tasty and spicy, but not overwhelming. After my mother's bland and soggy fare it was like heaven.
And if this was truly a date, I was having a good time. A very good time.
That should have bothered me. After all, I had a committed partner (supposedly) in Indiana, so I shouldn't have been enjoying myself. But I was. I tried to remember the last time I'd had this much fun going out with Aaron, but I couldn't recall.
One reason I was having such a good time was that Dr. Raj Kumar was an extremely interesting man. Not self-important and pompous the way a lot of the professors I knew were, or even the way Aaron could be at his worst, but really fascinating. He'd been educated in India and England (Trinity College at Cambridge University), and gone to medical school at Johns Hopkins. He'd also traveled everywhere, which was something I'd always longed to do, living in Europe and going to Japan on a medical fellowship. And besides having two native tongues, Hindi and English, he also spoke Urdu, Bengali, French, Japanese, some German and Italian, and...
"Latin? That's amazing!" I marveled. "No one speaks Latin! I mean, no one alive. Except priests."
"But that's why I had to learn Latin," Raj disclosed. "Priests! I spent eight years in a very strict Catholic boarding school. Latin was a required subject."
"Are you a Catholic?" That was something I could relate to. I tried to remember what the sisters at St. Clement's had told us about Mother Teresa and the missions in India.
"Heavens, no!" Raj exclaimed. "I do not hold to any religious faith. But all of the families in my parents' set sent their children to Catholic boarding schools. My two sisters went to one run by Irish nuns and they still speak English with a pronounced Dublin accent!"
"You're kidding!" I tried to picture an entire school full of little Hindu girls with a Lucky Charms brogue.
"Not at all. But my school was Jesuit-run and most of the priests were British, hence my own impeccable speech!" Raj winked.
So on top of being interesting, he was charming. And rich. And good-looking. So how come this guy had to show up right now, when everything in my life was so confusing? Because I knew that in other, simpler circumstances, I could be very interested in Dr. Raj Kumar.
Raj ordered a bottle of white wine that went very well with the spicy food. The waiter spent a lot of time topping off my glass. I wasn't wise to a lot of things but I definitely knew when someone was trying to get me drunk. And I was getting there, slowly but surely. It felt good to be a little drunk. All hazy and warm. And the things Raj was saying seemed wittier as the meal went on. And he seemed even more interesting. And better looking.
"I always wanted to go to Europe," I said. "Or India. Or anywhere!"
"So why did you not study overseas?" asked Raj, sipping his glass circumspectly. He obviously had no intention of getting loaded. "I thought the Year Abroad was a rite of passage for American students?"
"I wanted to, but it was never the right time," I said. It would be too complicated to explain that my own parents hadn't sprung for my education, but that the Blumenthals had, never expecting to be repaid. "And I didn't have the money for a lot of extras."
"I would think that studying in England, the land of Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens, would be vital for a student of literature."
"But I'm an Americanist by specialty, so not really," I said.
"So, no London? Or Paris? Or Rome? Or even the South of France?" Raj was obviously thinking of his favorite places on the Continent. "That is such a pity!"
"On the other hand, I am intimately acquainted with the West Side of Cleveland, as well as certain areas of Long Island, Boston, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan!" I started laughing and found that I was having a hard time stopping. Yup, time to cut off the wine!
"You seem in a better mood than you were yesterday," said Raj, an amused smile playing around his lips.
"Oh, I am!" I agreed. "Much better."
"I am so glad," he said. "I enjoy your company." He leaned over the table, his voice low. "That green shirt makes your eyes look like precious emeralds."
"Why, you sweet talker, you!" I laughed.
But Raj was serious. "You are quite a beautiful man, Shea. I suppose you are told that often."
"I have been," I admitted. "By some guys. But mainly by Aaron." I made a face and pushed away my glass. Aaron. No matter what, he was always there.
"And who is Aaron?" Raj asked. "Ah, yes! You mean your partner. When I first saw you I did not think it was possible that you were single. But do I detect a bit of trouble in paradise?"
The last thing I wanted to talk about was Aaron. "Trouble? I don't know what you mean, Doc!"
Raj motioned for the waiter. "And this is a relationship of long-standing?"
"If you call eleven years long-standing," I replied. "But he's in Indiana and I'm..." I shrugged.
"You are here," Raj stated. "In this lovely restaurant, sharing this wonderful meal with me." His black eyes glittered. "Distance is a marvelous thing."
"Dessert, Dr. Kumar?" asked the waiter, offering him the menu again. Raj was obviously a regular.
"Yes. The saffron mango ice cream." He didn't even glance at the menu. "You will enjoy this ice cream, Shea," he confided to me. "Mango cools the palate and saffron stimulates the system. After dessert I thought we might go to my condo in the Flats for a nightcap. There is a charming view of the river and the Downtown skyline."
Here it was. The moment of truth. The nightcap. The view of the river. And then...
"Sure," I said, gulping down the last of my wine. "I'd love to."
The view of the Cuyahoga from the condo was impressive. So was the view of Downtown, especially the Terminal Tower, which was all lit up against the night sky. And the view of Dr. Raj Kumar, while nowhere close to Aaron, was good enough.
We skipped the nightcap and went directly to the main event.
Raj knew his stuff, what was certain. Maybe it was from the Kama Sutra, or maybe he'd learned a thing or two at that Jesuit boarding school, or at Cambridge University, but wherever it was, it worked for me.
Afterwards he offered me a cigarette. And I took it. It was the first one I'd smoked in over a decade.
"Next time, if you do not mind, perhaps you would put on that leather jacket?" said Raj, puffing on his cigarette, some thin, brown French brand.
"Black leather, huh? Do you have a rough trade fantasy?" I joked.
"I did not until I saw you walk out of your house wearing that jacket!"
"You should have mentioned it before. Because I'm leaving for Indiana in a couple of days."
"Ah," Raj nodded. "So you said. Perhaps you could be convinced to stay a trifle longer?"
I shook my head. "I've already stayed too long." I sat up. "I better call a cab."
"No need. Sanjay will drive you home."
I got out of bed and gathered up my clothes. "It's almost 2 a.m. Isn't that guy ever off duty?"
Raj seemed puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean Sanjay. Doesn't he ever go home? Like to sleep?"
"He's my servant," said Raj, as if that explained everything. He picked up his cellphone from the table next to the bed and made a call. He spoke to someone in what I assumed to be Hindi and then closed the phone. "He will be waiting downstairs when you are ready."
"Thanks," I said. "I had a good time."
"As did I." Raj got up and put on a red silk robe that he'd draped over a chair earlier. He went to the dresser and opened the top drawer, taking out a small velvet box. "Please accept this. As a small remembrance."
I opened the box. Inside were a pair of cufflinks. They were gold with small diamonds in the center. "No thanks. Really. I don't wear cufflinks."
"But you must!" Raj insisted. "A gift."
A gift. For services rendered. I handed the box back. "Thanks, but I can't. How would I explain them to my partner?"
"As you wish." He put the velvet box back in the drawer. For the next guy, I assumed.
Raj escorted me through the living room. "Sanjay will see you to your door. Then he'll return here to take me home."
I looked around at the large, well-appointed condo, whose stereo system alone probably cost more than all of my parents' furniture put together. "Home? Don't you live here?"
"Certainly not!" Raj raised a dark eyebrow. "This is only a pied-à-terre that I use for private entertaining. My main residence is in Shaker Heights. I have a house there." He paused. "Where I live with my wife and daughter."
Okay! "You're married?"
"Of course," he said. "I am Indian." Then he took my hand and squeezed it. One thing I'd learned about Raj Kumar: he did a lot of things, but he didn't kiss. "I look forward to seeing you again, Shea. Please give my regards to your father."
Sanjay's face was impassive as he held the door of the BMW open for me. He must drive a lot of guys home in the middle of the night. I'm just one more.
I suddenly felt cold. I pulled my leather jacket tighter around me as we sped across the river and back to the West Side.