3LBE 6
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by Claudius Reich


I have to admit I never really knew him that well. I wish I had. I think he might actually have been worth it.

Love is usually ninety-nine percent fiction, of course. You see a face that moves you, a strut that catches your eye, and you grab your smock, prop up an easel. Then he moves, the pose is wrecked, and it’s total betrayal. If you’re lucky, you like the movie he makes of himself, better than your still-life. If not, it’s back to the bars and try again. And this goes double for the first time, before you’ve even figured out what you’re doing.

Of course, when people talk about first love, they’re talking long walks in the rain, holding hands in the cafeteria, a rented tux picking up a homemade prom dress — Seventeen, by way of Louisa May Alcott. That’s why people get squirrelly about teenage sex, it messes with what they think their own life should have been like — was like — and don’t you dare say different. They definitely look at you funny, if you say you knew it was love, 'cause when you were giving him a blow job after the cast party, he brushed his hand very slowly and gently along the side of your face. But it was true love, I still think. Then, one winter night just shy of midnight, I was starting to think that I might even have fallen for a good one. And by midnight it was too late.

• • •

The cast party was just getting lively, when Joanne Meisner, snooting past Kimberly Johnson (who'd gotten the part Joanne wanted), stumbled into this freestanding cabinet and smashed it to kindling. At that, Kimberly’s mom, who'd been fretting about her carpets all night anyway, kicked us out pronto. We did a weaving walk down the icy driveway and then to people’s various cars, mostly headed home for lack of anything better. Andy and Kelly and I were catching rides with Jimmy, since we all lived in more or less the same part of town. First we dropped Andy and Kelly at her car, in the parking lot behind the high school. (I wasn’t surprised, it had earlier taken the combined efforts of several people to keep their pants on.) So we watched their taillights as they screeched off, and then Jimmy said that he'd be fine with dropping me at my place too, but hey, he wasn’t ready to call it a night yet, and did I wanna smoke a joint first?

We perched on the back hood of the car, under a snow-coated fir tree, to toke — Jimmy’s father would’ve killed him if the car smelled like pot in the morning. The weather was pretty foul, had been since the first snowfall. (Even the old guys who hung out at the junk shop were impressed, said it was the harshest winter they remembered in nearly a generation.) Jimmy was speculating on what Andy and Kelly were up to, as we finished the joint, and I was joshing along with him, trying furiously to ignore my own thoughts. I'd known I was gay for years — hard not to notice these things — and so, sitting there with this really nice guy, a little buzzed, talking about sex… well, let’s just say I was having ideas that went way beyond buddy-buddy. (I defy you to show me a seventeen year-old boy who isn't hormones on stilts. At best, you’re that, plus. Maybe girls are different; I really wouldn’t know. Maybe I just want to believe that at least half the species doesn’t completely lose it the instant blood heads to the crotch.) Then, Jimmy asked, “Ever get a blow job?” Stoned, horny as hell, and (I figured out much later) totally pissed that I could never just be myself without having to think about it first, I grinned, and said, “No, but I give a great one.”

Dead silence. Well, except for the wind howling, and the refrain in my head going “oh shit oh shit oh shit…” Jimmy was looking at me with this bemused expression, the kind you'd get if you gear-shifted, and wings unfurled from under the hood. Well, now I'd done it. I slid off the hood, saying, “Sorry, Jimmy, shouldn’t have said that, don’t know what I was thinking, I’ll be going now, catch you around sometime, maybe, OK?” He raised his hands slightly, palms forward, to say, “Hey, you don’t have to split, just give me a sec. You kinda knocked me off balance there.” He looked confused, not angry, so I stood there for a moment, watching the snow collect on his blue ski cap. He cleared his throat, said, “So… you’ve given a blow job?”

“Well, yeah, once or twice.” He didn’t say anything, so I added, “I suppose saying I'm great is an exaggeration, though there weren’t any complaints.”

“You… liked it?”

“No, you nimrod, I did it to be polite. Yeah, because I liked it. Because I wanted to. Why else?”

He was still looking totally confused, but wasn’t taking his eyes off me. I stood there, in the freezing cold, my heart pounding. Well, hey, they can’t hang you twice. I took a deep breath, and added, “So, while we’re on the topic, you want one?”

Jimmy opened his mouth and gulped, twice, his Adam’s apple jerking up and down. After a moment, he said, stuttering, “Dan… I mean… if you’re…” and broke off, still staring at me with those pale blue eyes. Trying to act nonchalant, my pulse racing so hard I felt sick, I stepped up to him, and slid my hand under the bottom edge of his jacket. Granite, under several layers of cloth. Our faces about a foot apart, my hand still lying on his lap, I said, “Hey, Jimmy, I like you, I'm into it. If you don’t wanna, you'd better speak up, 'cause otherwise I'm going for it.” He exhaled sharply, as if he'd been holding his breath. Taking that as a yes, I propped my knees on the car’s bumper, unzipped his faded jeans, and went to town.

The snow was piling up in drifts, starting to creep over my boots, stinging like tiny needles. I caught a glimpse of Jimmy’s face, passion had opened it up, instead of just turning it into a mask. He reached his hand toward my head, through the whirling clusters of oddly-shaped snowflakes, and I tensed. But instead of grabbing the nape of my neck like a clamp, he ran his fingertips over my cheek, brushing off the crystallizing ice with — somehow — an air of amazement. Could barely see at this point, flurries coating my eyelashes, but I picked up the pace, and soon enough Jimmy arched his back, gave a convulsive shout through the howling wind. I'd scarcely finished, when the blizzard — blizzard? it was only snowing, a minute ago — gave an especially vicious gust, and snow dropped from the tree’s branches, burying us.

I'd lost hold of Jimmy, would’ve fallen on my ass, except that my feet seemed to have frozen into place. I was flailing, trying to grab hold of something besides snow, but it was endless in every direction, and growing more solid, with an eerie grumbling noise — snowflakes, grinding each others’ edges? — as it settled. I was next door to total panic, when a hand shoved through the hardening snow, grabbed the side of my coat collar, and, shaking with the strain of tendons, yanked me upwards. Back in the air, I was spluttering, looking at the tiny snowdrift I'd somehow managed to lose myself in (it was weird, I'd wiped out sledding plenty of times as a kid, never been like that), when Jimmy grabbed me in a bear hug. We stood there for a minute, holding onto each other, and then I started to shiver. He leaned back, said, “You’re soaked, we better get you home, pronto. 'Sides, I'm freezing my balls off out here — no, I mean really. Get in the car, OK?” He zipped up his jeans, grinning — I was blushing, could feel snow melting off my face from the heat — and drove me home.

What, with one thing and another, it took me a long time to get to sleep that night.

• • •

Wasn’t really hungry that afternoon, so I skipped lunch and snuck up to the cafeteria’s roof. I'd been going over what happened with Jimmy last weekend, again and again, but still wasn’t sure what to think. Sunday I'd been totally hung over — traditional, after a cast party, even my folks didn’t kick. Then, in school, I'd seen Jimmy around but it was back to known-you-since-kindergarten-say-hi-in-class, except for one or two glances I wasn’t sure about. There was always a rep or two ruined per play (Ed Bishop still looked greenish from puking up bourbon, come Monday morning, and Jen Carter was going to take a while to live down her night), and I guessed I should be grateful it wasn’t me. But I kept on thinking about Jimmy, and about that hug afterwards. I was settled down by the edge, squinting at the woods, ready to brood for a while, when I heard the scrape of the hatch being pushed open. Damn, company.

Double damn. First head poking out was Mike Gillnitz, not the biggest jerk in our class, but close, bronze medal at least. Soon as he was out, Pete Boudreau followed — not so bad, except that in the dictionary next to Stooge they had his class photo, he was always playing follow the leader. Great. Not only wasn’t I alone anymore, but the company had possibilities I definitely didn’t like. Mike was yelling down the hatch to Hurry it up here with that! and behind Pete came Jimmy, copper hair sticking every which way as usual, tightly rolled joint dangling from the edge of his mouth. Pete kicked the hatch shut, bringing it home to me that: one, there’s only one exit; two, they’re between me and it; and three, ready or not (I wasn't) here they come.

The group saw me when they rounded the water tank. Mike sneered, “So, we got company.” I didn’t say anything, just looked back at him, kinda shrugged. “Yeah, we’re big ol' druggies, smokin' a joint at lunch. Little faggot gonna run and tell teacher all about it?” Worse than I'd expected. Mike could make good morning sound like the last words before the bar fight started, and he wasn’t in a good mood today. “Yeah, little fag gonna tell?” echoed Pete. The sun had gone behind the clouds, and the wind was whipping up the dry snow on the rooftop, lifting it in odd geometric shapes, they shimmered in the air for a moment, and dropped again. “Um, guys, I guess I should be getting to lunch now,” I stammered. I went to stand up, and Mike shoved me in the breastbone, my legs slid out from under me on the buried ice, and I landed with a thump.

“So, teacher’s pet needs to run inside right now and tell about the bad boys smokin' on the roof? Huh?” Mike picked up a handful of snow and gravel, squeezed 'em into an impromptu snowball, and threw it at my head, only just missing my left eye. Pete grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a broken roofing slate, and whipped it at me, cutting my forehead. Jimmy tossed a handful of snow at me too, which went wide. I sat there, blinking, shaking my head to keep the blood from trickling into my eye. A few of the drops landed on snowy patches, which sucked them in instantly. In a few seconds, the wet red spots went to little pink crystals, then to dust, with a curious little mutter. I leaned back against the roof’s edge, just shy of the false edge of crusted snow that the wind had built up. Sounded like another snowstorm was coming in — the wind was keening, and pushing little piles of snow around the roof, shaping it like sand dunes. Mike, glaring down at me, “Little theater fag, thinks he’s better than us, gonna make sure we get duh-ten-shun, after school today. Huh?” Not looking directly at either Mike or Pete, Jimmy said, “Hey, I did the play.” “You were crew, that’s different,” snapped Mike, “carpentry and shit.” Jimmy didn’t say anything more, and Mike turned his attention back to me, his fists and shoulders starting to flex.

Their faces were hazing out on me, hard to say if from the wind-blown snow, or pure fear. Way things were heading, maybe there was another way out — shoved off the edge, ten yards down onto frozen cement. “So, you know what we do to queers?” My thoughts were racing crazily, all I could think was the way Mike said queer sounded just like my French teacher’s pronunciation of 'cuir', leather, and that it must be the dry snow stinging my eyes. I wasn’t scared enough to cry, wasn’t going to give these scumbags the satisfaction… I hoped. Mike was standing over me, went to stomp his workboot inches from my head, and put his foot through the false edge, right off the roof. He started flailing, and then the wind bared a patch of ice under his other boot, and that foot slipped. Pete and Jimmy grabbed for him, caught him in time but I was making a break for the exit, scraping my hands getting to my feet, bolting towards the accessway.

I looked back as I was slamming the hatch shut, Mike was mostly back onto the roof, he was hollering “I'm OK, get 'im you jerks!” Pete’s back was toward me, but I could see Jimmy’s face, he had this kind of twisted expression I wanted to think meant, Hey, I'm sorry, did what I could. But then, I'd wanted a lot of stuff. Like, not getting jumped on a rooftop by a bunch of Neanderthals, including the guy I was totally crushed out on, for starters.

• • •

I'd gone out walking, late Sunday night, after finishing my homework. I had this game I played, walking around town — if I saw more than a night light on, in anybody’s house after nine p.m., I had to pack it in. As usual, I won (or maybe lost). I was still the only person in town crazy or stubborn enough to stay up late. I was wandering around the shallow end of the reservoir, meandering onto the cracking ice and back, when I heard a voice hollering, “Hey, Dan, wait up.” I stopped at this one boulder, and waited for Jimmy to catch up.

He slogged up through the snow, panting, his cheeks all red from the cold, looking so damn good that I forgot for a second how mad I was. He held his arms out, and I went to walk right into them, but then I stopped and folded my arms across my chest. Jimmy looked confused. “Dan?” I didn’t say anything. “Um… hello?” I glared at him, and turned to walk away. “Hey, what’s up?” Jimmy strode beside me, trying to catch my eye.

“What’s up? Like, 'what have I been up to, since you and your friends nearly tossed me off the cafeteria roof?' Not much, really. You?”

“Hey, I'm wicked sorry about the other day, I didn’t know that was going to happen, and then, well… I didn’t know what to do.”

“So you didn’t know what to do, and just thought you'd drill a snowball my way while you thought about it.” The wind was blowing coats of snow off the tree branches, and I was listening to it as we walked along in the dark.

Jimmy grimaced. “Jeez, Dan, that snowball never got within a mile of you, you think I was aiming it? If I'd pitched it your way, it would’ve hit you square. I just… well, like I said, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was going up there to get stoned with the guys, and then the whole thing just happened.”

I stopped in a moonlit patch, and looked at him. Fly-away copper hair, lanky frame swaddled against the cold, and this earnest stare, as if he still wasn’t clear on how he'd fucked up, but wanted to fix it. I really wanted to believe him. Damn. A little less hostile, I said, “You know, Jimmy, after last weekend, and… well, I mean, I’ve been thinking, and… oh hell, I think I kinda like you.”

“I like you too.”

“No, what I mean is — ”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. Too.” Jimmy shook his head. “I never really thought about this kind of stuff, before. Still don’t really get it…” He trailed off, and then grinned. “But hey, what the hell, right?” Pause. “You still mad?”

I grinned back. “Guess not.” This time, he got his hug. And a kiss, to boot.

I wanted to stand there forever, never mind the falling snow. But I looked at him after a moment, and said, “One question, Jimmy. What about next time?” He sighed, looked perplexed — same look he'd always had in math class, come to think of it, ready to do his best at something he was pretty sure he'd mess up. Then he went suddenly alert, and let me go with a quick squeeze on the upper arms, his eyes focusing on some point behind me, muttering, “I think it’s Pete”.

Pete came up, and we said our hellos, shivering in the cold, and then started walking. The situation was totally surreal — here I was, with two of the three guys who'd tried to jump me, during the week, and I was (I guessed, I hoped) dating one (but you'd never know it), and Pete didn’t even seem to remember last time, while I still felt like punching him out, shaking him, somehow making him know what he'd done. He was grousing about this one English teacher calling him “fucking homo” (and the guy had seven kids), and I didn’t even know what to think. Then, Pete said, “Hey, I think we mighta left a bottle of vodka at the shed across the rezzy, the other week. Wanna check it out?” So, centers of gravity low, we stepped onto the frozen reservoir, Pete in the lead.

The ice on the reservoir wasn’t real even, choppy in some spots, darn near black in others. I was picking my way along extra-careful, and soon lagged behind Jimmy and Pete. The half-moon glinted off a few patches of bare ice, glistening through the thin coating of new snow on top of them. Pete was saying something I couldn’t hear, they were now a few yards ahead of me, and the wind was blowing the snowfall through the firs at the reservoir’s edge. Then the storm — I still don’t know how else to describe it — leaned in on the open ice, snowflakes swirling in the Arctic wind. I saw Jimmy drop into a crouch to keep from toppling, and Pete, at the center of it, blurred from the whipping snow, seemed for a moment to get shorter as the ice bent under the pressure of the wind. The ice buckled and snapped, and Pete dropped through it, into the freezing water.

Jimmy lunged forward, grabbed Pete’s hand before he went under. Kneeling by the edge, trying to brace himself as the ice cracked, he hollered at me, through the blizzard, “Get a branch!” I ran back towards the edge of the reservoir, fast as I could without falling. Wasted half a minute trying to break one off a fir tree — green wood, of course, I'd totally lost my head or I'd have thought of that — and then scrambled around until I found one on a dead maple. Lugging the thicker end of the branch under my arm, cursing myself, I ran back across the ice, got about two yards from Jimmy and Pete, and stopped.

Pete was in the freezing water, chest-high, one beefy hand clutching at the sharp edge of the ice next to him, while Jimmy was leaning further over. I saw, through the raging snowstorm, that his knee had frozen to the ice’s edge, and airborne snowflakes had packed around the arm he was holding Pete with, locking it there. Pete was coated like a snowman, layers building on him while I watched. Jimmy kept on trying to shake him, jar Pete’s head and get the snow off his eyes and mouth, except that Jimmy was getting mummified himself. I stood there, frozen in a different way, watching the determination on Jimmy’s face, huddled at the center of the storm. I was freaking, couldn’t understand what was happening. Would I even be able to help them? Did I even want to save that bastard Pete? I kept trying to make myself move, but I was too terrified to budge. With a huge crackshot, the weight of the snow and heft of the storm broke the ice under Jimmy. I snapped out of it, scrambled the rest of the way forward.

The blizzard was dying down, as abruptly as it had started. There were drifts of snow all over the ice again, I scraped the snow away with my bare and bloody hands, in what should have been the right place, though the ice was frozen as if it had never cracked. Everything was the way it had been ten minutes before, except for the one patch of ice, when I spat on it to see through, there was something that could’ve been copper hair. I kept on pawing at the frozen reservoir for maybe half an hour, before trudging back to town to wake the sheriff.

It took two days of chopping at the ice before we could get Jimmy and Pete out. A lot of people drank well water that winter.

• • •

I'm looking out my window, watching the scraggly palm trees whip around in the hot winds. Uphill, I can see the brushfires glowing. Turn the other way, there’s Los Angeles, and its round-the-clock incandescence. It’s weird, to think that I’ve been in California for nearly half my life now. I moved here right after high school, went to UCLA — thought I was going to be an actor, you know the trip. I keep skin lotion by the bedside this time of year, the dry air. But I don’t mind the heat.

Got some techno booming on the stereo. Another fifteen minutes, I figure, and the guy upstairs will start banging on my ceiling. Which is my usual signal that it’s time to pick an outfit, head over to the dance clubs in West Hollywood, maybe end up bringing somebody home. I’ve got less faith than I used to, that it’ll ever work out, that “maybe this time he’ll stay.” But you’ve got to keep on trying, I guess. Besides, I get edgy nowadays, when it’s too quiet.

Was dating a grad student once, this medieval studies buff. He told me that a thousand years ago, in Europe, rabbits were some kind of metaphor for homosexuals, the way we might say brave as a lion, or timid as a mouse. When I think of rabbits, I think fluffy, ineffectual, fine if you want your meadow cropped, or more rabbits, but no use on the big stuff. Fair enough. Call me a rabbit — when it counted, I could neither harm nor help.

Did some research at the library, one year when I was mostly out of work. Looked through a lot of old newspapers on microfiche, even though it’s pretty tough, finding back issues of rural New England newspapers on the West Coast. There was enough though, that I don’t think I was the first to run across this. But it doesn’t prove anything. People freeze to death, in winter, in New England. It’s always happened.

Growing up in New Hampshire, we learned that even our schoolroom used to be buried under glaciers. Huge, compressed sheets of ice, cold gales blowing snowflakes and dirt across them — the fourth season owned New England first. A bunch of jumped-up monkeys, building houses and making fires, wasn’t its idea. Winter never did wholly let go in those parts. And I know it sounds nuts, but I kinda think it wants the place back.

I don’t visit my folks at Christmastime.



Claudius Reich is an aging Bohemian, and lives in San Francisco. He is a demi-professional writer, of essays, horror, poetry, porn, etc. (essentially, anything he can get away with). Some of his stranger essays have been published by Automatism Press (Lend the Eye a Terrible Aspect, Death’s Garden, Morbid Curiosity #1 & #3). He spends unseemly amounts of time staring at the computer screen, when not busy rotating his earthquake supplies. He firmly believes that snow belongs on television.


July 2000