02 January 2006




I close the door to my older sisters’ bedroom, roll the wooden swivel chair against it, stand the laundry basket on end behind that. I turn and smile at Serge. He returns my grin. This is our favorite part of the day. I watch him wriggle out of his red t-shirt emblazoned with a huge mosquito and the caption, “Minnesota state bird.” He slips out of his European-cut blue jeans, into the double bed. “Are you not coming then?” he whispers. I exhale, long and slow.


Until this summer, I believed men’s underwear came only in white, as boxers or briefs. ‘Often as I have seen them, I am still scandalized by his black bikinis. They seem so exotic, daring, a tad dangerous and like the things we do in bed, very exciting.


We met in England last year as team leaders at a camp for children from London’s inner city. He followed up with a visit to the States late this summer. Our renewed friendship is going places I have never been before.


I take one step towards the bed when the by-now-familiar sensation hits again. I am a million miles from here climbing a narrow mountain path. My feet slip, I go over the edge. In a panic I grab at grass, dirt, rocks, a branch, anything. Somehow I hold on. My heart pounds, joints quake, everything goes red, black.


The moment passes. I catch my breath, listen to the comforting murmur of my parents’ voices from the kitchen. My brothers have retired to their bunks in the boys’ bedroom, the youngest to rest on his laurels. He bested us all in Masterpiece, tonight’s family board game of choice. To win, one must invest wisely in fine art, avoid forgeries, know when to cash in. My brother is good at identifying fakes. This scares me.


I drop my bib overalls, unbutton my striped shirt. My fair skin, almost as white as my underwear, makes a marked contrast to Serge’s olive complexion. I caress his face, comb my fingers through his long dark curls.


I love this man, whether I know it or not. He makes me happy. I laugh when he is around. We are always talking--politics, religion, life, its big questions and little ones, our observations of the world, including the irritating things he notices about Americans. (He tells me whatever I see in him is by definition an endearing quality of all Frenchmen.)


We get on famously, and if we do not, I fail to notice it. Literally. Last month he grew angry at me over something. He sulked (the French national pastime, he calls it) and avoided me for days. I thought he needed space and let him be, which only fueled his anger. By day four he gave up, we made up, made love. Now we laugh about it. I have forgotten what he was mad about in the first place.


Pressed against him I shudder softly, breathe his name, “Serge.” I always mispronounce it. My tongue will not wrap around the proper “Sairgszh,” so I Americanize it, say his name as if it were a jolt of electricity, “Surge.” Although it is said wrong, it speaks my truth aright. When it comes to him, what is wrong is right. Oh, so right.


Except that it is not. Two men together? When I think of this an inner voice rumbles in King James English, “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? His own iniquities shall take the wicked, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sin.”


I copied these Bible verses and others into my prayer journal earlier in the week. I live this way. I make up for being defective by being holy. I am the pi–ata I made for my mother, soggy strips of religion, my pasty attempts at righteousness, layered around a hollow shell, no sweets inside.


Last wash day my mother nearly busted everything wide open when she turned back the bed to reveal a blue nylon sleeping bag. “What is this? What is it doing here?” I felt my feet go off the cliff. I grabbed a branch. “Serge, um, gets cold at night.” She bought my story, now makes him take vitamin E capsules to improve his circulation. In reality, the sleeping bag is our latest ploy for assuaging my conscience. It successfully serves as a chastity belt some nights, allowing us to be close, me to be holy.


Serge reaches back and up, turns the knob of the yellowed bed lamp hooked over the headboard. I love the cataract of muscle rippling in his arm, the flat planes of his body, the sound of his breathing, the sweet-sour smell of him. He is unimaginably dear to me.


A thousand yellow roses bloom on the wallpaper. The soft light illumines the built-in closet, dresser and desk opposite us, the bookshelves my father built, the dresser bought at the church camp auction sale. The two windows open to the crickets’ evening concert. Katydids join the chorus tonight, announcing the first frost in three weeks’ time. They have it wrong. The big chill arrives three days from now when Serge boards a plane bound for New York, Paris, Toulouse. Already my bones ache with cold.


He sits up. “Three days until airplane Black Friday.” This is old news. He pulls me up to sit facing him, caresses my cheek, looks long into my eyes. “Listen up, Bucko, I want to tell you what I am thinking of, what I am dreaming of. It will be a long time before we see each other again. We will see each other again, please God. I shall miss you. Already I miss you and you are right here. I love you, as I have told you many times. My heart will be empty. Right, it does not have to be this way. We could live together and share our activities. Come to Europe. We could live in England or Ireland, if you like, or in France, even. You would have no excuse for not learning to speak French then, you Yankee Hamburger. The thing is, we could make a life together, you and I.” He exhales a loud puff of air, stretches his fingers wide, expectant. “What do you say? Will you do it?”


The air in the room gets very thin. Bed and all, I am going over the cliff. What is there to hold on to? I see with sudden clarity that my panic is about mousetraps, not mountains. My father used to pay me to set and empty traps--a nickel for every mouse I caught. I carried each day’s catch down to the coal furnace in our basement, swung open the heavy cast iron door. Unwilling to touch death, I would hold the trap by its edges, dangle the soft satin body over the glowing coals, prise up the killing edge of the copper wire, watch the little corpse drop away. This, then, is my recurring panic: I am the mouse. The trap has sprung. Caught dead to rights, I am hanging in air. If I say yes I will lift the copper wire, surely tumble into the depths of hell. I scrabble for a handhold.


“Oh, Serge.” My voice catches in my throat. “I could never go with you. I know in my heart there is no future in such a life, no happiness. Not for me, not for you, not for anybody.”


We are silent. My ready answer has landed with all the delicacy of a sucker punch. I watch his face stiffen. He nods. It is OK. He understands. He is sorry he asked. He wants only what I want. He wants me to be happy.


I look at him across the divide of our desires, through curtains of tears. I want him to be happy, too, really I do. What can I say? I vision our future. “Serge, we are both going to get married, find a woman, be very happy. You wait and see. ‘Tell you what, when I get married I want you to be in my wedding. I will send you a plane ticket, OK?” Sure. We make a pact. We will both attend each other’s wedding, pay the other’s plane fare. Fine. This takes care of our future, but what do we do with this present space between us?


Serge moves first. He slides his feet into the sleeping bag, zips it up to his chest, lies on his back, staring at the cracked ceiling. I lie beside him feeling no holiness in our chastity tonight, only an aching emptiness that swallows the world, this lonesome, noisy, knock-about world. The katydids have it right. The cold is coming. What do we have but this moment? I unzip the bag, tug it off him, let it dangle over the side of the bed, slip away.


The second time Bryn Marlow married, he wed a man, Dave. Serge was involved in both ceremonies.


This essay first appeared in White Crane, No. 68, Spring 2006

It was excerpted in Utne Reader, November/December 2006   

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