Fifteen minutes earlier, as he limped onto the train, Kent Jeffries had been in no mood for company. He was too wrecked. God, what a weekend! Outrageous! What was the joke Mickey had made? At that bathhouse? Oh, yeah: Can I borrow an orifice you’re not using?
The last thing Kent needed now was some turkey talking his ear off. Accordingly, he’d taken a seat by the window, setting his bag beside him. Then he’d spread his Pierre Cardin blazer—the rust, not the Kelly green—on top. That should do it. While people boarded, he leafed through Variety. As seats grew scarce, he started to worry, and laid his head back, pretending to sleep.
No sooner had his eyes closed than images of the past two days flickered in his mind.
Friday night: That after-hours place in the Village. Cable spools for tables. Rough trade in the back room. More Mickey’s thing than his.
Saturday: They climbed into a refrigerator truck in the meatpacking district. Pitch-black inside. Smelled like a stable. Three dozen men creating a vortex, a flesh whirlpool, that sucked you in and around and out again.
Climbing down afterward, Kent said, “I felt a little overdressed. How about you?”
Next thing he knew he was taking a leak at someplace called the Dungeon. The urinal was open at the bottom. As Kent stared down into the bowels of the earth, a face appeared. A dignified, older gentleman, trembling with anticipation. Definitely Mickey’s thing.
Finally, they went to that disco everyone was raving about, the Ice Palace. They were on the dance floor, doing poppers, when from out of the neon-lit, fog-machine fog a small Puerto Rican queen strutted past, wearing nothing but Christmas lights.
“Where do you keep the batteries?” Mickey called.
“In the shape of a dildo up my ass!”
Sassy! But still not Kent’s thing.
Then it was Sunday and he woke up in Mickey’s basement apartment on Cornelia Street. People’s ankles going past the dirty windows. Already noon.
Mickey entered with a tube of Preparation H. “Dab in each nostril,” he said. “Home remedy.”
“I’m never drinking again,” Kent groaned.
But at brunch, when Mickey ordered a Bloody, Kent said, “Oh, all right.”
One led to three, by which point they’d developed a rationale. They were fortifying themselves. Had a difficult day ahead of them. At two, they were going to clean out Jasper’s digs, now that Jas was sick and had moved back to Texas. Revisiting the scene of all their revels wasn’t going to be easy. Not for any of them, and least of all for Kent, whose name used to be on the lease.
It also meant seeing Ron, who’d lived in the apartment recently. Ron was a purely stopgap measure, in Kent’s opinion. Skinny. Bucktoothed. Taller than Tommy Tune.
“I suppose he’s handy when you need something from the top shelf,” Kent had said to Jasper once, on the phone.
“Don’t be bitchy,” Jasper said.
Ron still had keys. By the time Kent and Mickey arrived, he’d aired the place out and prepared a pitcher of mimosas. Louie and Ed were already going through Jasper’s stuff.
The apartment looked unchanged. Still the familiar mélange, the Chinese trunk next to the Victorian love seat next to the bust of Jasper done by that sculptor in Key West. Jas’s record collection—the ragtime, the Lotte Lehmann. His Roman trinkets, his colored-glass bottles. But, despite Jasper’s flair for decorating, the spirit had gone out of the place. It looked run-down. Mouse droppings. Old-cigarette smell.
They drank mimosas while they dickered.
Ed wanted Jasper’s secretary with the broken leg.
Louie had dibs on the framed poster for the Living Theatre, signed by Julian Beck.
Jasper’s books, his annotated scripts, his correspondence with theatre bigwigs (Brustein, Foreman, Grotowski) were to be boxed up and sent to Rice University.
What did Kent want? The leather pig footstool from England? The very tiny Miró?
Nothing was in the right drawers anymore. He couldn’t find any scissors to cut the packing tape.
Finally, he went into the bedroom, stood on the brass bed, and reached up under the lighting fixture—and there it was. His old stash, from 1971.
Jasper didn’t approve of grass. Kent had always had to sneak out to the fire escape.
When he exited the bedroom, Ron was on the phone with Jasper at the hospital. He held the phone toward the stereo and said, “Jas, we’re playing Bobby Short in your honor.”
Everyone who got on the phone with Jas screamed with laughter at something he told them. Jas’s old chestnuts.
In bed by twelve, home by three.
He’s very butch. He gets it from his mother.
Look, he was dead. How can you be jealous?
Then it was Kent’s turn.
He tried to sound upbeat. Festive.
Good thing he was an actor.
“Last chance to change your mind and come back, Jas,” he said. “We’ll just unpack everything.”
“What the fuck’s the matter with Ron?” Jasper said. “Siccing all these well-wishers on me. I’m in no condition.”
Jasper sounded mad. That made Kent happy. Ron was getting on his nerves, too, presiding over everything, auditioning for the role of widow.
“What do you expect from an understudy?” Kent said.
Jas laughed. Started coughing. Fought down the cough enough to say, “That’s exactly what he is! Only good enough for the matinée!” As he paused to catch his breath, the receiver filled with noise. Phone calls to Jasper were party lines now, three people on at once: Kent, Jasper, and Jasper’s emphysema, wheezing in the background.
Kent’s voice was softer as he said, “How are you doing down there, Jas? Really.”
“Oh, well. Back in the bosom of my family. You know how I’ve always felt about bosoms.”
And now Kent managed it: the scream of hilarity.
“I’m tired,” Jas said. “Hanging up.”
It was Ron who ended up bawling. He crumpled onto the floor, crying out, “It’s so fucking unfair! God!” Louie and Ed knelt down, patting and stroking him.
Kent went to the window and lit a cigarette. At drama school, they’d done an exercise where you had to pretend to be on an iceberg. The other students had shivered and hugged themselves, hopping around. Kent had had a different idea. He’d gone to the edge of the stage, alone, and let the coldness seep into his skin. Squinted his eyes. Tightened his sphincter. Retracted his scrotum. Just became ice. Frozen. Feeling nothing. That was how you played cold. It worked for a shivering peasant in Chekhov or a naked Fool on the heath.
Now Kent did it at other times as well.
Disconnected his phone, turned off the lights. People rang his bell, shouted at his window, “Answer the door, Kent! We know you’re there!”
Sitting in the dark, frozen, the person Kent was at those times didn’t answer to the name on his Equity card. He was still Peter J. Belknap, Liz and Roger’s boy, from Buffalo. Good-looking kid. Class president. Girls all crazy about him.
Liz was gone now. That was another reason Kent shut himself in for days at a time. To think about her. Liz coming down the stairs, fixing a diamond earring, on her way out to dinner with Roger. Kent/Peter, ten years old, in charge of making cocktails. The way Liz smiled when he brought her drink, and said to Roger, “Darling, where did you find this new bartender? He’s terribly good.”
Behind closed eyelids, shamming sleep on the train, Kent Jeffries thought about Liz, his dear sweet mother. His eyes were welling. He shifted in the seat, turning his head toward the window, and slipped off his Gucci loafers. He’d bought a new pair at Bergdorf’s, stupidly wore them out of the store, and now had blisters on both feet. That was why he was limping.
Finally, the train pulled out of the station. Kent figured it was safe to open his eyes.
That was when he saw the boy. In the Eskimo coat. And the Elton John sunglasses. Staring into the door window behind him like Narcissus into his pool.
Kent knew who the kid reminded him of. Himself, twenty years ago. Grow up queer in the sticks and it’s like hearing a broadcast in the distance. You can make out the frequency all right, but the words get garbled along the way. So, when you finally run away to New York, you end up dressing like this kid, in some wild approximation of flamboyant.
Kent had taken a bus from Buffalo to Port Authority and then the subway to Christopher Street. Found a wall to lean against.
White tank top. Cutoffs so short the pockets showed.
Jasper, on his way from teaching at HB Studios, picked him up. Took Kent straight home, but only to feed him and let him use the shower. Made him sleep on the couch. The next day, he took him to a dermatologist to clear up his acne.
Kent was seventeen. Jasper thirty-eight. About the age Kent was now.
It was sympathy that made him call out to the boy. He knew how hard it could be.
When the kid lifted his sunglasses, his eyes looked just as pink. Stoned out of his mind.
If that was an advantage, Kent tried not to acknowledge it.
He didn’t speak to the boy until they were out of the tunnel.
“I hope no polar bears died for that,” Kent said.
“What?” the boy said, coming out of his stupor. “Oh. This coat? No. It’s fake.”
With a wiggle of its hips, the train shifted to a new track.
They still had a four-hour ride ahead of them.
Kent reached across the seat and touched the fur.
“Could have fooled me,” he said.