The morning that Will’s mother phoned to say Dale had killed himself, the shower fog on the mirror (Will had spent half an hour shaving his chest for the Valentine’s dance) looked like it would freeze there in dimples and streaks. That’s how cold it was.
“Oh god,” said Will into the receiver, one hand turning moisturizer into his torso. He toweled his hair and wondered what else to say. “How’s Noel?”
Will’s brother had been Dale’s best school friend and, later, they had plotted excursions-hikes and ski-trips-together, terrifying both mothers by never phoning and always coming in past midnight.
“Where do you think you’ve been?” Will used to hear his mother demanding, through his old bedroom floor. Some people lie awake listening to parents fight. Will listened to his mother and brother.
“Skiing,” Noel would say. “What? We stopped for food, Christ!”
“It’s one in the morning; I don’t want you doing this. I can’t get to sleep until you’re home. This isn’t fair, Noel.”
“I know. I know,” she was saying now, over the phone. Knew what? Will checked the clock in his tiny kitchen, poured himself orange juice.
“Noel’s fine, I guess,” said his mother. “It’s Dale’s baby brother I worry about. You know I was sitting with him and I said, ‘You must be feeling pretty awful. This is two terrible things that have happened.'”
“His dad, you mean?” Will interrupted. “Is he still sick?”
“Right. And you know what Jamie said? He said no, it was three terrible things. Dale, his dad, and his parents splitting up. I just thought that was interesting, I guess. That the divorce was on par for him. Kids feel it more intensely, I think.”
Will waited a second, but realized his mother was pausing to let him say something back. “I have class,” he blurted, finally.
“Oh god,” said his mother, “of course. I’m sorry. I just thought you should know. Give me a call later on.”
On the way to Milton Studies, Will worried about the paper he had failed to write for Dr Daniel. For an ugly moment he considered telling his professor a friend had died-that this was why he hadn’t done the work. Did it matter that he only just heard the news? He was distraught now, wasn’t he?
In class, the boy Will had spent all term falling in love with, the boy who sat in the front row, nodded at Will for the first time (such a dimple grin!)-just once, just friendly-like. Maybe the day would be all right.
In the minute before the buzzer went, he asked his professor for an extension.
But Dr Daniel said not to bother. Grey and glass, his words.
Will shifted from one brown shoe to the other and opened his mouth a finger’s width. He waited for the alternate, reconsidered response-the good-tempered smile that would excuse his lateness, pat down the trembling uncertainty. Nothing.
As the state of things settled around him-that hard dark desk beneath the classroom window, the coat rack in the shadowed corner, pegged over with brass fingers-he shrank a few inches, watched the professor’s eyes for another fretful moment, then began to cry a red, pinched, gulping cry. Ridiculous. And annoying besides.
Do you really still cry at 21? God, he was such a fag! Such a stupid fucking fag!
The boy in the front row looked embarrassed for him, buried his nose in Paradise Lost, became a pair of pink ears. Will felt he was going to be sick. He looked at the beautiful boy. He looked, wildly, back at Dr Daniels.
“We’ve-had a family tragedy,” he gasped. “My brother.” Only days later would he wonder at the inaccuracy of this confession. And the melodrama of it. What drove him to tailor the facts?
But who takes memory in spoonfuls?
That afternoon, Will sat in the Rose Garden for hours. All around him memory burned. Burned off, like stinking gasoline. He thought of his family at first, and turkey dinner with family friends. Then he shoved all that aside.
It was the beautiful boy, who, surprisingly, filled Will’s head for most of those hours. He was selfishly waiting for the beautiful boy, who did not come loping by-was that what he waited for? Some trivial romance? Oh god, Dale. He was an awful person.
But he couldn’t think of Dale except in the briefest flashes. He thought, instead, of a pale, naked body. He thought of that boy in the front row. And the never-finished comfort of sex. Maybe he would see that boy at the Valentine’s dance.