FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: Summer days, kisses, and scars.
It’s too hot to be inside, with angled windows destroying any prospect of shade. Ashton lies back on his bed, and stares at the ceiling, a pencil gripped between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He can hear his father outside, revving an engine and yelling at Billy Fitz to fetch a wrench. Hopefully the heat will keep them away, and for once they’ll all leave him alone.
He has a notebook beside him, filled with cheap paper and the scribbles of the past weeks. His father thinks it’s all a devilish code, impenetrable, designed to plot against him. Ashton smiles when he thinks about it. He wonders what God could possibly have against algebra. So much for a modern American education.
Aside from schoolwork, he draws, although not much of it is saved for posterity. There are line drawings of automobiles, engines, gearboxes, and anything his father might find acceptable. Everything else is thrown away, and started again on another day, preserved only as fragments of ideas in his head.
“Jerry?” A tentative, small voice from the direction of the door.
Ashton sighs, and sits up, snapping closed his notebook with one flick of his hand. It was obviously too much to ask for his brother to stay out of trouble for one afternoon. “In here.”
Eric clomps through to the bedroom, wearing cast-off boots that are still far too big for him. Still, he seems determined to act as if he’s bigger than he really is. Ashton wonders who he picked a fight with this time – the knees of his already patched-up trousers are ripped, and there’s oil smeared on his cheeks. Probably another imaginary battle with the Germans, fought in the back yard with sticks and stones. Eric appropriated his tin soldiers years ago. The last time Ashton caught sight of them, they had been digging long lines of trenches where his mother’s flowers had used to be.
“What happened to you?” He pushes the notebook away. No point in letting Eric rifle through it.
Eric gives an exaggerated shrug. He can get away with being reticent, with his big blue eyes and mop of golden brown hair. Every woman in the neighbourhood wants to mother him: the poor little orphan boy who never knew his mother. No one has ever wanted to mother Ashton.
“Well, take them off,” Ashton tugs at the ruined trousers. “I’ve got some old ones you can wear, if you roll them up.”
Eric jumps to sit on the edge of the bed, bouncing on it. “Thanks Jerry,” he grins, with a flash of white teeth that always makes Ashton wonder how much he’s being taken in by his brother’s little-boy-lost act.
“Yeah, well, I’ll sew up the tears, but you have to watch, so you can do it next time, okay?” It’s not much of an exchange of responsibility. He knows that Eric will never pay attention, will never take care of his own clothes. He’s just a kid, after all. “And wash your face.”
“Okay,” Eric says, dropping his boots to the floor with a thump, and wriggling out of his pants. He rubs his knees, obviously hoping for a note of concern from his older brother.
Ashton studiously ignores him, and pulls out an old pair of trousers from the bottom drawer. They’re too small for him, and far too big for Eric, but they’ll do, even if it’s just to stop the kid from running around half-naked. Was he ever like that, eight years ago? He can’t remember. At least he had a real mother to look after him, not a sullen big brother who’s always been too old to be a proper playmate. “Did you read that book I gave you?” If he can’t be a friend, he might as well be a decent parent.
Eric pulls a face. The trousers are, indeed, too big for him, even though the belt holds them up around his waist. “It’s really big. And they talk funny.”
“You talk funny. Here.” Ashton grabs hold of his brother’s legs, pulling them up so Eric’s feet are against his chest. Eric falls back onto the bed, giggling, as Ashton folds up the trouser legs for him. “It’s a good book, Eric. You have to learn things.”
“Pop says it’s crap.”
“You want to stick around here all your life?” Ashton finishes his work, and sets Eric’s feet back on the floor. “Covered in oil and dirt and shit?”
“I like cars,” Eric says, screwing up his face in thought. “I don’t like school.”
Can he ever win this argument? What eight-year-old boy likes school better than rolling around in the mud and tinkering with things? What wonders can Ashton provide that are more intriguing than a car engine or a simple toolkit? He sits down on the edge of the bed. “Mom wanted us to go to school. So we’ll go.”
“Pop says you’re too old for school.” There’s no malice in his tone, just a repetition of the facts. “He says you just don’t like working.”
Ashton laughs. “Right. I go to school cause I don’t like working. Come on, you want me to read it with you? It’ll help.”
“Yeah, all right.” Eric slides off the bed, just as the front door slams shut, and loud footsteps signal the approach of their father, wiping his hands on an oil rag.
“Finally got that damn thing started,” he declares loudly to no one in particular. “Where the hell is that boy?”
Joseph Ashton is not a stupid man, although he could easily be taken for one. He’s big in all manner of ways; a brute of a fellow, with callused, dirty fingers. Had he chosen a life of violence, he would no doubt have been successful. Instead, he owns a house in quiet suburbia, and earns the plaudits of the neighbours for raising two fine boys singlehanded. Perhaps, however, he doesn’t have such a high opinion of both of his sons. He glances at the older, taller boy, before looking away. “Eric, get in the car. We’re going to the garage.”
“We were going to read,” Ashton says, with an almost masochistic need not to be ignored.
“Read, huh?” Joe frowns at Eric’s new attire. “What in God’s name are you wearing?”
Eric grins. “They’re Jerry’s. I tore mine in the yard.” He hurries off, attracted by the sound of the engine, and the temptation of conversation with Billy Fitz, who always seems to have pockets full of candy.
“I’ll sew them later,” Ashton says quickly, trying to save Eric from an ear-bashing.
“Yeah, I bet you will.” This time, Joe looks at him, and there’s no paternal affection in his eyes. “What do you think you are, his mother? All you ever do is lie around here acting like a girl, anyway. What’s this,” he asks, reaching for the notebook, “love letters?”
Ashton gets in his way without thinking. Joe isn’t taller than him anymore, but he’s still broader and stronger. “If I don’t look after him, who will? You?”
He doesn’t even have time to consider how stupid it is to antagonise his father. Joe hits him, hard, on the side of the jaw, sending him crashing to the mattress. Ashton touches a hand to his split lip, but doesn’t make a sound. He’s gone through worse.
Joe’s anger is evident on his face. “You’re a demon of a boy. You always were. Crying in the middle of the night like you were being murdered.” He takes a breath. “Thank God your brother isn’t such a girl.”
The docks, despite the calls of seagulls and the bustle of the crowds, are oddly soothing on a July afternoon. Ashton sits on the edge of a wooden pier, pencil in his hand, and loses himself in the sight of the horizon. He’s lived in Los Angeles his entire life, and none of his family have ever been further than the state line. Eric sometimes talks about growing up and driving all the way to New York City, thousands of miles away. Maybe, one day, Ashton will go with him.
He knows he has to leave, somehow. Every day he looks at the horizon, or at the photographs of sunsets over foreign lands he’s ripped from newspapers, and knows he can’t stay. But his father either doesn’t hate him enough to want to send him out of the city, or hates him too much to let him escape. He doesn’t have money of his own. He has a brain, though, and perhaps that will take him places.
Ashton shades his eyes, and flips over a page in his notebook, beginning a new drawing. Really it’s not new at all, just the same picture, the one he sketches over and over again, from a hundred slightly different angles, and destroys over and over again before nightfall. It’s a bridge, he tells himself. He knows it’s not a bridge at all. It entered his head, bright and solid and fully formed, three years ago, and he knows it’s no coincidence that it’s the only thing he’s ever really wanted to draw.
There are scars, three of them, long and rough and deep. He doesn’t take his undershirt off anymore, if he can help it. Not that it makes much difference. The ragged ends of the cuts still creep out, and everyone knows what they are. The boys in the locker room stare at him, but they never ask questions. Much as they might like to poke fun at him, they know the answers are even more horrific than the marks themselves. He wonders if the bridge is a fourth scar, carved into his brain, bleeding out through pencilled lines on a page.
He’s shading in the lines of steel bars, extending into the distance, when a real shadow falls on the paper. “Thought you might be here,” Billy Fitz says, sitting down on the pier, brown glass bottle in his hand. “What’d you do this time?”
Ashton probes the cut at the corner of his lip with his tongue. It’s not too bad, all things considered. His own fault for having a smart mouth. “He send you here?”
“Hell no.” Billy takes a swig from the bottle, and hands it over to Ashton, patting his pockets in search of a smoke. “Lunch break. What’s that you’re drawing?”
“It’s a bridge. What the fuck is this?” Ashton grimaces and holds up the bottle for inspection. “Tastes like vinegar.”
Billy grabs back the bottle. “You’re missing the point, Jerry. Got a light?”
“Yeah, sure.” Ashton hands him a half-empty book of matches, and rips out the top page from his notebook, throwing it into the water. As the lit match crackles, he watches the paper disintegrate. It doesn’t matter. It’s never really gone. “Give me one of those,” he says, elbowing Billy in the ribs.
“You know, your old man isn’t so bad.” Billy gives him a cigarette, and watches him light it. “Could be worse. You want mine? He’d beat all the skin off my ass if he could.”
Ashton casts a sidelong glance at Billy’s stocky body. “Yeah, he’d die of old age before he got halfway done, there’s so much of it.”
“Fuck you,” Billy mutters. “What’re you doing moping around here for, anyway? Better things to do than this.” He glances up and down the pier thoughtfully. “You know what your problem is? You need to get a girl.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s my problem.” Ashton’s seen the type of girls Billy likes, the type of girls who hang around town without a father or brother protecting their honour. None of them have ever seemed more appealing than the attentions of his own left hand. He knows for a fact that they’ve never set foot in a school. Billy’s not the educated type either, but at least he has smokes and booze and a sense of humour.
Billy, however, is getting to his feet, and taking his bottle of old wine with him. “Come on,” he says, tapping Ashton on the shoulder. “Billy’ll sort you out.”
Usually, when Billy starts referring to himself in the third person it spells imminent disaster. But Ashton stands up anyway, notebook under his arm, cigarette still between his lips. There really is no point in staying here, in fixating on an image he’d rather forget. He follows Billy along the docks, and onto the street.
He has a good idea where Billy is going – he’s been there before, to the broken-down rooms above back alleys. Billy seems happier to spend money on those types of girls than on a real lady friend. Perhaps no real lady would go anywhere near him. Ashton, for his part, has only sat outside and smoked and bullshitted with the pimps and customers. They offered him a job once: big, strong boy like him, in need of a few extra dollars a month. He’s never been tempted to accept. One day soon he’ll have something better.
Billy is babbling something about not being nervous, and everything being okay, and to take as much time as he wants. Maybe Billy thinks he’s scared to be with a girl, that he’ll collapse into a shivering wreck at the sight of breasts. Ashton rolls his eyes, and says nothing. It’s not a big deal, to put the parts together. It’s not something that requires a university degree. If he can assemble an automobile engine, he can probably figure out the mechanics of sexual intercourse. He’s just not so enthralled with the idea as Billy, or his father, or any of the other men he meets. Animals. As if there were nothing more to life than fucking. Still, he might as well get it over with.
In the alley, Billy indulges in several minutes of ritual back-slapping and handshaking with the men there, so much so that he could be admitting to membership of the Freemasons. Ashton grinds out his cigarette on the ground, and glances up, meeting the eyes of a long-haired Hispanic girl, as she hangs out of one of the rust-framed windows. She smiles at him, revealing curiously white teeth against olive skin and black hair, and he finds himself smiling back.
“You like her?” Billy’s voice is at his ear. “You can have her.”
It sounds like the marketplace to him, the language of barter and trade, as if he were being sold potatoes. He mutters something about going to talk to her, and climbs the staircase, leaving Billy to sort out the business transaction. Maybe if he forgets about the money, about the fact that this girl is being paid to be with him, he’ll be able to delude himself into relaxing. He doesn’t even know if she’ll speak English. He can swear in Spanish, but that’s about it.
She’s waiting for him in the hallway, leaning against the frame of the open door, still smiling. He wonders if she’s a moron. “Hi,” he says, because he has to say something.
She reaches out her hand – long, slender fingers – and takes his. “I’m Anna.”
“That’s my mother’s name.” It’s a stupid thing to say. He shouldn’t be thinking about that now, of all times.
Anna leads him into the room, and shuts the door with a soft clunk. “You can call me something else, if you like.”
Her room offers no easy way to deceive himself, to pretend that this is the bedroom of a real girl, a real girl who likes him. There’s a bed, with sheets that have gone too long without cleaning, and a trashcan filled with empty bottles. An ashtray lies on the floor by the bed, overflowing. He turns back to her, and notices, close-up, that she’s a little older than he thought, and wearing too much makeup. There’s no fantasy here, although he guesses that even this grimy situation would satisfy Billy Fitz’s dreams.
“What do you like?” she asks, her body pressing close against his, her hands on his chest. He can smell her perfume, although it’s nothing subtle, and of the type that substitutes for soap. “Don’t be frightened.”
She kisses him, pulling him down so she can cover his mouth with lipstick and breath that smells of beer. It’s his first kiss, and nothing he particularly wants to remember. His cut lip stings, but at least his heart is racing. He’s supposed to be excited, and he feared he wouldn’t be. Billy always says he looks at everything as if it were some kind of scientific puzzle.
“So handsome,” Anna murmurs, placing his hand on her breast as she works on undoing his trousers. Ashton wonders what the time limit is, how quickly her employer down below expects her to finish him off. Presumably there’s no possibility of romantic chit-chat and cuddling. He’s thankful for that, at least. Both concepts seem beyond his imagination.
Ashton tentatively squeezes her breast, and she gives him an approving moan of pleasure. He doesn’t believe it for a second, but this is what he’s supposed to do, isn’t it? Billy keeps rambling on about the wonderful, amazing big tits of the girls he beds. Ashton isn’t sure of the attraction. It’s not as if they do anything. Maybe if he were a three-month old kid he might understand it better. He drops his hand. This whole thing is ridiculous anyway, with a girl pulling down his trousers and getting on her knees in front of him. What’s the point?
She gently pushes him backwards, to sit down on the bed, as her fingers find their way into his underwear and her mouth forms a wide grin. Nothing about it says it’s a fake, but he knows it is. “Mmmm… So big.”
Ashton has to bite his lip to stop himself from asking if she tells everyone the same thing, if she boosts Billy Fitz’s ego by telling him he’s the best fuck ever. Billy might actually believe it.
Her mouth is wet and hot around him, unfamiliar enough that the surprise of it makes him bunch up the bed sheets in his fists. He looks down at her bobbing head, at that gaudy lipstick marking what might once have been a pretty, innocent face, and forgets to feel anything. He can’t persuade himself that he likes it, this room that’s little better than a toilet, and this girl who’s no more than a flesh-and-blood masturbation aid. Her stale perfume, and the stink of beer, catches in his throat as she releases him and looks up, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Maybe she’s worried that she won’t get her money. Maybe she’s just confused. He must be the first man in a long time who hasn’t gotten hard in her mouth, who hasn’t pressed her head closer, or simply ripped off her clothes and fucked her on the bed. At the moment he’s not in the mood to stop and explain.
“You’ll get paid,” he says, pushing her away so he can stand up and rearrange his clothes. So much for Billy’s theory of relaxation. She’s still staring at him blankly when he leaves. Perhaps she’s grateful. No hard work or bodily fluids required.
Billy catches up with him, three streets away, out of breath and running to keep up. “What the hell was that?” he pants.
Ashton doesn’t know what to tell him.
It works. Of course it works. He’s spent enough time in the past exactly as he is now, buried in sheets, face to the wall, holding his breath against the whisper of an escaping sound, to be sure that everything is in perfect order.
Ashton takes in a gasp of air, feeling his cock reassuringly hard against the palm of his hand. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just fuck her? It would have avoided Billy’s questions, and the curious glances of the pimps, and that look on Anna’s face when he had seen confusion turn into humour. She’s probably laughing at him now. The only man in the world who doesn’t like being sucked off by a pretty girl. He pulls the sheets over his head with his free hand, and tries to stop thinking.
The night is warm, and it’s too humid to be under the covers like this. He seems to be covered in sweat. His hair is damp, glued to his forehead in dark commas of curls. But his brother is only feet away, sprawled out on a mattress, pillow half-covering his head. Ashton can’t afford to wake anyone up.
It feels good – so fucking good – to do it himself, to slide his erection through the circle made by his fingers, and forget all the crap of the day. Maybe he’ll have to avoid Billy for a while, say he came down with the flu or something, and explain away his ineptitude in the bedroom with legitimate medical reasons. Not that he has anything that should make him ashamed – it was a dirty place, after all. He just needs a real woman, who really likes him, not some paid girl who hasn’t bathed in a week.
He hopes Billy will understand. It’s not as if they talk much about anything of consequence, but Billy’s always known what not to mention. He’s the only one who hasn’t been afraid of the scars on his friend’s back, who hasn’t shied away when Ashton’s been sullen and quiet for days on end. Ashton thinks of him, and his breathing relaxes. It’ll be okay. Nothing terrible has happened. They’ll talk tomorrow, and no doubt Billy will tell him some horror stories of his own encounters with girls. It’ll be fine.
Billy would be more confident, he imagines. He’d know what he liked, would joke a little and enjoy everything that was done to him. He’d get his money’s worth, as his trousers were taken off. He’d be as stiff as anything, like he had steel inside him. His cock would be hot to the touch, smooth, pulsing with an inner force. He wouldn’t be embarrassed, as lips closed around him, and a tongue licked him slowly, savouring the taste. He’d do it right.
“Jesus…” Ashton whispers. In the darkness he can almost see it, can almost feel the heat of Billy’s body next to him. His hand quickens its movement. He’s so damn close, so close that he can’t stop to think. If he stops, there won’t be anything to do but think, and once he thinks, he won’t be able to touch himself again for self-loathing. He needs this, whatever it means.
Unfortunately he can’t postpone thought forever. He comes against his hand, body shuddering as he refuses to make a sound. It feels as if he might suffocate, holding his breath while his heart threatens to explode in his chest. Eventually he lets go, pulls the sheets away from his face, and gulps down a lungful of air.
Ashton freezes. Had Eric heard him? Well, maybe he could pass it off as a nightmare. He has enough of them. He surreptitiously wipes his fingers on the sheets. It’ll mean doing the laundry in the morning, before his father notices the stains, but he has worse problems. He rolls over to look in the direction of his brother’s bed. “Yeah?”
Eric is sitting up, blankets over his head as if he’s in training to be the youngest monk in the world. “I think I heard something,” he says quietly. “Jerry, maybe it’s the Germans. Maybe they came to get us like Uncle Jake.”
Ashton gets to his feet and clambers onto Eric’s bed, set against the opposite wall. The younger boy has an eerie faculty for conjuring up more-or-less rational fears. No monsters under the bed for him; no giant spiders in the closet. Maybe he’s been woken up too many times by his brother’s far more realistic night terrors. “There’s nothing here,” he says, pulling the blankets around them both. “It was just a dream, Eric.”
Eric looks dubious. “I did hear something.”
“Probably the front door.” Ashton squints at his wristwatch in the dark. It’s the early hours of the morning, but that’s about the usual time for their father to return from his nights of cards and drink and women. He hopes no stories are going around about the only impotent sixteen-year-old boy in California. If there are, he can’t bring himself to care. What, after all, can his father do to him that hasn’t already been done? “You’re not scared, are you?”
“No…” Eric pulls over his pillow, and hunkers down on it as if it’s a sandbag on the edge of an Allied trench. He probably wishes he had a rifle. “Jerry, Pop says you’re evil. You’re not evil, are you?”
Ashton lies down, drawing the blankets over them both. “No, Eric. I’m not evil.”
“Didn’t think so,” Eric says into the pillow, resting his head and closing his eyes.
There’s no sound from the rest of the house. Perhaps their father has simply passed out. Ashton wishes he could slip into unconsciousness so easily. Within moments, Eric’s breathing becomes deep and steady beside him. No doubt he’s dreaming of leading cavalry charges thousands of miles away on the battlefields of Europe. Ashton could creep back to his own bed, now, but that would just risk waking the boy again. He knows he’s not going to sleep.
Could his father really be right? Is he, somehow, an overgrown, misshapen girl? Why the hell couldn’t he just be like Billy Fitz and make it all work? He twists around, trying to touch the rough scars on his back. They’re the only things he can think of that make him different: the remnants of a summer afternoon three years ago. He thought he knew what had been done to him, thought he had been through all the pain. Perhaps the scars go deeper than he thought.
He sinks back to the mattress, trying to relax, trying harder not to think of Billy.
His fingers itch for a pencil and paper.
He’s spent too much of his life in airports. He doesn’t even mind the wait anymore. He comes prepared. Whitney props his feet up on a café table, nudges his headphones closer to his ears, and leafs through a paperback thriller. His luggage rests at the side of his chair, although there isn’t much of it: t-shirts and jeans and clean underwear. A basketball makes a bulge in his backpack, stuffed on top of his toothbrush and the papers for his school project. Previous experience has taught him that if he doesn’t bring his own ball, he’s without sport for the whole month he’s supposed to spend in England. The shed on his father’s estate has been investigated thoroughly once or twice, and yielded no more than bent tennis racquets and a battered rugby ball. It doesn’t matter, anyway. James Whitney, esq., is never seen within a hundred feet of his own playing fields.
The flight got in on time, but he’s been waiting an hour. His Dad’s an hour late, even taking into account the time it took Whit to get through customs, and passport control, and baggage reclaim. He could call: change his dollars into pounds and phone either his Mom in Los Angeles, or his Dad in Oxford. But neither seems like a pleasant option. He can imagine his mother ranting about his father’s typical lack of parental responsibility, and his father claiming that his mother misinformed him about the flights. It would be better just to stay here, to drink airport coffee, and eat airport sandwiches, and listen to the security announcements for the whole summer. He’s been in the middle of all of this for far too long.
Eventually, his world of new romantic pop and horrific medical malpractice is disturbed by a woman’s hand on his shoulder. “Jason?” she asks.
He nods, pulling his headphones off, around his neck. She’s young, and pretty, and dressed as if for the office, albeit with a little too much makeup. Whitney’s seen all of the previous versions. He wonders how long his father has been doing her.
“I’m Anita,” she smiles, as he closes his book and gets to his feet, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “You look so much like your Dad.”
“No I don’t,” he says instinctively, although he knows it’s true. His father might have more expensive clothes, and a bit of grey in his blond hair, but by appearance alone he’s more his father’s son than his mother’s. He’s doing his best to change that.
Anita leads him outside the terminal building, to what he suspects is his father’s silver BMW. He dumps his suitcase in the trunk, wishing that it were his mother’s beaten old Ford. At least he knows where he is with that one. In any one of his Dad’s cars, he feels like he can’t even touch anything in case he makes it dirty. It’s impossible to relax.
“James is tied up with work,” Anita explains, starting the engine. “He’s really very sorry. He’s been telling me all week how much he’s looking forward to seeing you.”
Whitney fiddles with the radio. It’s a long drive to Oxford, and he’s not in the mood to discuss his wonderful father. The dial is set to play concertos at an even, gentle volume. He sets out to find the most irritating dance music station in the country, and turns it up as high as it’ll go. Anita only glances at him in some dismay. So her beloved James has a long-haired, rowdy, uncultured teenage son. Welcome to reality. She’ll be gone, exchanged for another one, in a few months anyway.
At least his room is still there, in a stone building he used to envision as a castle from medieval times: a prison for desperate maidens, and a barracks for noble knights. One summer he ran around armed with a rolling-pin wrapped in tin-foil, and a dustbin lid for a shield. He didn’t find many dragons, but the housekeeper’s dog had been game for a laugh.
Nothing in the room is really his, even though he’s spent every summer there for more than ten years. He tried putting up posters one year – sports stars and pop groups – but they were gone by the next summer. After that he left it as it was. There’s no point in stashing anything in the drawers for the following year. He grows out of clothes too quickly, and anything else has a tendency to simply disappear.
The sound of car tyres against the gravel driveway upstairs makes him put down his novel again, and look out of the window. His father has arrived home, accompanied by a briefcase, a grey overcoat over his arm, and that ever-present tic of glancing at his watch. Whitney drops back onto the bed. The mattress doesn’t even bounce under his weight.
It’s a few minutes before he hears his name being called from the bottom of the staircase, and he lopes off down to meet them: his father deep in conversation with Anita. “Jason!” He’s grabbed in an enthusiastic hug before he can reply, and then thrust away at arms length so his father can get a good look at him. “See my boy?” James smiles at Anita. “Quite a man, aren’t you, son? Except for the hair, of course…”
He’s not sure that he feels like a man, shuttled between continents for the convenience of his parents. In England he could get married, get a job, now that he’s sixteen. In California he’s still a kid. As always, he’s stuck somewhere between two worlds.
Breakfast the next morning is as it always is: at some absurdly early hour, while rain thuds against the kitchen windows. The housekeeper, Mrs. Martin, thrusts toast and jam at him, insisting that the skies will brighten by the afternoon. After all, she says, she heard it on the radio. Whitney chomps his way through an apple, and wishes he were anywhere but here. He always misses out on July in LA, on the blistering summers and warm surf. He’d give anything to lie on the beach with his school friends, writing his project between forays into the water, with salt in his hair. The only advantage to Oxford seems to be quiet and isolation. Whitney’s been here for six weeks every year, but he’s never made local friends. Even the housekeeper regards him as if he’s a true foreigner. Has he really changed so much since last year?
There are old photographs on the walls, and on the mantelpiece in the lounge: his father’s cute, adorable, blond little boy, clutching a huge teddy bear and smiling for the camera. He wonders how many women have fallen for James on the basis of such a lovable accessory. There are no pictures of his mother, no wedding photographs, no family portrait. He has one in his wallet, along with his American dollars and IDs. It was taken just after he was born, when all three of them looked happy and exhausted. It’s the only one of its kind, and it’s torn, and yellow around the edges.
“Jason!” His father wanders into the kitchen, tie loosely looped around his neck, and grabs a piece of toast. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah, not bad.” They even speak differently. It’s more than just the accent. His father is confident, assured, his phrases carefully measured. He’s paid to be an excellent public speaker. Whitney chews his way around the apple core, and wonders how different his life might have been had his father won – or even wanted – custody. A life of British private schools, of learning the Classics and playing croquet. It’s not too appealing.
“I have to work today, I’m afraid,” James says, glancing at the headlines of the newspaper lying folded on the table. “Court at nine. But I’ve given Anita the day off. The other girls can deal with the paperwork at the office, and she really wants to get to know you. Thought she’d take you to the Ashmolean.”
“Oh.” Whitney can’t think of anything worse. “I was going to do some studying.”
James laughs, and nods at the housekeeper. “Hear that? My son, the A-student. When I was your age I was thinking of anything but schoolwork. Did you call your mother yet?”
“Yeah, last night.” Whitney shifts in his chair and throws the remains of the apple into the trash. It’s about the only basketball practice he’s likely to get this summer. His ball lies still by his chair. “So how long have you been seeing her?”
“Who? Anita?” James asks, glancing at the headlines of the morning newspaper, folded on the table. “She’s been my assistant for almost six months now, ever since Sylvia got married.”
“That’s not what I meant. How long have you been screwing her?”
James hesitates, before adopting his patented firm-but-fair tone. “Jason, I have no idea what language passes for acceptable in your mother’s house, but that is certainly not acceptable in mine.”
Sensing tension in the air, Mrs. Martin mutters an excuse and hurries out, to dust in the next room. Whitney silently contemplates the six different flavours of jam huddled in the centre of the table, as his father pulls out a chair and sits down.
“I know it’s hard for you,” James says quietly, beginning his opening statement, trying to win over the jury. “But your mother and I haven’t seen eye to eye for years now. We’re not married anymore, Jason. I’m sure she’s dating other people. If you’re allowed to have a girlfriend, you can’t object to me seeing someone.”
The jury is not convinced. “Since when am I allowed to have a girlfriend?” Whitney demands, raising his voice more than he intends. “If I had a girlfriend you’d freak! You’d spend the whole fucking summer lecturing me on condoms and AIDS and parental responsibilities, and wondering if I’m on drugs.”
James looks at him levelly. “If you want to tell me something, Jason…”
“Dad, I’m fine.”
“I know I haven’t been there for you,” James says, “but you have to understand that your mother’s attitudes towards certain things really aren’t in your best interest. This isn’t the sixties anymore. It isn’t cool to be a long-haired hippie smoking marijuana all day. You have to straighten out.”
“Jesus Christ!” Whitney pushes back his chair and gets to his feet. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. You try to find anything but an A on my report cards. And you’re worried about my fucking hair? Jesus!” He doesn’t get angry very often, but his father seems to inspire him to new peaks of disbelief.
James sucks in a lungful of air, trying to maintain his barrister’s air of studied calm. “Jason, you’re sixteen. You’re a young man now, and I’m proud of you. But, honestly. Take a look at yourself. It was fine when you were a child, but you’ll be going to university soon. I’m not having your mother make you into a slacker.”
“You don’t say one more word about Mom,” Whitney says, pointing a shaking finger at his father. “At least she wanted me.” He scoops up his basketball from the floor. “And to hell with the Ashmolean.”
His only regret is that he’s too polite to slam the door.
For once the weather report is correct, and sunshine follows the rain showers. It’s still nothing approaching warm, although he passes many of the locals going without jackets on his meandering way through the city. He’s missing his jacket, too, but only because he couldn’t face going back to his room to pick it up. That is, if he even packed one. Despite his mother’s constant reminders, he still manages to overlook the obvious.
Whitney bounces his basketball from hand to hand as he walks. It’s been an hour or two, and there’s been no sign of anyone looking for him. No doubt his father has set off for work, assuming that his wayward son will come back when he’s tired or hungry. It worked when he was five.
Christ. He can’t even have one civil conversation with the man. For years, now, all his Dad has ever told him is to grow up, to be an adult. But have they ever managed one adult conversation between them? It’s as if all of his resentment and anger build up over the other eleven months of the year, spilling out in July to cause mayhem and hurt in their wake. Whitney wonders whether his Dad has the same problem, whether his apparent inability to communicate with his only child is a result of his own internal anxieties. If it is, there isn’t much Whitney can do about it. He’s not a marriage counsellor, or a child psychologist.
No one speaks to him, even though he must be the only six-foot blond basketball-playing teenager in town. He wishes he had his Walkman anyway. He never knows what to say.
Every summer, Whitney looks for a basketball court, and every summer he ends up shooting imaginary hoops on a soccer field, or through girls’ netball baskets. A couple of years ago he befriended some other exiled kids in the neighbourhood, but their families moved away. Today, the regular in-city sports grounds are crowded with too many children, so he heads for the mostly abandoned university fields. The austere surroundings are, he’s been told, meant to fill him with a sense of awe and wonder about the history and legacy of the place. Mostly they make him homesick for beaches and hotdogs and gaudy neon lights.
It’s noon by the time he gets there, but it’s disappointingly like it always is: lines of freshly cut grass, a team of teenage boys kicking a ball around, and a distinct lack of a basketball court. Whitney finds a wall to sit against, spins his basketball under one finger, and closes his eyes against the sun. He’ll have to go back eventually. It’s not as if he even has any British money in his pocket. And when he goes back, his father will claim a silent victory. There’s no way for him to win.
A steady thump-thump, thump-thump makes him open his eyes and blink at a dark figure outlined in the sunlight. The figure waves at him. “Hi,” an English accent says, as the thump-thump continues.
Whitney frowns, and shades his eyes. The stranger is a lanky, dark-haired boy of about seventeen or eighteen, with what is either a great tan for English weather, or some kind of Middle Eastern descent. For unknown reasons, he’s repeatedly throwing a small red ball against the wall, in the manner of Steve McQueen from The Great Escape. Whitney pulls his knees up to his chest, sitting up straight. “Um, hi?”
“Play any cricket?”
Whitney blinks. “Um.”
“Only, I’m trying out for the team next week, and I really need the practice.” The thump-thump stops, and the boy grins at him, picking up a long flat bat from the ground and holding it out. “Please?”
“Um, I don’t… I don’t know how to play.” Whitney scrambles to his feet anyway. There’s something about his new friend that inspires confidence. Perhaps it’s the fact of finding someone not as shy as he is.
The boy shrugs, and hands him the bat. “Just try to hit the ball. I’d do it with the wall, but it’s not much of a challenge.” He starts to walk backwards, measuring out the distance for his run-up. “So, you’re an exchange student or something?”
Whitney feels the weight of the bat in his hands. He’s played baseball, but never anything serious. “Something like that.” Maybe he looks older than sixteen, with his height, and the irritating beginnings of stubble he can never be bothered to shave.
“Uh… You’ve really never played before, have you?” The boy grins at him again, and jogs back, as Whitney lowers the bat and wonders what he was doing wrong. “This isn’t baseball. Here…” His fingers cover Whitney’s, showing him the correct way to hold the bat. “You’re left-handed? Cool. There. That’s it.”
As the boy stands back, approving of his new stance, Whitney grips the bat, afraid to move. “I’m going to mess this up.”
“Ah, so what?” The boy’s grin is infectious. “Always said the best way to learn is to teach.”
When he runs, and bowls the ball, it’s much, much faster than Whitney expected, and the bat only glances off it, sending it spinning away. “Crap,” Whitney mutters to himself. He should’ve done better than that.
“Not bad!” The boy yells, hurrying to pick up the ball.
Whitney smiles with sudden pride. “Not bad?”
“Yeah, but you’re too tense.” The boy walks back, rubbing the ball against his trousers to wipe away the dirt from damp grass. “You play basketball, right? Bet you’re pretty relaxed when you’re playing that. Loosen up a little.”
At least when he’s shooting hoops he can run around. He’s not sure how he can stay in one spot, holding the bat correctly, and relax. Whitney takes a deep breath, and gives it his best shot. This time, he at least hits the ball square on, and sends it into the melee of soccer kids. “Sorry!” he shouts, as the other boy runs to collect it.
He hopes he’s getting a little better at the end of an hour. At least his fast-bowler friend doesn’t seem to mind, and they’re both getting plenty of exercise running after stray balls.
“Want something to drink?” The boy calls, wiping sweat from his forehead.
Whitney switches hands, shaking his fingers. He’s still holding the bat as if he wants to crush it. “Uh, I don’t have any money. I mean, English money.”
The boy smiles. “Don’t worry. I take all currencies. Come on, there’s a newsagent’s just around the corner.”
In the hottest part of the afternoon, they drink lemonade and wander around the outskirts of the soccer field. Whitney has his basketball in the crook of one arm, as he sips lukewarm lemonade that tastes of aluminium. His new friend seems pleased – chuffed, he says – with one of Whitney’s dollar bills in return.
“I like your hair,” the boy says, interrupting his own monologue on cricket tryouts. His smile, for the first time that afternoon, is shy. “Like you’re a rock star or something.”
Whitney hopes he’s not turning bright red. “Nah, I can’t even sing.”
“Since when did that mean anything?” The boy crouches down in the grass underneath a tree, brushing his free hand over the blades before dropping to the ground. “It’s dry,” he says. “So what’s this situation with your parents?”
“It’s complicated.” Whitney sits, glad to have found someone with whom he can share his confusion. “My Mom lives in LA. My Dad lives here.” They’re hidden from the soccer field by the end of a thick hedge, but the curses of the younger boys can still be heard clearly.
“Why don’t you live here?”
Whitney sighs. “It’s a mess. They met in the States. Whirlwind romance, kind of thing. Eighteen months later they were married, they had me, and they realised they really had nothing in common. Dad says Mom agreed that we’d all live here, and then went back on it. Mom says she never said that, that she’d always assumed Dad would stay in LA permanently. So they had a big fight and Mom got me.”
“No brothers and sisters?” The boy lets out a long, low whistle. “I’d pay for that. I’ve got two full-time parents, and four other kids after my stuff.” He scratches his nose. “So how long’re you here for?”
“Six weeks. But I’d leave tonight if I could.” Whitney puts aside his empty can, and lies back in the grass. He can’t even pretend it’s the hot sand of Los Angeles, but he wants to be home, away from meaningless, repetitive confrontation with his father.
The other boy tilts his head, almost to his shoulder. His eyes are a warm, liquid brown. “Got a girlfriend back home?”
Whitney laughs. “Are you kidding me?” He’s too shy to even speak to girls. Or boys, for that matter.
“I dunno,” the boy shrugs. “You’re kind of… you know… cute.”
At that point it doesn’t occur to him that it’s an odd thing to hear, especially from a strange, dark boy in an English summer. It just seems like the same thing he’s been hearing for far too long. “Yeah…” he mutters, staring at the sky. “I wish I wasn’t.”
The boy kisses him.
It’s hardly anything, really. He’s had longer kisses from his mother’s embarrassing distant relatives at weddings and funerals. They’d pinch his cheeks and muss his hair and act as if he were some kind of overgrown puppy. This is quick, tentative, almost something that could be explained away as an accident. Whitney looks at him, wide-eyed, as his mind tries to process a hundred jumbled thoughts and feelings. He supposes his face must show the right one, because the boy kisses him again, and this time he realises that he likes it, that he wants it.
When the boy starts to pull away, Whitney holds him closer. This might never happen again. His previous record suggests he’ll have to wait at least another sixteen years to have someone else’s lips on his. “Are you okay?” the boy asks softly. He’s lying next to Whitney, now, his fingers entangled in blond hair.
Whitney doesn’t trust himself to speak. He’d make no sense – or worse, would make sense in a way he really didn’t intend. What the hell does he intend? For the first time in his life, kissing seems easier than talking. But, Jesus, he’s making out in a park with a boy. His father would kill him. Suddenly the presence of another tongue in his mouth isn’t odd at all. He tastes the sugar of lemonade, and forgets to be homesick.
The boy grasps Whitney’s hand, and guides it to his crotch. Whitney’s not too sure what he’s supposed to do – if he’s supposed to do anything – but his fingertips can feel the growing hardness there, and oh fuck he’s feeling another guy’s cock. Hyperventilating would be a moderate response. Is this it? Is this how it happens? Sex with a boy – a man – whose name he doesn’t even know, in the shade of a tree, outside, where anyone could walk by and see them. The thought makes him suddenly and intensely aware of the growing pressure against his boxer shorts. Shit. He’s getting hard, and for the first time he might actually have a use for it. He only hopes that the other boy has a better idea what to do than he does. It certainly seems that way.
The ground, rippled with tree roots, is unforgiving, and their position is awkward, but mostly all Whitney can think about is the hot, wet mouth on his, and the hips rocking against his hand, and being just as terrified to move as he was playing cricket. Reality breaks in as a surprisingly solid black-and-white checked ball curls around the hedge and smacks him on the forehead.
“Ow!” Whitney yelps, jumping to his feet, the picture of indignant anger. He rubs dirt from his temple, the passion of the last few minutes – or were they only seconds? – fading away. The boy laughs, and throws the ball one-handed back towards the soccer stars of the future.
“You all right?” he asks, and Whitney has no idea whether he’s concerned about a concussion, or a more emotional problem. “Shit,” he says, looking at his watch. “I have to pick my little sister up from playschool. Lost track of the time.” He grabs up his cricketing gear from the ground.
Whitney tucks his hair behind his ears, too nervous to say anything. Is he supposed to pretend that nothing happened? Maybe nothing did happen. Maybe it was all a delusion, a mistake, some kind of warped reality. But the other boy smiles at him, takes his hand, and stands on tiptoes to kiss him. “You’ll be here tomorrow, right? Same time?”
“Um, sure,” Whitney says, not sure whether he’s agreeing to cricket practice or an orgy.
“Cool. Well. See you then.” The boy releases his hand, takes a step backwards, and hurries off, swinging his bat.
Whitney stands and watches him leave.
In the evening he sits in the bath and picks bits of fern and pine needles out of his hair. No one had asked where he had been. Obviously the fact that he had survived the day was enough for his dad who, anyway, was in his study submerged in paperwork. Mrs. Martin had merely smiled, said something about the fresh air having a good effect on him, and promised him a good English dinner when he was ready.
The bath is too small for him, but there’s no shower in the whole house. Whitney’s grateful that they don’t still have outdoor privies. He walks his feet up the wall, and lies back so part of his head is underwater. Jesus. What a day. Six whole weeks lie before him, and what seemed an unbearable stretch of time now seems full of possibilities. He finally has a friend… A friend who he can imagine kissing tomorrow with a little less panic and a little more intent.
The phone rings, outside in the hallway, but Whitney ignores it. It goes off every quarter of an hour anyway. His fingers slide down the insides of his thighs, contemplating what it might feel like for someone else to stroke him there. Someone actually wants him, wants to spend time with him and touch him and maybe do more. No one’s ever even tried to kiss him before, even though he’s desperately wanted a few people to take an interest. Maybe he isn’t so ridiculous a figure as his dad thinks he is.
“Jason?” His father’s voice, and a knock on the wooden bathroom door.
Whitney sits up with a splash, his heart thumping against his chest as if he’s been caught jacking off in the bathtub. “Um. Yeah?”
A pause. “Your mother’s on the phone.”
“Oh.” He looks at himself, dripping with water. “Can it wait?”
Whitney stands up in the tub, grabs a towel, and wipes his face, throwing his soaked hair back. Why would his mother be calling? He already spoke to her last night. Usually she doesn’t miss him much over the summer, since he’s usually at the beach anyway. He ventures out into the hallway, towel tied around his waist, leaving dark footprints on the carpet. His dad is holding the receiver, and looking at him with a frown. “Here he is,” he says, and hands over the phone.
“Mom?” Whitney hates making phone calls, mainly because he can’t see the other person’s expressions. Is she happy, curled up on the couch with a glass of red wine and a good textbook? Did his dad tell her something? Is she mad at him for arguing this morning?
“Hi Jase.” She sounds tired. He can’t think why. It’s not even noon in California. “Did your Dad tell you?”
Whitney glances at James, standing a few feet away, wearing a concerned expression. “Tell me what?”
Another pause. “Grandma died last night, Jase. I just got back from the hospital. It was very sudden.”
“No, but…” His mind can’t quite process the information, but he can feel his body reacting, his breath catching, and a nagging prickling in his eyes.
“I talked to James. You can come home for the funeral, if you want to. Maybe we’ll arrange it so you can spend Christmas in England, okay?”
She’s trying to be the adult, he knows, trying to be matter-of-fact and pretend that she’s in charge, even when forces over which she has no control have just taken away her mother. Whitney swallows, and wishes he could put up a similar front. At least she can’t see the tears in his eyes. “Okay,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry, Mom.”
“I know, honey,” she says. “Me too. Me too.”
James hugs him when he puts down the phone, just holds him close even though he’s covered in water and his hair is sending streams down his back. “I’m sorry it never works out,” he mutters. “Always seems to happen this way, doesn’t it?”
“Uh-huh.” Whitney straightens up, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand in an effort to pretend that he hadn’t really been crying.
“Do you have a suit?” James asks, sizing him up. “You’d fit into one of mine, now. I’ll give you one to take with you.”
“No, I’ve got one.” If they still fit, he has the clothes his mother made him wear to the technology conference last year.
“Okay. Good. I’ll phone the airline, get a flight as soon as possible. Go and dry yourself off, okay? And first thing tomorrow I’ll take you to get your hair cut. No use looking like a street urchin at the funeral.” He pats Whitney’s arm, and turns away, picking up the phone once more.
Whit goes back to the bathroom, shuts the door, and leans back against it. Why can’t everything just work out for once? Something in him doesn’t want to leave, even to pay his respects, even to ditch dreary England and his father. He wants to go to the sports grounds tomorrow, to lie down in damp grass and be made to feel as if he’s fine just as he is. He wants to be kissed again, even just once. But he can’t stay.
He’ll get on a plane tomorrow, after his father has pulled strings and got him some cushy business class seat where he’ll be glared at by doctors and lawyers for having his Walkman turned up too loud. He’ll go to the funeral and wear an uncomfortable suit and be sad and embarrassed at the same time. He’ll think of that mysterious boy, waiting for him.
He knows he’s never coming back.
Wee Damn Table