To have sex or not?

One night, shortly after Gary fell asleep, love squeezed Bill's insides so hard that his hands sprang forward like claws. Last of three parts.

Topics: Fiction, AIDS, Sex, Love and Sex,

To have sex or not?

Bill thought a lot about having sex with Gary. He didn’t want to have sex, and then he did. He told himself over and over that he wasn’t really attracted to him, but night after night he felt his body breathe to Gary’s rhythm. He sometimes lay awake till early in the morning, the sheets pressed crisp and smooth against his back, his flesh alive and simmering.

One night, shortly after Gary fell asleep, love squeezed Bill’s insides so hard that his hands sprang forward like claws. They stroked Gary’s shoulder blades, the moon-shaped scar on his forearm, even the excess folds of flesh around his waist. Gary stirred a little and released a loud snore. Bill snatched his hands back and calmed them down by jacking off in the bathroom. He imagined himself rubbing his body up and down Gary’s.

Over time, their cuddling shifted up a gear. They rolled around and grazed their lips together. But whenever they brushed against the prickly border between tenderness and lust, Gary pulled back. Bill was always a bit relieved. He knew and feared his own capacity for sexual disgust. But he was disappointed too, and angry, each time Gary robbed them of the chance to consummate their togetherness.

One evening, Bill leaned over, trailed his tongue along the rim of Gary’s ear and traced a finger from Gary’s left nipple down over his paunch toward his crotch.

Gary moaned, then shoved Bill’s hand off and jerked back to the edge of the bed. “I don’t want to do that.”

Bill rolled over and switched on the lamp next to the bed. “Why not?”

“I just don’t, that’s all.”

“Well, excuse me, but ‘I just don’t’ is not an answer. You have to at least pretend to give me some sort of reason.”

“Look, why do you want to push it? We’ve gotten along this well without that. Why can’t we continue like that? We agreed not to fuck. We’re ‘loving friends,’ remember?”

The phrase, which Bill had once welcomed, suddenly enraged him. “Oh, fuck that.” He heard himself yelling, and it felt good. He knew he wasn’t being fair, but he didn’t care. “Let’s inhabit the real world here. It’s hard to be in bed all the time and not have sex. Why don’t we at least try it?”



Gary raised his knees up under the covers and rested his head on them. “I thought you understood. This discussion is exactly the problem.” He looked at Bill. “Don’t you get it? I’m so happy you’re here with me. I’m so grateful for how much you’ve done, how much you do. But if we start to fuck — ”

“Is it about the HIV? I mean, of course we’d do everything safely.”

“Oh, don’t be absurd, I know that. It’s not about that at all.”

“Then what?”

Gary stepped out of bed and into the bathroom. “Look,” he called from behind the door, “a lot of it is that I can be as much of a fucked-up asshole in relationships as anyone else can. These things make me crazy sometimes, and I just can’t deal with it now. I only have so much energy, and I don’t want to risk rocking the boat.”

Bill listened. He understood Gary’s perspective and knew it made sense. He couldn’t predict what would happen if they did have sex. But his anger swelled anyway.

Gary flushed the toilet emphatically, and reappeared. He leaned against the door frame, looked at Bill and trembled a little; then he quickly folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t you see?” he said. “I can’t lose you. I don’t know what I’d do if I did. And the ups and downs of sex and all that — I can’t deal with it.” He looked away. “I want you to stay. God, I want you to stay. But you have to accept the limits.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Bill stayed that night, but anger settled in his chest like a lump of wet clay. The next afternoon they were sitting at Gary’s kitchen table. Gary slurped chicken soup. Bill was reading a guidebook about Spain. He’d always wanted to visit Spain. Now he felt as if he never would. He flexed his back and stretched out his arms. He noticed hairline cracks in the plaster of the ceiling. The room heaved in on him. He despised everything about it. He despised everything about the apartment, too, and the neighborhood and the city.

He focused his eyes on Gary, who hadn’t shaved for a week. Gary’s face looked like crumpled paper. Bill tried to suppress his irritation — at Gary’s illness, his dependence, his stubbornness about sex — but the feeling still bristled just under his skin. I should leave and not come back, Bill thought to himself. At least I should tell him I’m leaving. I could tell him, and watch his face collapse. His body will slump at the chair, as if his insides have crumbled, and he won’t cry, but his eyes will stare at everything, at nothing. I could do that and watch it happen. I could make that happen.

Bill knew he shouldn’t enjoy the ripple of power that surged down his spine. But he did, and the words vaulted up his throat. “I’m leaving,” he said.

Gary smiled vaguely, spoon poised halfway to his mouth. He has no idea, Bill said to himself. “I’m leaving,” he said again, and then he saw the creases around Gary’s eyes, the kindness there, and the moment passed.

“I’ve got to go out for a while,” he said.

He walked to Bell Market, bought some carrot juice and milk and frozen chicken legs, and stopped off at Barbara’s house on the way back. She lived a few blocks from the store. Frank, the plumber, answered the door. He spent most of his spare time at her place now. Bill approved. He liked Frank, and knew Barbara kept him up-to-date on what was happening with Gary.

Frank was bald and bony. He loved pipes. He had a California approach to plumbing. While he worked, he stroked the pipes and chatted with them. “Leaks are a symptom, and you gotta make the pipes feel involved in the repair process,” he told Bill once. Whenever Frank talked about pipes, his face lit up, as if someone had switched on floodlights around his neck. The same thing happened whenever he talked about Barbara.

Frank smiled when he saw Bill. “Hey, what’s up? Barbara’s baking brownies. I’ll go get her.”

“Brownies? But Barbara doesn’t bake.”

“She does now,” said Frank. “This week she made cheesecake and pumpernickel bread. Really delicious.”

Bill hung up his coat and slumped onto the couch. He contemplated this peculiar culinary turn of events. Barbara came into the living room, wiping her hands with a paper towel. She grinned sheepishly. “I know, I know, I hate baking. But we’re abstaining.”

“Abstaining from what?”

She settled down next to him and patted his leg. “From sex. So I need to keep my hands, you know, busy. Chopping, beating, grating.”

“But I thought you have such great sex.”

“We do, that’s just it. Sometimes I think that all we have is great sex. We could fuck all day and never say anything. I mean, I’m not complaining, but it’s gotten a little ridiculous.”

“And Frank supports this?”

“He suggested it, last week. At first I was so pissed I threw a plate at him. Well, in his direction, anyway.” She laughed. “I thought he was trying to dump me slowly, but now I think it’s a great idea.” She licked a glob of brownie batter off her pinky. “The first couple of days were tough, but this week I think we’ve settled into a really good rhythm.”

“A really good rhythm of not having sex?”

She put her arm around Bill. “I know, it sounds odd. We just wanted to see how we do without it — what we can do together besides that. It’s only for a month or so.”

“And?” Bill stared at the vase of roses on a bookshelf across the room. He thought he’d never seen roses so red.

“Well, we’ve been reading to each other. I mean, not ‘War and Peace’ or, you know, Plato. Ann Landers, “The Happy Hooker,” that kind of thing. Then there’s the baking. He helps with that. We’re putting on a little weight.” She patted her stomach. It looked the same to Bill. “But the smallest things now turn me on. Just watching him knead bread dough yesterday really pushed me over the edge. I mean, his hands — so bony and firm. And that kneading.” She shivered a little. “Whoa!”

Barbara smiled in a vague, Mona Lisa sort of way that irritated Bill. Frank came in from the kitchen with a plate of toasted pumpernickel bread and butter. He noticed Barbara’s misty gaze. “She’s told you,” he said to Bill.

“Yeah, and I think you’re both crazy.”

Frank chuckled and put the plate on the coffee table next to Bill. “Why? Now we’ll be just like you and Gary. I think it’s great what you’re doing. It’s sort of pure. You’re not having sex, so you know it must be love. I mean, what could be better?”

Bill sighed. “Yeah, me and Gary, the happy couple.” He spread butter on the bread, took a bite, stood up and paced across the floor, chewing. Barbara and Frank watched him. He swallowed and sat back down.

“I almost told him I was leaving him just now.”

“You did?” said Barbara.

“Yes. I mean, I didn’t tell him; I thought I was going to tell him.”

“And what happened?”

Bill wondered why Barbara sounded so calm. “Well, I went to the store instead. But I felt awful about it.” He took another bite of bread. “This is good.”

“So what’s the problem?” said Barbara.

“What do you mean? I really wanted to leave him. I’m an asshole.”

Frank looked at Barbara. “I don’t get it. He’s never allowed to feel that he’d like to leave?”

Bill waved his hand in exasperation. “But what if Gary knew?”

Barbara whistled. “Wait a minute. You think he doesn’t know?”

“How could he know?”

“Because he’s not stupid. You think that he thinks you’re loving every minute of this? Come on! Why wouldn’t you want to leave sometimes? Everybody does.” She laughed. “Call me when you have a real problem — like the dishwasher’s busted.”

“Well, that’s when you should call me,” said Frank.

“But — ”

She grabbed his hand and slapped it. “Look, don’t you see? People love each other, then other times they don’t. They fuck, and then they don’t. It’s normal.” Her voice softened. “Actually, it’s all nuts, but it’s just part of the deal. One person can’t stand the way the other one sings ‘I Feel Pretty’ while vacuuming. Then they fall back in love with the scar on their ass or with how they say ‘Pass the ketchup.’”

“But I don’t have a scar on my ass and she hates ketchup,” said Frank.

Bill stared at them. They didn’t understand anything, and their repartee was pissing him off. They all chatted for a few more minutes. Frank mentioned some great pipes he was unclogging over on Valencia Street and Barbara enthused about her plan to bake butterscotch Bundt cake over the weekend.

Bill retreated to Gary’s, and stayed.

Bill was staring out the living room window, thinking about shit. He disliked shit but was thinking about it because Gary’s health had taken another downward slide and he had just soiled himself for the first time. Right now Bill hated Gary for soiling himself. He knew that he would have to start tucking Gary into diapers, and he hated that, too. Gary could barely speak, but he would resist the diapers, and Bill would have to force him to wear them.

The thought nauseated him. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips on his eyelids. A desire to flee whacked his insides again. If he really loved Gary the way he was supposed to, he asked himself, would shit and diapers be so repulsive to him?

Bill would have preferred not to think about shit and diapers, but he couldn’t get his mind off them. He was embarrassed to acknowledge, even to himself, that he sometimes felt compelled to examine his own shit — shape, size, texture — and to decide whether it was good or bad. If it squeezed out smooth and waxy, it was good; if it required more than a few wipes, it was bad. But he knew it wasn’t always like that, because sometimes the bad ones felt good on the way out if the circumference was right, not too narrow and not too wide.

Bill sighed. Even shit was complicated.

While Sue, the home health aide, cleaned up Gary in the bedroom, Bill sat on the couch, brooding and staring out the window. He noticed a “For Rent” sign stuck on the fence in front of the house across the street. He wondered what was happening with the tenant there, a portly, balding man who always carried a small red umbrella. Two teenage girls, one of them wearing an Oakland A’s baseball cap, strolled by arm in arm, giggling. A Toyota Corolla — late ’80s, Bill guessed — whizzed by. The driver looked about 50.

Bill wondered if the driver grew up in San Francisco, and if his mother ever pricked her fingers on safety pins when she put on his diapers. He wondered if the driver was wearing diapers now, and if they were cloth diapers or Pampers, and if he had ever worn diapers while in Barcelona, and what the temperature was now in Barcelona, anyway, or in Tel Aviv, or Rangoon, or anywhere but in San Francisco on this dank, dismal Saturday in the middle of February.

He returned to the bedroom. Sue had somehow changed the sheets and cleaned up Gary without removing him from the bed. He was already asleep, and his mouth hung open. Bill stood over him, still feeling angry but ashamed of feeling angry. He noticed the bright sheen of Gary’s skin, and how his face looked like it was collapsing from within, which it more or less was. Gary smelled of soap and talcum powder. A drop of spit curled down his jaw. Whenever Gary woke up there was a damp spot on the pillow the size of an orange.

“He’ll sleep for a while, I think,” said Sue. As usual, she was wearing too much lipstick, and some had rubbed off on her cheek.

“I hope so,” said Bill.

The lipstick was Sue’s concession to femininity. She was big-boned, brawny and not too bright, but she was good-natured and she loved Gary, so Bill was relieved to have her around. She came at 10 in the morning and sometimes hummed “Oh, Susannah!” while she cooked and ironed. Occasionally the agency sent over John instead. He was smarter but not as strong, and he talked too much about Estelle and Binky, his two Siamese cats. Bill hated cats, so he preferred Sue.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Bill left Gary with Sue and walked slowly to Walgreens. The air prickled his face. At the store, he spent 15 minutes contemplating the ice-cream choices. He pretended he was having trouble deciding, but he knew he just wanted to delay the visit to the diaper aisle. He picked up a pint of Cherry Garcia, scanned the list of ingredients, put it back on the shelf, ran his finger across the top of a package of Dove Bars, scratched his ear, grabbed a different container of Cherry Garcia, scanned the list of ingredients and put it in his basket.

He knew the diapers were stacked in the next aisle, near the bathroom and laundry supplies. Just two days earlier he’d noticed a man, handsome and coifed in an annoyingly perfect way, stroll down that aisle. Bill had seen him in the bars and could almost picture the man’s perfect car and perfect house, his perfect dog and perfect relationship and perfect china. The man plucked one of the big boxes from the shelves and, with perfect nonchalance, tossed it into his shopping basket, as if diapers were a normal part of every gay man’s hygienic regimen. Bill hated him.

Today Bill didn’t notice any shoppers nearby. He inched around the corner and glanced right and left. A scrawny clerk hunched over at the other end of the aisle, stamping prices on metal cans of juice or canned peas. Bill was not sure why he felt so self-conscious, and then felt self-conscious about feeling self-conscious. He heard a high-pitched ringing inside his ears. He shook his head quickly, like a horse scattering flies. The sound dimmed but didn’t disappear.

He stared at the dozens of diaper boxes stacked in front of him. He selected a package of Pampers and tossed it in the basket. Extra-large. Good. Gary would appreciate that.

No, he knew, Gary would not appreciate it.

When he returned, Gary was still asleep. Bill dished out some ice cream into a coffee mug and ate it slowly. He let each spoonful melt in his mouth. He considered ways to raise the topic of diapers: “You know, Gary, your body is telling you that …”; “I know this is horrible to do to you, but …”; “I’m too grossed out to have to clean you up every time …”

No approach felt right. More important, Bill was sure that none would produce the desired effect. Barbara was planning to come over that evening, and Bill decided to enlist her help. When she arrived, Bill brewed tea and quietly explained the situation. Barbara listened without speaking. Bill thought she flinched a little when he first said the word “diaper,” but he wasn’t sure. After he finished, she nodded.

Barbara marched into the bedroom. Bill followed close behind. Gary had just woken up and was looking at his hands. “You butthole,” she yelled at Gary.

He grinned weakly and grunted. Barbara looked at Bill.

“He said, ‘Fuck you.’”

She glared back at Gary. “No, fuck you, shithead, for ruining all my weekends.” She sat by Gary on the bed and picked up his hand. She stroked his palm. “I’ve always thought you had great lines here. Remember the time we got stoned at Stinson Beach and spent the day reading each other’s palms?”

Gary’s face gleamed behind its pale mask.

“You told me I’d have a great love life, and I told you you’d live a long time. Hah! I hadn’t yet seen any of the carpenters or welders, so I thought maybe you were right. And that was before you got yourself knocked up, you jerk.”

Barbara stopped speaking. She squinted and focused her eyes on something, anything, in a far corner of the room. “Gary, listen, you really gotta wear diapers.”

His eyes darted back and forth between Bill and Barbara. He shook his head a little.

She tried again, “GARY — ”

He turned his head and refused to look at her.

“Gary, you can’t …”

“No!” He sputtered clearly. He closed his eyes, and in three minutes his breath settled into a lazy wheeze. Bill thought at first that he was faking it, but then decided that he was actually asleep. Barbara gingerly climbed off the bed. She leaned over, brushed a few hairs off Gary’s cheek and kissed him. Then she and Bill settled down on the living room couch.

“I can’t take much more of this,” Bill said. “I don’t want to clean up his shit. I just can’t do it.”

“It’s only shit. No one ever said that you have to love it just because it’s his.”

Bill talked as if he hadn’t heard her. “Today when it happened, I really hated him. It frightened me. I couldn’t even control it.”

Barbara put her arm around him. “You’ve been strong so long, child, you just have to go on being strong.”

Bill rolled his eyes. “Mammy to Scarlett, when she can’t pay the taxes on Tara and Mammy makes her a dress from the curtains.”

Barbara laughed. “You know, they did know something back then. And Mammy was the wisest one of the bunch.”

“Well, I don’t see how making a new dress from the curtains will help. And anyway, that was Scarlett’s idea.”

She poked his stomach. “You know what I mean.”

He sighed. “No, I don’t. Sometimes the whole thing … Sometimes it seems like what we’ve had is wonderful, and sometimes it just seems pathetic. And then sometimes I think I’m crazy that I’m still obsessing about the sex. But doesn’t it make the whole thing a lie? I mean, that we haven’t had sex.”

Barbara’s voice was as soft as a pillow. “I could tell you ‘no,’ and it wouldn’t make a difference if you didn’t already believe it.”

He rested his head on her shoulder. “I suppose.” They sat in silence for a while. “How’s Frank?” he finally asked.

“Good, fine. Things are great. I think if he and I stay together, we’ll take a sex break every year. Sort of keeps it fresh, you know?” She paused. “I guess this is it, right?”

“Yeah.”

“How much time?”

“Hard to say. A week? The doctors don’t like it when you ask.”

She plucked an apple from a basket of fruit on the coffee table. “Look, if it would make you feel better, maybe you guys should think about, you know, doing it finally.” She inspected the apple and bit into it.

“Barbara, he’s incontinent!”

“So, everybody’s got their flaws. I mean, I know you guys wanted to get to know each other first, but this is a little ridiculous.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

By the time Barbara left, Bill was too tired to deal with the diaper question and decided to put it off until morning. But when he awoke, he sensed immediately that Gary had had another accident. Bill flung off the covers but was afraid to look at Gary or at the mess because he thought he might yell at him, and he didn’t want to yell. He opened his mouth to call out to Sue, but then remembered that she wasn’t there and wouldn’t be for hours. He briefly considered leaving it for her to cope with later, but knew right away that he couldn’t do that.

Bill woke up Gary and managed to maneuver him to the bathroom, pull down his pajama bottoms and position him on the toilet. He grabbed a sponge and brusquely, angrily, wiped the shit off Gary’s legs. He steeled himself for a wave of nausea, and it arrived, but just barely, and then disappeared, like a momentary blip on the radar screen of his consciousness. Its disappearance confused him. He was sure it was a ruse, his mind toying with him, and that the nausea was lurking somewhere, behind the couch or out in the bushes. He left to get some more sponges from the kitchen, and heard Gary say, “Now I’m gonna make you earn that survivor’s guilt, asshole,” and then he heard Gary chuckle.

Bubbles of sweat swelled on Bill’s upper lip, and when he returned to the bathroom he stared at Gary, who locked his opaque gaze back on Bill. Gary’s eyes gave away nothing. The morning light soaked the room, and Gary’s face glowed a little, like a just-washed dinner plate. Now the light shifted and the glow enveloped Bill, too, who squinted hard and raised his hands, as if to balance or protect himself, and then he was drenched in warmth. It’s just the sun, he told himself, and then he heard Gary’s voice again, and Gary’s chuckle. He opened his eyes wide and Gary’s face glowed a little brighter, and then it faded.

Bill noticed how old Gary looked, how tired and how ready to die. He knew Gary hadn’t really spoken and chuckled; he knew he’d imagined it and that Gary was just about gone and might soon be spreading his kindness around some other realm, if another realm existed, which Bill doubted. The heat of the sun still stroked Bill’s body, and suddenly he wondered if it mattered whether Gary spoke, or whether he’d just imagined it, because to imagine that Gary had spoken and chuckled was all Bill had left, and somehow it had to be enough.

A car honked somewhere and Bill remembered Gary’s shit, and he wiped him off some more with the unused sponge in his hand. He was about to throw the sponge into the garbage, but then his arm lifted it to his nose. It smelled like shit. Bill laughed. He realized that, for a moment, he believed it would smell, well, not like petunias but mildly tart, like grapefruit juice or asparagus.

He stared at it. Gary’s shit was soft but lumpy, and very brown. He wanted to name the color, like a paint store sample: not “fudge” — too obvious — but perhaps “volcano,” or “wet dirt.” He resisted the urge to stick his hand in and finger-paint flowers and cows on large blank pieces of paper. Maybe he should make shamans and spirals with it, and hang it over the bed for Gary.

He felt a little giddy now and overwhelmed with something. He sensed that a significant moment was about to crest, but he wasn’t sure why or about what. Then he thought of Helen Keller at the end of the movie when Anne Bancroft smashed Patty Duke’s hand against the pump and the water gushed out every which way so Helen finally realized that “wawa” was water, and the world cracked open for her. Bill murmured “water” and was startled to hear his own voice, then grinned because he didn’t believe in moments of revelation anyway and because comparing himself to Helen Keller was just absurd and embarrassing. Thank God he didn’t have to tell anyone about it.

Gary groaned, and Bill glanced up at him. I’m playing miracle worker and he just wants to get cleaned up and back to bed, Bill thought. He threw the sponge in the garbage and grabbed another clean one to wipe away the remnants. He made sure he got it all, then wiped Gary off with a fourth sponge for security.

He left Gary on the toilet for a moment while he changed the sheets. He grabbed another pair of pajama bottoms for Gary and tossed them on a chair, then maneuvered Gary back to a sitting position on the bed. As he started to pull the pajamas on, he felt Gary tense his legs. Bill looked up, puzzled, and followed Gary’s gaze, which had settled on the Pampers box on top of the television. Bill had forgotten about the diapers, and was surprised Gary would bring it to his attention. He went over to the box and ripped off the top, then pulled one out. When he returned to the bed, he hesitated. He didn’t want to put the diaper on Gary; Gary’s acceptance of it, he realized, meant the end was near.

But he knew he had to. He leaned Gary back awkwardly and slipped the diaper underneath him. He grabbed the sticky flaps in the back and fastened them gently to the front. He fluffed the diaper up around Gary, then pulled up his pajamas.

He hugged Gary tightly and licked his neck, absorbing the taste of sweat and sickness. “OK, back to bed,” he said, easing Gary to a lying position.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Gary slept most of the day. That evening, when Bill leaned over to kiss his ghostly face goodnight, Gary’s eyes were closed, but Bill could tell he was awake. Bill rested one hand on Gary’s chest. A tremor of love or lust — he wasn’t sure which — slid down the center of Bill’s back. He lifted a leg across Gary’s body and gingerly climbed on top of him.

Gary’s eyes, 3 inches from his own, were sunk deep in their sockets, and for a moment Bill imagined Gary was already dead. With a little moan, Bill rocked back and forth slowly, his torso pressing into Gary’s. He positioned himself so that his groin brushed Gary’s fingers. “If this is all right, squeeze me,” he said softly.

He paused. Nothing. Then he heard or felt the rustle of Gary’s hand, and Gary grasped him, and Bill gasped at the force of the grasp, and he hardened, and then Gary’s grip relaxed and Bill started again slowly, swaying, rocking. He felt Gary shift under him, slightly, but definitely moving, guiding him, the pressure swelling, and then he heard the crackle of the diaper. He tried to be gentle, quiet, and listened for the sweet hum of motion. Gary mumbled something. His breath, sticky and medicinal, grazed Bill’s cheek. Bill gasped again and took a great gulp of air, which blasted down his throat and ignited his lungs.

He shivered then and balanced on the edge, and pulled back a little, then rocked again and remembered Gary’s diapers, and Helen Keller, and his own impending widowhood, and Gary’s kind, sad eyes, and he was so full of everything that the room wobbled and the walls danced and his back arched high, and then he couldn’t breathe and he released a barrage of feral yelps.

A monstrous wave flooded his insides and smashed out through his dick, and he splattered all over Gary’s green T-shirt.

For a few seconds, he knew nothing, then saw only the floor. His mind exhumed the memory of being 11 years old and shooting for the first time, and for a moment Bill thought that he was 11 years old again and astonished at the enormous quantity of goop that had just spurted out of him. Then Bill believed that he was asleep, then that he was dead, then that Gary was dead, but then he knew he was not 11 years old or dead or asleep but awake, and that Gary was alive but close to death beneath him.

Bill felt weightless and pure as he lay on Gary. His body rose and settled with Gary’s breath. His semen seeped from Gary’s shirt through his own, and when he finally got up, the sticky shirts separated with a thick pop. He touched the wet spot on Gary’s shirt and rubbed his hand in it, making it foam a little. He went to the dresser and pulled out a clean shirt, then returned to the bed and started to remove the one Gary was wearing.

Gary grunted with what sounded to Bill like annoyance. Bill looked at him, surprised. “You want to keep that T-shirt on instead of a clean one?”

Gary’s eyes were still closed, but it seemed to Bill that he nodded his head slightly. Bill tossed the shirt on a chair, went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. He raised a leg to step in, then changed his mind and switched the water off. He climbed back into bed with Gary.

Bill ran his hand along the sharp stubble of Gary’s jaw, then caressed his shoulder and the thick veins on his neck. He slipped his fingers under Gary’s moist shirt and pressed his lips against Gary’s temple. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Gary’s mouth moved a little, and he seemed to be saying “No” or “I know,” but Bill couldn’t tell for sure.

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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