"Abandon all hope," Francis said.
We stood, fingers loosely curled over the rope ladder's rungs, gazing up at an oval of filthy white light. He was matter of fact, Francis was: straightforward when sloshed. His pompadour oozed grease; his pale face wafted bloated, moonpocked; his cig trembled close to his chin. He was hiding his mouth with his fag, an old trick, bar friends said. Through a Guinness fog, I scrutinized the grimed half-moons of his cuticles then bit my own nail, hard; the calcium cracked.
And suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to touch and savor that mouth, to intuit all his orifices, to glimpse the exact secret place in the woods where he might squat in the mote-floating silence of whippoorwills and a quickening murder of crows to shit then sleep curled in leaves.
I wanted—hell—to memorize the lair where he concealed himself during daylight, painting, which, his friends insisted, was the only thing he lived for.
"Want to take a look?" he asked, and pinched the cig between his lips then set the rope ladder swinging with his left oxford.
"I've nothing better to do," I said. Sweating.
He grabbed the ladder. "It's a privilege," he said. "A fucking privilege, for princess or peon. Not everybody gets to see it."
"What? You want me to beg?"
He dropped ash on his suitcoat then. It seared a tiny hole in the fabric; he smeared the ash, wincing, around. "That would be nice," he said, almost shyly. "That would be lovely," he added, and his face, creasing, revealed all of its skeletal curves and shinings, and I understood as deeply as a death wish that I needed to enter that lair.
It wasn't like a shock or a dream though at first I thought it might be. When I was a very young boy, having breakfast with my father, the sun spreading warm and yellow across the tablecloth, our shiny black shoes, our starched white socks, I thought, This is it. This is what I've been put on this Earth for—to live inside this moment, having breakfast with my pops. Nothing darker. Nothing purer. Nothing . . . else.
I wasn't ashamed of the sentimentality or the poetry, either, though of course I was disappointed when I woke.
Now, my father was dead; I worked for scraps and farthings in an accountant's office, and I was both a queer and a failed painter, it seemed.
Except—with any luck—a man destined to consummate his love.
The brightness as we ascended. The cheeky bulge of Francis's ass in too tight trousers, swaying underwaterlike, which suited me fine, being a man who loved not only other men but also the sea. It was one of the great sorrows of my life that I wanted to set sail permanently, forget my loneliness, my dirty little life, yet I couldn't: I was seized by aquaphobia. Fear of drowning.
Still, terrified, I craved it, too—isn't that the paradox? Perhaps the climb up that ladder to Francis's studio was brief, but I wouldn't've known. The green sealight washed over me, staining my fist sinews as, knotting, they gripped the rope. A distant waft of nausea. Rage. Francis's dark socks slid around his ankles; even through the heat and gasp of my breathing, I became aware—as one is attuned to the most sensual element in one's surroundings—of the black bristle and stubble I could sight along his calves, of the pendulous meat of his buttocks as he climbed, heaving ragged breaths, for Francis wore a tight white roll of belly fat and was in much worse physical condition than I.
And—just when my arms sagged and I was certain they would drop—the green light receded into dark-rimmed shadow; the white light opened tenderly as a pale mouth, and we were inside.
It wasn't a shock or a dream though my leg bones felt fragile as I stepped off the ladder, grabbed Francis's hand. It was, instead, like stepping into the snow, dropping flat onto my back, eating mouthfuls of crackling ice then waiting for drifts to bury me. Like stepping aboard a ship slicing into black waves: another moonless night.
Like encountering the newspapers, slit canvases, crumpled photos, the delicate furred dust I'd dreamed of all my life, even, I sensed, in the womb.
"You're half-lampin' it, Francis," I whispered.
But he didn't hear.
There was no place in that shithole and eyefeast of filth for the gaze to fasten upon, for the garbage was so steeped and dark, so richly pressing, lavishly perfumed, that neither of us could move a half inch.
"Spot of tea," Francis said, and stepped over a dilapidated photo box. As he crossed over, the photos, ripped and stained along the edges, seemed to curl in invitation, but it was only the temptation of decay, of spots and rust and mold, a dark odor—like a soaked and filthy sheet—fluttering off the manifold faces of the man, George Dyer, whom I recognized from the bar, a densely built and good-looking satyr whose every effeminate fingerwag bespoke tragedy.
And, above the teeming photo boxes, the yellowing newspaper cutouts of dead accident victims tacked to the wall; the age-browned photos that seemed culled from a sporting manual, frozen and staged-looking shots of male wrestlers.
And, on four sides, the bloodlike walls he used as his palette.
He came back before I recovered, bearing two tiny cups. "Earl Grey," he said, nodding toward a couch. "A touch of lemon. Hope it's the way you like it."
I sat down after he did. The couch's springs were rotting, the cushions unnaturally soft. They groaned as they buckled, pushed us toward each other. The meat of his right thigh and my left thigh pressed; I shivered, tried not to show it. I steadied my teacup on my trousers knee, laughed. I wasn't uncomfortable; the intimacy—in fact!— exhilarated me. I imagined our respective thighs fabricless and without adornment; touching as they would, there'd be something vulnerable, lovely, about our solid flesh melding, the dark hairs standing erect, the very sides of our thighs mating. It was an unseemly thought, a comical image—ridiculous, even, depending on how you viewed it.
But I viewed it as a lover. As a lover who wanted to be annihilated. I pictured our white bodies clasped. Unrobed. I pictured that large white head, the face bloated with drink and drugs, against my shoulder, with a blurred intensity that came, I suppose, from dreaming of paintings and ships and Francis and snow. I dreamed of us sleeping—just sleeping—on that bedraggled green couch, our limbs entangled, our teacups drained.
When I woke, it was dark—so dark the trash seemed to shift into strange, blunted shapes—and Francis was slumped against me, his face fractured by shadows that, when I lifted my gaze, fluttered like large, dark moths through the studio.
The rush and beat of their wings was my heart.
He stayed asleep then, his head tilted away. But his mouth gently open, the pallor of his thin lips parting, the warm darkness of his throat.
I caressed his throat, stroked his Adam's apple, the cursory blue glaze of beard, though he never knew it because he slept.
My childhood was filled with dreams of ships and the sea. When I wasn't leafing through my father's oversized tomes on cutter ships, freighters, and his lone, frightening obsession—that seemed portentous in some way I couldn't quite fathom then—with the Titanic, I dreamed of standing starboard as a black-rose brightened the sky and the waves went smooth and shining and I was dancing in the ballroom as the Titanic's hull filled with surging waves of white and we were all holding hands and singing as the water covered our mouths.
My father's ship went down, yes.
And he drowned.
But, long before he passed, with the morbid cast of mind that's common, I suppose, in lonely and precocious boys, when I wasn't succumbing to daydreams of tramping my way on a freighter across the Pacific, I was reveling in the much odder dream of smotherment that I'd encountered much by accident though—since that first event—I'd dwelled on little else.
It happened the first time I witnessed a sizable snow mound. I can't even remember where we were living, I and my mum and my father, for we spent a fair amount of time, when I was young, traveling in the States as my father docked in this port or that, and it could have been this little scene I grew to embellish and savor, my entire life could have happened in one of the colder climes I experienced: Detroit or Fargo. Bismark or Fairbanks.
It was a mound of snow. Just a mound of snow that I glimpsed, stepping into our yard. But—for a particularly precocious boy, as I was—every sight that strikes the retinas entails a type of visioning; every visioning entails a dream.
The snow mound wasn't clean—twigs and flecks and longer smears of mud mixed in—but it was gargantuan.
I approached. I should have worn mittens (as my mum had advised) but my hand, a bleached, useless-looking thing, trembled before the mound.
I watched it as if detached, that hand, its trembling not a product of my own agitated nervous system but as repulsive as anything mangled and white crawling across a floor.
All hands on deck.
If I encountered that hand in a dream, I'd want nothing so much as to trap it against the floor with my oxford, lean all my weight forward until the mesmerizing splinter of bones.
I watched the hand quiver before the snow mound, the fingers pathetic. Reddening. Swollen.
Then, I plunged my hand into the snow.
My skin froze. For a second I thought of screaming; I restrained myself, and the impulse passed. Slowly then, with more care, perhaps, than was necessary, I extracted my hand, examined it with the curious distaste with which I regarded unaesthetic objects. It glittered in large, irregular patches of a blackened white, a mottled red. I touched the fingers, stroked the bones; how rigidly they glimmered, though the bags and sags of my skin tightened, quivered, the hectic scarlet of nothing I'd dreamed.
I thrust the fingers into my mouth, warmed them across my tongue, satisfied when they came aching back to life.
If I had made love to Francis while he slept, what would have happened that hadn't already happened via the snow mound where I dreamed of heavy white drifts covering me?
What would have happened that hadn't already happened via my nightmares of walking stalwart through the Titanic's ephemeral green ballrooms as, roaring, the ship upended and people fell screaming from the floor to the ceiling, clung to chandeliers?
My father was dead.
I touched the fabric of Francis's pants, very gently over the knee, where the fabric was most worn, where the rubbed polyester had a glimmer of something that's been rubbed, massaged. His face, in the pale but intensifying windowlight, possessed the blunt, lively ugliness of a sea monster's.
When I'd first wanted to go to sea, the water appeared always in my sleep as a flat glimmering thread that, tugged taut, tossed off a glare that made even my retinas feel numb. Gradually, in my dreams, the sea darkened until its reflectionless surface represented some darkness my mind could never illuminate, the sensation of swelling lungs, the absence of sound something beautiful and twisted, horrible and lovely as I sank round-mouthed yet weightless, my arms wafting out when I relaxed into my drowning. Smotherment, what was smotherment—what could it be except some masochistic satisfaction more gratifying than love?
My father was dead.
I looked at Francis and pictured him filling my mouth.
I gazed around at his paint-splashed studio walls and door, the mountains of insect-riddled newspapers, shredded, yellowing photos, the weight of those mountains easing over me, pinning me till I slept.
And I wanted never to leave.
And it came to me, studying the paint splotches blossoming across walls, the gigantic, dried roundnesses that glowed like liquid roses, that here, in Francis's studio, I'd uncovered a beautiful amalgamation of chaos, one that could sustain me if I let it, if I let it as deeply inside me as Francis himself.
I glanced around the room. Then, shyly, I eased my hand over to where Francis's hand was braced against his thigh, the fingers spread though he wasn't looking; he was gazing across the room toward an easel that held a painting. On that easel, a man's face, his features a charged manic joy, the top lip curled septum-high, the lower eyelids bagging so both green orbs shone exposed in their whiteness, shock. Heft. A portrait twisted almost beyond recognition but with just the faintest hint of a likeness, so I understood that this reassembled garbageheap of features was none other than Francis himself.
Francis held my hand. And I allowed him to hold it, as a portent of things to come. Not physical satisfaction but a slow giving-in to sensation. Whether I drowned in Francis's flesh or objects seemed, suddenly, immaterial to me. It was as if the sudden twist of features Francis exhibited in his paintings existed at my core, the intestines knotted and savaged and compressed into some violently conceptual work of art.
"I want to live here," I announced, and was surprised to hear myself utter the words—though all of my thoughts had led up to this moment.
Francis smiled. I glimpsed his subtle merriment in profile, which made me think, warmly, Well, half a smile. I believed I knew every pore, skin fold, blackened mole, skin blemish on his pasty face. And I knew he'd had a great many lovers, Francis had. But maybe I was the first who actually wanted to be subsumed by his studio. Compressed under his trash. His tiny smile twisted, and I lofted out of my body when he leaned in to kiss me. I eased my arms around his neck, thick as a bull's fattened for slaughter.
And that was when I discovered how chivalrous he was. And, yes, strong. For, as if I were the proverbial bride cresting the threshold, Francis picked me up in both arms and carried me to his bed. It was as if he wanted me, too, to crave his squalor, to become infatuated with the filth bred vermin-fast in his studio, and that's why we slept that first night curled in each other's arms.
He'd left a light on next to the sink; I kept staring at that light in the brownish gloom of his bed, his arms draped across my neck, the musk of his body flooding up to soak my nostrils until the stench filled me and I was replete with it; I couldn't breathe and I couldn't breathe and it was glorious, it was the most perfect moment I'd ever imagined, being crushed by Francis and floating objects and maybe the thick wedged sole of his boot, his well-heeled black boot, as it settled over the morass that included me and oppressed me and became me.
"Francis," I murmured. "Oh—Francis."
And I stared at the light. And, as I stared, I imagined Francis standing over me, snow shovel in hand. I was lying on the floor while he scooped up cacophonies of creased paper bags and cracking bottles and hoisted them into an incinerator, its orange coals shining. But, no matter how much or how quickly he shoveled, he was never able to uncover me.
I was lying too deep, too buried in the photos and shit and shards of Seven Reece Mews.
I was lying where he'd never find me, where—in fact—he'd never even imagine me.
And I couldn't stop smiling.