“THE USUAL, Brad,” Guy called out as he walked up to the front bar.
“I was wondering if you’d be in tonight.” Brad scooped up a glassful of ice, then swung around. His trapezoid muscles flexed beneath his camouflage print undershirt as he reached up and took a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky from the shelf. He turned back, and with an exaggerated motion, poured a double into the glass.
“Sleep well?” Guy said casually.
“Like a baby.” Brad winked, leaned forward, and placed the glass on a cardboard coaster in front of Guy.
Guy sniffed. “I see you found my cologne.” He picked up the glass and threw back a quick gulp.
“Yeah.” Brad smiled. “But it smells better on me than it does on you.” His brown eyes sparkled as he looked directly into Guy’s.
“Can’t argue with that.” Guy reached up and gently patted Brad on the cheek. “Just don’t go making yourself too comfortable in my cave.”
Brad pulled back. “Guy, has anyone ever told you what a miserable old bastard you are?”
Guy chuckled. “So often that I’m starting to answer to it.”
Brad shook his head. “You never let anyone in, do you?” He went to serve an elderly man who was perched on a stool at the corner. The elderly man watched intently as Brad grabbed a moist beer bottle by the neck, popped off the cap, and plunked it down in front of him.
“Keep the change.” He was almost salivating as he handed Brad a ten.
Sailors was like any number of pubs in downtown Toronto—turn-of-the-century sandblasted red-brick exterior, oak-and-brass-accented interior. It was Thursday, and those getting a jump on the weekend would be out—less choice, better chance of scoring. Right now it was too late for the after-work rush and too early for the drag show. The DJ hadn’t even set up yet. It was mostly the old boys, like Guy, looking to stake out a barstool before the younger crowd came clambering in. Guy took a swig of his whisky. It was the summer solstice, and it didn’t really matter if nobody else was celebrating. As soon as the booze and E kicked in, he would party on his own.
He went to the far end of the bar and climbed onto his favorite stool, swiveled it sideways, and leaned back against the exposed brick wall. From his vantage point, he had all the strategic zones in the main room within his scope: the back bar, the dance floor and stage next to it, even the washroom and the entrance to the dark room in the farthest corner to the right. No one could come or go; nothing of importance could happen without him observing. A Madonna remix droned on in the background, but the front bar was far enough away from the main room that you could still carry on a conversation. Not that Guy wanted to converse, but he liked to listen in on what other people had to say, especially when they didn’t realize he was eavesdropping.
Guy looked toward a thin young man perched on a barstool facing the door—his spidery legs crossed, left elbow braced on the bar with one knuckle delicately pressed against his cheekbone, a Manhattan grasped in his right hand. He reminded Guy of someone he had known long ago and hadn’t particularly liked. But that was a world away from here.
The young man turned suddenly and shot a sneer at Guy, as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding, old-timer.”
Guy smiled and shrugged. Back on the island, that similar-looking man had almost killed someone just to get noticed.
A cool blast of air blew in as another young man pushed open the fake stained glass panel door. Guy watched him as he stood there and tried to smooth his T-shirt over a little bulge of fat that rode up along the waistband of his underwear.
The thin man at the bar rolled his head toward the door with a look of practiced tedium. “Don’t just stand there like a debutant.” His high-pitched voice rose well above the low drone of the techno beat. “Close the bloody door, darling.”
The chubby young man smiled nervously, let the door swing closed, and walked up to the thin man. “Hi,” he chirped. “I was a little worried you might stand me up again.”
“Well you know how busy my schedule is.” He placed his glass on the bar and made a zigzag motion with his forefinger in front of the chubby man’s chest. “New Armani tee?”
“Yes, I got it for 10 percent off.” He beamed.
“Love the clearance table.” The thin man reached out and lightly whisked the chubby man’s sleeve, as if to remove grime acquired from the touch of bargain shoppers.
The chubby man’s smile withered. “Hey, I thought this was supposed to be the first day of summer. I’m freezing my tits off.” He hugged himself and shivered. “How do they know when it’s summer anyways?”
“It’s astrology, you know, like star signs.”
Guy shook his head and took another drink of his whisky.
“By the way, I read your horoscope on the Internet today,” the thin man announced loudly. “It said, ‘crossing paths with a mysterious stranger could lead to a defining moment in your life.’” He turned toward Brad. “Another Manhattan, no cherry in mine. And one for my friend.”
“What did yours say?” the chubby man asked eagerly.
“Oh, the usual, love, happiness, and riches.”
The chubby man leaned against the bar while Brad placed two glasses near them and flashed a fluorescent smile.
“Honey, pay the man. You know I’m saving up for my trip down to P-town at the end of July, and I’m short of cash.”
The chubby man dug in his pocket, pulled out a twenty, and handed it to Brad.
“Keep the change, Bradley,” the thin man cooed.
The chubby man nodded hesitantly.
As Brad turned toward the cash register, Guy caught his eye and made a circle in the air with his finger. Brad nodded and poured another whisky.
The chubby man watched as Brad carried the glass over to Guy. Then he leaned in close and whispered something into the thin man’s ear, who immediately swung his head around and stared at Guy.
“Very subtle,” the chubby man puffed. “Why don’t you just call him over here?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to him. That’s just Jungle Jim. He’s probably deaf anyways.” The thin man recomposed himself, combing the side of his gelled hair behind his ear with his fingertips. “He’s a friend of Brad. Otherwise I’m sure they wouldn’t let him in. Completely nuts, you know, but I hear he’s rich. Drives a Compressor.”
“My mother drives a Compressor,” said the chubby man.
“Your mother drives a Golf,” the thin man scolded.
“Volkswagen, Mercedes, no big difference.”
“Not until someone sees you in one, my dear.”
The chubby man frowned and began chasing the cherry around the bottom of his glass, trying to stab it with his stir straw. Having no success, he reached in, grabbed it with his fingers, and popped it into his mouth. “You know, you should get some rich old boyfriend,” he said while still chewing on his cherry.
“Me? You know how wrinkle-phobic I am,” the thin man scoffed. “But what about you? Why don’t you find a sugar daddy?”
The chubby man giggled nervously. “I’m not really sure.”
The thin man surveyed the room. “Take your pick. It’s like Jurassic Park in here tonight.” He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “I wish they’d play some real dance music and chase the dinosaurs out of here.”
Just then the DJ in the main room cranked up the music, and the low, throbbing beat drowned out the rest of the conversation. More people came in and shuffled past the front bar toward the main room. Guy slouched comfortably with one hand on the bar, holding his glass. On the far wall, under a pair of crisscrossed rower’s paddles, hung a framed photo of the Titanic. He stared at the photo for a while and thought about the sinking of his own ship, the Crescent Moon. He shivered, took a large sip of whisky, and a warm glow began to flow through him. It wasn’t quite the same glow he used to get from the grog back on the island, but it was good enough for this place. A gas bubble rose up in his chest, bringing with it the taste of his dinner. Roasted chicken—when done right it was almost as good as baked iguana. That was so long ago, but those memories kept gurgling up, and sometimes it felt as if it had only been yesterday. The flickering flame from the tea candle on the bar caught his eye, and he thought of burning torches under a starlit tropical sky. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall, and floated away with the images.
He imagined himself swimming in a beautiful sea, the water crystalline and warm. In the distance, he could see a beach so white it shimmered in the sunlight. On the beach, there was a young man calling and waving to him. He was brown and beautiful and naked except for a white loincloth. Guy couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but he saw him smiling and understood he wanted him to come and play. Then another man appeared next to Guy in the water. He tried to convince the man to swim toward the beach with him, but the man told him to swim in the opposite direction. Guy didn’t know what to do, so he just bobbed up and down, treading water. Suddenly, underneath him he saw the shadow of a huge shark. Frantically, he swam toward the beach. As he looked back over his shoulder, he saw an enormous dorsal fin only a few feet behind him. He could almost feel rows of teeth ready to bite off his lower half. The man on the beach ran into the surf. He reached out, grasped his arm, and pulled him forward just as the shark lunged and—
Someone bumped his leg, and Guy opened his eyes with a start. He was panting, and his forehead was damp. Maybe he had dozed off for a moment or two. He looked around. The place was now packed full of men, young and old, but mostly young. He spotted the thin man and his chubby friend making their way through the crowd toward the dance floor. Guy drained his glass, stood up, and followed. He wedged himself past the loners clutching their beers for courage and pressed between the little clusters speaking into each other’s ears with cupped hands.
Guy pushed his way onto the center of the dance floor. The strobe lights spun, and the music throbbed. The beat reverberated through his chest, and he began to dance. His feet floated, and his muscles undulated with each wave as he gyrated and swayed like a snake. Naked torsos swam through flickering strips of golden torchlight all around him. His body became moist with sweat, and he too pulled off his tank top and tucked it into his waistband. This was what he’d come here for—to remember what it had felt like to be lost within the rhythm. He inhaled the scent of warm bodies mixed with jungle spices and the humid Caribbean breeze. At last he was back on the island.
Then the peripheral darkness began to close in on him, and the music echoed as if it were coming from a tunnel. His body went rubbery, and he sank in slow motion. In the distance he heard someone yell, “Call 911! Guy’s out again.”
And all went black.
GUY LOOKED at the yellow laminate plaque on the concrete wall next to the door. The name Richard Bowing, MD, PhD was written in black marker on a strip of medical tape, covering the engraved name of a previous occupant. Guy glanced up toward the Exit light at the end of the corridor and yawned loudly while he reached back and scratched his ass through his hospital drawstring pants.
The nurse escorting him pressed his baby-shaved cheek against the frosted glass panel of the door, listened, then knocked twice. He looked back at Guy with puppy eyes, reached out, and gently touched his forearm. “Don’t worry. You’ll like Dr. Bowing. He’s very nice.”
Guy nodded. “How nice to know he’s nice.”
A deep voice within said, “Come in.”
The nurse opened the door and stepped in. Guy followed him like a robot.
“Good morning, Dr. Bowing,” the nurse said. “This is Mr. Palmer, your next appointment.”
A handsome man in his early thirties with dark hair and a strong chin was seated at a desk in the corner at a right angle to the window. “Thank you, Armando,” he said while still staring at his computer screen.
“Take a seat over there.” Armando gestured toward a blue vinyl sofa pushed against the wall under the window. “You’re in good hands.” He turned and left.
The room was small, with basic Canadian public medicine decor: ocher concrete walls, institutional windows, and sparse furnishings—bright, but not happy.
Dr. Bowing looked up from his screen and smiled at Guy. “Good morning, Mr. Palmer.” His eyes were hazel, and his teeth said he came from a good middle-class Canadian family with a dental plan. He stood up and held out his gym-callused hand across the desk. He was tall, athletic, and well put together.
Guy looked at his outstretched hand but stood there limply. “The name’s Guy,” he said, and went over and planted himself on the sofa.
“Okay, Guy, you can call me Richard.” He picked up a clipboard and a pen, walked over to a half-egg-shaped swivel chair facing the sofa, and sat down. The crease in his linen pants was impeccable. His socks were pure Egyptian cotton and his shoes Italian.
“Tell me something about yourself.” Richard leaned forward toward Guy.
Guy slid back as if he were trying to let the sofa swallow him. “I’m a sixty-seven-year-old tattooed homosexual man they found half-naked, passed out on the dance floor of a gay bar,” Guy said flatly.
“And how are you feeling this morning?” Richard’s expression was sympathetic.
“Like somebody put a sweater on my tongue.”
“It’s good to see you have a sense of humor.” He grinned.
“Yes, all us crazy folks have a great sense of humor.” Guy dug his finger into a tear in the vinyl armrest. “But you’re the brain drainer here, so I guess it’s your job to decide if I’m looney tunes or not, isn’t it?”
“I see you know where you are and why you’re here.”
“Toronto Metro Psych Ward, right?” Guy cupped the sides of his head and began to massage his temples slowly.
“Do you know what day it is?”
“Of course I do. Do you?” Guy sneered.
“And do you know where you live?”
“Apartment 1502, sixty-six Isabella Street, just off Church.” Guy returned to massaging his temples.
“What do you do, Guy?”
“You mean besides smoking, drinking, and recreational drugs? I guess you could say I’m a semiretired professor at Toronto University. I give a few classes and do a bit of research.”
“Interesting. What do you teach?”
“Anthropology.” Guy looked up at Richard with eyes that pleaded for him to stop the interrogation.
“Fair enough.” Richard held up his hand. “You don’t have Alzheimer’s. They checked you out last night. Physically you’re okay. Actually, you’re in great shape, considering.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Guy pressed his temples and moaned. “Why don’t you give me something stronger than that Tylenol shit? Maybe some Percocet. My head is splitting.”
“Well,” Richard said. “I don’t want to lecture you, but you do smoke, drink, and use drugs. That can’t be good for you.”
“Thank you, Mommy Dearest, but I’ve had these headaches for years.” Guy half closed his eyes and slowed his breathing.
“What do you do for them? Take anything?”
“Nothing works, really. Whenever the weather changes, my head throbs.” Guy pointed out the window at the blackening sky. “Lately it’s gotten worse.”
“That’s rough.” Richard sat upright in his chair. “Have you seen a neurologist or had a CAT scan?”
“Yeah, I’ve been through all of that.”
“Well, you were pretty dehydrated last night. That’s why you collapsed.” Richard shifted in his chair and crossed his legs.
“E can do that.” Guy shrugged slightly.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Richard sat quietly, looking at Guy.
“Okay, fine.” Guy huffed. “Last night was the summer solstice. It was supposed to be the best night of the season: feasting, dancing, and sex until dawn.”
Richard furrowed his brow. “Summer solstice?”
“June twenty-first. Some people celebrate Christmas, Ramadan, or Chanukah. I celebrate the solstice and equinox. Or at least I used to. But that was some other place and time.”
Guy rolled his eyes. “Let’s just say that instead of celebrating, I got high alone on some shit chemicals, then spent the night in hospital. Some festival, eh?” He stretched his arms out along the back of the sofa. An array of tattoos, like graffiti on the side of a subway train, poked out from the sleeves and V-neck of his standard-issue hospital T-shirt.
Richard studied Guy. His clipboard was positioned on his lap with a pen in his hand, but he still hadn’t written anything.
“Doc, this is not my first time here,” Guy said, shaking his head. “I know the drill: check me out, dry me out, then ship me down to the psych ward to make sure I’m not a danger to myself or society.”
“That’s pretty much the drill.”
“Listen, it’s nine o’clock in the morning. Could we drop the clinical crap, get a coffee, and I’ll answer all your questions?” Guy’s eyes pleaded.
“Well, there’s a coffee machine down the hall.” Richard swiveled around in his chair and tossed his clipboard onto the desk.
“I’ll pass. I don’t think my guts could take coin-drop java this morning.”
“Look, it’s obvious to me that you’re fine, and you’re free to go, of course. But before you take off, I’d like to make a suggestion.” Richard interlocked his fingers and stretched them.
“Shoot.” Guy leaned forward, and the stiff vinyl sofa groaned.
“It appears to me that perhaps there are a few things you might want to get off your chest.” Richard’s voice was relaxed and casual. “The way the system works is like this. You’ve been checked in, and so the government is footing the bill. If you agree, but only if you agree”—Richard now spoke with a kind of conspiratorial enthusiasm—“I can recommend further therapy and they’ll go on paying for it.”
“Nice try, Doc.” Guy forced a smile. “Unless I’m mistaken, you just started here, didn’t you?”
“Yes, a couple of weeks ago.” Richard nodded.
“Just as I thought. You’re a twinky, fresh out of grad school, and you need to get your case study quota up and put your publication record in shape. So you’re slumming it down here in the public sector for a couple of years before you get a university position or move on to a lucrative private practice in the north of the city. Am I right?”
Richard uncrossed his legs, placed both feet flat on the floor, and sat back in his chair but said nothing.
“How old are you anyway? Twenty-eight? Thirty?”
“I’m thirty-two, as a matter of fact.” Richard crossed his arms. “And you’re right. I just graduated this spring.”
“So, make me an offer, Dr. Peachfuzz.” Guy propped his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his knuckles. “What’s in it for me?”
Richard held his palms out. “I can’t offer anything, just a sympathetic ear. Come in twice a week and talk for an hour and I’ll listen.”
Guy scratched his head and blew out a puff of air. “What time?”
“I have slots Mondays and Fridays at nine in the morning.”
“Mondays and Fridays, eh?” Guy tapped his finger on the arm of the sofa. “And you’ll write me a medical certificate so I can get out of my dreadful Monday-morning steering committee and the Friday-morning departmental meetings?”
“I could do that.”
Guy looked over and surveyed the books on the shelf over Richard’s desk, focusing on the worn spines of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Bion’s A Memoir of the Future. “Are you sure you have the balls to put up with me?”
Richard uncrossed his arms and leaned toward Guy. “I don’t want you ending up facedown on a dance floor again.”
Guy rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “Before I agree to be your couch gerbil, I want to clarify something.” Guy looked directly at Richard. “You’re homosexual, right.”
The expression drained from Richard’s face. His chair squeaked as he sat back, crossed his arms again, and cleared his throat. “And why would that be important?”
“First of all, that was a rhetorical question. And secondly, because I don’t want to waste my time playing word games with some muffin head who’s read about repressed homosexuality and castration anxiety.” Guy paused and grinned like an innocent child. “But you…. You’re a man who knows what it’s like to have a dick in his mouth, aren’t you?”
“You’re very direct, Guy.” Richard scrunched up his face, and his eye twitched. “Actually, I have a girlfriend.” There was a subtle playground sneer in his voice.
“Ahhh, of course you do.” Guy leaned his head backward against the sofa and slapped his forehead. “You’re one of those bookworm-sexuals, aren’t you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. It’s a term I invented for nerds like you who study other people’s sexuality and intellectualize their own so that they can remain hidden within the safety of the academic closet.”
Richard balked. “You don’t know anything about me.” He looked as if he were trying to contain his anger.
“Of course I don’t, and I’m sure your girlfriend has the best boyfriend in the world—thoughtful, attentive, and considerate. Besides, real passion is overrated anyway. She’s not missing out on anything.”
“Enough about my personal life, please,” Richard said with a tone of clinical authority. Then he breathed in deeply, uncrossed his arms, and leaned forward again, softening his expression and voice. “Don’t worry. I’m not looking to mess with your head or your sexuality, but I am someone you can talk to. And if I’m not mistaken, you could use a friendly ear.”
“Okay, then, I’ll do it.” Guy looked at Richard ambivalently.
“And one other thing,” Richard said cautiously. “I also want to ask your permission to record our sessions.”
“Why not?” Guy flipped his hand in the air like he was swatting at a fly. “I just agreed to be your lab rat, didn’t I?”
Richard got up, took the recorder from his desk, and returned to his swivel chair.
As he fumbled with the buttons, Guy continued to speak. “Doc, you see me now. I’m a semibald, loose-skinned old man, but I was once young like you.”
“Everybody gets old.” Richard lightly touched the salt-and-pepper hair on his temple.
“Yeah, but getting old really sucks if you’re gay.” Guy scrunched up his face. “I guess it really wasn’t much easier when I was young.” Guy stared back at Richard but said nothing more. The wall clock ticked, and sounds from outside crept into the room.
After a few minutes, Richard leaned forward. “This is where you’re supposed to tell me something about growing up.”
“Yeah, yeah, Doc. I know how head shrinking works.” Guy shifted in his seat. “Well, here goes. I grew up in a rural, redneck Ontario village. I was an only child, and my parents were almost forty when they had me. I came as quite a shock. My mom and dad owned the only general store, and our house was above it. My folks put in long hours in the store—from eight in the morning till ten at night, six days a week. They had a big dream of retiring early and spending their winters in Florida. I guess when I came along, I spoiled their dream.”
“Did you feel unwanted?”
“Hmm, maybe not unwanted but certainly not wanted. Growing up, I spent a lot of time alone. I used to read comic books. I guess it was my way of hiding from reality. Tarzan was my favorite.”
Richard chuckled. “Tell me about it.”
“During the long cold winters, I would spend hours submerged in a hot bath. That’s when I first created my little fantasy world: a steamy tropical jungle, crystal pool, and half-naked natives. Old Tarzan films and National Geographic specials were like clues that other realities were not only possible, but maybe they really did exist.” Guy furrowed his brow. “Maybe that’s why I chose to study anthropology in the first place.”
Richard cocked his head. “Because of old Tarzan films?”
“You could say that.” Guy smiled. “Maybe I was looking for my own gay jungle or a homo Shangri-la.”
“My folks had a little cottage on a lake north of our village, and during the summers, whenever possible, I would escape to the privacy of the woods, strip off my clothes, and lie naked in a sunny patch or steal away to a secluded little pond and skinny-dip. I was Tarzan’s Boy, swinging with him, side by side from vine to vine through the jungle.” Guy paused. “That’s how I discovered masturbation.” He tugged at his T-shirt and scratched his neck. “Do they wash these things in a special soap just to make them itchy? Anyway, as I was saying, I wasn’t ashamed of wanking, you understand. I knew other boys did it. More than anything, it was my growing desire that frightened and isolated me. Everything I knew back then told me that my fantasies were sick.”
“Well, I’m sure you know fantasies are a sign of a healthy, creative mind.” Richard rested his chin on his knuckles.
“Yes, isn’t that lovely.” Guy gave him a pained smile. “But if you are a lonely, confused gay kid, living in a homophobic village, fantasies are all you have. And that’s the problem. Queers build their lives on fantasy.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because reality sucks, and we don’t have many other choices.”
“It’s true that some queer kids have it pretty rough growing up.” Richard cocked his head. “But things are getting better.”
“Oh, thank you, Pollyanna. I’ll remember that.”
Richard clenched his jaw.
“Doc, what if things were the other way around? If queers were in control and the heteros were the freaks?” His tone sounded more like a challenge than a question. “Do you think such a society could exist, or is it just a ridiculous fantasy?”
“You tell me,” Richard said. He folded his hands on his lap.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Guy said. “The analyst enters into the delusional world of the patient in the absence of containment. The patient projects his unbearable emotions onto the analyst, who, capable of understanding these emotions, contains, elaborates, and gives them back to the patient in a form in which he can think and dream about—essential to the coherent construction of his personal emotional history and tolerable truth.” Guy rattled off the phrase, then paused.
Richard looked at Guy curiously. “You’ve read Bion?”
“Well, that’s a very crude summary of Bion.” Guy shrugged. “But more importantly, you’ve read Bion?” He grinned.
“Of course.” Richard raised his eyebrows. “He’s required.”
Guy tapped his head with his forefinger. “A friend of mine once wrote, ‘Freud gave us the road map to the human unconscious, and Bion challenged us to take a journey within.’” Guy held up both hands, as if he were praying. “Listen, Doc. I want to take you on a little journey, tell you a story I’ve never told any other living soul.”
“You can confide in me.” Richard’s expression was sincere, almost hopeful.
“Okay, here goes. A long time ago, I discovered a place which was like no other place I could have ever dreamed of or imagined.” Guy held out his hands like a man pleading for salvation. “It’s real. I swear it is. I’ve kept it secret my entire life, but now—I don’t know why—I need to tell someone about it.”
“Maybe you need to validate it in some way?” Richard leaned forward and rested his elbows comfortably on his knees. “Remember, I’m here to listen, not to judge you.”
Guy slumped into the sofa. “Because of my own stupidity and greed, I lost it. And I’ve spent almost fifty years trying to find my way back.”
“And where is this place?”
“Hang on. I haven’t even started telling you my story yet.” Guy reached back and scratched his nape. Then he stared at the far wall and began.