Fred took a warm shower and, as he’d watched James do countless times, placed the metal hose that was attached to the showerhead inside him. He stood still until his stomach cramped. After emptying in the toilet, he crawled into bed, lay flat on his stomach and waited. When James arrived, he didn’t speak. He climbed into bed and with only a slick of saliva, penetrated without prelude. Fred bit into the pillow. The next morning while lying alone in bed, sheets tangled around his aching body, Fred knew it was not enough.
Fred and James met more than thirty years before at a college in Port-au-Prince. Fred, 37 at the time, had been hired to tutor the young sons of the city’s elite in economics. Fred’s pregnant girlfriend, Lamercie, the daughter of a banker, used her family connections to get Fred the tutoring work because she did not know about the movie theaters and after-hours parties Fred attended in the city. She didn’t know the 18-year-old boy with the brown skin and soft hands was this type.
Fred hadn’t intended on making a move then. He only responded when his young charge put a hand on his lap. He felt at home with this boy, who kissed him with a tenderness he had experienced before only with women. And James had taken him in his mouth so easily, had accepted this unnatural thing as if he were born to it. Perhaps this is what drew Fred to him, why Fred asked James to come with him to America when his visa application went through. That first night in America, Fred would finish first. Still unspent after what felt to Fred like hours, James asked if Fred wanted to try reversing their roles. Get comfortable with fingers, James said, but one finger was too much.
Back home, they say the gay one is the man who would let another man fuck him, turn his ass into a pussy like a girl’s. Fred had not been “that way.” Once, Fred’s younger brother Marlo, a Baptist minister, said he would pray for Fred to get better. “But for the sissy,” he’d said about James, “I don’t even pray because Satan already has him.”
Now, to salvage the only family he had left, Fred had given himself over to the devil. At 72 years old, he could find no other way to satisfy this man he … loved? He didn’t know if he believed in that emotion. He couldn’t imagine starting over at his age, though pushing a hose into his ass for the first time when he was old enough to be a grandfather was starting over.
The hose, at least, took care of the shit. The force of the fucking was harder to deal with. His doctor told him too many pain killers could damage his kidneys.
James didn’t speak to the man across the hall, nor to the man’s wife and son, but he watched them go in and out, living what appeared to be lives separate from one another in their two-bedroom apartment. Sometimes there was shouting. If the man was anything like Fred had been, James thought, he’d probably given the woman cause for suspicion.
It would be easy to understand how a man like that could make someone jealous. Lashes he probably got from his mother, the smooth skin. But the cause for suspicion was the mouth, James knew, full and feminine, perpetually rose-colored. Kissable, is what he thought each time he and the man shared the landing in the stairwell where they smoked cigarettes. How he licked his lips, puckered into the cigarette, puffed lightly, leaned back into the wall, his Adam’s apple dancing when he swallowed. James could understand why a mouth like this would bring suspicion. If he were younger, maybe, if he were still running, playing soccer, if he were as bold as he had once been, when to simply ask was enough.
So when the note arrived the day before – “Dear neighbors, please join Steven, Janet, and Nathaniel for soup jumu to celebrate the New Year” – he hid it in his back pocket. In earlier years, he and Fred bought their soup from a Haitian restaurant around the corner. Sometimes they ate with other patrons, talked about where they would be if they were not in Miami and still back home. They could laugh about past mistakes with a bowl of soup in front of them. Whether pumpkin, as it was intended, or butternut squash, as they had it in this country, soup jumu meant luck and good things, a washing away of the sins of the previous year.
But after so many years and so many sins… The smallest transgression was the apartment in this building, a daily reminder that what Fred had brought James to was not a life of comfort but something else entirely – an elevator that had not worked for eight years, a view of a MacArthur Dairy bottling facility across a cracked highway, and the people of the provinces and the slums who hung clothes over balconies and used brooms instead of mops to wash the concrete slabs outside their front doors.
Steven, Steve. Fén. Étienne. As he dressed, James wondered which name the man might prefer. Finally, after slacks and jeans, he settled for “Steven” and the brown corduroys that he never found appropriate for any occasion. With the invitation stuffed in his pocket, he walked across the hall.
The door was open. Still, he knocked twice. When no one answered, he let himself in. The living room was a hodgepodge of furniture that didn’t fit together. Glass-top coffee table with wrought-iron legs. Overstuffed sofas with floral patterns. Hard-back armchairs that looked more suited for someone’s dinner table. Faux-wood bookcase, chipped at the base. A low entertainment centre painted black,,the only modern piece in the place. The ugliness made him shiver, but the smell made him nostalgic.
James started to follow that smell into the kitchen, then said, “Hello?”
When no answer came, he walked to the small kitchen. The pot was half empty. He washed a bowl in the sink and helped himself. At the dining room table, he sipped slowly and tried not to bother himself too much with the photos, each in a different type of frame, hanging crooked along the wall. The family, at least, was a handsome bunch. Shapely, brown-skinned wife, the husband who towered over her, so pale in pictures he looked almost white. The son had taken after his mother, slight of build, brown-skinned, hair braided in thick coils.
“What are you doing, man?”
James turned around, spilling some soup on his shirt. Steven stood in an undershirt, hands on his hips. By the sweat on his brow and the cut on his lip, he looked like he had been fighting or making love or both. James put a finger up, and then he pulled the crumpled invitation out of his pocket.
“Soup very good. Thank you for invite me. I’m James. Number 11. But maybe I come too late?”
Steven shook his head. He handed the card back. “You want more?” He took James’s bowl. “We didn’t think anybody else was coming, you know. All the old ladies from the building came right after church.” He took James’s bowl to the kitchen.
The wife, Janet, came into the room, her hands busy tying a knot of hair into a scrunchie. James mumbled hello.
“Soup la pa frèt?” she said.
James shook his head. “Bon. Mesi.”
Steven returned with a bowl of more soup. “So y’all just gone take this whole conversation into Creole, right? You know I barely speak that.”
“Cold, I said.” Janet threw her hands up.
“If it was cold, he wouldn’t have just ate a whole bowl,” Steven said.
“Just wash what you mess,” she said. Then she returned to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Still holding the bowl in his hand, Steven went to the kitchen. A moment later, he returned holding the pot. “Your homeboy might want some. That way I don’t have to hear shit about dirty dishes.”
Early in their relationship when Fred and James fought over the cheating, the fighting would end with Fred promising fidelity, and though there were tears, James would allow Fred to make love to him anyway. Fred believed the force with which he’d fucked James was enough proof that he cared despite the straying. He couldn’t pin-point exactly when he could no longer will himself to erection. Three months, five, a year. Perhaps the arrival of his son triggered the decline – the boy he’d neglected because he’d been too consumed with arriving in a new country, working at a post office, juggling the boys in the street and the boy at home.
His brother had called from Haiti to tell him of Daniel’s arrival in the States.
“I don’t know this Daniel,” Fred said.
“You were a man once,” Marlo said.
“Stop talking in circles,” Fred said.
“Maybe to see your son’s face, you can remember you were created for something better than the life you live. I gave him your address.”
When Daniel arrived, they sat in the front room for less than ten minutes. His eyes were his mother’s. His dark brown skin was Fred’s. If Fred hadn’t known, if Fred were twenty years younger, he would have delighted to have the young man in his apartment. Daniel told of Lamercie’s health, which had diminished so much she rarely spoke or got out of bed, and of his new wife, pregnant with his twins.
“It’s hard starting a new life here,” Daniel said. “They told me I had a father here. I thought maybe that man would want to be a father for the first time and help me support my family.”
Fred had $14,241.43 in the bank account he shared with James. They’d talked about buying a house, something to make James comfortable when Fred had lived as long as God would let him.
“Things are hard in this country,” Fred said.
“See what you can do,” Daniel said.
They embraced quite awkwardly at the door as James was coming up the stairs. Perhaps a year before, there would have been a misinterpretation of the embrace, Fred and James would have argued about the young man, they would have thrown dishes, James would have threatened to leave, and Fred, holding him down in their bed, would convince him otherwise.
James was unsure exactly how to entertain, so he allowed Steven a wide berth to amuse himself. Steven, for his part, took sideways steps around the room, his hands folded behind his back. When a photograph caught his attention, he rocked forward on the balls of his feet, scrunched his bottom lip over the top, and nodded.
“You, what, twenty years younger?”
Steven picked up a photo that sat on top of the television. In the photograph, James stared straight into the camera, smiling broadly, and Fred looked away, at the white couple who ogled them from afar, whispering things, he’d supposed.
Steven set the photo down and took a seat diagonal to James. “You look like you could be nephew, son even.”
James shook his head and shoveled food into his mouth.
“I mean, I’m not judging you or anything. You do your thing. By this picture, you been doing your thing for a good while now.”
“That picture was a long time ago.”
“Let me ask you something.” Steven leaned in as if he were preparing to share some kind of secret. “Me and Janet been together for about twelve years. Shit feels like a lifetime.”
“You look good together,” James said. “You have the boy.”
“But how fucked up do you think this kid is gone be if we stay living like we living?”
“I don’t –”
“I know how it is in Haitian families, believe me. My moms was Haitian. You stay for the kids, right? But, I mean, sometimes I feel like snapping her neck.”
“That’s … I don’t know.”
“Serious shit, right? It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. Pussy make you do crazy shit, you know. I mean, I guess you don’t. No offense or anything. I mean, think about it like this. You get with a cat. Shit is mad tight. You fucking delirious thinking about it all the damn time you never take a minute to figure out if what’s attached to the ass is actually what you want. Feel me?”
“Sex is just one thing of many things.”
“Don’t front like you don’t know,” Steven said. “You might be on the funny-funny…”
James had a difficult time concentrating on the words—black English was always difficult for him—but in such close quarters, in his house, at his table, with Steven tapping his forearm every so often… .
“We boys right now, so I can come at you straight with this, right.”
“Don’t tell me when you and homeboy first got going, shit wasn’t mad crazy, like y’all wasn’t fucking all over the place whenever y’all got the chance? I’m not asking you to describe the shit for me, ‘cause that’s your business. But tell me, as a man, you wasn’t thinking about your dick when you scoped him out.”
James nodded, though he found himself uncomfortable with this conversation about fucking and erections with a man he had no realistic hope of touching.
“But I got caught up. I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s fly, and when we do work it out, I get embarrassed for the kid, because these apartments got some thin-ass walls. But that’s it. That’s all we got. The only thing that keep me where I am is child support. Can’t afford child support taking pictures. That, or she’d probably disappear to Haiti or some shit. Throw voodoo on me when I sleep and make my dick fall off, and I can’t live without my little man. Well, little ain’t exactly right.”
Steven sat back in the chair, rubbed his neck and folded his arms. He seemed to retreat into himself. James sipped the soup.
“That’s some good shit, right,” Steven said.
“Very good soup.”
“You got anything to drink here?”
“Some water, juice.”
“Finish this up. I’m meetin’ some people for drinks.”
They took Steven’s car. The radio didn’t stay tuned to any one station for more than a few bars. They talked some about children, how Steven didn’t like to admit it, but he was a bit disappointed his son wasn’t a scrappier kid, and James said he was unsure if he was ever strong enough to be a father. Steven asked if James had kids. James said he didn’t know. Steven found this funny, slapped James’s knee as he laughed.
Three years after they’d come to the United States, when Fred was having sex on Thursdays with a 17-year-old he’d met at a bookstore, he and James were on the Interstate at noontime and he asked James to stroke him. James said he wasn’t in the mood, but he did it anyway. It’s what he did back then, whatever Fred asked. James told Fred once that he had a low sex drive. This didn’t bother Fred. It only meant he didn’t have to worry that James gave other men hand jobs during the lunchtime rush. It meant that when they went to clubs (on the rare occasions James agreed to go) they could sip drinks and watch men without Fred worrying that James would respond to the advances from other men. It wasn’t in him. James was more like a woman that way, Fred thought: instinctively monogamous.
The men greeted one another with bumped fists, slapped palms, embraced with fists together and arms as a bar between their chests. There were women too, most black, but one white with red hair and a small mouth. She took the seat next to Steven, so that when everyone was seated, James stood awkwardly over the table like a waiter.
“Everybody, this is my man James from my building,” Steven said. “Take a seat, man. This is Paulson, my homeboy from way back, and this is my friend, Cam.”
James sat on the other side of Cam. She wore a yellow blouse, black jeans and flip-flops. The other girls wore heels and jean skirts that barely covered their bodies. They had extensions. Were pretty, even. While Cam sat silently, the others jumped into the men’s conversation, steered the talk from time to time. It seemed they spoke about everything, these women: jobs, children, other men, sex, and in the kind of frank way that women sometimes spoke on TV. Decent women, Haitian women, rarely ventured there when in the company of men, especially older men like James. He found this fascinating, even though he missed some because of the speed of their English.
Steven and the men decided on a game of pool. James didn’t play. Neither did Cam. So they held the sofa.
“You’re like me,” she said.
He offered no response.
“We don’t really belong here. He was supposed to come to South Beach with me and my friends last night. But then something with his wife. I turned into one of those women who” – Cam leaned in, her breath full of Vodka – “cry and whine. So here I am.”
“Yes, yes.” He didn’t know what else to say. “Family important, no?”
When she finished her drink, the waiter came by with another.
“So, we’re like jilted girlfriends here, brought out by the man and left to sit on the sidelines while he hangs with the homies. Fucking pathetic. I only come to this side of town if my editor at the paper tells me I’m stuck covering crime on the weekend.”
“Steven and me are just friendly neighbours.”
The group trickled back to the table, but they didn’t sit. They topped off drinks, collected bags, said goodbyes until the only ones remaining from their party was Cam, Steven, Paulson and a woman who hadn’t been introduced properly. With the group smaller, Steven seemed to unwind a bit.
“Real talk,” he said. “My man James may be a little old, but homebody be running things.”
“I thought you said he was. . .”
“Paul, this is real talk. Like I was saying at the table when your wack-ass homeboy cut me off, a man is a man no matter who he fucking. All that matters is he’s running shit.” He turned to Cam and, raising his voice a register, said, “He’s in control of his environment at all times.”
“Sucking dick ain’t control, dawg,” Paulson said.
“Y’all Negroes is stupid,” the black girl said. “James, what he trying to ask is if gay dudes pick who gone be the man or who gone be the woman or if they go back and forth.”
James looked from Steven to Cam to Paulson and the black girl. They were all looking at him. Then Steven started laughing, and like dominoes, the others were laughing too.
Cam leaned in. “They’re ribbing you. They’re not serious. This is what they do when you’re new.”
“Yes, we’re ribbing,” Steven said, his voice nasal. Then he kissed her, open-mouthed. Pulling away, he licked his bottom lip. “You’re cool, man.”
James raised his glass. “I just now ask for condoms, then I show you.”
“So you got jokes,” Steven said. He reached over and tapped James’ shoulder. They ordered more drinks.
By the time Steven had his fifth or sixth drink, he seemed completely unhinged. He leaned into Cam, kissed her, ran his hand up her leg. “This is the kind of chick I should have at home,” he said.
“You don’t think you’ve had enough?” she said.
When he inched a hand up her inner thigh, she peeled herself from the sofa and announced she needed to use the restroom.
Steven slapped her behind as she walked away.
“What you think of that?” he asked.
“I don’t,” James said.
“I think sometimes it would be better if I leave that bitch at home and chill with Cam full time.”
“You love this girl?”
“Fuck love, dawg.” He sipped from Cam’s glass. “You did your shit, right. You told all those motherfuckers in Haiti to fuck off, and you went where you would be happy.”
“Don’t forget your son.”
He thought for a moment he saw pain in Steven’s face, some resignation, even through the alcohol. But the look quickly faded into a grimace.
“Even that,” Steven said, “ain’t what it should be. That little nigger take after his mamma. He too sweet.”
He finished the drink, tapped James’s cheek and let his body fall back to the sofa. When Cam returned, he pulled her onto his lap and held her there despite her protests. She didn’t hide the relief when a waitress came by to tell her that her cab had arrived.
“I thought we was gone do this,” Steven said.
“Early day tomorrow. I got morning cop calls,” she said. “I’ll see you in the newsroom.”
“So you gone leave me like this?” He stroked his erection through his jeans.
She kissed James’ cheek and said, “Watch out for this one.”
Fred had examined the address he’d written on a small slip of paper and had determined, based on the street number and avenue, that his son lived somewhere in Overtown, “Black Power” as his friends called it. In the thirty years he’d lived in Miami, Fred had never ventured to this part of town. It didn’t make sense for a lost Haitian man to find himself there. People were robbed in this part of town. People had been killed, like the German tourists a few years back. Why his son had chosen to live there, he didn’t understand. Perhaps he wasn’t wrong to take the money from the account. James would understand. And if he didn’t, this act would at least make James see him, instead of past him or through him.
Fred put $5,000 into an envelope, which he slipped under the band of his briefs. A second envelope, with $2,000, he wrapped around an ankle with a rubber-band and covered with his sock and pant leg. So much preparation for what seemed a simple thing, what people did all the time. So many things about his life had turned into a series of pent-up anxiety. Like sex with James, anxiety that there will be a mess just as there had been the first time he tried this new role, and despite the stench of feces on the bed and between his legs, James would continue in the act, oblivious to Fred’s pain and the smell. Even when he was clean, he feared things would be messy. Perhaps if they shared sex, and it wasn’t just something they simply did. Perhaps if things were as they had once been, when their embraces, even after fights, were opportunities for them to get closer, this fear would subside. But now, when he felt like nothing more than a receptacle, he suffered the humiliation of the act in solitude.
In this act of reconciliation, Fred’s anxiety was without merit. The neighbourhood didn’t take notice of his arrival. He found the apartment without a problem, and when he pushed the small yellow button in the doorway, he heard the chime from his side of the door. The men shook hands in the doorway, then Fred went about unpacking. After Daniel counted the total, he asked Fred if he wanted to sit.
“If I could see my grandchildren’s mother, that would be nice,” Fred said.
“Yesterday, maybe,” Daniel said. “Today she’s with her family.”
James draped one of Steven’s arms over his shoulder and dragged him out of the taxi. He felt the heft of the load all down his back. It took them fifteen minutes to make it halfway up the stairs. James’s constant pleas to “help yourself,” went unanswered. At one point, Steven started slurring rap songs, “You see double, bust your bubble, you in trouble,” and only laughed when James reminded him of the hour.
The old woman from number 6 emerged from her apartment with a bag of garbage. She put the bag at the bottom of the stairs and lumbered up to help.
“What happened to this young man?” she asked.
“Too many things,” James said.
“He smells like he’s been drinking all day,” she said. “He was fine when I saw him for soup.”
“Madame, please,” James said.
“Really, I didn’t come to carry all the weight,” the woman said. “Lift on your side.”
He had been lifting, but his side hurt, and the sweat made it difficult to keep his grip. At the door, he and the old woman fumbled through Steven’s pockets for keys. Before James raised the key to the door, Steven mumbled that he didn’t want to go home.
“This is your house, Steven,” the old woman said.
“I don’t want to see that bitch.”
“Too many things,” James said. “Take him here.”
“You have the key. He’s drunk. I think his wife can care for him.”
“Take me over there,” Steven said.
James shifted toward his apartment. Then all of Steven’s weight crushed down on him. The old woman stood at number 11 as he and Steven fell to the ground in front of number 12. James felt something pop in his shoulder.
In the apartment, the old woman apologized for losing her grip. She advised James to put a bucket near the couch. She said she’d leave a message with Steven’s wife about where he was spending the night.
Before heading to bed, James took a Tylenol and showered.
Fred arrived an hour later. The rustling sheets woke James from his sleep. They whispered to one another in Creole.
“You’re home,” James said.
“That’s the neighbour?”
“I think he and his wife are fighting.”
“You don’t have to say,” Fred said.
When James thought Fred was asleep, he slid out of bed to watch Steven on the sofa. Sometime in the night, Steven had thrown up. Some of the vomit had made it into the bucket, but the rest was down his shirt and down the sofa. James got a wet hand towel and a basin from the bathroom. He wiped Steven’s neck. Steven stirred some, stretched, yawned. In the dark, James could see Steven’s eyes flutter open, narrow. Then, just as quickly, he grabbed James’s wrist and held it there.
“The fuck you doing, man?”
“Helping you,” James said.
“You think I roll like that?”
“I’m helping you.”
There was something practical in James’ desire to wash away the vomit, to clear away the stench. But something else too. Steven’s hand fell away, and James noticed that his own hand had begun trembling. He worked slowly, concentrating through the dark to see what he felt. Stubble on chin, the round of Steven’s neck where the Adam’s apple rose and fell, arms rising to remove a shirt, the quick pounding in Steven’s chest. James could see none of it, but he could feel Steven rising in his hand, then the taste of him, then a hand on James’s head, pulling him down so that he was gagging and coughing, the heat of Steven’s stomach against his face, on his tongue. What he didn’t swallow, he spit into the basin.
James felt paralyzed where he was. Steven stood, his pants were up, he was saying something about an early morning, that he needed to go. He needed his keys, he said. He said it again, maybe a few more times. Then he found them on the coffee table.
The smell woke Fred, something like vomit and musk only masked slightly by soap. James lay on his side of the bed, facing the wall. Fred put a hand around James’s waist. He kissed James’s neck like he used to do when they were younger, when news of infidelity or disease wasn’t enough to keep them separated. This gesture was one of James’s favourites then, a kiss on the neck and his body would relax, he’d turn, they’d kiss, and Fred would climb on top, make James ready.
At the memory of this, he kissed James’s neck again.