By Kendall Klym
Pointed white petals with pink markings flutter to the ground as I navigate the narrow trail. I imagine myself a sprite sprinkling the forest with floral confetti. Then I face reality: my girth has disturbed the laurel—caused the withering flowers to fall from their pedestals.
June is fully underway, and the path to the gay beach is wet from last night’s cloudburst. Usually I make it to the river earlier in the season, but this year the weather’s been bad. My sandals fishtail in the muck. What’s left of the flowers is still nice to look at, until my mass grinds them into the Massachusetts mud.
I picture a spot—a half-hour away—where I’ll spread my blanket: a place I can study men’s faces, figure who might humor a closeted old fart. Then I’ll start to rejuvenate. I’ll be able to face another workweek without wanting to lie in bed all day on my one day off. My pace is slow—to be expected at the height of the season. Time to take it all in. The wooded landscape feels warm and familiar, like an old friend I haven’t seen since early fall. A few guys were nice enough to chat with me last year, but nothing came of it. Unlike the bars and other gay hangouts, nature makes me less nervous.
Heading downhill, I trip on unruly roots—bone-shaped appendages protruding from uneven ground—a booby trap for cicciobombas like me. I catch hold of a branch. Regaining my composure, I look down at a root that reminds me of a rib: curved and white and smooth, thanks to heavy foot traffic. I imagine remnants of trenches—bodies left to rot as the Redcoats retreat. Similar to Operation Husky in Sicily. But that was two hundred years later, after my Papa came to America.
After a few minutes of walking without obstructions, I regain my confidence. The air is ripe with spores, the smell erotic, like mushrooms peeking through bubbly cheese on pancetta pizza. It’s early, which means that most of the guys who come to hang and hook up are still in bed, nursing the hangover and sore feet from last night’s club scene. At least that’s how I picture it. No doubt my view is inaccurate.
These days, things are different, especially for the twinks: youthful gay men on the make; kids who never went to catechism; young adults whose closest connection to shame and guilt is their grandparents: people my age. The young ones I steer clear of. They’re not into me, and I’m smart enough not to want them. But when it comes to the guys in their forties and fifties, people with lines and folds that reveal a personality, I get excited. Just being in their presence makes me hopeful. Maybe someone will sense my desire for something more than sexual release, realize there’s a person underneath the fat.
To get to the water, I fight my way through tall leafy plants that look like they belong in the tropics, not Southern New England. At the river’s edge, I sink into a flooded bowl-shaped trail. Taking slow, methodic steps, I sound like a bull moose slogging through wetlands. Every so often, a frog jumps out of my way and into the river. Others let out a croak, probably to warn friends and family of the approaching behemoth.
I’m only ten minutes down the path and already hungry. I look at my fat stomach. Can still see legs, so it could be a lot worse. About fifteen minutes from the gay beach, I reach the river crossing and pick up a couple of pole-like sticks left here for oldsters like me. I’m pretty sure the sticks came from last year’s crop of exotic leafy plants, whose stems resemble long, thick branches. No matter where you cross the rock-lined river, the walking surface is slimy and slick. The sticks work wonders for balance, especially if you’re carrying a pack.
I cross myself—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—before starting out. The waters are shallow, which means if I fall, I’ll hit bottom fast. As long as I don’t knock my head on a rock, I’ll be fine. Halfway across, I stumble and look down at the swift-moving river rushing around my calves. Breath held in my jowly cheeks, I finish the thirty-foot trek. Climbing up the bank makes me sweat. I imagine losing a pound. Only forty-nine to go, I figure, and I might be worth a look . . . that is, for those willing to consider a sixty-year-old mechanic with a small garage in Central Connecticut.
By an old fallen log, I trip. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
I check to see if anyone saw me. Being fat is one thing, but acting like a bumbling idiot is another. Nobody here. I trip again getting out of my underwear, but this time I say nothing. I pull on my penis to make it presentable and head up the hill. The trail turns sharply to the right and parallels a quintessential New England stone wall, remnants of Puritans and a tribute to Robert Frost. On the way up the hill, a guy in a leather jacket and nothing else passes in the opposite direction. Tall and about forty, he diverts his eyes as he walks, his expression as stony as the lichen-riddled granite flanking the trail. Obviously not interested in fat old men, which is only fair. In silence, I ask myself why I come to cruising grounds when casual sex is not what I’m looking for. From the crest of the hill to its bottom, I try to think of a reason, but all I end up with is sweat dripping from my balding head.
When I reach my destination, I have the answer: beauty, a small, crescent-shaped beach with light gray sand as soft as talc. Adorning the beach is a scintillating array of male specimens worthy of posing for Caravaggio: Man Lying on Stomach, a sugaring of sand sanctifying the backs of his muscular legs; Man Entering Water, long black hair flowing like a fan, his herculean buttocks flexing in the breeze. In the background, rapids rush over boulders before pouring into a natural pool, as calm as it is deep.
Arousal overcomes me, and I hide my erection with my pack. At the edge of the beach—partially shaded beneath a stout and not-so-stately hemlock, its foliage frayed and yellowed, I find a spot to spread out. At the sight of my rolls of fat, which remind me of old-fashioned ribbon candy at Christmas, I lose my erection.
After scarfing down a bag of chips, I get depressed and fall asleep. When I open my eyes, I see, about ten feet away, a dish, mid-forties, lounging on a lawn chair in the shade of the dying hemlocks. With copious curls the color of acorns leading to a chiseled chest, he looks out of place beneath the trees, their misshapen limbs competing to strangle their own trunks. The man’s muscular arms hold a hardback book, which he seems to be reading, not hiding behind, as I sometimes do.
Below, the sight is a bit disappointing, only because the man wears clothes—modest shorts and a pair of sandals. Unlike the posers, he also wears a pleasant expression. After six tries to muster the nerve, I get up. The plan is to stop by the man’s chair and say something: what, I don’t know. Despite my intentions, I’ll probably walk past without a word. As I get close, the man says, “Ouch,” and jerks his arm. Then he starts rummaging through a bag. I hesitate. The man looks up.
“Hey, you don’t happen to have a Benadryl, do you?” His voice reminds me of honey filling the holes of an English muffin. “I just got stung by a wasp, and I’m allergic. Must’ve left my stash on the counter at home.”
My eyes focus on the man’s arm. It’s beginning to swell. “Actually, I think I do.”
“Great. Better than calling 911, that’s if my phone can get a signal.”
“Just a second; I’ll be right back.”
A clap of thunder causes me to jump, as I rush to my blanket. The other guys on the beach start gathering their things. I reach for the bottle of antihistamine, then hurry back to the man in the chair. As I shake two pink pills into his palm, I can’t tell whether I’m listening to more thunder or the thumping in my chest.
The man takes a long swig of water and swallows the pills. “Thanks for saving my life.”
“No worries. Glad to do it.”
“Are you allergic, too?”
“No, but I got a brother and sister who are. Big Italian family, middle child.”
A flash of lightning, and I start mouthing the seconds. The man next to me does the same. Our ears are met with a resounding crash.
“Gonna take me a while to regain my strength,” says the man. “Sting sorta wiped me out. So, if you want to get out of here, now’s the time to go, before the storm hits.”
I look at him, and a sudden sense of bravery comes over me. “I want to make sure you’re all right. When you’re up to it, we can walk back to the parking lot. Maybe the rain’ll melt some of my fat.”
“Thanks for your kindness.”
The man introduces himself as Kurt. I introduce myself, and we shake hands.
A strapping dude with an oversized cock swinging in a silver ring walks between us.
“Big storm’s on its way,” says the dude, probably in his late thirties and looking straight at me. Then the guy faces Kurt and holds up his phone with one hand and fondles his cock with the other. “Radar shows red. River’s gonna rise fast.”
“Well then you better go,” says Kurt.
When the guy disappears, we both laugh.
I tell Kurt I can’t believe he chose me over the dude with the cockring.
“Because I’m old and fat, and he’s young and hot.”
Kurt touches my shoulder and whispers for me to look up the hill. The cockring dude and another guy, no more than twenty-five, with a UMASS tattoo on his ass, are blowing each other. Head-to-cock on a blanket, they remind me of pistons pressurizing fluids in an engine.
“You got something they don’t have,” says Kurt.
Another flash of lightning, a few claps of thunder, and the two get up and scatter. We laugh some more.
Kurt tells me he’s an actuary for a Connecticut insurance company.
“Stats, including age, height, and weight, are what I deal with at work. It’s nice to meet someone . . . human.”
The thunder and lightning become more frequent, and the wind starts to blow. Kurt suggests we get away from the trees and water. We move uphill to a clearing. He tells me the meadow, riddled with bracken and a few bushes, was carved out in the sixties, when hundreds of gay men rode buses from Boston and New York to gather at the river. When someone got hurt, air ambulances used the clearing for landing. Kurt sets up a tarp on a couple of bushes, and we spread our towels in the space below and between them. When the rain comes with a vengeance, we huddle. My heart has never beaten faster.
“When you look at the stats,” says Kurt, “AIDS, STI’s, or Monkey Pox are a lot more likely to kill somebody than a lightning strike.”
“One good thing about being celibate,” I say. “No worries about disease.”
Kurt tells me he’s celibate, too, and married to a woman. “That’s why I keep the shorts on—so I won’t be tempted.” Kurt’s forest-green eyes turn sad when he speaks of his wife.
“I’m too busy to have a personal life,” I say. “Busy fixing cars and dealing with my needy family. Least they pay me for babysitting.”
I ask Kurt if his wife knows about his sexuality.
“We don’t keep secrets. She doesn’t believe in divorce, and neither do I. We get along. Enjoy fine food, the symphony. Next fall, we got season’s tickets to the ballet: wife’s idea, but I’m sure I’ll warm up to it. What’s not to love, when you got a live orchestra and men in tights?”
The storm blows the tarp into the air, but Kurt catches it in time. I offer to sit on the edge.
“With my weight, it’s not going anywhere.”
I tell Kurt about my infatuation with the composer Tchaikovsky.
“You know, he was gay. According to one of his music professors, he tried to commit suicide in 1877 by wading into the freezing waters of the Moskva River. That was before he decided to leave his wife.”
Before Kurt can respond, my phone pings out a text.
“It’s from Mama. Wants to know when I’ll be home, so she can drop off some of her homemade lasagna. As if I need it.”
Kurt puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me I could lose weight if I want to.
I take a breath.
“I’d be afraid of what would happen if I went on a diet.”
“What do you mean?”
“No food to lift my spirits, and I think I’d fall apart. Might end up reminding the tribe that Papa died lifting a forkful of Mama’s lasagna. His cholesterol was so high, he qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records. But nobody cared, as long as he praised Mama’s cooking, chortled out his fat-man’s laugh, contributed to the St. Mary’s Building Fund. He hosted a party every year as long as I can remember for his retired cronies from the quarry. And you know, most of them didn’t bother to come to the wake.”
Kurt looks me in the eye.
“Maybe you could tone down your attitude towards others and give yourself some slack. You could lose weight at a healthy pace and not worry about what people think.”
I tell him I lost five pounds a few weeks after I opened the garage on Sundays.
“No more dinners at Mama’s.”
“All you need is time for yourself, a sensible diet, and a decent exercise plan.”
I tell Kurt the only exercise I’m interested in is ballet.
“After work, when everybody’s gone, I lock up the garage and put on ballet music. Last week it was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Something happens when I hear the violin solo from Act II, the pas de deux, when Prince Siegfried dances with Odette.”
Kurt raises his eyebrows.
“Does the ballet have a storyline?”
“You better believe it. Odette’s suffering under the spell of the evil Von Rothbart, who turned her into a swan that transforms back into a human only for a few hours at night. Sometimes, in the middle of sweeping the floor, I imagine myself as a male version of Odette, sailing high in the air, held by the sinewy arms of the regal prince. The more I sweep, the more I picture my Siegfried, and I begin to feel lighter, as if all my extra weight has disappeared, as if I’ve assumed the body of Mister Cockring or someone like him. I envision myself performing the role of the white swan, expressing my love with a glance and a touch, achieving nirvana with every partnered pirouette.”
Kurt says nothing while I talk. Instead, he cradles my head in his arms. Despite the storm, I fall asleep. Not until I hear the voice of the guy with the UMASS butt tattoo do I open my eyes.
“Can you please help me?”
“What happened?” asks Kurt.
“Got separated from . . . my boyfriend.”
The man’s speech is slow and slurred.
“Water too high. I got swept. So cold. Caught on a rock.”
“Was that your boyfriend we saw you with?” I ask.
The guy shakes his head and then starts to shiver.
“Boyfriend’s gonna kill me.”
Kurt tells the man he has symptoms of hypothermia and needs to warm up—fast. Then he asks me to wrap my body around the man, who quickly takes a step backward.
“Your lips are turning blue,” says Kurt. “You got no choice, unless you want to leave in a body bag.”
The shivering man steps forward, and Kurt continues.
“While my friend holds you, I’ll rub your hands and feet. And for the record, there’s nothing sexual about anything anyone’s about to do.”
I feel neither arousal nor anger. I accept the fact that Kurt chose his words wisely. He had to act fast to convince the man that letting me touch him is better than dying. The man sits down, and I sit down to face him, crotch-to-crotch. Kurt adjusts our bodies so that our chests converge—shivering muscle upon jiggly fat. Then, for the next ten minutes, Kurt jumps from spot to spot, rubbing the man’s hands and feet. Because I’m taller, I don’t see the man’s face. The rain eventually stops, and the shivering dies down. When the sun comes out, Kurt gets up and shakes out the tarp. That’s when a Caravaggio model—the one with the sand-sugared legs—shows up with a stick like the ones I used to cross the river. When he speaks, spittle comes out of his mouth.
“You fuckin’ asshole,” he says to the man I’m holding. “This is the last time you ever cheat on me.”
“That’s my boyfriend,” Butt Tattoo whispers in my ear.
“You don’t understand,” I start to say, but the model turned assailant interrupts.
“You’ve done some fucked-up things,” he says to his boyfriend, “but I never knew you were a fuckin’ chubby chaser.”
“No,” says Butt Tattoo.
Kurt rushes over, and the assailant raises his weapon overhead, not unlike the way Siegfried raises Odette in a press lift in the Swan Lake Pas de Deux. Kurt stops him. The two begin to fight. The ensuing struggle gives Butt Tattoo a chance to scramble away. When the guy with the stick takes a swing at Kurt, knocking him into a bush, I rush over and tackle the dude. When he tries to fight, I sit on him. When he calls me a “fat pig,” I bounce.
Bouncing on the guy reminds me of the last time my youngest brother called me a pig. We were at Rocky Neck, a boring Connecticut beach on Long Island Sound. I couldn’t have been more than twelve, which means my brother was seven. When he likened me to Humpty Dumpty, I sat on his beach ball and made it pop. The moment it popped, I laughed. Then I picked up what was left of the ball and ripped it apart. Tearing into the ball took me out of my body, made me feel as light as the seagulls squawking overhead. Later that night, after Papa gave me a strapping, I realized that in the midst of bouncing, I’d imagined the ball as my baby brother. I had forgotten that memory. Kurt starts pulling my arms, yelling for me to stop. Not until I imagine Kurt as Siegfried supporting my body do I listen. The man gets up and runs away. I notice Kurt’s arm is no longer swollen.
I put on my clothes for our trek back to the parking area. When Kurt and I reach the crest of the hill that parallels the stone wall, I get out of breath, and we stand for a while.
“I don’t know what came over me,” I say. “Thanks for stopping me from doing something I’d regret.”
“Sure. I can’t say I understand, but I’m glad I was there for you. You were there for me—twice.”
“Yeah, I guess I was.”
We start walking again.
“Still trying to process it all,” says Kurt. “We can talk about it once the shock has worn off.”
At the crossing, I hold onto Kurt, as we navigate the swollen river. No one falls. On our way to the gnarled roots, the water looks polluted with something red. I spot the UMASS tattoo and the bloodied body that goes with it, lying face down by the leafy plants that belong somewhere in the tropics, not Massachusetts.
Dr. Kendall Klym has won numerous awards for his short stories, which have been published in literary journals including Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, and Fiction International. A former professional ballet dancer and journalist, Klym earned a PhD in English with a concentration in Fiction Writing from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, Fiction, at Oklahoma State University.