An Honest Try
An Honest Try
The rain started coming down like a million tiny beads as he stepped off the tram and into the throng of tourists flooding the famous square, and it continued as he waded past the lavish De Bijenkorf department store and made for the gap between the Royal Palace and the New Church (c. fourteen-oh-eight). The two heavy backpacks slung over his shoulders made his passage difficult, but he managed to make his way through crowd and, ducking down a narrow lane, came suddenly to the first historic canal, its banks crowded with all manner of eccentric houseboat. He searched out and confirmed with the street placard his destination, tried to pronounce the garrulous name to himself—Her-en-gratcht—and, crossing over to the far bank, turned down alongside the loitering water. A brisk wind had blown the rain away, if only momentarily, and the sun felt suddenly closer; all around him tree branches danced, throwing dappled light over the road like paint flung from a can.
The young man continued on down the brick-lain sidewalk, counting: one-ten…one-oh-eight…one-oh-four… Looking up, he marveled at the stately old buildings, each built at its own disconcerting angle, and decided he needed a photo. Awkwardly, he pulled his camera from the backpack slung across his chest and snapped a few shots before continuing on: eighty-eight…eighty-six…eighty-four. He stopped, looked up, nodded. After all, the man’s profile had made mention of his owning a boat: recite its name in your Couch Request, he threatened, or suffer his rude dismissal. He got dozens of requests a day, he had said. But getting his attention had been the easy part; it’s what he had stipulated after that threw up alarm bells. And so the young man mounted the steps to the landing with a slight nagging trepidation.
Sixteen seventy-six said the etching above the door. Sixteen seventy-six! marveled the young man. That’s a hundred years older than… Turning his eyes to the door, he discovered there were only three tenants in the whole building, and, looking closer, that his host’s name stood beside the top bell—the only bell fashioned in a golden sheen.
He lived in the penthouse. And his boat’s name was PeeWee.
The young man rang the bell and, after being buzzed in through the stately door, came to a fine wooden staircase corkscrewing up through the ceiling. He could hear the man’s voice wafting down to him from above: All the way to the top, it was telling him. He yelled back some sort of encouraging response and started on the first stair. His heart began to beat faster. In his head, he played out all the possible scenarios again… But it was impossible to know what to expect. He didn’t even know whether the man would be clothed or not, and this made him uneasy. He didn’t care for uncertainty.
The old man met him on the narrow landing to his apartment, dressed in a loose weatherproof jacket and a snug pair of whitey-tighteys. Wiry grey hairs and sagging skin betrayed his advanced age, but otherwise he looked fit and handsome. He was not a large man, but filled what space he had with self-confidence. He had a pear-shaped face with a large nose, slightly hallowed cheeks, and nascent jowls. A band of neatly-trimmed grey hair horseshoed around his shiny bald crown. It was an expressive, intelligent face with fierce skyblue eyes and kindly old-man wrinkles. Not the face of a pervert, thought the young man. But then again, how can one ever really tell?
“Hang your jacket here,” the old man said, “and the boots, please take off.” Dropping his bag, the youth obliged, and after stashing his backpack under a table in the hallway he followed his host through another door and into the living area. It was a fine space, with ample room, postcard-perfect views, and a rich, almost palpable, feeling of age. The wooden beams running across the gabled ceiling, he mused, had been born of trees standing centuries before the Pilgrims had ever stepped foot at Plymouth. That’s history. And as for the furniture, the decoration, the choice of art: it was not just a random collection of acquired stuff, nee; it had a concept, a design. A tasteful expression of wealth.
“You like some tea?” asked the old man. “Or coffee?”
“I would love some coffee,” replied the young man, who stood awkwardly by the table while his host busied himself in the kitchen. What was the protocol here? he wondered. Should he undress? He would have preferred not to, but, then again, he had said he would give it a try—the nudist lifestyle, that is.
He took off his shirt and hung it on the chair before him.
His host, seeing this simple gesture as approval, left what he was doing and walked over to the table, then slipped out of his jacket and likewise hung it on a chair. He then took his thumbs to the only remaining elastic on his body and stepped nimbly out of his briefs. The young man turned casually from his nakedness (nothing to look at here) and walked calmly over to the sitting area, which consisted of a broad glass table sandwiched between two sleek couches, each draped with a soft blanket—for all the naked asses, he thought. He took a seat with his back to the wall and began inspecting the table’s many accoutrements. There was a small statue of Atlas, hoisting the globe atop his muscular shoulders, a men’s magazine whose words he could not read (though flip idly through its pages he nevertheless did), and several ceramic coasters, each displaying a photo of a man’s bare midsection. No head, no legs: just a core of pure unadulterated masculinity. Like something you would find at Abercrombie and Fitch. Or a sex shop.
“The coffee will be ready soon,” said the old man, taking a seat on the couch opposite him. Unabashed, he sat with legs wide and arms thrown back—he was the very picture of self assurance. And why not? thought the youth. He was in his own home, living his life the way he saw fit. There was something to be said for that. And looking down at his own legs, still clothed in brown cotton, he couldn’t help but feel a little overdressed.
“That’s great,” said the young man, and, not knowing what else to say, he began to talk of himself, and of his journey. It was a story he had told many times—so many times, in fact, that it felt scripted—but he told it well, and the old man listened intently.
“This is very interesting,” said the old man, handing him a cup of coffee. “I never knew this. There is milk on the counter. I will let you pour. And sugar—“
The young man, skirting the naked body of his host, poured the rich white milk into his cup, talking as he did so.
“And it was all worth it?” asked the old man. “To leave your comfortable life and your family to live in Africa! You are glad you went?”
“You know, when you’re neck deep in it,” replied the young man, “it can really suck. Honestly, most days were miserable. It was so hot, and life there is so difficult. But looking back now, sitting in this wonderful apartment, drinking real black coffee, I can comfortably say that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
His host stood there marveling at him. “You know, J—, you are one of the three- or maybe five most interesting surfers I ever host. Really. I do this many times, host young men like you who want to travel and see the world but cannot always afford to stay in hostel. It is my pleasure. But I have learned this: you can almost always tell in the first half-hour or so whether it is a good match or no. And I only knew you for ten minutes, but I am already completely comfortable with you!”
The young man agreed, and then asked him how many others he had hosted. The number, the old man believed, was somewhere around eighty. “That’s very kind of you,” said the young man, taking a sip of coffee.
“I thought we would go to the bar later,” continued the old man. “Get some drinks. It brews its own beer. Very good. I have some here—I will put them in the fridge for later. But it closes at eight, and it is at the other side of town. So we need to leave in next hour. I have a extra bike for my guests. Does this sound good to you? Yes? Very good. And after, we come back here and I will cook dinner. You eat meat? Yes, of course you do, with a strong body like this. Cow okay?”
“Very good,” the old man said. “Now, while you are here, I must insist one thing.”
“That I pay for everything. You see, I love my job, and it pay me more than I need to cover the cost of hosting. And if I get a chance to meet wonderful man like you, why not? I do not know your income—and, please, do not tell, I do not want to—but it is probably not very substantial. Surely not as big as mine. I want you to spend this money on travel, not beer and food with me.”
The young man knew he ought to object—that there was something a bit over-the-top in all this generosity—but he did want to save money. What difference did it make if the man’s reasons might not be entirely wholesome? So he told him that it was a deal, and the old man smiled his warm, old-man smile.
“And there is one more thing I need ask you,” his host continued. “When we go to the bar later, I need you to tell me stop after three pints. You see, I like to drink, and go out with guests and friends, but I have a not high tolerance for alcohol, and sometimes I drank too much. And then I cannot really be held accountable for my actions.”
“I can do that for you,” replied the young man, taking another sip of his coffee. “And about that work you spoke of.... You are a lawyer, is that right? Those are law books I saw over there on your bookshelf, are they not?”
“You are sharp!” replied the old man. “No one ever picks up this so fast. Yes, they are law books, decisions from two-hundred years before. But I am no lawyer,” he said, “not any more. I am a judge, at the Court of Appeals.”
“Wow,” said the young man. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” said the old man, and they sipped their coffee. Then, suddenly, he asked:
“So perhaps you would like to be nude?”
The young man hesitated just a second: he would have preferred not to. But then again… “Yeah, why not?” he said, and walking over to the table, he dropped his trousers.
Now, had he stopped to ponder the situation, look at it objectively, he’d have undoubtedly felt a bit uncomfortable with it all—but no, he was being open-minded; he was living in the moment. Yes, the man was gay, and, yes, he was naked in his apartment, but that didn’t mean he was in any danger. The guy was a judge, after all.
“I come from a family of lawyers,” said the young man, turning from the table. He could feel the old man’s eyes on him, running over his naked flesh, judging him, but he simply willed himself not to care. Let the man look, he thought, let him fall in love. Nothing was going to happen.
“I am not surprised,” said the old man. “But please, tell me how you came to be in Europe. How long ago do you finish your work in Africa?”
“I finished with my program a little over a year ago,” said the young man. “But I wasn’t done with the continent yet. Not even close…” And he delved back into his story, fielding questions and sipping his coffee.
“And now I’m here, in Amsterdam,” said the young man, peering out through the large picture windows at the city below. “I had to buy a plane ticket to extend my visa in South Africa, and I thought to myself, either I go home or I go somewhere else. I still had money in the bank, and was saving quite a bit living and working at the hostel, so I said ‘Fuck it!’ and bought a ticket to Berlin.”
“This is amazing,” said the old man, coming up beside his guest. “And not just everything you have done, but the way you speak. The way you carry yourself. The way you just walk right up to this window and stand there so confidently. So many of my guests are uncomfortable being naked in the room. They insist we put the curtain down, which is fine, but I like the light, and the view is so beautiful. It’s always such a shame. But you… you walk right up and stand there like you don’t care what people think. And this is why I like you so much.”
“Well, thank you,” said the young man. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just a body. And it really is a beautiful city. You are lucky to live here.”
“You are right. Thank you for this,” said the old man, laughing lightly. “But now we should really start thinking about being ready. Like I say, the bar closes at eight, and we still have to ride bicycle there. And perhaps you want to bathe before we leave?”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” said the young man. “In fact, I’ll go do that now.”
“Very good!” said the old man. “There is soap and shampoo and towels and everything you need in the bathroom.”
“Great, thank you.”
“And remember,” added the old man, “if you use the toilet, please sit down.”
There it lay in all its nauseating glory: a veritable child’s fist; a real shower, not a grower like his. And with several beers sloshing through his veins (the magical number three had come and gone unnoticed), the young man couldn’t help but stare a little. Not that the old man minded—stretched out across the couch like Adam reaching for God’s finger, or Kate Winslet just before the ship went down, he was literally putting himself on display. And like a lonely lighthouse attendant blowing his horn through a heavy fog, the young man’s brain called out to him: You shouldn’t be here! Get away! But the thought was there and it was gone again, and he found himself wondering, Do all gay men really have such large dicks? I mean, I’ve never met a gay man but they say he’s well hung.
On the table between them were a few empty beers and a half-smoked joint. “I do not smoke myself,” the old man had explained, “but I always try to have one in the house for my surfers.” It was one of the strongest joints the young man had ever smoked, and, mixed with all the alcohol, his head was starting to spin. He needed food. He needed it badly. But how to say that? he wondered. He didn’t want to be rude.
“At least now I know how to make you stop talking if I want,” said the old man with a laugh.
The young man apologized.
“It is very okay. I do not mind. It is just surprise. I mean, you would not shut-up today earlier! But truly, you do not have to say nothing if you not want to. It is no problem. Please, do not be uncomfortable.”
The youth thanked him and, after a few forced words, fell silent again. The minutes slid by indistinctly, full of vague thoughts and wandering ideas. Then, at last, his mind coalesced around a single thought: The Judge and his Four-Step Plan to Getting Laid. It was so simple! Step one: get young, cash-strapped men into the apartment; step two: wow them with your wealth and refinement; step three: buy them beers, get them drunk, get them high; and step four: fuck ‘em. It’s the least they could do, right? He just wondered if everyone else saw it like he did. Or was he the only straight man crazy enough to willingly enter into all this? It was hard to know.
“Another beer?” asked the old man, suddenly. “Or wine, perhaps?”
How about some fucking food! thought the young man, agreeing instead to another beer. His host retreated to the kitchen and returned with two sweating bottles, which he placed on the table. Then, instead of returning to the couch he had been occupying, the old man came and took a seat beside the youth.
“It is really too bad I have another surfer coming Tuesday,” said the Judge. “I would love host you the entire week!” (The young man said nothing.) “But you know, there are two beds up there. I could write and ask if he is okay to share the space with you. I am sure it would be no problem.”
“O, I don’t want to impose on his space,” said the young man diplomatically. “He’s expecting his own room—I wouldn’t want to take that away from him. My being here might make him uncomfortable.”
“Yes, I suppose you is right. But if he was not coming, you would want to stay, yes?”
“Ah, I don’t see the point in dealing with hypotheticals.”
The young man reached out for his beer, and the old man went to do the same. But as he did so, his naked ass slid smoothly across the soft blanket, coming to rest a mere inch or two from his ward.
“Say,” said the young man, abruptly getting to his feet, “would you like to see some photos of Africa?” (Anything to get away, thought the young man.)
“O, yes, very good,” said the old man.
“Great, I’ll go grab my computer,” and he was gone down the hallway. When he returned, he found the old man standing in the kitchen—he had cleared the table of the dead soldiers and placed the sweating bottles on the counter.
“So I have literally thousands of photos from my travels,” said the young man, placing his computer beside the beers, “but I’ll just show you some of my favorites.” And he pulled up the first. It was a shot of Kilimanjaro at first light, with dark rolling hills in the fore eventually giving way to a monstrous massif painted pink by the coming dawn. “The roof of Africa,” he explained, and went on to delight the old man with details of the climb.
Then it happened: words of admiration accompanied by a hand on this naked thigh:
A little rub, a quick squeeze.
At first, the young man didn’t know what to make of this. It came as more of a shock than anything else. But as the surprise wore off, he found that he was left with an overwhelming sense of uneasiness. It wasn’t being hit on by a man that he took offense to, though—not in the least. It was everything else about it: the nakedness, the age difference, the fact that he was his guest. Any other situation, he could’ve just walked away—but not here, not now. He was being taken advantage of—and yet, a confrontation seemed so difficult. He was too wasted to say anything properly. It would just make everything worse. And so he swallowed his pride and let it go without a word.
But then, a few photographs later, it happened again: a soft caress, a playful pat. His entire body, from the tips of his toes to the deepest recesses of his clouded brain, screamed out at him. Get out! it cried. Just get away! It was fight or flight.
“I gotta use the toilet,” he said, suddenly getting to his feet. And before the Judge could say much of anything, he was past the dining room table, through the door, and out in the cold quiet stillness of the hallway. Breathe in, breathe out. The icy air burned his lungs and bit at his naked flesh, but move quickly he dared not—it was all he could do to keep from running away. Calmly, he walked into the bathroom and peered into the glass. Two blood-stained darkblue eyes staring back at him. What are you doing? he asked his reflection. Why did you agree to come here? To save a few bucks? Ludicrous! It was stupid; it was reckless; it was bordering on dangerous. You should have taken one look at his invitation—I will only host gays and/or nudists (or those people willing to give it an honest try)—and dismissed it outright. For God’s sake, what did you expect would happen? That he would just accept the fact that you weren’t gay and leave it at that? Are you so naïve? Honestly!
Turning from the mirror, he stepped up to the toilet and emptied his bladder. He then shook himself dry and grabbed for the zipper that wasn’t there. How ridiculous! he thought bitterly. But then, suddenly, he remembered himself, and pulling a phrase from his treasure he spoke it softly to himself:
Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.
Laugh, he told himself. You just need to laugh it all off, all the discomfort, all the outrageousness. I mean, what else is there to do? It’s all just a joke.
And so the young man, feeling somewhat lighter than before, pushed open the door to the living room, took a moment to let the warmth coddle his gooseflesh, and returned to his seat for the final act. The old man, he was thrilled to see, had donned an apron (a necessity, no doubt, for a nudist cook) and was busy in the kitchen. Looking up from the fridge, he told the young man that it would be about twenty minutes, and won’t you please make yourself comfortable.
The youth obliged, and when the drunkman’s dinner eventually did arrive, somewhat burnt and rather flavorless, he ate it up with a purpose, like a child does his last obligatory greens. “Thank you,” he said after the old man had cleared his plate. “That was good.” And immediately he began planning his escape. Of course, he couldn’t just get up and leave right then and there—that would be rude. He needed to drink a bit more of his beer and let some time slip by, and then—
“You know, J—,” said the old man, coming up behind him and placing a hand on his shoulder, “I just cannot stop thinking about your photos. They are incredible.”
“Thank you,” replied the young man.
“No, but really, they are wonderful,” said the old man. “It all is. And you probably cannot see it—you do not know just how special you are.” Meanwhile, his hand slipped ever-so-gently off the young man’s shoulder and, cascading down his back, came to rest in the soft downy fur just above his ass.
Up and down, went the hand: up-and-down, upanddown.
The young man shuddered. Screw being polite, he thought—it was time to leave. Time to escape. So he stood up, faced the Judge. “You know, I’m just too fucked up to function anymore,” he said. “I need to go to sleep.” And without waiting for a reply, he turned and marched out of the room, walked straight down the hallway and up the stairs, and closed himself into the small guest bedroom at the end.
The room was extremely dark; but he did not reach for the switch. Instead, he stood stock still and listened to his heart, beating tumultuously against his chest. It filled the cold still room like thunder. But, then, gradually it began to slow. It was over. He had survived.
He was free.
After a little trouble he found the switch and threw the room into sharp relief. He looked around at the walls, the collection of fine alcohol in the corner, the stiff hard beds, and, finally, at himself, his naked flesh held taut against the cold. Firsts things first, he thought; and he reached into his bag, pulled out a clean pair of boxer-shorts, and stepped into them. Then, standing there in the middle of the room, he began to shake the discomforting memories from his body—throwing his arms hither and thither, he dislodged the old man’s sagging naked flesh from his mind, the feel of his worn, well-manicured hands on his skin. He let the lust in those fierce skyblue eyes roll off his flesh and fall to the floor. He writhed and shook till all the disquieting details were sloughed off. Then he took a seat on the bed and started to laugh. He just laughed and laughed. Sure, he felt used, he felt violated, he felt unclean, but he laughed like it didn’t matter.
Like it was all just a joke.