Twentieth by James Najarian
Josh drove around the winding campus twice before he recognized where he was. He rifled through his brain, trying to find where he’d archived his mental map, unused and now useless. The Cranfield School lacked nothing. Glossy neo-Victorian buildings, built since the place went coed, took up unfamiliar spaces. Even the oaks seemed buffed and polished. In his day, the boys lived in brick, turreted dormitories that would have gone up like waxed paper had there been a spark. Where was his old school? It was like Troy: several layers underneath.
Josh did not remember Cranfield with much affection. It had been one of the last boys’ boarding schools in the country. By the time he got there, the bottom was falling out academically, and the student body was cleft in two. The scholarship boys like himself, maybe a fifth of the school, kept a low profile and out of trouble. They provided Cranfield with what was left of its college-admissions cachet. The rest of the school—the athletes and the stoners whose parents wanted them out of the house—had all the fun.
Josh received perhaps three things from Cranfield: a good knowledge of German, locked in his brain by a talented teacher; a permanent disdain for team sports; and an extensive visual acquaintance with the bodies of young men. The boys walked around shirtless all the time. They would even wander naked through the halls of the dorms on their way to the showers, and what showers they were—team showers! Every morning Josh had been greeted by a wet candy box full of flesh. But being a guy who followed the rules, and who happened to be one of the homeliest teenagers going, with greasy black hair and thick aviator glasses, he had never gotten close to touching one of these bodies. But since then he had worked out, he kept all his black hair, and he learned how to dress in an understated, not-quite-a-gay-boy way. At least until recently, he was usually seeing one good-looking man or another, and he thought of himself something of a player. He looked like a guy who had been a high-school jock, and not too long ago. He got carded all the time.
It was already the second day of the alumni festivities, but Josh thought it best to limit himself to the big social, and maybe the brunch the following morning, both held in the hockey rink that was drained for spring. (Yes, there was a hockey rink, too: had he forgotten, or was it new?) He was late. He wandered through the field house’s vast corridors, gymnasia stacked on gymnasia, walls lined with trophies and banners. Most familiar was the smell: of leather and men.
Josh picked up a name tag from an unmanned table and carefully printed his name. He stuck the tag where it would be covered by his jacket. Something in him wanted to know if he would be recognized. He had already tenured in economics at a well-known college in Virginia, where many in his own class had applied to and were rejected from.
If ever there were a time to brag, this was it.
The rink was filled with people. The buffets were completely battered. Asparagus and caviar were scattered across one, a selection of cheeses and carved meats destroyed on another.
He spied a few men he seemed to remember. Their names did not come to him. They were all dressed in the same blue blazer, as if twenty years had transformed them into their parents. Some even wore the hideous Cranfield tie: a violent pattern of black, blue, and red, it looked exactly like a bruise.
He approached the table and the men all looked up and greeted him politely. To his surprise, they seemed already middle-aged. A chubby guy took charge.
“Hi! Are you from our class? Nice to see you.”
The man wore a pricey suit, but his face had started to widen. His hair was mostly silver.
In a flash, Josh recognized his name tag. My god, it was Mike Mellen. What happened? Mike was one of those friendly partying guys who also studied—didn’t Mike go to Bucknell?—but who in the end was wearing the wrong team color. He was a jock. Josh always kind of liked him. Now he was unrecognizable, portly and almost coarse. For the past twenty years Mike had remained in Josh’s mind as the red-haired shirtless ephebe with the lacrosse player’s hairless thick body, larking about with a ball and stick in the dorm hallways. Whenever the picture of Mike had come to his mind in the past decades—and it had—a shirt was never included.
“Hey, Mike, how’re you?” Josh said in the lowest, most confident voice he could muster. “Thanks for organizing this.” Mercifully, Josh had remembered Mike was the class secretary.
“Have a seat. You remember Alan, and Rick, Scott, Stephan—over there is Dan.” Mike ran through a few more names, a Justin and a Drew.
Josh didn’t really remember any of these people. He had some vague sense of eating with them in the dining hall. Alan might have been in his chemistry class, and Dan he knew from the literary magazine. They were all here with wives, sitting almost boy-girl-boy-girl. Josh felt disappointment, as if he had just walked slightly downhill. He thought there would be more gay guys. Wasn’t this where they were made?
The conversation circled current events—mostly, Josh suspected, so the wives would not get bored out of their heads—occasionally mixing in reminiscences about the old Cranfield. The boys generally went by last names at the school, or by strange monikers derived from habits and surnames. Josh didn’t have a nickname. Scott Werley was called “Squirrelley”; Mike, “Copes,” for the Copenhagen tobacco always in his pocket; Alan Reed, “Reeder” or sometimes, as someone said aloud, “Reefer.” Everyone cracked up at this. Josh looked around to make sure he was not laughing too loudly at jokes that weren’t meant for him. Nobody seemed to care.
People asked what he did for a living. When he told them where he taught, they were impressed, more impressed than he really thought they should be. He tried not to add that he had a book recently published on the economic history of the Gilded Age, but once or twice he could not restrain himself: “A book? A book by you? Holy Shit.” He had quiet conversations with guys who he knew hadn’t liked him back when and who seemed to have forgotten this crucial point.
It seemed too easy. Didn’t any of them remember? Hanging about, saying nothing in particular to a bunch of guys he had never spent much time with, he almost felt accepted. He searched the eyes of the men for some kind of recognition—were any of them gay? Despite the wives and children? Once or twice Dan returned his glance, like two beacons meeting over a sea. Josh mentally put Dan on a shelf to get back to later. But the rest of them were regular guys, straight guys. Not incredibly successful guys. Most everyone else seemed to have midlevel jobs in sales or finance. They had graying hair if they had hair at all, paunches. For a while there was a vigorous commerce in baby pictures.
Their wives, though, were astonishingly good-looking and accomplished. Mike’s wife probably weighed a half of what he did—she could have walked off a magazine shoot. Alan’s wife explained the ins and outs of a well-known murder case with grimy details Josh had not read in the papers.
The program seemed to be to wander among the tables assigned to his class and say hello to whomever. In this, he had one small joy: nobody recognized him. He had to introduce himself every time. He stuck out his hand and lowered his voice: “Good to see you. Josh Minton,” he said in his best understated professional manner. Geordie Dove, looked Josh over in amazement as his fiancée clung to his arm like ivy. A tall water-polo player, whose perfectly formed body Josh could probably draw from memory, he gaped his mouth as open as a cod’s when Josh announced who he was.
“You’re Josh? What happened to the glasses?”
“I had them surgically removed,” he joked. “Please. I got contacts. I worked out. I grew up,” he said.
“You look great,” said Geordie.
Ding. Geordie had given the winning answer, what Josh had come all this way to hear.
When he ambled around the tables one more time, Dan’s eyes caught him again. It was an easy matter to sidle up to him. Dan was wearing the requisite blue blazer, but without the tie. His brown hair was thinning in the front. He was about Josh’s height but more solid, and thick eyebrows and trimmed beard gave his face a serious cast.
“Hey, I’m Josh.” Josh stuck out his hand. In his mind, Josh carried a kind of homosexual Geiger counter that could calibrate Dan’s queerness.
Dan’s eyes widened. “Hey. You look a lot different.”
“I’m hoping that’s a good thing. Thanks. You used to write poetry for the Cranfield Review, right?”
The Cranfield Review was a glossy extravagance that Josh had edited in his senior year. It was the only connection he remembered having to Dan.
“You remember that? I can’t believe you remember that,” said Dan.
“Yeah, well, we wrote lots of poetry.”
“Lots of bad poetry.”
“Mine was particularly stinky. Sort of Sylvia Plath goes to church,” said Josh.
“Mine was more like Sylvia Plath gets kicked out of church,” said Dan.
Josh’s Geiger counter gave a click. “What are you up to?” asked Dan.
“I teach college.”“
Dan was suitably impressed. “You have an MA, a PhD?”
“Yeah,” Josh said, with forged nonchalance.“
You always were such a quig.”
Josh laughed. This was the Cranfield pejorative for a kid who studied a lot.
“As were you, if I remember right.”
“Well, yeah, there was nothing much else to do if you weren’t a jock and didn’t want to be high the whole day.”
“What are you up to?
“I’m a lawyer, or will be. I just finished law school. I’ll be clerking in Miami next year.”
“Kind of late in life, I know,” added Dan. “I used to be an actor and worked in my own company in Chicago. But I got tired of starving, and so here I am.”
“Actor,” Josh thought: click. His Geiger counter was prancing. “Are you staying in the reunion hotel?” Josh asked.
“No. I was a day student. I’m staying with my mother in Springfield. Is the reunion hotel okay?”
“It’s okay—glittery and expensive. And full of weddings. I counted at least three.”
“So why did you come here?” asked Dan.
“I don’t know,” said Josh.
“Honestly”—and this was Josh’s first and perhaps only honest moment of the evening—“I think I wanted to show off, to let Cranfield know that I wasn’t a skinny kid with intermittent hygiene anymore. And I was curious about everyone else. But nobody I hung out with is here.”
They both paused to look around the room.“
It looks like the party is winding down,” said Dan. “They’ll probably go on drinking in the reunion hotel.”
“Not so likely. They’re twelve-steppers now, a lot of them.”
“Not me. I’m going to get a last drink. Do you want anything?” Josh clapped Dan on the shoulder, ostensibly out of friendship, but really just to touch him.
“No, thanks, I’m still working on this one.”
So he had made his contact for the evening, Josh thought. It was almost like picking someone up in a bar, only you had to back off more. One couldn’t seem too eager.
When the reception finally wound down, Josh made sure to swing by Dan, who was picking at a piece of ivory iced cake.
Yeah, it looks like it’s over.”
“Do you need a ride? We could check to see if something’s going on at the Hyatt where I’m staying. It’s just a couple miles away.”
“I know. Remember, I’m from here.”
Dan followed Josh’s Jeep to the hotel in his Celica. The hotel bar was crammed with young people, the whole first floor loud with parties. There did not seem to be any Cranfield people about.
“I have a bottle of Merlot in my room,” Josh said. “We could just go there.” “Sure,” said Dan. Was he completely indifferent?
Ensconced in the over-furnished hotel room—the bed could almost not be seen for the brigades of extra pillows—Dan seemed to loosen up. He threw some of the pillows on the floor, took off his shoes, and sat on the bed.
“So,” said Josh, pouring the wine into two hotel water glasses, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” said Dan.
“Me neither,” said Josh.
“So, you’re queer too,” said Dan.
“Right. I mean, yes.”
“I thought there would be more of us.”
“So did I. Where do they make gay people if not at boys’ boarding schools?” Josh asked. He paused. “Did you ever—you know—at Cranfield?”
“Sure, a few times. Didn’t you?”
“Well, no. I never really got a chance,” Josh said, a little shamefacedly.
“Really? It was pretty easy. You’d be drinking with somebody and get talking and somehow end up on the floor. It usually didn’t take very long.”
Josh grunted in order to give some kind of response. The long-familiar feeling of being left out surged in him like a little wave.
“I envied you guys who boarded. With those team showers? What I could have done with those team showers,” said Dan.
“It was less fun than you’d imagine. It was like being in a boy museum. You could look but not touch,” said Josh.
Josh sat down on the bed next to Dan.
“So, are you seeing anybody?” he asked.
“‘Seeing anybody,’—you sound like my mother. I am, sort of.”
“How long have you been together?”
“Five years,” said Dan.“
That’s not sort of,” said Josh.
“We have the out-of-town rule. What about you?” asked Dan.
“No—well, something’s recently over, but you don’t want to hear about it.”
There was silence. Evidently Dan didn’t.
Josh poured more wine for them both and put his hand on Dan’s shoulder. He glanced at the two of them in the mirror. With its gold trim, the room was done up like a bordello. Dan put his head in Josh’s lap; Josh caressed it with one hand and drank with the other. They remained this way for some time, not saying anything, until Dan got up, drained his second glass, and kissed Josh on the lips. He purposefully stripped off his oxford shirt, his T-shirt, and trousers. He was wearing a pair of black boxer shorts. Josh was still sitting on the bed, as if watching a show.
This was almost the part of sex that Josh liked the most, the stripping down. It had a Christmas aspect to it: you didn’t quite know what you might unwrap. Dan had a surprisingly heavy body for a guy of average height; it was attractive, masculine. Though he did not spend too much time in the gym, there was still some muscle, and he had a layer of fine dark hair on his chest, belly, and in a little patch on the back of his neck. Dan strolled over and helped Josh pull off his shirt and trousers. Josh wore boxers, too. Here was one of the things Josh had learned since Cranfield: “prep school boys, boxers; public-school boys, briefs.” Josh had a whole collection of jokey boxers with odd cartoons or figures on them. These had a Superman logo.
“Nice shorts,” said Dan
“Like a speeding bullet.” It was a line Josh had used in—or just out of—precisely the same boxers with at least two other men.
The two of them made out on the bed with the slight awkwardness of men who were not completely unfamiliar. Had they been strangers or lovers, they would have had fewer inhibitions. Dan wormed himself out of his boxers to reveal a thick, stubby cock. Josh, following his lead, did likewise: his own was a little thinner and longer. How often had he done this with other men? Not just the sex, but the shop-and-compare bit? Instantly in his mind Dan’s dick assumed its place next to the other erect penises he could remember in a kind of police lineup. Dan’s was about in the middle in all sorts of ways, but it seemed to suit him. Years from now, Josh thought, he would be able to summon up what it looked like just as easily as Dan’s face.
Perhaps more easily.
“We’re playing safe, right?” said Dan. “Of course,” said Josh.
They rolled on the bed and embraced each other. The sex, just as they had agreed, was as safe as possible: each gave the other only a little head. It was oddly polite. When they came, which they did mostly by stroking themselves, next to each other on the bed, leaning against the headboard, taking one another’s bodies in view, Josh felt a great brotherly feeling. They both burst into laughter, into a sort of relief, that they could do this with one another. Josh put his arm around Dan and kept it there, and Dan embraced back. But there wasn’t much to say. They had expended their small fund of Cranfield talk beforehand. Dan reached for a bunch of tissues.
After a few minutes he said slowly, “I should be getting going.”
“You could stay over,” said Josh, hopefully not too quickly. “No problem.”
“No, not with my mom waiting for me. All these years later, it would be a little hard to explain.”
“Well, okay—maybe I’ll see you at the brunch tomorrow morning,” said Josh.
But he knew that Dan wouldn’t make it to the brunch, and he himself would probably skip it. They had both gotten what they came for. And any more talk with people he barely remembered did not appeal.
Joshua got up and fiddled in his wallet, “Here’s my card—email me sometime.”
“Thanks. I’ll email you when I get back.”
Dan put his clothes on in a leisurely motion. Josh looked at him for as long as he could. Josh wanted him to stop for a second—just to pause half-clothed, in his shorts or not yet in his shirt, the curve of his slight belly just pushing out—to pause and let himself be looked at and admired. But the words failed him. How could he ask Dan to stop and hold it, as if he were a statue? He would think Josh was some kind of weirdo.
When Dan was finished buttoning his shirt, he walked over to the bed to give Josh a quick kiss. Josh squeezed Dan’s hand. He could feel an unwillingness, a reluctance to keep the connection going, flowing in Dan’s body along with his blood. There was a click and a snap as Dan strolled through the door.
It was not late. Josh heard voices outside. He slid on his shorts and peered through the curtains. Some young people were out there laughing and whooping. Was it a wedding party? They were all dressed up—no, maybe not a wedding, maybe a prom— Josh couldn’t quite tell. The boys in their tuxes, the girls in tight jewel-colored dresses or gauzy creations; all seemed to be playing a game. Was it tag? They were obviously tipsy. Not a great idea in those heels. The girl in the most elaborate outfit, an enormous pink poufy number that made her look like the planet Jupiter, was holding back on account of her dress, but even she participated in some way. It made Josh almost sick to see them: to watch them so at ease, experiencing something he would never get to.
In so many years, he had not changed much after all.
Josh knew he should get back from the window. They could probably see him, and he was only in a T-shirt and skivvies. But he stayed until the girl who played Jupiter clearly noticed him, gaily giving him a wave. He raised his hand back. And for a few moments he remained, viewing this other life from behind the pane of glass.
James Najarian grew up on a farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He teaches nineteenth-century British literature at Boston College, where he edits the scholarly journal _Religion and the Arts_. His short fiction has been published in Kestrel, The Ear, Worcester Review, Vermont Literary Review, and other journals. His volume of poetry, The Goat Songs, won the Vassar Miller Award and was published by the University of North Texas Press in 2018.