I am in bed with the man I love. The sun is full, but he is sleeping in, something he rarely does because he rises early to make coffee for his wife. But this weekend, his wife’s away visiting family. This morning, he’s with me, in a camper, a nest of sleeping bags on four wheels, at an RV park near the Canadian border.
I run my fingers over him like a mother caressing her newborn, memorizing a new form of her flesh. I trace his scars and the lines on his face and neck like a roadmap and imagine the history they record. His coarse red hair is thinning on top but forms a soft carpet on his chest. He stirs under my touch. I freeze.
“Don’t stop,” he says, “more tickles.” His whisper vibrates the mattress, a buried baritone. I resume and he draws my hand to his chest. "Mmm,” he says.
A jolt of optimism swells, a hope we’ll make love. Sometimes it happens, more often it doesn’t, which has less to do with his wife than it does his past. He told me about it on the phone one afternoon.
"I’m heterosexual,” he said, “but I sold my body to men.”
“I see,” I said. I wanted to understand, but I didn’t, not then.
At twelve, he was a runaway on the streets, a child wandering the streets, foraging for food in dumpsters, seeking shelter in bus station washrooms at night. I see the white urinals, the green subway tiles, the metal doors etched with graffiti, the leaves sticking to a cement floor. I see him slouched in a corner: a twelve-year-old boy with wide blue eyes and ill-fitting jacket, grimy from the streets and parks he frequents. I see a grown man enter the washroom. I see the man’s windbreaker and casual pants.
“What ya doin’ there, Kid?” he says, unzipping his fly. He stands at the urinal, waiting for the stream.
“Nothin’,” says he. The man hears the boy’s thick Brogue accent, knows the boy’s a runaway from Nova Scotia, the Canadian equivalent of Appalachia with its spent coal mines and child labor and poverty and insular isolation. Those bay boys, as they call themselves, are tough. The man knows this boy is one of them.
The man’s stream starts. He looks at the boy, hands stuffed in his pockets, his eyes shielded by thick brows. He knows the kid is homeless; Vancouver is littered with homeless kids, lurking in washrooms such as these. The highway rest stops, Stanley Park, convenience store parking lots, crawling with homeless kids scrounging for a meal—or a fix. This one, the man knows, is hungry for both. He'll be a big man someday, but tonight, here in this washroom, he is still a boy. A lonely, scared, starving child far from home. Easy prey for the man.
The runaway knows the man knows he’s desperate for a meal. The boy is desperate for many things: love, security, tenderness, a home, but tonight he’ll settle for cash. The negotiations are short, as is the transaction. In total, no more than a few minutes. The boy has learned this: if you get it over quickly, you get what you want from them and they leave you alone. Men who frequent washrooms seeking young boys don't want to be caught with them. The man kneels before him, and the boy allows him to unzip his pants. He feels the man's foreign hands and curiously warm mouth. The boy closes his eyes and thinks about a girl he sat next to in school, making it a swift transaction indeed. The man digs loonies and toonies from his pocket and hands them over. The washroom door echoes when he leaves.
The boy shuffles to the sink, turns the hot water on, waits for the steamy flow, and grabs a fistful of paper towels. He washes thoroughly, but he can’t remember a time he ever really felt clean. He is sick with shame. He hates his body for betraying him. He wants to ignore his body, its needs: food, shelter, love. He leaves the washroom to find a fix and forget.
I believe my touch can take that all away, but I know the little boy in the washroom is alive and well, hidden inside this man for whom I've given up my entire life. To lie beside him a handful of times, I’ve left my domestic life in the New Mexico suburbs, divorced my husband, and relinquished my sons to his care. I’m essentially homeless, broke, and without family now, but I don’t ask to make love for fear he'll recoil from me. I don’t, for the life of me, want to resemble men who frequent bus station washrooms.
I comb his chest with my fingers and listen to him wheeze until he rolls over and says, "Good morning, Beautiful. How'd you sleep?" He puts his arms around me. I feel safe in his arms, at home. I don’t want to leave the mattress, this unlikely sanctuary in an RV park, but my bladder is about to burst.
“Ok,” I say.
He squeezes me and says, “Let’s go get a coffee.”
“Ok,” I say. He lights a cigarette as I slip from the bed and reach for my Levis.
“God,” he says, “how can you be so beautiful first thing in the morning?” I stifle a smile and toss him his jeans. I cannot remember my ex-husband speaking like that to me, though he must have, sometimes. “Beauty and the beast, Babe, that’s us,” he says, catching the denim with his free hand. He exhales a giant cloud that billows over the bed. Bathed in smoke and morning light, I think he’s the beautiful one. His face is open, his eyes warm. In his fifties, he is still muscular, his back strong, supporting a large belly. He seems a giant teddy bear.
I’m concerned about his weight, but say nothing for fear of hurting his feelings. Besides, I know why he overeats: the tension of trying to hold on to two women at the same time. He chews his fingernails, too, nervously gnawing them between text messages he sneaks to me while his wife’s home at night. I say nothing about that, either, because his masticated fingernails reside at the tip of his fingers and his fingers are part of his hands and his hands are part of the hefty form that carries about the little boy who brings out the little girl in me.
I stretch in the humid air outside, sensing his eyes on my every move, then adopt a casual stride as if nothing in my life is amiss, acutely aware that the choices I've made since knowing him appear odd. But love—as faith—often appears odd.
Lush trees loom overhead, buffeting highway din. I inhale morning air and smell him lingering on my skin as dew clings to grass. When I enter the washroom, the mirror reflects what he sees, and I feel beautiful. Combing my long chestnut hair, I breathe him in, reluctant to rinse off his scent. I cup my hands under the fresh water and splash my face, but I’m not cleansed of leaving my sons by a spigot’s effluent.
He says, “Some things don’t wash off,” but I don’t yet connect that to my wrongs.
While I wash, I don’t think about the one thing I should: leaving him. He twines through my being like wisteria twists and knots through a trellis and in an R.V. park with him in my arms, consequences seem far away. I do not see, when I gaze at my reflection, that I am already experiencing the consequences. I am many years from seeing the effect of my absence on my sons.
I dry my hands thoroughly, stuff crumpled paper towels in a trash can, and exit the washroom to enjoy a coffee with the man I love.
cover photo courtesy of Zachary Keimig.