THE TIME MIRROR
The sounds of a high wind and sirens and the frantic horns of commuters drown the sound of a thousand drones vexing the skies of Manhattan. He lies late in bed. Getting up early is no longer required.
He opens his eyes and instead of a cluttered dresser he sees a young man of twenty bent over a desk in a tiny, dark room, squinting in the hard fluorescent light of a clunky little lamp. What is he doing, where is he? This young man, very slim and with a full mop of dark hair, looks into the middle distance and struggles with something – a word? A letter? A bibliographical entry?
He gets up and goes to his kitchen and presses a button for a cup of coffee. He accepts it stoically. It isn’t too good, but convenience wins out. No measurements to make, no grounds to dispose of. No mess, clean and simple. He wishes his life had been like that.
Going back through the dining room, he glimpses himself in the mirror, naked, and allows a scrutiny that’s usually saved for the secrecy of the bathroom. The settling of the body, the splaying of the hips, the cascades of the face. The lost elasticity of the skin, the loss of body hair, the drooping of the balls, the deceptive length of the loose, dead penis. Gray slackness has long triumphed over youth and its high, tight, rosy vigor. A drone zips by, slowing to capture his image. He ignores it.
But the face -- he can’t bear to look -- is the real field of wreckage. It’s lost all its shape. Folds of dry skin announce separately the chin and the neck. The eyes look out from wrinkled orbs, wary, tired. The mouth is a somber line, as though it stopped speaking of loss and pain a long time ago. It looks like a face that said goodbye to pleasure and good spirits an even longer time ago.
He sits down in bed and sees the young man again. His name is Tom. He speaks with a funny accent, eastern New England, as he curses at the page he’s writing. It looks like fifty, sixty years ago. Tom has longish hair that is almost black. Thin lips, a good nose, straight and not too broad. Fine cheekbones. His muscle tone is impressive, though he doesn’t even work out. He can see it: powerful shoulders and a small waist with generous love handles.
It occurs to him that this Tom is extremely good-looking, even handsome. It occurs to him that he knows all the young man’s names. The shock makes him feel as though he’s having stroke. Part of his mind feels like it’s shutting down.
He leans forward, scrutinizing this young person much more closely. You fucking idiot, he says, and he’s speaking to the two of him.
With the vengeance of a mediocre undergraduate, Tom ignores his studies and devotes his energies to his own projects, to the things that he thinks will make more of a difference – to someone, anyone – more than another paper on Chaucer or Boccaccio. He writes in longhand, sometimes in a frenzy, crossing out and cursing, sometimes calmly with little sighs of contentment or resignation. Pages he tears and throws at a wastebasket, missing every time. Pages he smiles and coos over with a shiver of excitement.
Tom’s lost in a world of his making, a sanitized, more photogenic one than the one he was born into, inventing characters who are more like roles in movies than human beings he’s known. He feels he’s always deserved better, he’s deserved everything and been given next to nothing. Whenever he looks in the mirror he sees the face of an impostor, for who could stand to read the truth about life, his life, which is wadded with deprivation and spikes of shame? Who could bear to write it? He is busy constructing a new future based on a fictionalized past. He knows that writing for therapy is pointless. But not writing to get someone to love him as he says he is. Love requires lies, and he’s happy to fulfill the requirements however they may be written. He’ll rewrite the rules if need be. He’ll become that whole and healthy self, on paper first. He’s confident of nothing but that.
Tom sits down on the fold-out sofa of his tiny studio, for a moment happy, undreading. The room is shabby but neat and as clean as a nun’s cell. He rubs his eyes. When he opens them he sees the old man. He stares for a minute and goes into the kitchenette, boils water and makes an instant coffee. He takes it back into the living/dining/sleeping room. He sips it a few times and watches the old man again, as if through an early television with a round picture tube.
Tom stares, assessing the old man before him. He seems somehow familiar, but he has no idea who the old geezer is or what or how. Reminds him of one of Hawthorne’s corrupt old sages, Rappaccini and the rest. Malevolent and calculating and more than a little wrecked. He watches the man watching him. Then, after several minutes of mutual study, the old man yawns and goes off somewhere. All during the time he is being watched, Tom considers the man, and wonders who he is and where he comes from. It’s disconcerting – he feels the man could be a relative. But the eyes frighten him. Tom is moved to call him Il Mago.
He decides to ignore Il Mago, who must be a figment of his strained imagination, a conjuring some of overworked Jungian archetype. Tom’s suffered these things before from stress and booze. “Just my luck, something like that bugging me. Oh, I’m special,” he mutters with as much irony as one can muster with oneself, alone in a cramped apartment looking out at an airshaft where the neighborhood drunks take their dogs ratting.
Tom brings his coffee to the table. He goes back to work on the passage he was struggling with when the old man appeared. He sips and writes, sips and writes, and it does go better. An hour later, when he looks up dazed and satisfied with his progress, he sees Il Mago again. He’s easier to make out this time. His hair is cropped almost to the skull; he reminds Tom of a POW who’s just been deloused.
Tom goes to the kitchen for another cup of instant coffee. Imstead he decides to treat himself to some bourbon on the rocks, though it isn’t noon yet. He takes a good swig out of the bottle while he’s still in the kitchen, and saunters into the other room with the glass. He sits on the sofa again, looking right at Il Mago, and with his bourbon courage asks, “So what the fuck do you want? Why are you here? You want to hassle a struggling student from Craphole, New Hampshire? Go on. Get out. Leave me alone, you old fuck.”
Il Mago has looked intently at Tom’s lips, but he can only make out a little of what he has said. His hearing is old, too. But “Fuck” he understands, both times.
The door buzzer rings. Tom goes to see who it is. A girl goes, “Hah!” and he cries, “Well shut my mouth!” He has the door open for her before the elevator’s stopped. She steps inside and they kiss hotly. “Here, Tommy,” the tall, shapely girl smiles, “I know you love them.” She hands him a wrapped tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Another kiss.
“Jenny! Sunday breakfast! Thanks! I thought we were just gonna see each other at your party tonight.”
Jenny shrugs in a theatrical way. “I was just happening by…” They laugh together.
Then she says, serious and calculating, “I don’t think it would be wise of you to come to the party tonight. I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
“Oh,” he says. He broods.
Jenny looks sweet and apologetic. She’s a young lady from Savannah who’s been seeing a man connected with the Italian mob. She’s already told Tom about the stand-offs with Whitey Bulger’s men in unsavory restaurants and the recorded conversations in the car. But I’m trying to break it off and anyway he has to leave the country for one of the islands. Oh, that island, Tom thought at the time. And: Always the fucking love intrigue. Why can’t it just be happiness?
Grimly, Tom fixes her a bourbon and water. They sit silent for a while. Tom’s stewing. Jenny knocks back her drink, quietly gets up and pours herself some more. Tom clears his throat and the tension eases a bit. Jenny gives him a tentative smile and holds out her hand. He waits, but he takes it.
They sit on the sofa and fiddle with their drinks, nibbling on cookies and smoking. Tom looks at her like she’s a Sicilian dessert. She’s wearing a Pucci-knockoff minidress and peacock-blue fishnet stockings. She has large, lush breasts that the dress shows to maximum effect. She’s the only point of color in the apartment. She wears her dark brown hair long enough to flip, with a headband that matches one of the dress’s many colors. Her legs stretch out endlessly, and when she crosses her legs the short dress makes it plain she’s not wearing underpants. She smiles at him in a way that bargains for forgiveness. He stifles a groan in his glass. He’s nervous and says, “I wanna…” Fear and excitement contend.
Jenny’s sweet smile changes into something more assured. “You wanna?” She kisses him. She raises her dress and pushes down the stockings. She languidly eats his lips as she guides him in, holding her cigarette up and away, and sighs when he comes in about a minute.
“I’m sorry, Jen,” he says, furious with himself. “I tried to make it last – “ He gets up and goes to the window to pout, although he can’t see anything. The greasy fiberglass curtains are mostly drawn.
“Oh it’s fine. I was just warming you up for tonight.” She reddens at the faithless slip of the tongue. She takes a drag on the cigarette and stubs it out. “Tomorrow night.” Tom gives her a sharp look, fakes a smile, raises his glass and clinks it with hers. “Here’s mud in your eye,” she says, and they hmm-hmm together because that’s the toast he usually makes. Tension somewhat allayed, they murmur and giggle and drink and eat the rest of cookies. Tom wonders how much of it is play-acting on both their parts. She blurts out, “You know, Tom, I’d never want children with... That life scares me. Anyway,” she whispers, having considered the topic fully, “he’s a little ugly.” He is a walking bubo, Tom thinks. He’s treacherous piece of shit. He probably kills people to work up an appetite.
Jenny spends some time rearranging her stockings, hoping this is enough.
“You’re over your head,” Tom tells her. “You gonna be able to get out of it or what? Will de gumbahs allow it?”
She peeks at him out the corner of her eye, open yet secretive. She looks around and whispers again. “I have it all planned.” She touches his neck and leaves her hand playing with the ends of his hair there as she sips her drink and lets her words and touch sink in.
Love? Tom is shocked when the word crosses his mind. He has no idea what it means. He wants to think it’s based on something greater than bad sex and student poverty, or his anyway. It would have to include encouraging his work.
“How’s your work going?” Jenny asks on cue, in a conversational tone. He tells her an improbable tale of a strange young man who ends up in a lighthouse. She says, “Sounds like L’Eternel retour,” pissing him off but only for a few minutes. “No no no,” he says, “it isn’t like that at all.” They quibble over the Cocteau film for ten minutes, proud of their absorption of academic ways.
Now that Tom’s divulged information about his project to unimpressed ears, he goes rather coldly to his work table while he leaves Jenny to clean up the wax paper and crumbs.
Tom notices the old man still observing them through his weird porthole. He gets angry all of a sudden and says to Jenny, “Oh, damn it all. I’ve got to get back to work. I can’t have people staring over my fucking shoulder. Two exams tomorrow and I can’t blow them. My GPI is shaky enough as it is.” Micropause. “Tomorrow at two? We’ll celebrate the end of exams at the Dugout.” He’s proud of making an effort to go the high road with her despite her bemused treatment of him.
She makes a horrid face. “Can’t you come up with a better place than that? I don’t want to celebrate with Budweiser and stale chips.”
“The Peter Pan?” It’s a sort of diner-in-the-round down the avenue.
She rolls her eyes then laughs gustily. “Oh God, I guess I’m paying. I’ll come up with a place for dinner. See you tomorrow night? Around eight? You show up at my place or I’ll throw myself across the T tracks.” She kisses him on the forehead and heads for the door.
“Of course I’ll come.”
She musses up his hair and grins mischievously. They kiss again and she goes out saying, “Hasta manana, Tommy.” Tom watches her go to the elevator and down.
He goes to work immediately, determined to prove himself good at his work even if it doesn’t entail cutting someone up. He drinks one coffee after another, working from several books and a dog-eared notebook. He reads and writes until dark without a pause. He pulls out his typewriter and organizes his notes thoughtfully and completely. He is a model of industry and application and full of self-congratulation. The booze has dulled his appetite for the little food he has in the fridge. He’s intent on proving Jenny wrong about his project, whether it’s short or long fiction, he has no idea.
Il Mago watches because there’s nothing much to see. If he had such powers of concentration now! If he still had that muscle tone! That silky mop of hair! What a young dynamo all of a sudden!
Il Mago dozes off.
The squawk of an intercom wakes him.
Tom’s table is a wasteland of open books and scribbled notes. Tom’s typing and, grumbling, gets up to see who’s there. He presses the button and barks out, “Who is it?” He recoils at the scratchy voice that answers. He waits a minute then presses the buzzer. He stands at the open door, eyes on the neighbors’ doors. A tall, thin man in his mid-thirties, with a Van Dyke and professorial glasses, emerges from the elevator and approaches. Tom slams the door behind him. With a finger under Tom’s chin he kisses him teasingly.
“I told you I didn’t – “
“You didn’t mean it. You could have pretended you weren’t home.”
“The light’s on.”
Joe looks around the studio. “That is a night light. One can’t see it from Commonwealth, you little bullshit artist.” He relents in his tone. “Come here, hot stuff.” He feels Tom’s crotch. “Well well, so you are glad to see me. I feel more secure now,” he says archly.
Tom winces. He hates queer love talk. Tom motions for him to sit on the sofa-bed and fixes him a drink. “Joe, still vodka on the rocks?” He makes it small to encourage a brief visit.
Joe tastes it and gripes, “Still buying that cheap vodka?”
“I am but a poor student.” Tom sits primly in his one theoretically comfortable chair with a large glass of bourbon courage. “The son of poor but ignoble folk. We ate the garbage of our betters and our great joy was destroying each other.” He raises the glass to his lips. Nerves make spills.
Joe grins. “All that to explain the shitty vodka?” He has a pleasant, rather bland face until he smiles. Then it becomes Mephistophilean. Terror and charm together.
“All that to explain many things.” Tom sits quietly for a few minutes. Yawns. “I’m tired. Studying and writing all day. Why are you here?”
“I’ve been lonely. Oh lonesome me.” He visibly shuts himself up. Tom’s watching him warily. Watches as Joe suddenly gets up and unfolds the sofa-bed and puts the sheets on. He knows where everything is. He undresses, completely. No quickie this. He kneels and unzips Tom. “Missed you, Tommy,” he whispers. “Missed you.” Joe takes him in his mouth.
“You got all those beauties down the Meat Rack. All those pretty blond faggots from the suburbs. Why be lonely? Why bother with me?” Tom tries to refuse the ardent embraces that include his balls and his ass. He feels his head’s being torn off. Wants it powerfully, doesn’t.
“Sssh. Calm down, Tommy. Come here. Here.” Joe lies down and opens his arms to him. Tom doesn’t move. Joe props himself on his elbow. “Cold customer tonight. Fine, if you don’t –“
Tom groans and strips completely. He lies down with him. Joe holds him tenderly. Tom moans and kisses his face but doesn’t look at Joe. He shuts his eyes and feels him with his hands and tongue. They don’t speak. Tom is ardent after all. He could devour the man’s body. The sheets get soaked. Joe watches Tom as he sits up panting, and he asks coolly, “Did you jerk off today?”
Tom goes, “No. Why say that?” They both keep looking the other way, shielding want from themselves. Tom reaches for Joe’s cock. Joe moves away and gets up.
“It took you a lot longer to come. You’re usually very fast.” Joe’s expression veers from amusement to pain. He considers his tack and sneers, “Was it one of those beauties from the Public Garden? You could’ve just asked me, I’d’ve given you a dozen of them to pick from. No VD.”
Angry, Tom gets up and fetches himself another drink. He knows he’s being provoked and tested, but anger and loathing take him over. He speaks in a whisper, hoping to foil the old-fart neighbors behind the walls. “Shut. Up. And what are you inferring? That I’m a professional queer like you? With your fuck van, and everyone knows what you are?” On his high horse, ridiculous, but he doesn’t care.
Joe flushes. He recovers, clucks and says loud, “Implying, not inferring. I should think you of all people would know better than that. Funny, my tricks down the Meat Rack don’t understand it either.” The neighbors heard that.
Tom glares but buys time and reason by sucking down bourbon. “You better go, Joe. This trick’s got two exams tomorrow.” He stands there naked, still at attention. Joe stares at his watery glass of vodka. He drinks it down.
“Tom, I’m … I know how -- ” For a man who is usually hyperarticulate, Joe flounders in incomplete thoughts. He searches Tom’s face. Tom turns to the window, parting the curtains a bit, and watches cats rummage around the garbage cans in the airshaft. He knows Joe’s mind is already elsewhere, most likely at the northwest corner of the Public Garden. On a warm night in May, Tom thinks, they’ll be swarming like needy little rats right up from the river.
“I hate this, Joe. I can’t live like a queer. It’s disgusting.”
“That’s very Days of Our Lives, honey. You’re in a big city. Who’ll know? Or care?” Joe finishes dressing. He takes Tom in his arms. He says in a low voice, neighbor-proof, “You don’t want this, but you’re kidding yourself.” He smiles at Tom with a eyebrows arched. Tom’s face is turned down. Joe starts to say something, but exhales and riffles Tom’s thick hair. His voice is unexpectedly gentle. “I think it’s been a long time since anyone treated you like….“ Joe kisses Tom’s forehead and, a former Jesuit, gives him a benediction.
Tom swelters in his emotions, and Joe is out the door. Tom sees Joe’s face, turned toward him, for a second. He closes the door. Tom wishes he blocked the door and told him to stay. Joe would have stayed for ten minutes and left anyway.
With brusque movements Tom takes the bed apart and turns it into a sofa again. He throws the sheets into the pile of dirty clothes in the closet. He sprays deodorant around the apartment; it still smells like a transgressive locker room.
He broods a few minutes in the chair, minded too agitated to fix on anything except shame. Shame and the terror of discovery – Jenny’s image flashes in his mind. He takes a shower, paces around the apartment in briefs, trying to read his notes and eating some leftovers. When he goes to pee he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, expecting to see the portrait of Dorian Gray after. He replays Joe’s words and his parting expression till he’s sick with it.
He looks for Il Mago, is he still here? Yes.
The old creep’s staring at him like he’s vermin. Whoever he is, he does not approve homosexuality, Tom thinks. And: I am vermin. To kill the vermin he drinks more than he eats, and he drinks some more. Booze as Lysol.
At this moment he feels completely alone. A phoney. Isolated from normal people, who have no trouble with the truth about themselves. “I’ll always be like this,” he says aloud. He looks up and Il Mago isn’t there. Oh, he thinks. Maybe that hallucination’s over.
Tom sits for a while with his eyes closed and wills himself to feel calm. He has another drink, and finally he feels a little muzzy and relaxed. Something moves and it’s Il Mago. He’s holding something up, and Tom strains to see it.
Il Mago found a picture in an album he’d nearly tossed. The photograph has the yellowed, over-exposed look of prints processed in the 1970s. He holds it up to the time mirror. He holds it as close as he thinks will stay in focus.
Tom sees it. It’s a little square of something with faded colors. Pink is one. Slowly he understands what he’s seeing. There’s Jenny and a little baby dressed in pink bunting. Jenny seems insolently happy, and the baby is staring in wonder up at her. The baby has his face.
Il Mago can see the swift passages of Tom’s feelings. Tom feels ridiculous crying over himself in front of someone else. “Shit,” he says. “Shit. For Chrissake.”
Il Mago puts the photo back into Tom’s view. Tom eats up it, starved for what it means. He has to look away from Tom’s avid happiness.
Tom feels his entire future and happiness take shape in his imagination. He thinks the photo is saving him. He peers into the time mirror. He looks at Il Mago and smiles, piercing il Mago’s heart. He removes the picture. “I hope I’ve done the right thing,” Il Mago says to himself. He’s the only one still alive.
“What right thing?” It’s Marc, his husband, who’s just walked in from work. “I hope your day’s been better than mine. Jesus Christ.” He is shedding his jacket and tie, loosens his collar with a vengeance. He kisses Il Mago on the cheek and pulls back. “Tommy, you look terrible.” Marc feels his forehead and his pulse. He’s alarmed. He takes out his phone. “Maybe I should call 911. What kind of thing?”
“Nothing. Damage done.” Young Tom is fadingly before him, his face expressing a hundred emotions, his chest heaving with the power to live through them. Young Tom is looking at him but seeing something else.
Marc grabs his face. “Tom! Tom! Are you with me!”
“Stop fucking grabbing me!” Tom opens his eyes, suddenly aware of his surroundings.
Marc, laughing, grabs him and kisses him on the forehead.