Chapter Three - Oliver

On Sunday night, I hugged my family and boarded the train back to Louisville. Mary Kate and George planned to stay a few more days, and of course Duncan would be there until he and Phoebe got a place of their own, so I wasn't too worried about Dad being on his own. Zachary had not made another appearance. I knew I should find that a relief -- in the daylight hours, I felt far less like I was going mad -- but I still found myself wishing that he would, maybe to explain to me what he'd meant by warning me of fire and some mysterious "him" needing me.

I was selfish enough to wish he meant Oliver. I didn't wish his wife ill except when I did; and on the train ride home I imagined their house burning down, Oliver tragically widowed, and once I had comforted him through his grief he would finally be brave enough to bring me home and tell his children I would be their second father.

He wouldn't, of course. Oliver Davenport's first marriage had ended due to his infidelities with the current Mrs. Davenport, and that was as scandalous as he would admit to being. That he had other affairs was common knowledge in Louisville society; that some of them were with men was not.

I had met Oliver Davenport two years previously, at a parent-teacher function at Goodwin Academy. Alan and the next oldest boy, Jason, were the students at that time; his two older sons had already aged out of the school. Oliver had been everything I wanted in a lover then: handsome, charming, and not looking for anything permanent. At the time I thought he would be nothing more than an amusing pastime while I got on with my life, but as the months passed and we continued to see each other, I came to think of him more and more as someone meaningful. Maybe even someone I could love.

No matter what Henry Forrester thought, I had not had a regular lover since coming home from the war. Before, I had never sought one out -- I rarely even gave my name to the men I fucked -- and during, of course, most of us were too preoccupied with staying alive to think about sex.

So many G.I.s started families as soon as they came home, perhaps to prove that they had survived horrific circumstances and could go back to their normal lives -- as if life would ever be normal again. I didn't join them, and while I knew my family accepted me as I was I also knew they wished I could find something stable to help me put the war behind me.

Instead, I avoided it assiduously, keeping my liaisons to one night or to men who would never be available to me otherwise. The war had changed me -- as surely as Daniel's death had changed me -- and I didn't want to make anyone any promises. And I certainly wanted none made to me.

I didn't want that anymore.

I thought about this, about Duncan and his Phoebe, and Mary Kate and George, during the long train journey back to Kentucky. I could, I supposed, find a woman who might be willing to be my wife, like many other homosexual men before me; but I didn't want that, either. I didn't want to pretend. There was enough of that in my life. I wanted a home, a place where I could always be me, where I could laugh without restraint and cry when I needed to and love with everything in me.

Somewhere, I thought, there had to be a man who would want all of that for me and with me; there had to be some corner of the world where we could make that life together and without fear.

***

When the train pulled into the station in Louisville and I spotted the car from Goodwin, I was glad to see the driver was the school's groundskeeper rather than Henry Forrester again. He drove me back to the school with no chatter, for which I was thankful, and I left a note in Archie's mailbox to let him know I had returned, before going up to my rooms to recover from the journey.

I resumed my usual schedule the next day, and life, as it is prone to do, resumed as normal. I taught French and art, worked on my own pictures, and resolved not to send a message to Oliver. We were done, I told myself sternly. We were through. He had let me down when I needed him most and I would not give him another chance.

My grief felt raw. I missed my mother. I found myself dwelling on the little things that I remembered at the strangest moments; the way she sang old French songs in the mornings as she prepared breakfast, the acrid scent of her cigarettes, her hand guiding mine as I re-learned to draw and write, her cool hand on my forehead as she got me through childhood fevers and post-war injuries, her smile when she placed a mug of hot milk in front of me when I woke from sleepwalking when I was very young or from nightmares when I was older.

I missed all of my dead as if they were lost afresh. And I missed Oliver, and grieved the loss of him even though I knew leaving him was the best thing I could do.

Still, my heart skipped a beat when I received a letter from him the Friday after I returned from California. The message was simple: "Meet me at our usual place Saturday night. I miss you. - O."

Our usual place was a staid and discreet hotel in downtown Louisville, the kind of place that would hide the secrets of a man like Oliver Davenport. No pay-by-the-hour house of assignation for him, of course; but also not one of the finest hotels, either, where he might run into acquaintances or friends of his wife. In the beginning of our affair, I had been flattered he would spend that kind of money for just a few hours alone with me. Now I knew it was just another way for him to hide his shame.

All day Saturday, I changed my mind about whether I would go on an hourly basis. I didn't want to see him again -- I shouldn't go. I wanted to tell him exactly what I thought of him -- I should go. I would only sleep with him again if I saw him -- I shouldn't go. One more time wouldn't hurt, would it? -- I should go. On and on, until finally I took one of the little cars meant for faculty use and drove into the city.

Parked in the hotel lot, I sat in the car and watched the lights turn off and on in the various rooms, until I saw the light in our usual room was on and had been on since I arrived. I went up and knocked on the door, and Oliver opened it, a relieved look on his face the moment he saw it was me.

"I was afraid you weren't coming," he said and pulled me inside.

"I couldn't stay away," I answered, and then we didn't talk for a while.

***

I woke with a start. It took a few breaths before I remembered where I was: hotel, with Oliver, who slept beside me, unaware of the sudden cold. I could see my breath when I exhaled, and goosebumps covered my skin.

A little girl stood beside the bed. Her dark hair was in ringlets, and she wore the type of short, puffy-skirted dress that had been common on children sixty years ago. Her skin was ashen and there were dark circles under her large, deep-set eyes. There was a dark stain on the side of her head, as if she had been hit or fallen with great force. We stared at each other.

I closed my eyes but didn't bother with the chant of, "Not real, not real," since it never helped anyway -- and opened them again when Oliver mumbled in his sleep and laid an arm over me so he could tug me closer.

The little girl disappeared at the movement, and I let Oliver hold onto me until my heart stopped pounding and my breathing returned to normal. I slipped out of his embrace and went to the little bathroom, ran some cold water and splashed it on my face. When I looked up again there was movement in the mirror, just visible from the corner of my eye, but when I turned the little room was empty.

I exhaled slowly, and then started again when there was a tap on the door. "Malcolm?" Oliver opened the door and smiled at me. "Not planning to leave already, are you?"

"I wanted to wash up a little."

"Come back to bed," he said, as he gave me my cane with one hand and took my free hand with the other. "Elizabeth doesn't expect me home until tomorrow morning. We've got all night."

I let him tug me along, albeit reluctantly. We hadn't talked much since I first stepped in the door, and I was disappointed with myself and how easily I had fallen into bed with him again. This was not stopping it. This was not ending things.

We lay like spoons on the bed, and he stroked my chest. "You're quiet tonight."

"Yes," I said. And partially because I was curious, and partially because I didn't want to broach the subject that most needed to be broached, I said, "Are there any stories about this hotel being haunted?"

"I've heard one or two," Oliver said. "Old hotels tend to have stories like that attached, just like old houses. Supposedly a child was playing on one of the balconies and fall off and died, and there's been a suicide or two. Why?"

"It's just a spooky old place," I said. I'd never told him about the ghosts I saw, of course -- not the war dead, not the old man I sometimes saw reading in the rocking chair in Oliver's own study, not the students who had died in a scarlet fever epidemic at Goodwin one winter not long after its founding.

"You love this old place," Oliver replied, kissing me, "it's our place," and I sighed. He pulled back with a frown. "What is it?"

I sat up, and he did as well, still frowning at me. "Oliver. I realized something while I was in California."

"You're not still angry with me, are you?" Oliver wheedled. "Don't be angry with me. I wanted to come with you, I truly did, but I couldn't get away." He leaned in to kiss me again but I stopped him, my hands on his chest.

"I'm not angry." It's true, I wasn't. "But this isn't what I want anymore."

He gazed at me unhappily. "What happened? You ran into an old love and decided you'd rather be with him?"

"No," I said. "I don't have any old loves to run into. You're not free, Oliver. You're not mine."

Oliver looked away with a deep sigh. There were more streaks of gray in his dark hair than I remembered from the last time we'd been together, and there was no missing the lines beside his eyes and mouth. In a way, I supposed, I was his midlife crisis -- buying an ostentatious car was for other men, but Oliver Davenport would take a male lover half his age.

"Is this an ultimatum?" he said, looking back at me. "I'm not giving you enough of my time so you'll threaten to leave me until I do?"

"I'm not giving you an ultimatum," I said.

He went right on as if I hadn't spoken. "Is it a place of your own that you want? You want a house? I'll buy you a house -- with a studio, so you can concentrate on your art."

"My art?" I shoved my hands through my hair. "I draw caricatures and cartoons. I don't want you to buy me a house."

"Then what do you want?"

"More than you can give me," I said. "More than being someone's secret."

"Men like you can't live their lives in public. You know that." "I do know," I said. "But I still want to. It's all right, Oliver. You have what you want out of your life. I want to look for what I want out of mine."

"Without me," Oliver said. "You'll leave me alone, without any kind of refuge --"

"There'll always be someone for you, Oliver. That someone may even be your wife."

Oliver looked away from me again, scowling this time. "After all this time, you feel guilty enough to leave me."

"I don't feel guilty," I said. "We're grown men. We make our own decisions. And I've decided I want more than this."

"More than me."

"More than what you can give me." I took his face in my hands and tipped it up so I could kiss his mouth. He sighed, but allowed our foreheads to rest together as I spoke. "I didn't run into an old love in California, but I was with my family. My parents were in love for forty years. My sister just had a baby with a man she adores. My younger brother is getting married when he finishes college, and even my older brother's widow has found love again. I'm the odd man out, Oliver. There's no reason that has to be, no matter what society says. I want the chance to find it."

"So you'll leave me."

"Yes. And I'm leaving Louisville. I don't know where I'm going yet, but I need a new place if I'm going to start over. Chicago, first, for a few weeks. Then, who knows?"

Oliver looked up at me. "Let me help you."

"Oliver--"

"I mean it. I know people all over the country. If you want to teach I can help you find another school or even a private position, and if you want to do something else I can help with that, too."

"I can find my own way," I said, though I knew no matter how much I demurred Oliver would still do what he felt he should to make things right. "I'll leave my sister's phone number with your secretary, in case you find something you think might interest me."

Oliver nodded slowly, still unhappy. "You'll be all right," he said. "You always are, I suspect." He let go of me and got out of bed to gather his clothes.

The little ghost-girl was in the corner of the room again, watching Oliver with her dark, sunken eyes. "Cold in here," Oliver remarked as he pulled on his trousers. "Aren't you cold?"

"Yeah," I said, "cold," and pulled up the blankets.

***

I gave Archie my resignation before the week was out. He was sorry to see me go, which was gratifying, but as we talked about it over coffee in his office, he understood the wanderlust. "You're still a young man," he said. "You could see the world when it's not at war. I've often wondered why you didn't go to Paris to begin with, and study art in depth."

"I don't know if Europe is the answer," I said. "I don't even know if I want to study art more. It's just a way to pass the time." I drank some coffee, and said, "Do you ever want to go back?"

He shrugged. "I may take my wife someday, when the children are older."

He didn't say anything more about it, and I didn't ask. I understood.

When the term ended a few months later, I packed up my little set of rooms into a trunk and a rucksack. It seemed like little to show for a man turning thirty; even less to show for all that I'd seen and experienced in that time.

There was a tap on my door. "Come in," I said as I picked up the the photos of my family, the last things I intended to pack tonight.

The door opened a crack and Henry Forrester peered in, and then came in and sat on the bed beside me. "You're really leaving."

"I am." He inhaled, then said rapidly, "Let me come with you. We could find a place to live together. We could teach at the same school. We could be -- whatever it is that you're looking for."

I looked at Henry. He was a tall, slim young man, with soulful eyes and dark hair he had only recently stopped wearing military-short. At this time of night his evening stubble showed dark along his jaw.

Before the war, all of that might have been enough. God knows I had chosen lovers knowing less about them.

I put my hand on his shoulder, and he turned to me, slinging his arms across my chest, and laid his head on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Henry," I said as I rubbed his back, and he sighed deeply. "You're a sweet boy, you really are, but I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't think I'll know until I find it."

He raised his head and kissed me. I allowed it, but just for a moment -- I didn't want to encourage him. "Someday, Malcolm," he said as he rose, "someday you're going to want someone you can't have, and you'll miss the ones you could."

"A fate worse than death," I said, and when the door was closed behind him I exhaled and thought it had already happened, in ways he'd never imagined.

***

In the morning a groundskeeper carried my trunk and rucksack downstairs to the car that would take me to the train station. I had already said goodbye to Archie and the other friends I'd made, and I tried not to get too sentimental about the students I wouldn't get to usher through their elementary years.

The train ride north gave me plenty of time think. In a way, Archie was right -- I hadn't been dealing with what happened to me during the war since I'd come home, not any more than I needed to given the wounds I'd received and the recovery I'd had to make. Times were different then -- an entire generation of men dealt with the horrors they'd experienced with little more help than a glass of whiskey before bed, and I was not much more enlightened in that regard.

I was grieving the loss of Oliver on the train ride, but my heart wasn't broken. I had known from the start that I was not Oliver's priority. He loved his boys; in his way, he even loved his wife; in a small way, he might have even loved me. But our relationship was not something built to last. There had been others before me and there would be others after, because Oliver had affairs like other people changed shoes.

It was not the life I wanted. And unlike the current Mrs. Davenport, I could leave.

Still, while my head said it was the right thing to do and if I wanted happiness I needed to seek it elsewhere, my heart and my body yearned for him -- or if not for him, for someone strong and gentle and kind, who thought I was wonderful and never once treated me like something fragile because of my limp and cane.

As the train grew closer to Chicago, I gazed out the window and pondered what exactly I would do next. Another private school would be ideal, and I preferred elementary ages -- but then again, I had taught in a public high school before the war and supposed I would be all right returning to one, if no other opportunities presented themselves.

But first I would seek refuge with Mary Kate for a while. Maybe I would look for something entirely different, something more progressive than Goodwin School, someplace where the temptations were few and the demands of privilege not so quick to be granted. Maybe there would be a school in Chicago that would need me.

When the train came to a stop, to my surprise I saw Mary Kate alone on the platform. She wrapped me in her arms as soon as I disembarked, and we held each other in silence for a moment or two. She smelled like soap and baby powder, homey and comforting.

Finally she pulled back and searched my face with clear blue eyes. "Tell me everything."

"When we're home," I said. I was exhausted -- the constant sitting required by train travel made my bad leg ache from hip to ankle, and pain made me light-headed. "Where are George and the baby?"

"I left them at home. George is more adept at child care than you'd think. Stay here," she added, and with a brisk whistle got the attention of a porter to help us get my trunk to her little car -- something I never would have dreamed of doing before the war, but I'd had complete use of both legs then. Now, I just looked embarrassed as the porter bore my trunk along and chatted with Mary Kate about the weather.

Once we were at their house and I was settled in, I played with Rosemary and told Mary Kate the whole story: my involvement with Oliver, my realization at Mom's funeral, the restlessness I'd felt ever since I returned from California.

Mary Kate frowned more and more, and then said, "Are you going to see Mr. Davenport again?"

"He may call me if he finds a job he thinks I'd like," I said. "Other than that, I don't intend to seek him out."

"He wants to buy you a house," she replied. "Now that you're safely three hundred miles away, he can have you as a lover and not worry about word getting back to his wife."

I played with Rosemary's little hands. She kicked her feet and blew bubbles against her lips, making me smile.

"I don't want to be his kept man," I said. "God, can you imagine? Living like some backstreet mistress? I don't want to be anyone's secret anymore."

Ever practical, Mary Kate said, "How? Being a confirmed bachelor is one thing. Two confirmed bachelors living together only makes people suspicious nowadays." "I don't know," I said. "If I loved someone that much, we'd find a way. All I know for certain is that it won't be with Oliver. Our relationship is over. Done."

"I hope it stays that way," said Mary Kate.

My conversation with Mary Kate made me think perhaps more distance from Kentucky was wise, and so I extended my search for a new position beyond the Midwest. Meantime, I took a job tutoring at a summer school, and helped students who had fallen behind get ready for the next grade. It was good work and I felt some pride in it, but it held no more long-term appeal for me than any of the other offers that came my way.

I was restless. I wanted something more than this city, as charming as its narrow streets and towering skyscrapers could be. I thought about returning to California -- Los Angeles was booming -- or even doing as Archie suggested, going back to Europe to see it now that it was no longer at war.

I might have taken to the roads like so many former soldiers, who traced the highways from one side of the country to the other in jalopies and rattle-trap cars; but my wounds made driving long distances uncomfortable if not downright painful. A train journey was the most I could manage.

Since my body couldn't run away, my mind did. In my spare moments I drew a story I had begun in the army hospital. I suppose you would call it a comic, as the story was told through words and pictures, but it was neither particularly funny nor about superheroes like the comics popular among my students. It was the story of a knight of the Crusades that I named Sir Errant, who decided not to return to England when his Crusade was done, and instead wandered around Europe having adventures. I worked on the story whenever I was bored, or when I felt the need to express myself in ways I couldn't elsewhere, or just when I couldn't sleep.

I didn't sleep much.

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