HAPLESS MALES (13)

LET IT GO AT THAT

Catherine asked Carlo to pick up her twin brother Arie at the airport who was arriving from Holland for a two-week visit. Arie had come to Carlo and Catherine’s wedding ten years ago but Carlo had not seen him since.

Carlo had a big Italian family he was close to. It perplexed him that Catherine and Arie, who besides being twins were each other’s only sibling, had so little contact over the years. When asked about it, Catherine shrugged and said I don’t feel like I need it. I never feel out of touch with him. That sounded vaguely mystical, something Carlo would never understand so he let it go at that. The few photos that arrived from Holland reinforced Carlo’s memory of Arie as a straw-haired, shy and shambling youth. Someone easy to be around: his smile implied that.

Carlo waited outside of customs. Arie’s sudden appearance on the monitor showing those who had passed through customs was enormously disconcerting. Before Carlo could regain his equilibrium, the doors slid apart to present a life-size, eerie duplication of his wife, same walk, same coloring, same rounded shoulders. Except for the length of hair and a wispy beard, the likeness was uncanny.

In the darkness of the car on the way home Arie soon reverted to his unique identity, the guy Carlo remembered from the wedding, curious, self-deprecating, casually affectionate.

Catherine and Carlo both liked having Arie in the house. He spent the first week wandering the city, coming home for dinner. One evening he called, saying he would be home late, maybe not at all. “Sounds like he met somebody,” Carlo said.

Catherine said, “I’m not sure a long distance relationship is what he’s looking for. He’s exploring. There’s not much gay life in Leiden.”

Carlo wasn’t judgmental, but to him casual sex was an oxymoron.

A taxi brought Arie home in the early morning. He joined them for a breakfast of poached eggs and toast. It was ludicrous; they passed the butter and jam as if this was a morning like yesterday morning and the morning before. Carlo felt that Caroline should be the one to bring up the subject. He wondered if his presence was the inhibiting factor, that without him there, Catherine and Arie would be gossiping away. At last Carlo put his toe in, asking “Did you have a good time last night?”

“Why are you curious?” Arie asked.

It was an oddly aggressive response and it got snagged in Carlo’s head all day, both the words and the sly look Arie gave him, wide open to interpretation.

“I think your brother is flirting with me,” Carlo said to Catherine that evening before Arie got home.

“You think? Does it bother you?” she asked.

“No, does it bother you?”

Catherine gave him a quizzical look. “He likes your new look, all macho pumped up. He says he’d do you in a minute.”

“How does that make you feel?”   He felt completely safe bantering with her.

“Jealous,” she said, “I want to be the one sleeping with my brother.”

She laughed but Carlo didn’t get the humor and he let it go at that. She wasn’t really talking about incest.

As the second week of the visit elapsed, Arie’s flirting became blatant, a joke all three shared. In an odd way it brought them together. If Carlo had sexual feelings toward Arie perhaps there would have been tension. Did he really have none? Or was he repressing them? He checked, and found none.

“Are you going to the gym today?” Arie asked on the last day of his visit. “I want to watch you work out. I want to have your body.”

Carlo hesitated, constructing a reason why it would not be possible.

Catherine said, “Yes, by all means, take Arie him to the gym with you. He should meet Erik-with-a-k. More local color.”

Carlo understood the mischief behind her suggestion. He had told her stories about Erik-with-a-k, the gym’s alpha male.

“Of course not a c,” Caroline had said. “A c would be too faggoty.”

Erik wasn’t a certified trainer though he did private coaching. His body was his calling card, huge thighs and biceps covered with esoteric warrior tattoos. Even his tongue looked pumped poking from his mouth during squats. Half cheerleader, half sergeant, he annoyed the hell out Carlo at first. “It’s gotta BURN. Sweat is the sign of warriors.” But it was achieving results for Carlo. Lately they worked out almost exclusively with each other. They did their sets with a mathematical precision. In exchange for having an appreciative audience, Erik gave Carlo pointers and encouragement. Beneath his bullshit crust Erik was a decent guy.

Bullshit such as, no swimming. “Swimming is for faggots,” he said more than once. He used the f-word a lot and nobody called him on it, not even the gay guys. The gay guys had their own section of the locker room in the back. Their segregation was obvious. They seemed to be comfortable with it. It had one real benefit to them: the pool was never crowded.

Usually Carlo arrived at the gym between 3:30 and 4 PM to coincide with Erik’s arrival.   Arie and Carlo were already finished with the elliptical when the digital clock turned 3:00. Carlo shepherded Arie through the workout, maintaining the pace that he and Erik kept. He was enjoying being the alpha male for a change. Arie’s flushed face glowed with sweat. He was surprisingly adept, much stronger than he looked. The hour passed in a flash.

Carlo was cooling down, lying on the bench when he opened his eyes and saw Erik looming over him. The look on his face said he was in one of his moods. It had been a long time since Erik had one of his moods, and Carlo had almost forgotten he was prone to them.

“Why’d you work out without me?”

Before Carlo could respond, Arie’s head emerged from behind Erik’s massive bulk.

“Where is the pool? I’m going for a swim.”

“Downstairs,“ Carlo said. “Take the elevator.”

“You coming?”

“You go,” Carlo said. He sat up and watched Arie walk toward the elevator.

As expected, the word was spat out. “Faggot.”

Arie turned around, his abashed gaze moving from Erik to Carlo and back again. After another moment’s confusion he continued toward the elevator. Erik started rowing furiously on the elliptical, not grunting.  Only sissies grunted.

Carlo grabbed his towel and went into the showers. He went into the gay section as if to symbolically wash away his cowardice. He should have confronted Erik for his hateful talk. Years ago.

The symbolic act was only that, since during the whole long length of his shower nobody else came into the locker room. At last feeling guilty for using up so much water, he stepped out and toweled dry. He was naked holding the towel when Arie came into the locker room. Carlo’s first reaction was to cover up, but he knew how ridiculous that was, so he stood there displayed, but Arie did not glance his direction, not even to say hello.

Walking home Carlo could feel the tension between them. He had to say something. “Sorry about the guy in the gym,” he said. “He’s really an idiot.”

“What guy?” Arie asked.

Carlo wondered if he had misinterpreted the scene. Maybe Arie hadn’t heard the word, or didn’t know the word in English. He decided it was better to let it go at that.

In bed, Catherine asked Carlo, “What happened at the gym?”

“Nothing,” Carlo said. Catherine’s question implied the opposite. “Did Arie say something?”

“He didn’t have to.”

The next morning the tension was still there, augmented by the pressures of departure. Catherine had picked it up too. She didn’t want Carlo to touch her. She’d left their bed sometime in the early morning, long before she normally got up. She didn’t say why.

As Arie packed, Carlo hoped something would arise to crack open the shell of estrangement, a good laugh, a course correction. Whatever the misunderstanding, it could not be unbridgeable, unforgivable.

Catherine had to go to work. When she said goodbye to Arie there was something in her embrace and the look on her face that indicated depths of unspoken feeling. Perhaps she didn’t feel the need to speak them. Carlo was sorry she wouldn’t be riding to the airport with Arie and him.

In the car on the way, just them, would have been the place and time to speak frankly, to be vulnerable, but the time passed. The goodbyes in the terminal were curt and formal.

During the following week Carlo carried on many imaginary conversations with Arie. Mostly apologizing. Now and then he fantasized the dialogue leading further, to erotic territory he gladly kept in a fog. He really didn’t want to go there.

One day he and Catherine got a short thank-you note from Arie with a few bland words. Reading it Carlo couldn’t help feeling sad, and he looked at Catherine to see what she was feeling. He couldn’t tell. Since Arie’s visit, she had not mentioned him once.

There was something cold in her, Carlo was starting to think. More and more when he looked at her, he saw Arie. It did not make him feel closer to her.

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