Ifound him slouched against the wall by the Kids Foot Locker on Canal Street, though he looked to be long past kiddie shoes. He was waiting for the streetcar and seemed familiar to me because I’d dreamt about someone like him the night before. The St. Charles Streetcar was a three-part ride that summer, with whole sections closed for repair. I rode the line from end-to-end because I was staying with friends near Tulane. Months had passed with no flavor in my life, until a writing project had brought me to New Orleans for the first time.
He had blood-red hair and sat crumpled on the ground with a bag thrown over his shoulder, as if he’d given up standing after waiting a long time. An L.A. Lakers jersey bore up bright against his pale, bony shoulders, which jutted and flexed when he opened his bag to take a sip from a green bottle. That bottle was barely out of the bag as he slugged it to his lips, and I guessed from the way he grimaced afterwards that he was tasting his own concoction. He looked me up and down as he wiped his face with his left hand, and I debated sitting next to him. But I remained standing, occasionally repositioning my legs in a wavering state. It was around midnight, and I’d downed a 48-ounce “go cup” of Long Island tea from a daiquiri stand, and something in me drew to something in him because he smelled like young trouble.
The side slit in his jersey, gaping as he rested his hands upon his knees, revealed a nipple the color of his armpit. I love young trouble, always have, and for this I will not apologize. Something happens when we are young, and we like what we like, and so it is. And I like them at eighteen years of age, senior year of high school or first year of college. I liked them eighteen when I was eighteen years old. I liked them eighteen when I was twenty-two. And I liked them eighteen when I turned the ripe adult age of thirty-three. I met my boyfriend when he was nineteen and I was twenty-three, and to my relief – ten years onward – he still maintained his teenage physique. Maybe for me, maybe to keep me from cheating, I really can’t tell, as how can we understand the intentions of another human being when we can’t understand our own?
But I hadn’t cheated on him in our decade together, and in this aspect our relationship was humming along. He was back home in New York City awaiting word if I’d be able to write this, my first book. I’d been trying, and failing, since we met. That’s why I was scoping out the scene. Yet, I had no taste in my mouth. It was as if I’d lost the sensation. A decade of love had grown and intertwined and passed us by, and I continued to prefer them at the dusk of adolescence or nearest to the age of consent. I might like them seventeen if it was perfectly legal, but I’m willing to work with the mores of society on this one. You pass the laws, and I’ll follow the laws to the letter.
The couple I was staying with near Tulane had a backyard pool, and I’d spent a portion of the past three weeks swimming laps back and forth. Their building had been a gay commune back in the ‘70s, the pool mostly used back then for orgies. I am a poor swimmer, uncoordinated in the limbs, can’t even manage a single butterfly stroke. Poor runner, poor lifter, poor teammate. I exercised only for the sake of vanity. It’s a stag pursuit, losing your breath and feeling young in your own skin, a bit like masturbation. Through this practice I kept my waist, while the jocks-turned-salesmen I grew up with scheduled knee surgeries and marshmallow-ed out on Facebook. So, the night before, I’d fallen asleep on the guest bed in my friend’s sunroom and dreamt about swimming with a strange boy.
The night outside was humid, and my breath in the air-conditioned sunroom had the potency to fog up the glass. He was pale and new and red and naked, and our bodies decompressed in the water. We became like clouds of white, and he smelled of the wisteria outside my window.
I called my boyfriend when I woke the next morning because I felt so guilty. Because my boyfriend was nineteen when we’d fallen for each other. Because he’d burned away his youth on me. Because, I’d been swept off the market since coming out of the closet—safe in loving affairs since 2002, one after the next, and I’d never made love to a boy with red hair.
The wooden coach creaked as it made a slight turn on Carondelet Street and angled into sight. The car chugged past downtown buildings on tracks that followed the general curve of the Mississippi River. Nicknamed the Crescent City, New Orleans spread like a two-horned moon along the banks of the Old Man. I stood at one tip, I think: the terminus and turnaround for a streetcar that ran thirteen miles from the city’s edge to the city’s heart. The waiting crowd rose up in various states of disarray and bunched together at the place where the doors would open. You couldn’t miss the streetcar lit up like a house on wheels, chugging at the pace of a power-walker.
The boy got up, wiped his hands on his shorts and repositioned the bag on his shoulders. He shot me a glance again as the boxcar pulled up, as if asking, “Are you getting on?” Gates swung open. We’d been waiting in the same clump and were no doubt headed in the same direction, but I guess he took me for a prospect and wanted to make certain. I blushed. I thought about the line a New Orleans tour guide had recently recited to me. It was penned by an Ursuline nun in 1728: “The devil has a vast empire here.” Our eyes locked and released.
The Ursuline nuns had found in New Orleans, barely into its second decade, a nexus of carefree living unknown to the Old World. Jubilation in the swamp air that seeps into the heart and awakens the primordial. Blood pumped within me; I could hear it in my ears. I was heading home, and it was bound to take at least an hour. And I knew from the look on the boy’s face that this trip was going to be something. The night was already old for me. Earlier, I’d tamped down those 48 ounces and stumbled to the French Quarter by way of the levee path following the river. It was a long walk, totally out of the way amid Caribbean temperatures, and I stank.
I’d worn out the charge in my cellphone calling up friends to chat about the Vampire Chronicles book series, because Anne Rice based so much of it in New Orleans. Could you get any more cliché? But the mixture of rum and tequila and triple sec made me realize, staring into water, how deeply Lestat must have been hurt by Louis, his progeny. Louis was a self-hating newborn vampire, the protagonist of the original Interview with the Vampire. Lestat was Louis’ maker, who’d created Louis as a way of starting the family he never had in Europe. As a teenager, I’d admired how Louis fought the blood thirst to keep his grip on humanity. But as an adult, I saw Louis’ rejection of his vampire self not just as futile, but as destructive. Something old must die for something new to live. I feared this truth with my boyfriend, that I’d soon need to get a new one in spite of our union. What sin could there be in vampire being vampire? Lestat had tried to teach this. Or maybe that’s just what a thirty-three-year-old homosexual thought Lestat was teaching while in a drunken epiphany by the river.
People exited out the back, and the rest of us piled in through the front door. Gates snatched shut as the green car purred forward before everyone could grab a seat. The perfumes of downtown stuck to the windows as we glided along Canal Street and then onto St. Charles Avenue: sugar, chicory, liquor, legs, breath. Occasional sparks sprayed from the metal rod above our trolley, sapping charge from the live wires spread above our heads like the web of giant spider. Engine murmured, and there he was sitting three seats down from where I stood, grasping a handle. Now opening his bag. Now taking out the silvery headphones and clasping them on his ears. These things do not happen to me, I thought to myself. I cannot invent a boy that the world makes real.
It was if I’d dreamt a dream of temptation, and New Orleans made it so. The boxcar dinged along, pausing to release a few fat Germans and elderly tourists at the Wendy’s across the street from Emeril’s Delmonico restaurant – leaving me with an empty seat. Emeril Lagasse was the first celebrity chef to become famous on the Food Network for a buzzword. (Don’t make me say it. Fine. Bam!) I hadn’t eaten at Delmonico’s because I was visiting on a writer’s budget. I remember the world going red for a second as I gazed at the candles in the windows of his restaurant.
A city bus waited to ferry us down the second stretch of the trip along St. Charles Avenue. My redhead – as I thought of him then – posted up in a seat where we could steal glances as he bopped to the music or pretended to change the tune. To my right, quiet bulldozers lined the torn-up sections of streetcar tracks. My phone kaput, the drone of the bus and hum of overhead fluorescents lulled me as we passed mansion after pillared mansion.
I closed my eyes and met the boy again, and we were like angels in the pool, absorbing one another. Then the driver yelled, “Everyone off!” I opened my eyes to catch the boy watching me as I slept. His pupils darted away but only after I caught the meat of their intention. It was the primal stare of a creature deciding to fuck you or kill you or fuck you and steal your wallet. All meant the hunt and closing of the trap, and I wondered what I had gotten into as I hopped off the bus in front of a Rite Aid.
Forgetting to mind the gap between door and curb, I lost my shoe when my left foot hit the concrete. I tripped and doubled back in a sock to reclaim the item – its sad suede dusty from all the walking – and caught the boy all smiles, waiting for me as he stood in the exit. It wasn’t an evil smile but the wide, calculated smile of a person who’d never been broken in his life, full of shine and unapologetic “how-bout-it?” I asked myself who was more experienced in this game. Who drank from the world, and who was afraid to drink?
Past the construction, the final streetcar sat dark on its tracks. The conductor leaned upon its side resting his eyelids with one leg kicked back. I felt sorry as I approached him, as I seemed to be the only passenger from the bus requiring his services. A streetcar was public transit, not my private ride, and rousing him meant stealing him from his break. But I walked into the car, and he hopped to it, grabbing the wheel with one hand and starting the engine, which puttered like a boat motor, its pistons firing and returning with audible effort. The lights of the wooden box flickered on as I took my seat on a middle bench – and the boy strutted into the car, as if on display, marching to the bench opposite mine across the aisle. He met my eye with each of his movements. My boyfriend had eyes like that for me when we first met. My eyes were different, he’d said, more like they were guarding a secret.
He kicked the bench in front of him forward, the wood pivoting on its gear as if making room for a group, and he left his leg resting there, stretched out and horizontal, daring me to picture him post-coital. He looked like Goya’s Maja Vestida reclining on a chaise lounge. I pretended to enter dreamland, turning my head away as we passed Loyola and then Tulane, ears attuned like a blind man to every last sound in the trolley. He pretended to make a phone call to his sister, telling her he’d be home a bit later than expected and ended the call with I love you. I could feel his exhalations going deeper, as if preparing for the drop. Nerves tensed, and I felt the panic of pursuit like a rabbit in the crosshairs, my heart a cherry about to burst beneath a tree attacked by crows and called to sprint from the earth. For some inappropriate reason I thought of the way my boyfriend’s hair fell into his eyes, obscuring the world, and saw my entire life balancing on the edge of a fantasy and the real thing.
Because my boyfriend was the heart of my writing, if I was to ever write a book. Because he respected himself too much to keep with a cheater. Because I couldn’t lie to him about this, and I am a terrible liar, terrible at poker. I have all the tells. I foresaw myself confessing to him one drunken evening in New York City. Ten years of family-building and domestic bliss tossed out the window into the grassy median of New Orleans. I feigned waking up to check the progress of the streetcar. We’d just made the final turn at the end of St. Charles Avenue to the straightaway down Carrollton.
Sensing the end of the line ahead, my redhead spoke. He spoke evenly with his breaths, as if making chance observations.
“Falling asleep?” he asked, his voice melting into air. “I do that all the time.”
I looked over and mimed that my eyes were blurry, and I didn’t understand. His silvery headphones caught the light around his neck. His gym shoes were red. “Falling asleep?” he repeated. “I do that all the time.”
Everything in my groin begged for me to pierce the silence with a word, a phrase, but I knew that if I spoke, we’d end up naked in the pool in my friends’ backyard. Because that was where I wanted him. I wanted my real life to be like the life I dreamt for myself. I wanted to write my book. I wanted to be the man who held the object of his desires.
I did not speak. I kept on thinking about my boyfriend’s hair and the way it fell into his eyes, his hairline lifting in nature’s way and how, through the process, I came to love another adult man.
“I do that all the time,” the boy said a third time as I pulled the line on the windowsill to signal the next stop. It was six blocks away from my street, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. Even as I rose and stood by the driver waiting for the ride to be done, I could feel his eyes and the unmistakable scent of red, of love and blood, begging me to turn around and cock my head to signal, “Out!” I left. I did not want what I thought I wanted. I left. Perhaps I am not the person to be saved in the getting of what he wants.
My feet hit grass, and I slid my hands into my pockets and angled through dark streets, passing stone angels and mausoleums in an overgrown cemetery. The young man puttered to the end of the line, I guess, where he’d await the return ride back to the city – all the waiting in his night. Waiting at the place where, from a distance, two lines of the track intersect. Waiting because he was young and unapologetic and had tried to attain something so full of magic. Waiting the twenty minutes for the streetcar back to campus, to Loyola or Tulane, where he’d pleasure himself and rest.
My youth is gone. I am not who I thought I was. Or maybe I was but not anymore. New Orleans, playground of the fates where spell and dream overlap, had called my bluff by conjuring a red rabbit. I am no hunter. I am the worst kind of fabulist – a fledgling storyteller who, deprived of real stories, makes up stories about himself. I am also the latest bloomer, conjoined to his boyfriend and still at work on his first book. Poor little red, my heart would have burst in his hands.
I climbed the stairs to the sunroom and saw my friends in love through an open doorway. They lay side-by-side and dreaming. I threw myself into a pillow and cried myself to sleep in the bosom of a great city.
Robert W. Fieseler grew up in Chicago and graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. W.W. Norton/Liveright will publish TINDERBOX, his debut book of nonfiction about a New Orleans tragedy, in June 2018.