Watch

by Nathan Alling Long

 

We are the perfect inversion of the world around us.  It’s on stage, in our makeshift dresses, in our women’s boots, in our make-up, where we are most free, most like ourselves. Off stage, outside the theater and dressing room—that is, under the gas lamps, on the streets and in public spaces, we are less who we are.  That is where we wear the face, where we act our parts.

On stage, we invert all the rules.  We dance in boots, click our heels, and even kiss.  The crowd laughs and cheers.  On stage, Homer can shyly hand me a flower and audience sighs at the sweetness of the moment.  On stage, I can rub his long red wooden nose and say “Oh, What a nice nose you have.  It’s so large and …red.”  And the children all laugh because, who would like such a large red nose?  And the adults all laugh because they know, even if they won’t admit it, I am talking about something else entirely.

We sing songs about spring, about toy trains, about rain.  We are the singing clowns, Harvey and Homer.  And when we sing a duet about sailing a boat made for two around the world to find a land where we belong, all the married couples hold hands and smile and the love-sick girls cry, thinking the words are meant for them.

Some times when we’re performing, I look over at Homer, and I see that big red nose he carved of balsa wood, and I think of how lucky I am to have found him.  I think of our nights together, of the night ahead, and I feel so happy I could cry.  But crying would cause my make-up to run, so I don’t.  I look away, at my mandolin, and concentrate on placing my fingers by the right frets.  But sometimes, even that triggers my desire.

I think about a few years back, in some ninety cent hotel, as we were sitting naked on chairs, working out a new children’s song I’d written about having to go to bed, how Homer started laughing out loud.

“What?” I said.  I thought he was making fun of my lyrics.

“Harvey, look at our instruments!” he said, lifting his guitar.  “Mine is long, without many strings, and yours is short, with so many strings.”

We broke out into laughter.  They were just like our other ‘instruments,’ his long, but less hairy, mine shorter but with thick curls.  We’d been together almost five years by then and had never noticed! 

***

We met on the streets of Manhattan.  It was December, 1914.  The war in Europe had just begun that summer. Homer was standing on a corner, watching the carriages and cars pass, waiting for the officer to signal the pedestrians to cross, when I walked up beside him.  He was handsome and wore a suit with a matching yellow tie and handkerchief. From that alone, I knew who he was, what he was.  But he didn’t look my way.

So I asked him, “Do you have the time?”

He turned to face me and we looked at each other one, two, three, four, five seconds, and in each of them, my heart pounded faster and harder.  Our entire courtship took place in those seconds.  In the first second, he recognized that I was not a threat.  In the second, we confirmed we were not ordinary men. In the third, as we both remained open and kind toward the other, Homer’s eyes glistened and the tiniest smile stretched across his face.  In the fourth, we each revealed to the other our strength, to stand in a crowded Manhattan street, with others now looking, and an officer just feet away from us; in that second, I think we developed a deep admiration for the other.  In the fifth, we expressed our love, our understanding how rare and fortunate it was that we had discovered each other.  We headed forward, across the street, and into the future, together. 

The other pedestrians already began to move, and though I think we could have stared at each other for hours, we were smart enough not to risk losing what we had just found.  Homer lifted his arm and pulled back his coat sleeve to reveal a wrist watch, the first time I had seen one on a man.  It was delicate and small, as though it were made for a woman.

“It’s ten minutes to ten,” he said, then he started walking across the street, knowing I would follow.  He tipped his hat to the officer, who gave us a scowl, and when we had reached the other side, Homer turned to me and said, “It’s about time for tea, I believe.  Would you care to join me?”

I was on my way to audition as a pianist for Chautauqua.  But I knew there would be a long line of musicians, and though I’d gotten my hopes up all week at the prospect of getting out of New York and traveling the country, the world had changed in the last ten seconds.  “I would be delighted,” I said.

“A tea house,” he asked, “or perhaps my place? I make a very nice pot of tea.”

“Yours,” I said, before I could reason or doubt myself.

“I’m Homer,” he said then, and extended his hand like a gentleman.

“Harvey,” I said and shook his.  But I could not look again into his eyes, for he was so handsome that I feared I would melt there on the street.

Homer lived in a tiny fourth floor tenement on a dead-end lane off 21st, which was, as he pointed out, equal distance between the Manhattan Gas Works and the theater district. “The center of all the energy in the world,” he said and winked.

The room was cold but he started a coal fire and filled the kettle.  He said he shared the place with another boarder, who, fortunately, was not there. I glanced around the room.  There were few possessions, but they seemed of good quality.  The table had two silver candle holders, and the tea pot appeared to be made of fine china.  I could see that Homer was a man who’d grown up very differently than me.

Despite how confident I’d felt on the street those five seconds, I suddenly grew nervous.  I stood by the single window, wiped coal dust from the glass, and looked out over Chelsea.  How different the world looked from four stories up.  And as long as I remained there, I reasoned, I did not have to think about what was happening, about how many changes I would have to make in my life to share in his future. 

I’d grown up in Iowa and had come to New York on the advice of my piano teacher, an older man who liked to hold my long fingers in his hand and speak enviously of the span of notes I was able to play.  But I was not happy in Manhattan.  I lived in a basement room, a place I would never take anyone to, and played piano in a basement bar for a dollar a night.  I did not have money to eat out and often ate just bread with thin slices of salami all week for lunch, and scraps from the bar kitchen on nights I worked.   

As I looked out the dirty glass at the alley below, I felt again how much I missed the fields and spaces of the mid-west, missed the comfort of home, of warm meals, though I did not have enough funds to return.  A fear suddenly overtook me. I had imagined my only hope to escape the city was with a traveling show.  What if the Chautauqua audition was my one chance?  What if this encounter with a stranger was nothing more than the devil leading me down a dark way?

As Homer prepared tea, he talked about his watch, which he noticed I’d admired.  He told me he was related to a Countess from Hungary, the first woman known to wear a watch. 

“Is that hers?” I asked. “On your wrist?” I looked briefly at him. His face seemed to shine so brightly, to speak of possibilities I had all but dissolved within me, that I had to look away.  I felt wrenched between two worlds, of escape and ecstasy.

“Oh no,” Homer said.  “Hers was speckled with jewels.  This I bought at a pawn shop.  It belonged to a society woman who passed away.  I wear it as a reminder.”

“Of what?” I said glancing at him again.

“Of how little time we have.  Of why we must live happy and gay.”

I turned from the window then.  The coals were glowing and giving off a heat and I came up close to them, suddenly feeling a chill.

“Yes,” Homer said, “here.”  He took off his coat, draped it over my back, and patted my shoulders, as if to hold it down in place.  The gesture was so kind and gentle, a touch I felt instantly was something I’d longed for my entire life, something I had never found, not even from my mother or father, at home.

“I cannot live here,” I said.

“No,” he said softly. “It is only temporary.  We are meant to explore America, like Whitman.” 

How did he know so much, so instantly?  I fell in love with him then, deciding to no longer doubt.  Homer would later give me a copy of Leaves of Grass, one which contained the Calamus poems, and we would often read them to each other in bed while on the road.  But that day, we drank tea and shared the stories of our lives. And as the sun set, Homer locked the door, so that his roommate could not come in without knocking, and he took me to his bed.

***

It was less than a month before we joined a traveling show.  Homer did not play an instrument, but he could sing, and more importantly, he commanded the stage.  I played the mandolin, and eventually, bought him a guitar and taught him to play. We slept together every night, under the auspices of sharing costs, and no one said a word.  We traveled the States, read Whitman, and made our secret, ecstatic love at night.

***

There are times, of course, when we are given looks, when we do not come off the stage of our lives swiftly enough and take up our daily role on the streets.  Sometimes I imagine I’m still standing by the window in his old room in Chelsea, and I haven’t noticed that someone has opened the window and gotten behind me, ready to push me out. 

More likely, it will be by accident—a door left unlocked, a witnessed kiss—and all this will end.  The watch will stop.

Until then, as the song I wrote for the children goes,

We will sing and we will play

We’ll be happy, we’ll be gay,

We will dance in the streets,

Til it’s time, til it’s time,

Til it’s time to go to sleep.

 

 

 

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