Matt's stomach hadn't felt right during the drive up to Ogunquit from Boston. The pills weren't sitting well with breakfast on the road. Diluted apple juice and oatmeal were the doctor's orders but his desire for hot coffee and honey-dipped donuts had been too strong. Bouncing along the highway for two hours in Jack's Jeep had taken its toll. When they'd finally pulled into the beach parking lot, Matt had needed a minute's rest.
Instead, they'd trudged across the sand immediately in search of their friends, who'd come up the previous night in another car. They'd hardly rolled out their towels beside Randall and Dan when Jack took Matt's hand and jogged him down to the surf, where they stopped at last to hold each other for a fleeting moment before Matt realized what Jack was doing.
As the world tumbled over, the sickness in Matt's stomach pounded into his head. Burying his face into the bottom of Jack's sweatshirt, Matt wrapped his arms around Jack's thighs. A moment later he was rightside up again with the breeze in his face, his legs straddling Jack's hips, and his feet dangling in midair.
"Put me down now?" he asked.
"Not on your life," Jack replied, pressing his cheek against Matt's neck.
Although it was August, the beach was cold. The sea looked wild, kicked up from a storm that passed ninety miles offshore the day before. Breakers rolled across a sandy ledge that stretched fifty yards out hidden beneath the dark green waves. The sky, too, was reeling.
A chill ran up Matt's spine. He felt a fever coming on. He thought of the Tylenol and water bottle tucked in his bag beside the towels. "Okay," he said, trying to work himself free. "The ride's over."
Jack whipped him upright but didn't let him down. Cradling Matt's body in his arms, he lowered him butt-first toward the surf as a big wave rolled over the sandy ledge and the tide surged. Ignoring the oncoming threat, Matt looked into Jack's blue eyes. Jack had a certain power over his fevers that sometimes staved off their ache and chill.
The excitement in Jack's eyes registered every detail of the approaching surge. At the last possible moment he hopped backwards, yanking them out of its path.
"All right, all right," Matt laughed. "Now put me down?"
Reluctantly, Jack returned Matt's feet to dry sand, twisted him around by the shoulders and kissed him on the mouth before sprinting off to join the others. Matt's lips buzzed from the soft, wet kiss as he watched Jack go. He regained his balance before following in Jack's wake.
There weren't many people on the beach except around the area below the parking lot and concession stands, where families clustered with umbrellas and folding chairs and children dug moats around lumpy sandcastles. Further down, past a few pockets of straight adults, the gay section was practically empty. On a day like this, brunch-serving restaurants and antique barns would be burgeoning with activity. Matt might be relaxing in some warm café rather than freezing out here on a cold beach. Then he thought what a plate of pancakes and more coffee would do to his stomach.
He should have stayed in bed. He'd been out of the hospital for only a couple weeks and while the pneumonia had cleared out of his lungs, fevers and fatigue kept him under the weather. Some new infection had to be brewing beneath his skin. This morning in the bathroom mirror, red streaks shot through his right eye. Retinitus?
"Pollen," Jack said, reading his mind from the open bathroom door. "It's that ailanthus tree out the window -- the one that smells like cum. My eyes itch too." He snagged a bottle of drops from the back of the medicine cabinet and stuck them in Matt's hand. "C'mon. Got to hurry if we want to beat the traffic."
Jack had a talent for distracting Matt from worrying too much about things. Now, Matt wasn't sure whether to thank Jack or blame him for dragging him out here.
Trudging up the sand to join the other guys, Matt saw that Randall and Dan had stripped to their briefs despite the cold. Sunbathing in underwear was in fashion that season. Jack tugged off his sweatshirt.
"You're looking well, Matthew," Randall observed through thick, round glasses as Matt dropped to his knees on the towel. "Something must be agreeing with you."
Jack shot Matt a see-I-told-you-so look and folded away his sweatshirt.
"It's a combination of drugs and Jack," he told Randall as he rifled through his bag for Tylenol.
He smiled at Dan. He and Jack had run into this guy only once before, coming out of a café as he and Randall had been going in. "Went through a rough period earlier this summer," he told him now. "AIDS," he explained. He tried to make his voice sound easy-going-like his status was something he revealed to a stranger every day. "I'm a lot better now."
Dan nodded. "You got a nice tan."
"That's the drugs too," Matt said. "Not a bad side effect."
Dan laughed. Matt found the Tylenol and swallowed it dry.
"You're the one with the nice tan," Matt told him. Dan had a nice everything. Good-looking from the get-go, he had the cut, clean look of someone who pumped iron several times a weeks and took men's style magazines seriously. Stretched out on a striped blanket, Dan made good health seem easy. He rolled onto his belly. Poking skyward, his butt was like of a pair of muskmelons, ready to rip through his white cotton briefs.
Matt glanced at Jack, who eyed the melons, too, with a hungry half-grin.
"Dan just got off a single men's cruise," Randall said, dog-earing his paperback Brothers Karamazov -- his idea of a good beach read. "Got himself a Caribbean tan."
"The Caribbean," Jack mused, wiggling out of his jeans. "Spectacular. Farthest south we've ever been is Cocoa Beach. Right, Matt? I've always wanted to take a Caribbean cruise. Nothing but blue sky, miles of ocean, a boatload of beautiful boys." He peeled off his t-shirt.
Dan smiled. "Why not?"
"Too busy," Jack replied. "But I can always content myself with an occasional cruise through the woods around the Blue Hills."
"A friend of mine got arrested out there," Dan said. "Lured a state trooper into the bushes."
"Really?" Jack shot him a mischievous grin. "What was the trooper's name? Do you remember?"
Dan didn't know quite how to take Jack's question.
"Sometimes we go on nature hikes," Matt interjected.
Randall put aside his book and gave Matt a curious look.
Jack pulled out the tanning lotion. His eyes wandered up the slab of Dan's back. He twisted off its cap. "Need some lotion, Dan?" he asked.
Matt snagged the container from Jack's fingers. Crouching behind the boyfriend, he raised it high above his shoulders and squeezed out a long strand of the cold lotion. "Hey!" Jack protested when it hit his skin, but Matt knew he secretly dug it. Massaging his thumbs into Jack's muscles, he hit all the favorite tense spots.
"No one's got better hands than my buddy, here," Jack told Dan.
The sun cut through a weak spot in the clouds and they guys rolled back on their towels. Jack unbuttoned Matt's jeans, tugged them off, then draped a big arm across his chest. Nestled against Jack, Matt took stock of himself. His stomach was calm and no real fever had emerged although he still felt on the verge of one. Jack's breathing slowed, became deeper. Randall flipped the pages of his book. Matt sensed Dan adjusting himself on his towel; he snapped the elastic of his shorts and Matt knew that Jack heard it too.
Clouds moved back across the sun. Matt buried his face into Jack's neck. His whole body took in the familiar warmth and his mind strolled back to their trip to Florida four years earlier. They'd stayed at a terrific resort hotel on the ocean and their room was right on the beach; the first night they drifted off to the sound of lapping waves. After Jack's presentation the next day, Jack skipped the rest of the conference and spent the afternoon with Matt playing in the water. The waves were perfect for bodysurfing -- big four-footers that started rolling far enough out to give them one good ride after another. They had to swim through a few weak waves that washed over them and they ran into some rough ones that tried to twist them under, but most of the breakers carried them all the way to the shore.
After an hour or so, they lay down on the soft, white sand and caught their breath. That's when they saw him -- the beautiful Puerto Rican man who sauntered down to the water's edge and who turned and flashed them a smile. Splashing into the surf, his coppery skin glittered against the turquoise sea. Jack turned to Matt. His eyes lit up. "You want him?"
"Don't you think he's hot?"
"Well, yeah, sure," Matt said. "But I'm here with you."
"Course you are. And I'm here with you. But we could still have him," Jack said. "You and me."
"I don't know."
"C'mon, buddy. What's the matter?" Jack propped himself up on one elbow and stroked Matt's arm. "That guy couldn't come between us, he's someone we could share." Jack looked Matt in the eye. "Sex with you and me is great, but what we've got is a whole lot more than that. Life's short," Jack said. "Don't be afraid to dive in."
Matt looked down at the man as he pulled himself up from a wave. Beads of water glistened on his sinewy lats.
The man's name was Leo, and when Matt stuck out his hand, the man slipped his arm around Matt turning the handshake into an embrace. A nice local custom, Matt thought until he touched the soft, tight skin stretched over Leo's hard muscles. Then Matt knew -- here was a custom anyone could enjoy. Anywhere.
At some point during the daydream, Jack's arm had slipped off Matt's body. Now Matt reached out but Jack was not there. He opened his eyes. Jack was sitting up, alert, looking down at the water, where a few dozen boys were traipsing along with beach bags, blankets, and chairs. But these boys hadn't captured Jack's attention. It was one in the water he was watching. A tall, dark one with a lanky body.
Knee-deep in the waves the guy waded out into deeper water, then dunked himself under and swam out to the edge of the sandy ledge where the breakers started rolling. He was bodysurfing, out there on a day like this.
"Now that's a man," Jack said to the others, who sat up to see what he found so interesting. Matt knew Jack was comparing the man in the water to the buff puffs strutting along with their beach gear but he couldn't help wondering if Randall and Dan might think he was comparing the man to him. Matt turned to Dan, who gave him a slight, comforting smile that said he was thinking exactly that. "That's a man," Jack repeated.
"Yes," Matt said, as if to a small child just learning to identify every object he saw, "that is a man. And those are clouds and that is the ocean."
Jack turned to him with a curious grin. He tousled Matt's hair. Then he had his briefs down around his ankles and was fishing through the bags for his bathing suit. "I'm going swimming!" he announced. Suited up, Jack sprinted away.
"No stopping Jack," Matt said, trying to squeeze the nervousness out of his laughter. "That's my boyfriend."
"That's Jack," Randall agreed, laying aside his book once again.
"If my boyfriend looked at another guy like that I'd be worried," Dan said. Randall shot him a warning glance.
But you don't have a boyfriend, Matt thought. You've probably never had a relationship that lasted more than a few months. You don't understand.
And yet, something twisted inside him as he watched Jack sprint away.
Last summer, he might have climbed into his bathing suit and followed him into the water. No big deal. He'd have gone anywhere with Jack. They would have swum out there together and made a new friend. But since he'd been sick things had changed for him. His weight, for example: he no longer had a layer of fat to insulate him in the cold ocean. Once, he had been among the first in the water each summer. His all-time record was late April at Herring-Cove Beach in Provincetown. His skin stung all afternoon from that single quick dip. It felt great. But now he just wanted to stretch out on the sand and relax with his boyfriend.
He tried to lie back on his towel but without Jack beside him his digestive system tumbled around like he was back in the Jeep. He reached for his bathing suit, a short-sleeved wetsuit that Jack had bought him after his first bout of pneumonia last summer. He tugged it on and, nodding back to his friends, he trotted down to the edge of the surf, where Jack had plunged in and was paddling out in the direction of the tall, dark man.
"Good luck," he heard Dan call out.
And then his toes hit the water.
This was not the ocean but a vast caldron of icy fire. His ankles, knees, and thighs ignited; his entire body blazed down to the bone. Wait, he told himself. Be strong. Your skin will grow numb. It always does. In a minute, in just another minute it will feel good. Soothing. But it didn't. Flames rolled up his back, searing through the extra, rubber skin.
Out near the breakers Jack had met up with the other guy. They dove together; he was showing Jack a new way to catch the best part of the wave. Matt was completely out of the water now and shivering on the sand. The burning had eased only a little. It felt like a terrible fever racing up his spine, but the adrenaline was still kicking around, fighting the chill.
The two in the water caught a good wave and rode it to shore not far away from where Matt stood but still too far for him to reach. They were laughing and panting together, lifting themselves out. The other man seemed to be instructing Jack, and Jack seemed to be eating it up. He turned and waved for Matt to come out and join them before diving back in.
The sun broke through the clouds again and for a moment Matt felt warm enough to try once more. But the water was as merciless as before. All he could do was fall back on the sand, the embers of his smoldering skin fanned by the cool breeze, as clouds rolled back across the sun.
A peculiar sensation began to gnaw at Matt's belly. It was something he'd never felt before. A hollowness, an ache. It expanded throughout his body. Was this some sort of reaction to his new drugs or the warning shot of an impending infection? No, it was more of an emotional thing -- a sadness that carried the weight of nostalgia.
The sensation surged, flooding his chest. He couldn't breath. Grasping for something tangible, he focused on a fleck of spindrift, a bit of foam torn off the waves by the wind. Skipping across sand, it caught itself on his toe before splitting apart and somersaulting away.
Matt yearned to be out there with Jack and the guy. He wanted to be out there with Jack instead of the guy. He looked back at their spot on the beach. Randall was reading his book. Dan was sitting up staring at Jack and his new friend. Matt turned away when Dan met his gaze. Matt hated the handsome man in the water with his boyfriend. With each wave that pounded the shore, he prayed for the undertow to suck him down and hold him under till his lungs burst open and filled with brine.
He didn't want to be feeling this way. Did he really expect Jack to stay out of the water just because he couldn't get in? For a relationship to survive didn't certain sacrifices have to be made? Hadn't Jack made more than a few for him?
Matt thought of the night he went to the hospital. Jack sat by his bed holding up one New Yorker cartoon after another, reading each caption aloud and describing its illustration to Matt when he saw Matt was too tired to turn his head and look for himself. He thought of how Jack flipped him upside-down and how sometimes he made the fevers disappear. So what if Matt couldn't swim with him today. At least he'd tried. Maybe he'd do it again sometime, maybe he wouldn't. They could always fly down to Florida, where the water was warmer, before his next sickness set in or after he fought his way back.
Matt scooped up a handful of sand and let the grains fall between his fingers. The sand on Cocoa Beach was softer. Leo's skin had felt so smooth. Jack's and his own, too, after their day playing in the semitropical sea. That night, they wrestled together back in the room; and then, all tangled up, they slept. At some point Matt happened to look over and see Jack gazing back at him in the moonlight.
Out by the breakers the two caught another wave and this time Jack got it all perfectly right: the tuck of the head, the arch of the back -- whatever it was the beautiful, lanky man was teaching him. This time, Jack was taking the other guy for all he was worth as they rode in together and hit the beach tumbling into each other's arms not ten yards from where Matt sat.
Disentangling himself, Jack rose and jogged over. He hoisted Matt up and dragged him toward the surf. "No, Jack." Matt said. "I'm serious. I can't."
Jack stopped and looked at Matt. "Too cold?" he said. "Okay, then. I'll be back in a few."
As the other guy scrambled to his feet he gave Matt a quick nod and a tentative smile before jogging back into the waves.
Matt didn't try to go in again after that. He knew Jack would come back to him before long. He'd lie down beside him, his pulse racing hard. He'd press his icy skin against Matt's, eager to tell him all about it, and perhaps Matt's jealousy would begin to fade. Jack had the power to stave off all kinds of fevers. Maybe he'd introduce Matt to the guy while their friends warily watched Matt's reaction. Seeing everything was all right, the other guys would relax too. They could all have drinks together at the piano bar in town.
Matt dug his heels into sand. Propping himself back on his elbows, he opened his eyes and watched Jack and the other guy tumble through the waves as the strong, wild current carried them back to shore.
Rob Phelps is a fiction writer and journalist living in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He received his MFA from the Graduate Writing Program at Bennington College. Rob has been living with AIDS since 1989.