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Authors: Wayne Hoffman

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Sweet Like Sugar

BOOK: Sweet Like Sugar
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SWEET LIKE SUGAR
WAYNE HOFFMAN
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For Mark, my apple tree
Acknowledgments
First and foremost, thanks to my editor, John Scognamiglio, and my agent, Mitchell Waters, for getting this book published, and for all their guidance along the way.
 
I never could have finished the project without the support and helpful advice of Carolyn Hessel, Alana Newhouse, Don Weise, and Andrew Corbin.
 
Several people provided me with the physical space I needed to write: Stacey Hoffman and Victor Ozols; John Nazarian and Robert Reader; and Sarah Thompson and Diane Stafford at Poor Richard's Landing. My colleagues at the
Forward
and Nextbook Inc. allowed me the time I needed to write, which is no less important. And my friends in the Catskills helped preserve my sanity, such as it is, amid all the
mishegos
of writing and revising: David Nellis (and Pearl); Neil Greenberg and Frank Mullaney; John Murphy and Hal Moskowitz; and the entire Greynolds family. I couldn't have done it without all of you.
 
There are also, unfortunately, people who didn't live to see this book's completion. Allan Berube and Eric Rofes—my beloved mentors and friends and much more, two gorgeous and generous and brilliant men—were both taken too suddenly and too soon. Jim Merritt also died after a long illness, but not before his difficult final months inspired a large chunk of this story. And my remarkable great-aunt, Irene Wolfe, passed away in 2009, but she read an early draft of the novel, so she knew that her name and a piece of her spirit would endure.
 
My eternal gratitude to my parents, Marty and Susan Hoffman, for being much more wonderful and supportive than Benji Steiner's parents. And to my partner, Mark Sullivan, for his love, wisdom, honesty and, above all, patience.
CHAPTER 1
I
was looking at Internet porn when the rabbi opened my door.
It wasn't as sordid as it sounds. I wasn't some yeshiva boy caught performing an unholy act. And he wasn't even
my
rabbi. Just
a
rabbi. An old, white-bearded man who had other things to worry about.
Still, I was startled when my office door opened without a knock and even more surprised to see the rabbi. He stood on the threshold, hand on the doorknob, breathing slowly and deliberately, wordless. I glanced down at the picture on my screen, a young shirtless guy—his hair thick and black, his teeth large and white, his eyes filled with devilish desires; his posture suggested complete confidence, his physique total vanity. I glanced up at the rabbi: ashen, hunched over, weak on his feet; his belly was bloated, his hair thin and dull, his expression a museum of sadness. One a man, the other also a man. I looked down again and switched off the monitor.
As I stood up from my desk, I saw Mrs. Goldfarb behind the rabbi. She craned her neck and peeked over his shoulder.
“Benjamin,” she said to me, “I'm sorry to bother you, but Rabbi Zuckerman is feeling a bit faint. Do you think he could lie down on your couch for a few minutes?”
Nobody had called me Benjamin for years. I'd gone by Benji since junior high. But Mrs. Goldfarb still thought of me as one of her second-grade Hebrew school students, and to her, I'd always be Benjamin.
“Of course,” I said, although this was a somewhat odd request. The rabbi owned the Jewish bookstore in the front of the shopping center, where Mrs. Goldfarb worked as the manager. But in the six months since I'd opened my office in the back of the shopping center, neither of them had ever stepped inside. Mrs. Goldfarb at least waved if she walked by my window on her way to the parking lot and she'd say hello if we bumped into each other at lunchtime in the sandwich shop several doors down. The rabbi had never given me more than a passing nod. Even now.
Mrs. Goldfarb gently nudged him forward, and I took him by the elbow, lifting his hand from the doorknob and leading him slowly toward the sofa. He lowered himself onto a cushion and then, with a labored groan, raised his legs onto the couch and turned his body to lie down on his back, his black lace-up shoes still on. He closed his eyes, one hand on his chest clutching his silver-framed spectacles, the other at his side holding his black knit yarmulke.
“I think he's just overheated,” Mrs. Goldfarb said to me. “Our air-conditioning isn't working so well and the store gets very hot on a sunny afternoon. I'm sure he'll be fine after he lies down for a few minutes. Is it okay if I leave him here with you?”
“Sure,” I said, not seeing any choice.
Mrs. Goldfarb turned to the rabbi. “You just relax here. I'm going back to mind the store, but I'll come check on you in a little while. Tell Benjamin if you need anything.” Without opening his eyes, the rabbi feebly waved her off.
Mrs. Goldfarb walked out the door, and I followed her onto the sidewalk.
“Are you sure he's all right?” I asked. “He looks awful.”
“Rabbi Zuckerman is a very stubborn man,” she said, pausing to light a cigarette. “He started feeling dizzy about an hour ago. I told him to go to a doctor, or at least go home, but he wouldn't. Then I remembered seeing a couch in your office, right in the window, and I thought maybe he'd agree to lie down there. He didn't at first, but when he lost his balance and almost knocked down a whole bookshelf, I insisted.”
“What should I do if he gets worse?” I asked.
She took a deep drag and exhaled slowly. “Just run and get me, Benjamin,” she said. “I'll handle it. I don't mean to bother you—”
“Oh, it's not a bother. I'm just worried about him,” I said, even though, truly, I was mostly worried that he'd bother me: snoring or throwing up on my couch, or simply, with his rabbinical presence, preventing me from surfing for more porn.
The porn, incidentally, was for a project I was working on. A legitimate, work-related project. A new bar called Paradise had opened in D.C. and the owners were looking for a graphic designer to create an advertising campaign that would make the place seem sexy. I was hunting for semi-naked photos for a mock-up ad I planned to pitch them. That's why, on an otherwise ordinary Monday in June, in my little suburban office, I was looking at dirty pictures. Until the rabbi appeared.
The rabbi didn't move when I went back inside. I switched off the overhead light and muted the sound on my computer.
He didn't move when the telephone rang, but I shot up from my chair with a start and grabbed it on the first ring. It was Michelle, my roommate.
“It's over, for real this time,” she said, skipping “hello” altogether. “You will totally not even
believe
what he said to me this morning.”
Looking over at the rabbi, who appeared undisturbed, I whispered into the phone, “I can't talk right now. I'll call you back later.”
“Benji, I can't even hear you. What did you say? What's going on?”
“I can't talk right now,” I whispered again, a bit louder. “I've got to go. There's a rabbi on my couch.”
“A
what
on your couch? A
what?

I placed the receiver back in its cradle, turned off the ringer, and checked Rabbi Zuckerman. He was asleep.
When I turned my monitor on, the nearly naked man was still there. Glancing over at the rabbi, I closed that window and started working on a different job instead: an album cover for a friend's band, where everyone kept their clothes on.
 
“How long did he sleep?” Michelle asked that evening as we stood at the kitchen counter, scooping Chinese carryout onto her Corelle dishes.
“Not that long. Maybe an hour.”
“That sounds seriously creepy, Benji,” she said. “Some sick old man passed out on your couch. You don't even know him.”
She was picking the water chestnuts out of her shrimp lo mein and putting them on my plate, like she always did.
“I know who he is,” I said.
I cut the egg roll down the middle and put half on her plate.
“Yeah, but you don't really know him,” she said. “It's just weird. You're not the school nurse. What if he died right there in your office?”
“He wasn't about to die,” I protested. “I was just doing Mrs. Goldfarb a favor. It was no big deal.”
Michelle stared at me with a cockeyed expression that said, “Give me a break.”
“Besides,” I said, “it's the closest I've gotten to sleeping with a man in months.”
She cracked a grin and bit into her half of the egg roll.
We each grabbed a bottle of Amstel Light—we were watching our figures—and headed to the living room to finish our dinner.
Michelle spent most of the meal talking about the latest minidrama with her boyfriend, Dan. The current spat was over the Fourth of July: They'd made plans to spend the day together downtown, having a picnic by the Jefferson Memorial and watching the fireworks on the Mall, but that morning, scarcely a week before the holiday, Dan had invited a few of his buddies to join them.
“I told him I thought we were going to spend the day together,” she said. “And he says, ‘Well, we still are spending it together.' And I'm like, ‘Yeah, together with your friends.' And he's like, ‘What's wrong with my friends?' I mean, is he for real?”
“What
is
wrong with his friends?”
“God, not you, too. Don't you get it?”
“I get it, he's being dense.”
“He's just being a typical guy. I didn't think Dan was like everyone else I dated, but maybe they're all the same once you get to know them.”
“Them?”
“Guys,” she clarified.
“Hello? I'm a guy, remember?”
She gave me that cockeyed look again. “You're not a guy.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, shut up, you know what I mean,” she said.
I did know what she meant. And, unfortunately, she was right about guys as far as I could tell, which explained why, five years after we graduated from the University of Maryland, Michelle and I were still living together in the suburban apartment we'd only planned to share for one year, tops. That's why, even though we were both what most people would consider attractive—no gruesome disfigurements, no missing teeth or fingers, no prominent warts—neither of us had managed to hold on to a boyfriend for more than four months. That is, until Michelle met Dan, who had lasted nearly eight months so far, and actually did seem different from everyone else she had dated, meaning that he was the first one I honestly liked.
She vented about Dan while I ate my lo mein; my role in these situations was simply to listen and nod sympathetically until I was prompted for a response. I had cleaned my plate by the time she was done talking.
“Sometimes I wonder if it's even worth it,” she said, working toward some kind of conclusion. That was my cue.
“I think Dan's pretty great,” I offered.
That was all it took to set Michelle off on a new speech, recounting Dan's many virtues: He likes football, he's open to foreign films, he's a great kisser. Soon she was taking back most everything she'd said just moments before and vowing to work out some kind of compromise for the Fourth of July.
“Do the picnic with his friends during the day,” I suggested, “but make it just the two of you for the fireworks at night. That's the only part that really seems like a date.”
She pondered this for a second.
“That sounds like it'd be okay,” she said. “You're always so good at figuring this stuff out.”
“Then why am I still single?” I asked.
“Nobody's good enough for you,” she answered. She stood up, leaving most of her dinner on the coffee table, and walked toward her bedroom. “I'm going to call Dan right now and see what he thinks about your idea.”
“I'll see you later then,” I said. “I'm going out.”
She stopped and turned to me. “Got a hot date?”
“It's for a job. I'm going to Paradise, that bar I told you about. I'm working on an ad campaign for them and I want to see what the place looks like at night.”
“All right, but not too late,” she said, pretending to be my mom. “You've got work in the morning.”
Artists and theologians have offered many different visions of Paradise, but none, to my knowledge, has involved vertical blinds. Nonetheless, vertical blinds were the defining feature of this newest interpretation, located just north of Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue.
Looking at the full-length front windows from the sidewalk outside, I could only make out fragments of men between the white plastic strips: a tattooed bicep framed by the sleeve of a clingy T-shirt, pale legs sticking out of the summer's most fashionable drawstring shorts, a face bearing the sloppy smile that comes from too many two-for-one shots of Absolut Citron.
Inside, the pieces came together. Dance music pumped at a volume just quiet enough to have a conversation, but loud enough to keep an older crowd away. The lights were dimmed to a flattering level, but still allowed patrons to check one another out with some degree of discrimination. The place smelled of beer and new plastic and CK One.
An inexperienced observer might have called the crowd homogenous: Men in their twenties and thirties—there were no women, none—milled about alone, or in groups of two and three. Haircuts ranged from short to very short; waistlines all seemed to be between thirty and thirty-two inches; clothes were casual yet uniformly neat and unrumpled; everyone was clean-shaven except for four men with identical soul patches. Three bartenders—all shirtless, hairless, and ever-so-slightly gym-sculpted—were nearly impossible to tell apart. And the crowd was overwhelmingly white, despite the fact that Washington was an overwhelmingly black city.
BOOK: Sweet Like Sugar
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