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Authors: Jamie Freeman

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The White Stag

BOOK: The White Stag
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The White Stag

 

 

 

 

The
invitation arrived on November 14, but I left it on my dresser for three weeks before I mustered the courage to open it.

 

Senator Valor Balder and her family

cordially invite you to celebrate

Christmas and the Winter Solstice

at the Balder Family Prairie House,

Gainesville, Florida.

8 p.m., Saturday, December 20, 2003

 

The particulars of the invitation cascaded down the thick cardstock in bold, perfect brush strokes. I had never received an invitation to one of Valor’s parties; in fact, I had met her only half a dozen times over the past year, and always in passing. She had, on occasion, waltzed into the Prairie House during one of Jude’s weekend parties or had been introduced to me at a Democratic Party fund-raiser or one of Jude’s gallery openings, but there was something distant about her greetings when we met, and, despite the fact that Jude’s mother always seemed to remember my name, I always expected her to have forgotten it.

I looked at the invitation for a long time. I considered throwing it away. I threw it on the floor, a dry run for actually discarding it, and wandered into the living room to watch TV. By the first commercial break, I had worried myself back into the bedroom and was once again holding the invitation between trembling fingers.

Should I go back there? Or was the friendly but distant relationship I had established with Jude all I could handle?

I called my best friend JoAnn; she was no help. She told me I was hopeless and to quit calling her about Jude. “Jude, Jude, Jude,” she had said finally. “Fuck Jude.” I winced; she’s a Jersey girl. When I started to respond, she said, “I am hanging up on you. Call me back when you grow a pair.” Then, in her singsong voice, “Love ya.” And she clicked off the phone.

Ten seconds later, the phone rang.

“Yeah?” I said.

JoAnn started talking without a greeting or a breath. “And don’t even think of asking me to go with you now, because it’s too late, boy. I’ll be away that weekend.”

Damn.

I brought the invitation back into the living room and watched it sitting on the coffee table while an old rerun of
Bewitched
slipped past me.

I picked up my phone, and then I put it back on the table.

I hadn’t actually spoken to Jude in a couple of weeks, but we had traded periodic e-mails. Did I want to upset the balance?

I sent Jude a text message: “
JOINT party? WHY??
” He called me back immediately.

“Dude, I told you it’s a joint party this year,” he said.

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yeah, I did. I’ve been talking about this for weeks.”

“Yeah, but we haven’t actually talked in weeks, and you never said anything about this in your e-mails.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Well, yeah, okay, my omission might be some kind of wishful thinking. I dunno,” he said. “But what’s done is done. It’s definitely a parade of compromises—at least for me, but I didn’t compromise on the guest list. She tried to cross you off the list, but I fought for ya, baby.”

“That’s not funny.” I laughed.

“No, she likes you, actually, she refers to you as ‘that young boy Joshua’, as in: ‘How is that young boy Joshua?’ or ‘Has that young boy Joshua found a boyfriend his own age yet?’ I guess she’s ultimately trying, in her none too subtle way, to point out that you’re too young for me, but I’ve told her you won’t let that become an issue. Really, she is just too relentless—”

“Stop it! You’re kidding, right?”

“No, you know how she is; the same thing that makes her a great senator makes her a ruthless conversationalist.”

I laughed again. “I guess that’s true.”

“Anyway, it’ll be local party bigwigs, campaign donors, old Gainesville, some sports people from the university, and a handful of crazy bohemian artists—”

“You’re kidding,” I said, interrupting him. “Did you ever consider that those are two worlds that maybe shouldn’t be brought together?”

“Oh, come on, you’ll love it. You’ll be like Eliza at Ascot. Be sure to wear your best… one with… down the back… or is it ribbons this….”

“You’re fading, Jude. Wear my what?”

Jude laughed, his voice crackling with static. “Sorry, Rev,” he said, “I’m in the car. Never mind. I was kidding, but no, I think it’ll be a hoot. I mean, come on, the patrons and the patronized, rubbing shoulders out at the Prairie House? It’ll be fantastic… besides… to pay… and catering… come spend… under the stars—”

I clicked off the phone and considered my options. I wanted to see him, but I knew if I saw him again, I’d get hurt again. Or worse yet, I might not get hurt.

I fell asleep on my sofa with my iPod blasting really old Olivia Newton John into my earbuds. Just after three o’clock, I woke suddenly, my body soaked in sweat, a feeling of certainty grasping me and yanking me from sleep. I jumped up and found the invitation on the dining room table. I scribbled my name across the RSVP card, pulled on a sweatshirt, and walked the miniature response envelope down the block to a public mailbox.

The next morning when I checked my e-mail, there was a brief message waiting from Jude.

Pack your bags and come spend the weekend under the stars. The place will be packed. I’ll be good… if you want me to be. December 20-21. Please. J

 

*  *  *

I arrived
the evening of the party with an overnight bag and a hanging bag. The house and grounds were alive with activity. A dozen men on ladders hung thousands of twinkle lights from the giant live oaks that surrounded the house. Half a dozen vans were parked in the drive delivering food, linens, sound equipment, flowers, balloons, chairs, and who knew what else.

When I bounded up the front steps, a woman in a black T-shirt stopped me. “You’re early,” she said. “Come back at six thirty.”

“I’m a guest,” I said, staring at her from under the brim of my Florida Gators ball cap.

“Oh shit,” she said, running a hand through her red curly hair, “sorry, kiddo, the boss is making me jumpy.”

“Jude?” I asked.

“The senator,” she said, grinning.

“Joshua, dear, please leave Becky alone; she’s got plenty to worry about without you distracting her.” Valor stepped out onto the porch in immaculate khakis, a white sweater set, and pearls. Her hair was swept back into a loose ponytail, self-consciously casual and perfect. She grinned at me and walked over for a loose hug and air kiss that left me startled and stammering on the front step.

“I was, um, I was going to—well, I mean, is Jude here somewhere?”

She looked at me for a long moment and then said, “You are such a beautiful boy; you mustn’t let people get the better of you so easily.”

“Mother, leave him alone.
Jesus
.” Jude stepped past his mother, hands touching her gently on the shoulders as he squeezed past. “Of course he’s beautiful, aren’t you, Joshua?” he said, winking at me and reaching out to take my overnight bag, the ropey muscles of his forearm flexing in the dazzling sunlight. “I’ve only invited the most beautiful people to our party, Mother dear.”

“Jude, if I thought you were being sincere for even a moment, I’d thank you, but I know there’s a charming insult in there somewhere.” She smiled slyly at me as she said this and stepped back into the foyer to let the two of us pass into the house.

“Joshua, you won’t believe some of the hideous people I’ve invited tonight. The press will have a field day; she should have had this party at her own house like she wanted to.” His stage whisper carried across the foyer, trailing behind him as he took the stairs two at a time.

I rushed after him, sneaking a look over my shoulder at Valor, who had picked up a clipboard and was consulting with a tall blonde woman in a blue running suit, a tiny half-smile sliding across her cranberry lips.

At the top of the stairs, Jude stopped suddenly. He turned so quickly that I ran into him, and he had to reach out his hands to steady me. “I’m really glad you came, Joshua,” he whispered, kissing me gently on the cheek and then turning back and starting off down the long hallway.

My cheeks flushed pink. I watched his round, muscular ass under molded denim and longed to plunge my face between the twin furry globes again, longed to slide my tongue along the wrinkled ridge behind his cock until the tip touched the smooth skin of his puckered—

“Are you coming?” Jude asked, his hand on the doorknob, his face impatient.

“Nearly there,” I said, grinning.

 

*  *  *

I met
Jude in the spring of 2002 at a support group for families of the people who had died on September 11. His best friend Brian had been killed in one of the Los Angeles-bound passenger planes, and my sister Dana had died at the Pentagon. Jude had reluctantly joined the group three or four months after its formation and, after months of glances and unspoken connection, we had drifted into a tentative friendliness.

I think initially Jude was as afraid of my youth as I was of his dark, brooding eyes and startling intelligence. I had just turned twenty-two, and I later found out he was thirty. If someone had asked me to guess at his age, I would have guessed an incredibly well-preserved thirty-eight or thirty-nine. He had a young face and smooth hands, but his eyes were wise and darkened by his journey through life.

At meeting after meeting, our eyes found each other, locking silently in the presence of sad and barren grief. Most nights, Jude left as soon as the group concluded, stuffing his hands in his pockets and slipping out into the hot Florida darkness, eyes watery and downcast.

I watched him sometimes, in the parking lot before group as he waited, his fingers tightly pinching a clove cigarette or leaning against the wall finishing his latte, eyes squinting against the sun reflected off the hot asphalt, face so still and distant. I thought about approaching him, but he seemed foreign and exotic to me. I could no more approach him than I could have spoken to Paul Newman or Prince William.

During group, on the rare occasions when he opened up, he spoke in unfragmented speech that sometimes sounded scripted, not insincere exactly, just precise, as if he had composed his thoughts in advance and was now spilling them out in tightly crafted phrases that bespoke extraordinary control. This was a man whose words were characterized by a streamlined precision that, in his finest moments, left no facet of his grief unexplored or unexpressed.

All these wrenching declarations were uttered from beneath a pair of brooding, brightly mismatched eyes, one blue and one green. And when the weight of his grief drew tears out onto his long, trembling lashes, the power of his emotion drew us all breathlessly back into our own dark, tearful places.

He was the kind of man who, in different circumstances, could be called upon to produce effective, emphatic sound bites. Of course, I would later learn that this was Valor’s legacy to her son. Like his mother, Jude wielded words so skillfully that I felt myself stammering and gasping in his presence, hoping vainly to stumble upon some combination of syllables that would not make me sound vapid or ignorant or trite. I was terrified of him.

As spring melted into summer, the sunset came later and later; the heat lingered in the parking lot and wafted through the poorly air-conditioned meeting room, giving everything a humid, pressurized feel. With the heat pressing down upon us, we found ourselves speaking in longer, less-focused streams, as if the very air around us was melting and elongating our words.

On one of those hot summer nights, I talked about Dana. I talked about my beautiful blue-eyed sister in a long, rambling string of half-formed stories and feelings that poured from me until I could feel the heat of the room strangling me and the words dropping out from under me. My cheeks burned red and hot; my shoulders ached under the weight of my emotion. When I could speak no more, I relinquished the floor to a tall black woman across from me in the circle. I slumped in my chair trying to concentrate on what she and the others were saying, but mostly I just stared at the hands of the white institutional clock and waited for the session to end.

That night when the group broke up, I slipped out into the hallway and stopped at the Coke machine, pounding in a handful of quarters and dimes. I yanked the plastic bottle out of the machine, twisted off the cap, and downed the contents like a quarterback in a television commercial.

My face was drenched with sweat, and the acidic drink burned my throat. I stopped halfway through the bottle and found myself staring into Jude’s inquisitive eyes.

“Hot,” I said.

“Yes, I can see that,” he offered in response.

He took a few steps closer and said, “I’m sorry about Dana.” I looked at him for a long moment and then said, “Thank you. I’m sorry about Brian.” He nodded and started to say something else but caught himself, looking down at his car keys mutely.

 We walked out into the parking lot in silence, but I stole looks at him, his eyes flashing like fireflies under the hot crescent moon. He turned to me and stopped, still silent, his breathing slow and calm. He stood there looking at me, his mournful mismatched eyes boring into me for a long time. Around us, our fellow bereaved joked and talked, their cars lurching to life and slinking out into the sparse summer traffic.

BOOK: The White Stag
9.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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