"Eastern Standard Time" columns
By Lawrence Biemiller|
"Five," said Christopher, sitting behind me. "Four. Three. Ready? And -- " He switched to his Al Franken voice. "Hey, kids! Welcome to another edition of Ask Dr. Science. We're broadcasting today from an antique bathtub overlooking scenic Rangeley Lake, Maine, and our topic is displacement. Science Cadet, what can you tell us about displacement?"
"That some people in this tub," I said, "have bigger thighs than others?"
"Ha ha. Very good, Science Cadet. And you're right -- when we changed places a minute ago, the water level rose. That's because now your legs are scrunched up in front of you and my legs are stretched out and submerged. My legs displace more than yours."
"It's all those Hearty Wheat crackers. Is Dr. Science going to wash my hair, or do I have to do it myself?"
"Ha ha. We'll be right back, folks, after these -- "
"Shhh," I said. "What's that dripping?"
"Overflow drain?" said Chris, in his own voice.
"Which shampoo do you want?"
"Yours smells better," I said.
"OK. Can we have more hot water? It's getting cold back here."
"If you promise to wash me very nicely," I said. "Mmmm. Oh my."
"Oh my," said Chris, softly.
What I always forget from summer to summer is that the overflow drain for that tub isn't connected to anything -- it empties, pretty much directly, into the dining room below. Chris and I were making calzones in the kitchen when my stepbrother, assigned to set the table, announced to everyone that it was soaked. "Could it be," he called out gleefully, "that certain people had a little too much fun in the bathtub this afternoon?"
"It was a scientific experiment," I called back. "Chris was demonstrating displacement."
"Displacement?" my stepbrother called. "Displacement of what?"
"Oh my," Chris whispered.
"And we thought we were being discreet," I whispered back.
I worried for months about this summer's trip to the lake. Last summer I had such a good time there with Mark -- now Mark-my-ex -- that the idea of going up alone this year was almost too depressing to deal with. I pictured myself sitting on the dock for hours, my back against one of the upturned canoes, just staring out across the water.
Instead, Christopher came with me -- blond Christopher with the absurd faux Ray Bans; quiet Christopher who turns out to have a sense of humor that's part James Thurber and part Psycho Beach Party; shy Christopher who has a whole address book's worth of alter egos, of whom Dr. Science is only the most telegenic.
Christopher who during his months in Washington became a wonderful friend but who is, in his real life back in Providence, someone else's lover.
"Didn't you say that he had -- " my stepfather began, pulling one of the wooden rockers up beside mine on the porch the next morning. "I mean, that you and he weren't -- "
My stepfather looked at me.
"Now we are." I took another sip of coffee. "It just sort of happened when we got here. I don't know why, except that it all seemed real comfortable, you know? Like, it's not a big deal but it works?" I paused. "Or something."
My stepfather opened his book and looked down at it through his bifocals. "I just don't want you getting hurt," he concluded, without looking up.
"It's cool, chief. But thanks."
I can't speak for Christopher, but he seemed to be having a good time. I know I was, and not just because I had someone to share a tub with. We went running together, we did the grocery rounds, we spent hours at the kitchen table, chopping and kneading and talking as Annie Lennox's Diva played on the boom box. We even hauled firewood down from the ice house in the rickety, iron-tired wheelbarrow -- and laughed when an axel-pin shook loose and the wheelbarrow collapsed, spilling firewood at our feet.
Which brings us to the part that was -- not weird, exactly, but unexpected. Chris picked up my habit of saying "Oh my" and even started poking me gently with one finger if he happened to pass near me, at the stove or in front of the bathroom mirror, say. The all-purpose "Oh my" and the poking are both habits I picked up from Mark, and they belong to what I remember most fondly about the time he and I spent together.
Sharing locutions and punch lines, feeling free to touch someone just because you enjoy touching after being deprived all those closeted years -- that's part of what being close to another person is really all about, more even than it's about having sex or who pays for dinner or most of the other stuff. Hearing Chris say "Oh my" was lovely, because he had learned it from me and we shared it to the exclusion of everyone else in the house; it also made me sad -- in its faint evocation of Mark, each "Oh my" reminded me that Christopher is someone else's lover, not my own.
On the last night, Chris and I lit sparklers left over from the Fourth of July and in their furious light stumbled along the path to the dock. As the moon set the stars became visible, hundreds and then thousands, I guess. We lay on our backs and stared upward. Chris pointed out Mars and the Milky Way and named a dozen or so of the most famous stars. Then he began tracing constellations for me -- crowns and lyres and swans -- and he drew them so clearly against the darkness that I could see each one he described. I was very glad he had come.