Secretly, Oscar likes going to the ballet with Felix.
It’s kind of voyeuristic, and more than a shade embarrassing, the way he likes watching Felix sit on the edge of his seat, his eyes actively fixed on the dancers, inhaling information somehow delivered in fourth position, a grand pleat, a language only he can understand. Oscar can count on one hand the number of times Felix has blinked in the last fifteen minutes. It must be amazing inside of Felix’s head—each compartment of his usually delineated brain collapsing and bursting forth in color and sound, a liminal space between semantics and rhetoric, something intangible and ineffable. It makes Oscar
very jealous. Upset by the sort of
things Felix can hear and feel and think that Oscar cannot;
Felix is a very special person, Oscar realizes and it is as if
as if his
Oh, God, Oscar thinks in a moment of biblical clarity while Act I of Swan Lake sweeps to a heavenly close. Heavenly is wrong. It’s something else, something electrifying, magnetic—no, bigger—it’s louder, the trumpets heaving in minor key, the dancers
Oh my God. No, it’s Earth-shattering, it’s explosive, the orchestra is—must be—trying to tell him something. Oscar can’t look at Felix anymore, it’s too much, so much. The music pushes harder, and just when he finds he cannot take anymore, the theme repeats, louder and higher, bolder, in a sharper more poignant key, all the instruments screaming perfect noise that cannot be translated.
Swan Lake reaches its peak in a way Oscar can only describe as orgasmic. It is so intense he finds himself exhausted as the curtains close and the lights go up for intermission. He’s sweating and his heart is hammering like he just ran a mile.
He looks at Felix.
Felix looks at him
and then looks away
Just as quickly.
Oscar turns his head, like the architecture has suddenly caught his interest. He presses the belly of his wrist to the crest of his cheekbone and it comes back wet. Neither of them say anything through intermission.
Felix sings while he cooks. He has a lovely, rich tenor voice.
A leg of lamb roasts in its own juices in the oven, joined by a bed of carrots whose caramel sweetness wafts through the apartment like a nostalgic ghost. And while he slices thick cuts of warm bread awaiting butter, Felix sings:
Stars fading but I linger on, dear
Still craving your kiss
I’m longing to linger till dawn, dear
Just saying this
No one has ever called Oscar “dear” before, not his mother, not Blanche. And Felix hasn’t, either.
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me
There is no reason why the words might be intended for him. They are just lyrics, after all. They were sung first by Doris Day, by thousands of others whenever the radio plays, and now by Felix, who smiles when he sings, who made the bread himself with a starter he’s been using ever since he moved in.
Dream a little dream of me
Felix sings again, repeating the line on his own whim.
Oscar doesn’t need to be told twice. He dreams about Felix even when he’d like not to.
“I am so sick of you.”
What a lie. Oscar wishes he was sick of Felix. Instead, he needs him like he needs air, counts down the minutes until he and Felix are each done at work and can see each other again. Codependency is an addiction. A little more won’t hurt anybody; I’ll come clean tomorrow. But Oscar can never be clean of Felix. Through manic bouts of a vague intensity he wishes he could become one with Felix, never risk being too far apart.
“I am so sick of you, Felix.” But when he says it, he’s drunk and grinning and he doesn’t mean it. Because he’s flirting. He hopes Felix is intuitive enough to take the exact opposite as truth.
“You’re not sick of me,” Felix says, like a fortune teller, his voice clear as crystal bells. “You couldn’t live without me.”
There is no sense of personal space between the two of them, and it sort of drives Oscar up a wall. Movements and touches of familiarity, an arm across the shoulder, a playful shove, a hand through the otherwise well-groomed hair on Felix’s head, are commonplace. They keep their hands to themselves in public out of respect for the unwritten rules that circle above them like vultures of decorum, waiting for a slip up to give them feast.
But in the privacy of the apartment, Felix and Oscar engage in a litany of unbearably platonic behaviors that circumnavigate language and meaning and definition. For Oscar, who is starving for touch and famished for love, everything Felix gives is almost enough.
Felix is the sort of person who gives
and gives. And doesn’t expect anything in return. He feels like a creep—or maybe just desperate—hoping that Felix’s hand on his shoulder might stay there a minute longer. To have these secret urges and desires is wrong because Felix is oblivious and it all feels like one big lie, a con, an I’m going to think about your hands on my hips all night long because it gets me off it gets me off.
At night he lies in bed and forces the image of a woman in Felix’s place but it never works. It doesn’t mean Oscar doesn’t like women—because he does—it just means that it’s impossible to think about anyone else because he sees Felix more than anyone else on this planet, drinks coffee and watches the seven o’clock news with him, is (he realizes, one day when he’s drunk off his ass in the living room long after Felix has gone to bed) in every way and every form except legally and physically married to him.
But Oscar has never been a domestic type. It is why things didn’t work out with Blanche. If he hasn’t settled down by the age of 44, he probably never will. Not with Blanche, and certainly not with Felix.
Felix is annoying, Oscar reminds himself. His cheek rests on the cool lid of the toilet seat in between vomiting sessions. I’ll never drink again, he lies to himself, then
I’m going to kick him out I want him out I hate his guts I hate the way he cleans I hate the way he nags I hate the way he makes me feel and the things he makes me do and the things he makes me want to do,
he lies again.
It’s been six years since Oscar has had sex with another man. Things were already on the rocks with Blanche by then, so all the guilt and regret he felt was not for want of monogamy. In retrospect, it was also incredibly risky. After all, what if he was mistaken, or if it had been a set up? What would have happened? Oscar doesn’t like to think about it.
It’s difficult for him to find anyone with whom he can have the luxury of anonymous sex. After all, lots of people—maybe thousands of people in the city alone—read his sports column, and the chances of someone recognizing him aren’t exactly slim. Even when he hooks up with a woman he errs on the side of caution and offers a fake name and unassuming profession.
It’s Saturday afternoon and Felix is in the living room dusting the curtain rods. Even with the added height of the stool, Felix has to stand on the tips of his toes to reach it, his outstretched arms (with the (oh god) sleeves rolled up to his elbows) untucking the hem of his shirt from the 28-inch-waisted pants and revealing a tiny triangle of skin on the small of his back.
Felix notices him. “Good morning, Osc,” he says, turning around slightly and offering a genuine smile. “Sleep well?”
Oscar knows right then and there he has to leave.
He sticks around for breakfast but afterwards makes his excuses and hauls ass two-and-a-half hours north to Schenectady where he knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a bunch of guys who all love to hang out in this one particular club for—usually—one particular reason.
Felix has a girlfriend.
Oscar is jealous in ways he hasn’t been since high school.
But instead of fixating on his jealousy, he thinks of reasons why Felix having a girlfriend doesn’t make sense, as if he can transform love into logic and end their relationship by matter of sheer definition.
“But you’re trying to get back with Gloria,” Oscar presses, following Felix around the kitchen like a lost poodle. “Why do you even want a girlfriend?”
“Miriam’s very nice.”
“Course she’s nice,” Oscar says. He means it. “But my point is that you are actually less likely to get back with Gloria when you’re with Miriam.”
“True,” he says. He doesn’t sound like he cares all too much.
“See? You agree with me. If you want my advice, tell Miriam you just want to be friends, and put all your energy into getting back with Gloria, okay?”
“There’s just one problem.” Felix pours a few dollops of soap into a greasy pan in the sink and begins to scrub furiously.
“I want to be with Miriam.”
“I’m lonely, Osc.”
“Aren’t I enough?” He says before he can stop himself. There is a beat of silence and he fills it by leaning against the edge of the stove.
Felix makes a face and stops scrubbing. “Maybe I won’t go back to Gloria. I don’t think it’ll ever work out between us. It might just be me and Miriam from here on out.”
The fact that Felix doesn’t answer Oscar’s question tells him the implication wasn’t lost on him. He’s embarrassed, though he has no right to be. The conversation ends without any resolution and Oscar—hardly bothering to disguise his anger—storms out of the kitchen and leaves Felix with the pots and pans.
It isn’t often that Felix accompanies Oscar to a bar, but when he does, Oscar is both grateful and titillated. Even before he’s had a drunk, Oscar is intoxicated by the thrill of breaking rules that only he knows he’s breaking. Thou shalt not go drinking with your best friend for whom you feel an uncontrollable lust.
Oscar isn’t, however, under any impression that anything will happen tonight, or any other night in the near nor far future. He’s glad that Felix is drinking with him for really just one reason: he likes Felix. And it’s funny to watch him drunk. He smiles a lot more; which makes Oscar smile a lot more.
They are out for a few hours, hobbling home around midnight and some change. Oscar has had six drinks; Felix, two and a half. Oscar feels like shit, so does Felix, but Oscar probably feels worse. (Felix’s liver is unaccustomed to drink, and at a lithe five-foot-eight and 155 pounds, he is hardly built to handle anything stronger than a Shirley Temple.)
When they are about a half a block away from the apartment, Oscar keels over a city trashcan and lets out whatever was left in his stomach. He feels Felix’s hand on the back of his neck and then his shoulder blades, caressing him through the thick fabric of his jacket.
“You shouldn’t drink so much, Oscar.” The way he says it is so soft, and Oscar is sure—even as drunk as he is—that there is love in each word.
“I know,” he responds, then pukes once more.
“I worry about you.”
“I’ll be better in the morning.”
“Okay. Just let me know when you’re ready to start walking again.”
Which takes a long time. Oscar stands over the trashcan, fighting off waves of nausea. It’s disgusting and frankly pathetic, but if Felix feels contemptuous towards him, he doesn’t show it. He keeps his hand on Oscar’s back to let him know he’s still there. And though Oscar hardly remembers the walk home, he surmises it must have happened because he wakes up at eleven o’clock the next morning under the covers of his bed with a glass of ice water and Pepto-Bismol on his nightstand.
Felix deserves so much better, Oscar decides, chugging half the glass of water in a flash. He deserves so much fucking better.
When Felix books them a cabin upstate for the weekend, Oscar feels extremely conflicted.
Firstly, Felix drives him crazy.
Secondly, Felix drives him crazy.
But Oscar agrees anyway, and when they arrive at the lake via bus and heave their luggage into the cabin (Felix insisted on bringing his camera with him), Oscar instantly feels like he’s the butt of a higher power’s cruel joke.
“That’s funny,” Felix says, carefully examining the cabin like a cat in unfamiliar surroundings. “I swore I booked a two bedroom cabin.”
Oscar feels like he could fly into the sun. Or maybe jump in the lake, since it’s a little closer.
“Well, that’s not really a problem,” Felix continues (Oscar stays silent for fear of what he might say), “I can sleep on the couch.”
“The couch,” Oscar repeats dumbly. He glances to the other side of the room and notices the couch. It doesn’t look particularly comfortable, but he thanks God anyway. “No, Felix,” he says quickly. “I’ll sleep on the couch. You booked the place, after all. It’s the least I can do.”
“Ah, nice try, Oscar, but I’ll be sleeping on the couch. I may have booked this trip, but I did it for you. I’ll be sleeping on the sofa, you can have the bed.”
Or maybe we can both sleep in the bed, fuck each other’s brains out, and then I can stop feeling so psychotic all the time.
Oscar pauses, just to make sure he hadn’t said that aloud. Felix’s blank expression says he didn’t.
“Okay, fine,” Oscar agrees. “I’ll take the bed. But only if we alternate every night we’re here.”
“Works for me. Now,” Felix continues, delicately opening up the photography equipment. “Would you help me set up? I’d like to get some photographs of the sunset over the water while the sky is still clear.”
Oscar and Felix spend the next several hours setting up Felix’s camera and, of course, Felix is extremely particular and is loath to accept any of Oscar’s artistic suggestions (even when he is asked to supply them!) and the fiasco is finished just as the sun is two-thirds above the water. It is orange and blown wide by the curve of the Earth, turning the water below it into the color of wine, and the sky above into a blue and pink oil painting. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.
Oscar holds his breath while Felix snaps the photos. There is no doubt of his skill, even if he often pokes fun at the painstaking specificity he puts into setting up his shot. When the images are developed, Oscar is sure they will be spectacular.
Felix clears through full roll of film before he steps back. Only a sliver of sun remains and, behind them, faint stars are beginning to wade slowly into the night sky.
“Thank you for agreeing to this,” Felix says suddenly. It occurs to Oscar neither of them had said a word in the last half hour. “I know I can be unpleasant to travel with, but I wanted to do something nice for you.”
“You always do nice things for me,” Oscar replies, not looking away from the lake. “I should be thanking you more often. I’m sorry I don’t.”
“That’s alright. It’s not in your nature.”
But Oscar knows that’s no excuse, it’s only Felix excusing him for things he can’t give because he’s too scared to, not because he’s incapable. It’s embarrassing.
Felix claps his hands together. “Well! I got the shots I wanted. What do you say we bring everything inside?”
And a scant twenty minutes later the equipment is inside, just as the last of the twilight is fading into darkness.
While Felix is folding up the tripod, he opens up a bag and pulls out a small cylinder. “Would you look at that! I have an extra roll of film!” He turns the piece over in his hand. “It seems a waste to have brought it all this way to not use it.”
“Use it tomorrow,” Oscar offers offhandedly while he switches into his night shirt. “Take pictures of the sunrise over the lake.”
“You can’t take pictures of the sunrise over the lake, only the sunset. The sunrise would be in the other direction. I’d only get pictures of the campground. And besides,” he pulls out and begins unfolding the tripod again. “I don’t want to get this all out again while we’re here. The rest of the time should be spent fishing, and hiking, and birdwatching— don’t put the camera away, okay?”
“You’re going to take more photos?” Oscar asks. He’s already pulled off his jeans and is tightening the drawstring on his sweats. “It’s way too dark out now and I don’t want to lug everything outside again. Wait till tomorrow, will you, Felix?”
“You know what’s funny?” Felix says in a way so coy that Oscar knows instantly he’s in one of his mischievous moods. He spreads the legs of the tripod and hoists the camera on top of it where he screws it tight. “All these years I’ve had you help out here and there in my studio, but not once—”
“Oh Christ, Felix.”
“—not once have I had you model for me.”
“I’m not a model,” Oscar says instantly, raising his arms in surrender. “I will not be your model.”
“Come on! It’ll be fun!”
Though hardly shy, Oscar considers himself a private sort of person. He writes his columns in the New York Post with his face (a photo taken over ten years ago) printed above his name. Other than that, someone would be hard pressed to find a moment when Oscar Madison would be willing to have himself photographed even casually, much less photographed by a professional.
“What would you even have me do? Lay on the bed with a rose between my teeth?”
“Is that what you’d like to do?”
So that’s where this is going. Felix is rarely anything but dead serious and told jokes with as much humor as a broken traffic light, but when he is in the mood to tease Oscar, he knows exactly which buttons to push.
Luckily, Oscar is just as talented.
“And I’m sure you’d like to see that, right?”
He expects Felix to crack a laugh, or at least a smile, but on his face remains an indecipherable etching: his eyebrows slightly raised, his eyes focused but not narrow, his weight shifted onto one foot as he watches Oscar with an artist’s eye. “Go ahead. I’m a professional.”
Oscar feels his face get hot in real time. And there’s no way Felix hasn’t noticed. “I don’t have any roses,” he says, as coolly as possible.
Felix glances around the cabin. He strides over to the fireplace where, from the mantel, he pulls off a huge set of decorative elk antlers.
An involuntary laugh escapes Oscar. “That’s great, Feel. I can’t put that between my teeth, though.”
“No,” he explains, setting the antlers on the bed and returning to his camera to set up the flash. “You can pose with it, though. Lumberjack chic.”
“You suggested it,” Felix retorts without missing a beat. “But I can go outside and find some flowers for your teeth if that would make you more comfortable.”
“No, no,” Oscar says defiantly, determined to not let Felix keep the upper hand. “I am also a professional—”
“—I’ll do whatever you think best, Mr. Unger.”
Something changes in Felix. He fiddles with something on the camera. “Okay, Mr. Madison. Whenever you’re ready.”
After a beat of hesitation, Oscar climbs onto the bed and sits somewhat primly next to the antlers. Felix gives him a look.
“I know you can do better than that!”
“You’re the photographer,” Oscar points out. “If I’m not good enough, direct me!”
With a huff, Felix abandons the camera and stands in front of Oscar. “The point of a photographer is to communicate something without using words. We might even communicate something for which there aren’t any words. A feeling, a concept. I don’t want an image that says ‘this is Oscar and a set of antlers.’ I want an image that says…” he pauses. “That says… Here.”
Felix puts his hands on Oscar’s shoulders and turns him so that he is perpendicular to the edge of the bed. One leg is dangling slightly off the bed, the other flexed at a thirty degree angle so that Oscar’s elbow can rest on it. Felix manipulates him like he’s clay, shaping his body into a story he himself does not know the end to. The last thing Felix does is delicately place the set of antlers on Oscar’s lap.
“There,” Felix says triumphantly.
“What do I look like?”
“Like… I don’t know where Oscar begins and the antlers end.”
Oscar cracks a smile. He’s not entirely sure what to make of the comment.
“Hold still. This will take a few minutes since I don’t have the right lighting equipment with me.”
And after a few minutes, Felix begins photographing Oscar, each snap punctuated by a moment of apertural readjustment and the painful spark of the flash. It isn’t awful, and Oscar doesn’t feel as insecure as he thought he would.
“There,” says Felix, once he has an adequate number of photographs. “These are going to turn out wonderfully.”
The words hit Oscar like a wet fish. “Wait, Felix—”
“Don’t… don’t develop those…okay?”
Felix cocks his head. “Why wouldn’t I? It would be a perfectly good waste of film.”
Oscar fixates on his hands. “I’m not… I’m not comfortable with it.”
“I wouldn’t let anyone see them. I’d be the only other one.”
Oscar can’t think of anything to say.
“Okay,” says Felix carefully. “I won’t develop them. I’ll… throw them away when we get back to New York.”
“Don’t mention it.”
There is another uncomfortable silence as Felix picks up the antlers and returns them to the mantle. “I’ll set up on the couch,” Felix says from across the room, unfolding a blanket and stuffing it tautly into the crevasses of the couch. Oscar watches Felix’s nighttime routine silently.
When he’s absolutely sure Felix is asleep (Felix snores, but would rather die than admit it), Oscar slips quietly out of bed and reaches into the Felix’s camera bag. It’s difficult to see in the dark, but a shaft of moonlight from the window provides him with enough light to differentiate between the roll of film that reads, written in marker: Otisco Lake, 8/14/72 and Oscar, 8/14/72. He takes the latter and, careful not to wake Felix, leaves the cabin and makes the short walk down to the shore of the lake.
Oscar palms the roll of film and throws it as hard as he can into the lake where it hits the water with a distant sploosh. A weight lifts off Oscar’s shoulders as he returns to the cabin and sleeps like a log through the night.
If Felix notices in the morning that his camera bag is unzipped, he doesn’t mention it.