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A Non-Conformist Pas de Deux

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It thunderstorms every day afterwards.

The weather patterns are erratic at best, each day promising a storm but never revealing when or how long. Upstate summer storms are unpredictable, influenced more by the waters of the Great Lakes than the Atlantic Ocean.

In spite of this, Oscar and Felix make a few attempts to enjoy nature while they can in between bursts of rain showers. It is a hot, soggy rain that cooks down the foliage and lends the lake and nearby forest a faintly fishy smell. Felix, in spite of his fussiness, is surprisingly unperturbed by the natural elements, something Oscar is fain to observe. He is, of course, ever careful to keep his shoes as unmuddied as possible, but doesn’t complain when Oscar leads him across a small tributary via route of a row of fallen trees.

Oscar likes nature. But with his work, though he travels frequently and sees dozens of new skylines each year, it is nonetheless rare he is afforded anything beyond the city.

They pause at a clearing overlooking the lake. In its placid reflection is the turbulent skyscape: the sun shines an unbearable warmth west of center, and to the south, purple-gray cumulonimbus clouds slide quietly and ominously along the horizon. It will no doubt rain again soon.

“Look,” says Oscar. He points down at the water where three pike swim together in tandem. “I wish I had my fishing rod.”

Felix doesn’t reply. His attention is fixed on the leaves of a plant that he rubs between his fingers.

“I could probably catch us some dinner,” Oscar continues. “It’s been a few years since I cleaned a fish, but I’m sure I still—”

“Oscar,” says Felix softly. “I asked Miriam to marry me.”

This takes him aback. Actually, worse: it pushes him aback. Carries him aback. Drags him all the way to the edge of the water and pushes his face down into the wet dirt.

Oscar considers jumping into the lake.

Decides against it.

“You did?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to marry her,” Felix says. He sounds a little irritated. “Isn’t that what most people do?”

Oscar huffs, hardly bothering to disguise his disdain and disappointment. “Well,” he says curtly, letting his arms go lax at his side. “Congratulations.”

Felix furrows his brow. “I didn’t say she said yes.”

“She said no?”

“Correct.” Felix takes a few steps forward and leans against a tree. He looks so small beside the giant oak, its wet bark no doubt leaving small, dark stains like ink prints on his clothing. Oscar is struck with a very intense image of kissing Felix beneath the tree and for a brief moment—really, less than half a second—he is inclined to act on it, but his common sense gets the better of him.

“So that’s why we came out here, isn’t it?” Oscar conjectures, following Felix to the tree. “You’re upset. Come on, Felix. You could have just told me.”

“Are you upset? After all, I framed it as a gift for you. That’s not very honest of me.”

In truth, Oscar is the total opposite of upset. Waves of excitement that border dangerously on anxiety pump through his veins and all his organs seem to be shaking vigorously inside his body. The high is so intense it is painful.

“No,” Oscar answers honestly. “I’m not upset.”

“Good.” Felix manages a tight-lipped smile. Then he puts a hand on Oscar’s shoulder and it just about kills him. “Let’s get out of here before it rains.”


The fifth night is the last. Their bags are packed; in the morning they will depart for New York City. And it is an unseasonably cold night for the middle of July, so much so that Oscar spends a half hour the evening prior collecting wood to set ablaze in the fireplace. It couldn’t be more than fifty degree out, and the cabin is not insulated exceptionally well. It must have been the rain, he thinks while he shivers under the thin blanket provided by the campground. Just my luck. A five day vacation and all it does is rain and freeze.

Oscar closes his eyes and focuses on sleeping, but his mind drifts…

Felix under the oak tree his

slim arms like

 branches they

touch his shoulders.

There are things he would like

very much

to do under

that tree. What if? that hand left his shoulder and went

travelling like a raindrop or a tear or

sweat, down his

body and Felix touched the

line where his hip meets his thigh?

Nothing more, just that crevasse of flesh.

Fingers.

Palms.

Lips.

Oh God, Oscar tells himself, his body heating up like a wood-burning stove.

That’s one way to get warm.

The mattress shifts beside him and Oscar is ripped out of his fantasy. He sits up and squints: beside him, under the blanket, is Felix. The bed is a full size, not a queen, meaning Oscar is within so few inches of Felix that he can see the outline of even his collarbone in unbuttoned neckline of his pajama shirt.

“What the hell are you doing?” Oscar hisses, willing his pounding heart to return to a normal pace.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Felix elaborates. His voice seems louder than it is in the quiet. “It’s too cold.”

Oscar starts to get up. “You can sleep in the bed, then. I’ll take the couch.”

“Oscar.” Felix says his name in such a way that Oscar feels his throat go pinhole tight. “The best way to retain heat is by sharing a bed. If you slept on the couch we’d both be just as cold.”

This has to be a joke. Oscar is neither religious nor spiritual—but someone, someone has to have it out for him. Oscar looks at Felix and the sleepy soft features of his face and he is undone. The reason Oscar gambles and drinks and sleeps around is because, he realizes, any energy he might have reserved for self-control is spent on wrangling in some of his most intense feelings.

And besides.

He respects Felix too much.

“You get the bed or the sofa,” Oscar snaps. “Pick one.”

Felix pauses for a moment, maybe to see if Oscar is only bluffing. Oscar secretly hopes Felix will insist, but a half a moment passes and Felix gets up and silently returns to the couch. When Oscar climbs back into bed, it is warm where Felix had just moments before lain.

And,

when he does eventually fall asleep,

he dreams of the oak tree.


Months crawl by like molasses in traffic. Pretty soon it is October and Oscar spends half of his day off walking up and down Broadway looking for a birthday gift for Felix. He is in an unfortunately horrible sort of predicament:

What gift is personal enough for a friend of ten years but isn’t misleadingly intimate? What says I know who you are but you don’t know who I am?

Another issue is that Felix is—for anyone who knows him, not just Oscar—almost impossible to shop for. His tastes in clothing are extremely particular, never mind silverware or fine china. He walks laps around the men’s department in Macy’s for two hours until he settles on a demure navy blue scarf and a bottle of cologne he’d worn in the past. Oscar is a little disappointed in his own selection. The only thing indicative of a personal taste or touch is perhaps the price, which is not by any means cheap. The scarf will look very nice on Felix and the cologne is a safe choice, but for a man with whom he’s lived with for almost two years and known for ten, it seems incredibly impersonal.

He purchases a pretty gold foiled box in which he can store the gifts, and leaves twenty minutes before the store closes. On the taxi ride home he wonders if taking Felix out to dinner might be a nice additional gift, but he realizes apathetically that Felix will probably be having dinner with Miriam tomorrow.

(Despite his failed proposal, Felix and Miriam nonetheless have continued their relationship (much to Oscar’s disdain).)

He runs the scarf and cologne past Murray when he stops by for a beer that evening. Felix is at a meeting with his opera club.

“They’re nice gifts,” Murray says politely, looking the scarf over. Oscar has to stop him when he tries to open the bottle of cologne. “But anyone could get him this.”

“Those were my thoughts,” Oscar confirms.

“I mean he’ll like them. You did a good job, Pal. But there’s something missing.” Murray sits and thinks for a moment. “They’re not very ‘Oscar,’ are they?”

“Well, I’m not going to buy him a pastrami sandwich, if that’s what you mean.”

Murray shrugs. “You could always write him a card. You do write for a living, after all.”

“What am I, twelve? I’m not gonna write him a card,” Oscar says contemptuously.

But as soon as Murray finishes his beer, bids goodbye, and leaves, Oscar throws himself into his typewriter fingers first. “Murray, you genius,” he says to the empty apartment.

Dear Felix,

Oscar stops.

Dear Felix

Hi Felix,

Okay, not that either.

Hi Felix,

Felix.

Happy Birthday. You’ve been a really great friend.

Happy Birthday. You’re one in a million.

This is harder than he had anticipated. It costs him nothing to write a beautiful sports column, transforming statistics and averages and analysis into a sweeping American narrative. But now he must do the opposite: transform all that he feels for Felix into comprehendible words, into a language they both share, and do it in a way that all the while intentionally fails to divulge the feelings that lie behind the words like invisible ink.

Happy Birthday. I want you.

He rips up the paper into many thin strips, then tears them halfway again and throws them in the trashcan so that they might play scrabble with other discarded drafts. Maybe this is a rotten idea. It errs on the side of risky and even gratuitous. Doesn’t Felix already know what their friendship means to him? Why should he have to write it down? He looks at the cologne bottle and the scarf, which are both extremely nice; and Oscar loses himself for a moment, daydreaming about Felix dabbing the cologne behind his ears after a shower, where it might seep into his skin

and the warm cinnamon scent drives Oscar crazy,

how much he wants to taste it, leave a purple bruise in wake of his tongue.

Oscar feels crazy. Like every single day he lives with Felix he loses another fragment of his mind, like insanity is knocking on his skull.

Look, he tells himself five minutes later in the shower, cranking the water nozzle all the way to the right so that cold water beats down on his head. Look, Oscar Madison. You’ve been able to keep these—I don’t know, feelings?—under wraps your entire life. You are a champ at getting rid of them. Now is not the time to louse it up. Find whatever is making you all hot and bothered and turn it into something more manageable.

Like hate.

Do you think you can do that?

Do you think you can hate Felix?

For your own good?

And Oscar tries, he tries. Shivering under the showerhead, he searches his mind for reasons to hate Felix but they all come back as love. He won’t ever leave me alone, for example. And I,

I am so lonely.

He nags me about what I eat, but it is the first time in decades that anyone has cared about my health.

I hate how he makes me feel.

But he doesn’t, he doesn’t. Felix makes him feel complete, fills the painful ache in his heart and his lungs. Everything Felix says and does makes Oscar feel like he’s on fire.

So he cranks up the water temperature and burns.


The good thing is, Felix likes his gifts. He wears the scarf everywhere. He takes to the cologne immediately.

The bad thing is, Oscar smells the cologne on Miriam a few days later.


 

If there’s anything about personal hygiene that Oscar actually loathes, it’s getting a haircut. When he otherwise fails to wash his laundry or clean his room, it usually isn’t out of a dislike for it, rather, an indifference. Getting a haircut, however: that, he despises.

Maybe it’s the idle small talk with the barber, or having other people’s hands around his face, but that which many people tend to find relaxing or soothing, Oscar finds irritating and soulless.

“You need a haircut,” Felix insists one day over breakfast. “You look like a hippie.”

“I do not,” Oscar says reflexively. Felix is certainly exaggerating: his hair is at most two inches longer than he’d normally prefer it. But Oscar has never been shy about his relationship with Lady Procrastination, and will wait for some important banquet or ceremony to finally get it cut.

“Maybe a younger man could pull it off…” Felix says introspectively.

“Watch it, Felix—”

“You know, if you’d like to save some money, I could always do it.”

“Do what?”

“Cut your hair.”

This makes Oscar smile, though he isn’t entirely sure why. “What, and get a goofy haircut like yours?”

“My hair is not goofy!”

“Okay,” Oscar concedes. “But it’s not my style. And besides,” he literalizes the comma in his sentence with a sip of his coffee. “Do you even know how to cut hair?”

Felix scoffs, slaps a hand over his heart, evidently affronted. “Do I know how to cut hair? Do I? Oscar Madison, I am the stingiest, best groomed man in the Upper East Side. I know how to cut hair.”

“Fine,” he grins, leaning back in his chair. He intentionally does not imagine what it will be like to have Felix’s hands that close to his. “You can cut my hair, Felix. Nothing fancy, though. You promise?”

“I promise.”

A half an hour later they’ve finished and cleared away breakfast, and Felix has Oscar trapped in a chair in his bathroom, a spray bottle of water in one hand and a pair of scissors in another. When Felix wets his hair and combs through it, Oscar notices in the mirror how long it has actually become. His hair tapers to a point a little south of the nape of his neck, and his usually right-parted bangs, when combed down, land at his eyebrows. This is an exercise in trust.

Felix narrows his eyes while he concentrates. He has one hand on the back of Oscar’s skull to steady him while he sections the hair. It’s only a trim, after all, but he treats Oscar’s head with as much care as he does anything else. The actually cutting happens quickly, and in about ten minutes Oscar’s hair is back to his (and Felix’s) preferred length (if not, perhaps, a quarter inch too short, but it would grow out in no time at all).

“How’s that?” Felix asks, speaking to Oscar through the mirror. He runs his fingers through the damp hair to probably expedite the drying process, but it seems far more intimate than utilitarian.

“It’s nice, Felix,” Oscar answers honestly. He isn’t talking about the haircut. And for a brief moment, Oscar feels safe, closes his eyes, lets Felix’s hands rest on his head, fingers laced into the fibers of his hair. And for a moment of maybe stupid bravery or stupid love, he tilts his head so that his cheek is in Felix’s palm. And the amazing thing is that, without missing a beat or losing a breath, Felix runs his fingers along the angle of Oscar’s jawline.

“Would you…” The words come out strained and soft. Felix clears his throat, then continues: “Would you like a shave?”

“Yes,” Oscar says, faster than he means to.

Silently, Felix reaches for the shaving cream and sprays it into his palm, thereafter lathering it gently onto Oscar’s cheeks, chin, and upper lip. It is obvious he is taking his time, careful like a painter, painstaking like a surgeon. When the blade of the razor touches his skin, it is with a delicate precision that feels unreal. At this, he realizes it’s not his own dull razor on his cheek, but it’s Felix’s razor; shiny, well-maintained, sharp. It runs smoothly along the curve of his cheeks, the hard angle of his jaw. When the razor passes over his upper lip and Felix’s fingertips touch his mouth, it’s almost too much. With a sense upheaval, Oscar realizes he has never been touched like this, not in his entire life.

When his face is clean-shaven, Felix wipes away the excess shaving cream with a damp cloth. Oscar puts a hand to his face and is surprised by the smoothness, the softness, the youthfulness of his skin. His own shaving jobs are usually hasty and practical, aesthetic only in Oscar’s dislike for facial hair. (That’s something nice, too, about Felix: he is always bare-faced and smooth, even up close.)

Felix rinses out the damp cloth in the sink quietly. Oscar watches him.

He is in love.

Oscar realizes that he is in love with Felix with such immense clarity that he feels sick and—even worse—he actually believes himself. And the feeling repeats, hitting him again and again and again like the waves of electricity, like ripples of nausea. He might compare it even to a sort of emotional orgasm, but the feeling is almost non-sexual, encasing the whole of his mind and heart and guts and—

“Are you alright?”

He is not alright. Oscar stands up, only to find himself nose-to-nose with Felix. They are, as it is, within kissing distance of each other.

The feelings of love are replaced slowly and steadily by a weight of shame and disgust that finds a neat square in the corner of his mind to occupy and spread its toxins. He is revolted by the way Felix has touched him; revolted by the thoughts and feelings he has and has had. It is so intense he cannot look in the bathroom mirror.

“I…” he stutters. Realistically, he could kiss Felix right now. He could. He could. Clean shaven and in the bathroom.

But he no longer wants to. It is like a switch has flipped in his mind. The feelings spreads like a virus throughout his body, a potent repugnance for himself, for Felix.

“Thanks for the shave, Feel,” he says as casually as possible, but the words leave his mouth like a rehearsal.

There you go, Oscar Madison. Life can go back to normal. You have what you want.

But somehow. Somehow. Somehow. Disgust is more painful than love.


And one day, over dinner:

Oscar watches his reflection in his glass of red wine. He prefers beer, but it always makes Felix happy when he asks to try the wine. To his own chagrin, Oscar is already quite drunk, having mixed himself a few drinks in the hour before dinner. They are halfway through dinner when he finally speaks.

“I threw away the film at the lake,” Oscar confesses suddenly, watching the way his lips move in tandem with sound in his red wine reflection.

Felix furrows his brow. “The lake?”

“Otisco Lake. Last Summer—”

“Oh,” Felix says after a sip of wine. “Yes. I knew that.”

“Okay.” Oscar isn’t sure what to say because he is not entirely sure why he brought it up to begin with.

“It’s not really a problem,” Felix continues without waiting for an apology. “I said I would throw them out, anyway.”

Oscar throws back the rest of his wine in one go. Felix rolls his eyes.

“Do you ever…” he begins. “Do you ever take photographs of Miriam?”

Felix seems taken off guard. “No.”

“Of Gloria? When you were married?”

“No, of course not.”

“Okay…” Oscar leans back in his chair. He feels horribly contemptuous towards Felix, but even more than that, angry at himself. “Why not?”

“What are you trying to say?” Felix asks. Either he is feigning ignorance or he genuinely is missing the connection.

“Nothing, I just—” Oscar’s head is spinning, so he elects to back off.

“What I’ve done,” says Felix darkly, “is none of your business.”

“Maybe it should be.”

“But it’s not,” says Felix, who begins to clear away the dishes. He can probably smell the alcohol on Oscar’s breath, but is far too polite to dare mention it.

Felix takes his dishes to the kitchen and Oscar tags listlessly along, leaning into the doorframe of the kitchen to maintain his balance. He hopes he’s more drunk than he’s letting on.

“Do you have a problem with Miriam?” Felix asks suddenly. There is no bite to his words.

Oscar answers reflexively: “No.”

“You sure do act like it.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t control me,” Felix says to Oscar via route of staring at the kitchen sink. “Just because you have personal issues doesn’t mean I have to have them, too.”

Oscar lets out a scoff. “Personal issues,” he parrots. “You have personal issues, Felix.”

“Even if I did,” he sneers, “I am under no obligation to drink my way through them.”

The faucet turns on in the sink, effectively terminating their conversation. Oscar doesn’t bother getting drunker and throws himself instead into the shower, water on high heat.


So their relationship has deteriorated significantly in the past months.

Not a big deal. Felix still pays half the rent, he still cooks and cleans and works and nags, and most importantly he stays out of Oscar’s way. Oscar, who hasn’t had a sober forty-eight hours in a month, stays out of Felix’s way. His face is scratchy. Poorly shaven, nicks and cuts all around.

Oscar sits in a shady billiards room, smoking a cigar, thinking about codependency. That’s what it is, after all. For as much as he wants to be apart from Felix, he feels a rush of anxiety whenever he leaves for work.

Across the room, a lithe young man, maybe thirty, leans effetely over the billiards table and knocks the four and six balls into a socket. His high-waisted pants rest loosely at his waist, his shirt, a tight-fitting dark green polo tucked tautly into his pants. The hair on his head is a little unruly. And he is—well

---extremely attractive. Muscular. Broad shoulders that seem to want to rip right out of the fabric of his shirt. A round, tight ass.

He can’t be sure, after all. There is no real way of knowing and asking is half a death sentence itself. So he waits and watches, working through his cigar puff by puff.

watch,

puff,

wait,

puff.

Oscar is good at this kind of waiting. He perfected the skill in the army (but that is a story for another day). He waits long enough, a half an hour, before he and the man make eye contact;

and then Oscar is sure. They look at each other with that sort of certainty only reserved for men who seek out other men, and, for effect, Oscar takes a long drag from his cigar. Seeing this, the man gestures his head in the direction of the bathroom. The establishment is dark enough, busy enough, and loud enough that no one notices when they make for the bathroom together and lock the door behind them.

He thinks about Felix the entire time, which makes it kind of hard to get off.

That is, Felix would be loath to fellate a complete and total stranger in a sleazy public bathroom. And even Oscar knows the circumstances aren’t ideal, aren’t pretty, but he’s desperate and his partner is quiet and doesn’t expect anything else but the same act in return. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or worry about the future. It’s too dark in the bathroom stall to know if the man has a pretty smile or not, doesn’t know if he has an ex-wife or if he has a favorite television program or how he likes his coffee. That’s what makes this so easy.

When they’re both finished, Oscar wipes his mouth and leaves the bathroom before the guy can get a better look at his face. He’s also careful to remain completely inconspicuous on his way out of the bar and likewise home. The paranoia that settles in is unbearable. It is as if his thoughts and memories are playing out on his face like a mural. He was careful not to give away anything (not hardly the sound of his own voice) by which the man might identify him.

He arrives home and Felix is fast asleep in the armchair. The sound of the door closing wakes him up.

“Oh. You’re home.”

“Yeah,” says Oscar indifferently, tossing his jacket on the couch.

“I was worried. You’ve come home after two a.m. every day this week.”

“I’m forty six years old. I think I have a right to get home whenever I choose.”

Felix abandons his arm chair and crosses to Oscar. “I’m worried about you.”

“Don’t be.”

“But I am.” If he had it his way, Oscar would already be in bed. Instead he stands a half a foot from Felix, whose brown eyes look sullen and sad. “Oscar, for months—it’s like I don’t even know you anymore. Please.”

(When Felix says please it’s like the room is on fire.)

“Please,” Felix continues. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

There is a long pause in the dimly lit living room. It is the kind of New York City quiet that can only be found at two thirty in the morning.

“I can’t,” he starts, barely sharper than a whisper, “I can’t stand myself.”

Something softens in Felix’s face. He extends a hand and grips Oscar’s left bicep. “You know,” he says wetly. “I’m so lonely.”

There is an easy solution to this.

There is.

“Go to bed, Felix.”

Which isn’t a solution. So many times he’s imagined this, this confrontation, this touch, and wondered where it might lead. It’s so much easier, though, to delay. And Oscar feels like he is just putting off an inevitable ending, some sort of impending doom, a crisis, a collision rising to its peak.

Unless he’s missed something.

And he hasn’t.