As If: Fiction by Norman Belanger

Fiction by Norman Belanger

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat time is it?” He sighs, drowsy from a day at the beach.

I move over so he can put down his bag. “The clock at town hall just rang 4,” I say.

The stairs of the post office are filling up, in that hour just before naptime, when we usually meet. Groups of us park our bikes and lounge on the concrete steps in the center of Provincetown’s busy Commercial Street. It is the custom, in these pre-cellphone days of the Gay Nineties, to congregate at this place. In the sleepy afternoons of a late August, there we are on the steps, catching up and gossiping and occasionally meeting boys. The post office is the place to check in with your friends, cruise men, or make plans for the evening. Many relationships begin, and some end, there. This year we all are wearing madras, and flannel, and baseball caps, cutoff shorts and banged-up combat boots, skintight T-shirts and Calvin Klein underwear.

A gust of wind puffs off the bay and the sun hangs low, it’s in our eyes and burnishes our skin, we are golden and young this summer, we are louche and lithe.

“I walked the dunes,” he says, collapsing next to me. His hair is tawny and smells like the sea. There is sand still on his sandaled feet.
“I read all day,” I say.

“You got a smoke?” he asks. “I am dying.”

I hand him the half pack of Camels and a damp book of matches. It takes him four of five tries before he finally gets it lit. “Holy shit,” he says and laughs, exhaling smoke.

We are silent a while, just looking and listening as the ocean of humanity goes by, up and down the ragtag street. It’s mesmerizing. There are the sounds of kids screaming, people laughing, music blaring off a boom box. Miss Ellie sings Dusty Springfield songs on the corner. Waiters across the way are already hawking tonight’s fish dinner. Out in the harbor, the Boston boat, just now pulling away from the pier, blasts its horn. We watch the parade of tourists, and drag queens, and boys, the endless tide of the summer people.

“Breeders and bears on bicycles and twinks and damned New Yorkers,” says someone. He is of the gang of beautiful jaded townies that commands the center of the coveted stairs.

“Fashion victims,” another says.

“Check out that one,” a redhead nods, “he’s wearing overalls.”

“I don’t think they were intended to cover all of that,” says an old Queen from his perch on the top stair. He has the look, the gaunt cheeks and yellow skin, though his sunken eyes still glint with gleeful malice.

“Why do handsome guys always end up with troll boyfriends?” the redhead says.

“Don’t despair,” says the Queen, “that just means there’s hope for you, dearie, maybe someday.”

There’s more bitching and chat, and more comments on the passersby, it’s all mindless and silly and fun. We are like the gulls flocked and squawking out on the breakwater, making noise.

My friend laughs. “You going out tonight?” he asks me.

I shrug. “Maybe I’ll make the usual rounds.”

“See you at the Vault?”

“Or A-House. It’s the disco dance-a-thon boxer brief party tonight upstairs at Macho Bar.”

“Fuckin’ A!” he says. He chucks the butt of his cigarette deftly into the sewer grate.

“I’ll buy you a Rolling Rock,” he says, “if you’re good.” He makes a low growling sound, as he lugs up his beach bag. “OK tiger, time for me to get my beauty sleep.”

“See you later, maybe,” I say.

“Maybe,” he says. His eyes are brown, with flecks of penny copper.

We both smile. We both stand there a while and smile, as if. As if I won’t be there in the old boat yard tonight, sometime after midnight. As if he won’t be there, looking for me. As if we both might not find each other there again, seemingly by accident. As if the moon won’t be full by some happy coincidence. As if we might not walk the damp shore of the bay. As if he won’t kiss me under the pier.

We smile, as if.

* * *

I still think of him, sometimes, now, years later, long after that summer, long after he is gone. I think of him, some of these breezy late season evenings, when I sit on a bench at Town Hall. They don’t let you hang out on the steps at the post office anymore. There are railings and signs now. So I sit here, under a battered straw hat, with reading glasses and two new hips. I am two decades older, a survivor of sorts, sole and alone, on the shore of a sandbar called Land’s End. I sit with the folks, and the ice cream eaters, and this year’s crop of kids. I listen to them talk mindlessly and carelessly like we used to.

When I think of that past summer, sometimes I remember a sun setting over the dunes, and long shadows in the moors where blue herons rustled in tall grasses. I remember a handful of nights with a sky full of stars. I remember whole hours spent, just sitting around, looking at people, shooting the shit. I remember the smell of wet hair and sea salt, the rain and the fog. I remember his laugh.

Just now the old bell tower chimes 4 at Town Hall. I wake from my dreamy dozing and my memories. I put my hat over my eyes, and listen to the street performers singing love songs. I listen to the ebb and flow of chatter as the parade goes by, the endless tide of the summer people. I listen, still half asleep, still smiling, as if.


 

Norman Belanger has been living with HIV for nearly twenty years and works as a nurse in the HIV field. Of writing, he says, “It is an interesting time to witness in our history, both as a professional and on the other side of the stethoscope. However, I cannot forget what has brought us to this place, the efforts and the lives and the losses, as well as the victories. Writing has long been a creative outlet for me, and a way to channel the mix of emotions we experience as we navigate ever forward.”