I used to walk along the road while I’m hitchhiking, sometimes backward with my right thumb stuck way out. It was silly, because the hundred yards or so I might make on foot were insignificant on a trip that was often a hundred miles or more.
I hadn’t gone five steps after saying goodbye to Simon before I saw a pickup I recognized, the one that had brought me up to Ruidoso two days before. When I got to the window, Captain was wagging his tail and most of his behind. Ben was sleeping in the driver’s seat.
“Excuse me, is this the bus down to Las Cruces?”
Ben opened his eyes into a smile. “You betcha. Get in, you’re right on time.”
Once on the road, Ben’s good cheer evaporated. He didn’t talk, and it was impossible not to compare the silence to how outgoing he had been on the way up.
“How come you were parked there?” I asked him.”Waiting for you. I said I’d take you back, didn’t I? Or didn’t he tell you?”
“He told me, but he said you’d call when you were wanting to go. I expected you’d still be busy with your girlfriend.”
“Hell, I expected it, too. Things don’t always turn out like you expect.”
“Ouch!” I said. “So, were you out here all night?”
“Not all night. Long enough.”
“You must be pretty tired.”
“I slept some.”
The road comes down the mountain right into the desert, but he turned back again onto the road through the Mescalero Reservation to Cloudcroft, the long way. He clearly favored that route, and I’d begun to like and trust him on the ride up. He drove slowly. No other cars were on the road. At 7,000 feet or more, it was still cool this early in the morning, even in late May. Sometimes he slowed down even more when a pretty meadow or a notable stand of trees was in view. I didn’t begrudge him a little happiness. I felt singed myself after the way Simon had booted me out of his cabin.
“I’m glad somebody got something,” Ben said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Simon. Is he your boyfriend?”
My life flashed before my eyes. “Well, no, he’s not. Actually, it wasn’t a very good visit.”
“I don’t know, Jonathan, I saw you walking on the road, and your reptile was ready to bust through your jeans. Something must have happened.”
Yipe! Outed by my own dick! “Something did happen. It wasn’t very nice, though.”
“Your reptile didn’t mind. He was ready for more.”
“Yes. I know. It pisses me off, too.”
“Pisses you off?”
“Simon got scared this morning and told me I had to leave. That was at five o’clock. I got him to let me stay until… what is it now?”
“Seven,” Ben said.
“I got him to drive me down to the highway. Then he decided he was sorry, so he came in for a big hug, and I … it happened, just like that. It pisses me off because now he thinks I’ll let him get away with it.”
“He doesn’t think it. He knows it. You will. He must have been good to you sometime, or that snake of yours wouldn’t be all so eager.”
“Okay, so it was pretty neat,” I said. I was wearing a shit-eating grin after all that. And I was shocked that I was telling a stranger something I was barely able to tell myself. But he was untroubled by it. It’s always like that for me, even now — I’m as surprised by people who accept me as by those who don’t.
“Neat,” he growled. “I didn’t get any ‘neat,’ I can tell you that. When I finally got up from that nap at your friend’s place Friday — four o’clock, maybe — I told that other guy…”
“Charlie. I told him I’d call you and then I lit out. I got to Shirley’s place, but she wasn’t there. She got back around five, but she said she couldn’t see me because she had to work that night — it was a boutique and they always stay open late on Friday nights. So, I waited up for her, of course, but then she was too ti-yurred. I had to beg her just to let me stay the night on her couch.”
We were passing the “Lincoln National Forest” sign; crossing out of the reservation. Ben started looking for something specific. It was the place we had stopped to picnic when we were stoned on Friday afternoon.
“Okay,” I said, “what then?”
“When I got up the next morning, she was already at work again. I stopped by around noon, and she was heading out the door with this Texan fellah, pretty rich dude from the looks of him, so I knew I was in trouble. He wasn’t any prettier than me. But he was real suave. I followed them down the street, and he turned to her just that certain way, and leaned in to her, and smiled so sweet. I would have been mad as hell if I hadn’t wanted to cry.”
He pulled up to the campground we had used. This time, he let Captain run outside to sniff and mark. We stepped down, too, so he could keep an eye on him. Neither of us wanted to go chasing after a deaf dog again, after the fiasco of two days before. We both leaned against the sunny side of the truck.
“You must really like this place,” I said. “Is this, like, a favorite spot?”
“No. But that hawk that flew overhead when we were here before… I still think there’s something important in that.”
“Are you looking for it again?” I asked.
“No. But when it happened, I almost got to the bottom of something, and I figured it would be a good idea to come back.” After we were silent for awhile in the warmth of the rising sun, he asked me, “I hope you brought some cake.”
I laughed. “Do I have to walk home if I don’t? Yeah, I brought some. You can have it if you want, but I don’t want to get stoned again, not right now anyway. We did it yesterday.”
“I never had dope like that before. I never tasted it a bit.”
“You don’t actually put the dope into the cake. You heat it up in oil or butter, and, when it gets good and dark, you strain it out.” I was very proud of my culinary accomplishments. It must sound like I was quite the counter-culture gourmet. The reality was (and is) very different. My kitchen acrobatics were – are – nonexistent, aside from yogurt and stone cake.
“But you don’t want any,” he asked. This was one of his habits: He would repeat things till you gave him the answer he wanted. Not this time.
“No,” I told him, “If you do, I’ll stick around here till you come down. It’s okay. I really need some time when I can actually think.”
“Thanks,” he said, “but I don’t think I’d like to do it by myself.”
“Well, you can take the cake with you.”
“I might do that. In fact, that’s a great idea. My big brother hates dope. I can’t smoke it back at the ranch, but he couldn’t smell cake now, could he?”
“Suppose he wanted to eat some himself.”
“I’ll tell him it’s a souvenir from a girlfriend.” He paused a minute. We could hear Captain barking not far off. “We better get him.” We walked toward the sound of the barking, and Ben called his name.
“Captain! Stay!” To me, he said, “His good ear will pick me up, anyway, even if he can’t figure out where it’s coming from. I just hope he’ll do like I tell him.”
When we got close enough for him to see us, he came running up to Ben to get petted. We walked back to the truck, where Ben took a long chain out of the truck bed and attached it to Captain’s collar.
“Do you need to be alone?” I asked. “You said you had something to work out in your head.”
“No!” Ben answered. “That’s the last thing I need. I’ve been alone enough, don’t you think?” He reached into the camper again, and pulled two beers. “If you won’t get stoned, will you take some of this? I’ve got a six-pack.”
“When you were with your friend?” Ben began. “Simon?”
“Yes?” I said.
“Hmmmm. Did you do it to him, or did he…?”
“I was on top.”
“Oh,” and then, after a pause, “so, you didn’t let him take a turn.”
“Well, he didn’t seem to want to.” Why was Ben asking this? All of a sudden, I saw it. “Oh! You want to fuck me!”
He blushed. Who knows how loud I must have been, like Archimedes running out of the bath yelling “Eureka!”
“Well, yeah,” he said, “if you wouldn’t mind.” He was embarrassed. And yet he must have made some promise to himself that he wasn’t going to be ashamed of anything that happened.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure, we can do that. I’m not really experienced, though. You need to go easy.” I was replaying Simon’s words!
“Sure thing.” He put his arm around me, and finished his beer. “But I have to tell you, I don’t swing both ways.”
I nodded. “Well, will you kiss me?” Simon and I had never kissed face to face.
“You bet.” He pulled me around facing him, and we kissed, long, sweet, and slow. I was overjoyed that Ben could do this, and I knew then that this would always be the most important part of love-making for me. I leaned into him there against the truck, and let my hands find out a little more about who he was. Who he was was a little shorter than me and a lot stronger, with some baby fat all over him. But it wouldn’t have mattered that much, actually, what my hands knew, because his hands on me and his tongue in my mouth told me much more.
He let his hands move down to my butt, and I put my hand to his crotch. “Nice reptile,” I said, undoing his jeans. I slid down and took him in my mouth. Another thing I’d wanted to do with Simon. And another clue to what I wanted, making itself conscious and real.
Ben whispered, “How about let’s get into the truck.”
The camper had a mattress, older than Archimedes. We undid each other, and kissed again. I rolled over onto my back but, before he could move, I took him in my mouth again. Then he rolled onto me. We were getting ourselves into place when he looked down my body. “I’m glad he came out to play,” Ben said.
“But you don’t swing both ways.”
“I don’t, but I’d hate to have that Simon guy get you going and me not be able to.”
He slid into me then. No one else before or after has entered me with so little pain. There was no barrier I wanted to put up against him. I wished that I’d remembered the movements that Simon had done when I’d been in him the night before, but I was not conscious enough to do that. Not that I was passive; my hands and mouth were constant evidence of how aroused I was. My hand on his back, his hand stroking my chest and my sides, his lips on my neck, my mouth in his hair, all of it was new and wonderful, and it was also in some way familiar, like looking at a mirror for the first time.
I started becoming tired, and asked to be on my stomach, and we did it that way. I felt his legs curl up when he came. He stayed inside me. After awhile, he began to caress me again, and kiss my back. “Is this okay?” he whispered.
“It’s great.” In fact, if there’s one thing I hate about the kind of sex we have these days, decades later, it’s not having to stop and put on the rubber. It’s not even the taste of them. It’s having to get out right afterward, instead of lying there the way we were doing. I wanted to stay there that whole day.
He said, “You’re going to have hickeys in some embarrassing places.”
“I really care,” I told him.
“And Simon? He’ll care.”
“I don’t think Simon is ever going to see me naked again.”
“Don’t be so sure, Jonathan. Reptiles don’t lie. All he has to do is touch you and it’ll come alive again.”
“Well, would you go back to Shirley again?” I asked.
“But she’d wake up your snake.”
“Yeah. She would.”
We slid apart to where we could face each other, and I could get a chance to run my hand over him again.
He said, “I don’t want you to fall in love with me. You don’t want to do that. I have to go back to my ranch. If we get to see each other again, it will only be maybe on the weekends. And I’m going to get a girl again, sometime or other, and get married.”
“That’s fine.” I hadn’t considered the possibility of love, much less any next times. He had, and that was grand all by itself. Simon was the one I loved, probably even at that moment, and look what it had got me. I was satisfied with “like” at that point, and I liked Ben a whole lot.
Just then, Captain started barking and then jumped into the truck, trailing his chain. I reached over and unhooked the chain from his collar. He was still very agitated, ears flat against his skull, mouth and eyes going every which way. We heard something fly overhead.
“It’s your hawk,” I said. Ben nodded. His face changed. He apparently had found the resolution he’d been searching for. Captain wanted to get between us, but Ben made him lie down in back of him. Ben kept saying, “It’s okay, Captain.”
I said, “There’s something important about hawks, isn’t there?”
“Not hawks. This hawk. Both times now, he’s come over just when I was wondering if I’m doing the right thing.”
“So you think it’s a message.” He nodded. “What do you think he’s saying?”
“Keep going, do what you’re doing. Keep flying, and you’ll know where you’re going when you get there.”
“If he hadn’t decided to fly over,” I asked, “would you have done the same thing Simon did, freak out and tell me to leave?”
“No way! I said I’d take you home, and I will. But, yeah, I was kind of worried.”
“What was it?”
“Don’t ask. It doesn’t have to do with you.”
I said, “You’re worried because you liked it. I mean, it wasn’t only your reptile that got off just now. You really like being here right now with me, right?” And then I saw that I was feeling the same thing. Ben was wrong about how much that reptile is in charge. My time with Simon was full of reptile passion, red in tooth and claw, and, yes, Ben was right that it would always arouse me that strongly. In fact, every time Simon has seen me after that, he’s managed to find a way to bump into me, to watch me get hard.
But Simon and I have never had sex together again. Sex with Ben was different, more welcome, more welcoming. There was something else it gave me, and I had been hungering for that as much as my reptile had lusted after Simon. So I was there recovering from that unsettling insight, and Ben was still chewing over his own unruly desires.
“All right,” he said. “I admit it. This is the best time I’ve had in months. Yes, I’m worried. No offense, but I don’t want to be gay.”
“Do you think you are?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Have you ever done this before? With a man?”
“No. What about you, how much have you done it?”
“But you’re gay. I mean, you are, aren’t you? You don’t have any doubt.”
“No,” I answered. “No doubt.”
“And you never did it with women. Right?”
“Wrong. I’ve had some nice times with women, too. Not as much fun as with men, though.” Now he was really worried. “The way I figured it out was that, even when I was messing around with women, I always jerked off thinking about men.”
“Well, I’ve never done that. It’s always been girls when I do it.” He was silent for awhile. “I’ll think about it later. Do you have to be back any special time?”
“I’m pretty tired,” he said.
Ben leaned around me and pulled out a blanket — another relic from Archimedes’ time — and spread it over us. He put his arm around me and rolled me toward him so that I could feel him against my back. He kissed me on the back of my neck, probably leaving another hickey, and put his arm tight around me. He might have been worried, but it didn’t make him any less affectionate.
We should have been sliding off into sleep. I had been awake with Simon almost all of the previous night, and Ben had probably hardly slept in the truck. But I unwrapped his arm and got up, moving to get out of the pickup.
“Oh, man,” he said, “are you going for another walk?”
“No, no. I’ve gotta piss.” I got out of the truck and did so, and got back in.
“That’s better,” he said. I slipped back in beside him. Captain was calm and sleeping. I wanted to wait until Ben fell asleep before I did, so I could hear what his breath sounded like, but I forgot that.
** ** ** **
“When did you figure out I was gay? Did you know before you saw me walking down the road with a hard-on?”
“Yep,” Ben answered, “I sure did.”
We were driving down the mountainside, the steep road that descends almost a mile into Alamogordo and the desert. It was early afternoon. We had grabbed something to eat while passing through Cloudcroft. Captain had refused to come out of the camper.
“Is that why you stripped down at White Sands?”
“No!” Ben blushed. “I wasn’t even thinking of you.”
“But you asked me if you were sexy, remember?”
“Oh, hell, yes I did at that! Oh, shit! What did you think? ‘Come and get him, fresh out of his clothes.'”
We laughed so much I couldn’t answer. Finally, I said, “I didn’t think about it at all. It was unusual. I’ve never had a stranger do that before, ask me if he’s sexy.” After we quieted down, I asked him again, “Okay, then when did you figure it out?”
“Well, that guy who was staying with your friend Simon — Charlie? He sort of hinted at it.”
“He did?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it.
“On Friday, when I got up from my nap at their place, I was still woozy, so I asked Charlie if I could stay any longer. He said no. Simon made it pretty clear he was chomping at the bit to see you, and Charlie had the notion that you guys were more than friends. He wanted to make sure everything was hunky-dory, seeing as how Simon was his landlord. ‘It always pays to keep the landlord happy.’ He even winked at me.”
“So Charlie knew the whole story from the beginning!” I was astonished.. “So there wasn’t any reason for Simon to be so quiet. Oh, wow, man, I wonder if Simon knows even now.”
“I’ll bet he does. I’ll bet Charlie told him. Simon’s probably pissed as hell. I’ll bet if you walked into their place right now, he’d be trying to nail you right there in the living room.”
“Well, it sounds like a stupid gamble to take right now,” I said.
“I don’t know if it’d be stupid, but I’m not going to drive you back there, that’s for sure; that would be stupid. As far as I’m concerned, Simon’s had his chance with you.” He put his hand on my thigh. I got so hard it was painful. Simon, even if he apologized, wasn’t capable of being this spontaneous about how he liked sex with me, and it was something I needed to hear, that it was okay for me not only to have desires but to relish them, delight in them.
I put my hand on Ben’s. “You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t think I could go through that again.”
“What about me? You think you might want to try it again with me?”
He pulled over to the side of the steepest road in the state, turned toward me with a smile. “Anytime.”
“Yes. But not on a runaway truck ramp.”
There’s a paved road that cuts left off the highway near High Rolls, that goes back into the forest.
** ** **
We stopped at White Sands again on the way back, at the same not-quite-illicit entrance we had used on the way up. This time we did not let Captain get out of sight. It was seven by the time we got to the base of San Agustin Pass, the last hurdle before we dropped into the valley I lived in. We had been quiet almost all the time since High Rolls.
“Do you really want to go back to the ranch?” I asked him.
“Can’t you stay at college next year?”
“‘Cause I promised my brother I’d help take care of things this year. The only other person out there is his wife, and she’s not a ranch girl.”
After a moment, he asked, “What about you? What are you doing?”
I must have spent a “couple-three” minutes thinking.
Ben laughed. “Good.”
We got to the top of the pass. The road down the other side led right into the sun. Ben asked if he could pull over till sunset. “It won’t ruin your schedule, will it?” he asked. By this point, of course, that question was ridiculous.
We let Captain out, on a chain. We watched the sunset side by side, leaning against the truck, me petting Captain, who was on hind legs sprawled against me. Ben put his arm around my shoulders again, and I put mine around his.
“What kind of men do you go for?” he asked me.
“Hmmm. Short guys, lots of muscle, maybe a little baby fat.” I reached up to his neck. “Short, straight brown hair. It helps if they have a pickup truck. And a big, friendly dog.”
Ben turned his face and kissed me. The kiss felt like a visa to his Terra Incognita, far beyond the reach of society’s meddling grasp.
He said, “You know, I still mean what I said. I can’t see you very often. I still expect to get married soon, eventually anyway.”
“Does it matter?”
“No. I suppose I can’t come out to the ranch.”
“No way. My brother would have a shit fit. And his wife, too.”
“Yeah it is.”
He kissed me again after the sun went down.
** ** **
We saw each other half a dozen times during the next year. Then when he came back to college (I’d been back in school a year by then, out of the compound), we saw a little more of each other. We graduated together in May of 1976, two years after our first weekend. Then I had a lover, and then he got married. He sends me Christmas cards. When his brother moved away from the ranch, I got to visit one weekend.
My best friend, Joe, the man I live with, doesn’t like the way I’ve told this story. After all, most gay men are not reptiles, and most straight men aren’t teddy bears. He angrily reminds me that two of my gay friends were shot dead by straight guys in Phoenix. And he himself is his best argument, since he has been my main teddy bear for fifteen years now. Anyway, he says, if Simon was such a reptile, the fault is as much with the society that put all the fear in him. And if Ben is such a teddy bear, he can afford to be — he’s never been twisted by fear.
Well, okay, Joe, you’re right. If I look at all the gay men I know, almost every one carries at least one scar from fear, or hate. And it’s true that Ben really never has — and I don’t think he can — truly understand me the way a gay man can. He sometimes used to shake his head when I was afraid to do something, like cuddle up with him at the drive-in. He’d look at me as if he were saying, “Isn’t this what Simon would do?” So I’d let him put his arms around me and we’d kiss out there in the dark parking lot. Maybe he doesn’t get it. Yes, but maybe that’s what was so neat about him. Being with him was like taking a vacation to Terra Incognita, where “nobody gives two hoots,” as Ben would say.