Open Map

On the bus, the tourists are easy to spot; they have a street map open and are often arguing. It’s fun for me as a retired person – someone who can spare the time – to play guide for them. It’s a pleasant, well-defined interaction:  I enjoy scoping out where they’re from, how long they’re staying in San Francisco, what they do at home, etc. And it comes to an end.

If they take the bus out to the ocean, they’re looking for Cliff House. I’ll walk them to the Great Highway, the road that runs along the ocean, and show them the walk up the hill to the fancy restaurant and the ocean overlook. But sometimes, especially for the young, I walk them northward on La Playa Street to Balboa. Cliff House is clearly visible from there, but there is also a challenge right in front of us, the sand stairway up to SutroHeightsPark, which dominates the area and on a good day gives an even better view. I give them the choice. I make sure they know that they can get an inbound bus at the top of the park, so they don’t have to come all the way back down the hill to return downtown.

Usually, they prefer the easy way, but one time things turned out very differently. A young couple on the bus, without a map, was up from Santa Cruz for the weekend. At first, they seemed to be a straight couple, wrapped in each other’s arms, a beautiful young Latina in a red dress and a young Anglo in the vest and slacks of a three-piece suit. But my experience in San Francisco kept me wondering whether the slender young man, with bright blue eyes and porcelain complexion, was really transgender, or maybe a woman with very short hair. He or she chose for both of them to do the stairs, and took off the vest in order to climb the staircase in rolled up shirtsleeves. And still I did not know. Transmen can grow body hair and muscles, go bald, and generally look as masculine as one might want, but if they’ve started out with a big butt, there’s no way to get rid of it. And why do I care?  Because I have a taste for short guys, but I mean short guys with guy equipment. In any case, this person was remarkable only because of the musculature under the tweed, and because of how lithe and flexible the body was in mounting the steep stairs. He or she would stop only to turn back and wait for the Latina to catch up.

They climbed the stairs, and I turned right and walked up the street to my apartment where my dog, Pepper, was waiting for a walk. The young person’s image still stuck with me, though it seemed evident that, regardless of the gender or sexuality, they were not available to me. Still, I took the dog up the hill of my street and then threaded a narrow unofficial path that connects to the Sutro steps. The dog, of course, was as happy with this as with any walk, and sniffed and peed to his doggie heart’s content.

At the top of the steps, the dog led me further up through the wildest part of the park. I had suggested that the young couple turn right at this point and follow the easier path directly to 48th Avenue, but we came across the young Latina standing in front of us in the wilderness.

“Where’s Ray?” I asked, and the young woman pointed to her left, where the object of my wondering was standing, facing away from us, and obviously urinating. End of doubt. Graciela laughed and said, “Ray, I told you to wait, didn’t I?”  By that point, the dog had run over to each of them in turn and come back to me to ask which route we were going to take.

Ray said, “We were too adventurous, I guess. I decided we should try going straight up the hill, but there’s a spot up there we can’t get over and we spent a hell of a lot of time getting lost. So, I suppose we have to go up your way,” pointing right.

I said, “No, there is another way up; you just have to know which of these tricky paths is actually do-able.”  So I got to be tour guide all over again, and Pepper is always happier in a crowd, dogs or people. I led the way up a sandy path that was pretty steep in places, and we did have to climb over one jutting tree root, but we made it. I kept looking back to see how the tourists were faring, and sometimes had to slow down for Graciela; her shoes were meant for town and sometimes left her unsteady. Ray would pull her up from time to time, and yet every so often I also seemed to feel his breath on my neck.

At the top, the wilderness opened into a large, well-manicured garden, the remains of Adolph Sutro’s estate of a century before. There was a much easier climb to the very top to where we could look out to sea, and I made a point of telling the pair how lucky they were that this summer day was not foggy. They nodded; Santa Cruz was no different. We took in the view and, even though I had seen it so often before, I was rapt enough not to realize that Ray was wedged just behind me, with his hand on my back, casual but not casual. I looked to the other side, and Graciela was smiling.

I’m not forward; I’m very shy. But I needed to know, “What’s going on here, folks?”

“Ray likes you. A lot. You’re very sweet.”

“So you two aren’t a couple?”

Ray answered, “We’re best friends, and we’re roommates, and we’ve saved each other from the bullies.”  He made a fist to explain. “And that’s the whole story.”  Except that he moved in and lightly kissed me, on the lips.

“You’re so pretty,” I said, feeling stupid even as I said it. Ray wasn’t the first man to come on so strong, but it had been decades since the last time.

He put his arms around me. “Yes, I know,” he whispered. “It’s a problem — ask Graciela — but it comes in handy sometimes, like for meeting you.”

Graciela talked about how each of them had been subject to harassment in high school, and how neither of them would have made it through alive without the other.  Throughout her story, Ray was stroking my back or the nape of my neck, giving me a different part of the information.

“What happens now?” I asked. “I mean, I could lead you both back to my place, but that sounds pretty yucky for Graciela.”  I gave the address, and made it clear that getting there would mean trekking back down the hill again.

“Well, actually,” she said, catching Ray’s eye as if to remind him, “we have plans for the evening. There’s a band up from Santa Cruz; that’s why we came up to SF; my brother’s in the band.”

After checking how much time they had left before the concert, we walked awhile on the Sutro estate grounds, then across the street and over to Land’s End. Ray took my hand along the way, which was by turns exhilarating, scary, and dumbfounding. What the hell was his interest in an old guy like me?

We walked to the bus stop where they could get downtown. Waiting for the bus to start its route, Ray and I tried to work out how to connect again. He’d already figured I wasn’t coming down to Santa Cruz any time soon, not with a dog and no car. Yes, Ray could certainly come up to see me, but he didn’t have a car either. He and I exchanged a kiss as they boarded the bus, and then Graciela as well.

In a few days, I pretty much dismissed him from my mind. A man as beautiful as Ray would capture enough interest to keep him in Santa Cruz. Also, I knew nothing about him, what he wanted out of life, what he wanted from me…. and he knew no more of me, as far as I could tell, other than that I was a much older man who appreciated his advances. And we had no contact information for each other, other than my address. Still, sometimes alone at night, I could not help thinking of that one kiss, and how tender his caresses were. Yet, eventually it fell in line with all the other fantasies an old man might have for a young ball of fire. I had had my share of sex in my life, but that had decreased dramatically as my good looks faded away.

So I was surprised late one night several weeks later when I came home to find him sitting on the steps leading up the hill to my apartment building. No longer dressed so formally, he was in jeans and a denim shirt, but he still looked as clean-cut, and stunning, as ever. The bright eyes showed through in the dark, and his smile was overwhelming.

“Well, it took you long enough,” he said, smirking. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been waiting.”

“If I had known…,” and then he came down, so gracefully, to kiss me on the steps. I made him wait outside while I let the dog out to pee, and then we all three went indoors. The hours spent anticipating me made him particularly needy, and it was all I could do to feed the dog in between his kisses. Even so, I was not distracted enough not to notice how expert his caresses were. Ray looked the innocent babe, but he had had a lot of physical experience with men. How jaded was he?

My thoughts were irrelevant; his physical assault was not to be resisted. Clothes came off, and he took immediate control. His nakedness showed also that, though he might be slender, he had a strong, wiry build that explained the lithe grace of his movements.

He had a pack of fantasies he’d built up while waiting on the steps, and he wasted no time realizing them. If I wasn’t positioned as he wanted, he’d re-position my hands, legs, or body. Or he would re-position himself so that I had no choice but to do what he wanted. It made me laugh.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Pepper does this, too. He’ll curl up near me in a particular way, and I suddenly find myself petting him just the way he wants.”

“I’m not your dog!”

“No, Ray, you’re not, thank God!”  I replied, and licked his ass. When I was spent – and he of course was still full of energy – he asked if he could walk Pepper.

“It’d be nice to see the neighborhood at night. Unless you think it’s too dangerous.”

I always thought our neighborhood was quite safe, except for the unlit park areas, so I said yes. And, though I still didn’t know Ray, I wasn’t afraid of losing my dog. Pepper was an old dog, very much in decline, and not a good steal.

I dozed off. When they came back, Pepper was all over me, forcing even Ray to stand back for a minute. “I found out what you mean,” Ray said. “I tried walking him down the hill that way,” pointing south, “and he wouldn’t move. I had to come up to him and just about beg him to tell me where he wanted to go, and then he walked me the other way, towards the beach. And he also let me know when he’d had enough; he just turned around and pointed back home.”  Ray laughed.

Back in bed, Ray tried, not unsuccessfully, to rouse me to another go-round, and then I collapsed on my back. I heard him in the kitchen a few minutes later; he had reason enough to be hungry.

“I hate it that I have to come so far just to spend time with you,” he said when he was back in bed and we were nestled together. “This is, like, the nicest sex I’ve had in a really long time.”

I wondered what made it ‘nicest’ but didn’t ask. I still had enough energy to caress his body next to me – Pepper took to his own bed across the room – and I told him how unbelievably ‘nice’ it had been for me, too. I also realized that it had been years since I had felt as mellow and as satisfied as I did just then. It was as if Ray had opened some long-hidden treasure chest of emotion.

When someone asks me, “Do you like getting fucked?” I have learned just to say “Yes.”  I used to pour out the truth, which is a lot more than the guy wants: Getting fucked satisfies a really central need for me.  Sometimes I like it, too; for example, if there’s kissing, if there’s a lot of body contact and touch and cuddling, if the top doesn’t just leave when he’s done, if the top is willing to say hello the next time he sees me.  But even when it’s not fun, when I don’t ‘like’ it, it really is so deeply rewarding that I can carry that satisfaction with me for days afterward.   And it doesn’t even depend on size; in fact, I prefer being able to walk around the next day without limping; the tingle will still be there.

I have no clue what that really central need is.  I can’t spell it out, or analyze it, but I have no doubt of its existence.   I’ve always preferred a steady, in and out of bed, but I usually went for it if someone said they just wanted to fuck me.  Oh sure, there are limits:  condoms, a clean body, someone who isn’t so gone on his drug of choice that he isn’t really there, some reason to believe he isn’t an axe murderer.

Otherwise, I’m not choosy.  I’ve been with men from 25 to 88, all races and shapes.  I usually do what the top wants, so if it means getting tied up or tied down or spanked, that’s just fine.  The only thing I’ve had to do is to insist that, after getting his kicks from roping me, he will fuck me – and I don’t mean a dildo – so I have said “No” to quite a few men who wanted only to manhandle me without fucking.

I’m not a total slut, but that’s only because there aren’t many Rays around, so I don’t get fucked very often.  It sounds as if it’s always the other guy who makes the first move, and that’s how it feels to me, though I know that’s not true.  There are times that I’m sure I must have been the one who made the invitation, but somehow it still feels otherwise.

In the middle of all this introspection, I realized that Ray was talking: He could stay only till noon, and then could not come back for a week. He lamented over that again, but I told him, “Ray, I wouldn’t be able to handle this more than once a week. At least I’m retired.”  After that, we settled down to sleep.  My last waking thoughts were, “I like this guy.”

I woke up to him coming into the apartment, carrying bags from Safeway. It was so nice to see him again – as if he had been away for days – but he was worked up. “That guy across the hall?  Is he straight?  He asked me a lot of questions about us, and when I said I was here to see you, he said, ‘Lucky him!’”

The newly married couple across the hall were, as far as I knew, straight beyond words, but entirely laissez-faire with other people’s affairs. I said as much to Ray but he was not convinced. “When he found out I was going to Santa Cruz, he asked if I’d like a ride as far as Stanford, ‘cause he was just setting out. I told him I wanted a few more hours with you.”

“How did he take that?” I asked.

“He laughed. He said, ‘Well, okay, then, just be nice to him, all right?’  I told him ‘You’d better believe it, dude,’ and then he laughed again and said goodbye. Oh, yeah, he insisted on getting my name and shaking my hand, too.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “He shakes everyone’s hand, every time he meets them.”

Ray was still wary, though, so I said, “Look, I know you’ve met some really nasty guys, so if you’re leery of him, that’s okay, but it’s unwarranted. You’re not going to see him for another week at least, so how about spending more time telling me how much you like me?”  I’m not usually clever enough to say anything that forward, or cheesy maybe, but he liked it., and I was overjoyed that he was willing to put aside his anxiety and throw himself completely into being with me.  It wasn’t fucking this time, but he had already checked off that box twice, so cuddling, sucking, and jerking off were just fine.

We took Pepper out for a short walk to the bus stop by the Safeway.  His connection to Santa Cruz was at the other end of the route. I had wanted to go with him that far but he insisted on a complete break between time with me and time not with me.  “I hope I never have to explain why,” he said.

I thought I’d be able to sleep all day, but I often found myself half aroused thinking of him. And it was not only a physical arousal; I had given up on the possibility of any more emotional connections with others at my age, and he had changed that.  I wondered about everything I did not know about him – his age, his job, his childhood, you name it, I wanted to know it.

That night, I saw the neighbor, and he said, “Your boyfriend is prettier than my wife!  I’m not wanting to insult you, but what does he see in you?” He blushed with shame as he realized how blunt his question was. I laughed, and told him that I was sort of a way-station, someone he could feel easy with, someone not threatening. What I think now looking back is that Ray saw me as “sweet,” as Graciela put it, and that I’d be willing to experience the relationship on his terms, to let him have control. Which I certainly was.

I told my neighbor at the time, “I think his looks have made more trouble for him than he has even told me. I may just be a zero, a place-holder for him while he gets himself together to face the world. And, by the way, one reason it came up is that he totally noticed how heavily you checked him out. He asked me if you were straight, and I had to go to all sorts of lengths to assure him you weren’t going to hit on him.”

The neighbor backed off, physically, and said, “No man, I’m not going to fuck things up.  I hope you get to keep him as long as you want. I’ve just never seen a man as beautiful as he is. Like I thought the word ‘lovely’ when I saw him, and I have never done that before.”

“Well, neither have I. And thanks.”  And we shook hands.

The usual problem I have in thinking about other people’s affairs is that I really cannot possibly know what is going on in the participants’ heads. And that’s how I’ve felt about my time with Ray. Though I can admit to simple gratitude for the experiences and the shared affection, I never knew what Ray was thinking,. I can say that, after that first night together I was feeling lust in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. And beyond the sex, just having his ‘lovely’ body in contact with mine is a memory that even Alzheimer’s wouldn’t be able to dislodge.

In any case, strangely, we still hadn’t shared phone numbers, so I had to wait a week to find out if Ray would show up again. And for the first time in years, I was full of anxiety and desire. He did return, this time not having to wait out on the steps because I made sure to be home. After our embraces, I asked for his number, but he refused. “It’s to protect Graciela; I promised her not to.”  We argued a bit because it was his number, not hers, but I gave up and instead offered my own land and cell numbers. He refused them too, for the same reason. “If they find my phone…”

“Well, at least you know my address, right, so if you’re not going to show up, please write me if you can, so I won’t wait up for you.”

“You don’t have to wait for me. When I’m here, I’m here for you and only you, just like the first time.”  So I gave up and hungrily accepted his being there at that moment, already taking each other’s clothes off, kissing and caressing each other. I had learned a few of Ray’s tricks, and he noticed with approval.

Much later that night, we walked down to Safeway, together with Pepper; the dog and I stood outside while Ray got what he wanted for breakfast. But we took a long way home, passing through quiet streets and watching the fog move in, patch by patch. Ray sighed, put his arm around me, and kissed me. “This is why I’m here,” he said, as if that explained all the mystery.

“This is why you take long bus and train rides – how many?”  He showed four fingers. He was not going to give me any other explanation.

When we got home, he said, “You’re not asking me who else I’m hooking up with. How come?”

“You’re so young, I know you have it on your mind all the time – I did. And you clearly want to keep a lot of your life secret. If you’re not going to let me know how to contact you, well….”

“Well,” he aped, “if you’re not going to ask, I’m going to have to tell you. I don’t have sex with anyone else. Actually, I hadn’t had sex for months before I met you. Yeah, I used to, you can believe that, man, I’ve had a lot of sex. It did take care of that itch, but it always felt crappy after. So I stopped. People who know me have stopped hitting on me, and that means almost anyone in Santa Cruz. This is the only sex that doesn’t … compromise me.”  He stopped talking then, and I realized that was all he was going to say. So I took him in my arms and just caressed his body. And that was it until he fell asleep. I stayed awake a little longer, stroking and kissing his body.

After breakfast, he repeated that he didn’t want me going with him downtown to the CalTrain station, that he wanted to go alone. “Like a clean border, time with you and time with the world.”

This is not going to be one of those mystery stories where everything becomes clear at the end. I may as well say now that I never did find out most of the secrets he was keeping. I did discover something remarkable, though. Three months after Ray had started his weekly pilgrimages, I was salivating every week on the day I knew – or hoped – he would show up. We were in bed after making love – and it was indeed love as well as sweaty sex – and I asked him, “Okay, so what can you tell me about yourself?  Like, your family, your job, your relationship with Graciela….”

He laughed, and said, “You know what I really love is that you could have tried to look through my wallet, to find all that out, and you never have.”  He got up and fished his wallet out of his pants. When he began to unfold it, I saw that it had a rubber-band mechanism attached to it that would have sprung if someone had tried to open the wallet. He replaced the wallet, and came back to bed.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, the only thing I can tell you is that my job gives me one day off a week, and I use that day to come here. And that’s the only gift I can give you.  Oh, and this.” He turned me over again, and this time his fucking included biting my neck and back, just hard enough so that my squirming got me harder than I’d been in a long time.  Sometimes he’d stop and just straddle my hips, massaging my back while he did it, and then he’d go back to fucking.  Whatever he did was always the right thing to do.

Afterward I said, “I won’t ask anything anymore. Except…. will you be able to tell me when it’s over?”

It was shocking for me to hear myself say that, and he too looked stunned. He choked up as he answered me. “Yeah, man, I’ll do my best. Honestly.”

It was about a month later, when we were taking one of our late-night walks. It was a night of heavy mist by the ocean, so Pepper had decided that his arthritis didn’t want to be out, so just the two of us were walking.. Near the Safeway, someone drunk or stoned, who must have been at the beach most of the night, approached us, like a monster coming up out of the ocean. He came up to Ray, and said, “Oh, honey, you are so pretty. I want you so bad.”  I was frightened.

“Back off, asshole!” Ray told him, in a voice I had never heard out of him. But the man insisted on trying to caress Ray’s face, and Ray batted his hand away.

The man got angry. “Listen, pussy, pretty faces like yours were made for men like me.”  And he went for Ray with both muscular arms. My stomach churned in fear, but Ray’s reactions were lightning-quick. In a few seconds, the man was lying, out cold, on the ground, his nose bleeding and one hand splayed out unnaturally.

Ray wanted to hustle us away; I wanted to call 9-1-1. “No!” he said, “we’re right in the path to Safeway. Someone else can call.”  I didn’t like that, and tried to walk into the Safeway myself, but Ray grabbed my arm and said, “NO!”  We made a run for the house; by the time we got there, we could hear the emergency vehicles.

Inside the apartment, Ray had not calmed down. He kept peering out between the slats of the blinds.

“You’ve done this before,” I said, and he nodded. “What can I do to help?”

He answered, in the same gruff voice I’d just heard, “Nuthin’, dude, nuthin’ at all.”  I looked at his hands, and I knew they would show bruises by morning, but he was otherwise unharmed. I brought out my ice-bag, filled it, and gave it to him.

I asked, “There must have been one time it turned out really bad.”  He nodded again.

In a few minutes, he came up behind me, laid a cold hand on my shoulder, and said, very low, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me, Ray. I’m sorry you were put in that position.”  Then I realized, “that’s it, isn’t it?  You’re not coming back again.”  He lowered his head, and then nodded, crying.

I came up to him. “Don’t push me away right now, Ray,” I said, and held his head in my hands and kissed him. He did not resist, and had I wanted to have sex just then he would not have resisted that either. Instead, I decided to be practical, somehow postponing the tears and sobs that were waiting just outside my consciousness. “There’s no way back at night. You may as well sleep here, if you can.”

He sighed a ‘yes’ and said, “You’re right, this isn’t the first time. I hate it, but I’m just not going to take any more shit from anyone, ever again.”

I undressed him in almost a clinical way, then took off my own clothes and lay next to him side by side, only our arms and legs touching. “Please don’t just sneak off, huh?” I said. He muttered an ‘okay.’

I woke up at dawn to him just entering me.  “This is going to be long and slow,” he promised, and it was.  It was the most gentle fuck he’d thrown me in all the time we’d been together, full of his lips and hands and tongue all over me.

His fists showed black and blue in the morning, but he made a point of putting his hands in mine to let me know he was, physically at least, all right.

“I want to go with you this time, to the station. Please?  To be honest, I think you could use it.”

He laughed and shook his head as if to emphasize the craziness of parting this way.  I never was able to change his mind on anything.  “Anyway, I don’t like the word ‘goodbye.’”

After cleaning up he went for the door, but I blocked his way.  I knew I had to be quick or else be seen as an enemy, so I rushed out, “You didn’t say I couldn’t thank you. So, thank you. Thank you, thank you.”

He threw his arms around me. “Thank you. You know I’ll always remember you, right?”

I nodded. “Same here, Ray. Listen, I’m going to cry, so you might want to go get the train.”

Several months later, I got a letter addressed to me in feminine handwriting, sepia ink full of open loops. The postmark was illegible. There was a photograph inside, of Ray and Graciela, the kind you can get on a boardwalk. They were both in dark jumpsuits, evidently taking a break from work. I remembered from the day we met that she had said they lived near the boardwalk. He was leaning against a low wall, and she was sitting on it; they each had an arm around the other and they were smiling. On the back side of the card, it said, “Love you always! RAY and Graciela,” in a different handwriting in black ink. I remembered then, too, that on the bus they had no open map, they did not feel lost. I was the one who needed a map, and there isn’t one.

About In a Former Time

This blog is meant as a vehicle to publish my literary work.
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