The Christmas Present Cruisebysr71plt©
I met Wade in a church, of all places. Not that either one of us is religious, and neither one of us was attending a church service there. It was the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. I was bumming around Europe during the summer between university and grad school—I was studying art photography at MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore—and Wade had come off a river boat cruise lashed up to the side of the Rhine near the cathedral. I was studying the art of the cathedral and photographing it at interesting angles to add to my “what you did this summer?” study for when I returned to the institute. And, as it turned out, Wade was studying the photogenic young men walking around the open square in front of the cathedral.
He tripped on the front steps of the cathedral—or pretended to—and I was near enough to keep him from falling.
He was forward enough to smile and lift his eyebrows to me, as if to say that, to him, I looked astonishing, and to ask me if I was interested in having a drink and a meal on him in a nearby café in gratitude for saving his life. I hardly thought I’d saved him from much harm, but I was on a very limited travel budget and he seemed a pleasant enough fellow—in his early fifties maybe and trim and very well groomed; very expensively dressed, which boded well for a good meal—so I said “sure.”
He took me to the Gasttaette im Mariengarten restaurant, which was just off the cathedral square. He went right to it, which gave me the impression he had mapped everything out, a thought that proved prophetic enough quite soon. We ascertained during the meal—which indeed was quite good and plentiful—that he owned a winery west of Baltimore and was taking a Rhine river cruise to taste the German wines and stave off boredom. There was no indication given that he was married or that there was anyone significant in his life. A loner, just like me.
We laughed at the coincidence that I was living in Baltimore and going to school there when he lived just to the west of Baltimore. And here we’d both met by chance in northern Germany. And we were even more amused that he was an avid art collector and I was studying to be an art photographer.
“I rather thought something like that,” he said. “I saw that you were taking hundreds of photographs around the cathedral and were quite serious about it.”
He had watched me take hundreds of photographs. That had taken me a couple of hours. And he had been watching me. I thought that a little odd, but I also was secretly pleased—that he was that interested in me. I could possibly have been more interested in him, I thought, if we had more time. I was pretty much asexual up to this point, but I long had assumed I could go either way if the person was attractive enough. And, in men, it was the older, distinguished-looking, trim ones who captivated my interest.
Wade fit all of those categories. Plus he appeared to be quite wealthy and he was a very pleasant conversationalist.
And there was little beating around the bush with Wade. He was very direct.
“Seriously, I would be very interested in seeing your art work,” he said. “I have revolving art and photography exhibits in the tasting rooms of my winery—plus I collect what I like myself. Perhaps you could give me your card, and I could view some of your work when we’re both back in Maryland.”
My card, I thought. He and I definitely lived in two different worlds. “How about if I write my name and e-mail address on one of these napkins?” I asked.
“That would be divine,” he answered. “Here’s my card. If I don’t contact you by the end of the summer, feel free to call me. And do come out to the winery too for a tasting—all free, of course.”
Over dessert we discussed what had brought us both to Cologne and what our travel experiences were. I didn’t keep from him how limited my travel budget was, but it wasn’t meant as any sort of setup for a come on. Wade appeared to take it for that, though—or at least take it as a green signal for further—and, now, very bald—advances.
“I’ve booked a room at the Linden Hotel just down the street,” he said. “But I have to be back on the boat by 6:00 p.m. If you’ll come with me, I’ll pay you $100 and you can keep the room, prepaid for the night. Get a nice shower and a good night’s rest and a complimentary breakfast in the morning.”
“Come with you?” He had booked a hotel room just for the afternoon?
“Yes, I would very much like to fuck you. You go with men, don’t you? You have that look about you. I’m seldom wrong.” He had reached across the table and taken hold of my hand. He could feel me begin to tremble. He didn’t feel me take my hand away, because I didn’t.
“I’ve never . . . No, I don’t really go with men.”
He was nothing if not confident and persistent. “But you hesitate and you haven’t taken your hand away,” he said. Then is a slightly more hoarse voice, “If you are a virgin to men, then of course I would pay more. And I would be gentle. Your initiation would be all that you could hope for.”
“I’m sorry . . . I don’t know . . .”
“I think you do know—down, very deep inside you, I think you do know. I watched you for some time. You weren’t taking photographs the entire time. You were looking at people on the square from time to time. Not at young girls much. More at mature men. Men like me. Your eyes were lingering on men like me—assessing and enjoying the look of them. I assure you that I’m an expert lover. I can teach you to take much pleasure out of being with a man. And I know you could use the night in a good hotel and a little extra spending cash.”
I lowered my eyes, lost for something to say. Of course it was a ridiculous idea, and I certainly wasn’t looking at men on the cathedral square with any special interest—surely not with a prurient interest.
But it was true that I hadn’t taken my hand from his, nor had I done more than flinch slightly when he put the other hand on my thigh below the surface of the table. It was quite true that I could use a good night’s sleep in a decent hotel and a good breakfast. Even a good shower was welcome at this stage of my travels.
And I remember having joked with my fellow students before I set out for Europe that I was looking for adventure—something I could bravely do in Europe that I wouldn’t do at home.
“$200,” he said in a quiet little voice.
I didn’t look up. But I didn’t get up and leave him in indignation either.
“Waiter,” Wade called out. “Check please.”
He had a hand on me all the time we were walking to the hotel—on my arm or the small of my back. It was as if he sensed that I might cut and run at any moment. And if this was his assessment, he was right. I was close to hyperventilating, struggling in my mind whether I could go through with this. My mind was racing. Was he right about me subconsciously ogling men of his age? I knew it wasn’t right that I had so little sexual experience. I thought it was just that I was so busy establishing an artistic life—that eventually I’d meet some young woman I had chemistry with and we’d settle in with each other. I’d never thought of meeting some young man, even though throughout the art world this was normal. Now that I thought about it, though, I had been attracted to one of my art professors. And he was gay. I knew that, and he didn’t hide it. Was my attraction to him because he was a model as an artist or because he was gay? Or maybe because he was both gay and of a similar age and commanding presence as Wade?
At the door of the hotel, I knew I just couldn’t do it. It scared me that Wade had it all set up. He had intended to fuck some young man in this hotel this afternoon as just a side activity of his expensive river cruise. He said he’d be attentive to my first-time needs and that he’d pay me $200, but maybe he was just a bit too smooth and confident.
And maybe I wasn’t capable of gay sex or as attracted to him as he was trying to sell me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. LaPage, I can’t do it. I’m just not ready for anything like that.” I held back from mounting the steps to the entrance of the hotel, and Wade drew me off to the side, holding me at arms’ length with hands lightly gripping my upper arms. I assumed he was going to be livid. But he wasn’t.
“Ah, that’s a pity. But I understand. You need to think about it, though. I’m almost never wrong. I think I know what you want. You walked with me from the café to here, so both you and I know you are strongly considering it. There will be opportunities in Baltimore. But you must understand that I don’t have much time to convince you today. I must make other arrangements if you’re not ready. There isn’t much time before I have to be back on board.”
We parted amicably—with me slightly disappointed he had given up so easily. Half way across the cathedral square, I turned and looked back. I think I would have walked back to him then, but he already had a hand on another young man’s arm. And this time, the pair walked directly up the steps and into the entrance of the Linden hotel.
During the following fall, Wade called me a couple of times in Baltimore. I tried to be as polite and noncommittal as possible when he asked me if I was ready to visit him. At no time did I just tell him to fuck off, though. It was as if I knew he was right about what I wanted but just couldn’t cross that line.
Somehow he obtained a mailing address for me. At Christmas he sent me a pair of sheer, red, silk sleeping shorts, with a note that he surely would love to see me under his Christmas tree wearing those. On Valentine’s day, he sent me flowers and a box of chocolates and a request that I let him show me his winery—and the apartment he kept on the floor above that. He said there was a soaking tub for two in the apartment and he rather graphically described what we could do in that tub.
I crumpled the note up and tossed it in the trashcan. Later, however, I retrieved it and smoothed it out. I placed it in the center drawer on my work table, and a couple of times when I felt tense, I took it out and masturbated to what he had written.
My birthday was in July. I have no idea how he had tracked that down, although I think he somehow had gotten to one of the other graduate art students who was giving me knowing looks and was coming close, I was sure, to propositioning me himself. Wade was even more direct this time. He sent me a box of condoms and specialty lubricant and a request that I let him take me to a hotel in New York. There was a widely publicized photography exhibit in New York City in September that he said he was aching to take me to—and unbeknownst to him, but perhaps not as I hadn’t made a secret of my interest, it was an exhibit I was aching to go to also.
He almost was beyond direct. He included a photograph of him in the nude. He was in very good shape and he was holding an erection that had to be well over average. His note explicitly told me what he wanted to do with that erection. The photograph went in the center drawer of my work table along with the note he had sent on Valentine’s Day.
At Thanksgiving, I received a ticket for a five-day Christmas cruise leaving Baltimore, bound for Bermuda. It included a note saying the ticket was nonrefundable and that he wouldn’t be on the cruise. He included a photocopy of tickets in his own name for a Christmas cruise on the Danube.
“It’s not that I’m giving up on wanting you,” he wrote in an attached note. “But this is my pledge how much I want you and what lengths I will go to to have you.”
I checked. The ticket indeed was nonrefundable—and I was informed that the booking deal came with a hefty cabin allowance that also wasn’t refundable. I checked to make sure it was for a single-birth cabin.
And then I decided to go ahead and take the cruise. I felt I had earned a cruise for all the hard work I’d done that semester—not necessarily from Wade, but I didn’t see anyone else around with a checkbook in their hands.
* * * *
I got my last fall semester paper submitted not more than three hours before the cruise was set to sail on December 23rd and then it was a race for the Baltimore docks. The ship wasn’t nearly as big as the Royal Caribbean ship I’d seen in ads that sailed from Baltimore, but it was sleek. I was so weary when I boarded that I went straight to my cabin, which, although it was a single, had a small balcony and a full wall of glass facing Baltimore harbor.
I slept the sleep of the dead for a good three hours beyond the sailing time. I managed to drag up in time for the first-night dinner as the ship was nearing Hampton Roads for its sail out into the Atlantic and eastward journey to the island of Bermuda.
It was only then that it struck me that there didn’t seem to be any women on this cruise.
“Yes, this is a gays-only cruise,” a flouncy little maître d’ who was making goo-goo eyes at me assured me when I looked perplexed by his effort to redirect me from the dining room to the pool deck for dinner. “And you, my dear, are overdressed. This is a let-it-all-hang-out sail, and I think when you let it all hang out, you definitely will be the belle of the ball. Tonight’s dinner is a buffet on the pool deck. You can take those stairs over there—unless you’d like to stay around and talk with me longer.”
He was right. There wasn’t much in the way of clothing at dinner, which was a barbeque buffet around the topside swimming pool. Everyone but me was in nothing much more than a Speedo. I was late to dinner, and some of the men were already beyond the “wearing a Speedo” phase.
I took my plate and retired to my cabin. Sitting on the balcony and watching the last glimpses of Virginia Beach recede to the west, I contemplated how I was going to be able to stay in my cabin—and out of trouble—for five days. At least one day would be spent docked in Bermuda and I could escape from the ship as long as it was in port.
I knew what Wade was up to in sending me on this cruise. He figured I’d become part of the party and arrive back in Baltimore all gung ho to give in to his advances. Well, he had another think coming on that. I was warming up to the idea, that was true, but I didn’t like to be pushed into anything. One of these days, I would just show up at his winery. I would take the next step under my own steam. When I could build up the steam to take such a defining step.
I wouldn’t have put it past Wade to be on this cruise himself, despite the evidence that he was in Europe. I’d actually called for him on the telephone at the winery the day before sailing to see if I could catch him at a deception, but the woman I talked to claimed he was vacationing on the Danube. I wasn’t fully convinced then, though, and less so now.
The invitation that was slipped under my door the next morning let me know I couldn’t hide in my room. I was being invited to sit at the captain’s table for the Christmas Eve gala meal that night. That was the first time it dawned on me that I hadn’t even given a thought that I’d be at sea on Christmas Day and away from anyone I knew. Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day had been a time when we’d go around visiting family and close friends. I didn’t have many close friends and very little family left, but the previous Christmas I had managed to scrape up enough of both to have some feel for the Christmas spirit.
Still when night came on both nights of the previous Christmas, I got nearly snookered by myself with Christmas wine, went to my solitary bed—wearing the silky red sleeping shorts Wade had given me, I must admit—and masturbated myself into a hazy sleep.
We wouldn’t reach Kings Wharf in Bermuda until the morning of the 26th. Until then, I would be out at sea with temptation at every turn.
I didn’t know if it was some sort of sacrilege to turn down an invitation to the captain’s table for Christmas Eve, but I’d brought the sleeping shorts and I could order the wine in. I could do no worse this Christmas Eve than I had done the last—and I would not have taken that irrevocable step of having sex with another man.
I called for the room porter and asked him how I could convey my regrets—that I had neglected to bring a suit, let alone a tux, on the cruise. The porter smiled, left, and within twenty minutes had returned with a tuxedo on a hanger that fit me like a glove.
Mid afternoon on Christmas Eve, decked out in my tux—in which I had admit I looked really, really good—I left my room in search of alcoholic support and went to the lounge. Most of the men—all on the frenzied make because this was that sort of cruise—were topside at the swimming pool. I briefly looked out on that deck before going to the lounge and saw that, as expected, there was a major sex orgy in progress out there.
I retreated quickly to the lounge in the fantail of the boat on a deck that included just that lounge, the dining room, and the central atrium with the reception desk.
The lounge was decorated for Christmas, which I didn’t find to be a surprise, but what did surprise me was that seeing the decorations and hearing the Christmas music made me feel both sad and maudlin at the same time.
Other than the two bartenders, who both gave me very warm smiles when I came in and ordered my first of several drinks, there was only one other man in the lounge. He was gray haired and patrician looking. In fact, I thought I recognized him as a popular leading man in British movies—swashbuckling in his early movies and a suave heartthrob for middle-aged women in his later years. He was smoking a cigarette, had a snifter with brandy or port in his hand, and was viewing the Christmas tree and, beyond that, the wake that was endlessly churning off the stern of the ship as it steamed east. He, like me was wearing a well-cut tuxedo, and he, more than I, I was sure, looked like it was exactly what he should be wearing.
I sat half way across the lounge from him, taking in the same view that he was. I had tossed off three drinks, preparing myself to socialize at the captain’s table. I had no idea he even knew I was there until he spoke, in a sad, but beautifully modulated and resonating British baritone.
“You seem as melancholy as I feel,” he said. “I came on this cruise to forget and all I can do is remember. Surely, you are too young and blessed to also be wallowing in doom and gloom here in the lounge. I would have thought you would be carousing with the best of them topside.”
“I wasn’t aware what kind of cruise it was,” I answered.
“Ah. And you find it all repugnant? You are afraid that, with your glorious looks, you will be ravished?”
I laughed at that. My answer surprised even me, though, and I have no idea why I responded with such unrealized honesty. “No, not exactly. I’m afraid that it’s what I would want. A man who wants me has tricked me to come on this voyage. I think he hopes I will be ravaged and will come back to him with open arms.”
“And that would be bad? Come, come over closer and sit with me. I find that talking with someone else would be comfort. It surprises me that it would. I came in here thinking otherwise.”
I moved over closer to him, where I still had the same view of the tree and the ship’s wake that he had, though. One of the bartenders refreshed my drink. I was feeling quite mellow from the booze and that must have made me loose tongued. We sat in silence for a few moments.
“I asked if that would be bad—if what your hopeful lover wants for you—for both of you—is a bad thing.”
“Well, it came as quite a surprise when he first told me what he wanted. But over the months, I admit that I’ve found the prospect increasingly attractive.”
“Then perhaps you don’t need whatever he wishes for you on this cruise. Perhaps you just need to return to him and give yourself to him. You will never know if it’s the right thing for you or not unless you give it a try. And you seem the steady type. I doubt it will knock you on your feathers even if you find it isn’t for you.”