Moodily I stared out the train window. The day before Christmas Eve. On the platform of the Boston station, couples reunited, kissing and hugging. Mothers cried and clung to fresh boys in uniform as they headed off to basic training. The war had changed things; the place was somber and not decorated much for Christmas this year. The mood was grim and filled with dread, instead of Christmas cheer and joy. Sure. People tried; they tried to look happy and hopeful for the sake of the kids that hung around their knees, not understanding. They carried presents. But their eyes told the truth: they all knew some of these boys wouldn't be coming back from Germany or wherever they were headed, and they all hoped it would be someone else. Not them, not theirs.
Just turned 18, I might've been going with them. Some of my classmates had already come up in the draft. The government would let them graduate, but that was only five months away. Everyone prayed the war would be over by then.
Out the train window I watched a lot of my classmates from Brighton Academy get off the train and go in a big, laughing group to meet their parents. They shrugged off their mothers' hugs and then disappeared. Most of us lived in Boston. The dorms shut down over Christmas holiday, except for a skeleton staff and a few scholarship students who were too poor to travel home.
I should've been getting off the train with everyone else. This was my stop.
I hate Christmas.
My first class compartment was empty except for a fat old man who kept smoking. His cigars - how did he get cigars during this war? - put off an odor that made me first dizzy, then nauseous. Coughing and wheezing, I gasped air as I went to the club car. My lungs ached and rattled as I coughed.
The club car was crowded and smoky, noisy with soldiers laughing too loud in their forced high spirits, but I managed to find a seat in the corner by the window. Outside, the sky was looking more and more threatening. It was probably going to snow again. Old snow crusted the landscape chugging by out the window as the train moved out of Boston. I leaned my forehead on the cool window. The train wheels thudded on the track in a soothing rhythm that soon had my eyes drooping.
"Anybody sitting here?"
There was music in the voice. I didn't have to look up to know who it was but I raised my eyes. Russell Stuivers. Star quarterback of Brighton Academy. Glorious, Apollo in the flesh. Wide shoulders and narrow, graceful hips. Dark hair, blue eyes, a rugged but boyish face, and a smile that sent a sudden, undeniable shiver down my spine, finally lodging somewhere in my groin. He had that affect on me. Perhaps he did on everyone. He was an athlete and therefore a denizen of another world from the one I lived in. From afar I watched him and his ilk with half envy and half lust. To both be them and to be had by them. To be taught, to be possessed.
"Uh, uh." I stumbled and stammered a second before I managed to motion him to sit down. We were in an English class together last year and he at least recognized me as a familiar face. I remembered his smooth voice as he read Shakespeare, stumbling a bit over the unfamiliar words. I remembered how his reading gave me chills. I remembered how his voice intruded, a few nights, in my dreams.
"Everybody else got off the train in Boston, where are you going on to, Gerald?" Russell grinned as he glided into the seat next to me. My breath caught. He knows me!
"Uh," I stuttered again before coming up with a coherent answer. "My grandmother's in Chicago."
"Hey, that sounds nice," he said sincerely. It wasn't nice at all, actually, but all I did was listen enraptured as he went on. "I'm getting off in Gary. I haven't been home since summer. I couldn't afford the ticket over Thanksgiving but I've been saving my money. I can't wait for some of my mom's cooking!" Russell grinned at me. "What about you, excited to see your family?"
"I didn't know you even knew my name," I suddenly blurted without thinking. As soon as the words left my mouth I felt stupid. What a pathetic thing to say.
"Sure I do," Russell said with his dazzling smile. "The smartest guy in school, how could I not know you?"
"Not the smartest," I mumbled, my face turning red as I sank into the seat. At this moment nobody would've taken me for anything near smart. But I just couldn't believe he'd sat down next to me and was talking to me like we were great friends. We'd never exchanged a word before; but for someone like him, so easy and social, any familiar face would do for such a long trip I supposed.
"Smart enough. I'm starved!" Suddenly he reached in his pocket and drew out a paper-wrapped bundle. It was a sandwich from the dining hall. He worked there, actually. Russell was on a football scholarship. A charity student. But the funny thing was, in our school where only the richest got in, nobody even cared that he was poor. Even while he was clearing tables in the dining hall he was laughing and joking with his group of friends, like he was sitting there with them and not cleaning up their dirty dishes. He didn't shrink into the background and fade to invisible like the other scholarship boys. He saw no shame in it, so no one else did either. The other boys competed to be Russell's friend. It wasn't just his athletic ability; I saw now it was the open warmth of his personality, expansive enough even to include a skinny, glasses-wearing, sickly thing like me.
"Let's go to the dining car." Suddenly I stood up.
"I can't... I'll just eat this. That's why I brought it." He grinned and I understood.
"You need something hot. Come on, I'll buy yours. Please."
"I can't let you do that." The smile dimmed and I felt like the sun had gone behind the clouds, darkening my world. I'd do anything to get its warmth back.
"I want to," I insisted. I smiled. "After all if not for you we'd be dead last in the division again."
After a moment of consideration the grin was back full force. Football was something he understood; and I imagined that more than once, the rich alums had taken him out to nice restaurants to discuss the team and its plans. The players were treated like movie stars. I didn't know a thing about football and didn't really care, until this minute, because I could tell that Russell liked having an appreciative audience for his stories and knowledge of the game. He let me buy him dinner without any more fuss.
Outside the window it was starting to snow pretty hard. The little candles on the tables of the dining car flickered against the blackness of the cold windows. Over a couple of watered-down drinks back in the club car, Russell told me about his family. His dad was a barber and his mom was working in a defense plant. He told me about his four sisters and his wonderful parents, about how even though every dollar was stretched three ways, their house was always full of music and laughter. I loved watching him smile when he talked about the little house they lived in, about his dog he couldn't wait to see, and the piano his mother played every night.
And Christmas. He described it so that I could really see it. Even with the rationing his mother managed to have a goose and home made pies. There wasn't money for presents, but they always took baskets to the poor, and on Christmas Eve the whole family went together to midnight services at church. His smile was radiant as he described it, and in my mind I couldn't help picturing my grandmother's vast, cold house, devoid of Christmas cheer except for the kitchen, where the housekeeper sang holiday carols while she worked. Presents from my parents – hammered silver cuff links sent up from Mexico, or a gold-plated office set that came from New York in lieu of a post card.
"And my mom," Russell was saying, "She's just terrified I'm going to be called up. I want to go - I'd join up - but it would just kill my mom. Maybe after school's over..."
This reminder of the draft and the war made us both run out of steam.
"What about you?" he asked with a weak smile. "You going to join up after graduation?"
His big blue eyes got even wider. "4-f? Really? Why?" he asked in a hushed voice, glancing around to make sure no one had heard. 4-f. Unfit for service by reason of mental of physical defect. Too fat, too crippled, maybe even queer. 4-f was a label of shame.
I knocked on my breastbone. "My heart. Some kind of defect I've had since I was born. It's a hole. Also, there's something with my lungs, where I can't get enough oxygen."
"Really?" He stared at me, his eyes darting down to take me in. I could see it making sense to him now: my weakness, my puny size, my frail body. My defect, made plain for the world to see. There was no question I wasn't fit to fight. So instead of the derision and the whispered rumors, I got pity. "Is it... I mean, are you going to...?" The question petered out as he couldn't bring himself to ask point blank if I was dying.
"I'm not supposed to know this." I laughed bitterly, a sound that made my own skin scrawl. "The doctors always take my parents into another room. But I can hear them. I could die any time. They didn't even expect me to live this long."
His mouth opened slightly as he kept staring, transforming me in his mind from someone just puny and frail like a runt puppy to someone who was possibly fatally ill. I hated his pity but at the same time I reveled in it. It fed the abundance I already cherished for myself.
"That's why I can't play sports or do anything too strenuous. If my heart beats too fast, it could be dangerous. The doctors don't know what could happen, so I have to stay inside... stay quiet... not get too excited. Too much excitement could kill me. So my parents shipped me off to Brighton Academy so I'll be safe from anything exciting."
"But surely they just want what's best for you," Russell offered. His kindness would have made me happy, a runt puppy wiggling its tail for its master, but now all my anger and bitterness was beginning to spill out, and once it started, I was afraid it may not stop.
"Sure they do. They have social responsibilities, they have events to go to, their friends expect them in Florida every year for Christmas. So they ship me off to Grandmother's instead. Every Christmas, every summer. Summer is the height of the social season and they can't just let everyone down. I can't travel, I can't go to parties or horse races or charity balls. They want what's best for me, so they send me away. That's what they've always done."
"Your own parents?" Russell looked shocked. I saw his eyes going over me. I saw what was in them.
"I'm nothing but an embarrassment to them. They don't say it, but I know they think it. Beautiful people like them don't have sickly runts like me. They have beautiful children who play football in college and marry rich."
Angrily I got up. I was going back to my first class compartment and leaving him here in this dingy lounge with his wrapped-up sandwich. I started to walk away until I heard him speak.
Nobody called me Jerry. Nobody had ever called me Jerry. I stopped. My anger melted away as I turned around and saw his eyes, confused as I walked away. I smiled. Maybe I was just being a fool, but I saw something in those eyes. Maybe it was his voice, coming from my dreams of months ago. But I wanted to believe he saw me as something other than a poor little rich kid, an object of pity. I wanted to believe he saw me as a friend.
"You know... it's gonna be awful uncomfortable sleeping in coach. Why don't you come to my compartment? There's only one other person in there and there's lots of extra room. If a conductor comes I'll tell him I invited you."
At the next stop, the other occupant of my compartment got off. Russell and I relaxed into the cushions on opposite sides, facing each other. I found it hard to look him straight in the eye, but I also couldn't look anywhere else. I didn't want to look anywhere else. No one else came into the compartment at the stop and so I was completely alone with Russell. It was impossible to be nervous around him; he was too open, too friendly. I warmed to him reluctantly even as I wanted to hang on to my self -pity. I listened and listened as he told me his dreams. He loved playing football; it had opened up a whole new world for him by bringing him to Brighton Academy. But what he really loved... his real passion... was singing. The admission embarrassed him but I found myself thrilled. I found myself aching to buy him a music teacher and a practice room and anything else in the world. To lavish him with everything he deserved.
"Why aren't you in the choir? Brighton has one of the best music programs -"
"I could never do that." He blushed deeper. And he was probably right. In addition to the time taken away from football, the music teachers and students would never accept a football player - a charity student! - into their exclusive club. The social structure at Brighton was iron clad over generations and not even someone as glorious as Russell could fight that.
As we talked through the evening and late into the night, the storm outside increased in intensity. The snow was so thick there was nothing but a white mass, and ice crusted on the windows as the temperature dropped. The wind howled loudly enough to be heard over the thudding of the wheels on the tracks.
Midnight. I looked at my watch and grinned. "It's Christmas Eve."
"Merry Christmas." Nodding thoughtfully, he stared at me a minute before he spoke. "Get off the train in Gary with me, Jerry. Spend Christmas with us. Have a real family Christmas, even if it's not your own family."
His words made me tremble. He was such a beautiful person, inside and out. In my world - kids in clothes much too costly for wartime, left in snowy boarding schools up East while our parents wintered in Coral Gables - such people didn't exist. We were all too busy being ironic.
In an all boys school it was inevitable. There was always going to be an undercurrent, a pull of confused longing, that mixture of admiration and unattainable desire. But I'd never known anyone like Russell before. What would it be like? Mother, smiling and carving a goose; sisters exchanging handmade gifts while Dad smoked his pipe and beamed? The cover of the Saturday Evening Post made real, made real, with me in it, sitting at the table with everyone else waiting for a slice of goose, smiling a huge smile. But then I remembered, I wasn't like them. Even something as simple as that picture was out of my reach.
"I can't," I answered softly. "I'd love to, Russell. I would. I just... you know, my... my heart, I have to be careful..."
He dipped his head in understanding. At that moment, the train pulled up on a small stop. Our eyes met across the compartment with worry in them as we felt the train slide on the tracks, the brakes not finding purchase against the snow and ice. There was a frightening moment until the train finally stopped. Bustling outside in the corridor; a long wait. Finally a conductor put his head in. Told us the train couldn't go in this storm and wasn't moving until the tracks were cleared. Sometime tomorrow at the earliest. And we couldn't stay on the train because the electrics had to be shut down.
"Shit." Russell cursed. His eyes went around as he wondered what to do. I stood.
"Come on. If we want to find a room somewhere, we have to hurry before all the other passengers get to them first."
"But I can't, Jerry, I don't have money for a room, I'll just sleep on a bench at the station," Russell protested even as I started getting our luggage together. He'd brought his one suitcase into the compartment with him, just so no one would bother it. I ignored him and since I had his bag, he had no choice but to follow me, protesting vehemently the whole way.
Despite our speed in disembarking, all the station hotel had left was a room with a single bed. Russell ordered me to take it, he'd sleep at the station, but I wouldn't hear of it. We could share. There was no way he was sleeping on a cold bench in the train station while I slept in a comfortable, warm bed.
"I hope my mom's not too worried," Russell said as we carried our bags upstairs. He insisted on taking the heavy ones without trying to be too obvious that he was doing it out of consideration for my condition. I really was feeling a bit weak, I needed to rest. "She expects me home by noon."
"Can you phone her?"
"No phone," he admitted, turning on lamp in the room. It really was tiny - barely enough room to turn around. Nowhere to sit but the bed. But it was clean, and relatively warm. Better than the train station.
"What about a telegram?"
Russell laughed, dropping our brags on the floor. "Than she really would be worried! Where I come from telegrams only bring one kind of news. Bad. She'll figure out what happened."
To call the bed comfortable was a stretch. It felt hard when I sat down on the edge, suddenly short of breath. Russell looked worried as he sat down next to me, asking me if I was okay. I nodded impatiently, brushing off his concern, but he insisted that I lie down.
People had been fussing over me my entire life. I hated it. But I was content to lie there as Russell slipped my shoes off and told me in a gentle but commanding voice to be still and rest. I watched him from the bed as he hung our coats on the back of the door and put the shoes neatly to the side. I could watch him all night, or for the rest of my life. He was so manly, so... purposeful.
Yawning, Russell flipped off the light. The room was dark, but not so dark I couldn't see him in the dim light that came through the thin and battered curtains at the window. I lay perfectly still as he unbuttoned his shirt and neatly hung it on the doorknob. His undershirt was bright white. I saw his arms - strong, pale - and his shoulders. I watched as he unfastened his belt and slipped off his pants, folding them properly even in the dark. I could just see his underwear, his legs, his dark socks.
Under the covers I was hard and erect. Inside my clothes, which I still wore, I felt blazing hot and damp with sweat. In the dark he looked like an image from my dreams. The darkness and the silver light bleached him of all color, only shadow, and I gasped for air as he pulled the blanket up to slide into the narrow bed next to me.
My sudden breath made him jump. "I thought you were sleeping," he observed softly.
"No..." I stammered. "Not yet. I... I'm just gonna go..."
I climbed out of bed over him. So grateful for still wearing my clothes, which hid my erect cock from his eyes. Breathing too hard, I edged out the door to the toilet down the hall. I couldn't let Russell see me like this. I couldn't let him know what thoughts were in my head. I'm not queer, just....
I didn't turn the light on. I closed my eyes, I unfastened my pants and pushed them down to my knees, I wrapped my hands around my thick and sturdy length. I stroked. It was wrong to think of him - so masculine, so pure - but I did. I thought of him as I stroked my rigid cock until the pleasure coiled inside me like a tight spring and then shot out, drenching my hand with its thick essence.
As my knees went weak and the pleasure ebbed away, I forced myself to calm. Breathing too hard, heart racing. I couldn't pass out or die right here - cock in hand, pants around my knees, in the station hotel somewhere in Pennsylvania. The image made me giggle, a high-pitched squeak that didn't sound like me. I washed my face and hands. Relief. Now I could lie down next to Russell, so gloriously fresh in his underwear, and sleep.
His eyes seemed closed when I re-entered the room and glanced at him. Slowly I took off my own clothes, draping them over the upright suitcase. He was asleep. It was good he was asleep. I could lie next to him in the night until the sun came up and stole my desires from me.