Under the Skinbysr71plt©
"You must be Mr. Markham. I'm afraid you're almost too late," the elderly lady said at the cottage door in the sparsely populated outskirts of Lelystad, itself on the outskirts of Amsterdam. "And there will be no chance of getting material for your article, I'm sorry to say. Perhaps you might as well have the taxi wait."
"I'm sorry, should I not bother to come in?" I answered her. "I've come a long way, and I'm actually an old friend of Alfred's. I've not only come to interview him. I am concerned about how he's doing."
"Oh, I didn't realize you were personal friends. I didn't mean you shouldn't come in and visit. I'm sorry to leave that impression," the woman said, backing up from the door so as not to appear to be blocking my entry. "He won't be able to speak with you and may not know you were even here, but you've come all this way. From New York City, isn't it? Please do come in. We can always call a taxi to take you back to Schiphol Airport when you're ready."
I turned and waved the taxi off and entered the home, which was comfortably furnished.
"Perhaps you would like to visit the facilities before visiting with Alfred. I'll make some tea." The woman seemed anxious now to make me welcome.
"Yes, please," I said, and she showed me where a guest bath was. I watched her waddle toward the back of the house, where the kitchen must be. Her English was very good, which was a relief. I didn't speak Dutch, and I was afraid of what I might find here. It had taken me some time to track them down and more time to convince the paper that there was a story here. That had been on false pretenses, as the story didn't mean nearly as much to me as seeing Alfred again. I'd read in the press that the movie actor was seriously ailing, and it had been far too long since we'd touched base. I should have known he'd have a house here in the Netherlands—even here in Lelystad—but I hadn't given it much thought.
I'd left it almost too late. I'd heard of the stroke the week before I left New York. I had been intending to see him since I'd seen the South African film he'd been in. I had been pleased that he'd finally made his peace and gone back there. It then had taken time to form up a story idea on Alfred Sobhuza. It wasn't that I couldn't afford the travel; it was that I was so busy at the Times that I couldn't get the time off for a private trip.
When I came out of the guest bath, the woman was standing nearby. She had a tray with a small teapot on it and just one cup. Looking at the solitary cup brought home to me for the first time just how one-sided this visit would be.
"Just so you know. He's not alone in the room," she said as she paused in our walk down the hall.
"I know that Jan Martans is here too," I answered. I could see that a slight look of concern slipped off her face and she turned to continue leading me down the corridor.
"I'll take you in to them," she said. "Be aware that the doctors can give us no idea how much Mr. Sobhuza will understand and how much Mr. Martans will retain. You did say on the phone that you know Mr. Martans too, didn't you?"
"Yes. We've met. We didn't know each other as well as Alfred and I knew each other, though." I almost laughed at that. Alfred and I had known every square inch of each other. We'd known how it felt for Alfred to be inside me, pumping me hard as I writhed under him and moaned for him. No one had possessed me as Alfred had.
She led me down a corridor and into a cheery room, with windows on two sides that brought in the afternoon sun. It had rained all the way from the airport to here, but the clouds had cleared after I'd entered the house and all was bright now. The windows facing the door I entered overlooked a garden. There were several windows in the roof giving the effect of bringing the garden inside. The tops of the colorful flowers showed above the window sill, glistening in the sun from the raindrops still adhering to their petals, and an apple tree in blossom could be seen in the yard beyond.
A man in his mid fifties—I knew he had been born in 1963—was sitting in a straight chair with his profile to one of the windows. Although the view to the garden was dazzling, he was looking into the room, at the bed, placed against the wall to the left of where I stood. He was looking intently at the bed, but his eyes were blank. They gave me the impression that he could see but that he couldn't fully comprehend.
This would be Jan Martans. I'd met him once—here, actually, in Lelystad, but in another house in the early 1990s. He'd been much younger looking then, and beautiful—blond and willowy and full of humor and vitality, even though, at the time, what we had to speak about was sadness. I guess he was much as I was; we probably would have been nearly identical in our early twenties. At least Alfred had said so. Jan was a fine looking man even now, but the impression he gave was one of being vacant—here in body, but not in mind. I wasn't surprised. I understood that he had Alzheimer's and hadn't been "here" for a number of years. Alfred had become his caregiver, increasingly pulling away from the movie world to be able to devote time to Martans.
Now Alfred needed a caregiver of his own—if only for a few more days.
The man in the bed also was still handsome, but he had withered since I last saw him. I'd always thought of him as a mountain of a man—powerful, ebony black, with an overpowering voice and presence. He had done very well in movies, but his forte had been his stage work, his Othello second to none, his voice of such resonant richness that his voiceovers were recognized by all and were highly sought after by movie producers and makers of television commercials.
Well, there would be no more voiceovers. I could see that by looking at him lying in the bed, under the covers—a withered old man at sixty. This should have been the height of his vitality and presence in the world, but a series of strokes had laid him low, the last of which, just a few short weeks ago, had put him into a virtual coma that was now drawing to an end.
I'd almost come too late. Undoubtedly too late for either of them. I hoped it wasn't too late for me. I had much to tell Alfred about how he had influenced my life.
"You can draw that chair up from over there if you wish to stay for a few moments," the woman said. She was being kind, giving me a chance to say I couldn't stay. There was nothing really to stay for—two shells of once-vital men who now were in worlds that trapped them from connection outside of their shells—and, worse, kept them from each other.
"Thank you," I answered. "I would like to sit with them for a while, if you don't mind. I have quite a bit to tell Alfred." I had instinctively taken my pen and notebook out, but now I slipped them back into the satchel I had hanging over my shoulder. The woman gave me an approving look. I could tell that she had harbored an apprehension that I was here to exploit the two men who were in her care in some unknown way. I could tell by the way she looked at them and now moved around the room tucking in this and that around them that she did care for them both.
"I'll just place your tea over here on this table and give you time alone with them. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me. Take as long as you need. It may not seem so, but I think they'll know, in their own ways, that you are here and visiting with them." After giving a searching look at both of the invalids to see if there was any more way she could give them comfort, she gave me a little smile and left the room.
I pulled the chair over to the side of the bed and sat down. Alfred's eyes were open, looking up at the ceiling, not, I'm sure, seeing anything—although I told myself, because I needed to believe it, that there was a slight hint of recognition there of my presence. Jan's eyes remained focused, to the extent that he could focus, on Alfred from over near the window.
I could see a framed photograph on the nightstand by the bed. I knew the photo well, although I hadn't seen it for nearly thirty years. Alfred and Jan, as young men, smiling hopefully into the camera. I knew it had been taken in Cape Town, South Africa, sometime in the early 1980s.
"Alfred, it's me, Luke Markham. Remember me? Remember that miserable Off-Broadway play we were in, Brothers All, back in 1988? So much has happened since then—since a few years later when we last saw each other. I want to tell you what I've been doing since then. Remember how you said I'd never make it as an actor—that I cared too much and that I was too intense, too naïve? Well I wanted to tell you that . . ."
* * * *
About all we had going for us in the 1988 production of Brothers All, according to the director, were the tension chemistry between Alfred Sobhuza and me—which Aly was too repressed to realize was sexual more than it was racial—and Alfred's anger. When Alfred put anger and indignation in his role, he was a lion on stage. Once the anger was gone, merely a week into the Off-Broadway run of the play, all of the pizzazz sank out of the production and we closed to empty halls. I didn't have the courage to tell her that the dissipation of the anger was probably my fault. I thought I wanted to be an actor and you don't piss off directors if you want to land parts. Alfred was the only real actor on stage in that production, though.
And, unknown to the rest of us—at least initially—Alfred wasn't really acting.
The play was doomed from the start. It had, I'm sure, been selected to galvanize and showcase Alfred's powerful black body, voice, and charismatic acting, and it did that, at least. It was one of those self-righteous, preachy, civil rights plays that were popular in the sixties, but it was being staged in the late eighties. The subject was Apartheid and how inhuman Apartheid was and how degrading it was to the noble black African races. But the play was staged in 1988 and by 1991, Apartheid was officially over—it already was on its way out in 1988. It didn't need the anger and exposure of unacknowledged injustice that would have worked in the sixties. It just needed an exit strategy that wasn't as damaging as Apartheid was.
The play also was wordy, a dialogue between just two players, Alfred Sobhuza, playing the black activist on trial for insurrection in Apartheid South Africa, and me, Luke Markham, playing his foil, a white prosecutor, whose arrogance, prejudice, and ignorance are eventually stripped from him and beaten to a pulp in nearly two hours of largely, at the time, unnecessary indignation raged by Alfred's character.
I was wrong for the role on so many levels, only having gotten the part because I had slept with the manager of the theater, who gave us a cut rate in booking. I was much too young for the part. Alfred, at thirty-four had to play something closer to twenty, which he did admirably. But I, at twenty had to play something more like thirty-four, and that just didn't work. I was small of stature, blond, and somewhat lean and androgynous of features. No manner of stage makeup could convincingly make me older or even halfway believable as a foil to the charismatic black man who was Alfred Sobhuza. Beyond that, although I believe I was a halfway decent actor, I was no way on par with Alfred. I couldn't hold my own with him on stage even after he had lost his anger.
Alfred knew I wasn't up to it and spent half his time suggesting other professions I might try. He seemed stuck on my becoming a writer after he'd seen a portfolio of the short stories I'd written. The other half of his time with me he spent in legitimately being disdainful of my motivation and politics. What impressed me, though, and that made it so easy for me to lay under him and open my legs for him was that he didn't give up on helping me realize my fulfilling path in life. He seemed genuinely to care for me when it had been so hard for him to find people of my color who cared about him in any way, indeed who were willing to consider him as human at all.
"You're a 'stay in your comfort zone' activist, especially on the subject of Apartheid," he'd say. "You know nothing about the effects of racial inequality. Your views are simplistic and pie in the sky. You want to be angry about it and an activist on it just because it's popular to do. You'd never bleed for it."
Although I thought at the time that he was being hypocritical, because I was as critical of Apartheid as he was being—indeed I was mimicking his expressed anger at the institution—I also slowly came to realize that my being raised in the American South, in Danville, Virginia, hadn't kept me from being imbued with the racial prejudices that I mouthed opposition to.
It required Alfred to fuck those prejudices out of me, a process that led to the demise of our stage production.
The first three nights of the run had gone well enough, with the house being a bit more than half full and a good review—at least of Alfred's performance—promising to put more bums on seats. Neither of us could act on a full stomach, so we were going to various restaurants around the theater after the performance in search for a satisfactory balance of food quality, quantity, and inexpense. As we sat in a booth, menus in hand, waiting for service, we fell into going over the lines of one of our troublesome scenes.
"It isn't whether you are black or white but who you are under the skin that makes you a man." Alfred was bellowing out one of his lines.
Only then did we realize that not only were the other patrons in the restaurant nervously eyeballing us, but that we had landed in one of those still-existent establishments where, even in 1988 and in New York City, favor was not shown on a black man sitting with a white man and sharing a meal. Especially appalling to the type comfortable in this restaurant was that, through our stage play lines, the black man was making mincemeat of the white man's prejudicial statements. No one had taken our order. We'd been so engrossed in going over our lines that we'd been there for a half hour and no one had taken our order—and everyone had been angrily staring at us—at Alfred.
Alfred saw it before I did. He slammed down his menu, rose majestically from the booth, and made an exit from the restaurant that, if done on stage, would have gotten him a standing ovation. That is, from some other crowd than those who were in this restaurant. A waiter picked that moment to smirk, saunter over to the booth, and demonstrate an interest in taking my dinner order. He was full of sympathy for me for what I had to endure from what he called "that darkie."
The meaning of life—or at least in terms of how race entered into the meaning of life—all came together for me in that moment. Suddenly I understood. I'd been blind and just playing at it before then. They had just been lines from a play, but having them play out in a real-life scenario brought them into raw reality for me.
Embarrassed and ashamed and now angry myself, I dropped my menu, shoved the waiter aside as I rose from the booth, and left the restaurant in search of Alfred. I found him in a nearby alley, bouncing off the walls, seething with anger.
The chemistry that the director kept saying she saw between us in the play—the chemistry that was sexual, not intellectual—reared its head at that moment and I threw myself on him, hugging him tightly, trying to stop him from hurting himself by bouncing off the brick walls in the ally.
And I told him what I wanted from him—what I had known I wanted from him since the first day of rehearsals. It wasn't because I was sorry for him for how he was treated for his color. It was purely sexual—that I wanted him inside me, the two of us merging as one. That color didn't matter to me. I wanted him to master me; I wanted to be his sexual slave.
He took me to his room in a fleabag hotel, not far from the theater, and he fucked my lights out. He took me hard and rough, pinning my relatively small body to the bed with his magnificently muscular one, taking the breath from me, and keeping me on the edge of not finding my next one. He was the most massively hung man I'd ever taken inside me, and he pounded me mercilessly, mustering up all of the anger he had with the world, and punishing me with it in a no-captives-taken ravishment in which pain, pleasure, and ecstasy rolled over me in almost equal proportions until we had both exploded. I lay there, under him, entirely open and vulnerable, sobbing, panting, and moaning, while, still half hard—and even then thicker and longer than any man I'd taken before—he throbbed inside me.
"Sorry," I heard him mutter as he rolled off me and to the side. "I lost my head. I've been wanting to fuck you—but not like that. I let my anger get the best of me. Not at you, not really. But . . . I'm sorry. I've hurt you."
There was no reason for him to apologize for fucking me, just the intensity of it. I'd begged him, back there in the ally, to take me someplace and fuck me. I'd begged for it.
"I understand," I said, and strangely enough I did. I didn't understand all of it, though. But I understood enough, just from that "gestalt" shock in the restaurant, to know that I hadn't understood any of it, not really, up to now. And that I wanted to understand it now. "You haven't hurt me," I said—although, physically, he had—"You've completed me. For the first time. It was like the ultimate first time. I am completely open to you, though. You can make me or destroy me now. The next time—"
"The next time? You don't want this again. You'll want to leave. I hope you won't—" He was moving away from me, getting ready to sit up on the side the bed and maybe even leave me—maybe to cover his magnificent, naked body, glistening in its ebony glory. That's not what I wanted.
"No, I don't want to leave. And I don't want you to leave either. Hold me. Please. Don't make this be the end of it. But I'm completely open to you now, vulnerable. If you care—and I completely understand if you don't—but if you care, don't just fuck me. Make love to me. If this is just sex to you, though, do whatever you want. I'll take whatever you have to give. I'll be grateful for whatever you do. You're body is magnificent. I die to have you inside me."
He turned back to me, stretching his body along mine, and took me in his arms. I turned my face to him and we kissed, a long, lingering kiss. I moaned as I felt the bulb of his cock come to rest at my entrance again. I lay there, groaning, as he teased my hole, probing it with the bulb as the muscles of my channel walls rippled in anticipation. Then he palmed the small of my back with a strong hand and I gasped as he pulled me into him, drew my passage, already reamed to his thickness, onto his cock in a long glide, and then started taking me in long, languid slides, fucking me deep, and, with a jerk and a little cry of his own, releasing his seed far up inside me.
Although it was not the hard, vigorous fucking I subsequently wanted and got from him, it was just as possessing, moving deep inside me when I was my most vulnerable to him and merging with me respectfully and with love. And it was the coupling that told me that, despite all that had been done to him, he was capable of caring. I can't say how often that sustained me in all the evil in the world that I observed and reported on in the following years. Through those years I'd wanted to tell him how great the gift was that he gave me with this insight and I almost left that to too late.
We just lay there afterward for a while, each gauging the breath of the other, trying to bring our breathing into synch with each other—not fully realizing that was what we were trying to do. As I cooled down, I looked around the room, trying to pick out in the dinginess of the temporary hotel room signs of him—clues to who he was—who he was other than the most forceful, virile, satiating lover I'd ever had. My first black lover—because of him and the desires he nurtured in me, not my last.