In a moment of weakness, Johnny put in a call to his mother to ask for a loan.
He called her around 3:00, which was always too many hours after the day had levered him up from warmth at Ben’s side, stimulated him with caffeine, fed and washed him, exhausted him again, and fed him again. By 3:00, he had forgotten what the world was outside his office building. Johnny was poor, true enough, and at this particular hour, he felt more certain than ever that he would always be poor. This was when he put in the call to his mother.
Instead of a moment of redemption and intense feelings felt when she picked up and he heard her voice, however, the phone just rang. So, Johnny went to the water cooler, ate a snack, and it was as if he’d never thought of the woman.
When she returned the call six hours later, he was in a much more tranquil state of mind. He had indulged in a bottle of red wine from the local food co-op that was not under $10 and bought a lemon sorbet for dessert.
As soon as he saw her name on his cell phone, he sighed and almost didn’t answer. As soon as he did, though, she launched into an apology.
“I’m so sorry, dear, for not calling you back sooner. I was out for ice cream with some of the girls from my book club and the place was actually having a grand opening, so we all got free tastings and a little wine to sample. All for free, you know, and some of these young guy musicians from the college were there, too, playing, so we ended up staying for hours, but we were really cold because there was a bad draft coming from the front door—so many people walking in and out—so finally I was like, ‘Girls, I think I’d better get home before I get sick and catch whatevers going around.’”
“That’s OK,” Johnny said.
“So then I just got in the car and drove home, but I picked up a little half-sandwich from the Safeway on the way home because even though I’d had plenty of ice cream with the girls, I hadn’t really had dinner before the book club, which was around 6:00, so I was a bit hungry. So, I just stopped at the store and then I got home and noticed you’d called. So, what’s up?”
“Just calling to say hello.” There was no way he’d jump to the question of the loan before giving the woman some time.
“Good.” Johnny tried to recall anything decent to tell his mother about the way he spent his days: Calling a preprogrammed telephone number for a loan collection company and penetrating the guilt of the debt-encumbered individuals until they agreed to pay off the exorbitant interest accrued and original sum. (Whether an additional loan was required to pay off the original loan and interest was something Johnny had been told by management to not consider.) The only events worth remembering were ones that he was ashamed of: his indulgences, overspending on wine and sweets, and those naughty things he’d texted to Ben as often his Johnny needed to stay awake. (He clambered onto sexual impulses like a vine twists itself around and around a fence to reach up into sunlight.)
Again, the question gave him pause before answering, but only a moment’s. Ben was unequivocally excellent.
“Amazing, as always.”
“He’s getting one of his research papers published in a science journal later this month. And he’s presenting his master’s thesis in two months, so he’s trying to get ready for that.”
“Yeah, he’s great,” Johnny said and because he had now deceived his nerves into diminishing themselves, he broached his own subject.
“But I’m in a pinch. Financially.”
“I had to put down a huge deposit for this apartment that we moved into and since the cat kind of sprayed all over the last apartment, we aren’t going to get that deposit back. So it’s just money that’s lost.”
“Oh. How much?”
“We could work out a payment plan! I’d pay you, like, in installments regularly. I’d calculate it all out, of course.”
“Just tell me how much you need, sweetie.”
Johnny named his price. It was more than a thousand, but less than two. And when she said yes, of course!, and they moved on to talk of when she could drive up from Springfield and visit him (“I’ll just have to check with my work schedule, but I’ll do that on Monday and let you know,” he told her). She signed off, breezy and with a command to hug Ben.
Johnny walked into their colorful little kitchen area and poured himself another glass of wine. He took a sip and looked at the bottle. He wondered where the money went. Of course, a good amount of money went to wine, a lot to the bills, a little to his wardrobe, a little to presents to Ben. At least for one night, though, he could rest without the screech of those debts disturbing the silence.
But, instead, he lay awake for hours. When at last he fell asleep, he dreamed in a length of sixty years. He was seven and hoarding candy from his older sister in his bedroom and watching Star Wars. He was loosing his virginity too quickly freshmen year and not letting himself remember her expression for the rest of his life. He was no longer young. He had shamed himself in room after room; all of these rooms were situations, that is, that would make a good story if the details didn’t reveal his frailty so well. He was going to die. He was dead. In fact, he died time after time in this dream. He woke up to another day of shame with tears streaming from his eyes. He would have woken Ben up to ask him for comfort if the man hadn’t looked so beautiful, undisturbed, as he was.
He couldn’t articulate where this underskirt of shame began its wrap around him. He could list it, though. Of course he could. But telling the story—the loans, the unfinished degree, the conservative town he was in because it was good for Ben, his face’s hideous distortions of beauty he saw every morning in the bathroom mirror as he grew older—made him so uncomfortable. Maybe the only thing he was good at was the not-screwing-it-up-with-the-boyfriend.
Johnny looked over at him while Ben was sleeping and wondered how a man so assuredly symmetrical would spend time with him. If nothing else went right while Johnny wormed (in his words) out of debt and tried to think of a career, he would have been a good man to Ben. Of that, at least, there was certainty.