BEING COMPASSIONATE BY SCOTT PETERS
The following short story by Jean Loup was published in the sixth issue, September 1980, pp. 12-17, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
The illustrations, apart from the magazine cover, appeared with the story.
It was the sort of late summer afternoon that stops all industry: hazy sun, the smell of cut grass carried through the window on the lightest of humid breezes. Like an old man (which I’m not) I was nodding over my book when the phone rang.
Nurse Flemming’s voice: “It’s your boy again.”
“Not mine. I’m a single man — you never seem to learn.” The stubborn silence of female disapproval, “Okay, what's the trouble?”
“Spinach this time. It's all over him, and some of it’s on me. He yelled that it tasted like, well ... As he gets better he gets worse. In just two minutes I’m going to wheel his whole bed and traction thing right to the top of the stairs, and then ...”
“Push. That’s not nice.”
“John, I’ve got to talk to you. We must do something.”
I sighed mightily, “I’m just his dorm master.”
“Please,” I gave in, of course.
I crossed the Quad, ducking a low football pass from one running fourth-former to another, then climbed to the infirmary and marched immediately to Cory's room. Your first impression was of a boy who wasn’t so much injured as trying to operate some advanced kind of body-building apparatus. He was half sitting up, bare-chested, his arms, both in plaster casts, extended straight before him and fastened to ropes, which led to pulleys and weights over the foot of his bed. His legs were similarly attached, while a sort of truss about his waist kept him from sliding forward. What was bare of him, as well as the sheets within range, were decorated with his rejected lunch.
I took a towel and started to map up, making no effort to disguise my disgust.
“You can replace it with something edible, if you really want to be human,” he said. Cory claimed he was thirteen, which meant he had actually celebrated his twelfth birthday. Straight blond hair fell nearly to his scowling eyes which blazed their blue anger at me — and a kind of electric tension — certainly not the usual deference a boy shows to the master of his hall.
“I don’t feel very human at the moment,” I said, “and neither does Nurse Flemming. In fact if there weren’t laws against homicide ...”
“What am I supposed to do? I can’t fucking move. I can’t even scratch my nose, and I’m supposed to take that shit shovelled into my mouth and actually swallow it You want me to get well you gotta feed me. Food. I mean.”
“Cory, it’s what we all had at lunch today ...”
“I believe it — you just said you weren’t human. Well, I am. Still.”
There’s no reasoning with a runaway firehose, I closed the door on it and met Nurse Flemming with a schoolmasterly upward twitch of the eyebrow. Why she insisted on wearing those silly white uniforms and caps I’ll never know. Perhaps it was like a policeman’s badge, authority against the arousable adolescence bedded down in her care: she was young and, as my flesh had more than once tasted, enthusiastically female.
“It’s no fun for him, I’ll admit,” she said.
“He should have thought of that before he went joy-riding on his brother’s motorcycle.” Here, had I been a smoker, I would have lit up. Instead I diddled with a handy Q-tip. “There’s something more and I don't understand it. He acts like he’s about to jump out of his skin.”
“He is.” Nurse Flemming was looking at me as she did those nights when she invited me to bed: lips apart, a little smile.
“All right, you got it figured out?” I said.
“The first week there was pain, enough to keep his mind busy, the second week there was less. Now there’s nearly none at all. Think of it: three weeks without being able to move. He’s twelve. A very mature twelve I can tell you — personal observation of his nurse.”
I laughed. “I had never thought of that.”
“So . . .” It was a half-question, and, once out, it hung in the sultry air, serious in its absurdity.
“Good grief,” I said, “are you suggesting …? Well, okay, go ahead. I’ve heard about nurses giving nice surprises to old-timers at their hospital baths. I can keep a secret, as you know.”
She shook her head. “More to the point, so can I. You see, I’m not the one he could accept it from. In two years, maybe — if he grows up fast. Not now. It may not really be a man’s world, but every twelve-year-old believes it is.”
I actually gulped. “Maybe a friend,” I said desparately. “Every schoolboy has that kind of a buddy, hasn't he?”
Nurse Flemming looked down at her record book. “You would know about such things. Do you really want to suggest it to one of your charges?”
“I didn't think so.” Through the window came the thunk of a kicked football and an adolescent shout. “Well, it’s your decision, of course. I’ll promise to play guardian at his door.”
I went to the window and stared out, stirred by things I thought I had long put away. It really hadn’t been that many years ago: warm afternoons just like today spent on the banks of a muddy Nebraska river, brown blanket beneath us, the sun above, sheltering willows all around. And doing it and doing it and doing it.
I turned back. “I’ll see. I’ll check him out. You better keep tight on the security.”
Cory was surprised to see me return — he was a little subdued. I drew up a chair and sat down beside him. Surprisingly I felt on firmer ground with this boy, a member of my own sex, than with Nurse Flemming. “Okay,” I said, “what are we going to do?”
“I just want to get out of this. I want to be free.”
“To scratch your nose.”
“Among other things, yes.”
Now or never; the proverbial deep breath. “Cory, I’m going to stick my neck out and I sure as hell hope you deserve it.”
“Lie back, get comfortable, relax — close your eyes.”
He didn't move except to raise a cheek and the corner of his mouth.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said.
“That’s what the doctors always say.”
“I’m not a doctor. I’m your dorm master. I’m trying to solve what I figure is a major problem. Trust me?”
“Not exactly. Well ...”
This time he obeyed. I reached, searched, found.
“Holy shit!” His eyes were wide now, staring at me like a pair of poached eggs. His jaw dropped open, idiot fashion. “I mean, what ya doin’?”
My hand quickly told me Nurse Flemming had been right. “Easy,” I said, “back against the pillows, eyes closed. Don't sweat it. It’s only what you can't do yourself.”
“I’ll … be … damned” he said at last. And gave himself up to me.
I extracted a promise from him that he would start on the school work he was falling behind in. I would get tapes of his lectures and Nurse Flemming would play these for him. Occasionally I would drop in and check verbally how much he was absorbing. Four days later I received one of the cassettes back and, slipping it into place in the privacy of my room, heard, “Sir, Corey, here. I need checking out. I mean real bad. I thought you would of come yesterday already. You can’t just start this program and then not follow through. You got to monitor me before everything fouls up. Well, that’s all.”
He was right I had been avoiding him and I wasn't sure why. I put it down to embarrassment, shrugged and climbed the stairs to the infirmary. Cory greeted me with a big toothpaste smile. “Man, am I glad to see you, Sir! Shut the door. I been remembering and remembering and I’ll bet I know more about those lectures than any other guy, ’cause I’ve heard them all twice and three times and, of course, I had something to look forward to. Okay, before I show you what a super-ace student I’m becoming ... back on the pillows — yeah, I know — close your eyes, relax …!”
In the weeks that followed I came every two days, which, by Cory’s lights, was putting him on critically short rations. “Hell, I’m a fiend,” he confided to me once. “I’m a three time a day man, really. I’m just barely making it the way things are going now.”
“But I haven't the time for more,” I protested.
“Does it take much time?”
It didn't really, but I was becoming increasingly involved. It wasn't just the mechanics or the innovations in technique he was demanding (“Next time, Sir, bring some stuff?”) — and getting — but he was beginning to look at me while it was going on, something we never did back on that brown blanket in Nebraska. And then there was my regard for the boy himself and what was subtly happening to him. He had never been outstanding in his school work. He hadn’t, in fact, been very good at anything. Now, in English, especially, which I taught, there were flights of fancy and imagination that betrayed the onset of that enormous adolescent revolution which all gifted people undergo. It was I who was bringing this out in him. Under my touch, to use an expression closer to the truth than most, in his smile, his laugh, his fantasy — and even, despite the antiseptic ugliness of the casts and traction in which he was harnessed, in his body — he was becoming beautiful. At last I had to admit to myself that he was turning me sexually on.
“What a metamorphosis!” Nurse Flemming commented to me one day. “Are you sure you aren’t carrying therapy a little too far?”
“I’m not sure at all,” I said miserably.
“Well, it’s making my life a lot easier.”
The term was speeding ahead. October came and went. Cory left in an ambulance to undergo multiple surgery for one last time — and returned a week later tense as a pin-pulled hand-grenade. I averted the inevitable explosion in the usual way and we settled down to the old routine.
By now I wasn’t just attracted, I was in love. The sight, the smell, the touch of him — everywhere, but especially there — made my pulse pick up, the blood rise to my face. Nights I lay awake fighting it, rigid as Cory had been before I had rescued him. I threw myself into my work, which, I am afraid, became rather erratic: one day in class I was listless and, let’s face it, exhausted; another day I was winging high over the treetops of all the literature I was supposed to explicate, knowing my taped voice would soon be falling on the beautiful ears of my loved one — and I would actually mesmerize my class into not wiggling, spit-balling or farting for 25 solid minutes at a time. Psychotics speak to psychotics: all adolescents, and men in love, are mad.
Two great events loomed in the future and, under the press of work and tiredness, rushed toward the present: Christmas vacation and Cory’s medical release. The latter was a let-down for both the boy and me. I was present when they cut off the casts. His limbs simply wouldn’t move. They had warned him this would happen, of course, but boys always believe more in the infallibility of their bodies than in what adults tell them. Fighting back tears, he had to let them lift him onto a stretcher and put him in an ambulance to carry him to his convalescence at home.
I had two postcards from him over vacation. The first was in a hand so illegible it took me hours to decipher it; in the second it was stronger, a round schoolboy script. “I’m actually walking,” he wrote, “but not yet up to my usual karate kick.” Nights, alone. I would put the cards to my lips and feel the slightly raised stamps snugged down, I knew, by his precious but ephemeral spit.
Of all the vacations I have passed, that was the worst. What need would a convalescent boy have of his old English teacher friend? There might be a bond, of course, fading with time. Maybe in college he would remember me as that nice man who helped him out when he was sick — now, what the devil was his name?
I was so preoccupied with my love that I had little time to think my way through the other problem of what I really was — one, let’s face it, that I still haven't solved. I know what the law, the newspapers, the cops, the politicians and psychiatrists think of men like me, but I also know that there are other places, other times, societies uninfluenced by our terrible religion, where things were, and are, very different. Well, that’s another story, or I hope it will be. Nurse Flemming, to my initial embarrassment, was a help. She tackled me one day when I was moping around worse than usual.
“You could have fooled me. You could have fooled the world,” she said. “Just be careful. You and I know it’s normal, especially for the boy, but not everyone’s of a like mind.”
“I didn’t realise it showed,” I said.
“It doesn't, really, but after you stopped making love to me I was watching, Besides, I’m sort of a co-conspirator.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“So am I. But glad, for my own feelings, I knew in time.”
Cory didn't return with the others at the end of vacation. Word came down from the headmaster (I didn’t dare inquire myself) that the doctors felt he needed a little more time at home. Each day I awakened in an agony of anticipation; each night I went to bed disappointed. But then one Saturday afternoon while all the boys were out at a basketball game and I was working over the bottomless pile of themes which seem to make up 95 percent of an English teacher’s reality, there was a gentle knock on the door. I opened it to find Cory leaning on the door frame, glowing with good health and grace and friendliness — and so unbelievably handsome that I almost dropped through the floor.
“Well,” he said, as though that solved everything, “here I am.”
I just gulped, then stammered, “Good Good!” or something equally inane.
“Can’t I come in?” The little devil was actually enjoying my confusion,
“Yes, of course,” Steady, I thought, this is no time for fainting fits! “How was vacation? Was getting on your feet a drag?”
He nodded, sprawled, now, in my easy chair. “And painful. But, I can run and kick, and in a couple of months I can play sports again. I got scars — not big ones.” He began to roll up his sleeves to show me, then a crafty look came into his eyes and he said, “That’s stupid: you can see all of them tonight. Now what I want to mostly do is talk.”
We talked, and he needed the talk. Home had been dull. The flights of enthusiasm he had shared with me in that terrible little infirmary room had been met with boredom, or even vague worry, by his parents, who in any, event didn’t know what to do with a confined boy on their hands. It was wonderful to be back, to tell me about what he had read. “But don’t think,” he warned, “just because I turned into a regular old book-worm in order not to go bananas, I haven’t got a whole lot of hell stored up in me now.”
I listened and listened to my radiant genius, too fascinated to worry about the future or the nature of his need for me. It was more than a crumb he offered; it was the whole force of his happiness, his young enthusiasm. At last the spell was broken by a rumpus on the stairs — the horde of boys returning from their game, fighting for first position in the showers.
“Oh, God, here they are!” Cory said, getting up and pretending an annoyance I could see he didn’t really feel. “Till tonight, then, and don’t, for heaven’s sake, lock your door!”
I hardly remember how I passed the intervening hours. At ten, as I had been doing since time immemorial, I shut the hall down, saw that everyone was in his place, more or less, and the lights were out, and retreated back to my room, first to try to finish the last of the themes and then to bed.
There was a full moon in my window; it reflected off a blanket of January snow and saturated my bed with a sort of mother-of-pearl liquid light. I lay on my back, heart thundering in my ears. And then at last my door was opening and closing and Cory was turning back to lock it; now he was approaching me, at first just his bare chest bathed like milk in the moonlight, then, later, as he dropped his pyjama bottoms, all of him.
And I was telling him I hadn’t dared hope, and why, and he began by spitting out his disgust with me that I hadn’t known and trusted him. Then all words stopped because, kneeling, he took me as I had so often taken him, and, for me, time stopped, too. Centuries later he snuggled under the covers beside me and we lay together nose to nose and breathing each other’s breath. Slowly we came into full embrace; now we found that the liquid moonlight was in us, too, and rising, and we moved, equals at last, to release it.