The Caress | The New Engagement

The Caress

By Joseph Cohen

We were driving around, dropping in at parties. The last one was in a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of town, surrounded by shade-tobacco fields. It was the usual Friday night scene: people in various stages of intoxication lying on the floor, amused by their stupid, stoned conversations, escaping in some inconsequential way from the boredom of the town and the times.

Danny got a kick out of this scene, but I was bored here, too. I didn’t drink, and although I’d accept a puff on a joint once in a while, I was terrified of losing control and so adhered to what adults would call moderation.

“Hey, Mikey!” called a voice from the floor. “Loosen up, willya?”

“I’m loose. I’m cool.” I laughed loudly, falsely.

“What’s your problem, anyway? Why are you so hung up?”

“Sympathy for the Devil” blared from the stereo, so any answer I could have come up with would have been smothered by the chorus of doo-doo’s rising from the pileup of bodies on the floor.

Danny emerged from the kitchen with Eric, who had recently discovered drugs but had yet to discover moderation. A few weeks earlier he had called Danny in the middle of the night, and when Danny rushed over he found him, naked, standing in the greenish fluorescent kitchen light, making cuts on his arm with a steak knife and watching the rivulets of blood flowing into the sink. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he beatifically asked Danny, who bundled him up and took him to the hospital. He was not in good shape tonight, either. He seemed unable to blink.

“What did you take?” Danny asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t move. Am I talking? Am I gonna die?”

“Let’s go outside and walk around a little,” Danny suggested. He was good at this. I watched them from the screen door: Short, stout, balding Danny and tall, blond, muscular Eric, whose broad shoulders and trim waist made his torso almost a perfect triangle. They walked around the front yard, disappearing when they passed out of the parabola of light from the porch, then reappearing like fireflies a few feet from where they last were. I could hear the murmur of Danny’s voice and the whoosh of cars on the nearby highway in the scratchy silence between songs.

They walked back up to me. Danny had his arm around Eric’s thick shoulders.

“Mikey,” he said, looking meaningfully at me, “let’s the three of us go for a ride.”

Eric shook his head but didn’t say anything.

“Do you have a coat?” Danny gently asked Eric.

Eric just stood there.

“OK,” Danny said, “let’s go.”

Danny slipped into the driver’s seat and I started to get in next to him. “Sit in the back with Eric,” he whispered. Eric had become so rigid he could hardly move at this point, so I helped him into the car and sat next to him. I put my arm over his shoulder. He was staring straight ahead.

“We’re not going to the hospital, are we, Danny?” he pleaded. The childlike voice seemed at odds with the athletic body.

“Let’s see how you feel in a few minutes. We’ll just drive around for a while, OK?”

The moon gave the shade tents over the tobacco fields an odd, silver glow, like frozen waves. We drove aimlessly on the narrow roads in this part of town, passing dark farmhouses. It was late.

Suddenly, Eric turned to me, panicking.

“Mikey, is my heart beating? Feel my heart, is it beating?”

I put my hand on his chest. He grabbed it by the wrist.

“No, really feel my heart!” He put my hand under his t-shirt.

His chest was muscular and warm, and I could feel an unfamiliar, masculine texture of hair. (My chest was hairless.) Now I was the one who couldn’t move. How long should I keep my hand there? What would happen if I accidentally repositioned it even a quarter of an inch? I was not used to this new topography of skin, muscle and hair. Not only could I feel his heartbeat but I could feel the rise and fall of his rapid breathing. I pulled my hand back.

“Your heart is definitely beating, Eric. It’s fast, I think, but it’s beating strong.” Mine was beating fast, too.

“What if it stops?” Eric shouted. “Keep your hand there and tell me if it stops!” He thrust my hand back under his shirt.

In the driver’s seat, Danny called back “We’re going to the hospital!” I trusted his judgment. Eric fell silent again.

I looked out the window at the shade tents -- frozen waves breaking at the side of the road -- and pressed down, ever so slightly, on Eric’s chest: a secret caress that I knew he was incapable of noticing. We broke out of the aimless circling and soon reached the old, wooden houses of our town, with their sad, dark windows.

Eric had stopped talking. He was still holding my hand under his shirt, breathing rapidly and staring straight ahead. “Don’t worry, your heart’s still beating,” I whispered into his ear.

Danny found a spot near the illuminated Emergency sign. It took a while to get Eric out of the car. Danny and I stood on either side of him – Danny with his arm around his shoulder and me holding his waist – and limped with him to the entrance. The ER was oddly empty and it only took a few minutes to get Eric registered. When the nurse took him in to see a doctor, he looked back at us with a confused, terrified expression.

We waited for a few minutes in silence before the nurse came back and ushered us into a small room. Eric was seated on an examination table, eyes wide open, legs dangling. A young, handsome doctor glared at us as we walked in.

“What did he take?” he asked immediately.

“We don’t know,” answered Danny. “He was already messed up when we got to the party.”

“You kids have no idea what you’re doing! You’re all going to kill yourselves! Go home, go to bed!” He turned away.

“What about Eric?” I asked, feebly, feeling guilty. (For what? For my hand over his heart?)

“We’ll keep him here tonight. He’ll be O.K. He’s not going to die. We’ve called his parents and they’re on their way. Go home.”

I knew Eric wouldn’t be happy about his parents being called but when I looked at him he was silent, rigid, staring wide-eyed at something we couldn’t see.

Out in the parking lot, Danny and I looked at each other. He shrugged.

“I think Eric’s one of those people who probably shouldn’t do drugs.” We both laughed.

“Wanna smoke a joint?” He started to reach into his shirt pocket.

“Nah. I’m done.”

“Get in, I’ll drop you off.”

“No, thanks. My house is pretty close. I’m just going to walk.”

“OK. Crazy night, right?”

“That’s for sure!”

He got in his car and as he passed me he rolled down his window and called out, “Doo-doo!” I watched the tail lights recede and kept walking. There were no other cars. I slipped my hand under my shirt.

Joseph Cohen, Ph.D., is still working on a through-line for his life. He has been a street musician, a jazz guitarist, a copy editor, a fact checker, a publicist and a newspaper reporter. A clinical psychologist for the past twenty years, Joseph directed mental health programs at a Bronx clinic for children with HIV and a Manhattan syringe exchange, and taught at John Jay College of Criminal Justice from 2002 to 2015. He maintains a private practice with a focus on LGBT issues. Joseph’s essay, “What Age Is Shame?” was recently published in Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

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