José Sotolongo

The Cufflinks

 

    Eggplant parmigiana. That’s what he’d make tonight. It was Wednesday, and therefore, as was their habit, pasta night. On his way home from work Tim bought an eggplant and fresh mozzarella. All the other ingredients were at home. Tim made sure their pantry and refrigerator were well stocked: excellent olive oil, four different types of salt, aged Parmigiano Reggiano. He was the cook. Robert would have made do with whatever was at hand.

    When Tim got home, he went right to it, slicing and salting the eggplant, setting it to drain in a colander. He poured himself a glass of wine. Tim preferred to start cocktail hour after Robert got home, but he was over an hour late, and today he hadn’t texted. He came home late from work at least once a week, but he usually let Tim know: “Late meeting, dinner out” or “Eat, don’t wait.”

    He didn’t just dislike eating alone­­—he felt as if he shouldn’t enjoy a dish he had meant to share with the man he loved. Still, he ate and savored the balance of textures and flavors. Afterwards, he was again sorry Robert hadn’t been there to savor his efforts, and wondered whether what he really wanted wasn’t the man’s appreciation for his cooking as an expression of love. Not that Robert was unexpressive. He communicated his affection not only physically with his hands and his kisses and his naked body, but also in his sensitivity to Tim’s needs, his thoughtfulness.

    When Robert got home, his usually kempt brown hair was tousled, the part obliterated.

    “Is it windy out?” Tim asked.

    “No. Why?”

    “Your hair is all over the place.”

    “Oh.” Robert ran his hand over his hair, as if to compose it, then said, “I’m going to take a shower. It’s been a rough day.”

    Afterwards, while Tim was on the leather sofa watching TV, Robert came in from the bedroom and said, “I’m pretty pooped. I think I’ll go to bed,” and kissed Tim goodnight.

    The next day Robert arrived from work on time, six-thirty. Tim was already home, an early day for him.

    “Here. This is for you,” Robert said, and handed Tim a small blue Tiffany’s box tied up with a white satin ribbon.

    “What’s the occasion?” Tim smiled and undid the ribbon.

    “Just because I love you.”

    The cufflinks were from Venice, and they were splendid, made of white gold with opal inlays.

    Tim said, “They’re beautiful. And they must have cost a fortune.” He put his arms around Robert and kissed him.

    They were financially comfortable. Tim worked as an analyst at an investment bank on Wall Street and made a handsome income. Robert taught history at City College and had a reasonable salary. They lived well within their means, in a modest two bedroom apartment in Chelsea with sleek, blonde furniture. They could have afforded a bigger, more luxurious place and original art on the walls, but neither of them had a taste for showy displays of wealth. The cufflinks, therefore, were an unusual occurrence in the ten years they had been together, especially with no obvious reason for the splurge.

    The gift reminded him that he had to buy one for Claire, whose 68th birthday was coming up next week. Tim loved his stepmother deeply, without reservation, despite the lack of a biological connection, and he felt great gratitude towards her. She had been his champion when he was in the uncertainty of gay adolescence, his advocate when his father had expressed misgivings about his “lifestyle choice.” She had repeatedly said “It’s not a choice” whenever his father had frowned his worry at Tim. He had only vague memories of his biological mother, lost to cancer when he was a young boy. Claire had come into his life soon after.

    Tim planned to take the train to Philadelphia on Sunday, two days before her birthday. She lived alone, his father dead from Alzheimer’s two years.

    “Will you come with me?” Tim asked Robert. “She really likes you.”

    “I like her too. And I’d love to see her. But I’ve got catch-up to do, grading papers for next week.”

    On the train, Tim opened his backpack and took out his book, a collection of short stories based on Shakespeare’s plays. He was in the middle of “Othello,” and was reading the story for a second time. He was having a hard time believing the motivations of the characters.

    The conductor announced the Philadelphia station, and Tim opened his backpack to put the book away. He saw not only Claire’s birthday gift, a volume of May Sarton poems, but the gift box with the cufflinks Robert had given him. He wanted to show them to Claire. He had packed them without much thought this morning, and now he wondered why he had brought them. What came to him, as the train pulled into the station, was that Robert made him immensely happy, and he wanted to share this joy with his stepmother, a trophy of sorts for all her support.

    Claire hugged him hard when he arrived at her townhouse. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “Thank you for taking the time to visit.”

    It had been several months since he had last seen her. The hug felt good, a transmission of affection, and he made a silent promise not to let so much time go by between visits from now on.

    Claire made them lunch, declined his offer to go out to a fine place. They sat in the compact dining area, where the unfussy cherry wood table was set with wine glasses and linen napkins. Tim could see Independence Park through the balcony window.

    Afterwards he gave her the May Sarton book. The collection’s theme focused on aging and coming to terms with life’s surprises and disappointments. Claire opened the book with a look of awe. “I love this woman’s work,” she said with a faraway voice. “And an autographed first edition.”

    Just before it was time for him to leave he remembered the cufflinks he wanted to show her.

    Claire fingered the gems. “They’re beautiful. What was the occasion? Your birthday isn’t for another two months.”

    “No reason. Just because he loves me is what he said.”

    Claire’s lips parted, and he saw a slight frown. “Really?” she said.

    Tim was disappointed at her reaction. He felt a slight hurt, in fact, that she was incredulous of Robert’s love for him. “Don’t you think it’s a wonderful gift?” he said.

    “They’re gorgeous, yes. But such an expensive gift for no reason?”

    “He said he loved me. You don’t look so happy.”

    Claire gave him back the cufflinks. “I’m happy that you seem to be in a good place in your life. The cufflinks are not a casual gift. I’m just wondering as to the reason why.”

    Tim put the cufflinks into his backpack. “Well, he said it was because he loved me, like I said.” His voice was subdued, the exuberance of sharing a wonderful event squelched.

    On the train ride back to New York, Tim considered Claire’s reaction. Her training as a psychotherapist sometimes resulted in unexpected responses to situations or things said. He had seen it before. The thing was, in the end, her surprising responses not only made sense, but in retrospect seemed to be the only appropriate ones.

    Things at work that week got insane for Tim. A bank affiliated with his investment firm was discovered to have defrauded consumers by charging illegal transaction fees. The fallout, including the plummeting of the bank’s stock and the impact on the investment arm, where Tim worked, was momentous. He had to stay late every night, not getting home until nine or ten o’clock.

    He texted Robert late each afternoon to remind him of the late arrival. It wasn’t clear to Tim how Robert would spend the evening. Robert was vague when Tim texted, “What r u doing for dinner?” answering “IDK something.”

    Armando was a junior officer who worked closely with Tim. He was a young man four years out of college who stayed late that week as well. Thin but muscular, he had skin the color of nutmeg, and curly brown hair that flopped onto his forehead. He darted around the office like a lynx. That week, they took fifteen minute dinner breaks in Tim’s office. Armando ordered sandwiches from the local deli, and they ate together and talked. Tim missed having dinner with Robert, the highlight of his day.

    “How’s your sandwich?” Tim asked. Armando had ordered a grilled vegetable panini.

    “Very good. Want a bite?”

    “No thanks.”

    Armando asked, “How’s yours?” Tim was having mortadella and provolone with Dijon mustard.

    “Very good,” Tim said, and because Armando had offered, he said, “Want a taste?” not expecting the young man to accept.

    “Sure.” Armando reached across the desk.

    To Tim’s surprise, the man didn’t tear a piece out of the intact part of the sandwich, but bit right into the concave edge Tim’s bite had just left, still visibly moist from his saliva.

    “Hmm. That’s really good.” Armando nodded and smiled while he chewed.

    Later, in a taxi on the way home, Tim thought about the gesture, which implied an intimacy that simply didn’t exist. Or was he reading too much into the simple sharing of a sandwich?

    Armando had at times stood close enough to him so that Tim felt the pressure of his shoulders or his hips. Because of their age difference, and because Armando knew about Robert, Tim had thought nothing of it. But Armando had also asked him whether he would be interested in seeing a new off-Broadway play. He hadn’t said “You and Robert.” And he frequently placed his hand on Tim’s lower back, just above the buttocks. The attention of a younger, handsome man flattered him, no question, but he had never thought of him, or anyone else, as a potential affair. He still found Robert more sexually arousing than any other man, even after ten years.

    It was near eleven when he got home. He sat next to Robert on the sofa, the TV tuned to a cable news show. Tim leaned in and kissed Robert on the neck, put his hand on the inside of his bare thigh. Robert liked to wear gym shorts at home, and Tim slid his hand up under the hem.

    Robert smiled, eyes on the TV. “I wish I wasn’t so wound up from work. Rain check?”

    Tim went to bed, and Robert stayed up. Naked under the sheet, he missed the feel of the back of Robert’s muscular thighs against his own as they spooned, sometimes the first move in familiar but still feverish, thirsty sex. He felt himself getting erect, and touched himself in all the parts that brought him pleasure, never once thinking of anything other than Robert’s usual vocal and physical responses to Tim’s hands and mouth.

    It had been over a week since they had had sex, and he climaxed quickly. Tim got out of bed and went to the bathroom to wipe his genitals and lower abdomen. By the dim light of the sconces he could see the lingering swelling and blush of his penis. He dried himself well and went back to bed, glad Robert was still watching TV and wouldn’t see the residual effects of his masturbation, an awkward revelation, as if he had been unfaithful.

    At work, the crisis of the affiliate bank receded, and his hours normalized. Armando continued to suggest they get together after work. Tim always declined, preferring to go home and get his evening started with Robert, who was still coming home late from the college at least once a week.

    On the first Friday after the crisis resolved, Armando said, “Hey, let’s celebrate, Tim. Let’s go to O’Brian’s for a quick brew.”

    Robert had said he was coming home late, so Tim said, “Sure.” He didn’t want to encourage the young man’s romantic notions, but he didn’t want to appear standoffish with an affable, valuable colleague.

    Over their second beer, Armando grew quiet and stared at the mirror behind the bottles of liquor, as if in a trance. He turned to Tim, pupils dilated, and said, “I really would like to know you better.”

    “How do you mean? We know each other pretty well.”

    The man shook his head. “I mean outside of work.”

    Tim knew where this was going, but he said, “Why don’t you come over for dinner some night? I’d like you to meet Robert.”

    Armando’s face tensed, lips tight, and he lowered his eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”

    Neither man spoke for a while, the ping of a ricocheted proposition resonating between them.

    At last Armando got up, put some cash on the counter and said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone there.”

    Tim wanted to save the situation, not let it ruin their excellent working relationship. He smiled. “I’m glad you did. I’m flattered.”

    Armando nodded, said, “See you Monday,” and walked out with this hands in his pockets, shoulders heavy.

    When he got home, he saw Robert’s briefcase on the dining table, where he always left it if he was in a hurry. He went into the bedroom.

    Robert was naked, about to go into the shower, his pants and shirt flung on the bed, underwear on the floor. The color of the head of his penis was darker than usual, a deep mauve, the skin on the shaft engorged. Masturbation was his first thought, but there was a nagging little doubt that would not be ignored. “When did you get home?” Tim asked.

    “Just walked in, not a minute ago.” Robert ducked into the bathroom without another word and turned the shower on.

    The venetian blinds were open, and Tim closed them. It was getting dark, and he didn’t want the neighbors to see. One of them might be standing in a darkened window, stealthily witnessing what was happening.

    Normally, he would have picked up Robert’s underwear off the floor, put the soiled shirt in the hamper, hung up his pants. It was his habit, how they did things. He resisted the temptation to inspect them, and took off his own clothes and put on his lounging sweats for an evening of reckoning. He wondered whether Claire had started reading the book of poems yet.

José Sotolongo was born in Cuba. His prose and poetry have appeared or will soon be seen in Atticus Review, Litro, Third Coast, and Blue Fifth Review. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction of 2019. A novel is forthcoming in June of 2019. He lives with his husband in the Catskills of New York, where he is working on a short story collection.

 

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