This is not a place but a person. “Just call me Chicago,” he had said. “That’s where I’m from.” And that is what I had to make do with.
Not that we met often, only three times, and not that we formed a deep bond, in fact, the opposite. That is what I cannot purge, that we didn’t. This is a story of failure. And I am guilty.
College music practice rooms, soulless little concrete block boxes with a small glass panel in each door and no natural light, are secluded sites, perversely private, eerily silent but for fragments of music flitting along the carpeted corridors. Earnest students with violin or compact clarinet cases or more often pianists seeking an instrument slide into these as if entering the confessional, then muted sounds emerge. It is a tranquil and civilized little business, but because of soundproofing and the nature of practice – largely repetition and difficulty – a flawed experience to any musically hopeful passer-by. It is merely music in the making, rough music, and only the smallest hint of the sublime reaches out.
This was the winter of 1964, Missouri, a long way from Chicago. I don’t know if he played an instrument. He was in the building, but so was I and I didn’t play anything. It was a quiet place, notwithstanding the music, removed from bustle and speed, solitary people coming and going, and the building, soundproofed as it was, allied to silence, undramatic and fortified with twenty or thirty small enclosures of lined rooms.
I went there for mischief. Maybe Chicago did too. I did it regularly. I guess that he was just trying it out.
My mischief exploited that quiet seclusion of the building. She was a pianist, Janet, blonde, very attractive in the flesh, not nearly so attractive otherwise. She had a regular boyfriend back home, some fifty miles away, and I was her term-time entertainment. I didn’t know this at first, but I worked it out, finally.
She was no great shakes at the keyboard, but I seldom gave her time to demonstrate. In those days student accommodation had imposed upon it terrible restrictions and regulations, and she was as segregated as I was, so this is where we met for our frolics. Though they were fairly unjoyous, more frantic grapplings than tender harmonies, and respectable conventional suburban girl though she undoubtedly was, she had a markedly urban appetite.
It took us weeks to reach penetration. The practice rooms, deserted as they often were, still allowed curious or lascivious eyes access at the small glass panel in the door. Piano, piano stool, a small floor space: these also inhibited full access. I didn’t greatly mind. We managed our urgent turmoil well and she must have felt that she was not truly betraying her boyfriend. “I did not have sexual relations with that boy,” she might have said to him at home if she had coaching from Bill Clinton.
I was an English boy stranded in the mid-west and fresh to American sexual habits. These in those days were narrowly ritualised into what could and could not be done, though oral sex was a national obsession that slipped past the censor. At least there was a lot of it about. Some of it went on behind the door in a practice room.
We had other methods, other practices, strange forms and fabulations. She wore lovely, somewhat archaic underwear, a strong aphrodisiac in itself; she had beautiful long hair which was immaculately groomed; she had a sensual made-up mouth and a pianist’s slender, skilful fingers. She loved to be touched. Her mouth became distorted by pleasure. Her suburban manners fell away. All her clothes were not stripped away but she was more stark than the naked.
We met often in the music rooms. Sometimes she practised and I would arrive later. Sometimes we went in together with no music in our minds. Then we gave our time and energies over to pleasure, in a public place, scantily hidden, under unnamed threats if we were discovered, and with none of the customary bedroom comforts.
It is in this building that I met Chicago. I visited the lavatory at the end of a silent corridor and a student was drying his hands on a paper towel as I entered. We exchanged glances and I noticed how well turned out he was and how he slowed in his drying, attending to the inner part of his fingers, drying himself with unusual thoroughness. I felt his eyes on me while I was at the urinal.
Chicago: it is a silly thing to know someone by, as if we were in the army or Hell’s Angels. This was no soldier or rough-clad biker. He was more dancer, slender athlete, fashion model. I soon found out that he was gymnast and sky-diver.
He liked my English accent. It was a passport to many things and here it was a passage to something unlike anything I had ever known. He told me where he lived. His room-mate was away. Why didn’t I drop in, tonight? I remember – and it was an extraordinary gesture – that I put my hand onto his shoulder for a moment as I said something. He was wearing a laundered red striped shirt and my hand rested momentarily on it. It was as if an electric charge ran through my fingers.
That was it. I went back to Janet prodding away on the squat piano. She didn’t notice anything even though my legs were trembling. I asked her to play some music for me so that I could calm myself while at the same time working out any ruses that might be necessary for the evening’s arrangement, and what I would wear, and the unimaginable potential of him. His room-mate was away, he had said, stay over. What did it mean? I only knew for certain that I was travelling after dark to the nearby great city of Chicago.
His room was like mine only across campus. You never know what each unknown building holds in its spaces or cavities, or what has been stored up and away within it over the decades. The whole building had a Friday night hollow feeling, with everyone out, or gone away like the room-mate.
I could look at him properly in the room. I didn’t understand what was expected or how to behave. He was relaxed. He showed me his palms which had calluses on them, from the rings in the gym, he said. He asked me to feel them, to confirm how much punishment his hands had taken. Wide, flat, refined hands they were, and studded across the middle by the calluses.
He said that the most difficult thing about sky-diving was the first jump. The second most difficult thing was to pull the release cord because the activation of the parachute terminates the ecstasy of free flight. You resist and resist, second by second, plunging towards the earth, longing for another brief lease of freedom, with death’s ultimatum teasing at the pleasure as you push up to the final possible moment for release.
Only at the desks were there chairs. He invited me to lounge on the room-mate’s bed. I could sleep there, he wouldn’t care. I was going to spend the night across campus
inside the room-mate’s strange sheets. It was a peculiar act of hospitality.
As I lay propped up on pillows he sat on the bed and looked down at me. He was wearing an immaculate white shirt which carried a dose of starch, straight from the laundry. His hip was adjacent to mine but we didn’t touch.
“Have you ever had sex with a man?” he asked.
“They’re usually too old,” he replied cryptically.
I didn’t think of myself as a man. I was a boy; I thought he was a boy. I didn’t know if my desires belonged more properly to a man or a boy. Janet was a girl, not a woman, and she and I had unholy and turbulent desires.
As I gazed on this boy on the room-mate’s made-up bed I knew desire so strong that I felt nauseated, as if I was being heaved beyond help. My single thought was, “Am I too old?” I was silent. My breath was so abbreviated that I couldn’t speak.
And then the storm passed. The gear changed. We became a couple of boys talking about cars, student life and sport. At some point in the evening he put on pyjamas before performing a hand-stand during which I saw his flaccid penis hanging unattractively upside down and I felt a touch of pity and a surge of gratitude that I’d avoided it.
One evening a few weeks later with snow on the ground I saw Chicago approaching on a dimly lit campus path. I was with two friends but no Janet. We all stopped. Several other people passed us, stepping around us onto the snow at the edge of the path and my friends soon saw someone else they knew and they began a conversation more or less as I did, so I didn’t have to introduce Chicago as Chicago. The light was poor but with adjustments I was able to angle my sight-line so that I could see him to advantage. I was able to look down into his coat collar to see his neck, then his hands reached up to sweep his hair off his face.
I was wearing a woollen houndstooth overcoat, cut quite short but with deep pockets. My hands were far inside these pockets to fend off the bitter Missouri night.
We said nothing beyond pleasantries, although the conversation is loose and vague in my memory. I know that I could not find words or generate ideas or listen attentively. I was consumingly cunning with the light that fell from a nearby street lamp and moved to maximise its effects on his skin and the pallor of his hands, his living throat, his vivid mouth. I was achingly curious about the clothes under his coat.
My hands stayed deep in my pockets. I was able to feel at the root of my engorged penis and as my thumbs pressed there with gentle persistence a warm flood of exquisite pleasure began to fill up my groin. I knew that it was going to be very simple. He must have been talking and I must have nodded or replied to encourage him, and my friends spoke to us too once or twice as they were diverted from their conversation, but still my thumbs pressed as I looked in the dubious light with terrible intentness at Chicago’s face. I saw his tongue as he laughed and I knew that I could have had it for myself on that night on the room-mate’s bed, and I could have put my face into his long, lustrous hair, and I could have felt the heat of his semen on my hands or lips and heard his moans of delight as he flew beyond the dull rational self. I stood in the snowy night, in the bitter cold, with my thumbs secretly working magic from my straining body which, with my friends beside me, affected normality, until, with my eyes fixed on the slender boy, I shot in silence my whole hot tender centre into my pants in gushes while the innocent conversation proceeded.
In the calm which always follows my knees weakened, but I had practised with Janet, and no one knew any better. In the snowy night I had seen Chicago and I had flown about him and arrived at a depraved bliss.
A year when you are eighteen is a long time, but I didn’t forget the little I knew about Chicago. I was then on a Greyhound bus on a long journey to New York and we passed through the windy city. I looked from the big window eagerly as if some vision would arise, that he would be walking alone with his unmistakeable poise like a dancer, like a gymnast, and I would have to fake an emergency to persuade the driver to allow me off. Those streets, I reasoned, he knew; he knew their names and where they led. He belonged there. He comprised the city. He was the city itself.
The bus rested for a hour in the central bus station so I was free to connect with the hard matter of the city, which I did, walking in crazy wonder and hope. I wanted to tell him what I had done while we stood talking in the snow-bound night and to explain why I had lain like a paralytic on the room-mate’s cursed bed, and that unlike Janet he was the person I had most desired in my whole life. Desire was not, I wanted to tell him, a thing to be dismissed, or something shallow and fleeting, but reached down into the deeps, and that he had known it too as he flew and prolonged for another second his ecstasy as death neared with each moment, until it was too late.
The bus left with me on it and New York finally arrived, and I have never seen Chicago since.