TANG AND VESTA

It had come to this: a studio in a run-down apartment building. She didn’t give a damn. (She was too old to “give a fuck”.) She’d been there long enough for her room to become a sort of Edwardian tumble of ruined fine furniture, stacks of books, and paintings nearly overlapping rusty old mirrors. What counted was the library table in the middle of the room with its neat piles of manuscript and the radio tuned to the classical music station that kept her roughly aware of the time. Over the years she’d added more and brighter lights, mostly hanging from the ceiling to keep from taking up space, so that the tabletop was a glowing island where she sat day after day turning a stack of yellow legal pads at her left elbow into a stack of written-on yellow paper in folders by her right elbow, each folder neatly labeled with the title of a book. She thought someday she might get a laptop but that day had not come yet. She could keyboard but liked slow writing. Her agent paid someone to get them into edited print.

For the first few years that the man lived across the hall from her, she paid no attention. Then she began to be aware of a steady stream of beautiful young men who came to visit. Once in a long while they got the door wrong and knocked on hers. She directed them back across the hall, not thinking about them much. Finally one day by accident she met the man himself at the mail boxes. She was a little surprised to realize that he was Oriental, maybe with a little African blood. He wanted to speak to her.

“I thank you for your kindness,” he said.

“What kindness?”

“In redirecting my boys.”

“Oh. Think nothing of it.” She was sorting the mail in her hand.

“I think you think they’re whores.”

She had not. “What of it?”

“They ARE whores, but I am not their client. They are mine. I counsel them.” He saw her eyebrows go up. “So they will not kill themselves.” Now he had her attention.

In her mind she reviewed the mental snapshots of the young men she had seen. They were on the cusp of adolescence, mostly, just emerging from their childhood, some of them into a “world of hurt” as the phrase goes. A few almost preternaturally beautiful — “angels of delight” no doubt. None of her business. Yes, they all could be whores. Now and then there was a rough, brutal type or a sly, oily one, but then, who knows what people want? Not her, or she’d have had a best-selling book years ago.

The man from across the hall watched her face closely but couldn’t read it. The boys had told him they could see her writing table but he never heard sounds of either a typewriter or a computer. “Do you write?” he asked.

She brushed by him and went back up the stairs without answering. (The elevator never worked.) Now he was genuinely curious.

If she had known he would react that way, she’d have stayed and given him a cover story. She didn’t realize that he was interested until he knocked on her door to offer some fresh baking. He loved to bake and had a small kitchenette in his rooms. As reciprocity demanded by her long-ago academic life but against her present better judgment, she invited him for tea. She kept an electric kettle. (Her agent had her food delivered.) “Black, green, Earl Grey, or Constant Comment. I have no herbals. I drink the stuff for the caffeine.”

“Green, please.” It came in two mugs. They sat at a cleared corner of the table (She put the papers on the floor.) with a saucer between them for the tea bags. They barely talked. He saw that the room was dark with no view and she said she liked it that way because if she had a sunny window, she would feel obliged to grow plants and fussing over them would take too much time. Neither had children. “Displacement,” he thought. “Her children are books. Mine are boy whores.”

After that, but rarely, they visited each other. His apartment was monastic, Nearly stripped in the Japanese style. And sunny but no plants.

One day he startled her by pounding hard on her door and even trying to open it, but she kept it locked always. When she opened up, she saw he had a scarlet banner of blood down his front. The open door of his room showed a pale bloody boy on the floor. “Please! Come over and be with us! He’s hemorrhaging internally. I’ve called the EMT’s but they know him and will assume we were fucking — or worse. I need to change clothes for the hospital. Besides if a woman is present, the EMT’s will assume something a little different. He didn’t say “an obviously dignified gray-haired old lady” but she knew that’s what he meant.

“Of course,” she said, crossed the hall and knelt by the boy in the pool of his blood until she heard the EMT’s pounding up the stairs. They came rattling through the door with their stretcher, talking to dispatch, unpacking supplies, not asking many questions. They were efficient rather than kind. It was all routine to them. They did give her a curious sideways glance.

The man, now in clean clothes, supplied facts and found out where they were taking the boy. He seemed as experienced as they and she supposed that he was. The EMT’s asked, “HIV?”

He said, “Both of us. I’m on meds. He’s not.”

“Protocol. Had to ask.” Then they were gone. She closed the man’s door.

The blood on her hands washed off easily. Her pants knees would have to soak. She didn’t worry about it. She did worry about the boy, his hair in a forelock long enough to cover his eyes.

In the evening the man knocked again, much less urgently. “Do you drink at all?” He held up a bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch. “The boy died an hour ago.” He was a very worthy boy and his passing should be marked.”

“Come in.” She had had an unsettled afternoon, trying to capture the crisis on paper. Mostly succeeding. Not entirely. It would need to cool.

They sipped their drinks from the tea mugs. He asked, “Do you hold onto the past?”

“Only as evidence.”

“A person can analyze too much.”

She agreed. “And re-live to the point of obsession.”

“I try to get the boys to see the pattern at the beginning and how it repeats when a person is at the bottom, since that’s where they are most of the time. I always have the idea that if they just understand how these beliefs about themselves formed in the first place, then they will be able to stop repeating and repeating. I suppose it’s an old-fashioned psychoanalytical way to think.”

“Beats drugging them out of their minds. Better than shocking them in aversion therapies or convulsing them with electroshock. Better than incarceration.”

“There have got to be more ways. Better ways.”

“We can think about it. In the meantime, I’d like more Scotch. I haven’t had any for decades and this is a very high end brand.”

He poured. “A toast?”

“We don’t need to get fancy. Survival is enough.”

“What do you write?” he asked for the first time, looking into her eyes.

She looked steadily back, her scanty old eyebrows up. She smiled.

 

Tang (a single name), the clinical psychologist, and Vesta Clotilde, the philosopher anthropologist, live across the hall from each other in studio apartments. The building is run-down and will no doubt be gentrified, but it’s too early to worry about that yet. They are old and enjoy talking occasionally.

Tang’s specialty is boys with HIV-AIDS, especially those who are suicidal, and Clotilde’s is working out the conceptual structures in people’s minds. The two things are related, though one is urgent and personal, embodied by the boys, while Clotilde analyzes in an abstract but not arithmetical way. She is working with the symbolic systems of sensory and ecological experience. Her own reality is recently informed by the collapse of one of Tang’s boys; she literally has had boy blood on her hands. One of her favorite thinkers is Roy Rappaport, a anthropologist. How does the dangerous blood of infected boys symbolize and operate in the contemporary urban environment? What are the dyads: in New Guinea they would be hot/dry/male/top v. cold/wet/female/bottom.

She sat at her library table, an island of well-lit order, a threshing floor, even maybe a cooking surface, holding in her hands a photo of a boy who had just delivered fellatio for money. He has semen on his face. To her, it looks like android blood. (One of her secret vices is sci-fi movies and she has a special affection for the “Alien” series.) He’s a beautiful boy, just out of childhood but not quite to manhood, so that he has that androgenous quality that seems to be the peak of sexuality in our society. That is, non-threatening. Tender. Unmarked. (She had read somewhere an analysis of Michael Jackson’s appeal among the pre-teen girls that proposed he was most loved by those who wanted to know about sex but also wanted to be safe.) The men who would want this boy would neither be attracted by a mature man — particularly one with muscle, money or political power that might endanger them — nor the mature woman whose otherness, fertility or demands might make trouble. The individual who would be an appealing paid sexual provider to the men who wanted boys would be what? Low testosterone. Vulnerable. Childlike or feminine? Is that half the dyad? Then what’s the reciprocal quality?

Are such men equivalent to androids? (It is not the boy who has android blood.) Near-machines, emotionless, capable of abusing children without disturbing their own consciences? What do the boys mean to them? The boy’s face is terrifying: he looks into the abyss. How can he keep from using drugs now? What does this do to his sense of himself? Can he wall it off from the rest of himself?

Her thinking is interrrupted. There’s a tapping at the door. It’s Tang with scones, which means it’s late in the afternoon. She sets the kettle to boil for tea. It’s Tang who gave her the photo. He knows a lot about the boy, but won’t tell her anything. She doesn’t want him to. She wants abstract. She does not want to be haunted by the need to go find this boy, to hold him, feed him, and resist her own temptation to control him. There: is THAT the reciprocity to vulnerability?

She has been reading Rappaport’s “Ecology, Meaning and Religion” which contains his theories about a New Guinea tribe of swidden agriculturalists who have developed a coherent sensory-concept understanding of how their world fits together. Her head is full of pigs, taro, Smoke Woman, the gods of Rot. She says to Tang, “It’s clear that one of the keys is the relationship — I should say INTERrelationship between death and sex. I think this is a universal and reciprocal binary that is deeply hard-wired in human brains.”

“I agree. And I think that’s always what binds war into the equation — war is both sex and death. Killing people is arousing. The urge to have it all, to own, to control, is both sex and death. To rape is to kill.”

“What does it mean that we used to only send boy-soldiers and now we have girl-soldiers as well?”

“The minotaur ate both boys and girls, but only the cream of society, the best. We’re sending youngsters who might or might not be high status. But we’re not enlisting the worst. The stupid, the illiterate, the defiant, the elusive, go to the street, where the minotaur waits for them. Or is it another beast?”

“Now we economically ‘eat’ both boys and girls but still there’s always an excess to be used up in order to preserve the value and interests of those who want not only to control but also to BE the culture. The admired ones.”

Tang finished a scone. “In the past no one admitted that we destroyed boys, that we expected them to survive either by their wits or sheer vitality. But in antiquity boys were used sexually. So they say.”

“The effect on them shapes them into a certain kind of man. How is an abused boy affected by being used sexually or, if you reverse it — I always try to reverse everything — to use his customers sexually by getting money and exerting a certain kind of seduction control. I should think such a boy would become very clever at figuring people out and manipulating them.”

Tang buttered another scone and sipped his green tea while he thought. “I suppose it’s dependent on the origins of the boy, his physical vitality, and the chances he has along the way to grow and learn. Some tricks are fairly protective and bring their boys along with them to the theatre, the gallery, the library — buy them iPad IIs and discuss esoteric movies with them. Even some porn along those lines is pretty sophisticated. It has a political dimension. Against war and authority, usually.”

Clotilde opened the marmalade. “You’re saying being such a man’s whore would be the equivalent to being his apprentice? That finding a mentor might be a path to survival?”

“Could be. Most often not, from what the boys say. But the boys educate each other. Mostly mistaken stuff that leads them back into trouble. Now that they have so much technical reach through electronic stuff . . . that helps.”

“I wonder whether it works to think of the boys as pigs.”

“WHAAAAAAT!!! AT YOUR PERIL !! These boys are quick to take offense at everything. Their souls are sun-burned. They are super-sensitive, ecorché, flayed Even I, who am very careful, can hardly keep from offending them, making them scream with pain.”

The kettle was boiling. “For Rappaport pigs are wealth. There is a liturgical cycle that calls for the sacrifice of all pigs older than a certain size. It’s a way of keeping the economy going without creating a glut. What if there is a glut of boys willing to service tricks?”

“I guess there are. And girls. I guess it’s not underground the way it was once. People talk about it. There are jokes. It’s in the movies. It’s in the perfume and wristwatch ads. But it’s becoming boring. The end result of a glut is that the value goes out of whatever it is. It is no longer the “precious.”

“My precious!” She poured hot water on the tea bags in their mugs and the fragrant steam rose through the lamplight. “Gollum. Doesn’t Gollum look like a boy to you?”

“What is the difference between “The Lord of the Flies” and “The Lord of the Rings?”

 

Now that Vesta Clotilde had stopped locking her door and even left it ajar once in a while when she was expecting Tang, a cat came slipping in. A nondescript skinny little specimen who made no trouble. She didn’t mind so long as it didn’t interfere. She asked the delivering grocer to start including cat food.

Across the hall Tang had also been leaving his door ajar but his intruder was not a cat: it was a boy. About eight. Very thin. The sort of hair that looks almost green and doesn’t need to be cut because it is so brittle that it breaks off before getting to shoulder length. He tried to be as unobtrusive as the cat, slipping in quietly while Tang was meditating. (Yes, Tang was one of those meditating Asians. Now and then he suggested it to Vesta, who only laughed.) The boy seemed exhausted and mostly slept. He had nothing to say. Tang didn’t make him leave, though he began looking for placements, not quite with the boy’s consent. He wouldn’t eat anything but pizza.

“Feral.” Vesta tasted the word. “I looked it up. It is often coupled with “child” or “cat.” They say, “Wild Child” or “Wild Cat”, but properly speaking a feral animal or child is one who was once part of a domicile, cared for to some degree, but then either abandoned, thrown out or left of its own volition for some reason. Wild Child and Feral Child are different. Over a hundred cases of children are believed to have been raised only by animals. But we seem to have a whole generation of children whose parents either threw them out or let them go or never paid enough attention to know the difference.”

“Mowgli was a Wild Child,” said Tang. “A mammal is a mammal. Not so different at birth.” This afternoon he had baked a streusel coffee cake. “Ibn Tufail’s Havy, Ibn al-Nafis’ Kamil, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the legends of Atalanta, Enkidu and Romulus and Remus. Unreliable stories. Riddled with hoaxes. Throbbing heart-deep in all cultures. We long to be little savages, self-sufficient, skipping over the cold, hunger, pain. Broken expectations.”

“Why do we cling to the idea?” asked Vesta, reaching down her canister of tea bags. “Do we remember our own wish to be as independent as adults? Or is it a matter of wanting to get rid of a troublesome child? Or is it coming from the culture rather than individual? The idea that a child can survive on its own without adults. We don’t need to worry. I seem to recall that these Wild Child examples you suggest are rural, requiring big mammals to care for them. If I were they, I would hook up with a goat rather than a wolf. As much personality, better milk. But I suppose a pack is an advantage.”

“There are always dogs. But it’s even easier to survive as a child where the population is dense. An interstitial child who knows how to be unobtrusive is the opposite of an enfamilied child who gets what it needs by being obtrusive — making a fuss. If there are lots of people in shifting assortments, a child can attach to one of them, slip away with food or clothing. Hitch rides or stowaway. Hole up under a church parish hall table during a potluck. Graze down a hotel hallway where trays of leftovers are put out for pickup.”

“What about your own Mowgli over there across the hall?”

Tang slurped his tea. He was trying Earl Grey. “Oh, he’s in the bathtub. I went by the Sallie Ann this morning and picked up some clean clothes.” He looked over at the cat, who was working on her feet, her flexible tongue cleaning between toes. “I think I should sit him down and work on his feet a little — grease them up. Cut nails.”

“What does he say?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s the great crippling lack in the children raised by animals — no language. Can a person think without language?”

“How would we know? But don’t animals do that?” The cat looked at them, scowling, passing judgment. Her ears twitched, her tail switched once — whip whap.

“Behavior. Ears. Too bad people don’t have ears like dogs.” Her attention went to the taste of streusel and Earl Grey tea together. They were a good combination. “Do you think he’s HIV positive?”

“Can’t tell without blood tests. I have a feeling he’s had some medical care not too long ago. He doesn’t have pneumonia, thank God, because I don’t want to catch it. He doesn’t seem yellowish from hepatitis. No obvious lesions where I can see his body. He doesn’t appear hooked on drugs.”

“Sexually active.”

“Yup.”

“How do you know?”

“He slipped into my bed. I put him back out.”

“Were his feelings hurt?”

“Nope. He hardly seemed to have a reaction, not relief or anything else. It was just a kind of reflex, I think.”

“He’s warm enough?”

“Picked up a sleeping bag at Sallie Ann so I could have my extra blankets back.” There was a pause while Tang looked his hostess over. “You’re motherly after all!”

She dusted crumbs from her hands. “Oh, no. Not at all.” (He didn’t believe her.) “I’m just trying to scope out what his life is like.”

“Survival. Every little advantage for survival, but only for the next half hour or so. No long-term plans.”

She nodded, but it was hard to grasp. Her whole life was a long-term plan, a little engine of consciousness chugging along a line of thought through time, asking now and then, “How far am I? Where’s the next station? Am I closer? If I put this paragraph right here, what does that imply about fifty pages along?”

Tang nodded, drained his mug and poured more. Vesta had used a teapot instead of bags in mugs. He LIKED Earl Grey. “‘Be here now’ is a motto easier said than done.” The cat slipped out the door unnoticed. Tang heard a small sound in the hallway and knew what it was but said nothing.

Just the same Vesta Clotilde, not hearing the sound, registered the change in Tang, a shift in tension, a shadow. “He’s left just now, hasn’t he, Tang?”

“I think so. Maybe your cat went with him.”

“They both got what they needed here, a little rest, a little cleanup, a sleeping bag.” They sat looking at each other. “Should we go bring them back?”

“Oh, no. Things will unfold. I think they might know they can come back if they need to.” But they looked sad. In a little while, when Vesta reached for Tang’s mug, he took her hand instead, as though the going were unsteady.

 

 

Tang looked around the dark. cluttered studio apartment of Vesta Clotilde. “No cat?”

She shook her head. “Feral cats move on.” She plugged in her electric kettle and got out two mugs.

Tang sat. “I’ve been thinking about the difference between feral cats and feral horses. Cats are solitary animals and are more likely to attach to place, they say, though this one didn’t seem to.”

“Every animal has its own personality. One can generalize about a species but it won’t always be true for the individuals.”

“Yes. Nevertheless a feral horse will seek other feral horses and try to be part of a group, a herd. Even if it is a male horse and the stud of the herd drives it off, it will try to join a peer herd of bachelor horses or maybe become a satellite that follows the main herd at a distance.”

“Are your feral boys horses or cats? Do they want to be solitary or in groups?” She offered the canister of teabags to Tang.

“Mostly they would like to be in groups, I think, which urban law enforcement people know. Boys run in the night streets like bands of horses.”

“Yes, I’ve heard them go by. Even though they don’t wear metal shoes, their sneakers thud on the pavement, especially when there are many. More silent than that are the ones on bicycles, but I hear them as well. Swishing.”

“There’s another difference.” Tang arranged his teabag so the string dangled its tag to suit him.

“What’s that difference?” She put the shortbread Tang had made on a blue and white plate.

“Cats are predators. Horses are prey.”

“So predators hunt alone, at least cats do. Horses group up to lessen the danger for any one animal. Both have great big eyes.” The kettle was steaming. Vesta poured. There was a moment of silence while they watched the tea steeping in their mugs and nibbled on shortbread.

“I’m named for my dynasty, you know. Tang Dynasty, the greatest in China.”

“I did NOT know!” She was genuinely surprised though, of course, she’d always known he wasn’t named for the orange drink.

“My people come from the great steppes of the China west, horse country. We were great riders and sometimes prowled in bandit gangs. You can see them in Chinese movies today. Very romantic.”

“Ah. My own family has a branch that was in the American West on the prairie where we knew mustangs, not such different horses from Mongol ponies. My grandfather used to tell me a story when I had a temper tantrum. It was about a horse that bucked all the time. One day the herd was in a place where there had been a forest fire and there were many fallen old dead trees, silvered and broken. This little horse jumped over a deadfall and its belly was ripped open by a sharp staub that stuck up. It began to buck because of the pain and its back foot got caught in a loop of intestine. It just bucked harder and basically tore its own guts out. The smell of the blood convinced the rest of the herd that there had been an attack and they galloped off, leaving this defiant and violent little horse to die in the tall grass. When I was so angry, my grandfather would say, “Don’t buck your guts out.”

“It’s a violent story — like the American West!” Tang was smiling, but serious.

Vesta turned away. “Someone asked me once what it was like to ride a good horse. I told them it was like having wings, like having one’s powers magnified greatly, like being connected to something magnificently powerful. And a little like sex.”

“A horse does go between one’s legs.”

“They say for many girls it is the first lover. Probably for boys as well. I was so impressed by ‘Equus.’” They were quiet, each with memories of Equus. Then Vesta asked, “Do you think that for a boy with a man who is very close and loving — I don’t mean a sexual lover — is like a rider with a horse? Maybe the man is a father, or a teacher, or a mentor — well, I guess one can’t exclude a gay lover if the boy is gay.”

“I hadn’t thought about it. I suppose it depends on the man, whether he’s a predator, whether the boy is prey.”

“What would be the safeguards against that?” Both thought and sipped, then brushed off crumbs from their fronts, and looked at each other.

Vesta said, “Genuine intimacy, meaning protection of the inner uniqueness of the other person. The grown man also making himself accessible to the younger one.”

Tang said, “No separation from the peer group, no isolation, no alienation from the proper pursuits of a boy, which are often sought in a group, like sports.”

“What about no violence?”

“Define violence.”

“I think it is situational. Provoking a little horse into bucking his guts out would be violent.”

“What if it were the man who bucked out his guts? Tore himself apart?”

“Is that possible?”

“Oh, yes. Boys are resourceful. They can find pulse points and threads of vulnerability in the strongest and most wary of adults. Especially boys who have been abused and have acquired sensitivity that way, as well as accumulating the motivation. In fact, I think some don’t learn compassion and forgiveness until they are adults, if then. ”

“What is the equivalent to a bridle with a bit, reins, a saddle? All meant to control a horse.”

“I think the law is those restraints. Social opinion. Maybe the church if it would stop being a horse’s ass.”

“And as long as I’m being fanciful, what about a centaur?”

“This is against tradition, but I think a boy who does not grow up remains half-horse, if not half-goat or maybe a half-goat is an old man!”

“An old goat! How do you account for Chiron, the teaching centaur?”

“An exception. At some cost to himself, since he devotes himself to the young but has no partner of his own who is like him.”

“And Pegasus? A horse with wings?”

“Ah. That is an artist, a poet, a dancer. There are no limits, there is no thought, there is only transcendence.”

Both laughed with delight. Then sobered. “What good is this kind of thinking?” asked Vesta.

“Maybe it’s a source of courage.”

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