MICHAEL waited for the gatekeeper to unlock and swing the wide, scrolled gate aside. He had walked from the small town to the boarding school as a scholarship day-student every day since moving to Collingsworth from Boston after his parents’ death from influenza when he was twelve. Nearly six years later, he was starting his last year of school, nearing the end of his residence with his mother’s indifferent cousin, and facing an uncertain future. Educated as a gentleman in the finer points of etiquette needed for a society to which he would never be admitted, and with no money to continue his education, he weighed his limited options. Thinking of the military career that likely awaited, he didn’t notice that the gatekeeper had unlocked the gate and was waiting for him to pass through.
“Good morning Mr. Taylor,” the gatekeeper said loudly, a smile hidden beneath his large mustache. “A bit sleepy, are we this morning?”
“What? Oh, yes. A bit distracted, I think. Thank you.” Michael ducked through the gate and followed the winding path through the light mist to the school and morning assembly.
Walking into the large hall for the Morning Prayer and announcements, he smelled the familiar scents of lemon furniture polish, old wood, leather-bound books, and damp wool. He sat in the back of the hall and watched his fellow students talking excitedly in small groups, catching each other up on what they had done on summer holiday. None of them approached him, but it was something that he was used to. Barely tolerated by the majority of the student body, the day-students received little notice other than open scorn. Any positive attention they received was for their value in sneaking contraband into the school. Since Michael had refused to participate, he was largely ignored.
Michael watched his fellow students, unconsciously keeping his eye out for a particular head of wavy hair the color of corn silk. He watched two fifth year men walking shoulder-to-shoulder discreetly grasp each other’s fingers in spite of the regular lectures that they received about the dangers of special friendships. Even as a day-student he saw his fellow students sneak off in pairs only to return with their navy and maroon school ties askew and their cheeks flushed.
Living a sheltered life, he knew few details about what went on in those furtive encounters in empty classrooms and closets but knew instinctively that they were different than what he craved. His fellow classmates looked only for physical release; they would go on to marry and have wives and mistresses, the dark fumbling of their childhood forgotten. Michael longed for companionship, for one special friend.
In the dark silence of his room at night, he allowed himself to think of spending long evenings reading with his special friend, of intimate hugs with their bodies pressed together. Imagining the smell of his friend’s neck and the feel of a raspy cheek against his, he barely dared to think of their lips pressed together as he spent into the old handkerchief that he kept hidden for those nights when he couldn’t suppress his body’s desires. He averted his eyes from his own reflection in the mirror as he washed the handkerchief out in his shaving water in the morning.
His mind was brought back to the present when he saw a flash of blond hair in a group of students passing his chair. David Bennington was everything that Michael was not: gregarious, popular, well-off, destined for Harvard and a respectable career as a barrister. Michael’s cheeks pinked, realizing that he had just been thinking of pressing his body against his handsome classmate’s. Afraid that David would know his thoughts by simply looking at him, he lowered his eyes to his lap and willed his body’s reaction away before embarrassing himself.
David and his friends sat a short distance from Michael, allowing him a clear view of the man who unknowingly starred in Michael’s fantasies. The chaplain’s voice was a pleasant drone as Michael lost himself in his examination of David’s blond hair, imagining running his hands through those waves and wondered if it would be soft or coarse, if it would smell of macassar oil or the outdoors.
The chaplain’s voice had faded, only to be replaced by the headmaster’s baritone with neither Michael’s notice nor “amen.” His attention only turned to the headmaster’s voice when he heard a murmur spreading through the assembled students. The announcement of the masked Christmas ball and the dance lessons that all of the men would have to endure, while causing much excitement among his classmates, only caused his own heart to sink. The annual influx of the perfumed and powdered creatures from the neighboring St. Anne’s was to be endured, not celebrated.
The first of their dance lessons was to be held the following day after the last class and would be led by their music instructor, Dr. Kennedy. Michael waited until his study period, slipped from the library, and walked softly over the dark hardwood floors to the choir room to attempt to gain permission to avoid the dance lessons. The small choir was practicing for vespers when Michael pushed the heavy oak door open. Seeing David standing in the last row, he was able to pick out his clear tenor among the rest of the voices, and passed the time until Dr. Kennedy dismissed the choir watching David’s animated face, his blue eyes, the pink of his cheeks.
Barely able to maintain a decorous walk on the way to the relative freedom of their lunch period, the choir filed from the room as Michael stood and approached the music professor. “Dr. Kennedy, may I have a word?”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Taylor. Sit, please.”
“Thank you, sir. I would like to request your permission to miss the dance lessons and the ball.” Uncomfortable speaking to any of the professors, he could feel the heat in his face as he spoke.
“Do you have a physical ailment, Mr. Taylor?” Dr. Kennedy moved behind his desk and sat, resting his elbows on the blotter.
“No, sir.” Michael paused, unwilling and unable to say that he had no desire to go to the ball with the girls of St. Anne’s but unsure what excuse he could give. “Well, sir, it’s just that, well you know that I’m a day-student, and on scholarship. I don’t think that I’ll have the opportunity to dance after leaving Collingsworth, and your time could be better spent on the men who will use what they learn.”
“Nonsense. Every gentleman must learn to dance.” He waved his hand dismissively.
Michael thought quickly for another plausible reason. “Sir, I’ve grown out of my formal wear, and my cousin won’t buy me another set.”
Dr. Kennedy examined the threadbare jacket, the obviously turned collar, and shoes that no amount of polish would make respectable again. “Attend the dance lessons and we’ll figure out proper attire before the ball.”
Michael sighed, knowing that he was defeated. “Yes, sir. I’ll be there.” His only consolation was that this would be the last ball that he would have to attend.