Aaron awoke five hours later with the smell of wet grass wafting in through the open window. It was a perfect spring morning, his favorite time of year. The sun was shining, and last night’s drizzle was already starting to evaporate. His thin gossamer curtains were brightly lit by the early morning sun. Somewhere in the distance, there was the sound of a lawn mower. Ah, crap, back to reality.
He got out of bed and hazily padded naked to the kitchen to put on the coffee machine. He didn’t bother to look in the mirror. Whilst grateful for his health and his body’s ability to remain lean and muscular no matter how much junk food he ate, Aaron’s appearance was not something that preoccupied him. His blond hair looked tousled from sleep, but it would look like that all day, regardless of what he did to it.
While he was waiting for the coffee to brew, he walked out to the swimming pool and considered doing a few laps. He dipped a toe in the water and decided it was going to be a few weeks still. He sat down on one of the two loungers and enjoyed the feel of the morning sun warming his skin.
Closing his eyes, his thoughts drifted back to the events of the previous evening. What a night! Joe had asked him for a favor, and having nothing better to do—not to mention an inability to ever say no to Joe—he had agreed.
Aaron and Joe were best friends. They had met a few years earlier when a woman at a party finally gave up trying to get Aaron’s attention and instead ended up going home with Joe. When they met by chance a week later at a bar, Joe had insisted on buying him a drink to say thank you. They had both been twenty-four at the time.
For some reason he couldn’t explain, Aaron found himself telling Joe things about himself that he never mentioned to anybody else. It may have been the alcohol or the lateness of the hour, but it felt deeper than that. There was a familiarity in the bond that was forming. Kindred spirits? He had never believed in that sort of thing.
“Have you always lived in Parktown North?” Joe asked.
Parktown North was a fairly affluent area fifteen minutes from Johannesburg’s city center.
“Yeah, I still live in the house that I was raised in. It’s a nice suburb, big properties, streets lined with huge old trees. I don’t think I could live anywhere else. What about you?”
“I live in Illovo, but I was born in Kempton Park. When I moved out, I wanted to be somewhere more central. Nothing wrong with Kempton, except the commute. We were a typical middle-income family, you know, my folks both working nine-to-five jobs to pay the bond,” he explained. Kempton Park was largely a middle-income suburb.
Aaron snorted derisively. Although he would never give it up, he still harbored feelings of guilt about his family’s wealth. At a time when the plight of so much of the country’s population was on the news every day, his experience was definitely elitist. As a child, he had watched the news as someone might watch a goldfish circling a bowl. It was vaguely interesting but didn’t evoke any particular feelings of empathy.
“I don’t recall a single conversation about money in my house. My dad was a stockbroker, got in early on the whole computer revolution. That was just the start. He had a knack for identifying ‘the next big thing’: cell phones, satellite television, the Internet. I took it all for granted most of my life. It wasn’t until I left school that I began to realize that my experience of life was far from average. Mom and Dad were both staunch Catholics. They used to drag me to church every Sunday, and Dad would put a hundred rand note in the collection plate each week, which I guess helped them feel they were doing their bit.”
“What about your folks? You still live with them?” Joe inquired.
“They died when I was eighteen. Head-on collision.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, Aaron; that must have been hard. What did you do?”
“Nothing. My dad’s sister came up from Howick. She stayed at the house for a while, helped me tie up all the loose ends.” He downed the rest of his beer, put the glass down hard. “Sad, isn’t it? We spend our entire lives chasing dreams that seem so important to us, but in the end, we become just another loose end that needs tying up, and the world moves on.”
Aaron indicated for another round of drinks, even though Joe had hardly touched his beer. He didn’t normally drink this much and wondered if he was going to be able to stand up when it came time to leave. He was feeling melancholic and a little reckless.
“But you were only eighteen, just a kid. How did you cope with suddenly having to run a home? Didn’t your relatives ask you to move in with them?”
The drinks arrived, and Aaron dragged his closer, leaving a trail on the well-worn mahogany counter. He kept his hands around the glass without lifting it up.
“They tried to convince me to move, half-heartedly. We aren’t exactly the Von Trapp family. We only mingle when strictly necessary. Basically for hatch, match, and dispatch.” He smiled at Joe, trying to dispel the gloomy atmosphere that was settling over them. “Christenings, marriages, and funerals,” he clarified.
Aaron sat up straighter. “Anyway, I refused. It took a while, but I eventually got the hang of running the house, paying the bills, doing the shopping. I started cooking for myself, soon realized I love to cook. And I’m not half-bad, either.” He looked at Joe. “You must come over for dinner sometime.”
He took a small sip of his beer, thinking perhaps he shouldn’t.
“Both my folks had life policies, big ones,” Aaron continued. “Initially, I got paid an allowance from the trust, and on my twenty-first birthday, I officially inherited everything.”
Joe had been watching him all this time, empathy glistening in his eyes. Aaron felt self-conscious and changed the subject.
“Anyway, this is all ancient history.”
Joe didn’t comment. He sensed from Aaron’s manner that these were not resolved issues but that the conversation was over for now.
Aaron turned to Joe. “What about you? Your folks still live in Kempton?”
“Yeah, don’t reckon they’ll ever move. My dad likes his comfort zone. I still go ’round for Sunday lunch a couple times a month, we’re pretty close.”
“What do you do? I mean for a living?” Aaron asked.
“I’m a lawyer—a public prosecutor.”
“Really? At twenty-four?” Aaron was impressed. “That’s an interesting choice of profession.”
“Only been with my firm a year, but I seem to be wowing the right people. It’s just, growing up, I saw too much nasty shit, people being treated like cattle, nobody ever taking responsibility. I wanted to make a difference, figured what better way than to prosecute bad guys. Luckily I received a sports scholarship after school, paid my varsity fees.”
“I’m sure it was more than luck. They say the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Joe laughed. “Okay, it was a fair mix of hard work and luck. My brother Kevin and I always used to compete at school. Even though he’s two years younger than me, he’s phenomenally bright and kept me on my toes. We both graduated with several distinctions. Unlike Kevin, though, I loved sport. I spent every spare moment I had on a soccer field or cricket pitch. And I was really good too. My mom and dad were equally proud of both of us, always pushed us to succeed.”
Joe had received an athletic scholarship to the best law school in South Africa, where he easily juggled his sport, studies, and an endless parade of feminine beauties. Not only did he have a lean, athletic build, but he also possessed a natural charisma and charm that he used to get anything he wanted. Once Joe had his heart set on something, it was as good as his. He was not consciously aware of this, but Aaron was already feeling the full impact of his understated personality. He suspected Joe would be a formidable adversary should anyone choose to cross him.
“So, after varsity I had a few offers from some law firms, but I knew all along what I wanted—so I applied to the most successful firm of prosecutors in my second year, and when I graduated, they offered me a position.”
He finally took a big sip from the beer in front of him.
“So, what do you do, Richie Rich?”
“I’m still trying to figure that one out!” Aaron responded. “I’ve always just kinda coasted along, got average grades in school, went to varsity for a couple of years before I dropped out. I traveled a bit. Did a bit of photography but wasn’t particularly good. I did some volunteer work for a while, but eventually it just came to seem so hopeless—no matter how much you do, you never seem to make a difference, like what’s the point?”
“‘It makes a difference to this one,’” Joe said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a line from a story. A little girl is walking along a beach covered with oysters that were stranded during a storm. As she walks, she stops every few steps to throw one of the oysters back into the ocean. A man sees her doing this. He walks up to her and tells her kindly that she is wasting her time. There are just too many oysters for her to make a difference. Picking one up and tossing it into a wave, she says, ‘Maybe. But it makes a difference to this one.’”
Aaron smiled. “I like that. Puts things in perspective.”
The bartender brought over a bowl of peanuts, and they each grabbed a handful.
“So let me ask you something,” Joe said. “The party last week? Simone was easily the hottest girl there, and she was all over you. Why didn’t you take her home?”
Like a match bursting into flame, Aaron’s temper flared, fed by the alcohol in his veins. “Well, what’s the big fucking obsession with sex? Is it all everybody ever thinks about? Does the whole damn world go around thinking with its dick?! No wonder the world is in the state that it is!”
Joe drew back, startled at the outburst. Aaron saw the confusion in his face and put a hand on his forearm apologetically, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry, Joe. Guess I’ve had a little too much to drink! Maybe it’s time to leave.”
Aaron could see that his outburst had Joe intrigued, and he himself wondered why he had overreacted like he did.
“No, Aaron, it’s fine. It’s okay. But what’s the big deal about sex? It’s fun. You should try it!” he responded, a teasing smile on his lips.
Leaning close, Aaron said quietly, “Okay, I’ll tell you. The truth is—I don’t get sex. I don’t mean I don’t get laid. I mean I don’t see why everybody seems so preoccupied with it. It’s like I’m sitting alone on the see-saw while everybody else seems to be having so much fun on the merry-go-round—but I don’t like the merry-go-round! I also want to have fun, but the merry-go-round just doesn’t do it for me.
“Presidents fall because they poke an intern. Marriages end because guys can’t keep their dicks in their pants. Sex is a multi-billion-dollar industry. I would go so far as to say that sex is the fuel that drives humanity. And I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why it seems to have such power over people.”
He focused his attention back on his beer. He took a sip and put it back down, taking exaggerated care to line the glass up perfectly with the wet ring that it had left on the bar when he picked it up. He had never voiced these thoughts to anybody before. In fact, he hadn’t articulated them to himself until this moment, and somehow, in doing so, he had made them real. He hadn’t realized how angry he felt, that he felt like he was missing out on some awesome secret that the Universe had whispered into everybody else’s ear but not his.
“I mean, I’m far from being a virgin; I’ve had sex with my share of girls. I dated one for almost a year, figured maybe I was just a late bloomer and the sex thing would kick in if I gave it a good try. It didn’t.”
Aaron glanced over at Joe, waiting to see how he would react. He was surprised at how candid he was being with someone he hardly knew.
Joe stared back openly. “Well, I’m no expert on not having sex, but I think there could be several reasons for it. Maybe you have a hormonal imbalance that is affecting your sex drive. Or maybe you have some deep-seated guilt about sex from your Catholic upbringing.”
He paused. “Or maybe you’re gay?”
Aaron sat back as if Joe had just spat in his face.
“Of course I’m not gay!” he protested. “I have sex with women! Maybe not often, but it does happen.”
“Okay, relax, it’s just a thought. My brother’s gay, so I don’t see what the big deal is. Let’s evaluate our options.
“One, you have a hormonal imbalance. If that was the case, you would have no sex drive. You’d probably rarely, if ever, wank. You’d have no interest in porn, and I’m no expert, but I would imagine you would never wake up with a boner. Does any of that fit?”
Aaron was getting uncomfortable. He distractedly moved the ashtray away from himself. He ran his thumb over a sliver of moisture that was making its way down his glass. He didn’t mind sharing the details of his youth with Joe, but sex was a touchy subject for him. The topic of sex had been taboo in his parents’ home, something people did behind closed doors but never discussed.
“Not really,” he answered cagily. “I mean, I do enjoy fairly frequent happy moments by myself, and of course I wake up with an erection most mornings.”
He was blushing brightly, the tips of his ears burning beacons.
Joe acted like he didn’t notice. “Okay, so maybe it’s the Catholic thing. How do you feel about porn?”
“Well, truthfully, porn makes me uneasy. It always feels to me like the women are being taken advantage of somehow. I know it’s stupid. I know they are there willingly, but still, in my mind, women are sweet and gentle. It doesn’t seem ‘honest’ somehow to see some girl fluttering her eyelashes up at some brute as he fucks her face.” Aaron blushed at his unaccustomed use of such graphic language. He’d specifically chosen his words to get his point across, but it was out of character for him. Joe was amused by it but would soon learn that he could make Aaron blush anytime he wanted just by saying the word “vagina” to him.
“And what about the men?”
“What about them? I mean, I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about seeing men in porn one way or another. I enjoy it more when there are no women in the scene, though. It seems less degrading.”
“Okay, I suppose that might be the Catholic thing. Let’s forget the porn. Different tack. You’re walking down the street, and approaching you is a beautiful girl with a good-looking boyfriend. Which do you look at first? What do you feel when you look at each of them?”
Aaron was getting defensive now. He looked around for some excuse to change the subject, finding none. “I’m not gay, okay? I promise. I would be at the front of the queue at the pride parade if I was. I have absolutely nothing against gays.”
“Just answer this one last question, and I’ll never mention it again.”
“Fine,” he said, resigned. “When I look at the woman, I would see her beauty, same as I would recognize beauty in a sunset or a painting. When I look at the man, I would be thinking that I would like pecs like his, or legs or bum or whatever. It’s not a gay thing; it’s just the natural guy habit of comparing myself to other guys.”
Joe said, “Funny. I wouldn’t even notice the guy.” Joe acknowledged Aaron’s discomfort with a smile and honored his promise not to press the issue. He finished his drink. Aaron pushed the rest of his beer away from him and called for the bill.
“Here’s my number,” Joe said. “When are you inviting me for dinner?”
That was the first and last time they had ever discussed Aaron’s sexuality.
As their friendship grew, it became more apparent that Joe was Aaron’s opposite in almost every way. Completely image conscious, he went to gym before work every morning and twice on Saturdays. He was proud of his appearance and would whip off his shirt at the least provocation, which was not an unpleasant experience for women in the vicinity.
Aaron was the more carefree of the two. Having no particular direction or drive in his life, he had become used to going with the flow of things, taking each day as it came. Joe, however, was driven to succeed and had very clear goals in mind for himself. He planned his life weeks in advance and got quite irritable if anything didn’t turn out as he had planned it. He didn’t believe in leaving anything to chance.
In summer, Joe usually came over after work, and the two of them would lie on the loungers catching the late afternoon rays, drinking beer and talking shit. To the world, Joe presented an unshakable confidence, a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude, but as their friendship grew, Joe began to feel comfortable letting his guard down around Aaron. He was the person Joe would seek out when something was troubling him. Aaron liked the fact that only he got to see the softer side of Joe.
Recently, Aaron had found himself doing odd jobs for people. He was very good with his hands and could fix just about anything. It had started several months before, when he had pulled over to help a curvaceous redhead whose car was parked on the side of the road with a flat tire. It was one of those cars where the spare wheel was accessed from beneath the boot, and she was reluctant to lie down in the dirt to get it. Her name was Rachel.
After Aaron had changed the tire for her, he was filthy. She had offered to lead him to her place to get cleaned up, as she lived alone in a house just a few blocks away.
It was obvious to Aaron that she was flirting with him, but he did nothing to encourage it. Once at her place, she asked if he would like to shower, but he declined. She showed him where the bathroom was, and, with the door locked, he took off his shirt and rinsed it under the tap. He squeezed it as dry as he could and put it back on. When he got back to the lounge, she had opened a bottle of wine and poured them each a glass without asking. She laughed when she saw the wet shirt clinging to his torso.
“Take it off; you’re going to get sick. I’ll put it in the dryer.”
She returned a moment later and sat down next to him on the couch with her legs drawn up under her, their knees almost touching. She’s lovely, he thought. I’d love to paint her. She was so elegant with her legs drawn up that way, elbow resting on the arm of the couch, glass hovering a few inches from her glistening lips.
Why am I here? What am I trying to prove?
He was not so naïve that he didn’t know where this was leading. On a subconscious level, he still exposed himself to sexual encounters in the hope that this one would be different, this one would make it all come together in his mind.
He let it happen, opening himself up to her advances. While his body was performing the dance it knew so well, his mind was frantically turning pages, going, There’s no clitoris in my script! Somebody, please, tell me, what page is the clitoris on?
In the morning, Aaron woke up feeling guilty and empty. As usual. Guilty that he had used Rachel’s body, unsuccessfully, to try and repair a flaw in himself. Rachel’s demeanor had also changed. There was no more sexual tension between them. When she brought him coffee, she gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek like she would her brother. “Do you know how to fix a leaky faucet?” she asked, sitting down on the bed with her legs crossed, cup held in front of her.
Of course he did. And fixing the faucet helped him feel less guilty, like he was repaying her for last night’s favors.
He had pulled his car into the empty slot of her double garage the night before. As she was letting him out, he noticed that her garage door didn’t open smoothly, it jerked and shuddered and threatened to stick at any moment. Leading her back inside, Aaron asked for an old rag and a can of oil.
Three days later, she called him again; her pool motor had seized. A week after that, she asked if he would help a friend out by installing a kitty door, for a fee of course. Months later, she told him that she had thought she was doing him a favor because she knew he didn’t have a job. She hadn’t realized how wealthy he was at that point.
Soon they were going shopping and having lunch several times a week. They became good friends. She told him that he was much more fun than any of her girlfriends. Before long, she was confiding in him about guys she was dating, valuing his advice more than any of her other friends’. When she was going on a date with a new guy, she would arrange for Aaron to call her during the date so that if it wasn’t going well, she could pretend that some crisis had arisen and would have an excuse to leave. Like the time her Internet date accidently knocked his glass against his false teeth, causing them to plop into his water. He was obviously much older than he had stated on his profile.
Word spread, and soon women for miles around, and even a few men, would call on him when they needed something done around the house. It hadn’t gone unnoticed to him how some of those people just seemed to have the worst luck, calling him out two or three times a month. Joe had a theory about that, but Aaron dismissed it as silly.
On Tuesdayafternoon, the day before his 2 a.m. excursion, Joe had come over after work. He stripped down to his Calvin Kleins as he usually did and sprawled himself out in the sun at the pool. When Aaron joined him with beers in hand, he could tell from his agitated manner that something was on his friend’s mind. He handed Joe a beer and stretched out on his own lounger. He waited for Joe to speak.
“Have you ever dated someone you thought you might actually have a serious future with?” Joe asked a few minutes later.
“Ah,” he said. “Women trouble again? Can’t honestly say that I have. Why do you ask?” Aaron gazed contentedly over the lawn of his back garden, down to the fresh purple blossoms on the Bougainvilleas at the west boundary of his property. The sun was just beginning to dip behind them, and the effect made him want to grab his canvas and brushes. He considered dashing inside for his camera.
Joe swung his legs off the lounger and sat up to look at him. “There’s just something not right going on with Candice, and I don’t have a clue what it is. Have you ever felt like that with a girl? Like you’re missing something?”
“Yup, with just about every girl I ever dated. All five of them. Be more specific.”
“Look, we’ve been dating for months already, right? But I still only see her three or four times a week. I want more. But when I push to see her more often, she gets all cagey, makes up some vague shit about having other commitments and needing time to herself. I mean, what is with that?”
“Well, if you ask me, that just shows that she has a life and needs her independence,” said Aaron. “I can understand that. Your problem is that you’re too used to women falling over themselves to be with you.”
“Well, I think it’s odd,” he said, slightly petulantly. “Usually after a few weeks women get so clingy that I’m forced to dump them to maintain my sanity!”
Aaron slapped him hard on a muscled thigh, making him wince. “You know you’re a misogynistic pig, don’t you?”
“No, seriously. I need to know what’s going on. I need a favor….”
“Uh uh, no way, I am not spying on your future ex-girlfriend!” said Aaron, almost convincing himself. He had never been any good at refusing Joe anything.
“Please, Aar? I’ll owe you big time….”
“Oh come on, not only are you sinking to new lows, but you’re taking me down with you! Besides, you already owe me big time. Several big times, in fact. No!”