JAMES ALAN RICHARDS hated his name. He hated his name, he hated his dirty blond hair and receding hairline, he hated his hazel eyes, and he hated the last pair of glasses he picked out for his astigmatism. He hated his outdated cell phone, his shitty old car, his prick of an agent, his douchebag department head, and his teeny-tiny office with the old wood furniture that got all sticky with dust over the summer and smelled like cottage cheese, old wood polish, and sweat socks. And he really hated turning forty-fucking-three. He particularly hated that no matter how much he worked out and watched his diet, his muscles seemed to get massier with age, instead of staying lean and pretty.
But in spite of all of that, he didn’t feel like a bitter person.
For one thing, he loved his job.
For another, he loved his Boston terrier, Marlowe. He loved Marlowe’s sporty black face and white throat and stomach, his pink, happy tongue, and his constantly surprised, protuberant eyes. He loved the fact that Marlowe would lick his face or his hands or his ankle or his pants leg or his toes (if they were bare) at any time of the day. He loved that Marlowe started out the night sleeping at the foot of his bed but eventually crawled under the covers, so that when the alarm went off he was in place to lick James’s toes until he got up.
And he loved taking Marlowe to the dog park that was a ten minute drive from his little community college in Rocklin, and throwing that little grunting, slobbering miracle of goodwill his own special doggie ball in the Roseville dog park until Marlowe was so exhausted he rolled over on his back and looked piteous enough to be carried to the car, like a perky insufferable cat.
James loved it when Marlowe did that. It made him feel needed and special, as though there were one human and one human only on the planet who could meet that need in Marlowe and James was it! Huzzah! Two doctorates in literature, a tenured professorship, a decent house, and it all meant squat. His crowning achievement was carrying a Boston terrier to the car because he was sucker enough to believe the little rat bastard when he lolled his tongue and said, in his particular doggie way, “Oooohhh puhlleeeezzz, nice human, if you don’t tote my fat, lazy terrier ass to the car I shall surely dai-eeee!”
Okay. Maybe he was a little bitter, but he tried not to take it out on Marlowe. It wasn’t Marlowe’s fault that the little goombah was the only thing in James’s life that knew the concept of loyalty and devotion.
But still, those stolen hours in the Roseville dog park remained the highlight of James’s day.
One day in early April, about three weeks before spring break, James was standing at the door of room H-12 in the Humanities building, thinking longingly of that hour in the dog park and then an hour working out on the equipment in his spare room. He was startled out of his rather tame daydream when an androgynous Goth chick with dyed blue-black hair sticking out in clumps from a hack job and too much hair glue slunk out of her seat in the corner of the room and slouched to the opposite end of the door frame from James. She stood there, scowling at him from black mascara, black eye shadow, black lipstick, and white foundation, apparently doing nothing but breathing and catching light from the ghastly fluorescent fixtures in the silver piercings that lined her ears, punctured her nostril, her lip, and her eyebrow.
James smiled warmly. He honestly did like teaching literature, and Sophie was in his science-fiction/fantasy class. He’d had to get special permission to teach the class at South Placer Community College—it was actually graduate level course, but they managed to sneak it in as a humanities class at the community level.
“So, Sophie, did you enjoy the talk on Silverberg?”
Sophie Winchester wrinkled her freckled nose. (At least it looked freckled under the deadly pallor of her make-up.)
“Yeah, sort of,” she grunted. “But I wanna know something.”
James raised his eyebrows. “Sort of” was high praise from Sophie—he’d learned that when he’d had her for English 1A, and he’d passed out the traditional teacher evaluations at the end of class. His had said, Wasn’t a complete weenie, and at first, he’d been offended. Then he’d caught one of his colleagues reading a long, detailed diatribe in the same handwriting, outlining the man’s deficiencies in historical theory, with annotations. Sophie’s distinct “serial killers got nothin’ on me” style penmanship was hard to miss. About then, he’d decided that Wasn’t a complete weenie might be Sophie code for Teaches like a fucking god!
“Okay,” James said cautiously—Sophie’s papers were brilliant, but they were also written with an acid tongue, and James was almost afraid of what she was going to say next.
“All right, so I’ve had Psych 101, and I get the whole Freudian school of interpretation, but really? Do you have to say the tower of glass was phallic? I mean, why can’t missile-shaped objects just be the shape of aggression toward the universe? Why does it have to be a really giant penis? Because, I’ve got to tell you, it doesn’t speak well of men when you do that. And I would be totally pissed off if you started referring to negative energy characters as cavernous vaginas of need.”
James gaped at her. He realized that his mouth was open, and he closed it out of instinct and then looked down at Marlowe, who, he was starting to think, was the only sympathetic soul on the planet.
“Uhm,” he said, floundering, “I guess that, uhm, the missile-shaped object is just a traditionally male force. I mean, uhm, we are equipped with one from birth, right? I mean, I can see how you could make those energies neutral, but if you started talking in terms of ‘positive aggressive energy’ and ‘negative mutable energy’, people would start falling asleep before you got to the actual concept, don’t you think?”
Sophie listened, and then thought for a couple of beats, and then took a deep, meditative breath. “Yeah. Fine. Whatever. Is there a type of literature where gender roles are exploded and the actual energies don’t have a traditional chromosomal energy signature?”
James fought the temptation to repeat “traditional chromosomal energy signature,” just because it was such an awesome example of erudition gone weird, and thought hard to answer her question.
“Uhm, postmodernism works with exploding traditional literary forms,” he said seriously, “but, uhm, I don’t teach that class. You’ll have to wait until you hit a four-year school, probably graduate level. So, uhm, why are you at South Placer?”
Sophie grunted. “My parents are teachers. Lots of knowledge. Just enough money to qualify for jack-fucking-squat in the land of financial aid.”
James grimaced. “Fucking NCLB,” he muttered, and Sophie rolled her eyes and nodded. No Child Left Behind—the nation’s big lie about making everybody ready for college. The bill had produced the singular effect of making every ambitious student apply for college when the thing they’d really rather do or be was actually in a vocational school or another area of post-high-school education completely. The result was that the community colleges were stuffed full of bewildered students who couldn’t get any of their classes, and running very low on professors to teach those classes because nobody was getting any money to hire. And the number of students who dropped out in order to pay their own rent was appalling.
But not Sophie, James thought in admiration. Sophie was going to make it or kill someone trying.
He was just a little bit relieved that he wasn’t the one she’d be gunning for. But right now, she was looking at her watch and grunting hostilely, as though she had someone in her sights.
“Uhm,” James said brightly, “are you, uhm, waiting for someone?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head in disgust. “I was waiting for someone, but he’s officially too late, and now I’m just pissed at someone.” For the first time, to his knowledge, she looked just a tad bit self-conscious. She looked up and caught his sympathetic gaze, scowled, and then bent and scratched Marlowe between the eyes.
“You get it, don’t you, Marlowe?” she said, and James thought he saw spots in front of his eyes. If he didn’t know that was Sophie’s voice, he would have thought it belonged to an actual girl. “Men are fuckers, even the ones who are supposed to know what it’s like to be a gaping vagina of need.”
James felt bad, then. She’d obviously been killing time while waiting for her boyfriend, and now she was embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Sophie, Did your date stand you up?”
“Not mine,” she muttered. “Yours.” She sighed again, met his eyes with her own disgruntled brown ones, and said, “Damn. He really fucking wanted to meet you, too. I’m sorry, Professor—I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
James gaped at her—again. “Sophie?” he asked, his voice pitching up about two octaves. “You were going to set me up with a man?”
“Well, aren’t you gay?” she said, looking bewildered for the first time since he’d seen her, ever.
“Well, yes,” he snapped, “but it’s hardly common knowledge.”
She pursed her lips and pulled her head back, clearly surprised. “To whom?”
“Well, uhm, you know. To everybody.”
Sophie didn’t say anything. She just gaped back at him and then whirled around and stalked off, mumbling something about the world being full of fucking idiots, and no wonder they thought she was strange if they were all so goddamned stupid. James watched her go, opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish, until Marlowe yelped a little and stood up, resting his front two paws delicately on James’s pant leg. James bent down and scratched his head, talking softly to him.
“It’s not like I wander around campus with a himbo on my arm, right?”
Marlowe licked his hand and assured him that no, most assuredly James did not walk around campus necking with available tadpoles, and while James was taking solace from his dog, a shadow fell over them both.
James straightened up and smiled warmly, thinking it was someone looking for directions, and what he saw made his mouth run dry.
“Uhm….” Bloody ass-fucking hell—“uhm” really was his word of the day, wasn’t it? Didn’t he have a degree or two in something involving actual words?
The young man across from him was…. Holy Jesus, the last time James had seen someone that beautiful had been the night before on his computer, at one of the nicer pay-for-porn sites, when James had given up and masturbated in sheer desperation. And this guy was so his type, too. (On the computer, at least. In real life, James tended to date bookish, pale-looking men a lot like himself, except without the stunning personality defect of owning a dog or having a sense of humor.) He was about an inch shorter than James, with longish hair, the kind that was parted in the middle and would have hung in his eyes except for the cunning use of layers as it framed his face. His eyes were brown-black, and his skin was dusky, Latino brown. He had tattoos, big ones, of twined barbed wire and a dragon, wrapping in a coil from his elbow to his shoulder on both arms. His biceps were thick, ripped, and totally impressive, his red tank top clung to his narrow waist and his wide chest, and his mouth was as pillowy as a mattress commercial.
And now those pillow lips were twisted in an irritated grimace.
“Is this where Sophie Winchester has class?” he asked, and James tried not to let his heart just leap out of his chest. This was the guy Sophie had been trying to fix him up with? James’s opinion of Sophie’s taste skyrocketed—but his opinion of her intelligence took a few hits. Like this guy was going to be interested in bookish, geeky, sandy-haired, pale James.
“Yes,” James said through a dry mouth. He pointed weakly. “She went that way.”
That grimace again, with those sexy pink lips. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” For the life of him, James couldn’t think of another damned thing to say.
The guy looked down at Marlowe, who was sitting on his haunches, one paw balanced on James’s trouser cuff. “Nice dog!” he said with appreciation. James summoned up a smile—because who couldn’t smile about his dog, right? And the underwear model smiled back, something warm in his eyes, before turning on his heel, leaving James to lean back against the frame of the old classroom and taste his beating heart in his throat.
“Did you see that, Marlowe? That was as close as I’ll ever get to a real underwear model. What in the hell was that girl thinking?”
Marlowe’s only answer was to bark impatiently, and James went back into the classroom to fetch his briefcase and Marlowe’s lead. He had an appointment with a dog park that was suddenly looking not nearly as fulfilling as it had ten minutes ago.
IT WAS a nice spring day, at least—or, it should have been spring. It had snowed in the Sierras well into the first week of April and rained down in Roseville. When normally the air would have been balmy, even sticky and warm, there was still a bite of wind in the air and big, puffy gray clouds wallowing in from off the Sierras.
James loved those clouds. Those clouds over the few vacant green fields of mustard flowers left in the state were some of the reasons he ignored his mother’s pleading to move back to Maine, to the nice cushy professorship her community ties could have gotten him there. He liked New England—he did. He liked the open-back-yard neighborhoods where communities of children played. He liked the flat, unfriendly expanse of the Atlantic off the rocky coast of his parents’ home in Maine. He liked the curiously puzzle-pieced squares of cultivated land in the rural areas and the imprecise old buildings that had actual history to them. He really liked their gay-friendly legislative environment.
But something… something about the clouds as they rolled off of the Sierras and the way the air smelled like the open Pacific Ocean when it was one hundred and fifty miles away… something about this area of California called to him, even when he was reduced to wearing cargo shorts and sandals to school because the heat of June through September was un-fucking-merciful.
Such was not the case today, and he wore comfortable corduroys, from his slacks to his blazer, although he took off his blazer to throw Marlowe his ball. Marlowe was only three years old—more puppy than grown-up dog, for the most part, and he chased that ball with a slavish devotion and enthusiastic drool.
James would have thrown the ball until his arm fell off for that sort of positive reinforcement.
“He’s a handful!” a woman said, distracting him from getting his face thoroughly licked by a wide pink tongue.
“He’s cute and he knows it,” James replied, looking up at her and smiling. She was his age, frosted hair, narrow face, pointed chin, and a sharp-eyed smile. She was walking a mid-sized pure-bred collie with a lot of lines and angles on a rather disdainful, narrow canine face, and Marlowe panted and slobbered happily on James, completely ignoring both of them.
James, alas, was human, and not so lucky.
“Well, he’s as cute as his master,” the woman said, increasing the wattage of her smile, and James realized with a shock that he was being hit on.
“But not nearly as gay,” he said back, bemused, and was unprepared for the woman’s horrified look or the way she yanked on her dog’s lead, like maybe being near him and his slobbering Boston terrier was a way to decrease her dog’s breeding potential. And her own, he guessed.
“God, Marlowe, sometimes I really hate this area,” James muttered. Marlowe licked his face sympathetically, and James stood up and threw the ball again. Longingly, he thought about Sophie Winchester’s underwear model and how much easier it might have been to deal with a snotty bitch and her inbred bundle of shaking canine neurosis if he had that waiting for him at home—or better yet, here at the park, taking turns throwing the ball to Marlowe.
God, when had his dreams gotten so… so pathetic? So ordinary. He used to dream about taking the academic world by storm! He dreamt about writing the Great American Novel. He dreamt about starting a foundation for young GLBT writers. But not anymore.
Now, he dreamed about finding a lover who wanted to throw a ball in the dog park for his damned dog.
Marlowe licked his face, distracting him from his melancholy, and James smiled and touched noses with him. Marlowe’s nose was wet, and his tail was wagging so hard that his tight, tough little body almost wriggled right out of James’s arms.
Well, sometimes small dreams had grandeur, he thought with dignity. Sometimes, the small dreams were all a person needed to live.
“SO, JAMES, have you met anyone?” His mother’s voice was one-hundred-percent upper class New England, and James never realized how much Northern Californians did not have an accent until his twice-weekly phone call home.
“No, Mom—it’s not exactly gay-topia out here, you know?”
“Which is why you should move back home,” his mother said smoothly, and James resisted the urge to smack his head on the desk in front of his computer.
“Because the gay man living with his mother hasn’t been done to death,” he said instead, and his mother’s disgusted sniff came across loud and clear.
“Don’t be snide, darling. I just don’t like the thought of you there in the wilds of California, lonely and bitter. It would be nice if you had someone to keep you company. I won’t be around to nag you forever, you know!” His mother had just reached official Senior Citizenship, and she was forever reminding him of her own mortality. She took water aerobics, yoga, mall walking, meditation, and senior nutrition classes. She was involved in three charities, various political organizations (all left-wing, of course), and volunteered in the local private school once a week for enrichment activities.
He was fairly certain she was going to outlive him.
“I have Marlowe,” he said with certainty. “Boston Terriers can have pretty long lifespans. He may outlive me—or be buried with me, like a pharaoh’s dog, in my tomb.”
“That’s not funny, James,” his mother said with a little disdain, and James resisted a sigh. He thought Sophie Winchester might have found it fucking hysterical, and his thoughts wandered to the underwear model again. Well, if nothing else, should his libido survive this phone call with his mother, he was fairly certain he had his stroke material for the evening!
“I’m just saying that I’m fine,” he told her firmly. “I’m fine—I love you, and you don’t need to worry about me.”
“We love you too. That’s why we worry.”
The “we” referred to James’s father. Although Alan Geoffrey Richards never actually spoke into the telephone, the two of them kept in touch via James’s mom. She assured James that both parents were still functioning and properly affectionate, and James spent a lot of time picturing his father reading the newspaper while his mother swam/walked/yoga’d circles around him.
“Is Susan coming out for Spring Break?” Susan was his sister, the one who had gleefully announced that since James was gay, she got to have three children and still maintain a zero-population-growth family. James saw his sister and her family over Christmas break and for a month in the summer, and he had to admit, since she was the one with the uterus, it was awfully damned nice of her to give him three beautiful nieces whom he got to spoil unmercifully. In fact, thinking about them now, he added his nieces to his list of things he didn’t hate about his life. His sister was also on the list, but not as high up as Pilar, Francesca, and Anabella. (Susan had a master’s degree in Italian architecture—she’d spent a year there before coming back to the states to start her own firm, and she always claimed the culture stuck.)
“As always, darling, and you?”
James sighed. “I’m afraid not, Mom. For one thing, I don’t know what I’d do with Marlowe—I don’t want to bring him out for such a short trip, because that’s hard on a dog, and for another…” And this was just so embarrassing. “Finances are a little tight,” he confessed, embarrassed because a forty-three year old man and a tenured professor shouldn’t have this problem. Unfortunately, the recession had hit teachers hard—community college teachers weren’t immune. His house—bought up in the fashionable Stanford Ranch area—had also had a balloon payment so he could keep his low interest rate. He didn’t want to think about what kind of repairs were waiting on his car. And, well, it didn’t count that he’d had his savings wiped out three years ago by… a person whose name he no longer spoke.
His mother knew about that—and she usually left it alone, because a man had his pride, but sometimes, well, sometimes you just didn’t want to haul your poor befuddled dog three-thousand miles across the country when it meant you might not be able to have that annoying rattle fixed on your ten-year-old car.
Now she sighed, the long-suffering sigh of martyrdom that he always feared.
“Please don’t say it.”
“Please don’t say it!”
“But it feels like you’re only staying out there for spite, darling! Not everything about Maine is bad, right?”
“Mother, I like it here.”
“I don’t see why!”
“Well, Marlowe and I are the only ones who need to see why,” he said firmly. “Please, can we not argue about this anymore?”
“But it was only one man, James!” His mother’s voice lost its polish and its equanimity for a moment, and she became the waitress working her way through a Princeton scholarship who had first attracted James’s father. “It was one man—and just because he was a sonovabitch doesn’t mean you have to leave the state forever!”
James sighed. “You don’t get it, Mom. It’s like… like….” He thought about watching those rainclouds come down from the Sierras that day. He thought about the smell of the sea from over one-hundred miles away. The electric tingle of those moments made the thing he was going to say right now sound less silly. “It’s like, you know how sometimes you feel like you’re waiting for something to happen? Well, whatever it is, I want it to happen here.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line, and then his mother gave a laugh that sounded more and more like the girl James saw in his parents’ wedding pictures, and less and less like the sophisticated harridan who specialized in making James feel somehow disappointing without even trying.
“Well, James, knock me over with a feather. I think I finally see the poet in you, darling. You’ll have that best-selling novel out yet!”
“My last book was very well reviewed,” he said with dignity. And it had been—in a publication that specialized in fiction works by academicians only, that maybe five people in the world subscribed to.
“It was wonderful,” she said, and he remembered that same tone of voice when he presented her with a macaroni necklace and a clay ashtray after summer camp.
“Thanks Mom,” he murmured. “I’ve got to go now. Papers to grade.” It was a lie, of course. He’d graded all his midterm assignments the week before. It wasn’t like he had a whole lot else to do, right?
“Bye, sweetheart. I love you. Talk to you on Sunday, okay?”
“Mm-hmm, yeah. Sunday. Love you too.”
And with that, he was alone in his rather nice house in Stanford Ranch, wishing he was anywhere else at all, as long as he could be on his knees, worshipping the cock of Sophie Winchester’s anonymous underwear model. Was it James’s imagination, or had that man had the longest, darkest fringe of eyelashes in the history of mankind?
He focused on those eyelashes as he made himself a small salad with a broiled breast of chicken (he was at the age where he had to worry about cholesterol) and bananas and yoghurt for dessert. He focused on the sloe-colored, blue-black liquid eyes they sheltered as he cleaned up. He thought about the balanced, almost snub nose (the better to make the man look way too young for James, right?) as he surfed the internet for porn and watched CSI:Miami simultaneously.
It wasn’t until after all the porn that he started to fantasize about the biceps, the smooth dark skin, the washboard stomach under the tank top, and the entire package under the jeans beneath that.
By then he was ready to head off to bed for his sad masturbatory climax and sleep.
HE REGRETTED his fantasizing on Wednesday, when he had Sophie in class again. He wanted badly to ask her about her friend and the setup and the entire thing but it all felt so adolescent and pathetic. If he’d been straight, dating Sophie was right out of the question—she was barely twenty, and he didn’t like to think of himself as a douchebag. Surely her friend would be out of the question too? Besides, he was doing just fine. He had his dog. He had his small house in the cookie-cutter suburb. He had his crappy car, which would run just fine for another year (or so his mechanic assured him), and he had his dignity. Well, as long as no one saw him at night with his internet porn collection and his pile of come towels in the hamper, he had his dignity.
He finished his lecture on the three major dystopian works and then asked if anyone had read the Vinge enrichment materials and was unsurprised when Sophie raised her hand.
“Can we really call the Vinge works science fiction anymore?” she asked thoughtfully, and he nodded. At least for this one, he was prepared.
“We’re on our way to making some of the technical aspects a reality, I grant you. I mean, how long before we combine our ATM cards with our cell phones, put them on our wrists, and plug them into our neural systems? Absolutely,” he said with confidence. “We’re well on our way. But the thing that has us flummoxed for that one is space travel—and that’s one of the reasons I think this book hasn’t made it into the official canon of dystopian lit.”
“But we don’t have the big baby farms like we had in the Huxley, either!” Sophie objected, and James smiled, because this debate was really the best part.
“No—but we do have the mass education, the government indoctrination, and the distraction from actual real, meaningful political subjects with media and knee-jerk emotional topics. Which, by the by, was a part of 1984, as well.”
Sophie stopped for a moment and blinked. “Ohmigod, you’re totally right! The proles were totally the ones getting all the porn and the alcohol, and they were the ones who got to have the sex. It was the educated party members who had to be distracted with all of the bullshit! You’re right—that has come true. But why can’t we say the Vinge stories are good based on their similarities to the modern-day realities?”
And the debate was on. Other students began to participate, and soon there was a low murmur asking how to get hold of the enrichment materials, and people were genuinely surprised when class ended.
James smiled at the students as they left and waved, and Marlowe slobbered approvingly at his feet. Sophie Winchester was the last one to leave, though, and she stood at the door and looked back, obviously waiting for him as he gathered his briefcase and his dog lead and started out.
“I still think you’re wrong,” she muttered as he came out of the standard little room and shut the door, locking it behind him. “I still think the human race would show more tolerance toward a species that has no outwardly hostile tendencies than they did in the Vinge book.” She was dressed for spring today in black basketball shorts and a black T-shirt that said, I’m being totally brilliant up here and you’re missing it! in white letters across her (ample) chest.
James grimaced. “I’m not sure the native culture of any continent on the planet would agree with you,” he said and watched as a general sort of disappointment clouded Sophie’s eyes.
“God, that’s depressing. Do you really think we haven’t learned anything since then?”
Shrug. “I don’t know, Sophie—it just seems like the more civilized we think we are, the easier it is to find a subgroup to shit on. The worlds in Catspaw and Tower of Glass were perfect examples—their races had all been well integrated, but in one they found the telepaths and promptly fucked them over, and in the other, they actually created their own race to shit on. And then it staged a revolution.” Oh God. Her eyes were getting big and round, and her pierced lower lip was actually starting to quiver. The toughest, meanest intellectual bastion of bitterness at South Placer Junior College, and he’d just made her cry. Fucking aces.
He patted her shoulder. “You know—maybe you’re talking to the wrong guy here, hon. I’m old. I’m bitter.” I got taken for my life savings in a relationship that I thought was a marriage that really wasn’t. “I’m sure if you had enough time, you could find an example that sets