The Shape of the Earth

Written by Gary McCann

Pixie-sized Robert spots us across the living room. His vibrant gray eyes smile from baby-soft mottled skin as he makes his way around and between his chatting guests. “Hello, boys. Fashionably late, I see.” His voice playful, raspy, his hands dart out from the sleeves of a baggy maroon cardigan to land on our forearms. He offers a cheek to be kissed. A thick brown shock of hair swings out from Dave’s forehead as he leans to oblige Robert. I glance to see who I know among the middle-aged academics, the group nearest us moaning about four more years of Reagan, whose second inauguration was Tuesday. I’m startled to spot Ian in a circle of grad students across the room.

On his arm is a willowy brunette with hair down to the small of her back; I’ve seen her drop him off at the bookstore recently.

I turn away, but Ian’s blue-black head and long-sleeved red T-shirt glow in my peripheral vision. “What’s the matter?” Dave asks.

“Nothing.” I kiss Robert’s cheek.

“I’ll put the beer we brought in the kitchen,” Dave says and heads off.

After Robert and I exchange a few pleasantries, I lean down to his ear. “You know Ian Ryan?”

Robert laughs and plays at making insinuating eyes. “Melinda, my research assistant, brought him. She has excellent taste, don’t you think?”

“She does. Ian works for me.”

Robert flicks silver eyebrows. “Small world. Lucky you.”

Ian sees me and looks as surprised as I was to see him. He turns his back and slips his arm around Melinda’s waist. Her sleeveless mint dress looks suitable for a wedding, as though this casual party means more to her than it should; I like her for the needy life that suggests. In my fantasy world, where Ian and I do wild things to each other’s bodies, I’m willing to share him.

I figure when Dave returns from the kitchen, I’ll introduce him to Ian and get my nervous moment over. I hired Ian at the bookstore four months ago and I’ve barely mentioned him at home, something Dave is bound to point out when he gets an eyeful of Ian’s dark Irish good looks.

Robert pats my forearm and excuses himself to say good night to a couple leaving. I turn and see Dave standing by the long dining table, talking to our friend Sandy, so I head toward them.

“Hi, sweetie,” I shout over What’s Love Got to Do With It? as someone cranks up the volume in the family room. Sandy and I peck on the lips. “You’re looking good,” I tell her. She’s short and always fighting weight.

“I’m going to put this in the refrigerator.” Dave raises the six-pack to indicate it.

Sandy’s red hair is stylishly boyish and frames a pretty face with a clear complexion. As I bend down to listen to her, my back toward the living room, Melinda passes from behind me leading Ian by the hand. They stop at the far end of the table. While Melinda greets two women grad students, Ian picks up a vodka bottle and fills a tumbler more than halfway. I wink when he looks up. He nods hello, just barely, and pours orange juice into his vodka.

Sandy tugs my hand while I’m staring at Ian. “Let’s go out back so I can smoke.”

She leads me through the family room, between dancing couples who look tired on Friday night, too settled in life for partying hard, too love-handled. Outside, through a sliding glass door, the smokers are spilling from the patio onto the small lawn, made even smaller by dripping bamboo towering on three sides. Sandy and I stop near a round stone table damp from fog at the edge of light cast by the house.

A joint comes our way, and I decide one hit won’t hurt. Holding smoke in my lungs, I stare through the glass door as Melinda and Ian join the dancers in the family room.

“You know Ian Ryan?” Sandy asks, following my eye.

I let out my smoke. “He works for me.”

“He works for you?”

“You must know him too?”

Ian’s doing an M.A. in comp lit, and Sandy is Robert’s secretary in the English department.

“I know Melinda better.”

“You don’t like her?”

“She’s all right—a little headstrong.” Frowning, Sandy draws on her cigarette and exhales through small nostrils. “I wouldn’t do Ian any favors, babe.”

“What have you got against Ian? I like him.”

Sandy twists her mouth. “Speaking of people I don’t like, how’s Jane?”

“Away on a cruise, hallelujah.” Jane owns Royal Books, the store I manage despite Jane’s micromanaging. Sandy used to work for me, and Jane loved to hate her.

“You’re a patient man,” Sandy says. “I owe you big time for hooking me up with Robert—he’s a dream of a boss.”

“I figured he would be. So why don’t you like Ian?”

Sandy shakes her head. The joint reappears and I let it pass.

Sandy stubs out her cigarette in a wet ashtray on the stone table, glances around at the other smokers and crosses her arms with a shiver.

We’re both wearing sweaters and jeans. I slip my arm around her shoulders. “You’re cold, sweetie. Let’s go dance.”

In the family room I maneuver us in among the crowd bumping and grinding to Blondie’s Rapture. Ian and Melinda are near us. Sandy looks more distressed than happy. She needs a boyfriend, I figure—a son in college and an ex-husband aren’t enough. I reach out and brush my fingertips along her cheeks, and she brightens.

Robert joins us as Rapture blends into My Baby Takes the Morning Train. I pull my gray sweater over my head and toss it among shed layers on a couch shoved against a wall. Robert’s smiling eyes flit to my sleeveless white undershirt, and I grin. Drunk, Robert once told me that he likes thirty-year-old blonds; I happen to be a thirty-year-old blond, the only one he knows to my knowledge.

“I’m not into dancing tonight, boys,” Sandy shouts, and scoots away after air-kissing Robert and me.

As Flashdance begins, I’m facing Ian and Robert both, with Melinda to my side, also facing Ian and Robert. Judging by Ian’s glazed-over eyes, I figure he chugged all the vodka he poured. On the lyric “what a feeling” he raises his arms and I mentally trace the contours of his compact torso as his shirt rides above a navel that looks like an etching.

“Dance with Lenny, you two,” Robert shouts to Melinda. “People are leaving and I want to say good-night.”

I turn halfway toward Melinda. She smiles until Robert disappears, then gives me a look that says she knows I’m admiring her date and doesn’t appreciate it. Fair enough, I think. “I need a beer.”

Slipping between the dancers, I find my sweater on the couch and toss it over my shoulder. I wonder where Dave is.

He’s not in the living room. From the hallway I glance into Robert’s den and see Dave sitting forward on a black leather sofa, his back to me, his large hands raised in a shrugging gesture. He’s talking to an engineering professor named Brian, a young Paul Newman; Dave’s in the biology department but knows Brian from playing city league baseball. Brian’s pregnant wife, a lawyer, is with them.

I watch my partner sitting erect in a white pullover sweater, his long back straight, his face angular and, glimpsed from the side as he turns his head, relaxed and smiling, unselfconscious as usual. He doesn’t know I’m watching him and thinking I made a good decision when I moved to California to be with him. I played around a little after I got here, before anyone had heard of AIDS, a bullet I dodged. I’m only the second man Dave’s had sex with in his life. If in the beginning I asked myself whether I was in love with him, I didn’t ask myself for long.

I glance at Brian and wonder if Dave’s attracted to him. I’m sure Dave gets a hard-on for as many men as I do. He won’t admit it—he’s afraid of encouraging me. He thinks I don’t have his will power.

I turn and head for the kitchen, a pale olive room with dark cabinets and a butcher block island laden with booze, soft drinks, and barely touched platters of broccoli and cheese, all glistening and looking artificial under a ceiling spotlight. I see bottles of Moosehead beer in melting ice in a cooler on the floor. After helping myself, I lean back against the counter and savor being alone in relative quiet.
Ian appears in the doorway, stops when he sees me, then takes a few unsteady steps to the island, where he picks up a Pepsi. I grin watching him. “Did you down all the vodka you poured, Ian?”

Without answering, he faces me and leans against the stove. His tanned, square-tipped fingers fumble with the can till it snaps open and mist rises.

“Where’s the lady you’re with?” I ask.

“In the head.” He raises the Pepsi to his mouth, and his Adam’s apple bobs as he gulps. Lowering the can, he flexes its thin metal. “You should tell Mai-Ly you’re giving me Jack’s hours.”

Yesterday Ian started bugging me about Jack’s hours. Jack’s quitting his five evenings, and Mai-Ly asked for them; I said fine. Then Ian asked if he could have them.

“You’re drunk, Ian. Why do you want Jack’s hours so bad?”

“So you and I won’t be working at the same time.”

“What? Like I’m the first man you’ve ever been attracted to?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Lenny.”

Melinda walks into the kitchen, and I take a swallow of my Moosehead. “Your date’s had too much to drink.”

“Oh, yes.” Melinda shakes her head, tch-tching, and slips an arm around Ian’s waist to steer him from the room.

I finish my beer in no hurry and toss the bottle into the trash under the sink.

Dave is still sitting on the leather couch in the den, angled toward Brian in an Eames chair. Brian’s wife isn’t with them. They’re talking about the 49ers beating the Dolphins in Super Bowl last Sunday; I couldn’t care less.

Dave glances over as I sit down beside him. He looks back at Brian and keeps talking, but holds a hand my way. I take it, lean back and map the bones in my cowboy’s fingers while his relaxed voice takes turns with Brian’s.

Yawning, Dave asks if I’m ready to go.

“Whenever you are.”

“I should find my wife,” Brian says, rising from his chair. We follow him out of the den.

Melinda and Ian are sitting on the living room sofa, Melinda talking to one of the grad students she greeted earlier. Ian’s slouched down on the cushions, an ankle across his knee, his head tipped back against the top of the couch. He catches sight of Dave and me, and without lifting his head, rotates it to follow us as we pass. I look over my shoulder from the front door and meet his fixed blue eyes.

* * *

Saturday afternoon Ian and I are straining under the weight of a display table we’re unloading from a U-Haul van in Jane’s driveway, high in the hills above downtown Fullerton. Ian is house-sitting for Jane while she’s cruises the Caribbean with her lawyer son and his wife. Her son is my age. Jane loves to tell me about the rich and successful things he’s doing. I could be doing rich and successful things, too, if I’d inherited a small fortune from my grandparents.

Ian and I upend the display table against the wall in her chilly garage. I wipe my face with the front of my sweatshirt. “We’ll never use this goddamn table in the store again but Jane can’t throw anything away.”

Ian shrugs at my irritation. I follow him out to the sunny driveway, and he lowers the garage door, hiding Jane’s pink Cadillac. Her Spanish-style house sits above and to the side of the garage, on the highest point of a ridge. Newer houses—elegant ranchers—line the road as it descends in both directions from Jane’s property.

Ian looks up cement steps curving to her front door through terraces shored up with wire mesh and planted with ivy and squat junipers.

“Have you ever been inside?”

I shake my head. “I’ve heard enough about it—she has a nervous breakdown picking new shelf paper for the kitchen cabinets.”

“The view’s fantastic from the back. Do you want to see?”

“Alright.”

I follow him up the steps and in the front door. He leads me past a beige living room, with a wagon wheel coffee table, and out French doors to a patio. Santa Ana winds have blown away last night’s fog, and the view at our feet encompasses much of North Orange County as it slopes toward the ocean.

Ian glances to see if I’m impressed. I refuse to be effusive over anything connected to Jane.

He points at what appears to be a low brown cloud on the silver horizon. “That’s Catalina.”

I realize he’s right. “I can see why you like staying here.”

“At night, with the lights spread out below, it feels like you’re in an airplane.”

I watch his eye follow a jet, far enough away to look toy-like as it descends toward Orange County airport.

“I’ve only flown once in my life,” he mumbles.

“Coming from Ireland?”

“Going to San Francisco. Well twice, going and coming back. I’ve never been out of California except as a baby.”

“When did you go to San Francisco?”

“A couple of years ago. This girl I knew took me for my birthday. All she wanted to do was stay in our hotel room and have sex.”

I laugh out loud. “Were you a disappointment to her, Ian?”

“I wanted to go out and at least see something.”

Smiling, I glance down a sheer embankment, blazing yellow with trailing gazanias. A rectangular swimming pool nestles on a cut in the chaparral-covered hillside, silver green from recent rain. The pale blue body of water is framed by dark blue tile. Weathered redwood lounges with faded green cushions stretch like lizards at odd angles to one another.

Ian follows my gaze to the pool. “Do you want to go for a swim? It’s heated.”

I stare at a steep flight of railroad-tie steps sunk into the cliff, with a round, rusty metal handrail on one side. The tops of eucalyptus trees mask the roofs of houses along a road a few hundred feet farther down from the pool. “Sure, let’s go for a swim.”

As we strip off our clothes at the bottom of the steps, I watch the boom of a grasshopper oil derrick, around the curve of the hillside, rise and fall above ragged olive trees. Ian’s light tan body shows a bathing suit line fainter than mine. I take a mental snapshot of his backside as he dives into the water, and then follow him. The pool is so full that ripples slosh onto the deck.

We swim laps, leisurely at first. When he swims faster, I stay with him.

He quits and glides to the side, turns to face inward and watch me. I swim several more laps before pulling up next to him. He’s hugging the pool wall, his chest flush to it, gleaming arms folded in the sun on the dark blue tile edge, one hand over the other. I grip the lip and let my upright body sink lower in the water than his. The pool undulates from our swimming, and my chest drifts toward the wall and away as ripples nip the side.

“How’d you feel this morning, Ian, after all the vodka you drank last night?”

He doesn’t answer. He lifts his arms off the tile edge and drops underwater to his chin.

“Do you remember coming into the kitchen for a Pepsi and talking to me?” I ask.

We’re shoulder-to-shoulder. The wind is chilly on my head, and my nose running and stinging from chlorine, all I can smell. I feel his toes caress the sole of my foot. He stretches toward me, and we kiss.

“Hello! Hello!” a voice shouts from above. “I’m here!”

We look up at Melinda.

“I’ll be right there,” Ian bellows, his voice deep.

I stare at the top of the yellow-flowering embankment; Melinda is looking down over the patio railing.

Ian hoists himself out of the water. Melinda’s not in sight when I look up again, before climbing onto the deck myself. Ian and I shiver in the wind. He kicks into jeans, grabs his T-shirt, sweater, socks and shoes, and hustles up the railroad-tie steps.

Letting the air dry me some, I gaze around the hillside in the low sun’s gold light. A jackrabbit emerges from the brush, and it and I watch each other as I pull on my pants and sweatshirt. It scampers away, and I pick up my old deck shoes and leisurely climb barefoot up the steps.

Melinda’s in the kitchen. Her pink sweater, black jeans, and white tennis shoes remind me of a three-tone car from the fifties. Her hair is pulled back in a knot, her face bare except for pink lipstick. The smell of coffee fills the room, and the sound of a shower running comes from elsewhere in the house. Melinda lifts a pot from a coffee maker. “Do you want some? You must be freezing.”

“Thanks.”

She fills a large white mug. Behind her, a curtain billows at one side of the window over the sink.

“Milk or sugar?”

“Black, please.”

I take the mug and sit at the kitchen table, a battered antique of Shaker simplicity. Melinda picks up another white mug from the counter.

Her light blue eyes watch me as though I’m an experimental mouse about to exhibit an important reaction. I swallow a little coffee.

She raises her eyebrows. The sound of the shower stops, and she glances toward the other room, then sips from her mug. She lowers it and pinches the bridge of her nose. “You wouldn’t be here if…”

“I’m not your rival, Melinda.”

“I’m not your rival.”

“I’m in a relationship.”

“Are you?”

A fat gray cat walks into the room, sits down, and wraps its tail around its rump. I’ve never seen Prudence before but feel like I know her from everything Jane’s told me about her.

“Ian and I are friends,” Melinda says. “I care what happens to him.”

She and I stare at the cat until Ian pads into the room in shorts and a black T-shirt, his head wet. I gulp the last of my coffee, wiggle my feet into my deck shoes and rise from my chair. “Time for me to go. See you at work, Ian.”

He follows me toward the front of the house. I let myself out and hustle down the curving steps through the reinforced terraces. My beige Rabbit is parked beside the U-Haul van that Ian and I rented on Royal Books’ credit card. I pat my steering wheel as I start the engine. I’m nervous backing up to make a three-point turn in Jane’s driveway: Melinda arrived just in time, I realize. Dave and I have been monogamous since we put on wedding rings five years ago—I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I have.

I plan to keep plenty of distance between me and Ian from now on.

* * *

I’m at Target the next day, buying underwear for Dave and me. He spends Sunday afternoons working in his office, on campus. He won’t be back at the house till suppertime.

It’s dark outdoors when my Rabbit bumps up the driveway of a Dunkin’ Donut shop near Cal State. I want a cup of coffee. I pull into a parking space facing the plate glass of the bare bones eating room. As I shut off my engine, I glance through the lighted windows. Dave is sitting in one of the pastel Formica booths in the bright neon glare. He’s leaning forward and grinning, holding a crumpled paper coffee cup, crushing the cup with his fingertips. Sitting across from Dave is Ian, also leaning forward and grinning, holding a bent drinking straw, wrapping the straw around his index finger.

I watch them. They look at the tabletop and look at each other.

They rise from the booth, and I start my car. They walk toward the door, laughing and talking, and I back from my parking space. I roll quickly toward the driveway and out.

At home I pour a glass of red wine and take chicken breasts from the refrigerator, coat the breasts in olive oil and season them for the grill. I take lettuce and tomatoes out of the crisper.

What could be keeping Dave? He and Ian ran into each other on campus, recognized each other from Robert’s party, and went for a cup of coffee. Simple, I’ve decided.

The sound of his car idling in the alley behind our house tells me Dave’s raising the garage door. I take broccoli out of the refrigerator, pare off the stems and drop the florets into a steamer.

The kitchen door opens, and Dave comes in carrying his briefcase. After kissing me, he looks at the chicken on the counter. “Good. I’m hungry.”

“I’ll start the grill and we can eat early. How was your afternoon?”

“Okay.”

He carries his briefcase into his den and goes into our bedroom, then returns to the kitchen with his sweater, shoes, and socks off, his white T-shirt covered with blue fuzz.

“Did you get a lot of work done?” I ask.

“Finished a draft of my article. Looked up some stuff in the library. What’d you do this afternoon?”

“Read. Went to buy underwear. I’m making coffee. Do you want a cup?”

“I had coffee just before I left the office. Should I throw together the salad?”

“If you want to. Maybe I won’t bother making coffee.”

A small red ant crawls across the faded kitchen counter toward the toaster. I crush it with my middle finger and rinse my hand under the tap. “Are you sure you don’t want coffee, Dave?”

“Positive.”

“Maybe I’ll have some more wine.”

After refilling my glass, I set it and the plate of chicken breasts on a tray and flip on the outdoor light.

A pink block wall hides our backyard from the alley and from the backyards of our neighbors, a Vietnamese family who bought just before we did and a ninety-year-old widow from Missouri who moved in with her husband in 1950, when the development was new. A jade tree hedge grows against the block wall. Dave and I planted a small palm in the middle of the lawn.

I step barefoot along the cold, narrow walk from our kitchen door and stop by our three-legged barbecue grill in moist grass. I dump charcoal into the bowl, squirt on lighter fluid and toss in a match. A ball of bright orange flame, like a small sun, lights up the night air. Staring into the flame, I feel hollow inside.

Things aren’t always as they appear, I tell myself. The earth appears flat and doesn’t feel like it’s moving; I try to remember at what age I learned the earth is round and rotating.

We eat in front of 60 Minutes, and Dave works in his den until bedtime.

In bed, he’s tired—not unheard of on a Sunday night. We had sex before we went to Robert’s party Friday evening, and again Saturday morning and Saturday night. We kiss, and Dave falls asleep. I fall asleep eventually, an uneasy sleep fret with dreams.

I wake gasping, soaked in sweat. After shoving down my half of the covers, I take deep breaths until my heart stops racing. Tilting my head, I see the glowing red digits 3:07 on the clock radio.

In a slow-motion dream, in a world where air was as dark and sticky as molasses, I was driving head-on at another car with Melinda at the wheel. Sandy was in the front seat, next to Melinda. They were both screaming something at me—a warning—but I couldn’t make out what they were saying through our closed car windows.

Dave avoided me at Robert’s party, I realize—that’s why I didn’t have to introduce him to Ian. Ian wants to avoid me as much as he can—that’s why he asked for Jack’s evening hours. Ian’s uncomfortable around me, and not because he’s homophobic.

I turn and watch Dave sleeping on his side, facing me. He looks the same as ever, to the naked eye.

I remember being afraid I’d fly off into space when I first found out the earth was round and spinning at over a thousand miles an hour.

My foot finds Dave’s under the covers, my hand touches his. He rouses, lifts his head and folds a leg over me, stretches an arm across me.

His eyes close, his steady breathing resumes.

For the moment, I feel gravity keeping me safe.