I hadn't seen Cousin Miles for nearly twenty years, and he looked more like it had been thirty. He looked so defeated and withdrawn into himself. And my memories were of a vibrant athlete. He wasn't really a cousin in the blood-relative sense. Uncle John and Aunt Frieda had adopted both him and his sister, Mandy, because they couldn't have any of their own. You could have told he wasn't really related to us. We are Mediterranean, not so tall, with olive skin and dark hair and eyes, and Miles was a Nordic blond giant. Mandy was Korean, so that was another slice altogether.
We were at a family reunion in a small town in Missouri southwest of Springfield - where my mother's ancestors somehow landed from "the old country" right before the Civil War. We'd picked this time and place to meet in the first real reunion of one aging generation and my not-so-young cousins and all of our children because the family house - where Uncle John and Aunt Frieda had lived - was soon to be knocked down in favor of an access road to a new elementary school. No one in my family had lived in the old white, boxy Victorian house for a couple of decades. It had been a B&B most of that time. But being a B&B now made it an ideal place for us to meet and steep ourselves in fleeting family nostalgia.
Uncle John was nearly ten years older than my mother. Both of them were gone now. Frieda was still with us; she handled logistics because she had just moved across town, whereas the rest of her generation had moved away as quickly as possible. My family had bounced from West Coast to East Coast, without a stop in between in Missouri. My father didn't think there was much worth seeing other than tornadoes in the middle of the country.
That doesn't mean we never stopped in Missouri on our moves between the coasts, however. Before I was twelve, we probably stopped there three or four times. And after the first time, I always looked forward to a weekend or week in that old white Victorian house. It wasn't because of the house or even that I was that tired of driving by the time we hit Missouri. It was because of Miles.
Miles was eight years older than I was, but he was always home when we visited his parents, even the last time when he was close to graduating college. And to me he was a god. He was always smiling and willing to play with my brother and sisters and me - active games like volleyball and kickball and touch football out on the extensive, green-grass side yard of my uncle's house. He was tall and athletic, and when I was introduced to Greek mythology, I equated him with Apollo. He could play football and basketball and did so for his high school team - and then basketball for the University of Missouri, where he studied music and trained to become a high school band director himself.
Sometime during the second visit, I discovered that I was in love with him. I was only about ten, so I had no idea what that meant. I just knew that there was no one else in the world who made me more happy than he did and that I wanted to somehow zip up in height and dye my hair blond - which I did in high school - and not just be with Miles, but to be Miles.
On the third visit, when I was twelve and he was in college, I got the obsession that he loved me too. Not like he loved the other cousins - simply because they were related to him, but because I was someone special to him. Later in life when I overheard my parents talking about Miles - and seeming to be worried about something - I heard my mother say that he treated each and every one of his students like they were special. My father had snorted and said something under his breath, which led to a chill between my parents that lasted two days. But I was affronted by that remark. I didn't want a Miles who treated all of his students like they were special. I wanted a Miles who treated just me as special. And that last summer we visited Missouri while Miles was still there he did, indeed, make me feel special.
In volleyball or kickball he was always there, backing me up, making sure I was in place to return the ball. He didn't show that he could outshine me - which of course he could - but it was more like he was enabling me. I'd feel the touch of his hand on my arm, guiding me toward where he instinctively knew the ball was coming, and I'd move there. But I would be more thrilled that he touched me than that I got the ball returned.
Once while we were playing kickball, the ball went off into a copse of trees at the edge of the lot, where a town-owned wooded area started, and we found ourselves facing each other, panting, around behind a tree, where the ball had rolled. We were both hidden from the field, and just standing there, breathing hard, and looking at each other. And just for a second, I thought that something was going to happen. I didn't know at the time what that was, but I built on that in my dreams. And as I became older, I began to make something sexual out of - something I intellectually accepted wasn't there but something that, emotionally, I wanted to have been there.
I think that's why when I myself was in college, I permitted myself to be seduced by Sam Strickler. He was a tall, Nordic blond football player. I was smaller and more wiry, swifter of foot really, so my sport was soccer. But we'd often be in the locker room together, showering, after practice, and Sam showed special interest in me. I was attracted to him too. Not because I thought of myself as gay at the time or even that there was any special attraction to Sam himself. He was really the arrogant type, and I was to find that it was all about the hunt with him. I was just what he wanted as long as he didn't yet have me. But not long after I'd let him seduce me, he was looking beyond me to his next conquest. I'm convinced that I went with him because he was a substitute for my memories of Miles. He was tall, blond, blue-eyed, and well built.
I didn't have any serious gay experiences after that, not counting a bit of groping, and an unfortunate spring break weekend in Florida that I blame on alcohol, but I always kept in the back of my mind what experience I'd had - which I always tagged with an image of Miles - and I intellectually accepted that everyone probably was basically bisexual and that I just chose for now not to practice anything but the heterosexual element of it.
I married Barbara out of college, and we had our allotted older boy and younger girl and drifted into normal suburban existence.
And then we started to get e-mails about the old family home in Missouri being taken down and wouldn't it be nice if the whole family could convene there in the summer for a reunion? I didn't think we could get away or that it would be a good vacation for the kids, just sitting in an old house in a nowhere town and listening to old folks reminisce. Barbara, however, said it was a great opportunity for the kids to meet family members they'd never known before and that I'd always regret not having been there to see the old homestead for a last time. So we went.
I didn't recognize who Miles was for the first two days. There simply were too many people there and he had simply changed too much. The group was too large to all stay in the B&B. This situation was partially addressed by tents erected in the side yard - Frieda's idea - where the kids of the family camped out, most of them loving the idea, and the adults taking turns staying out there with them. And then some of the adults, those without children, stayed in one of two motels nearby. Barbara and I had a room in the B&B. Since Frieda declared that men and women would stay in the tents with the kids on alternate nights, though, Barbara and I didn't occupy our B&B room together when either of us had kiddie patrol duty.
During the day we all just sort of milled around the old Victorian house or went off on excursions in small groups. The family had originally lived outside the town, so there was an excursion to the acreage that had been the original family farm. And to the old schoolhouse, the walls of which were still there, even if the roof had caved in. And, of course to the graveyard. There even were feints toward the town's old, dying center, for tours on what once was open and what building was what a hundred years ago. Barbara and the kids went on some of these jaunts. I didn't go on many. The town had been robust when I had visited here as a child. The roof had still been on the old two-room schoolhouse my great grandfather and his ten siblings had all sat in, together, in an amalgamation of class years. I didn't really want to see the town in decline. I think I had dragged my feet about coming to the reunion at all because I didn't want to know the old Victorian house was coming down.
A gaggle of older generation women took up squatters rights in the B&B front room and chattered incessantly about family lore, and I found it comforting to go in there occasionally, sit on the periphery, and let anecdotes that I had usually only half remembered roll over me.
One afternoon, with my family off with some others from the younger generation in search of a McDonalds - they had to go all the way into Springfield to find one - I wandered into the parlor. I'd been upstairs taking a nap to recover from tent duty the previous night and the impossibility of getting one tent quiet before another one erupted. I had been dumb to think the kids would be bored coming to this reunion; they were having a ball with their second cousins. The nap was the reason I wasn't on the McDonald's search. I could have used a Big Mac right about then myself.
As I sat in the corner of the parlor, looking through an old, yellowed "Saturday Evening Post," I noticed that the chatter between my aunts Peggy and Helen and a couple of older women cousins and a few in-laws and out-laws I'd have trouble dredging up names for had become quite hushed. Only Helen's fleeting looks beyond the parlor door and the front hall toward the dining room drew my attention there too.
A sad-looking man who appeared to be in his forties, gaunt and trembly of hands, was sitting at one of the tables in the dining room, playing solitaire. I'd seen him a couple of times earlier in the two days we'd been there, but he always seemed to be detached from the group, standing a bit aside, eyes cast down, and a bit hunched over. He was tall, but he looked like his clothes were a couple of sizes too big for him.
"It's such a pity," I heard Peggy said in hushed tones. "He really does look ill. Frieda had mentioned something about it - but you know how she just brushes by the subject."
"I'm surprised he came." That was Helen speaking, again in a stage whisper that reached me but probably not across the hall into the dining room.
"He comes to see Frieda," an unidentified younger woman said. She had been introduced to me as the wife of a distant cousin who I think lived on a farm nearby. It certainly seemed she was a local. She was one of the women who was taking charge of the arrangements and activities. "She's in the home now, you know, and her house is sold. But Miles comes from Springfield at least once a month to see her."
The name "Miles" hit me hard. My eyes darted to the other room, and after considerable reconstruction effort, I was able to recognize Miles emerging somehow, forlornly, from inside the body hunched over the card table.
"That has got to have been recent," Helen murmured. "You know what Frieda thought about the man he was living with."
"He was probably a very nice man, Helen," Aunt Peggy said. Her lips were pursed in such a way to covey that she could go either way on whether that was true depending on where the conversation went from there. "Times were just different in those days. I know John and Frieda's hearts were broken that Miles never married. But . . . well, times were much different fifteen years ago. That's all I can say."
"He started coming after his partner died," the local relative said. "And Frieda seems to get a lot of comfort from him now. It's really too bad about him, though. I'm not sure who will go first now, Frieda or him. I've always said that the worst tragedy for a parent is to outlive your children. What with Mandy and that tornado. That was such a terrible thing. Now all Frieda has is Miles. But for how long, one must wonder."
"That's so true, Susan," Peggy said. "Frieda really started going downhill when Mandy was killed in that tornado."
So, the local relative's name was Susan. I'd have to try to remember that. And, yes, there was quite a to do when Mandy got tossed across town inside that single-wide trailer by a tornado. That, of course, had just given substance to my dad's aversion to ever living in the Midwest. I remember him saying more than once that tornados were the only entertainment going in the center of the country and that there wasn't a thing fun about them. Much more was made of Mandy's death than of Miles's partner's death, I now remember, and they'd happened at about the same time.
Over the years, I had gradually gleaned from my parents' guarded conversations that Miles was living with a man in Springfield. Miles was a band teacher in a high school there and taught private lessons. And he was living with an older businessman. The situation was whispered around the family and, because Uncle John and Aunt Frieda obviously were devastated by it, no one openly spoke of it. Miles had been a golden boy. His adoptive parents would have done anything for him and had such high expectations for him. Obviously teaching in high school and living with an older man wasn't anywhere to be found on their expectations list.
When Miles's partner died, the buzz in the family hit a new level, but it was composed mainly of innuendo and, truth be known, relief.
I wasn't relieved, though. The death brought back into my mind and emotions feelings for Miles - and what they had led to in my own life. I was embarrassed and felt guilty, without even fully intellectualizing what I should be feeling guilty about. And I felt a profound sadness for Miles. While initially shocked that he was gay and wondering if he had been actively gay when I had come in contact with him, I had secretly saluted his decision to live his life as he wished. I thought he was being true to himself, which was more than what I saw going on in my extended family - and was what, I'm sure, goes on in most extended families - the two-faced treatment of each other. The sweet talk to the faces of others and the gossip, criticism, and twittering behind their backs.
At the time of his partner's death, I found out what Miles's address was - which wasn't easy without revealing why I wanted it - and sent Miles a condolence card and a brief note that I hoped read as genuinely sympathetic as I felt. Miles wrote back, telling me that my card meant a lot to him - that I was the only one in the family who had mentioned the death to him at all. No one from his family had come to the funeral.
We exchanged letters for a few months, but I got wrapped up in courting Barbara where we both worked and I'm afraid I let the contact down at my end.
And there he was, sitting in the dining room, playing solitaire. I knew I would set the family women to buzzing if I got up and went in to talk to him.
But I did just that.
He looked up, startled, when I approached the table.
"Is it OK for me to sit . . . Miles? It is Miles, isn't it?"
"Yes, of course," he said in almost a whisper. He looked into the living room, as did I. The women were watching us intently - without looking directly at us, of course. "But maybe you don't really want to, David."
"You know who I am?"
"Yes, of course. You're on Facebook. I've followed you and your family through recent years."
"But you didn't ask to be friends."
"No. I didn't. I didn't know how you would respond . . . the family situation being what it is."
"I'm sorry you felt that way, Miles. I wouldn't for the world have wanted you to feel that way. I'd like to talk with you - become acquainted again. But maybe you'd be more comfortable if we took a walk."
"Yes, I think so. You can wait for me out on the front porch and I'll come out in a moment."
"No, let's leave together. Give them something to talk about."
He gave me a surprised look laced with gratitude. But he stood up from the table, with a look of pain at the movement shooting briefly across his face, and we walked out of the house and toward the woods beyond the field of tents, side by side.
* * * *
"Are you living alone, or have you - ?"
"Yes, I'm still alone," Miles answered. "After Paul, there didn't seem to be anything else for me. I'd lost all ability to find someone, and scrutiny in the school system made any looking dangerous."
We had walked into the woods on a path that I hadn't remembered as being there in my youth. But we hadn't been able to go too far into the forest before Miles was winded and had to stop. Where we stopped seemed to be at the same tree where we'd paused briefly to pick up the kickball so many years ago. But I was probably just being overdramatic in thinking that.
"You do know what it meant that I was living with Paul, don't you?" Miles asked. "That we were lovers."
"Yes, of course," I answered.
"And you're still talking with me? You walked into the woods with me?"
"Yes. It doesn't matter to me."
"It seems to matter to the rest of the family."
"Well bully for them then. But I'm surprised you came to the reunion. I know you've been cut off from the family. I'm just sorry I stopped exchanging letters with you. I didn't mean to. Life just caught up with me."
"I understand perfectly. You had a normal life to establish. I've seen photos of your wife and children. I envy you your normal life. I would have liked to have had children. But, as a teacher, I guess I managed to do that anyway. I didn't really want to come to the reunion, but my mother wanted me to come. I've been such a disappointment to her that I owed bringing her over here every day. It's the least I could do." He smiled wanly at me. He was sitting on a log and I was standing near him, my foot raised and resting farther down on the log.
"You envy me? That's funny. I've always envied you."
"Yes. You know we all thought you were a god when we were growing up. You were so handsome and capable and always smiling. And you were a cousin, but you were older than we were, able to do all of those things we wouldn't be able to do for years."
"And then I shocked and disappointed you."
"Not a bit of it. I continued to envy you. You were making choices and following them, come what may. You were being brave and living life on your own terms."
"My, you were idealistic."
"No. I was in love. Would it shock you to know that I wanted that sort of attention from you - or that I tried it out when I was in college?"
"Yes, of course," Miles said after a long pause. And I could tell from the expression on his face that indeed it did. "And you acted on it?"
"Yes, with someone who looked just like you. But he wasn't as nice as you." I was touching his knee with my hand.
"I think you are just feeling sorry for me, David. I know I must look like a sad wreck now. That's very kind of you . . . but I think we should be going back to the house now. Mother will be tired and wanting to go home."
He struggled to get up from the log and I reached down to help him. But he shrank away from me.
"I'm sorry that I said anything, Miles. I went beyond bounds. But it's such a surprise to see you, and I've held that in for so long."
"It's OK . . . it's OK. But let's go back now."
We didn't say anything on the way back, and he walked, stooped over a few paces ahead of me. I didn't try to come up to his level. All of my life I'd tried to come up to his level, but I knew that it wasn't to be.
As we emerged from the woods, we saw his mother, Frieda, standing on the porch, looking very concerned. And the curtains in the parlor window were shaking enough for me to know that there were several sets of eyes lurking just beyond them. I almost laughed out loud.
Sensing the attention as well, Miles leaned away from me. But I locked my arm in his and pulled him closer as we walked back to civilization.
* * * *
Miles lay there on his back on the bed in his motel room, moaning and looking up into my face with an expression of wonder, arousal, and, slightly of concern, as if he just couldn't believe that I was crouched over him, my fists buried in the mattress at either side of his shoulders, gazing intently down into his eyes, and slowly riding his cock.
He was longer and thicker than I had imagined he'd be - certainly bigger than Sam Strickler had been - and I felt totally liberated in being able to do what I knew I'd wanted to do with Miles for decades.
There had been no problem being absent from the B&B this evening; Barbara was spending the night with the kids in the tent. And if she'd asked, I already had an excuse ready of not being in the mood to be with the family for supper and having gone to a local diner. It had been harder to wheedle the list of accommodations out of Susan without revealing I wanted to know the motel and room number where I could find Miles - but I managed.
After a quick meal at the diner, I was at Miles's motel room door. He dropped his jaw when he answered the door. He already was in his sleeping bottoms, and his body was still in good condition despite how gaunt his wasting disease had made him. He stood there, momentarily, not knowing what to do or say.
"Hadn't we better go in?" I said. "I think some other members of the family are staying here too."
That set him in motion. He drew me into the room and then, in shock, I think, let me lead him to the bed and push him down on his back. He moaned and started to cry softly as I knelt over him on the bed and took his cock in my mouth.
I stayed the night and we fucked over and over again, with him eventually taking charge and huddling over me, embracing me into his body, and plowing me hard and deep.
* * * *
Eight months after the reunion, the news shot around the family that Miles had died of a heart attack. I mourned him, but having had that one night with him had released guilt and tensions within me. He had wanted to apologize, thinking he had seduced me, but I assured him that we had just taken care of what was unfinished business for both of us. We resumed our letter exchanges - by e-mail now - for the remainder of the time we had, although we never reached for the level of passion in them that we had attained in fact. They were very cousinly exchanges. But I can only hope that they meant as much to him as they did to me.
My biggest regret was that I had no one to send condolences to when he died, because Aunt Frieda had died the month before Miles did. I'm sure, though, that she died happy that she went before Miles did. I had talked to her the last day of the reunion, and I was heartened to know that, in her last months, she loved her son as much as she ever had. I think Miles was comforted when I assured him in my next e-mail to him that she did so. I'm not sure she ever felt comfortable enough to tell him that directly herself, though.