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Circumstances - 20. J P

Leo was passing time before Saturday dinner at his twenty-fifth high school reunion. The hotel was in kind of a sports resort – golf, tennis, volleyball, pickleball, swimming, hiking – and he’d been there before for earlier three-day reunions – the tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth. But he’d never had time to explore the grounds.

Now he did, and though he didn’t play golf – almost never at all really, after he swung his great aunt’s old clubs in maybe fourth grade and couldn’t get interested – he wandered over to the course. There was a driving range, a putting green, and a tiny miniature golf set-up in addition to the eighteen holes, and he immediately went to what would be just his speed – the miniature golf course. He’d played that in grade and maybe middle school with friends, but – like bowling – he never really paid attention and was there to be part of the gang.

He picked up a club now. It wasn’t his size and was lying on the fake grass as if some kid had dropped it. There were some balls in a small plastic basket, really golf-size wiffle balls, probably so they couldn’t do any damage to the kids, and he picked up one and dropped it near what looked like the start. There was no tee or flag or anything to announce Start Here, so maybe it didn’t matter. Then, almost immediately, he began to clean.

A twig had blown down near the first obstacle, the probably inevitable Welcome arch, and there was a collection of balls near the second. Further down, there was what looked like a wadded T-shirt or maybe even a small stuffed animal – a beaver in a gingham smock? No wonder some child had given up in disgust.

As he finished cleaning the small course – it was maybe nine obstacles and a final hole in a space about the size of his two-car garage – one of the golf pros or course assistants or caddies came up, laughing. “We ought to give you a job here, man. That what you’re trying for?”

“Just puttering before dinner,” Leo almost apologized.

“I can get you a club and some real balls – if you want to drive or practice putting.”

“I’d need lessons first.”

“I can get you those, too,” the guy said, smiling. “You gonna be here tomorrow? I’m headed home now.”

“No, thanks. We’re only here till after lunch and pretty busy till then.”

“Business?”

“High school reunion – twenty-fifth.”

The guy grinned. “I hope I live that long.” And he eased away, sale unfortunately lost.

So Leo picked up the small club again and began to play. He had to bend over to use the club, and the ball didn’t exactly go where he intended. In that way, it was just like every other miniature golf game he’d played.

“You’re supposed to keep it on the course,” – or in the alley, if they were bowling – his friends used to joke, but he just cracked back, “Nah, this way gives me more exercise.”

He was getting ready to give up, lean the club against somewhere better than the ground, and drop the ball in the basket, when what was probably called a “party of five” approached him. They didn’t look like they were going to play miniature golf. There was a couple of young pros or caddies, each carrying a set of clubs, and a pair of older guys and a woman, all three in their fifties. A man, his wife, and their close friend?

“Well, this is the last place I’d expect to find you,” one of the possible caddies said, and Leo realized the man was talking to him.

He looked at the guy. He seemed too young to be at the reunion – in his early twenties. Some of the guys looked great, but not that good. The guy’s face was familiar, too, but Leo couldn’t place from where, and looking at the other men and the woman didn’t help – they looked like Leo’s aunt or uncles, actually closer to sixty than he’d first imagined. The woman had well-dyed blond hair, shoulder length, and one of the men had chin length hair, almost a bob, box dyed a muted red. The other guy had a normal, graying, business cut.

“I didn’t expect to find you here, either,” Leo told the caddy.

The guy just looked at Leo, smiling.

“You don’t remember who I am, do you?”

No, to be honest, he didn’t, and to be as honest, he told the guy that, hoping it didn’t offend.

“John Paul,” the guy said, quickly adding, “Jones. John Paul Jones.”

His smiling, round face, under a maroon baseball cap looked extremely familiar, like Leo had seen it many times before. But he really couldn’t bring up a name or place.

“My given name’s Jeremy, but with a last name like Jones, what you gonna do? My friends predictably called me “Germy” at first, then switched to ‘John Paul’ as soon as we learned who he was. And I’ve kept it despite...” He thumbed toward one of the older men and flashed a gold ring, and Leo took that to indicate he was married. But he seemed way too young for the other man – maybe he was married to the second caddy.

“I’m only getting the image of a ladder,” Leo confessed, after thinking hard for a moment.

“Of course, you are. You were my teacher. Freshman year. Nassau.”

Leo was a lighting designer – stage and TV. He was trying to make the transition to being a cinematographer in films. And he taught a bit along the way – always as an adjunct, sometimes as a favor to friends. Other times, it was just for drinking change.

Studying the guy, Leo got more images. The boy – man – carrying lighting equipment – instruments, cables – or sitting at a control board in a booth, or taking notes.

“JP!” he exclaimed.

The guy grinned. “Yeah, you never liked calling me ‘John Paul.’”

Up till then, the other four people had stood by patiently, indulging this chance reunion. Now, they wanted to play. That only made sense: it was getting dark, and the course lights were coming on.

“You still live in the area?” JP asked.

“More or less. I travel a lot – freelance.”

“Regional theater still?”

“Yeah – and LA.”

“Give me a call when you can. I’m local.” And he reached into his pocket and pulled a business card out of a tortoise shell case.

“You like it?”he asked, when he saw Leo noticing. “It’s fake. I found my first one in an antique shop near Greenwich, but it didn’t last long. So I bought a couple of these.”

“Jeremy...” the man with the red bob began.

“Be right with you.”

The tone was one used on a husband. The name on the North Shore real estate card said John Paul Jones – clearly catchier.

“I’ll call when I’m back,” Leo promised.

“We’ll have lunch.”

“Great.”

And the party of five moved off.

What just happened there? Leo asked himself, still standing on the tiny course. It was great seeing JP again – he liked running into almost anyone he once knew or had worked with – and that might have been a thousand people. But there was something else going on, and JP was clearly more than eighteen now, no matter how young he looked.

Leo had never slept with one of his students – flat out never. For one thing, they were nearly underage, and they were younger than he was, though probably only by six or eight years at the beginning. Now, that would be over twenty. But he didn’t teach courses anymore, just came in to design a show, or mentor a student designer, or give a guest lecture – often about getting started in the business, or finding work, or surviving in the industry. He still didn’t do it for the money, again, more as favors. He was working so much that he didn’t need even drinking change.

Of course, he didn’t make North Shore real estate money – which wasn’t Hamptons’ real estate money but may have come close – he really didn’t know. He lived in a small house in a modest South Shore community, a quick walk and one stop from the city on the Long Island railroad. It was two-story, white painted brick and was built in the 1920s – quite different from the modern mini-mansion he grew up in outside Dallas. But New York was always his aim, and he had connections from SMU and knew how to use them. He skipped grad school, got to Manhattan at twenty-one, lived in a series of sublets, often with roommates he didn’t know, sometimes actors, until he stumbled on a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment up near Gracie Mansion and used that as a base for ten years – until he began wanting to live in a house again.

He passed the one-bedroom on to a pleasant man he’d been living with on and off. Gus was an actor/dancer turned stage manager/choreographer and – most recently – assistant producer, without giving up any of the earlier opportunities. Between his work and Leo’s own travel, they saw each other “when we see each other,” as Gus put it, and that seemed fine with both of them. Until Leo mentioned thinking about a house, and Gus joked, “I’d rather get married first,” without needing to add, “And you know what I think about that.” Gus idolized Dorothy Parker.

Still, Leo would have easily gotten married if Gus had allowed. But Leo valued being with him more than their being married, and, as Gus might have put it, “That’ll come if it comes.”

It might yet – they saw each other regularly – which didn’t stop either of them from having affairs.

“That sounds too elegant,” Gus had objected, when Leo was merely being polite. “How about just calling it what it is – sleeping around?”

Leo had to agree. “There are too many interesting people in this profession. Why set limits?”

But they were safe – and cautious – and never talked about their occasional companions unless they wanted to.

So it was maybe a month later when Leo phoned JP. He was back from the coast from what was supposed to be further exploratory talks and ended up as a short term, largely unpaid by union standards, assistant’s job to a name cinematographer he’d met through a friend of a friend. He mainly watched and kept the genius organized, while other people noticed his calm and efficiency.

“You should’ve come out here in your twenties,” one of them commented. “You’d be him by now.”

“Now, you tell me,” Leo had answered, smiling. Though the truth was he’d tried LA in his twenties – late twenties – briefly, again largely exploring. But he preferred the pace and collaboration of theater and occasionally compromised by doing New York-based sitcoms. With their modified stage lighting, less travel, and better than theater money, that’s how he bought the house... well, along with a little money he’d inherited from that golf-playing great aunt. She’d long been married to a small time oil man. What else would he be, living outside Dallas?

During the phone call, Leo and JP arranged to meet for the promised lunch.

“You mind coming in my direction?” Leo asked. “I’ve been away and am doing some long delayed close-up work on the house.”

“You’re moving?”

“No – getting ready for winter. And I need to put the cover on the pool.”

He barely used the pool, except for an occasional barbecue with slumming city friends. But it came with the house, and it seemed stupid to fill it in. He didn’t need the extra lawn. So he opened the pool in late June and normally cleaned and capped it in mid-September.

“Sure thing,” JP said. “I rarely get down that way.”

“You mind a diner for late lunch? We’ve got a great one.”

“Diners are terrific – I practically collect them. So I’m always glad to try a new one.”

Leo told JP its name and general location on Sunrise Highway – JP said he could easily find it with his phone – and they set a time. Only a half-hour before, Leo wasn’t yet shaved or showered, and the pool cover wasn’t completely on – it always took him longer to manage that than he thought.

So he called JP. “Look, I’m untypically running late – but this house does that to me. Could you give me another half hour? I’ll be on time. I promise.”

“You’re always on time – I trust you.”

JP had a better memory than Leo. But it was good to confirm his reputation.

Then JP had gone on, “Look, how about I swing by your place? I’m already at the diner – I like being early, too. And I didn’t want to get lost.”

“That’d be great. It’s less than a mile.”

“You said it was near the station.”

So Leo gave him the address, told JP he’d probably still be struggling in the pool, and said to come around the side of the house then go to the back.

“There’re gates, but they’re unlocked.”

“Trusting.”

“It’s a friendly neighborhood.”

JP found Leo in the pool. Leo grinned, but was vainly thinking, “Damn.” Clothes on, he looked in shape. Half-dressed, he had the start of a belly and a bit too much hair. Though JP might be married to a sixty-year-old, he reasoned. With dyed hair. He had to know what older men’s bodies looked like. Unless he really was married to that caddy.

JP smiled and waved when he saw Leo.

“I’d like to help, but I don’t know the first thing about pools – except how to swim in them. And I prefer the Sound.”

“You swim in that?”

“We have a house, and a dock, and a boat – small boat – smallish. And a pool, but I hate the chlorine.”

“I keep this light, but that means always cleaning. Though since I rarely swim, it hardly matters. Still, I’m about to dump in the winter chemicals.”

He finished with the cover, leaving just the corner free, poured in several different bottles of gunk, then pulled the cover tight. Then he stood.

“Let’s get you out of those shorts,” JP said, and Leo didn’t know what the hell that meant.

“They’s cut-offs, actually,” he stalled. “I’ve got more pairs of jeans with their knees ripped out – always left knee first. The one I kneel on.”

If JP had said, “I remember,” Leo didn’t know what he’d do. But JP replied, “I give my clothes away before they begin to get worn – the new ones. The vintage, I’m more patient with.”

“Is that vintage?” Leo pointed at JP’s embroidered vest.

“Inspired by... Like the card case, the original didn’t last very long. But I loved it, and it’s one of my signature pieces, so I had it knocked off.”

“By Italian nuns?” Leo joked.

“Yeah, the same ones who expertly frayed your shorts – which you need to get out of before everything shrinks.”

Another double-sided remark. Which Leo also ignored.

“Then come in,” he said. And JP did.

“You need something to drink?” Leo asked. “I’ll be fifteen minutes.”

“You don’t have to shave. You look good.”

“Two-day beards are great for younger guys. I just look grubby. And my grandfather – my mom’s dad – always insists a gentleman goes out shaved.”

“Old school.”

“Unschooled – family business. He started at sixteen.”

“A drop-out?”

“Very bright – skipped ahead.”

This isn’t what he intended to talk about. But JP seemed fine.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” JP finally said. “I’m getting hungry. And do you mind if I poke around?”

“Go ahead.”

“I really don’t know houses this size.”

And Leo knew why – there wasn’t enough profit in them.

He was down in nine minutes, leaving the beard on. JP smiled when he saw it, though at first, Leo couldn’t find him. He’d been looking at the playroom in the basement.

“Looks like the place originally had coal,” JP said.

“You saw the chute? Or where it had been?”

“And the newer furnace – the replacement.”

“That’s at least the third – the first was oil.”

“Good swap – cleaner.”

Again, they were talking nonsense. Which went on.

“I just hope this one lasts.”

“How old?”

“Seven years.”

“Warrantied for twenty.”

“I’d have to check.”

Through it all, JP kept smiling – as if he was very glad to see Leo. And Leo smiled, as if he was as happy. But all during lunch, it seemed something was going on at JP’s end that Leo couldn’t quite let himself accept.

JP was married to the older guy – the man’s third long-term partner but first husband. The other two had been wives. “It’s okay,” JP said, “he can afford them. And the first has remarried – twice – so she doesn’t get alimony. The second’s more careful.”

“Kids?”

“Three – two and one. Which lets me off the hook.”

“He’s getting a bit old.”

“He doesn’t think so.” They both smiled. “Plus, we’ve been together for ten years – almost. He was forty-eight. And he’s still plenty healthy.”

“You miss having kids?”

“My own? No – I’m plenty involved with his – and who wants to deal with surrogates? And you?”

“Some – but I’ve always been focused on my career – it wouldn’t be fair. And I know too many divorced guys.”

“Hope it never happens to me.”

Which should have ended things. But it turns out JP had options.

They didn’t come out all at once, but soon it was evident that his husband occasionally “explored.”

“That’s what wrecked his other marriages – maybe understandably. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake with me.”

“You don’t mind?”

They’d fallen into a very easy, very personal conversation, and it really did seem they’d been in touch all those years. But theater work will do that. They’d been almost constantly together for a year, even if JP was eighteen and Leo was focused on what he considered bigger things.

“You’re really thirty-one?” Leo asked at some point. “It’s been thirteen years?”

“Fourteen – I started Nassau at seventeen.”

“You skipped? – like my grandad?”

“Nah, I was the youngest in my class – started early.”

“Then you met your husband at twenty-one?”

“Almost twenty-two. But I could tell he was a find and wasn’t about to let him go. He’s a great guy.”

He was a fund manager – no longer fully active, but then he didn’t have to be. At some point in the last few years, he’d co-founded a company that networked other fund managers.

“While I earn my money on my knees,” Leo joked.

“Don’t you have assistants?”

“Yeah... but I still always find myself in some lighting bay. It’s sometimes faster to do something than describe it – especially on non-union jobs.”

“Nothing’s changed,” JP insisted. And they laughed.

It took them three lunches, each in a different Long Island diner – mostly JP’s discoveries – and over the course of a year before they ended up in bed – Leo’s bed – one of JP’s rules.

“It took a long time to get you out of those shorts,” he kidded.

Leo joked back, “I feel pursued.”

“Do you really?”

“Probably no more than you.”

“I always felt I was pushing.”

That may have been true. Leo had felt no urgency to get JP out of one of his embroidered vests.

And there things hung. No commitments. Occasional connections. None so regular Leo’s neighbors might wonder. And Gus – in the city – almost always stayed there .

“I’ll accept the Hamptons – occasionally,” Gus had said. “The North Fork for wine. But you know I prefer the Vineyard.”

So they rented a car and multi-day-tripped when they needed a break.

And what did Leo prefer? Who the hell knew? To be completely honest, he preferred to be working – and was belatedly making the transfer to streaming films.

“Huge market there,” he told both the guys. “Larger than the number of designers free.” And he was calm and efficient.

2019 by Richard Eisbrouch
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