He dressed the way one does in a stranger’s apartment–careful to make limited contact with the physical space–balanced on the balls of his feet, the lip of a sofa cushion. Careful not to stumble into pants, to seem poised. He wanted his departure to be elegant, if that departure was not to include the offer of a shower or a cup of coffee, gestures that communicate the sort of connection that just a few hours ago had grabbed and shaken them out of their clothes.
Early morning sun leaked into the room and glazed the peaks in the sheets under which the other man lay. The men stared at different objects in the room: a throw pillow that had been thrown, a watch on the nightstand, the steam pipe that rattled the way that only one of them was used to and could sleep through.
The act of getting dressed was like erasing the evening, scrubbing the dinner, the drinks, the bland broth of facts they shared about their lives across a table. Each piece of clothing he slipped on left less evidence on the floor. If they wanted to, soon they could forget the night they’d spent together, could spend nights with other men in other unfamiliar places. When he pulled up his socks, there was nothing left of him in the room that he wasn’t carrying away.
To the man in bed, he said, “We should do this again.” They didn’t touch. He didn’t bend in for a kiss, though he wanted one. He shifted his weight again and again to each foot and told himself it wasn’t time to think about moves, romance, boundaries, or potential. It was time to leave it alone.
“I’d like that. It would be fun”
He left. He intended to call in two days’ time.
As he walked home, he thought about the shower he would have and what clothes he would wear to work, how the day would further transform and become ordinary. He imagined the man was out of bed, clean, squirting detergent into the soap well of his dishwasher, where last night’s wine glasses sat upside down on the top rack. He wondered how the man would spend his day and whether he would tell his friends about their first date.
He was worried that the man would say something, and he was worried he would say nothing. Beacon Hill’s brick sidewalks were a crocodile’s back, slick with rain, the head of the reptile buried somewhere deep in Boston. He bought a coffee from a convenience store and passed it back and forth between his hands as he waited for the fall air to make it cool enough to drink.
The shrubs in the Public Garden had been cut back to prepare for colder weather. The bushes looked embarrassed. Clippings lay in small heaps along the walkways. As mysteriously as the swan boats appeared in the late spring, they were as mysteriously gone. Instead, the pond contained several parks department personnel in drab brown uniforms and hip waders who were stringing a length of plastic netting the color of a hunter’s cap across a far quadrant of water.
Between the net and the shore, a swan moved in tight, agitated circles. Other people in brown stood on land with nets extended from the end of long poles. The swan was due to be boarded off-site for the winter before it would be returned to ornament then pond the following year, released from a crate that was driven in in the early hours of the morning, while tourists slept with their illusions in boutique hotels.
He watched the people in the water strain the pond through their netting as they coaxed the swan to shore. The nervous animal tried to watch all sides at once, its long neck leading the rest of its body around and around. Near him, other early risers were also watching this attempted capture, though each kept his distance from the other, and none spoke. Throughout the garden, the willows sagged with water, their limbs too heavy to blow.
In the water, someone’s arm had relaxed, and the net drooped. A woman on shore yelled, “Get the net up!” but the swan had glided to the sag and breached the net. It sailed into the middle of the pond. The people in brown looked back and forth at each other, but none of them moved. The pond was still.
He didn’t know who he was rooting for. He left the garden and headed home. The swan was free, but its entire understanding of freedom consisted of swimming without threat in a man-made pond where men had placed it.
He didn’t want to see the people with nets regroup. They would. Eventually, they would. If he left then, he could imagine how many hundreds of times they would just miss the swan.
Two days passed, and more days after that. He intended to call, but there was always a reason to wait, whether it was too close to a mealtime or the notion struck rudely during working hours. There was the possibility his call would go unanswered. He never received a call, either. More men had said hello in coffee shops. He turned his phone over in his hand as he stood in line at a sandwich bar, watching strangers enter and leave, falling in love with each of them.