The telephone is ringing, its insistent tone demanding a response. It's December 16 and I know what I'm going to hear as I pick up the receiver: A recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. I listen, longing to hear his voice on the other end. He never speaks, never breathes into the receiver. Twice a year a call from him. Twice a year Rachmaninoff.
He was so beautiful back then, his not quite adult body showing lithe musculature. He was tanned year round. His face was an open book for anyone interested in reading his emotions. It made him a magnet to the women he met. I was his best friend. He was the first man who ever told me that he loved me. I took it for what it was at the time, but his saying "I love you" brought stirrings inside of me, for more.
I always dated his former lovers. Friends chuckled, gossiped at this repeated "coincidence." But what I was not willing to admit at the time is that I loved to listen to his ex-girlfriends pine away for him. It allowed me to hear someone else give voice to what I was not ready to admit. We double-dated often. I made love to his exes with the erotic realization that he had kissed the mouth I was kissing, caressed the breasts I was caressing. That he had held the body I was holding heightened the passion of our lovemaking.
A telephone call. Grab your board and head to Black's Beach. We were 18 and feared nothing. The rain that day was so fierce that I could barely see the lane reflectors on the freeway heading in to La Jolla. When I reached the beach the waves were corrupted. Surfing was impossible. It was dangerous to even approach the water. The fact that he was panting hard and holding a broken surfboard gave proof that he had already tried. But he was grinning. When he was sure I was watching, he dropped his board, ran towards the pier south of Black's, and started to climb. He was yelling for me. I followed. Off the end of the pier. A thirty foot drop into chaos.
We survived, barely. He was bleeding from his forehead, the blood mixing with the rain and the darkness to form a purple stream that meandered down and around his right eye and onto his cheek where the effluence was blown into the sand. My wetsuit had been shredded. The skin on my knees and hands had been scraped off as the waves bounced me along the rocky ocean bottom, trying to decide whether I should stay there forever. My wrist was purple and already beginning to swell. He laughed. He looked at me so tenderly and said "I love you." I couldn't respond, the shock of hearing the words turned me into a statue. The date was December 16.
He hated bullies and couldn't stand any type of injustice. He often reacted in ways others would not. We were sitting at a table outside a bar in Ocean Beach one Saturday evening drinking our first legal beers, enjoying the afterglow of a day of too much salt and sun on the skin. Down the street a man and a woman started screaming at each other. She was the better screamer. Their altercation accelerated and the man slammed his fist across the side of the woman's head, knocking her to her knees. The woman sobbed and begged for help. No one else moved. He never said a word, simply put his beer down and stood up from the table. He walked behind the beater, grabbed his arm, pinning it behind the beater's back, and slowly lifted the forearm up until there was an audible "pop" from the beater's shoulder. Beater no more. We left in a hurry after that. It was a long time before I went back to Ocean Beach.
At 22, he went to New York, hoping to become an architect. I moved to L.A. hoping to find myself. For two years we did not see each other, though I thought of him often. We spoke on the telephone occasionally, but a separation was creeping into our relationship beyond that of distance. It scared me. I told him of my fears. He told me that he would always be there for me. How prescient he was. I told him that I felt I was growing in L.A., but I was not sure into what. I could feel his warmth when he said that he was sure I was growing into something special.
He told me that New York and the entire east coast sucked for surfing. He missed his beach and his friends. The people in the city had an extraordinary capacity for cruelty. He felt he was discovering that he, too, had an extraordinary capacity for cruelty. Trying to surf Long Island was a waste of time and that when he had tried, the sand actually had snow on it. He never mentioned architecture. He told me he missed me terribly.
My relationships with women seemed to have no point without their connections to him. Sex lost its appeal. Women lost their appeal other than for communication. Five years after I'd moved from Los Angeles, I found myself in a Mexican restaurant, relating my loss of sexual appetite with a group of acquaintances over margaritas and chips when one looked at me with a question on his face and asked when I was going to drop the façade and admit I was gay. I was stunned. He followed up by pointing out that I was sitting in a predominantly gay restaurant with three gay men. He pointed out that I had chosen to live in Silver Lake. That all of my friends were gay. He finished by stating that he didn't even think I even knew a straight man.
But I did.
It was several months before I called him. Summer drifted in hot and blue without fog or clouds to mar the perfection. Beach weather. The waves were small, but well formed, full of promise.
My request to him was received exactly as I thought it would be. Money was tight, the cost of living in NYC sucked, but if it was important to me, he would leave the following day. He told me not to bother picking him up at LAX. He said that he would meet me at my apartment.
The doorbell rang and I ran to open it, to be greeted with – flowers. He said he wanted to bring wine, but had been in such a hurry to get here, that he just ran in to a local florist up the road to get something so as to not be empty handed.
I looked him over. New York hadn't been good to him. The tan was gone. The body, while still magnificent, seemed to have atrophied somehow. When I looked into his eyes, they seemed shuttered, hidden.
I asked him to open a bottle of champagne. He pulled from his jacked pocket CD's, classical music. Before New York, his idea of classical music had been old Eagles albums. Now he was pulling out the music that I had learned to love playing the piano. Holst, Greig, Tchaikovsky – and Rachmaninoff. My body started to hum as he put on Holst's The Planets.
We started to talk. I told him that I was gay. He asked me why it had taken me so long to realize it. He told me that he had been waiting for my self-acceptance. I was stunned. Did anyone other than me not know I was gay?
He told me that Rachmaninoff's third concerto was the most magnificent thing that he had ever heard. I put it into the player. I pressed the "repeat" button to make sure it went on indefinitely.
We began to discuss old times. We discussed surfing; we discussed the upcoming presidential elections. I told him that the scrublands around University City had become "La Jolla" condos. This upset him. He loved the manzanita and the open spaces almost as much as he loved the ocean. I edged closer to him, as close as I could without being discovered. I had engineered my first seduction. Or so I thought. After the third bottle of wine, he asked me if I had taken a lover.
I said no, not until now. And I kissed him. It was a long, lingering kiss, with passion on both sides. Our tongues darted to and fro between mouths for what seemed an eternity. It was the best kiss I had ever been a part of.
Then, he hit me hard on the mouth. His present to me. Scar tissue inside the lip that permanently warped my once serene smile into something close to … a sneer. He seemed sober now, angry and indignant. He started yelling - how dare I corrupt our friendship?
Had there ever been a friendship? I screamed in anger how much I had always loved him. I told him he was as gay as I was. He called me a whacked out faggot. He told me I had poisoned our friendship beyond redemption.
I heard the door slam. It was 11:32 on June 5.
I flew to New York. I haunted the Columbia University campus, looking for him. I learned that at 25 he had abandoned architecture, had decided to study law and he was about to graduate.
I met him one day, striding towards the law school building on an overpass above Amsterdam Avenue. He looked at me as if I was a complete stranger. I fell to his feet and begged him to forgive me. He kicked me in the face. By the time I came to, it was too late to follow him. A couple stopped to help me up, the man giving me a handkerchief to staunch the blood.
I found his address and went to his apartment only to discover that he had moved out. No one would give me a forwarding address. His telephone had been disconnected.
I flew back to Los Angeles and wrote letter after letter, trying to redeem myself in his eyes. With no other possibility open, I mailed my letters to his mother's house in University City. The letters never came back. But neither did a response.
Then one night I picked up the telephone in my apartment and was greeted by Rachmaninoff's Concerto number 3.
I screamed into the phone, but I received no answer, only the orchestra that swelled and crashed in response to the piano. The date was June 5.
On December 16 of the same year, as I was entering my apartment with a new friend I had met while drinking margaritas, the phone rang. I could hear the music spilling out from my receiver as I picked up the phone - Rachmaninoff. I hung up and I kicked my guest out.
At one point I tried to get the phone company to block the calls. But there were too few of them, they said. Twice a year? Pay your bill and go elsewhere those nights.
I watch him on the television being interviewed. His hair is brushed over the scar on his forehead he got surfing two decades ago. He is a famous attorney. He is rich. He has never married, though the tabloids occasionally link him to famous women. As he explains something to the reporter, I listen to his words, wishing to hear my name.
He still calls me twice a year.
BIO: Jim Ryals' work has appeared or is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, 322 Review, Underground Voices, and descant, where he was granted the Gary Wilson Award for outstanding fiction. He is a graduate of Columbia College and Loyola Law School, and lives in Mandeville, Louisiana with his wife and two sons.