By Arna Bontemps Hemenway
The buses from Jerusalem arrived very late, unceremoniously disgorging their sleepless occupants onto the black tarmac of the Eilat station lot, where the travelers stepped out into the light-pollution and resilient night heat of three a.m. At one end of the lot a spillage of teenagers bubbled, at the other, the fellow passengers on Bernard and Joseph’s bus (which bus, Bernard had remarked three separate times over the long journey south, they were really lucky to have gotten), all quiet, vexed-looking middle-aged people, began to disperse.
Joseph looked around blearily, still dazed with sleep. Bernard found himself confronted, as he often did, by one of the expressions he had spent much of his impossibly tame twenties (especially the half-closeted early years) day-dreaming about on some shifting, non-existent boyfriend’s face. Bernard felt the sudden urge to kiss him, an urge he resisted, knowing the dismissive, vaguely annoyed way Joseph would only tolerate it. Together they stumbled out of the gates of the bus depot and into the riot of activity that seethed along the phalanx of taxis. Bernard began to apologize to Joseph for the clamor and confusion, things he knew Joseph hated, even as he tried to get the bags into the vehicle’s trunk and quickly duck into the back seat with Joseph, wanting to be done with it all quickly. The result, however, was a painfully long and impatient period of miscommunication with the driver, Bernard’s Hebrew insufficient to untangle the mess he’d somehow made of things.
“What?” Joseph said, as they finally closed the doors and the car carried them away, like he’d already asked Bernard several times. “What were you trying to say?”
“Nothing,” Bernard said. “I’m sorry. Nothing.”
“For what?” Joseph said, still half disgusted. “Sorry for what?”
Bernard was flushed. This was how it always went: a moment of Joseph looking like Joseph, impossibly cute or classically handsome, which made Bernard want to make everything perfect for him, which in turn Bernard invariably tried to do by talking, only to find, now as ever, his mouth full of marbles.
“The whole—well for all of that, I mean,” Bernard said, waving a hand limply at the window. “The crush.”
“It’s not like it’s your fault,” he said, broodily.
Bernard misread the map and the taxi was almost out of the city before he realized he needed to call the man who’d agreed to rent them the bungalow for directions. It consequently took forty-five minutes to reach the little low building, which they could now see sat only ten minutes from the bus station. Bernard (desperately thinking of Joseph’s recent criticism of the way he seemed to supplicate to Israelis) foolishly decided to argue the driver’s astronomical final charge, only to have the whole misadventure of his insistent, incorrect directions recounted, minute-by-minute, by the driver. Finally Joseph, who’d been watching the spectacle from the porch of the bungalow, stepped forward wordlessly and paid the man, leaving Bernard sputtering alone in the empty road, still trying to figure out what declension, exactly, he was getting wrong in his effort to explain himself, in what way he’d misspoken his request for relief.
* * *
Bernard often found himself helplessly apologizing to Joseph, though he knew this very act—apologizing, and especially apologizing unnecessarily—was another thing Joseph hated. Bernard worked at the American embassy’s satellite desk in Jerusalem, an appointment he’d been awarded by request. “Only you would get a job working for the main branch in Tel A-fucking-viv yet still manage to find some cloistered little medieval office in Jerusalem where everyone goes around with one foot in the closet, afraid of getting spat on by the black-hats,” was Joseph’s evaluation of the situation, pressing further his half-serious mockery of what he thought was Bernard’s lightly self-hating reluctance to be gay at all. In this same half-affectionate, half-viperous voice Joseph liked to quip that Bernard simply ‘lacked the courage of his predilections’, his favorite theory being that, secretly, Bernard was a bit of a masochist.
Bernard shared with Joseph a small, clean apartment in a brilliantly white Tel Aviv Bauhaus building only a few blocks from the beach. He’d lived in Israel longer than Joseph, five years to Joseph’s three, and this was probably a large source of his habitual apologies; he’d never really stopped feeling like he was showing Joseph around the country, always wanting whatever it was they were doing or seeing that weekend to live up to his own inevitably overblown talk about it. Bernard wanted the country to be perfect for Joseph, wanted Joseph to find Bernard, by extension, also perfect for him.
Joseph was a brand management consultant, which had for years allowed him to live more or less wherever he wanted, a luxury he’d indulged, spending his own twenties inhabiting whatever city was the gay capitol du jour and eventually developing a slightly outmoded Continentalism that Bernard found romantic. Joseph was six feet tall and muscular without being beefy; he often wore aviator sunglasses, and was fond of white jeans with light pastel t-shirts that accentuated his tan. He had irreverently tousled, thick black hair that often made it seem like he’d never left his twenties at all. He disliked his job though he was very successful, and was extremely, curiously well read. Finding Joseph in the living room, lounging around in only his little athletic shorts, hair still wet from a shower, or watching him dazzle the Attaché (Bernard’s boss) by reciting from memory and in perfect French some Baudelaire stanza, Bernard often had no earthly idea why Joseph had chosen him, of all people, to love.
To Bernard, Joseph (with his flashy good looks and adroit conversation and perfect aloofness) contained all the experience that Bernard himself had somehow managed to miss in his ascent from Kansas boyhood to Iowa law student to Assistant to the United States Attaché for Inter-Cultural Affairs in Israel. For Bernard, somewhere deep in Joseph’s preternaturally cool manner were the dankest, most titillatingly anonymous of the international clubs that Joseph had once frequented and sometimes told Bernard about as they lay together after sex: The Dungeon in Munich, The Fairy Host in San Francisco, The Queen’s Beefeater in London. Bernard had never lived the way Joseph had, though he felt he was doing so now, to some small degree, by association. Sometimes while they had sex Bernard pictured these clubs, or even just the particular public bathrooms in this or that London park that Joseph described wryly, as if they were beneath him to visit, though obviously they were not. Always Bernard, in these mid-coital fantasies, pictured not some hulking, anonymous man but instead Joseph himself, a kind of meta-sexual transport that took their act out of the quiet, Bauhaus bedroom and into, for instance, the underground locker-room of a certain swimming beach in Brighton, Bernard always feeling, even as he inevitably gave himself over to the wicked pleasure of it, strangely defeated by the limitations of his sexual imagination.
They’d begun dating in only Joseph’s second month in the country. Joseph had seemed then mildly bemused with the vibrant Tel Aviv scene, as if he’d already experienced the reach and depth of it and had been expecting something more. But he’d stayed, and eventually Bernard couldn’t help but feel that he’d stayed for Bernard himself, to see this relationship out. Joseph always struck Bernard as a particularly circumspect gay man, and though Joseph still had the good looks of his last decade, Bernard thought Joseph was perhaps testing out what Bernard had already seen many of the older queens in his circle quietly affecting: pairing off improbably into monogamy, placing bets against the bodily ravages of middle-age and possible solitude. Though, if Bernard was honest, this fear of being alone seemed pointedly inorganic to Joseph, who was probably going to be the kind of older man who could command almost any lover he desired. So it was just possible, Bernard had very slowly allowed himself to be convinced, that Joseph was doing this simply because he liked Bernard enough. What it said that a man such as Bernard, in his mid thirties, should feature such insecurities was lost on neither of them, though Joseph usually seemed to cast a kind eye on Bernard’s perpetual fear and anxiety; evidence, Bernard thought, of Joseph’s good heart, beneath all that composure.
Joseph had gone along with this vacation (as he went along with all of Bernard’s little plans) gamely enough, even suggesting that they rent the bungalow and stay for longer instead of putting up in one of the sprawling resorts for only a week. This was a small sign of hope for Bernard, who’d felt Joseph turning away ever since the trip to Berlin for the funeral. Joseph, not a demonstrative boyfriend at the best of times, had been steadily withdrawing even further into his moody, even-faced distance.
Now, though, they had the bungalow and all of Eilat, the resort city, at their disposal. A whole vacation trip they’d planned together (Joseph’s unusual involvement in the details another little twinge of hope). It’d been so strange, the way things had happened with the German boy. Now it finally felt, with this trip, like their regular lives had only been waiting for the sad, macabre little adventure with the German to be done with.
They spent a week of days down at the beach, walking everywhere in the ludicrous heat, a hundred and ten in the shade, and the odd, searing desert wind. They found a local bakery run by an orthodox couple on the way down the long, descending road to the shore and they stopped there every morning to eat chocolate croissants. In the giant mall by the pier, Joseph found a little bookstore and bought out its entire miniscule English-language shelf, all brick-ish editions of Stephen King and John Irving. As he read them back in the beach chairs by the water, the cheap bindings came progressively unglued and the pages, as Joseph finished them, fell away from the spine, collecting on his glistening tan chest and stomach. They stuck to his sweaty skin until Bernard slowly peeled them off, letting his fingers linger on the ink, which transferred itself onto the thin flesh over Joseph’s ribs like a tattoo.
Accidentally, they started a little game. Bernard couldn’t remember how it had gotten going—when the landlord, an Englishman eager to seem American, had greeted them, maybe. At any rate, the game primarily consisted of Bernard and Joseph taking on the personas of ‘Bernie’ and ‘Joe’, calling each other by the new names only semi-sardonically. They played Bernie and Joe the tourist couple lazily, strolling through the insipid trinket shops and along the fast food fronts that laid siege to the resort hotels towering over the beach. When they had sex in the inglorious little bungalow (really no more than a bedroom cum kitchenette, and with a bathroom that somehow did not share the structure’s air conditioning) they continued the game, dramatically exhorting each other in the accents of this queening couple (from White Plains, they’d decided) and falling over each other in laughter.
And the game was why Joseph, with a challenging smile at Bernard, gave their new names to the driver who would take them across the Jordanian border and into the carved tombs of Petra, “rose-red city half as old as time” in the words of the poet, destination of Pliny the Elder, Josephus, T.E. Lawrence, and now Bernie and Joe from New York.
The tour itself had been Joseph’s idea, Bernard hesitantly executing Joseph’s booking instructions on the laptop as they sat together at the apartment’s small kitchen table. It was the first thing about the Eilat trip that Joseph seemed to take genuine interest in, jumping up from his seat and pacing the kitchen restlessly, speaking between gulps straight from the orange juice carton, his gaze somewhere outside the window. Joseph had heard about this particular tour guide from several of his friends back when he was travelling between flats in Europe. The guide, whose website looked to have been paralyzed in the mid-nineties, was named Hassan and was, according to Joseph, a member of the indigenous Arab tribe of Petra. Hassan even claimed to be (and really was, according to Joseph) descended from the ancient city’s original, pre-Islamic inhabitants. It was, in Joseph’s words, an “immersion tour” and “very authentic”. Any details, beyond a guaranteed night spent in an original carved-rock dwelling, were elided in the website’s description, though Joseph related his friends’ vague stories of tribal food and trippy, primal rituals.
All of this, of course, made Bernard nervous. It was so clearly beyond Bernard’s narrow zone of recreational comfort that his own weak-hearted enthusiasm about the tour was plainly understood by both of them to be a gesture, Bernard’s response to Joseph’s hope/peace offering. And Bernard really did try, in the days leading up to the trip and then over that first week of Elysian afternoons lying out with Joseph on the beach. All the officials Bernard worked with spent their own vacations in Amman, relying heavily on the relative comforts their diplomatic credentials afforded. None of them would be doing anything like this, like sleeping in a carved-out dwelling in an ancient cliff-face, Bernard knew, and wasn’t it this type of adventurous spirit, this flashing gleam that sometimes made Joseph’s eyes shine like he was mad, what had excited him about Joseph in the first place?
Bernard tried to think about it this way as they climbed into the airless mini-bus in the hot, dusty parking lot on the Jordanian side of customs for the bumpy drive into Petra to meet Hassan. It wasn’t just that Bernard liked this willingness toward the possible world in Joseph, it was also that Bernard liked who he himself became with Joseph, liked to think of himself becoming the kind of person who would enthusiastically go along with Joseph on something like this. How the little expedition went was less important, in the end, than it was for Bernard to show Joseph that, now more than ever, he was willing to change, to be a partner to Joseph in this new way too, if that was what Joseph needed of him to stay.
* * *
The German boy’s name was somehow both Frederick and Derrick. He’d been Derrick in Joseph’s terse description of their friendship from back in Joseph’s Berliner days, but then he’d been Frederick when he arrived and introduced himself to Bernard after Bernard buzzed him up to the apartment, only to become Derrick once more, when Joseph got home from work. There had been an awkward few hours between Frederick/Derrick’s arrival and Joseph’s return, though, for his part, the boy seemed immune to the silences that drifted just a few seconds too long as Bernard struggled to make him feel at home. He really was a boy: thin, pale, lithe, blonde, the ethereal in him doing battle with the emphatically German—full, in other words, of that certain fey grace which characterized the occasional gyrating lark who caught Joseph’s eye when he took Bernard out to the Israeli clubs. Bernard would’ve thought the boy a teenager if he hadn’t seen, in his cautious ante-Joseph explorations of those same clubs, the way these boys seemed to stay exactly this age, year after year, growing neither older nor younger.
The other thing that made Bernard awkward around the German boy was that Joseph, in his characteristically flat, direct way, had told Bernard exactly what Frederick/Derrick did for a living in Berlin. Bernard, who only even knew of the existence of ‘rent boys’ thanks to the surreal scandals that befell several British politicians during his brief apprenticeship in the London Embassy, had trouble believing there was a real one now staying in his apartment. He had nothing against it as a job or a service, he supposed, but it was just the fantastically unlikely nature of it that bowled him over. “Oh darling,” Joseph said, patting Bernard on the cheek that first night of the visit, when they found themselves alone together in the kitchen. “It’s not like you hired him.” Then, with less feeling, “You don’t have the rank to merit a scandal, I’m afraid, no matter how badly you’d like one.”
Derrick (his real name, it was discovered, which only made Bernard more flustered as to why he’d been given the boy’s ‘other’ one) was in town for the White Night, Tel Aviv’s annual twenty-four hour sleepless arts and music festival that blurred into gay Tel Aviv’s all night drugs and club marathon, both of which climaxed in a giant foam party at dawn. Everyone wore white out, though by morning, few wore much of anything. It was unclear whether Derrick’s visit was by invitation or convenience, as well as how long he would stay. He carried everything he owned, it seemed, in a military duffle that dwarfed his diminutive frame and out of which he dressed each morning.
At the clubs on the night of the festivities, Bernard had allowed himself to become more intoxicated than usual and at several points he found himself in the middle of bloodless, confusing arguments with Joseph without quite knowing how or why he’d gotten into them. Bernard supposed, afterwards, that it probably had something to do with how he spent the night watching Joseph and Derrick dance, only occasionally with each other but always in close proximity, each trying (in Bernard’s eye) to outdo one another in the lasciviousness with which they took others into their respective suites of movement. This was not a new situation for Bernard and Joseph, the former of whom never felt quite relaxed in the Tel Aviv clubs; Bernard had once run into a young Arab aide he’d seen earlier that week in a meeting and who, when he caught sight of Bernard frozen nervously by the bar (Joseph turning to see what the delay was), had laughed and laughed. It was true that Bernard didn’t really have the diplomatic rank to make these excursions a professional risk, especially on the White Night, when it would’ve perhaps been worse not to be seen out and about, but he still got a small stomachache each time they went into a club. All of this was also a long way of distracting from the fact that Bernard simply didn’t dance, which had been a bit of an issue, silly enough, between them at first, Joseph angering at the willfulness of the refusal but then, over the months, eventually settling into the arrangement they were presently faced with. Joseph would dance as much as he wanted, with whomever he wanted, and if it bothered Bernard, he was welcome to join him.
It hadn’t ever bothered Bernard that much, not really, before the White Night with the German boy. Bernard knew that it was an inherent consequence of the imbalance in their relative levels of attractiveness. Joseph’s more or less constant flirtation in the face of the many propositions he received on such nights was just the cost of Bernard’s good luck. It almost would’ve been better, Bernard drunkenly thought in the small hours of the White Night, if Joseph were spending all his time actually grinding hips with the boy, rather than the wordless competition they had going, which seemed somehow more intimate, more a betrayal.
It wasn’t until they’d reached the empty beach, though, after dawn’s first rays had seen the giant sprays of foam seep over the club-goers, that Bernard really understood what had been feeding the surprisingly fervent anger brewing inside him all night. There was of course the lurking matter of the first Berlin trip, the one Joseph had taken the year before, explaining at the time only that there was a freelance project he could do there while catching up with a few old friends. Later, after Joseph had nonchalantly informed Bernard about the German boy’s impending visit here, Bernard had scoured his memory for any tells of guilt in Joseph’s behavior after he’d returned from that first trip, but found none. It wasn’t that trip which so upset Bernard anyway, as they walked on the deserted beach in the chill, rainy morning, just the three of them.
It was Joseph’s brazenness. The conviction—blooming in Bernard without him realizing it until now, apparently—that this whole visit, as well as all of Joseph’s behavior that night, was his way of daring Bernard, of pushing him. The way Joseph had brooked no argument about the visit beforehand (not with his words, exactly, but that unimpeachable tone), but also the way Bernard himself had failed—pathetically, he now believed—to even attempt any argument about it, or to question Joseph about Derrick. Joseph and the boy suddenly seemed in collusion about this, like it was some game; Bernard knowing well enough the figure he must make for them, the hilariously frumpy, prissy lover seemingly afraid of his own queer shadow.
And out of all that they’d somehow surfaced into this walk along the wet beach, the sobering chill of a morning storm. When Joseph and Derrick took off into the waves—racing wordlessly in the manner of young children—neither even looked back, knowing Bernard would not be joining them. Bernard didn’t know what pills Derrick had taken, didn’t know if he was a strong swimmer or not, though he did think of these things, embracing his mothering role on the edge of the water, and so felt an eerie calmness when the boy’s blonde head, having fallen well behind Joseph’s strong strokes, disappeared under a wave and did not come up.
Hassan was waiting on top of a huge tuffet of undulating, rose-colored rock. He kept his perch even after the mini-bus (a small anachronism on the narrow, canyon-walled dirt roads between the ruins) pulled away, leaving Bernard and Joseph standing there, squinting up at him.
“Come,” Hassan said in a ridiculously magisterial voice.
Bernard almost laughed out loud. Hassan, no taller than five feet, wore a white dishdasha that hung in billows over his compact torso.
“He wants us to go up there?” Bernard said, wanting (but failing) to make a quip about the odd power games tour guides will play.
Beside him, Joseph sighed and began to scramble up the side of the outcropping. Bernard followed, huffing for breath. When Bernard reached the top, having slipped several times, he offered Hassan his hand. Up close, Bernard was mesmerized by the strange pairing of the man’s boyish body with his austere, darkly wizened face.
“I’m Bernard—” he started to say, though Hassan had made no motion to take his hand.
“Bernie, he means,” Joseph said to Hassan, interrupting Bernard and flashing him a grimacing smile of warning. “And I’m Joe. We’re from New York. We’re glad you could do this with us.”
Hassan only nodded, his face blank, Delphic. They were quiet. Bernard waited for somebody to move.
That afternoon they were joined on their hike around the smaller carved ruins by a pair of male college students from America. Hassan informed Joseph and Bernard that these were the other two clients who’d registered for this day and night, and that they would all be companions on the excursion. At first this felt a blow to Bernard, but then as the afternoon wore on he was grateful for their bright voices, which made it easier for him and Joseph not to speak.
In the tilted light of late afternoon, Hassan guided them through a narrow wadi that opened suddenly into a small body of clear water, a deep natural cistern made private by the closeness on all sides of high, red cliffs. There was no room by the water, so they had to undress in a line on the narrow canyon path. They stripped their clothes off with no discussion, Bernard hesitating, thinking of the bathing suit he’d secreted in his pack, before deciding against it and joining them, skin bare to the warm air and cool shadow. One by one Bernard watched the other three shuffle forward to the small ledge and leap down into the water. There were the pale buttocks of Hassan’s startlingly aged body, his ribs delicate and easily visible. After him went the first of the college duo, a short, tan Tennessean with a lilt to his soft voice and a mop of tight curls bleached blonde by the sun. Bernard noted his muscular legs and high, rounded ass, white against his tan, before glancing at Joseph. The kid had worn an expensive pair of sunglasses across the back of his head all day, apparently finding their actual use unnecessary. They came off as he jumped and the boy hooted, grabbing for them blindly even as he splashed down.
The other, the companion, a tall, thin, gangly kid with a close beard, went next, faltering toward the edge and then disappearing to cheers from his friend. This second of the pair had a stutter, and in the small conversation they’d made over the day Bernard had watched his face contort painfully, drawing up into itself helplessly on certain problem words, unraveling only with a forceful stamping of his foot on the ground—a kind of oddly touching system, Bernard thought, which gave Bernard the reflexive urge to go to him, to hold the boy’s bearded head to his chest until the word extricated its barbs from his throat. Joseph himself, all verve, took a running jump and made a beautiful, dangerous dive, arcing out of the shadow of the canyon and into the light and the water.
Below Bernard now the four men waited. The two college kids splashed each other, their laughter rising, each circling in the clear water, trying to dunk one another. All day they’d been full of the kind of aggressively platonic physicality that passed so naturally, so thoughtlessly between them as to resemble a kind of sexual intimacy, one that Bernard had often thought his own relationships with men (before he’d ever had one) would offer up. Only two men who really knew and loved each other’s bodies could perform horseplay with such dominating tenderness, Bernard had thought when he was younger, though now, watching the boys reach for each other below him, he thought that only two men who didn’t know the insufficiency of anything their bodies could do for one another could act like that, risking such affection in even the smallest grasp of a forearm. Joseph was treading water, face turned up, squinting into the sun. Bernard tried to focus on him as he stepped out into the air.
In the water they swam and dove, listening to Hassan’s broken-English lecture on the system of water management that gave the Nabateans, his supposed ancestors, a briefly powerful capitol city and which had, centuries after their reign, made this natural pool. Below Bernard’s feet small turtles glided from rock to rock, catching the light. The two college boys began attempting to climb the sheer cliffs around the water. Bernard, having swum over to cling to a small boulder in his fatigue, squinted at their forms against the rose rock, then looked to Joseph.
Joseph was on the other side of the pool, diving over and over again, deeper and deeper, trying to find the bottom that they could all see so well in the false depth of the clear water. Each time he came up gasping in the dappled light, which played over his surfacing shoulders and chest like pale fire.
And why should the German boy ruin this too? Bernard thought, watching Joseph. Surveying the wide scene from his perch (the clear, warm sun, the green tinge of the water, the two boys daring each other, their nudity pale against the wet rock as they attempted to get footholds), Bernard was once again glad for the others, for their distraction. Joseph seemed to surface each time more and more invigorated, expelling his caged breath with vaguely sexual sounds. Bernard thought of the look on the German boy’s face when he coughed back to life, when they revived him, after Bernard had plunged in, Joseph oblivious until he turned back to see Bernard struggling to drag the boy up the beach. They’d started the CPR together, Joseph’s big arms and shoulders locked, pounding the compressions, Bernard poised by the boy’s head, ready to fill his lungs with air. But Joseph’s power had been enough, and the German boy had coughed violently, sputtering, head turning to the side, more water than Bernard thought possible spilling from his mouth, until the boy was dry heaving and Bernard was holding his face in his hands, looking down into the boy’s bright blue eyes. They’d sat for twenty minutes then, right on the spot, all of them laughing with a desperate, disbelieving hysteria, before getting up and going home together.
Now Joseph surfaced again, mouth open to the shock of air, water sluicing off his face, and Bernard swam to him, pulled at his chest until they were pressed together, ribs to ribs, stomach to stomach. Bernard felt Joseph swivel his head in embarrassment to where the two college kids were taking turns leaping from the highest point they could reach. Then he felt Joseph look away. Joseph had avoided gazing at their nakedness, had even averted his eyes earlier in the tour, when each had stripped down to only their hiking shorts in the heat of the ruins and the gentle shapes of their trapezoids and shoulders became slick with sweat. This more than anything was how Bernard knew he should be panicking, knew how much probably rested on this trip. Joseph, who’d never averted his eyes, even in faux-modesty, in his life.
When, three weeks after the White Night and his resurrection on the beach, news of the German boy’s death had reached them, it’d felt to Bernard like a trick, as if the boy had really died that morning in the water, on the sand, and the week afterwards (that week they’d all spent together laughing and joking before he’d flown back to Berlin) was just a mistake, a false memory, a dream. The boy had overdosed in the country estate of some viscount or other who was also a German politician, and the man’s scandal kept the boy’s story in Der Spiegel for several weeks afterward. At first it was this, the media coverage, the unfortunate and illicit circumstances of the death, which explained to Bernard the curious and surprising extent of Joseph’s grief. But then the news stories had stopped, and months had passed, and Joseph was still not working, still putting his fork down after just a few bites at the new French and Italian and Eritrean restaurants that Bernard sought out for them. At the state dinners and work functions, gone was the jauntily angled head, the complicit lean of Joseph’s shoulders when someone important was speaking to him. Instead, Bernard’s work companions saw what Bernard saw when dining at home: the slightly glazed, dulled eyes, the motionless line of his mouth, the fatigue. Joseph even erupted in anger when a travelling exhibit of Alexander McQueen’s work at the Israeli Museum of Modern Art turned out to only feature three complete pieces and many informational video-displays, Joseph storming off to the car and leaving Bernard there in the middle of the exhibit, frozen in the concussive silence that Joseph’s raised voice and violent curses left in their wake. This was how Bernard learned exactly how much Joseph had loved the boy.
Now, Joseph pulled away from Bernard’s sub-aquatic grasp. As they all climbed out and dressed, Joseph began chatting up the curly-haired boy, letting a small smile play on his face as he goaded the kid, as if the boy’s frank, bare nudity hadn’t just been on display for Joseph’s free assessment. Bernard and the tall, bearded friend exchanged a brief look. Joseph’s eyes glinted a little manically and he bounced uneasily on his feet, eager to do something physical.
“Wh-wh wh-wh-wh,” went the tall kid, face screwing up in pain again.
“I have now what you have been waiting for,” Hassan said, tapping his temple with a small, bony index finger. “I have a special way to the monastery.”
By the time they reached that most famous of Petra’s ruins, Al-Deir, the monastery, it was almost dark. Hassan had taken them along the top of a long ridge of rock, Bernard catching occasional sight, when the ridge turned or dipped, of the other ruins in the distance below. Now they stood, high on top of the rock ridge, the last light bleeding from the horizon, their bodies turned to dark huddled shapes as they all watched Hassan, having hushed them, carefully spark a small lighter and feel the rock for something.
“Yes, here,” he said, his voice serious now, and he gestured with the lighter so that they could all make out a slightly hooded gap in the stone, semi-hidden by a trick of perspective and the dark: a passageway down, big enough only for the width of one man.
Hassan extinguished the lighter, and Bernard blinked in the new dimensions of the darkness.
“Like this,” Hassan said, though nobody could see what he was doing, or, at least, Bernard couldn’t.
Hassan lowered himself into the space of shadow he’d pointed out, his lower body disappearing into the rock. Then, making sure they all saw him, he lowered himself the rest of the way and disappeared completely.
“Jesus Christ,” Bernard said quietly. Joseph and Bernard and the two college kids looked at each other. The Tennessean, his curly mop a barely silhouetted shadow, shrugged.
“Well hell,” he said. “I’ll do it. If I die—you know, maybe call somebody.”
Bernard listened to him feel around for the opening, then felt a very small breeze as he disappeared too. The gangly companion went next, wordlessly. Bernard and Joseph stood still, listening. They could hear nothing.
“Should I go first,” Joseph said. “Or are you afraid of being up here alone?”
The passage, it turned out, was a kind of slide, the rough grain of the rock making it so Bernard had to wiggle and grind his whole body awkwardly in order to move down its steeply angled path. It emptied into a dark, quiet stone room. Bernard sat up just as Hassan was lighting some kind of torch and the faces of Joseph and the two college kids, standing there, each in a primed posture, were revealed. The curly haired kid’s wide, mildly adrenalized eyes made him look suddenly much younger, like an actual boy, his full cheeks slack with awe. The tall one looked nervous, wiping his hands on his shorts and eying Hassan. Joseph was regarding Bernard with a skeptical look, as if wary. Bernard stood up, feeling suddenly light.
Hassan showed them through the rooms and spaces of the monastery’s interior. Certain paths were blocked by rubble, and certain chambers dead-ended in a chaos of crushed rock, which were almost an insult against the very smooth walls and nooks, less like someone had carved all this than like some wind or water had worried the rock into an accidentally delicate and perfect architecture. Hassan explained a little about each room, his voice low and hushed and so ingenuous that Bernard, for the first time that day, didn’t even think to make his sarcastic little mental comparisons between website copy or guidebook description and actual sight. It wasn’t until halfway through the tour, as they descended down and deeper into the rock, toward the monastery’s heart, that Bernard even realized this was all off limits, the secret, dangerous, unexplored center of the most photographed ruin of Petra.
The air as they walked was quiet and cool, a damp, musty scent cut sharply with the torch’s kerosene. Hassan had stopped talking minutes ago, and they were now just following, adding to his silence. Finally, they came into a low, very wide, circular room, illuminated only partly by the throw of Hassan’s light. A round, dark aperture was just visible in the center of the uneven, dipping ceiling. Hassan walked to the center of the room and stood under the opening, a sort of jagged oculus, Bernard could see now. Hassan bent down and touched the torch to something on the floor, which turned out to be the remnants of a previous fire, charcoal kindling. It took, and a gentle light grew out from it. Hassan extinguished the torch. He walked back to where the other four were standing. He rubbed his hands and then opened them, spreading his arms in either direction, smiling.
“This is—how do you say it?” he said. “Where sleep the dead.”
“The dead are here to save you,” Hassan said after dinner, pulling out a dirtied, beaten plastic container heavy with some kind of liquid. “But you must speak to them first.”
Bernard gave Joseph a glowering look. Over their improvised dinner of rice and fire-roasted, unidentified vegetables, Hassan had explained that they were now in the main burial chamber of the monastery, the most important and most holy space. All along the perimeter of the circular room, he’d shown the group series of rock cells carved into the red stone, the walls dividing them impossibly thin, but intact. Most of the cells appeared completely empty, but Hassan insisted that the remnants of the ash (from the ritual cremations at the center of the room) still coated the floors of each one. Now he got up and disappeared into the darkness in the direction of the last cell he’d shown them.
“To save us from what?” Bernard said.
“Well—from the dead, right?” the curly-haired boy said.
“From each other,” the tall boy said flatly, and everyone was quiet.
Hassan returned with a handful of black dust. He opened the plastic canister and dropped it into the liquid, then shook it around very hard.
“You must drink,” he said, and filled each of their tin camping cups. Bernard, taking his, recoiled from the sharp waft, something like rubbing alcohol.
“Oh, really,” Bernard said. They each looked down into their cups.
“Fuck it,” the Tennessean said, and slugged the drink back, loosing a long guttural growl as he gasped for air afterwards.
His companion, the tall boy, followed suit without a word, snorting at the end like a horse. The Tennessean shook his head, a stunned animal. Hassan drank his, then Joseph followed suit, slamming the cup on the stone floor. Bernard had never been good at taking shots, but he did his best. It felt like fire going down, then each breath like further flames licking at his stomach, his throat, his mouth.
They all sat around the fire where they’d laid out their things and talked for a while. It was very late. Hassan explained that the occupants of the surrounding cells could hear them now, that they were sitting with his ancestors now. The ash game, he called it. At some point Bernard lay down, curling on his side on his sleeping bag. He’d never been much of a drinker, and he was now very tired. He let his eyes lose focus and close as he listened to the other men’s genial talk.
It reminded him (he didn’t try to resist) of that miraculous week after he and Joseph had saved the German boy on the beach. What a thing to have happened, and then they’d spent that week of life almost completely in the apartment, all together, Bernard lying with his arms around the stereo speakers all afternoon, half-stoned with the new discovery, the gift, of time, of consciousness, the exhilarating fact of Joseph and Derrick’s bodies as well as his own, how close they all were to not being there, to not being at all. They’d babied Derrick, made him rest even though he didn’t really need to. He still seemed more startled than anything by his near death experience, as if he’d escaped into life only via the grace of a completely unexpected stranger, which Bernard supposed was true, actually. But it’d been a great week; they’d sat on the balcony for hours each night after dinner with a bottle of wine, telling every joke they knew. Bernard had been quite taken with the German boy in the end, with his avian frame and easy, bright laughter. It suddenly felt a validation, an assertion of Bernard and Joseph’s relationship to have the boy there in the apartment with them; Bernard felt, for the first time in his life, almost fearless. Though that had been a separate heartbreak, seeing the boy as Joseph must. Bernard had fallen asleep several times that week in just the way he was now, letting the gentle raft of Joseph’s voice and the boy’s attendant murmur bear him into the netherworld of dreams. Then the airport taxi had come and taken the boy away forever.
Bernard opened his eyes. He didn’t know how much time had passed. Hassan, Joseph and the curly-haired boy were standing on the other side of the fire; Hassan was showing them some kind of martial arts trick. They were drunk. The tall stuttering boy was half-asleep in his own undersized sleeping bag. He was singing a children’s song softly to himself, flawlessly. Bernard stood up.
Looking at the curly-haired boy, Joseph, and Hassan all standing there in a row was like seeing some horrible time progression: the age of man, a crueler version of the sphinx’s riddle. And standing there, watching them move, watching Joseph manhandle the boy with the kind of horseplay that often began the pornographic videos that Joseph and Bernard used to watch together, Bernard understood that Joseph was gone. The clumsy bodily flirtation that Joseph sometimes enacted with the more athletic straight men at their gym and was now practicing, unbeknownst to his subject, on the curly-haired boy was nothing: Bernard knew that Joseph knew it would come to nothing, his physical mastery and enjoyment not even noticed by the boy. No, it was Joseph’s wild and silent grief, that grief which made anyone else’s love a boredom, that had done it, that had stolen him away. Looking at him, Bernard understood in a rush the way the years would pass. It was not even that each successive blonde-headed lover Joseph took would be a tragic falling off from the German boy’s first world of sex—Joseph was an adult, almost no one their age had escaped the nineties without at least one friend dying, and he would go on with his life. Instead it was that, next to such an endless, present silence as the German boy’s absence, Bernard was nothing. And it was this that he understood now, wavering there on his feet, on the cold stone of the monastery. The sadness of wishing one had lived one’s life differently. Not the sadness of realizing that soon you will be forty and alone, but the sadness of realizing you have been the whole time.
The poses they were doing weren’t martial arts, Bernard saw now. Hassan was showing them a dance. He’d begun chanting from some place deep in his throat, angling his face so that his mouth was aimed up into the opening in the ceiling, the rock itself seeming to fill with his animalistic, glottal projections. Joseph and the curly-haired boy were dancing, moving around and across from each other like shadows. This was the commune, how you spoke to them, the ritual, Bernard knew without having to ask. Bernard walked around the fire, watching the pair’s roiling, shadowing movements. Joseph, the light from the fire catching his high cheekbone starkly as he turned, looked stunningly beautiful. He noticed Bernard standing there and raised his head, surprised. Bernard held his eyes for a second. Then he stepped into the dance, closed his eyes, threw back his head, and called upon the dead to save them.