The Exterminator

joint

 

The Exterminator

 

By Julia Noël Goldman

 

 

 

 

 

The terrace was the draw of the apartment, with room for lemon trees, a luscious rose bush, and my statue of Eros with his bow. I drank my coffee at the glass-topped table, savoring it along with the view of the Hudson River. It was the first Sunday morning of June. Bill had gone back to San Francisco the day before, and already I missed the company. He’d been in town for a run of Romeo and Juliet, and we’d played the old queens together. As two of the few remaining gay men of our generation, we were lucky to still be getting work, and we knew it. He’d left me in charge of the marijuana he’d purchased, supposedly for medicinal purposes, the night we’d gone out cruising in Chelsea.

I was enjoying a joint in the kitchen and pouring cream into my third mug of coffee, when the doorbell rang.

I grabbed the air freshener from the counter and sprayed randomly as I walked to the door. Who would it be on a Sunday morning–the church police?

“Who is it?” I asked, tightening the belt of my black silk bathrobe.

“Exterminator.”

“Oh, sure, of course.” After one last spray, I opened the door.

Oh God was he handsome. Young and slim, in a gray T-shirt and dirty jeans, curly brown hair just the right kind of too long. He smiled at me as he entered the apartment, closing the door behind him, the grin of a stoner on the prowl. He carried a large metal can with a hose hanging from the top, and a banged-up clip board. The air around him was heavy with patchouli–it reminded me of college.

“I see you have roaches,” he said, gesturing at the kitchen ashtray. His smile was contagious.

“It’s terrible,” I admitted, grinning.

“I can help you get rid of them. I’m a professional.”

“Please, whatever you have to do.”

A lighter appeared in his hand. He lit a roach and inhaled, eyes closed and smiling. Such a perfect face–tan skin, high cheekbones, long eyelashes, delightful lips. He passed me the roach and I took a hit. I wasn’t used to smoking this much so early in the day, and I was light-headed. I led him out into the living room.

“Great apartment,” said the exterminator, taking in the white leather couches and the bamboo trees, the framed theater posters covering the yellow walls. “Totally screams ‘Broadway Show Queen’.”

“It took quite some time to achieve the look, so thank you for noticing.”

“You an actor?”

“How did you guess?”

“You look like an actor.” He passed me the roach and I took another hit, passed it back, then pretended to go through yesterday’s mail.

“Yeah?”

“It’s eleven Sunday morning and you look ready for a photo shoot.”

I laughed, surprised to find myself blushing at the compliment.

“I better give the place a spray. Thanks, man. I’ve been doing this a week and this is the first time I’ve lucked out.” He passed the tiny roach back to me. His nails were bitten to the quick, his arms smoothly muscled.

“What happened to the old exterminator?”

“That was my uncle. He moved to Florida. I’m just helping my grandpa out over summer break.”

“Where are you studying?”

“USC. And I wouldn’t say I’m studying,” he laughed, “mostly surfing and getting high.”

“I could have guessed that.”

“You ever meet my grandpa?” he asked, taking the tiny roach from my hand and holding the lighter under it, flames licking the edge of his thumb. A closer look revealed he had a callous in that very spot.

“Huge eyebrows, heavy accent?”

“That’s him. Did you ever notice his arm?”

“The numbers? Yes, I noticed. I’d never seen them on someone in real life before.”

“I’ve always found it strange that after surviving a concentration camp, he’d start an exterminating business.”

“Perhaps he wanted to get them back. What would Nazis be now, if not cockroaches?”

He laughed and picked up his can, spraying behind the refrigerator, behind the stove. I followed him into the bathroom and admired the shape of his ass while he bent over to spray behind the toilet.

“Perv,” he said, as he stood and caught me watching him.

“You’d do the same if you were in my situation.”

“I’m not gonna deny that. Looking is half the fun. Okay, maybe a quarter of the fun.”

I walked him to the door.

“See you next first Sunday,” he said.

“Not if I see you first.”

 

The next few weeks were rehearsals for the crappy hippie musical. The show was awful but the pay was good. Like most actors, I’d once dreamed of fame, of a career in Film, but it never happened. It was just good to be working, constantly immersed in someone else’s life instead of my own. I thought I saw the exterminator at the coffee shop one morning, but it wasn’t him, nor was it at the post office the following week. More than once I found myself smoking a joint on the terrace at night, staring down at the well-lit paths in Riverside Park, wondering what his name was and if he ever did it with guys. I was counting on seeing him next month, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of anticipation. I didn’t know I could have crushes anymore. I’d become resigned to growing old alone, enjoying hot but meaningless sex on and off. It’s not that I didn’t want to wake up Sunday mornings with a man by my side, read the paper together and fool around, maybe own a dog. Deep down, I still wanted those things. I’d just stopped hoping I would get them.

 

On the first Sunday of July I awoke in a particularly good mood. Having procured some Acapulco Gold, I was flying by 9 AM. The stereo played a gentle Bossa Nova, and I drank my coffee on the terrace while waiting for the exterminator, becoming engrossed in the terrible yet amusing reviews of my new show in the New York Times. Thankfully my part was small enough not to get mentioned. It was noon before I noticed that the exterminator hadn’t arrived.

I paced the apartment imagining worst-case scenarios: the boy was dead, my acting career was over, the weed had made me permanently paranoid. I stood in the kitchen and ate a bowl of Cheerios. What was it about this kid? Young and handsome, so many firsts yet to come, so many choices yet to make, and I envied that. I’d wanted to see him again and I was disappointed. It was the first Sunday of July, and the sign in the lobby stated clearly that’s when he was supposed to stop by. So where was he? At one I ate last night’s leftover quiche on the terrace, watching the bees hover around the rose bushes. He wasn’t going to come.

 

The rumor was that the show was closing, so I started looking for a new gig. I spent my quiet moments wondering what had happened to the exterminator. Perhaps his legs were broken? Perhaps the schedule had changed? And why did I want to see him again? Was it simply the feeling of excitement that I couldn’t resist? It had been so long since I last felt excited about someone, or fantasized about anyone in particular. It felt good, and I felt reckless.

The following Sunday, I was combing Billboard Magazine for work, when I heard a raised voice in the hallway. Was it the police here to arrest me for smoking pot? The stoner exterminator, running a full week late? I opened the door of my apartment and stuck my head into the hallway—a metal can disappeared around the corner. It was him!

“So what’s your name?” The nosey woman from down the hall was chatting up my exterminator. He said it was Dave. Or Steve. She asked him his last name and he told her he didn’t have time to socialize. He knocked on the other doors at her end of the hall. No one was home. He was walking toward my apartment when he saw me, and the smile spread across his beautiful face like icing on a cake.

“Hey! It’s the actor!”

“It’s the stoner! Come on in.” Unprepared for him, I felt nervous. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that he could come today? The glimpse I caught of myself in the mirror by the door told me I was as photo-ready as ever—clean-shaven, short dark hair, the blue eyes young men used to get lost in. Still, at fifty, I must have seemed a thousand years old to him.

“I’ve got something I think you’ll enjoy. Can you stay for a coffee?”

“Sure, I’ll have a cup. Black. Like my men.” He followed me into the kitchen.

“You’re funny,” I said.

He grinned as our eyes met. I almost poured hot coffee on my hand.

“Thank you. For the record I have no racial preferences.”

“How about gender?”

“That’s more complicated.”

“Good to know.” I like complicated more than I should. I grabbed half a joint from the ashtray and ushered him onto the terrace.

“Nice!” said the exterminator, nodding his head and checking out the view. The day was perfect–a light breeze, a cloudless sky. We stood side by side, watching tugboats pulling barges up the Hudson. I lit the joint.

“Acapulco Gold,” I explained, exhaling as I passed it to him.

“Fantastic. Very retro.” He took a long hit, followed by a gulp of coffee. “Oh, God that’s good. I like you. What’s your name?”

“Gaylord.”

“Really?” His lips were tight with suppressed laughter.

“No. It’s Benjamin.”

The kid let the laugh loose and started coughing. “I’m Dave.” His handshake was firm and open. Like he knew it was two people making physical contact, more important than just protocol. I felt myself relaxing into his vibe.

“Good to officially meet you.”

We sat at the table, smoked the joint and drank the coffee. He perused the real estate section of the Sunday Times, his hair falling into his eyes. He was just coming into his real manhood, losing the girlish softness that must have been charming on him two years ago. I remember being that age, not knowing how lucky I was, and yet smart enough to get as much ass as I possibly could. He told me about his dream of opening a bar in Williamsburg, with live bands and DJs. He was studying business officially, working slowly towards his goal.

“So tell me how it’s complicated,” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Your gender preference?”

“Oh right. I’ve tried a lot of things but haven’t felt the need to pick a label. So far I mostly like sex.”

He gives me the shining bright toothpaste-ad smile.

“How old are you, Dave?”

“Twenty.”

“I remember being twenty.” It had been the early ‘80’s–Madonna had just come on the scene.

“And?”

“I was a heart-breaker. I slept with guys, they fell in love with me, I moved on.”

“Sounds like intimacy issues, Benjamin.”

“Thanks for the insight.”

“You single?” He asked me, the whites of his eyes tinted pink from the smoke, highlighting his gray irises.

“Yeah. I haven’t met anyone special in a long time.” I laughed.

“I haven’t met anyone special yet. Sometimes I think maybe I’m one of those people who doesn’t fall in love. Sex is nice and simple, you know?”

“Oh yes, I know. Love’s a weird thing. I mean, I have no good explanation for the handful of men I’ve been in love with.”

“Yeah? I wonder how they feel about you?” He drained his mug and put it on the table.

“Ah, now that’s the question!”

“I better get back to work. I’ve still got the top couple floors.”

I followed him through the living room to the front door. He stopped before I expected him to, so I was inches away from him when he turned.

“I’ll see you next month,” he said.

“Can’t wait.”

I pulled the door open, savoring the musky patchouli mixed with his scent as he passed me. It made me hard. He turned back and looked into my eyes, then at my mouth. As he began to lean forward, I closed my eyes in anticipation. His lips touched mine gently and lingered. Then he was gone. It wasn’t until hours later I realized he’d forgotten to spray the apartment.

 

“You get how crazy you sound, right Benjamin?”

“Oh please, Bill.” I paced my living room, phone to my ear, staring at the rain bouncing off the terrace.

“Okay not crazy. Ridiculous. Like a teenager.”

“I’ll accept that. I’m smitten, I won’t deny it. It feels good. When was the last time you felt this way, just from a kiss?”

“Decades ago. I barely remember.” His sarcasm had an edge to it.

“My point exactly.”

“Find someone your own age, Benjamin.”

“They’re all dead.”

“You know that’s not true. Look at us.”

“I try not to.”

“Did you get The Miracle Worker?”

“Colonel Keller, yet again.”

“Beats Humbert Humbert.”

“He’s twenty. Pretend to be happy that I’m enjoying myself.”

“Even if I think you’re being an idiot?”

‘Yes.” I hung up the phone.

 

I spent the rest of July in rehearsals, blustering about how Helen Keller would never come to anything, and sunbathing on my terrace. I went to the gym every other day, but declined sensual invitations. What was it that Dave had that these other just-as-hot guys didn’t? Was it just the odd intimacy of letting a stranger into my home and breaking the law with him? It seemed like we had clicked so easily, but maybe it was just the weed–it’s a quick connector.

I wandered, stoned, through Riverside Park. It was a clear night, the sky was packed with stars, and there were lovers everywhere. Couples making out on benches and against trees, two men sharing a blow job behind a statue. I passed a handsome man who caught my eye, but I walked on. Was Dave doing shots at a bar right now? Bowling? Having sex with someone of indeterminate gender? We had just shared one kiss, yet I thought about him constantly, especially late at night when I pleasured myself. I could not forget the taste of the weed on his sweet lips, or ignore my desire to touch him again, to have it be his hands on my body, and his alone.

 

I awoke to a quiet tapping sound. I forced my eyes open and read the clock on my bedside table: 8:03 AM. The tapping continued. What was it? Four taps and a pause, four taps and a pause. Someone was at the door. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and slipped on my robe. Opening the door revealed Dave, red-eyed and yawning, with two fancy Starbucks iced coffee drinks, his can slung over his shoulder.

“Good morning, Benjamin!”

“Good morning, Dave. You’re getting an early start. Is it the first Sunday already?” How could I have forgotten?

“It’s the last Sunday of July, and I’ve got to be spraying brownstones in Brooklyn at one.” He smiled and handed me a coffee.

“Come in, then,” I said, yawning.

“It’s a Frappucino. And I brought something else.” He raised his eyebrows and headed straight for the terrace. I followed, combing my hair with my fingers and shifting my robe in attempt to disguise my arousal. I watched him walk into the sunlight, put his drink on the table, and stretch his arms into the air, his T-shirt rising to reveal his tan lower back. So much for trying to control my penis.

I followed him out, sucking up the Frappucino in an attempt to wake myself. By the time I reached him, I was pressing my forehead in an attempt to combat my ice cream headache.

“You okay?”

“Yes. Just drank this thing too fast.”

“Ouch. You like it? It’s Java chip

“Delicious.” The drink was sweet and tasted nothing like coffee. I smiled at him. It was hard not to.

“Check this out,” he said, and pulled a bent joint out of his back pocket. “It’s Sour Diesel. The best of the best.”

“Nice. I think I’ve smoked more pot this summer than the rest of my summers combined.” I put my drink on the table, next to his.

“I’m a bad influence.”

“You and Bill. He’s the one who left me the weed in the first place.”

“Who’s Bill?”

“An old friend.”

“Were you lovers?”

“Decades ago. We were young and stupid and I broke his heart.”

“At least he forgave you.”

“Sometimes I’m not sure.”

“How’d you break his heart?”

“I let this guy give me a blow job at a club. One of those things that doesn’t mean anything. I hadn’t thought it would matter, but it mattered to Bill. Eventually we became friends.”

“Friends are important.”

“Agreed.”

Dave lit the joint, walking to the edge of the terrace to stand by the statue of Eros and take in the view. It was at least ninety degrees out, but the breeze kept the terrace cool enough. Dave turned to pass me the joint, then back to the Hudson to watch a boat with a blue striped sail pass by. The weed smelled like fresh rosemary and I took a hit. He wasn’t kidding, an instant high, everything was immediately brighter, colors almost neon, as if the sun had changed. Dave pulled his red T-shirt off over his head, revealing a nautical star tattooed on his smooth, tan shoulder blade. Was it an invitation, or just a young man comfortable with his body on a gorgeous summer day? Did he even remember we’d kissed?

I moved closer to him and returned what was now a roach.

“I love your terrace, Benjamin. A new goal to shoot for.”

“It took a lot of years of hard work and wise investing to get here. This Sour Diesel is intense.”

“I agree. I wanted you to try it. And I didn’t want you to think I spent time with you just for the grass.”

“I didn’t think that.” All my focus was on trying to keep my eyes off his hairless, subtly muscled chest.

“Good.”

“Why do you spend time with me?”

“Why do you think?”

“Because you like me.” Pot makes you honest.

“Bingo.” He smiled and looked into my eyes; like stolen fireworks exploding into the sky behind the high school. The sun gave his hair a golden glow. He reached out, laying his palm on the side of my neck, puling me toward him. He laughed, then kissed me, his lips soft and warm. The patchouli enveloped me, and I realized I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I put my hands on the ass of his jeans and pulled his body against mine. The bulge in his pants pressed at my hip, leaving no question of what was to happen. My head was spinning and my internal organs felt like they were trying to switch places with each other. We kissed with increasing passion, his hands in my hair, mine tracing his back, his ass, his abs. I unzipped his jeans, he pulled the cord and my robe parted. His skin was warm from the sun, and we touched each other, slowly, luxuriously, totally in the moment. It was perfect.

 

We showered together, joking and soaping each other’s backs, still giddy from the sex.

“Fuck, it’s ten already. I need to go to work.”

“Don’t forget to do my apartment!”

“Right, last month I was too distracted. Sorry ’bout that.”

He dressed and sprayed the apartment. I watched his every move, couldn’t keep my eyes off him. His hands were more beautiful now that they had touched me, as if he now carried something of me with him.

As I walked him to the door, I handed him my business card and said, “Thanks for the coffee. I’d love to see you again before next month.”

“Thanks for the orgasm,” he said, burning one final kiss onto my lips.

 

“You did not!” exclaimed Bill.

“Why would I lie?”

“Because you’re not that stupid.”

“Whatever. He was wonderful. You’re just jealous.”

“I have no interest in children. Don’t tell me you’re in love, Benjamin.”

“I’m not in love.”

“He’s half your age, in school across the country. It’s just not gonna happen. Don’t be a fool.”

“Look, Mr. Voice of Reason. Dave’s got his whole life ahead of him, I’d be a jerk to try to tie him down, and I’m not a jerk. I’m just enjoying the ride.”

“Enjoy the crash and burn,” he said before hanging up.

I was only half-lying. I was on the brink of love, but still in control, and in control I would remain.

 

It was a hot night in late August and I was leaving the Roundabout Theater through the stage door after the show. The guy standing at the curb looked like Dave. He smiled Dave’s smile and waved a bouquet of roses at me. There was a crowd but I saw only him.

“Did you catch the show?” I took the roses and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“You rocked,” he said, then deepened his voice, “‘What in heaven’s name is so extraordinary about folding a napkin?’”

I laughed. “Thanks for coming! What a great surprise.”

“Walk with me?”

“Of course.”

We walked south along the edge of Union Square Park and I controlled my impulse to bite my nails. The street was crowded with groups of people laughing drunkenly while deciding which bar to go to next. The moon was full, and it felt so good to be with him.

“You look great with clothes on, Benjamin. I was worried you might wear that black silk bathrobe everywhere.”

“Thanks. You’re a gas.” I poked him in the ribs. We walked for a while in silence, stopping when we reached the south end of the park. A wide open terrace, brightly-lit, full of overly-enthusiastic NYU students and people selling political buttons. An old man preached from the Bible, ignoring his hecklers.

“I’m going back to California tomorrow.”

“What? I thought we had until September.” I tried not to look as disappointed as I felt. I’d wanted to take him to the beach, ride the Cyclone at Coney Island.

“I’m sorry. I already signed up to welcome the freshmen. I’d back out if I could, but I made a commitment.”

“I understand, Dave. It’s alright.” I squeezed his shoulder and smiled at him.

“I wanted to see you again, tell you part of me doesn’t want to leave.”

“Because of me?” I asked, heart beating too fast.

“Yeah.” He looked away.

“I really enjoyed our time together, Dave. I could fall in love with you. But I won’t. You need to go back to school.”

“I know.” Dave watched a unicyclist juggle oranges. “I just … You made me feel like I could fall in love too. And that maybe I’m gayer than I thought.”

We laughed, we kissed. I whispered in his ear. “You reminded me how good it feels to feel excited about someone.”

He pulled back and smiled. “Look around you. You’d be surprised what you might find if you just open your eyes.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

“Think about it. I’ve got to go pack. I’ll email you from school.”

We held each other for a moment, and he went down the ornate staircase into the subway.

 

That night I drank cold chardonnay on my terrace, and instead of getting maudlin, I called Bill.

“Is it already time for me to help you pick up the pieces of your broken heart?” he said instead of hello.

“I guess you could say that.”

“I thought you’d sound worse. What happened?”

“He came to see my show. Told me he didn’t want to leave New York, but he would. His plane flies out tomorrow.”

“It’s for the best.”

“Yeah. He got me thinking maybe I don’t want to be single anymore.”

“That’s good to hear. Even you have to settle down sometime.” He laughed.

“It’s not like you’re all married with children, Bill.”

“I’d like to be.”

And then I opened my eyes. “Let’s try it then. You and me. How could it hurt?”

“Says the man who broke my heart. Fine. It might be worth trying.”

“How romantic.”

“Okay. This is the moment I’ve been waiting thirty years for. How’s that?” His voice was soft, honest.

I laughed. “Much better. Now: where, when, how?”

“Labor Day weekend, in New York.”

“You’d leave California for me?”

“You’re the reason I came out here in the first place, Benjamin. Plus, who could resist your terrace?”

I lit a joint and watched a yacht, adorned with strings of purple lights, move slowly down the Hudson.

~~~