That summer, he found himself playing the piano in a hotel in Tampa. He was a lounge singer who sang opera, played advertisement jingles for tips. He made friends with the regulars, was invited to their homes. They could have just felt sorry for him because he was so far away from home. In Knysna, his elderly parents were getting a divorce. His sister was moving house to London with her daughters and accountant husband. Yes, everybody they knew was moving up in the world. He met Nick in Tampa. In Nick’s bed, time seemed to be suspended. For the rest of that first evening when he had met Nick, Nick had seemed to float across the room. Nick winking at him, while he blinked back. Nick smiling at him and giving him the peace sign, the thumbs up. Nick even blew him a kiss. This made him blush.
“You’re gifted with those keys,” Nick said one evening. (Nick was a waiter; he needed to make a fast buck to get out to Los Angeles.) “Where did you learn to play like that?”
“Where, again? You said Knysna. Never heard of it. I’m from the East Coast. Heard of that?”
“In books. In books and magazines and online. Knysna’s near Wilderness. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The Garden Route.”
“No, no. I have to be honest with you. I’ve never heard of it.” Nick smiled. “Play something sexy for me.” Nick smiled again. “The way you play that piano, you can make anything sound sexy.”
They were watching cartoons. Nick was resting his head on his chest. They were eating Doritos with guacamole and salsa.
“Is this all that’s on? Why don’t we watch the news?” Nick ignored him, picked up another chip.
“Do you want to make love again?” Nick leaned across him, picked up a fashion magazine, and said in passing, while paging through it, “I always found the life of a photographer fascinating. I mean, if I weren’t an actor, I think I would have gone to art school. Taken a photography class. Maybe even explored painting. Now, what do you think about that? You’re so quiet. Cat got your tongue.”
“I’m tired, that’s all. All those late evenings are catching up with me. I need to sleep. I think I’m homesick.”
“Oh,” Nick said in a hurt voice. “I thought you wanted to be with me. Don’t you want to be with me, lover?”
He stroked Nick’s arm, then brushed his hand through Nick’s unkempt hair. Nick closed his eyes. “That feels nice. Don’t you want to stay here with me – in Tampa, I mean?”
“I have a mother back in Knysna. She needs me. She’s getting old. It always feels nice when I’m with you.” Nick had opened his eyes, reached for his box of cigarettes on the bedside table.
“So, you’re leaving after Christmas. That doesn’t give me much time. I mean, it doesn’t give us much time. I should be used to this by now, I guess.” Nick laughed, and then grimaced as if he were in pain. “I shouldn’t have made you that sandwich. Why’d you make me fall in love with you?”
“I did no such thing.”
“Which means you’re not in love with me. I should have known. I should have known.”
“I do. I do want to be with you.” He said it because he thought that was what Nick wanted to hear, to shut him up (yes, to shut Nick up), but Nick was also beginning to become something of a bore. He didn’t listen to classical music or know anything about the opera; they were boring. He didn’t read; that was boring, too. The only things he did read (collect) were Cosmopolitan and Elle.
“Will you miss me? Be homesick for me, too?”
“Oh, alright then – that is, if you want me to.”
“I do. Say you will. I’ve never been in love like this.” Nick lit the cigarette then, his hand shaking. He put his free hand on Nick’s. Holding a teacup in his other hand.
“You’re shaking, honey. Oh, Nick, buddy. Yes, of course, I’ll be homesick for you, too, if that is going to make you happy. I’ll tell you something. I’ve never felt like this over a man before.”
“You’ve never been with a man before like this, I mean.”
“No, no. There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there.”
“That makes me sad. It really, really makes me sad.”
“Why does it make you sad? Please don’t cry for me, sweetheart.”
“I’m going to cry. Please don’t make me cry. Please don’t make me ask you to stay. I’m thinking of the next person you’re probably going to fall in love with, and that I won’t be around to see it.”
“So, you’re in love with me?”
“You act as if you didn’t know anything about this chemistry between us from that first instant I met you.” He didn’t want to argue with Nick. So, he changed the subject.
“Can we change the channel? Watch something more grown-up.”
“Documentaries are boring,” Nick said on the defensive. “So is the news. Everything’s about terrorists or immigrants, the recession and unemployment, sexual assault and police brutality.”
“Okay, then let’s keep watching cartoons, then.”
“Cartoons are the only things that make sense to me.” Nick rubbed his chin.
“I don’t know; yes, I guess, yes. I will miss you, Nick. You’re too adorable for words.”
“Even when I was young, everybody thought I was cute. I never got picked last in gym – and you? Do you love me?”
“I don’t know; yes, Nick, I guess, yes.”
In America, it was late to bed. He would rise in the early afternoon. Shower, fix his hair before his show. Have a latish breakfast of toast, orange juice, fish fingers or bacon, or an omelette stuffed with ham. The hotel food never disappointed him. Nick had a way of stroking his beard when he was deep in thought. Nick was stroking his beard now. He thought that this was a safe place. Nick wouldn’t make a scene in this diner. They ordered breakfast food, even though it was early afternoon. Waffles and coffee.
“Give me a reason. I need a reason to stay. My mother is old. She’s deaf. She needs me.” But Nick’s eyes were already flashing.
“I need you too. I just want you to remember that.”
The waffle was too big on the plate, tasted like cardboard and paste in his mouth. He thought of his mother. Once, she had been a socialite. He missed the Knysna oysters, too.