The Sweetest Taboo

Last night Paul and I had dinner at Galatoire’s.

Galatoire’s is a New Orleans institution; like Antoine’s and Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, it is one of those places you simply have to experience. This wasn’t my first time at Galatoire’s, but it was my first time there in a while. Galatoire’s was immortalized by Marda Burton and Dr. Kenneth Holditch in their book Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, and Stella famously took Blanche there for dinner the night of the poker game in A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t think I’ve ever been into Galatoire’s and left without feeling, at best, tipsy; at worse, staggeringly drunk. Last night I merely had a Bloody Mary and a glass of white wine; fortunately Paul and I had about a six-block walk to the car in the infernal heat of a late June evening, so I was completely sober by the time we got to the car.

We were at a dinner party in honor of author Lou Berney, whose last novel The Long and Faraway Gone is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read, and whose next novel, November Road, drops in October (we were able to score ARC’s at the dinner). I’ve known Lou since Bouchercon in Raleigh, when he and I graced the stage on a panel with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron, moderated by the incomparable Katrina Niidas Holm. (Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars the following spring; coincidence? I THINK NOT.) It was a lovely evening, despite the extreme heat (and don’t laugh; it is unusually hot, even for New Orleans, this June; this is August weather).

Did I mention I got an ARC of Lou’s new book?

Today’s short story, the next one up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories, is, of all things, a story about a baseball player, “Phenom.”

The arms around me hit a grand slam tonight.

 It didn’t matter; we lost the game anyway. But I didn’t care. I’ve never really cared much about baseball. In fact, I’d never been to a game until our local team signed Billy Chastain. As soon as I saw him being interviewed on the local news, I knew I was going to start going to games. It’s not that I don’t like baseball, I just never cared enough to go. But all it took was one look at Billy Chastain, and I was sold.

The interview had been one of those special pieces. He’d been a high school star, played in college a couple of years, and then one year in the minors, where he’d been a force to be reckoned with; with an amazing batting average and some outstanding play at third base, he’d been called up to the majors for this new season, and everyone was talking about him.  I just stared at the television screen.

Sure, he was young, but he was also composed, well spoken, and seemed mature for his age. He was also drop dead gorgeous. He had thick bluish-black hair, olive skin, and the most amazing green eyes. They showed clips of him fielding and batting—and then came the part that I wished I’d recorded: they showed him lifting weights. In the earlier shots, it was apparent he had a nice build; he seemed tall and lanky, almost a little raw-boned; but once they cut to the shots of him in the weight room, I was sold. His body was ripped as he moved from machine to machine in his white muscle shirt and long shorts, his dark hair damp with sweat. As his workout progressed and his muscles became more and more pumped, more and more defined, I could feel my cock starting to stir in my pants. And then they closed the segment with a shot of him pulling the tank top over his head and wiping his damp face with it. I gasped. His hairless torso slick with sweat, his abs were perfect, his pecs round and beautiful, and the most amazing half-dollar sized nipples which I wanted to get my lips around.

I bought tickets and started going to every home game.

Our team sucked, to be frank, and it was soon apparent that there was no World Series or even division pennant in our future that year. But Billy was a great player and everyone was talking about him. He was leading the division in hits and had one of the highest batting averages in all of baseball. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline PHENOM, his beautiful face smiling out at people on newsstands all over the country. There were several shots of him inside without a shirt on; shots I had scanned into my computer, enlarged and printed out for framing. I made sure my seats were always behind third base, so I could get as great a view of him as humanly possible, in his tight white pants that showed every curve and muscle of his legs—and the amazing round hard ass I thought about when I closed my eyes and masturbated. Every so often he would look up into the stands and smile, saluting us with a wave.

I wrote “Phenom” for the Alyson erotica anthology Fast Balls; I was asked by the editor to write a story.

I’m not a big baseball fan; my parents forced me to play when I was a kid and yes, the experience was incredibly traumatic. I do love going to games and watching in person; but watching on television isn’t something I’ve ever really enjoyed a lot. So, writing a baseball story was a bit of a challenge for me.

Then I remembered, when I was a teenager in high school, following the Kansas City Royals, and a Sports Illustrated cover with young star Clint Hurdle with the word PHENOM on it…and I thought, you know, I can write about a player instead of the game, and that was my starting point: a hot young baseball star turns up in a gay bar after a game and a fanboy’s dream comes true.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?