by Felice Picano


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Onyx by Felice Picano

"Striking in its bold depictions of both pleasure and pain...a fresh angle on familiar themes of love and death and manifesting greater insight in its musings about living."-Publishers Weekly

"Incredibly rich and densely textured...highly recommended."-Library Journal

Three men. Two gay, one straight. Two searching for meaning in the face of loss, one searching for the heart of masculinity. What awakens between them will change their lives forever. The narrative-exploring six months in the life of Ray Henriques, a successful Manhattan record producer-unearths a sometimes jolting examination of how loss can awaken dormant desires and postponed dreams. Endings lead to beginnings, appearances do not match reality, and love can harden hearts as surely as it can expand them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555837419
Publisher: Alyson Publications
Publication date: 04/10/2002
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.58(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.82(d)

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Chapter One

A stark, golden shaft of 7:15 a.m. October sunlight gleamed through a minute slit formed by two unevenly closed slats in a vertical blind, sparkling in the otherwise darkened bedroom. Light epeed across the tousled, multileveled linen of the double bed upon which one male form slept, torso twisted, arms and legs extended, bent to configure a flawed letter X, nearly a swastika. Light spilled off the ivory comforter's tufted edge, briefly spangling the carpet, inducing its royal blue and pale tan pattern to dance. Light ascended across a second quilt, up to a second, flimsier, more temporary bed, and there illuminated a three-and-a-quarter-inch band across the face of a second, sleeping male. Briefly, the sunlight hid behind an interrupting cloud, and the somnolent, apparently annoyed face relaxed. The cloud passed, the sunbeam returned with renewed brightness, and a pair of chocolate-brown eyes opened enough to be offended, shut again. The thickly curled, dark blond head turned and nestled too late into the blurred security of a crush of down pillow.
Minutes later this second man got out of bed, stood up, and approached the other, still sleeping, shallowly breathing male. He half crouched, half crawled onto the larger bed to make contact with the pale, sweat-wetted forehead. He sighed, got off the bed, padded into the nearby bath, where he passed water, stretched, yawned, muttered a word that sounded like "Fer-ber." He turned on the shower. When it was steaming, he closed the connecting door.
When he stepped out again, the sunlight had widened from a fencing sword's narrow edge into a Saracen blade, obliquely slicing his well shaped lower torso, now partly swaddled in a damp towel, and redefining the figure still upon the bed, which had solved it's algebra, and reconfigured into a nearly perfect letter I.
"Don't get up," the standing man said. "Don't wake up yet."
He drew the quilt, sheets, and pillows off the smaller bed with a practiced toreador flourish, his body, packaged in its tiny towel, looking to the man in bed, awake despite the other's entreaties, like the icon on some Minoan mural. He swung fluffed linen gracefully up and atop a maple blanket chest, bent to metallically close the bed, simultaneously launching it into a cranny behind the chest where it was effectively hidden.
"You know it takes forever to get up, Ray," the man on the bed said, his face hidden in darkness. He hoped it came out as fact, not a whine. "Open the blinds."
"You sleep OK, Jess?" Ray asked without looking back from the tall window casement where he slowly rotated the vertical blinds. The room became lambent by degree.
In profile, Ray now looked Egyptian: a courtier painted amid enigmatic hieroglyphs, overseer perhaps of some grand Nilotic project, sleek and sturdy, strong, faultless save for the hard-on, the eternal hard-on the tight white towel every morning revealed to still be there; the hard-on once familiar and desired, now unceasing, slow to go away. His fault, his undoing-lack of doing-Jesse knew.
"I'm getting up now," Jesse announced lifting the covers off himself. Perspiration had matted the cotton T-shirt to his chest. No surprise: he was sleeping right through the night sweats these days, too exhausted to be appalled as he'd been not that long ago. Ray dropped his towel and bent to step into his underwear.
"Oh my God!" Jesse cried. Ray spun around alarmed, one foot into the Calvins, the other dangling aloft. "Is that...could that possibly be...?" Jesse began, "...a blemish? An imperfection on your otherwise perfect buttock?"
A foxy smile replaced Ray's frown of alarm as he continued dressing. "Don't start about my imperfections, Buster, or you'll be sorry. C'mon up, if you're getting up."
Jesse fumbled into a kneeling position on the bed and Ray pulled off the sopping T-shirt and drew down the now overlarge cotton shorts.
"Unhand me, vile seducer!" Jesse falsettoed. "Bodice ripper"
"Quiet or I'll rip something else." Ray tossed the clothing across the room, and came in closer, popping open a sealed plastic bag of fresh towels and underwear. He playfully toweled dry Jesse's hair, discarded that towel, shook out a scented towelette and used it to wash Jesse's face and upper chest.
"I expect the bath of asses' milk is ready," Jesse said. "They'd better be Phoenician. I'm bored with the old Babylonian ones. Stop you're tickling me."
"We're in luck No new rashes or bumps or dots today!" Ray announced, kissing Jesse's clean medical-scented shoulder. "Genitals now"
"Please, Sir! Not my private parts! Anything but my private parts!" And as Ray used a second towelette to wash Jesse's lower body, "Lord, How long must this abuse go on?"
"Some folks pay a hundred bucks an hour for this abuse. All the way up now." He lifted Jesse to stand on the bed. A third towelette was shaken out and applied to Jesse's legs and feet. "OK. All clean now."
"Remember when I had muscles," Jesse said in a changed tone of voice.
"In your imagination you had muscles. Oh, wait. it's coming back to me. In the summer of '82...Yes. Now I recall. I couldn't wait for them to go away." Ray kissed one scarred, disinfectant-smelling kneecap, and he pulled the new pair of cotton shorts over the still firm legs, up the slender hips, thanking God emaciation hadn't set in, and might not for a while. The new T-shirt went over the shoulders. A fourth towelette rubbed the hair clean. Was there ever a man so lovely?
"That's it, chum! Maid's work's over," Ray announced, lifting Jesse from the bed to the floor. The body, which had once weighed the same as Ray's, seemed lighter every day, as if the shell remained perfect, but as Jesse slept, night by night, the stuffing seeped out. He suddenly noticed Jesse was shorter by maybe an inch. They'd always been the same height: looked straight into each other's eyes.
"Kiss me." Jesse demanded.
He bussed Jesse's lips, wiping off the kiss off with the edge of the last towelette.
"No. Really kiss me. French kiss. Hard! Deep!"
"C'mon, Jess. You know we can't do that."
"Please, Ray. I'll gargle with the poison crap snotface gave me."
They kissed, mouths open, tongues probing, bodies pressed together until Jesse felt he was leaving the ground. Ray pulled away first, bussed and licked Jesse's disinfected neck and shoulders and chest, knowing he'd have to towelette them again. He kept it up until it was too much, and Jesse couldn't help but flinch and draw back.
"Sorry." Ray withdrew another towelette to recleanse what he'd just kissed. "Go rinse and gargle now. Doctor's orders."
"I wanted it," Jesse said. "I did want it."
"Me too, Buster Brown. Me too."
"I can tell. You're toting a major woody."
Ray hefted it in both hands. "A bone crusher!" he said, making a grim face. "A diamond cutter! A tree limb! A Sequoia! A..."
"Jeez, I'm sorry I mentioned it, " Jesse kvetched, then went into the bathroom to gargle. He hadn't gotten hard, of course. He couldn't remember the last time he had gotten hard. Last month? The month before? He was chafed from where Ray had kissed him, despite the disinfectant; he'd need hydrocortisone cream.
That done, he called out, "Who's Fer-ber?" as he came into the bedroom. No answer, Ray was already upstairs.
Alone Jesse sat on the bed and slowly, with effort, pulled on the socks, slacks, shirt, tie, and shoes that Ray had laid out for him, knowing that the suit jacket was already upstairs, brought up and placed by Ray across a breakfast chair back. Even before he was done, Jesse sighed, exhausted, and fell back onto the bed, and thought, just a snooze, a minute. No, I can't, I'm going to wrinkle everything. He raised himself with effort to a sitting position, stood, wavered on his feet. "I had muscles more than one summer, Didn't I?" he asked his reflection in the mirror. He steeled himself for the walk upstairs: "It's your own fault," he soliloquized. "You were the one who wanted to stay at work as long as possible! Nobody's making you do it." Having said that, he was unaccountably happy. He smiled at his ability to still find pleasure, and approached the staircase with more energy than before, almost a strut.
A complete array of breakfast smells greeted him. The little table nook window, however, was raised for him to sit by so he wouldn't become nauseated by the odors, which happened more and more. Seated and looking outside, Jesse faced the corner of Joralemon and Clinton Streets from his second-floor vantage point. Mrs. Schnell in her oldest son's mottled green and gray Vietnam flak jacket, walked her ancient Chows-her diurnal alibi for peeking into every unshuttered, unshaded window. Mr. Nissen across the street sprayed and wiped the tinted windshield of his matte gold Lexus sedan. Passing behind him was the lesbian couple Jesse and Ray had met at a Manhattan fund raiser. Both were clad in dark suits with lighter coats and carried stout leather briefcases. What were their names? Forgotten. Autos slowly cruised looking for that rarity-an unmetered parking space: Brooklyn Heights was waking up.
"Who's Fer-ber?" Jesse asked. "You said the name. Edna Ferber?"
"No. A Belgian pianist, Ray said, feeding Jesse his mug of herbal tea and British cereal Weetabix. "I can't find him in the Schwann catalogue. Not in the Dictionary of Performing Artists. Not even in the New Grove."
Jesse's herbal tea tasted odd today. Of orrisroot. Was orrisroot in it?
"So how do you know the name?" Jesse asked.
"Sarah Fishko played a record a few week ago on the radio. Faure's Theme and Variations, a few of his Barcaroles, some Nocturnes. I had a cassette in the Revox, so I taped it. I only half listened because I was busy backbilling invoices, but it sounded pretty good. I listened later on. He's the best Faure pianist ...and I'd never even heard of him."
That was quite an admission. "Better than Tagliaferro? Jesse asked. "Better than Marguertite Long?"
You sweetheart, Ray thought, to remember those names. To ask me. To be interested. "There's so little from Long or Tagliaferro. If not better, 'as good"."
"And you want what?" Jesse asked. " To put Ferber on CD?"
Ray operated a record company out of the office on the lower floor of the townhouse: KlavierStuecke Records, a one and a half man operation. (A college student from nearby Long Island University helped two afternoons a week as packer for heavier shipping.) It was a private label specializing in pianists, and occasionally harpsichordists and organists. Piano recording had been a hobby for a decade when Ray was an A&R man for EMI's International and Classical Divisions, working in Manhattan. That job had helped Ray develop the connections he'd needed to start up his own company, from LP pressing plants to young illustrators willing to do cover art.
When compact discs debuted then flourished, a ravenous demand for "product" arose, and some of it was for older stuff, especially pianists of the past: Moritz Rosenthal, Harold Bauer, Michelangeli, Cortot, Rosa Lhevinne, Egon Petri. Ray used his savings to transfer old music to the new format, placed discreet ads in music magazines, sent out review copies, and pushed discs to local record stores and chains, in person or by phone. And when EMI shut down their mid-Manhattan recording studio, offering Ray a choice of London or Los Angeles or a separation package, he opted for the money and came home from work to stay. He upgraded his computer system and became so profitable his accountant recommended incorporation. He'd added Jesse to the company roster so Jesse would have more than just the medical coverage from his job at Casper,Vine and Markham, the ad agency where he was a senior vice president in copy writing. The previous year, two of KlavierStuecke's CDs received awards. One, the resurrection of a poorly recorded Italian pressing of a 1935 performance of Vladimir Horowitz playing the Brahms First Piano Concerto with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic-a milestone previously thought undocumented or lost-had become a bit of a classical best-seller.
"I'd love to put out a Ferber CD," Ray said. "If I can find a reliable source. The tape I took off the radio's not good enough. It's clear, but the upper register's clattery. Miked too close, typical of the mid-Fifties in Europe. And there are shifts in the aural surround from piece to piece. The recording was probably done over time with different microphone set ups, maybe in several studios."
One reason for KlavierStuecke's success was how good-yet free of gimmickry- Ray made the pianists sound. Not long ago, an international recording giant had approached him with a substantial offer for the rights to his "process." As there was no process, only Ray's "aural vision," he'd said no. Instead they'd tried a disc-by-disc option. The recoridng igant gave him a test, a record of a dozen Domenico Scarlatti sonatas: Wanda Landowska on the eve of the German invasion of Paris in 1940 playing a double keyboard Pleyel-reconstructed harpsichord. In the background of the delicate, Italo-Iberian keyboard tracery, one could make out the distinct, muffled booms of Panzer cannon. Ray's pal, Liesl, had once told him about Betrand Russell meeting Landowska on the Bois de Boulogne in 1915, walking arm in arm with a man and a woman. "This is my husband," the Polish virtuoso said, "and this is my wife." Ray was so thrilled with the historicity of the recorded pieces, he'd left in every military boom. The client wanted them out. They'd argued. The project had been aborted.
"Why not call up Fishko and ask where she got her record?" Jesse asked.
"She left the station. Her dad got ill or something, and she won't take messages from strangers. I tried the show's producer and the other DJs who all told me she brings in her own records. One promised to get my message to her. So far, no dice. You going to eat that?" Ray pointed to the cereal Jesse had been prodding and poking with a spoon.
Jesse's appetite was poor to begin with, and the tea hadn't helped. They were saved from a potential debate by the phone ringing. Ray picked it up. After three exchanges of barely a word each, Jesse figured it was one of the kids, Chris or Sable. He drew a question mark in the air.
"Dan didn't hit your mom or anything like that, did he?" Ray said. It had to be Sable, Ray's sister's youngest child. Dan was the latest of Kathy's 15-year-younger live-in boyfriends. Jesse already knew this conversation. He poured more herbal tea. "If Dan comes anywhere near you or Chris..." Ray threatened into the receiver. "I know he hasn't. I'm saying if he does, OK? Sure, I'll talk to her. Today. I promise. Want to say hello to your queer uncle Jesse." As he handed the phone to Jesse across the table, palm of the hand over the receiver, he said, "I'll kill the bastard!"
"Can I rape him first?" Jesse asked. "C'mon, lighten up." Then into the phone, "Iz thiz Mizz Sable, hun-eee?"
Nine-year-old giggling on the other end. "Yesss."
"Why don't you and your beautiful brother come for dinner tonight?" The latter said to embarrass Chris, surely listening on another line. Jesse looked to Ray, who shrugged 'Why not?' The kids lived five blocks away and came to eat twice a week as it was, sleeping over on holidays and occasional weekends and always when Kathy was "breaking in" a new lover.
"What's for dinner?" Sable asked.
"Whatz thiz shit? Miz Sable, the girl who'll eat anything, and I do mean anything,
including frog stew and roadkill cookies, asking whatz for dinner. Whadafuck?"
She giggled again, loving his cursing. "I'll come. We'll both come," she added,
meaning Chris was there and was behind or at least supporting the call.
"What'll we tell Mom?"
"Leave a note for when she gets home from work, saying you're here." He looked to Ray who nodded yes. Neither wanted to deal with Ray's sister until she'd either straightened out her affairs or gotten rid of Dan. This was their agreed way of dealing with it. "Tell Chris I've got two new porno tapes!"
Chris was 13 and making a big deal out of being suddenly sexual. Now he took the phone. "You know I'm not allowed to look at those things," he complained in his raw-squawky voice.
"Sure, you can, kid. This one is called 'Debbie Does the Carnegie Deli.' Fifteen sexy yet weird foodstuffs. And the other one is titled 'Miss Otis Regrets'."
"Uncle Jesse?"
"You mean Queer Uncle Jesse, don't you?"
"Right, and Uncle Ray? Thanks, huh?"
"You'll pay, kid. And pay. Probably in trade."
"I don't even know what that means."
"Yeah, right!" Jesse said, and they both laughed.
"Be here at 4:15 on the dot!" Before Dan or Kathy got in. After he hung up, Jesse said, "Well at least we've got them trained."
"You've got them trained," Ray said. "They adore you."
"Gay couples are suing every day to adopt kids. And we've got two without even asking." Jesse took Ray's hand. "Lucky us!"
Ray was moping. "We aren't all that lucky."
"Yes, we are, Mr. Stupid, Ugly, Brutal and Poor. Lucky, lucky, lucky us."
They tightened their grip on each other's hands, and looked at each other across the table, until Ray released a half-sigh-half-laugh, rebonding, solidifying as they'd done every morning of the 16 years together.
As they pulled apart, Ray said, "And now for the really bad news. Your mother called yesterday, while you were in the midst of your beauty sleep. Foolish me picked up."
"You still haven't told her, have you?" Ray asked.
"I believe this is the point in the movie where I start screaming hysterically."
"You've got to tell her, Jess! Everyone agrees. J.K., Liesl, Gene, your shrink, your 18 doctors, the social workers, even Kathy! You've got to tell her now. Now while you're still healthy," Ray repeated his weekly litany.
"I know. I know. I know."
"If I end up having to tell your mother, I swear to God, Jess, no matter what condition you're in, I'm going to stomp into the intensive care ward and finish you off. Strangle you with your I.V. tubes. Smother you. Understand?"
"But Ray, she's such an astonishing bitch that -"
"That's why you have to do it now."
"She'll what? Disinherit you? Tell you to leave me? Make our lives hell? She's done all that already. What more can she do? Follow your corpse into the ground and harass you in the afterlife? Promise me you tell her next time you speak"
"You don't know what it's like."
"I've been son-in-law to the Mother From Hell for 16 years. I know. Do it now! While you're still strong. While you're still in good health."
"I will. When you go out and get laid," Ray countered.
"I get laid every day. While you're off at work, I trawl the streets of the Heights, dragging in delivery boys and meter readers, sanitation workers, anyone vaguely hot. I'm known to the neighbors as the Slut of Joralemon Alley. You've seen the Dimitris avoid me when we walk together? It's a wonder the company hasn't gone under by now."
"I'll tell her," Jesse promised. As usual. Meaning it as he said it. As usual.
"Get ready," Ray suggested. "I'll warm up the car. Don't say no. I'm driving you to the eye doctor in Chelsea."
"OK. We are lucky, though, aren't we?" Jesse asked.
"Sixteen times blest."
"And I did have muscles, once."
"Prove it!"
"There are photos," Jesse threatened. "I'll find them. You'll see."
While Jesse brushed his teeth, Ray arranged his attaché and wallet on the breakfast table next to the suit jacket and scarf where Jesse could easily locate everything. There were no indications yet of memory loss or dementia and Ray wanted to forestall them as long as possible.
He pulled on a windbreaker and bounced downstairs to the bedroom and office. When they'd first visited from central Illinois, Ray's parents had unceasingly marveled over the perversity of having the master bedroom downstairs while the guest room was upstairs next to the living quarters. This, despite Ray's nonstop elucidation: The two story apartment had been a pediatrician's, featuring street-level waiting room, office, and examination rooms he and Jesse had converted to lodge KlavierStuecke Records (an office and storage area) and their good-size bed and dressing rooms.
Immediately outside the office door was an abbreviated concrete driveway, sole direct access from their duplex to the setback garage.
ying in wait for Ray so close to the office street door Ray all but stumbled over the body was Otto, their caramel colored Persian cat. Three months earlier, following the detection of a feline infection, Jesse's doctors had declared the cat verboten. Otto carried too many germs and bacteria all too instantly conveyed to Jesse, who lacked means to fend them off. Ray had been forced to board the cat with Ann and Jim Dimitri, their neighbors on the other side of the driveway. The narcissistic Persian instinctively knew where to position himself to be attainable to the greatest number of admirers, and the prime site in the Dimitris turned out to be a bay window facing Ray and Jesse's breakfast nook. In this way, Otto and Jesse might at least glimpse each other on a daily basis.
Despite this consolation, Otto persisted in feeling his banishment to be uncalled for. Today, yet again, the cat stubbornly attempted to slide in through the ajar office doorway. Ray held him back by his darker colored, pushed-in face, then lifted the sweet, soft body and firmly ejected the cat, who turned back to glare as he sauntered away. Otto, Ray knew, would engineer his way inside one way or another by the end of the day. Ray would find the cat stretched upon a pile of manila envelopes or bivouacked across floorboards at the most trafficked point in the office. Not a huge concern, so long as he kept Otto out of the bedroom, made sure the corridor door was shut so Otto couldn't wander, and washed his hands compulsively.
Ray started up the car and drove around to the front. Jesse was perched halfway up the flight of stone steps. The car, a Buick Regal, was a gift from Ray's parents. It had belonged to Ray's mother, and was in pristine condition, silver-blue outside, navy leather inside, only five years old. When they'd visited and noticed the unused garage, Harve and Mona Henriques had offered the car to Jesse and Ray. After all, Mona was retired and they had the Chrysler van; that was enough for them now. Ray protested until Jesse calculated that if they kept the car registered and insured from Ray's parents' home, the upkeep would cost less than their three-times-a-year car rentals. The Buick, big, and plush the way a mother's car ought to be, was quite unlike the tiny, spartan Tercel Ray had driven throughout college; He'd become accustomed to its cushy, imprecise steering and vague braking, and clement weekends he and Jesse sometimes drove to Westchester or the North Shore. Naturally, they could use it to drive to the Fire Island Ferry too. But they went there so seldom now.
Jesse stared up at something-a bird?-in the upper branches of one of the gingko trees that ornamented the street. From this angle, and in this illumination, his golden eyes appeared virtually transparent: a special effect that had never ceased to thrill Ray. With his attaché leaned against his side and his mahogany cowlick sticking up, with his suit jacket one size too large for him, Jesse looked like a cute boy on his way to school; someone 11, 12 at most. Seeing his partner so childlike, so defenseless, so distracted, Ray began to grasp the colossal loss headed his way. He had to look away, down at paper trash whirling slowly in the middle of the street before he could gain control of his voice to call Jesse to the car.
"Buckle up, Sunshine!" he commanded brightly to hide the heartache snaking its way through him. "Don't want to lose you out the door on a turn."
Adams Avenue was its usual over-trafficked weekday morning mess. But while the Brooklyn Bridge was congested, at least it was in motion. Once across the river and driving on the East Side, Ray knew shortcuts uptown. They'd arrived at Canal and Hudson Streets withoput stopping for a single red-light.
"I should go in with you." Ray thought aloud.
"What for?"
"To hear what the opthamologist says. Says exactly. You never tell me anything specific."
Jesse didn't deny it.
Five minutes later, as they neared the corner of Seventh and Twentieth, Ray decided, "I'll park and come in. I can drive you to the office."
"You'll never find parking here," Jesse was realistic. "And there are scads of cabs going downtown. Go home, Ray! Go to work. Earn money. Lots of money. Buy me diamonds. I'm 40. Holly Golightly says I can wear diamonds." Jesse leaned over and bussed Ray's cheek. "Lousy job shaving," he commented without a hint of malice. Then he was out of the car, jauntily swinging his attaché as he neared the huge gray stone building housing the doctor's office. He stopped for a glance backward, saw Ray illegally double parked, grinned, gave a jerking thumb gesture signifying "Get outta here!" and slipped indoors.
Ray clutched the steering wheel tightly. What if Jesse never walked out that door again? Someday that would happen. Then what? What are you going to do then, Ray? In his peripheral vision a car glided by, its driver giving him the finger and shouting "Whattaya own the whole damn street?"

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Onyx 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the characters of Jesse, Ray, and Mike some of the most textured I've read in a long time. This novel was a satisfying blend of all kinds of love--emotional, physical, spiritual--among a variety of people who make up a family. The scene between Jesse and the barracuda was as good a metaphor for AIDS as I've ever seen... wonderment, fear, facing it, making peace with it, rising above/moving away from it, and the lonely truth that no one outside the experience can ever understand it. There is perhaps too much heartbreak in the novel, particularly at the end, but it is balanced by a cast of flawed but kind and loving characters. Even minor moments, such as one with a cab driver, contribute to the bittersweet theme running through the novel.