The Art of Understanding

by Chris James

The general rabble of teenagers who hung around at the pizza parlor and the convenience store up at the corner of our little neighborhood was a sad commentary about our future. Their dress, their activities, and the lackluster mindset worried me…were they all on drugs?

One look at that bunch and I was beginning to believe that choosing a place in the suburbs was probably a mistake. I could have taken a loft apartment in the city or moved somewhere closer to work off the Interstate. But did it matter? It wasn’t like I was interested in any high school aged kids.

I had lived in the small townhouse complex for almost three years before coming in close contact with any of the neighborhood kids. That was when I met the carrier who delivered my morning newspaper. Until then there had always been these impersonal little envelopes by which we transacted business. They appeared in my paper and I wrote a check to the Press & Sun Bulletin before sliding the envelope in the mail.

E. Martin was the name on the envelope, the address was just up the way, but the carrier was a phantom to me. The paper was always on the doorstep by dawn. Never in the bushes or out on the lawn, just perfectly placed on the concrete stoop, and for that I always gave a small Christmas bonus. The carrier deserved it since in December there was often two feet of snow on the ground.

My housemate…I should say my former housemate…Roger, the one nicknamed Roger Rabbit for reasons I won’t go into here, never paid his share of the bills. He had money and a good job, but that was just one of the issues between us and so he was gone. My place, my rules, and I had no problems living alone, although alone was a relative term since I had visitors drive over from the city every weekend.

With the work week flashing by, I always enjoyed my quiet evenings at home. A movie, a book, or an evening in the kitchen trying out a new recipe was my idea of entertainment. Then one Thursday evening the doorbell rang around seven. Odd, I wasn’t expecting anyone.

The door opened on a smiling face, a handsome face, and one quite unfamiliar to me.

“Mr. Betts…I’m Ernie,” the young man said.


“I deliver your newspaper, and since I ran out of envelopes I have to go around and collect this evening.”

“Ahh…well my name’s Art, won’t you come in?”

I could smell him the minute he stepped past me into the hallway. Obsession, an expensive men’s cologne. I had a nose for such things, but my mind was puzzled. What news carrier wears cologne while he’s out collecting?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ernie was wearing a white Polo style shirt and tennis shorts. His choice of dress made me curious, but it certainly did improve the view of his lean muscular body.

“Looks like you just came off the tennis courts,” I said, looking down at the shorts.

“I did, about an hour ago. I’m on the varsity team at the high school. Unfortunately I’m the only senior so the team isn’t doing very well this season.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But you stuck with it so you must play very well.”

Even in the dim light of the hallway I could see him blush and that only made him…what was the word I needed…adorable. Yes, that fit. Razor cut brown hair, green eyes…there was nothing un-adorable about Ernie.

He held a booklet of coupons for the collection and I thought I better get back to business if he had to make the rounds.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.

“Twenty-two dollars for the month,” Ernie said.

“I’ll write you a check,”

He followed me into the kitchen as I walked to the desk in the corner of the breakfast nook for my checkbook. Ernie took a look at the stove.

“Oh, you’re cooking. I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner.”

“This isn’t dinner, just experimenting with a new recipe. That’s supposed to be a true Sicilian pasta sauce from the old country, but I think someone tampered with the list of ingredients.”

“I can smell the anise,” Ernie said.

“You know, I knew there was something different about you…you have brains and a good nose.”

“My older sister married a Sicilian and he cooks a sauce like this.”

 I gestured to a seat at the kitchen table and sat down to write Ernie a check.

“Does your …friend do any cooking?” Ernie asked.


“The blond guy, the one with the black Mazda.”

“Roger…he doesn’t live here anymore. Do you know him?”

“We talked a few times…he seemed very friendly.”

And that’s one of the reasons he’s out of here, I thought. I had made a pact with Roger, no fooling around with the boys in the neighborhood. Most of them were underage and would bring us nothing but trouble. It seems Roger had his eyes on Ernie but never got the chance to…

“There you go,” I said, handing Ernie the check. In turn he handed me the monthly coupon torn from the book.

“Do you like art…Art?” Ernie asked with a smile. “I mean paintings.”

“Sometimes, it depends on the subject and how the artist presents the work. Do you paint?”

Ernie laughed. “Me? Oh no, I’m no artist, but our neighbor is very good. You should come see her work and tell me what you think.”

“I don’t know this person. Not like I can walk up and ring her doorbell,” I said.

“I can take you to see them. She and her husband are gone for two weeks and I have the duty of feeding her cat every evening. Do you have time tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, do you think they would mind having a stranger in the house while they’re gone?”

“Not if I’m there,” Ernie said.

He left to resume his collections after we agreed to meet the following evening. Seven o’clock at the Roth house on Sanitaria Court. I went back to stirring my sauce and thought about Ernie. High school seniors were all eighteen, weren’t they? His laugh was so delightful. Something about him was so straightforward…so mature.

It seems he wanted to become better acquainted and perhaps that would make me his first adult friend. I remembered my own high school days when it seemed important to cultivate adult friends and try out my skills as one of them. But I was now thirty-two and that seemed like a long time ago.

I didn’t know any other eighteen year olds, but I did have a few twenty something guys who came to visit. I wondered if Ernie realized I was gay or that Roger was hitting on him.  Probably not, Ernie had that look of innocence about him.

He was a handsome boy, and although tennis was not exactly jock territory in high school, I imagine Ernie had a few girls more than interested. The emotional tug of war at that age I remembered quite well. But then I knew I was gay before my freshman year.

Dating was difficult back when I had a secret to keep. There were a few girls who became close friends and would go out with me. Although they never asked I was sure they knew and it didn’t matter. I was a safe date with no backseat intentions, and we had fun.

I did have a few short term boyfriends, but none of them from my school. I met them at the YMCA during the summer, a place I considered safe enough to hide my feelings from schoolmates.

Okay, I was going to look at paintings with Ernie tomorrow night. I replayed our conversation in my head and realized he’d never mentioned his own interest in art. Perhaps that was his big secret, something he couldn’t share with his classmates. Admiring paintings would be considered a gay activity by most teenage boys…especially that crew hanging out up at the stores.

I was headed over to Neil’s on Saturday night for a party and perhaps he would understand Ernie’s motivation. Neil was one of my oldest friends and we had met when I was in college. I was the student and he the professor, but then he waited until I graduated to admit the feelings he had for me.

I was flattered and we had a brief fling before settling down as good friends. I understood that becoming a mentor was more important to him than being a lover so we became family. I don’t think I could have expected that from anyone else, but then Neil had his PhD in psychology.

We had a lot of fun with Neil’s knowledge of human nature and his extraordinary sense of perception when it came to spotting gay men in a crowd.

“That young man is conflicted,” Neil would say, and I would glance at the athletic looking guy standing in front of the display window of a clothing shop. Shopping malls were a gold mine of human understanding, Neil’s words not mine.

“Why do you say that?”

“He would like that pink shirt he keeps coming back to examine, but he’s afraid of the statement it would make. I imagine he has an office job and plays racquetball with his associates in the gym. A pink shirt would leave him open for controversy.”

“How can you tell all that from just a simple observation?”

“No wedding ring and he is carrying a gym bag slung over his shoulder which likely contains a racquet.  Mind you I’m just guessing, but a conversation would reveal a lot more. There’s just something…my gaydar detects something.” 

It was the first time I’d heard that term and Neil had to explain it to me. Picking out gay men in a crowd was easy for him, but I had never mastered the knack. Guys who acted feminine didn’t attract me, so to find the ones I liked meant meeting them in a gay environment.

I had met Roger at the Gay Pride parade up in Rochester which was a no-brainer. It wasn’t gaydar and it wasn’t a good choice, but we all make mistakes and he was certainly one of them. But for now there would be no boyfriend, I needed a break.

I came home from work on Friday and showered away the hospital smell. It didn’t matter that I ran the finance office for the Greater Binghamton Health Center, there was still a smell associated with the place. I ate a light meal, as was my habit on the weekends, and dressed casually. It was warm out so I wore shorts, wondering what Ernie would wear.

Despite the fact that he was much too young to ogle with any meaningful intentions, he had looked good in those tennis shorts. We were much the same height and even that was attractive. There was always a point when I saw a cute young man that made me envy the women who seemed to have the pick of the litter.

Sanitaria Court was only two blocks away and so I walked, wondering if we were going to have rain this evening. Spring was such a fickle time of the year for weather around here. Our options seemed to be too wet or too dry with little respites like this in the middle.

2932 seemed like a perfectly ordinary ranch-style house set in a row with others of its ilk. Ernie had said to walk up the driveway to the kitchen door, and sure enough there he was standing behind the glass of the storm door…and he was wearing the white shorts again.

There was a gray and white tabby cat eating from a dish on the floor. Cats were fine, if they belonged to someone else. Ernie smiled and pushed the door open.

“Right on time,” he said. “Come on in.”

“You live across the street. I noticed your address from the coupon.”

“Yeah, I’ve known the Roth’s since I was a baby. She even did a painting of me when I was little.”

“Is it here…can I see it?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s part of her galley, but I should explain. My parents have the original painting in our family room but Mrs. Roth has all her work on a DVD so I can show it to you. She takes pictures of all her stuff, including the one’s she sells.”

“Oh, so she’s a professional and makes a living from her art?”

“I guess so. Come on, I’ll show you.” 

The basement was set up as the family room, and a gallery for the work of Mrs. Roth. My first opinion was of an elderly woman who had spent a lifetime collecting ceramic cats…they seemed to be everywhere. The room was furnished in Early American, not my favorite style, but it seemed to fit. And then there was the art.

People and animals, cats of course, and a good number of landscapes. There were at least thirty paintings on the walls and each of them had been created with a wealth of detail. Ernie didn’t say a thing as I wandered the room; he just let me soak it all up. Mrs. Roth was a very fine artist, at least to my untrained eye.

“She’s very good,” I said.

“I agree. Do you want to see the DVD?”

“Sure…let’s see what else she painted.”

There was a couch opposite the large television screen and Ernie sat down. It was then I noticed the pitcher of orange juice and the two glasses with ice on the coffee table. It seems Ernie had prepared refreshments. I had to smile since that fit my image of a mature thing to do.

Ernie used the remote control to turn on the television and start the DVD. I sat on the couch and watched the images flow in a slow slideshow of her artwork.

“Would you like something to drink?” Ernie asked.

“Thank you…that would be nice.”

Ernie poured us each a few inches of the juice and handed me a glass. I was watching the screen as I took my first sip and stopped with a mouthful of vodka and juice. Strong…too strong I told myself, but I swallowed.

“You drink screwdrivers?” I asked. “You really should tell someone before you serve them alcohol.”

“I’m sorry…I just thought…”

I put my drink down and turned to look at him. Ernie couldn’t meet my gaze and the glass in his hand shook slightly as his hand trembled. What was going on here?

“Ernie…why did you invite me over here?”

He set the glass down on the table and sat back with a sigh.

“I know about Roger…and so I figured you might be…be gay.”

It took a lot of courage for him to say that and suddenly I knew what was on his mind. This was a seduction. The quiet room, two people alone, drinks…it was like a scene from a movie. Of course he knew about Roger, that jerk probably told him they should sleep together.

And then Ernie looked up at me with tears in his eyes and my heart melted. It was so hard to be young and have gay feelings. Meeting an older man who he knew to be gay must seem like a godsend. I could only imagine how long it had taken for him to work up enough nerve to bring me here.

“Ernie…I guess we need to talk…openly, frankly. I am gay and you are…?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done anything, but I want to.”

He was trembling now, this was all so difficult.

“Come here,” I said, and he just about leapt the length of the couch into my arms.

I wrapped my arms around him and held on tight. His trembling subsided but then I heard him sob. What kind of expectations did he have for this moment? Had he stopped to think of what might happen once he revealed himself to me?

Cupping his head in my hands, I leaned in to kiss him on the forehead. His cheeks were wet and I brushed away the tears with my fingers. Ernie was emotionally vulnerable and I did not like the feeling of power that gave me.

I didn’t want to look down and see the swelling in his shorts I knew would be there. His raw emotions were fairly dripping with testosterone. All his thoughts had been leading up to this moment, and perhaps he was expecting me to tear his clothes off and have my way with him, but I wasn’t even aroused.

“Imagine what it’s like to be thirty years old and have a handsome young man in your arms. But why can’t you meet a nice young high school boy and fall in love?”

“At my school? You must be kidding. If anyone found out…”

“What are you looking for?” I asked. “Are you looking for sex or do you want a relationship?”

“I don’t know…can you have one without the other?”

 “What would you think about a girl who wanted sex on the first date?”

“We have some of those at my school. The guys call them names I won’t repeat.”

“You think it’s any different in a gay situation? I’m not criticizing, but you probably don’t have any sexual experience…do you?”

“I made out with a girl, but I didn’t like it. That made me think I was gay,” Ernie said.

“So you talked to Roger, and what kind of things did he tell you?”

“Um…” And Ernie began to blush again. “I…well, I asked him about you.”

“You find yourself attracted to older guys, especially if they’re big guys?”

“Rugged guys…guys with muscles. There’s a guy on our football team who is really handsome. I bet you played football,” Ernie said.

I did, but so far all he had suggested was that he was attracted to jocks. I would bet there were at least a few gay jocks in his school, but he was afraid of them. Okay, Ernie was a piece of malleable clay at this point.

“I want you to understand that I’m flattered, Ernie. You’ve obviously been thinking about this for some time.”

“Two years…I first saw you when I was sixteen.”

I had to smile. Here I had been the obsession of a boy for two years without a clue he was even there. Ernie had waited until he was eighteen to approach me and that must have taken a lot of patience. His thoughts and emotions had all become focused on this singular moment, and yet I was about to disappoint him.

“As I said, you’re a handsome young man, but there are too many reasons we can’t become lovers,” I said.

Ernie looked devastated, but I took his hand and held it tightly.

“You don’t need an older man as your first love. Maybe you think it would be easier because of all my experience, but then that’s one of the reasons I don’t think this would work. You need to find a guy around your age, someone you can learn to love and perhaps discover what it means to share in the physical sense.”

“There is no one like that,” Ernie said, “Gay boys get beat up at my school.”

“And the school tolerates that?”

“No, but I heard them going after a boy in the locker room after my tennis practice. Jocks can be so mean, and besides, I’m pretty much nobody at school.”

His disappointment was quickly focusing inwards and I didn’t want him to loathe those gay feelings. Self-esteem was an important part of any individual’s survival, Neil had taught me that. But there was so much about the human mind I didn’t understand and so I had avoided the medical side of the business.

Ernie needed his confidence built. I wasn’t thinking of suggesting years of therapy, but perhaps there was a good shortcut.

“Ernie, I know someone nearly your age, and if you want I could introduce you to him.”

“That doesn’t work, several of my girlfriends have tried the same thing and it’s never worked out.”

“You have too many expectations and there are no perfect relationships. You come to me after two years of thinking about this fantasy of yours and didn’t get what you wanted. Don’t be angry with yourself, you’re going to be the winner in this situation.”

“How do you figure that?” Ernie asked.

“I’m a pretty good judge of character, and don’t you think I could do a better job of finding you a gay friend than all those girls you know?”

Ernie gave me a little smile. “Probably.”

“Do you want to know anything about this guy?” I asked.

“Yeah…why do you think he’ll be interested in me?” Ernie asked.

“I know his uncle very well and he says Charlie thinks he’s gay. But like you, he’s a young man with no experience and a lot of desire. Would you like to meet him?”

“I don’t know…what if he doesn’t like me?”

“I like you, Ernie, and I’m sure he’ll be just as curious about you.”

Ernie sighed. “I guess…what have I got to lose?”

“Just everything you want out of life. There’s a lot more to being gay than the sex. Charlie is a year older than you and he’s already at the community college. He’s not a football player, and I don’t know if he’s into tennis, but he plays golf with his uncle.”

“I play golf,” Ernie said.

“See, you already have something in common. So are you willing to meet him?”


“There you go…what are you doing tomorrow night?”

Neil and I stood on the edge of the deck overlooking the broad backyard behind his home. There were about two dozen men and women in and around Neil’s house for the party, but we were looking at the two boys sitting beside the pool below us.

“And how did you meet Ernie?” Neil asked.

“He’s known me for two years, but we just met,” I replied. “He delivers the newspaper.”

“Charlie seems to like him.”

“I like him, but he’s too young for me, and besides, he lives in the neighborhood.”

“Ahh, sticking to the rules. Good for you, Arthur. So this handsome lad lives close by and you never scoped him out before?”

“I didn’t have a clue, Neil. I don’t have gaydar, but it seems Ernie does.”