China Boat

Chapter 17

Sunday, April 18th, 1937
2:00 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
at sea

I'd been long enough on the boat, now — the ship, that is, the President Hoover — to have gained some impressions, about the Pacific.

For the most part, I thought, the name was suitable. I'd seen the ocean in cold, dense fog; in long, deep, oddly-calm swells; and in sunlit, dazzling, tropic warmth and humidity. And for the most part, the sea had been gentle, without — as of yet — any of the sudden, sharp blows, I'd experienced crossing the Atlantic.

Just now, the wind had picked up considerably, blowing hard, directly on our left — our port — side; our funnel-smoke was whisking off, fast, straight off to starboard. The cumulus clouds had mostly joined up, overhead, shadowing the greenish water underneath. Whitecaps covered that green ocean water, so that the impression, as one looked to the horizon, was mostly of whiteness … but still, there were no great waves, no big swells; the ship pushed on, with just the slightest corkscrewing motion.

The temperature had dropped; and I was back to wearing a coat.

So was Tom.

We were standing together, on the starboard side of the Promenade Deck, where it was open. By a trick of the wind, and the bulk of the ship at our backs, it was almost calm, where we were; it seemed as though just a gentle breeze was blowing away from us, right out to starboard.

I'd intercepted Tom at church service, and whispered the time and place to him. It was sheer luck, that we'd found it so calm.

I did not feel calm, in my mind.

I clearly was not the only one.

"It's all right," I began, quietly; after a look at him. I reached over, and squeezed his far shoulder.

I'd planned out, in advance, what to say to him. I'd thought to start off with something like, 'I'm about to put my life in your hands … ' Which was true enough, if melodramatic-sounding.

I could not. Tom looked pale; he was obviously terrified, miserable, ready to bolt — even more so, than the first time we met. He would not look at me.

"It's all right," I repeated; my hand still on his shoulder. I kept my voice low. "I wanted to tell you … I enjoyed everything we did, yesterday, very much … There was nothing wrong with anything we did." I swallowed. "I've done things like that, and more, with other boys at school … "

A long silence; the rushing of the water against the ship's side, as we pushed along; the distant feel of the engines, through the soles of my feet.

"You have — ?" from Tom, in a soft voice; at last.


Another, painful pause.

We weren't talking about the sex we'd shared; the mutual masturbation.

"You know," I went on, slowly — "at my school, there are some boys who do not play around with other boys, the way you and I have done … but a great many of us, do."

I said it, softly. Tom leaned on the rail at my side, looking straight out to sea.

I went on.

"But even among those of us who do play with one another … not many of us, kiss."

Another pause; I could feel Tom stiffen, beside me.

"Those of us who do, — kiss, I mean — well. We generally do it, off in private; or under the covers, when we visit each other's beds, at night."

The rush of the water. The motion of the ship. The feel of the teak railing, under my arms, my hands.

I drew a breath.

"Jack and I kiss each other, a great deal … whenever we can. Both at school, and when we visit each other, on vacations … and we are very careful, not to let anyone see us doing it … "

Silence, from Tom; he might as well have been a statue, next to me. But I thought I sensed him beginning to understand … 

Poor Tom.

I reached inside my jacket, and pulled out my wallet. I opened it, and flipped through the celluloid photo-pockets, until I found the one I wanted. I pulled out the photograph, and looked at it, for a long moment; and then I passed it over to Tom.

"This is Jack … Well, it's the both of us; it was taken last summer."

It is my favorite photograph, of us. The two of us, together; grinning, coatless, hatless, arms tight around each other's shoulders; our collars open, without ties, our shirtsleeves rolled up. Elliott had taken it, at Jack's place on the Hudson; I'd had several copies made.

It was Jack at his most beautiful. Shining with happiness and beauty, under the sun.

Tom handed the photograph back to me, without meeting my eyes; without saying anything.

Another, long pause.

I took another deep breath.

Forgive me, Jack, if this goes wrong; I thought.

I took an envelope from another division of my wallet; and I took a smaller envelope out of that one. Then I took the pages of the letter, out from the small envelope.

"This is the first letter Jack wrote to me, on this trip," I said; softly. I handed the pages over to him. Another pause; then — "Would you read it — ?"

He looked up at me, quickly, for the first time; with scared brown eyes. Then he took the letter, and began to read.


I remembered the way the letter began.


I remembered the naked, honest love of it; the honest love that informed the whole letter, with so much that was so private, meant only for Jack and myself … I never would have believed, that I would show it to another living soul … 


I put the empty envelopes back into my wallet; and I returned my wallet to my inside coat-pocket.

Now it was my turn, not to look at Tom.


Tom read the letter slowly; the breeze rustling the pages, slightly. When he reached the end, he went back to the beginning, with more paper-rustling, and he started over … 

Far beyond Tom, off towards the bow, two women in coats, fur stoles, and cloche hats came to on deck, their heels clicking on the teak, their voices indistinct. They found their deck-chairs and settled in; a deck-steward appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic, to take their orders.

The sound of rushing water; the motion of the ship, beneath us.

Tom stood dead still at the railing, for a long moment; then he passed Jack's letter back to me.

"He loves you," he said, flatly. Then; "He loves you, a lot."

A long, dangerous, heart-pounding pause.

"As I do, him," I said, softly. "We love each other, very much."

Another pause; filled with water-sounds, and faint voices, and wind, and silence.

And then, very carefully, very gently, — reverently, really — I tore Jack's letter in half. And then, I tore the pieces in half, again; and then, again.

"What are you doing — ?" from Tom, shocked; his brown eyes went wide, as he watched my hands.

I continued tearing.

"I should have done this long ago," I said. "The first rule for people like us is, to never, ever, leave anything incriminating on paper. Not for a day; not for an hour." I continued tearing away for a moment; then I released the paper fragments to the breeze, watching them blow out and scatter away from the ship, shimmering in a ray of sunlight, then slip behind us, as we passed … A prayer offering to the Pacific, I thought, maybe; or a love offering. It wrenched my heart.

Nothing from Tom; he stood still, looking out to sea, to where the letter-fragments had disappeared; not looking at me. Not meeting my eyes.

English is a wonderfully imprecise language.

'People like us,' I'd said; which could refer to Jack and myself … or could include Tom, too.

Another pause. Off towards the bow, the deck-steward came out on deck with a tray. More indistinct voices; the faint clinking of china, of teacups.

"Are you both homosexuals, then — ?" from Tom; in a strained voice.

I winced. And I thought for a moment, before answering.

"Yes," I said; flatly. "Although I don't believe in the word, or the concept … even though I use it, myself, sometimes. But, yes."

Another, awful stretch of silence; I could feel my heart, pounding, in my chest.

On Tom's other side, toward the bow, one of the women in the deck chairs said something; and they both broke into peals of laughter, faint in the distance.

"I'm one too," from Tom. His voice was colorless; bleak. "And maybe I'm sick, and maybe I'm a pervert, and probably I'm going to Hell; but I don't care. It's who I am."

I looked sideways at him; his face was grim, set, and on the verge of tears, all at once — 

It felt like being stabbed in the heart.

I reached around, to squeeze his far shoulder. Again.

"You're not sick," I said, softly. "And you're not a pervert. In spite of what the Encyclopedia Britannica says."

Volume Eleven of the Encyclopedia Britannica — GUNN to HYDR — well. In the end, it had not really been all that difficult to guess, what article Tom had been looking at, yesterday in the Library. Not after he'd kissed me.

A brief, sideways look, from Tom; the first time he'd really met my eyes, since yesterday in the locker room. Then, his eyes went back out to sea.

"I've looked it up, before," he said, with a little twist to his mouth. "Here, and back home. All the articles say the same things … I guess I keep hoping, I'll find one that says something … not so bad."

His mouth twisted a little more. Now he really was on the verge of crying.

I squeezed his shoulder, again. Harder.

"But they exist," I said, gently. Another pause. "I have seen such things … works, and writers, who celebrate the love of men, for men; of boys, for boys." I said it very softly; the water rushing by, below us. Then I paused, for a moment. "I've read them, in the ancient Greek. And in classical Latin. By some of the most famous, and noblest, people who ever lived, in Antiquity. And I've seen such things, in French; and in English … They exist."

A sideways-look, from Tom; still one of despair, and near-tears … but perhaps, also, just a flicker of hope?

"We have a great deal of time left, to talk," I said, gently. "But if I've learned one thing, if Jack and I have learned one thing … it would be, to question. To question things like, encyclopedia articles; to question people who say we're sick, like Doctor Freud, and those in his profession. Which hasn't been around much longer than you and I have been alive … "

I'd been watching him, carefully, as I looked sideways; and now I saw his face shut down again, bleak and resolute, at the mention of Jack's name.


Poor Tom.


It was just a crush, I was sure of it … After all, I was his first kiss. His first — 

Well. I was his first. And it would have been remarkable, if he hadn't developed a crush on me.

And it left me feeling — extremely responsible. Anxious for him … with feelings of tenderness, towards him.

No more words, for a long moment. The rushing sound of the water; a single click of a teacup, from the two women towards the bow. Off to our starboard, another shaft of sunlight disappeared, as two enormous clouds joined up, in the sky above.

"I'm sorry I kissed you," from Tom; almost under his breath, towards, the ocean, not at me. "I'm sorry … I didn't know."

Another squeeze, of his shoulder.

"Don't be," I said; leaning a little further over the rail. Then, with a wry little quirk of my mouth — "You are very good at it."

I felt him look at me, sideways; and I had to laugh, a little, gently.

"You are! Some boys, some of our friends — well. It's all tongue, or wide-open mouths, or it's too rough … You kiss very softly, and very well." I slid my eyes sideways, to meet his. "I mean it."

Tom looked down, blushing deeply.

And what ensued next, was a very pregnant pause. A fraught pause.

I hesitated … but in the end, I knew what Jack would do, if he were here with me. I knew what Jack would do, without hesitating, if our roles were reversed, and he was here in my place.

Having started things with Tom … having started teaching him things, about his own body, his own feelings … I could not simply abandon him. It would be too cruel.

I took a breath.

"You know, Tom," I started; very softly; my head leaning closer to his. Feeling a little giddy; a little unreal — "Jack is my one, true love; and I am his … but we do … play, with other friends, at times … "

It was not as if we had a choice; if we tried to be exclusive, we'd be discovered and separated. But I did not say it.

Silence, from Tom; but I had his attention. More indistinct conversation, from the two women towards the bow.

And more hesitation from me. This was proving surprisingly difficult, to say out loud.

"Jack and I have one friend, in particular … his name is Charles; and he is also fourteen; your age … "

Another secret, told; another potential betrayal, unlikely as it seemed.

Or, so I hoped, anyway.

"He is like a younger brother to us, both … we care for him, very deeply. And more often than not, when we do … play … with other boys, it is with him." I swallowed, and looked up at the clouds; I thought they were growing darker, on their under-sides.

I went on.

"When I left, I specifically asked Charles to look after Jack. I made him promise."

I glanced sideways at Tom, quickly. His face was down; he was blushing, deeply, again.

Another pause.

"You and I can be like that, for the remainder of the trip … if you like. But whether or not — I hope we can still be friends … "

I ended up, speaking very softly, indeed.

A long silence. A very long silence. The rush of the water. Off towards the bow, the fur-stole-clad women got up from their deck-chairs, and clicked their way across the teak deck, talking merrily, and disappeared indoors.

"Okay," from Tom, at last; in a near-whisper.

I wondered, for a blank second, what 'Okay' meant.

Another pause; as I breathed, and my heart beat.

Then — "He won't mind — ? Your … friend, I mean — ?"


"Jack," I said. "Jack … and, we'll find out. I'm going to cable him, today. I will ask him."

A wide-eyed look of horror, on Tom's face; it made me reach over, and squeeze his shoulder, yet again.

"Not in so many words," I said; with a wry, crooked smile.

* * *

I had composed the words, in my mind, before I'd even talked to Tom.

Well, actually, I'd composed several versions of my wire. I was very glad I'd be using the one which went with the best possible outcome of my talk with Tom, rather than the worst … but it still hurt me, to send it.

"Hi, can I help you — ?"

The wireless officer was tall, with a pleasant, smiling face, under a thick brush of dark brown hair. He did not look much older than me.

"Yes, please … I'd like to send a cable."

"Well, it'll be a radiogram, from here; we're pretty far from the nearest cable. But, sure. Do you need a pad — ?"

"Yes, please … "

He slid the pad toward me, across the counter; and I looked around at the radio room, for a moment, as I screwed up the courage to write what I had to.

It was a surprisingly small space, and filled with matte-grey-textured steel cabinets of electronics, in steel racks, almost floor-to-ceiling, all covered with knobs and dials; two electric fans in wire cages whirred loudly in the upper corners. At the stern-most wall, another young man sat, wearing headphones, typing away at an ordinary typewriter.

I took the pad — it looked very much like the Western Union one I'd used, in San Francisco — and I wrote in Jack's address; and then I wrote in the message body.






I tried to think of how else to put my whole heart and soul into a brief telegram, to be transmitted and transcribed and delivered by the hands of so many strangers … and failed.

I hoped it was good enough. Part of me felt wretched.

I wrote down my name and cabin number, in the space provided, and I blotted the whole thing, and pushed the pad back towards the radioman.

"Let me just count up the words for you — "

"Just a minute," I said; I took the pad back and changed the last line — 



— and then I gave him back the pad.

'Powers' came from Jack's sign-off, in his next-to-last letter; he'd recognize it, as meaning, "I love you, very, very, very much', going out to an infinite regression.

'Briseis' was a somewhat crude joke, or code, between the two of us. In the Iliad, she was the slave girl awarded to Achilles, and presumably shared with his lover Patroclus; it was how we sometimes — privately — referred to Charles. A little wryly; and out of his hearing.

Jack would understand the message, immediately.

I so wished he were here; and that I did not have to send it.

"Here you go, Mr. — Williamson? In A-10?"


The pleasant-faced young man smiled. "Should we put this on your account, then — ?"

"Actually, no, please … this is a personal wire; I need to pay for it, separately. My father's work pays for his wires."

I did not know if that was true; all I knew was, I did not wish Father to know I was cabling Jack, if I could possibly avoid it.

The young man smiled, but he looked a little puzzled.

"Of course, sir … but you already have a personal account."

"Uhhh — we do — ?"

"Yes, sir. The messages in five-letter code groups go to an address in Geneva, and are billed to your personal account — or your father's personal account, anyway. The ones in seven-letter code groups are sent to a bank in New York, and are paid for directly by them." His smile turned a little wry. "Your father's been keeping us pretty busy, with both."

I gaped at him, for a second; and then I made myself close my mouth, and I blinked.

And then, because I had no other recourse — I told him the truth; which is always a dangerous thing to do.

"Umm … well, you see, this is my own personal business, not related to my father's; so I still need to pay for it, myself." I hesitated, just for a moment. "In fact … I'd prefer, if possible, that my father not know about this wire, or about any replies that I might get … " I hesitated, again. "If possible — ?"

Whatever expression I had on my face, was genuine, heartfelt, and not assumed.

The pleasant-looking young man actually blushed, just a little; but then he smiled.

"Sure; we can do that. How do you want to get your reply? Do you want to come pick it up?"

"If I could, yes, please … " I paused, for a moment. "I'll probably be sending a few more cables, to the same address; and, getting a few more replies — ?" I said it in a lower voice; and I sounded a little plaintive, even to myself.

"That won't be a problem, sir," from the young man. I watched as he wrote, 'Hold for pickup', in pencil, on my telegram-form. "We'll set up an account in your name; just see the Assistant Purser, to arrange for the billing, when you get a chance." He smiled at me, again, and I felt a flood of relief, and gratitude.

"Thank you, very much!"

Another smile from him, then he glanced behind him, for a moment. "It's Sunday afternoon, things are pretty quiet … would you like to see this transmitted? It will only take a minute, and you could leave with the receipt."

"Could I — ?"

"Sure." He went to the side of the counter, and lifted up a hinged section. "Come on in." I followed him into the small space. "Have a seat," he said, pointing me to the only spare chair. His partner glanced at me, quickly; then, he pulled the pages out of his typewriter, and cranked in two new sheets, separated by a page of carbon paper, and resumed his typing.

The pleasant-faced radioman settled himself into his padded chair, and put on a pair of big, over-the-ears headphones; and I watched as he carefully adjusted a large, black, knuckled nob on the front of his set, watching a dial, until he nodded in satisfaction. Then, settling my message on a stand in front of him, he made a few quick taps on his telegraph key — interestingly, it went side-to-side, rather than up and down — and, I could see him listening, waiting for an acknowledgment of some kind … 

I was filled with a jumble of contradictory thoughts, and feelings.

On the one hand — I was watching my message being sent off to Jack, knowing it would reach him in — hours. Less than a day; it would probably be in his letter-box by lunchtime, his time, tomorrow, my night-time, tonight … It made him feel so close, so accessible … 

On the other hand — there was the nature of the message.

Oh, I knew Jack; I knew what his reaction would be, what mine would have been, if our roles were reversed; unstinting and generous approval, coupled with a fierce love.

But I could not help feeling the short, sharp pang, at the news I'd just delivered. That I'd revealed our relationship, to another person; a tremendous, titanic thing, a thing we'd never yet done to anyone else, not even Charles, or Elliott … That I'd clearly had a physical encounter, was to have ongoing physical encounters, with this same person … when, in truth, the only person in the world with whom I truly wished to be, was him … 

The radioman was working his key faster, now; but by his expression, he was still making the right connection, he wasn't looking at my message, yet — 

And on still another level — my mind was grappling with what the young radioman had told me about Father's messages.

Five- and Seven-letter code groups? And, multiple messages, of each type — ?

I had helped encode exactly one, five-letter-code message, for Father.

And, if it was sent to Geneva, rather than to Father's bank in New York — for whom was the message intended — ? And, what did it say — ?

The young radioman spent another minute, working his key; then, he listened a moment, and pencilled in a notation on my message form; than, he pulled another pad towards him, and wrote on it. He pulled a sheet off of the pad, then a piece of flimsy carbon paper, then the underlying carbon copy, which he impaled on a spike; then he turned to me, with a smile. I was struck, again, at how young he was; he seemed more like an older classmate, or one of Elliott's college friends, than a ship's uniformed officer.

"Here you are, sir," he said. "Your message is received, and on its way." He handed me the receipt.

For a whole set of complicated reasons, I felt like shivering, as I took it.

"Thank you," I said. "Very, very much." And I meant it, intensely.

Comments are always welcome, at dlgrantsf (at) yahoo (dot) com.

And, please consider donating to Awesomedude, by clicking on the yellow button on the main page? Even the smallest contributions are very welcome, and will help keep this priceless resource online.