By Valerie Lute
A layer of fog had settled over Rouen the morning Oscar Wilde went to the river to wait for Bosie. Rouen was called a peaceful city for its idyllic green waters and towering linden trees, but the narrowness of the cobblestone streets and the greyness of the sooted townhomes held a threat for Oscar. That threat, the threat of memory, now lurked in every passing policeman that made him draw his breath, and in every turreted wall that cast a shadow on his walk.
And despite the romance of Bosie’s arrival by ferry, Oscar couldn’t help but relive his past wounds at his lover’s hand. Of course, Oscar reminded himself, a young man could mature a great deal in two years. Would Bosie even bear the same coquettish glance? Did his eyelids still droop when he smiled? Ah, but more importantly, was he ready to apologize?
The river came within Oscar’s sight. The clouds had begun to part in the south, and a streak of blue sky, bent like a crooked scar, enjoined the water. Upstream, the red stacks of a riverboat released a silver jet of steam. Oscar’s timing couldn’t be better. The boat was still too far off to discern the crowds that gathered regularly on the decks of such vessels, but nevertheless Oscar imagined Bosie peering up at the town in the same moment.
He walked quicker now, though his bones had dried like old wood during his stint in prison. When he reached the docks, the boat still sailed a few furlongs off. Old waterfront men in shirtsleeves and oil-stained trousers uncoiled a length of rope while they waited for the boat to arrive. One man with a greasy black mustache tipped his hat to Oscar, but the rest carried on with their work undistracted. There were only few families waiting to greet travelers along the shore; most of the boat, it seemed, was heading on to Paris, that old capital of love itself.
Oscar leaned against a post, closed his eyes and waited for the sun to shine upon his face.
Sometime later, the noise of the first passengers disembarking interrupted Oscar’s meditation. He saw a young working-class man running first down the plankway, the holes in his thread-worn jacket opening and closing like mouths as he moved. He ran and ran, straight into the arms of his wife who wore a sallow frock that didn’t do justice to her pink joyful face. He twirled her around, laughing, kissing her cheeks, mouth, ears. Two children scampered at his feet. He mused their hair, laughing again. Oscar had to look away.
At last, Bosie arrived. He had his hat pushed down over his face, so Oscar hadn’t recognized him at first. Luckily his taste in fashion had not changed. He wore an eloquently slim payne’s grey suit with a black cravat set intentionally crooked. His hat was banded in pastel pink, and his buttonhole held a peony of a matching shade. He lugged an oversize trunk in gleaming new leather, so heavy it seemed to command all his attention until Oscar rushed to his side to offer what little strength he had.
“There you are,” Bosie said by way of greeting, letting go when Oscar’s hand touched the trunk. He, of course, couldn’t handle it either and so set the trunk down beside them.
“Reunited at last,” Oscar said, trying to smile the way he might in the old days—without the weight of so many cares.
Bosie pushed the hat off his face and studied Oscar for a moment. Bosie’s mood was impenetrable. Though his face had the same pained, deep-souled expression it always did, Oscar knew more than anyone else that that look was often deceiving.
Oscar wanted to embrace Bosie as a lover, to take his slender body into his own world-weary arms, but here by the docks that was impossible. Bosie leaned in and kissed Oscar coldly on each cheek, the type of kisses continentals distribute to newly met acquaintances.
“My God, Oscar,” Bosie said. “You look old.”
Oscar touched his hair, which had gone from black to shocking white more quickly than he imagined possible. “No, I just saw a ghost,” he said with jest. “A ghost named Lord Bosie Douglas. Some ghosts walk through walls, but this chap has the power to walk straight out of my past.”
Bosie shook his head. “Make your jokes, Methuselah. I won’t be the one with sagging cheeks.” He stepped towards the town, adding, “Get that will you. I’ve dragged that thing across the channel,” referring to his trunk.
“Please,” Oscar said. “Can we take it together?”
He sighed and turned back. They each grabbed one end, Bosie with his spotless pink gloves that matched his hat band.
Oscar knew Bosie’s moods. He knew he probably hadn’t meant his rudeness at the docks. He was exhausted from travel, probably hungry and dehydrated. Once he took a nap, refreshed himself with tea, maybe got a little meat in him, he would brighten up. But phantoms of doubt already roamed in Oscar’s mind.
In Oscar’s rented room, Bosie fell fast asleep in the armchair, still in his traveling suit. Oscar kneeled down and loosened the knot on Bosie’s cravat, and even the jostling of his clothes didn’t cause Bosie to stir. Oscar took the time to go out to the shops and pick up a baguette, two ounces of Camembert, and a bottle of sparkling wine. His muscles felt the walk to the docks more than he expected; his weakness overwhelmed him. He was glad to return to the room, put a kettle over the fire, and settle at his desk with a book.
After a few pages, Bosie began to wake. First fluttering his heavy eyelids, then stretching his arms high above his head. “Oscar,” he said and yawned. “Do you feel positively anonymous in this town?”
“Oh, I do get recognized from time to time,” Oscar replied.
“But it’s not like…” Bosie trailed off.
“Not like in prison?”
“I don’t know what I was going to say. Maybe.”
“No, mon chér, in prison everyone knew who I was. Before long, anyway. You wouldn’t believe how gossip spreads. It’s worse than any girls’ school I’ve known.”
“We’ll go further away. Further, where nobody knows our names. Italy, maybe, or Africa.” Bosie rose to his feet and took off his jacket. “What an ass am I getting all wrinkled.” He shook the linen out and groaned.
“I wish I could forget my own name,” Oscar muttered, not expecting Bosie to hear or to care.
“Don’t say that.” From behind, Bosie draped his arms over Oscar’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head. “You are the greatest artist of the century. Forget instead those bastards that made you regret who you are. Jealous bastards.”
Oscar wrapped his hand over Bosie’s. “There is nothing wrong with regrets. They come with time.”
“But what they did to you…” Bosie held Oscar tighter.
Oscar didn’t want to say, what you did to me. Bosie’s role in the whole affair. But Bosie was so young, so foolish. Oscar could have stood his ground when Bosie begged him to sue his father. One thoughtless move had brought the eye of the law too close to a love society did not understand.
Bosie’s lips found Oscar’s cheek. His kisses were wetter and with more caress than at the docks. Oscar turned to meet him, mouth to mouth.
For two years Oscar had been deprived of all loving touch. Sodomy had plagued the jail: short, brutal acts behind the workhouse, thugs shoving their unwilling partner’s face against the bricks to muffle his cries—the true meaning sodomy, which Oscar had never comprehended before.
What a difference, he thought. What a difference love can make. And he ran his scarred fingers over the silk of Bosie’s shirt.
Valerie Lute is a writer whose short stories and poetry have appeared in Everyday Fiction, The Good Men Project, Prime Number Magazine, and the Rusty Nail, among others. She lives in Massachusetts where she reads like a fiend, listens to vintage punk rock, and occasionally goes outside.