What Love Means To You People

by NancyKay Shapiro

A powerful debut novel in the tradition of Ann Patchett and Michael Cunningham, about a young man whose denial of his past nearly destroys the new life he seeks.

Once safely out of Nebraska, Seth McKenna does everything he can to erase his oppressive hometown and abusive childhood, leaving his sister Cassie behind to fend for herself. Seth is making a new life for himself as an artist in New York when he falls hard for an alluring older man who is astonished to find in Seth the second love of his life. The couple's relationship is complicated by Cassie's unexpected arrival with significant secrets and plans of her own. Now Seth must confront his past and the consequences of the lies he's told to move forward in his life.

A gorgeous whirlwind of a family drama and an emotional, sexy love story, What Love Means To You People is rich with the atmosphere of New York and a cast of irresistible characters.

"A powerful debut novel- smart, sexy and highly readable. NancyKay Shapiro's characters are subtly observed and movingly human." —REGINA MCBRIDE, author of The Marriage Bed

"Profound and moving. Shapiro dares to reimagine suffering and takes us on a journey to love and back. Seth McKenna will get under your skin. I am touched." —ABHA DAWESAR, author of Babyji

"NancyKay Shapiro's debut is a powerful and knowing look at what can happen to love when the past bubbles up into the present. Elegantly written, this is a moving and surprising novel that doesn't let you go." —KATHARINE WEBER, author of The Little Women, The Music Lesson, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Jim Glaser still did what needed to be done, every day.

Forty-five minutes on the Lifecycle first thing in the morning, followed by another half hour dropping sweat on the Cybex machines. Surrounded by mirrors, but not looking at anyone, least of all himself. Unabridged books on tape helped, but he missed whole passages while his mind wandered and didn't bother to rewind. All he did anymore was read, but so fast that novels blurred into one another and he didn't pause to question the muddle of stories he'd melded together from separate books. Zak got into all of them in the end, spoiling every love scene and topping every tragedy.

Still, he was functioning well these days, arriving at the agency a little before ten, alert from the gym. When your name was one of those on the door, you could do what you liked about punctuality—an attitude he'd disdained a couple of years ago. Still, the important thing was showing up, and show up he did—able to smile, to joke, to conceal his newborn boredom with what they did here. True, he gave not, as in the old days, 110 percent, but on a consistent basis a good seventy-five. He also avoided client contact whenever he could. That kind of sustained effort to be "on" was more than he cared to muster anymore.

His two partners thought he was a brave trooper because he'd unfailingly come in through his darkness, even in the worst days of the first year, when the antidepressant didn't help and he'd sometimes had to ask Robin to hold his calls because he could not speak without falling-into sobs.

So, he still worked, still worked out. Still got lost in the lives of fictional people. Still volunteered, two evenings a week, with the abandoned babies at Bellevue. Went to the occasional cocktail party, industry function, art gallery opening, mingling and chatting, bubble-encased. Still went shopping, browsing through his fog for the book or moisturizer or shirt that would penetrate the veil of indifference for a little while.

But there were so many things he just didn't do anymore. Didn't call his friends—the handful that were left. Didn't make any new ones. Didn't go to plays, concerts, movies. Made no more dinner parties or drives up to Dutchess County on the weekends. Rented no more porn videos. Eyed no more men on the street.

But today, because Samantha's father was dying in Florida, Jim went to a shoot. GARB, a British clothing chain that was marching over the globe, was very high-profile, extra-superspecial high maintenance. They insisted on a partner overseeing everything in person and acted as though they were selling the cure for cancer. Up until now, Jim had steered clear of fashion clients. This was Samantha's baby.

But he owed Samantha, so here he was, stepping into the frenetic activity in the photographer's studio, a loft near the Flatiron Building. Techno boomed from five-foot speakers, clothes were strewn everywhere, the chirping of the models mingling with the dictatorial or coaxing voices of the stylists, photographer, clients. No one sat still. To Jim's eye, the clothes were hideous—skimpy tops and tight skirts shown on disturbingly attenuated fifteen-year-olds. The account exec and her assistant seemed to be on top of everything.

Finally, his resentment of the controlled chaos around him was too much. Jim sat down away from the others and opened his briefcase. He kept a dog-eared paperback of Middlemarch there because it was easy to open it at any page, anytime, and be transported.

"I've read that."

A voice over his shoulder. Jim turned. The photographer's assistant, one of those East Village children, all piercings and tats and—was it? yes—gray eyeliner. He'd read a book.

"Have you," Jim said.

"Yeah, I just finished it the other night. Coincidence." Perching on the back of the sofa where Jim was sitting, he dipped a finger down to touch the book's cover, the way a woman in a rowboat trails her hand in the water.

"And what did you like about it?"

"Is there anything not to like about it?"

Jim raised an eyebrow.

"Well . . . one thing I liked. Where she talks about how if we were aware of everything going on with the people around us, it would be like hearing grass grow and the heartbeats of squirrels. That just really struck me."

Now Jim turned in his seat for a better look at the boy. Largeish eyes a radiant gray more arresting than mere cheap blue. Pink, bowed mouth. Rippled nose with a slender ring in one nostril. Cheekbones and a clean jaw. Short bleached hair in trailing bangs, pointy sideburns. Silver rings climbing one earlobe, small smaller smallest. An appealing athletic body, too, in white chinos and a tank shirt. Quite nice, despite the trivializing modifications.

Glancing around at the denizens of the loft, the boy cocked his head. "Imagine hearing the heartbeats of these squirrels!"

"I would prefer not to."

The boy rolled his eyes. "Oh, the humanity!"

"Yes. Very good!" Jim laughed.

The answering smile, full of recognition and—could it be?—gratitude, was ravishing. In the next moment Jim felt silly, as if he'd caught himself glancing into a teenybopper magazine and lingering over the fresh young faces there.

"No one around here reads—" the boy's head whipped around. "Yeah, all right!" he called to Tony, the photographer, who was shouting his name. "Duty calls." He brushed a finger against the book cover in good-bye.

For a few moments Jim sat, idly watching the boy. He had an economical way of moving around the people and equipment, he smiled often, he was an attractive kid. Got up to look a lot more superficial than he might be.

The next day Jim was back there again—watching prancing idiots take pictures of schmattas waiting on a client who kept calling but didn't show up. For the last year he'd meant to tell his partners he wanted out. But he'd put that off day by day, convinced that, without the office to go to, he was capable of passing days without going out, without speaking to anyone.

"You look like you could use this."

It was Book Boy. Once again dressed entirely in white, and wielding not coffee, but a tall glass of milk.

This was so unexpected that Jim didn't protest; he drank, looking up over the glass rim at the kid, who stayed beside him, ready to take back the empty.

Jim wasn't sure he was being flirted with—yet what else was this about? Simple human kindness at the GARB shoot? It wasn't what you looked for, was it?

The boy said, "Better?" He smiled that affecting smile. There was seemingly no agenda in it; it was just a smile. He thinks I'm straight, the little dope. So what, I might as well be. Neuter, is what I am now. He handed the glass back, the boy was called away again, and that was that.

The whole encounter, or maybe it was just the milk, did calm him down. He felt ready again to make the effort; he mixed, chatted, encouraged, doing all the things he'd once been naturally good at. The client called two or three more times, not apologizing, still wanting him to wait there. The photographer was shorthanded; the boy—Seth, as his name was called every minute or two—never stopped moving. He made the models giggle, he took Tony's abuse, which was only half-playful, with grace.

Later, Jim tried the bathroom door and found it locked. He needed five minutes away from them all. Just five minutes to hyperventilate, maybe lean out the window and scream, or talk to Zak, one of their frequent little conversations where he had to supply both sides of the dialogue.

The door opened and he was face to face with Seth. Jim forgot to avoid the eyes. Seth paused for a split second, surprise lighting up those unusual grays. Then he brushed past and it was the mouth that stayed with Jim, moist, pink, pliant as a rubber band, it went zing! into his imagination. Unzipping at the toilet, he was half-hard. How long since that had happened? He knew, but it would be mortifying to voice the number. He splashed his face and arms with cold water.

After that, he looked up from his Filofax at Seth from time to time, to remind himself that he was nothing, and that nothing had changed. The kid wasn't his type anyway. Practically a baby. He squinted to read the title of the novel that stuck out of his waistband. The Good Soldier. Well, he knew what to read, anyway.

By lunchtime, the client was still absent. Jim went to the front of the loft, leaned on the window, and looked down into the street.

Seth appeared at his elbow. In a whisper, he said, "You'll get soot all over that nice white shirt."

Jim stepped back, brushed at his sleeve, shrugged. Again he glanced at the boy. Each time he saw more. Creamy, poreless skin, pale as a courtesan's, stretched over unpretentious but cultivated muscle. On the upper arm, a Celtic knot tattoo, the kind you saw on half the young people in Manhattan, but in baby colors: azure and pink. And on the back of the opposite shoulder, positioned to take advantage of the cut of his guinea T-shirt, a sheaf of gladioli in black and gray lines that seemed to shimmer just above the surface of his skin, subtle and fine. Again, that mixture of the clichÈd and the unexpected.

Returning his gaze to the street, he saw, instead, the boy's reflection in the glass. His down-turned eyes, the ripple in the bridge of his nose. That mouth. The only word for that mouth was pretty.

At their backs, the stereo fell silent, leaving the loft in a bubble of silence that felt heavy as lead, and then someone rolled through the FM stations. The gabble of music and voices startled him; for a moment, in the ease of standing near this boy, he'd forgotten his shattered life.

Seth said, "I'm supposed to find out what you want for lunch."

Jim didn't take his eyes off the street. "You."

Suddenly his heart was going hard, heat rose up through him, he was like one of those speeded-up botany films, the bloom opening. "I mean," he said, turning his head slowly to look at Seth, whose eyes and mouth had gone shiny with confusion, "I'd like to take you to lunch."

The boy nodded, looking a little stupid, but his manner brought Jim forward. Surprised at himself, at this movement within.

Seth said, "I . . . I don't . . . I mean, I can't usually get out at lunchtime."

"Then come to dinner with me. That would be better anyway. Come tonight."

Still there was that uncertainty, the gray eyes darting up to take soundings. This was charming, unexpected in the boy, interesting. "Let me get this right. You're asking me for a date?"

"We can talk about Middlemarch." It was fun to watch him figuring it out, and gratifying—almost embarrassing—to see his pleasure in the discovery.

"Yes! I'd love—I'd like—I mean, I think I'm free for dinner later." A blush rose up his neck, spread across his face. "What should I get you for lunch right now though?" He held up his pencil and pad, ready.

But Jim glanced at his watch. "Never mind lunch. I've got to get back to the office. I'll meet you at eight." He named the place, a bar in Chelsea, and walked away. No sense dragging this out, and as for the clients, let them scream all they wanted, he would not wait for them another moment.

As he emerged from the elevator into the building lobby, Seth came flying out of the stairwell, skidding to a dramatic stop and thrusting something at him.

"You forgot this."

His suit jacket. Seth licked his lips as he held it out, and then he blushed again, magnificently. Jim wanted to take his shoulders in his hands and kiss him, but instead he just took the jacket and shrugged into it. "Thanks."

Seth's smile was wavery, raw. "Later, then."

"Right," Jim said. "I'll see you later."

Nothing like this had happened to him in months and months and months—marking more than two years since he'd lost Zak, and the whole large chunks of himself that had slid away with him.

Locked in the bathroom, Seth McKenna replayed that last exchange, giving him the jacket and the licking of his lips, because he got parched when he was nervous. Then going all red, because maybe Jim Glaser would take the licking as a tacky come-on.

He drank water out of his cupped hands, splashed his face, and then inspected himself in the mirror. Beads of water clung to his darkened eyelashes and rolled down his cheeks. His ears felt hot. He turned his face back and forth, tugged at his nose ring, pulled his lips back over his teeth, rolled his eyes, wondering how he appeared to Jim. He was in a tizzy, a real one, and it had come when and where he least expected it.

That first day of the shoot, Seth had checked out the clients and agency people, as he checked out everybody. Most of the time there would be at least a couple of queers with whom he could share what Tony called "the secret homo handshake." To Seth the whole lot of them formed a sophisticated, po-mo circus: dressed in clothes that were a heightened parody of what regular people wore, concentrating hard, grinning through their routines, faces turned toward the lights. And like actual jaded circus people, nobody was watching anyone else's act. He didn't like them—they were obscurely frightening in their hipness, as though they knew things and wielded powers Seth couldn't even formulate for himself.

But the head honcho—Jim—wasn't like that. He was distinctly Seth's type—massive and sleepy-faced, a little like Robert Mitchum. Being near him made Seth feel agreeably elastic and tingly. But his excellent dark suit, white shirt, precisely knotted silk tie, placed Jim Glaser out of Seth's reach, in the sphere of serious, connected, well-to-do people. As far as he could determine, the man was straight. He wore a wedding band. He was also ancient: forty if he was anything at all.

Gradually, Seth noticed how all the circus clowns went to him in order to take off their rubber noses and relax for a few minutes. He had, despite the power suit, a benign magnetism. Even the wide-eyed models approached him finally, like baby llamas at a petting zoo. Jim Glaser never raised his voice. He had a courteous, contained, weary manner. He dealt with people, whether they were the skittish, nervy GARB clients or Tony's wispiest bell-bottomed gofer, with a kindness and gentle expectancy that was almost courtly. He neither flattered the models nor did he snap his fingers at them or call them "you." In between the social moments, Seth saw him close his eyes or stare into space in a way that suggested more going on in his head than the stresses of business. Seth liked Jim Glaser's face. It was heavy without being fat, the lips and nose and brow were voluptuous. The intelligent eyes, slightly bulging, were half-lidded over so you couldn't tell right away what color they were. His curly black hair wanted to grow down over his forehead. He was in charge, yet even in his solidity, he looked as though he was waiting, without hope, for someone to come to his aid. The appearance of that battered copy of Middlemarch gave Seth courage to make his own approach.

A little cologne had clung to the collar of Glaser's jacket; putting his hands to his nose, Seth could smell it still. Despite their conversation, it was still hard to credit him as queer, but Seth had been in Manhattan long enough to know that he knew barely anything about the varieties of people he might encounter; he was still capable of being wrong, being astonished. Seth thought himself, in a purely abstract anyway, good enough for damn near anybody. He'd never, since coming to the city, had much trouble getting what he wanted in bars or on the street. Yet here he was, flushed, nervous, feeling so lucky.

Then he remembered that yesterday, Tony had taken Polaroids of everybody, just fooling around while the models pecked at their lunch. Seth rooted around on the big worktable strewn with contact sheets, odd bits of film, mail, work orders, stained Chinese menus, and found Jim's snapshot.

Yesterday—hell, this morning, or an hour ago, he'd never have seen this picture. Not been thrilled to find it in the pile and be able to hold it in the curve of his palm. Aw, fuck.

"Where's the lunch?" Tony materialized before him, clapped his hands. "C'mon, let's unpack it, let's go."

"Uh . . ." Seth tore his eyes away from the little image. The colloquy with Jim Glaser at the window seemed like hours ago. "I haven't gone to get it yet, I was—"

"You—Jesus, Seth!" Tony slammed his hands down on the table. "Get going! We should've been finished with it by now!"

Copyright © 2006 by NancyKay Shapiro

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