Mr Wilde Was That Way
The book slips from my hand and lands on the tile, parted in the middle with the spine facing up. Mr. Wilde stares at me with a dark penetrating eye. The cover of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde is deep purple and features a ghostlike portrait of Mr. Wilde’s pale expression – at least, half of an expression. The other half creeps over the edge and onto the spine. I pick it up, preparing for a date with Crystal. I know, romantic, right? Reading short stories to a girl on a date. It’s actually probably for the best. I’m not ready for anything hot and heavy; it’s my first date after two years of cold-showered celibacy as a Mormon missionary. I pick up the book and blow off the dust. Mr. Wilde’s one eye continues to look up at me with a creased brow, all agitated.
“Sorry,” I say. “Didn’t mean to drop you.”
As I turn it over, the pages flap back into place, and I manage to steal a glimpse of a familiar, coarse handwriting. Inside the front cover, it reads:
To Caleb: An exceptional man who touched my life. Remember always – Kevin
That’s right. He gave it to me. How could I have forgotten? Of course now it makes sense, why Kevin – of all people – would give me a book by a guy that is, you know, that way. I could have sworn he put a letter in here as well. I begin searching the pages for it as my mind wanders back to lost summer days.
I got a call from Kevin one morning in October. He told me that he had been offered a job as a camp director at a Boy Scout camp of all places. Near San Francisco, if you can believe it. Even though Kevin was a few years older than me, we had become pretty close friends, and he wanted me to go work for him at this camp in the Redwoods. It didn’t take much arm twisting to get me to say yes.
“And guess what!” said Kevin over the phone.
“Derek is coming too! To be the assistant. And Crystal and a whole bunch of others!”
“Awesome!” I responded. “That’ll be great.”
So, when summer came around, off we went, to California. Boy! Kevin was living a dream. Twenty-eight years old and running his own camp! You could see a literal glint in his eye when he spoke with campers. When he told stories at night, his pupils would get so wide that, even from far away, you could see the sharp reflection of the dying coals of the campfire.
One night, after visiting some of the scout troops, I got back to the lodge pretty late. On the far side of the dining hall, Kevin and Derek sat pretty close to each other. I noticed that Kevin sat with one leg resting on the other, but not the way men rest their legs – all wide-like with the foot on the knee. No, his legs were crossed the way women sit, one thigh tight against the other. As I got closer I could hear a mix of giggling and chatter. They eventually noticed me, and Kevin sprung to his feet, excitedly. He picked up a small package wrapped in plain white paper with the words, “Happy birthday” scribbled across the front and handed it to me. Even to this day, I don’t know how Kevin knew it was my birthday. I didn’t tell anyone in camp. I opened the package and saw a thick book. On the inside of the deep purple cover was Kevin’s inscription, as well as a letter folded in fourths. The book was worn and tattered. The edges were bent, showing signs of much use, the cover reinforced with clear packaging tape, showing signs of much care. That’s when I saw that dark eye looking at me that way for the first time.
My heart pulses heavily, and all of a sudden, I feel blood rushing through my temples. I close the old book quickly. I wipe the moisture from my hands and renew my grip on the taped-up cover. I walk out the door into the brisk air and climb in my truck.
Crystal waits for me at her house on Thirty-Sixth Street. I pull to a stop on the side of the road. The pavement is gritty-slick with ice and gravel, so my tires skid before coming to a complete stop. Mr. Wilde dives off the front edge of the seat. He does a double backflip in the air and lands flawlessly on his back. The eye stares at me again with a “Did-you-see-that?” type of smirk. A ten out of ten in his book, I suppose.
“Yeah, yeah,” I tell him. “Real men don’t do gymnastics.”
I abruptly place Mr. Wilde back on the seat, this time making sure his smug grin is face down. Before getting out of my truck, I wipe the sweat from my brow. I approach the steps and begin to knock, but Crystal opens the door before I can finish the last rap of the knuckle. She beams with soft round cheeks as she steps outside. She’s bundled up in a thick sweater and an itchy-looking scarf. Even through the thick wool, I can feel her breasts press up against my chest when we embrace. I let out an unrestrained chuckle when I notice how immediately turned-on I am by such a mild encounter. It’s kind of liberating, you know? Haven’t felt that for a while.
“What are you laughing at?” she asks. “Is it the sweater?”
“Nope,” I say, still grinning at her.
I open the truck door and help Crystal in. I breathe heavily, still sweating in the dry winter air. While I walk around to the other side, Crystal picks up Mr. Wilde and turns him over to look at him. I open my door, ready to hop in quickly, when I see it again – the eye, the smirk. I look at him hesitantly before climbing in slowly.
While heading down the street, Crystal and I talk about all the Oscar Wilde stories that Kevin used to read to us on our many camping trips.
“What’s your favorite?” she asks.
“Mine? Probably ‘The Selfish Giant.’”
“Um, you know? All the Christian symbols, I suppose.”
“Oh,” she says. “Mine’s ‘The Happy Prince.’”
“Oscar Wilde was that way, you know?” I tell Crystal.
“Oh—uh—what do you mean?” she asks.
“But it’s not like people think of him as that way nowadays,” I say. “They think of him as an awesome writer, not that way.”
I pause, realizing I had become pretty defensive.
“In any case,” I add, “knowing he was that way doesn’t make me think less of him.”
She stares at me blankly, not saying anything. I stop talking and drive on in silence.
Crystal was the one that made me first suspect it. I was on my mission. I think I had been away from home nearly eighteen months. That’s when her letter arrived. I was always anxious to get letters from Crystal because she’s the type of person that goes all-out on letters. Cool designs, lots of colors. It was always a surprise to see what she’d put in the envelope. This particular letter was no exception. I tore into it with great vigor. It was on green paper, and each paragraph was meticulously written with a different color of ink. It was the purple paragraph. It was the purple ink that started it all.
Kevin is not running camp this summer. He’s too busy, off gallivanting with his boyfriend.
Of course, I read it over again to make sure I was reading it right. Then I remembered how everyone would always tease Kevin and Derek by telling them they should just get married because of all the time they spent together. I was sure Crystal was just poking fun at Kevin for deciding not to run camp because Derek wouldn’t go with him anymore. He was Kevin’s best friend. Yeah, that was it, I decided. I knew it couldn’t be what I originally thought. I knew he could never be that way.
My truck idles in the parking lot of an empty park. Under a pavilion, there is a fire eating away at the cold winter night.
“It’s kind of cold,” I say. “We can find someplace indoors if you want.”
“Not a chance!” she says squeezing my arm tenderly. “Come on!”
We get out, and the frost-bitten air numbs our faces. Next to the fire sits a small wooden bench, just big enough for two people. As we’re about to sit, the book under my arm slips a little. I catch it before it drops, but something falls from it, fluttering lightly to the ground.
“What’s this?” asks Crystal, picking up the folded paper.
“Oh,” I say, “that’s a letter that Kevin gave me. On my birthday.”
“Yeah, before my mission.”
We scoot the bench nearer to the flames and sit close to each other, linking arms. Crystal looks down, still holding the letter in her hand. She unfolds it and begins reading aloud.
I give books as presents, but I rarely give this one. It takes a special kind of person to really understand and appreciate these stories. You are an exceptional man. I hope you go on to sing and sacrifice like the nightingale and the sparrow, that you share like the Giant and live your life like the young king.
I breathe deeply again, staring at the letter, remembering that Kevin wasn’t always that way. From under my arm I notice Mr. Wilde looking at me with one eyebrow raised in harsh critique.
“What are you looking at?” I mutter under my breath.
“What?” Crystal asks.
“Nothing,” I respond.
I part Mr. Wilde in two and turn to the “The Happy Prince.” With her head on my shoulder, I read the tale of the sparrow that dies in an act of sacrifice for his loved one – you know, more Christian symbols and all that. Beads of moisture build in the corner of Crystal’s eyes when I get to the death of the sparrow.
“That’s beautiful,” she says as I finish.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess it is.”
“I think you’re a tad bit sentimental,” I say smiling.
She gives me a long studious look. A queer look. Then she leans in close. I can feel her humid breath as her glazed lips stroke mine.
“Well,” I say, interjecting. “I suppose we should go. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow for church.”
“Um, yeah,” she says after clearing her throat. “I guess we should.”
We go back to the truck and rumble off down the road, the noise muted by the falling snow. At Thirty-Sixth street, I drop her off. Then, I head home to finish preparing a home-coming address that I’m to give to the congregation during our church services the next day. I fall asleep while skimming through Mr. Wilde’s pages looking for a good quote to use.
It’s Sunday now. I leave my house and drive to the church. I carry Mr. Wilde under my arm as I enter the chapel and take my place on the stand behind the pulpit. One by one, I watch my friends come in. There is Ian with his greasy hair and Aaron with his pathetic mustache. Then Derek enters, holding hands with a slender, blue-eyed blonde with long hair down to her shoulder blades. On her left hand is a diamond big enough that I can see it from all the way up on the stand. I focus so much on her ring that I’m caught off guard when Kevin enters through a door in the back. No one goes to greet him. He sits apart from all my other friends, alone. I expect that he’s got to be different somehow – you know? He wears a neutral colored tie, pretty much the same as before. Blue sweater, same as before. Thin, short hair, same as before. He’s the same old Kevin. I look down and see Mr. Wilde staring up at me from the bench with a wide eye that seemed to ask, “What did you expect, rainbow hair?”
“Knock it off,” I say just before the bishop calls my name.
I stand and give my address to the congregation, constantly looking to the back of the chapel, trying to see Kevin’s reactions to every little thing I say. He sits with no change in expression.
When I finish, I sit back down. As soon as the closing prayer is offered, I head straight for the door, straight for my car. At home, I rush to my room. I drop Mr. Wilde on my still-unpacked suitcase and pick up a scrapbook with all my letters from the past two years. I sit on the bed and dig through the loose pages, searching for the one. Eventually, I find it. I find the green paper and the purple paragraph, but it’s not the same as I remember. This time it says:
Kevin has a boyfriend. They won’t let him run camp anymore.
From out of a closet in the back of my mind comes a warm realization, but I don’t have much time to dwell on it. I begin to hear the voices of all the guests that are showing up to welcome me back. That’s when my door opens, and Crystal walks in.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” I respond as she sits down next to me. “You really didn’t beat around the bush, did you?”
I hold up the letter in front of her.
“So,” she says. “You did see Kevin?”
“Yep, what do you think?”
“I think he’s that way,” I say with a calm smile.
“What do you mean by that?” she asks.
“I mean he’s a nightingale, a sparrow, a giant, and a king.”
“That’s pretty high praise.”
I look down at the purple book on the floor. Mr. Wilde stares at me with his dark penetrating eye. Only this time, he smiles.