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Fiction #484
(published April 29, 2010)
Sweet Youth
by Kenneth Radu
Protected by the canopy, Matthew looked over his book and spied on the boy and girl sitting on the edge of the upper deck pool, feet in the water, shoulders almost touching and the sun scorching their bodies. Surely they would have applied sunscreen. The girl seemed quite at ease in a lime-green bikini of adroitly arranged and crisscrossing strings. Ah, the boy's hand rested on the small of her back when he could have fingered so much of her flesh—he wanted the beautiful girl and was willing to take his time.

Wearing thin, loose fitting cotton pants rolled up the calf of his muscular legs and tightened by a draw string around a slender torso, shirtless, his upper body sculpted, the boy looked like a graceful Greek statue, his hair closely cropped, a would-be satyr in repose by a sapphire pool. His skin had browned since leaving Nassau five days ago whereas he, Matthew, had fried on the first day, lathered himself with healing creams for three days in a row. He now covered all parts of his body. Exposing only his brown-spotted hands and face, the latter shaded by the broad-brim straw hat, he wore a white suit. So many young people frolicked about, and only a few couples the same age as he and his wife Corinne strolled the decks. His wife was taking a nap in their cabin three decks below the pool.

They avoided the old passengers, detesting their polyester uniforms and strenuous panting after fun on the shuffle board, tennis courts and dance floors. Sixty was the new forty, their loud voices, mannerisms and sporty clothes proclaimed. Matthew's stomach churned. Corinne loved cruises because she didn't have to do anything except read, drink to her heart's content, and chatter away about the places she had visited with anyone who would listen.

The girl raised her voice, shook her luxuriant black hair and shrugged off the boy's hand which had crawled up to her shoulder. She abruptly lifted herself out of the water with that easy grace of an athletic female to hurry away between dozens of lounging passengers and down the stairs. Matthew watched the bikini strings adjust to the rippling of her buttocks until she disappeared. A pronounced stirring in his groin pleased him. The boy looked confused.

"Hey, Stavros, my lad, come have a drink with me. It looks like you could use one."

Stavros shook the water off his legs and joined Matthew. Not removing his sunglasses, he stretched out on a thick-pillowed chaise lounge in the shade. Matthew stifled a gasp. Yes, the boy was slender and taut, muscles in proportion, the embodiment of what the ancient Greeks celebrated in stone and philosophy. The girl would return to him, contrite and apologetic. The boy need only bide his time.

You're lusting after her. Which of course Matthew did not say aloud, but the youth's virility leaped out of his body like a randy satyr that needed to dive into the pool and subdue itself.

"I don't remember, Stavros, were you born in Greece?"

"Nah, my folks were. I was born in Montreal."

"Of course, you did in fact tell me one day during our tutorial sessions."

"I think half the passengers are Quebeckers. I've met a few, we played water polo yesterday. You play water polo?"

"At my age, Stavros, I don't play very much."

"You don't look that old, Matt, if you pardon me saying so."

"I'm well past the usual retirement age."

"Hey, you can't retire until I finish my program. I wish I could take another history course next semester. What a coincidence meeting you on the boat, like it's fate or something."

Matthew chose not to lecture Stavros on meaninglessness concepts like coincidence and fate, despite the role they played in Greek tragedy. During the tutorial sessions last semester he enjoyed listening to Stavros talk about amateur kick-boxing, soccer playing and fitness training. Occasionally they discussed ancient Greek and Roman history. The boy had sprawled comfortably in the office. Matthew could not remember when his student dropped the "Sir", and began using an abbreviated first name as if they had been intimate friends for a long time. Stavros took a glass from the steward's tray and offered it to his teacher who declined, for he had reached his quota.

"It's not surprising we're on the same boat, Stavros. Posters have been plastered in the corridors advertising this cruise since last fall. Every Quebecker wants a break from winter. I've seen a couple of other teachers on board, but I keep my distance. I enjoy our conversations, Stavros, so maybe I'll delay retirement just for you."

"Hey, that'd be terrific, you're not kidding me? Honestly, Matt, your class was the best and you helped me a lot. Holy fuck . . . " Stavros sprayed out some of the drink, apologized for his language and lay back in the chaise.

"No need, you can say what you want, Stavros, we're friends, aren't we?"

"Yeah, it's always easy to talk to you, Matt, but the girl got me riled. I don't even know how it all started. She lives in Vermont. We've got a thing going, or trying to, and promise to email and call one another when we get back home. But she wants me to call her every night. Like, shit man, I can't phone every night! Maybe I should have just said I'd call every night to keep her interested, then deal with it later. I just don't want to be hemmed in, you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I do, Stavros. She looks like a very special young lady." He would have said "hot," but quickly censored the remark as too revealing, despite telling Stavros not to apologize for his diction.

"I think so."

"Well, make a special effort then."

Matthew also wanted to correct the impression of decrepitude. He walked for miles, weather permitting, and cycled a half hour daily on his stationary bike at home. His favourite student should understand that he was not entirely incapacitated. Matthew refrained from confessing that if he did not retire, he'd break all professional ethics and give the boy an A just for being his young and beautiful friend. Stavros accepted another drink.

"Hey, where's your wife?"

"Corinne is resting in the stateroom."

"Not feeling well?"

"You might say that, my boy."

"Well, I guess that happens when you get old."

He said it so innocently, as a simple recognition of the facts of life, that his

teacher could not take offense. Were the boy's eyes closed behind the sunglasses? Matthew allowed his own to explore the lines and lineaments, the depressions and ripples, the lovely brown nipples, the ribcage highlighted because Stavros had raised his arms above his head, the utter flatness of the sensuously tanned belly, too flat to be called a belly, the abs that elicited envy. The shade darkened skin tones. Matthew's eyes followed the folds of the cloth covering the lad's crotch and hard thighs, lingered over the sun-bleached hairs of the legs before coming to a delicious end at the perfect feet. The boy lowered an arm, poised his hand slightly above his navel, then dropped it and slowly caressed his stomach. He flipped off the glasses and smiled over Matthew's appraisal.

"I like it when you watch me like that, sir. Makes me feel proud."

Caught in the act, and startled by the reversion to sir, although Stavros had known all along of his admiration, Matthew proceeded, emboldened by the boy's frank admission. Why pretend anymore? The cruise ship glided over the glint-speckled sea, its engines a musical hum in the cooling breeze.

"You know I admire your energy and youth, Stavros."

"Yeah, because you're old."

"True, you help me relive my own youth, Stavros. We've talked about this in my office often enough."

"I'm glad I can do that for you, Matt."

"You're not uncomfortable with it?"

"No way, it's cool, like I'm special or something. And if it makes you happy, well, shit, I'm happy."

He quickly sat up and stretched his arms, as if to display his biceps and pecs and the elongated beauty of his arms, the stunning torso, watching his teacher watch him all the time. Oh, if he could only touch a leg, an upper arm, the small of the back, caress the way he wanted to finger sculptures, to feel vitality emanating from art. Stavros gave him a few seconds. Matthew wondered if the boy was teasing him, being deliberately provocative.

"Sorry, Matt, but I gotta go after the girl, maybe see you later in the dining room?"

"Good luck with the girl, Stavros."

"Oh, she'll come around and be reasonable about the phone calls. In the meantime, there's the rest of the cruise. I got plans. See you later."

His sudden absence chilled the air and Matthew shivered. Choosing not to take the elevator, somewhat winded from descending the flights of stairs, Matthew quietly unlocked his cabin door, surprised by a wave of fatigue. He perspired under this suit which he planned to take off before napping. Corinne lay under a coverlet. In sleep she looked younger than her sixty-three years. He had taught longer than he should have, delaying retirement because the students themselves never got any older. His own discipline, history, reminded him of those brutal banalities: tempus fugit, youth perishes, flesh decays. Not surprising that humanity concocted fantasies about souls and everlasting life when the body betrayed them all in the end.

If only he could be allowed to touch Stavros . . . to feel once again what he himself had lost. Such a gesture would be misconstrued, although Stavros might understand. At this very moment Stavros was probably cajoling, persuading, perhaps even bedding the girl. Corinne had drawn the shade over the port hole. She looked like an effigy. Matthew removed and hung his clothes in the narrow cabinet provided for the purpose. The air conditioner cooled the room, his body still warm from the afternoon heat. Matthew imagined his young friend's classical proportions wondrously nude for the girl to admire and caress. He lay down next to his old wife, clasped his hands over his soft belly and waited for oblivion.

Kenneth Radu lives in Quebec, where he writes in English. His new collection, Sex in Russia, will soon be available from DC Books of Montreal.

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