3. Kissing a Masterful and Handsome Boy

Though Tereus often breaks off to sample a new vice or carry out an elaborate practical joke, he and Claudius quickly become inseparable. They take long, rambling hikes through the mountains that ring the village, and talk with adolescent enthusiasm about philosophy and literature. They fall asleep holding hands and gazing into each others’ eyes. Tereus lures Claudius out on stupid errands like finding a cock pit or a supply of hallucinogenic mushrooms. They sample gin, absinthe and whiskey, and master the intricacies of various card games. Claudius does not take up smoking, but he develops a rich panoply of erotic associations with Tereus’s habit. He enjoys watching Tereus smoke; he loves the smell of fresh tobacco. He gets a perverse thrill out of the way the room reeks in the morning when the ashtrays are overflowing, and Tereus awakens, stale and hung over, and reaches for a morning cigarette.

Claudius quickly realizes that Tereus is brilliant; he’s also impatient and easily bored. He masters vocabulary and equations at a glance, and produces witty, elegant verse and prose quickly, with little effort. He uses his genius to scrape by with as little effort as possible. He never studies, and writes papers the morning they’re due. To Claudius this is shocking, but also impressive.

Tereus luxuriates in having a peer and equal for the first time. He’s mesmerized by the depth of Claudius’s knowledge, and with the sublime feelings that poetry and philosophy evoke in him. Before they met, Tereus thought of a classical education as a series of empty exercises one performed to mollify adults; Claudius sees the trivium and quadrivium as repositories of mystery and beauty, and objects of desire in themselves. Without intending it, Claudius teaches Tereus the pleasures of language, history, philosophy and mathematics.

Claudius is a serious boy, and his desires are firmly rooted. He has no interest in women, and adores Tereus. He tells himself that they are brothers in arms, like Patroclus and Achilles, and that their affection is innocent and reciprocal. For his part, Tereus likes to be admired and doted upon, and he’s not selective about the source of admiration, or the form it takes. He uses women of a certain class — whores, barmaids, opera dancers — to satisfy his physical needs, but his affection and interest are reserved for men. Since he has no taboos and few aversions, with a few drinks in him, Tereus is anyone’s girl.

Claudius finds Tereus’s bravery and depravity exciting. Much of his short life has been spent producing evidence that he shares his father’s promise but not his weaknesses. In Claudius’s mind, drinking and homosexuality are so firmly entwined that they’re almost the same sin. His father is an upstanding family man when he’s sober; his bouts of drinking stem from a shameful need. Claudius believes that sexual repression is a built-in masculine duty, part of the chivalrous care due to his mother and sisters.

Tereus sees vice — drinking, taking drugs, fucking, whoring, brawling and gambling — as desirable and enjoyable. The trick is to enjoy them to the fullest extent possible without destroying his health and prospects. He plans to spend his academic career expending a minimum of effort, and extracting the maximum amount of illicit pleasure. Some of his mad rush into vice is simply longing for experience; he’s naturally restless and tormented by the desire for fresh sensations. He savors lust and pain and ecstasy with almost religious fervor.

Claudius, with his greater burden of self-doubt and trepidation, oscillates between terrified guilt and the holy ecstasy of young love. He luxuriates in intimacy with someone other than an immediate family member. Kissing his mother or sister is radically different from kissing a handsome and masterful boy, and Tereus’s brilliance and beauty sanctify even awkward and squalid moments. At times, Claudius wishes he could die for Tereus. To prove his love, yes, but also to avoid the drudgery of adult life, with its failures and limitations. 

Though he can be impatient and thoughtless, Tereus is a connoisseur of sensation and emotion. Above all else, he relishes providing various inputs — kisses, remarks, caresses — and noting the effects on Claudius’s body and soul. He observes and manipulates not just the other boy’s physical desire, but the emotional and moral turbulence that follow in its wake.

***

Within a few weeks of their meeting, Tereus returns to their room late and half-drunk. Claudius has just put his books aside. 

Tereus shuts and locks the door, strips off his jacket and neckcloth, and drops them on the floor between their beds. “Hallo, Claudius,” he says, slurring his words just slightly. He flops down on his bed, murmurs, “I’m not at all confident that I can remove my boots.” He yanks away, and accomplishes the task clumsily and noisily. “Oh, dear. Well, that’s done.” 

He looks over at Claudius, who regards him with a mixture of annoyance and suppressed lust. Seeing this, Tereus catches his roommate’s eye, hums a popular burlesque song, and fingers the top button on his shirt. “Shall I? Really, you haven’t any choice.” He unfastens the first few buttons teasingly. Now that he’s involved in a bit, his dexterity improves. He pauses, still humming his little song, raises his eyebrows. “More? Or shall I stop here?”

Claudius is tongue-tied, so Tereus hops up, seats himself on the foot of the other boy’s bed. More buttons follow. His chest and stomach are in shadow, but visible. He’s strong and slender and fair — a Greek statue come to life. 

He unbuttons his cuffs, struggling a little and making a game of it. He strips his shirt off, swings it above his head, then slings it into Claudius’s lap. 

The fabric carries the warmth and scent of his body — tobacco, wine, burning leaves, something delicate and creamy and pure. As Tereus watches, Claudius picks it up, buries his face in the fabric, inhales.

“Oh, well done! I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with my breeches.”

They both laugh. 

Tereus slides up next to him, seeks his gaze and holds it. Violet eyes, thickly lashed and deep-set, drowsy with wine and the lateness of the hour. He whispers, “What are you thinking? Right now.”

Claudius looks at him with mute pain.

“Whatever it is, you should say it.”

“You’re beautiful,” he says in a strangled tone.

“You’re brilliant and charming,” Tereus whispers. “Why are you frightened? We’re here alone. Two bodies, two souls. We can do whatever we like, and no one will know.”

They look at each other silently for a long time. Tereus’s eyes are hazy, inviting; Claudius’s are filled with terrified longing.

“I have an exam first thing tomorrow,” he says. 

Tereus gives a sharp laugh. “Of course you do. And, indeed, I’m drunk and tired.” He hops up, settles into his own bed, blows out the candle. As they settle into trance, he says gently, “Claudius, surely you know that my father is a homosexual?”

Claudius clears his throat. “No, I didn’t.”

“He is. I’m not certain I am. In fact, I very much doubt it. But I know it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Then, quietly and fiercely: “You are brilliant and charming, and I shall love you either way.”

Claudius gives a sudden, sharp sob, which he muffles in his pillow. He can’t think of a reply, and soon Tereus is out. 

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