»He could not understand how he lost his appetite: he liked eating from the prune trees that his grandmother had planted, or the walnuts and chocolate the maid would bring him when he was watching television. But he could not bring himself to eat anything in the company of his father; his eyes praying on Gabriel, consuming him with the possibility of failure.«
The Appetite Of Young Antinous
by Eduardo Ecker
The boy trod through the garden and onto the patio; his feet slapping rapidly on the hot terracotta floor. He reached for the oxidised, brass knob of the frail, netted door and pulled it wide open, stumbling into the kitchen. The women did not see him as they diligently walked around levelling the flame in the stove, grinding the coffee beans and preparing a tray with the crockery. He tucked his towel around his shoulders and stood, expectantly, in the middle of the room, as fine threads of water streamed all around his skinny legs. One of the maids took his bathing suit. He noticed how she rubbed the thin polyester material between her thumbs before stretching it on the line hanging in the service room. ‘Gabriel’, the other maid called and took him by the hand, and placed him on a stool. The woman reached for a cloth and began to wipe his bare, sullied feet. He did not like the feeling of the cotton rag rubbing against his skin. It was uncomfortable, as if the material could penetrate deep into his nervous system and pierce into his heart.
After a moment the woman turned her large neck and as he felt her hand letting go of his ankle, he sprang from his seat and ran away. As he went through the kitchen door he tightened the towel around his waist and carefully walked through another door as he heard a deep, but gentle voice. The boy looked up and felt his father’s hand, whom he immediately and passionately embraced.
‘We thought you would never come, boy’ his father said. Gabriel rubbed his eyes as he distinguished the men that sat around the large oak table. The light undulated through the windows catching their angular faces which darkened and stretched, as if someone had held a torch inside the bowels of a cavern. He did not like how his father would summon him; a subtle gesture with the hand that signalled an impending obligation. And worst of all was the warm, sickening feeling in his belly, as if someone were turning embers with a poker.
A chair was brought to him and he was given a plate with some food. He turned his head and reached for his father’s plated Dunlop lighter. A few girls entered the room and quietly began to clear the table. There was a strongly ritualistic element to these occasions: the way in which plates were brought in and out of the room, the moment and pace in which the men engaged in conversation, and the sudden and deep silence that fell at the beginning and end of the meal. To this end, the men could share or idyll; light a cigarette or pick at the crumbs that had gathered around the bread-basket, whilst bathing under the warm light of the summer sun. ‘How’s the water, Gabriel?’ someone suddenly asked. In that moment, a tray was laid in the centre of the table. Gabriel heard the rattling of the small metal spoons that had been neatly aligned around a porcelain bowl. He noticed now the girl in her navy blue dress serving some biscuits that had in their centre small drops of strawberry preserve. He remained in silence, looking around, hoping that the things around him would distract him enough to bend away the words, words that made such succinct and clear questions that could only beg for an answer; a linguistic trap that Gabriel preferred to resist.
‘The man asked a question, son.’ Gabriel continued to admire the sweet, crimson droplets until his father tugged his arm, and, as their eyes met, Gabriel’s small, Iberian eyes having no choice, blinked in recognition of his father’s order.
‘The water is good, sir.’ Gabriel mumbled as he fidgeted with the end of the lighter. He looked at his plate, at the shreds of meat and the pile of potatoes, and felt a warm, sore feeling that emanated from the centre of his stomach. He felt his heart pounding and his eyes dilating as he began to see more clearly and could distinguish the colours, first of the blue table- cloth, that which he began to grope, and then the hard and strangely monochrome skin of the men that sat silently around him. He could not avoid looking at his food; the threads of fat that separated the flesh from its crusty, burnt skin, and the oily juice that, as he pressed on the meat, rendered murky hues of red.
Gabriel swallowed a bit of saliva and trembled as he felt a pronounced pain in the centre of his abdomen. He knew that his father would be looking at him, examining him, slowly becoming discouraged, worried: eventually losing hope for his weak, quiet, only child. Gabriel felt the warm air that came through the windows. He felt his skin become dry and sticky from the chlorine of the swimming pool. He looked at the men, how they lightly pulled at their shirt collars, remaining tranquil as they took long, contemplative drags from their cigarettes.
His father impatiently began to make little pieces of his food. Gabriel loved his father and the time they spent together was full of moments of genuine affection. They were close; close enough to make Gabriel feel like he could laugh or cry and sometimes even hurl his arms in anger against his father’s chest. Yet, there were moments, especially in the company of others, that their relationship felt affected, provoking in Gabriel a sickening mixture of anger and sadness. His inability to do or say anything in front of others would worsen the pain, closing his mouth and fists and ultimately avoiding to eat. He could not understand how he lost his appetite: he liked eating from the prune trees that his grandmother had planted, or the walnuts and chocolate the maid would bring him when he was watching television. But he could not bring himself to eat anything in the company of his father; his eyes praying on Gabriel, consuming him with the possibility of failure.
Gabriel held his fork and encrusted its sharp blades into a small, juicy piece of meat and put it in his mouth. He could feel his throat closing – as if a finger had sprung from the inside of his body and slowly began to emerge from the shallow precipice that met with the bottom of his tongue. He looked at his father, his deep saddened eyes and closed lips. He bit into the flesh and chewed it a few times and sent it to the back of his mouth and groping the table cloth with his moistened hands managed to swallow it.
‘He must have no appetite’ someone said. ‘But he was in the pool all morning’ someone else remarked.
The words agitated Gabriel, who became painfully aware of his skinny body. He was already thirteen and had yet to grow with the voracity and effectiveness of his school-mates; many of them already had hair around their penises and armpits. That summer Gabriel spent a lot of time in the bathroom. He would look into the mirror and examine his face, his arms and legs and compare them to the pictures he found in the old art books his grandmother collected. He would admire the wide, bulky torsos of the Greek and Roman statues, their protruding, muscular arms and legs, which he imagined took graceful strides as they tossed clay discs or hunting deer with a serviceable bow and arrow.
Gabriel was particularly attracted to the statue of the beautiful Antinous – the description that accompanied the plate mentioned the realism of the body that was brought out by the simple lines that made the figure. Gabriel would repeat the words in his head until they became separate from his thought: realism – body – lines, they circled around his unconscious as he admired the figure. He would run his fingers gently through the matt paper, pretending to get caught in Antinous’ thick, curly locks. He would stare into the statue’s alabaster eyes as if something dwelt inside them, some kind of answer to the asphyxiating pressure that Gabriel felt, that same pressure that he felt on his throat and in his stomach as he made sense of his desires and the way he would need to face the world in order to attain them.
When he was in the bathroom he felt strong, sensual, determined. He would undress and run the water in the bath and sit on the edge of the tub holding his soft penis in his hand. He would fold the skin and tug his thumb under its head and gently stroke the flesh as his mind became calm. He wondered about Antinous, about the kind of life he had had. He wondered about the quality of Antinous’ thoughts: what he worried about, the things he loved or hated. He thought about the prunes that had turned and had fallen, becoming rotten under the squelching sun. He thought about their sweet, pulpous, red flesh. He was hungry, ravenous. And how as the water rose to his ankles he could feel his penis harden. And then he would stop.
The men chuckled as they told each other stories. Gabriel looked curiously at his father, who sat quietly with a smile - a man who was most appreciative of his friends, their humour and company, and their opinion. He thought of embracing his father, but reminded himself it would not be the appropriate thing to do. He took a sip of water as he fought to keep his shy and restrained lips apart. He began to wonder whether some day he might have such good friends and if he would receive them at his home and enjoy their company. He wondered whether he would also have stories and be willing to share them with others – not in search of their support or sympathy, but to entertain them, to add to them, to enlighten them about something they did not know.
As he was preoccupied with these thoughts he noticed how his anxiety had faded. Suddenly, he noticed the lightly perfumed, blond tobacco that had invaded the room. He also smelled the stewed meat that still sat on his plate. He identified the onions, garlic and red wine and a hint of aniseed. The man next to Gabriel, an associate of his father; a man who sported simple Italian silk ties and had large, drooping ears, reclined his head and looked curiously at the boy.
‘What’s the matter, son?’ he said, spreading his hand on the tablecloth. ‘Nothing, sir.’ ‘Something’s on your mind?’ the man insisted.
Gabriel looked away and after a moment of hesitation, as he felt the warm, sore feeling reviving in his gut, continued:
‘I like swimming.’ ‘Is that so?’ ‘I can swim backstroke, breast- stroke, but I swim freestyle the best. And my father wants to teach me butterfly.’
The man reflected for a moment and moved closer to Gabriel.
‘The Romans had magnificent baths, you know? I have a great book that you might be interested in.’ ‘It was not uncommon to have mixed baths. Can you imagine that?’ Gabriel nodded, not knowing what to say. He felt a closeness with the man that made him satisfied with the effort he had made. He picked another piece of meat and after pushing it against the potatoes, put it in his mouth and savoured it for a while before he swallowed it. He imagined himself as an orator at the court of Hadrian, cloaked in white, elegant robes and eating cured meats and drinking sweet wine from the Caucuses. He could see Hadrian at the head of a robust oak table, listening to the conversation of the poets and, as the moment permitted, turning his head to a young Antinous who cheekily waited by his side, and with delicate determination, shared with his patron a few witty observations.
Gabriel’s father felt the boy’s hair and asked him if he was done with his food. The boy nodded as he noticed his hair was no longer wet, but dry and tough. His father then offered Gabriel a piece of bread, which he happily took and began to soak up the remaining sauce. He could feel his throat opening, liberated from the bitter, astringent thoughts that taunted and accused him. When he was finished, he gave his father a kiss and took his plate to the kitchen. The sun was still bright, making the rooms luminous and expansive. Gabriel felt a cool breeze through his legs and as he made confident steps, walking through stone columns, he forgot for a moment about his body, his fears and limitations; effortlessly parting his lips to make a smile.