Midsummer’s night, 2004. I’m 18. This will be my last year in Fort Lauderdale.
I’m with friends at the home of a man we know only as Mr. Gene. It’s “one” of his homes, so he says, and it’s colossal: three stories tall, garage space to house a small fleet of sports cars, a Roman-inspired swimming pool, and a dock on the Intercostal for a yacht he keeps in Miami.
I don’t know much about Mr. Gene, except that he likes to keep attractive young men in his company. He pays for extravagant meals, occasionally takes us on trips to South Beach, and provides cash for washing his cars, cleaning his house, and mowing his lawn. He’s never asked to sleep with any of us, and if he’s said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: “I don’t want any of you for sex. I see you as my sons.”
But there are rules.
It’s just after one in the morning. I’m sitting by Mr. Gene’s pool with my friend Jacob, drinking wine spritzers; I’ve been teasing Jacob about his relationship with a boy whom I bedded ages ago (read: weeks). Muffled techno music plays from inside the house, where Mr. Gene is throwing a party.
As Jacob and I stand to make our way inside to join the others, he retaliates for my poking fun by shoving his fingers through my hair to mess it up. He darts off, sending me into a counter offense and initiating a strangely erotic game of tackle-tag. We chase each other around Mr. Gene’s pool, over the dock, through the vegetable garden, across the Slip’N Slide, by the grill, through the veranda, for fifteen minutes or more, until we’re out of breath and too exhausted.
“Okay, okay,” I fall to the grass on my knees and then on my back. “I give up. Truce.”
Jacob stops by the pool, wipes his forehead with his wrist and leans his hands on his knees, panting heavily. “My hair’s messed up now anyway, bitch.”
“We need to go inside.”
“We look like shit.”
“Yeah, you do.” I say. “I’ll fix your hair.” He nods and I approach.
As I’m playing with Jacob’s hair, he raises his hand to pick a blade of grass off my cheek, then grabs my arm and sends me flying into the pool. I resurface quickly, ready to renew our horseplay, but I stop short of making any crude remarks when Jacob comes into focus. I see Mr. Gene standing behind him, looking at me. The color leaves Jacob’s face when he sees my expression. Neither of us has ever gotten into trouble with Mr. Gene, and we both know how strict he is about running around the pool.
“Go inside and wash up, Jacob,” Mr. Gene says. His voice is baritone and carries with it an accent worthy of a New York Mafioso. “I’m going to talk to Justin about why we don’t run around the pool. You take a shower and go home.”
The instruction knots my stomach. Why does he want ME to stay? Jacob abandons any attempt at saving me and runs off without giving me a second look.
I breathe heavily as I swim toward the pool ladder. I’m nervous. I realize I’ve never been alone with Mr. Gene before.
He walks to the edge of the pool and squats down beside the ladder. “No, no,” he says. “This way.” He sticks his hand out over the water and motions for me to grab it. When I do, he lifts me out of the pool with his arm. The show of strength intimidates me. He intends to frighten me, and he does.
I look down at my feet when I’m standing up, ashamed and afraid. What will he say to me? What will he do to me?
“You’re always so polite, Justin,” he says. “I’m really disappointed in you.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Gene.” I want to cry. My heart’s racing, anticipating a fist or a hand to crash down on my face.
“Look at me,” he says. I do.
He studies my face, almost adoringly, and brushes my bangs out of my eyes.
He continues, “If one of you fell and hurt yourself, or got hurt anywhere in this house, you know what kind of shit-trouble you’d be in, kid? What shit I would have to answer to? What would your family think if they knew you were out here? What would they say when they found out you were with a middle-aged man in the middle of the night who let you drink in his house?”
I look down again. He grabs my mouth and forcefully jerks my face back up.
“Justin, you need to listen to me. Do as you’re told and you won’t get hurt.”
His words are chilling — the way he speaks, it doesn’t sound like he’s talking about getting hurt running around the pool. He’s insinuating something sinister.
“Go change your clothes and join the party,” he says angrily. He pushes my face away, turns his back, and leaves me frozen in fear.
I never saw Mr. Gene after that exchange, but I wanted to. I’d found in him, as I’d find in many others, the authority I’d seen only dangerous slivers of as a kid.