The Last Man
October 6th 1962
It’s silly really, but while I was drowning, I couldn’t help but think of him. I accepted the idea that he would be the last man I ever laid eyes on, the last man whose outward physical appearance would make my soul quiver. The giant wave crashed upon me and took me under quickly, and since I’d never been much of a swimmer, I kind of just let it pummel me down into the large granules of sand that swayed in the water below. I thought of the man’s lean athletic torso, replaying the image of him jogging towards where I waded, the world shifting him from periphery to the forefront of my mind, as the water swelled and dragged me down, to where I remained underneath the surf. As I lost consciousness, I accepted that this man would be the last man I would ever see. I drowned.
But then I came to life again, slowly, quietly, and then all at once, as I regained a sense of myself, caused by the thick lips of the man who was kissing me where I laid on my back in the sand, at the edges of the shore, where the water expanded and ebbed, where I had given up on living briefly before.
It was him, even though I had only seen him from a distance earlier, I could tell that it was his lips that were kissing mine. He was far closer to me than I ever dreamed he would be. The last man I thought I’d ever see was kissing me passionately.
And then he was moved his lips away and began to press on my chest, and without even trying to, I coughed and gagged, and spit up the ocean that had been waiting in my lungs, dying to get out. He whooped suddenly, an exultation of joy as he noticed I had awoken from my seaside slumber. He leaned closer towards me again and stuck his hand behind my head, pulling me up slowly into a sitting position.
“Are you alright? I saw the waves take you under. Your friend over here started calling for help, so I raced in and pulled you out,” he said, motioning to my friend Marlene who I now saw was sitting in the sand behind him, her worried look dissipating as she realized I was going to be okay.
“I think I’m fine,” I said, the taste of salt covering my tongue. “Thank you for your help.”
“It’s no problem. I’ve worked as a lifeguard before up in the states. From the sounds of it, you’re from up there too?” He asked me as I moved to stand up. He reached out his arm to mine, and helped to pull me into a vertical position as I latched onto him. “It’s probably best to take it slow.”
“Really, I’m okay,” I told him, even though I felt rather dizzy. “And yeah, we’re both from the states. Marlene and I just got to Lima yesterday. Thanks again for helping me out. My name’s Ethan by the way, Ethan Bean.”
“Pleasure to meet you Ethan,” he said with a smile as the Peruvian sunshine flickered in his eyes. Marlene, and everyone else who I didn’t know on the beach melted into the background as I gazed at his handsome face in wonder, my mind replaying the moment when I awoke when his lips were upon mine. “I’m Paul.” And then his hand that had pulled me up reconvened with my body once again as he took my palm and my fingers and shook them in his. “Are the two of you here visiting?”
“Yes, we’re on our way to Machu Picchu,” Marlene said to him as I stayed still.
“Ah, that’s fantastic. I was just there actually; you’re going to have a fabulous time. The pictures don’t do it justice.”
“So we’ve heard,” I said, trying to keep the conversation going even though I felt as if he was slipping away, his body language motioning as if the tide was telling him to leave.
“Unfortunately I have to get going though, I’m already running late to head back to the airport to catch my flight back home,” Paul regretfully announced.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I told him, trying to cause my waterlogged eyes to connect with his in a way that would tell him of the kind of man that I was, as I aimed to conclude if he was one of the same. “I feel as if I should do something for you, to thank you in a more adequate way for saving me.”
“It’s no problem, really, Ethan. I’m sure you would have done the same for me if you saw me struggling out there.”
Marlene stifled a giggle. I turned to glare at her. I knew she was laughing because it was obvious I was a lousy swimmer, and there was no way I could have saved Paul in the way that he had saved me.
“Well, regardless, at least write your name and address down for me. That way I can send you something when we get back to the states,” I told him as I began to shuffle over to where my towel was waiting, littered with papers and books about Peru.
“If that’ll make you happy, that I can do,” Paul said as he followed after me.
I bent over and pilfered through my bag, searching for a pen so that Paul could write down his address. Once I found the writing utensil, I grabbed the nearest collection of paper, which happened to be the blue shaded Peru travel book I’d been reading the past few weeks before we arrived in South America.
“Here you go,” I said to him as I handed over the book and the pen. “Just write it down inside the front cover, that should do just fine.”
I watched him as his hand gently moved against the interior front page, his fingers imprinting a piece of himself within the collection that I owned. When he was done, he handed the book and pen back to me, as I smiled and held it up against my chest. “And if you’re ever in my area of the country, feel free to come over and see me. Maybe we can get together for a drink or something,” Paul said as he backed up away from where I stood. “See ya later Ethan. If you go back into the water, please be careful.”
“I don’t think I’ll be going back in. Goodbye Paul,” I said as he turned away and started to create a distance from both outside and inside of me.
Marlene quickly came to my side and made her opinions known. “Wow, he was quite charming wasn’t he? And devilishly handsome too. I can’t believe a sexy American man just saved you from drowning in the Pacific.”
“Why can’t you believe that?” I asked her. “Because you would have preferred if he had saved you and kissed you instead?”
“Oh please, Ethan. He wasn’t kissing you. It’s called CPR. He was bringing you back to reality. Although clearly, he didn’t do a very good job.”
“What, you don’t think he was gay?” I asked her quickly, trying to gain her third party perspective off of the interaction I had just experienced with Paul.
“I don’t know. He didn’t seem like he was, but who knows. I guess you can dream. After all, you’ll probably never see him again.”
“I might. I have his name and address in this book.”
“This is true,” Marlene admitted. “Now pack up your things and let’s head back to the hotel. Before your little drowning escapade we were already running behind to make our dinner reservation, and now I’m sure we’re going to be late.”
“Ah! Dinner!” I yelled playfully as I grabbed my bag and placed the blue guidebook inside of it, piling the other papers on top of it. My materials collected, I grabbed Marlene by the hand and we ran for it, in the opposite direction of where Paul had since disappeared. We climbed up the stairs along the cliffs of the coast, and made our way back into the heart of the Miraflores district, weaving through countless overly crowded and compact streets to where our tiny hotel waited.
It wasn’t until we entered the lobby that I decided to reach into my bag, curiosity finally getting the best of me, as I nearly drooled in anticipation to read the information that Paul had written within my book. My hand floated around within the canvas bag I held, but it couldn’t seem to find the tiny blue Peru travel book that held the answers I was looking for.
Instead, all I found was a hole, a large gaping hole in the corner of my bag that I had never noticed before. My hand stuck through the emptiness I discovered as I lifted up the proof of this predicament to make Marlene witness what had occurred.
“Oh no!” She yelled, already deducing what I had just realized.
The book was gone. In our multiple mile rush from the beach through the busy streets of Miraflores, the little blue book had slipped out of my bag and away from my possession, before I even had a chance to glance at the answers Paul had given me.
And so, that was all I had: the first name Paul, the recollection of his beaming face, and the understanding that he had saved my life.
He wasn’t the last man I would ever see, that much was clear, but unfortunately, it appeared as if the first day I ever saw him, would also be the final day he would ever be near me. Paul was gone, and without that book, I knew I would never meet him again.
May 15th 1983
The clouds appeared meek in the sky, but I was certain they would darken soon enough, becoming heavy with the passengers they carried, until the weight was too much for the gray fluff to hold onto, and the raindrops fell to the ground. I walked to the bookstore with no umbrella though, as no one in the city seemed to bother with the contraptions, instead letting the water soak us through as if was always meant to.
The Elliot Bay Book Company was the store I visited the most, although I frequented a lot of Seattle’s bookstores quite regularly. I liked to peruse the titles at random, usually buying one or two every visit, unable to stop myself from my already overflowing collection of paperbacks.
And of course, I visited the stores in search of the book I lost, the one I wished for more than anything, even though it had been more than two decades in my past.
I only knew him for a few brief minutes, but I still couldn’t help but think of Paul. Sometimes, a few days would go by without a thought of him, but he always came creeping back, never allowing me to let go of him completely.
I had relationships of my own, lovers who came and went, some wonderful, others dreadful, but all the while I still thought of his lips, and how we kissed, or at least so I told myself, as the memory of Marlene laughing at the absurdity of my imagination filtered itself through in some far away distance.
Still, I liked to dream that somehow the tiny blue travel book about Peru would make it’s way back to me, as if serendipity had planned for me to find its pages once again so that the revelation of who Paul was and where he belonged would make itself known to me.
The bell chimed as I entered the store, and the shopkeeper nodded in my direction, recognizing me as a regular customer. I headed to the back where the travel books were located, this section was always my first stop.
I ran my fingers along the spines of the books that rested there, calculating the colors that showed themselves to me, feeling the imprints of what they contained. I sped across them quickly, until the color blue caught my eye, as I read the name of the country: Peru.
I had never even found a similar copy to the one that I had owned, and I counted it as a blessing that at least after this day I wouldn’t be able to say the same again. Here was another copy of the book I once had, the book I lost in Lima, where Paul wrote down his homestead and identity.
I took it in my hands and made a delirious wish that somehow the information I longed for more than anything would come to me. I opened it up.
112 4th St.
Bangor ME 04401
I squeezed my eyes tightly and opened them again, sure that the words I thought I had seen would disappear in a flash. But there they were, and there they remained. Somehow, the book I had been looking for for over twenty years was now in my possession. I read the words over and over again, memorizing every character so that I would never forget what was written there.
When I had convinced myself of memorization, I ran to the front of the shop and paid for the book, letting the shopkeeper keep the change. Once I was outside, I felt the drizzle upon me, but I did not let it matter. I found the nearest phone booth and plugged in as many coins as I could, dialing the operator.
I asked her to connect me with Paul Manning in Bangor, Maine, and since she told me there was only one listing for such a name, with the exact address that I had in my head and upon the book page, the connection was made.
A woman answered, a female voice that sounded older than I. I hoped desperately that it wasn’t his wife.
I asked for Paul, but I also told her why I was calling. I told her briefly of the beach in Peru, and how Paul had pulled me out of the water, saving me from expiring in the sea. I tried to explain the book and the address and his name and how I just now found it all again, but she didn’t seem to comprehend my story in its entirety, only taking in the pieces that she deemed fit.
“Well you can’t mean my Paul. He’s never been to Peru. And besides, you sound much younger than either of us,” she told me, her voice flat.
“Is there another Paul? You live at 112 4th St., right? That’s what’s written in my book.”
“I’m telling you, the Paul that lives here is an old man. You must mean my son.”
“Your son!” I screamed excitedly, the telephone shaking in my hands. “Has he been to Peru?”
“Oh, he’s been everywhere. I’m pretty sure he was there years ago.”
“Is there anyway I can get in touch with him? I’ve wanted to thank him properly for years.”
“Well, he doesn’t live here anymore. He lives in Portland.”
“Portland, Maine?” I asked, assuming that he was only a brief distance away from where he grew up.
“No, as a matter of fact. The other Portland. He moved to the opposite coast a while back. He lives in Oregon.”
I gasped, and then shut my hand over my mouth so as not to startle the poor old woman any more than I probably already had. “I live in Seattle. Portland’s not far at all,” I told her, as if I were giving her a lesson in geography. “Could you perhaps give me his telephone number?”
“I can do that. And you know, now that I’m thinking about it, I think I remember him mentioning a story like this to me all those years ago, saving some guy in Peru who didn’t seem to know how to swim. Something like that anyways…” she said to me, her voice trailing off.
The conversation only lasted another minute or so after that, but by the time I had hung up the receiver, Paul’s mother had given me his telephone number and his address where he lived in Portland, only a three-hour drive away from me.
I rushed back to my house through the rain, holding the book on the inside of my jacket so that it didn’t get wet. Once I was back, I paced around my living room as I contemplated calling him, wishing to hear his voice.
I couldn’t do it though, I couldn’t make myself call him like that, out of the blue, with no warning or rationalization, no way to explain myself through the receiver that would keep us separate. Besides, what I wanted more than anything was not to hear him, but to see him in the flesh, in the space before me.
I knew it was reckless, but I didn’t care, after five minutes of deliberation, I got into my red pickup truck and began to drive to Portland.
The three hours sped past me as a paradox, both equally slow and alarmingly fast. I pulled up in front of Paul’s house on the outskirts of the city before I quite knew what to do with myself. What on earth was I going to say to him?
I was terrified.
I didn’t have much time to think though, because as I got closer to his homestead, I could see that someone was sitting on the front porch. I looked away as I put my vehicle in park, and when I looked back, the man who had been sitting there was getting up and coming towards me.
It was him.
I opened my truck door and moved in his direction. As he came into focus the small amount of memories I had replayed over so many times before they shifted, as I came to know his new face, that one that existed before me, aged, yet still breathtakingly handsome and clean, charming and pure.
He looked at me as if he knew me, but how could he remember me? How could he remember me in the way that I remembered him? I hadn’t saved him. He had saved me.
I stopped where I stood and stared at him as he continued to get closer.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked aloud.
He was right before me, pausing in the space, only inches between us.
“It took you long enough to come,” Paul said.
I could feel my cheeks blushing as my heart stretched to burst. From his words I imagined he had a recollection of our interaction on the beach.
“You remember me?” I asked incredulously.
“How could I forget you Ethan Bean? I could never have forgotten you.”
He laughed then, and I felt my body hunching away, as from the inflection of his voice the hopes I had of him wanting the same seemed to change. This had all been too good to be true. There was no way Paul had been waiting for me, not in the way that I had wanted him to.
“My mother called me an hour or so ago. She told me of your telephone call. I figured I’d be hearing from you, but I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“I’m sorry Paul, I should have called, but Seattle wasn’t far enough away from here to keep me at bay. I lost the book that day in Lima, I’ve been looking for it for twenty years, I just found it and-”
“You don’t have to explain any of that to me,” he said calmly, lifting up his finger and pressing it against my mouth, closing my lips, which trembled in protest. “It’s okay,” he went on, as his finger left the place where more words of mine prepared themselves.
“This is going to sound insane,” I started again, wanting to let all of my craziness out, so that it could be said and done and I could deal with the repercussions. “But I’m gay, and…well, ever since that day in Peru all I feel I’ve done is dreamt about you, and I’m sure you’re not, and this is so inappropriate of me, so forward and brash and-”
My words trailed off as his eyes penetrated me softly. I lost a sense of who I was, and what I was doing there in that moment as Paul’s presence calmed me down into a state of something else.
He leaned forward quickly, and as his lips pressed up against mine I felt a shiver quake down my spine, bringing me up from the bottom of the sea as the dark depths of a never-ending ocean lost me in its qualm to drown me. I breathed in the taste of his mouth as he gave me the oxygen I needed.
When he pulled away, he flashed the same smile I had never forgotten.
“Well, there’s your answer Ethan. Why do you think I wrote my name in that damn book in the first place? You found me.”