To Raul from Ben
He died in his mother's arms, whispering, "Say goodbye to the spider from his fly...." Not knowing what he meant, she wrote those words to me. Oh, I knew! Yes, I knew.

by Ben Boxer

The restaurant was still crowded at midnight when I arrived with a party of twelve. I hadn't been there before, but many friends had recommended it as the best place in Manila for sinagong, a highly regarded fish and vegetable soup. Despite the tropical heat, the middle-aged host seating us looked cool and fresh in his barong Tagalog, a native shirt ubiquitous in the Philippines.
Something seemed familiar about his darkly handsome face. As he passed around the menus and bantered in Tagalog with the Filipinos in the group, his eyes caught mine in a questioning glance. In that split second, each of us recognized an old friend.
"Carlos!" I cried, leaping to my feet.
"Ben!" he exclaimed, pumping my hand. "What brings you to Manila after all these years?"
"I live in San Francisco," I told him, "but I do business in Manila. I keep an apartment here, just a few blocks away!"
While four waiters served the party, Carlos pulled up a chair and chatted a few minutes with me. We hadn't met in many years. He had worked for an airline in those days and had handled some problems for me on an earlier visit to Manila long before I established commercial connections there. His children had by now grown up and two of the four were married.
He informed me proudly that he was a grandfather twice over, but was not surprised that I had never married. A friendly nudge of his knee against mine indicated his remembrance of a romantic interlude between us on a night long ago. For my part, I also recollected the incident very well.
I returned to the restaurant the next evening, at his invitation, for a quiet talk to review events of the intervening years. We completely relaxed as old friends do. A good-looking young waiter brought coffee to our table and went away.
"Do you want him?" asked Carlos with an impish grin. "I'll set it up for you."
I shook my head in answer. "That's generous, Carlos," I said, "but I'm here to carry on a conversation with you. I can find playmates for sex anywhere in Manila. It seems to be the world capital for available young guys."
"You're an easy mark, my friend," he announced in a serious tone. "They know it when they see you. Don't be too flattered."
"I'm not. One hand must wash the other, right?" I drank my coffee slowly and peered around the room.
His waiters were as appealing a group of young guys as one could find anywhere in the world. For me, the special charm lay in their enthusiasm for bedding down with an older man.
Carlos smiled at me through our silence. Lithe and trim but for an appealing middle-age spread of his belly, he would still have made an enticing prospect for a tropical night of love.
Over my coffee cup at that moment I saw a face.
It was no ordinary face. Its features were as finely drawn as a Periclean sculpture, centering around enormous brown eyes. Snowy teeth flashed in a brilliant smile. Dimples danced on the cheeks.
Framing this flawless picture of heroic beauty was a crown of dark-hued curls spilling over the forehead in careless array. A gleaming white shirt clinging to a hard, full chest lent purity to the living portrait of what I perceived as an ideal by which to measure perfection in young manhood.
Carlos swiveled in his seat and followed my gaze to where it settled on one of his waiters at the far end of the room.
"Ah, that is one you want," he acknowledged, "the one from Mindanao. Raul is the one you cannot have. He has no interest in this thing between men, my friend."
"There is a guy in Manila who looks like that and doesn't do it?" I wondered aloud in cynical disbelief.
"He does not," Carlos stated firmly, in a way that had to be believed.
My eyes narrowed as I took another look.
Christ, I thought, what a challenge!
"He doesn't do it," Carlos said again, "but let me be fair and introduce you anyway. He can tell you himself."
Above the average height for a Filipino, Raul stood joking with a co-worker, waiting for his next call to a table. His boss gave him a signal, and he hastened over.
Carlos presented him to me formally.
To be so close to this magnificent creature made me nervous. As I put forth the effort to rise from the table and shake his hand, I kocked a fork to the floor. Raul and I nearly knocked heads in a rush to pick it up. He reached it first, but in the confusion my nose brushed against his hair. Its clean fragrance stung my nostrils like a pungent aphrodisiac.
Nearly overcome by a flash of desire, I fell back heavily into my seat. I hadn't reacted that strongly to anyone for years.
"Steady, Ben," soothed Carlos.
"Are you all right, sir?" asked Raul with genuine concern.
"Fine, thank you," I choked out faintly.
Carlos turned away and signed for Raul to lean closer to him. He whispered into his ear. Astonishment crept across Raul's face. Despite his dark complexion, he blushed deeply in the cheeks.
"Thank you for the compliment, Mr. Boxer," he said when he straightened up. "It's kind of you to think so highly of me." His gaze studiously avoided contact with mine. "But as Carlos has told you, I am not available for that sort of thing."
Regaining some of my composure, I asked, "You're married or in love with a girl?"
He shook his head. "No, sir, there is no one." He bowed and hurried off.
He had no love interest! That simple statement constituted as great a challenge as the conquest of his unavailable body. I watched him go, wondering what tactic I might use to gain entry into his life.
The following noontime, when I came back to my apartment house after tending to business, the security guard called my attention to a young man sitting near the doorway on the bench inside: "He's been waiting here all morning, Mr. Boxer."
It was Raul. He rose when he saw me and came forward with the easy, graceful stride of a sportsman.
"Forgive me for coming unannounced," he said, "but Carlos gave me your telephone number and I tried to call."
In the apartment, he accepted a cup of coffee. I sat a safe distance from him on the enclosed terrace and tried to appear relaxed in spite of the sexual tension he aroused. I asked why he had come.
"Well, sir...." he began.
"Call me Ben," I interjected.
"Yes...Ben...I came to apologize for my attitude last night," he went on. "I'm sorry I can't be more accommodating. I hope you'll forgive me."
"Of course I will!" I said, the hunter in me rising again to the challenge embodied by this somewhat mysterious prey.
"I hope you and I can still be friends," Raul added. "Carlos says you're a very nice man. I'm playing basketball before work this afternoon. Would you like to come and watch the game?"
That comprised an invitation from the fly for the spider to spin a web. Raul became a constant presence in my life during the weeks that followed his invitation to watch him play basketball, but he remained as sexually remote as his boss, my friend Carlos, had promised he would be. No tactic I used to conquer his reluctance seemed to work.
He invited me to the movies and all the tourist spots in Manila--even to the discos, where we danced at random with the girls. Except for the dancing, never did he leave my side when we were together or pursue a conversation with anyone else. He was more faithful in his way than a lover would be.
His compulsion to learn was all-consuming. He was full of questions on every subject of which I might have any knowledge. I loved teaching him new things. He soaked up information like a sponge, interpreting everything clearly and in perspective. He had a scholar's mind. Our talks were lively. His wit shone in his sparkling eyes.

Gradually, I came to idealize Raul's mind as much as I cherished the hope of possessing his body. I began to look forward to the hours with him as a challenge to my intellect. What new subject would we delve into that day?
My instincts as a hunter began to falter. I passed up opportunities to pursue his physical conquest when I found myself wandering with him through a mental maze of questions, answers and discussion.
Still, I wasn't able to overcome entirely my need for sex. If anything, it was heightened by engrossing interest in Raul. I had grown accustomed to release two or three times a day in Manila, but my attention to Raul precluded relationships with others. Now I only wanted him.
I was therefore sometimes relentless in my efforts to get him into bed. He wouldn't give in. Mostly he would smile and look away, but if my cajoling became too insistent, he would excuse himself politely and go home. Then he'd come back to see me the next day, and it would start all over again.
The hunting game became such a part of our repartee that he sometimes called me "spider," and I retorted by calling him "fly."
It was exasperating. I didn't know whether I loved or hated him. I knew that I needed him. For this, I loved him. But the relationship frustrated me almost beyond endurance. For that, I hated him.
My ambivalence showed. One moment, I would tell him to find a smart girlfriend and leave me alone. The next, I would ask him to forgive me and ask me another question. I wanted to push him out of my web, and I wanted to keep him in it.
All in all, I was certainly less forgiving of his youth than I would have been had I wanted him only for sex. I begged him to enroll at a local university. He was working nights at the restaurant and doing well in tips, but he sent money back to Mindanao for his family. I convinced him to let me pay for his tuition, books and other basic expenses with the understanding that, in return, he was required to finish his education.
I finally gave up the hope of seducing him. I went out one night when I thought he was working and desperately picked up a young man on the street. No sooner had we gotten ourselves into a compromising position than the door opened and Raul walked in. He had a key.
I looked up to see him staring at us from the hallway. The trick saw him at the same time, got frightened or embarrassed, and left before a word was said.
Raul entered the living room and sat down beside me on the sofa. His expression was impassive. "I'm sorry I barged in like this," he apologized, "but I took off from work thinking you'd help me study for my mid-term exam tomorrow. I tried to call, but you weren't here. I thought you might be back by the time I arrived. Now I see where you were."
I tried to make a joke of it, but Raul behaved as though he didn't hear me.
He spoke again. "About that guy...does this stuff go on all the time? I mean, have you been picking up guys the whole time we've been friends?"
There was nothing accusing in his voice.
"No," I admitted truthfully, "this was the first one."
He got up, put his hands in his pockets, and paced around the room. Obviously, he was mulling something over in his mind. I supposed he was trying to figure out a graceful way to bow out of our crazy friendship.
After a few minutes, he went into the bathroom. I heard the shower running. He came out blotting himself with a towel. It was the first time I'd seen him in the nude. I thought of timeless statues by Da Vinci and Michelangelo. He wrapped the towel around his waist.
"Okay, Spider," he said matter-of-factly, "You win. Let's go to bed."

He stuck out his hand and led me to the bedroom. He stretched out on the bed and waited for me to undress. It was impersonal. He studied a water stain on the ceiling.
When I finally lay beside him, he had his hands clasped behind his head, seeming to concentrate on the stain.
"Before we do this," he ventured, "I want you to tell me exactly how you feel about me. I want the truth."
For once, I was speechless. I couldn't put any thing coherent into words.
After awhile, he pulled off the towel and sighed. "If all you want is my body, you can have it now. Just never expect to see me again. I'll drop out of school and pay back your money."
I snatched the towel and covered him with it. "That's not all I want, Fly. I love you. I don't want you to drop out of school. I want you to get an education. Get out of my goddamned bed and go home. You should be studying anyhow."
He rolled over to face me, threw an arm across my chest, and kissed me on the cheek. "That's what I hoped I'd hear. I love you, too. Let's make up for lost time!"
That night I thought of ancient lovers like Alexander and Bagoas, Pindar and Diodorus, Hadrian and Antinous, Zeus and Ganymede. Raul brought to life the legends of compelling love between an older and a younger man.
The next morning, Raul made a confession: "When I met you at the restaurant the first night, I said to myself, 'Any guy who can react to me that way can really love me.' But, my God, what a challenge to make you realize I'm not another easy stud in Manila! I figured if you got me too quickly, you'd as quickly throw me away. I came to this town last year from Mindanao. I saw it happening all around me. That wasn't for me. I wanted one guy. I could wait."
"So you've been lying in wait for me, instead of the other way around?" I smiled in ironic admiration of the fly who captured the unsuspecting spider.
"Right!" he laughed. "I knew for sure you were the one when you made me go back to school. You've invested love, not just money, in my future. Well, my future belongs to you if you want me. I make you two promises. I'll finish my education, and I'll see to it that your love earns interest on me for the rest of my life. Is it a deal?"
It was a deal. Raul became my lover. An old spider gets tired of spinning new cobwebs, and a fly needs someplace to land.

I wish I could report that Raul finished his education as he promised he would, but that was not to be. In the other matter he proved himself a man as good as his word. He compounded my love interest daily as long as he lived, which was, tragically, a scant two years more.
A few days before his scheduled departure from the Philippines to join me in San Francisco and finish his studies in California, he paid a farewell visit to his family on the island of Mindanao. He went to a basketball game to watch a team on which he had been the star player. His friends asked him to join the game. He scored the winning points. On the way home after dark, he was ambushed by jealous members of the losing team on a remote jungle path. They stabbed him repeatedly and left him to die. Lethally wounded, he struggled through the night alone until he reached his village. He died in his mother's arms, whispering, "Say goodbye to the spider from his fly...." Not knowing what he meant, she wrote those words to me. Oh! I knew. Yes, I knew, but gave no reply.
How does an old spider recover from such a blow--when he knows he will never hear again the soft humming on the breeze that means his dear fly is winging home?
In Reflections on the Composition of the Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has written of "invisible abodes which one makes for oneself quite outside the currents of time."
I have made room for such a place in my mind. Its existence begins when I lay my head upon a pillow at night and ends when I go to sleep. It has no more substance than a gossamer web.
Raul meets me there. He's not as I remember him in Manila. He has grown older, more mature. He gives me the impression he knows everything I know and has seen things I have never seen. His presence relaxes me, and I fall quickly into sleep.
When I awake in the morning, he's gone, of course, but I get up with the prayer that he simply woke earlier than I to some other reality and left to start a new day in that world as I must begin another one in this.

My invisible abode may be no more than wishful thinking, but it's a great comfort all the same.

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