Monday, October 24, 2011

The Canals of Mars excerpt by Victor J Banis

Two men come together in an enchanted cottage, one of them old and one of them scarred –and begin to see one another and their lives in a different way. The eye is a wonderful thing, but only love can see the truth.

Canals of Mars
MLR Press (August, 2011)
ISBN# 978-1-60820-429-8


Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugly is there for everyone to see. I can afford to speak so flippantly on the subject, since I was, and I say it in all modesty, beautiful indeed.

The operative word there, of course, is, was. Was, before a vial exploded in the lab, and turned that beautiful face into a road map of Mars. In the novels, in the movies, this is where the handsome plastic surgeon rushes to the rescue, and by the next chapter-reel, I am Joan Crawford all over again, and on my way to becoming Mrs. Surgeon. Or, in my gay instance, Mister and Mister Surgeon.

Cut. First off, he was older than the hills and singularly unattractive. And, he was already married and blatantly heterosexual. Don't get me wrong: I have no objections to heterosexuals, so long as they aren't too obvious. And, hell, if he had been able to make me lovely again, I'd have murdered her, had the change, and gone after the old codger regardless.

Three operations later, however, the mirror still showed me the surface of Mars. The craters had shrunk somewhat, and the canals had shifted, but it was still Mars. I balked at going under the knife a fourth time.

"No, it won't be a dramatic improvement," he said when I questioned him.

"In other words, I’m still going to look like something brought back up half eaten," I asked, and the tone in which he assured me that I would look better told me that "better" still was not going to be very good.

Which was where we left it. Notwithstanding the pleasure of lying abed in a hospital—there is nothing quite like the personal touch of your own bedpan, is there—and all that delicious food, I promised I would get back to him, without specifying in which life.

When you are damaged, as I was, they give you lots of money, as if that would compensate for what I had lost. I was grateful, though, that I did not have to work. Not because I am all that fond of lying about vegetating, but because I did not have to face all those slipping-away eyes that I was sure to encounter.

There were not many places one could go, however, without the same problem. Jason threw in the towel and was gone. Jason who loved "the soul of me," who loved me "through and through," was through. I told myself, "good riddance," he was too shallow to be of much use as a lover, and I tried to not to think that I had mostly been just about as shallow most of my life. I definitely tried not to remember that I loved the bastard.

I am fortunate that I am comfortable with my own company, as many are not, and there is a certain bitter comfort in wallowing in self-pity. That wears thin, though, after a while, and the walls of my little apartment seemed to shrink inward with each passing day. So, when Douglas called me, to say he was going to spend a month or two at his cottage on the shore, and would I like to come along, I jumped at the chance. I might not have in the past. I had always understood that Douglas was in love with me—whatever that meant. Jason had been in love with me, too, he said, and what had that amounted to? Who knew what "love" was? I didn't.

In the past, I might have wondered at Douglas' intentions, getting me all alone in that little cottage of his. He was Jason's friend. I liked him well enough on the few occasions when I had met him, and he was a lovely person—just not my type. Not as old as that surgeon, probably, but, really, too old for my tastes, sixty if he was a day, maybe more. I didn't really know. Anyway, what difference does a number make? There comes a point when you're just old, doesn't there? Though I have to admit, if you weren't hung up on age, he was a youthful looking sixty whatever.

They say it's an ill wind, however. With the face I now had, I did not have to worry about whether it was only my beauty that men were after.

I will give him credit. He was one of the few, the first, maybe, since the accident, who did not flinch when he saw me. He even managed to look me straight in the face, and not quickly avert his eyes.

"Pretty awful, isn't it?" I said. He had come out to help me bring my bags in.

He smiled. "I've seen worse," he said. "I used to work in a burn center."

"I hope that wasn't meant to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside," I said, following him up the wide, shallow steps to the front door.

"No, I've got martinis waiting. That's their job."

They failed, however. All they did was lower the barriers I had so carefully raised. The martinis, and Douglas. He was an elegant man, suave and distinguished. He was also thoughtful and gentle; I hadn't known that about him before. Of course, I had never been alone at his beach cottage with him. Never, really, been alone with him at all.

He talked of all sorts of things, movies and people we both knew and recipes and the shore and the weather and, when I could bear it no longer and the tears began to stream down my cheeks, he stopped talking and just held me. He didn't try to tell me it would be okay. He didn't try to tell me that I was still beautiful. He did not swear it would all get better, or somehow magically go away, or any of the stupid, insensitive things that others had said that had only made me feel worse. He didn't even chide me when I blubbered about the canals of Mars.

He just held me and gently kissed my cheek; not even the good one. He kissed the one that was scarred, kissed Mars' canals as if they were the most natural things on this planet. He was the first person since the accident with the courage to put his lips to my flesh; the first, even, to put his arms around me. Jason had tried, and had paled and turned away before his lips touched me, and said with a sob, as if it were his heart breaking, "I can't, I just can't." Then he left.

Douglas only held me and kissed my cheek, and when the tears stopped at last, he took me upstairs and tucked me into my bed like a little child, and brought me a cup of hot chocolate, and made me drink it, and sat and held my hand until I fell asleep.


Evenings, he fixed us martinis and I got into the habit of preparing dinner. I had cooked in the past, but I had gotten away from it. I found now that I enjoyed it. I took unexpected pleasure in fixing the things he liked, the way he liked them. Nothing too fancy: steaks or lobster or burgers on the grill, and when it turned out we both actually loved it, the tuna casserole that Jason had always turned his nose up at. The one with potato chips. I caught Douglas licking the salt off the chips and smacked his hand with the spatula. Later, though, I tried it myself when he wasn't looking, and he caught me at it and smacked my hand.

"I was in the hospital for eight weeks," I told him petulantly. "You're not supposed to hit someone when they're recovering from surgery."

"Bullshit," he said, and offered me a chip to lick. He wasn't always elegant.

We ate sometimes on the terrace when it was warm enough, and at the kitchen table when it wasn't, and some evenings it was cool enough for a fire in the fireplace and we ate in front of it. There was no television, but he had a radio and a stereo, and somehow he had managed to stock a shelf with most of my favorite music. Sometimes he sat beside me, and he would shyly put his arm around me, and I would lean against him and put my head on his shoulder while we listened to music together, and watched the fire. We didn't talk much, but the silence was comfortable. Always, when he said good night, he kissed my cheek. The bad one.

After a week, when he started to turn away from me at my bedroom door, I said, "You don't have to go to your own room."

It took him a moment to realize what I meant. "Are you sure?" he said, uncertain and hopeful all at the same time.

"I'm sure."

I would have turned the lights out, but he wouldn't have it. "Do you have any idea how long I've dreamed of seeing you like this?" he asked. "I never thought I'd be so lucky."

I was naked by this time. He looked me up and down with undisguised pleasure while he undressed. That part of me, at least, was still fine. I was glad, for his sake as well as my own. He deserved beauty. I turned the bad cheek away.

He was naked too now, seemingly unembarrassed by his old man's body. He dropped on to the bed beside me.

"That was when I was beautiful," I said. "And please don't say, 'you still are.'"

"You still are," he said.

Without thinking, I put a hand to my face. "The canals of Mars?" I said.

"Where I shall swim in ecstasy," he said and kissed the scars. I watched and listened and felt carefully with all my senses for some hint of reluctance, of disgust or even discomfort, but if he felt any, he disguised it completely.

He took hold of my hand and rubbed it across the pouch of his belly, where he had thickened about the waist. "If you'll overlook this," he said, and leaned over to kiss my lips.


It was good sex. Not great, but good. Of course, sex had been a solitary pastime for me since the accident. Jack off and think of Jason, think of Jason and jack off. Maybe at this point in time, anybody would have made it seem good. I don't know. I don't think so. I suppose that is one of the advantages of age, though: practice makes you, if not perfect, pretty adept. He was. He made love to me. I had never experienced that before. Lots of sex, none hotter than with Jason, but no one had ever made love to me. It was nice. I kissed him when it was over, and kissing him, actually forgot about how I looked. He stayed the night in my bed. I slept comfortably in the crook of his arm.

I realized when I woke in the morning that I had forgotten, too, how old he was.


After that, we slept together every night. He could not have been more tender, more loving, and I stirred myself to be as good as I could be for him as well. It got better, our sex. I wanted it to, and it did, it got very much better. I stopped jacking off remembering Jason. I didn't stop remembering Jason, but I stopped jacking off, remembering him. Stopped jacking off altogether, to tell the truth. Who had anything left to shoot, the way we were going at it? He was insatiable. The old goat. It was flattering. Exhausting, but flattering.

One night when we finished, he rolled on his back with a gasp and said, "If you keep it up like that, you're going to kill me. I'm an old man, remember?"

"You're not so old," I said. And, to my surprise, I meant it. I'd been to bed with men forty years his junior who weren't the lover he was. Or, maybe they were. What I really mean is, that I hadn't gotten the pleasure, the same kind of pleasure, from them that I did from him. Maybe that was in part the pleasure that I was giving. I had never thought of it like that before: taking pleasure in giving it. I wanted to make him happy. I wanted to please him. When I did, and he made it quite obvious that I did, it made me happy too.

That was a new one for me.

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Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Ray Bradbury showed us the Canals of Mars and all the dangers they hold. Well, you showed us another view, they can be lovely once you 'really' are there, in a way. Very nice fragment.

C. Zampa said...


Lloyd said...

Beautiful - as always, Victor. I relish the conversational tone so frequent in your narration, the introspective rhetorical questions that reveal character. So artful, and satisfying.

AlanChinWriter said...

This brightened an otherwise gray morning, Victor. Thank you for sharing such lovely pose.

I've also given characters scares, particularly on the face. Not sure why that fasinates me so, but it does. I think because it make you look beyond the surface to the internal scars.

Jardonn Smith said...

Love it. Companionship and mental connect make them forget age and ugly, self and other. These passages on relationship building are so very real, Victor. Thank you, and thank you to Eric for letting me read Victor's words.