My name is Jeffrey Sweet.
Now let’s dispense with the clichés: I’m gay. I’m an interior decorator. And I’ve got HIV. But don’t worry Gentle Reader, there’s plenty of life in the old girl yet:
clandestine, entertaining and otherwise. And there better be! After all, this is my life
we’re talking about. My story. And I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth the cover charge.
Fair warning: If you want sweetness and light, mix a Mimosa. If you’re cruising
for a weepy coming out story, do not drop your anchor here. I’ve moved on. And
considering Will and Grace now trolls the backwaters of cable, so has everyone else.
I will go deeper than mainstream gay propaganda. To prove it, allow me to start things off by introducing you to a woman and, I might add, a woman who is not my mother… or my sister… or even my roommate. Audrey was all of the above: my Rhoda, if you will. And the greatest client an “artist” could have. Rhoda yes…but Rhoda with a checkbook! Let me tell you with a straight face (pun intended) that without Audrey in my life I wouldn’t even have a life. At least not the one I inhabit now. Mrs. Audrey Bellows was a saint. The Patron Saint of Jeffrey Sweet. How’s that for a title? Definitely runner up material.
Suffused by the faint air of Chanel 19 and Benson & Hedges, Audrey’s brightly colored Hermes scarf fluttered behind her like the wings on a butterfly. Sometimes it held jasmine vapors from expensive wraps at the club. Or hinted at exotic teas from long afternoons at the Drake Hotel. These, Gentle Reader, were the smells of Heaven. Audrey was my platinum blond angel and I worshipped her.
Older than the 40-something years she liked to report. But, of course, no one ever
questioned her. As is, Audrey resembled a mid-career Bette Davis, before the string and
sting of B movies scarred her with that indelible, nightmarish face we know and adore.
Audrey was glamorous, in looks and temperament. Mrs. Bellows exuded elegance and
few women played the role of Southern Belle as masterfully as she.
Have I described her sufficiently? It’s just I abhor a story that delays in relaying
the mental and physical attributes of its main characters. After all, if I’m to spend time
with somebody new, I need to know as much as possible as soon as possible. Don’t you?
Here are my physical particulars: I’m 38, look older, and have a minuscule eight
percent body fat. I am, for lack of a better word, gaunt. Actually, gaunt is the perfect
word. Think David Byrne circa Stop Making Sense. A less seemly, but no less apt
comparison would be with that poor soul from Edvard Munch’s notorious painting, The
Scream. And yes, my medical condition (though stable now) is partly responsible. At
least I can honestly say I have a thirty-inch waistline. Those Calvin’s from high school? I
can still wear them, God forbid.
I once possessed a flowing crop of auburn hair a la Jim Morrison; it’s featherythin
now and I cut it short. Left alone, my follicles would be like Kris Kringle’s which is
why I do not leave them alone. Given a choice, I’d have black hair, silvering in spots, and
slightly on the long side. Picture Jeremy Irons in his Academy Award nominated
performance as Claus Von Bulow. And since we’re playing make-believe, throw in Mr.
Iron’s aristocratic accent as well, especially when one considers the nasal twang I
regrettably acquired upon being born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A birth defect.
Yes, Green Bay. A hometown known for its resident’s passion for cheese (fiction)
and a football team (fact) and weather so relentlessly cold it could freeze the gay right out
of you, which, if I hadn’t fled, it damn well might have. In Green Bay, the only allowable
exception to being straight is being wide and, in this regard, everyone in GB went both
ways! Honestly, prior to my arrival in Chicago, I didn’t even know we males came with
abdominal muscles. (Sorry father, but that’s the type of six-pack that brings me to my
Alas, forgive my constant digressions and patchy writing. Other than penning mash notes to a luscious and youthful bag handler at Treasure Island, I am a man of few words. In my job, and in general, I mostly just look at stuff and then rearrange it. I am prone to distraction. Recall, I spent twenty odd years –and I do mean odd- in Northern Wisconsin. Before running away, and in between bouts of acutely necessary repression, my imagination was constantly on leave.
One can take the boy out of Wisconsin but can one take Wisconsin out of the
boy? Recently, I consumed a basket of fried cheese curds. Granted, I was at an airport
bar… For the record, I ate every one. In addition, I had a Whiskey Sour, which, for
the uninitiated, along with beer is basically the state drink of Wisconsin.
Since my ignominious departure, I have never returned home. However, I will be making a necessary pilgrimage back, and soon. Three weeks to be exact. Of course I’m terrified. My parents know nothing about my sexual proclivity, or my health issues, or that I’m a decorator. (Honestly, I’m not sure they even know about the Civil Rights movement.) As far as Mom and Dad are concerned I’m still a waiter, which, in Green Bay, is considered a career.
I’d been in Chicago a number of years when Audrey came into my life. She’d just gone through a divorce: “Not my first but the worst,” she called it. Audrey wanted someone to take a look at her “flat” on Astor Street in “the nice building.” To this day I don’t know which of the buildings in that area isn’t nice. Mostly elegant mansions and statuesque Victorian row houses; they don’t call it the Gold Coast because of its proximity to Lake Michigan. Maybe her remark was a knock on some of the drabber high rises going up in the area. I never asked. For that zip code we should all be so lucky.
I didn’t ask Mrs. Bellows a lot of questions. About the job, herself, anything really. In time I would know plenty. But in Audrey’s time, not mine. I surmised that if I followed Audrey’s lead I might go places, or at least out of my studio apartment. I wasn’t being coy. Coming into our relationship I needed her far more than she needed me, a fact obvious to both of us. Later the playing field would even out, even if it got bumpier.
Our relationship officially began in the elevator to her apartment. Her building only had three floors yet it housed a lift. An ornately beautiful contraption (frilly wrought iron showing a lovely patina), but it was painfully slow. Losing weight was faster. Yet it provided Audrey the perfect opportunity to interrogate me. Of small talk Audrey was unawares. She tore into a topic. Her clipped tone and sharp queries reminded me of that tough British woman from the game show, The Weakest Link. I was sure if I answered incorrectly I’d be ridiculed or, worse yet, voted off the goddamned elevator!
“So, sweets, what is it: queer or gay?” She pursed her lips, presumably adjusting for lipstick.
“Excuse me?” I stammered. Was she serious? “Um…I…”
“Which do you prefer?” Audrey replied, not missing a beat. She allowed a thin smile, looking me over. She followed her own question with commentary. “I find the term fag derogatory. And, well, queer? Way too political…”
Stammering still: “I…um… guess gay is fine.” Believe it or not, we were only approaching the second floor. I could have crawled up quicker and with more dignity.
“Well, sweets, that’s easy for you to say,” she laughed. “Problem is I had an Irish setter named Gay. She was the most beautiful canine you ever saw. I just can’t see equating my precious Gay with your kind’s provocative lifestyle.”
I exhaled and went for it. “I don’t know,” I said quietly. “We both like having our balls licked.” I didn’t realize it then but this was a defining moment in our relationship. At the time I figured the comment would either get me the job or get me fired.
“Why you old bitch,” she exhorted. “That’s just too funny!”
“Yeah, well, I’m a funny guy.” I smiled at her hopefully –not unlike an Irish setter.
The elevator stopped with a clunk, its invisible electric generator humming loudly. I also heard what sounded like felines parading on the other side of the door. We had gone from Irish setters named Gay to the patter of pussycats.
“Okay, funny boy, be a gentleman and open this thing.” She motioned to the elevator handle and then to her hands. “My nails are still wet,” she said, wiggling her willowy, maroon-tipped fingers.
I opened the door and I got the job.
Prior to Audrey’s commission, I was a young buck of a decorator working for an old stag named Johnny Fresch. In his fantasy of himself, and on his business card, he went by ‘Fresh’ but in the real world everyone called him Johnny, which, if you asked me, was only a slightly better moniker. (In my view no white person or anything not available in produce should ever be referred to as fresh.) Anyway, this assignment was proof of my tenure. I had truly arrived. Johnny Fresh, make way for Jeffrey Sweet!
Johnny shrugged at my news, feigning indifference. Even though decorators coveted their territory and their women, my success was still inextricably linked to his. He’d make money on the commission. Besides, competitive spirits aside, I didn’t have it in for him. Far from it. I owed Johnny. Among other things, he’d given me my first real job.
Most Gold Coast ladies did their apartments as if they were decorating the White House. Unfortunately, for every aspiring Jackie Kennedy there was a Laura, a Barbara and even a Nancy. ‘Just say no’ may have been a popular catch phrase but not when it came to decorating. Excess was in. Modernism worked for L.A. and New York. But the doyennes of Chicago stuck with the look that had gotten them there. And it was a big look. Which meant lots and lots of chintz, acres of it, from ceiling to floor. Window treatments fell to the hardwood in crimson waterfalls, in the most regal magenta and royalist of blues. While on buttery walls, long-dead siblings stared derisively at one another, challenging all who dared remove a window treatment! I have yet to see one of these portraits where the subject is actually smiling. If I lived in such a house, and could afford to be painted, I would have had the artist make me appear contented. Clichés about money not buying happiness aside, I’d at least have a joyous veneer.
Lest you assume otherwise, I must go on the record as being supportive toward these women. Who else, but they, hire interior decorators? Besides, when I finally got my first pied-a-terre I was going to do the same damn thing! Old fashioned? You bet. Stodgy? As a country club. But remember Gentle Reader I grew up in a ranch house, shag carpeted, wood paneled. And mind you, this was before that sort of thing was cool. Bottom line: There were a lot worse places to live than in a Vanity Fair print. Far worse. Watch the six o’clock news. Whether the story involves a power outage or a winning lottery ticket, look behind any of the persons being interviewed. See that shiny poster of a basketball star in the midst of a dunk? Or how about the fake oil painting of Saint Something-Or-Other? And that plush orange sofa from Affordable Portables? This is how most people live and how I had to as well. Forgive my elitism, but no way I’m going there again. (Except to visit…in three weeks… God help me.)
Despite my concerted effort to develop a wealthy persona, I observed the newly rich to be no less appalling in their design sense than the uninformed poor. I mean how could anyone put wall-to-wall mirrors in a bedroom? Does a 57-year-old attorney in Highland Park really need to see the back of his ass, let alone his wife’s? And don’t get me started on the phenomenon of African art in a rich Caucasian household. Statues of well-hung African tribesman belong in museums not in sunken living rooms. And sunken living rooms belong on Brady Bunch re-runs not Lake Shore Drive. And so on and so forth… and so gross. You get the idea.
Through no fault of her own, Audrey’s apartment was guilty of more than its share of aesthetic violations. No taste and lots of money were a ruinous combination. The damage done to this once grand flat was almost surreal. Its bones had been broken. Think about a funky Escher print with its willy-nilly stairs. Here existed a 40-foot hallway that actually got narrower, leading eventually to a scarlet powder room housing the toilet; one I should add that was completely plated in gold. It was as if Midas had taken a crap, his buttocks leaving ‘behind’ a gilded seat. Had the toilet paper been made of money? Donald Trump dreams of bathrooms like this.
Painted fiery red and yellow, the front room resembled a Leroy Neiman canvas. What’s worse the numerous fabric and upholstery decisions seemed to have been made by Neiman’s equally vulgar contemporary, the infamous host of Monday Night Football: Howard Cosell! Like one of Howard’s sport coats, the wallpaper in the library was genuinely hurtful to look at. When I first saw it, I nearly had an aneurysm. Sunglasses would not have helped.
The propensity for mirrors I spoke of earlier? Everywhere. Wall to wall. Floor to ceiling. As was the black and white shag carpeting. I like this sort of thing…when it comes with a wink. You know, like when Joe Namath wore his fur coat on the sidelines. But an old apartment like this…all shiny and fuzzy? Imagine your grandmother wearing low-rise jeans and a mohair sweater. On second thought, don’t.
Nary an original fixture remained. The Mod Squad era track lighting zigzagged along dropped ceilings like welts on a junkie. Track marks. Of course all the moldings were gone, up and down. From the ceilings to the baseboards, it was just drywall running into drywall. From the onslaught of color in the public spaces to black and silver in the bedrooms, the color scheme was just that: a scheme, a plot to destroy sensibility forever. Even when the original owners had gone with something neutral they still had managed to blow it. Tan walls are fine but not when they’re made of real leather. Bear in mind, this wasn’t the enclave of a famous rock star or even someone culturally flamboyant. A middle-aged Jewish couple had lived here. The Feinbergs.
They say veterans of combat cannot tolerate intense fireworks displays. Likewise, I wasn’t sure if I could appreciate anything kitsch ever again. Standing in the living room, under what should have been a magnificent chandelier, but was instead a glowing box kite, I made my first comment.
“It needs work.”
Audrey nodded, dropping a lit Benson & Hedges onto the black and white shag carpeting. She let it smolder. “Do you have any gasoline?”
Mind you, in terms of location and square footage the place was a gem. It could be anything it wanted to be, including what it used to be, before the Feinbergs opened their nightclub. Which was exactly what Audrey had been thinking when she’d purchased it. She’d gotten a massive settlement from her ex husband. It seems Harvey came to the conclusion that what he really wanted in life was to marry a young woman, move to Las Vegas and underwrite a casino operation. Needless to say, it would have to be a modest casino because Audrey required serious underwriting as well.
Getting the apartment back to its original grandeur was a tall order, the equivalent of having a quadruple bypass, brain surgery, and a sex change. But the finished product would be worth it. Put another completely selfish way, if Audrey agreed to my plans, I’d have my rent made for the rest of the year. Hell, for a goddamn decade.
At first she refused, saying something about merely pulling carpets and whitewashing the walls. A “makeover” is how she phrased it. She owned a significant art and antique collection and thought that perhaps it could mask things.
Like perfume on a hooker, I thought but did not say. To her credit, Audrey did not believe in throwing money at all of life’s challenges. But effecting change are what Executive Martinis at the Coq D’or are all about. Mix in latent rage toward her ex husband and voila!
“Sweets,” she warbled, a fabric swatch in one hand, a glass in the other. “Just make it beautiful, ‘kay?”
And then she said it -in that theatrical drawl only Southern women of means can get away with-; she really said it, the words that every interior decorator longs to hear.
“Don’t worry about the money.”
A dozen oysters set down before us. I knew I’d found my pearl.
She even suggested we begin rehab that very afternoon. But not on the apartment.
“On you my dear.”
“We need to spruce up your look, sweets. No offense.”
Imagine how I felt: A gay designer receiving criticism on his wardrobe! As Mrs. Bellows’ “partner” I needed to look the part. Apparently my preppy ensembles were not her idea of how a right hand man should look. (Funny then, Audrey trusting my eye on matters of décor.)
It had been Johnny’s preference I attire in a spirit of conservative optimism. No wonder Chicago’s first ladies adored him. “Look like you work on the Hill,” he always said. “We may be secretly poor Democrats but most of our clients are rich Republicans. And if you want to catch fish you’ve got to use the right bait.” I didn’t mind the advice or, frankly, the style. In fact many of my peers dressed that way. Some nights even the gay bars felt like a Brooks Brothers’ catalogue. Just my theory but dressing conservatively may have been a means of mitigating for our progressive lifestyles.
That said Audrey wanted more sizzle.
So, for my new client, and in anticipation of a shopping spree, I did not offer up a challenge. Out went the blue blazers and rep ties and in came the black everything from Barney’s. And all of it, every last cashmere turtleneck, was provided via Audrey’s very elastic plastic. I hoped Harvey was enjoying his new wife and dry climate the way I was enjoying his ex wife and new money!
Construction began immediately. Johnnie’s cousin Earl worked demolition for Quick Gut, Incorporated, and, true to the name, he was over and out of the place in two weeks. With a crowbar, I had personally helped his team pull the carpet, shaving the place clean. Strangely, I embraced this job. And not just because I was removing all that hideous fur, but the activity reminded me of my youth in Green Bay, peeling an old sunburn, blowing away the powdery flakes like so much pixie dust. What walls we didn’t knock down, Six Mexican Brothers (I’m not kidding about these names) painted a lovely coat of sandy white.
The stage was set. With this massive, gutted apartment I now had the opportunity to show off my staggering (if largely unproven) talents.
I could have rushed the project along. Money had remained a non-issue and the architect was quick and competent. Yet I took pains to slow down the pace. I uttered clichés about taking time to get it right, living with a thing for a while, et-cetera. I suggested maybe ordering the trim from Italy and the wallpaper from London. It’s not that I required more time for the job per se. I wanted more time to be with her. Already I felt myself being drawn to Audrey. I don’t know if she was the stylish mother I never had or my feminine side craving a peer. Bottom line, I enjoyed being with this person and I just didn’t want our relationship to end.
I actually found myself canceling dates so I could be with her. And, trust me, I had very few lovers to begin with. I knew Audrey was near old enough to be my mother but there was something in the way she comported herself I positively adored; I was smitten.
Let’s explore why.
Adroit in polite society, Audrey was also deliciously flamboyant, comfortable with foul language and sordid innuendo. She had the demeanor of Princess Grace Kelly or the ruthless wit of Truman Capote. And she could switch from one to another in an instant, if, say, a VIP sauntered by our table. Which, incidentally, happened all the time.
For example, a moment occurred between the espresso and a second peek under the dessert cart at Chicago’s famous Pump Room.
Allow me to back up. Somewhat surprisingly, we’d been underwhelmed by our dinners (an overcooked salmon on my plate, hers an atypically dry whitefish). Not being ones to give up on the Pump Room, we decided to render the apologetic staff an opportunity for redemption: Bananas Foster, compliments of the chef.
Our bliss was restored, until in walked the matriarch of one of Chicago’s other important social circles. An emaciated, over-perfumed, silvery blond, Flower Roberts was on everybody’s A list and, to her credit, not above slumming with the Bs of the world. (In this regard she was similar to Audrey. Both ladies enjoyed a well-rounded lifestyle, be it sangrias at a drag club or high tea at the Four Seasons.) Unfortunately, they both regarded the other as less than. Like same-sex angelfish, they bristled when facing one another. The 312 area code was simply not big enough for them both, let alone the Pump Room.
Yet protocol dictated they make contact. If the tables were turned (so to speak) and we had just walked in, a conversation would be equally unavoidable.
Whether I was polite or just nervous, I got up.
“Hello, Mrs. Roberts,” I said cheerfully, offering her my hand. Hoping for a pleasant response, I hedged my bet. “You look absolutely divine!” (Did I just say divine? God, I’m such a fag.)
Audrey stood. “No Sweetie, these bananas are divine. I’m sure Flower can appreciate what ripeness does to a dish.”
“You’re entirely too sweet, Audrey…Honestly.”
Honestly? Honestly, their dialogue was giving me the creeps…or diabetes. These two ladies could volley. I asked Flower to join us. Being a gentleman, I felt I had no choice.
Fortunately, Flower ignored my invitation. She remained standing and silent, choosing a fixed point on the top of my head and staring at it. Her standoffish behavior I’d witnessed before in the brazenly rich. Calculated rudeness. Something taught them I feared.
“Anyway, it’s nice to see you again,” I found myself saying. Then I bowed lamely and sat back down. The bananas were melting on my plate. I felt sure Madame would sit as well. Alas, the ladies were not done sparring.
“Blaine tells me he’s leaving for the Riviera next week,” said Audrey. “A film festival, I believe… Or was it something else, more personal?” Her weapon discharged, Audrey smiled thinly, bracing for impact.
Everyone knew Flower’s husband Blaine was gay and their marriage a sham. He was in it for the money. She for his European pedigree. Blaine was probably cavorting with a cabana boy as we spoke -a lad familiar with mixing mojitos, giving hot oil massages and mostly saying “oui, monsieur, oui.” In my book Blaine was a lucky, lucky man. This was not a view shared by society as a whole. And clearly not a topic Flower cared to dwell on.
“He is previewing some antique bed frames before importing them,” said Flower.
“I’ll bet,” came Audrey’s snide reply, a lay-up.
“Yes, well,” retorted Flower. “You have your banana to get back to.”
“At least one of us does.”
Ouch. Two aces. 30-Love. The match was definitely going to Audrey. Christ, Flower came across like the wealthy dowager in a Marx Brothers movie. Someone needed to take Mrs. Roberts to a play, anything with dialogue in it, I thought to myself. She must have a lot of money to get by with so few wits.
“I’m sure I’ll see you at the Harvest Ball,” replied Flower. She pretended to see someone she knew (again, calculated rudeness), waved in the general direction, and then retreated.
Audrey joined me at the table, drawing back her metaphorical bow and arrow. She adjusted her skirt against the chair’s plush upholstery.
“Well played,” I said. My fingers crossed that her small victory might merit an aperitif.
“Thank you, Sweetie. I was on my “A” game, wasn’t I?” Winking, she signaled the waiter over. “Watching Flowers wilt always makes me thirsty,” chortled Audrey.
“Moi aussi,” I said, contemplating the fine array of cognacs. I had nothing against Mrs. Roberts. (Indeed, she would make a fine client.) But Audrey’s vintage was quite satisfactory, thank you, and she was already mine!
One squall averted, another, potentially far more dangerous one, approached: my brother.
“Steven!” I squeaked.
My thoughts as they occurred, in the ass-backward way they occurred: my brother Steven is not gay. He is not sympathetic to those who are gay. Steven does not know I am gay. Those were facts, each one a wallop to the solar plexus. But the questions I had were scarier: why was my brother in Chicago, at the Ambassador East Hotel, and in the Pump Room? And who in God’s name were they?
Steven was not alone. An exotic, raven-haired creature and a blond bombshell hung to each of my brother’s arms as he approached our table. All three were donning wardrobe that gave me pause. The females appeared to be primed for opening night at a gaudy premiere. Each had on a plunging, slit gown, one black the other maroon. My brother wore a suit, a miracle. (Of course it was a terrible suit, no doubt purchased from that fool on TV: “You’re gonna like the way you look. I guarantee it!”) I can guarantee you how I looked: shocked – like I’d just seen my long lost brother. I overcompensated for my nerves with false bravado.
“Well look who’s coming to dinner!” I blurted, instantly regretting the campy spin I put on the line, the way I clasped my hands. Why not just put on a tag that said ‘Your brother is a HOMO!’
Fortunately, any gay subtext was lost on Steven.
“I told you that was my brother,” he exclaimed, nudging the finely sculpted arm of girl number one.
Audrey was rapt; Flower’s smell replaced by far stronger fragrances. Her senses peeked. She leaned forward, encouraging the conversation, tweaking the confrontation.
“You’ve got the same face,” commented the raven-haired beauty, acknowledging our physical similarities but seemingly indifferent to the unfolding drama. The blond, however, was more into the exchange. Her eyes shot back and forth between us like tennis balls.
A given: I knew these two were call girls and they knew I was gay. People who define themselves by their sexuality can spot the same quality in others. It’s like the expanded satellite version of ‘gaydar.’
My obvious concern was that they would tell Steven of my sexual orientation, which would be a disaster. But what the hell was my brother doing with a couple of hookers anyway? (I could guess but you know what I mean.) Oddly, I worried little what Audrey was making of all this. She devoured scandal like a proverbial box of chocolates, savoring every flavor, even the cruddy yellow ones.
I hated chocolate. Though futile, I prayed my brother and his harem would leave. No way in hell would I ask them to join us. No way-
“Won’t you please join us?” chimed Audrey, scooting over in the booth. “We were about to order an aperitif.”
Steven looked at his watch. If these girls were getting paid by the hour then answering Audrey’s question was more a business decision than anything else. I squirmed just thinking about it, and thinking about Steven thinking about it.
The girls knew enough French to know aperitif meant expensive booze. “Oh let’s stay!” the blond beamed, tugging on Steven’s arm. The other woman shrugged; she could go either way. Liquor wasn’t a treat it was inevitable.
Steven hardly spoke. My squirming became legion.
They joined us, squeezing into our booth like circus clowns in a Volkswagen. Sensing a bodacious bar tab in the making, our waiter appeared. “More glasses?” he asked, directing the query to me.
“Bring the bottle, William,” Audrey replied, confirming my worst fears. It appeared we’d be here for a while.
“So,” Audrey commenced, “I knew Jeffrey had family but you’re the very first we’ve had the pleasure to meet.” Audrey extended her hand, which Steven eagerly took and shook. I couldn’t imagine what he made of her and, for that matter, of us. Yet unlike me, he seemed to be getting over his anxiety. His confident smile spoke volumes.
And Audrey? Well, she was just warming up. “These two gorgeous women,” she purred. “Tell me, Steven, how does one fellow get so lucky?”
We all knew the answer: Money. God forbid anyone said it.
“Why don’t we all introduce ourselves?” she continued, knowing that any conversation would require effort as well as liquor. “Since my dinner companion appears tongue tied, I’ll start. My name is Audrey Bellows.”
I gulped my remaining wine. Where was the cognac? For me, the awkwardness of our situation was paralyzing. In high school, Steven had once been arrested for physically harassing a gay student. Though the victim dropped the charges, I convicted him for life. Right or wrong, I didn’t want to deal with my brother.
Taken by Audrey’s charm, the blond chimed in enthusiastically. “My name is Therize. This here is Kara,” she added, pointing to her friend.
Kara nodded, whispering hello. Good thing for her she was tantalizingly beautiful because there was something condescending about her demeanor, like she was somehow above her role as arm candy.
Therize did not have that problem. She beamed. “We hooked up with Steven at the Lodge. He said he’d buy us a proper drink, you know, before we did it. So here we are!”
Sigh. Her comments were so, like, you know… Where to begin? Before we did it. For you out-of-towners, the Lodge was perhaps the first pick-up bar established on Rush Street, a ground zero for straight people’s debauchery. Fitting.
“Therize is from Sheboygan,” said my brother, his second set of words since descending upon our table. “Can you believe that? I mean, where were girls like her when we were in high school?”
I have no idea -In prostitute school? I didn’t say it but I was that close.
“So, Steven,” I asked, “what brings you to Chicago?” He’d never called regarding this visit or any other matter. Ordinarily, I appreciated him leaving me alone. My homosexuality was not going away or getting any easier to cloak. And, as I’ve already suggested, no one in my family knew. Including him. The last thing I needed was my lone brother (and former queer basher) relaying news of my sexual orientation to our mother and father.
“Yes, dear boy,” cooed Audrey. “Are you here on business or pleasure… or perhaps a little bit of both?” She winked at the girls, not at all intimidated by them.
What possible business reason could draw my brother to Chicago? “Last I heard you were selling Dodge Trucks off Highway 43.” I tried not to sound condescending, sarcastic or mean.
“Auto show,” said Steven, unperturbed by my tone. “I was the top seller last year. So the dealership comped me the trip. I’m staying at the Doubletree.” He said the hotel’s name with a lot of pride, like it was someplace grand.
“Valet is 23 bucks a night, though. Who do they think they are –the fucking Ritz Carlton?”
Indeed. And if he was worried about the parking fees I wondered if he knew what these two lovelies would cost him. No truck-stop floozies were they. I was doing the math in my head when Steven asked Audrey how she had come to know me.
Damn. So preoccupied with my own observations I hadn’t even considered what we must’ve looked like to him. I was pretty sure the girls could tell it was nothing sexual. But Steven was more naïve than they were.
“We’ve been dating on and off for the last what…” Audrey gave me this look.
“…A year now, isn’t it?”
She may have added, “honey” to the sentence I don’t know. My brain crashed like a PC in kindergarten.
Silence. Even the hookers held their tongues.
I continued scanning for reactions, feebly preparing my own response, hoping beyond hope for a kitchen fire, earthquake, or any interruption. In lieu of an exit strategy I needed distractions. But alas it was late, relatively quiet, no escaping the topic. My God, how could Audrey say such a thing? What was she thinking? And now what was my brother thinking? Could he accept his older brother with an older woman? A simple man, would he even buy such a story? I mean it was such obvious bullshit. I suppose it was preferable to him knowing the truth. But still…
Again, I wondered: What the hell was Audrey thinking?
Oblivious, the waiter slowly poured each of us a snifter of cognac. All the while Kara was staring at me, I feared, judgmentally. She’d heard her share of lies but I’m sure this piece of dribble surprised even her.
“Well then,” Steven gestured, holding up his glass. “Here’s to the fine and dandy women of Chicago, eh bro? Who’d have thunk we’d find such beauties in the city of Chicago? They sure are something.”
Everybody lifted drinks.
“Yes sirree,” I said, clinking my glass with Audrey’s, almost hard enough to break it. “Who’d have thunk it?”
(Insert awkward moment here.)
“How is Mother?” I asked Steven, not sure if it was a good idea dragging our mom into the conversation. But I was desperate to change the subject.
No such luck.
“She’s great, considering Pops.” Steven wrinkled his nose. “You should tell her about Audrey. She’s always wondering about stuff like that.”
What did “stuff like that” mean? I understood the comment “considering Pops.” The old man was indeed old and falling apart. I envisioned him wearing his failing health like a scarlet letter, shamelessly rummaging around the house, waiting for 5 o’clock so he could start drinking and watching the news, and not “that daytime shit your mother watches.”
I’d heard he’d gotten ornery with age but fortunately was too frail to physically take it out on Mom or anyone else. Still, his physical deterioration and subsequent mental tirades had to be excruciating for everybody. Sad.
Before retiring, my father ran a small plumbing operation with two guys (neither of them, to his chagrin, his sons), and an African-American secretary named Bell. I mention Bell’s race because brown people were extremely rare in Brown County. Seriously, there are more African Americans on the Green Bay Packers than in the entire city of Green Bay. Way more. Taken further, I’d bet there were even more queers in Green Bay than brothers. (Footnote: One or two gay bars operated in town. They allowed women in as smokescreens, and if anyone could see through it, they weren’t talking. My point is I have no idea where a black man could get a drink in Green Bay.)
Pop harbored a lot of rage about his waning health, which was further exasperated by the fact that his two sons weren’t a part of it. Clearly, I never saw a future in the plumbing trade but I remained puzzled at why Steven hadn’t glommed onto the idea. Seems like it would have been the perfect gig for him, a no-brainer.
“Well, Steven,” Audrey said, “we didn’t tell your parents about us because Jeffrey and I weren’t sure they’d understand our special kind of love.” She pulled a Benson & Hedges 100 out from a gilded and monogrammed case and waited for me to light it, which, although furious at her, I did. Dame Audrey smoked without reprisals from management so vast were her tips.
Our special kind of love? Was Lionel Richie in town?
“May and September,” continued Audrey, undaunted, “are the two finest months of the year.” She exhaled slowly, an upside-down waterfall of smoke.
We had a grand relationship, yes. Until now. Why oh why was she doing this to me? Did Audrey have any idea the magnitude of her lie and its potential for negative consequences? A cute, off color gag at the end of the night was one thing but this clearly transcended that. In two minutes her joke had assumed mythological proportions. She’d opened a veritable Pandora’s box. Now I feared the comedy would turn tragic. And fast. The truth about us (as well as any fiction being created here) could be devastating to my kin and anyone who knew me north of Chicago. And to think yesterday we were choosing fabric for her guest room.
Kara winked my way. With horror I imagined she took me for a gigolo. A gay man yes, but one who was able to service womankind too. Special kind of love, indeed.
Therize was missing the intrigue altogether; rather she kept trying to light her cognac on fire.
“I saw them do this at Club Mirage. Remember Kara? They said it burns off the bad alcohol leaving only the sweet part.” It wasn’t working. “Damn!” she howled, burning her thumb.
“Cut that out, Therize!” Steven snapped. “This ain’t a second rate night club.” Like he’d know the difference.
Steven grabbed the pink lighter from his ditsy escort and thrust it back into her glittery handbag.
Audrey laughed. “Oh Steven. Let the girls have some fun. I’ll have you know a lot bigger fires have been started at this table!” She swirled her cordial and then took a sizable gulp.
Madame was, of course, referring to the numerous bouts of sordid, adulterous lovemaking that had taken place over the years at infamous table Number One. I, too, had heard the stories and, in some cases, seen the activity. However, I was more surprised by my brother’s sudden interest. Imagine, a lesson in table etiquette coming from the back-to back first place winner of his junior college beer-shooting contest.
“How serious are you two?” Steven asked, resuming the uncomfortable subject of my fictitious relationship to Audrey.
Kara smirked but it went unnoticed by everyone…but me. “Well,” I stammered, “Audrey and I-”
“Are getting married!” bubbled Audrey. “As a matter of fact, we just hired a Justice of the Peace.” She nodded, giving me a peck on the cheek. “The ceremony is going to be in his quarters by the Drake Hotel, which, incidentally, is where we consummated our union.” The lies were like piranhas feeding on the truth, tearing it from limb to limb.
I entered into what can best be described as living rigor mortis. Death would have made this moment easier. Unfortunately I lived on, unable to express my dismay in present company. My smile could best be described as the jagged cut in a Halloween pumpkin. The mask Jason wore in Friday the 13th. Audrey’s lie had reached its epic and farthest flung conclusion. We were getting married! Zenith or nadir? I always confused the two words. In this case both probably applied. I was on a roller coaster and I hated roller coasters. And I was getting drunk. We all were.
But the lying liar wasn’t done lying. Audrey began showing off her old wedding ring (claiming it was ours!) and of course this created a furor.
“Whoa, that sure is a big one,” commented my brother.
‘What –the fraud or the diamond?’ I thought but dared not say.
“I’d say two carats, “ advised Kara, weighing in. She leaned in closer. “Clarity looks good too.”
“Yes… well…” I stammered. “I guess nothing is too good for my special sweetie.”
We were in a Will & Grace episode, had to be. Or I was dreaming we were in a Will & Grace episode. But then I realized: I didn’t watch Will & Grace.
Panicking, I silently mouthed the first line of the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… Oh, come on, Flower, noxious weed, show yourself! Step up and stop this architect of lies before her monstrous creation kills us all! Better yet, what if our waiter tripped and spilled a flaming something-or-other on Audrey –a kamikaze, isn’t that what they called it?
Or my brother proposed a toast, blessing and perpetuating our mythological union.
“To the future Mr. And Mrs. Jeffrey Sweet,” he saluted. “The new king and queen of Chicago’s Gold Coast!”
Well, he got the queen part right. I clinked my glass to his welcoming, yet another opportunity to drink.
“And to Kara and Therize!” I boomed. But I couldn’t finish the toast. Instead I drank some more. The evening continued in that fashion. Saluting our fortunes. Marveling at fate. Until the entire bottle of XO was vanquished.
“And to think, I always thought my brother was a homo,” blurted Steven. “I mean all those times I busted him playing with Barbie!”
Keep smiling, I told myself. You knew this rant was coming; you’ve been dreading it for 20 years. He’ll get it out and we’ll move on. Steven got it out all right.
“Get this,” he bellowed. “Jeffrey would pretend that Ken and Barbie were doing it; you know, like to cover up the fact that he was playing with dolls!” Steven made the okay sign with one hand and proceeded to shove his other index finger in and out of the circle, mocking the sex act and, in turn, me.
Hard to tell which part of Steven’s anecdote was more humiliating: The fact that it was utterly true or that I was playing along with this inexplicable charade in the first place.
Regardless, the table guffawed. All except Kara, who kept giving me the evil eye. Even inebriated I knew something was up with her. Sure enough, when I got up to use the bathroom she followed me. I was cornered between a relic bank of payphones and the men’s room door.
“I know you’re gay,” she exhorted, pulling out a cigarette and impatiently waiting for me to light it. (Since when had I become the poor little match girl?)
“And I know you’re an escort,” I shot back.
“Yes, but the whole table knows I’m an escort,” Kara replied tartly. She let the sentence hang.
“Okay, so my brother is the only guy in the 312 area code who hasn’t figured out that I’m gay. Big whup.”
But it was a big whup. This demon was looking for money. Hush money! And, unless I was willing to shatter my brother’s ebullient mood (not to mention call Audrey out as a liar), she was going to get it.
“Okay, how much is this going to cost me?” I had in my pocket four 20-dollar bills and two Valiums.
Tiger Lilly took another drag, milking it. “Normally 500 bucks would do it. More if I thought you could get into Audrey’s account.” She paused. “But I figure she’s only lying to protect you or as some kind of joke.”
“I don’t have 500 dollars,” I said, meekly.
But we both knew I could get it (or a big chunk of it) from the ATM, which, as my luck would have it, was right in front of us.
Sighing, I fumbled for my wallet.
Kara grabbed my hand. “Jeffrey,” she whispered, smiling. “I don’t want you to give me any money. I want you to give me a job.”
“A job?” I was speechless. And while part of me was relieved by her request (given what it could have been), I waited for the other shoe to drop. A job? I barely had one myself.
“I want to be an interior decorator. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
Why even pretend to be shocked? She had eyes. Obvious smarts. She’d read Audrey and me from the get go. She knew women of a certain age and wealth (like Audrey) generally hung out with one of three types of men: a husband, an escort, or an interior decorator. Kara merely chose correctly.
“Are you familiar with my work?” I asked, dead serious. One never knew.
“No, but I have sex in some of the nicest rooms in Chicago.”
I absorbed the remark without so much as flinching.
“Seriously,” continued Kara. “A while back I started paying attention to the décor, the look and feel of places. Generally, my clients were more than happy to show me around between screwing. During the days, which as you can imagine are slow, I began sitting in on some of the design courses at Columbia College and the Art Institute. Just yesterday I renewed my subscription to Elle Decor.”
“I see,” I said. What could I say? The situation was both ominous and ridiculous.
Kara summed up: “I don’t want to just do rich guys anymore. I want to do rich guy’s apartments.”
This conversation was not going to get easier. I wished I still smoked cigarettes. “Well,” I said. “I could make a few calls-
“Not good enough,” interrupted Kara. “I want to join your firm, company or whatever it is you call it. You do the ladies, like your friend out there. And I’ll do the guys.”
I wished she’d stop using the verb “do.” I tried taking her seriously. I had no choice. I could not deal with a scene at the dinner table just now. Not with Audrey. Not with my brother. Pissing off this woman –clearly, a very smart woman- was not in my best interests. Still, I couldn’t begin to imagine breaching the subject of her inquiry with my boss. Who? What? Why? He would ask. And I would have no good answers. And that’s what I told Kara.
“Look, Jeffrey, I know it’s not necessarily an easy thing I’m requesting. But hey, that’s why they call it blackmail.” She smiled, her first real one of the evening.
“I see,” I said again, having left my gift for gab back with the others, whom, by the way, I was beginning to worry about. “Thing is my boss isn’t hiring right now.” I stated, resolutely.
“Well then,” she said, without skipping a beat. “We’ll just have to form our own company. How about Kara Jeffrey Interiors? KJ Interiors for short. I like it, don’t you?”
Although I had to admit the name had a nice ring to it (don’t think I hadn’t thought of Sweet Interiors before), I still couldn’t see how this idea was getting further than the hallway.
Kara read my mind. “Jeffrey, you’re going to make this happen. Unless you don’t mind me telling Steven that his brother enjoys a cock now and again.”
And so after midnight, in the alcove of the Pump Room, JK Sweet Interiors was formed. The letter ‘J,’ as I told Kara, came before ‘K’ in the alphabet. Besides, I had my pride –petite morsel that it was.
I also explained to my new partner that I had to maintain a position within Johnny’s company, out of respect to him, our clients, and because I couldn’t imagine quitting. Let’s face it: There were a lot of intangibles in this deal.
Our side venture would begin next Monday at 11 o’clock in the morning, replete with new business cards (Kara’s treat) and a round of lattes (mine). We were to meet at the Starbucks on Rush across from Hermes. According to Kara, Sunday evening was typically busy for her (who knew?) but she said she’d limit her activity in order to be fresh for our meeting. If I was just five minutes late, she added, her next call would be to a certain truck dealership up north. Anyway, we sealed the deal by splitting a Valium. She would have taken the whole pill but, as she so eloquently put it, “I still have your brother to amuse.”
When we arrived back at the table Steven was in fine form. “I better keep my eyes on you two. Kara has a sweet tooth!”
He was too drunk and not inherently smart enough to ad lib like that; I gathered Audrey had fed him the line. Lord knows she’d choreographed everything else about the evening –Kara’s blackmail being the one mind-bending exception!
I was desperate for Audrey’s explanation on lying so spectacularly and, in turn, to tell her of its consequences. However, because of the late hour it would have to wait. Drained from the drama and the liquor and the Valium, all I really needed right now was a pillow. Tomorrow none of this would be real. It was just another troubling dream. Happened all the time. At this point passing out was my best shot out of this jam.
Fortunately, Audrey was done acting up. While I’d forged my pact with Satan, she’d paid the bar bill. Therize was passionately kissing Steven, which no doubt irritated Audrey. While Audrey relished playing mind games she detested physical displays of affection. Go figure. Kara, on the other hand, appeared delighted.
“Maybe tonight I’ll only have to watch,” she whispered in my ear as our entourage piled out the door.
Audrey pre-empted any chance of discussing the night’s events by abruptly jumping in a taxi. “Dear boy,” she chided from an open window. “You should have told me you had a brother.”
Limply, I waved good-bye, realizing then the reason for Madame’s ruse this evening. I’d withheld important personal information from her and she was getting back at me. I shut my eyes, bracing against the elements. Face into the wind, I shuddered. Suddenly, I feared my secrets were catching up with me, which chilled more than the gusts blowing in off the lake.
I’d never told Audrey I was born in Wisconsin. I said I hailed from an historic fishing and shipbuilding town. While technically true, I calculated the remark to be misinterpreted, and so I happily let her believe home was picturesque Nantucket as opposed to Green Bay. From that point on, I bobbed and weaved whenever she’d bring up the subject. Like a lot of gay men, I was aware of Fire Island and I’d once spent a drunken week in Provincetown. Therefore, I conversed with her using cobbled together hyperbolae based on these two experiences. How did I get away with it? Simple. I grew up gay and undetected in Wisconsin. Let me tell you, lying to survive was a lot harder than faking out my peers.
But now, after nearly 40 years, it was all coming back. I had likely hurt my best friend in the world and, good reason or not, I’d been duping my entire family as well. My head ached. And I was paranoid. Before leaving, Steven reminded me that it was our father’s 80th birthday next month.
“Pops is gonna die when he meets Audrey. He’ll probably have a heart attack as soon as you both step out of the car!”
I watched my unmarried brother happily stumble toward his hotel, a girl on each arm. And I realized something else: I didn’t just envy Steven for being straight, as I so often thought; it was more his ability to drunkenly float through life without carrying an iota of guilt.
My apartment looked better in the morning than at any other time. Light streamed in from the rising sun, reflected off the lake, bright and full of hope. I had a fairly small place but less so in the morning. Then the view trumped all else. Outside looking up one saw a drab, green and white curved mess of a high-rise. Turned around were the sky and lake, unimpeded.
Unfortunately, my outlook this morning precluded me from enjoying the view. The hangover didn’t help. Lifting my eyes from the dog-eared copy of OK! Magazine, I saw a lone sailboat taking on the whitecaps. Like the cover photo of Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie grimacing at the paparazzi, even the handsome skiff appeared miserable. Seemingly unable to move forward, it could only bob and weave against the forces of nature, which pretty much summed up my predicament as well.
The phone rang. Call waiting told me it was Audrey. I knew she knew I was just standing there watching the phone ring. I had to answer it.
“Look, Audrey, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Steven but did you have to go and ruin my whole life?”
“Get over it Sweetie. I have.” She laughed, signaling the end to any bad blood between us. “Now, about last night…” Audrey had the evening fully committed to memory, down to the escort’s wardrobe. “Those were not cheap outfits, Sweetie. I swear I saw the blonde’s dress at Neiman’s and damned if the other wasn’t carrying a Prada handbag! How your truck salesman brother footed the bill for those two is beyond me.”
“Maybe he sold a lot of trucks,” I said half-heartedly. Frankly, I’d been wondering the same thing. If so much else weren’t on my mind that would’ve been a major talking point. Right now, it wasn’t even in the top three. After reconciling with Audrey, that honor belonged squarely on the deal I’d struck with Kara. Audrey was unaware of that tidbit. I had to tell her and did, detailing our impending meeting at Starbucks.
“Hello? Are you still there?” I asked, after hearing no reply.
“I think it’s a good move,” she said, unbothered as I was by the news. “This woman is no amateur, Sweetie. She knows people and she knows how to close a deal. It sounds farfetched, but I support it.” She paused, perhaps to light a cigarette or pour herself a cup of coffee, both. “Plus, I just love the name, KJ Sweet Interiors. Fabulous.”
I flipped the letters for her, fearing that this would become a reoccurring phenomenon. Like that was the worst of my problems, right?
“It’s still Sweet,” she crooned. And then she continued her unexpected pitch. “Besides certain male clients are uncomfortable with gay men decorating their homes. Especially Catholics. This girl might be just the trick –if you’ll forgive the pun. And she is beautiful. Exotic looking.”
“So, my beloved,” I said, moving from one surreal topic to another, “where do you see us taking our honeymoon? Perhaps a bed and breakfast in Door County?” Door County was a pretty resort community just up from Green Bay. Visited by more Illinois people than Wisconsinites, it was considered the Midwest’s version of Cape Cod.
However, my point was located in the front end of the sentence: our honeymoon. We’d cover the Wisconsin piece soon enough, when I got to the subject of my father’s birthday. But unless Steven died in the arms of those sirens last night his news flash to Mom and Dad was imminent: your number one son was getting married to an older woman. And, the tail on the kite, she was loaded! That would be headline material in the Sweet household, if not the whole neighborhood. I’d wager he already placed the call. Like I said earlier, my brother operated without guilt or shame. The fact that he’d spent the night with hookers would not prevent him from telling on me. Once over, I doubt the former even entered his mind.
Regarding our honeymoon, Audrey feigned indifference to my sarcasm. “I like Italy, although Edith just got back and said it was overcrowded by American teen-agers and Canadians. Still, I suppose we could buy our way out of that.”
“Separate bedrooms then?” The sailboat looked like it had moved backwards. How did anyone find sailing a pleasantry? My cat, Roy, was doing figure eights around my legs, pining for breakfast. Roy was fat and could wait. I wanted answers.
“Silly boy, I’m not that old. I still enjoy a man’s company.”
“Damn it, Audrey!” I bellowed, tired of exchanging these silly volleys. “Your little joke last night has huge ramifications. HUGE!” Roy looked at me funny. I seldom raised my voice, even when he’d peed on my new Mitchel Gold sofa. “My brother thinks you and I are engaged. He will communicate this fiction to my family. Comprendez?”
“So what, Sweetie?” Audrey said nonchalantly. “It will make them happy.”
“Good morning, Audrey. Time to wake up. You will now be invited and expected to attend my father’s 80th birthday party, which is in three weeks. Who will that make happy?”
“I’m counting on attending Father’s party. Steven asked me first thing after you left our table with, ahem, your new business partner.”
“He’s not your father!”
“Calm down, Jeffrey,” said Audrey, fending off a rant by me. “Yes, I accepted your brother’s invitation to your parents party. But please recall this all started by you lying to me. It ends with us lying to him.”
“Mine was merely a lie of omission.”
“Several omissions. Over a long period of time,” she said, putting me in my place.
Roy tried to open the cabinet where his breakfast was kept. Over time his clawless paws had literally polished the handles from this futile maneuver. I shook my head in disbelief, mirroring Roy’s frustration. “Audrey that last thing you said doesn’t even make sense. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“Oh, so what. It’ll be fun. Like a romantic comedy. I’ll have you know I studied drama at Vassar. I can and will play your wife.”
I ripped open a packet of Tender Vittles, switching over to the cordless phone by his dish. Was it possible Audrey thought my parents lived in a rustic log cabin with a big stone fireplace? Did she imagine herself in fuzzy sweaters gallivanting up delightful wooded paths? Could she honestly believe her charade would add to the ambiance?
“My father is a sick and bitter old man. They live in a dilapidated frame smelling of mildew and cigarettes.” I took a deep breath. I felt crummy disrespecting my folks like that but there had been enough myths for one day. “It’s not quaint,” I said, quietly.
“Well, maybe we can spruce it up. I still have all that extra chintz from the living room. I’ll bring a roll.”
I don’t know how I would have replied to that but my doorbell rang, saving me the displeasure.
Audrey recognized the annoying buzz. “Are we still doing tea at the Four Seasons? We can resume talk of our pre-nuptials there.”
“Fine,” I sighed, wondering, on top of everything else, just who in the hell was ringing me so early. “I’ll see you at the hotel at four.”
“Who’s there?” I sang, switching lines.
“It’s Brian. I know you hate me with a passion but we need to talk. I brought scones.”
My ex-boyfriend was oddly short in stature but had a huge personality. A bit of a snob, he had family money as well as a good job -a pediatrician, for Christ’s sake! Yet, doctor or not, he dropped names too much, gossiped too much, did a lot of things too much, which, in a nutshell, was why we were no longer an item. I couldn’t keep up. Brian’s continuous natural high (at first intoxicating) had quickly become tiresome, especially compared to my own quieter ways. The sex had been good between us but not good enough to keep me from being constantly annoyed by him. It had gotten to the point where I’d lose my temper daily. Stop talking about money! Stop talking about your friend’s glitzy house on the Cape! Stop talking, period! Funny thing however, even after a scolding, Brian never stopped. He went on and on. Labrador Retrievers behaved better. Brian was like an insufferable talk show host and I his unwitting audience. Brian’s song was a bad number played way too long. And now here he was, in my lobby, with a box of goddamn scones…hopefully chocolate.
I scooped up Roy and carried him to the bedroom. Brian was mildly allergic to cats (breakup reason #2) and the last thing I needed now were messy tissues and messy issues. Roy yowled and burped as I plopped him on my bed.
“Oh, hush,” I admonished. “Daddy’s going through a rough spot.” I turned on the TV, clicking to a Saturday morning cartoon. A group of adults dressed as children were dancing with a large stuffed animal, perhaps a walrus or hippo. Sigh. Whatever happened to He-Man?
Roy was pissed. His eyes glowed in the darkened bedroom like Rosemary’s Baby.
“Look, I know it sucks locking you up in here. I’ll let you out just as soon as Brian leaves; sooner if he’s being a jerk.”
With that I rushed back into the living room to tidy up. Brian was insanely meticulous (breakup reason #3) and despite having been apart for nearly a year, I still felt compelled to clean for him, though it would never be enough. It wasn’t just full ashtrays (God forbid) but teeny, tiny things. Pillows had to be fluffed. Cockeyed oriental rugs made him crazy. He hated when I left the TV Guide creased on the wrong day.
We hugged. It’s what fags do.
“I don’t care how ugly this building is,” gawked Brian, “it looks perfectly gorgeous from here!” He gasped while taking in the view –as if he’d never seen it before. Or was he referring to me?
“Hello Brian, “ I sighed. “How are you?”
Brian set the white box from Bittersweet on the kitchen island. He also had a bouquet of yellow tulips (a nice touch), which he handed to me. “Perfect for a sunny Saturday morning, don’t you think?”
“Hmm,” I said. “They’re lovely, Brian. Thank you.” I smiled, impatient for him to reveal the nature of his visit. It had been a while. When we were an item, and he returned from one of his many conventions, we may have kissed, even fallen into bed. However, we were unequivocally not an item.
“You look good,” he said. Brian knew my health issues, one of the few people who did. My heart skipped when I realized this was yet another secret I had kept from Audrey.
“Thank you. I feel fine…physically. Mentally, I’m not so sure.” Brian’s comment reminded me I hadn’t taken my ‘cocktail’ this morning. A strong combination of medicine, I liked to eat something first, perhaps one of the scones. Though I was hardly in denial, my HIV status was among my least favorite topics and Brian knew it. He moved on but alas, not to the point.
“How’s Roy?” he asked, sincerely.
“In the bedroom,” I said.
“Thank you, Jeffrey. That is so considerate.” Brian wasn’t being sarcastic. He noticed gestures like that and in this case I appreciated it. But then he became quiet. And stayed quiet. This was not the Brian I knew and loved but who eventually drove me crazy.
Screw it. I dove right in. “So, doctor, what brings you chez moi?”
Brian frittered with the ribbon tied around the scones, yet left the box unopened. I could tell he was nervous. He ventured over to the huge picture windows dominating the apartment. He gazed out upon the lake, fixating on the same ridiculous sailboat still rollicking in the waves. We both did.
I watched him watching. Brian was much more attractive when still. Intrigue heightened as I speculated on his motive for the impromptu visit. I still had no idea why he was in my apartment. The last thing I needed now was more drama, unless of course, it pertained to someone other than me. No such luck.
“I want to get back together, Jeffrey.” Like a soap opera lead, Brian turned around to deliver his next line. “I miss us.”
I giggled. “Really?” I flashed on all the bickering that had occurred toward the end of our relationship. And since it was I who had done most of the complaining, I couldn’t help but wonder just what part of that he was missing. He maintained a stoic face, which I tried to emulate. “But we’re so dissimilar,” I proffered. “Remember: I say tomato. You say tomato.” I instantly regretted summing up three years together so glibly.
“Let’s eat,” I said, beseeching him to take a seat. I quickly put together a tray, incorporating the tulips Brian had brought. Now I was nervous.
He chose to sit on my newly reupholstered club chair. It used to be covered in worn leather (which Brian adored); I wondered if he noticed the change. Regardless, I began my dissertation.
“You were always so full of life, Brian. Compared to you I was like some maudlin librarian. You hated that about me. Remember?” I picked up a scone (chocolate!) and took a bite, and another. Hopefully, the dense treat would quell my nervous stomach. Being a provincial rube, I never actually bought scones. “I haven’t changed, Brian. I’m still a boring, old nursemaid.”
“But I have, Jeffrey!” He exclaimed. “I’m not about dollar signs and peer groups anymore. I sold the Palm Springs house. Got rid of the Beemer. Look, I’m even wearing blue jeans!”
I liked the Palm Springs house. Still, I smiled. The Levis were a big deal. Brian had notoriously hated denim, preferring pressed khakis, even on weekends. Between pieces of pastry I nonchalantly began taking my pills. Unfazed, Brian continued.
“I now understand there are more important things in life than making suitable 4th of July plans. And yet you always knew that. I miss your quiet leadership, your depth, your humanity.”
He was serious. I couldn’t be. “Brian, I’m engaged to be married.” Calmly, I took a sip of coffee, keeping my eyes on his.
Which he shut, and then bowed his head. “Shit. I knew it,” he said, almost a whisper. “You found another man.”
“Actually, a woman.”
Brian opened his eyes, wide as an owl’s. A crumb hung from his lip, clinging to it precariously.
“Huh? Who?” Again, an owl.
“Her name is Audrey,” I continued. “I met her through work. We had so much in common, it was kismet, a total love connection.”
“Jeffrey, I know Audrey. She is your biggest client and she’s a she!” He stared at me. “You’re not marrying Audrey. You’re not getting married at all. Why in the hell did you just say that?”
Three reasons. First, because I didn’t want to deal with Brian’s overture. Second, I’d flat out forgot he even knew her. And finally…
“Because it’s kind of the truth.”
“Kind of the what?”
So, against all better judgment I told him the rest of the story. Anything, I suppose, to avoid discussing a possible reconciliation. (I didn’t see that happening at all.) In any event, my incredible tale would provide ample diversion. Or so I had hoped.
“Well, I must say, you’re in quite a predicament,” remarked Brian. “And it’s so unlike you.” He broke off a piece of scone and popped it into his mouth. Even while he chewed, he shook his head in disbelief. “Wow.”
“Tell me about it.”
I had to admit I was delighted by Brian’s amazement. Suddenly, I wasn’t the dullard of old. I was a rogue, the newsmaker… a drama queen!
But would this stunning addendum in my otherwise predictable biography scare the suitor away? After all, moments ago Brian claimed to have pined for my depth and “quiet leadership.” Entering into a sham marriage with a client and a new business with a call girl was anything but. On the contrary, the whole tangled mess reminded me of a train crashing into a bad dinner theater.
“Well…” I said, folding my napkin and setting it across my lap. “What do you think of me now?”
Brian remained calm, as if there were an appropriate, intellectual response to my dilemma.
There was not.
“Do you think these antics will frighten me off?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Sorry Bucko but that’s not going to happen. If you recall I was with you when your diagnosis came in. And if that didn’t scare me away from you why should any of this?”
Not the answer I expected. Yet, I couldn’t decide to be pleased or upset. I suppose I was a little of both.
Roy began meowing in the other room. If I let him out my guest would probably leave. Did I want him to? Before Brian could comment I stood. “I’ll toss Roy some catnip. It’ll keep him occupied.”
“Does that mean you want me to stay?” asked Brian.
“Yes…” I said, rolling my eyes. “I suppose it does. Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment. Roy beckons.”
I ventured into the hallway leading to my bedroom, stopping to score some dope for my cat. I kept the stash in a high cabinet hidden behind a stack of seldom-used linens. Even though I bought the stuff at Whole Foods I still treated it like narcotics. This was also where I kept my, shall we say, intimate videos. I took a deep breath upon glimpsing the gaudy edge of a shiny, pink cassette. The sight both thrilled and scared me, like coming across a wild animal on a country road at night. To my knowledge, even Brian was unaware of this very private collection. He’d never let on about it, anyway. Brian had always respected my privacy. This was an area where he’d earned high marks. Come to think of it, Brian would be delirious if he discovered my cachet of erotica. Lord knows he had a naughty side and was a relentless flirt. Oh my God, I thought, as I filled Roy’s silver ball with catnip. I’m selling myself back to Brian! In the living room, I heard my Ex whistling a show tune; I think the theme from Oliver! Roy yowled from the bedroom, sensing his impending fix.
“Coming!” I yelled, ostensibly to both males.
High tea at the Four Seasons was overrated. Scattered about the sumptuous lobby were a few well-heeled, older ladies sipping daintily from fancy china and nibbling on finger sandwiches. The rest was an uneven mix of curious tourists and traveling business people, most of them preferring Beefeaters as opposed to Earl Grey. Maybe calling it overrated was unfair. What was there to rate? At 4 pm the hotel served tea and biscuits. End of story. And in fairness to the Four Seasons, this was Chicago. The sheer fact that the hotel even partook in such custom was in and of itself remarkable.
Again, I checked my Rolex. (Talk about overrated: mine was slow the day I put it on). Audrey was late, making me edgy, and I secretly wanted a martini. I considered taking another half of a Valium but anymore may have qualified as a binge. The server came and set up tea. Knowing our afternoon routine, he worked quietly. However, I was moved to speak.
“Ramone,” I whispered. “What would you say to a short glass of Grey Goose.” I twirled my fingers in the universal symbol of quickly please. “Before Madame arrives.”
“I understand, Mr. Sweet. Right away.” He sped off toward the bar.
“Godspeed, Ramone,” I spoke into my hand. “Godspeed.”
On top of everything else I’d kissed Brian this morning! It was a longish, exploratory kind of thing. Oddly, I could feel its effects now more so than before. Then, I’d dismissed the event as merely an indiscretion: lovely, sexy and ultimately fleeting. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I found myself daydreaming about him already, his lean body, and the adorable bend of his -ahem. We’d not taken the kiss further but we did make a date. I’d opened up a can of worms, unquestionably. And, lest anyone forget, this was in addition to all the other worms. How on Earth had I suddenly become so damn intriguing…or was it stupid?
I checked my messages. There was one from my brother. He joked that Kara must have had a thing for me because she kept asking questions about me. I could only imagine. Unfortunately, he also confirmed our parents were now expecting all of us at pop’s birthday party. Everyone can’t wait to meet your fiancée, he’d said in reference to Audrey. When in God’s name had he found the time to call them?
My double shot arrived one minute before Audrey, which gave me just enough time to imbibe it. My eyes watered from the hit.
“Dear boy, you’re not crying are you?” Audrey pecked my wet cheek, sat down and promptly began arranging foodstuffs on her plate: One cucumber sandwich here, endive and cream cheese there. Her routine was always the same. Before Ramone could make it back to the table, she’d poured herself a cup of tea. “If you are crying,” she cautioned, “they had better be tears of joy.”
“Sorry, Ramone, but Madame beat you again!” I chuckled, knowing our waiter –a Four Seasoned pro- would hold his tongue regarding my just-downed martini.
“But we appreciate the hustle,” said Audrey. Ramone would get the same ten-dollar tip he always got. Part of the mysterious rhythm of life, this quirky routine of ours no doubt insured that God’s plan for us would continue as well.
One table over, a middle-aged couple was having an argument. They were being hush about it, but we could tell; something about the way their hands cut through the air while they spoke, how she kept folding and unfolding her napkin while he talked. “Stop lecturing me!” I heard her retort. I couldn’t help but compare them to us. After all, we were getting married. Were we going to have an argument as well?
“Let me begin by apologizing,” Audrey said.
I guess we were not.
“But not completely.”
Hold the phone. I reminded myself that even if I’d betrayed Audrey’s trust, her lie was by far the bigger sin. I prepared to defend my position.
“It’s not a morality play,” clarified Audrey, as if reading my mind. “The reason I’m not all that sorry is because I’m delighted by the result.”
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t tracking. Morality play? I’m not even sure what that meant. What was she going on about?
“I’m looking forward to portraying the role of your fiancée.”
“I know, I know…” I repeated wearily. “You were a theater major in college. You already told me that.”
“The prospect of a road trip excites me!” She sipped her tea. “Do you know the farthest north I have ever traveled in Wisconsin was to Lake Geneva? My ex-husband had friends and we stayed in their summer home. It was big and lovely but it certainly wasn’t Wisconsin. Oh Jeffrey, I long for a real Wisconsin experience, something rustic, with a campfire. Lake perch!”
“Why not purchase a TV dinner and watch Gunsmoke.”
“No need to get pissy, Jeffrey. I’m serious.”
“And so am I. Trust me, you won’t like Wisconsin at all. Not my family. Not the house. And certainly not the cuisine.” I shuddered at the thought. “They fry everything, even the table cloths.”
“Nonsense!” Audrey shot back. “I went on line this afternoon and did some research. “They boil fish. As a matter of fact, it’s a tradition.”
Unbelievable. Now Audrey was lecturing me about the customs of my home state. Immediately, I empathized with the henpecked spouse one table over. I glanced in their direction. The gentleman had a map out and was drawing on it with a felt tip marker. I could see the black lines from here. And I could see us too. Audrey’s ruse was taking on a life all its own. She was romancing a fish boil, easily the lamest of Northern Wisconsin traditions and an absolute waste of good whitefish.
For the unaware, this is what constitutes a Door County Fish Boil. First, a huge cast iron pot of heavily salted water is brought to a roiling boil over a bonfire. As the cauldron reaches its hottest point, a mish-mash of whitefish, new potatoes and onions are dumped into it. Kerosene is thrown onto the flames, creating a massive blaze, which, in turn, causes everything to boil over. After the applause, both local and tourist alike take a seat around a picnic table. They then begin to eat the salty, gray contents. Beer is consumed. Good times.
“You’re right, Audrey. It is a Wisconsin tradition. A bad one. Like sunken living rooms and ice fishing.”
But it was no use; she’d sold herself on the idea. My jibes only whetted her appetite further. She switched gears.
“Vince Lombardi had a gay brother,” she said, further proof (and I must say impressively researched) of her newfound passion about the Dairy State, not to mention the Internet. “His name was Harry. He liked opera. And,” she emphasized, “Harry was completely accepted by his famous rough and tough brother.” Her point: “We’ll be fine.”
Although everything she reported was accurate, I still couldn’t fathom why she gave a damn. What on Earth created this fervor? In all our visits to the Merchandise Mart for fabrics, furniture and such, I’d rarely witnessed this kind of excitement from my client.
And that was the stuff worth getting excited about.
Sadly, I could not reciprocate. And who could blame me? I had to play an ace, the black one. “Audrey, don’t take this badly but I don’t want you to be my pretend wife and I don’t want you to go to my dad’s birthday party. I’m not comfortable with any of it. At all.”
“Of course you’re not, dear boy, how could you be? But that is precisely why you and I are going to go through with it. To expand our comfort zones.”
“I see,” I said, aware that this was becoming my new catch phrase, unaware of why I was employing it now. I didn’t see at all.
“It wasn’t too long ago you convinced me to go with red walls in the front hall. If you recall I hadn’t been comfortable with that particular idea either.” She nibbled away at the last tiny pickle, radiating confidence.
“But we went with celery green,” I said, again baffled by Audrey’s logic.
“True. But not without experimenting with the red first.”
Point in fact; we’d gone through but half a can of maroon paint before she aborted the whole concept. If I remember correctly she’d used the word “bordello” in describing the effect. First thing next morning the crew was back, covering up the reddened area as if it were a bloodstain.
Speaking of bordellos I wondered, “Are you just as upbeat about my new business partner?” The dining room darkened in transition to happy hour. Afternoon was turning into evening. Tea into martinis.
“Oh, absolutely!” Audrey lit up. “It’s a variation on My Fair Lady or Pretty Woman. With Kara on board your design company will become all the rage. I see talk show appearances, features in the paper, maybe even your own television program!” Audrey paused to catch her breath. “Who wouldn’t watch a classy harlot arranging a rich person’s bedroom?”
I envisioned the teasers for Kara’s HUGE NEW show on HGTV: “Next up, Kara does it in the bathroom!” Until Queer Eye, being gay never brought a lick of buzz into our staid industry. We weren’t naughty geniuses. We were impeccably dressed, single men who knew our way around an antique mall. But my partner had a lot more going on…Kara put the ‘Elle’ in Elle Decor, the ‘HO’ in “HOME SHOW!’
Part of me wanted to get sick, right there, in the Four Seasons Salon, during the height of business. The other part of me was secretly thrilled. When Audrey spoke, I noticed my Spider Sense tingling.
She was on to something. Correction Kara and I were on to something. A high class call girl and an erudite gay designer. Who better to design a pricey and secret pied-a-terre? Or lavish penthouse? And the things we could do with the right beach house; now I was getting excited.
“You see it too, don’t you Sweetie?” Audrey beamed. “I’m telling you, kiddo. KJ Sweet Interiors has hit written all over it.”
I overlooked the KJ vs. JK issue, preferring to wallow in the fantasy. Call it BJ Sweet Interiors for all I cared! I flashed on an image of yours truly scraping away old paint, while a million potential clients watched, hanging on my every word. This Old House was the eighties, Antiques Roadshow was the nineties (Hell, I’m still hooked) and we were going to be next! “Sweet by design!” I exclaimed. “That’s what we’ll call our show.”
“Now you’re talking, Sweetie,” Audrey said. “Hell, I’d watch it even if only to see the girl’s wardrobe.”
Audrey and I giggled, lost in the thought. We both found it terribly ironic that I’d be the ‘straight’ man. But Gold Coast Call Girl takes Drama Queen any night of the week. The concept hardly required a pitch. And if it did, Audrey had connections. A close friend of hers lived across the hall from the Executive Producer of Oprah! Audrey also happened to be seeing a senior writer from a local politics show on channel 11, Chicago Tonight or something like that. She was sure Sweet by Design would sell itself.
“Just think,” she concluded, “Soon I will be playing the role of your fiancée and you get to star in the role of a lifetime.”
Talk about unbridled optimism; we weren’t even sure Kara would show up at the coffee shop next week.
(Of course the insane idea of our television program faded into oblivion, never to be heard from again. A TV show? Who needed that? As they say, the truth was stranger than fiction.)
“I know interior designers get paid by the hour but they also make money on commission, right?” This was Kara’s first question upon sitting down. Using her index finger she scooped whipped cream from her latte. “Hmmmm, I love the foam, especially with caramel.”
“Correct,” I said, answering the earlier question. “We get paid by the hour.” I winked. “Not unlike a woman in your profession!” It was a naughty remark I instantly regretted. Not to worry though. Her reply more than amply returned the serve.
“Frankly, Mr. Sweet, often I am booked for an entire evening. Many times I go on lengthy trips with clients. The last one was to Malaysia. On those occasions my fee is considerable and, I might add, I never pay any travel costs and I always fly first class. Add it all up, some weeks I’m netting 50 or 60 grand.” She smiled. “How much is your hourly rate?”
I had a mad desire to lie up the number. “Typically, I get paid 125 dollars an hour,” I said, bumping the number a little. Johnny could fetch that amount. I, being an apprentice, generally billed only 80.
“My shrink gets more than that.” Kara replied.
She was not being a bitch, just telling it like it is. Strangely, even then I wasn’t offended. I tried to imagine what she charged a regular guy for her services… say, someone like my brother.
Kara had a keen intuition. She could tell I was formulating an impression of her. She warmed up, quickly, a vocational trait. “I may be expensive but I am not grandiose. If I like a guy’s face, my fee slides. It works the other way around as well.”
“How nice of you,” I said, free of attitude. “You know,” I confided, “if we’re aware a client’s loaded we might pad the bill as well.” I nipped at my danish. “Perfectly normal.”
In the spirit of our candid banter, I had to make one thing clear: “As a junior designer, Kara, you won’t be able to command a wage commensurate to what you’re accustomed to…at least not at first.” More like never.
She laughed. “I know, I know.” Then she became serious. “I got into my business because the money was huge. And I made quite a lot. But now I would like to ease out. And money has nothing to do with it. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, I do.” I answered, truthfully. “But surely you’ve grown accustomed to a higher standard of living. Your sunglasses are from Gucci, your handbag is Prada…Even your haircut, for a lot of people is a month’s pay.” I thought about my dad’s company. I remembered when he’d fought the union hard on keeping wages below ten bucks an hour. “For many it’s more than a month’s pay.”
“But Jeffrey,” she said. “You’re just as desirous of living the high life as I am. Audrey is hardly the type to hang with lay-a-bouts.”
“Hire is a better expression than ‘hang,’” I felt compelled to point out. Hardly the truth, but for decorum’s sake I preferred my relationship with Audrey (as personal as it had become) to be deemed professional under the circumstances.
Undeterred, Kara shot back: “And that is precisely why this enterprise should work. Correction. Will work.”
Kara removed her chocolate leather jacket, draping it on the empty chair beside her. The ripple of air had on it the distinct aroma of Chanel #19. She wore a maroon blouse, flattering but not tight. She’d hardly gotten up, yet I noticed several men and women taking in the view. I could only imagine how much her powers increased in a more private situation…at night…with music…and wine.
Even in my prime (which I believe lasted 15 minutes), I never possessed charisma and sexuality the way this woman did. From a business standpoint, I was both worried and thrilled. Worried and thrilled. Both words had been in the same sentence a lot lately.
Example: Would Kara intimidate the style-conscious, social climbing thirty-nine year old females who basically represented the sweet spot of our client base? And if she did, was that bad or good? I had a real hard time seeing any straight man saying no to her, be it on the matter of drapes or leaving his wife and running away to Europe.
“As I said the other night, I’ve thought this through. Did my homework. Interior design is exactly the right career move for me. And for you.”
She paused, letting the idea sink in.
“Jeffrey, the blackmail piece is basically over. You came to our appointment. If you don’t see the wisdom of our merger by the end of these lattes you may leave a free man. But consider the following: 1) We live and operate in the same area. 2) So do our clients. 3) You’re ready for this.” She leaned back, and once again, heads turned.
She made sense. But still, there were issues. I may have been ready for a change (Audrey’s blessing certainly helped) but I’m not so sure my boss was. His name hadn’t come up at all. But then it hit me. She might well know Johnny better than I did.
“I have a contract, of sorts,” is how I weighed in on the subject. My instincts were spot on.
“Johnny Fresch does not sign contracts,” she replied, grinning.
“So, you know my employer?”
“He’s a big user of male escorts, which I’m sure should come as no great shock.” She did not wait for my reaction. “I know a lot of those guys, mostly the really pretty, expensive ones.” She winked. “Anyway, they talk as much as any girl. I hear things. Trust me, he’ll let you go.”
“What, um, have you heard?” I asked. It was a forgone conclusion we’d be teaming up. Now I was curious about Johnny’s sordid exploits. Very curious.
“He’s tired. Sometimes even the Viagra doesn’t work. He often hires more than one guy and just watches. Sad, huh? Guess what? Half my clients are that way –or will be.”
I leaned forward. I guess Johnny using escorts wasn’t a reach. But I’d never put it together, had no clue. Even so, I sure as hell wasn’t going to cast any stones. I get the Internet. I have “800” numbers. Still, the ‘watching’ part made me squirm. What else? I wondered. What else?
“What I tell you now is strictly for professional reasons,” she said, very seriously. “John has financial problems. Bad problems. And they’re not going away. He’s been paying dates with fine art and jewelry for some time now. Last I heard, he’d offered one man a pair of Windsor chairs for a blowjob.”
I remained silent. The colorful clattering of Starbucks faded as I considered Kara’s words and Johnny’s plight. I believed every word of it. And here Kara seemed genuinely concerned as well. This wasn’t gossip. This was valuable information I needed to know.
“I was not aware of that,” I said, finally.
“Jeffrey, it gets worse. I’m afraid he also has an addiction to painkillers. Probably to some other things. He’s an alcoholic for sure.” Kara looked into her empty coffee cup.
“It’s worse than you think,” Kara added.
“Thanks.” I could think of no other thing to say.
“Sorry.” Neither could she.
“Should we help him? I mean, shouldn’t we… I…do something?” It was a limp offering. I believed in keeping out of people’s affairs unless asked and even then I proceeded with extreme caution, my version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’
“Look, Jeffrey,” Kara said. “Johnny’s books are cooked and so is he. You need to move on.”
“I suppose.” I longed for the giddy, sexy conversation we were having just moments ago.
“So, next steps?” lobbed Kara, forcing a smile, changing the subject.
Back to business.
“Well,” I offered, trying to wipe the shock from my face, “Audrey would like a few changes in her bedroom.” We both chuckled at the unintended double entendre. “We could start there.”
“As for me,” Kara offered, “I’ve been seeing a divorced, Jewish lawyer who lives in one of the Mies buildings on Walton. His ex inexplicably went with a Victorian look. Unbelievable! Needless to say, Ira’s willing to play ball.” She laughed. “Especially when he sees my partner is a genuine gay interior decorator.”
I was not offended and she knew it. Guys like the man she described expected male designers to be queer.
“So, Ira’s loaded?”
“Excellent,” I retorted, cupping my hands, mimicking the catch phrase of Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear plant owner from the Simpsons. Kara’s stock just kept going up. I started to think she was doing me a favor.
However, one thing kept bothering me: How had such an articulate, stunning woman become a hooker? I don’t care how lucrative the gig was for her -a whore is a whore. Clearly, this woman could have been anything she wanted to be. So what gave? Why was she turning tricks for a living? Flip the question. How could a hooker be so well put together, physically and mentally? Either way, I didn’t have the courage to ask. Instead, I opted for a more general approach. “Tell me about yourself,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that before,” laughed Kara, without skipping a beat. She snapped another piece from her biscotti.
I blushed, getting her reference instantly. “I’ve always wondered about that sort of thing. You know, what guys talk about before…”
“Fucking?” She used the word easily, making it sound like any other in her impressive vocabulary.
“Or whatever,” I replied, realizing and marveling at how she’d again changed the subject. I didn’t think Kara was being covert. She just had the power to maneuver a conversation, yet another attribute I could see coming in handy.
“It’s like the biggest cliché in the business,” said Kara. “I’d say 90 percent of all johns spend half of their time talking, some even more.” She continued to nibble away at her pastry. “Very few men want to go at it right away, if at all. Especially at the higher price points. Ironic, huh?”
“I heard as much on an HBO special,” I said, which was true. Brian and I talked all night the first night we were together. For some reason it pleased me to hear that other men, even johns, were not all sexual hedgehogs.
“Your brother was no different,” she responded. “He told me all about how it was growing up in Green Bay.”
“All about what?” I said. “Cows, Packers, God, Pabst. Not exactly a James Michener novel up there.” Yet, I didn’t want her to answer my question. I longed to learn more about her.
“Small towns can be just as provocative as the big city,” she said. “Wasn’t Superman from a place called Smallville?”
“Yes, but he crash landed there from another world,” I responded. All boys (gay or straight) had a working knowledge of Superman and I was no exception. “What about you, Kara? Are you from a small town?” I thought about the other cliché associated with prostitution -the one where a naive country girl moves to the big city in search of fame and fortune only to end up working the mean streets for a living.
“Actually, I grew up a few blocks from where we’re sitting,” Kara said, ending the suspense.
Or perhaps adding to it.
“Really? A Gold Coast gal?” Another pleasant surprise. Most of the people living on the north side of Chicago (particularly this neighborhood) were not actually born here. This was a place folks came to, not from. Especially prostitutes.
“Tell me more!”
I followed her point, unaware of any ice cream parlors on Oak Street. Nor could I envision Kara in striped polyester scooping 31 flavors to the after-theatre crowd.
“It’s long gone,” she said. “I think it’s a Fendi now.” She continued her exposition. “I lived on Elm Street at the time, in a lovely brownstone. Went to the renowned Latin School. My folks were friends with the parents of that girl who starred in Flashdance.”
“That’s the one. Whatever happened to her anyway? She was a couple years ahead of me and we weren’t very close.”
I shook my head. “No idea.” I was surprised I even knew the actor’s name. She and the movie were hardly gay icons. Yet, on second thought maybe they were. I recalled the ripped tee shirts, headbands and other details inevitably absorbed into homosexual society. “I believe she’s now a maniac,” I said, the hit movie’s annoying theme song now blaring in my head.
“Fine line between classic and crap,” said Kara, groaning.
For the first time since making her acquaintance I speculated on my new partner’s age, adding years as opposed to subtracting. I had to. I mean Flashdance and Baskin & Robbins? That’s a trip in the Waybac machine. Kara absolutely had to be closer to 40 than 30. But, like Grace Kelly, more miles just seemed to put her in a prettier place. Audrey aspired to achieve timeless beauty; Kara seemed to exude it naturally.
“You know, I don’t even know your last name,” I blurted, surprised.
“Feldman,” she said.
Wah-wah-wah! You could almost hear the tuba.
“On dates I go by Fey. Kara Fey. It works don’t you think? Sexy but not too stripper-like.”
“So, you’re part Jewish?” I said, opening my eyes. Well, there’s another anomaly. I never knew a Jewish call girl. Bending to the JAP stereotype, I supposed many were slavish when it came to money; but prostitution? Not since Mary Magdalene, right? Having devoured my pastry, I began working on Kara’s biscotti. I noticed her eyes. They were the shape of almonds. There was Asian in her. Something exotic. Had to be. She was like all three of Charlie’s new Angels rolled into one.
Starbucks was losing its morning vibe. Now came the quirky pre-afternoon. Weary tourists lumbering in for pick-me-ups. Retail people on their lunch break. The occasional vagrant. Even though imbibing coffee would always be a fixture of morning, Starbucks maintained a high level of business throughout the day. Lucky bastards, I mused, observing a hip black woman as she sorted through the café’s various pre-made salads and sandwiches.
“What makes you think Feldman is a Jewish name?” Kara asked, pulling me back into the conversation.
I thought of the actor, Corey Feldman. “It just is,” I said, backpedaling now, afraid of stepping on toes. “Believe me, Kara. I meant no disrespect. To Jews. To you.” I couldn’t believe I just said that: To Jews. To you. Picture Homer Simpson digging himself into a hole. “I, um, well-”
“Of course it’s Jewish. I just wanted to see your reaction.” She pulled a cigarette out of her purse, realized she could not smoke and put it back. “I’m always amazed how people react to my being part Jewish. But yes, I was a nice Jewish girl who grew up in a rich family, went to college, got engaged to a nice Jewish boy…” Kara peeked at her watch, raising her perfect eyebrows at the time. She sighed. “Yep. I was a good little girl before I became a bad one.”
I guessed our ‘interview’ was about over. I felt she’d passed her test with me better than I had with her. And, more importantly, she knew it. With confidence, Kara initiated our next steps.
“Why don’t you get on Johnnie’s calendar and tell him what’s going on? Also, let me in on your next session with Audrey. I don’t care if it’s just a trip to the Mart, I want to be a part of it. Okay?”
I stammered. “Well that all seems… doable.”
“You don’t have to, Jeffrey. I can leave… forever.”
From the corner of my eye I noticed the stylish black woman still deciding on a sandwich. We were both struggling under the weight of options.
“As for me,” continued Kara. “I’ll set up a legitimate meeting with Ira, get that project going.” She saw my yellow PDA and pulled out hers, a chic metallic one. Instinctively, we each beamed our cards to one another.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to buy a new outfit for a very special occasion.” She stood up. “So do we have a deal?”
I envisioned a private jet whisking her away to the lair of some bored, married millionaire. “Do tell?” I said. “An illicit meeting in the mountains? Oh, wait, I know! A tiny villa in Italy.” Current events aside, I lead a fairly boring life. I happily could and did live vicariously through others. Of course we had a deal.
“Well, Sweetie, this particular special occasion is special for you too.” She winked.
Gulping, I realized what Kara meant the moment she’d finished talking. My God, she was talking about my father’s party! Again, I thought of the line about truth being stranger than fiction. She made it official.
“That’s right, partner. I’m escorting Steven to your dad’s party.” Her voice was bubbly as champagne. “I hoped maybe I could go up with you and your fiancé. You know, a road trip!”
“Wouldn’t that be grand?” I said, unwilling to reveal my many emotions over the matter.
Kara paid no heed. She waved, turned and sashayed out of the coffee shop. Once again, a significant portion of the occupants took notice. Kara was forever on a runway. She definitely had the air of a supermodel as well as the looks. Janice Dickinson came to mind. Who was the comic book villainess who always exited in a cloud of green smoke? I couldn’t place her name. The Green Goddess? No, that was salad dressing. For a queer I had a terrible working knowledge of camp.
Super model…Super villain…Super vixen…All of the above? Regardless, Kara was now an inextricable part of my life.
Holy High-End Hookers, Batman!
My shrink is one of very few people who know I have HIV. Obviously, he’s aware of my sexual orientation. And he knows I’m from Green Bay. Frankly, he probably knows everything about me, making him an anomaly. Unlike friends and family, I tell him everything.
The concept of ‘Trust’ was Dr. Hefner’s calling card, his unique point of difference in the complicated world of psychological healing. He felt that most people in need of help were really just searching for someone they could trust. According to him when a parent or sibling or spouse lets us down (as they are wont to do), we tend to lose faith: faith in relationships, human kindness and responsibilities, faith in our fellow man. Dr. Hefner aspired to rekindle that broken trust by building a new and potent bond with his patients. Unlike my father, for example, he would never demean, criticize or scold me. Nor would he pass judgment based solely on cultural or personal bias. In turn, he asked his clients for a modest fee and the TRUTH, as undiluted as possible and as soon as possible.
In my case, it helped that Dr. Hefner was going on 90 non-threatening years old. His white beard, hair and ample tummy made him the spitting image of Santa Claus or, more appropriately, Sigmund Freud. Either way, I felt comfortable with this guy. I sensed he knew what he was doing. In the end, I trusted him. The fact that he could conjure up prescriptions for Xanax or Valium made him something of a demi-god.
But today the subject of my HIV barely came up. Indeed, there was too much else to sort out – and arguably not all of it good. Still, it was the stuff of life, not death. Brooding over the inevitable would have to wait. I had intrigue now! My Ex was back. I had an unlikely new business partner! I had a fiancé.
“But you’re gay,” intoned Dr. Hefner. “Won’t that interfere with the success of your marriage?” He was being sarcastic, not stupid.
“Of course…ordinarily.” I crunched a bit of the chipped ice kindly provided along with the Dixie Cup of jugged water. As I briefed him on current events, I thought about Kara’s stock-in-trade and how eerily similar it was to that of a shrink. I shared this opinion with Dr. Hefner, preferring to discuss her first as opposed to Audrey.
“Well then,” he said. “Perhaps now I’ll require decorating services, given your new hottie,” he chuckled coarsely.
Nice. Santa had a hard-on. Where in God’s name had he picked up the word “hottie” –MTV? On the other hand, if every single man I told about Kara instantly wanted to hire us, well then… Remaining quiet momentarily, I scanned my hard drive searching for any pieces I may have forgotten.
My God, Brian! I hadn’t even mentioned Brian. (What would Freud say about that?) But before I could Hef jumped in.
“Seriously,” said Hefner, suddenly all doctor, “how are you holding up? You’ve got a lot on your plate. I may have to rethink your prescriptions. Could be getting you into trouble.” He chuckled again. I have no idea why.
“Let’s not be irrational!” I bellowed. “I’m going to need those pills now more than ever.”
“I’ll bet,” he retorted, putting on his glasses and pulling out the pad.
That small pad was my salvation, its pages more meaningful to me than the Bible or latest David Sedaris novel.
Thank god! Thank god! Thank god! “Hmmm,” I replied casually. “I suppose that will be fine.”
I paused. Rubbed my leg. Took a shot. “You know, Doc, I recently hurt my knee playing tennis. Any chance you could write me something for the pain?” Audrey had turned me on to painkillers after I pulled my back struggling to move one of her massive armoires. Not only did the pain disappear, so did my cynicism, frustration and anxiety.
“Not a chance,” answered Dr. Hefner. He didn’t waste time getting angry. “Now let’s get down to business, shall we?”
“Um, isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” Gulp. I knew exactly where he was going. Time for me to stop reporting and begin disclosing. Analysis. Unfortunately, I was a much better reporter than columnist. Yet, according to Hefner, the productivity of our sessions depended on me being emotionally honest as well as factual. No easy feat. I’d grown up in complete denial and more or less entered adulthood a complete liar. ‘Gay in Green Bay’ was not a story I liked to cover.
“Trust,” said Hefner. “It’s all about trust.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what else is new?”
Hefner shrugged, remaining silent. It was my call as usual.
“Brian wants to try again,” I said, delicately. “And I’m not sure if that is a good idea right now…or ever.”
Hefner leaned in. He seemed just as surprised that I’d only now brought up the subject. Back when Brian and I were dating, it was all we ever talked about. It had gotten to the point where Hefner himself suggested other topics. When Brian went away from my life he left our sessions as well.
“He came to you?” Hefner asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” I bristled. “Sometimes men are attracted to me. It does happen.”
Hefner scoffed. “Oh, Jeffrey, that’s not what I meant and you know it. Brian has been out of your life for almost a year and one fine day he just shows up?”
“It wasn’t that fine a day,” I replied. For some reason I recalled that lone sailboat struggling on the lake.
Hefner was mum.
“He said he missed my depth and quiet leadership… Whatever the hell that means.”
“You’re denigrating yourself, Jeffrey. You are the one who chooses to remain on the surface. Treading water, if you will.” Hefner continued the metaphor; clearly feeling he was on to something. “You never go very deep because you fear getting hurt by the unknown or just plain drowning.”
But my smart-ass remark did not minimize how right he was. Ironically, I looked down, staring at a spot on the carpet. Had it been there before? Why, in emotional situations, did I always fixate on a boat on the water, some speck on the floor?
“When I was a kid I used to count all the cowboys and Indians on my bedroom wallpaper. I had the number memorized but I counted them every night anyway. I guess it was easier than thinking about what was going on in my head.” I tried to look up but couldn’t. Not really.
“Exactly,” spoke Dr. Hefner, quieter now. “So now-”
“Sow buttons.” It was a phrase of my mother’s.
“So, I think you’re going to have to pay attention to your feelings, not the wallpaper around them. Especially with all this newfound drama in your life.”
Using his fingers, Hefner began counting it down for me: “You’re fake-marrying Audrey. You’re bringing her to your father’s party. You’re partnering with a call girl who’s also attending this party. And yesterday Brian shows up at your door.” He took off his glasses. “Am I missing anything…anybody?”
“I don’t get it Doc…” I made every effort to lift my head. “Why, with all this shit going on, would I suddenly want to be goddamn introspective?” I didn’t cuss as a rule and rarely two times in one sentence.
“Because, dear boy. It’s being stirred up.” Hefner used his spectacles like a pointer. “Better to find your feelings as opposed to them finding you.”
I think I knew what he meant. There’s a difference between being busy and being overwhelmed. Hefner feared the latter. And now so did I. The stains on Dr. Hefner’s carpet seemed to be multiplying.
“Meet me at the 880 building in one hour,” ordered Kara, while I negotiated the phone and Roy’s breakfast: a defrosted, half-piece of take home steak. I couldn’t even recall the restaurant. Yummy.
“Um, that is if you can make it,” she demurred, feigning sympathy for calling so last minute.
“I’ll move some things around.” Instead of working out this morning I wouldn’t work out at all. Instead of watching Oprah, I’d catch the rerun at eleven. Sigh. I couldn’t help but wonder who was on top in this relationship. Yes, Gentle Reader, of course it was she. Was I ever? “One hour,” I said, feigning cheerfulness.
“Jeff,” she added, “be sure and wear something spiffy. It’ll help us on our quote. Trust me.”
Hmmm. You’re pushing it young lady. It’s not like I was going to wear sweatpants and a tank top. I kept my cool. Even if obeying her orders set a bad precedent, why contradict her now…and on this? I figured when it came to appearances and money, she knew her market extremely well. Plus, I found her use of the word spiffy kind of endearing. Even decorators avoided that term, let alone call girls.
“I’ll be wearing the Hugo Boss suit with a necktie from Pink” And don’t ever call me Jeff! I thought but did not voice. I loathed that moniker. I could still hear my old man yelling up the stairs from his lair in the basement: “Hey, Jeff! Whadyado with my socket wrench?” Why me, of all people, should be implicated for misplacing his socket wrench, I’d never know.
“Excellent,” said Kara, once again not sensing my angst or merely choosing to ignore it. “Imagine,” she crowed: “Our first client together. Isn’t that exciting?”
I wanted to say something important, establishing my, well, importance.
“Get this, Jeff. I spent last night buttering this guy up and trust me, he’s ready to go!”
“Terrific!” I replied, parroting her Prozac-like demeanor. The butter thing. Was she being literal? No matter. Kara had hung up. And the clock was ticking. I’d have a talk with her about by names later.
“Well, Roy, what do you think? Am I up for this?”
Engrossed in his diminishing pile of steak cubes Roy didn’t respond. In this way he was like all animals, focused on their appetites and little else. I polished off my coffee, hoping my Hugo Boss suit was adequately clean. I’d worn it the night I met Kara. Four buttons. Charcoal. The suit had set me back 800 dollars (marked down from 1100), but how I loved it. Yet, I fretted Kara might remember the garment. Fine as it was, I didn’t want her believing that I only owned one suit. I had several. But the Hugo was the best and, in my opinion, well worth the risk of being seen twice in it.
My phone indicated I’d gotten another call while talking to Kara. I recognized the number immediately: Johnny. My boss. Or should I say, my old boss. I couldn’t listen to the message now. Things were too sticky and getting worse. I was spinning webs like Spiderman.
880 was the southern building of a pair designed just after World War II by the renowned architect Mies van der Rohe. As such, they were miraculous, totally ahead of their time. The steel-beamed and otherwise glass structures were nothing short of icons, a quintessential example of Mies’ obsession with form and function. People the world over ogled them, in books, from tour buses, on foot.
Not me. Frankly, I thought they were gross, modern in the drab, formal sense of the word. Boring. Like all Mies’s larger residences, these were basically a rise of stacked cubes, void of ornament inside and out. In her closet, Audrey kept myriad shoes in their store boxes, an eight-by-ten-foot tower. Same effect here. The apartments inside had all been designed identically, sameness being a Miesian virtue: with low ceilings, no moldings, fireplaces or detail of any kind.
Some tenants increased their home’s size by purchasing the neighboring unit. Which is what Kara’s client had done. Ira’s place was big, no doubt. But it felt like he’d merely added more Lego blocks to the original Lego block structure. Of course, the apartment had only one kitchen but other than the combined living room facing the lake (admittedly an impressive sight), everything else was eerily redundant. Lego blocks. Shoe boxes.
And then there was the matter of Ira’s décor. As Kara had indicated earlier in the coffee shop, he (or his ex) had opted for a regal Victorian look, with lots of reds and purples and so on. In the foyer, for example, was a monolithic, mirrored hat rack. Around the corner, flanked by a robust set of gilded Vanity Fair prints, loomed a beautiful, ornate marble mantle (sans fireplace); a delightful ensemble in and of itself. In this apartment, however, it stood out like a canker sore.
I couldn’t tell if Ira found his home gauche or not. He kept showing it off. On the other hand, he had us here to change it. Short, stocky, unattractive and comfortable in spite of it, Ira represented masculinity in ways I’d never know. He wore a robe slash smoking jacket I kept expecting to fall open. He smoked (or chewed on anyway) a 2-inch brown stogie, which dangled precariously from the corner of his large mouth. Yet despite his physical shortcomings there was an endearing quality about the man. For instance, even though it was Tuesday morning, he offered us a Bloody Mary. Such an unusual thing to do… damned if I almost accepted! But since Kara waved off the suggestion I demurred as well. Can’t let a party girl out-behave me.
“So…” Ira started things, “Kara says you’re a regular Coco Chanel.”
“No, darling,” purred Kara. “Chanel is the perfume I wear. I likened Jeffrey to Ralph Lauren.” Unaffected, she drifted down the hall assessing the apartment. Kara barely reacted when he talked. Which, of course, compelled me to.
“Miss Chanel was, in her own right, a very good designer,” I lobbed, nervously. “I appreciate the compliment!”
Way up on the rules list: Don’t disrespect a client. Neither he nor she seemed to give a shit, but still. Yet Kara’s comment pleased me too. Ralph Lauren hadn’t the stature of a name like Coco but he was hardly chopped liver.
More importantly, I found myself once again deferring power to my brash and, might I point out, still unproven partner. In terms of comparisons, I could think of no one like her. Madame Bovary? We continued walking and talking, Ira opening up.
“Sheila was big on Martha Stewart. The magazine, the show, all of it. When they came out with that cable station “House and Garden” I thought I might kill myself. Jesus Christ! Do you know how many Bulls’ games I missed watching that crap?”
“A lot?” I answered, not sure if he was being rhetorical. Why didn’t he just go into another room? Or use Tivo. I didn’t pursue the matter.
“Ah, what’s the difference?” continued Ira. “The Bulls suck anyway. When I see Jerry Reinsdorf at the club I tell him to his face. Jerry, I say. Your Bulls suck.”
‘Who’s Jerry and why do his balls suck?’ is what I would have said if I were feeling more playful. Instead, I nodded gamely, not wanting to be the smartass and not wanting to appear ignorant either. Whatever…where was Kara? This was her client after all. And it’s not like she hadn’t seen the place a million times before.
“Jeff –Is it Jeff?” Ira rolled the chewed-up cigar between his lips.
“Jeffrey,” I answered. “Thank you.” He looked at me funny, as if to say ‘for what?’
“Anyway, Jeffrey, as I was telling Kara last night, I’m looking for something more masculine. Some black. Some brown. A little leather maybe.”
Of course you are. I smiled, thinking of the antique leather elephant I’d seen at the Golden Triangle. Put her on top of a massive black coffee table. Surround that with two leather couches from Roche-Bobois. And off we go. Apparently, Ralph Lauren had indeed been a good call.
“I know just what you mean, Ira,” I said, filling with confidence. “What would you say to a pelted zebra rug? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“I say… let’s ride!” Ira slapped me on the back. “How ‘bout leopard sheets in the bedroom?”
“Let’s not go on a safari,” I cautioned.
“Why the hell not? I’m a big fan of wild life!”
As if on cue, Kara entered. “Forgot these last night,” she announced, holding up a pair of black lace panties.
Somehow, it wasn’t an awkward moment. For them, anyway.
“You know,” continued Kara. “I’m glad we came early. I’ve never seen this place in the daylight.” She put the thong in her purse, pulling out a tin of Altoids. (Cinnamon –the naughty flavor.) “Anybody want some?”
Taking one, Ira smiled blissfully. How could he not? A beautiful, stylish tart was doing his house… and him.
“We were just discussing a possible look,” I said, anxious to move on and see the rest of the place. I peered over Kara toward the bedrooms. Down the hallway, the dark hardwood floors were nice enough but a bit cold and brooding. “How do we feel about carpeting? I was thinking tan with maybe some brown trim.”
Ira scoffed, though cheerily. “My ex made me take all the goddamn carpeting out!”
“Well, she’s not here, is she?” asked Kara, winking. “I think Jeff is right. A good Berber would be sumptuous. Here and in the bedrooms. It’ll make that long walk to the champagne so much more manageable. Especially on wobbly knees!”
“I see your point,” Ira said, working his cigar. “By the way, I believe our boy prefers Jeffrey.”
Amidst the double entendres bloomed a gracious note on my behalf. Thank you for that, Ira Stone.
Something else: This unlikely straight couple was having more sex in a conversation than I’d had in my entire real life!
“Such beautiful a bag,” sighed Brian. He pointed to a flapped brown leather satchel with huge shoulder strap. “Yes, I definitely see you in that.”
“And how would I breathe?” My joke was not particularly funny and besides, Brian was too engrossed in his fantasy portrayal of me to notice.
“Your bag is loaded with blue prints and fabric samples as you tool up Astor Street, racing to make a critical appointment with some brooding millionaire at his ridiculous penthouse. Or is it a ridiculous millionaire at his brooding penthouse?” He took a breath. “Either way, you are riding a refurbished, turquoise Vespa. How does that sound?”
“Like an outtake from a bad Italian sex comedy.” I laughed but I didn’t hate his vision. I’d take the bag, the bike and the look.
Yes, Dear Reader, it’s official. We were on a date and, having had a truly delightful lunch at Spiaggia, were now perusing the merchandise at Kate Spade on Oak Street. Such beautiful, impractical bags they had. Only an Italian or queer would ever buy one. Brian grabbed my arm affectionately.
“I missed your birthday,” he said, with some mock-seriousness. “Let me buy it for you …pretty please?” He picked up the bag and caressed it, opening the flap, taking in the aroma. “Oh, Jeffrey, it’s so divine!”
“My birthday was months ago,” I said, not ready to commemorate the afternoon with a 700-dollar gift from my Ex. “Besides,” I added for emphasis. “I missed your birthday too.”
“But Jeffrey,” he said. “I’m trying to seduce you.” He winked.
I was uncomfortable but not miserable. Far from it. Being adored and lavished with gifts had that effect on me. Besides, I liked this Brian (for a spell even loved it) and having him orbit around me now was comforting. Nevertheless I said no to the gift. “Not yet, Brian,” is how I put it. “But from my heart, thank you.” I said, squeezing his hand.
“You can say no to the purse,” laughed Brian. “But I’ll be hanging from your shoulder in no time!” He put the sumptuous accessory back on the shelf, whistling goodbye to it.
“Let’s grab coffee,” I suggested. “There’s a place around the corner.”
“I know where the Starbucks is, Jeffrey. Surely, you recall all the bagel runs I used to make on your behalf?”
“Our behalf,” I corrected him lightly. “You wanted treats in the morning as well.”
“I still do,” he swooned, gathering my arm.
Together we descended the stairs from the Men’s department into Women, which was far more crowded. Clearly, women did not give a shit how impractical an object was. Including Audrey, who literally fell into our arms.
“Red rover, red rover, let Audrey come over!” Brian sang out.
She did a double take at him (our date was yet another secret I’d kept from her) but managed a big smile. Composing herself, she spoke:
“Well, hello boys. What a surprise it is running into you…two.”
“Play along,” I whispered to Brian –whatever the hell that meant. Then:
“Hi Audrey,” I spoke loudly, compensating for the slight din. “I trust you remember Brian?”
Audrey rolled her eyes and so did Brian. “Let’s see…” she replied. “We spent Memorial Day in Saugatuck. Fourth of July at Lake Point Tower watching the fireworks. I don’t know how many Black & White Balls…”
“Don’t forget Oscar Night!” Brian leaned in, giving and getting a kiss on the cheek.
Now that we had a full accounting of our history together…
Yet, if Audrey were upset by my ever-evolving secret life she didn’t let on. Rather, it seemed she was beaming. “You look great, Brian,” she chimed affectionately, sizing him up.
He did, by the way. His jeans were loose fit, thank god. And up top he had on a forest green Polo shirt (dry cleaned but not tucked in). To complete the look he wore Gucci loafers with no socks. Comfortably chic, I believed they called it.
“Well then,” said Audrey, cutting to the chase. “How long has this been going on?” Her eyebrows arched and for a second she looked and sounded just like Ann Landers. “Hmmmmm, boys?” She was practically purring.
In fact, Audrey deserved an explanation, for she really had been an integral part of my life with Brian. (If you think you’re first with the Monty Python pun, go back about a thousand margaritas.)
Only one problem with giving an explanation: I had none. Not for this, that, or any of it. My life was happening in fast motion right now. Brian, bless his heart, gave it a shot.
“You see, Ms. Bellows,” he said, purposefully dramatizing his speech. “One morning I woke up in bed alone and realized I missed my Jeffrey.” He offered everyone a big, warm smile. “At that point,” he continued dreamily, “I said to myself: Frick it. I’m going after my destiny. And here we are!”
“Destiny seems to be following Jeffrey around,” added Audrey.
“More like stalking me,” I corrected her.
But his speech was cute and I gave him a hug. Brian then gave Audrey a hug. And so, right in the middle of Kate Spade, we were reunited, a troika again.
Despite being well visited by the well heeled, Oak Street was constantly being torn up. And, man alive, did the ‘Men At Work’ fuss over those lanes. Local shopkeepers said it was so the workers could prolong their gaping privileges. The preponderance of beautiful people was eye opening. But the impediment could be maddening. It made double-parking to return a scarf at Barneys a royal pain. It made letting people out in front of their favorite stores a pain. It made hailing a cab a pain.
So the three of us joined the gorgeous masses and walked. We headed toward Rush Street taking a right, south to Audrey’s apartment. She insisted Brian see her place. I needed to view it as well. Admittedly, I’d been lackadaisical in my duties. I hadn’t visited my client’s space in weeks, far too long.
Division and Rush: streets infamous for pick-up bars, discos and clubs. I loathed them. This was my neighborhood and Division was like a polluted river running through it. Called the street of dreams, Rush was nothing short of a nightmare. Deep down I knew these places were inevitable. After all, crappy disco-laden enclaves happen because we want them to happen. Like TV’s Bachelor or Jersey Shore, they are the end result of society’s collected grotesque cravings.
Gay or straight, I hated meat markets. Tacky boulevards existed all over the world, lurid and dangerous, many of them far worse than these. They marred tiny seaside villages from Cannes to Cancun. Neon strips cut across the Nevada desert and Europe’s grandest cities. Why should Chicago be any different? How could it not?
Sighing, I passed a group of young men leering at the endless flesh parade from inside one of the ubiquitous Irish-themed saloons. It wasn’t half past three and every one of these guys was already half in the bag.
Ah, well, at least there weren’t any bordellos or drug houses. Not here. Not in Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Pitchers of beer and mindless ogling? Sure. Anything more illicit one had to go elsewhere. In this way, Chicago was very similar to Green Bay. Blue collared, beery and oddly devout.
I looked at my two walking companions. How different we were from our surroundings? Ironically, odd specimens were constantly infiltrating the Gold Coast and have always been a part of it. A study in contrasts, just to our right existed the wealthiest neighborhood in Chicago (if not the Midwest), while directly ahead festered the decrepit, tattered remains of our city’s poorest ‘hood: Cabrini Green.
Needless to say, we took the first right at Dearborn and headed north. Within 50 yards, we came upon elegant, pedigreed town houses and impressive mansions. Audrey summed up deliciously what I was feeling:
“Fitting what separates our town’s have and have-nots: the so-called street of dreams.” One had to pause considering her statement’s many implications, not the least of which was how much I really liked Audrey. Good thing too, I recalled, as we were planning to marry.
My other significant other remained quiet. The Brian I remember would have launched into a commentary about each of the fancy homes we were passing. If that manse were mine I’d have gone for shutters not blinds. Who puts a waterfall in the front of a house? Maybe he hushed himself knowing those kinds of comments had unnerved me in the past. (Sweet if true.) I could tell he was in a good mood, however. Because he whistled. Nobody whistles when they’re grumpy. Except maybe the seventh dwarf on his way to work!
In the lift to Audrey’s apartment, Brian gave me a little squeeze. In this very spot he and I, shall we say, coupled. I know, I know. Shocking, especially for a prude like me. What can I say? The elevator had jammed. It was late and we were buzzed. Having been the last to leave a sumptuous cocktail party, it just…happened. I am not a ‘location’ guy and though this was not my first and only, it certainly bore no sequels. Remaining mum, I tapped Brian. For obvious reasons (personal and professional) this was a secret I had no problem keeping from Audrey. Some lies were necessary. Period.
Audrey’s rehab was going nicely. We were in the final phase and, knock on ornate, wood paneling; no major screw-ups had befallen us.
“It’s absolutely breath taking,” remarked Brian.
“Thank you,” Audrey and I answered together.
And he was right. The place looked stunning. The finishes were up and despite not being painted yet, the late afternoon light spilled golden, creating an ephemeral beauty. Early on, I had come to the apartment often. Therefore, it wasn’t capable of taking my breath away. Shame. Because it really was special. I imagined all the fixtures we’d ordered. I put people in the rooms. A song in the air. Something Gershwin.
“I was going for Upper East,” Audrey said drolly. “Would you like a tour, Brian, or just to wander?” She turned to me. “Oh and I’ve changed my mind about the plants, Jeffrey. I had dinner at La Colonial the other night and the palms just positively make the place.” Le Colonial was a French-Vietnamese restaurant in both food and ambiance. Big fans. Antiques. Palms galore. I agreed with Audrey; leafy palms would be a grand yet comfortable addition.
Audrey gave Brian a cursory look. I always thought she more tolerated Brian than liked him. I could be wrong but I sensed she was jealous. One of the reasons I never told her about my health was for fear that she would blame him. Incidentally, it was not he who gave me the disease but a bartender I dated right after moving to Chicago. Sadly, he’d died rather quickly from it.
“A tour would be splendid,” said Brian. “And I want you both to show me.” He grabbed each of us by our elbows. “Take me to your beds, baths and beyond!”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I didn’t even say hello. I held the phone like it was a gun, a megaphone, something loud.
“Jeffrey, is that you?” inquired my brother.
“It’s your conscious,” I said. “But we both have the same issues.”
I’d been out alone, had dinner and perhaps too much wine. The fellas at Bistro Zinc knew and treated me well. Too well. Alcohol could make me surly, especially when I had a lot on my mind. Like now. As my father’s party grew closer I was getting more and more anxious. I felt like a proverbial cornered rat. I needed to harp on someone, a scapegoat. On my walk home I’d elected Steven for the role. Why not? He’d started the whole sordid affair. If my brother hadn’t shown up at the Pump Room with a call girl (two call girls!), none of this would be happening. I’d still be going to my dad’s party, yes. But I wouldn’t have had anyone else to worry about –let alone this bunch of improbable and unpredictable characters.
“Is it Kara who’s bothering you?” Steven asked. “Trust me, she’s not just an escort.”
“I’ll say. She blackmailed me into making her my new business partner. We’re in cahoots together,” I slurred. “Howdoyalikethemapples?”
Silence. Apparently Steven had no idea.
“Your fiancé fail to tell you that?” I asked, snidely.
“No.” Again, more silence.
I could tell Steven was thinking, trying to process what I’d just told him. And what it meant. And what it would mean. Like an old PC, he churned, waiting for cognition.
I hadn’t the patience for a slow moving, internal combustion engine. I told him what’s what from start to finish. I mean, if you can’t bark at your brother, whom could you bark…at…to? Okay, so I was drunk. Again. But you know what I mean. The Ketel One was boiling over. I had to vent.
“Look at it this way,” said my brother, after hearing me out. “Our combined lies are so out of hand it’s… surreal.” He yawned.
He fucking yawned! I could hear it.
“Your point?” I doubted he even knew what the word surreal meant. All my life, I tried not to treat my brother like a dimwit. But his penchant for fast cars, football and power tools made him hard to take seriously.
“Just go with it, you know?” Steven said, yawning again.
What was with all the yawning –was he in bed? It hadn’t dawned on me that it was nearly midnight.
His advice left a lot to be desired as well. How could he be so…so… indifferent? For Christ’s sake, up until just now he hadn’t even known the full extent of the “it” he was suggesting I “go with.” Indeed, our circumstances were surreal, including this conversation. I continued to blame him for all the wrong turns behind and in front of us. Kara for example. “She is blackmailing me, Steven! And what in God’s name prompted you to hire her for Dad’s party?”
“I dunno,” he mused. “You being engaged and all, I figured Dad would appreciate it if I was too. Now his two sons are getting on with their lives. Yada, yada, yada.”
Where to begin dissecting this ludicrous statement? The Seinfeld reference? Or the sheer illogicality of it’s content? As if my sham engagement somehow beget his. How he could still believe I was marrying Audrey was, in and of it self, unbelievable. “Steven… Listen to me, super-sizing ourselves will not make Dad happy.”
“How the hell do you know what’ll make Dad happy? You haven’t seen him in years.”
Ouch. That hurt. “We communicate,” I offered up, defensively. “I think he appreciates getting my letters.” All two of them. Thank God I hadn’t forgotten Father’s Day last.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Bro, but Dad still hasn’t taken the shirt out of the box.” Steven knew he’d hit money with that zinger.
“Did it not fit him?” I asked gingerly.
“Who knows? He said he wouldn’t be caught dead in it.” Steven managed a laugh.
I, of course, was indignant. “I’ll have you know it’s a really nice shirt.”
“It’s bright yellow.”
“I thought he could wear it to the Packer’s game. Aren’t the team’s colors green and yellow -yuck by the way.”
“Not that yellow,” he scoffed. “And another thing, why do you add an ‘s’ to everything?”
“Excuse me?” Why I tortured myself like this was the more appropriate question.
“We say Packer game, not Packers. Team colors, not teams.”
“Who cares?” I said, emphasizing the ‘S.’
“Up here everybody does. Including Dad.” Steven sighed. I could just see him shaking his head. “That fancy shirt. The way you talk. It’s like you don’t even know your own family. I mean this is like the first time you’ve ever called me up. And why: to yell at me?”
“Sorry,” I said. And I was. His comment was spot on and I couldn’t deny it. For years, I always thought none of them knew me. Funny hearing it expressed the other way around. I still didn’t have the guts to tell him everything…the whole truth. Instead I conceded a detail.
“You know, even though it’s crazy, Kara just might be a great asset to my career.
She’s pretty good. At a lot of things.”
“Jeffrey,” Steven volunteered, “I’ll tell you what’s crazy: Me over Kara. Shit, if I thought she’d say yes I’d ask her to marry me. I’m not kidding.”
I could tell he wasn’t and I had to smile. The edge dissipated from my demeanor. It was insane but we both legitimately adored our illegitimate fiancés!
According to Brian, the greatest thing about Wrigley Field was that it was located smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s gay community, or Boy’s Town as its gay inhabitants called it. Wrigleyville is what realtors called the area. Lord knows the Cubbies were playing and losing ballgames on Addison and Clark before homosexuals discovered its quaint two-flats and corner bar conviviality. On game days the contrast between drunk, straight suburbanites and queer locals was jarring. But Cub fans were benign from years of rolling over and everybody, gay or straight, loved the Friendly Confines.
Chicago’s version of the Coliseum, Wrigley Field didn’t just look like a ballpark, other ballparks looked like it. Constructed early in the Twentieth Century, Wrigley was truly a fond farewell to the Victorian age. Festive and jubilant, it was the embodiment of all that was swell about baseball, leisure activity, even America. Think the Titanic but without water and, Cubs jokes aside, tragedy. This was the Friendly Confines. ‘Welcome to Wrigley Field’, flashed the big red sign in front, its ancient light bulbs working even now.
All in all, everyone in Wrigleyville got along. It was a rare juxtaposition of cultures, which is probably why it worked: like sweet and sour, bitter and sweet.
It was, as Harry Caray used to say, a beautiful day for baseball. Eighty degrees. Just enough humidity to remind one it was summer. Low, puffy clouds. Light wind blowing out.
Folks moved toward the Friendly Confines from all directions, yet marching in unison, as if to Mecca.
And we moved with them, lumbering up Sheffield, to a baseball game, my very first. Growing up in GB, obviously I’d endured numerous Packer (mustn’t use an ‘S’) games. Usually, it was cold, sometimes unforgivingly so. And the fans, to my mind, often felt like a mob –unruly, drunk and stupid. Lambeau Field may have been a shrine to football, but with it’s rattling and rusty all metal construction, to me it felt like a split open beer can. Of course I never let on to anyone that I hated it. That alone would have sealed my doom, forget being gay.
Today’s vibe, however, was delightful by any man’s criteria. We had great weather, a charming venue in a fabulous location. Victorian two-flats lined the neighborhood and the people around us at least looked capable of passing their SATs.
Brian and I were on another date. But for the entire world it looked like we were just buddies going to the game. Maybe we were. I still hadn’t figured us out. One day Brian shows up at my door, next week we’re both going to a baseball game. Both were unusual. Regardless, I was in good spirits. I appreciated the unexpectedness of it. Everyone else I knew was finishing up brunch. We were going to the Cub’s game!
A group of younger men strolled by us, making eye contact, mostly, I’m sure, with Brian. To this day, it still felt uncomfortable being cruised. Probably because it so seldom happened to me. Dating Brian, I had to get used to it. Again.
“Who are they playing?” I asked.
“Those two. Please. I’m not into kiddie porn, Jeffrey!” Brian giggled. “Although I have seen the blond at the gym before. Such a poseur.”
“I meant the Cubs. Who are they playing?”
“Oh, um, sorry,” blushed Brian. “I don’t even know. I’ll have to check the tickets.”
I could tell he felt badly for his incidental flirtation, getting caught. Sweet boy, I forgave him on the spot. Like I said, one had to accept such behavior from Brian. Classically chiseled and perpetually dapper, men (and women) just responded to him.
“Let’s see,” he said, happy to change the subject. “The St. Louis Cardinals.” He handed me my ticket. “It’s supposedly a big rivalry, dating back a hundred years!”
I’d only heard of them because of the big lug that had hit so many home runs a few years ago. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even guessed St. Louis had a baseball team. I found it funny that a sports franchise was named after a cute little bird.
“The Cardinals versus the Cubs,” I pondered aloud. “Not exactly a threatening combination. I mean why not the Bears versus the Eagles? That’s tougher sounding.”
I was impressed. “Suddenly, you’re Bob Costas?”
Yes! Now we were even. Sort of. I’d met the famous sportscaster at one of Audrey’s charity events. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known him from Zorro. I continued mulling the oddly named baseball teams.
“Think about it,” I said. “Why would a big time team name themselves after a baby animal –The Cubbies? That is so gay!”
We were getting close to the stadium. I could hear the fanfare. Vendors were hawking peanuts and programs. Scalpers were jubilantly working from doorways and the corners. Very festive. A veritable Mardi Gras.
“Maybe they are gay,” joked Brian. “Lord knows some of them are cute. I mean look at this guy.” He pointed to the photograph on our tickets. “Mark DeRosa… He can play on my team anytime!”
We both laughed. I had to admit, the athlete pictured on my ticket was handsome. In fact, I much preferred the more human scale of baseball players to the behemoths who played football and basketball.
“I’m not kidding,” said Brian.
Yes he was.
“Think about it. Only baseball clubs have mascots that are so fey. The Angels in California. The Cubs and the Cardinals. And what about the Blue Jays? How cute is that?”
Brian paused to buy a bag of peanuts. They came in a brown paper bag, just like old times.
“How cute is that?”
Whatever vestige of little boy (straightness?) still left in me emerged upon our descent into the ballpark: the lush, green playing field, rolling waves of organ music, and all those strapping young men tossing the ball around during warm-ups. (So much for straightness.) Quite a sight.
We headed closer and closer to the diamond, apparently in possession of some pretty fine seats. “Where did you get these tickets?” I asked Brian.
“I bid on them at the Green Tie Ball last month. It was a lark. I was drunk. I had no idea they would be this good.” On the 4th row, just off 1st base Brian turned in. I followed him excitedly.
Hmmm. The Green Ball. Why did that sound so familiar? Right. Johnny Fresch headed up the committee. I sat down, looked to my right, and, lo and behold, there was my boss glaring back at me.
“I didn’t know you liked baseball,” said Johnny dryly. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t seen you at work for so long.”
Think fast Sweetie. Negotiating the purchase of two Old Style’s (a favorite Chicago brew) Brian was unaware of my plight. Unlike Audrey, I don’t believe he’d ever met Johnny before.
“Hi Johnny!” I stammered. “Guess what? This is my first big league game ever.
Can you believe it? Very exciting!”
I looked out into the field, not wanting to make eye contact.
I didn’t comment on his remark about my work or the lack thereof. Who cared? Missing a few days at the office I could bullshit my way through. The business with Kara, uh-uh. He’d fire me on the spot, which would provide closure anyway. Yet, this was hardly where I’d imagined that conversation taking place.
Brian handed me a beer and I took a long drink, buying time and courage. Johnny kept staring my way, prompting me to even more nervous chatter:
“I take it you got your seats at the silent auction as well?”
“I bid on them along with a lot of other crap.” He looked the other way, coughed.
“Who’s your friend,” whispered Brian. “He seems upset.”
Let’s get this over with I thought.
“Johnny I’d like you to meet Brian. Brian this is my, um, boss, Johnny.”
“Wow!” Brian said, offering his hand. “What a coincidence? I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Had he? I wondered how much I’d told him. My circuits were overloaded; memory shot. Too many Valium.
“Good afternoon, Brian,” responded Johnny. “Lovely day for baseball, isn’t it…not to mention playing hooky?”
Quickly, Brian began putting things together. “Can we buy you a beer?” It was a shrewd piece of diplomacy.
Johnny picked his cup off the cement between his feet and drained it. “Another beer would be good.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how many he’d had already. Kara’s stories of his boozing were still fresh in my mind. Of lesser concern was the fact that he still hadn’t introduced us to his companion. Indeed, an elderly lady sat beside him dutifully reading a game program. Pencil out, she marked boxes and took notes like a sports reporter. Silent, perhaps she wasn’t even with Johnny.
Beers in hand, we drank quietly. The loudspeaker announced the opposing teams players and out they came. Although there were clearly a lot of Cardinal fans (one could tell from all the red caps and shirts), an echo of boos filled the arena. “And now, ladies and gentleman, your Chicago Cubs!” Their world famous outfielder ran out first and fastest from the dugout. The crowd, as they say, went wild. Even Brian was hooting.
“Aren’t you gonna buy me one?” asked the old lady next to Johnny, over the din. She pointed her pencil at his beer.
“Yes, Mother,” said Johnny. “But remember. You’re on medication.”
“And you’re not?”
That shut Johnny up. He flagged a beer man. A consummate gentleman, Brian bought that round as well.
“Thanks,” said the crone. Then to her son, very audibly: “Who’s your queer friends?”
Johnny didn’t make formal introductions. “Jeffrey here works for me,” he said. “Or at least he used to.”
Normally, I’d have been grossly offended by her remark (especially after having purchased her a beer), but in this case I was relieved by the distraction. Johnny had more on his hands than an errant employee. Needless to say, I found his mum to be quite the piece of work. Ancient, ragged and blunt, she had on a blue Cub’s jersey over a black wool dress. Shooting out from beneath her baseball cap was a mane of silver and black hair. She was positively freaky. All that, and she appeared to have a profound affinity for baseball. Weird.
“Mother has been coming to games forever,” said Johnny, resigning himself to explain. “Usually, she sits in the bleachers but-
“With the real fans,” she barked. “Not in fancy club seats with all these yuppies and fruits.”
Even the guy in front of us turned around. But, upon seeing the perpetrator, merely smirked and went back to conversing on his cell phone.
Fresch sighed. What else could he do? If he hadn’t been so mad at me I thought for sure he’d apologize. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Poor bastard.
Although Johnny’s mother was vulgar she was also right. Surrounding us was a sea of urban professionals and boondoggling executives: a mélange of suits, clients, bosses, sales reps, and the like. Clearly, going to the Cubs game had become a white-collar perk. That is, for everybody except Mother Fresch.
“Twenty-five years ago,” Brian spoke into my ear, “this was a scary neighborhood. Street gangs made it almost impossible to take a walk. On game day cops lined the streets; it was the only way fans like these could get in without getting mugged. All those cute houses…” He pointed out over the stands. “They were all tenements. I’m not kidding. I saw a documentary on PBS.”
I didn’t need to see a documentary. I was aware of the massive transformation that had occurred in Lincoln Park during the 60s and 70s. Audrey told me all about it one day, during the Sheffield Garden Walk. She claimed the gorgeous, million dollar, turn-of-the century properties we were visiting that day had all been, until fairly recently, decrepit and crime ridden. Hard to believe as the homes were so picturesque. “When it comes to real estate,” I’ll never forget Audrey saying, “One can never go wrong following the gay community. They find these places even before the artists do. They for sure turned Lake View around.” Remarkable. Everything here was so idyllic now. Except, of course, my tenuous situation.
The game started and, thankfully, Mother Fresch became diverted. Unfortunately, that gave Johnny his opportunity.
“What the fuck is going on, Jeffrey?” he whispered. “I mean it.”
“I’m on a date,” I said. “Can we talk about this later?” Once again, to his credit Brian remained cool –aware of my predicament but not grinding his teeth about it. I owed him.
Johnny took a flask from his pocket and drank. His beer had vanished. “If you’re moving on I would appreciate some notice. Mrs. Jillian called twice for Christ’s sake. I had to tell her you were having a family crisis.”
Johnny took another drink. “What, somebody die?” He was drunk so I forgave the callousness.
“No. It’s a combination of things,” I said. “Listen boss, I’m sorry. You’re right; I’ve got to move on. I really, really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You taught me so much.” Lame or not, it was out, and so I’m sure was I.
Johnny laughed. “You never called me boss before.” He waved the beer man over. “Another round,” he slurred. He had a twenty between his fingers, which I took before it could blow away. For those keeping score, it barely covered the four beers.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” replied Johnny. Then he sang. “And I’m not feeling too good myself.”
I couldn’t be sure but it appeared he might be crying. The perspiration on his face made it hard to tell. Brian pretended not to notice. It was awkward.
“Quit whining, Johnny,” bellowed his mother. “The Cards best hitter is up. Pay attention and see how a real man conducts himself.”
We all looked up. Some big lug was dusting off his cleats.
Johnny poured the contents of his flask into his beer and drank. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he sobbed. “I’m…I’m…”
The batter swung mightily but missed the first pitch –something low at the knees. The crowd gasped, knowing how close he’d come to swatting it.
“…Running out of options,” continued Johnny. “And now you’re leaving me.” He held his head in his hands, moaning.
“Jesus Christ,” Mrs. Fresch said. “How I got you for a son, I’ll never know.” She pointed to the man at the plate. “Now there’s a boy who makes his mother proud.”
The pitch stayed up veering outside and the player hit it hard off the tip of his bat. The ball rocketed into Johnny’s mother’s head as she was shaking it in disappointment. She was out, fell over, dead.
Within seconds all hell would break loose, but for a brief moment it was eerily calm, the whole ballpark assessing what just transpired.
Johnny picked the baseball out of his dead mother’s lap. Morbidly, he showed it to me. “Nice catch, Mother,” he said, and then began crying in earnest.
A group of panicked ushers cleared the area, removing the old woman’s body as quickly as possible. The whole ballpark was now standing and gaping. People were frantic, scared and clueless. Brian rocked back and forth in shock. Quietly, Johnny finished his drink.
I don’t remember how I got home.
Brian and I attended the funeral, something I would never have done if not for the highly bizarre circumstances leading up to it. It was a sentimental, drawn out affair; in my view inappropriate for a woman as, shall we say, abrupt as her. Maybe I was missing something but it was very hard to believe “her passing left a whole in the universe,” as one speaker had suggested. Johnny seemed composed, relieved even. Tentatively, I approached him.
“Hello, Johnny,” I said. “I’m sorry for-
“Don’t be,” he said. “She was a pain in the ass.”
I could only imagine. “Still, the whole thing was horrible. Nobody deserves to die like that.” I wasn’t so sure, however. She’d died in an instant. We should all be so lucky. Over Johnny’s shoulder I observed Brian consoling two elderly women. I don’t know how (let alone why) he did things like that. The ladies were acquaintances of the deceased, and from their squalid appearance and shaky demeanor, not a joy to be chatting with. So God bless Brian.
“Let me buy you a drink,” insisted Johnny. He took hold of my elbow and guided me through the small throng of people. A number of them tried to say something to Johnny but he was having none of it. “Thank you…Uh-huh…Big loss.” He mumbled, angling toward the bar. Once there, Johnny didn’t wait for the overburdened barkeep, he reached over the rail and grabbed a bottle of Makers Mark.
“This way, Sweet,” he said, beckoning me to follow him. A few opened doors and suddenly we were in the bowels of the funeral home. A metal table was pushed up against the wall, several coffins by its side. I’d seen my share of Six Feet Under episodes and knew we were in the embalming and preparing chamber. Lovely.
Johnny hopped on the cadaver table, patting a spot beside him. “Up you go, Jeffrey,” he said. “Nothing to be scared of!”
I delayed. Let’s face it…this was freaky.
“Come on, sissy!” He guffawed. “Right now I’m the only thing resembling a corpse in here!”
“Well, then, when you put it that way?” Slowly, I walked to the table, leaning on it awkwardly.
“Sit!” bellowed Johnny. “Sit!”
“I’d rather not,” I said, meekly.
“Come on, damn you!” Johnny grabbed me by the waist and hoisted me up. Granted, I’m not a heavy man but Johnny was -plus woefully unhealthy. Where he got the strength, I’ll never know. Perhaps from the bottle. Maybe from his mother.
“That’s better. Now join me in a drink,” he said.
What could I do? I took the bottle of bourbon and drank. It burned my throat like embalming fluid. “Good stuff.” I gasped, quickly giving the foul liquid back.
“You got that right.” Johnny downed a copious portion. “So, let’s recap.” He belched.” First, I lose my best employee and now my dear old mom. Two for two, I’d say. Batting a thousand.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I said, helplessly.
“That never stopped you before!” howled Johnny. He was drunk more than joking.
I felt compelled to keep our conversation on track. “One thing has nothing to do with the other.”
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong. Of course it does,” said Johnny, his red eyes widening. “The conspiracy to ruin my company and my family are clearly linked, like death and taxes… Laurel and Hardy.” Huh? Kara hadn’t been kidding regarding Johnny’s descent into the bottle. As if to prove it, he took another gulp.
I tried to make myself comfortable beside him. But clearly this table had not been designed for anything alive. Slippery and metallic, I imagined all the stiffs who’d been there before me, all those cold, white butts essentially resting where mine was right now.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. Hesitantly, I put an arm around him. He reached over and brushed my knuckles in a sad but affectionate gesture.
“You’re fired,” he said. “You know that don’t you?”
“Yes, of course.” I knew that at the Cub’s game. To pretend otherwise would have been torture for both of us. I was glad to be let go. Relieved. Under the circumstances, I needed to be Johnny’s punching bag. I wanted him to hurt me. In the same way I’d blamed my family for all my ills, I now felt responsible for all of Johnny’s. Firing me was the least he could do.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, you’re history. But you were quitting anyway. And now…now that my mother’s dead… what’s left?” Johnny polished off the bottle and tossed it into what I’m sure was a receptacle for blood and guts. It made a huge clang so at least I knew the container was empty.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. The autopsy table, or whatever the hell it was, was beginning to hurt my posterior. This was no duvet.
A hard laugh followed by some harder coughing. “I’m going to decorate homes,” he said, “and then I’m going to die.”
Breaking yet another rule, Johnny removed a pack of Kools from his shirt pocket and lit up.
He offered me one, which I refused. Johnny may have been the only human being I knew who smoked that brand, that is, other than my father. I flashed on my dad, seeing him on the slab in place of Johnny. His party was coming up. And so, I glumly imagined, was his funeral.
“Meantime, maybe I’ll hire a p’tute to take your place.” P’tute was Johnny’s word for prostitute.
I shivered. Did he know about Kara?
“Ha!” he blurted. “Got ya!” Johnny took a big hit off his cigarette and blew a set of perfectly shaped smoke rings. They sailed forward into the morgue like halos in search of a body.
“Word gets around,” he said. “Especially when you date the kind of people I do.” Obviously he was referring to the escorts he’d hired. How naïve of me to presume he wouldn’t find out. Especially considering how much Kara had known about him. “Be careful with p’tutes,” he warned. “They sell that…they’ll sell anything.”
“Kara isn’t like that,” I said. Yet I had to wonder. After all, she was a prostitute. Had she not, in fact, blackmailed me? On the other hand, a prowess in salesmanship would be excellent for our business. Funny…I did not have a problem taking the good with the bad. I just couldn’t tell which was which!
“Speaking of dating,” said Johnny. “I see you’re with Polo Boy again.”
“Yes, Brian asked me to go out with him.” I wanted to be sure he knew it wasn’t the other way around. For some reason it mattered.
“That’s nice,” replied Johnny, sincerely. “It must feel good to be wanted.” He wet his fingers and extinguished the cigarette between them.
I considered the bizarre relationship between he and his mother but said nothing. As I thought about it, Johnny probably had strained relationships with everybody –including me…especially me.
“I’m taking this thing with Brian one day at a time.”
“He came to Mother’s funeral…” Johnny flicked the dead butt into the same container he’d tossed the bottle. Some unfortunate employee was going to get blamed I was sure. “That tells you something good about the guy right there.”
I suppose it did. Brian was looking more and more like the real deal. “Speaking of
Brian, I think I better go find him.”
“I guess you’d better,” chimed Johnny.
And so I left my former boss in the morgue -hopefully temporarily.
I found Brian in a corner eating potato pancakes, alone but not unhappy. Brian never seemed unhappy. Not even at a funeral. Back when, that might have annoyed me. Now I found it reassuring.
“They serve the most comforting food at these things,” he said, licking a dollop of sour cream off his fork.
“Latkes. They’re from the old country, in honor of Johnny’s mother.” I replied, truly guessing.
“I had no idea fried potatoes honored the dead.”
“Watch it, smarty pants!” I whispered, punching him on the shoulder.
“Where have you been?” asked Brian, changing the subject.
He was not interrogating me, which I appreciated. His attitude could have been far worse, given I’d dragged him to this strange and nasty woman’s funeral, and then left him for 20 minutes.
“Exploring,” I joked. “I found where they keep the dead bodies.”
“You mean other than some of these guests?” Brian gave me a look. “I saw you go off with Johnny. Did you tell him?”
“More like he told me. Apparently, he knew about Kara’s design scheme from one of his boyfriends.”
“Was he mad?” Brian handed me a pancake.
“I think he’s over it.” I took a bite. “Hey, these are good.”
“Who would think pancakes go so well with beer?”
I grabbed another latke from Brian’s plate. “Wasn’t Johnny’s mother drinking an Old Style when she died?”
“We all were,” said Brian.
“Holy Cow!” I added, in a lame imitation of the late sportscaster, Harry Caray. From what I recalled, Caray was a shill for the brewery as well as the Chicago Cubs. Like Johnny, he was also a big drinker.
Before leaving, Brian and I went over to the casket to pay our respects –or pretend to anyway. Atop the coffin –closed, thank god- sat a picture of Mrs. Fresch in far better times; she was actually smiling. Of course she wore a fielder’s cap. I wondered if she had it on now. Regretfully, she’d probably loved the Chicago Cubs more than her own son.
“How old was she?” asked Brian.
“Eighty-eight.” I knew because Johnny always bought his mother the same thing for her birthday: Frango Mints from Marshall Field (now Macy’s). And White Diamonds perfume by Elizabeth Taylor. Last year it was I who went and got them.
“That’s a long time to be alive,” whispered Brian. “Especially when so little of life brings you pleasure.”
Surreptitiously, I took Brian’s hand. One had to be guarded about that sort of thing, especially here. For some of these old-timers, ‘gay’ was still an adjective for ‘happy’ –the kind of word one used along with ‘frolic’ and ‘swell.’ This was not the time or place for reminding them otherwise.
But I couldn’t let go. I closed my eyes, thinking of loved ones, my life and the concept of truth. These days the truth and I lived in different neighborhoods and the distance separating the two was growing by the hour. Sadly, I doubted Johnny’s mother had known the truth about her son. Sadder still, I don’t think him keeping it from her strengthened their relationship whatsoever.
“Thank you,” I said, squeezing Brian’s hand so hard I could feel his pulse. “Thank you for coming.”
“Well, well, well, going to her funeral and everything. Aren’t you a peach?” Audrey picked scallions out of her omelet, popping them in her mouth. As was her way, she promptly changed the subject.
“Don’t you just love this place?”
I looked around. No. “Yeah, “ I lied, “it’s great.”
Ann Sather’s was a hugely popular spot for brunch, especially within the gay community. Billions of hung-over fags and slumming straights filled the restaurant, I mean filled it, drinking Bloody Marys, and eating enough hash browns to clog Godzilla’s arteries. I could take or leave Ann Sather’s but Audrey loved it and so here we were.
“Certainly a lot in the way of scenery,” I added, only partly with sarcasm. Next table over a group of muscle bound studs giggled over pancakes. Despite their joy over gut fill, I was positive each one would be spending the entire afternoon at the gym. Such was the world of young gays: instant gratification followed by the long-term guilt-ridden pursuit of working it off.
Much had happened to me and more was coming. How I even woke for brunch I didn’t know. Oh, wait a minute. Yes I did. Audrey asked me and I said yes. It was one of the more predictable patterns in my increasingly unpredictable life: dining with Audrey and sorting things out. Usually, however, there wasn’t this much laundry to sort, dirty or otherwise.
“Pass the syrup,” I said, as wearily as the slow moving glop itself. I’d ordered normal, run-of-the-mill pancakes –comfort food, an antidote, perhaps, for my crazy life. I ignored Audrey’s tart comment regarding the funeral. She’d ask about it again soon enough.
“Oh Sweetie,” she moaned, “everything will turn out, don’t you fret.” She buttered a piece of toast. “If it’s our ruse of a marriage that you’re upset about, don’t be. We can always get a ruse of an annulment.”
This was the blessing and curse of Audrey Bellows. She believed most problems could be erased because for her most problems could.
However, I was pretty sure this wasn’t one of them. Still, it felt good to talk to a friend. And, as I said, there was a lot to talk about. Since the funeral, Brian and I had become inseparable. For those taking notes, we’d had sex –our first coupling after the funeral! I guess death was a turn-on. How nice. Anyway, communicating with Brian had never been easier than it was now but I still couldn’t tell him everything. For that I needed Audrey.
But I also needed to come clean. Audrey knew something was up. I could tell. She kept arching her eyebrows inviting me to speak.
“Audrey, I need to tell you something.”
“I know,” she replied, depositing a syrupy wedge of pancake into her mouth. “I can tell. When something’s on your mind, you arrange your food into neat little piles.”
“Where to begin?” I sighed. “As you’ve probably surmised, I’m not from the East Coast.” I took a hit off my coffee. “Green Bay has a coast but-
Audrey laughed. “Oh, Sweetie, everyone lies about where they’re from. Can you imagine if all the people who said they came from Beverly Hills or Washington D.C., actually did?”
She tried calling attention to her empty coffee cup. It had not been refilled in some time. Apparently, because she was a she (and I wasn’t pretty enough), we weren’t a priority for the gay server. Truth be told, he seemed genuinely irked by Audrey’s simple request. God forbid we interrupt his cruising of the hungry men at the next table.
“Take our waiter, for example…” said Audrey.
“Please do,” I grimaced. Guys like that gave homosexuals a worse rap in mainstream society than we already had. Because of him, we were labeled narcissistic, frivolous and rude.
Audrey laughed. “Right. And do you suppose he fesses up about his origins? All gay men come to the city from somewhere else. Including you, my dear boy.”
“So, you’re not mad at me?”
“Not anymore,” she smiled. “Besides, next week is your father’s party. Your entire history will be revealed!”
She was joking but she was right. I continued building the wall on my plate with uneaten bread crusts.
“Now, Sweetie, is that all there is to the fire? Or have you any more fibs to confess?”
“I learned design by working on my sister’s doll house -not via an apprenticeship with Thad Hayes in New York.” A tiny fly buzzed my plate delirious over the possibility of butter and syrup. Thad Hayes was a famous designer I’d never met.
“Dear boy,” said Audrey, “where do you suppose Thad Hayes learned his craft?” She chuckled at her own pithiness. “Men don’t grow up wanting to be interior designers. First, they must discover that they’re gay and then they must develop their eye. Men evolve into the position.”
“Is that a fact?” I responded, nodding my head, amazed by her sagacity, even if it was couched by impudence. Audrey wasn’t lecturing me and I didn’t view it that way. Besides, I was absolving myself of sins; I half expected a sermon. “I didn’t want to grow up and be gay,” I added. “That was an evolution as well.”
“I imagine it was,” agreed Audrey. “Little boys tend to fantasize about becoming policeman and firemen before they dream about doing them!”
The fly gave up on our table, as did our waiter. I stacked the plates and pushed them to the side. Like me, Audrey hated sitting over messy plates.
“Every minute those dishes sit,” as Audrey put it, “I am deducting one percent from his tip.”
“Fair is fair,” I concurred. So happy was I Audrey hadn’t gotten angry over my admission of duplicity I cared little about our server’s lack of service.
“My regret is not so much that I lied but that I lied to you.”
Audrey reached over and patted my hand. She knew I’d told bigger lies to more important people than her –my parents, for starters.
“Aren’t you sweet,” she purred. “My own Talented Mr. Ripley.”
We both laughed at her telling reference, me more nervously than her.
The waiter, indignant by our plate stacking, took them away in a huff. By my estimation, he’d lost seven bucks by virtue of his temperament. But Audrey wasn’t counting, plates or money.
“I don’t like scenes, but if you choose to come out next week I’ll proudly support you.” With southern panache, Audrey folded her napkin, putting it down in front of her. “Either way, I’ll be by your side. For better or for worse.”
I studied the gay men settling checks. If the Pancake Boys were going to the gym, then they were going drunk. At some point, they’d moved from orange juice to Bloodies. Any ideas about pumping iron had been replaced with desires for pumping each other.
“Did you know I’m from Fort Lauderdale?” Audrey declared. “And not even from the good part of Fort Lauderdale -if such a place exists.”
I didn’t answer. She’d always said West Palm Beach to anyone who’d asked. I shook my head and smiled. God, I loved this woman. For everything she was…and wasn’t.
“There you have it,” she said, beaming. “We all lie.”
“Ain’t that the truth?”
“Have you ever been to Bailey’s Harbor?” asked Kara. “I believe it’s roughly 75 miles from Green Bay.”
“Yes I have and yes it is,” I answered. We were working the antique shops on Belmont Avenue, ostensibly looking for a set of floral prints to use in Audrey’s guest bathroom. Like happening upon a Tiffany lamp, Kara’s question came out of nowhere, surprising me. Frankly, anytime Wisconsin was referenced in my vicinity I jumped.
For the record, Bailey’s Harbor was a sleepy, if somewhat rustic village located along the Lake Michigan side of Door County. I’d visited it with my folks several times for long weekends as well as with my friends for a few booze-filled lost weekends. It had a fudge shop, cheap camping grounds, and a handful of churches and bars. It was quaint, picturesque and far less gaudy than most of the county’s other resort communities. Locals referred to it as part of the “Quiet Side.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well…” began Kara, “the other day I mentioned to Ira that we were going to a birthday party in Green Bay. He said he had property nearby. You don’t say, I said. How do you like it? The cottage could use some work, he replied. No kidding…a cottage? Jeffrey and I love doing cottages. Positively adore them.” She held up an old oil painting featuring a troupe of flying geese. Pretty, save for a series of holes in the canvas. It looked like someone had shot at the birds. “Well, guess what?”
“He gave us the job?” I hazarded to guess, holding back excitement, but hoping it was so.
“He gave us the job!” Kara seemed thrilled too. “Ira said he could meet us there on Sunday. He has his own plane and would be flying over that morning.”
He has his own plane!!!
“I suppose that means we’re going on a little side-trip?” I put down the Italianate sconce I was inspecting (too flowery) and gave Kara a convivial pat on the back. “Good job, partner,” I said. And I meant it. Between Audrey and now Ira, we had enough work to be considered, dare I say it, busy. An amazing relief, because as Fresch liked to say: designers were either busy or out of business.
“Say Kara…” I introduced the new topic gently. “Are you and Ira, you know, in a relationship?” I had to ask. Don’t get me wrong. I loved that Ira was becoming our biggest client (He had his own plane!!!), and I’m sure he made a fine client but, outside of prostitution, I just couldn’t envision he and Kara together –even at a restaurant, let alone in bed.
“We have an arrangement beyond the usual arrangement,” answered Kara. “I’m obligated to sleep with him because he still pays me but honestly… we mostly just talk.” While speaking, Kara brushed off the proprietor, who’d been hovering for some time now. Being a weekday, his store got few visitors. The owner knew interior designers when he saw them.
I had pictured Ira for the kinky type. It was a relief knowing he was not. It made working on his apartment a lot less creepy.
“Actually, Jeff,” Kara said coyly, “I have a real boyfriend.”
“It’s Jeffrey,” I said, now comfortable enough in our relationship to correct her.
“No, his name is Barnabus,” she clucked, brushing off my admonishment.
Barnabus? The only person I knew by that name was the main character from Dark Shadows.
“I know what you’re thinking, Jeffrey: the soap opera vampire. Everybody goes there.” She motioned to the door, implying we exit. The antique’s dealer had crossed the line. He was placing specific objects in the aisles anticipating our path. Ugh.
“So, this Barnabus…What’s he do?”
“Men always say that!” Kara scoffed.
“Instead of asking what a guy’s like they invariably ask about what a guy does.”
“Right. Sorry. So, what’s he like?” We were now out on the sidewalk. Another larger antique mall was directly ahead of us.
“He’s my pimp,” blurted Kara. She seemed uptight by the revelation (understandably), though no less revealing.
“Then I guess what he does is relevant,” I pointed out, by far my most incisive comment thus far. I wasn’t trying to be nasty; she’d started it.
Kara grabbed me by the arm. Right away I saw the tears.
“Oh, Jeffrey, you’re right! He’s bad news, which is why I’m getting out. For two weeks, I’ve been avoiding him like the plague.” She wiped her eyes. The tiny squall left as quickly as it came. “I’m afraid,” sniffed Kara, “that he might get the wrong idea…about things.”
I’m not much good at crossword puzzles but I had no trouble deciphering what she’d meant by things. Things meant us. Kara feared her boyfriend-pimp might construe his best girl was leaving him for me.
As one might imagine, I shared her concern.
“Okay,” I said, fearfully. “Does that mean I’m going to get roughed up anytime soon?”
“I doubt it,” said Kara. “Especially when he figures out you’re not sleeping with me.”
Two young Mexicans hooted at Kara from a passing car. I jumped; irrationally fearing it was her irate pimp.
“Doubt isn’t good enough,” I emphasized. “I doubt people go to the ballpark expecting to get hit by a baseball and die…and yet it happens!”
Kara’s brow furrowed. A fact that made me even more worried.
“He’ll accept you’re not a rival pimp,” she said. “It’s how he accepts my change in career that concerns me.”
Me too, I thought. “Me too!” We were standing outside the mall. Understandably, I had lost my will to shop. I envisioned Barnabus hoisting a pair of machine guns: Say hello to my leetle friends, Jeffrey! At least he’d gotten my name right.
“Look, Kara, have you told him anything…anything at all?”
“Like I said, I’ve been avoiding him like the plague.” She opened up her compact and began doing touch-ups. I assumed it was an act of nervousness, not vanity.
“I’m no expert in the ways and means of prostitution, Kara, so you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure avoidance is not a good exit strategy when dealing with one’s pimp!” My voice had risen steadily; I was now borderline hysterical.
“Settle down, Jeffrey.”
I thought she was going to slap me.
“Everything will be all right,” she continued. “I’ll…I’ll call him tonight.”
“Is he a reasonable man?” I asked.
“He reasons with people every day. He’s a pimp.” Kara straightened my collar, which had become disheveled. “Wrong thing to say, huh?”
“Look, in my line of work –correction, previous line of work- you had to have a date coordinator to get started. Once you’re established, it’s no longer necessary. I can give regular clients my cell number, like your brother for instance. But even then it’s hard getting out of one’s original arrangement.”
She could tell her speech only agitated me more. “Tell you what,” she said, changing the subject. “Let’s go have a burger and a beer –my treat. I know just the place.”
My fear of a betrayed pimp bent on revenge did nothing for my appetite. Plus, I had other plans. “Sorry, but I already told Brian I’d meet him for lunch.”
“Brian’s not a vegetarian is he?”
“Bring him along. Here’s my cell. Tell him the Green Door on Orleans Street, in 30 minutes.” Kara liked having a plan. The vagaries associated with her relationship to Barnabus were as disconcerting to her as they were to me. Lunch provided a reprieve.
I called Brian, hoping he didn’t mind a third wheel. Given Kara’s background and our funky relationship, I had a feeling he wouldn’t. True enough, he looked forward to it.
Walking to our car, I spotted a shady looking dude leaning up against a pay phone. Chewing on a toothpick, he stared right at us. Okay, maybe he was just ogling Kara. Either way, my perception was that he was a henchman laying in wait. Biding his time. Picking just the right moment…
The Green Door was your classic, turn-of-the-century saloon, as quintessential to drinking as Wrigley Field was to baseball. The old wooden building had miraculously survived the Chicago Fire, despite having been right in the blaze’s path. Good thing, because the Green Door was irreplaceable. In a time when anything could be created to appear authentic, the Green Door truly was.
Splendidly aged, the structure seemed to have no hard edges. Peeling white shutters adorned its hunter green edifice. Flower boxes hung below each of the building’s tall, narrow windows. Charmingly, the entire place leaned slightly to the north. Inside, the bar had a patina even money couldn’t buy. Only the warm, wet, beer stein-holding hands of Chicago’s multitudinous working class could do that.
I was in heaven. Granted, in Green Bay there’s a tavern on every corner so perhaps I was predisposed to love a place like this. But the Green Door was special by any measure. I couldn’t believe I’d never been. Located in the heart of trendy River North, I’d unwittingly passed it a million times.
“Only Jeffrey could be smitten by a joint like this,” said Brian, winking. I knew he liked it too, but maybe not as instantly and profoundly as me.
“I don’t like it. I adore it.” I had to bring Audrey as soon as possible.
“Well, let’s hope the food is as good as the ambiance,” added Brian. Hungry, we could all smell the food from in the kitchen.
We were led to a table in the back room, a wobbly oval on a slanted and rickety floor. Of course it had a checkered tablecloth. Our waitress was a heavyset Chicago gal of indeterminable age –she could be 20, she could be 40.
“Whadalyahave?” she asked, as if reading a line. But, as I had to keep reminding myself, she was not. This was real.
After ordering the prerequisite hamburgers, we settled in. I had forgotten about Barnabus as well as a lot of my other problems. Such was the power of ambiance. And to think, some people found interior design superfluous!
I decided shots of tequila were in order. I didn’t particularly like tequila and I rarely drank it (except, of course, in margaritas), but this was a special occasion: Kara and Brian had never met before. Besides, we’d had a couple beers. And Brian and Kara had never met before!
I raised my shot glass. “To Brian…” I toasted, “Thank you for coming back into my life. And to Kara, thank you for entering it. You two are the most important people in my life and I-
Brian cut me off.
“Let’s not forget Audrey,” he interjected. He was looking at me judgmentally, like a parent would.
“Of course!” I bellowed. “But I haven’t forgotten Audrey. I’ll have you guys know I’m making a mental note to bring her here the very next chance I get.” I was still holding the shot over my head when I heard a familiar voice:
“Hello, Sweetie,” sang Audrey. “The last time I drank tequila was in Cozumel. The ex and I were on our second honeymoon after our third break up. I think he ended up getting sick. I, however, had a ball.”
“Audrey?” I stammered. Her unexpected appearance made me think of the old game show, This Is Your Life. It was as if my whole world were suddenly revolving around me (perhaps spinning was the better word). Had Audrey been summoned or was it just fate, the magic of tequila?
“I called her from the pay phone in the hallway,” said Kara, reading my mind. “Things were going so well, I figured you’d appreciate her company.”
Overcome by spirits, suddenly it seemed to me that everyone had gathered purely on my behalf. I decided to make the most of it and ordered another round.
“To Audrey! My bestest friend among best friends!” We imbibed the shots, convulsing delightedly.
“What about me? Don’t I get a shot?” exclaimed Audrey, determined. “Did not my anecdote about a second honeymoon provide ample hint of my desire for a shot of tequila? Lord knows my second honeymoon provided ample reason.”
“Hold your horses, darling,” replied our waitress. “It’s compliments of the house. Ole!” She handed Audrey a shot and the rest of us our second. “Now you kids be sure and turn the stereo off when you leave.” And with that, she left.
The sun went down. The evening crowd came in. And yet we remained, center stage. Brian had filled the jukebox with quarters and by the time American Pie came on we all were singing and dancing between the tables. Fortunately, no one else in the restaurant appeared to mind.
On the contrary, many seemed pleased. We were a mixed bag, hard to peg – and I think the other patrons appreciated that. All one had to do was look at us from their eyes. I was the gay gentleman, soused but mannered. Kara played the ravishing beauty and Brian the cute boy with a wink in his eye. Audrey was like the elegant film star from another era, her every gesture a moment. Indeed, we made quite a cast. Frankly, I couldn’t recall ever being so happy. The stock on my life soared that evening and I felt like a rich man.
Perspiration glistened on my forehead. My beer glass was perpetually full and gladly I drank from it. Even though it was late summer, it felt like Christmas: the old Victorian saloon, people singing, and an abundance of good cheer.
One Christmas, when I’d turned old enough to legally drink, my folks had taken us to place not unlike this one. We ate and drank from late afternoon until late in the evening. Friends and family kept showing up, joining in, ordering more libations. Not only was I allowed to stay up but I was free to get drunk as well. Which I certainly did. What was even more special, I remember watching my mother and father dance, the two of them smiling and laughing. Like tonight, nobody fought. Then as now, only joy permeated the room.
Brian plopped down beside me, his shining face a delight to behold, like an angel’s. I knew I was being sentimental (Lord knows I was drunk), but so what? His cherubic face was a beacon! I drew closer.
“How much fun is this?” I asked, rhetorically.
He found his beer glass and clinked it to mine. “Here’s to another round…of us,” he said, blowing me a kiss. “And may it be the best one ever.”
I leaned even closer, appreciating his double meaning. “You know,” I said, somewhat philosophically, “we’ve been to our share of bars before, gotten drunk, all that. How come they’ve never been fun …like this?”
Brian smiled. “Most of the places we went to everyone tried to get laid.”
I looked around. People were enjoying themselves, but no one seemed to be stalking prey, which is how I perceived the vibe at most gay bars. The leering loner was a part of any social scene, regardless of sexual preference. But he was not here. Not tonight, anyway. I saw no wolves lurking in darkened corners hunting for sheep.
Impulsively, I grabbed Brian by the shoulders and turned him toward me. “Come out with me to Wisconsin!”
Brian smiled. “Come out with you…or come with you?”
“Maybe both,” I said, blushing from the slip. “I WANT YOU TO BE WITH ME.” I annunciated each word, so as to hear them myself.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” replied Brian.
Men rarely kiss in public but our eyes locked and that was enough.
Audrey and Kara swooped in from the dance floor, both donning silly green, plastic fedoras, no doubt left over from last St. Patrick’s Day.
“Let’s move, darlings!” Audrey shouted. “The floor awaits!”
I was pulled in, her gravity just too strong to resist. We went at it like teenagers.
Yet, despite the boozy merriment, even amidst a conga, I began fixating on Dad’s party. Would it be fun, like this event, or a complete disaster? Whether or not everyone knew it, the emotional stakes of that party were getting higher and higher, commensurate to the amount of people attending it.
Come one, come all…but come out? I didn’t know if I was ready for that, or if I even had a choice in the matter.
“This is Kara’s employer. I need to speak to Jeff Sweet right now.”
Okay, I’m a dead man. Immobilized by fear, I couldn’t speak. I’d just seen Panic Room and I knew it was only a matter of time before the villain got into my apartment. My stomach flipped. Perspiration gathered upon my brow. An attack was imminent, be it a pummeling by him or one born from panic alone. Out my window, I witnessed yet another woe-begotten sailboat battling against the waves and wind. Its white sail glowed surrender.
“Relax. I’m not going to hurt you,” said Barnabus, his voice crackling over the intercom. “Unless, that is, you don’t let me in.”
Relax! Impossible. I was taking a big chance if I let him up. But if I didn’t let him up I was taking one too. Roy slunk out of the bedroom. Oblivious to the danger, he slowly began doing figure eights between my legs. It was almost 11 pm and an irate pimp was stalking me in the lobby. What to do? What to do?
I tightened the sash on my robe. Then I hunted for the biggest carving knife I could find. Mother had given me a monster scythe for Christmas but I’d yet to use it on anything but one rock-hard fruitcake. Where was it? I opened the junk drawer too fast and most of its contents fell to the floor. I shrieked at the clatter. The large blade was missing. I picked up a Phillips screwdriver. It would have to do.
“Look Mr. Sweet,” said the voice from my lobby, “I’ll get in whether you buzz me or not.” He elaborated: “In my line of work impromptu meetings are common. I usually give first timers benefit of the doubt.”
How very unsettling. I took solace in his use of the word ‘impromptu.’ Murderous fiends wouldn’t say impromptu, would they? While Barnabus spoke, I hugged my cat.
“Let me put it another way,” he reasoned, knowing I was listening raptly. “If I had really wanted to harm you would I have rang your doorbell?”
I remained silent.
“Besides,” he continued, “two people have already gone by me in the hallway. I could have followed either one of them in.” After another pause: “Listen, Sweet, I came here in a relatively good mood. You should endeavor to keep it that way.”
“But it’s late,” I said, my first words. “Nobody visits anyone at this hour…unless it’s for sex or violence.”
“I can assure you, I do not want either,” said Barnabus. “I merely want to confirm that you are using my property.”
Kara wasn’t property. “I’m calling the police,” I said, bravely.
“You can’t,” he replied. “The intercom is tied to the phone.”
“I’ll call as soon as we hang up,” I challenged.
“I’m not hanging up.”
Ha! I thought. “But then how will you get to my floor?”
Barnabus sighed, and then spoke. “Let me in or I’ll break this door, run up the stairs and punch your lights out.”
Leaving my side, Roy ambled over to the couch, hopped up and tucked into the crevice between both pillows. Some help he was. I needed an impromptu strategy. And promptly! In the face of my opponent, I decided to roll over like a Frenchman.
“Can I offer you a glass of wine?”
“I prefer scotch but at this hour I’m flexible.”
At least he was articulate. I let him up. “It’s the second door right off the elevator.” The box irrevocably opened, I now knew how Pandora felt.
Grimly, I thought of all those sensational stories about old people who’d died in cat-infested apartments. Didn’t some of them get eaten? Or were those urban myths? Roy picked that exact moment to flick his pink tongue across his pointy teeth. Morbidly, I imagined him seeing my head as a huge piece of kibble. Lord help me.
I opened my best red wine just as the doorbell rang. I let the bottle breathe, hoping I would be able to do the same.
Inexplicably, I was calm. For the longest time I had assumed AIDS would be the agent of my demise. Now Death was at my door. I said a little prayer and let the man in. Roy watched, licking his paws. Again, I flashed on a carnivorous cat feasting upon his fallen master.
For a messenger of evil, Barnabus was small in frame. Five-five…if that. Right off the bat he reminded of me of a black Napoleon. He had angular features, a creased brow, and long hair pulled back tightly and neat. Instead of a ponytail he’d tied it in a bun. He wore an expensive three-button suit and shoes equal to it, black. His silk tie, even at this late hour, was knotted tightly. Though diminutive physically, Barnabus was large in stature.
He sized me up. Grinned.
“I’m not your father’s pimp, am I?” he said, chuckling as he breezed in. He took in the apartment (what little of it there was to take in). “You know, I have several clients in this building,” he said. “They’ve got bigger places but yours is nicer looking, which is reassuring.”
“Why,” I asked, “is that reassuring?”
Roy went right up to the stranger, purring loudly, very atypical for him.
“Catnip,” Barnabus said, pulling the herb out of his pocket and sprinkling it on the floor. Roy immediately dived into the stuff like a bluefish seizing minnows. “One of my girls has three cats,” explained Barnabus.
I looked at him mutely. The man still hadn’t answered my question.
“If your place was unattractive,” answered Barnabus, “I would know you are not a designer. That would make Kara a liar, and you, perhaps, a competing pimp.” Another smile. “And that would have been…grim.”
“Would you like that glass of wine, Barnabus?”
“Yes, I would,” he replied, amicably. The pimp bent down and petted Roy, who remained covered in herbs. At this point, I felt safe.
“Another way I can tell you’re not a purveyor of flesh,” said Barnabus. “You look too tidy. Like Felix Unger.”
“Gee, thanks,” I replied, handing him a glass. Unable to hide my disappointment, I would have preferred David Niven to Tony Randall. But then he wasn’t what I had expected either –and in this case, that was a good thing, a very good thing.
“No offense intended,” offered Barnabus. He sniffed the contents of his glass, smiled. “To better manners,” he said, taking a sip.
A ’91 Merlot, and by far my best wine. Audrey had brought it as a gift one night, insisting I save it for an important occasion. Though hardly festive, this evening certainly qualified as important.
“May I ask you a personal question?” I asked, tentatively.
“Fire away,” replied Barnabus. I got the impression he was happy just drinking his Merlot and watching the cat.
“Kara told you everything that’s going on between us, didn’t she?”
He contemplated my query, shook his head. “I hope so.”
“And well, is this what you expected?” I implicated myself, the apartment, Roy.
“No,” he chuckled. “But it is as she said.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Kara explained the situation but, at the time, I assumed she was lying.”
“Why?” I wondered aloud. Was she a pathological liar, a pretender in every way? Like me, I thought uncomfortably.
“First of all,” began Barnabus, “I thought for sure she was sleeping with you. I mean, a queer interior decorator? That is such a cliché. But here you are!”
“Here I am!” What was I supposed to say? I ran a finger around the rim of my glass, caught myself and stopped. Given his comment, I wanted to avoid looking feminine.
“And the fact that she’d be willing to give up one amount of income for, shall we say, a lesser one…”
“We have clients too,” I said, defensively.
“That pay two grand for an hour and a half? I don’t think so.”
I didn’t think so either.
“Ah, well, nothing good lasts forever, Mr. Sweet. Especially in my line of work.” He paused for effect. “And, let me tell you, Kara is something good.”
“She still is.” I added, smiling broadly. With all that was on my mind, I could not help but be proud of Kara. She’d forsaken a very lucrative job for, as Barnabus put it: “candies and nuts.” Ethical issues aside, she’d done quite well. And now she was jumping ship. From a financial standpoint, it was like disembarking a yacht and boarding a skiff. Yet, she was following her moral compass. Hence my pride. In her position, I wondered, would I do the same?
“To something good,” I toasted. “To Kara!” The wine contented me, as did the direction this evening was going. I now counted Kara as one of my blessings. Along with Audrey, Brian and I suppose even Barnabus. Why not?
Barnabus put down his glass. “You know,” he said, “I have two daughters. They are only a few years younger than Kara.” He sighed heavily. “Do not think I haven’t wondered how I would feel if one of them became…an escort.” He tried to say the word without drawing attention to it but, frankly, couldn’t. A guilty conscious -or had he merely put on his daddy cap for a moment?
“I can imagine how difficult that must be.” I chose my words carefully, not wanting to offend my unusual guest. But I got the impression he treated most women nicely, like they were all his daughters.
“Would you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Only one way to find out!” Barnabus smiled.
“Do your kids know what you do for a living?” On the face, it was a brazen question but I’d asked it as diplomatically as possible. I was genuinely curious.
“No, they do not,” said Barnabus. “They have been told I am a criminal attorney. It helps explain the odd hours. Still, they are bright girls. I’m sure they know more than they let on.”
I wondered about their mother but hadn’t the nerve to ask. Barnabus sensed it, however, and responded quickly.
“The girl’s mother left me –and them- about 15 years ago. She went back to Ireland to try and collect a portion of her family’s inheritance. The estate gave her an ultimatum: If she wanted the money –not an insignificant amount I might add- she’d have to part with me. You see, in the family’s mind I was a hustler; I hadn’t made an honest woman out of her. And worst of all, I wasn’t a Catholic. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Of course not,” I replied, even though I did. On the topic of smoking, Audrey and I frequently debated. She felt a good host always allowed it, regardless of one’s predisposition. Always keep an ashtray and matches on hand, she counseled. Though we both had an occasional puff while socializing, I didn’t like smoke in the house.
But given what Barnabus had just confessed (and the controversial nature of his presence), I didn’t think twice about denying him this pleasure. I dashed to the kitchen, retrieving a porcelain saucer for his ashes. It belonged to Roy but whatever. Hell, he was still rolling around in the catnip Barnabus gave him. A vice for a vice, right? Speaking of which, I brought the wine back with me as well. While he lit up I refilled our glasses. I thought about what he’d just told me. The mother of his children had abandoned them for money. No wonder he took to pimping. On some level he had to objectify them.
“Go easy,” he said politely as I poured. “I’ve still got another appointment.”
Really? I thought. Where? It was half past midnight but I didn’t dare ask. Instead I went back to our previous subject.
“How is it your daughters have remained in this country?” I had to ask, it being just one of several obvious questions. I found it fascinating how many people (myself included) possessed a whole other life beyond the one they were leading. So many secrets, matters repressed, lies. Presumably, Barnabus’s adult children didn’t even know how their father earned a living. God knows how they felt about their mother. Unlikely they knew the truth. Why, when the lie was so much more palatable?
Barnabus harrumphed, apparently appreciating the opportunity to answer just such a question. “Because I wanted my daughters to stay with me,” he boasted. “And it was their wish to be with their father as well.”
“Who takes care of them?” I wondered out loud. Catching myself: “I mean, you know, while you’re…working.”
“I know a lot of women, Jeffrey,” he replied. “A good nanny and a quality escort are very similar. And,” he added wryly, “equally hard to find.”
I’d heard that about babysitters. Maybe he was right about the other pieces. Out in society, Barnabus would be considered evil, but in my living room, I understood exactly where he was coming from. I empathized. I imagined walking in this man’s moccasins; I felt the load he carried, even if just for a moment. For years, Barnabus had to hide from his daughters. For shame! Yet hadn’t I done the same with regard to my parents?
For some time, we just sat and sipped our wine, not speaking.
“I’m sorry,” I said, ostensibly for ‘stealing’ Kara away from him but also for the confessional. Obviously, he wasn’t going to kick my ass. In the short span of our visit, I’d gone from being deathly afraid of Barnabus to actually feeling sorry for him. The evolution produced an unlikely result: I now liked the guy. We were kindred spirits.
Verbally, he never acknowledged my apology but I could tell he was moved by it. He stood, presumably to leave. “Well, Jeffrey, it’s getting late and I do have one last appointment.” He walked his glass over to the kitchen counter.
I was dying to ask him whom he was seeing, and what for. “Do you have to go very far?” I asked, benignly. “It’s getting late.” Was he breaking in a new girl or facilitating an illicit late-night transaction? Hopefully, my general query would elicit a detailed reply.
“Tomorrow, I’m having breakfast with my daughters,” Barnabus said, warmly. “The Gonnella Bakery prepares for me a special morning loaf, which we all enjoy. It’s usually ready by now. So I pick it up on my way home. Let me tell you something, Jeffrey. There’s nothing like fresh bread for breakfast!” He laughed hard, knowing once again that I’d read him all wrong. “I had you worried…I know,” he added. “And I was angry at her for leaving me. I’ll miss her.”
“Completely understandable,” I answered jovially.
“Yes, yes, I suppose it is.” Barnabus sighed again, a pleasant whistle. “But at least I am not angry anymore, at her or at you.”
“That’s a good thing,” I said, an understatement if ever there was one.
Standing now, we shook hands. I couldn’t help thinking, on some level, Barnabus made a better employer for Kara than I did! As controversial as his life was he still found time to get fresh bread for his girls.
“Steven tells me you’re bringing someone to your father’s party,” my mother said, more question than declaration. I’d picked up the phone expecting Kara, Brian or Audrey –the usual suspects. As it was, her voice seemed fake and far away –like an imitation of my mother. Needless to say, she’d caught me by surprise. Why I hadn’t ‘call waiting’ was not important here.
“Well Steve’s bringing somebody, too!” I blurted. Swell: now I was acting like a nine-year-old. Like a lot of brothers, there had always been competition between us, usually manifesting around our parents. He wasn’t even present and I was using him as a foil.
“I see,” my mother replied.
See what -my childish behavior?
“Anyway, Mother,” I went on, moving the subject somewhere safer. “How are the preparations going? Do you have a menu planned? What about flowers?” I always rambled when nervous. I was nervous.
“Your father likes rib eye,” she answered. “I thought Steven could grill.”
True or not, the assumption (be it from my mother or anyone else) that Steven was better suited for manly tasks usually ticked me off. I chose to let it slide. Frankly, he was better suited for grilling steak. Besides, if this were my decision, we’d be catering the damn party.
“What can I do to help?” I asked, sincerely. Up until now, I didn’t think Mother even knew I was coming to the event. Rude of me to keep her in the dark, but then, she’d never formally invited me either.
“You can help by telling me about this girl you’re bringing,” she replied, dryly. Then, almost as an afterthought: “Congratulations on your engagement. You must be very excited.”
She knew. Call it a premonition but at that moment I believed she knew I was a gay man faking my engagement. My mother didn’t buy her firstborn son getting married any more than she would tickets to a prizefight. My little Jeffrey can’t possibly be getting married. He’s gay.
But I remained in denial. Played along. Had to.
“Audrey is a very special lady,” I said, that much being true. “She has great taste. Wears pretty clothes. And has a wonderful sense of humor. You’ll love her, Mom, I promise.” Wears pretty clothes? What was I saying? And to whom?
“I’m sure I will,” she replied. “But how do you feel about her, Jeffrey? That’s the 64 thousand dollar question.”
“Why, I love her of course.” And I did, like a sister.
I pictured my mom in the kitchen, baggy jeans and faded blouse, sitting in the same chair as she always did, drinking a cup of black coffee. Even now I heard the Today Show blaring from the old Zenith on the counter. Like a lot of mid-Westerners, Mom loved Katie Couric, the idea of Katie Couric and missed her deeply. Was that how I was positioning Audrey?
After all, Katie Couric (or whoever the new girl was) had nice clothes and a wonderful sense of humor. I followed my mother’s 64 thousand dollar question with a less pricey one of my own.
“What do you think Dad wants for his birthday?”
The truth, dammit! I imagined her saying. But of course she would never come out and say that to me…anymore than I would come out to her. Mother’s reluctance to speak her mind reminded me how close the acorn fell from the tree.
Hilarious, she still associated the buying of books exclusively to sellers on Michigan Avenue. Every strip mall in Green Bay had a Barnes & Noble, often more than one, but Mom was from another time. Folks either bought first editions in the big city bookstore or waited for the soft cover next to the magazines at Wal-mart. Forget about the Internet. To my parents Amazon was just a river. Still, I jotted down her recommendation. I’d order it this afternoon. God forbid, I get him another faggy yellow sweater.
“I’d of thought Pops knew everything there was to know about Coach Lombardi,”
I laughed, looking for common ground.
“You’d think,” she responded coolly. “But it seems the more you know somebody the less you really know.”
She could have left it at that and still made her point. She did not.
“After all, we’d given up on you ever marrying…let alone to an older woman of wealth and privilege!”
Thank you Steven for briefing Mother so thoroughly. But I couldn’t really blame him. He’d told it like he saw it. Like it was. I looked out over the lake, half expecting to see my sailboat. Gone now, a large police tug churned forlornly across the green-gray water. Probably looking for the remains of that sailboat!
“Father and I are also happy to hear of your new job. It must be a real hoot helping rich people purchase furniture. Is that how you met Audrey?”
“Actually, yes,” I answered, grateful to be straight with her. Grateful to be straight.
On top of everything else, my folks were still under the impression I was a waiter. Dear God, had I been that uncommunicative? My rating as a son was plummeting. Son.com? Worthless. Yet, I couldn’t wallow in my own melancholy. I pressed on.
“Audrey was one of my first clients. She’s been very good to me. We became close.”
“Apparently,” chortled Mother. For a country bumpkin, Mom was serving only aces.
“I’m sorry about not keeping in touch, Ma,” I admitted, “about not telling you things. It’s nothing personal.”
“Oh, Jeffrey, of course it is,” she said sweetly. “But we don’t hold it against you…I don’t anyway.”
“Thanks Mother… I think.” Even though it was late morning, a crescent moon was plainly visible to the east. I recall reading somewhere that the moon was a symbol of maternity. How apropos.
“So, dear boy, how would you like me to play your relationship with Audrey –you know, with your father?”
You know the sound a bowling pin makes when hit by the ball? That’s what I heard in my brain. I didn’t say anything at first. I couldn’t. The revelation behind her words took my breath away. “Play?” I replied feebly.
She chuckled. “As in act. How would you like me to act regarding your make-believe marriage? Your father and I are shocked by your engagement. Only difference is he’s buying it and I’m not.”
“I see.” My throat closed up on me, that odd feeling like right before you cry. After decades of ‘acting’ apparently the charade was over. A sob escaped me, nothing I could do to stop it.
“Sweetie, I am not the rube you think I am. Your dad, sometimes I wonder. But he’s a good man, he’s turning 80, and he believes his number one son is getting married.”
Silence. I held the phone bracing for the next volley.
“If you’re doing this to placate an old man I’ll go along with it. There’s decency to it, even if buried in a lie.
I’m doing this, I thought, because I can’t undo this. I didn’t dare bring up the business with Kara. Or, for that matter, Steven’s business with Kara.
“We’ll go ahead as planned.” I said, eyes closed.
“Good enough,” she chirped. “And Jeffrey, your father and I may be cheese heads but we love you very much. Always remember that.”
“I know, Mother. I love you too.”
“And besides,” Mother added cheerfully, “it’ll be fun having all these women in the house. Something new and different.”
As opposed to my hidden Barbie doll collection?
“I can’t believe you were outed by your mom!” squealed Audrey.
“She knew all along,” I said, glumly. With this off my chest, I should have been elated, but there were still too many loose ends. First and foremost, my father didn’t know. Perhaps more disturbing was how anti-climactic it all seemed. It sounded selfish, but after 30 plus years of hiding, one would have expected coming into the sun to be more spectacular. Audrey didn’t see it that way. She thought the news was strictly win-win.
“Must you fiddle with that? It’s terribly distracting.”
We’d been kicking around the topic for nearly two hours. Yet, despite my deflation, I had to at least try and consider the upside. I nibbled on another egg roll. Audrey was right. Much of what had transpired was, indeed, win-win. Maybe I felt down because I’d underestimated so many people in my life: Kara, Brian, Audrey, even my mother.
Normally, Trader Vic’s would cheer me up instantly. With its campy, Polynesian décor and ancient Chinese waiters, how could it not? Factor in the potent, fruity drinks and crunchy Pu-Pu Platter and even Heaven paled. Today, however, I was having a harder time achieving nirvana.
“I like the way she handled things,” commented Audrey, again referring to my mother. “She’s known about you for God knows how long but stayed mum until the very last minute. Very British.”
“British? That’s a wee bit extreme, don’t you think?” Beyond getting caught up in Princess Diana’s death, I didn’t think my mom could find London on a map. But I was being a bitch again, wasn’t I? For all I knew (precious little it seemed), Mother was a closet Anglophile. The Fifth Beatle.
Audrey continued. “I don’t think so. Consider the delicate way she initiated the conversation: asking how you would like her to handle the engagement. In a sense that forced you to come out but in a mannered and thoughtful way.” When Audrey drank she, too, became ‘mannered and thoughtful’, which is why I loved when Audrey drank.
“And I asked her to play along,” I said. Here again was another loose end, another lie. “She thinks I’m doing this to appease my father in his waning years.”
“Sweetie, at this point, you are.” She removed a cigarette from her handbag, surreptitiously lighting it. She knew it would eventually draw the waiter’s ire, but as we were regulars and no one else was about, she’d take her chances.
“If it’s any consolation,” she exhaled, “I’m not holding you to it.”
I assumed as much. That part of the story had evolved so much; I couldn’t even remember the exact circumstances leading up to our faux engagement. The preponderance of alcohol blurred the memory as well.
“Thank you, Audrey. But that train has totally left the station, and it’s going to Green Bay with you and me on it.”
In a darkened corner our waiter pretended not to see Audrey’s cigarette. He busied himself folding napkins. Late afternoon was a bad time for restaurants; if, by looking the other way, a server could bolster his tip, why wouldn’t he? In the low light, surrounded by heavy, crimson drapes, he reminded me of Charlie Chan investigating a crime scene.
“Well, Sweetie, if indeed we’re going through our La Cage aux Folles, how exactly do you want to handle it? I can’t imagine just winging it.”
“I keep changing my mind about that. Do we fake it for Dad’s sake? Or should I quote-unquote ‘do the right thing’ and come out, thereby ruining his birthday?” I wanted another Mai Tai but I didn’t want to call the waiter over until Audrey finished her cigarette.
“What about Steven and Kara?” asked Audrey. “There’s a good chance your mother has doubts about them as well. Do you think they’ll go through with it? Have you talked to either of them?”
“I talked to them, sure, but a lot has changed since that conversation. I’m so caught up worrying about my parents, I keep forgetting Steven still thinks I’m getting married.” “In my opinion, Sweetie, his sham engagement is more dicey than ours.”
“How’s that, Audrey?”
None of us even know his true motivation.” Audrey extinguished her butt in a dish of spent plum sauce. “Ours began as a joke of sorts. I can only see the deception in Steven’s ruse.”
If that was true once, it’s not the case now. “He loves her.” I said to Audrey. “He said he would ask her to marry him if he thought she’d say yes.” I motioned Mr. Chan over to our table.
“How in the hell did that happen?” Audrey raised her long eyebrows in earnest surprise.
“Who knows? Kara can be very seductive. She got to me didn’t she?”
The waiter quickly scooped up our dirty plates (including the incriminating cigarette). “Two more Mai Tai?” he asked. We both nodded yes and he left.
“You’ve got to love a waiter who doesn’t wait,” I said, recalling our indifferent server from brunch the other day.
Intrigued, Audrey continued her line of questioning. “Do you know how Kara feels about Steven?”
“I can’t imagine she feels much of anything,” I said. “He told me it was a secret.
He hasn’t broached the subject with Kara. It’s all very sudden.”
“Clearly, their date went well.” Audrey was referring (sarcastically) to the night in the hotel bar where it all began. It seemed like ages ago; in fact, it had only been a couple of weeks.
I remembered Kara’s point about most of her clients just wanting to talk. “I’m sure they’ve spoken at length. But who knows about what.” Frankly, I really wasn’t sure of anything. I could only assume they’d talked because of the plans they made for Dad’s party.
I needed a third Mai Tai in me like the Catholic Church needed pedophiles in the choir but when it came I took a long draw. Yum, yum, yum. One of these days I had to get the recipe. I’d jerry-rigged the formula using Hawaiian Punch, rum and orange juice. It was drinkable, barely, and lord knows it packed the same punch. But where was the magic? The Trader Vic Mai Tai was more than a concoction. It was an icon.
“Kara’s riding up to Wisconsin with us,” I mentioned to Audrey. “I hope you don’t mind.” I wasn’t sure if we had discussed the players or the itinerary.
“Mind?” Audrey responded gaily. “I’m counting on it! Despite the drama, or maybe because of it, I’m looking forward to this trip. The more the merrier.”
The more the merrier. Why do people always say that? “I appreciate you feeling that way,” I said to Audrey, not sure I believed it. At this point, I’m not sure it mattered. If she and Kara dropped out, I would probably muddle through the party, adopting my usual persona: silent, nervous, guarded and drunk.
But, Aha! Fate had intervened in this particular drama. The stage was now set for a bravura performance, whether I liked it or not.
All that, and let’s not forget my ad hoc invitation to Brian.
Was he excited about it too? Why was everyone looking forward to my father’s birthday party except me, his first-born son?
From Trader Vic’s to Brian’s apartment was a mile tops. Buzzing from the drinks, I decided to walk. I figured some fresh air and a double espresso, and I’d be reasonably coherent for our movie date later.
How date night worked: One of us picked the video while the other selected the pizza. No debating each other’s choice. Tonight Brian chose Saturday Night Fever. And I the sausage and caramelized onion pie from the Homemade Pizza Company. A brief note about Homemade Pizza: the pie came to your door uncooked. When you were ready to eat it you merely turned on the oven and slid the pie in. They were fabulous, and well worth the minimal effort. However, I have to go on record as being one of the few people in Chicago who loathed so-called Chicago style pizza. (Too thick and gooey for my palate. One slice and I was full. What fun was that?) I suspected many of my fellow citizens felt the same way but remained quiet out of civic pride.
I felt bad for consuming so much alcohol before our date. Brian wouldn’t complain, but that was beside the point. He deserved better. Was I being selfish…again? Was I becoming a drunk? Lately, I couldn’t help but wonder.
A friend of Johnny’s had a theory that all gay men were selfish. By his reasoning, when a homosexual opted out of the trappings (servitude) of family life, he was also abdicating himself from commitment and responsibility. In this sense, all gay men were perpetual adolescents, only on the look out for new toys, another party and, of course, sex.
I liked to think I’d grown up and out of such prurient pursuits. (Prior to Brian, I hadn’t been getting laid with any regularity at all. God knows contracting HIV had been one hell of an eye-opener.) But psychologically, I knew I was still just a little boy pining for his room full of toys, a ‘Keep Away!’ sign perpetually taped to the door.
Starbucks in hand, I crossed the Chicago River at State Street, once again marveling at the two blackened corncobs known as Marina Towers. If ever one could love and hate a building simultaneously this was it –or should I say them? Built in the 60s, Marina City once housed a well-to-do clientele offering all-amenity living previously unheard of in the city –hell, anywhere. The space-age architecture, the cutting edge vibe; it was like living in the not too distant future. Which it was! There was even a subterranean bowling alley.
The years, however, had not been kind. The towers resembled two stacks of old 45s left out in the sun. And by the end of the Twentieth Century, they had become about as popular. If not for the House of Blues inside –and a revitalization of the downtown area in general- Marina City might have perished. Like Maxwell Street or the infamous Chicago Stockyards before it.
But Marina Towers persevered, and my boyfriend’s recent purchase of a unit was proof. He figured the hotel and restaurant would cause values to skyrocket. And while that hadn’t quite happened, Brian still adored his apartment. Too retro for my taste, admittedly the place was sharp. Brian had it decorated very true to the period, in keeping with the Jetson’s motif. The forced playfulness hadn’t come cheaply. Everything, from the plastic Italian chairs to the kidney-shaped coffee table, was vintage and in excellent condition. Brian may have been exploiting a gay cliché but he hadn’t cut corners. (I could have done without the pink and turquoise carpeting but, hey, what did I know? I liked chintz.) Already two magazines had featured Brian’s place in their glossy pages and he’d only been living there a year. By contrast, my studio apartment had graced an issue of Cat Fancy, courtesy of a letter I’d written regarding Roy’s alleged fear of heights.
Last week Brian gave me the key to his apartment, which I now used to let myself in. A Bee Gees album was playing so loudly he did not hear me enter.
I watched him washing the floor to ceiling windows, a dishrag in one hand a bottle of Windex in the other. He shimmied and shook to the music, kind of like he was dancing with his reflection in the glass. I marveled how much he had changed since we first dated. At the time of our breakup, I would have not thought this transformation possible. Brian used to be painfully image conscious; now he was scrubbing windows, even though his image was still connected to them. It struck me as odd that we never talked about these changes. From the first, I’d been skeptical, wary, or maybe just fretful about my own insecurities. Likely, all of the above.
This new Brian, I thought to myself, was too good to be true. He had to be a fraud.
I’d thought wrong, so far, anyway.
Given the givens, I now believed it was necessary to discuss my change in heart regarding Brian attending my father’s party. I could not avoid the subject another moment, like a bat caught in the house it had to be dealt with. I’d already told him he couldn’t go but things had changed. At a minimum, I owed him the opportunity to vent in person. After all, I’d invited him to the party in the first place.
“How long have you been standing there?” Brian held the bottle of Windex to my face as if it was a gun. Backing up toward the stereo, he turned it off.
I lifted my arms, playing along. “I’ve been here for most of Stayin’ Alive, I’m afraid.”
Brian laughed. “You’re early,” he said, looking at his watch, a vintage Timex. “But no matter. I’m almost done.” He handed me the bottle and rag. “You take the bottom and I’ll do the top.”
“No fair,” I said. “You’re always on top.”
Brian stopped moving. He looked me right in the eye. “Jeffrey,” he said, “that could be the lamest joke you’ve ever made.” He promptly jumped over and gave me a big hug. “I love it!”
It might have been the only joke I’ve ever made. Seriously, I’m not funny. But I did know the value of a good line, well-placed (thank you, Audrey), and that last one, as my brother would have said, had been a lay up.
With Brian inches away, I breached the subject of Dad’s party.
“I really do wish you were coming,” I said. “I’m going to miss you something awful.” Interestingly enough, I really did wish he could go. And what’s more, I’d stopped wishing I didn’t have to go myself. For the first time, maybe ever, I recognized the true importance of Dad’s event, as well as the significance of Brian reengaging in my life. Too bad I couldn’t blend the two. Both were big deals. Less than a month ago they would have meant nothing. I told Brian how sorry I was he couldn’t go along.
“It’s okay, sweetie. But thank you for caring.” He kissed me on the cheek.
This was going well.
“So,” Brian said, “do you want to put on our pajamas before or after dinner?” Part of pizza and movie night involved wearing silk pajamas. He ventured into the hall closet, emerging with two large boxes from Bloomingdales. “I had them monogrammed,” he bragged.
“To hell with it,” I said, ignoring his original question. “You’re coming to my father’s party.” I realized how absolutely right that sounded. Damned any prejudice.
“Sit down, sweetie.” Brian spoke softly, motioning to the love seat. Once we were settled, he continued. “It’s not just prejudices we’re talking about, it’s your father. He’s not ready to see his number one son in a homosexual relationship. He will go to his grave that way. It’s a shame but it’s probably for the best.”
“My mother could handle it,” I said, holding on to the idea.
“Which is a miracle,” said Brian. “But mothers are usually more understanding, more capable of bearing miracles, having created the first if you believe the scripture. Besides, your father believes you are engaged to a woman named Audrey and he expects to meet her this weekend. End of story.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Of course he was. However ridiculous, plans had been made. The stage was set. Switching Brian for Audrey would undoubtedly hurt my father –to say nothing of my brother. Once again, my desires (even if in earnest) would have taken precedent over those of another human being.
But not this time…lest I forget, this was a birthday party for my father, not a coming out party for me. I picked up a photograph of Brian and me from the hallway table. We had it taken in a photo booth at the Field Museum.
“Then I’m bringing this with me,” I said.
“You can kiss me every night before bed.”
“Do you want me to?”
“How about we try on those silk pajamas?” Brian said, naughtily.
We didn’t tap dance around the party topic anymore. As a matter of fact, later that visit Brian would even help me pick out an outfit.
For now we let the pizza burn in the oven. And John Travolta never made it out of the DVD.
Because romance was alive…
Not surprisingly, I’d made the trip between Chicago and Green Bay only a few times but that was more than anyone else in our caravan. I tried in vain convincing my companions to eat before hitting the highway. I told them to expect an endless menagerie of junk food. Nothing quaint. Nothing charming. Nothing good. But they were having none of it.
This got a big laugh. Vintage Audrey.
“I haven’t been to a McDonald’s since the Reagan administration,” offered Kara, loading her things into the trunk. She was bringing a medium-sized black duffel from Coach and a garment bag for her dress. And that’s it. Unlike a lot of women, she’d mastered the art of traveling lightly. And unlike a lot of people, she’d also mastered the art of living lightly.
“I met the old man who named a hamburger chain after his granddaughter,” said Audrey. “At a golf tournament with my ex in North Carolina.”
“You mean Wendy’s,” chimed Brian. “It was her grandfather, Dave Thomas, who starred in all their TV commercials, that is, up until the day he died. Heart failure, and presumably unrelated to ingesting cheeseburgers all his life.”
Brian wasn’t joining us, just seeing us off. He helped Audrey put her numerous satchels into the trunk. Good thing we’d rented a Town Car.
“Of all the fast food chains,” commented Brian, “Wendy’s is my favorite. Their milkshake is called a Frosty. You can hold it upside down and it won’t fall out of the cup!”
“That’s because there’s no milk in it,” I said, sarcastically. I was very surprised by the group’s latent love for fast food, particularly Brian’s. I guess burgers and fries transcended stereotypes.
“Charming fellow, Dave,” continued Audrey. “You know, I promised him that one day I’d try one of his sandwiches. Perhaps this will be the day.”
“Maybe so,” I said, trying to recall a Wendy’s franchise along our route. I considered the middling towns south of Milwaukee: Kenosha. Racine. South Milwaukee. No one will ever confuse me for an ambassador of Wisconsin; but still, these places had little to recommend themselves –at least from what I knew about them. Industrial and poor, these towns were caught in a limbo between the diminishing countryside and myriad suburbs ringing Chicago and Milwaukee. Yet, if we didn’t eat now we’d for sure be stopping in one of them. Milwaukee was an option, but I would’ve preferred somewhere smaller. For one thing, I feared Summer Fest might be taking place. Nothing against Billy Squire and AC/DC but not so easy dismissing their fans, who would choke the exit ramps and otherwise impede our progress northward.
“Okay, guys,” I preached, still trying to sell an eat now strategy, “you may not regret that Bacon Double Cheese Burger if you eat it one today but, trust me, twenty years from now…”
“I’m getting Chicken Nuggets and you can’t stop me,” squealed Kara.
Again, where was all this passion for junk food coming from? I spent my formative years fantasizing about escaping such tripe. Now everyone was drooling over the prospect. Only in America, right?
At 10:30 A.M., we pulled out of Audrey’s Gold Coast garage. By 3 P.M, traffic permitting, we’d be at my parents’ house in Green Bay. “Pray for me,” I whispered into Brian’s ear, releasing his hands. “And thank you for taking care of Roy.”
Brian blew me a kiss. “I’ll be with you in spirit, Jeffrey. As for Roy, I’m good with yarn. I’m sure we’ll get along.”
The evening rush over, the expressway moved. Within 60 minutes we’d crossed the state line. Beyond a few abandoned roadhouses (originally built to attract the under 21 drinker), little had changed. Signs boasted of ‘Real Wisconsin Cheese’ and ‘All The Apples You Can Pick’ but the shops seemed drearier than I’d remembered, the farm fields beaten down and fruitless.
And then there was the preponderance of Triple X video parlors.
“My goodness!” exclaimed Audrey, pointing at them. “I believe those roadside shops are selling pornography!”
“And it appears they’re doing quite well,” I added. Each of the three we passed had full parking lots. All offered PARKING IN THE REAR, apparently to allay a customer’s fear of being spotted by a friend, employer or loved one.
I’d forgotten about this tawdry border element. I’d been in my home state less than five minutes and already I was embarrassed by it. Nice.
“A lot of what goes on in those places is…live,” whispered Kara. “Roughly speaking, anyway.”
“You mean live dancers?” Audrey asked.
“Yes,” answered Kara. “Prostitution takes place in the rear, so to speak.”
“With ample parking as well,” I sneered.
One store was as deep as a football field. I could imagine the perverts inside, a mélange of truckers, farmers and seedy highwaymen.
Having expertise, Kara continued her dissertation on the illicit subject, calling it the poorest stepchild of the flesh trade. “A lot of men like to be fondled while they watch the shows.”
“By other men?” asked Audrey.
“It’s like this,” said Kara, pausing to collect her thoughts. “Most of these guys are too macho to admit they’re gay. Watching pornography with other like-minded men is a loophole. They’re watching women get laid while another man is getting them off. Sorry, Audrey, if I’m being too graphic.”
Since making my acquaintance, Audrey had come a long way toward accepting homosexuality. This new information, sadly, would undoubtedly take her a huge step backward. And, what’s more unfortunate, everything Kara said was true. Even now, many gay men still maintained a heterosexual pretense. Especially in rural areas, where Will and Grace were two cows in a barn. Out here boys went hunting and girls got pregnant. Queers were beat up and left hanging on fences. In Armistead Maupin’s excellent thriller, The Night Listener, the main character (a gay radio personality), details his long trip to Northern Wisconsin in search of an obsessed fan. At a truck stop along the way he winds up having a sexual encounter with a long haul driver. The trucker insists he’s straight, even right after doing the deed. If I remembered the story correctly, the guy loses his temper just at the thought of being queer. I pictured all the ‘straight’ men masturbating one another inside those concrete bunkers and then returning home to have dinner with their families. Scary. More so when I considered I could have easily been one of them.
A tiny plane came in low over the highway approaching an airstrip. Fortunately, it changed the subject in the car as well.
“I don’t know when Ira’s flying in exactly,” said Kara, “but he wants to meet around lunch time at his cottage.”
“Isn’t Ira your new best friend?” asked Audrey.
“Why Mrs. Bellows,” I answered quickly. “Are you inferring that someone could possibly supplant you?” I tittered nervously. Audrey knew about our planned side trip to Ira’s cottage. I just wasn’t sure how she felt about it.
“I sure hope you can join us, Audrey,” piped Kara. “It’s beautiful country and besides, maybe you can give us your point of view.”
A sincere invite followed by a deft compliment. God bless my new business partner.
“Well, I do know a thing or two about cottages, having summered in so many as a child.” She sighed. “If I can’t have Jeffrey all to myself I suppose I should at least see the reason why.”
Good enough for me. And then, like a Godsend: “Look Audrey! A sign for Wendy’s.” The exit said one half mile ahead.
“Well Audrey,” stated Kara, “it appears you’ll be able to keep your promise to Dave Thomas.”
“And you with Ira,” replied Audrey, adroitly.
Making fun of fast food was easy. Making fun of fast food joints on the highway was sublime. Big American brands like MacDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are at their lowest common denominator. Out here, a once-proud franchise devolved into a parasite clinging by the side of the road, with its geriatric wait staff, mentally challenged, and pimply-faced customers, slack-jawed, penniless. Or was it the other way around: the wait staff slack-jawed and the customer’s geriatric? One could almost hear slurping from the endlessly refilled Mountain Dews, the sharing of catsup over fries among gatherings destined to pair off, get married, spawn and gain weight.
And then we showed up…
Kara’s sleek, snug khakis hinted at curves these yokels could only fantasize about. Long black hair. Dark red lips. A killer figure. Wendy’s was full of Jugheads but there could only be one Veronica. And in she came, the faux velvet lunch ropes serving as her catwalk.
Following her in our troupe: The Wealthy Dowager and Colonel Mustard. All in all, quite the trio for Wendy’s of Racine.
“Everyone is looking at us,” whispered Audrey.
“Tables turned, wouldn’t you?”
Technically, most eyes were on Kara. Whole families halted their feeding to gape at us, some in mid bite. Children stopped fighting. Babies no longer cried.
“And to think,” I said quietly, “I thought it was we who were supposed to be ogling them.”
Kara had stopped traffic before, numerous times. And in places a lot more glamorous than this. She seemed unaware (not interested?) of all the attention. “I’ll have a Wendy’s Classic with Biggie Fries and a Diet Coke. Oh, and, a small order of McNuggets.” All business.
“I’m sorry Miss, but we don’t call them McNuggets. At Wendy’s they’re just Nuggets.” The young man was unattractive and overweight. Far too many Biggie Fries at break time. He marveled at the gorgeous ‘model’ in front of him. Correcting this woman about the Chicken Nuggets had taken preternatural courage. If girls like this even existed at his school, they’d never talk to someone like him, let alone tolerate being corrected.
“Nuggets, Tenders, Fingers; it’s all good…” Kara remained oblivious to the drama her presence caused, to the raging hormones, to the bulging eyes, all of it.
“So, do you still want them?” asked the order taker.
“Course she still wants ‘em, dumbass,” jeered a fry cook. He leered at Kara from his station; naively assuming he was scoring points.
In a flash Kara shifted demeanor. Directly behind her, I was privy to all of it. The teenager’s cruel comment had sparked something in Kara. She leaned over the counter, putting a hand on the order-taker’s arm, stroked it once with the back of her nails.
“I want anything you’ve got as long as I get it from you.” With that she leaned over the chrome counter and gave the trembling kid a soft kiss on the cheek.
He about died, as did most of the populace. “Who’s the dumbass now?” lobbed another member of the crew, a tall female with purple highlights. Everybody behind the counter broke apart laughing in response to the jibe.
After the furor: “I’ll have the same,” I said to the kid.
A nice day, we took our food outside. Besides, I think we’d created enough havoc inside. The Day The Model Kissed Randall was now a part of Racine mythology.
“That was a real sweet thing you did in there honey,” said Audrey. “Both those boys got something they totally deserved.”
“Yes, I do try and use my looks for the greater good,” responded Kara with pleasing aplomb.
Like hungry raccoons we gobbled our food. For us, much of it was contraband, every bite craven and illicit. Shoveling catsup covered French fries into my craw I now knew why I’d been shot down for suggesting we eat earlier.
“I had forgotten how marvelous mayonnaise and a pickle taste on a hamburger,” said Audrey.
“Or mustard on French fries.” suggested Kara.
“Pass the salt!” I cheered. “It’s all good!” I tried to picture myself 30 pounds overweight, in sweats. Not likely, given my condition. On the other hand, maybe junk food was just the thing for thinning HIV infected persons. After all, few gay men ate food like this. Ever. As a boy, I could recall shunning the fried perch and walleye so commonplace in Wisconsin.
Speaking of which, I began my ration of pills between bites, hoping the others wouldn’t notice. Doubtless paranoid, I didn’t want to spoil the mood of a good roadside meal.
Bees and wasps buzzed our Diet Cokes, blending into the hot afternoon like droning trucks on the Interstate.
In the no-man’s land between Milwaukee and Green Bay, farm fields extended on either side of the road, as far as one could see. Occasionally, to the right, Lake Michigan made an appearance, glistening like a mirage. We rode quietly, nothing to see really, or to comment upon. Audrey had taken over the reins, not because I was tired but because she wanted to. I stared at the farms, mostly growing feed corn or grasses, trying to imagine the great old forests that once stood there, now gone, having long ago been cut to build Chicago and Milwaukee. Couldn’t do it. We’d all grown up assuming these endless rural vistas were part of the natural landscape. Difficult to envision anything else. It was, in fact, a pernicious lie. After a while it became taken for the truth.
“Everything is so one dimensional,” said Kara from her seat in the back. (She’d insisted I sit in front for navigational purposes.) “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I can’t imagine living out here.”
“Neither could I,” I replied. One-dimensional was a very good way of describing it. Every one prayed to the same God, ate the same food, liked the same things and, honestly, was of the same creed. Even though further north the terrain became more diverse, I felt exactly as Kara did, having done so for most of my life. In fact, I distinctly remembered being in the other lane, on a Greyhound bus, getting the hell out of here.
“I don’t know,” offered Audrey. “It’s a nice alternative to all the hustle and bustle of the city. Serene.” I presumed she was being polite on account of me.
“It gets prettier and more interesting up ahead,” I said, unconvincingly. You can add anything you want to a pizza but it’s still just a pizza. Suddenly, I became acutely insecure about my roots. I felt like the Wizard of Oz did when he was ‘outed’ from behind the curtain. Compared to these two sophisticates I was a rube. I had nowhere to hide. Even the landscape was barren. How’s that for irony? Heading due north and nary a tree.
If you were to exit Highway 43 toward Lake Michigan, the world got prettier, in some spots resembling the Pacific coast. If you detoured left, the national forests and boundary waters were as prolific as mosquitoes, the varied landscape carved by ancient glacier flows. Unfortunately, the route to Green Bay was pretty much a dull line –not ugly but nothing special.
Prior to entering GB’s city limits, I took the wheel. It would be easier than guiding Audrey. Plus, I secretly didn’t remember which road I needed to take or where the turn was. I’d figure it out as I drove, using muscle memory if need be.
“We’ve been down this street before,” said Kara, bursting my bubble. “You’re not lost are you?”
“All these homes look alike,” said Audrey. “One can hardly blame him.”
“I’m not lost, ladies,” I responded. “Just overwhelmed by nostalgia. It’s been an awfully long time since my last visit.”
In reality, it had been two Christmases but, in some respects, that was an eternity. About the houses, Audrey was right: They did look alike, eerily so. Ranch after ranch after ranch. And not the kind with horses and white picket fences. This brand of ranch had sunken living rooms and pine paneled bars in the basement. Even Vince Lombardi’s home was of the same ilk. And speaking of the Packer Legend, it seemed every other property sported green and gold, be it lawn ornaments, mailboxes or even the entire house itself. Was mine painted in team colors? Shockingly, I’d forgotten. I used to hang out with a guy (a closeted homosexual as well) who lived two houses down. Wasn’t that his place there? I remembered street corners and park benches, the domed building where salt was stored for the winter. I passed my old high school.
And so I continued to drive –not aimlessly, but close to it- until I happened upon a certain cul-de-sac. “This place looks familiar,” I said, hopefully.
Kara tapped on the glass. “Maybe that explains why your brother is out front mowing the lawn.”
Home Sweet Home!
Sure enough, there was my brother, shirtless, pushing a gas-powered lawn mower up and down his front yard. Steven was wearing headphones and neither heard nor saw us as we pulled to a rolling stop.
“Watch this!” Kara said, giggling, as she leaped out of the car. She began sneaking up on Steven, one eye turned to us.
I couldn’t help but notice the tattoos on Steven’s body. First of all, I had no idea he had any. One featured a dragon or some kind of lizard, definitely a reptile. More conspicuous was the likeness of an all too familiar looking female, the name KARA emblazoned just beneath it.
My God, he was obsessed!
On the upside, he was in terrific shape.
So Kara crept up behind my semi-clad brother while we all sat in the car like goofy, ogling teenagers. I needed a drink.
“Steven looks great,” Audrey said. She seemed unconcerned by Kara’s childish antics. “But his house could use some… attention.”
At least he was mowing the lawn, I thought. However toned Steven’s physique, his home was truly in bad shape, decrepit even. It reminded me of a crime scene on Cops. Grimy windows. Dead geraniums in broken window boxes. The front door needed painting. Christ, everything needed painting.
Kara wrapped her lovely hands around Steven’s eyes. “Surprise!” she yelled.
He whirled around, the lawnmower still running. For a split second I thought he might mow right over her loafers –and, mind you, we’re talking Gucci loafers. “Oh my God!” he gestured. “It’s you!”
“Are you surprised?” asked Kara.
“I knew you were coming,” he said. “But yeah, you’re at my house –in GB, Wisconsin! Of course I’m surprised.” He laughed, and then he grabbed Kara, twirling her around and around. “But I’m so happy to see you!”
Audrey got out of the vehicle –we had been in it for hours- and Steven recognized her immediately.
“Hey, Audrey, how are you?” he rushed over, hugging her.
I must admit I was taken by my brother’s touchy-feely behavior. I guess I just didn’t remember him as being that way…ever.
“Fine and dandy, like sugar candy!” replied Audrey. “And don’t you look good,” she said, admiring his body…again.
“I’ll say,” said Kara. “The country life suits you.”
“I’m the same man I was in Chicago,” said Steven. Then he reconsidered. “I have lost some weight on account of a stomach virus. But, honestly, I think it was just nerves.” He rubbed his flat stomach. “You know, with the upcoming party and all.”
Steven peered into the Lincoln. “Hey bro, are you going to say hello or what?”
“Get out of the car knucklehead,” said Kara. She seemed delighted to have gotten to Steven’s house first. He was her date –or whatever. But I’d have thought she’d want to see him on her own terms, not by accident. It appeared I was wrong.
“Fine, sure, here I come.” I mumbled, stepping out of the vehicle. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Lilacs. Up north they bloomed much later than in Chicago. Old growth bushes flanked my brother’s driveway, in full bloom. I remembered pruning them, to make myself useful, years ago on my last visit. They looked good. Reminded me of spring, new beginnings, etc… “Hi Steven.” I said, shaking his hand. “I guess I’ve finally come home.”
“Yes you are, bro,” announced Steven. Kara hung on his arm. For a paid escort, she appeared genuinely happy. “Can I get you guys a drink? I’ve got cold beer in the garage.”
“You guys?” mocked Audrey. “Down South we say ‘Y’ all.’
The garage. When was the last time someone offered me a beverage from a carport? However, I knew this particular refrigerator well, having stored roses in it the last time I’d visited our mother. (Yes, I bought flowers from Chicago rather than trust the local florist.) As for beers, both ladies responded affirmative. We were on vacation. Drinking was on everyone’s agenda, including mine.
“Excellent,” replied Steven, literally running to get the libations.
“So,” I said. “What’s the verdict?”
“Verdict?” the gals responded.
“Shall we stay or should we go?” I asked, paraphrasing the Clash lyric. “Um, remember, this is not our final destination.”
“It is for me,” said Kara. “Steven’s got me for the whole weekend. Don’t you honey?”
Nobody told me but it seemed logical. Whatever the arrangement, she was his date, his de facto fiancé. If I thought she’d stay with us then I was being naïve. I wondered what they would do if we left.
Oh, yes, that.
On that note, what would Audrey and I do when we left?
Given the givens, staying put seemed the most attractive solution.
“Come on, I’ll make us a snack.” Steven handed us bottles of Point Beer, a locally celebrated product.
I had to admit, after the long drive it sure went down easily. I belched. Check me out. Home five minutes and I turned back into a farm boy.
We followed my brother into his home. The aesthetic could be summed up in four letters: ESPN. A massive wide screen TV dominated the front room, occupying the better part of two walls. He’d pushed Mom’s old hutch up against it on one end. A framed game schedule from the Green Bay Packer’s Super Bowl season hung on the other side. A few players had actually signed the thing. I wondered how much effort that had required.
“Have a seat,” boomed Steven. “I’ll be back with some snacks.”
Audrey and I fell into the black leather sectional wrapping around the room, while Kara followed Steven into the hallway. Oh please, please, please do not lock lips with the guy.
Mercifully, she did not. They quickly reappeared with a tray of yellow crackers, salami, and, of course, a sizable chunk of aged cheddar cheese.
“He keeps piranha in the kitchen!” marveled Kara.
“Hopefully, not in the refrigerator,” mused Audrey.
“An aquarium, silly. And they’re fabulous. I think we should set one up for Ira. It’ll go nicely with our masculine safari motif.” Kara doled out cracker sandwiches as she talked.
“Who’s Ira?” asked Steven.
“Our newest client,” I piped in. “He has a grand apartment in Chicago as well as a place in Door County. As a matter of fact, he’s asked Kara and me to go preview it on Sunday.”
“Cool. But why Kara?” Steven looked perplexed. He put his sneakers on the coffee table –one of those sawed of tree trunks varnished about a thousand times. Marvelously hideous, this was a species of tree furniture indigenous to ranch houses in the upper Midwest. Secret cup holders could be found in its various nooks and crannies.
Apparently Kara hadn’t discussed our partnership with Steven. How he would react to the news was a mystery. Mired in lies, I don’t remember what I had or hadn’t told him. Wisely, I kept my mouth shut.
All eyes fell on Kara.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” she began. “I’m an interior designer, Steven. And your very talented brother is my partner.” Without pausing: “Ira is one of our clients. And so is Audrey.”
“I think they make a wonderful team,” piped in Audrey, peeling the rind off a small piece of salami.
Suddenly, I worried my brother might be jealous -above and beyond confused. Ludicrous sure, but remember Steven still did not know I was gay. I worried he might assume our partnership was because of a relationship. On the other hand, I was supposedly getting married to Audrey; what did that look like? Mental note to self: stop thinking and start drinking. I grabbed another Point out of the bucket.
“I know a guy who deals piranha,” said Steven. “So, if you’re serious about the tank, just call.” Seemingly unperturbed by this wave of revelations, Steven sat down next to Kara. Like the rapacious fish, he couldn’t keep his eyes and hands off her. Kara didn’t mind; she seemed to like the attention. Was the meter running? It was impossible to tell.
“The piranha they sell at most pet stores are bogus,” continued Steven, one hand massaging Kara’s neck. “You want to be sure and get wild ones. Those you can feed bones and everything.”
“Sounds pretty scary,” said Audrey, losing her interest and appetite. “Is this Ira some kind of a tough guy?”
“Not at all,” said Kara. “But he is very image conscious. He’d love wild things in his apartment!
I let the innuendo go without comment.
“How are Mom and Dad?” I asked. “Are they all set for the party?”
“Well, we’ve certainly given them a lot of new information to digest,” said Steven.
“But in terms of logistics, the arrangements have been made.”
“But they’re good, right?” I asked. “About things?”
“We’re in good shape,” responded Steven. “The rest is in the hands of providence.
Providence? Where was my brother learning all these big words -from Kara? “So, I assume they’re ready for the party…and us?”
“Looking forward to it,” reported Steven.
“So am I,” added Kara.
Audrey, who’d been quietly picking at her food, summed up: “Hey, if it wasn’t a big deal before, it is now.”
A ferret dashed into the room, jumping on the sofa beside Kara. It surveyed the premises then settled, to the degree that ferrets can actually settle, on the inviting crevice between Kara’s knees.
Stunningly, Kara did nothing. Perhaps she was in shock.
As quickly as he was down the rodent got up, lunging for the snacks on the coffee table. It all took a matter of seconds. The women were dumbfounded, as was I. The animal’s behavior occurred so fast it pre-empted reactions. Too bizarre a creature to be frightening, paralysis set in. I did nothing.
“Where’s your manners, Reggie?” chastised Steven. Then to us: “Um, that’s Reggie. He’s a ferret. I named him after Reggie Miller on account of his attitude and killer jump shot.”
“Reggie Miller was a professional basketball player.”
“He played on the Indiana Pacers. He was like their best player!”
Why would Steven name a feral creature after an athlete? And given that he did, why was it from some team in Indiana? And why would he keep a feral creature in the first place? I elected to keep my mouth shut, except to keep drinking.
“What does it eat?” asked Audrey. I couldn’t tell if she was appalled or intrigued. Probably both. Either way, she was being a trooper; the unfolding events appeared to be amusing her.
“What doesn’t it?” laughed Steven.
Reggie made quick work of a Ritz cracker. And now he was eyeing our salami. Nope.
Instead he scurried past the meat, leaping into Steven’s lap. Once there, Steven gave him a handful of sunflower seeds.
Afternoon became evening. Long, hard rays of sun came into the living room, giving the space a grand atmosphere that perhaps it did not deserve. Lighting was everything. Mom’s old hutch suddenly looked good –hell, I wanted it now.
Reggie avoided each beam of sun, as nocturnal creatures are wont to do. Yet, he remained with the group, within our vicinity, kind of like a housecat. I thought of Roy, hoping Brian hadn’t forgotten about him.
Everyone seemed to be coping.
Was I? I’m afraid my disposition was varying wildly. Like a patient willfully not taking his meds, I waffled between bliss and misery. What was my problem? Or said better: what wasn’t?
Always a good barometer, and of my moods in particular, Audrey no doubt picked up on my anxiety. She stood.
“Sweetie, shouldn’t we be on our way? We wouldn’t want your parents to feel left out.” Departing might alleviate my tension, she thought –a variation on leaving my troubles behind.
“We still have a few minutes.” I said bravely. “We’re expected at six.” It was ten after five. I knew they lived close by here…somewhere. “Their address is what again?” I asked my brother, endeavoring to make my lapse in memory seem ordinary and unworthy of criticism.
“I’ll draw you a map,” said Steven sarcastically, blowing my cover.
This brought more laughter from Audrey and Kara.
Again, I felt like an outsider. If I was to get into the flow, I sure hoped it would happen soon. The party loomed like an impending funeral rather than a celebration of birth. I had to get hold of some Zen and pretty, fucking fast. I made myself think of Brian and all the good things that had recently occurred in my life. There was no reason this weekend couldn’t work out just as splendidly. Right? Right.
Reggie chose my lap this time, and for some rodent reason clamped down on the zipper of my jeans. His incisors got caught in the small horizontal zipper pull. He began thrashing like a trapped animal, which he was.
I jumped backward, screaming, taking the beast with me. It flew over my head, miraculously breaking free, but then smashing into the wall. Upon hitting the carpet, Reggie bolted under the couch. The ferret shrieked again, sounding a lot like a terrified woman or, for that matter, me. We both were making noises, unsettling noises. I noticed my beer pouring slowly onto the carpet. This weekend was getting off to a fabulous start.
And the crowd, as they say, went wild. Folks were laughing harder than ever.
This might be one of those stories I would chuckle about later…much later. Now, however, I wasn’t so sure.
“Reggie wanted to get in your pants. How cute is that?” teased Kara.
“Positively adorable,” I gasped, still recovering.
Unbelievably, Reggie crawled out from under the sofa and began lapping up the spilled beer. Had this creature no shame, let alone a threshold for pain?
“Apparently, it’s Reggie Miller Time,” said Audrey, mocking the beer company’s popular advertisement.
Turns out, I didn’t need Steven’s map to find our parent’s house. It just came to me. The ‘S’ curved street, the lightning-split tree in front, and the Green Bay Packer’s mailbox. A fairly ostentatious series of cues; Ray Charles could have found it.
The ferret attack aside, meeting my parents was terror at a new level. Even Audrey seemed apprehensive. We sat in the car. And sat. Compared to this, handling my brother seemed like an audition. Now it was time for the main attraction, the big stage.
“Are you as nervous as I am?” asked Audrey.
“Make mine a double,” I replied.
Audrey took a last, precious drag from her cigarette. Even though I’d told her my parents didn’t mind whether she smoked or not, Audrey, to her credit, absolutely refused to walk in with one lit.
“It’s show time!” Audrey stated, putting out her butt.
Sharing a communal tin of Altoids, we gathered our courage and ventured into the great unknown.
We hadn’t any idea what we were in for but off we went. “No turning back,” I said, getting out of the car. “Let’s do it,” Audrey concurred.
Before either one of us could utter another inane cliché the screen door opened. My mother rushed out, a whirling dervish. “Oh, Jeffrey, (kiss-kiss), you look so skinny!”
Then to Audrey who no doubt appreciated the compliment: “Don’t you people eat anything in the big city?” A rhetorical question, Mom didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, don’t you worry, I’ve got enough food for an army!”
I’m adding exclamation points after all of mother’s comments because that’s how she talked: in exclamations. It made her seem like she was in a perpetually good mood, which, as far as I knew, maybe she was.
“Hi Mother. You look good.” Without further ado, I dived in. “Mother, I’d like you to meet someone very special, Audrey Bellows.”
“Well, of course she’s special,” piped my mother.
Audrey extended her hand with southern flair. “I am ever so pleased to meet you, Mrs. Sweet. Your son has said nothing but marvelous things about you. I doubt I can possibly compare.”
More prophetic words could not have been uttered. Okay, so Audrey knew I was gay. My mother knew I was gay. But neither knew the other knew. I began collecting our bags.
“What room are we in?” Not such an innocent question, especially in this household.
“Well, you’re not married yet so I’ve given you separates,” she replied a bit tartly. But she pulled it off deftly, sparing us any embarrassment.
Now at least we’d have our own bedrooms AND it wouldn’t elicit tough questions from random outsiders. Rules were rules: unmarried couples slept apart.
“Thank you,” I whispered to Mother as I whisked by her. Audrey followed, saying nothing. In a new world now, she could have been snorkeling. She ran her fingers across the ancient olive-colored wallpaper and shiny, black woodwork, as if checking its authenticity.
Frankly, I thought the place showed well. A “friend” had helped them redecorate recently and naturally I’d feared the worst. But trust me kids, this house had seen worse. Now, it was almost cute. Almost. The series of shopping mall masterpieces by the self-proclaimed “master of light,” Thomas Kincade was still years away from achieving status as kitsch.
But I couldn’t focus on that now, too much was going on to wallow in wallpaper or otherwise be mired by the home’s mise en scene.
I heard my mother singing and she only sang when she was happy or nervous. Which was it? Only time would tell.
“She’s not what we were expecting,” Mother whispered. I tried to fathom just what that might be but solving global warming would be easier. She directed us to the big sofa in the front room. “Please sit,” she said, “Your father will be out shortly.”
We nestled in front of the same ancient television I grew up with, which, remarkably, for now was turned off. Picture the iconic living room from All in the Family and you’ll get a good idea of what ours was like. Seriously, we were in that room, right down to its misguided politics, which could be as palpable as Archie Bunker’s cigar smoke. I wondered if Dad still smoked, knowing he shouldn’t, but guessing he did.
Mom came back in with a pitcher of lemonade “I put in a little vodka,” she said, slyly. “It is after six, don’t you know?” She poured us all tall ones.
And so we sat, drinking our spiked lemonade, smiling like game show contestants. All that remained now was for my father’s big entrance. I encouraged Audrey to have a cigarette, pointing to the ashtray. Even though it contained a dead butt, she still refused. Apparently good manners prevailed over bad nerves. There’s a lesson in all of this I’m sure. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking notes.
Mother opened the dialogue: “So, Audrey, how long have you known my son?” Funny, Mom pitching queries to Audrey, given she hadn’t seen me in ages. Probably just being polite. We’d recently talked on the phone; maybe that was good enough.
Forgive me for over-analyzing the situation. But God, I was nervous. I felt like I had mosquito bites in unreachable places.
“We met two years ago, Mrs. Sweet,” Audrey answered. “Jeffrey was doing my new apartment. He still is, as a matter of fact.”
“Is that so?” my mother chuckled. “Just how long does it take to furnish an apartment?” She wasn’t being mean, merely curious. To her an apartment meant a one-bedroom affair similar to the one we’d called home when I was born. In Audrey’s world our first apartment wouldn’t have even constituted maid’s quarters.
“You’d be surprised,” replied Audrey, empathetically. “There’s quite a bit of space where I live. I’ve been blessed.”
Audrey’s candor went a long way toward winning over my mother, which I appreciated immensely. Whether she bought the fiancé story at all, I wanted Mother to like her.
“Are you from Chicago?” Mom asked, pouring herself a glass of hard lemonade. I still heard no sign of Dad.
“Not originally,” she answered. “I was born and raised outside of Fort Lauderdale.”
Mom beamed. “Oh, I just love Florida. I keep telling Steven’s father enough with these Wisconsin winters. Let’s go to Florida! Swim with dolphins. Eat fish that isn’t fried for a change!”
“And what does your husband have to say about that?” questioned Audrey. She nibbled on the cashews in front of her.
“Marty hates the idea of living with a bunch of codgers.” Mom laughed. “I tell him, have you seen the crowd at our Denny’s up the road lately?”
I got a kick out of that one. Nobody under a hundred actually lived in Green Bay. The smart ones and the queer ones and just about everyone else with half a reason blew out of Title Town as fast as they could. Not because it was a bad, poverty-stricken place to live -it wasn’t- but because it was boring. B-O-R-I-N-G. And boredom was often more contentious than living in peril. In Green Bay, one lived in peril of being bored.
“Well, I don’t care to live in Florida,” remarked Audrey, with conviction. “I’m afraid it says retirement too loudly.”
“Yes,” I had to add, “but wiling away hours in tropical heat trumps killing time in sub zero!” Nobody argued the point.
“I came to Chicago the year Ronald Reagan became president,” said Audrey, matter of factly. “Met and married my first husband.” Without skipping a beat “Unlike Ronny, he didn’t last a first term.”
So Audrey was volunteering divorce as a topic. I poured myself another drink. I was getting tipsy but I didn’t care. Now Mother knew that my fake bride had also been a real one, once. That was too much information and too soon, at least for my nerve-addled condition.
“What did he do –your first husband- if you don’t mind me asking?”
“He didn’t do anything, far as I could tell,” said Audrey. Both ladies guffawed at that one.
“To be fair,” I interjected, “the man made a good living.”
“What are you, his lawyer?” my mother said. Suddenly she was Audrey’s best friend. You’d think I’d have been grateful for the show of support toward my new bride. You’d think.
“He made money is what he made,” said Audrey. “A good living? I don’t know; he finagled people out of their assets. I believe they call it consulting.”
“Well, at least you got some of the cash, eh Auds?” my mother asked.
Auds? My God they were employing nicknames. And really bad ones.
“Maybe some,” Audrey answered. “Maybe a lot. Depends on what you consider a lot.”
“Trust me,” I said, “Out here, whatever you got; it’s a lot.” I reached for a handful of nuts and shoved them in my mouth. I wasn’t opposed to getting drunk but I did not want to be surly. I had to be careful; drunk and surly often went hand-in-hand. Despite my insecurities, these were people I cared about. I loaded up on the carbs.
“Oh, stop making fun of your origins, Jeffrey,” my mom said. “You’re from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Be proud of that for once in your life!”
I looked up. Blinked. For a moment I couldn’t tell if my mother or Audrey had called me out. My buzz had taken on that paranoid quality often associated with marijuana highs.
Be proud! I thought of all the ‘Gay Pride’ rhetoric I’d been subjected to over the years. It seemed people could be proud of anything: Football teams. Cheese. Sexual preferences. I didn’t get it. These things were disparate and random aspects of life. The concept of showing pride in them struck me as wildly inappropriate, like boasting of one’s stool.
“Jeffrey is proud, Mrs. Sweet,” said Audrey. “He just has a hard time showing it.”
Now there’s an understatement. I smiled, putting a hand on Audrey’s knee. “Thank you, dear,” I said. Charade or not, I appreciated the compliment.
Audrey continued making her point: “I think that’s why Jeffrey became an interior designer. So he could display his abilities, even if it came from beautifying other people’s homes.”
My mother smiled, totally buying into Audrey’s analysis of her son. “Jeffrey had many collections –rocks, butterflies and the like- which he loved to show off. He always had something for the neighbors to look at. A box of crickets. Guppies. You name it. Jeffrey collected, arranged and showed it.”
True, true. Mercifully, she hadn’t mentioned my collection of porcelain figurines, my gay nadir. Regardless, Audrey appeared fascinated. I found it baffling why someone would be interested in me or even in subjects that interested me. A topic for my shrink, I noted, keeping mum about it now. The liquor offset my jangled nerves and I had achieved artificial normalcy.
“As he got older,” mother continued, “Jeffrey began moving things around in our house. A picture here. A chair there. Once I came home and he’d rearranged the entire living room!” She laughed heartily. “Damned, if he hadn’t done a good job!”
“I remember that,” I interrupted. “I became obsessed with this place.”
Mother set down her empty glass. “Funny thing, I don’t believe Marty ever even noticed. If he did, he never said anything about it one way or the other.”
“That’s Dad,” I conceded. “He just went with things…” I thought better and ended my comment right there.
Then it hit me: maybe I collected things, decorated the house and did all that other eye grabbing stuff simply to get my father’s attention. And yet, if that were true, wouldn’t have coming out gotten my father’s attention? Undeniably. And then he would have had to kill himself or me. Was I having an Oprah Winfrey moment? I couldn’t be sure. Maybe! Certainly Brian would be proud, that is, if being proud was allowed.
“Speaking of your daddy,” said Audrey, “where might this mystery man be?”
“Probably hiding in the garage with his trains.” My mother knew her husband. Of course that’s where he was.
“So Dad has hobbies too, just like Jeffrey?” Audrey worked the audience as if this were her own little talk show: WHILE HIS NUMBER ONE SON GRAPPLES WITH BEING GAY, DAD’S IN THE BOAT HOUSE PLAYING WITH TRAINS! WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK!
“Pops can be anti-social,” I kidded, belaboring the obvious. But my point was well taken. I used to hide in my room all hours playing with and arranging my collections. Especially when family came over. Not guests, mind you. For them I would be the consummate entertainer. Fucking Neil Diamond. It was family I feared.
Kin made me nervous. Apparently, it made Dad nervous too, because right now he was hiding. I could empathize but, at the same time, I felt sorry for him… and us. And by “us” I was also referring to the vast segment of the population afflicted with the same heart-wrenching defect: fear of our own. More than a gay/straight thing, and more than a generation gap, something innate and intangible pushed people of the same blood apart, like when you reversed magnets causing them to repel rather than to attract. We really do hurt the ones we love. We really do drive each other crazy.
“Though my son won’t admit it,” my mother said, “the acorn did not fall to far from the tree.”
An epiphany: If you took away my sexual interest in men then my father and I could be the same guy! He might be toying with trains in the garage, but was the garage, in fact, his version of the closet? I thought of Brian Wilson’s famous tune about teenagers and their bedrooms, In My Room. That song haunted me to this day.
In some respects all men were the same. We required refuge, a place of our own that was truly our own. Be it the golf courses at Augusta or the corner tavern across the street, be it gay or straight, we needed a place where only men were allowed. No Girls allowed. Period.
“Should we go to him?” I asked. “Visit Dad in his lair? Or would that be a violation of some sort?”
“Sounds like a brilliant idea to me,” opined Audrey. “I love toy trains. My daddy had a set of them. He kept us girls away but we played with them anyway…you know, when he wasn’t looking.”
“Oh, he won’t mind!” Mom sung out. “He’s probably just waiting for you out there anyway. And I know he’ll appreciate a beer.” From what I remembered, Dad preferred another person in the group to begin drinking before he did. Then he could do so in earnest, guilt-free, knowing he hadn’t started the activity, but was merely doing his part to keep the evening moving along.
We marched through the house, skipping the “tour” as it were, and filed into the garage a.k.a. Grand Central Station. Father, looking like TV’s Mr. Green Jeans, was fiddling with the wheels of a black locomotive.”
“The left wheel wobbles on hills,” he said to himself, or perhaps some invisible ally. Upon hearing us enter he turned around, addressing Audrey: “My name’s Martin Sweet. But then you probably already know that.” He shook her hand. “What do you see in the boy, anyway?” he asked Audrey, pointing at me. It was a joke (I prayed).
“He’s a good man, Mr. Sweet,” answered Audrey directly. “And you know what they say about good men…”
“They’re hard to find?” Marty lobbed, hoping he’d answered her correctly.
“Exactly,” she responded. Then changing the subject: “These trains are really something special. You must be very proud of your work.”
Obviously, Audrey referred to the model trains but I swore she was also putting in a good word about me.
You must be very proud.
I never thought about it like that: A nifty railroad (which it certainly was) and a son. Could they be construed in the same way by their creator –evaluated, appreciated, even treasured? Part of me hoped so, because Dad loved those trains.
I looked at my mom and dad and, corny as it sounded, it was like I was seeing them for the first time. He seemed frail but somehow more masculine. And Mom had playfulness about her. Despite the marriage charade, Mother was allowing Audrey all kinds of latitude. And my father, who was aware of nothing, seemed taken (or was it taken in?) by Audrey as well. Something seemed to be building here and Audrey was operating as catalyst. But what exactly? Where was this heading? Stay tuned, Gentle Reader.
My father shook my hand and managed a hug. Even dysfunctional families understood the fundamentals of good behavior. Dad had to give his boy a hug, regardless of everything. Isn’t that why they said blood was thicker than water? Yes, hugging made some of us squeamish but such was the prerequisite of family. Dad was merely doing his duty.
Yet, I hoped embracing wasn’t purely obligatory. After all, my arms were encircling him as well. I was no less guilty of being uncaring and distant over the years.
“So, you’re finally getting married?” He neither sounded ecstatic, sad, skeptical or much of anything. It was just a question.
“Yes,” I said, just an answer.
“Your brother is getting wed too, or so I hear,” Pop continued, maintaining his neutrality. I couldn’t tell what my father was feeling, if anything. “You boys are full of surprises,” he countered, hands on his gangly hips.
“Yes we are,” I said, unable to editorialize. At this point I felt like I was supposed to say something profound. You know, a line that summed it all up, a thought that put everything in perspective. Something all encompassing.
I stared at my feet. A little bug, an aphid or beetle, was crawling around on my right toe. I didn’t bother killing it. Why should I? It was just a bug, caught in the wrong place, doing the best it could under the circumstances.
Audrey leaned over and gave me a hug. “Mr. Sweet, you raised yourself a fine man. I love him to death. And I’m sure you do as well.”
Normally, this comment would have elicited a gasp. Should have, anyway. After all, I’d left home and him as soon as I was legally able.
Didn’t happen. Instead Dad just laughed. “I love my son, Audrey,” he said, “sometimes I just think he’s kind of queer.”
The ensuing silence was, as they say, deafening. I half expected a laugh track or a spit take. You can’t make up stuff like that!
But this wasn’t a sitcom. The remark could not hide behind another or another. It hung in the air like cigar smoke. I presumed Dad intended the word queer in its original form. I was odd…different…maybe even special. You know: Queer.
Mom stepped in.
“Your son is queer, dear. That’s what makes him unique. Why do you think a woman as refined as Audrey would take such a fancy to him?” She answered her own question. “Because he’s so adorably queer. Aren’t you, sweetie?” She pinched my cheek, I swear to God.
I began experiencing inner turmoil at a high level. An alien was ripping through my gut. It was just below the surface, barely hidden. Maybe the better analogy featured land mines. That’s what this conversation was full of: land mines.
Audrey walked over to Dad’s elaborate train display and picked up one of the cars. All eyes followed her. Mercifully, Dad didn’t lose his composure. If I remembered correctly, and I did, nobody had ever been allowed to touch those trains before, not without asking his specific permission.
“What do they call this car again?” she asked. “The red one?”
“Caboose,” we all answered in unison.
“Right,” said Audrey. “The caboose. It always comes in the rear, correct?”
“Correct,” said Marty.
I was delighted by Audrey’s observation. In a sense, it explained the gay/straight paradigm better than any metaphor I’d ever heard. Some things just naturally came in the rear.
But why had Audrey asked such an inane question? If Audrey believed innuendo might draw me ‘out’ she was mistaken. I wasn’t ready. Not now. Not tonight. Maybe never. Besides, my dad’s garage seemed like a totally inappropriate venue. This was his closet. I trusted those in the know were cognizant of that.
“How long have you been collecting trains, Mr. Sweet?” Audrey asked. She set the vehicle back down on its track.
“Since the beginning of time,” interjected my mother, sarcastic but not mean. She rather enjoyed the boy inside her man. I’m sure she wished he’d come out and play more often.
“I got the classic Tyco set for Christmas,” Martin said. “Been hooked ever since.” He smiled, linking the caboose back into its coupling. “Things get in your blood,” he said. “And they have a way of staying there.”
Let me go on record by saying I have never loved, understood or appreciated my father as much as I did right then. I don’t know…I finally just got him. Bare in mind I was also fairly drunk. But like my father, I too had collected various forms of crap as a kid; hunting and gathering was in my blood. Interior design followed suit. Even Dad could understand that, all I needed now was the courage to tell him!
“If I had known, I would have found you something train-related for your birthday,” said Audrey.
What was my excuse? I thought about the yellow sweater I’d gotten him. My brother had been right. It was a dumb and inappropriate gift purchased by an ignorant and indifferent son. I knew all about my father’s love of trains but getting him something along those lines hadn’t even crossed my mind. Why not? I might have even had fun looking. I sighed. At least I could give him the Lombardi book, something he’d appreciate and maybe even read.
“That’s okay,” Dad said to Audrey, “you most likely would have gotten the wrong scale anyway.” He was referring to the different sizes model trains came in. “And if you did somehow get it right then I probably owned the damn thing anyway!”
Mom laughed. “I can vouch for that! I mean a train can only be so long.”
Still, I could’ve done a lot better. A book. A DVD. The Great Train Robbery. Strangers on a Train. Murder on the Orient Express. Those movie posters would have livened up this garage and, more importantly, my father. Gay men are supposedly adept at finding the perfect gift. Shame on me for failing, for not even trying.
“Want to see her go?” Pop asked the group, though I think he was talking primarily to Audrey.
“You bet I do!” shouted Audrey. If she was too old for playing with trains, let alone marrying me, she wasn’t acting like it. Her exuberance was exhilarating.
“Very impressive,” my mom whispered in my ear. “She could pull off being his wife!”
The train roared to life. The black locomotive issued a few puffs of steam and off it went, circling farms, then offices, a replica of Lanbeau Field and back again. Not a tiny set-up, the complete revolution took well over a minute. I watched in wonder as the cars traversed bridges and tunnels, as the gates went up and down, and all the intricate, magnificent rest of it. When I was a boy, the set-up had been nothing like this, just a boring figure eight. When had he created such a joyous, playful wonderland? With sadness, I realized that my father must have built the whole thing after I’d left.
“You really did a good job, Pop,” I said, watching the train begin its second go around. “It’s truly grand.
“Yeah, well, if you’re going to do something…” He left the sentence dangle but we all knew the final portion: Do it right.
What everyone didn’t know was that I hadn’t called my father Pop in years. I only noticed after I’d said it.
“You all must be tired or hungry or both,” chimed Mom. “Do you need to get settled? Can I fix you something to eat? After all, tomorrow’s a big day.”
Secretly, I believed none of us were tired. At least I wasn’t. I felt energized, like the way a ballplayer must feel right before the National Anthem. Suddenly, I wanted to watch the trains, drink Point beer, and hang out with my father.
But I went along with the script: “You’re right, Mom, we better retire before it gets too late” Too late for what, I thought sheepishly: That I might reconcile an age-old schism with my father?
Audrey didn’t put up a fight either. As a woman, I’m sure she could have used the break; she hadn’t even unpacked. Yet, I was disappointed to exit. Leaving my old man had never been difficult before –on the contrary. This change in mind-set was a pleasing, unusual twist. Would there be others?
“Maybe later, after dinner, we can tinker some more,” Dad said, shutting down his trains. “Besides a little brandy always makes them run better!”
Mom sniffed: “No wonder you built all this out here. It’s like going to the corner bar.”
“I can assure you this place is better than a corner bar,” Dad said. “And it’s a lot closer.”
For once in my life I looked forward to spending more time with the old man. We would get together later that evening and, what was the word he used, tinker?
Following Audrey to my brother’s old room, I became awash in memories. The natty shag carpeting on the stairs. The fading photographs on the wall, taken by some hack at Sears. Fake ferns adorning pointlessly unique and inconvenient crevices, which hung over the stairway. Brian would’ve loved it.
A long time ago, in a fit of adolescent rage, I’d tried lighting one of the fern leaves with a Zippo. My thumb burned before the faux plant ever caught fire. I could still see the singe marks on the leaf as I passed below it. How could my fastidious mother not have noticed? How could things stay the same for so long? Not to be melodramatic, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d torched the plastic fern because it was pretending to be something it wasn’t.
We entered Steven’s room first, Mom providing a deluge of apologies, again mostly directed at Audrey: The sheets weren’t right. The bathtub had a water ring. Recognizing Audrey as a woman of means, Mom felt compelled to rationalize as many of our home’s flaws as possible.
Audrey rebuffed her. “Oh, nonsense, Gwen, this place is perfectly adorable. I feel absolutely comfortable in your home.” True or not, she sold it. True or not, I owed Audrey BIG TIME.
Then Mom left us alone for a few minutes, affording us privacy. She stood outside, folding sheets or some such.
“Are you okay?” Audrey asked.
“Why?” I replied. “How do I seem?”
“At first I was worried about you but then you… what’s the word, metamorphosed. Now you actually seem elated.” She gave me a kiss. “This is your home. Your family.” Whispering now, she continued: “I’m not your wife and I never will be but I want what every wife wants for her husband: for you to be happy.” Another kiss. “Go play trains with your dad. Have a good time. Enjoy yourself for a change!”
“Good night, Audrey,” I spoke loudly, so Mother could hear. “I love you, too. I’ll see you in the morning!”
“She’s a fine woman, Jeffrey,” Mom said, leading me to my room. “And a pretty damn good actress. Your father’s buying it hook, line and sinker.” Before I entered the bedroom Mom stopped me, and made me look into her eyes. “I want your father to have a great, great birthday. It’s likely to be his last.”
“Oh Mother, he seems fine,” I offered, “better than ever.” I cracked my knuckles, brimming with confidence over the new relationship we were forging right here and right now.
“Darling,” my mother said, “your father has cancer in his colon. It’s in other organs as well. I’m afraid the treatment available to him is limited.” Mom choked up. “Hopefully, he’s got another year. Either way, Favre better have a good season, at least get them to the playoffs.” Brett Favre was the famous quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. An icon.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked, stupefied. “I mean now?”
“Because I was afraid you were going to tell him your news. And I’m not sure that that would be a good idea, given the circumstances.” She sighed. “I’m not sure if there will ever be a good time.”
I had no comment. I was dumbfounded.
“Lies are okay, son,” my mother said. “If the intention is to create happiness and not pain, then lying is okay.”
I couldn’t tell if she believed what she was saying but I could tell she’d rehearsed it. As for me, I didn’t know what to believe. I’d certainly told my share of lies. But falsehoods weren’t the problem now. Reality was. My daddy was dying.
“Visit with your father tonight,” Mom instructed. “But watch your tongue. In case you haven’t noticed, he likes Audrey. So go with it.” She gave me a peck on the cheek and headed to her bedroom, the last door on the right. Before retiring behind it she added one last thought: “I’m glad you’re home, sweetie. We all are.”
It hit me just after Mom left.
And it hit hard, I fell flat on the bed.
I had just gotten into a groove here. Dad seemed good, even cool, and so easy to be with. I actually wanted to hang out with him, play with his trains, be his son for the first time in a long time.
Steven never mentioned anything about fucking colon cancer. Did he even know? I wondered. But my engines were shutting down. I felt tears coming, and could not focus. My Vince Lombardi was dying! Be he couldn’t be! This visit, I was going to be his go-to player.
His number one son.
I thought about rushing to Audrey’s room, telling her what I’d just learned. Or should I call Brian? I no longer had the guts to visit Dad. I just couldn’t.
Instead I opted to stay in my room, face down. I had pills that would put me out.
No more talking tonight.
Dad and I were dying –okay, potentially dying- of diseases born within our assholes. Finally, I noted with the bitterest of irony, that we had something in common.
Exhausted, I passed out.
Morning came like most mornings in Green Bay: chilly and foretelling of winter. But it was nothing pancakes and bacon couldn’t remedy, which I smelled being prepared downstairs. Anticipating a big meal, I took my arsenal of pills before descending the stairs. I wondered if Dad was doing the same thing, taking action against his slow, inevitable, death. Miserable irony us having this in common.
Outside my bedroom window a blue jay began squawking. I tried to find him in the tree. The same window and tree, by the way, I once used to sneak away after dark, for pointless arrangements with girls I did not want and boys who did not want me.
Loud birds, Jays.
When I was a kid I thought they were pretty cool, these sharp, blue flying machines. Blue Angels. Only when I got older did I realize how vexing they could be. Pernicious and loud, they were Wisconsin’s version of Chicago’s ubiquitous pigeons. These were bad birds, not liked. I listened to the one that had woken me up, pulled me out of my pill-induced coma. From Blue Angels to squawking hellions, strange how much things could change and how quickly.
Plumbing noises from Audrey’s room indicated she was up too, I could hear the clanking of pipes, the sound of a person clambering into a tub. How many times had I listened to my brother do the same thing, wondering if he masturbated in the shower like I did. Lovely. Today Dad turned eighty. All of last night’s good tidings and subsequent bad news changed this fact not one bit. The party was imminent. We had to get our acts together; this was game day and no place for the timid. Who else knew of my father’s predicament? Possibly no one. Swallowing my last pill, it dawned on me no one in my family was aware of my sickness either. What a strange secret to keep.
I shaved, purposefully delaying my shower allowing Audrey hot water. The phone rang downstairs, probably Steven rechecking the agenda. After a while, I heard Audrey’s door creak and I opened mine to catch her. I thought she needed to know my news or, more to the point, I needed to tell her. Moving forward, I required an ally.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Audrey beamed, well rested, looking better than she had in weeks. “It’s such a novelty being awakened by a bird’s song instead of taxi cabs, garbage men and the like. Blue Jays are such charming birds, don’t you think?”
“Audrey, come here for a second.” I grabbed her hand and led her down the hall and out of earshot. “I need to tell you something.”
“You sound serious,” she said. “It’s not your parents…they’re okay, right?”
Instead of telling her my father had cancer I told her about my HIV.
Audrey looked at me in the way everybody wants to be looked at: with adoration, sympathy and love. “I know Sweetie,” she whispered. “Kara suggested the possibility some time ago.”
Audrey continued, undaunted by the still squawking jaybird and, it would seem, my news. “She’d seen you take pills, the kind only HIV infected individuals would require.” Audrey lightened her tone, tried to anyway. “In her previous line of work the subject matter was, as you might imagine, highly relevant.”
What about her current line of work: interior design? I should think the subject matter was highly relevant there as well. I kept the sarcastic quip to myself. Something was akimbo. I had just come clean with a deep, deep secret to a dear, dear friend and yet the world remained…intact. Oddly, I felt cheated. Out of what, exactly: the drama?
“You’re going to live a long time, Sweetie,” said Audrey. She reached out for my hands, found and caressed them. “If I felt any different I would have never held my tongue these past weeks.” She managed a smile. “Trust me.”
What is it about the word trust? Oh yes, that’s it: I didn’t know how to trust anyone.
“Sweetie, I know why you’re telling me this. I mean, right here and right now.” Audrey’s eyes remained fixed upon mine, riveted. Even when the Blue Jay sounded they didn’t flinch.
I said nothing. More was coming.
“I’d gotten up for a glass of milk last night. Did you know that about me, I like milk? Anyway, your mother was downstairs at the kitchen table, sitting there, and she told me about your father’s condition. I’m sorry.”
“Was she crying?” I asked. At this point I was beyond editorializing. I only wanted facts.
“She said she’d gotten past the crying phase –her exact words.”
“So the pall of death wasn’t apparent?”
“Oh, please,” said Audrey. “Death is so misunderstood. We’re experts at everything else: How to raise children. What to read. How to live…but nobody knows how exactly to die. Most of us, anyway. And guess what, Sweetie: We may never get it right.”
I pondered her comment. From birth to old age everyone fixated on remaining alive. Discussions about death were rare and uncomfortable to all. I seldom brought the subject up and I’d been handed a goddamn death sentence! Not too long ago HIV equaled AIDS, which equaled DEATH. Period. Come to think of it maybe my father was handling the situation with great dignity, having this party, his very own swan song. Maybe we both were.
“Besides,” Audrey implored, her Southern accent shining through, “we came here for a celebration not a funeral.”
“Indeed we did,” I said, believing the sentiment. “You know, Audrey, I’m glad we’re getting married. If I weren’t so damn gay, I’d take you right here on my parent’s bed!”
“And I’d let you,” she winked.
From downstairs came the clamor of plates and silverware. Breakfast was being served.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for Mom’s sausage instead of mine.” A horrible joke, Gentle Reader, but I was in a good mood –despite all- and not afraid to make it.
“I’ll think of you with every bight I take,” replied Audrey.
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Promises, promises.”
The last time I cried, really cried, was when Princess Diana died. Now I shed tears of joy, perhaps my first ever. Whether Audrey saw them or not I knew she could feel them.
“Let’s eat,” she said. “If I know your mother, she’s been waiting for us to come down since sunup.”
“Earlier,” I said. “Out here folks get up when most of us go to bed.”
“Well then, let’s not disappoint them, shall we? After all, we’re only here for a moment.”
“Words to live by,” I said.
We took the stairs down together, holding hands.
“Look at them,” Mom said, “just like newlyweds!”
“I thought we agreed to separate beds!” Pops bellowed from the other room. I could just see him, between barking at us, reading the sports page, checking player stats, and evaluating the pre-season.
But always one eye and one ear on us.
“Those are the rules and I trust they are being obeyed. Hear me?” He was only half serious, but the glass was always half serious, I can assure you of that.
“Land sakes, Martin!” Mom replied. “They were sleeping…enjoying the country air.” She winked at us, still playing along.
Then whispering: “Steven will be over soon…and he’s bringing his girl.”
The way she said it implied total belief in Steven and Kara’s engagement. Instantly, I resented and envied my brother for having the better-kept secret, for a moment anyway. I was tempted to blow their cover but then I realized my conflicted emotions were only because of an age-old case of sibling rivalry. A swift kick in the rear from Audrey also quelled any chance of a nasty retort. Again, she’d read me like a proverbial book.
“This girl Kara…” Mom said. “I hear she’s a real looker. Big city pretty. Like a model.”
“Oh, she’s all that and then some,” said Audrey. She seemed indifferent to the unintended comparison. Sweet people rarely unnerved her, a southern trait and an under appreciated one at that. My mother had the same quality, even if from Northern Wisconsin.
“You’ve met?” Gwen asked, and it was clear she didn’t know.
“Why yes,” replied Audrey. “As a matter of fact we all drove up together.”
Had Audrey revealed too much? The Sweet household was rapidly becoming ground zero for too much information.
“Say what?” boomed Dad from the kitchen.
“Audrey knows Steven’s fiancé!” reported my mother.
No reply forthcoming, it was unclear whether he’d even heard her.
“We should go in the kitchen,” she said to us quietly. “Dad’s hearing isn’t so good and I know darn well he’s trying to eavesdrop.”
As we walked, she added: “On football Sunday he’s got the TV on so loud the windows rattle. Last year, when the Pack scored against Minnesota, his reaction knocked one of my Hummel Figurines off the display. Thank God for shag.”
“Thank God for shag,” I said, seconding the motion. “And Hummel Figurines.” Mom had been collecting them since I was a kid. She had hundreds. Occasionally, she even left town for a collector’s convention, once as far as Kansas City.
“Happy birthday, Mr. Sweet!” declared Audrey, beating me to the punch, bending over to kiss him on the cheek.
“Happy birthday Dad,” I said, quavering. I moved toward him, arms outstretched.
“Now don’t you go and kiss me,” he warned. “It’s not necessary.”
I smiled, though bitter sweetly. Of all the men I’d kissed in recent memory, Dad had not been one of them.
“Sit down. Join me for breakfast.” Martin pushed out the chair nearest to Audrey. He didn’t stand up to do so but I knew that it wasn’t out of rudeness but physical weakness.
I think we all noticed Dad’s frailty, a combination of now knowing he was truly ill and the revealing rays of morning sunshine. He seemed to be sinking into his overalls. Dad had essentially finished his morning meal (probable eons ago) but out of misguided politeness he’d retained a piece of bacon on his plate. Cute.
“Yum!” Audrey swelled. “I do miss breakfast. Starbucks and the occasional scone will only get you so far.”
Dad knew what neither of those things was but nodded agreeably. “Most important meal of the day,” he said. “At least according to Reader’s Digest”
I guess Readers Digest was as good a place as any to attribute that cliché. I sat down, joining Dad and Audrey.
Promptly Mom brought in a platter of scrambled eggs, smoked chubs, waffles and sausage. I loaded up my plate, trying not to think about my arteries. Fortunately, I was preternaturally thin –a fact, interestingly enough, that my folks had yet to bring up.
“The chubs are on account of my birthday,” Dad said. “They’re popular up here with tourists but I only take them on special occasions.”
If we hadn’t already, we all took one. Of our peers, mostly Jewish people enjoyed chubs, although they much preferred calling it Lox. Here, as in other port towns along the lake, it was just smoked fish and they sold it at gas stations. It tasted fine but caused your fingers to smell for hours. My brother had likened the lingering aroma to a woman’s nether parts. Nice.
And speaking of the great charmer, in he walked. And he was alone.
“Hiya, Mom!” He gave her a quick kiss. “Pop…Happy Birthday!” He handed the old man a gift, clearly a book. My heart sank, fearing it was the Lombardi tome that I had bought.
“He’ll open it later,” Mom said, grabbing the present. “Everything in its place, dear.”
“So where’s your girl?” Dad asked. And, indeed, that was the question on everyone’s mind.
“Kara said she had something she needed to tend to in town.” Steven seemed unconcerned, even non-chalant.
Audrey and I exchanged looks. What could she possibly be tending to here?
“Ira?” Audrey mouthed his name silently.
I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.” I thought that deal was tomorrow. Anyway, Steven really didn’t seem to care. He was his usual happy self.
“Audrey!” he boomed. “Good to see you again. You look great.”
She rose and they hugged.
“Welcome to the great state of Wisconsin,” Steven said cheerfully. He was in good spirits. As was Audrey.
“We’re just sitting down to a marvelous breakfast,” she replied. “It’s to die for!”
“Many have,” I tossed out, perhaps feeling ignored. I had to watch my edge, however. If relationships within my family were strained, I had certainly played a role in it. I, not them, had cultivated my invisibility.
“At least you’re eating something.” Steven said, an obvious jab at my weight or the lack of it. To the group he speculated further: “Are you one of those yuppies who jogs a hundred miles a week and only eats sushi?”
Audrey jumped in, saving me. “I’ll have you know we dined at Wendy’s on the way up. Your brother had a double cheeseburger and a large order of fries.”
“No shit?” responded Steven. “Sorry Ma,” he added quickly, presumably for cursing.
“Wash up and have something to eat,” commanded Dad. “Your mother is serving smoked fish.”
Pussy fingers, I giggled as my brother ran his hands under the water.
Despite being the real man in the family, it turned out my brother wasn’t grilling steaks for Dad’s birthday. The party was, in fact, being held at the Corner Stone Pub, a Green Bay landmark and part of my father’s very limited, but for him, intensely fulfilling microcosm.
The ‘Corner’ –as it was usually called- was basically a shrine to the Green Bay Packers. The place had wall-to-wall memorabilia. In terms of ‘cuisine’ they fried the silverware. Pitchers of beer cost two or three dollars max. Nobody drank light anything. And shots rang out like it was perpetually the last day of hunting season.
As I said, the walls were adorned, top to bottom, with 8 by 10 photos (mostly black & white) of ancient Green Bay Packer warriors. BTW, I’d say one out of 50 was an African American, if that.
“They all look…gay,” Audrey whispered into my ear. She knew better than to speak loudly of such things in ‘church.’ “You know like from those old muscle magazines?” She raised her eyebrows. “Too manly.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied, facetiously.
Indeed, I had always thought these pictures looked gay. Over the years they had become my favorite things about the Corner, supplanting even the fried curds. I could get lost in those pictures, imagining the locker room camaraderie, the towel snapping and shared showers. All those tight ends. Coming here as a boy, it was like peeking under the circus tent, glimpsing just a hint of what was in store for me. By the time I hit puberty I knew. It was those beguiling, campy frozen-in-time photographs that had enlightened me. I’d actually gone through all this with my shrink. Later I would explain it to Audrey. Right now I just wanted a drink.
Familiar faces abounded, mostly Dad’s cronies from the shop. Fellow train enthusiasts. Corner regulars. I dragged Audrey through as quickly as I could, desperate to avoid an immediate conversation and more than a little impatient to find Kara. We hadn’t seen or heard from her all day. Her cell phone denied access, claiming its owner unavailable. I scanned the room and, unless she was in the bathroom (which, if I remembered correctly was no place a lady wanted to be), she wasn’t here. But then, neither was Steven. I remained optimistic they would march in momentarily, he with a big, dumb smile and she with a logical explanation.
Fairly sure, anyway.
Still, I worried. If her absence had something to do with Ira then why wasn’t I involved? And if it wasn’t Ira detaining her, then who or what was?
“Hey, Sweetie Pie, how’s it goin’?”
Oh my God. Cheryl Kaminski: the only chick in high school who, despite all my bad press, had continuously pursued me, year after painful year. Most women had some kind of ‘gaydar’ built in to their famous intuitions (albeit fuzzy and erratic this far north), but not Cheryl. She never seemed to mind that I wasn’t part of any team or group or whatever one called the packs of straight males indigenous to these parts. That they harassed me on a regular basis had only intensified her interest. Mercifully, that was a long time ago, in high school. And, yet, here was Cheryl, waiting for me in the Corner.
“How’s it goin’ Sweets?” she asked again, leaning into me. Stubborn, insistent, and in my face. Same old Cheryl.
“I’m here for my dad’s birthday,” I answered, nervously. Even in the middle of the room, I felt cornered.
Ironically, I’d been far more worried about running into one of the guys. So much so, I’d planned my lines accordingly: I was engaged, living in a swank apartment down town and making good money in the furniture business. Lies, half-truths and spin, it was vintage high school reunion bullshit. Not to mention vintage Jeffrey Sweet bullshit. Would it work on a woman as well?
“Duh,” replied Cheryl. “We’re all here on account of your old man’s b’day.”
She punched me in the arm. Seriously, she punched me. Hard. “Same old Jeffrey! The space cadet.”
Space Cadet? Nobody used phrases like that anymore. Or so I had thought. If Cheryl’s vocabulary was mired in the Seventies at least she could’ve outfitted accordingly. Save for a feathered haircut (a la Farrah Fawcet) there was nothing retro or chic about her. Her clothes were merely tired and drab. She had on blue jeans, ragged brown pumps, and a Brett Favre jersey, basically the Corner’s uniform.
Cheryl was carrying about fifteen more pounds than her ideal. And while that made her downright svelte in Green Bay, to me she just looked frumpy. I know I was supposed to be working on my manners but, hey, she called me a space cadet.
“So,” she said. “I heard you was getting married.” Her heavily blue-shadowed eyes darted this way and that like frightened guppies. “She here?”
Suddenly, I became aware of Audrey not being by my side. Oh, well, nothing I could do about that. Had to stay in the moment. Work solo. Probably just as well. Besides their unexplainable desire to be with me, Audrey and Cheryl had nothing in common.
“She’s here somewhere, yes.” I looked around, seeing mostly fat, older, straight men.
Odd question and blunt, I answered it quickly.
“Well, I certainly think so.” But by Cheryl’s myopic standards, Audrey probably wasn’t. Like a lot of ladies up north, Cheryl aspired to the Women of Wrestling look: big hair, big tits…big. Indeed, beneath Cheryl’s jersey, it looked like she was carrying a couple of footballs.
“Yeah, I’ll bet she is. You always went for the cute ones.”
Huh? What cute ones? Was she for real? When you’ve been in the closet as long as I have, it’s hard to get a firm read on other people. Even simple people. Nobody up here knew the real me but I couldn’t see them either. I thought about Cheryl’s comment: Yeah, I’ll bet she is. Was I being patted on the back or slapped in the face? I couldn’t tell.
“You know, Mr. Sweet,” she said, lowering her voice and leaning in…again, “I had a massive crush on you in high school.” She laughed and it seemed wildly inappropriate, given she was confessing an intimacy. Booze did that to a girl.
Now it was my turn to say ‘Duh!’ but I didn’t. Very few people of either sex have ever had crushes on me. Why belittle the one that had and maybe still did?
“Now, now,” I said. “That’s just (I looked at her bottle) the Mike’s Hard Lemonade talking.”
“The hell it is!” She retorted. “I like guys who are different. And mister, you’re different.”
Uh oh. She was using the present tense. I had to be careful. Even though my comment on the liquor talking had been facetious, one had to wonder about the effects of Hard Lemonade from a guy named Mike. Another observation, this one an anomaly: If she was into guys who were different then why was she still the same old Cheryl? How many people, I wondered, at our age, hid beneath the football jersey of another man?
Cheryl took a swig of her beverage and looked me over. It seemed I was being considered like a photographed item off the menu at Denny’s. Perhaps, to her, I was the exotic item: a special skillet with peppers, mushrooms and zucchini. She offered me a cigarette, which I snatched as soon as the bait hit the water. Her brand was Newport (of course), but my craving was such that I took it anyway. Besides, everybody in the damn bar was smoking. And I mean everybody. God bless Wisconsin and its lax tobacco policy.
“Do you remember that time back of Gus’s Place?” she asked, salaciously.
Gus’s Place was another local bar. From another era. Relevant here was the creek and sloping grass hill behind Gus’s. Lots of kids visited the secluded spot, mostly to drink Tall Boys and make out, including the two of us.
“How could I forget?” I said. But I had. Though maybe repressed was a better word.
About a million years ago, along with some other couples, I’d followed Cheryl to the ravine one warm summer night. I was 17 and in dire need of a notch in my belt. My lack of prowess with women was rapidly becoming legend and, as such, a serious hindrance toward getting along with my peers; what few there were. So down to the river I went, naively hoping Mother Nature and Boone’s Farm would somehow take its course. Oh God, I prayed, as she’d loosened my belt, just let me get laid and be done with it. If I was to survive another year or two in Green Bay, putting my penis in Cheryl Kaminsky had become nothing short of paramount. And of course I could not. My penis trembled in Cheryl’s callous hands, literally shrinking from her touch; not a cock but a baby bird fallen from its nest. I don’t remember any more of the details only that there weren’t many.
Bless Cheryl’s misguided heart, she’d lied that we’d done it.
“You saved my life,” I said, meaning it. This time it was I who leaned in. For up until now, I’d forgotten that act of charity. I could have been assassinated on that grassy knoll. One word of my impotence and everyone’s growing suspicions about me would have been validated. Instead word was I’d gotten laid and so, for the time being, I’d gotten by with the roughnecks.
“I owe you a drink.”
Cheryl looked at me funny, smiled. “It’s I who owe you the drink, Sweetie,” she said. “By not doing it you saved for me the one thing I’d managed to save. You were a true gentleman.” She took a long pull on her ebbing cigarette, releasing the smoke slowly through the left side of her mouth.
“A girl doesn’t forget a thing like that.”
A true gentleman? I was ignorant and frightened. If I could’ve had sex with her I would have. BUT I WAS GAY! How we both managed to get through that evening better for it remained one for the history books.
Had I been drunk, or even buzzed, I would have confessed my secret to this woman. Yet, I was sober as a priest. Memory-wise, I may have gone back in time, but I hadn’t even made it to the bar yet. “This one’s on me.” I said. We stamped our cigarettes on the floor (everyone did) and found our way to the bar.
And met Audrey. Who was with my mother. They were playing a drinking game involving dice, a folly every Wisconsinite old enough to drink knew how to play –that is except me. I’d never bothered to learn. I supposed I took drinking far too seriously to make a game of it.
“There you are!” we all more or less yelled together.
Cheryl stood back, doing the math. She knew my mom. But who was Miss Fancy Pants?
I introduced my fiancé to “my dear friend” Cheryl.
“It’s a pleasure,” beamed Audrey.
“Me too,” choked Cheryl. “I guess.”
“How about a beverage?” Mom intervened, knowing the circumstances.
I opted for a whiskey sour; same as the other ladies were drinking. Although, I must say Cheryl’s, or should I say Mike’s, Hard Lemonade intrigued me.
Audrey was wonderfully over-dressed for the Corner. Hell, for Green Bay. She had on a strapless, black evening gown, white gloves, and a pair of diamond and platinum earrings that could pay off everybody’s mortgage. Needless to say, Cheryl wasn’t the only one gaping. Even the bartender, who undoubtedly thought he’d seen it all, was smitten. All smiles, he lorded over Audrey like she was the Queen of England. His pour was very generous. And that’s saying a lot, given we were in the land of generous pours.
“Where’s Pops?” I asked?
“He’s in the back playing poker,” Mom answered, passing out drinks.
“Is that even legal?” asked Audrey. She tapped a Benson & Hedges out of a silver case and, voila, there was the bartender, flipping his Bic.
“The Indians can’t have all the fun,” mused Cheryl, referring to the Native American casinos operating in and around Green Bay. “’Sides, you know afternoon poker is a Corner tradition, just like the fish fry.”
“What I’d like to know,” my mother interrupted, “is where the heck your brother and his fiancé are.”
“I’ve tried Kara’s cell all day,” Audrey added. “Nothing.”
“Mommy, Mommy, can we have more quarters for the video game?” Two boys tugged at Cheryl’s knees, beseeching her for money.
“You didn’t say anything about children?” I was surprised but also relieved to see them. It meant this woman had a life beyond our feeble high school years. I hoped it also meant I wouldn’t have to break her heart.
“You didn’t ask,” replied Cheryl. “And anyway, I was flirting with you. No place for kids in that!”
“Tyler! Jessie! Compose yourself this minute!” Cheryl commanded. “I want you to meet some friends of mine. They come all the way from Chicago.”
“The Bears suck!” screeched the taller of the two. Like his mother he had on a Packer’s jersey, though of a different player.
“Enough!” Cheryl put her foot down.
“So do the Bulls,” offered Audrey. “Suck that is.”
The children looked up at the tall, elegant woman who just cussed and, for a moment, were speechless.
“Basketball doesn’t count,” murmured Jessie. But clearly he was done. One argued with women in sweatshirts, not evening gowns. Particularly when it came to sports.
Cheryl handed them each a dollar. “Say hello. Say you’re sorry. And say goodbye.”
The boys repeated the phrases and scattered like silverfish.
“Wow.” I said. “They must be a handful.” Lame cliché, but when it came to children, I did not have much to say one way or the other. They were non-sexual beings representing a world I knew little about, particularly at this age, with their pushy demeanor and runny noses. Given a choice I preferred females. At least little girls liked pretty things. God, how I admired the elaborate dollhouses set up in the department stores at Christmas. That, I got. Playing dodge ball and blowing up goldfish with firecrackers? Pass.
“Yeah, well,” countered Cheryl, “I get ‘em to church on Sunday. They still like their grandmother…More than I can say for most of the boys around here.”
“Around anywhere,” added Audrey.
“Amen,” said my mother.
As a child, getting me to church required the ominous threat of my daddy’s backhand. I demurred from further commentary, best to let the subject die. Gay or not, organized religion never set well with me. There were a million reasons why but I could sum it up with one: I don’t think God created us in his image; I think we created him in ours. Out of fear. Out of insecurity. Out of vanity.
“Aren’t you gonna ask who their daddy is?” Yes, Cheryl had a way of putting things.
“Do I know him?” I asked back.
She then told me about a scratch golfer who taught at the course in Mishicot, had season tickets to the Pack, and hardly ever drank. Basically, a real catch.
“Well, he’s a very lucky man,” I said, “to have you.”
“Oh, please!” Cheryl retorted. And then she punched me again. And to my mother she said, “Is he always this sappy?”
“He’s as sweet as can be,” replied my mother, a phrase she loved to use when responding to compliments about my brother and me. I only wished I’d given her more opportunities to use it.
The late afternoon sun cut through the cigarette smoke, warming my head along with the whiskey. My best friend, my first girl friend, and my mother appeared to be getting along. Another unlikely trio, ZZ Top was blaring on the jukebox (aren’t they always?) and each of the lady’s heads bobbed in unison.
I’m not asking for much…
Again I perused the wall of gay, winking football players. I envisioned the whole team washing the windows at Brian’s apartment (!), their green and gold clad buttocks bouncing to the music.
…Lord take me downtown, I’m just looking for some tush!
What an image! That would do for now.
That, and another whiskey sour. I motioned to the bartender but he was already there.
“Hey bro.” It was Steven! And he had on a suit! A three-button suit! And it wasn’t a costume. This was obviously the handiwork of Kara. My brother wouldn’t buy a three button anything, even if they sold them in Green Bay, which they didn’t.
“You look great,” I said. He reminded me of me –if I were younger, straight and robust. “I take it Kara’s with you?” He’d found me in the men’s room so I wasn’t sure.
“No,” he said. “She’s not.” Steven relieved himself as he spoke. “Kara is coming a little later. And she’s bringing some friends.”
“Hey, no offence, Steven,” I replied, growing indignant. “But this is Dad’s birthday party. Given the givens, we’re already pushing our luck having Kara here at all. More uninvited guests?”
Steven put himself back in his pants, turned around. “Are you drunk big brother?”
“Not like everybody else in this bar,” I blurted. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Because you’re talking crazy, that’s why.” Steven was clear-eyed, serious. “Trust your business partner, Jeffrey. And if you can’t do that, trust me.
There was that word again: Trust. “I don’t understand.” I didn’t. Who was lecturing whom?
“Kara is late for a reason. And it is not a selfish one. She has our father’s best interests at heart.” He ran a comb through his hair. “Trust in that.”
“Have you seen Dad yet?” I asked, altering the subject.
Steven laughed. “Yeah. I went to the back room. He’s up 75 bucks. If you ask me the guys are letting him win.”
“You’re kidding. Folks up here don’t give their money away for anything. Not even if Dad was turning a hundred.”
“Folks up here?” Steven sighed. “You’ve got to stop being so condescending. It gets old too.” He tapped me on the shoulder with his comb. “Remember, bro. You’re from up here too.”
Damn, he was right. Damn, damn, damn. It seemed like I kept forgetting lessons seconds after I learned them. I managed a smile. “Sorry. When did you get so smart, anyway? Brains come with that suit?”
“There you go again. Even when you’re apologizing you mock me.”
Yet, Steven wasn’t angry. He adjusted his tie with confidence and continued his lecture. “Audrey’s got us all whipped in terms of class but you don’t see her putting on airs. Kara’s the same way.” He looked me in the eye. “We could learn a lot from those two.”
It appeared he already had. But like I said, my problem was I kept on forgetting.
Two regulars stumbled in past us. Permanent fixtures, they’d be here regardless of the birthday party. I wondered if they liked having all these people around. On the one hand, we took up space. On the other, our presence gave the place an added jolt. Judging from their stagger, I gathered the latter. I’m sure the free beer made us a lot easier to take as well.
“Let’s go check up on the ladies,” suggested Steven. “I’ll buy you a drink. What is that, anyway?” he asked, pointing to my near-empty glass: “A Cos-mo-pol-o-tin?”
“On the contrary,” I said, thankful to point out something non-pretentious about myself. “I’m drinking a whiskey sour, just like Mom and Audrey.”
“See, big brother. You CAN come home again.”
“Blow me,” I said.
“Sorry, I appear to have forgotten my magnifying glass.”
Ah, the tiny dick jokes of my youth. In the span of two minutes we’d reverted to our juvenile states, a pair of squabbling brothers. Steven and I realized the transformation and shared a laugh. The two wobbly locals promptly finished doing their business and got the hell out of there. Apparently, suited men laughing in urinals made them uncomfortable.
“F-I-B’s.” One of them mumbled as he stumbled out the door. Fucking Illinois Bastards. Ah, yes. Yet another minority I belonged to.
It was after 6 PM, officially evening in Wisconsin; the handcuffs of daytime were off. Achieving drunkenness was now the common goal of every inhabitant at the Corner Stone, particularly those associated with the Sweet birthday party.
A giant square cake (featuring a full-color frosting face of my father) had been wheeled to the middle of the room. Gifts and cards began to accumulate around it. I counted at least three copies of the Lombardi biography amongst the loot. Swell. Across the large room, the tables had been arranged to form a dais of sorts, with Dad’s ‘throne’ occupying the center. Like a Friar’s Club Roast, I got the idea they’d done this a thousand times before. It was both cheesy and awesome.
Mom sat on one side of him and his longtime business partner and sometime best friend, Ralph, sat on the other. In no particular order, friends and family filled out the rest of the tables. Steven, Audrey and myself were roughly half way down, on the right hand side.
But no Kara.
Cocktail tables comprised the room’s center, where random guests (and probably a few strangers) could sit, smoke, drink, and generally take in the King’s Court without having to be a part of it. I longed to be there, as opposed to up on stage under the spotlight. That was not an option.
Pitchers of beer and boxes of wine (no comment) had been placed among the tables wherever they fit. Bread sticks, black bread, and port wine cheese completed each still life, the baskets being devoured and replaced at an alarming rate almost as fast as the beer. Then again, people had been drinking for several hours and this was the first ‘free’ food made available to them. God forbid anyone order something off of the menu…and pay. When owner, Jen Jorgenson, wheeled out the prime rib ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ filled the room as if he had launched the opening salvo on the 4th of July.
Dino, Frank and other favorites from my father’s era replaced ZZ Top. Already a few couples were dancing. Toward the back I could see Cheryl and her pro-golfer husband slow dancing a la the prom. Her kids shot in and out of the shadows, undoubtedly reeling from Mountain Dew, chocolate chip cookies, and the wonder of being allowed at the grown-ups’ party.
In contrast, like statues on Easter Island, the Corner regulars stood fast against the bar. Even the free prime rib hadn’t pried them from their designated positions…yet. Of course it would, once the smell hit them, or word of mouth. But for now they stared at the TV, ignoring the festivities, sipping glasses of beer that would never run out. They could have been my dad’s age. More likely, they were just old looking. Oddly, there were as many women as men. The Corner Stone was an equal opportunity anethisizer.
And still no Kara.
By now it had become a distraction, though only for me. Still, hers’ was the only empty seat on the dais. Even Steve seemed fidgety. I repeatedly caught him looking at the front door and then his watch. His smile grew more strained. Dinner was being served and still no date. I got the idea that whatever those two had cooking was now in the oven too long.
To kill time, Audrey whispered in my ear: “So, who out there do you suppose is gay?” Queer hunt was a game she and I played periodically, especially at places where one would least expect to find homosexuals. Like here. But they most assuredly were here, just rare and so much harder to spot. I’d read once that 1 in 7 people were gay. That meant in any given full elevator at least one of the riders was queer. 1 in 7. There had to be almost 100 people here.
I always began by scanning the men. Finding lesbians was much harder because they mated for life, generally staying home with their partners. If out, however, then they were out, and easy to spot: just look for dirty jeans, flannel shirts, a manly tattoo and that haircut. Unfortunately, that also happened to be the standard attire of almost everyone in Wisconsin.
Again, I always began the game (if not life in general) by scanning only the males. I looked for an arousing combination of chiseled masculine features and effeminate gestures. For example, a strong forearm paired with a limp wrist. Look for contrasts. Oxymoron’s. A $20 tee shirt and $500 glasses. A work shirt that’s mauve instead of blue. Still not sure? White teeth and contoured butts were iconic in my world. As was the perfect 5 o’clock shadow –see George Michael. In addition, gay men communicated with one-another differently. When we spoke, our hands floated in front of our faces, accentuating a ribald anecdote or witty observation, as opposed to the ape-like flailing of our straight counterparts. We seemed to be flying, hence the term ‘light in one’s loafers.’
Conversely, watch for things we’d never do. Example: Gay men rarely wear shirts with words or numbers on them. This includes sports jerseys and most branded attire. We seldom wear our hair long. Those that did were called transvestites. And, contrary to what the average Joe might think, most queers eschew jewelry, especially items that pierce the flesh. In this way we make our fathers proud. Purposefully donning women’s attire was a fetish or gimmick. It’s done to gain attention. Think about Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and even the androgynous David Bowie. These men weren’t gay. They screwed a plethora of women by dressing like them. Believe it or not, most gay men (at least the ones I knew) were fairly understated. Oh, make no mistake, we loved pomp and circumstance, but on stage not on our person. Contrary to popular prejudice, many gays eschewed flamboyancy. We considered Ziggy Stardust and Freddy Mercury entertainers before faggots.
That said I think Audrey just guessed; went with her gut as it were. “The one over there,” she pointed. “See how he’s standing, hand on his hip, favoring one leg. Gay.”
“Sorry,” I replied. “That’s Walter Watts. He shot himself in the foot while deer hunting. He always stands like that.”
“And you know this guy?”
“No. Not personally. But everybody knows his story.” I observed Walt for a moment. “Take a closer look at him. Can you see the contour of his butt?”
“No,” replied Audrey. “His pants are too baggy.”
“Audrey, he has no butt. Plus, his jeans look like the folds of skin on a hippo. No self-respecting gay man would be caught dead in jeans that relaxed.” Despite playing the game before, I had to keep reminding myself Audrey was a total novice when it came to alternative lifestyles. Still, Walt Watts? He couldn’t have been less gay.
“Audrey, haven’t I taught you anything? If you can’t discern a man’s posterior from inside his pants, then he’s not gay. Period.”
“Oh, come on Jeffrey. That’s ludicrous.”
“Just playing the percentages, hon.” To those in the crowd keeping score it looked like we were a happy couple, which I guess we were. Anyone looked our way, I offered a wave or a smile.
I adjusted my ‘gaydar’, determined to find Audrey a queer. There had to be one or two in the vicinity. 1 in 7, I kept telling myself. 1 in 7. That meant a baker’s dozen cream puffs were out there somewhere.
“Okay, I’m picking something up,” I said. And indeed, I was. I saw only the man’s bottom half but it was scrumptious. Starting from the bottom, he had on the finest alligator loafers. His pants were a crisp, smooth khaki, definitely pressed. An exquisite lizard belt complimented the shoes as well as the wearer’s modest waistline and obvious physical charms. As stated, I couldn’t see the upper half but it was clear I had me a viable candidate. “Deer in my headlights!” I whispered to Audrey excitedly.
“Where, where, where!” Audrey tried to see around the many obstacles.
Surreptitiously, I pointed out my quarry. “11 o’clock, behind the old couple, just right of the cigarette machine.” Yes, 21st Century aside, there was still a cigarette machine.
“Nice shoes,” commented Audrey, locking in.
“Exactly,” I said. “That’s what tipped me off. I know I’ve seen them in a closet somewhere!” It was a joke but… But what? Oh my God, I had seen those shoes in a closet somewhere.
“Well, if the man belonging to those shoes is gay then who are the beautiful pumps he’s talking to?”
She was right. The old couple had moved revealing the lower half of our mystery man’s decisively female companion. Even from here I could tell she was well put together, like him. They had to be the two best bottom halves in the room. And definitely a straight couple.
“And to think,” I said. “I thought we were the most fabulous couple at the party.”
Audrey didn’t respond. She took out her reading glasses and put them on. “Jeffrey, I’ve seen those shoes before too…both pairs.”
“What are you two looking at?” my mother asked. In the midst of playing spot the queers I’d forgotten all about her.
Passing through a smoky column of light, the well-heeled couple entered the main room. I now saw their faces.
“Jesus and Mary!” Audrey exclaimed.
“No,” I replied. “Brian and Kara.”
My Gaydar worked all along, which was one way of assessing the situation. But, handsome as he was, I didn’t appreciate surprises and this certainly qualified as one, and a relatively big one. We’d all been concerned about Kara. Her late entrance, along with my uninvited boyfriend, hardly alleviated said concern. On the contrary… what the hell was going on?
Shocked, I felt helpless. I didn’t know whether to run over to them or to just run away. Grimacing, I looked at Audrey. She shrugged, as if to say: He’s your boyfriend. She’s your business partner.
At this point, Steven, Mother and half the damn bar noticed this most noticeable of couples. Brian may have been a small man but he carried himself exceedingly well. His wardrobe (as I’d pointed out earlier) was impeccable, as was his body. And it wasn’t like Kara had become less stunning since we’d last seen her. She was a vision in Dolce Gabbana. Her toned, tanned flesh flowed into the shimmering gold and sequined gown as if the designer had created her himself.
Though I was unsure of what to do next, my brother suffered no such insecurity. He bounded from the table, making his way toward Kara. For all I knew, he didn’t know Brian from Adam. Maybe he was even jealous. Seeing my handsome boyfriend in cahoots with his woman had to be off-putting, especially given their late arrival, not to mention the mystery surrounding Kara’s whereabouts in the first place.
“My goodness,” offered Audrey, “would you look what the cat dragged in?”
“That must be Kara,” said Mom. She wasn’t asking. Besides, who else could it be? Women of Kara’s stature didn’t just emerge from the kitchen with a platter of chicken wings.
I said nothing. It would have only prompted others to ask about Brian. And I needed every second to think. Knowing Mother, she probably already solved the mystery anyway.
On that front, Dad hadn’t noticed anything out of kilter, engrossed in conversation with his beloved friends. Beer steins were being hoisted in his honor, salutations shared. Grins all around. If Dad even noticed Brian it was because of the knockout he brought with him. Worrying about these things, I felt petty and queer. God almighty, I didn’t have time for deep thoughts.
I met Brian’s eyes and surreptitiously waved him over. He shook his head, indicating it was I who should come over to him.
Huh? I tapped my chest then pointed back to him. Me go to you?
Brian nodded. Even from a distance I could tell he was laughing. Like the whole affair was status quo.
Audrey polished off her drink. Unfortunately, her number one fan the bartender was no longer at her beck and call. If nothing else, I needed to remember this moment as THE TIME AUDREY BECAME SPEECHLESS.
“This better be good,” I sighed.
Walking over, I tried putting the pieces together. But there wasn’t a logical sentence with Kara and Brian’s name in it. No equation made sense. Apples and oranges. Bottom line these two individuals had nothing in common except…well… me.
“Hug me but make it seem fraternal,” I said to Brian.
Grinning, he did as he was told.
“Now, do you mind telling me what’s going on?”
“And how are you, Jeffrey?” asked Kara. “Miss me?”
“No sarcasm until further review,” I said. “And yes, Kara, we have all missed you.”
“Um, bro, isn’t that more my concern?” Steven bristled at the sharpness of my question.
I rolled my eyes. “Excuse me, bro, but we both have a stake in this evening. Besides, why is Kara with… um…my… him?” In case you’re keeping score, it’s hard interrogating someone when you yourself are holding secrets.
“Boys,” purred Kara, “as much as I love being the center of attention, it’s your
Dad’s birthday and his presents are getting cold.”
Presents are getting cold. What the hell did she mean by that?
“She speaks!” I said, clapping my hands in mock delight.
“Jeffrey, be nice,” scolded Brian. “ This lovely creature is why I’m here. She facilitated everything.”
“No offense,” queried Steven. “But who is this guy?” While my brother spoke, he put an arm around Kara.
“I told you, Steven, he’s my friend.” I braved a smile at Brian. “A very close friend.” I totally understood his confusion. Heck, I was in the dark myself. Brian was the last person I expected to see at my father’s birthday party. Even my high school sweetheart had been less of a surprise.
“Last night I had an epiphany,” Kara began explaining. “And while I never went into details I did ask Steven to trust me.” She kissed him on the cheek. “And he did!”
Trust. That word again.
“Well, I’m not part of any epiphany,” declared Brian. “Kara just gave me a call and told me to show up.”
Kara shrugged. “The important thing is we’re all together.”
“But what does any of this have to do with my father?” I had to ask.
From the dais, Audrey scrutinized us. As did my mother. For that matter, Cheryl had her eyes on us as well. Good luck figuring this one out, gals. Even in the thick of it, I was lost.
“Okay, okay. I’ll come clean,” sighed Kara. “I was away because I needed time to get a gift.”
“A gift?” I asked.
“A special gift,” offered Brian.
“Last night I thought of the perfect birthday present to get your father and I went out and got it.”
“But you’ve never met our father,” said Steven. “How would you know what he likes?”
“Believe me, Kara knows what to get men.” I said, managing a straight face.
“Make your fun,” she responded. “But you’re right. I do know guys. And in a way, that knowledge is an integral part of my gift!” Kara beamed.
Still lost. And getting colder.
“All will be revealed,” suggested Kara. “Once your father begins opening his presents.”
“It appears he already has,” observed Brian. “Assuming that sweet, old man sitting on the throne is your father.” He motioned to Dad, who, at the moment, held up a box of cigars our mother would never allow him to smoke. A sizable pile of wrapping paper had already accumulated around his feet.
“He’s so cute,” Brian mouthed to me, winking. “I can see the resemblance from here.”
We’re playing games and Dad’s half way done opening his birthday presents. Besides, I had to look more sophisticated than my old man…didn’t I?
“What’s wrong with this picture?” I said to the group.
“Nothing,” said Kara. “Especially, if we hurry.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of stationary. “Boys,” she said to my brother and me, “I want you to give this to your father.” She handed me the paper.
“This was your doing,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. “But I want you to read the note. Both of you.”
Steven and I stared at one another, not knowing what to do.
“Listen, honey…” began Steven. “I don’t see-
“Now!” She boomed.
Into the party room we went, to give our father an unknown gift by way of an introduction we hadn’t written. Piece of cake, eh?
Kara instructed Brian to have the DJ pull the record two minutes after we arrived at the podium. “Make sure Jeffrey has a live microphone,” I heard her say, before we’d gotten out of earshot.
The spotlight pretty much insured that everyone in the Corner would now see and hear what I was about to say and do –whatever that might be. At least Kara’s handwriting was neat; I could read it. And read it I would, just as soon as everybody stopped clanging their flatware into their glassware.
“Speech!” some goon in the back yelled. Of course, he was seconded, the catcalls growing. They reminded me of that blue jay outside my window. Basically, a lot of people began whooping at the stage and at me. Why now? Other guests had stumbled through toasts and speeches without this level of ruckus. What made me so deserving?
Oh, yeah, I was his son.
I looked toward my father and mother, saw their pride and trepidation, hell I could feel it. ‘Make your daddy proud and for God’s sake get on with it!’ I imagined my mom saying. Don’t worry mum, I feel the same way.
What was Dad thinking right now?
For some reason, I flashed on the canary yellow sweater I’d bought him. I imagined Vince Lombardi stepping on it with a pair of dirty cleats. Copies of his biography, by the way, had already piled up around Dad. Along with cigars, I also saw a golf putter, steak knives and, oddly, a pair of fuzzy, bunny slippers.
The music stopped, provoking the crowd further into hysteria. Again, I wondered, at what point did this turn into A Def Leppard concert?
“Say something, damn you!” beseeched Steven. He manufactured a grin so it wouldn’t look like he was yelling at me. Thank you for the support my brother.
From back of the room, I observed Kara giving me thumbs up. She seemed confident –no surprise. Standing beside her, among an assortment of leering locals, was my boyfriend. He hooted and hollered along with the rest of the crowd. Part of me wanted to kiss him. Part of me wanted to kill him.
“Read the note!” implored Steven. “Read…The…Note.”
Kara’s paragraphs beckoned, as did her gift, still a mystery. I cleared my throat straightening the paper in front of me.
“Dear friends,” I began, following Kara’s written instructions to introduce myself. “My name is Jeffrey Sweet and this is my brother Steven. We are, obviously, the sons of the man being honored here tonight: my father, the indomitable Martin Sweet.”
Prerequisite applause followed.
“It’s not that my dad has everything,” I continued, now reading from the script verbatim. “But he is far from bereft either. Clearly, all of you are living proof of that!”
More applause, this time louder.
“And yet, what does one get a man like my father? He’s into model trains but he likes to pick out his own. For that, I am told, is half the fun. So what, then, would make the ideal present?”
Here, Kara indicated I take a pause. ‘Wait for me,’ it had written in red. ‘When I approach the stage, begin reading again.’
Okay…I was still marveling at how she knew about the trains.
And, as if on cue (albeit her own) out of the darkness emerged the stunning and voluptuous Kara; she held in her hand an envelope, which she showed to the crowd. Nobody was looking at that, however. All eyes fell upon her curvaceous figure. The cheers, understandably, were deafening.
“Marty’s getting a super model!” bellowed a drunken guest.
Embarrassed and clueless, Dad shook his head vehemently. “No such luck!” he guffawed. Dad quickly grabbed Gwen and gave her a kiss, reassuring everybody that his allegiance was, and always would be, to his wife.
Self-preservation on his part, I thought, as I continued to read: “I direct your attention to the envelope in the young lady’s hand…”
Kara handed it to my father.
“Inside Dad, are two season’s tickets, half way up, on the 47 yard line, to a certain local football team.”
Green Bay Packer tickets! Where the hell did Kara get those? I thought it and so did everyone else.
Rather than applaud, a collective gasp erupted from the crowd, as palpable as a shock wave. One could feel the awe and yes, the envy. Dad stared at the two oblong pieces of colorful paper, reading every notation, making sure they weren’t a joke of some kind.
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks a piece for the Vikings game!” Came another holler from the gallery. Lots of laughs erupted. Needless to say, my dad did not dignify the offer with a response. A Packer game –particularly one with a key rival- commanded far heftier prices than a mere hundred bucks.
With more left to read, Kara indicated I do so now. In the back, I noticed Brian sitting on a barstool, soaking in the ambiance. In my mind I had planned on gradually indoctrinating him into my world. Instead he was getting the Full Monty.
“Now, we all know football season is a few weeks away, and frankly that’s a few weeks too many.” People laughed but I failed to see the point. “Which is why,” I read blindly, “we kind of felt a quick preview was in order.”
I silently read the next part twice to be sure I wasn’t seeing things.
Then I did as instructed. “May I have the spotlight directed to the fire door please?” The beam found its mark. As did all the eyes in the room. “Ladies and gentleman, won’t you please welcome the starting line up for your very own Green Bay Packers!”
I don’t know what was more surreal: me reading those words, or the fruition of those words. Other than the Corner’s nostalgic photo collection, I had virtually no knowledge of the Green Bay Packers or football in general.
But the door popped open and in they came, the starting line-up for the Green Bay Packers, pads and all, green, gold and helmeted.
I read aloud their names and positions from the list.
Based on the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction, it hardly seemed necessary. They were screaming them out. These were more than local heroes; they were icons, living gods. One by one, the team assembled in formation: first the offense and then the defense. As far as I could tell, the whole damn squad had showed up. (Okay, I’m an ignoramus. There were roughly 20 guys, but it sure as hell looked like an entire football team.)
Quarterback, Brett Favre entered the bar last, carrying a football. After the considerable cheering (an understatement) subsided, he took off his helmet, walked over to my father and handed it to him.
“We all signed it,” he said. “Happy birthday, Marty!
Favre then turned around and faced his teammates. “Let’s do it,” he beckoned. “Hut 1, hut 2, hut 3!” And then they all launched into a rousing version of the birthday song for my father.
Dad died. And went to heaven. He held the signed football helmet like a newborn baby –Check, make that the Baby Jesus. Dad’s worn, haggard face was frozen, save for the tears melting out the corner of his gray, unblinking eyes. Remember the crying Indian from that famous anti-pollution commercial? Stoic and teary; that was my father. Obviously, happy thoughts and not mountains of litter motivated his tears.
“So much for the cake,” my mother said, knowing her Vanilla Bundt Ripple (good as it was) could not possibly top this. Nor should it, I hoped she realized.
Then it hit me like a fullback: Kara. Kara did this. The Green Bay Packers were here because she had asked them to be here. Later on, I would speculate whether Mom was jealous about this most lavish of surprises. But for now I, like everyone else, was caught up in the moment. My father’s unmitigated happiness was the headline. We would never forget this miraculous birthday greeting from the Green Bay Packers. And I would never forget Kara for arranging it. Dad’s buddy Ralph spent the next ten minutes reading from an elaborate speech, which, understandably no one listened to. Poor bastard; he’d probably labored extensively on the text. But like my mother’s bunt cake, in the wake of the Packers, who cared? Hopefully, he understood the magnitude of what preceded him, same as my mother.
After shaking hands with Mr. Favre and the other stars, I made it a point to find Kara. An easy task, given her looks. Intimidatingly gorgeous, most of the men, even ball players were giving her some space. Kara leaned elegantly against a far wall surveying her handiwork. She appeared composed; cool even, a Marlboro Light smoldering in the ashtray beside her, a correctly made martini sitting beside it. The glass was full but I could tell she’d taken a sip –one sip- for there was a perfectly rendered lip mark on the rim. It looked a lot like the Rolling Stones’ logo, more iconic than a smear. So appropriate. Kara didn’t smudge things. She was slick.
“Well done,” I summed up. I borrowed a cigarette from her pack on the bar, using hers to light mine. “I’d buy you a drink but I see you’ve got that covered as well.”
Kara laughed, appreciating the compliment. “Sorry about my disappearing act today,” she said.
As if that were even an issue now.
“Once I got the idea, I needed all the turn around time I could get.” She took her second sip.
“And pray tell, how did you get the idea? Who? What? Where? Why? When?” I felt like a high school journalism student. Brenda Starr.
Kara answered without hesitation. “Last night, before going to sleep, I floated a question to Steven. I asked him what his father liked most in this world.”
Sadly, I never thought about things like that, let alone expressed them to other people.
“His answer,” said Kara, “Family, God and the Green Bay Packers. And, according to Steve, not necessarily in that order!”
Neither of us knew it at the time, but apparently Vince Lombardi had said the same, exact thing. I’m sure it was documented in the book I, and everyone else, had gotten my father. So many copies were strewn about the gift table it looked like a goddamn book signing.
Kara continued. “And, well, I know a lot of players on the team.” She took her second sip. “After all, they’re in Chicago at least once a year, depending on the playoff picture.”
Playoff picture. That sounded fun. “Aren’t a lot of those guys married?” I asked, immediately regretting the intrusive nature of my comment. Since when had I become a moral compass?
“Actually, many of them aren’t. And, frankly,” she remarked, “That’s probably none of your business.”
She wasn’t mad, just right. Despite all the gorgeous athletes attempting to make eye contact with her, and the illicitness that it implied, it had no impact on the joy her gift had wrought. None whatsoever. Her little black book had gotten my father the thrill of a lifetime, period. Why quibble over the particulars?
“Sorry.” I offered my apologies sincerely. “What you did tonight, for my father, is truly unbelievable. You have nothing but my gratitude.”
She rolled her eyes, wanting to be clear. “You’d be surprised how legit most of these guys are,” she said. “For one thing, I most certainly never dated Brett Favre.”
“He’s like the only one I’ve even heard of,” I said, sheepishly. “Wasn’t he in a movie too?”
“Something About Mary.”
“Right. He was funny. So, is he married?”
“Happily,” said Kara. “Him I asked.”
Across the room I saw my father give Audrey a big hug. Hard to tell from here but it appeared as if he was crying. Therefore, I choked up as well. Kara followed my eye line, witnessing it too. While most of the footballers had already begun leaving, a few players remained, hoisting a beer, bullshitting with the old man. All in all, it was really quite remarkable.
“Jeffrey, I need to tell you something.” Kara spoke, interrupting my reverie.
“The Packers singing happy birthday to your dad…”
“Surreal,” I said, shaking my head. “Just the most wonderful-
“It’s a gift from you. That’s what your father believes, anyway. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind? Are you kidding?” Now I really choked up. “I have to give you a hug.”
“Hmmm. Thank you, Jeffrey. That’s sweet.”
“No pun intended?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps it was sweet by design?”
Brian joined us. He held a bratwurst sandwich in one hand, a bottle of Pabst in the other. The food looked good enough to eat as well!
“You fit right in,” I said, cheerfully. “You blend.”
“When in Rome,” answered Brian. He took a bite of his brat. “I bet you didn’t know that up until now, I’d never even had a true sausage from Wisconsin.”
“That’s not what Jeffrey says!” Kara leered. A vile and obvious quip, we all shared a laugh.
Looking around, it appeared everybody was sharing a good laugh. People ate and drank, maintaining a level of boisterousness generally reserved for only the most important of holidays. To be honest, I couldn’t recall being in such fine spirits… ever. And certainly not in Green Bay. Granted I was drunk but it was true. And trust me, no one was more surprised about the joy of it than me. Instinctively, I found Brian’s hand and took it in mine. It was no small gesture given the time and place. What if Cheryl bore witness? Or Steven? Or, God forbid, my father? Kara took notice, smiled, aware of the moment’s magnitude. Unfortunately, I had to let go. No need to push one’s luck. It’s not like I was planning on coming out. Not now, not here. Though, I must say, the gesture gave me pause. I had always hated being gay in this town, this cloistered hamlet. Those words: God, family and the Green Bay Packers, were an inextricable part of this dimensionless burg. Here, an alternative lifestyle meant rooting for the Bears (unconscionable) instead of the Pack. That alone could get you beat up, let alone possessing a limp wrist and deviant prick.
And yet I was with my boyfriend, a pair of stunning Gold Coast Babes, my family and even a few of the Green Bay Packers.
Who knows? Maybe God was here as well.
My turn to confront the old man. Was confront the right word given all the happiness? Even amidst all this joy, I remained skeptical. I was neurotic. My father preferred God and a football team to his family… his gay son anyway. Me. Let me burn this remoulade down to its essence: I was –and I can find no better word for it- afraid. Not of him physically, or of what he might do to me, not anymore; rather I have always been scared of being a disappointment. Instead of a quarterback or CEO, I turned out to be gay, an interior decorator and, worst of all, a Chicagoan. Horrors. Subsequently, I’d spoken but handfuls of words to my father in all my years on the planet. As for him: his speeches to me have been just that: speeches. Random, often angry lectures levied against my person, for reasons primarily his own. To be fair, I wasn’t all I could have been either: to him, to others, to myself. Who was?
Released from a series of hugs, Dad sat cheerily (if not wearily) on a barstool, facing the crowd. Mom had taken up conversation with Audrey and another local girl, and was engrossed. Brian prodded me forward. “Go on! Go on!” he demanded. “What are you waiting for –Christmas?”
And indeed, I felt like a terrified child being ushered (partially against his will) toward the clutches of the department store Santa.
If Dad saw me coming, he gave no cue. He neither seemed put-off or welcoming. As I approached him, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d fabricated all the bad blood between us. Unlikely, but a haunting thought.
Dad maintained the same dreamy smile upon acknowledging my presence. He said nothing (which could mean anything) as I stood before him. I took a drink from my bottle (I’d switched from the cocktails) and then raised my glass.
“Nothing like a cold beer, eh Pops?” I asked.
“Didn’t think you drank the stuff,” he said, still maintaining his grin. Truth be told, that particular grin had been a part of his profile since we’d pulled up yesterday in the Town Car. Since forever?
So why did I remember him as never smiling?
“You can take a boy out of the country…” I assumed he knew the second part of the refrain.
“We never took you out of the country,” he replied, emphasizing the word. “You took yourself out.”
No way to return the volley, I resorted to the obvious. “Let’s talk about you. Can I buy you a drink?” His glass was half full, no head upon it.
“Are you kidding?” Dad replied. “I haven’t paid for a damn thing all night!” He wasn’t rebuffing my offer but merely stating the circumstances – happily.
Dad took little, if anything, for granted, including his very own milestones. “But thanks, kiddo,” he said, softening. Dad removed the flimsy skin from what had to be his millionth beer nut of the evening.
“And thank you for arranging… the team.”
The team. It was both a generic term and yet highly personal. It was also the perfect way of defining the relationship between Green Bay and it’s football team. Perhaps I wished for the same synergy between father and son. How could I not? Team. I didn’t tell my father who really brought the Packers to his party. Deserving or not, I took the compliment. “The pleasure was all mine,” I said. Then I remembered Kara’s pretext. “And Audrey’s and Steven’s and Kara’s.” Going along with Kara’s request, I commented feebly: “They contributed as well.”
“Audrey’s quite a peach,” commented Dad, hearing her name. Martin liked to fixate on generalities; details were for model trains not people. For example, Bill Clinton was a LIAR. Funny how every lying Chief Executive before and after Bill hadn’t earned a similar moniker. Clinton lied, and that’s what stuck. How Nixon, Reagan and all the others got away with same, who knows? And while on the subject, who was I if not a LIAR?
“But that Audrey,” he mused, “she’s a lot like your mother.” Chuckling now. “That is if your mother was richer, sassier and a wee bit younger.”
A wee bit younger? I had wondered what he thought of our marginal age difference. Probably nothing. Mental note to self: stop over-thinking what people said and thought. Audrey was older than me –it was obvious. Stop worrying; the whole business was pure bullshit anyway! “Well, Dad, I’m glad you’re happy. That’s the important thing. I mean, after all, this is your day.” However many clichés permeated that sentence I was –I swear to God- sincere.
“How about you son –are you happy?”
For a millisecond I thought he’d used the word gay instead of happy. Even so, his question was no less expected than Brett Favre singing him the birthday song. The big difference was that the previous had been delivered to him, while this particular communiqué was aimed directly at me. “Of course!” I blurted. Then less assuredly: “Why do you ask?” Then even less assuredly: “Do I look unhappy?”
In the past my gaunt features readily got me cast as a depressed person, even when I felt fine. Until recently, being this thin and a homosexual immediately created an unpleasant perception that I was dying of AIDS and therefore sad as hell. Early on I’d felt that way. Who wouldn’t? Now I hypothesized my father was merely approaching the first lesson in old school society’s meandering tale about the birds, the bees and, well, humanity. Maybe he’d gathered enough evidence, had put the puzzle pieces together, and was just now calling me out.
“Ha!” Pops laughed. “You’ve never looked happy.” He picked up his flat beer and downed it, cleanly, without chugging. Almost like a magic act: Now you see it! Now you don’t!
“Meaning?” I made it a point not to gulp down my beer. If we were going to have this sort of dialogue I wanted it to be unfettered by another wave of alcohol. Well, part of me wanted that; the other side said find Brian and the girls and GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
Said another way: Quit while you’re ahead; don’t tread into such dangerous terrain. Avoid conflict. To me, my father was like a secluded, undiscovered jungle. I had no map for these territories; why on Earth should I purposefully venture there now?
Dad was in far too good a mood to notice my trepidation.
“Meaning?” He asked, tossing my question back at me. Then answering it. “Meaning… up until the day you left our home it always seemed like you were –I don’t know the right expression… pissed about something.” Despite those words, he showed no discord or embarrassment. And why should he? He’d lived a decent life, befitting his means and was now celebrating the 80th year of it. No place for melancholy here.Yet he was also having the beginnings of a frank conversation with his first-born son, to which he was certainly entitled. He’d done nothing wrong. I, however, had been a persistent rain cloud. When I did “leave home” it most certainly had been viewed as a godsend. Hadn’t it? What if I was wrong?
My shame ran over like beer foam. I longed for a cigarette. Oddly, I couldn’t recall if my father still smoked (like everyone else, he once did); Weirder still, I wasn’t sure how he would react to my smoking. Strange, the ignorance here. Was it a pathetic lack of bond between relatives or typical postmodern angst?
Of course I’d grown up ‘pissed about something.’ That something was Me. You see I wasn’t on the menu. I was the Chef’s Gay Surprise. The kind of vile concoction only a fool would desire. A piece of ill-advised fish offered (beyond all rational thought) on an airplane. I don’t care what strides are made in this world nobody chooses the salmon on a flight. And no parent wants a gay son. Period. I realized this (I was positive of it) even before my parents did.
With unblinking eyes, I stared at my father like an imbecile, revealing no hint of inner turmoil. But intolerable of prolonged silences as I was, and squeamish about ruining things further, I offered my apologies: “Sorry, Pop. I didn’t intend to grow up a pissy son.”
God, I almost said prissy.
“I didn’t say pissy,” he replied. “I said pissed off.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my inner struggle. He even laughed.
“Hell, I’ve spent a lot of my life pissed off too! A lot of people do. It’s human nature.” He steadied himself, quieting down. “But not tonight. Tonight I’m good. And, boy, I owe it all to you.”
As far as he was concerned, I’d arranged a chorus of Green Bay Packers to sing at his party. Falsely earned, that act nevertheless atoned for my historical aloofness, my sneering attitude toward Green Bay (and perhaps him), and, I supposed, for my being queer, somehow still lost on him.
And as for my being gay, why answer a question that hadn’t really been asked in the first place. It was an interrogative I’m sure he’d rather not pursue. And certainly not tonight. It was a topic, as you know, I’d avoided mightily for decades.
Why ask why?
My father held up the signed helmet. Had he been holding it the entire time? “This…” he said, twirling the object slowly, “is the best present I’ve ever received…and I mean ever.”
He admired the scrawled signatures upon the orb as if they existed nowhere else on Earth, like they were invaluable hieroglyphics retrieved from a newly discovered cave beneath the French countryside. The Dead Sea Scrolls.
I tried to see what he was seeing but ultimately could not. But at least (at last!) I saw a happy man. However bogus, I’d made my father happy. And given I’d falsely represented myself forever anyway, that had to be viewed as an accomplishment. Hell, a breakthrough.
“Thank you son.”
“Um…” Take the compliment idiot! Stop analyzing every word of this conversation. Lord knows he wasn’t. Go with it. Let him love you via a goddamn football helmet if that’s what it takes. What made me so tentative? Why was I questioning? Why had I always? “You’re welcome,” I said. Then I did what any son would have done. I extended my hand and shook his, which I’m happy to report, he readily accepted. “The pleasure was all mine,” I stated.
A veteran Packer linebacker appeared, slapping us both on the back. “Great party!” reported the affable giant.
Of course I flew forward (being such a fairy) but, thankfully, I caught myself, avoiding a complete fall. I gathered my limbs, wobbling back.
“Who’s the wuss?” asked the well-muscled green and gold player. The back of his jersey had a lot of letters on it, many vowels. Undoubtedly, he was a hero to his big Catholic family and the tiny town he hailed from.
“Well, hey,” said the old man, without even a hint of dismay. “That’s my son.”
A scenic overlook off highway 43, just outside Green Bay.
“Wow. There really is a bay.” Brian released my hand and ventured closer to the fence. “And it’s beautiful.”
“You sound surprised.” But I knew exactly what he meant. No foreigner would expect amazing geography from such a pedestrian town. This wasn’t a cheap shot against Green Bay. I’m sure the nearest township to Niagara Falls was no great shakes either. Nearly two o’clock in the morning and I was blessed with a vintage sort of buzz, a long time in the making, bringing with it rare contentment. I felt better than sober but not drunk. Cool air blew across me, drying the perspiration and flushing out the telltale odors of a saloon. Behind us the half moon’s glow shone upon the water’s countless ripples. Myriad flickering lights, it was as if we had an audience –a massive, swaying one- and they were all shining cigarette lighters. Instead of feeling small I felt big. Like we were lead guitarist and lead singer. Mick and Keith. The Glimmer Twins.
“No wonder they call them waves,” I remarked.
“When they hit the beach it sounds like clapping.” Brian added, building on my hands metaphor.
“It’s only gravel and rocks,” I said. “Green Bay doesn’t have many natural sand beaches.” From poetry to the Discovery Channel., it’s all good.
“Kind of like Lover’s Leap then?” As Brian spoke I could tell he was smiling. He returned from the cliff’s edge and took my arm. I haven’t held hands this much in my entire life.
“We could jump,” I said. “It would be terribly romantic. Not to mention scandalous.”
“Who would feed the cat?” replied Brian.
Hmmm. Forgot about Roy. “Well…” I beamed, “how about you for remembering!” I knew Brian was only joking about the cat (as I was about jumping) but nevertheless I found it sweet the feline had even appeared on his radar. What it meant was that he was thinking primarily of me. That felt good, like the wind rippling through my clothes, or, even, the heartfelt conversations I’d had earlier with Cheryl, Audrey, Mom, and especially with my father.
“I’m not sorry I crashed the party,” said Brian. “Are you?”
I smiled. Of course not. “Meet anyone special?”
“A few NFL stars. You know, the usual riff raff.”
“You had fun then?” I guess I was fishing for a compliment. But so what? Wasn’t that an integral part of any relationship?
“I didn’t mingle much… I just kind of watched.”
“I never pictured you for a voyeur.”
“Oh please,” he said, rapping me on the shoulder. “I enjoyed watching your family…I mean the reality of this place and its people…You.” He paused. “You know, Jeffrey, you sell everybody short. Including yourself.”
“Well, duh!” I responded. “I mean isn’t that the big lesson to this movie-of-the-week?” “Is it a learned one then?”
I scratched my palm, ostensibly searching for calluses. Formally a nervous habit, it was now more a remembered one. At this moment, the question didn’t worry me but I had to think for an answer. I settled with an abrupt “Yes.” But I would have to revisit that query, perhaps with my shrink.
“It must get cold here,” said Brian, changing the subject. The big lake and tall cliffs were formidable.
“You’ve no idea, Brian. Freezes the queer right out of you.” I’d used the line before because lots of people asked me the question before. Over time I’d refined the quip. Of course it got cold here. Very.
“This is what I think the deal is,” he said. “Some people come together when it gets cold, while others grow apart… or flee.”
“You’re darn right I fleed!” Was that even a word, fleed? Or was it fled? Though my replies were doubtless feisty, I held no animosity toward Brian. I was enjoying this conversation. I hoped my boyfriend realized as much. I was struck, now that I thought about it, by all the times I may have been misunderstood by other people. Sarcasm and defiance were so much a part of my vernacular, I’m sure I took for granted (incorrectly, I now realized) that a majority of the population behaved that way as well. I needed to reel my personality in, at least, in part. A lesson learned?
“I didn’t have a choice, Brian. I didn’t so much as grow up here as grow out of here. Does that make any sense?”
“Of course it does,” he said, reassuringly. “I would have left too. Some creatures are born without the necessary fur. They either migrate or remain and perish. You did what you had to do.”
Speaking of creatures, a trio of geese flew over our heads, hugging the shoreline. If not for their obvious silhouettes, I’d have sworn it not possible. In all my years I could not recall witnessing Canadian Geese flying by night. First time for everything, I reckoned. For a long while we stood, listening to the water, an occasional car or truck sounding along the highway behind us. It was late. It was early. A timeless time. Lovely as it was, I could only stay in the moment for so long. “Up the road a few miles is a place called Dykesville. Swear to God.” It was one of those things I’d meant to tell the group when we were driving up but kept on forgetting.
“A girl bar –here?” Brian asked.
I laughed at the misunderstanding. “A town. There’s actually a town called Dykesville just up the road. It has nothing to do with lesbians.”
“You mean like Dyche’s Stadium in Evanston?” He referred to Northwestern University’s old football stadium. They’d recently renamed it in honor of newer money but many still called it Dyche’s.
“We pass it on the way to Bailey’s Harbor.”
Shoot. He might not have known about the side trip planned for tomorrow. I seized the moment. “Kara and I are going to visit a client’s summer house. Would you like to come? Everyone else is.”
“Can I ride in the front seat with you?”
“You can sit on my lap,” I chuckled. “Kara’s driving.”
And then we kissed. A gentle, slow thing I must say felt really, really good. The act itself was no big deal. Brian and I kissed all the time. But seldom in public and certainly not in Green Bay. Okay, granted it was a million o’clock in the morning but still…Green Bay!
Bare in mind, during my entire adolescence I’d never succumbed to my true urges, such was the paralyzing fear of being ‘outed’. But it wasn’t like other boys made overtures to me either. If 1 out of 7 people were gay than 1 out of 7 people in Green Bay were also really good liars –me being one of them.
“I want to grow old with you,” purred Brian. Being several inches shorter than I was, he leaned his head onto my shoulders.
“Couldn’t we just stay young together instead?” Of course I was merely being facetious. I reveled in my burgeoning middle age. As well as in Brian’s comment. Unlike most young queers, I had zero interest in cruising, bodybuilding or bawdy parades. Give me a roaring fire, cat at my feet, and someone to talk to.
Knowing this about me, Brian merely chuckled. “Maybe we could get a cottage somewhere. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“But not here,” I blurted. Boy, that was quick. “Maybe in Michigan. Or better yet, somewhere warm.”
“Cold isn’t so bad,” said Brian, snuggling. How he kept his head on my shoulder without cramping I couldn’t imagine.
I thought about the idyllic image of a roaring fire. It didn’t really work in Key West. Maybe the desert I thought. Or Santa Fe. I let the thought go. I was tired, the craving for sleep suddenly upon me.
“We can certainly talk about it,” I said, yawning. “Sorry.”
“I’m sleepy too,” replied Brian.
Then it dawned on me: “Oh my God, I don’t even know where you’re sleeping!”
“That’s right you don’t,” quipped Brian. Up came his head.
“Sorry. It was inconsiderate of me not to ask. Must have been all the excitement. As you know, I’ve been pretty nervous about today.”
“Oh, please,” he said. “Of course I understand.” Back down went the head. “I got myself a room at the Holiday Inn in town. It has an indoor heated pool. And children under 12 stay free.”
My turn to laugh. Only in the great state of Wisconsin was an indoor pool considered a vacation spot. Astroturf instead of grass. Bleak lighting. Chlorine. Families here actually sought out these dreary places and made retreats to them a regular part of winter. We did it. I recalled my father bringing aluminum lawn chairs and a cooler of beer. Frisbees clanked off the grimy Plexiglas dome like terrified, lost birds. “I’ve been there,” I said. “More than once.”
“So I take it you’re not interested in going again? We could sneak in and skinny dip.”
I shuddered, imagining the Green Bay PD shinning their flashlights into the pool and finding two naked, frolicking men. “Sorry, hon. I’m staying at my parents’ house tonight. They’d be worried if I wasn’t there in the morning. That or upset. Both.”
“Give me a lift then?”
“Why don’t you hitch? Maybe a cute trucker will pick you up.” Quietly, we ambled over to Audrey’s rental car. Although the evening did not end with me getting laid, I got something better: piece of mind.
But the evening wasn’t exactly over yet. It was going on three when Brian dropped me off. To avoid jangling the cowbells my parents hung on their front door I went around to the back. My classic high-school move. Lights were on in the kitchen but that wasn’t unusual. Tired, buzzed, I opened the back door. And walked right into my father and Audrey, who were sharing a nightcap at the kitchen table. Now that was unusual. They’d hit it off, sure, but the last thing I expected was for the two of them to be up at this hour and drinking more booze no less. God only knew what they were talking about. Somehow I doubted it was the Packers’ vaunted West Coast Offense.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” exclaimed my father. Right away I could tell he was drunk (frankly, who among us wasn’t?) but he seemed no worse for wear. Possessing a broad grin, Dad’s eyes still sparkled. He seemed happy.
“Well hello!” I piped, overdoing the cheer. “I didn’t expect to find you guys up…so late…together.” I traipsed over to the fridge hoping beyond hope Mom kept bottled water. Of course not, so I opted for a glass of apple juice –a mainstay of the Sweet household. I poured it carefully. For some reason I attempted to cover my tipsiness. What the hell had they been talking about?
“Well, Sweetie,” Audrey chortled, “I was going to retire but this lovely man absconded me in the hallway and insisted I have a drink with him. I was in my nightgown. Can you imagine?”
Okay, she was ripped.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked. I suspected nothing between the two (puh-lease!). Still, it was late. Audrey and Dad were drunk. Mom was conspicuously absent.
“We left her at the Corner,” answered Dad. But he couldn’t keep a straight face. “She’s in bed. Where the hell you think she is? It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”
“Three-ten,” I corrected.
“Oh, my, it is getting on, isn’t it?” Audrey swirled a spoon of sugar in what appeared to be Scotch and soda, then took a sip. “And, Sweetie,” she added, “Where pray tell were you?”
I was aghast. She knew I was with Brian. Why open that door now? “I went to look at the Bay. Collect my thoughts.” Weak reply but what else could I say?
“Still there, then?” asked my father.
“Green Bay. Is… it…still… there?”
Were they mocking me? I drank my apple juice in silence.
Audrey wobbled from her seat and gathered herself by my side. She threw her arms around me. “Oh, Sweetie, we don’t mean to torment you like this. You are loved.” She said it a second time for emphasis, louder. “You are loved!”
“Um, thank you honey. I think.”
My father started laughing. “He’s doing it, Audrey! He’s doing it!”
“Doing what, for Christ’s sake?” I didn’t yell because of the hour but inside I was screaming.
“Pretending to be my fiancé,” Audrey replied.
Silence. You could hear the refrigerator humming. “I’m afraid the cat’s out of the bag, son.” Dad continued to giggle, even now.
I was flabbergasted. A little because my dad had already used two of three known clichés involving cats and on account of he knew our secret. HE KNEW.
Before saying a word I went through a checklist. 1) Audrey told him –should I be angry? 2) Why was my father giggling –shouldn’t he be angry? 3) What about the gay part? Did he know I was gay or just that I wasn’t getting married?
“So, Audrey, how far out is the cat?” I asked.
“Sweetie, he’s cruising up Broadway.” Audrey burped. She continued to hold on to me and, not knowing what to do, I let her.
Hmmm. Super. Dad knows I’m queer. (His worst nightmare and on his birthday no less.) Yet, here he was giggling. What gives? I asked it:
“Sit down, Jeffrey,” requested my father. “Please.” He offered me some Cutty Sark from the bottle (half empty), which I almost accepted. But I had a feeling I’d need my wits (what was left of them anyway) and so I passed.
“Mind if I sit, too?” asked Audrey.
“I think you’d better.” I pulled out a third chair for her. She opted to slide down the kitchen wall, taking a spot on the floor.
“Look, son, I’m not going to pretend that I’m happy about your…your –what did you call it, Audrey?”
“Your alternative lifestyle,” seconded Dad. “But-
Fuck it. “First of all, Pops. It’s not a lifestyle… it’s a life. Being gay is not some choice I made. Trust me.” I couldn’t believe I’d just said what I said. Here! In this house!! To my father!!! “Second of all, well there is no second of all. That’s it!”
“Hear me out, son.” He paused. “You sure you don’t want a drink? How about a smoke? I won’t tell your mother.”
This I accepted.
“Me, me, me.” Audrey bellowed from her esteemed place on the linoleum.
Everybody lit up. It was a quarter to four.
“So, you’re unhappy with how I live?”
“No, it’s not like that,” my father objected. Yet, I could tell he was struggling for an answer. “Your mother and I had our dreams and, well, a gay son was not in any of those dreams.”
Fair enough, I thought.
“However,” Dad continued, “we do not live in a dream world, we live in the real world. A world in which you are as much a part of as I am.”
Was I hearing him right? This speech was too good. Movie-of-the-week good. It couldn’t have been the liquor talking because I’ve seen that and believe me it wasn’t this pretty. “I don’t know what to say. I thought you’d be madder about things.” I looked over at Audrey. Remarkably, she hadn’t dozed off, probably because of the riveting nature of our conversation. God forbid, she got a second wind. “I still wish she hadn’t told you,” I said to my dad, loud enough for her to hear.
“Well, son, I kind of put her on the spot.”
“How so?” I asked, genuinely curious.
Audrey held up her left hand, waving her fingers. “No ring!”
“When I asked about one, she didn’t answer,” followed Dad. “I knew something was queer.”
Damn. How could we have forgotten about that? I nearly said it aloud. “And…”
“And,” Dad went on, “she spilled.”
“I’m sorry Sweetie,” she moaned. “I’m not a good liar…”
“You’re not?” What had she been doing up until now? Yet, I had to hold my temper. Something about the kettle calling the pot black.
“I was drunk at the time…” Audrey mumbled.
“Will you forgive me?” she asked, placing her burning cigarette in the drink glass, trying very hard not to miss.
My dad shrugged. “It happened, Jeffrey. What’re you gonna do?”
I sighed. “Yes, Audrey, I forgive you… but only because it didn’t ruin my dad’s birthday. Right Pops?”
“No, it did not,” he confirmed. “As a matter of fact this will go down as the best birthday party I ever had.” He thought about the statement. Surely, he’d had a few humdingers in his day. “Top three anyway.”
“Well, I guess we’d better hit the hay,” I suggested. At this point I was all but fantasizing about my tiny, uncomfortable, childhood bed. Maybe if I tacked a blanket over the widow and gunned my old fan I could block out the sounds and sights of morning, that blue jay. Lord knows Audrey would be sleeping in. “Drink a lot of water,” I ordered her, “before going to bed.”
“Hmmm…right…water. One must hydrate.”
Funny. I’d seen this woman in her cups before but this was a new level. I dug some Advil out of my pocket and prepared her a glass of ice water. Meanwhile, my dad worked on his whisky while watching the two of us. I had to wonder if he’d even bought our phony engagement for a minute. Pop may not have been clever but he was arguably smart, in a down-to earth kind of way. Many people in Brown County were. They could tell feed corn from sweet.
“You know, kid. I love you.”
“Excuse me?” I dropped an Advil; it clacked and rolled along the floor stopping coincidentally at Audrey’s feet. I was hearing things.
My father spoke up. “I said I love you.”
Once, many years ago, I’d gotten on an elevator at a hotel in downtown Chicago. I think it was the Ritz Carlton. Anyway, as soon as the door shut, I realized the guy standing next to me –and the only fellow in the elevator- was none other than David Bowie. I’d been having tea with Audrey just prior and, thank God, was dressed to the nines. “Nice tie,” Mr. Bowie observed. “Where’d you find it?” I stared at the rock star in disbelief, unable to formulate a reply. I believe “Um” was as far as I got.
“Um,” I mouthed, barely audible. “Um…”
“What?” my father said. “Is my love for you so unusual?”
Audrey began singing. “Is it unusual to be loved by anyone? Is it unusual to be loved by anyone?” Not knowing or forgetting the rest of the lyrics, she kept repeating the chorus.
“Audrey, please.” I handed her the water and Advil. She’d already discovered the lone tablet on the floor.
“But it happens all the time,” she sang, negotiating her medicine.
I faced my dad. “Yes, it is unusual,” I said. I didn’t want to come across like an ass. Frankly, I was touched by his words. And that’s the point. Unless I had a selective memory, this was the first time I’d heard such words from him. Ever. “Especially,” I added, “given that I’m…well…an unusual man.”
My father downed his entire beverage. Blinked from the impact. “Unusual? I heard 1 out of 7 people are homosexual.”
Why was this fact continuously coming up? Had it been a deciding question on Jeopardy?
“Seven’s my lucky number,” offered Audrey. At this point she was merely the peanut gallery, a bad echo.
“By that measure,” reasoned my father, “four or five of the Packers must play for the ‘other team’ so to speak.”
Silly as my dad’s logic was, I couldn’t help but think of all those beefy headshots lining the walls of the Corner Stone. I remained silent. Hadn’t this been what I’d always clamored for? Closure. Not to mention my father’s unconditional love.
Audrey was officially asleep. Air entered and left her body, a soft whistling.
“Thanks Dad,” I eventually responded. “I love you too.”
“Well, now that that’s settled…” he smiled. “I guess we better get Audrey to her room.” He stood up, a struggle for him as well. “Then it’s my turn. Sheesh, your mother will kill me if she catches me like this.”
“Mom. Are you going to tell her?”
We could already hear the first random chirping of birds. Soon that would be a chorus. In less than an hour the newspaper would be hitting the screen door. Followed by daylight. And then hangovers. A houseful of hangovers. But late as it was, at least I wasn’t going to bed in the closet. And that was a miracle and one that would surely make up for years of lost sleep.
Welcome to Dykesville: Population 1,250.
“How do you suppose they reproduce?” joked Kara.
Of course we had to pull over and take a picture in front of the sign. Fortunately, Audrey owned a camera with a built-in timer so we could all be in the photo. We didn’t dawdle, however, as the highway was busy (folks going to church, going to breakfast, one or the other) and we were self-conscious about drawing attention to ourselves –not enough to keep from taking the photo, but certainly an impetus to hurry our mischief along. I imagined a child in one of the passing cars asking her mother why we were taking a picture by the Dykesville sign. ‘Because,’ I fantasized the beleaguered mom answering, ‘they want to remember their stay in Dykesville forever.’
Back in the car we reminisced about the previous night and how dramatic it had been. Everyone had a favorite moment. And everyone was glad they had gone. We all had hangovers. Not surprisingly, Audrey’s was the worst. To medicate we drank Bloody Marys from my brother’s infamous collection of jumbo-sized Green Bay Packer Slurpee Cups. Soon, artificial normal would be ours, that state before drunkenness, where one says goodbye to his hangover. Judging from our hi-jinks at the sign perhaps we already had achieved it.
Earlier, I’d asked Audrey to keep last night’s confessional a secret, at least for a while longer. I didn’t want to deal with it just yet and it was still too unreal and fantastic for me to toss out for discussion. Being guilty of ‘outing’ me in the first place, Audrey was more than willing to comply. Similarly, Brian kept quiet about our little excursion as well. I reckoned these were all personal moments, still worthy of privacy. Even Kara was mum regarding her evening with Steven. Fair is fair.
Moving northeast, the waters of Green Bay glistened to our left, intermittently visible through the trees and cottages flanking the road. After Dykesville (an enclave of shabby summer homes and second rate motels) came a few more towns of equally modest stature.
We stopped for a beer at a saloon mirthfully called The Boss. ‘Honey, I’ll be right back…. I gotta see the boss.’ Get it? Wonderful. We had to stop. Once inside, Kara got the fabulous idea of doing a coffee table book devoted entirely to bars, clubs and saloons with creative names such as this one. We all could think of candidates, gay and straight. There was, as Brian pointed out, the Manhole in Chicago. I always loved Rick’s First One of the Day, in Bucktown. Audrey seemed to recall a place called Hell in New York. Go to hell you bitch! Okay, I’ll be there at eight! We all agreed the book was a great idea.
Beers poured for a quarter at The Boss before noon. Afternoon they jettisoned to the princely sum of 75 cents, pitchers three dollars. We stuck with single drafts, not wanting to get drunk, settling merely to rid ourselves of yesterday’s malaise. Ira and his promising job would be waiting in Bailey’s Harbor. And Ira was a high-energy guy, not one who suffers mopes and drag-asses. We needed our wits about us, at least somewhat.
Or so I thought.
Ironically, I’d never been to The Boss as a youth but I knew a few people who’d worked there. Dank and dingy, this was definitely your father’s drinking hole. But the beer was wonderfully cold, finishing off our hangovers with a nice head.
“You folks visiting anyone in the area?” asked the barkeep, a heavyset girl who couldn’t have been more than 21. Younger probably, but this wasn’t the kind of place where it mattered. Wisconsin’s drinking age was one of the last to go 21. If anything, the zaftig woman behind the bar was married to, the cousin of, or best friends with an officer of the law. Puffing a Newport, she eyed us curiously. But other than the lone question she stayed as quiet as one of the stuffed walleyes hanging behind the bar.
“We’re going to Bailey’s Harbor. Up ahead in Door County,” offered Brian. “I know the town. Go there lots,” the bartender said. “My sister tends bar at the Blue Ox. Good place. You ought to check it out. Her shift doesn’t start ‘til nine though. Want another round?”
She filled our glasses without waiting for an answer. Oh, well, no harm done. They were tiny glasses.
Kara bummed a cigarette from the girl. “Help yourself,” she obliged. “They’re menthol. Most people don’t like menthol. Daddy says they’re for colored people. I don’t care; I happen to like the way they freshen your breath. It’s like brushing your teeth.”
So much for her being quiet. The waitress had merely been looking for an opening.
Kara smiled, taking the cigarette from her pack, lighting it with a pink Bic she’d found on the bar. “What’s your name, girlfriend?” she asked the waitress.
“Brenda. I hate it though. Call me B.”
“Well B, thanks for the cigarette.”
“Don’t worry about it. I get them for free. One of my job-related perks, you might say.” She pulled another one out for herself. “What about the rest of you?” She slid the box toward us.
No takers. For me, nothing made a hangover worse than an early morning cigarette. “Hmmm. No thanks. The beer is fine.”
“Cool,” she said. Then she drew her attention back to Kara. “You know, lady, you look like somebody famous. An entertainer or an actress. Are you playing the casino in Green Bay?”
Kara laughed, self-consciously. “Hey, that’s sweet.”
I remembered Kara telling me she had a harder time taking a genuine compliment versus the fatuitous drivel of a horny man. This little interchange was living proof. Kara was being very diffident.
“Actually, I’m an interior designer, B. We’re going up to look at a client’s summer home in Door County.”
“So you’re Chicago people, right?”
“Yes we are…sorry.” Kara apologized the way tourists always do, that is, when they’re not being defensive. On the other hand, I grew up around here and I found myself apologizing to everyone as well. Go figure.
B laughed. “Don’t be sorry. Half our beer finds its way down Illinois throats. Other than a handful of jokers, most of you are pretty okay. Good tippers. Hell of a lot better than the locals!” Clearly, we’d hit a nerve. Either that or she was working us for tips. Good move, she’d probably get twenty, easy.
“What does this client of yours do?” B asked. She had no other customers save for a napping bum in the corner. Clearly, B was a talker and would give anything for conversation.
Funny, I didn’t really know what Ira did; if he’d told me I’d forgotten. “He’s a business man,” I said. “He makes money.” I could’ve let Kara answer but I feared she’d be too candid.
B laughed, as did the rest of our squad. Everyone took a hit. What I liked about drinking beer in the morning were the gas-relieving bubbles. Every morning (hangover or not) my old boss, Johnny Fresch, used to place two Extra-Strength Alka Seltzer tablets into a chilled glass of straight vodka, usually Kettle One. Upon review now, that actually sounded pretty good. I pitched the idea to Audrey and she was all over it.
“Let’s!” she said. “Please? I’m in so much pain.”
I ordered the unlikely combination, raising no eyebrows.
“I have to sell you the Seltzer separate from the Kettle One. Rules.”
“No problem,” I countered, already fantasizing about my makeshift cocktail and its healing properties. What can I say? I’m a functioning alcoholic.
Brian shot me a look, the closest thing to parental. “Don’t forget your other pills,” he said, moving his mouth without speaking.
I’d almost forgotten. Can you blame me? 18 different objects required lodging in my gut. Ah, well, no time like the present. I pulled out my tray, and began counting pills. B brought me the seltzer and vodka, which I still craved, but clearly my makeshift apothecary startled her some.
Kara, too, seemed curious. She scanned the assortment as if looking for her favorite color. Having seen it all before, Audrey remained quiet. She waited patiently for her Kettle One and Alka-Seltzer. I could almost hear the ache in her head. Brian –my little boy scout- was the only one fighting his hangover the hard way: Excedrin & Dr. Pepper.
B supplied everybody his or her particular request, finishing with Kara. “How did you get to be so beautiful?” B asked Kara.
Kara startled. We all did.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you seem so unreal. Like Snow White.”
I almost did a spit take. Unfazed, B continued: “See, we don’t get very many striking people in this bar…
In this state I thought to myself.
“…And usually the ones that are pretty as you, well they’re special.”
Interesting how casual and forthcoming B was with her praise. And the word striking. Where did that come from? Clearly, Brenda was not insecure about her own drab appearance or she wouldn’t have asked such a thing, would she? It must be nice not worrying about stuff like that. Her lack of pretense and insecurity was truly a virtue. As I thought about it more, it seemed everyone from around here was like that…except me.
“First of all, thank you very much B. Again, you’re embarrassing me.” Kara carefully put her cigarette out in the ashtray, ladylike. Snow White had an image to uphold. “And secondly, I’m not that beautiful and I’m certainly not that special.”
Mistake. Kara was exceptional in every way. Kara had it going on, plain and simple. Understating the obvious only made her seem that much more glamorous, especially when compared to someone like B, let alone the rest of us. The better answer would have been ‘thanks, I guess I was born lucky.’ Judging from Kara’s next move, she’d sensed her faux pas (however unintended) and endeavored to make amends.
“You know, Brenda, I think you should wear your hair up. Let a few curls play over your face. Like so.” She moved B’s hair this way and that, applying a plastic clip here and a spritz of something-or-other there.
And right before our eyes, B became a B+.
Grateful, I could tell she was dying to check out her new do. Not wanting to leave us however, she opted for seeking her reflection in the musty glass behind the bar.
“So, who’s married to whom?” B asked. She’d appraised us and hadn’t come up with any obvious conclusions. Frankly, how could she? How could anyone? We were a hard group to peg.
“We’re all just very dear friends,” said Audrey, her first words since entering the bar. She had her hands on my shoulder. “Although I almost married this one!”
B shrugged, apparently not wanting to go there. “Judging from your drinking habits, you all must have torn it up pretty good last night.” This was territory B knew all too well. A snoozing drunk upon the corner barstool suffered a minor coughing jag, emphasizing her point.
“My father turned 80,” I answered. “There was a party.”
“Yeah, well, last night was a good night to be in Green Bay,” commented our waitress. “Bill, my boyfriend, said he partied with the Green Bay Packers. He said they sang.
Then it clicked. B freaked. “Oh…my…God. You were at the party. THE GREENBAYPACKERBIRTHDAYPARTY!”
“So that’s who all those black fellows were,” replied Audrey. A crude remark but deadly accurate. Save for the Packers, as I’ve said before, black people were nonexistent in Green Bay. Even the service industry was void of color. Poor souls had to feel lost some times, like I did. At least they were revered.
As Brenda effused about the party, I simultaneously recalled two disparate movies. Call it a double-featured memory.
The first, a thriller about a group of astronauts trapped inside a broken space capsule, with only room for two in the rescue craft. Marooned, the first movie that officially scared the shit out of me. One of the astronauts knew he was going to run out of air and die. Knew it just like everyone in the theater knew it. Sadly, growing up in Green Bay, I identified with that doomed spaceman.
The second picture was The Incredible Shrinking Man. A silly movie, yet the ending always stuck with me. The movie’s hero (if that was the right word for him) grew smaller with each passing day. Yet, instead of disappearing, he enters a world where his diminutive size is wholly relative. Molecules are like baseballs in his hand. Saying goodbye to one reality and welcoming another. Unlike Marooned, it’s ending is almost a happy one, in an ironic sort of way. For me, leaving Green Bay was just as dramatic. Only I couldn’t tell if I was leaving reality or entering it. And unlike the shrinking man or doomed astronauts, I came back.
“That’s pretty rare catching the team together like that,” continued B, remaining heartfelt on her topic. “Once in a while you see a player at Kohl’s or the Hilton but never a bunch all at once.” She shook her head. “The old man must be proud, getting a present like that.”
“Quite a thrill,” I replied, not quite responding to her question. Proud was not a word I often used. Whatever Gay Pride was, I didn’t have it. And did I make anyone else proud…ever? My parents? My friends? Were they proud of me? Was I proud of me? On this trip? I thought about the geese last night, seeing something like that for the very first time. Anything was possible.
Prior to reaching Bailey’s Harbor there’s a beautiful stretch of road almost completely canopied by birch, maple and evergreens. The sun filters through the old growth giving the asphalt a sun-dappled, leopard-like presence. Gorgeous. Right out of a car commercial. Just the sort of eyewash our bleary-eyed caravan required.
The quiet was nice too. Brian found my hand, resting his upon it. Kara drove; at her side Audrey contemplated a map. In fact, I knew where we were going. Not precisely but within a few driveways. Ira’s cottage was on Kangaroo Lake, the only inland water of consequence in Door County. As a kid, I’d water-skied it. Splashed in its shallow, warm waters. Caught scores of pan fish amidst the glorified pond’s diminishing bulrushes.
Having property on ‘Roo Lake was a status symbol, at least as desired, and in some cases more so, than a place on Lake Michigan. We were now on the east side of the Door’s peninsula, no longer a part of Green Bay. Here the big lake hit the shore full on. Called the ‘quiet side’ by some, the eastern shore was always cooler in the summer and less populated than the warmer, more commercial bay area.
That meant less hotels, supper clubs, and kitchen-witch emporiums. And less traffic. In other words, it was better. Especially if you were getting on in years, weary of throngs and thongs. Most Chicago gays opted for the closer, more opulent surroundings of Southwestern Michigan. In addition to convenience, the antiquing was better there as was the likelihood of acquiring a cell. But when my gay brethren chose Door County, the ‘quiet side’ was the place.
In Door County, every cellular call was a crapshoot. Radio stations came and went. One was as likely to pick up WGN in Chicago as a station a few miles away. Connecting with a college channel in Michigan or a lonesome DJ in Ohio were as likely a scenario as any. Being surrounded by water did funny things to technology. People too, I guess.
“We’re looking for 7357 Highway 57,” Audrey said, again. “Looking for a big white barn and some type of geodesic dome. Find that and it’s the first left turn.”
I let the girls navigate. I knew more or less when to start paying attention. If we missed the hidden driveway (which was not a difficult thing to do) the worst case would have us arriving in Bailey’s Harbor, not more than a mile or two past our targeted destination.
“Ira thinks we’re going to miss the entrance,” confirmed Kara. “He told us to call from Fast Freddy’s, assuming we can’t get a cell.”
“I like the sound of Fast Freddy’s,” chortled Brian. “Sort of kinky.”
“I suppose if you like leeches,” I said. “Or leaf worms.”
“It’s a bait store?” Both he and Audrey asked the question.
“Up here every store is a bait store,” I added, being the resident expert. “Up here you super-size a gallon of milk with a dozen night crawlers.”
“And don’t forget your lottery tickets,” remarked Kara.
Fairly quiet since pulling off her miracle last night, yet the observation was spot on. I wondered if she was capable of making errors of any kind. I had been trying not to read anything of her solemn demeanor. My concern was that Steven might have said or done something offensive. She hadn’t mentioned his name at all this morning. I still had no idea what kind of arrangement they’d made, if any. I was aware of Steven’s feelings for Kara but relatively unsure how she felt about him. If money had been exchanged, I didn’t see it. And even if it hadn’t I couldn’t imagine Kara falling for my brother. Switching gears, I tried to put a price on what she’d done for my father. Phrases like ‘all the tea in China’ came to mind. And on top of that, here we were going to see a potentially very lucrative client that she’d delivered. Unbelievable.
Signs for Bailey’s Harbor, Kangaroo Lake, and various related campgrounds indicated we were getting close. The ridiculously sublime Maxwelton Braes’ Golf Course beckoned customers to play a round “no membership necessary.” If a golf course could be considered ‘camp’ then this was it. There was no dress code. Sunburned, happy drunks hacked their way through fun-filled, rule-less golf. You could pull in at 9 A.M. on a picturesque Saturday, rent a set of rusty clubs, tee off on time, and actually make par. This was an easy golf course, to say the least, and the only one I’ve ever played. And, mind you, I didn’t use the girl’s tee. Night golf, we used glow-in-the-dark balls. I can’t remember how I played. That being half the point, I reckoned.
“There’s your dome!” squealed Brian, delighted by his find. He’d gotten it. Basically, the ‘dome’ was a storage facility tackily built to resemble an igloo. Though white, the vinyl siding spoiled the effect.
But we were here. “And there’s the driveway,” I pointed, just in time for Audrey to successfully make the turn.
“And there’s Ira…” said Kara, as we wheeled downhill toward a shimmering lake and a cute, blue-shingled cottage. “And it appears he’s about to kill himself.”
Ira was one step too high on a ladder trying to pull something out of the gutter. A brown clump, it was unfortunately not a wad of leaves. Ira waved, tossing the foul mess to the ground.
“I guess we’re grilling out,” Audrey joked morbidly. She pulled the car over as Ira approached.
“Damn possum!” Ira bellowed. “I thought they lived in the ground.”
“They do,” said Audrey drolly. “Maybe that’s why this one is dead.”
“Hey, that’s funny! You’re funny. Who is this funny lady, Kara?” Ira kissed Kara on the cheek. “You look smashing as usual.”
“This, my dear, is Audrey Bellows. She’s a client. We’re doing work for her on Astor Street. I hope you don’t mind us bringing Audrey along. It’s a long story, but as they say, we were all in the neighborhood.”
Pretty good spin, I thought. Though judging from Ira’s pleasant demeanor none was required.
“Mind?” Ira charged. “Why in the hell would I mind if a gorgeous lady should grace my presence?”
He was beaming. Apparently Brian and I hadn’t disturbed his mood either. “You’re all welcome here,” he said. “And I’m sorry about the dead animal. Comes with the territory. Price we pay for the beautiful sunset we’ll be having.” He pointed to the yellow orb, already turning pink over the lake.
“The intrusive possum. They don’t tell you about him in the brochures, do they?” Audrey gave Ira a wink.
“Like the deer flies and drunken Indians,” Ira guffawed.
Was there a chemistry developing here? Brian nudged me, belaboring the obvious. “Okay, Ira,” said Kara. “What’s a big shot like you doing cleaning your gutters? If you fell you could be dead for days before anybody found you… like him.” She pointed to the rodent.
“I’d still be dead,” was his reply.
We all headed toward the water, as much a natural reaction to its beauty as a desire to leave the fetid animal. Old stones formed an elegant twisting path to a paved outcropping overlooking the lake. Some tables and chairs had been set up, as well as a portable bar of sorts. Oh great, I thought, more booze. At this point I wasn’t being sarcastic. I was ecstatic. Something about sunsets in Wisconsin all but demanded libations. I think next to Minnesota and Alaska, residents of Wisconsin drink more per capita than any other state. The endless, freezing winters probably contributed to that stat as well.
None of us had officially discussed the matter but, given that it was a five-hour drive back to Chicago, it became more and more obvious that we’d be staying at Ira’s cottage for the night. Just glancing at Ira’s property, I knew he had the space. But did he have the inclination? He certainly was getting chummy with Audrey, already mixing her some exotic concoction.
“It’s a cherry bomb,” he said, jovially. “Door County cherry cider and good old Russian vodka. Sometimes I add lemon. You want I should add lemon?”
Audrey opted for the citrus version, the rest of us sticking with the principal ingredients. Door County was known for its cherry crop. I loved that Ira had found a way to exploit this tart little secret in our drinking repertoire. And I loved the name: Cherry Bomb. How come I’d never thought of that?
“It’s delicious!” said Brian.
“I concur!” chimed Audrey. “Makes me pucker.”
“Or other things rhyming with that!” chortled Ira.
Silence as that pun sank in.
“A toast to our host and his beloved Cherry Bombs!” Hey, I was feeling reckless. Plus, these things were as fast acting as they were good. I felt the buzz coming on like a summer storm. “Get out the goofy umbrellas, fellas!”
“Jesus Christ! I forgot to give you the tour.” Ira said, but he hardly seemed concerned. Cherry Bombs and sunsets were clearly, as stated, the priority.
“I’m sure it’s magnificent,” complimented Audrey. “Provided you’ve ridden the place of vermin.”
Ira laughed along, no problem. “I don’t know sweetie,” he said. “There might be a few bats dangling from the rafters.”
“Vampire bats?” asked Brian, naively.
“Oh, please,” smirked Kara. “Aren’t any vampires around here except us interior decorators.” She clawed the air, baring her immaculate teeth. “I want to suck your bank account.”
Kara’s nefarious past was becoming just that: her past. After all, nobody had done so much for the greater ‘good’ this weekend than she had. I owed this woman a raise and I hadn’t even brokered her salary yet. Oh well, let’s see how things went with Ira. I could start by paying her some respect, however. Lord knows she’d earned it.
The sun looked downright succulent as it descended, like a ripe fruit hanging just inches above the pristine waterline, a big, red orange or, better yet, a Cherry Bomb!
Ira had us all in full cocktail mode. If our visit was about business Ira hadn’t made it so. Barring the unfortunate discovery of a dead possum, he appeared to have been prepping for a party. Utterly planning on one.
Renovation? I envisioned Ira throwing his hands up: Why the hell do I need to rehab? It’s ALREADYFUCKINGBEAUTIFUL.
And it was. Theory: Maybe getting drunk with attractive, fun people was all he really wanted. Maybe it was all anybody really wanted. Maybe? Probably… Seriously.
Audrey was right; dinner was being grilled. Ira prepared a buffet that would have Le Cirque’s head chef weeping in envy: Jumbo prawns. Lobster tails. Swordfish. Strip steak. And just to keep things authentic, some serious hand stuffed bratwurst. And did I mention the sweet corn and homegrown asparagus? If Ira couldn’t make toast in Chicago, he sure seemed capable of rocking the culinary world north of it. Funny how the cooking gene took over in men, especially once they found themselves away from the city. Suddenly they got it, knew what they were doing. The caveman DNA took over. It seems trite but some men really transformed whilst in country. Gay or straight, it happened. I knew take-out junkies who would grill entire pigs once ensconced in their country homes. Back in Chicago or New York these same boys couldn’t reheat a pizza. Out here: Euell Fucking Gibbons. I reckoned I would do the same thing. Based on the fact I’d just used the word reckoned, I probably was right.
Ira lit a fire. The setting sun and Cherry Bombs created another. We were in heaven. Kids, regardless of what Town & Country advocates as proper social decorum, the beer commercials had it right all along: It doesn’t get any better than this! Looking at the others, I could tell they were feeling the same way. In my microcosm, all the planets were in alignment.
I considered Brian’s earlier suggestion of letting a cottage with him. We’d plant inappropriate flowers and build cute little footpaths leading to nowhere. We’d buy a SUV, maybe a hunter green Range Rover. If and when we ever got sick of one another we’d merely invite the girls. Heck, we’d invite them anyway. Gay couples with summerhouses always had dinner parties; at least according to the best shelter books, and you can’t have a dinner party without girls. And we would be no different. Red wine and expertly prepared game hens. Bawdy drinking games played late into the evening. Waking up late for bagels followed by long, rejuvenating walks on the beach. That’s the fantasy.
Just then a group of likeminded revelers motored by on a pontoon boat. They waved at us and we at them. I could hear their ice cubes and laughter. “Uh Oh!” yelled a fellow from the boat. “Ira’s making Cherry Bombs!”
“That’s Bill Shmidt,” Ira explained, continuing to wave. “From Shmidt Meats.”
“Never heard of him,” I said. In the past I would’ve admonished myself for the ignorance. But no foul here. Not with this crowd, not now anyway.
“You’ve never heard of him because he sells meat to other countries, mostly in Latin America. Much of what he purveys wouldn’t pass muster in America. Down there, they’ll eat anything.”
“I see.” I assumed “muster’ meant inspection. Morbidly, I thought of the dead possum.
“I think owning a pontoon boat would be a hoot,” I said, changing the subject.
“Less classy than sailing but a lot more fun.”
“You got that right,” said Audrey. “I’ve known several men who had sailboats. They were beautiful objects. But between tying all those fancy knots and hoisting sails, it’s nothing but work.”
“Not to them it isn’t,” Ira commented. But I could tell he agreed with Audrey.
“Possessions possess you,” said Audrey.
It was an expression I’d heard before, usually emanating from the mouth of someone who possessed plenty. I recalled the struggling sailboat outside my window and also agreed a pontoon would be more fun.
“Labor of love, right Ira?” Kara was being rhetorical. And wise. Obviously owning and maintaining (and hopefully renovating!) a summerhouse would logically follow talk of sailboats. God bless her for steering our conversation back to where the money was!
Ira could become an altruistic philanthropist after we remodeled his property. We all could.
After eating and drinking and drinking some more, Audrey put forth the idea of taking a dip in the lake. I assumed she meant skinny-dipping. (No way any of us, including her, brought along swimming suits.) Now, don’t get me wrong, Audrey was a fine looking woman –but naked?
“I’m game!” boomed Ira.
Game? Hell, I thought he was going to tear his clothes off right then and there.
“You do that,” Kara offered. “I’m going to show Brian and Jeffrey the house. Lord knows they’ve wanted to see it. And besides Ira, you’ve seen me in the buff before.
I headed for the cottage post haste. Let them hit the lake. I was in the mood for ogling real estate. Plus, I figured we had better start scoping our potential sleeping quarters. None of that had been determined yet. Although I’d settle with a couch on the porch, I fantasized about sharing a cushy King Size with my beau.
We’d see soon enough.
The cottage was charming, not as ostentatious as Ira’s big city digs. If anything it was kind of frumpy. Numerous lovely couches and chairs but crushed from usage and a lack of attention. Local species of trophy-sized fish hung from the paneled walls (cool) but, unfortunately, tacky paintings of Caribbean ports adorned key spaces, confusing the ambiance.
Over the massive fireplace (made from local, round white stones) was a simple but ample shelf, which held countless water-related curios like buoys, netting, and the like, all terrific stuff but not quite right. Lobster pots? This was Wisconsin, not Nantucket!
Clearly we could help. And I doubted Ira would doubt it.
“His ex only knew cottages as they related to the ocean,” commented Kara. She and Brian entered the room. “Door County never quite clicked with her.”
“Sounds like nothing quite clicked.”
“It was one of many marital issues.” Kara navigated with a knowing hand. Lights switched on. She gestured to the bathrooms; there were two side-by-side, sharing the same plumbing stack. “If I were you (meaning Brian and me), I’d stay lakeside. It’s not attached to a bath but it’s the most private. Plus it’s beautiful.” We walked in. “It might be the only thing about the place I wouldn’t change.” Small but lovely, the bedroom faced the lake, which could be viewed through a row of original, wood-paned windows. The bed was a queen (ahem), adorned by a simple antique Victorian brass headboard, painted white, and pleasantly crackling now. Along the walls were a series of sketches all featuring the same woman.
“Don’t know who the woman is,” offered Kara, noticing our interest. “What’s really cool is the painter. Ira bought all of them from a man on the street. The guy said he’d painted them in prison. Can you believe it? I think Ira gave the guy five bucks apiece. A steal.”
“They’re fabulous,” gushed Brian, his first words. “It must be really special to be obsessed like that.” He added, referring to the female subject. “We should all be so fortunate.”
“Don’t forget, the obsessed party was a convict,” replied Kara. “Feelings might not have been mutual.” She sighed. Kara knew what it was like to be worshipped. The pros and cons.
“Whatever, we’ll take it!” Brian sang, dropping his duffel.
“Good choice,” said Kara, already moving on. “Oh, and if something slams into the window in the middle of the night, don’t be upset. It’s just a bat or a confused bird. They lose direction coming off the lake.”
Nothing banged into the window.
Later, after everyone else was sleeping (or at least ensconced in their rooms) Brian and I made love. Remaining very quiet, we couldn’t see what we were doing either. Only feel. Satiated, I giggled under the covers.
“What’s so funny?” whispered Brian.
“Nothing really. But that was the kind of sex I always longed for. You know, a little naughty but mostly nice. Fun.”
Fun. Sex. I tried to remember the last time I’d been able to experience the two together. Once. Maybe twice. Memories blur. Sometimes we recall the mundane as sublime or visa-versa. Regardless, I fell asleep knowing I had something special right here and right now.
I heard muffled laughter coming from another bedroom. More fun sex? Drifting cozily to sleep, I didn’t think about who might be having sex, just how nice it was that they were.
“Audrey you didn’t?” I gasped, nearly dropping the carton of milk on Ira’s blond, 100 year-old, reconfigured wood-planked floors. Audrey winked, allowing a fine sprinkle of sugar to pour into her mug.
“She sure as hell did!” Ira boasted from the kitchen table, apparently in earshot. “A real firebrand that one.”
“Kind of ironic me being the only person who didn’t?” Kara, who’d been contentedly reading the Resorter Reporter, weighed in.
We all laughed, Brian nearly spitting his Fruit Loops. (You gotta love Ira for keeping Fruit Loops in the house!)
“I guess the marriage is off, Sweetie.”
“You know I’ll love you forever,” I said right back at her, unable, really, to stop smiling. I could have ended the story here. Happily. Because that, Gentle Reader, had to be the ultimate irony: I was, for the first time in my recollected life, happy. The weekend. The place. The people. I had envisioned a hellish ordeal of repressed emotions and painfully drawn-out dramas and got nothing short of the opposite. We had a beautiful cast, great locations, mystery, intrigue and even a little bit of sex. And it was fun. Everyone seemed to find exactly what he or she was looking for even if, in fact, they weren’t looking for anything at all…Serendipity. One of my favorite words. Less magical than fate. More pragmatic than coincidence. Serendipity.
“Bring some of that sugar my way!” Ira commanded. Ostensibly, he wanted a condiment for his coffee.
Audrey sashayed over to the lord of the house, plopping her ample derriere upon his silken lap. “One lump or two?” she inquired, burlesque. Outside the kitchen window, several birds were vying for goodies from the feeder. We could here them chirping.
“I got it all,” he answered, smacking her buttocks.
Me too, I thought, scooping the Fruit Loops from my bowl.