…an approximate reflection, like every human creation.
—Italo Calvino from Invisible Cities
Stan is holding for me on the phone. I have just returned from a lunch with my boss whom I watched drink four vodka martinis as he attempted to raise my spirits, telling me a story of how, as a boy, he awakened each day at four a.m. to sell donuts as a means of paying his way through Jesuit high school. This story was, I believe, intended to reinvigorate me, get me back to my old self, make me, once again, the marketing writer he hired, the marketing writer he knows me to be. I run to my desk and push the button blinking persistently on the face of my phone.
Stan is on the other end of the line inviting me to a party. Like my boss, Stan, too, is concerned with my spiritual well being. He insists I attend. Everyone seems so insistent of late that I do this or that. He’s having a birthday party for Bird. She is turning forty. Stan thinks I need to get out, be with people, have fun. Stan, my neighbor, gives many parties. His sense of social correctness lands him in a hybrid state somewhere between Letitia Baldridge and Pee Wee Hermann. The range of options in Stan’s Grailian pursuit of “the original” will likely manifest an evening that, well beforehand, I foresee an ample dose of “more of the same.”
Bird, a coworker of Stan’s, ruefully enough, embodies, in both build and brain, her nickname. I believe it was Stan who so dubbed Mavis Alberta Schlossburg with the newer and more ornithological moniker. She holds the distinction of being the boss’s daughter, allowing her the extravagances of a Medean temper, cyclopean manners and an irrational generosity possible only in one who is deeply spoiled, mind-bogglingly rich and treading uneasily on the shakiest of psychologically shifting sands. Stan, of course, worships Bird, and has enthroned her as the darling-slash-raging-femme-futile of his set.
“We’ll all be by the pool,” Stan insists. “It’ll be great.” I am hesitant and don’t really agree, but I show.
Gil, a major jewel, possibly a ruby, in Bird’s crown of adoring male homosexuals, has arrived to discover there is no non-alcoholic beer. Won’t I ride with him to the store to find refreshments for a recovering substance abuser? Living in Maryland, he doesn’t know his way around Virginia. Gil might well drink more conventional soft drinks of which there are plenty, but I believe a certain amount of idiosyncrasy is tolerable in anyone, especially one so prepossessing as Gilbert MacPherson, so I go along for the ride. I have known Gil possibly eight years. In that time, we have hardly spoken. I was with one lover, then. That lover is, now, dead. During that time, Gil has had several.
On the ride to the store and throughout the celebration of Bird’s hatching, I talk with Gil more than I have in all of the years I’ve known him. In these conversations, started and stopped and restarted as conversations are at such gatherings, I remember one of Stan’s winter parties, not the first time I met Gil, but certainly the first time I observed that he possessed shimmering good looks. Gil, I remark to myself, seems to be a different color than most others, red-haired and freckled. If people came in flavors, say, like ice cream bars, most of us would be chocolate, vanilla, almond, butterscotch, but Gil would be fruit flavored, like raspberry or apricot. I am dazzled by this.
From South Carolina, he says his mother’s people are Charleston French Huguenots. Gilbert is his mother’s last name and his first. He is in his late thirties, but could pass for twenty-five. A model and an actor, he works less than he would like, talks frequently of New York. His clothes are always simple. There is something vain and defiant in a man approaching forty who appears in blue jeans, a tee shirt and sneakers and looks great and knows he does.
By ten o’clock, the party is as Stan always wants his parties to be: outrageous. This is the narrowest of descriptions exemplified by Bird donning all of the obscene jewelry and tasteless garments given to her as birthday gifts. Then, with the grace of a pageant contestant, she glides effortlessly down the diving board and, with a single step, is swallowed by the shadowy blue unknown. Everyone laughs. My earlier suspicions confirmed, I say good night.
Gil does not call me himself but informs Stan a few days after Bird’s submergence that he would have dinner with me were he asked. Stan is ever so eager to act as interlocutor for what he suspects might portend of romance. I am flattered that the handsome Gilbert MacPherson wants to see me. I have been working almost every day, even Sundays. I have thought of nothing but work. Possibly, I am capable of thinking other thoughts.
My job has become, if not a tonic, certainly an infernal machine that has pulled me into its clock works. I have been swallowed whole and do not seem to mind. The people and projects are not real. I am participating in an interactive video that requires only that I push the proper buttons. I awaken early, bathe, shave, dress in nice clothes, drive a distance around the beltway and act as though I know what I am doing or as though others know what they are doing. It all seems a little unlikely; yet, I accept it as having nothing to do with anything but keeping me from the stasis of remembering.
So late one night, I call Gil and tell him I will escape the office on Tuesday for dinner. Talking on the phone is fun. It’s the first time I have enjoyed so simple a pleasure. I sleep walk a few more days around my office on the strength of this minor joy believing this dating business is not so bad an idea.
Gil and I meet in town, an Italian restaurant of his choosing. He has arrived first. I am pleased, as I step up to the table, that I do not appear too anxious. He asks if I would like the seat against the wall that I may watch the crowd, “No,” I say taking the seat facing him, “I like what I see.” He is flattered; it shows. I am learning what works.
Our waiter is a gay boy, maybe twenty-one or two, in bicycle pants and a muscle shirt. I make no comment on the boy’s more than evident appeal, believing it is bad form to remark on another when one is with a date. Actually, I am uncertain as to whether or not this is a date. Gil says he likes my green shirt, says he has one not unlike it. I say I bought it in France. “Flimsy, but different from what you see in the States,” I add trying to be more fashionable and care free than the workaholic he knows me to be.
We order. He takes red pasta, I, spaghetti “ajo e ojo” with anchovies. He comments that I eat daring food. I remind him that I am Sicilian and was raised on such fare. Our salads come. As he eats, he carefully separates from the lettuce those extra items that come in a restaurant salad. He eats only the lettuce, leaving sliced mushrooms, onions, walnuts and carrot shreds piled neatly on his plate. I find this curious but do not comment. After polite talk of music and work, discussion moves to his recovery from alcohol and drugs.
“Someone always seemed to have a quart of vodka or a vial of coke,” Gil explains to me. His addiction prevented his growing up, fostered in him an irresponsibility that was ruinous to his personal life and career. He was drawn only to those who would take care of him, bank roll his habit. It was all quite messy.
Sobriety has made him independent, his own man. His career is not sky rocketing, but he, now, works with more regularity than he ever has. He’s bought a house, developed an interest in gardening. I know of this miraculous turn around only from Stan’s more than histrionic retelling of it. All of Stan’s friends seem to be recovering from something. In the past, I only half listened to Stan’s more usual brand of gossip, but, this evening, I am impressed with the sincerity of Gil’s testimonial. It strikes a chord in me the way, as I tell my coworkers, a good marketing presentation should work. I try not to talk of my unhappiness. Grief, I believe, is not the best subject for a first date.
After dinner, we walk to a record store. He buys a compact disk: pop music I do not know. I want to talk jazz players. He shares little of my obsessiveness on the subject. Walking through Dupont Circle, Gil is hailed by huge man carrying a multi-colored umbrella. No introductions are made. The huge man and Gil talk a lingo that is clearly “A. A.-speak.” This is another recovering alcoholic. It begins to rain, and the giant alcoholic with his giant golfer’s umbrella walks Gil and me to Gil’s truck.
“I have something very personal to ask you,” I say to Gil as we enter the cab of his sporty pick up. “Does someone always arrive with an umbrella for you when it rains?” Gil does not answer and drives me six blocks to my car. Double parked on “S” Street, we say our good nights. Before I can slide off the seat, Gil pulls my face to his lips that look especially fruit flavored in the shifting lights of a darkened city street. His lips are the color of bruised plums. We kiss. I am stunned like a fourteen year old. I have touched no one in this fashion for months. I had forgotten that people kiss. I only laugh and tell him I like the way his tangerine whiskers bristle at the top of his cheek bone. We say good night.
It is summer, and Gil is going for two weeks to visit family in Charleston, so there will be no second date for a while. I send him a card that says simply, “Great date.” Then, I work many hours while he is in South Carolina. I sleep poorly.
My friends are wondering out loud to me if I am working too much or if I returned too soon to work after my companion’s death. His funeral was on a Tuesday. I went to work the following Thursday. That was four months ago. My friends debate with me as to my best course of action. Should I sell the house? “No, don’t sell the house?” Change jobs?” “Wait a year. Yes, wait a year. Always wait a year before you make any major decision.” Should I date? Among my opinionated friends, there is much disagreement on this subject. The break down of this debate is clearly on party lines. The gays say, “Date.” The straights say, “Wait.” Everyone but Barbara Bush has expressed an opinion on my personal life.
I receive a card from Gil in South Carolina, a picture of a nine hundred year old live oak in Middleton Gardens. Now, I am the one who is flattered. I have not dated in so long I wonder if all this flattery existed when I was young. I think not. We were more abrupt, then, We were all young and sexy and knew we had it and weren’t about to give up any of our coveted sexual capital by admitting someone else was attractive or interesting or talented. But, all this is moot. I am exhausted from work and trying to convince myself that another date with Gil will help my attitude. It is something to look forward to, I tell myself, as I am beginning to hate work. It has become a prison. It’s where I must go to get my money, but I am lost in my anger at being over worked. I am a sad man.
Gil has returned, and, on Friday, I will drive from the office to his house. We will have dinner and watch a video of the Hockney Magic Flute. Friday arrives. It is hot, and there is traffic. Gil, in a tee shirt and gym shorts, waters flowers with a nozzleless hose that gushes haphazardly onto the plants in the neatly arranged bed bordering the porch of his miniature house. I greet him on the front steps. I am dressed in a suit and tie. He is concerned that I have not brought other clothes. I have. We go inside.
His house is a bungalow with size enough for only him, his hysterical dog and an indifferent cat. The furniture is second hand, moderne. The art is garish, trendy. Large paintings are squeezed onto tiny walls, too much like the homes of other actors I’ve visited. I am beginning to believe that this might be a mistake, but I try to put such thoughts out of my mind. I continue.
We go to the kitchen for cold drinks. I sit on a stool guzzling mineral water and pull the perspiring red-head into my arms. We kiss a very long time. I am like a high school boy in the back seat of a Chevrolet. I hardly recognize myself. He insists that I change for dinner, but I insist that we kiss. We continue. I make him laugh. He tastes of salt. I am lost.
Finally, he convinces me I must change. I do. We go to a Thai restaurant where Gil keeps putting food from his plate onto mine. I like this. It is the kind of intimacy of which widowhood has robbed me. Gil knows people in the restaurant. We talk to them as we are leaving. In his truck, he asks me about my companion, about his death. I am uncertain that I should speak but want very much to tell it.
“Imagine this,” I say, “You’re young. You meet a boy. You sleep with him. Nothing extraordinary. It happens all the time. He stays eighteen and a half years. You share everything. People say that as a couple you’re too close. I know you guys thought there was something odd about our closeness. We, were, too connected. Stan would say that we were joined at the hip. Well, in the middle of this decidedly unmodern, undetached attachment you come to believe that you’ve achieved something. You’re going to stay together. Friends have died of AIDS, but the two of you have survived. You’ve made it, and it seems like it’s all down hill clear to the old folk’s home. So, you take him to the airport for a business trip, and, four days later, one of his colleagues and her husband are in your living room telling you he’s dead. An accident. One of those freak things. Could have happened to anyone. But you think otherwise. You look back at them. You say ‘Huh?’ and spend days looking out the window asking yourself who you are, now. Now, that you are a grown-up, alone. You have never been an adult without him. And, as simply as someone comes to your door collecting for the Salvation Army, your life is changed forever. No negotiation. No trial separation. No bitter divorce. No nasty break-up. Just, ‘Thud.’ It’s over. Of course, there’s all the crying and the memories. But worse, is the confusion. The not knowing who you are anymore because you possess eighteen years worth of ticket stubs to movies nobody’s seen but you and another guy, and that guy’s gone. And, no matter what anybody says, it seems like he ought to show up. If you just keep looking out the window, the red Subaru will pull into the drive. You’ll play loud music, drink wine that was on special and fix pasta before going to bed. And, after eighteen and half years, that’s still pretty good. You can’t keep your hands off of him. But, none of that happens. You go to bed, anyway, and you sleep because that’s okay. Even when you dream about him, that’s okay, too. It’s waking up that requires you to recite your reality check list as you shave the face of a guy who looks as if he could use something: a drink, a friend, a roll in the hay, a trip to Greece. Maybe? Maybe not? Doesn’t seem to matter. A personality that depended so much on sparkle, memory, imagination, now, seems like cold mashed potatoes in gym shorts. You notice how gray your chest hair has become, how a house that was fine, now, is more work than you want to do. And, you forget things. The guy who forgot nothing. The guy who remembered the birth dates of his grammar school classmates forgets names and appointments but never forgets he’s alone.”
I am not exactly sure what has happened, but Gil has changed. He has asked to hear this, then, seems not to have wanted to hear it. Almost as some sort of concession he announces that I am a generous person, and he is not. He tells me a story of his sister, “My brother-in-law was not ready to leave for the mountains, so my sister just jumped into the car and left without him. He had to drive up by himself. Three and a half hours.” Does this demonstrate his genetically determined selfishness? My famous generosity notwithstanding, does he know that if he pulled such a trick on me as his sister did on his brother-in-law, that I might empty a thirty-eight in his chest?
We have returned to his house. He smokes a cigarette out on the deck. I drink more mineral water. We talk of his animals. We move inside and begin to kiss, first on the couch, then, on his bed. Somewhere, in this activity, I understand the inevitability of sex, and I stop. Possibly, Gil has stopped before me. I am not sure, but it all ends. There will be no sex, and we somehow concede to one another that we will sleep. Even this plan is ill-fated. It lasts, maybe, twenty minutes. Gil thrashes about for that amount of time in his bed, then, moves to the couch saying he cannot sleep with someone else in his bed. I as much as laugh in his face.
I do not sleep. I spend the entire night just thinking, wondering, every hour or so, what has, in fact, transpired. After sunrise, I read short stories from a Capote collection on Gil’s night stand. Five hours after I normally awaken Gil is up. We have tea and coffee on the deck. I take my things to my car. When I return, he tells me he thought I had left without saying good-bye. He finds the unwatched Hockney opera tape that I had not put into my car, tells me he’s sorry we did not watch it. As I walk out the door, he assures me, “We’ll get together real soon to see the video.” Descending his front steps, I wonder how so unconvincing a liar has had any sort of acting career.
It is Saturday morning, maybe eleven o’clock. I drive to my office and write my resignation.
I carry ideas around in my head for a very long time before I write them down. I generally start by taking a great many notes. Frequently, my whole first draft is in longhand. Then, I type the longhand into the computer and print out the work on paper. I’m pretty ruthless with the hardcopy version. I fictionalize everything. No matter how autobiographical some piece of writing may seem, it is easier for me to composite characters and to compress events if they are fictional. I love inventing character names, place names, and describing imaginary places. I am most vigilant with how my diction sounds in my ear. I frequently read aloud as I write. Then, of course, I must always keep the emotions authentic. I’ve been writing since I learned how. There are few other pursuits I enjoy as much as writing.