_ Are you sitting comfortably?
_ As comfortably as I could expect to be.
_ A little.
_ There’s no reason to be. Just pretend the audience isn’t here.
_ It’s not that. It’s been my experience that when a guy gets up and starts boasting about how happy he is and how great his relationship is….. you know the sort of thing … it always seems to put some sort of curse on it. When I read about a guy saying that, it always seems that a couple of months later I hear that this great relationship has hit the rocks.
_ Do you think that will happen in your case?
_ I hope not. But gay relationships always seem to carry the seeds of their own destruction.
_ A grim thought. So let’s start talking about your relationship. What’s his name?
_ How long have you been together?
_ Five years … going on six. That’s about eighty years in gay years.
_ Would you say you are happy?
_ This is where I feel I should touch wood. Yes … very happy. The happiest I’ve been in my whole life.
_ How did you meet? At a bar? A party? What?
_ No. Nothing like that. We met at an audition for a play. I was the director. He was an actor auditioning.
_ Eyes across a crowded room?
_ No. He was just one of a lot of eager actors. The thing I noticed about him was his hairy legs and neat ankles. It was a hot day. He was wearing baggy shorts and joggers. He was wearing those short socks that just show above the level of the joggers. I can’t wear those socks… I have funny shaped heels and they keep creeping under my feet. I think that’s what got my attention. After that, I noticed other things about him: he has amazing eyes – pale aquamarine like a cat, and he wore his hair long, cut off squarely at chin level and parted in the middle so that it fell forward and half covered his face. He auditioned well, I remember, so we finally offered him the part of Peter Quince – it was “Midsummer Night’s Dream” we were casting. I can honestly say he got the part under his own efforts. It wasn’t as though I had the hots for him, so there was no suggestion of the Casting Couch about it. No, though I did think he was very polite and pleasant, not at all brash and grating – just a thoroughly nice guy.
_ So how did you get together?
_ The rehearsal process is quite … intimate… if that’s the right word. The director gets to know the actors very well and vice versa. It’s very understandable that actors and directors can connect very intimately.
_ So when did you and he ……???
_ Not during the rehearsal period, though there was a lot going on among the cast, both straight and gay. An enclosed group like that becomes a hot bed for gossip, and it’s always been my rule that as director, I should retain a certain amount of restraint to maintain discipline. I’ve been in shows where the director is fucking everyone, left, right and center and the atmosphere has been strained and unpleasant. I like to keep a certain distance from the cast and not become too involved. God! That sounds priggish! But it seems to work as it did in this case.
_ So really, you didn’t consider making your move until the show had closed?
_ Well yes and no. It suddenly dawned on me about a week out from opening night that I was deeply in love with him.
_ Wow! That’s very romantic.
_ …And very unexpected. I’m much older than he is so I was quite unprepared for the emotional bombshell. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a cold fish….
“ I cannot tell what this Love may be
That cometh to others but not to me…”
It completely floored me, and I really had to fight hard to stop being distracted during that vital final week of rehearsals. Jane Austen said something about not being able to pin-point the exact time or place when it happened. I knew exactly what she was talking about … probably for the first time in my life.
_ Did Joe feel the same?
_ He says not. Although he admits he liked me a lot, and he has admitted later that he sought my company during the rehearsal period for endless explanations of his role. There wasn’t much I could discuss with him. The role of Peter Quince is hardly King Lear. It has almost no sub-text, but I liked talking to him – a lot. At that time, I believe he never even considered that he might be gay. He had a girl friend.
_ A girl friend? Did you meet her?
_ Oh yes. Meredith. I met her for the first time at the opening night party. The party was held on the stage. I was button-holed by some important people of the theatre and I saw him roll in with her on his arm. The implication hit me at once and I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I immediately resolved I’d avoid them for the rest of the evening. Ha! Within five minutes of their arriving he’d maneuvered his way through the crowd – and it was a big crowd – and was tapping me on the shoulder to introduce her.
_ What was she like?
_ She was – still is, I suppose – highly polished, almost lacquered. She dressed in a style that’s called “power dressing” …. Black suit, padded shoulders, high stiletto heels with her hair representing the pinnacle of the metallurgist’s art. She’d obviously come straight from work … public relations, or advertising, or some such … and it amazed me that such a woman would stake a claim on a guy like Joe, who’s such a laconic, easy going guy. But claim him she did. Her arm was linked through his in a very possessive manner.
_ You obviously didn’t like her.
_ Let’s say I didn’t warm to her. But in all fairness, she was determined to please. She praised the play – though I suspected she hadn’t actually seen it - she smiled and laughed and to her credit, she didn’t try to overshadow Joe on his opening night. And all the while, she held on to him as though daring anyone to take him from her. I couldn’t help myself. I nodded towards their linked arms and said, as cordially as I could: “ Are congratulations called for?” Joe looked startled, and seemed to notice her arm through his for the first time. “We aren’t engaged,” he said firmly and she laughed lightly and said, “ Not yet, at least.”
Poor Joe. I could have laughed out loud, if I hadn’t been feeling like all my children had been murdered before my eyes. I smiled and said the usual social inanities .. “Nice to meet you” etc …. And I moved away from them. I felt that my heart was close to breaking. Corny, isn’t it?
I saw her again at some of the cast parties during the run of the play until the play’s run finally came to an end – four weeks; full houses… not bad for a Shakespeare – and then came that final night party….
_ You say that like it meant something.
_ It meant everything. The play was a great success, and the cast and crew had become particularly close so on the final night party there was a lot of drinking and maudlin expressions of undying love and respect.
“You are beautiful!”
“No – you are beautiful… and talented!”
“No. You’re talented and I love you.”
You know – the usual thing.
I’d bought small gifts for everyone involved – lapel pins for the guys in the shape of silver stag heads, and silver fairy brooches for the girls - and I went round thanking each personally and throwing my arms around them and hugging and all that. I left Joe till last, for I knew it would be very hard to leave him. I saw him standing a little apart, and, miracle of miracles, alone. I bowled up to him and told him how much I liked working with him and gave him his little gift. It was really difficult to keep it personal yet impersonal, if you know what I mean. Then, when I felt I could say no more I decided to take my leave and as a final gesture, I threw my arms around him to give him a farewell hug. I wasn’t ready for what happened. His scent hit me and overwhelmed me. Holy pheromones, Batman! It was so erotic and beautiful. I practically gasped and could do nothing but cling to him. I clung to him, and I clung to him until I realized I was holding him for far longer than was socially acceptable and I would be making him uncomfortable so I tried to disentangle myself.
I couldn’t. Joe felt my trying to withdraw and clung to me tighter, burying his face in my shoulder. I moved my hands slowly and caressed him. It was magical. I knew then it wasn’t my imagination, because I could feel his love radiating out from him. We had complete and perfect rapport.
After what seemed like hours, we slowly disengaged and stood very close, gazing into each other’s eyes and touching only with the interlinked fingertips of one hand. I looked into his wonderful eyes and saw his soul and it was perfectly honest and beautiful.
Of course we were interrupted. Meredith came clattering up to us with drinks in both hands, and I sprang away from Joe. She said cheerily: ”Are you going already?” I must have mumbled something so I turned and left and looked back once. She had linked her arm through his again and was talking animatedly to someone near her. He was looking at me with a hunger that struck me to the heart. I couldn’t bear it any more so I went home.
When I got home I was numb and exhausted. I had forgotten the play and all the excitement around it. The only thing I could think of was Joe. There were sexual feelings, yes, but mainly it was the experience of holding him and looking into his eyes and the remembrance of the unspoken communication we had had for those few moments. I just sat in an armchair in a sort of daze. I must have sat for hours. When I finally came out of my trance I saw it was after three o’clock so I roused myself to go to bed. As I did so the phone rang.
I knew it was him before I answered the phone.
I said: “Joe?” He said: “I’m outside. Can I come in?” I whispered: “yes.” And hung up. I opened the door. Joe was there. I just reached out and clasped him.
Have you ever seen that silent film “ Birth of a Nation” ?
_ Can’t say that I have.
_ A great film. There was a scene in it where the soldier comes home after the war and goes to the front door of his house and all you see are the arms of his mother reaching out from the doorway to embrace him. That’s what it was like for Joe and me. We didn’t say anything. We kissed, a long, long kiss. After the kiss, I closed the door and we went straight to bed. We didn’t say anything. We went to bed, and we stayed there for three days.
_ You’re kidding!!
_ Nope. The first day was spent fucking - making love, some sleeping, but mostly making love. On the second day we started talking, interrupted periodically with fucking, but always talking, making jokes, telling each other our dreams our hopes our plans for the future and more fucking. On the third day, we had to wash and shave, and we made heaps of food and went back to bed and fucked again but sometimes just lay in each other’s arms and caressed each other. I truly believe that since those three days, there is no secret that we don’t share.
_ It sounds … enviable…
_ It was a bloody miracle, that’s what it was. I thought it would never happen to me. What was Mel Brook’s great line…grabbing a last thrill on the way to the cemetery…? That’s how I viewed my life up to the time I met Joe. Now …..
_ Everything’s coming up roses….?
_ Well, not at first … but we got there! After those three days, the rest was inevitable. Joe moved in within the week. My apartment was bigger than the one he was sharing – a lot bigger in fact so he moved all his stuff in. After one week living with him, we both realized we needed a much bigger space, so we looked for and found a three-bedroom apartment that was big enough for both of us. We’d share the main bedroom and each of us would have a room for an office or whatever. It’s a great apartment. While we were in the throes of redecorating, Meredith turned up.
_ A woman scorned?
_ You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie! She breezed in, still dressed in power black, and carrying a box of little cakes in one hand and a patchwork quilt in the other – of all things. A great quilt – it must have cost her a fortune. It was one of those Amish ones, you know, in the deep jewel-like colours. Her manner was very restless. She spoke very quickly and loudly and laughed a lot, and her laugh sounded like breaking glass. She moved around the apartment loudly commenting on everything.. how wonderful, how cunning, how fabulous!
She didn’t look at me or acknowledge my presence. Big mistake!
_ It showed a complete and absolute lack of understanding of Joe… and Joe saw it. I think if she’d been cleverer, they’d still be friends. I’ve never enquired of Joe the precise nature of his relationship with Meredith, either when we first got together in those magical three days or since. Although I’ve often wondered, I always felt it was his business and that if he wanted to tell me he would have. Maybe those three days just burnt away everything in his past and he considered them supremely unimportant. Maybe.
Anyway, whatever he felt for Meredith, she destroyed in that visit. After letting her carry on for a while, I was at a loss to know what to do but Joe stepped into the breech.
“Meredith,” he said, “you remember Andy.” She didn’t answer him directly but turned to him and said with a glittering smile, “Now, which is your bedroom? I want to put this quilt straight on your bed.”
His face turned to flint. “Meredith. Andy…” She still ignored him and flew to one of the smaller rooms, and opened the door. It was full of rubbish and unopened boxes.
“Well, it’s obviously not this one – though when I remember your house keeping…” and she gave a loud brittle laugh.
In a voice of agate, Joe pointed to our bedroom. “That’s where Andy and I sleep.”
She couldn’t ignore that. She turned to him, and all good humour had been wiped from her face. Her eyes were coldly blazing and her skin seemed to have shrunk around her skull.
She mouthed the words as though they had a bitter taste.
A lesser man would have quailed before such malice. Not Joe.
“It’s not disgusting at all,” he said, “but be content that you’ll never know what it’s like.”
And she slapped him. Hard. He just moved his head slightly and gave her a level look. I had to intervene then. I moved up behind Joe, and I couldn’t help it but Oscar Wilde leapt to mind.
I said: “It seems we trespass on your valuable time, Meredith. Not doubt you have many other calls of a similar nature to make.”
“You filthy fucking faggots!!” she screamed, “ I hope you both rot in hell!” and she stormed out and slammed the door.
I must admit I was stunned. A whirlwind in – a whirlwind out. I looked at Joe and to my surprise he was grinning broadly.
“Oscar Wilde. Right?”
I smiled back. “The best line in the play.”
He nodded. He picked up the quilt and shook it out and said absently, “Thought I recognized it. Went for Algernon once.”
“Didn’t get it. You know, this will look great on the bed. She always did have good taste.”
“She left the cakes too.” He held out the box to me, his wonderful eyes twinkling. “Want one?”
_ So that was the end of Meredith?
_ Well, we never saw her again, but her influence…. Well, let me explain. Joe is an actor as I said. To establish a regular income in an uncertain profession, he and three or four others had formed a little group called “The Elephant Men”. They hired themselves out to children’s parties and other gigs as children’s entertainers. Joe had always liked kids.
_ Like the Wiggles?
_ Not nearly in the same league, but you’ve got the general idea. They were just starting to become known round town. Joe was very keen on this group, He did all the organizing and booking their gigs and all that sort of work.
On one weekend, they were booked for an out-of-town gig – their first as it happens – and Joe was very excited about it. He’d booked the hotel and hired the van and done all the preparation work, but comes the week-end in question, I come home from work on the Friday night and there’s Joe, watching TV.
“Hey,” I said, “have I mistaken the weekend? Shouldn’t you be driving down the highway to fame and fortune.”
He just shrugged and said, “The Elephant Men can do without me.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought it was some bizarre joke. “No way, Joe. That group will die without you.”
Joe kissed me on the forehead. “I quit today.”
It took my breath away. I knew how he had worked and organized and planned.
“The guys found out I’m gay.”
“I thought it best that I quit.”
I was appalled. “Joe,” I said as urgently as I could. “These guys are actors, for God’s sake. They don’t give a fuck whose dick is up your arse. Shit, they’re probably fucking each other.”
Joe was very calm. “I know,” he said, “ and you’re right. But they found out. They didn’t want me to leave, but I quit.”
I was a bit annoyed. “I suppose you can’t keep something like this a secret, but all the same…”
and then it hit me.. ”Fucking Meredith!”
“She told JJ. He thought it was a great joke and told the others.”
“But they don’t care. You said so yourself.”
“They don’t care, but that’s not the point. You would care.”
“You’d care if I’m arrested for pedophilia.”
I couldn’t speak.
Joe brushed away the crumbs on his lap. “You’ve never seen The Elephant Men in performance, have you Andy?.” I shook my head dumbly.
“We move among the audience of little kids and sit with them , and dance with them, and take them on our laps and in the cart JJ drags around…”
“I get the picture,” I muttered.
“All it needs is for some concerned citizen dressed in black to whisper to one of the mothers that I could interfere with one of the children…bingo! The shit hits the fan! I’d be railroaded. I wouldn’t care about that… much… but they’d find out about you and the mud would stick to you too, and that I would care about.”
He was right. So many people don’t know the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia.
I was so angry. “The bitch!!” I ground out. “The unspeakable fucking bitch!!”
Then he kissed me, very very gently. “”If it comes to a choice between the Elephant Men and you, guess who wins – hands down!”
They say that love can be measured by what you are prepared to give up for it. Joe truly humbled me. For me, he has given up his actor friends, his career, and his family. What have I given up for him? First go at the shaving mirror in the morning!!
_ So. He gave up his family. Tell us about that.
_ Joe is a son of the Bible Belt. His family is very large, as people like to say, widely extended. They’re bound together by Fundamentalist Christian values and ultra-conservative politics. God knows how such a family gave birth to a guy like Joe.
_ What’s your background?
_ As you can probably tell from my accent, I’m Australian though Joe tells me I have an English accent. I tell him he’s the one with the accent.
My heritage is Irish Catholic Australian, if you can imagine such a breed. Although Australians and Americans have a lot in common, there is one vast, almost irreconcilable difference – Australia was founded as a penal colony: America was founded on religion. Consequently Australians have a distrust of authority and authoritarian religion bred into them, while everything in America is a religious experience. This may seem to have nothing to do with Joe and me, but it explains why I wasn’t really prepared for Joe’s family.
When we first started living together, of course we talked about our families and our up-bringing. Now, I’m around fifteen years older than Joe and my childhood was quite conservative compared to that of other Australians of my generation, but compared to Joe’s up-bringing, it was liberality itself. Before I came to the US, I had long since broken the shackles to my family – they are petit bourgeois in the extreme. We’ve gone our separate ways. If we do keep in touch, it’s a card at Christmas, if that. Joe was different. He delighted in his family and always spoke of them fondly, and I pictured them as a kind of “Little House on the Prairie” family – charming and folksy. They were in the country and he was in the city, so that was that.
When Joe’s grandmother died, he got a phone call from one of his brothers telling him and inviting him to the funeral. Joe at first said, yes, he’d be there but as the phone call progressed, he grew more and more sober and then hung up. His face was stony. I assumed he was saddened by the news.
“So when’s the funeral?” I said as he hung up.
“Next week,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll go. It’s too far away.” I saw how serious he was, so I said, ”Joe, you were really fond of your grandmother. You should go, for her sake and for yours.”
He burst out, in sudden distress. “I’m not going without you. You’re part of me.”
Even then the penny didn’t drop. I said, “Joe. I’ll go. I’ll go. No problem. I can rearrange my schedule. I’d be proud to stand beside you.”
He just looked at me, distressed, and couldn’t speak. It was then I twigged. “It’s fucking Meredith again, isn’t it?” He nodded.
This time the anger I felt was icy cold. “Well, well, she has been a busy little pixie…” My face must have frightened Joe a bit, because he said hurriedly, “It’s OK. I don’t really want to go.”
_ But you did go…?
_ Oh yes. I was determined that that cunt wasn’t going to tyrannize my Joe any more. We were going to go and we were going in STYLE. I hired a red sports Porsche for the weekend which dazzled Joe, and I had my hair cut really short – the Alcatraz look. For that first appearance among the family I wore tight sleek black – I rarely wear black… I’m more the tweedy, chunky knit type – and I dug out a gold Rolex I never wore because I always thought it too vulgar, and I hung gold chains around my neck. The look caused Joe to giggle because I looked like a Hollywood pimp. He took to calling me “my man”. And sun specs of course. Joe got into the spirit and he dressed in black too. We looked like the Blues Brothers.
It was great. We roared up to the church where all the family was milling about and created a sensation among those good, plain folk. We got out of the car without opening the doors and swaggered up to them, Joe leading the way.
The stage director in me had primed Joe on his performance. I told him, play it straight, play it nice…. No exaggeration, just keep it normal. His performance only faltered once. He said to an uncle, “Looking good, my man!” but I caught his eye and he toned it right down. It worked like a charm. The family were so relieved to find him normal in spite of having this creature from Mars at his side, that they were soon all chatting to him, seemingly genuinely pleased to see him.
_ What about you?
_ I terrified them. At first it seemed to work. Because Joe was so normal, and I was so … so exotic…. I thought… hoped they would take Joe back to their hearts, and shift all the blame for Joe’s errant ways to me….. I was wrong. By mistaking the depth of malice of the family octopus, I had done Joe the greatest disservice I could have.
_ What happened?
_ The graveside ceremony went well. My heart swelled with pride as I watched Joe stand with his brothers … he’s the youngest … and took part in the family rituals. That was good. I stood to the back of the crowd and congratulated myself that Joe was accepted for what he was. It was at the party after…
We all crowded into the parlour of the family house … it was the kind of house that had a parlour … and there was a lot of babble – family talking to family or rather shouting to family. Joe and I got separated. I didn’t care. I stood in a corner, ignored by everyone, drink in my hand, keeping an eye on Joe. I saw various members of the family come up to him and talk to him. I couldn’t hear what was said, but Joe looked grimmer and grimmer. I presumed they were harping on the dead grandmother and maybe how Joe didn’t keep in touch. A little thoughtless, I thought. But Joe was starting to look distressed and had turned pale, so I thought – something’s not right here. Then I guessed. Each one was telling Joe what they thought of him, and how disgusting he was. It was death by a thousand cuts. I roused myself to intervene, but I was halted by a surly voice.
“Hey mister. Are you the fruit?”
I looked down to the speaker, a boy of about eleven or twelve who was sneering at me.
So I answered: “Yep. A big one. A water melon.”
He said: “You give me a hundred dollars or I’ll tell my paw you tried to suck my dick.”
I was stunned. I just stared at him.
“A hundred dollars,” he sneered.
Something snapped. I crouched down to his level. I lowered my voice dramatically. “Tell you what. I’ll give you five hundred dollars if you suck my dick.”
You should have seen his face. It lit up like a Christmas tree. I was thoroughly disgusted.
“I thought so, you little shit head. Piss off.” I stood up and looked to Joe. A fat aunt approached him with a cream cake in her hand. “Hey, Joe,” she called in a loud penetrating voice, ”this is for you.” And she deliberately smashed it over the chest of his suit. “Oops! Butter fingers. Here, I’ll fix it.” She too out a little pink lacy handkerchief and quickly smeared the cake all over him, then tucked the handkerchief into one of his pockets. “Here, darling. You keep it. It’s too girlie for me.” There was loud derisive laughter from everyone. Joe stood rigid with shock and embarrassment.
I was at his elbow. “Come on Joe. Time to go.” I lead the humiliated Joe outside. Thank God they were afraid of me. The crowd parted and we walked free. I looked at their faces. They had the look of a lynch mob, and as we walked to the car there was a low guttural growl from them, like a savage beast waking up to kill.
Joe moved like a man in a dream. We made it to the car unhindered, though I was half-expecting to be pelted with bottles. Someone had written FAG on the car in what looked like whipped cream or shaving foam.
I roared down the highway. I was frightened for Joe. He looked deathly white and seemed almost catatonic. The first chance I got, I pulled off the highway on to the verge. I ripped off the hateful tight black shirt I was wearing and used it to try feverishly to clean the graffiti off the car. Then I yanked Joe from the car and stood there, holding him tight, all the time saying, “Joe, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And sometimes “Say something Joe. Say something.” At last, the dam broke and he started to cry. No. He didn’t cry. He didn’t sob. He didn’t weep. He bawled. He bawled like a child, great heartfelt gulps of anguish of such … desolation that I never wish to hear it again in my life. No one – and I don’t care who they are or what they’ve done – should be made to feel such desolation. So we stood there, him crying and me pathetically trying to comfort him. And while he cried out his humiliation and anguish, there was a cold knot of hatred developing in my guts. At that moment, if I had had the means – a machine gun or something – I would have gone back and exterminated the whole tribe for what they did to my Joe. And yet I knew it was my fault. Mine. It was my monstrous, monstrous arrogance that had exposed Joe to the ravages of that redneck bigotry.
We stayed like that for about twenty minutes. To passing motorists it must have looked quite odd: a red sports smeared with white goo beside the road; two men beside it in a clinch, one a half naked middle aged man, the other younger, but crying.
Finally, the flood dried up. He gave a watery chuckle and said, “I’m sorry.” I was so very glad to have him back I gently kissed him and said, “There’s nothing to be sorry for.” And I gently pushed him into the car and we left Joe’s family forever.
_ As far as I’m concerned, forever. I vowed that they would never again meet Joe unless he himself particularly requested it.
_ So that was that.
_ You’d think so, wouldn’t you. You’d think that they would want to cut Joe completely from their lives. But no. About a week later, there was a phone call. Joe was out, so I took it.
“Is Joe there?” I was instantly suspicious.
“Who shall I say is calling?”
“This is Wade, his brother. Can I speak to Joe.”
“No you can’t – and don’t call again.” And I hung up.
I told Joe later what I’d said and his only comment was: “Good.”
_ Did this happen often?
_ A few times. The last one I took. It was his mother. I looked at Joe and he just shook his head. I hung up. And that, as they say, was that. So Joe now had no family except me. No career. No friends. No family. All for me. A little frightening.
_ So what of the future?
_ Well, like I said, we’ve been together now for nearly six years. It’s been at least five years of complete, fulfilled and unalloyed happiness. Not many couples, gay or straight can claim that. We seem closer now than we ever were. I cannot see myself ever tiring of Joe. Custom cannot stale his infinite variety – Shakespeare again.
All the time I was in the US, before I met Joe, I always intended to return home one day – to Australia. Now I realize home is where Joe is, and the urge to return to Australia seems to have disappeared. Strangely, Joe seems to be becoming more interested in Australia than I am, so I suspect that maybe, in the future, we’ll up stakes and move there. We’ll see.
In the meantime, we have each other and we’re completely and utterly happy.