If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
— Stephen Crane
It was a soft summer rain that fell against the window of the train to Vancouver. The raindrops became rivulets glistening down the flat glass, gathering in the corners then falling down the face of the train. Outside the window and beyond the narrow, rocky beach, Puget Sound slipped by at train-sound and track-click speed. Every once in a while there would be a bright flash in the gray mist as a lone soul braved the beach wearing a red, blue, or yellow parka, often accompanied by a dog chasing seagulls and sticks. The train passed logs and uprooted trees strewn by past storms upon the rocks and upper beach. In one stretch, there was the hulk of an old ship embedded in a sand spit—a vessel once filled with cargo and life but now just dark and crumbling in the weather. How did that hulk get there? What terrible things happened? Where did the ruin come from?
The train moved north, away from my life’s adopted center—a center that maybe wasn’t there any longer unless I met Robbie’s demands and bared my soul, uncovering places in my heart that were long scarred over. And maybe those scars would never leave, and maybe I was that hulk, unable to right myself from the long dead.
I couldn’t understand why Robbie couldn’t let me ignore this transitory part of our lives. Alec would be gone from our home in a couple of years. He knew that, and I knew that, and the barrier caused by my relationship with Alec would eventually fade. Time would cure all. Dammit, Robbie, let time cure all. Yet Robbie was pressing things, making me choose between him and…whatever. He had opted for his son, and I was what? Angry? Yes, a little. Annoyed? Very. Understanding? Not really. Afraid? Extremely.
I had walked out after Robbie’s ultimatum not knowing what was going to happen. And his present to me, that final gift to my body, the slow sensual love that he gave me was both a sendoff and an enticement to return. And the tears I felt in his eyes were also an enticement to return. I realized that Robbie was deeply saddened by what he was doing, but that stubborn resolve he had—the resolve that I clung to as my anchor—meant that I could never go back to where we were. It occurred to me that I might not be able to go back at all. Could I move on to a new life and simply not show up on Friday even though I’d promised? Would I move on just to end it all? I didn’t know, but I felt trepidation in facing his reality.
I got off the train in Vancouver toward evening, hoisted my pack onto my back, saw that the rain had dropped to a drizzle, and I started down the street towards the tall buildings in the distance. I’d find a hotel somewhere around there, and I needed a stretching walk after several hours on the train.
My path took me through Chinatown where the smells brought back memories of sadder, different times halfway around the world. Or, given my current state, maybe not really sadder. I grabbed a dinner at a Hunanese restaurant that was very good, paid my check and left. I drifted slowly through the streets and ended up in Gastown, the old part of Vancouver, with my pack still on my back and my legs stretched out from the tightness of sitting for hours.
There was life in Gastown. There were bars, clubs and restaurants, their colored signs’ reflections glistening brightly off the wet streets and the windows of the cars going by—a kaleidoscope of color mixing with thumps of music. There were people on the streets—alone, together, in love, in lust.
The place I turned into, the Pink Tattoo, was almost entirely populated by males dressed in every sort of clothes from just-left-the-office to wild colors and feathers. The music was booming loudly. Lights flashed brightly, with strobes and colored spotlights illuminating the crowd—individually and together in groups. The dance floor held gyrating young and older men in various states of dress and sobriety. Sex was clearly in the air.
This was just where I wanted to be. I had found a gay bar and realized that if I was to start over, this was the place—in a gay club in Vancouver, which, I am sure, would be just like a gay bar in Seattle or Portland or Boston. It was a place where I could be wild and uninhibited. I was free here to start over. I could live for sex—for seven inches of pleasure and a final flare of feeling. Yes, I could be free again. I could be free again. If I repeated this mantra enough, maybe I would feel better about not going back to Robbie.
I walked up to the bar, dumped my backpack on the floor in the gloom below the stools, sat down, ordered a cognac with a water back in celebration, then turned on my stool to watch the dance floor. The music was loud, but the DJ had chosen well, and I listened to a few numbers as I downed my cognac—sad and alone, or free and alone. I finished my drink and ordered another, sitting on the bar stool and watching the goings-on.
I didn’t have to order a third cognac. The bartender had placed another one unasked on the counter. “You can thank the gentleman over there. Ian is his name.” The bartender was looking at the tables to my left. I looked in that direction and saw a strikingly handsome blond, about my age, with soft curls piled on his head and framing his face. He was still in his tan business suit with a medium-blue tie, loosened; the colors of both enhanced his Nordic appearance. His face was thin, with a nose that flared at the nostrils. I picked up the snifter and nodded my thanks. He smiled warmly in return and put out his hand to offer me a chair at his table. I took my drink and backpack and walked over.
“My name’s Ian,” he said as he held out his hand.
“Jake,” I said in return after I set my pack down under the chair. “Thanks for the drink. You probably didn’t know you were going to be on the hook for expensive Hennessey, did you?” I grinned.
“You’re welcome. No problem.” He smiled a dazzling smile. “I haven’t seen you around here.”
“I’m up from Seattle.” I didn’t say anything more, but my face must have shown that something was wrong. I needed to act a better part. I turned to him and put on my best smile.
Ian looked deeply into my eyes, and then put his hand on my chin, intimacy coming immediately. “Your eyes are so sad. I’ve been watching you. You’re beautiful when you’re sad.”
I looked into his eyes. They were blue and clear. I put my hand on his arm. “Thanks. You’re beautiful, and I don’t know if you’re sad or not.” I grinned again.
We spent the next thirty minutes talking about inconsequential things during interludes in the music, while we drank another few rounds—probably too many. I was feeling a serious buzz in my head—and also in other regions of my body. I was stealing glances at Ian’s fine-boned face and nice body, trying not to be too forward. I’d never been to a gay bar before. I didn’t know what to expect.
“Want to dance?” Ian asked. Well, that at least answered the what-to-expect question.
“Love to,” I replied.
Ian took off his suit jacket and draped it over the back of his chair, removed his tie and his shirt, leaving a wife beater underneath, which I noticed he filled nicely. My groin noted that as well as the buzz turned into more of a throb. He offered his hand and pulled me up. I took off my jacket, also, and draped it over the back of my chair. We filed through the bar and onto the pulsating dance floor as I admired his nicely tailored pants and his well-formed butt.
I wanted to let myself go—completely. I was really already high from the alcohol, but I had an urge to go much further, to experience abandon. I wanted—and got—out-of-body oblivion, turning my brain over to my senses, discarding all inhibitions. When I stepped on that dance floor with Ian, I was a person apart from my past, from Robbie, from ultimatums. I let the world swirl around me, seeing, observing, absorbing.
Dancing feet. Movement. Sweat sheen on blue torsos.
Crowded. Bodies pressed together. Flesh glance.
Movement. Reds, greens, blues, strobe whites. Diamond light.
Smoke haze spreading red, green, blue, white. Chemical haze.
Arms overhead. Bodies jump, move to the beat.
Hands overhead. Clapping. Waving. Absorbing haze.
Underarms. Patches black. Patches brown.
Patches blond. Glisten of hair. Strong beat. Men. Males.
Movement. Everywhere. Flash red. Flash strobe. Daze.
Snapshot. Ian’s eyes. Looking at me. Bodies
Everywhere. Bare chests, hairy chests. Muscles. Youth.
Movement. Ian’s smile.
Pulsing bodies. Men. Cross-dresser. Double-take.
Short shorts. Too short. Leather. Black skin. Body sheen.
Not Ian. Tight crowd. Ass grabbed. Who?
Flash blue. Music pulse. Chests. Torso sheen. Beat.
Hair. Red hair. Curly. Black hair. Chest hair. Youth.
Gold. Silver. Earrings. Sparkle.
Navel rings. Nipple rings. Nose rings. Diamonds.
Young. Child young. Flash green. So young. Haze.
Backs. Sides. Fronts. Fronting.
Spinning. Hands on hips.
Interlude. Ian and I sat down and sipped at our drinks, and I, dripping, gulped large quantities of my water back. Ian looked gorgeous, and I realized he was smiling, constantly smiling at me. We rested, then he took my hand, and we returned to the dance floor, but not before I shed my shirt and undershirt, and Ian shed his wife beater.
Moving on. Moving back. Faces flushed. Where?
Shirts flung aside. More body. Body to body.
Waist to waist. Crotch to crotch. Touch to touch. Ian.
Hard on to hard on. Ian.
Eyes open. Six packs. Treasure trails. Flash of pubes.
Flash of blue. Haze of blue. Haze of pubes.
Flash of white. Flash of Robbie. Double-take. No.
Sensual confinement. Freedom. What then?
Different men. Six packs past. Bald. Gray. Face lines.
Eyes. Asian. Eyes. Dark. Eyes light. Ian’s eyes.
Light flash. Ian. Sweat sheen. Now blue. Now red.
Now lightning white. Music beat. Now, oblivion.
Now, reality of lights, dance, flesh, green.
Ian’s eyes. Ian’s curls.
Sweat. Crotch grab. Sweet.
Drum beat. Hotter. Shirt off. Sheen. Ian.
Shirt off. Ripped. Nipples. Full lips. Smile. Ian.
Black hair. Smile. Eyes. Robbie.
No, not Robbie.
Arms up. Music beat. Flab. Underarms. Gray fringe.
Ian’s chest. My chest. Together. Ian.
Sweat-damp curls. Ian. Ian. Oblivion.
Sadness. What then?
“Drink up,” Ian said, as we sat once again at our table during another interlude, wiping our brows with the cocktail napkins.
“Water first,” I said, as I drank my water back and signaled for another cognac and water.
More music. Stronger beat. Pounding sound. Watch the bodies.
More skin. Asian skin. Black skin. White skin. Daze.
Short shorts. Still too short.
Ian’s hand. Ian’s pull.
Strobe lights. Bare chests. Raw male. Alcohol haze. Red pills. Hand to hand. Tongue to tongue.
Close eyes. Kiss. Robbie.
Open eyes. Kiss. Ian.
Lost. What then?
Ian took my hand once again and pulled me back to the dance floor. He put his arms around me, and we started to move to the slow, soft beat—somewhat clumsily at first on my part, because I didn’t know whether to lead or follow, but we kind of figured it out and rocked slowly, chest against chest, groin against groin, hard on against hard on. Ian moved his hands to my butt and pulled me into him, erection to erection.
“I love you,” Ian said.
I love you?
He sounded so sincere. But you don’t know me. You don’t know how pathetic I am. How can you say you love me?
I could feel his body against mine. I could feel everything, and I couldn’t feel a thing through the haze of alcohol and lights. I felt his lips on mine as we moved slowly to the music. I felt his tongue dance with mine.
“Let’s go,” he whispered, and he took my hand and led me off the dance floor.
“Let me get my pack,” I said. Ian paid the tab and led me from the bar. His red sporty sedan was parked a short distance away. He opened the door for me, then went around to the driver side and got in. I threw my pack in the back seat next to a child seat.
“Where to?” he asked.
Where to? I was at a loss. I thought he would know. I had no idea where to go. I had had no room or reservation anywhere. Hell, I had been ready to sleep on a park bench if need be. “Your place?” I suggested.
Ian shuddered. He said nothing as he pursed his lips and held tightly onto the wheel of the car with his two hands. Literally thirty seconds passed in silence. He turned to me. “I’m bi,” he said. I looked at him, not knowing how to respond. In the corner of my eye was the child seat.
Oh, shit! I said to myself. “You’re married.”
I sat in the dark, looking out the front of the car through the raindrops on the windshield, seeing the reflections of colors of the street—dimmer echoes of the colors in the bar.
“Two kids. One more on the way.” Ian smiled. There was a hint of pride in his voice.
“I’m horny,” Ian said a few minutes later. “No sex at home for the while.” He grinned, but it seemed to me more like a leer.
What are you, Ian? A proud father or a screwed up cock chaser.
A few minutes more, then Ian again: “I’m ‘working late’ tonight. Supposedly. I have a couple of hours left.”
What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?
I was sobering up at light speed. Our moment in time no longer seemed right. The haze cleared. I could see a small child in the back seat—a little girl, perhaps—looking at her daddy, joy and innocence in her heart. Innocence. I thought of a guileless young boy that I had grown to love in a small Vietnam village, caught in an awful war. My mind turned to Robbie and to his and other innocent children caught among the follies of adults.
And I realized the sleaziness of this moment; this suddenly fucked-up moment surged to the forefront of my thoughts. Was this what I was going to give Robbie up for? Night after night of this? Were these hours with the Ians of the world what I was running to? I couldn’t get sober fast enough.
“Good night, Ian. I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry.” I opened the door, took my pack and got out.
Ian jumped out of the car and came up and kissed me on the lips, his hands closing behind my neck and his body pressing into mine. I felt nothing except pity for the man. “Good night, Ian,” I repeated more firmly as I pulled myself away and started to walk toward the heart of the city. He stood beside his car and watched me leave. A few minutes later he drove by, trolling, giving me one last chance. I didn’t take it, and then he drove off. He was gorgeous—to look at—but he was as screwed up inside as I was. Maybe that’s why we almost clicked. Maybe that’s why we could never really click. I needed stability. I needed a tether if I wanted to retain the tie to what I once was—and wanted to be again.
It was late, but the rain had stopped entirely. I could have called a taxi but I needed a walk further into downtown Vancouver, where I found a hotel that wasn’t too bad. I showered, dried myself, turned out the lights and lay on the bed, feeling the turning of too much cognac and the beginnings of a harder morning. Then I fell asleep, dreaming turbulent dreams of sex and alcohol and children and Tran and Robbie. Always Robbie. Robbie, the tether. Robbie and the countless times over the past 15 years that I had come to some brink and he or the memory of him had stopped me from tumbling over.
The next morning was miserable. I drank about a gallon of water, bought some aspirin from a machine and walked—and walked. The clouds had thinned, and the sun was breaking through from time to time. It was going to be a sunny day. It wasn’t too warm, so the walk was pleasant and as mindless as I’d wanted it to be. Just what I needed. I could empty my mind, or I could think things through.
I walked around Vancouver’s West End, which is on a peninsula bordered on the north by a long bay across which was a range of mountains, on the west by the Georgia Strait and on the south by False Bay. It is one of the densest populated areas of the world, all within sight of wilderness, mountains and the vast sea.
Robbie. I sighed.
I walked out to Stanley Park on the western tip of the West End and took the path along the water. My headache was slowly dissipating, thanks to the water, the aspirin and the exercise. I walked along the path, under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, out on the western edge of the park where dozens of ships lay at anchor in Georgia Strait. I stopped for tea and a scone at the Stanley Park Tea House.
Why was Robbie doing this to me? Couldn’t he have left well enough alone? Why did he force a choice between Alec and me? Why? Why?
No! I could hear him say. It’s not between Alec and you. It’s between Alec and you and Alec. Can’t you get that through your dense head?
But you get Alec, win or lose?
Yes, I could hear him say, I get Alec win or lose. That’s my demand of you. And you know what you have to do, don’t you, Jake?
I found myself watching the lawn bowlers. Then I walked out of the park and onto Robson Street, passing the 30- and 40-story high-rise apartments and drifting by the shops toward the center of the business district. I was still fucked up, not knowing whether I was going to keep my promise and go back for this damned hike, or, go back to the Pink Tattoo and start a new life.
You promised, I could hear Robbie say. Your promise is your bond.
God damn it, Robbie. I promised you because I love you.
Maybe. But you were taught also that your word was your bond. That’s the Jake I love. That’s the Jake that’s come back this year, back to me. Don’t retreat now.
But it’s too hard, Robbie. It’s too hard.
Somehow I arrived at Granville Island, a small island under the Granville Street Bridge connected by its own short bridge to the rest of the city. It is full of food shops, art studios, craft shops and the like. I was hungry and bought some bread at a bakery and some cheese at a little stand, then went outside to the breakwater and ate. Seagulls screeched. The water lapped against the rocks. The sun was warm. I wished I could be at peace.
I walked some more, aimlessly. Sometime in mid-afternoon, I found myself outside the Pink Tattoo again. I entered, walked up to the bar and sat on the same stool I’d started out on the night before, putting my backpack under the same counter. The club was almost empty. It was four hours before the DJ started.
“Another cognac, water back?” the bartender asked. Though he was in his late 40s or early 50s, his body was buff under a Hawaiian shirt. His hair was long and wavy turning from blond to gray, and he sported a walrus mustache with waxed curls at the end that he would twist from time to time to keep them in shape. His blue eyes were bright and friendly. He looked as if he could be a pub owner in Scotland or London or any of the American bars that are dotted in cities around the globe.
I rolled my eyes. “Something a bit weaker. A Molson’s? Plus a water back, please. Maybe a water front would be better, then a water back, then a Molson’s.”
The bartender came back shortly with my beer and two ice waters; he asked me if I wanted a glass for the beer and when I nodded, poured the beer out.
“Everything go okay with Ian?”
I was surprised he knew Ian’s name. “We parted early—on the street.”
“By the way, my name’s Duke.”
“Duke?” I said somewhat skeptically before I could stop myself.
“It’s really Alvin. But Duke sounds more bartender-like.”
“It looked like things were going hot and heavy for you with Ian.”
“Were we that obvious?”
Duke laughed. So did I. Of course, we were that obvious.
“Ian comes in about once a week, sits quietly and observes who comes in, deciding who to hook up with. He leaves about half the time with somebody, usually with the saddest person in the house. A mating of sad with sad, I suppose.” Duke looked at me as if he knew I was the saddest person in the house that previous evening.
“Then,” I added my part, acerbically, “he spends a couple of hours with this person and goes home to his wife and kids.”
“You guessed his secret,” Duke said.
“Yes. Though, it was fairly obvious from his car. Clue No. 1: child seats.”
“So you went with him?”
“No, I got in the car and he asked me where to go, and I said ‘his place’ and he sort of stuttered and turned green. That was Clue No. 2. He said he was bi, which was Clue No. 3. So I said, ‘You’re married, aren’t you.’ and he nodded. I looked at the car seat and thought of his kids. Then I thought to myself: How fucked up is this? And I got out of the car and left.”
Duke took a second to look at me closely. “Ian comes only once a week and mainly when his wife is pregnant, which has been pretty often lately. So many of the men that go through here are sorry souls, seeking only a few hours of oblivion every night.”
“Oblivion.” The same word that had flashed through me last night, somewhere around my sixth cognac.
“I thought of that word last night, so when you used it, it struck me.” I tried to change the subject. “Did you ever leave with him?” I asked.
Duke laughed. “Hell, no. My wife would kill me.” He looked embarrassed. “Oops. Don’t tell anyone that I have a wife.”
“Wife? For a bartender in a gay club?”
“The money’s good. The tips are great. The drinking’s generally good natured. The music’s loud but quality, and the atmosphere’s really something else. I feel like Toulouse Lautrec sometimes. Plus, the job forces me to keep in shape so that I can look the hunk part. So I keep at it. Besides, I wouldn’t want to fire myself.”
I looked at him closely. “So, the place is profitable enough to pay you a salary.”
“And then some, but don’t tell anybody. Please.”
Someone came in the door, and Duke went to serve him, and then came back, carrying another Molson’s.
“So, Jake, you come in here with your backpack stuffed, I am sure, with your belongings and, from the look at your face last night, your sorrows. Ian picks you up like he picks up all the really sad people that come through. You come to your senses and leave him.”
“That’s about right.”
“That’s probably good. He doesn’t practice safe sex, you know. At least that’s what they say. With that new AIDS disease around, he may not make it to see his kids graduate from elementary school.”
I looked around the club as our conversation paused. There were a few people here and there, but there was nothing to signal how raucous the club became later in the evening, except an empty dance floor shiny in the natural light that filtered through the high windows, several overhead light racks and a vacant DJ stand.
“So, what are you running from, Jake?”
“Kinda forward of you, isn’t it?”
“Yep.” Duke waited me out.
I hesitated, and then decided to open up. What the hell? I’d probably never see this guy again. “Robbie gave me an ultimatum. He said, in effect, either unlock part of my private life or don’t come back. But, there are things in my life that are so dark and ugly that nobody should ever know them. Nobody! It’s a long, sad story and I don’t see a happy ending.” I stared into space trying not to break down.
“But you love this Robbie?” Duke asked softly.
I blinked back the tears and nodded.
“And that is the real reason why you didn’t end last evening with Ian?”
I nodded again.
“And the reason you came back tonight is…?”
“I don’t know. I guess I wanted to test again if this…” I waved my arm out to the dance floor and the tables “…was the life I want for myself if I decide not to go back to Seattle.”
“And you came to check the atmosphere of the place four hours before the club gets going?” Duke raised a bushy eyebrow and grinned at me.
Duke went off to tend to his few other customers. He came back and started polishing the glasses with a white towel. “Tell me about this Robbie fellow.”
“Do I have to?
“Yeah. I told you too many of my secrets, so it’s your turn.”
I sighed, partly in resignation and partly in relief. I took a deep breath, toying with my Molson bottle. In the next half hour, I told Alvin about the summer with Robbie in Mississippi and the years that followed in Vietnam, Jakarta and Boston before we got back together again—and then my problems with Alec.
I paused and took a sip of beer.
Duke put a new rack of clean glasses in front of him and started to polish again. I finished the bottle of beer and Duke went to get me another, setting it down in front of me on top of a fresh napkin.
“Is this too much monologue?” I asked in some embarrassment.
“That’s fine. I’m a good listener. I have to be. I’m a bartender. It’s in the job description.”
“Okay, as I said, I got home in time only for my dad’s service, and then I stayed home with my mom for a few months. I got a job with a company called Molini Electronics, and then, I truly believe, fate stepped in.”
“Not just coincidence?”
“I think more than coincidence. After a few weeks at Molini, I began to explore being gay—with a fellow worker doing the same. We were interrupted by two events: First, I discovered a story on a computer bulletin board about two young men working on civil rights in Mississippi. It was about Robbie and me, and it was written by Robbie after his divorce. Second, Andrew Molini decided to move his company to Seattle, and he wanted me to go out West and set everything up. Seattle was where Robbie lived.
“Robbie was gay?”
“Yes, and no. Robbie was in love with me—in all ways—but it was singular. It was one-person love, and that person happened to be male. We fit each other’s needs—intellectually, emotionally and physically—but I don’t think he is gay in the sense that I am. I like the way males think, how they react emotionally and how they look physically. Robbie is not where I am and may never be. Robbie is accepting of his homosexuality with me, but I don’t think he thinks he is gay with all the meaning that word carries. I’m more accepting about being gay.”
“He’s in the closet?”
“Not really. We’re private. We’re open to our friends, and we’re discreetly open outside, which is fine with me—and him.”
“So, it sounds like you’ve found this almost-perfect man and he’s found an almost-perfect mate, but somehow you arrive in Vancouver an emotional wreck, ready to take off on a one-night stand? What, you’ve had a fight, maybe? Maybe he doesn’t like you leaving the toilet seat up or the toothpaste cap off?”
I laughed. Duke had broken the sorry-for-myself mood, but he had captured how ridiculous some of our most recent spats had gotten. I think he wanted to do that.
“If it was just Robbie and me, we could work things out, I’m sure. The complication is Alec, his son. For reasons I won’t talk about, his son brings out my worst nightmares—of Vietnam—just by being the 14-year-old kid that he is. I thought that by keeping out of Alec’s way, by setting up our lives so we didn’t have much interaction, we all could get by until Alec goes off to college. Alec and I are uncomfortable with each other, but we’re both comfortable with Robbie one on one. I thought waiting out Alec’s departure was a perfect arrangement for me, given the circumstances. There was inevitably some discomfort around our condo, but nothing serious—at least so I thought. But Alec couldn’t stand being uncomfortable around the condo when the three of us were there, so he said he was going to go back to live with his mother.
“Robbie was crestfallen. He gave me an ultimatum. He said either get things straightened out with Alec—or leave. I get one last chance starting Saturday to fix things. He set up a backpack trip to get the three of us away from all distractions to see if things can be worked out. I need to be back by tomorrow night—or to leave Robbie forever. Last night, I was seriously considering never going back.”
I stopped and drained my glass of beer, setting the glass down on the bar hard enough it was surprising it didn’t break. “Now you know my life’s story,” I said, “except when I was 14 and jerked off on my folks’ bed after I found KY jelly in their bedside table, which means you know almost everything.”
Duke threw me a glance and excused himself to go check on the other customers and took them their orders. His eyes shifted toward me from time to time, and I could see the wheels working in his brain. He came back to where I was perched on the bar stool.
“Jake, would you hold on for a moment? I want you to meet somebody.” Duke went through the doors into the kitchen. I heard him yell ‘Merrilee!’ quite loudly. He came back. “She’ll be out in a few minutes. She’s just packing up to go home for the day.
“Merrilee and I have been married for about nine years, after living together for a couple of years before that. I came to our relationship with Kate, Lucy and Eric, my children from a previous marriage. Eric was 13 when Merrilee moved in. He and Merrilee didn’t get along too well. Well, that’s an understatement. It was rough on her; it was rough on him. But Eric knew I loved Merrilee.
“We had all gone to Whistler for a short skiing vacation, and it was the last night of our stay. But I’ll wait till Merrilee comes out before I go on.” Duke went and brought me another water.
In a few minutes, a very short, fireplug of a rosy-faced woman with short, straight gray hair emerged from the kitchen with her purse in one hand. “This is my wife, Merrilee,” Duke announced, “and the kitchen is her domain, and the chefs she hires are her serfs.”
“Alvin, that’s not true and you know it. I hire the chefs, and I let them lord over my kitchen from…” she looked at her watch, “about now till closing, and I come in in the morning and get things ready for the day. And I fire them if they fuck up.”
“Jake, I’d like you to meet Merrilee, the smart-mouthed woman of my life.”
I took Merrilee’s hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, whether you’re smart-mouthed or not. I’ve been bending Duke’s—Alvin’s—ear far too long this afternoon about my troubles, and I think he wants your help. God knows, I need all the help I can get.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, too. Alvin must think a lot of you, because he usually doesn’t let anybody in this place know that he has a wife and family. It hurts his image, he says.”
I laughed and looked at Duke, who just smiled and twisted the curl in his walrus mustache with his index finger.
“Merrilee, I’m trying to help this young man from Seattle. So I need to have you tell him the exact question I asked 9 years, 7 months and…5 days ago at Whistler—when we were on vacation at the Whistler condominium?”
It didn’t take Merrilee but a few minutes to figure out where the conversation was going. Maybe it had occurred before, and she was ready. “I will never forget that evening for the rest of my life. We had finished dinner and I was straightening up the kitchen when Alvin called me into the living room. He asked me to sit down on the couch. He got down on one knee. His kids came up behind him and put their hands on his shoulders. He then cleared his throat and asked: ‘Will you marry us?’ Us! I looked at Kate and Lucy. They were smiling. I looked at Eric, and he grinned at me shyly and nodded his head. I got down on my knees in front of Alvin and kissed him on his lips. I stood and kissed each of his kids on the cheek. That was my answer.”
“You can go home now, woman,” Duke said. “I’ll tell you what happens later.”
“Woman!” She hauled back and punched him in the stomach. Hard, but he seemed ready for it. Then she smiled and said, sweetly, “No sex for you tonight.
“It was nice to meet you, Jake. Don’t worry about us. We go through this routine frequently. It’s my way of making sure his stomach muscles keep toned.” She grinned mischievously, turned and went out the front door.
“I bet few people fuck with her,” I said as I watched her leave.
“Well, I f…” Duke said before he could stop himself, but it didn’t stop him from turning beet red all over.
I looked at him. He turned redder, if that was possible. I put my finger to my mouth, licked it and made a mark on my side of a new air ledger. “One point for me.”
Duke looked at me quizzically. I filled him in. “Robbie and I have had this game going since Mississippi. When I beat him at something or really get his goat, I get a point—and vice versa. We’re always about tied.” I closed my eyes at the recollection of the years that we played our game—and the years that we missed. I nearly broke into tears. When I opened my eyes, I saw Duke had pulled the bottle of Cognac from the shelf and had poured me a drink. He set it in front of me, wet his finger and put a mark on his side of the air ledger.
“Let’s leave it tied,” he said.
“Thanks.” It took me a few minutes to recompose myself and take a sip of Cognac. “So how did you convince Eric to accept her?”
“I told him I thought they had become afraid of each other after she first moved in with me, and that the fear had hardened into habit—into the way they related to each other. Both were afraid to budge from the way they reacted to each other, as if budging was somehow losing face.
“I told Eric that I wanted to marry Merrilee and that I thought their antipathy had run its course and that he should drop the attitude and evaluate her as I see her. But I told him that I wouldn’t marry her unless he approved. Quite a load for a 13-year old, eh? But he came through, as I knew he would. He told me that he wanted me to be happy and that he was ready to look afresh at how he and Merrilee related. Afterwards, it was as if there had never been any rancor between them.” Duke excused himself to tend to some customers and left me to digest what he had told me.
He returned after a while and leaned on the bar. “Can I give you some bartenderly advice about the ugly things in your past?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not any more.” Duke grinned, then looked at me closely. “You said that what happened in Vietnam is private. However, in my mind there are two kinds of private. There is the private that nobody gives a shit about but yourself, and there is the private that is part of you but also part of how you relate to other people. Nobody gives a shit about the first. Nobody gives a shit about whether you stuck a rutabaga or a carrot up your ass when you were 14 while masturbating.”
“Parsnip, maybe.” I smiled. “A rutabaga looks like a large onion.”
“You’re listening. Good. Nobody gives a shit if you stole a candy bar from a grocery when you were 10 and have felt guilty ever since or if you jacked off with your high-school buddy. That’s private, but nobody gives a shit. You don’t have to say a word to anybody about those things.”
Duke paused and looked at me closely. “But if something you did affects the lives of the ones you love, you need to work it out so you can let go. It can’t really remain private. Maybe some aspects are, but what and who you are has got to be part of the both of your relationships. You have to open those old wounds up. Only then can they be properly healed. And, like my son Eric did, you need to think about whether your fear has hardened into habit and is preventing you from doing what is right.” He wiped the counter absently with his washrag. “End of bartenderly advice.”
“Go home, Jake. Do what you have to do to keep this Robbie.”
It was my turn to grin. “I thought your bartenderly advice had ended.”
“Get me a menu, liar. I’m gonna eat and then I’m gonna party…”
Duke looked at me with surprise and maybe a flash of disappointment. I thought he was going to throw me out right then and there.
“…and then I’m gonna go home. To Seattle.”
Home, I liked the sound of that word.
Duke backed off, but his voice held a hint of sadness or paternal anxiety. “You’re really going to stay? Here? Now?”
I smiled at him. “I’m going to have fun. I’m going to drink. I’m going to dance. I’m going to flirt. I’m going to remember what it was like in bars on the other side of the world where I first hid from my problems. I’m going to enjoy the crotch and butt feels. But that’s as far as I’m going to go, I promise. If I go too far, I want you to keep me honest.”
Duke looked at me with doubt on his face, thinking, I am sure, that I was crazy.
“Cross my heart, Dad. And you’re hired to be my chaperone.”
“Okay,” Duke said, “I will be. But when I say you go, you go—no ifs, ands or buts. Agreed?”
I nodded. “The ifs and ands are okay, but the butts part…well, I don’t know.”
I laughed. He laughed.
Then I looked at him warmly and thankfully and asked. “Can I give you a hug? It won’t make you too gay, will it?”
“Sure. Besides, it helps me keep up the image. You’re a good kid, Jake. I use the word ‘kid’ deliberately. When you get your life settled, bring Robbie up and we’ll all go out to dinner.”
I hugged him and then kissed him on the cheek—right in front of all the people that had drifted in. “If you were 20 years younger, Alvin, and I didn’t have Robbie, I’d be wooing you, you know.”
“Fat chance. I’m straight.”
I raised my eyebrows in a doubting gesture. Duke laughed.
I drank. I danced. I flirted. And all my actions were under the watchful eye of Duke. The music was just as good. The flashing lights were mesmerizing. There was still an erotic tension in the evening, but the tension and abandon in me was gone. And I wanted erotic, just not exotic as in sex. Lots of the faces were the same. The states of dress (and undress) were the same. The sordidness and the joy were there. Hands pinched my ass, hands were at my crotch, but I pushed them away gently and smiled my let-them-down-easily smile. By the end of the evening, I’d danced with almost everybody in the bar—the young ones, the old ones, the slender ones, the fat ones, the body builders, the leather types. I wanted to feel at ease as a gay man, to enjoy myself, but to be true to my lover—the lover I was steeling myself to open up my life to.
I did skip the slow dances, using them as a chance to sip quietly on my Molsons.
I knew what I was going to do when I got back to Seattle. I didn’t know how I was going to do it—or when—but a deadline had been set.
I realized I had decided to go back. In a sense, I always knew, deep down, that I had decided not to leave permanently. It was time to change my life—I couldn’t put it off any longer. My “private” life, as Duke had put it, could not remain so private when it came to Robbie. I had to let him in.
* * * * *
The train home blasted its whistle from time to time as it neared road crossings that lay in the path of the tracks. Sometimes the whistle was answered by the Doppler sounds of the clangs of railroad crossings and sometimes at the small roads it was not answered at all. Intermingled with the low and heavy sounds of the wheels on the tracks and the ever-present clack of the expansion joints, was the subwoofer rumble of the train crossing bridges and switches. The sound was mesmerizing, pulling me into its own rhythm until I was one with the train, becoming oblivious to everything else but steel wheels on steel rails and the diesel’s bass sound.
I turned the key in the condo door, climbed the stairs to the bedroom, dropped my clothes on the floor, climbed into bed and wrapped my arms around Robbie, feeling his welcoming grasp around me. And I wept silent tears.