This Autumn

  • Robert Anthony

Written:   Fall/Winter of 1986

The voice on the car radio tells me that it is eight-thirty-two.  I begin to become anxious about arriving late for work.  As usual, I simply speed up on Kelly Drive.   I become aware of the closeness of oncoming cars and become anxious.  To calm down, I attempt to focus on the soft curves of the road.  My eyes drift to the left and take-in the foliage and the nearness of the river.  Then, I cast a quick glance towards the right and settle upon the grey and black wall of rock.  My attempt to distract myself fails.  I return to thinking of the time and the clinic once again.

My worst-case-scenario attacks me.

At eight-forty-five, the Birch View Valley Clinic will be alive and screaming for its’ Director.  Mrs. Steven’s most emotionally fragile student will be escaping through a fire exit, running down a path and aiming for a wooded slope.  Old lady Perkins will be there at the library windows, glancing out and down from the third story, suddenly seeing Esther when she reaches the railroad tracks.  Esther will be confused, stuck in mud, frightened by the sound of  screeching but  still wanting to see the train.  She will still want to get closer.   Old lady Perkins will see it happen.  She will scream.  Soon, the students, the staff, everyone will be running  towards the tracks.  They will arrive to see and stare at Esther; her scattered body parts on the tracks, on weeds, on rocks.  The police will arrive.  They will yell above the screaming, demanding for “Who is in charge around here?”  Someone, probably Hunter, will say, “Anthony.  Mr. Anthony’s in charge.  But he’s not here.  He’s always late.”

I light a cigarette.  I maneuver the steering wheel  with my left hand.  I reach for a cassette and find one.  I shove it into the system.  Listening, I become disoriented. There is this strange clicking sound, as if something is being wound up, almost like the sound of a clock.  I focus on the melody coming at me now.  It is familiar but not really recognizable immediately.  Suddenly, it becomes clear, identifiable.  It is instrumental, the late sixties: Bacharach.  It is simply “The Look Of Love.”

I simultaneously feel attraction and repulsion, calmed  but also unnerved.  I am confused, wondering how the old cassette was even here in the car.

Then, my memory confronts me.

Earlier, in our  condo, I was in the living room, stooped down and hunting, my hand inside and within the cassette  cabinet.  Tony was being impatient in the foyer, banging keys against mirrored doors.  I tried to ignore him, tried to scan the labels.  I grabbed one Sondheim soundtrack, a Vivaldi mix and then…   I heard the impatient keys again and just grabbed one last cassette and headed toward him and our kiss.

Now, on Lincoln Drive, I find myself simply allowing the song to play itself out.  It distracts me.  So, finished, I push ‘rewind’ and then push ‘play’ so that I can hear it once again.  I do this over and over until I pull into the clinic’s parking lot at five-after-nine.  The tune is still with me as I push through the front dark, dark mahogany doors front entry and find myself simply there, surrounded by the mirrored vestibule.

I am hit with reflections of myself.  The song brought back nineteen-seventy.  Now, I am struck by the past mixing with the present.  It is no longer nineteen-seventy.  It is nineteen-eighty-six.  I am no longer twenty years of age.  I am thirty-six.  I am not wearing those faded, torn jeans or that skin-tight white ‘T.’  I am wearing a rich but grey, grey suit.  I glance at a reflection of a reflection, thrown from one mirror to another.  My face looks as if I still could be in my twenties.  I’m startled by this fact  but then, readjust and remember to look closer.  I feel relief.  I am okay.  I can clearly see the grey creeping and taking over my hair.  I remember Joe at the salon, encouraging me to dye the grey all  away.  I had listened to him go on and on.  I ignored him, then laughed, then became silent when he said, “If you do, you’ll look twenty again.  You’ll look perfect.”

I move quickly through the vestibule and through to the offices.  No one mentions anything about me being late or anything about Esther.

I reach up, feel my hair, touch where I know it is grey and feel relief.

*          *          *

Tony and I move into our usual patterns  as soon as pull up to the condo.  He’s free of the car sooner than me, rushing to the lobby for mail.  I’m not free until it’s parked in the garage.  I know I don’t feel like dealing with the people at the gym today.   I find myself on the stairwell, using it for a workout, doing my workout here, running up all of the concrete steps,  from the fifth to the twenty-ninth floor.  Now in our place, panting from all of that, I stop dead  and watch Tony continuing his part of our routine.  He stands within the kitchen,  button-down shirt off, his slacks still on, his shoes by my feet.  He is opening bills, cursing them,  throwing junk mail aside, tossing magazines onto the counters.  I join him in our pattern.  I force myself towards the laundry, throw in a wash, grab the plant mister, move towards the sliders, slam open the ones in the living room, then the ones in the dining room.  I feel the autumn breeze and yell at him.

“Tony, hey, you.  Stop cursing.  I love you.”

  He laughs, stops, throws me a true and sincere smile and says, “Fuck you.”  Then he continues cursing at the mail.

   I just find myself misting.   I mist the fern.  I mist the palm.  I mist the arboretum on the foyer table.  I notice the blink, blink, blink of the answering machine.  I press “play” and am ready to head off to the bedroom but I stop.

    “Bobby?….Tony?…It’s me.  It’s Diane.  I’ve got to talk to you guys.  Give me a call when you get home.  Please?  Bye.”

     Tony yells at me from the kitchen.

     “You really should get right back to her.  Could be about her Mother.”

      I throw a glance at him which he clearly catches.  He simply shakes his head.  He’s right.  He’s only saying the obvious.  We both have  our jobs.   Keeping up with friends, calling them back, reaching out to  them when they haven’t called us, these, these are my jobs.   Dealing with the bills, the condo association, the people of the building, those are his jobs.  I hate his jobs.   He hates my jobs.  What’s my problem?  I move towards the kitchen, make sure he’s smiling, pull him towards me.  He kisses away the residue of that earlier angry glance.  I reach down into the trash and pull out an envelope.  I grab at his face and start stuffing it into his mouth.  He grabs my hand and puts it on his crotch.  The phone stops it all.  It rings one, two, three, four times.  We freeze.  Neither of us moves towards the phone.  We just wait.  There is the click, then our message, then the voice alive but being recorded

    “Tony?…Bob?….John here.  Listen, give me a call when you can.  The number’s changed.  It’s…”

     I am stunned as I watch Tony.  He is reaching out for pen, for paper.  He finds the pen but can not find paper.  He stretches out the envelope.   He arches his head, attending to the numerals, getting them down onto the paper.   I’m thinking:  Something’s different.  Something’s changed.  He’s doing my job.  What’s going on?  What did he hear in John’s voice?   Suddenly, I get it. He was doing my job because I wasn’t.  I was frozen listening to John’s voice.  Tony had seen that.  Tony had stepped in to cover for me.

      Message over, phone number on paper, Tony stops.

      He says, “…So what do you thinks up?  Haven’t heard from him in over six months.”

      I know he wants me to answer, to say what I think, really to say something, anything.  But, I find myself unable to look at him.  Instead, I glance towards the dining room’s wall of glass and the city and a helicopter passing.  I move.   I find myself outside, on the terrace.  In the southern distance, there is a jet taking off from Philly International.  I follow it’s ascent.

       I’m stunned.  I can’t speak.  I’m just struck by the beauty of it all, the perfection of it all, our place, the view, our stuff, this man inside there, this love of ours.

        He is behind me.  He is waiting.  He wants me to say it.  Saying it is, I guess, my job.

        I do something that I have not done since I was a teenager, a young teenager.  I cough up something from my insides, make it into a gob.  I do it all.  I make the sound.  I turn my face.  I spit onto the terrace.  Then, I look straight at Tony and I speak.

         “He probably has it.”

*          *          *

I am sitting upright on our bed, trying to hold onto and remember the dream which has just jolted me awake.  Tony is beside me and to my right.  I glance at him.  He is dead asleep, snoring.  With him so deeply aside, he can not see me awake and frightened.  I’ve relieved. I do not have to explain myself.  I struggle for the dream, begin to lose it and catch it at the same time.

I find myself, now, staring at one of black and whites of our friends photos on the opposite wall.  I zone in on Diane.  There she is, perpetually Mama Cass Elliott.  The picture shows her and her ex, Scott,  muddy  and smiling at Woodstock.  Scott was so unlike her, so thin even then.  I think, If I had been there when they met I could easily have told her: Stay clear, this guy is a closet-case.  No matter.  Meeting Scott at work led to meeting Diane.  Scott coming-out, ending with her and moving to San Francisco.  All was good.  His leaving ushered in the comfortable three-way friendship of Diane, Tony and me.  Sudden thought: I remember the last time I saw him, how thin he was, the sunken eyes, the fact  that I immediately felt he had it.  Just the thought of him  brings the dream back and I turn away from the photos. push open the sliders, stay right here but stare out towards the city.

Out of the blue, I remember the scary dream full and clear.  I relive it in my head:  I am looking out of the third story, rear window of the school.  I can see the ravine, the fence, the train tracks in the distance.  I feel a soft wind.  Strange, in real life, the wind is coming from the city right now.  In the dream, it was coming in from the window at the school.  I see the running figure.  However, it is not Esther who is running from the building and towards danger.  It is John.  He stops, turns around, looks back and up towards me.

He apes holding a megaphone and screams out.

“Stop worrying about me.  Forget the train.   It already hit me.  See?  I’m okay though.  Oh, and  when the fuck are going to call meback?”

I free myself of the overly  puffy, white Calvin Klein comforter and push it onto the floor.  Tony was right.  This bedroom, like everything else, has become an ever-changing  spread in Architectural Digest.  I decide to go to Woolworth’s tomorrow and buy some flowered or paisley shitty blanket.  In the kitchen, I stare at John’s new number written on that envelope.  Now, given what I am doing, I am startled.  I find myself using a black magic marker and writing on the grey kitchen wall:  Call Diane.  Call John.

It is four A.M.  I move out and onto the balcony, chain-smoking until dawn.  During all of this time, not the wind, not even a breeze returns.

*          *          *

I am sitting at my desk in my office at work.   The phone buzzes and I pick it up.  I am staring at the black and white from nineteen eighty of Tony and me,  arms about each other on a beach in P-Town.  We look alike but, yet,  there are those differences.  Me, slightly taller.  Him, clearly broader.  Me, no sign of stubble.  Him, always the shadow.  Me, the birthmark.  Him, the cleft.  I’d rather enter the photo  but know I have to listen to Dr. Rosenthal: Joan.  I hear her chatter on and on, not really focusing on what she is saying and, instead,  stare at the photo, trying to remember who took the shot.  I push myself to listen to her.    I have to have a  work mind working.    I do this by switching my gaze to my degrees hanging above the mantel.

She is still expecting me to be a guest lecturer for one of her courses at Penn.  I’m complimented and angry.  I no longer teach for Women’s Studies but am always being called back.  I listen.  I fake interest, hear enthusiasm in my voice.  Rosenthal, Joan buys it.  I jot down the details.

Prioritizing Diversity in the 80’s – November 18th – 2:30 to 4:30 – Van Pelt Library – Not sure what room yet – Focus on gay male role but don’t forget straight guys!

She mentions the stipend.  She asks about Tony.  I ask about Gail.

I hang up the phone and am frustrated with myself.   Why did I agree to do this?  Why didn’t I make an excuse?  I hear laughter, fairly calm, coming from the corridor.   It is Esther.

*            *           *

With dinner finished, Ken has stopped fussing in his kitchen and joined the two of us.  He sits on the carpet, leaning back against a wall and just looks at us, seeming to wait for a subject to begin.  Tony simply lights a cigarette.    I’m staring out of his windows, looking out from his building to ours.  Conversation seems stuck.  I feel like I should bring up work, bring up anything.  But, I feel blocked.  Tony has pushed that I not share my concerns about John with Ken.  He doesn’t want our friend to begin worrying when, as he says, there is no reason to begin worrying yet.

Ken begins to stutter out words to end the silence.

“Do you think there’ll be a big turnout for the Burger Roast next Tuesday?”

He and Tony begin to talk.  I turn to the Gay News, reading of the “leadership’s” plans for the event.  I read about the list of speakers who will be roasting Burger.  I read about ____________’s suggestion that everyone bring whistles so as to disrupt the planned, formal dinner for this hated Supreme  Court Chief Justice.  I read about the satirical street theatre that will be presented, about the banners that will mock his statements on the Court’s ruling upholding sodomy laws.

Tony shoots a glance towards me.  I put the paper down onto the coffee table and listen to Ken.

He says, “Maybe I should stop off at the Community Center and pick up whistles for the three of us.”

Tony says, “It sounds like a farce to me.  Guys were hunted down just having sex in a hotel room.  Burger said that sodomy was worse than rape.  They should be doing something more than just frigging whistling.”

Ken says, “Yes, that’s true, but..”

Tony interrupts him, standing up, saying, “At the first protest against the Court’s ruling, ___________ said that their plans were for all of us to join hands and circle the Liberty Bell.  Then, she said that we hadn’t quote unquote gotten permission from the city to do that.”

I break in.  “She should have led everyone to do it anyway.  Everybody would have done it.  People were as angry as fuck.”

Tony says, “Bobby’s right.  So, some of us would have gotten arrested.  People are dying all over and the Court’s talking about sodomy and she’s worried about playing by the rules?  Fuck her and her whistles.  It’s time to act.”

I look at Ken.  He looks beaten.

He says, “I guess the two of you don’t really want to go to the Burger thing.”

Tony is quick to follow.  “Ken, it will be more of the same.  We’re fighting for our lives and they want us to blow whistles.”

Our friend looks towards me, seeking some sort of support.

His stuttering is intensifying.  “But we’ve got to be there anyway.  If nothing else, we  have to add the numbers, to get the biggest crowd for whatever it is that they’re planning.”

I say, “I guess we should go.  We’ll go.  But, I’m pissed.  I don’t feel like hearing __________ say yet one more time what loving, gentle and peaceful people we are.”

“But,” Ken says softly, “we are.”

I respond.  I am too sharp.  I say:  “Yeh, you’re right.  And that’s our problem.”

Tony comes to the rescue, distracting from me and my words.   He promises  Ken that we will be there.  I listen as I return my eyes to the windows.  The sky has turned purple.  I can’t see our building.  I feel trapped by the view, the room, the talk, all of it.  I move towards my sneakers and begin to put them on, signaling with my eyes to  Tony that we are leaving.   I am hugging Ken, feeling sad for him, but thinking that, when home, even though it’s not warm, I want the air conditioning on high and two comforters on the bed.

*          *          *

We lay on our bed.  We both smoke cigarettes.  I am thinking of our inability to keep hard-ons.  I become determined.  I crush out my cigarette and become physically and verbally aggressive.   I soon have the two of us into a sex fantasy which sharply arouses both of us.  We live out the fantasy for forty-five minutes.  I begin to feel we are young again.  I remember the beginning years.  It is not the eighties and the present. It is the past and the best sex we have had in weeks.

Soon, Tony is away from me, in the living room and talking with Diane.  I rise from the bed, move out towards him.  He reacts to my presence and moves the phone away  from his ear, mouthing “Do you want to talk to her?”  I smile at him but continue on and away.  Out on the balcony, I am smoking another cigarette, my cassette player offering up Bacharach.  I stare out towards the city.

I can see small and large groups of gay men moving to and from the bars on the streets below.  For a moment, I am enticed to leave Bacharach and the past.  I almost feel ready to rush downstairs and enter the present.

Instead, I light another cigarette and simply close my eyes.

I picture nineteen-seventy.  Tony is still living with his wife and kids.  I am still living with my grandparents and Mother.  The two of us are in a motel room just outside of Atlantic City, rushing sex but unwilling to let eight hours be enough.

I quickly open my eyes, startled by the realization that only a few minutes ago we were playing with the same sex-fantasy that we had played with way back then.

I leave the balcony and enter the apartment, listening to Tony.

He is saying, “No, Bobby can’t talk right now.  He’s probably going to drive over to John’s.”

He has already begun to lie for me.

*          *          *

We are in the lobby of our building, surrounded by tropical plants, mirror and marble.  Tony is in the mail-room, collecting bills.  I am at the front desk, listening to Ron.

Ron is saying, “Your friend dropped off a package for the two of you.”

I immediately feel guilty for not being more supportive lately to Ken.  As usual, Ken is reaching out, showing he holds no grudge, passing on a nice gift for us.

As he reaches behind the counter, I find the past mixing with the present again.  Ron is tall, thin, black and handsome.  He is so physically similar to John.

I suddenly remember.  Somehow, knowing John all of these years, I have almost forgotten that it was here, at our building, in this lobby, at this desk, that I first met John.  It was John who used to hand us packages and sit behind this counter in the evenings.

Ron pulls out a white box from Swiss Pastry.  I can smell cream-puffs.  It is only then that I notice the flower.  There is one, white rose taped to the box of goodies.  It has a white-envelope attached to it.

My mind quickly takes in all of the facts.  Ken frequently drops off goodies or flowers.  But, he would not just drop off one flower.  And Ken is not prone to cards.

Tony moves towards me.

He says, “A gift from Ken?  A flower too?”

I grab the box and the flower and move towards the elevators.  Soon, we are rising up to the twenty-ninth floor.

“Tony, the gift, the flower is from John.”

Now, inside of our home, I find myself oddly grabbing the bills from Tony’s hands.  I rip them open and begin complaining about interest rates.  Tony finds himself putting the flower in a glass vase, placing it on the foyer table and reading the card.

“You are right,” he says, “It is from John. But, he really doesn’t say much of anything, one way or the other.”

Now, he finds himself doing my usual job pressing the buttons on the kitchen phone to call a friend.

I say, “Still no answer?”

He nods a yes and then moves towards the blinking machine in the living room, saying, “We can’t jump to conclusions.  We don’t know until we know.”

I stare at the carnation and think but do not say aloud:  Yes we do.

*          *          *

The phone ends my dream and pulls me away from sleep.    I do not wait for Tony to pick up the phone.  Instead, I pick it up, begin to listen, talk and move.  While I listen to Diane, I make coffee.  I have my first cigarette of the day.

Things have gotten worse.  Her mother was rushed to the hospital last night.  Now, Diane is at home, crying anxious, needy, but,  more than anything else, frightened.

She opens up and acknowledges that the thing is definitely bone cancer, that it is spreading quickly.  She finally reveals that her mother’s hair is gone.  She doesn’t want us to come to the hospital.  She says that the doctors have given Ruth an odd range of life left, days, weeks, perhaps months.   To me, the time left seems arbitrary, based on almost something distinct and different from the cancer itself….Surely not a “God”….but what?  The weather?  I find myself holding back a laugh.

Tony now moves from the bedroom and out towards me.  He kisses me on the top of my head.   He sits at the table with me, our coffee, our cigarettes, this telephone and Diane.

Somehow, I say, “Diane, do you want us to come over to Jersey and be with you?”

Tony looks at his watch.  I look at my own.  It is five a.m.  He stops smoking, waiting, hoping that her answer will be a “no.”  Her answer is a “No.”  But, she still wants to talk.  He watches me as I stand up and move towards the sliding glass doors.  I am listening to Diane but still trapped by the beginning and earliest traces of the sunrise.

He saves me, saying, “Here, let me talk with her.”

Now, the phone is in his hand.  I move towards the doors, open them and throw my cigarette out to the city and the streets below.

I think, He knows I can not listen to any of it anymore.

I am both embarrassed and relieved.

*          *         *

I’m at my desk at home.  It is 3:AM.  The Italian clock has just run the hour.  I am preparing my lecture for Joan, Dr. Rosenthal.  I can not focus.  I look up and simply stare at the note I have staring at me:

Prioritizing Diversity in the 80’s, Focus on the Male Perspective, Do not forget the straight guys!

I start to type.  The opening begins to form:

When I first started here in the Women’s Studies Department, courses were full with a diverse group of students.  There were, of course, feminists who were working towards their degrees in this Department.  And there were, of course, gays and lesbians and people of color who were taking the courses as electives.  Surprisingly, there were also heterosexual men, cool and smart guys who were genuinely interested in broadening their minds.  Now, it is the 80’s.  Suddenly, the classes are full with business type straight guys, totally disinterested  in diversity but taking painstaking notes.  Recently, I asked one, “Why are you taking this course.”  And, you know what he said to me?  He said, “In order to get ahead in business, I need to learn how to deal with and manage women.”

I stare at this view that I put down in writing, this truth that I will never dare  to say aloud during my presentation.  I begin to laugh.  Then, I begin to type.

Fuck the straight guys!  Fuck the straight guys!  Fuck the straight guys!

I pull the paper from the typewriter, find myself laughing, and stick it into the shredder.

I jolt.  Tony is beside me, offering something that sounds like a laugh.

I say, “Shit, I’m sorry.  Did I wake you up?”

He says, “I don’t know how you’re going to be able to do this thing for the course.  You’re not exactly yourself.”

I roll in another paper.  I start to type again.  I  have become angry with him.

It is the first time that he has openly acknowledged that he is worried about me.

*          *          *

I’m at my desk at the office. It is 3 PM.  The Victorian just chimed the hour.  I am pressing buttons on my phone.  There is still no answer at John’s.  I suddenly hear a buzz from the Interphone system.  I jolt and stare at the machine.  The lit, red button tells me that there is a problem in Class Number One.  I quickly press the button marked “Stevens.”

I listen to her.

“Rob, it’s Esther.   She’s eloped.  She ran out to the fire escape.  I tried but couldn’t catch her.”

I quickly click her off and then press the button marked “Crisis.”

“Paul, Jim, it’s Class One.  Esther’s run from the school.  Fire escape.”

I don’t wait for their response.  I simply run from my office, down the old center stairs and out the main doors.

I’m aware of the drizzle.  I stop and stare at the children in the front school yard and realize it is outdoor  time.  I think this is good, easier to spot Esther.   I begin looking at every child, searching for her.  Paul and Jim are now beside me.  They don’t seem to know what they should be doing next.  I’m already knowing that she is not here with the other children.  The guys ask me what to do.  I ignore them and turn to the children.  I find myself yelling at the oldest ones, the older boys.

“Run down that hill.  Go  to the fence.  Esther’s on the railroad tracks.”

The boys sense my panic, listen to me and immediately run off in the right direction.

Jim pulls at me and says, “Paul  and I’ll take the van and go around to the tracks.  You coming?”

I immediately think of my worst fantasy, presume that it is all too late anyway.  I say, “No.  I’ll wait here.”

I find myself smoking a cigarette in front of the other children and staff while I wait.

*          *          *

Esther is returned, unharmed.  Standing there in the main lobby, I watch as Paul and Jim carry her back into the school.  The students surround me, all talking to me at once.  The boys I had sent out to the tracks are closest and proud.

“Mr. Anthony, you were right.  She was right there on the tracks.”

“A train was coming.  She wasn’t even going to move out-of-the-way.”

“Eric ran out and grabbed her.  He really was the one who saved her.  Then we held her down.”

“Then Mr. Atkins and Mr. Hunter put her into the van.”

I pat their heads, their shoulders, but move on and away.  I need to get up to the second floor.

There, in the Crisis center, I stare at this Esther, this staring and laughing child.  Paul and Jim attempt to reassure me, telling that she’s fine, that everything’s okay, that there’s no need to worry.”

I hear what they are saying but focus more on her laughter.  Finally, I say, “I want her in the Crisis room for the rest of the day.   I don’t care about the regulations.  Neither of you go anywhere.  Don’t leave her alone.  Make sure the door is constantly locked.  She’s got to be kept safe.  I can’t allow this child to harm herself.”

I turn towards the exit door, wanting to return to the Victorian clock.  I listen to her laugh as the men place her in the interior,Crisis room.  I turn, return, move towards the door of the room.  I stare at the circular, shatter proof, glass  opening.  She is banging and pounding on the door with her fist.  She is still making sounds.  They have begun to seem less like laughter.

*          *          *

I am at home, sitting on the balcony; cassette player, as usual playing Bacharach.  The music is in my head but I am also forcing myself to think of Diane and her mother.  I know that I should call her.  I know that I need to make an attempt to participate, even better, to take care of things, to take care of her.  My ideas on “how” to help seem worthless.  I don’t know how to help.   So, I find myself staring at the jets taking off from the distant airport.

Tony calls from the living room.  “Don’t you think you should try to call John again?”

I find myself acting as if I’ve received a command.  I leave the clouds and the sky and the jets and Bacharach and move my body. It feels reassuring to listen to Tony, to move when he says “move.”    I am now inside, feeling that it is easier to do these necessary actions in this way, as if obeying orders.  I press buttons on the phone.  The ringing stops and I listen to John’s “Hello.”

I stare at his white rose as he talks.  Soon, I am crying.  I force my voice to sound normal and okay.  Tony stares towards me and questions me with his eyes.  I nod, letting him know that the answer is:  Yes.  I listen to the specifics that John is telling me as I watch Tony cry.  I push at myself not to break down, feeling compelled to not let John hear me fall apart.  He is anxious to see us as soon as possible.

“Is tonight okay with you guys?”

I immediately agree.  I tell him that we will pick him up with the car and drive him into the center of the town for a dinner out.  I promise that we will be at his place at exactly six thirty.

When I put down the receiver, Tony and I hold onto each other and cry together for at least one half of an hour.  Then, as if on automatic pilot, we separate, shower and shave, throw  clothes  on without thinking.   I’m struck by the fact that he has chosen khakis and a polo and I have chosen ripped jeans and a t-shirt.   I almost say something, almost have an impulse to change and match his look or ask him to match mine.    But, then, this concern about what we usually do simply leaves my mind.

In the foyer, at the door, Tony says, “You haven’t really let it out.   You’ve cried but I know you.  There’s something missing.  You’re going to need to react.  It’s going to be healthier than what you are doing to yourself.”

I move with him towards the elevator bank, thinking:  He knows me too well.  He knows that my crying with him was more for him and not for myself and certainly not for John.  I become aware that this is much more than sadness for me.  At the elevators, Tony begins crying again.  I know it’s pointless to cry and even pointless to comfort him.   I know my inability to truly  cry or truly comfort is related to something about all of this, and all of me that I simply don’t fully understand.

I do understand this:  For me, crying and comforting right now would be an act of dishonesty, of hiding from my truth.  So, I am afraid to even attempt it.  After all,  Tony knows me too well.  If I cried or comforted him, he was know I would be being dishonest, would know  I am hiding.  And I am worried.  Because If he finds where it is that I am hiding,  I am afraid to face what he will find.  Tony knows me so well.  If he finds out what is wrong me, I won’t be able to hide any longer.  Because whatever he find out will be true.

*          *          *

Parked in the small and narrow street, I honk the car horn.  Tony and I both stare towards the house, the porch, the front door; waiting to see what we will see.

John leaves his house.  He has lesions on one side of his face.  He is emaciated.  He can barely walk.   Tony begins to cry.

I say, “Stop crying.  You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

He says, “He needs help getting down those stairs.  Shouldn’t we help?”

Within seconds, we are outside of the car and helping John.  I am stunned that he has no cane.  I become aware that a small group of neighborhood children have stopped, gathered and are staring at this scene of the three of us.   I close my eyes.  All I want to think of is John and me dancing the night away at ___________’s.

John is now inside of the car,  saying, “Do you believe these crazy kids?  They act as if they’ve never seen anybody with AIDS in the entire lives!”  He begins to laugh the laugh I know.  But, as familiar as it is, I jolt.  This is the same laugh that he would use when we would enter a biker bar and be stared at because we were wearing sneakers.

*          *          *

I sit in this restaurant, __________’s, and stare at the walls.  I hate being here.  I only agreed to come because it was John’s choice.

The owner of this place, ____________, infuriates me.  Whenever Tony and I have arrived at his doors and only gays are present, he hugs and kisses us.  Whenever straights are present, he simply shakes our hands.  After the July demonstration against the Supreme Court’s sodomy ruling, he delicately but firmly directed me to place my “This is Liberty?!?” placard in the cloak room.  Afterwards, when we discussed the issue at our table and I confronted him, he laughed and and said that my belief that we are living in an era of increased repression was just stuff of a “drama queen.”   I remember ending the conversation by mocking him, congratulating him on the crowd in his place that evening. He did not get my point.  His place was full and he was making money because so many of us had headed to his restaurant right after the march.  Tony got my point.  After he left us, he simply said to me, “Bobby, as usual you target well but, as usual, who you target doesn’t get it.”

More important, in the here and now, just moments ago, when we entered, he looked annoyed that we were here with this someone, this someone with AIDS, John.  He purposefully seated us in the farthest most corner of the room  He held out a chair for John, choosing the place for someone like him, him, making sure that the man with lesions would be facing a wall instead of customers.

I force myself to end my thoughts of anger towards the owners, start staring at walls instead of him, and then, finally, shift to looking at and listening to John.

*          *          *

John is calling the lesions on his face “purple beauty marks.”  He is saying that he “will beat this thing.”  He is talking about a trip to France.  He tells us about a man in his therapy group who has had it for two years and is “looking terrific” and “healthy as hell.”  He tells us that he was fired from his position with the city once it became clear that he was ill.  He says that as long as he can get down “three, good, nutritious meals” a day, he’ll “put weight back on.”  He says that it’s hard to eat due to the sores on the inside of his throat.  Finally, he talks about his view of how he “got this thing” and labels a man from two years ago as “the one who gave it to me.”

Tony glances at me, noting my discomfort and simply with his eyes reminds me:  Bobby, settle, cope, it is simply dementia.  I know he is right.  Yet, I sit here wondering why it is that I can not connect what I know and what I’ve read with what I am experiencing with John right now.  Nothing that is happening is odd or abnormal; this mix of reality and fantasy and denial is all to be expected.  I am asking myself:  What were you expecting? Why are you surprised?  What is it?  Because he is of your family, the plague will not hit him the same way?    So, I try to change the subject.   I begin to talk about people that he knows in our building.  I look to Tony, relying upon him to help me.

But Tony is suddenly talking about Sal and his suicide; the thirty-three story jump, the note with the single and revealing word.  John is interested, responding with questions, as if this subject is normal.  I recoil but then stop.  I find myself agreeing with John’s sentiment – because, after all: Isn’t all of this  normal now?  So, I join the subject and bring up my first death from this thing, my friend:   Ray.

“John, I’m thinking of Ray, first one down, remember Ray?”

I remind John that Ray and I had worked hard on the Gay Liberation Front back in the late sixties on campus.  I start bleeding out.  I find myself stating that he first, then he and I, had such dreams for a new world.  I share a recollection of New Year’s eve, 1979 when Ray and I anticipating and looking forward to an even better decade, one where we would push further and achieve more.

I am not crying.  I simply say, “And now, his life and what he could have made happen has been snuffed out.”

Tony reaches out, puts an arm around me, plants a kiss on my face.

John simply says, “It doesn’t surprise me.  Ray was never careful about who he fucked around with.  Plus, he was really into backroom sex.”

Tony shoots me a message immediately, saying with his eyes:  Deal, cope, this is just the disease speaking.

But, no matter what, hearing Ray’s life being framed within the context of his sex habits rather than his idealism so saddens me.  I find myself needed to look away from John and towards the owner of the place and then towards the customers but then shift towards the pretty posters and then finally rest my eyes on the orchids on each table.

I am thinking:  Everything is unreal.  Everything is upside down.  Now, we are not in Kansas anymore.  This is worse.  We are on the other side of the looking glass.

 Tony pokes at me and I look at him.  He is trying to message me that he understands, that it will be okay, that he is here beside me.

I calm and think:  No nothing will be okay.  But, yes, you are beside me.

*          *          *

It is 3:00 Am.  Neither of us can sleep.  We both sit at the dining room table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  I stare at the white rose and am stunned.  The thing still has not died.

We are back to a usual discussion:  Can we come down with it?

I am focusing on “the unknown latency period,”  referring to the frightening question:  How far back does one go to go?  When was the safe year, if any?  When we are at this stage of the discussion, our minds and words obsess on that period of time in the mid-seventies when each of us had played around a bit.

Tony is saying, “So unlikely.  That stopped for us in like seventy-five.  Everything you’ve read suggests maybe, at the earliest, seventy-six, probably not even that early, probably later.  Besides, you made it with no more than ten guys.  For me, it was almost the same.  And, Bobby, only oral.  Chances are so slim.”

I persist.  Now, I am focusing on the more serious period of time, discussing the three-ways that we had in 80 and 81.

I  say, “Any one of those guys could have passed it on to us.”

Tony to the rescue, says, “Bobby, we did so little.  Touchy, grabby.  Again, only oral.  It was almost like having safe sex before anyone thought of it or came up with the term.”

I feel defeated.  I am not certain why I feel that I do not want to be reassured or feel safe.  I stop talking about the possibility of our having contracted it.  I light a cigarette for him and pass it over.

Finally, Tony, as usual, deals with me, the one who is the psychologist who, like the cobbler, can not mend his own shoes.  He puts the cards clearly down onto the table and confronts me.

He says, “Bobby, know what the problem is?  I’ll tell you what the problem is.  In fact, you know what the problem is.   So let me ask you this one, basic question:   Do you believe you have it, I have it, that we have it?”

His direct question frightens me.  I can not hide from Tony.  So, I answer honestly.

“No.”

“Bobby, that’s the problem.  You know we don’t have it.  And, for you, that means you have to fix it.”

I light a cigarette and remember a catch-phrase I wrote for a lecture recently.  To let Tony know that I heard him, understood him and agree with him, I say the phrase aloud.

“Everything is in your control until it is not in your control.”

*          *          *

Ken sits on the love seat at our place, toying with Tony’s lighter.

He says, “You know, tomorrow makes four years of no sex for me.  It’s my anniversary.”  He ends with a dead laugh.

Tony somewhat laughs and says, “You’ve got to come out of it.  You’ve got to try safe sex.  You’ve just got to.”

Ken becomes as annoyed as he can allow himself to be with us.

He says, “It’s easy for you to say that.  The two of you don’t have to worry.  You’ve together and have been for sixteen years.  You’ve done so little playing around.   And you don’t have it.  So you’re free and clear.  You two don’t have to worry about having safe sex..  You’re both okay and can have any kind of  sex with each other you want.”

It was only this morning that Tony and I had our talk.  It is still fresh in my mind.  I am determined to pull myself together, to be honest, to be straightforward, to feel more control, to escape a real world that I now too often view as surreal.  I speak up.

“But, Ken, there’s less sex for us than there used to be.  It’s crazy, but I find myself not wanting it.  I find myself thinking of all of the guys who can’t.  It’s just like being in  the bars.  You can forget and enjoy yourself for a few minutes.  But, then, the next minute, you find yourself staring at people and wondering who might be dying, who is going to be next.  This thing is affecting us all, even Tony and me.  It’s as if we’re forced to think of sex when we’re having AIDS.”

Ken just stares at me.

He says, “Did you heard what you just said?”

I heard it.

*          *          *

Tony and I are making love.  The sliders are open.  A warm fall breeze fills the room.  I am relieved.  For a change, it is not just sex.  We are really focusing on each other.  When we are finished, I turn on my stomach and stare out to the city.  The evening sky is pale blue, beautiful for a change.  Tony reassures me that everything will be okay, that we need to take a  holiday, that he loves me.

I look at him for what seems to be the first time in weeks.  He startles me.  He is so handsome.

Suddenly I realize that his naked form fits exactly what everyone wants and sees in every hot guy porno spread.  I think of the words that could describe him: hot, hunky, butch, hung.

I am happy that I do not perceive him this way.  I return to thinking of my word for him: handsome.  I find myself repeating it over and over again in my mind.  I glance towards the photograph of the two of us in Key West, smiling, tanned, arms about each other’s shoulders.  It was taken in 1980.  We spent two weeks celebrating our 10th anniversary totally alone.  And I suddenly remember:  Oh yes, we had to ask a stranger to take the photo.

I fall back against him, relax onto his chest and outstretched arm.  This is not surreal, I think.  Tony is real.  He hugs me closer and I feel protected and safe.  I hear the words I am saying to myself.  Everything will be okay.  We will plan a holiday.  We love each other.   For the first time in weeks, I don’t feel uncomfortable or ill at ease or guilty about his taking such close care of my lately.  I remind myself that we have always taken care of each other and that, soon, any day, week or year soon, I will be taking care of him.

The phone rings.

*          *          *

As we rise from the bed, we stand still as the answering machine clicks on.  We listen to my voice announcing ‘You know what to do.”  We wait, standing and listening.  My voice ends.  There is the sound of the beep.  It is John.  Neither of us move towards the machine.  We stand by the windows and hold onto each other, unable to do anything else.  His message:  “Better call soon.  I’m booking for Paris.”

*          *          *

I am dreaming of Esther.  In the dream, she is not running towards the railroad tracks.  She is simply sitting, smiling in the Crisis Room.  I am inside the room, ready to move towards her but concerned that, if I do so, something bad will happen.  She speaks clearly, as she can not do in real life.  She says, “You’re right.  Don’t come any closer.  If you do, I’ll explode.”

Tony shakes me, waking me from sleep and the dream.

He says, “Diane just called.  Her mother’s gone.”

*          *          *

I sit on the edge of the loveseat listening to Tony as he speaks to Diane.  I find myself reviewing her life.  She survived cancer as a child.  She felt so low because of her weight that she married Scott.  She lived through all those years with him, pretending she did not know he was gay only to find him ending  with her anyway, becoming lovers with a twin, ironically also named Scott.   She moved into a world of dealing and using drugs.  Weed to coke.  Coke to Heroin.  Then, he mother got cancer and, within a day, the drugs all went away.  I stood stunned, seeing no signs of withdrawal, nothing but a health Diane once again.  I concluded that, finally, her mother’s needing her gave her a purpose, one she resented but, at least, something that was purely hers.  Now, with Ruth dead, even that would be gone.  I know the drugs will come back.  I can hear Diane in my head, simply saying privately and honestly to me, “Bob, it’s not fair.”  I can see Diane in my head, at a party with friends, drugged or not, suddenly rising up to sing an old Mama Cass song to distract, to entertain, to get laughs.

Tony is saying to Diane, “Do you need us now?  We won’t go to work.  We’ll come right over.”

I watch his response to whatever she is saying and am relieved to realize that her answer has clearly been:  No.

As he puts down the phone, Tony just says, “Her family will be with her.  Her sister’s flight lands in an hour.  Diane says that she’s fine and that there’s nothing that we can do for now.”

I say, “Tony, I don’t know that I’m going to be able to go to another funeral.”

I look towards the white rose.  It still has not died.

*          *          *

Sitting at my desk at work, I force myself to dial John’s number.

I find myself lying to him easily, saying that we both were with Diane last night, that we didn’t hear his message until we had gotten back from New Jersey.

He is anxious to be with us.  I find myself committing ourselves to an evening with him at our place, saying that this Saturday would be “great.”

I say, “I’ll make your favorite dish, Veal Saltimbocca.”

He tells me that he has always hated Veal which is not true.  He has always loved veal.   He reminds me of a fact that is not accurate, that he  has always been a vegetarian.

I simply say, “Dumb me.  I’ll make your favorite dish, “Tortellini Portabella.”

He tells me that he will be going to the Supreme Court Burger Roast tomorrow evening.  He pushes me to join him.  I, once again, easily lie, and simply say that we will be heading over to Diane’s.

He reminds me of the AIDS candlelight march is on the twenty-fifth.  He asks if we will join him for the walk.  The date seems so far away.  I immediately doubt the  likelihood of him being able to walk or even remember the event.

It is easy for me to say, “Yes, of course, yes.”

*          *          *

It is Friday.  I am relieved the week is over.  Tony is not cursing over bills but is simply and calmly writing checks.  I am not misting plants but simply and calmly crashed on the sofa in my suit and with my music.  Bacharach, of course, is present.  The phone rings.  Tony moves quickly and answers.  He is speaking to me but I can’t hear him.  He is suddenly right here and  pulling the ear plugs out and away.

“Bobby, it was the front desk.  John is on his way up.”

I start to put the plugs back into my ears.  I am saying, “Wrong.  He’s not coming tonight.  Today’s Friday.  He’s coming tomorrow:  Saturday.”

Tony pulls me up and simply says, “Friday, Saturday or whatever day.  It doesn’t matter.  He’s here.”

I move towards the kitchen saying “But there’s no tortellini, no mushrooms, nothing.”

“Forget it.  Don’t worry.  We’ll order out.  Doesn’t matter.  He’s here.”

Tony is at the door.  The two of us and, to some degree, John are spastic, moving about, confused, all talking at once.

Finally, we’re seated and drinking drinks and beyond the issue of whether the day is Friday or Saturday.  I’m looking through menus, trying to find take-out tortellini.  John interrupts and is upset that I haven’t made the veal, his “favorite dish.”  Tony is trying to explain days of the week and veal versus tortellini.  I am trying to cut through it all and take the blame for everything with “sorry” and “my fault” being repeated and repeated.  Tony becomes decision maker and simply orders two pizzas, one spinach and one pepperoni.  John becomes angry that we invited him over for dinner and are ordering in food.  Everything is becoming more bizarre.  Tony and I are both moving about, doing things, trying to make things “okay” and “right.”

We sit in the living area, waiting for the pizza delivery.   Tony and I begin chatting about normal things, bars opening, bars closing.  John is simply sitting and staring.

Finally, he says, “And neither of you kissed me when I came in the door.”

Now, he switches and says, “Do you believe that rose I gave you?  Look at it.  It’s still growing strong.”

I drink my Tab.  Tony holds his water glass.  John drinks from both the wine glass and the bottle.

John continues, telling us that  he will likely not be going to France.  He says that his doctors have told him that he is doing better but not “that much” better.  He is no longer calling his lesions beauty marks.  Instead, he is calling them “sores.”

Tony takes over.  He tells John that he is relieved to  hear about the change regarding a trip to France.  He is kind and careful, saying that he was worried about him  taking a trip like that alone.  I remain silent.

Now, something happens.  Tony puts on some music:  Nina Simone.  He forcefully takes over the room.  He smartly and simply focuses on the past, old times that we have spent together.

Tony recollects, tells stories.  John laughs.  Nina sings “Here Comes The Sun.”

I sit and remember back to that original phone message from John and the flower message and then, John telling me that he was sick.  I am thinking about how much I felt some need to fix things but had no ideas on what to fix or how to fix it.

I listen to the song and Tony’s stories and John’s laughter.  I am relieved that someone, Tony, knows the secret to how to live life instead of  fixing life.  I look towards Tony and let him know through my expression that I appreciate what he has accomplished in this moment and guilt for my inability to do what he can do.  He understands my gaze and simply glances back with his own message.  I know that he is saying:  That  it is all good, that it doesn’t matter if I can not be the one to put on music, tell stories, and make laughter happen.  He is saying with his eyes:  You expect yourself to be perfect.  I don’t.

Soon, Tony is saying, “Bobby and I won’t be going to the Burger roast tomorrow night.  He’s too sad and he’s too angry.”  I am stunned.  I stare at him.  He has simply stated what can be stated:  The truth.

John simply accepts this statement.  We all kiss, lips to lips as we say our goodbyes at the door.

*          *          *

I wake from a dream at 4:00 AM.  It is clear to me that the impetus for my dream were the events of this evening and the dinner, of John…., but also:  Everything.

In the dream, I was serving both Veal Saltimbocca and Tortellini with portabella mushrooms.  John was eating both meals.  His body kept shifting.  Sometimes he was  thin and emaciated, sometimes trim and fit.   Diane was also somehow part of the dream and took the three of us with her back to Woodstock.  There, she sang and charmed everyone.  Then she went off and I followed her, watching silently as she sat in the mud, shooting up.  She caught me spying on her, turned and pointed towards the suddenly appearing Crisis door, pointing towards the unseen Esther.  She shouted at me, “Stop with your anti-drug shit.  Take care of Esther.”  I did what she told me to do and moved towards the door of the room.   Stevens, Hunter and Atkins, at the door, turned to me and said in unison, “She’s screaming, she’s banging  her head.  Do something, something, anything.”  Finally, dead Ray came to my rescue and helped end the dream.  He pulled me away from the clinic and Woodstock and the dinner and directly to Broad Street.  He held my arm as we approached the oncoming state troopers with their bully clubs.  Then, before we would get hit, he pulled me away and to the rear of the Art Museum.  He left me and moved into the dark and the shadows and just had blunt, hardcore sex with one guy after the other.  He turned towards me, while actually getting fucked and simply said:  “It doesn’t matter.  It’s only a meal.  It’s only drugs.  It’s only autism.  It’s only a virus.”

Frightened, calming, I wake Tony, and simply ask, knowing he will answer me.

“Why is it all easier for you?”

He simply says, “Kiddo, you were always out to change the world and still are.  I was always out to just be a part of it and be with you.  This shit surprises you.  It doesn’t surprise me.”

His statement hits me hard.  I feel like I have been punched in the face.  I decide to be honest and open and confront him.

I say, “Thanks for punching me in the face.”

He says, “You’re welcome”

*          *          *

I sit quiet and alone in our living room.  Tony and Ken have gone to be with Diane for the funeral.   They left only moments ago.

Tony had said that he would simply tell her the truth, that I said that I can not go to other funeral, that I have been to too many.

I find myself standing up.  I take the phone out onto the balcony.  I glance off and see planes in flight.  I notice that it is a very sunny day, surprisingly warm.  I ignore the weather and focus on the phone and dial the number.

I talk with Diane.  Tony and Ken, still on the road, have not yet arrived at her place.  She is crying.  I tell her that I could not come, that I have been to too many funerals.  She is silent.  I’m not sure what to do.  I am afraid I have lost my friend.  Not knowing if what I will do now is right or wrong, I simply say, “Please hold on one minute.”

I am back inside, searching through albums.  I find the one.  It is as old as Woodstock itself.  I find the cut.  It begins to play.  I am back on the phone with Diane, the music in the background.

I say, “Diane, please listen, please remember, please know that you should go back there.  Know that I want to go with you.  Even if nobody is there but us, you should sing it again.”

I place the phone closer to the stereo system.

Mama Cass sings “Dream A Little Dream for Me.”

Diane is no longer crying.  She says,  “Yes, let’s go back.  You’re right.  I want to sing it again.”

*          *          *

I now watch the six-o-clock local news.  Right now, the anchorman is talking about the demonstration against the Supreme Court and the Burger Roast.  I listen to the sounds of the whistles from the TV set.  The entire spot lasts only thirty seconds.

The phone immediately rings.  Dr. Rosenthal – that is, Joan and her lover Gail are on speaker phone from their end.  They immediately begin on the subject of the roast.

Joan says that she and Gail missed us at the event.  I can sense the disappointment but, even more so, the judgment and the anger in her voice.  Gail tells me what exactly happened,  offering more than thirty seconds.  She says that there was a move on the part of many to do more than blow whistles.  Some begin to simply sit down, sit-in.  They were blocking traffic, shouting and angry.  Joan tells me that ________________ left the podium and rushed to these more volatile men and women.

Joan says, “_____________ was unbelievable, inspirational.  She was able to calm the group, convince them to give up the sit-in.  She told them that we must be better than Burger and that hateful crowd.  She said that he mustn’t defy and make a mockery of the laws.  She kept on telling people that we are kind and gentle, a peaceful and loving people.  The whistle blowing stopped.  The people stood up.  Everyone lit candles or clicked on their lighters.  It was beautiful.”

I don’t respond to anything about the roast or ___________  calming of the crowd or how the two of them have viewed all of this.

I simply say, “Joan, Gail, this whole thing is beside the point.  Everyone’s dying.  We all need to stop bullshitting and figure out what we are going to do to help right now, in this moment.”

The phone call finished, I sit on the balcony and I listen to Bacharach once again.  It is corny, it is fraught with old memories, but I also notice a feature of the music which is most important:   It is hopeful.

*          *          *

I am at work.  All of us are sitting together on the couches in my office discussing Esther and “what to do.”  Ms. Stevens, her teacher and Atkins and Hunter, the crisis guys, are simply waiting for me to come up with the answer.

Stevens says, “Do you see her being able to return to the classroom”

Atkins says, “We can keep in the crisis room, she’s safe there.”

Hunter says, “Rob, nothing else but that?  You’re good at this.  What’s next?”

I stand up, grab my cassette player and walk out of the office.  They all follow me.  Once in the crisis center, I listen to Esther from within the room, yelling, banging on the door.  I go to the room and enter it.  They watch.  Inside, I smile at Esther.  She screams at me.  I guide her  out to the hall and I place the ear plugs in her ears.   I can hear Bacharach playing.  She is silent and curious and moving towards  calm.  I take the ear plugs away and guide her back into the inner room.  I watch as she roams, banging on the walls.  I guide her out to the corridor again and place the music back into her ears.  Once more, she calms.  I take her by the hand and move, down to the first floor, outside of the building, holding her hand, all the time hearing Bacharach faintly in the background.  She does not run.  Stevens, Atkins and Hunter all simply follow.  Once at the train tracks, I hold her hand.  The three of them move very close, fearful of what might happen next.  I take the music away and hold her tightly as we stand on the hill above the tracks.  She tries to get away from me.  I hold tight and turn her away from the tracks and back towards a view of the school.  I put the ear plugs back in and we all walk back.  I continue to hear the music as we enter the school, the lobby and, eventually, her classroom.  Stevens follows me into the room.  Atkins and Hunter just wait, watching from the door.  I help her sit at her desk.  She plops onto her chair.  The music is still playing.  She simply sits there, moving her head to the left, then to the right, joining with the music.  I leave her there and move to the classroom door, ready to leave.

Stevens stops me at the door and says, “Is this it?  Will everything be all right now?”

I answer honestly, “No, everything will not be  suddenly all right,  but it’s a start.”

*          *          *

I am finally standing here ready to give the lecture.  The hall is full with both undergraduates and graduate students.  There is a clear mix of Women’s Studies students and those who are, I would guess, simply the curious.  Joan Rosenthal is in the back of the hall, smiling, providing me encouragement with her eyes.  I look down at my prepared notes.  I know they are perfect.  They are exactly what everyone will want to hear.  They are full of the imaginings of a continuing coalition of gay men, lesbians, straight women, people of color and, yes, even straight men.  The words state that, even with a changing era, nothing will change, the coalition of minorities will move forward even during these changing times, the 80’s.

I take the notes, fold them neatly, and place them inside of my suit pocket.  Joan’s smile disappears.

Having junked the formal presentation, I just speak.

I tell them about Ray.  I tell them a story.  It is true.  It is of the two of us, in 1969, going on and on about the differences between racism and homophobia.  I tell the crowd about how we, these two gay men from an earlier era, felt trapped by what so many viewed as the necessity and the convenience of the closet.  Finally, I offer up a true quote from the past, something I had said to Ray those many years ago.

“Imagine what would happen if, suddenly over night, every gay person had a purple dot on his forehead.  Imagine what would happen if there was this immediate end to the closet.  Imagine if everyone was suddenly seen and known to be who they are.”

After I share this story and this statement, I stop talking.  It is hard to go on.  One minute passes and then I go on.

“So, today, I have a friend and so many other friends, some still alive and some dead, who have this purple dot, this lesion, this spoken word of AIDS and, I suppose, this statement “I’m gay”  on their bodies.  And Ray, who also had this purple dot appear, is dead.  And, I wonder what he would say.”

I feel, I know, that everyone in the room is waiting.  They do not know how to respond.  They all remind me of Stevens and Atkins and Hunter, waiting for resolution, an answer, and that it should come from me.

I stare our and then simply give my final statement.

“I don’t have the answers.  No one person, and surely not me, can make it all better or fix everything or even one thing.  But, I know this much:  Right now the subject can’t be diversity or the 80’s or any of the things that are easy and comfortable for us to talk about.  Right now, we have to take care of the sick and we have to do everything we can to stop the dying.  I don’t want a purple dot anymore.  And I sure as hell don’t want purple lesions on my friends.  But, given what’s really happening out there, it’s time to get out of  this classroom and do something.  It will not make everything suddenly all right, but it’s a start.”

 I leave the classroom, suddenly very aware of where I need to go.

*          *          *

I am standing outside a movie theater that I have known since childhood.  It is only 3:30 in the afternoon.  As I walked and ran to this spot, no longer having my cassette,  I found himself singing the Bacharach song, the silly but calming and hopeful “The Look Of Love” in my head.   It was not until my speech at Penn and my sudden rush from the classroom that I actually realized what the song signified, what the song meant.  Now, here, outside of this theater, I am fully in touch with the meaning.

I remember that the showing I had come to on that day, all of those years ago in 1970,  was likely pretty much about the same time it is now, late afternoon.  Then, I was 20, not 36.  Then I was alone in life, not yet having met Tony.  The day I saw the movie was really before anything and everything of importance in my life  truly had begun.  Now, here, I look at the placard outside of the theater.  I see some hotshot young straight guy action hero star.  I ignore the present for a moment and think of that old placard that was on the theater back then.   Then,  it was a poster of a group of men, etched in blacks and whites, almost in the shadows.  Then, I glanced at the image and moved toward the ticket seller and bought my way in to the first showing of this new movie, “Boys in the Band.”

Through all of the camping and the pathos, I smiled.  I was pleased.  The stonewall riot had recently occurred.  Judy was dead.  Ray’s and my fighting for rights on campus was going nowhere fast.  But, still…   The movie meant something to me.  To me, on that day, it spoke of the past, but more importantly of:   The Future.  And, for me, I could not wait for the future to begin and to happen and to be.

I remember that, when the movie was over, I looked up at the screen and wondered whether I should wait for all of the credits or simply leave immediately.  I knew I wanted to leave in the moment.  That music was playing, Bacharach, the winding up sound and then the simple melody of “The Look of Love.”

So, I stood up.  I wanted to walk to those doors while the music was still playing.  It was, for some reason, very important to me at that time, in that moment.  Everyone else was still seated.  And I knew that the theatre was scattered with some gays, but mostly full with straights.  I knew this because I had heard them laugh during the movie and they laughed at all of the wrong parts. So I stood up and stared right at them all.  There was a hard smile that would not leave my face.

Standing here now outside of this old theatre, I know fully what I was feeling and why I was smiling.   As I stood and stared at those people, I assumed that they assumed that I must be gay.  And, I was pleased that I did not need a purple dot on my face for them to know that I was and would always be different than them.  Most importantly, I felt that they viewed this person in front of them as no better and no worse than what they had just seen, just another boy in the band.  I assumed that they assumed that being nothing more than another boy in the band, I was nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, simply entertainment.

In that moment, I pushed my hands into my jeans pants and starting laughing, almost skipping up the aisle towards the doors.  I know what I was feeling and how important it was to me to give out a message to them, that:  No. I was not simply another boy in the band.  I was not simply entertainment.  And, I was something to fear:  The future.

For me, as I faced them, as I was leaving, I was shouting:  No, you are wrong.  This is not for laughs.  The time is up.  And this, me, all of us, this is just, the start.

*          *          *

It is now an hour later.  I have already made the reservations.  I have already stopped off at home and put on my tux.  I have already kissed and held Tony and told him what I intend to do.

Now, the cab waiting, I stand outside of John’s place, ringing the bell, believing that he will be home, that what I want to happen will, in fact happen.

It begins to happen.  John is at home.  He is waking from sleep.  He is confused.  He is wearing old jeans and a huge, old sweater and a winter, knit cap.    But, none of that matters because he is happy to see me.

I throw my arms about his body and let everything release from within me.  He breaks hold nicely, kisses me and asks, “But why are you here?”

“John, you can’t get to France.  But, we can do the next best thing.  I made reservations.  We’re going to Le Bec Fin’ tonight.  We will gorge on French.  Now, let’s go inside.  Let’s get your Armani on that body of yours.”

He is still smiling and says, “Bob, you are so great.  You decided to come with me to France.?”

I think:  No, we can’t have Paris.  It’s just Le Bec Fin.

But, I ignore the unimportant and simply say, “Yes.  I’m coming with you to Paris.”

Then he says, “But I don’t need the Armani to get on the plane.  That’s stupid.  Let me just pack a bag and we’ll go right now.”

I say, “No need for the bag, come on, let’s just leave right now.”

I move quickly, help John into the cab and shout out to the driver, “Hey, come on, let’s go. Paris is waiting!”

Advertisements