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"Here, I brought you something." I reach down into my knapsack and produce a small box wrapped in red with a silver bow.

"What is it?" Anthony asks.

"It's your Valentine's present."

Anthony takes the box and undoes the bow, releasing a small card underneath. In it, I've written: I don't know where we'll be next year, but thanks for being my valentine. He doesn't look up after reading it.

Like other gifts I've given him -- a silver ring embossed with stars, a bulky watch, a favorite pair of brown boots, the pea coat hanging on the chair behind him -- I've chosen this gift carefully. No matter where he goes, each day he has something displayed on him that I've placed there, like evidence.

 
 

"Chris," he says when he sees it's a walkman, "You shouldn't be spending your money on me."

"I figure, since your old one broke, now you'll have something to listen to at the gym. Keep those boys from bothering you."

The waiter arrives with our burritos. "Can I get you anything else?" he asks Anthony who he's been staring at all night.

Anthony raises his eyebrows at me. "How about some sangria?"

"Excellent."

"A pitcher then."

Even though Anthony doesn't believe in gift giving, this simple suggestion is like a present to me, because it's been so long since we've enjoyed a night drinking together. When he reaches over and takes my cheek in his hand in full view of the waiter, it feels like another gift. I hold it there for a second, then actually feel its absence when he takes it away. I wonder if he's being so nice because I'm leaving for Seattle tomorrow.

"What am I going to do without my girl?" he asks.

"Probably find a new one," I say, sort of teasing, sort of not.

"Don't try it."

"Will you miss me then?"

"Of course I will."

"Should I stay?"

"Don't be stupid. Go home, see your family. How long has it been?"

"A year." I used to go home twice a year before we met, but haven't gone home once since. I wouldn't be going now if I didn't think he needed some time to think.

The waiter comes back, pitcher in hand. "This is on the house," he says, and since Anthony just smiles I say thanks for both of us.

Anthony quickly begins pouring

"Why don't you come with me?" I ask, wishing it didn't sound so much like a whine.

"Just go home."

I push around the stem of my glass, and nod. "Just asking."

It's quiet for a moment. I feel like the whole restaurant's watching me pout.

"Hey," Anthony says coaxingly, raising his glass, "Happy Valentine's Day."

I look and see him attempting to smile. I sigh, "Happy Valentine's Day, my love," then raise my glass, too.

<<

It's cold outside, and in the five minutes it takes to walk home the chill of the night air seems to freeze up any warmth we'd started generating over our meal. At home on Avenue B, Anthony quickly undresses, puts on his blue night shirt and gets in bed. I'm not really tired, but I take off my clothes, too. The covers are tucked so tightly around him, I have to pull at their folds before I can get close. He doesn't shift his weight to make this easier for me, though I'm sure he's awake. I place my arm around him and gratefully feel him take my hand in his.

Just the smell of him turns me on, still. Even though we sleep in the same bed every night, I haven't been this close to him in weeks. I start to get hard. When my erection rubs against him, Anthony pushes backward. I take this as encouragement. My hand caresses his chest.

His elbow swings back, poking me in the ribs. "Go to sleep."

I roll over, and the chasm of silence that's been permeating our home these past few months increases ever wider, splitting our bed in two.

<<

After his grandmother died, Anthony quit having sex with me.

He wouldn't talk about either of these things.

He took up weekend shifts. He slept a lot when I was home.

I buried my worry playing housewife. I let him sleep in while I did our laundry and scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom with bleach. I cooked elaborate meals and left them on the table for him to eat when he got home late.

Occasionally we'd have an afternoon like the ones I'd grown used to, walking through the flea markets he loved. But if I tried to hold his hand, he'd just squeeze mine and then let it go.

Two weeks ago he came home from work, took one look at me and my paella, then went straight into the bedroom. After five minutes of waiting, I cleared the table before going in to find him curled up on the bed. I asked him what was wrong, but he didn't answer. I went to him, made him roll over on his back and look me in the eyes. "Tell me what it is," I said, but his only response was to take my hand off his chest and roll over on his stomach. "Honey," I repeated, leaning into his ear, "You have to tell me what it is. We can't go on like this."

"Chris," he said, finally, lifting his head from the pillow so I could hear. "If you're unhappy, just leave."

The following day I booked my flight to Seattle.

<<

Three days into my trip, I walk down from my mother's trailer to the pay phone booth at the bottom of the hill. It's the first time I'm calling home, and I'm hoping he's missed me. I'm hoping to hear his voice happily calling out one of the many pet names he has for me: my chinita, my little girl, my poopie. Instead I get the answering machine, and my pulse quickens when I hear he's changed the outgoing message from my voice to his.

I call out after the beep, "Honey, are you home?" but I get no response. I tell him I'll call back, then stand there, three thousand miles away, helplessly wishing I was home.

I light a Marlboro, feel the thick smoke filling my lungs, then dial again. I hear Anthony saying, "I'm not here right now, leave me a message," but it doesn't sound like him. Of course the voice is his, but he's lowered it, made it sound butch. I punch in our security code to see if there are any messages.

"Anthony, it's Gio. I'm having a party tomorrow night and since your wife's not home, you better be here."

"Anthony, it's Todd. Call me at this number."

"Hey, Anthony, it's John. Just calling to say I had fun the other night. What are you up to tomorrow?"

"Anthony, it's Gio. You better be here on time."

"Anthony, you slut, where the fuck are you? Everyone's here, you better show up."

My cigarette has burned down to the filter, and even though the charges to my phone card are increasing each second I stay on the line, I light up another one before finally putting the receiver down.

<<

Anthony explains his past this way: life's too short to waste it.

My friends and I have a term for men like Anthony. We call them "pros".

He took me to clubs on our first dates. I'd after his waitering shift and he'd take me to places called Meat or Tunnel or Boy Bar where we never paid to get in because all the doormen knew him. We'd both drink too much. He'd kiss me on the dance floor or sneak his hands into my pants while we made our way through a crowd. I knew he was a pro. I just couldn't believe a pro wanted anything to do with me.

In bed he'd pull my hair tight and slap my face and thrust himself into me. Afterward, near tears, he'd look me in the eye say, "I'm not letting you go."

He probably meant it as a threat, but, to me, it was a promise.

His friend Giovanni once took me aside and said, "I thought she'd never settle down."

<<

I slump into the trailer and go directly to where my mom is sitting on the couch. I kneel down in front of her, place my head in her lap and my arms on the sides of her thighs. "Well," I say with an exhale that's almost a laugh, "For the first time in my life, I'm finally going to be living alone."

She wraps her arms around me. "What's happened now?"

There's concern in her voice as she pats my back, but at the same time that "now" puts me off. When I came out to her nearly seven years ago, she cried for a long time without saying anything, then when she finally found her voice she said, "I just don't want you to be lonely". Since then, I've paraded my good times in front of her - especially the years I was with Mykael - but whenever things go wrong I hide the truth from her because I don't want her thinking that I'm incapable of finding a good relationship. She hardly knows anything about Anthony.

"It's nothing to worry about. I'm twenty four years old. It's about time I lived alone, don't you think?" I lean back on my knees and look at her, wiping my eyes.

"Well," she says, stroking my hair, "What will you need to live alone? Why don't I take you shopping?

<<

After we finish dinner and Mom starts getting ready for bed, I borrow the car and drive toward downtown, chain smoking along the way. The bridge connecting the eastern suburbs with Seattle floats right on top of Lake Washington, and I look out at the calm water, the moon's reflection there, and the lights on the houses surrounding the shore.

I've always liked this drive. It reminds me of the years after Dad died, when Mom and I first moved to Bellevue. On a night like this I'd be going into the city to see friends, using a fake id to get into clubs. Now my mom lives in a trailer and all my friends except Kevin have moved away. The only thing that remains the same is the view.

And the fact that my dad is still dead.

<<

Standing in line in a cobblestone alleyway waiting to get into Neighbors, I slowly realize that I'm being stared at.

"You're a friend of Kevin Hoover's, aren't you?" the man in front of me asks. He's wearing a burgundy bomber jacket and jeans rolled into huge cuffs around his ankles.

"Yes," I reply, stuffing my hands in my pockets and throwing my shoulders back the way I've seen Anthony do countless times.

"I'm Peter," he says, in an Irish accent, extending his hand. "You live in New York, don't you?"

Figures. When I lived here, no one ever introduced themselves to me. Now that I live Someplace Else, people want to know me. "Yeah, I'm just home to see my family."

"Can I buy you a drink?"

"Sure," I say, then add, "Neighbor."

We both laugh.

The club is crowded and Peter chauffeurs me to the back bar where there's less traffic. Next to it, a buffet is set up with bins of crusty corn dogs, wilting chicken wings, and what I hope is the remainder of a whipped cream fruit salad. Peter explains something I already know, that in Seattle clubs aren't allowed to serve hard liquor unless they pass themselves off as restaurants with dancing. He asks me what clubs are like in New York and I sigh. "Not like that," I say, pointing to an unusually tall man on the dance floor who's swinging a corn dog above his head. "And the music...what's up with this seventies disco?"

He laughs. "It is kind of tired."

"Please! I haven't lived here in four years and I bet you a drink he'll play Hot Stuff next."

Sure enough, Donna Summer soon begins to wail.

"Okay, I owe you one," he says, placing a finger on my chest.

I hook my finger into one of his belt loops. "How about if we go back to your place to have it?"

<<

His apartment is basically empty expect for a thrift store couch with stuffing falling out of one of the cushions. The large room is illuminated by fluorescent light emanating from three huge aquariums that line the walls. I walk around, as if in a zoo, looking at the inhabitants: an iguana, a black snake, and a pile of newspaper shavings. "What was in here," I ask, but at the sound of my voice a rat bolts out from its hiding place. "Hmmh. Let's have that drink in your bedroom."

Right now, even though it's well past four in New York, Anthony's probably still out. And there's no salad bar where he is, no seventies music, no rats in a cage. "Come here," I tell Peter, pulling him to me.

I kiss him hard, keeping my eyes shut. His beard is rough and I rub my chin against the bristles until it feels like my skin will break. He takes off all my clothes and I lay on top of him, grab his hair and bite his shoulder. I'm hoping he'll follow my lead and be strong with me.

He doesn't disappoint. He digs long fingernails into my ass cheeks and I slap his face, more to hear the sound than anything else. He digs deeper, holding on to me, and in that recognition of pain, I remember Anthony.

I open my eyes and see a naked man I met only an hour or so ago. I push myself away from him. "No," I say, "I have to go." I leap up and start scrambling for my clothes. I'm still zipping up my pants when I close his front door.

<<

When I call our apartment the next afternoon, I get the answering machine again, but when I start speaking, Anthony picks up. His voice is heavy from lack of sleep, and I wonder if he picked up because he's not alone and doesn't want the guy to hear my voice. He probably thinks I'm calling to wish him happy Valentine's Day.

"What's up?" he asks.

"Nothing. What's up with you?"

"Oh, Gio had a party last night."

"How was it."

"Tired. Everyone went out afterward."

"I keep trying to call you, but you're never home."

"I've just been busy running around. Lots of work."

"Who's Todd?"

"Who?"

"Todd. I called and heard the messages."

"Chris, I'll see you when you get home."

I start to say "Do you want to break up?", but before I can finish he's already hung up.

<<

"Have you ever come here before?" I ask, turning off the car.

"I've been in this area, but never here."

"It's not too cold, let's get out. Grab your coffee."

Mom follows me to the edge of the Queen Anne lookout. Downtown Seattle is sprawled out below us. To our right, Puget Sound, and a sun descending.

"This is one of my favorite places." I tell her. "I used to come here a lot. Here, and over there," I say, pointing to the left, toward Capitol Hill. "Do you know that cemetery over there where Bruce Lee is buried?" She shakes her head. "It has a great view of Mount Rainier when it's clear. I used to go there a lot, especially after Daddy died. His cemetery's so far away, but I figured that just being in one was sort of like being close to him."

My mom is silent. She turns to face the sunset. "Sure is pretty."

"Remember that first time we went to Kalaloch?" I ask, referring to a place we used to go camping on the Olympic Peninsula. "How the sun set right into the ocean, and then afterward everyone clapped? I always loved that. There's a pier in New York where I sometimes go to watch the sunset. I took Anthony there on one of our first dates. He said he'd never sat and watched it before. Isn't that amazing? That you could go for so long and never really see it?"

"Some people are just like that," she says.

"Now he sees it all the time. He says it's a gifts I've given him, and when he says that, I always think about you. Because you gave me a gift, and now I've given it to someone else." I put my arm around her. "Happy Valentine's Day, Mom." I kiss her cheek.

She looks down at her coffee cup. She's trying not to cry.

I take the cup from her hands and set it down next to mine. I do my best to gather her sideways into my arms. She keeps her hands down. "You miss me, don't you?" I ask.

I feel her head nod on my shoulder. She whispers through tears, "It's so nice having you home."

"Wait, look." I release her and point to the sun which is just about to fall. "Here," I say, reaching down to pull the napkin from the coffee cup. She takes it from me and wipes her eyes. I put my arm around her again and we watch the sun set together. As it's just about to disappear, I say something she used to say to me, "Make a wish."

When it's done, I remove my arm from her and poke her gently in the ribs. "Come on."

She starts to get up.

"No," I say, "Not that."

She settles back down.

Together, we clap.

<<

My father's gravestone is flat, and, as always, it takes awhile to find it. Once I do, I lay a towel next to it, sit down, and begin picking away at the overgrown grass.

"Hey," I say, pointing at his name. It always looks so official there in capitol letters, no personality. As I always do, I count the years he was alive (74), then count the years since he's been dead (now 8). In these first few moments of visiting, I always feel like I'm calling him to me.

I look up. There are a few clouds, but it's mostly blue.

When I was a kid, you were always bigger than me. Now that I'm older, you're still bigger.

I drop my head. My neck muscles tighten, pulling down my lower lip until its stretched taut.

I moved so far awayÖ

My breath slowly leaving me turns into a moan.

Can you see me?

I begin crying. And then I feel him.

<<

My plane is delayed in Seattle's fog, so when I pile my bags onto the curb in front of our apartment on Avenue B, it's after midnight. There's three inches of fresh snow on the ground, and it takes me awhile to get my things into the doorway. I could buzz him, but I'm afraid he might not answer. After all, he might not even be home.

All the lights are on in our apartment, and so is the television. Anthony's asleep on our bed wearing a tight new T-shirt I've never seen before that accentuates what must have been a serious week at the gym. He turns over in his sleep and opens his eyes to see me staring. He actually smiles and holds out his arms. I go to him. He holds me tight, then pulls harder, causing me to exhale until all my breath is gone and along with it, just for a second, the tension. But when I inhale again, I smell smoke on his clothes, although it's me who smokes, not him. "Go back to sleep," I tell him, "It's late and I have to unpack."

<<

I wait for awhile in the living room before going in to check the marble box where we keep our condoms. Before I left I'd counted how many were in there, and clipped the corners of each packet. Inside now there are only two. Nevertheless, when I go to unpack my bags and come across the new glasses, comforter and dishes my mom and sisters bought for me to furnish my new place, I hide them in the bowels of our coat closet.

When I crawl into bed, Anthony moves in his sleep and pulls me to his chest. I caress the back of his neck, then run my hands along his back, looking for my name somewhere in braille on his skin. I whisper something running through my mind, thinking he won't hear, hoping he does. "Won't you come back to me? Please? Can't we just stay together?"

When one of my tears reaches his skin, his hand comes alive on my back. "Shh," he says, "Don't cry. Just go to sleep." He holds me so tight, repeating over and over, "Don't", until eventually my sobs subside. His tiny fingers, hands like my father had, push hard under my eyes, wiping away the tears, and he uses the back of his hand to wipe away the snot.

There's a feeling of suspension in the silence that follows, and I imagine Anthony feels guilty for what he's done. He's always said he doesn't want to see me hurt. I realize now, that's probably why he won't break up with me. He doesn't want to be responsible.

But maybe I'm just filling in the details, something I've always done, supplying him with words he's never been able to say, and possibly doesn't even feel.

He's placing small kisses on my cheek, and I take advantage of this offering and move my face so it's my lips that are in front of this.

He stops at this.

"Please?" I ask.

And then his lips are on mine.


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