Bill rented “Basic Instinct” and immediately knew he could make Michael Douglas happy. Gary didn’t understand why he would want to.
“He’s so surly and mean,” said Gary.
Bill grinned. “Exactly.”
Bill liked his men the way he liked his Chinese soup: hot and sour. He wanted the guys tough and the sex a bit rough. Maybe that’s why most of his boyfriends had been assholes.
Gary was one of Bill’s best buddies. He had recently announced his retirement from sex and love. He couldn’t take the stress, he said. The guy he’d been dating for the past few months had dumped him, his T cells were dropping and his panic attacks had returned. Now he longed for placid days, not the monsoons of desire. He distracted himself by studying men’s noses. He loved the specimen on Gerard Depardieu.
“He’s got a fantastic nose,” said Gary. “Smart and doughy. A real person’s nose.”
Bill had definitely not retired from sex. He updated Gary on all his dates — if they could even be called that. Gary kept track of them with nicknames and experienced echoes of pleasure from Bill’s escapades.
Popeye, Bill’s most recent, adored spinach. Unfortunately, said Bill, his semen smelled gross. Then there was Reincarnation Forehead Guy. Bill met him at the gym when the man grabbed a towel, gently wiped the sweat off Bill’s brow and pushed the damp hair out of Bill’s eyes. The gesture captivated Bill. But while they lounged in bed after messing around, the man revealed that in a previous life he’d been Margot, Rembrandt’s illegitimate half-sister.
Bill hated Rembrandt.
One afternoon, Bill attended a meditation seminar and noticed a tall, burly guy with a green snake tattooed on his thigh. The next week they saw each other again at an anal massage workshop. The burly man hugged Bill tight and whispered that he only made love during the full moon, when his “chi” merged with the cosmic fountain of energy. Bill called Gary as soon as he got home.
“Spiritual Assplay Man,” said Gary.
The men didn’t satisfy Bill, but the nicknames made him laugh and laugh. And he loved to complain about it all because he knew his constant fretting helped divert Gary from his own dark ruminations.
Anyway, Bill didn’t think he liked sex much, at least not the way he imagined everyone else did. He was HIV-negative and was always safe, and though that was sometimes boring it wasn’t the problem. He often craved the sweat of men’s bodies, the dankness of their crotches, the sour and oily taste of their armpits, and he enjoyed sex just fine when he was stoned or drunk. But when he was sober he sometimes loathed the sweat of men’s bodies, the dankness of their crotches, the sour and oily taste of their armpits.
And then he loathed how much he craved it or he loathed the other guy for offering it, or both.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Bill and Gary had met at a party given by their mutual friend Barbara. She was celebrating both the one-month anniversary of her most recent breakup and Bill Clinton’s victory over President Bush.
Barbara only dated tradesmen — house painters, roofers, electricians. She appreciated their manual dexterity. She said their rugged touch made her body buzz inside and out. When she was single, and even sometimes when she was not, she itched for things to go wrong with her house so she could call in someone to handle the repairs.
Each time, she claimed to be in love, but she had just dumped her second carpenter in a row. Though she was lonely for his caresses she knew her decision was for the best. And the mahogany coffee table he’d made for her right before they parted helped ease her pain. Plus, the stairs leading down to her garden were now in terrific shape.
Bill knew Barbara from the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a business reporter and she covered politics. The two of them had bonded one evening when they bumped into each other at a revival screening of “Gone With the Wind.”
After that, they went together whenever it played at the Castro Theater. They both knew the plot was preposterous and the history a heap of lies, but they sighed anyway at the swelling majesty of the theme song and the sweeping panoramas of Tara. They gasped at Scarlett’s cruelty and thrilled to her carrot-clutching grit during her “I’ll never be hungry again nor any of my folk as God is my witness” speech. They gripped their armrests when Rhett whisked Scarlett upstairs to violate her after she returned home from Ashley’s birthday party in her flaming red dress.
Barbara believed Scarlett would have made a fantastic dominatrix or secretary of defense. Bill thought she should have been an advice columnist. “Absolutely,” he told Barbara after the first time they watched the movie together. “You know, ‘Dear Miss Scarlett: I hate my sister-in-law because she’s such a simpering, mealy-mouthed idiot, and besides, her husband should have been mine. Now she’s gone into labor. The problem is, I’m desperate to leave town because the enemy is bombing all around us. And besides, I can’t help her because I know nothing about birthing babies. What should I do?’”
Barbara was big and buxom, like an old-fashioned dress mannequin. Clothes gripped her body dangerously. She wore her blouses tight and low and her skirts tight and high. Barbara was not beautiful. She had a nose sharp enough to carve turkey. She couldn’t subdue her frizzy hair, which spilled out all over the place. But on a good day — and most of her days were good ones — she gave off more heat than a radiator.
Bill arrived at Barbara’s party grumpy and irritable. He’d been stood up that afternoon by Chris, a guy he’d met the day before while buying poppy-seed bagels on Castro Street, and he didn’t want to talk to anyone, least of all anyone from work.
He leaned against a wall next to a table laden with fried chicken and popcorn and salad. He nodded and grimaced to everyone who passed. No one approached to talk to him. He was wearing jeans, a purple Yosemite sweat shirt and a green baseball cap. This was his standard costume. He found it difficult to make choices, so he maintained a limited wardrobe.
Bill was contemplating calling Chris to ask why he hadn’t shown up for their rendezvous, and he flipped over and over in his mind what exactly he could say. “So maybe I was wrong, but didn’t we have a plan to hook up sort of? Although maybe it was just a tentative one, but I do remember saying we should meet at …” Bill suddenly heard someone speaking rather loudly. He glanced around and realized the sounds were emerging from his own lips.
This was something that happened often to Bill. He’d embarrassed himself repeatedly on the subway, in the movies, on line at the supermarket. But at parties he usually managed to keep his musings silent.
“Shit, I’m an idiot,” he thought. He shoved his fist against his mouth and gripped the sleeve of his shirt with his other hand. He glanced around again to make sure no one had heard.
Someone had. A man was standing 3 feet from Bill, munching potato chips from a large blue bowl on the table. He was a few inches taller than Bill, and his jeans slouched below his paunch. He nodded at Bill and cracked his knuckles, then hiked up his pants and adjusted his belt. His eyes drooped. They looked like they might slide off his face.
“I didn’t mean … I didn’t realize I was … oh, fuck,” said Bill. He suddenly felt like he’d misplaced his insides.
“It’s OK, really,” said the man. “I talk to myself out loud all the time.”
“Well, yes, I — ” He paused. “All right, not really. But I thought it would make you feel better if I said I did.” He smiled mischievously, and then his eyes cracked open with kindness. He reached out and squeezed Bill’s shoulder. “Name’s Gary.”
Bill stepped back, touched and embarrassed. He felt swathed in a bubble of warmth and suddenly wanted to confess to something, but he didn’t know what. He was about to respond when Barbara sidled up to them.
She caressed Bill’s cheek and patted Gary’s arm. “Oh, good, you guys have met,” she said. She stood next to them, swaying slightly, a tumbler of whisky balanced in her palm. Her hair floated around her head like cotton candy. She waved her hand toward the other side of the room. “Look, that’s Alex, someone brought him, he’s been flirting with me.” She slurred her words dramatically. “He’s a welder.”
Bill and Gary followed her gesture. A man with fleshy hands and a ponytail was leaning against the mantelpiece. Bill thought he gave off the stoned, pouty air of a folk singer from the ’60s.
The man waved at Barbara. She sighed, downed the whisky, placed the tumbler on the table and took one step forward. Then she paused and glanced back over her shoulder. “You know, whenever I’m single and I feel a little lonely, I always think, ‘Well, there’s still sex, how bad can anything be?’” She laughed. “I mean, I know sex never solves anything, but for some reason I’m always able to pretend that it will.”
She straightened her shoulders. Her hands fluttered about her head trying to subdue her hair, and then she glided across the floor. Bill and Gary looked at each other. Gary smiled again and his face glimmered a little. Something seeped into Bill’s veins and soothed his spirit like a potent shot of brandy.
They played miniature golf on their first date and went bowling on the second. They kissed once, in the car after they left the bowling alley. Nothing fit. Their tongues couldn’t find their way around each other. There was too little tension and too much moisture. To Bill, kissing Gary was like kissing a steak.
The fact was, he was kind of attracted to Gary, but then again, he wasn’t. Gary’s sad brown eyes and rich chocolate voice stirred something in Bill. But Gary was hauling around 30 extra pounds, which Bill couldn’t help picturing as vats of jello strapped around his waist. And Gary’s long front teeth poked out from behind his lips like Tic Tac mints. Bill thought they made him look kind of ghoulish.
Sometimes, after spending a night with a stranger, Bill felt like scrubbing himself with Lysol, but he accepted that as an occupational hazard. He couldn’t bear that feeling when it arose after he’d slept with someone he cared about. And he found himself caring about Gary.
Though the physical aspect went nowhere, Bill loved spending time with Gary. They both hated “Dances With Wolves” and everything with Meg Ryan. They got along great.
The friendship ripened quickly. Gary was 36, four years older than Bill. His lover, Joe, had died a few years before. Shortly before Bill and Gary met, Gary’s most recent boyfriend, Sal, announced he’d fallen in love with someone else while he and Gary were standing in front of the frozen pea section of the supermarket. Sal loved frozen peas but hated them cooked.
The week after that, Gary’s doctor had delivered some sobering news. His T cells had dropped to 500, well below the normal range. Anything under 200 was defined as having AIDS.
Two nights later, Gary had suffered a panic attack — his first since Joe had died. His doctor prescribed Xanax, which Gary still took whenever he felt his chest caving in from anxiety. He stalked Sal briefly, although the stalking was mild as stalkings go. Gary did a few drive-bys and occasionally haunted the frozen pea section, hoping Sal would happen by. But he never did.
Gary was an artist but worked as a chauffeur and butler for a family of crazy rich people in Pacific Heights. The family had a vague, distant relationship to the Tootsie Roll fortune. Gary often brought home bags of grape or chocolate Tootsie Roll pops.
Bill loved Gary’s paintings — white ink on silk. They exploded with wild portraits of shamans, centaurs and other fantastical creatures, many with horns or turbans on their heads. The backgrounds shimmered with enormous spirals and stars and dizzy bands of light. The works entranced Bill, luring him into a zone of dreamy delight.
The first time he saw them, he asked Gary what the spirals meant. Gary traced one slowly with his fingers, almost caressing the surface of the painting.
“I don’t know, I just like the way they go on forever. It’s like nothing is closed off, everything is possible,” he said. “When I was little, I used to flush the toilet just to see the water go down, twisting around and around, and sometimes I stuck my hand in to try to catch the spiral.” He laughed. “The babysitter used to yell at me for that.”
Bill asked about the shamans.
Gary told him about a dream Joe had had a few days before he died in which a healer from a galaxy named Sirius 5 arrived with a huge backpack full of magic ampuls to cure AIDS.
“The healer scattered the ampuls across the globe, and there was enough for everybody,” said Gary. “Joe died wondering why he hadn’t gotten his magic ampul. Now, when I paint the shamans, somehow it feels like it will help me stay healthy. Somehow it makes me feel OK that I’m here and he’s not.”
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
One day Bill read an article in the Los Angeles Times about how many gay men were suffering from survivor’s guilt, like people whose families died in the Holocaust. As he read, an absence swelled up inside him till it pressed liked a fist against his chest. He put the newspaper down, rubbed his eyes and worried about not having survivor’s guilt like everyone else.
He hadn’t mourned enough yet, he realized. The epidemic was passing him by and he felt excluded, alone, as he often did. He wanted to experience what others were, but he knew he couldn’t experience survivor’s guilt unless he’d actually survived someone. The notion that he hoped someone close to him would get sick or even die — a friend or, better yet, a lover — bounced through his mind. He clamped his teeth together and squeezed his eyes closed as if to lock out the thought. But it was too late.
Bill hated himself for feeling that way and vowed to keep it to himself. The next evening, Gary invited Bill over for a grilled salmon dinner. While Gary was laying the plates on the table, his hand brushed against Bill’s upper arm. The gentleness of his touch and the fractured gray light from the window felt to Bill like an invitation to confess, to seek absolution, and some thin crust of self-restraint crumbled inside him.
Gary sat down. Bill pointed to a snapshot of Joe on the refrigerator. In the photo, he was splashing around naked under a waterfall on Kauai, grinning and gesturing toward the camera.
“You’re lucky to have outlived someone,” Bill said quietly as he stirred brown rice around on his plate.
Gary knitted his brows. He cracked his knuckles and scratched his nose. “What do you mean?”
Bill frowned. He wanted to stop himself from saying more, but he couldn’t. His voice felt like it was bubbling up from somewhere beneath the floor. “It’s like I want to have survived someone, like you have.”
Gary stared at him. “It’s not a barrel of fun, you know.”
Bill looked at his plate. “I know, I know.” He paused. “I know it’s ridiculous; it’s just stupid.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“It’s just — I’ve always felt left out, you know? Of everything. And this, too. And then … it’s like I get angry at everybody else for making me feel left out.”
He heard his own words and cringed. “Forget it. Forget I said anything.”
He pulled a quarter out of his pocket and ran his thumbnail along the ridges of the circumference. He waited for Gary to yell at him, to tell him what a jerk he was, to announce that the friendship was finished.
Gary said nothing for a moment. Then he just laughed and slapped Bill’s shoulder, as if reprimanding a sweet but stupid puppy. “Bad Bill — boy, bad boy, bad, bad Bill.”
Bill leaned back. Gary’s response unsettled him. In the pit of his chest, a slow heat unfurled.
It had started to rain, and they heard the splat and patter on the roof. Gary slapped Bill’s shoulder again. “Bad Bill, bad boy, no bone, no bone.” Bill stood up, barked and raced into the yard, past the rosebushes and the rows of tulips straining toward the sky. He dropped to his knees and turned his face up to catch drops with his tongue, the way he used to as a kid.
Gary grabbed him from behind, slapped him twice more, laughed and hugged him in the rain.
Part 2: What is love?