Davis and I met at a book party. I was bored, aimlessly drinking. I came with an editor in the hopes of meeting other well-connected, writerly people. As I approached the cocktail table our eyes met on something vast and turbulent between us. I knew then, as if the future folded out in panels before my eyes, that this was illicit. Perhaps it was the smirk fixed to his ageless face or the puzzling sensation that we shared a secret. Before I knew it, we were shoulder to shoulder and he deftly extinguished all conversation until we stood alone in a ringing hiss of voices.
Introducing himself, he led me by the hand through glass doors that opened onto a back deck strung with glittering lights and tea candles. There was a spark of fire and I leaned in to catch it. No, he didn't usually smoke, but yes, he would have a drag of mine.
When he lifted the cigarette to his thick lips, I saw a great flash of votive light reflect back. A wedding ring, I thought, and nonetheless instantaneously resolved to one day taste those lips. He nearly followed me home, like a puppy nipping the heels of a new companion. Clanging on the subway we eagerly spoke against the shared apprehension we would eventually reach the end of the line. It was explicit by now he was married with two children. At some point he told me. My reception of these facts was as silent and dull as the length of my mind where I abandoned them.
We were escorted by my party companion, which ruled out taking him home. She liked him too, even though he was married. Surely she'd felt the startling force of his wedding ring, But more than fearful, she was enticed.
If he'd shown the slightest interest, I think precisely because he was married, she would have slept with him. Perhaps she wanted to, but referred to the same petty manners that inhibited me. But I knew he was mine.
Davis was always calm and cool-headed on the surface, but I could see just beneath—a springing ball had been released in his mind, charting a wild course behind his fixed gaze.
I heard from him a few weeks after we met. He was in town for a business trip. All in the same breath, he wondered if he could take me out to dinner and whether I could meet him at his hotel. Unable to maintain the illusion to myself that this was just another networking opportunity, I now imagined myself a gothic heroine, slipping by the hood of night to meet a secret lover. I ventured we meet at a bar. He un-ironically proposed the hotel bar. I went.
After drinks he said he needed to make a quick stop upstairs. Something he'd forgotten and why not come with him. But two martinis had only strengthened my resolve to have dinner before this went any further. Heroines know many moral crossings.
I can't remember what we talked about that first night over dinner. I felt the drone of his baritone and watched his eyes watching me, but felt another set of eyes peering over my shoulder all evening, steps into the future, set on a broad hotel bed and soft brown skin.
After dinner, we splashed around naked in the hotel suite. I suspect he was accustomed to the soft waves of a woman's body. Certainly he didn't do this all the time. He fumbled, his hands trembling as they charted the regions of my body. I again attributed his naiveté to sex of greater experience with women, flattering myself—I was not one of many. Anyway, wasn't secret hotel-sex always marked by hurried movements? During his subsequent visits, we only talked around the issue. He possessed the discretion working class people adapt when exposed to richer worlds, the hunger for art and luxury abated, until, of course, higher forms of luxury draw near. I shared this experience and was committed to maintaining appearances utmost to myself. So we barely spoke the words, instead diving into the minutest details of his family life, like a reflective shield, blinding us to any revelation that might reveal.
I don't doubt for a time his wife's sweet kiss aroused him. He may have even slept with other women. I didn't know her, which made imagining her shameless and easy. Let's see—blonde and upper middle class. Perhaps she was a Vassar girl. Certainly her parents were well educated. Davis's father was a broad-faced coal miner, his mother a humble schoolteacher. He was someone who aspired.
Undoubtedly she possessed good looks. He was not a man to be seen with a plain woman. All things plain rode in an indistinct carriage that he was ever outriding. And didn't this make me special? In a way his attention felt subversive, like a victory. He was mine—me, a black, openly gay man—chosen over this over-privileged white woman that existed only in my mind.
Regardless if his penis still stood tall at her side or slumped flat, his vigilance in keeping her from me suggested that he depended on my ignorance. I think he would have found the idea of my liking him because he slept with women as repugnant as the notion was to me, and worse still than if I'd never looked at him at all. Instead, he needed me to believe that, with me, he was the real Davis, and that all the rest was just him going through the motions. I meant to nestle in this confidence because by its necessity it drew me into sharper reality. Human longing for identity is prodigious.
Before Davis there was John. John was boxed shouldered and 6 feet, maybe 5' 11'', always in a masculine stoop so that he sometimes seemed shorter than he was. We met on a night when I was pretending to be someone else. There, at a bar in Hell's Kitchen, on occasion, I took life into my own hands with a dim drink, swaying drunkenly on the dance floor in an act of self-proclamation. But that night was different. I wanted more than abandon. I wanted to choose.
I'd gotten a second drink for courage. I leaned carefully on the thin rail that encompasses the second floor stairway at Therapy Bar. He slid next to me quietly, looking the college-boy of so many pornos, his reserve a direct reflection of a vast inward vanity. I resolved to make the first move, my voice jumping like brass, tuning to him. He was watching the swirling crowd below with an intensity that only confirmed that he was alone. There was nothing so absorbing except to disguise (or reveal?) he was indeed "looking". In that moment we crossed paths in a strange orbit, our true selves in disguise.
He was the law student soon to graduate, studying to take the bar exam, southern, fresh faced and unassuming. I approached him donning my own mask. A beautiful, unselfconscious person with clear speech for golden boys and self-assured enough, anyway, to take the risk of talking to him. Pure fiction. In a hurry to make him see me for what I wasn't, I gazed directly into his hush puppy eyes, lifting this cocksure image to them like smoke.
We spoke then of empty facts and fenced in lives lived in tiny-walled Manhattan apartments. That we found ourselves in a gay bar seemed purely incidental. We later slipped into a cab. He looked at me then with those drunk, watery eyes—sweet, muddy, and lonesome.
When our bodies met, wrapped in the dark of his room, it felt like a warm bath kept by the heat of his body. Wrapped in his arms like a soft pet, he kissed me in a river of excitement. I was baptized. We lay eye to eye, searching like detectives for a pledge. Lips on lips. Eyes and lips flayed in the moonlight. He said to me then through the fog, "I could do this for a while." He could do this for a while, the words echoed in my mind. Yes, and so could I.
After that night, we saw each other often. He was studying for the bar exam, but made time to see me—that or else he feared the station of his dark desk. Feared that if he studied hard and didn't pass the exam (and he wouldn't), there would be no one left to blame but himself or, worse still, if he did pass he would have to face his future. It is the same with the writer who delays his labor to maintain the illusion that his success or failure has little to do with his ability to write, and everything to do with what has inhibited its birth. With this understanding, I struggled with the impulse to see him as often as I could.
It is difficult to heed storm clouds when you stand in the sun. In the beginning, we kept pace with each other, executing elaborate movements that can culminate between two men, without words. I wondered if he would ask to see me again, if I should have asked. If I would have the strength to let it rest? If he would kiss me first or wait to be kissed? Too much spent energy to consider what difference it would make.
I can still see his long body in the gray morning light sifted through blinds. He sleeps like an upturned ape, his arms spread wide across the bed. On mornings like these I drink in his milky complexion and dream of caressing it in some near-distant future, double bound by desire. In my memory he has beautiful feet and the legs of an athlete. His balls are full like ripe fruit. His stomach is packed tight as earth and his chest is firm and tender under the weight of my thick, swooning head. I would think of him, privately, years later, and of all of the hairy orifices of his body my fingers would never explore.
I couldn't be satisfied, tugging and twisting under an embattled need for more. His body was too small a prize. I wanted his soul. And how did he define himself? And what did he want from me? What could he give besides uncertain peace?
He was a straight-guy fantasy come to life and standing shoulder to shoulder before this vision, whoever the real John was, cowered. Perhaps it was then he pulled away, when he realized it didn't matter to me if he was being himself.
The more I pawed at the speechless wall that grew between us, the greater its density grew. And I knew it had to do with intimacy, falsehoods and false selves, and how this John, like Davis, made me feel real.
When he said he could do this a while, it meant something different than how I'd chosen to hear the words. For him this was a fleeting and dishonest moment. For me it was pious and prayerful, the stuff that could fill days. I struggled to see a way to keep him. And there I was again, holding the bag.
The end came in Central Park. He led with me toggling behind. Wryly, he turned to me and asked if I was going to bitch the whole time—me, the bitchy girlfriend; him, the sensible man. What I took for intimacy—easy tropes, safe and warm—was yet another bad omen.
We walked a long way before finding a place to roost. I drew near, clasping his hand, when no one was watching, in sneaking passes. That day he made no complaint, didn't pull away as was his fashion. Knowing it was over, what little did he risk in indulging me? We found a knoll with a view of the pond and he slyly pulled a joint from his coat pocket.
Gazing into his eyes, I exhaled. After smoking, we walked to Belvedere Castle overlooking the great lawn. We sat there watching the sky in the fast fading afternoon. A storm loomed in the distance, pressing in on us like so many great hands. As the last bit of blue sky was encircled, I knew time had run out.
We waited for the truth to claim us. The truth was that John was a phantom looping like stock reel in my mind. The truth was that together we feared the dismantling of this cinema of false selves required to love each other without prejudice, to free ourselves of what it meant to be gay, what it meant to be straight—what it meant to be a man, to love a man, and what it should look like.
In my need to reconstruct a fairytale, I neglected to consider so many of John's needs. I remained silent and refused to close the gap myself because I wanted to believe that in doing nothing I could have everything. Is there any sweeter victory? Perhaps John wanted to feel the spread of a man between his legs or sweat-out kisses at the back of his neck. Perhaps he knew how he was fetishized in the eyes of strangers and my own. Perhaps he resented it—or was it, in fact, that he was glad to be seen at all. I saw him again a year to the day. He floated into view like a figure through clouded glass where I sat waiting at G Lounge's island bar. All over again, like a film I'd seen before, the handsome lead, outspread in black leather, wearing a simper. He hadn't changed and neither had I.
In love, however, there was only one. I can see Hewes now, his crown of black curls pressed to pale skin. The night we met, he drove me home after a drink. We talked incessantly with the knowledge that this was the most important conversation either of us had ever had, as if this was the only conversation that had ever been worth having. I'd grown husky with winter and soft, unoccupied nights. At the only gay bar in Wilmington, Delaware, where I was then living, we were introduced by a mutual friend, our eyes relieved, having silently pled for an opportunity to talk all night.
That first night, we crowded into my bed kissing, intertwined beneath the stifling heat of my apartment. The radiator sang in rattled beats like a band. He was naked, deep, and lush.
After that we were together every day. He would pick me up from the grocery store. I would make him dinner in the six-hour breaks between his two jobs. Riding in that car felt like stepping into the past, connecting us to a pastime of drivers, each day charting a new course, speeding toward new horizons. Like my mother who bid her hometown of Delaware a good-hearted farewell, leaving the confines of 29th Street and its long broken embrace, for the sun soaked landscapes of southern California, where life was a postcard set in block prints, orange and gold.
And like my father, Hewes looked to his relationship like the horizon, which sets all things in balance, a marking post for his future self—the real Hewes, steady and unconfused about who he was and what he wanted. Once he took me on a wine-tasting along a country road. It was a surprise weekend and he wasn't working. We laughed at all the weekenders in their grave weekend style.
I never took these jaunts for granted. Hewes had his other commitments. The Filipino wife he'd married long enough ago to have had two daughters. Neither of whom were his first. Years prior he'd walked out on his first child, a daughter. A torment I still fail at forgiving and struggle to understand. I would never meet any of Hewes' women. He kept them from me like oil from water and his "gay" self from his "straight" self.
He insisted a lifetime he'd spent mixed up with women was merely circumstantial. Whatever the truth was, Hewes was a man who made the most of his situation. Had it occurred to him he didn't have to choose or explain? Sadly, sometimes I watched him like a shadow etched in light, but empty and dark on the inside, a copy of other peoples' poses.
There were nights, drinking at gay bars, I'd steal a glimpse of him acting. It dawned on me then he was involved in his own process of assimilation. Not only having sex with men, but now gay by way of identity and costume. He oscillated between poles, his two lives never meeting, the gap never closed.
As we fell in love our mutual ignorance took two distinct paths. Mine to love. His to love with a man. In essence, Hewes was picking a new instrument; I was just learning the music.
He wrote me poems. In one I was a shining star, and silly as it was, I loved it. In the mornings when he marched to work, his eyes pinched against the pale morning light, he left cards along his trail like crumbs, notes at the foot of the door so that they appeared to have been slipped in by night. I joked he was my teddy bear. On one note was a cheap sketch of a teddy bear carrying a bright red heart.
Hip to belly, we made love, moving in unison through space. Sex acted as a portal or code, giving way to secret passages of love, like caverns lit by muted light, pulsating between us until I felt all lips and eyes made to be kissed.
Then, without warning, we drew battle lines. It started in his car over an exchange with an "old friend." The gleam of a black dashboard and Chicago style rap on an ice blue night, when the heat of our words blighted the cold.
After that his eyes trained on the future, needing to totally dissever himself from the past, which he'd come to regard like a sepia-tinged photograph from a time when he was thinner and life seemed long. My jealousy brought him to associate me with the prepossessing ideas of this old life. Suffering from my own myopia, my vision increasingly narrowed, until I saw only him.
On a night fresh and icy, the streets sealed with a glinting polish, he turned to me and abruptly asked if I wanted to get a drink in Philly. I reacted with uncertain surprise, seeing this for the misdirection it was.
When he wasn't working he was usually satisfied to laze about my apartment where he could sleep and otherwise drape his loafing body. When I told him I was trying to save money and he didn't offer to pay, I knew my coming or going had very little to do with his ideas, in the same way my mock surprise had very little to do with shock and everything to do with bruised vanity.
He lodged a threat to go with his friend and we played out a false disagreement on its dishonest surface. The darker realities above shadowed our every movement, until we were drawn into a suffocating embrace against their expanding shades. He was in the middle of a divorce and a custody battle over two young children who I never asked about. Perhaps I was working just as hard to forget the past, even as it lived and breathed. I could sense we'd reached an impasse. If we kept seeing each other, we'd soon enter into our own state of matrimony, and perhaps he considered that he didn't want to be married again, in lifestyle or in law, least of all to another man. And maybe, in this, he was wiser than me.
For men like Davis, John, and Hewes—my men—traffic moved in two directions. Backwards and forwards with no turning points. No confusion. They offered comfort. They offered momentary happiness. But, they were only present enough, only just real enough, but not too much. Unwilling to fully give myself away, I'd sought men who only offered half and could make do with my portion.
Hewes was committed, and that night he left me to my despair. I threw all of his warm smelling things into big garbage bags. The detritus of our relationship filled two of them. Even in my scorn I was proud of those fat bags. But soon it was all pain, unanswered questions, and inconsolable, gaping doubts that opened up inside and swallowed everything whole.
When he came to get those bags, the sight broke him. Desperate to incite action, I had rendered him impotent. His surprise at the sight of them completed my own at my careless behavior. Nothing was the same after that. He stopped answering my calls altogether and would refuse to tell me where he was or where he went or where he was going to be. Before he left, I remembered he mentioned plans for a sushi dinner with a friend. I threw on a coat over my pajama bottoms and shifted out the door, into the starry night.
It was cold and the wind lapped in bitter waves against my face. I wasn't even sure I had the right place. I asked the hostess if she knew of a reservation under Hewes. This was ridiculous because Hewes never made reservations and this restaurant didn't take them.
I poked and bobbed my head for one glimpse of his winning face, past the crowd of frozen people whose profiles I could barely register. He wouldn't do this to me, I thought. He wouldn't get to just leave me here with nothing but my hope, the hope that had led me out the door and up the street. What darkness could I conjure to turn his head to this violence, to lead his voice back through the phone lines? How could I make him see that it mattered?
Eventually we did meet, and there was a series of arguments. I finally put down my armor and begged for his mercy. There, at the boutique lodge where he worked as an overnight clerk, I asked him to make love to me one more time.
Sobbing in his lap, my face wet and hot, I searched above for the guiding light of his great brown eyes. He lay my trembling body down and I pleaded with his waist-belt until he was inside of me.
It was there, in each other's embrace, that we dug for whatever it is that people dig for in each other, unsure if we found it that we'd recognize the real thing. We were like fugitives flood-lit by moonlight, under the glow of the hotel's front desk, a beacon for lost travelers.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]