“So how did the wedding go?” Adrian was mixing up a couple of iced Goldfingers for us as a present for surviving the morning rush. A Goldfinger is a latte with vanilla and caramel flavors; I like mine with a half shot of each to avoid any extra sweetness.
“Not bad, I guess. I saw some people I knew, saw some other people I didn’t, met a girl, she was married, you know.”
“Not really,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I never meet anyone who’s married. Who I’m interested in, I mean.”
“Yeah, so what’s the problem?”
“Don’t you want to get married?”
“I waver. Sometimes I think it’d be cool, but sometimes I can’t even stand myself for a few days in a row; how’d I be able to deal with someone else there all the time?” I took the drink from his hand and took a sip. Cool perfection. “What’s your point?”
“I want to get married,” said Adrian. “I want to get down on one knee with a ring in my hand and give it to the man I love. I want to swear that I’m never going to be with anybody else. I want to have fights over cutlery and the remote control. I want to buy a house and make it domestic, with little rugs inside the front door and matching fireplace pokers and light switches. I want to grow old and have someone I love watch the crow’s feet around my eyes get deeper and wider.”
He was staring at his coffee now, his hair a mess as usual, the small steel hoops in his ears hanging at an angle as he bent his head forward.
“But I can’t do that.”
We stood there for a while. I finally walked over to him and punched him in the shoulder.
“I’d marry you, Ade. But we’d have to sleep like Ward and June Cleaver.”
“Why’s that?” he asked.
“’Cause I bet you kick.”
“Nah, ask anyone. I’m the best bedmate you could ask for. It’s too bad you’re straight, Pete.”
“You’re easier to deal with than any of my ex-boyfriends.”
“I’m flattered, Ade. I just can’t get past one thing, though.”
“Guys are ugly, man. I don’t know how you do it.”
“With pleasure, every time.” He smiled again.
“You guys should get married,” piped up Gerald from his corner, “Maybe then it’d be quieter around here and I could get something done.” He had a laptop out and was pecking at it.
“Get a job,” I said.
“I wish,” he said. “What’s with the rats?”
“There aren’t any rats,” said Adrian. “That’s the Man messing with us.”
“Who’s the man?” asked Gerald. I winced.
“I’m the Man!” shouted Adrian. “Step up sucker, understand.”
A late morning blitz hit right after that, and I was thankful for the noise and the people. Nothing special happened, aside from one take-out order for thirteen large coffees from a tall guy in a wrinkled tie. He explained that the Braun at his office had malfunctioned just in time for a monthly board meeting, and he was frantic. We closed off each paper cup with scotch tape so that the tops wouldn’t fall off, and put all thirteen in bag. He sprinted off, hopefully in time. The rush ended, and I took a crossword puzzle from the paper to a corner table with a cup and worked on it, thinking about things.
When I was thirteen, popularity was measured by how many bar mitzvahs you attended. I remember one pretty clearly; the celebrant was one of the super-cool kids who happened to be named Michael Jackson. He was so cool that the name didn’t matter—sometimes I wonder if he’s changed it. He made everyone crack up by spinning around on one foot and shouting “I’m Bad!” in a high-pitched voice that wasn’t much more up on the octave scale than my natural tone at the time. It wasn’t that funny, but he was cool, so everyone laughed. The party was held at Temple Beth something-or-other, a beautiful place just on the side of a leafy municipal park. My parents dressed me that day in slacks, a blue blazer and one of my father’s ties. I had just started the growth spurt that eventually put me where I am today, but at that time the tie was still quite a bit long, reaching from my neck almost down to the V of my crotch.
I was nervous when I walked into the temple, clutching the wrapped book I had brought as a present. Mrs. Jackson was stationed at the door, greeting all the guests. I remember that her teeth flashed like they do in toothpaste commercials; she had probably smeared them with Vaseline or used some other beauty-pageant trick to get them that way.
“Hello,” she said. “You must be one of Michael’s friends.”
I didn’t know how to answer that. Michael (never Mike) and I weren’t friends at all. He palled around with the popular kids, learning how to snap a bra, engaging in those peculiar junior high ritual hugfests, talking loudly in the locker room about who he was going to go with next. It was never “go out with,” always “go with,” because, well, when you’re in eighth grade where are you going to go out to? I usually played basketball at lunch with a few other kids and some seventh graders. I’d only really talked to Michael in the classes we shared: social studies and introductory German. He was on a different plane from me, and I accepted that as the way things were.
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“Well, put your present over there with all of the others,” she said, directing me to a table stacked with a few presents and about a million little manila envelopes. I put my book, Michael’s new book, in the back of the pile, embarrassed at my mom’s choice of a gift. Even I knew that you were supposed to give money at this sort of thing.
The rest of the party was strange: the girls were all wearing strapless dresses and other evening gowns, the guys all wore exactly what I did. A DJ played music; the only song I really remember being that one that goes You spin me right round baby right round… I wasn’t much of a dancer back then, so I sat on the sides and watched the kids dance fast and slow, most of the girls taller than the boys.. I left a little bit early, found a pay phone and called my mother to come pick me up. That was the last bar mitzvah I went to that year, and I never got a thank-you note from Michael. I guess he didn’t much like The Eyes of the Dragon.
Weddings are just grown-up bar mitzvahs. Both of them are ways to show off to friends, to inform said friends of how many other cool people the throwers know, and to put you as a guest in your proper place on the friend/acquaintance hierarchy. I was definitely at the low end of Michael’s list; with Ross I was squarely in the middle. There had been some guys at Ross’s wedding who were clearly B-list, last minute invitees. Guys from his office, relatives who he’d never seen. They were all there.
I mentioned this theory to Adrian after the morning rush was over.
“Are you nuts?” he said.
“No, I’m serious.” Ade stopped playing with the foaming wand and gave me his full attention, which made me uncomfortable because he only does that when he thinks I’m acting stupid and is about to give me a verbal smackdown.
“Look,” I said. “Most people have three basic social rituals—the coming of age, marriage, and funerals. The first is a bit shaky, but between bar mitzvahs, confirmations and debutante balls that covers a ton of people. All of them involve a ton of people getting together in a room and acting like idiots. At the first ones you act as adult as you can, at the second you get drunk and try to act like a kid, and the third you try to remember what the deceased was like at the first two.”
Adrian didn’t say anything.
“But they’re really not about that,” I said. “The first two are parties, but for most people they’re an exercise in self-indulgence. Even funerals are basically ‘Hey look at all these people who are sad I died. I was one hell of a guy.’ Forget that. I’m going to skip it all; I don’t have any need to show off. I’m not going to get married, and when I think I’m going to die, I’m going to go to Alaska, hitchhike to a deserted part of the road and walk until I freeze to death.”
“So your grand theory is that all rituals that mark off points of your life are really just exercises in self-aggrandizement.”
“I think you’re just worried that if you got married, nobody would come.”
This is the problem when talking with Ade. He’s always right. What if I died and nobody came? I had a mental picture of an empty cemetery on a rainy day, four burly illegal Irish immigrants bearing a coffin, and a hung over rent-a-priest reading the twenty-third Psalm in the neutered language of the Living Bible. Sometimes this picture keeps me up at night.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll show up.”
“Something else is bothering me,” I said. “What happens when the weddings stop? I figure I’ll be going to at least one a year for the next few, between friends and cousins and old girlfriends and whoever. Is that it? Is my only major social option with people I used to be close to going to be when they get married? And then when those end, the funerals start, and then it’s over?”
“If that’s the way you want to look at it, yeah, I guess,” said Ade. “But wouldn’t you rather just have fun your life and not worry about that kind of crap? Besides, didn’t you get sick of these ‘what’s the point of it all?’ conversations in college?”
“Sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.”
“Why? I doubt you’re going to change your life because of this new theory of yours. What could you do about any of this that we’ve been talking about?”
“I could meet someone who could…”
“AHA!” Adrian spun around on one foot and threw a napkin at me. “This is all a smokescreen. You’re unhappy because you’re recently single and you’re going through the ‘what if nobody wants me?’ stage, right? Christ, Pete, get over yourself.”
I took another bite of muffin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No buts, man. You’re concocting ridiculous pseudo-logical arguments to cover up your own insecurities. It’s time for you to hit the dating scene.”
“There is no dating scene, Ade.”
“You forget who you’re talking to, Pete. As a gay man, I know more available single women than anybody in this city, and since I’m sick of listening to you whine every day about how you don’t have anything to do during the evening, I’m going to become your social director.”
“You should let him,” said a man in a rumpled suit. He was standing a few feet back from the counter, and carried a clipboard with a pen attached to the metal part with a piece of string. “I’m with the city. Where do you get your baked goods from?”
We told him, and he asked a bunch of other questions, which we answered as best we could. He made clucking sounds every time he wrote something down. When we finished, he handed us a three hundred dollar ticket for the improper mixing of our cream cheese; he had seen me wipe off our cream cheese knife twice between bagels instead of the required three. I didn’t remember doing it; he’d probably been sitting there all morning, waiting to nail us with something. I flipped off his back as he went out the door, and several customers applauded.
“That’s what it’s going to be like?” asked Adrian.
He snorted. “The day I’m afraid of that guy, I’ll go back and apologize to my father.”
Adrian looked at me. “The hell with both of them. Let’s talk about your dating future.”
Nobody dates anymore. When I was a kid, I’d watch syndicated television shows after school, and became convinced that movie theaters in the fifties and early sixties had been full of people on first dates, the ice cream parlors were packed with second dates, and the four-star restaurants were constantly chock-a-block with couples on anniversary dates. If that was ever true, it’s not anymore. Of the people I hang out with on a consistent basis, the only one who goes on real dates with any consistency is Adrian. I hadn’t been on a real date in fifteen months. Jenny and I had never really been on dates; we just hung out until the hanging out became exclusive and started including sex.
My last real date had been with a nineteen-year old karate instructor whom I’d met when she’d been accidentally locked in the bathroom at Jon’s Place. The door lock was stuck and she got scared, so I’d sat outside the door and talked to her while we waited for the locksmith to show up. He was an hour late because his van had broken down, so Sophia and I talked for an hour, she gave me a big hug when she got out and declared that she had to take me to dinner. So we went to dinner and coffee, and nothing happened, and I went home. Apparently it was a “thank you” dinner and not a “date” dinner, but I’m including it in the official record as a date because a) someone was asked to do something by someone not well-known, and b) only one person paid.
If I were to estimate, I’d say I’ve been on ten or twelve real dates in my life, and that includes three trips to high school dances, where showing up with a date is mandatory. This in no way makes me a loser; it’s just the way that things are for people my age.
“Okay, Ade,” I said while I steamed up half a pitcher of jury-rigged two percent milk, “I’m in your hands. Take me away.”
“Perfect,” he said. “We’ll start tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow?” I said, “But that’s Tuesday night.”
“Yeah,” he said, “So what? You’ll be able to go to dinner without having to wait for a table. It’s a plus.”
“Okay.” It made sense…there was just one thing.
“Hey Ade,” I said.
“Yeah?” He had ripped open a brown paper bag and was filling the grinder with decaf espresso beans.
“Who am I going out with?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll tell you tomorrow at work.”
I didn’t go home straight away, heading instead to the Cambridge Co-Op to do some grocery shopping. The Co-Op is just like a grocery store, but the service is pretty bad and all of the people who work there are dirt-poor student types with dreads and piercings and colored hair and other defiant marks of a counterculture lifestyle, just like everyone else in the counterculture. Most of the people who shop there are older than I am, with the Birkenstocks and faded ponytails of hippies who gave up protest as a means of social change and started buying organic instead. I shop there because it’s walking distance from my house and they have a really good selection of spaghetti sauce
I stared at the spaghetti sauces for some time, unable to come to any kind of decision. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and got an eyeful of Gina’s face, which was definitely not a Bad Thing.
“Hey,” I said. “Gina!”
“Hi Pete,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad at all. Buying some spaghetti sauce, some other things. You?”
She shrugged, which was very hot. “Same old. Fixing networks at work, trying to find something worth cooking.”
Even I could run with an opening like that.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said. “The problem is cooking for one person. All of the cookbooks and recipes are all predicated on the notion that you’re cooking for two or three people. If I buy a whole tomato here, it’ll go to waste. Now, if they offered half-sized tomatoes, I might be able to eat the whole thing before the tomato goes bad. Too bad they don’t sell half-sized tomatoes, you know?”
What was I saying?
Gina looked at me quizzically. “Um…I guess so.”
“No, uh….that’s not quite what I meant. I mean, I meant that it’s really hard to cook
something for just one person, y’know? And it would be really good if they made foods that were just for one person, like smaller tomatoes and little half-sized loaves of bread and other things. But since they don’t, it’s better if you can cook for two people, which is hard, because you can’t have friends over for dinner every night.”
She looked even more quizzical.
“Right,” I said. “What are you buying?”
“Dinners,” she said. “The frozen kind that are meant to feed one person.”
“Oh,” I said. We looked at each other for a few seconds.
“Well,” she said. “I should probably be going. Tell Barry I’m looking forward to later tonight. I’ve got the perfect thing to wear.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you.”
She walked off, still the perfect brown-haired Caramel Cappuccino Girl, probably thinking that I had learned all of my conversational skills from the How to Talk Like a Psycho in Thirty Easy Seconds For Dummies manual.
Wait a minute. Tell Barry I’m looking forward to later tonight. What the hell was that all about?
I walked in the door. “Hi, Barry.”
“Hey Pete, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, really.” I dropped my shoulder bag on the couch, and the bag sank nearly its full width into the cushion. “Barry, have you ever thought that we should get a new couch?”
“No, why?” He was on his computer, typing while he talked to me. He then clicked a couple keys with a flourish, walked into the living room, plooped onto the couch. “Seems okay to me.”
I spared Barry a lecture on lumbar support and picked up my bag instead. I paused. I was itching to tell Barry what Gina had said to me earlier, but the little weasel part of my brain was holding me back. Why did Barry need to know that I’d run into her at the Co-op, anyway? Anything that would be good for him, in this situation, would be bad for me, except for the part that I’d be a ridiculous little weasel. Barry saved me by talking.
“Pete,” he said.
“Um….Gina and I are going to this little party if you want to come. Tonight. Wanna come?”
“What kind of party?”
“You have to show up in character.”
I dropped my bag. “What?”
“Well, it’s a group of the guys who I’ve started to play live Dominator with, and it turns out Gina plays too—it’s a nationwide network, you see, and she has been on for a long time. Anyway, you come as your character, or in something that’s characteristic of your persona if you can’t find all the stuff to get a costume, and then other people have to guess who you are based on what they’ve heard of you.”
“Heard of you?”
“Well, yeah…I mean, there’s bulletin boards and stuff, and if you’re really good, like Gina and me, people get to know your signature style through them.”
“Well, mine is that I always behead my captives after I take them prisoner. I’m a pretty bloodthirsty bastard, if I do say so myself. Gina heals people completely–she’s a high-level druidess–and then stabs ‘em in the back as they get ready to walk away. Pretty cool, huh?”
“What would I do there, Barry?”
“Hm…” his brow furrowed. It was an interesting furrow: when Barry frowned about sixteen lines formed in his forehead, which I have to think is far above the average number. “I know!” The furrows disappeared. “I have an old peasant character who I’ve never killed off. You can be him. I have some sewn-together burlap bags you can wear. What do you say?”
“It’s twenty-five degrees outside—do I get to wear a coat?”
Barry looked righteous. “Did the peasants get to wear coats when they labored in the fields of the manor? No. In character means in character.”
“I think I’ll pass, Barry. Maybe in the summer. By the way, Gina said that she’s got a perfect outfit for tonight; I ran into her at the Co-op.”
“Okay.” He got up and wandered back to his room. “If you change your mind, I’ll be here. I’m about halfway through True Romance, by the way.”
“Yeah, I watch the DVD the background while I’m thinking of my next move. That guy who plays the dad. He was in something else, wasn’t he?”
I smiled. “Yep. Dennis Hopper. Apocalypse Now.” One of the first five on my list. Barry was getting there; if someone mentioned Dennis Hopper, he would be able to have a conversation.
I walked into my room and threw my bag on the bed. Vague bits of a conversation between Hopper and Christopher Walken were coming out of Barry’s room; I knew each line of dialogue by heart. I looked around my room, which hadn’t been re-laid out since we’d moved in a year and a half before. My bed is in a corner, the head under a window so that my head would stay somewhat cool in the summer. I have a stereo in some rack furniture that my dad had given me for my twentieth birthday; not a rack stereo, mind you. A receiver, CD changer, and a tape player that doesn’t work very well—it adds a little squeal to the beginning of any recording I made. I’m planning to buy an mp3 player and transfer all of my old cassettes to digital, but I don’t have the money to get a player with enough capacity to hold all of my hundred-plus tapes. My posters are the same ones I’d had for a while: Johnny Cash, a promotional poster from a cheeseball ‘70s flick called Mosquito! that I’d seen on TNT one morning in college, a small Van Gogh print, an old collage of concert tickets from shows I’d been to in high school. I had ringed the wall with Christmas lights to give it a soft feel, and they give off just enough light to read by in the easy chair I keep in the corner opposite the bed. Not a bad room, really. I thought briefly about switching the easy chair and my dresser, but decided against it.
I woke up when Barry came home; I had fallen asleep with the lights and my clothes both on. The floor creaked when he walked; I listened carefully. Only one set of footsteps, and none of the laughing whispers of an overnight guest. While turning off the light, I peeked out the door. Barry was in the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of orange juice. Alone. I went back to bed.