Orin Hargraves‎ > ‎Oeuvre Groove‎ > ‎

Touristic Attractions ©2018 by Orin Hargraves. All rights reserved.

She opened the front door and led me in, towards the aroma of charred meat. “We could have waited dinner, you know.” But I had insisted they shouldn’t: the uncertainty of delays in arrival, car rental, traffic.

The Man—this one deserved a capital letter, on the basis of her reports—was standing at the sink, loading the dishwasher. She’d told me that he liked steaks and she had been cooking them for him. He liked potatoes too and she had been trying to cook them, with less success because she banned starch bombs from her diet and there wasn’t much you could do with them that didn’t amount to one.

“Frank—this is Wade.”

The gravity of her tone felt unwarranted, and a little unnerving—like I would now have to come forth as a person of the stature implied. In the circumstances I would have postponed the handshake but Frank made a show of drying his beefy hand on a dishtowel and thrusting it toward me. His smile was broad and genuine; I felt like it was made just for me. I beamed back, pumping the paw manfully. Yeah, it was easy to see how she’d gone into a swoon for this one. As tall as me but bigger boned, more substantial, clearly at home in a body equipped for feats of strength. His black hair was buzz-cut and he had neatly trimmed whiskers with that feature I find irresistible, a beardline across the lower lip with no gaps in it. But I let that slip away, he was hers, and not for courting. Women would say “He’s a keeper!” in that self-satisfied way they have. Guys I know would say, “Yeah, I’d do him.”

We got past the flutter of fearful constraint that accompanies introductions by talking about my travel and how easy it had been. When there was a pause, Frank said: “You two go and talk for a while, I’ll finish up here.”

“Oh but I want you two to get acquainted,” Jessica said. “I’ll finish the dishes.”

I liked the way Frank handled this with “OK, sure!” Rather than getting into an insistence contest with Jessica. “Let’s go out on the deck,” he said to me. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“I’m good for now,” I said.

“This way,” he said, grabbing a beer for himself from the fridge on the way. “Oh yeah, but you’ve been here before, right?”

“Yeah, Jessica and I go way back,” I said, in a way that I hoped did not suggest any prior claim.

We settled into butterfly chairs in shade, facing the backyard, turned in slightly towards each other in a friendly guy way. We hit some of the bases of a friendly guy conversation: jobs, colleges, hometowns. I was sure he knew that I was gay but I felt the need to get it out there, so that it didn’t rear its head in some surprisingly awkward way later. Straight guys do that with me all the time, contrive a reference to the girlfriend, the wife, the ex as early as possible. It saves everybody trouble. When he asked why I went to college so far from home I said “because I didn’t want to come out in a farming community of 4000 people.”

He gave me a once-over that I didn’t want to think about as flirtatious—like he was looking at me in a new way. “So are you with somebody now?”

“You mean a relationship?”

He nodded, smiled ironically, gave me a kind of “Duh!” look that was totally deserved.

“Not one that would qualify under conventional rules. But things get taken care of.”

It was great that Jessica came out just then because I felt like I was flirting with him and like he was responding to it and everything about that was wrong—including the fact that it was probably just in my head. She came around behind him, draped her arms around his head in a show of ownership.

“So Frank and I were thinking that since it’s already a bit late and it’s your first night we would just stay in. We can watch a movie or play cards, just talk—really whatever you guys want.”

Frank planted his beer bottle between his legs, licked his lips, and reached up to slide his hairy hands up and down Jessica’s arms, beaming at me all the while.

“Let’s stay out here while it’s nice,” I said. “We can do something else inside later if we get bored.”

In the end we didn’t do anything else. It was a pleasant summer evening and when the mosquitoes came out, Jessica had a ready solution for keeping them at bay. So we sat in an oblique triangle, the two of them side-by-side and I facing them in our butterflies. As the light faded we fell into a bond-fest, making much of what was common to two of us extend to the third. Frank got the history of Jessica and Wade back to our small-town childhood, with some shocking or hilarious anecdotes; I got the short but intense history of Frank and Jessica, and I supplied for Frank the details of some of his predecessors as Jessica’s suitor, starting with myself before I turned queer, and playing it all mainly for laughs. The one thing not common among us was the continuous pawing between the two of them, never rising to the get-a-room level but emblematic of the romance they were, by their own report, enjoying.

It was a weeknight and we all had obligations the next day, so eventually bedtime loomed. I was surprised when Frank announced his departure and Jessica acted as if she were expecting it. He gave us both huge hugs. Hers included a kiss; mine looked like it was going to for a second but then did not. Then he was on his way.

Immediately Jessica trained her eyes on me so intently and expectantly that she didn’t need to say: “Well?”

“You mean he doesn’t stay here?” I asked.

“Not often.”

“Why?”

“He says he doesn’t want to just fall into it. Take it for granted.”

“But you guys have—“

“Oh yeah. But he doesn’t want to live together. Not until we’re—“

“Married? Oh my god. Is that going to happen?” She held up her hands, crossed her fingers. No ring on any of them, but I gave her a big hug anyway. “That’s huge! Are you sure? You’re not going to throw him away on a technicality or something?”

She had done this so many times before. I had repeatedly suggested that she’d set the bar too high; I’d warned her that she would either have to settle or go without. In fact her last three years (we’re getting into our late 30s) have often looked like a desperate and sometimes reckless quest to find the babymaker. But of course I never characterized it to her in that way—even during, or after, one of many vetting exercises, in which we evaluated her current quarry under numerous, strict criteria. Sometimes I met them, sometimes I didn’t; it depended on whether travel and schedules permitted, and whether she kept them around long enough. Sometimes I told her she’d hit pay dirt and she needed to seal the deal, only to hear that she’d dismissed the candidate. Other times I spotted the flaw that the smoke in her eyes was blinding her to. Like the last guy, Blake, a model of young manhood, wealthy and athletic, and with impressively good manners except one evening when he drank too much. Then he let fly random, hateful remarks in a scattershot way—about fags, blacks, immigrants—that he would sometimes thereafter retreat from, apologetically. It was such a relief when she dumped him, after the many long conversations in which I patiently enumerated his shortcomings. He wouldn’t take an interest in anything she did that didn’t involve him. He was looking for a little wifey that Jessica could never become. He would have drunk most nights at home with the TV on. How did I know these things? I just did. With long practice at reading guys that came into her orbit, I fancied that I got pretty good at it.

Could there ever be such a conversation about Frank? Surely not on the basis of my first impression, which was still glowing all around us. What a catch! He was gorgeous, he seemed genuine, and he was emotionally accessible in a way that I didn’t usually associate with straight guys.

“I think this one’s a keeper,” she said. In that self-satisfied way. “We’ve talked about it. We both want the same things. And you know I’m ready.”

“Does he want kids?”

“He wants one. Or two. Like me.”

We went down the rest of the usual checklist of dealbreakers. He was solvent, had great career prospects, no worrying or annoying habits she was aware of. She'd met his parents once, they seemed normal and relatable. He was nice-looking, tall, personable, and he turned her on. Nothing not to love.

* * *

Our next evening was out. As it progressed I came to understand that its agenda had been long in the making. Jessica wanted me to meet someone—a friend of Frank’s actually, his roommate from college, still a great buddy of his. The two of them were cooking for us, Frank and Marco. Or was it Francis? Marco called him Francis, I don’t know what that was about.

Marco was hot. Not hot like Frank, more in a wavy-haired boy-next-door kind of way, but with the advantage of being conquerable, in principle, because he was gay. The agenda, however, was not for us to hook up, but to fall in love and live happily ever after. It was uncanny and startling to follow the script that I surmised Frank and Jessica had rehearsed with the intention of encouraging Marco and me to experience palpitations about each other. It seemed as if Marco had been clued up about me with a positive spin on every reportable fact, and I knew more extraordinary things about him before hors d’oeuvres were over than I would have learned on a blind date. But of course on a blind date we might have just hooked up. It’s so much more efficient to just cut to the chase sometimes.

Another couple, Ruth and Alex, turned up just as dinner was about to be served. Their arrival was presented as a surprise, but it did explain the huge volume of food that the guys had prepared, and I surmised that the arrivals were choreographed too, perhaps as another model for Marco and me to be inspired by. Behold, the happy couples.

Ruth and Alex were newly engaged and in the preliminaries of a wedding plan. Their adventures in that line supplied most of their conversational fodder after their arrival, which was taken up cautiously and circumspectly by Jessica and Frank, providing opportunities for each of them to affirm that they might be going down that road soon but were not on it yet. Marco and I had the least to say and when our eyes met from time to time I considered doing an eyeroll, but always desisted. There were too many ways he might have interpreted it. 

Later, when Jessica and I were alone again at her place I reported these eye-meetings as the height of interaction between Marco and me.

“Do you like him?”

“I didn’t get to know him. He seems nice enough.”

“But do you want to see him again? Because we can all go out.”

“I’d do him if the opportunity arose.” There was some truth in this, but I said it mainly to turn away this line of questioning.

 “You know, you really should think about settling down now. There are so many advantages! Not just the legal ones, but the psychological ones.”

“Like—?”

“Like just getting out of the marketplace. And knowing that you’re working on something that can last a lifetime. But you have to make an effort at it.”

Jessica had grown up in a storybook family—parents’ marriage intact even to this day, her brother and sister both successful, married with families of their own. I regularly used the dearth of desirable models in my family as a buttress for my skepticism about settling down. These days, it was almost the only buttress, and increasingly hard to lean on. Everyone was getting gay-married. Shouldn’t I at least stop ruling it out? Or so her thinking went.

“Frank really wants to find someone for Marco. He thinks he needs to settle down. And you know I think you do.”

“Does Marco want to find someone for Marco? And by the way, why does he call Frank Francis?”

“Frank answers to both. He says when he was in college he used Francis more. And yeah, I think Marco wants to settle with someone, especially now that he sees Frank doing it.”

“Double wedding then?”

“Well yeah! If it worked out. Or maybe not. In a Catholic church.”

“You’re getting married in a Catholic church?”

“We haven’t negotiated that yet. But it’s important to Frank’s family.”

“If you can get me gay-married in a Catholic church I might go for it.”

“Well give him a chance. He’s a really nice guy and Frank adores him.”

“There was no opportunity for us to do anything other than make goo-goo eyes, and we didn’t do that. He didn’t actually seem that engageable. And we live hundreds of miles apart.”

“Have you been seeing anyone else?”

I gave her an involuntary look that she knew well.

“Well?”

“Just a few times. But it’s ongoing. He seems really great.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“Online. Like ya do.”

This began a ritual debriefing, in which I shared all publicly suitable details about my latest (Roy) and she expressed her views. What’s his relationship history? (No red flags). Does he have a good job? (Better than mine). Is he looking for something long-term? (If it’s the right thing.) Do you think it will work out? (Too early to tell). Did I have a picture? I showed her one on my phone, which I had taken from my bed, of him standing at the bathroom mirror in his boxer briefs.

She has always played this role in my relationships, the same role I play in her relationships. We want the best for each other. We fine-tooth comb whoever comes into the other’s spotlight and provide encouragement or warnings, as appropriate. The difference is that her relationships last distinctly longer. I often lose interest in the guys I come across before she does. Once she said that we both play the same role in my relationships: up-close spectator rather than participant. They’re fun to visit and we enjoy all the alluring features but neither of us wants to live there.

To her credit, she has never laid out the bar-set-too-high argument with me, when I divulge the details of the ends of the affairs, which are usually about my perception that there has been a critical deviation from practicality or reason in my most recently lapsed boyfriend. But she lectures me repeatedly—and lately, not very gently—that I need to settle down with one of them. Now that obstacles to legal sanction are removed, what am I waiting for? I have never pointed out that I don’t need a babymaker—so what’s the point of settling down? But that, along with my dearth of inspiring models, are my internal defenses against the suffocating idea of there being only one, now and forever. You don’t need to build a nest if you don’t plan on nestlings.

* * *

The invitation to Frank and Jessica’s wedding came a couple of months later—for the following spring. I called her right away to congratulate her.

“So no double wedding. And I see that the Catholics won.”

“They’re footing the bill for the whole thing, so there was no way to say ‘No’. And it’s not a big deal, we’re already doing the counseling they require and that’s easy, thank god, because we aren’t living together. Marco is going to be best man, so you’ll get to see him again.”

“Lovely. I hope he’s saving himself for me.”

“We want you to be in the wedding too.”

“Bridesmaid?”

“No, but to say something. Or read something. We’re working on the ceremony.”

“OK, yeah. What made you decide to move things up?”

“We didn’t really move them up. We just decided it was time, we needed to make it happen, and there wasn’t anything we were waiting for.”

We could have talked for a long time but I rang off with a promise to call back. Roy, still my guy, was coming over soon and I needed to get our dinner ready. It felt great that I had this scenario to offer her. At least I was still in a relationship, making efforts towards its success, not trawling the Internet for hookups. So I pulled out all the stops for dinner, even put a candle on the table that I lit as it started to get dark, rather than just turning on a light. Roy looked at me kind of funny. We were just talking, about whatever came up, as we always do. I told him Jessica and Frank’s news.

“Didn’t you say that Frank was kind of—“

“Ambiguous maybe. His best buddy and college roommate is gay. He’s the one I told you about, Marco, that they were trying to set me up with.”

“Are you going to the wedding?”

“Oh yeah, definitely. They want me to be in it—read a poem or something.”

“So you’ll get to see Marco again. Maybe it will take this time.”

“Why don’t you come with me to the wedding.”

“Really?”

“I think it would be properly subversive, since it’s a Catholic wedding.”

“Do you think it’s the right thing for Jessica?”

“It’s all she’s wanted for the last ten years, so yeah. Frank meets all of her strict requirements, and time is running out.”

“Why do you suppose he hasn’t paired off already?”

“I don’t know. That’s always a question with guys that fill the bill for her because the best ones are supposed to be already taken. I think he’s a couple years younger than she is.”

“Do you think the best ones are already taken?”

Was it the candlelight? He looked so beautiful in its golden glow and I thought for a second that it would be nice for him always to be there, free for the asking. “I don’t know. What’s your availability?”

* * *

He was still there when I woke up the next morning. No cause for alarm in this, except that it wasn’t our usual way: when he stayed over he got up early and left for work before I had to. It was his habit, always early to bed early to rise, and it worked for both of us. The night had been especially pyrotechnic and I wasn’t sorry to wake up with his warmth and bulk next to me. I threw an arm and a leg over him. “You’re still here.”

“Do you mind?”

“I’m ecstatic.”

“How about just ‘OK with it’? ‘Cause we did ecstatic already.”

“We could do it again.”

That didn’t look like it was going to happen though, because he had some stuff, which I now understood was probably why he was still in bed with me. We Needed To Talk. He turned over and faced me. “Do I know about everything that’s going on here?”

“What do you mean?”

“How long have we been together. Five, six months? And exclusive, right? You said you would tell me if there was anyone else.”

“There’s no one else.”

“Do you really want me to go to the wedding with you?”

There was such an edge in the way he said this that I pulled back from big-time affirmation. “It would be great to have you there if you would enjoy yourself.”

“Its not just because you want to gay-crash a Catholic wedding.”

There was an inexplicable look of hurt in his eyes. He pulled away, lay on his back, folded his arms across his chest, and stared at the ceiling. So that didn’t work. What was I supposed to say? I reached over, rubbed him a bit here and there. He pushed my hand aside. “We’ve never gone anywhere in the time we’ve been together.”

“You know my work travel is just about work—yours is too. We never talked about it. Why didn’t you say something if you wanted to go somewhere?”

“It sounds like you had a good time with all of them when you were there.”

“Jessica happens to live in Seattle. I’ve got friends here and there. We get together when we’re in the same place. What’s the problem?”

 “What was the deal with the last guy you were with. Didn’t you guys go to Cancun or something?”

“Jason?”

“The builder.”

“He got laid off in the winter. We both wanted to be somewhere warm. It was spontaneous, we just went.”

Jason the builder was fun, arms of steel and an anatomical delight in every way. Every time he walked into a room, with clothes on or without, I marveled at his ectomorphic majesty—even as he spent an unconscionable amount of time mind-melded to video games. He also made a poor showing in social settings, barely engaging with my friends and often preferring the company of his phone. Every attempt to integrate him into the rest of my life failed. I kept dragging him along, trying to indicate that the part of me he engaged with wasn’t severable from the rest. But he just resisted more and more, so that wasn’t going to work. I stopped pulling, and he was left in place. Roy knew all that, I’d narrated the details in bits and pieces, but I laid it out for him again, trying to assemble it in a way that supplied whatever might be the missing piece for him.

“And didn’t you and that Asian guy go on a cruise?”

“After we broke up. Just to share a cabin because it was a better deal for two people.”

Haruki had been wonderfully exotic at first. Thoroughly Japanese, only came to the States as an adult. He had a speck of Russian ancestry, which was his explanation for the hairy legs that I loved, though he viewed them as an embarrassment. He had so much time for me, too much time really because he didn’t have to work: all of his money came from inheritance and investments. The meals he prepared for us were each unique works of art. But then the third time we were doing it—first time in his bed—he whispered “I love you,” gushily, passionately. The picture hit me smack in the face: he needed me, wanted me to fill the hole of meaning in his desultory life. So that wasn’t going to work. I slunk off to sleep in the guest bedroom, from where I could hear his ex, with whom he still shared acreage and mansion, snoring loudly in the bedroom below. We hung out for a while as friends till it was clear there was nothing to hold us together.

Roy hadn’t gotten so much detail about Haruki before but I laid it all out for him now because my gut told me the part he needed to hear was that I couldn’t be anyone’s everything. I couldn’t be the one someone needed, and I tried not to need anyone.

“Why are you asking about those guys?” I said. “I’ve told you almost everything about them before. There's no special reason you and I haven't gone anywhere. It just hasn't happened. It can happen any time.”

“That’s just it. Not for any special reason—just because you wanted to. Now you want me to go this wedding so you can show off a gay date to all those Catholics.”

It’s weird. You’re having a great time exploring a person and suddenly something pops up that wasn’t anywhere on the map, something that no guidebooks mention. Why didn’t anyone warn you about that?

***

I held off on the wedding RSVP as long as I could because Roy was having a crisis of indecision about it—a crisis I could not get my mind around despite numerous attempts because it seemed so simple to me: he could go or he could not go, and little else would ever be affected by it. Finally he said he would go and we bought our tickets. But when the time came, some work thing came up and following an equally harrowing crisis of indecision, he cancelled. I was bummed because I had begun to imagine that it would be fun for us to be at the wedding together. I had even begun to think that it would be a great opportunity for us to act like a couple, try that on, see if it felt like something that could last for a while. But when it doesn’t work, you let go.

The ceremony was Catholic with modern add-ons; it felt like we were jumping between two centuries, and the wedding had time-travel as its unique and clever feature. Jessica had me read a passage from Khalil Jibran. It was a little cheesy, I thought, but it made some of the bridesmaids tear up. A couple of them gave me looks of longing that I found no opportunity to disabuse them of.

The dinner and reception afterwards was a massive assault on the senses. Surely a couple hundred people. Frank, I learned, was the baby of a large family and separated by quite a gap from his next sibling. All of the others were married already and had children, who ricocheted around the banquet hall shrieking joyfully in their best clothes. There were toasts and speeches about the joys of conjugality and family life—by people who had experienced many of them. But they were all speaking from the land of Marriage, a place where I did not even enjoy being a tourist, much less a prospective resident, and while I listened politely and raised my glass on cue, I was quietly grateful that none of this would ever be about me.

An exception to the general tone was Marco’s best-man speech. I admired him so much for it: it was edgy, a little emotional, and obviously came from a place of abiding love for Francis (the only name for the groom that he used). I looked around while he was speaking and I didn’t see any faces at ease, including the groom's. Everyone was expecting the usual mirth-filled litany of endearing embarrassments about a goofy but lovable guy. What they got was a forthright profession of a bond of love between two men that was presented as something completely independent of the fact that one of them was getting married. The applause at the end had the ring of relief about it.

Marco sat down—next to me at the top table, where we had been all along since we were participants in the ceremony (and undoubtedly, by Frank and Jessica’s design). We’d hardly spoken up to now because I had sensed his nervousness about the speech, and he had not seemed any more engageable than he had a few months ago. Now I put my right hand in his, my left on his shoulder, and said: “That was beautiful.”

“Thanks,” he said, still in thrall to the feelings he had expressed about his friend.

“I have never heard a best-man speech that was more about love than that one.”

He didn’t respond to this in words but he did actually look at me for the first time ever that connected. Suddenly he was there for me, and wow! We continued to talk through the wedding cake and I saw how immersed he was in his conflicted emotions, how vulnerable, and finally how willing to just let it out. When the music started I asked him to dance and we did. We got a mixture of looks, one or two hostile, some alarmed, most of them approving. He was a great dancer and he smelled really good up close. I had reached my limit of stimulation for the day. When we sat down again I said: “This is about as much wedding as I need. I’m going to go back to my hotel. I hope we can keep in touch.”

“Why don’t I go with you now?”

So we were out of there in a New York minute. As we slithered out the back of the banquet hall it felt like the same fog of responsibility was trying to envelop us and keep us there to do the obligatory things: wish the new couple everlasting happiness, say delightful things to their parents and siblings, glad-hand all comers with smiles that would make our cheeks ache. But the business at hand called us both so much more peremptorily, the bond of two renegades who had recognized the urgent need to escape and finish what had begun. At the hotel we peeled off each other’s layers of formality in slow-mo, enjoying the delectability of each piece, and we did what we needed to do.

* * *

I told all of that in short form to Roy when I got home because that had been our agreement, that any other liaisons would be reported when they happened. The gleeful guilt I felt was novel: I did not want any part of it to be hurtful, but if he’d come to the wedding as he’d said he would and not engaged in all of that nonsensical dithering and equivocation, nothing with Marco would have happened. That conversation was the beginning of the end of Roy and me, despite the raucous exercise we had in bed that night. He came to dinner the following week but didn’t stay over, just collected all of his things and took them home.

It turned out that Jessica was pregnant at the altar, just barely, and didn’t know it. Their baby, a boy, came along eight months later. The birth announcement says he is called Mark Anthony Moretti. Jessica writes that he has special needs but didn’t give any details. She says Marco will help them a lot, especially when she has to travel.

I’ve been hanging out with a local college professor I met online, he seems mature and sensible and we are equally fascinated by botany. His family has a cabin in the Ozarks, we’re going there for a long weekend later this month.

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