It wasn’t exactly a punch in the gut. It was more as if her breath couldn’t catch up to her swirling, confused, frightened thoughts which flitted around the inside of her head like crazed birds trying to find an earhole from which they could escape. The news was so profoundly shocking, so mind blowingly tragic, so depressing she couldn’t understand the words. But she well understood the meaning.
And yet it couldn’t be true. She was so young, only 37, in such fine physical shape and she had no bad habits. She didn’t drink, had never smoked, ate organic foods and drank artisanal water from clear mountain streams, for Christ’s sake! How could this possibly be? It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it couldn’t be happening to her! And yet, it was.
She thanked the doctor. Why, she had no idea, he had pronounced her dead. Why would she thank him? She should have screamed her bloody head off and told him to check his results again, and again and again if need be but find the right results, not these. She should have thrown herself on the floor and cried and pleaded with God for commutation of this sentence and if He refused she should have cursed his name to the moon and stars and the entire Universe.
But she hadn’t, she had outwardly, calmly accepted the news as if being told she should take an umbrella as if it might rain this afternoon. She shook the man’s hand, thanked him and walked out into the brilliant cold sunshine.
She should button her coat. The thought flew through her now empty mind and she stopped and started laughing. Laughing as she had never before laughed, tears streamed down her cheeks to dive on the snow covered sidewalk. She convulsed, doubling over, holding her stomach which had begun to ache from the laughter. She was dead. Why did she need to do anything, least of all button her Goddamn coat.
But she did anyway; it’s what her mother would want her to do. And she laughed again. Her mother, dead herself now these eight years from this same cancer, leading to despondency, alcoholism and death.
It was why she had been so adamant about her health. Why she ate as she did. Why she took care of herself. Why she ran. She was running now as far and as fast as anyone could while standing in one place.
She thought of all the places she wouldn’t go, the things she wasn’t going to do, the food she wouldn’t eat, the friends she wouldn’t know, the lovers she wouldn’t have, the things she wouldn’t experience, the stories she would never hear, the songs that would never touch her soul, the great discoveries, the petty, selfish experiences she would never have, the judgements she would never pass, the things she would never, ever know, touch, feel, love, hear, see, be. And the laughter became tears.
People walked by, stared, shook their heads and continued walking. They got to pass judgement. They got to witness, judge and shake their heads at the crazy woman and would continue to do so; why couldn’t she?
And then she didn’t care. She didn’t care what they thought, what they said, what they believed. They walked by and into nothingness. They no longer existed for her. Just the pain existed. Just the cancer. Just death.
How long did she have? He had told her but she was having trouble remembering his words. She remembered death, she thought she remembered something about chemo but had dismissed the idea before the words had flown far from his lips. It wouldn’t help, she would still die and it would be painful and destroy her will, her energy, her miniscule time left. It was not an option.
Life, no matter how little time, was the option and she was wasting it by standing here. The first thing she needed was a drink.
She had never developed a taste for alcohol but now was a good a time as any to jump into that particular pool. And she wanted the deep end, no wading for her. She would not dip her toe to test the waters, not this time. No time to learn slowly, for once in her boring miserable existence it was dive in head first and naked.
The bar was dark, with jazz in the background, not loud enough to be distracting just comforting. Dark red and brown leather chairs lined the low bar, red and yellow glows barely escaped the light fixtures wrapping her in warm comfortable ambience.
She pulled a chair away from the bar halfway down from the door and rolled it back to the opaque bar. It glowed from the same red and yellow lighting underneath. It was all so nice she wondered why she had spent so little time in these places. She was the only one here except, the bartender who stood at the far end of the bar texting on his phone. He was handsome and young, though not that young she realized, just young in the semi-dark of the bar.
She cannonballed into the pool with something she’d heard in a movie, “bourbon, neat.” She really wasn’t certain what neat was but she liked the sound of it.
“What flavor?” the nice man behind the bar asked.
“Wha-what?” she stammered
“We have many kinds of bourbon, which would you like?”
“To be honest I have never had bourbon before in my life but I am ready to give it a try, so you pick something.” she smiled and replied, finding courage even before the liquor.
“Never,” she tried to appear confident but really didn’t care. “I’m dying and would like to try it before I do.” Well that was matter of fact. And quite freeing!
He stopped, arm outstretched, reaching for a bottle and turned his head in astonishment to see if she was mocking him or being a smartass and discovered neither was the case. His hand changed direction slightly and he grabbed the Buffalo Trace bottle instead of the Turkey. Poured some in a rocks glass and set it on a napkin in front of her.
“I would sip, slowly,” he advised, “Especially if you’ve never had it before.
She did. The warmth flowed down her neck through her chest and into her stomach with delightful ease. This was wonderful. And she coughed but just a little.
She woke up alone and in her own apartment, completely dressed. Well, that was good, she thought. She remembered the bartender helping her out to the cab, he was such a nice guy, and then here she was, it looked like she might have to take it easy on the whole drinking thing. She’d only had two, three at the outside, that she remembered, apparently there was more to this drinking alcohol thing than she’d originally thought.
She was lucky the bartender was a nice guy, not all were. She liked men; she just didn’t like most men. She didn’t trust them. They bought you dinner or a sandwich or held a door or bought you a drink and they thought you were their property, chattel, and they could do whatever they wanted with you. And you better not bitch about it. Do what you’re told, do what I like and be grateful.
It was why she had been alone for so long. Well, she was certainly alone now.
Shit, who paid for the cab? She would have to find that bartender again and find out. She didn’t want to owe anybody anything when, well, when, it was, God damn it, she couldn’t even form the words in her head.
When she died! There it was out, no more secrets from herself, no more hiding, if she wasn’t going to be honest with herself at this juncture when the hell would she.
What to do, that was the burning question. A second opinion might be in order even if her doctor was so positive, so damned sure, of his prognosis. She should just call and quit her job, empty her bank accounts and 401K, cash in everything she could, sell off anything that might have any value and leave. Just go, somewhere, anywhere.
She had always planned for the future. She’d saved, worked, plotted, thought and envisioned life as it would progress. She knew exactly where she would be and what she would be doing ten, fifteen, even thirty years from now. Well, that had dramatically changed and so should she.
First she would get that second opinion, just to be sure. She had planned out her life too long to just give up the plan now. Then with information and facts, she could make decisions.
It had taken three weeks to get the appointment. Three weeks wasted of the little time she had left. The miniscule time she now had been assured was all that was allotted her. She was no longer depressed. She was now completely immersed in fury. She was pissed and she’d had enough, enough pity, enough what if’s, why me’s. Now it was time for action and a big fuck you to this world that would treat her this way. Try to chew me up and spit me out? Fuck you! I will stick in your throat until you choke.
“You want life? I will show you what life compressed is” She silently screamed in defiance. First to the bank, then to call her investor and then to pack, light. She would buy what she needed as she drove along.
And that would be her mode of travel, at least for now. Get a car and just start driving. She would be her own captain, she would not be ruled by airline schedules, bus routes or train tracks. She would plot her own course or not. She might just wander until she literally died.
After all, what was death? Should she be afraid of something no one really understood? What were the options? Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, nothing, black and empty, a joining of souls? Who knew and what good was life if everything you learned, saw, felt, heard, all the love, fury, the beauty, the sorrow, the joy, all of it just went away when your body ceased functioning. She couldn’t believe that was the purpose. There had to be more. Maybe you got to take all that had really mattered, carried in your soul, your mind, whatever, with you. Maybe your job was to bring all you had learned into the greater soul so it could become more complete.
Well, brighter minds than hers had tried to figure it out and none been more successful than she. But, what the hell, it was as good a premise as any for finishing off her short time on this rock. She would collect knowledge, emotion, love, hate, stories, whatever came her way. And if she could take it on to the next level so much the better. If not, well, she would have a hell of a time with the time she had left.
She would do what she had never done. She would live. She had no stories of her own; because she had never allowed such things to distract her from her plan. She had tamped down emotion and had even held love at bay until she deemed the time right. She’d had mental anguish, pain and suffering, her parents had seen to that, but that had been theirs not hers.
If there was anguish she would bathe in it. If there was pain she would glory in it. If she suffered she would suffer like a saint. She would love, but not fall in love, that would not be fair to whoever. One should not give a gift with an expiration date. But she would love none the less, and she would find love for her human brethren.
And she would collect stories and knowledge, knowledge of life and what others did to survive this insanity. She had always been too focused. She had been too single minded in her pursuit of what she thought life was that she had never actually lived it. She had never gone anywhere, done anything or created stories to be told. Well, by God she was going to go get them now!
Decided! Now on to real life lived compressed.
She sipped her wine- a nice, full bodied fruit forward Zinfandel- as she watched him meticulously set the table. He was so precise in every aspect of his movement, a dance of perfection; each piece had to be just so and exactly there. Nothing could be a fraction off, the plate centered in relation to the silver, water glass just to the top right of the plate, wine glasses not quite on the same line a fraction of an inch further away from the plate. She didn’t know if it was more impressive to watch it all come together as a master of craft or as artistic beauty.
He was a thing of ancient beauty himself; if he was not gay someone had messed up somewhere. Every hair in place, his shirt starched and ironed, a razor crease down the front of his slacks, shoes like mirrors, pencil thin salt and pepper mustache and small soul patch. Handsome, not pretty, in a classic way. She guessed his age at early sixties, possibly a little older, but well-kept and toned, he obviously worked out but for tone not muscle. Another sip of wine, she wanted to sit at that table.
The Maître d was quite accommodating- a fifty dollar bill does wonders to help a poor girl out- especially when the place was just opening and there was no one there. But she was taking no chances, she wanted him as her waiter and no one else.
She made the Maître d swear not to let on that she had specifically asked for him. She wanted this to be natural. If she was here for a few hours enjoying a dinner, that would not be out of the ordinary for a restaurant like this. She had denied herself experiences such as these her entire life; that was now at an end.
And a beautiful restaurant it was. Everything served on fine china with silver service, an exquisite wine selection, dry aged beef, Mingus, if she was right, in the background, now on to Coltrane. She had quickly acquired a taste in jazz and was a quick and voracious study.
And him. It was just what the concierge in her hotel had promised, just as she had described, just what she sought. She’d asked how she would know the waiter she thought she wanted and the concierge, a man of middle years and fine taste if she was any judge, had only smiled and said, ‘you will know.’ And she knew. Now for sustenance and then she would see.
She sat and he appeared in moments, fussing with her napkin, smoothly proffering her an extensive wine list and asking if she would like a moment to examine the list and make her selection. They had some nice reds by the glass but she wanted a bottle, having finally acquired a taste for alcohol, she had acquired a fine taste in wines. Something bold to follow the Zin she’d had while waiting at the bar maybe a Cab. Yes, something to go well with the steak she already knew she wanted.
Stags Leap, charcuterie and cheese plate, small house salad, dry age Petit Filet, medium rare with the emphasis on rare, small baked potato, asparagus and we’ll see about desert. She noted he did not write down her order but listened intently as if she were the only other person in the world.
She wished could’ve met one man who paid that kind of attention when it mattered but it didn’t now. She was here for a purpose not to wish for fantasies.
Each course came out in its own perfectly timed order. There would be no rush, no hurry, she was to enjoy her meal, to relax into the experience; and she did.
She sat back in the comfortable chair, something she had not experienced before in any other restaurant, sipped her port and smiled, it had been a fantastic experience, a culinary wonder and she just wanted to let the memory of it wash over her.
He quietly asked if she would like anything more and she smiled, no. But she did notice the bar was closing with the rest of the restaurant and, since she was from out of town, did he have any place he would recommend for an after dinner cocktail.
He considered for several long moments as if having some intense internal struggle before finally coming to a decision.
“There is a convivial establishment around the corner from here,” his tone succinct and clipped, “I happen to know the proprietor and many of his clientele, and believe you would find it suitable to your needs.” He smiled a polite, though mirthless, smile and bowed in thanks for her business without, she noticed, glancing at the hefty tip she had left.
She sighed, it sounded as if it would do. And she really wasn’t ready for the loneliness of her hotel room. Not just yet.
It was a dark bar made of wood and leather. It wrapped her in warmth and comfort as soon as the thick wooden door closed out the ambient street light. An empty two top beckoned and she slid into the nearest burgundy leather upholstered chair resting her arms on the cushioned armrests hands folded on the table in front of her.
She sipped her Bailey’s slowly, the ice clinking softly as they resettled themselves in the glass, and then took a quick swallow of the deep, rich black coffee, wanting to enjoy and relish the convivial feel of the bar.
She eavesdropped on the camaraderie of the patrons, who obviously had known each other for quite some time as witnessed by the ease of their interactions. She found herself jealous of their friendships, their closeness with each other, their time.
They did not bother her, though they did not ignore her either. If she wished to intermingle they would have gladly accepted her into any of their circles but they also respected her privacy. If she wished they were there if she preferred to be alone they would not interfere.
She finished her drink and sought the waiter so she could pay up and head back to her hotel, when he walked through the door to several respectful hellos and one or two handshakes as he made his way into the bar. Not jovial greetings more respectful. He was older than the most but not ancient.
He looked even more formal, if that was possible, in here than he had while waiting on her at the restaurant, even though he still wore the black and whites of his workplace, bow tie still tied and in place. How someone in work clothes could appear more dapper than those out for an evening only the man in them could account for such a thing.
She thought it odd, at first, that he hadn’t bothered to change or, at least, loosen his tie before coming out after work and then decided she would have been disappointed if he had. It would have seemed as if he had crawled outside his skin if he had.
She stood, the better to catch his eye, and invited him to share her table as it appeared she had the only chair available. He looked around for a brief moment then nodded his acceptance. Bowing slightly he sat and, again, nodded his thanks.
“May I buy you a drink?’ she asked quietly and with no hint of sexual interplay.
“That would be kind,” he responded as he ordered a Cabernet from the waiter who had materialized as he sat.
“Make that two,” she told the young man, “and I’ll take the check.”
The waiter raised an eyebrow, just a fraction of an inch, she wouldn’t have noticed if not staring directly into his eyes, and moved off to get their drinks.
They sat in mildly uncomfortable silence awaiting the wine.
“They say you are the best waiter in the city, maybe the country,” she ventured as the wine arrived.
“Who?” he seemed pleased but curious.
“Everyone I queried. Yours was the only name that came up from any concierge, front desk personnel, the cop on the street and the bums on the sidewalk.,” she grinned over the top of her glass.
“Possibly, though how one determines something so nebulous I have no idea. But when one has no other distractions it is easy to focus on the singularity of the task.” He leaned back into the plush leather. He had an intonation that was, and yet was not, of the city. Almost but not quite British, more upper crust East Side; either he’d had a respectable upbringing or wanted people to think he had.
“No distractions?” she tilted her head slightly in question. “No hobbies, no outside interests, no crossword, no love?” she stretched out the last word in emphasis.
“No.” The word was final. “And I am not certain what it is you wish of me but understand I am an avowed Homosexual,” he hissed the word clipping it at the end and spitting it from his mouth as if it was foul and bitter and he just wished to get rid of the taste of it from his mouth.
“I wish only conversation and a little companionship, nothing more,” she reassured him. “I wanted to meet you because everyone says you are the best at what you do and I want to know why, what makes you the best. What has brought you to this point in your life where your job is all that you seem to want or need?” Thinking of her own single-mindedness on the same point
“Life,” he stated coldly, “life has brought me to this point.”
They sat for several long, quiet moments, she sipped dark red wine and considered. Should she back off, finish her wine and leave or chance offending. This was all virgin territory for her, she had never been this adventurous, this forward with any person not even friends or family, certainly not a perfect stranger. And perfect he was.
Fuck it, she was dying, she had no time for pleasantries, death was offensive not a few questions.
“Was life really so horrible, being a gay man?” Well, there it was, cards on the table.
“Homosexual,” he replied almost caustically.
“Everyone refers to it as gay, why do you refuse?” She truly was curious why he used a word he obviously found so distasteful.
“If you had lived as I have for as long as I have you would realize it was anything but gay,” he sneered. “Are beatings gay? Is being ostracized by all you love gay? Your childhood friends refusing to even speak to you? Your own parents turning their backs on you? Gay? Arrested? Jailed? Ridiculed by an entire society? Does that sound gay and happy to you?” he stabbed each word, each question at her like a poisoned sword. His anger spent he leaned back into the chair and drained his glass then motioned for the young waiter to bring him another.
“I can’t lie and say I understand as I have not lived your life but certainly there were bright spots? Happier times?” she pried.
“Have you ever heard of the Stonewall Riots?” he whispered the question barely audible.
She shook her head no.
“June 28, 1969, Greenwich Village, like it was yesterday.” He steepled his fingers in front of his face, using the index fingers to rub his forehead and then coming to rest on his pursed lips. The decision was made, let class begin.
“Back in those days everybody hated us, they didn’t understand us, they didn’t want to, we were perverts and disgusting. I believe people actually thought we chose this life, that we could choose who we were attracted to, who we fell in love with. That we would choose a life of disrespect, open hostility, being shunned by family and friends, that we enjoyed and relished the hatred. We did not. It was who we were, who we are. A flower can’t become a dog just so it can walk.
“The worst was they wanted us to hate ourselves. Society, family, friends all thought we should despise what we were and if we couldn’t change then we should die! Do you have any idea what that feels like? That the entirety of everything, everyone one you love and cherish, those who were supposed to protect you and give you unconditional love showed only abhorrence and loathed your very existence?”
She could only sit attentively and stare as the story unfolded wanting to but not allowing herself to cry.
“The cops would come and harass us, raid our places, our bars and coffee houses, they would make certain the press was there and the press willingly went along with the humiliation.
“They wrote about our perversions, they took our pictures to splash across their sensationalized papers and magazines so all would know who we were. People lost jobs, families, friends, life and still the cops showed up week after week, month after month with their billy clubs and handcuffs, sneering and jeering and hating.
“The funny thing was, if anything could be funny,” he softly snorted his derision, “we knew some of the cops, they were us but no one would give them up. We wouldn’t do that to another. So we suffered.
“We had become more hated than blacks, if that was possible. It didn’t matter that many of the most famous people in history were homosexuals, Alexander the Great, Leonardo di Vinci, de Bergerac, Cromwell, Emerson, Whitman, Tchaikovsky, their neighbors, friends, Aunts and Uncles, society just denied the truth. They weren’t ‘gay’ people just people who were a little different. They denied because these were people we knew and if it turned out they were homosexuals, well, then we would have to despise them.
“That was life. And that is what we lived. And that is when I fell in love.” He shook his head and his eyes glistened with unshed tears, tears he refused to allow. He swallowed another gulp of the very expensive wine.
“He was beautiful and bright and fun. We laughed and read books, we argued politics and philosophy, we would run away to Canada for the weekend and share a cabin. Just a couple of young men on holiday at the beach, no one would ever guess.” She watched as the age slowly dissipated from his face, the years fled with the joy he still remembered.
“We were circumspect when in the City, we didn’t hold hands or kiss, God no, we would never do that! We were very careful not to show affection or give our love away. It was hard, the most difficult thing I have ever done. I loved him so and he loved me. But we knew and so we kept our distance in public.
“We could see every other ‘normal’ human being on the planet being in love, showing their love, publicly displaying their love, but not us. That was for when we were alone, completely alone, where no one could find us, no one could hurt us.
“And then came the Stonewall. It had been a typical night hanging with the reprobates that gathered at such a place- pimps, whores, drag queens, homosexuals, drug addicts- we all were despised so why not hang out together. It was a good and lively crowd, no one bothered or judged each other we sailed the same stormy seas. And the cops showed up; the usual.
“But people had had enough. The cops were enjoying themselves, whipping us and whacking us with batons, dragging us from the bar, throwing us forcefully into paddy wagons and a crowd gathered and they became quite agitated.
“They were screaming at the cops and the cops screamed back, threatening and waving their clubs menacingly. And someone just decided they’d had enough and threw a bottle and that was when the riot truly began. They brought in more cops, busted more heads and things settled down for the night. The next night it erupted again.
“Now young toughs from the surrounding areas came in to beat up a few queers as it seemed to be open season. So they came and the cops came and people got hurt. My god it was horrible, devastating.” He stopped, tears long held in check fell, sobs escaped his chest; he sipped his wine and composed himself.
“It was two nights later, we were walking down the street, we weren’t holding hands or doing anything which would attract anyone’s attention, just two guys walking down the street when we were attacked. I got hit in the head by a rock stunning me and I went down in a heap; but he fought.
“I don’t remember much as I was in a daze, just him standing over me, trying to keep them away from me, and fighting them for all he was worth. When I came to he was lying beside me, barely breathing. His beautiful face was crushed, blood covered him, they had beaten him with tire irons and bats, kicked him almost to death when they finally got him down, and his chest was broken, as broken as my own heart.
“I held him, screaming for someone to call for help, begging for someone just to make a phone call, to show some humanity. But none came. No one cared, no one called, I could see people looking out their windows, heard them slam those windows shut so they wouldn’t have to hear me, he died as I cradled him in my arms.
“I died that day, emotionally I died, I didn’t care anymore, I had seen, truly seen, what the world was. I would exist, I would breathe for him, I would move through this nightmare but I would not care. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone. I had seen what love could do and how hate could nullify any beauty from that love and I was done. That part of me was gone, surgically removed by ignorance and odium.
“Keep it, keep your hope, your dreams, your promises, I would live in a place where no one could hurt me. And I have. I gave my life to work,” he drained the last of his wine and made to stand and leave.
“ Now tell me why you followed me, why you bothered me, why you made me tell you all of this. I asked you before and I ask, no demand of you, what do you want of me?“ he barely controlled his anger, his emotions lifting him out of his chair as if to stand and face her. He would have an answer.
“It is simple, I am dying.” she was so matter of fact he could do nothing but sit back down in his chair. “And I have decided as a parting gift to myself I would find people with a story, though I think everyone has one, and see if they will share it with me.
“I don’t need to do anything because as I have just witnessed people want to tell their story, they want to share, even if they never have. Somewhere deep in the human psyche there is a need to pass on our life, it’s why people procreate, it’s why we write books and stories, there is an innate human need to live on and stories are how we do that.
“I have never loved anyone with such intensity that if it were taken away I would be dead inside, never known any love that burned so brilliantly that if extinguished I would live the rest of my life in darkness. And I never will. So I ask, so maybe I will know a little of what that is. I haven’t much time and I want to experience life even if through the hearts, minds and eyes of others.
“I don’t know where I’ll go when I die but I want to show up with stories, experiences, life to share, I think that’s important. I have yours and it is very important, very sad, very beautiful and as loving a tale as I will ever find. Thank you.”
And in the sincerity of those two words he found some of the reason for living he’d thought lost. Not that he’d been healed, more as if he had been resurrected.
And maybe there was just a spark of meaning, something worthwhile that could be found in his devastation, a small flower to grow in the midden heap of ancient hatred.
And for just a moment, just the briefest of moments, he remembered the love, the touch of a hand, the stolen embrace and the depth of meaning in those eyes. And he felt a slight breeze blow on that spark and it brightened.
And for the first time in very long time he genuinely smiled.