Before I launch into a diatribe about love and lust, Happy Valentine’s Day to anyone brave enough to read this post all the way to the end… I assure you no further mention will be made of Rick Santorum aside from expressing my satisfaction that his name has been used in the prologue of a gay love story I’m just about to write…
My love-life got off on the wrong footing decades ago and it’s been a series of slip and falls ever since. Emotionally I’ve become older than my years which is not to say I’ve missed anything — I’ve merely compacted the maximum number of romantic mishaps into a much shorter time-span than the general population. As gay men go, I’m not a major contender for slut of the century — but if all my old boyfriends were to join hands and close-in tight, they could circle City Hall three rows deep. That’s nothing by gay standards. We’re a people who tend to be — well — “social…”
There’s a big question about romance I’ve finally had answered: What is the last thing any gay man sees before finding true love and happiness?
Lately it’s occurred to me how the vast majority of my friends are ex-boyfriends, lovers or one-night-stands — all of whom have since settled down with life-partners who seem to suit them perfectly. In most cases I’m the guy they dated right before finding the right man. It seems I’m a bellwether for what not to settle-for when old paramours go comparison-shopping for a lover. The gay lifestyle is very youth-oriented, and I’m acutely aware that my shelf-life is well past it’s expiration date. As I write this, all I need to do is count the age-spots on the back of my hands to know I’m no longer what you’d call a “sexy daddy” or even “aged beef” — I’m hardtack — but that wasn’t always the case.
After a series of appalling choices in partners (I pick ‘em handsome, which isn’t necessarily the best criteria) I unwittingly found myself living a ‘Roman Spring’ due the the devilishness of an old friend. Some years back, my friend Joe Bowman offered to take me to lunch for my 54th birthday. I looked great for 54. No one would have guessed my age, I looked about 40 but I wasn’t taking advantage of the borrowed time by enjoying my prolonged youthfulness. I’d confined myself to a self-imposed state of celibacy. My relationship history was enough to make anyone swear off love. When Joe arrived to take me to lunch, he’d forgotten his wallet – classic Joe. Joe’s a professional photographer and legendary scatterbrain. I’m an old hand at facing disappointment, so I prepared my own birthday lunch while Joe went upstairs to check his email. He came-downstairs with a smug, self-satisfied grin on his face. I assumed he’d scored a date for later in the day. It wasn’t until several weeks later that I learned Joe had placed a photo of me he’d taken — a photo my own mother carried in her wallet — and posted it on ManHunt. He’d secretly created a sex-profile featuring ME on a gay hook-up site. He assigned me the intentionally antiquated ‘screen name’ of ‘Sha-Na-Na-Na-Hey-Hey.’ Unbeknownst to me, my face was out there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week making me look like the most desperate whore in town. When I found out about it, I was NOT amused. I viewed it as a practical joke that had backfired. It took weeks for me to successfully hack into the page and to try to take it down. Joe had forgotten to write-down the password he’d concocted — more than likely he’d slurred a key, and he couldn’t begin to recall which email address he’d used. I could view the profile as an online “guest” but I couldn’t access the account. The site host wouldn’t allow me remove the profile unless I could prove who I was by supplying information Joe, himself had forgotten or misplaced and in short, was unable to supply. So there I was for all to see featured as the meat-special of the month.
When I finally did hack-into the profile, after weeks of failed attempts — I discovered I had over 40 messages. Ever the polite imbecile, I decided to answer those messages and tell everyone I had been posted on the site as a joke. But when I opened the first few messages and saw them, they were ripe with photos of gorgeous guys I’d seen around town who I’d never thought would be interested in ME… I became an over-night internet sex-addict. My bedroom turned into a revolving door. Although I’d lived through the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s and survived the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s — I’d never actually sewn my wild oats. I’d been a cautious observer, a late bloomer but never a full participant. I changed my screen name to the more suitable CyberSpaceTraveler and marketed myself as a ‘top’ — noting a severe deficit of tops in the Philadelphia gay scene which is a virtual riot of bottom-bumpers, giving me a competitive edge. But none of these adventures led to love — only sex — and usually with men who turned out to be married and living a double life — or partnered gay men looking for variety outside of their relationship. Make no mistake, pigs are men.
I’d wasted hours on end pursuing a clever and funny guy who’s screen name was ‘BodyMan9x6.’ It was intriguing how he only featured an enticing body-shot of his torso cropped at the shoulders to just below his hip bone — but what grabbed me was his clever wit. I’ve always considered ‘smart’ to be sexy. His face shots were all locked and he insisted on keeping them that way while feeding me a constant lure of seductive comments ripe with double entendre. After while, I gave-up and tore myself away from the computer long enough to go grocery shopping. I chose the shortest checkout line so as to get back to my hypnotic pursuit of cyber-sex. I have an uncanny grocery store karma that generally begins with me choosing the last shopping cart with square wheels and a mind of it’s own — and ends by my selecting the check-out line stalled to a halt by an interminable price-check. At least it affords me time to read-up on Hollywood scandals and learn which celebrities are rumored to be pregnant out of wedlock by what handsome leading men. The guy in line in front of me turned around and said “Why do I always pick the line that never moves?” I went stupid at the sight of him. He was tall, lean and clearly well muscled even though it was mid-February and he was wearing khakis and a heavy bomber-jacket.
I wasn’t expecting to be inline behind the Belvedere Apollo, though admittedly I’d chosen that particular line in large part to check-out his cute, round butt. He had a broad, open smile, twinkly eyes and classically symmetrical features. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I stammered, doing my best to strike-up an awkward conversation about celebrity gossip and how the rich and famous were always getting pregnant out of wedlock. “Don’t movie stars know enough to practice safe-sex?” I stuttered, trying to prolong his attention. “No,” he said “the beautiful people are different from the rest of us.” I wondered if he realized he was one of the beautiful people… The line finally started to move — and as he paid for his groceries, turned toward me and said “See you around” — meanwhile I kicked myself for not getting his name.
Back home I put away my groceries and walked the dog in record time so I could return to my fruitless obsession of finding quick and easy no-name sex. ‘BodyMan9x6′ was back online and feeding me more clever, tantalizing come-ons. All of the sudden he was offline — he’d disappeared so I had only to assume he’d bagged better ‘game.’ I settled for my 2nd choice, and the next day the pattern began all over again. At the time, I worked at home as a freelance designer, and the internet was clearly getting in the way of my concentration. Headless mystery man – a.k.a. ‘BodyMan9x6′ had gotten very bold, and started calling me by my first and last name, which I hadn’t listed – nor would he tell me how he’d gotten a hold of that information. He was playing cat and mouse. I got paranoid that he might be someone I already knew who was goofing on me. Maybe the photo wasn’t even him? He could have gotten it off an internet porn site, who knows? I made-up my mind to pay less attention to him — which in turn made him pay all the more attention to me.
Our online conversations got more and more perplexing — almost eerie. Not only did he know my first and last name, he knew the names of some of my neighbors as well as which house I lived-in. “Everybody knows who you are,” he wrote online. “Your house is that wild over-decorated place that’s been featured on TV and in the newspapers — I’ve seen your artwork too.” He reminded me, as large a city as Philadelphia is, it’s really a small town in so many ways. He’s right — it is indeed.
After the game had gone on for a couple weeks, my telephone rang one day at about noon. I still had a listed landline back then. A man’s voice on the other end of the phone said, “I’m going on a cruise in a couple weeks, and I’m in the changing rooms at Strawbridge & Clothier trying on a lime-green spandex Speedo. Do you wanna come watch me try it on and let me know what you think?”
“Who is this?” I asked. “BodyMan9x6″ he replied. While strongly tempted, I’m not a danger-queen who wants to have sex or exhibit myself in public places. I declined. “I’m on a client deadline” I told him. “I really have to get a project done and delivered by 4 this afternoon.”
“Fine,” he said “Then I’ll bring the bathing suit to you and you can give me your opinion.”
“Sure you will, and I’ll believe it when it happens.” I hung-up and went back to work. Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang. I went downstairs to see if the courier had arrived early worried because my client project was far from ready. I opened the door, and there stood the breathtaking man from the grocery store check-out line. “Hi Bill, I’m Derek” he said, letting himself-in. He was wearing a nicely tailored business suit and topcoat that made him look like a European runway model. He took off his coat and laid it across a chair. Then he removed his jacket and tie. I stood dumbstruck with obvious stirrings, transfixed and immobile. He kicked off his shoes pulled off his socks and slowly undid one button at a time on his crisply pressed shirt. His ripped torso looked exactly like his photos online — they weren’t stolen from the internet — they were his. When he undid his belt, I had to lean against the wall to keep from falling-over, as he stepped out of his trousers, exposing a lime-green Speedo that very few men could get away with wearing. He was one of those men…
“What do you think?” he asked, giving me a 360 degree view. He was breathtaking. I could barely speak at first. It was as if my throat had gone dry and nothing would come out when I spoke. Somehow I said, “You look amazing.”
“Amazing good?” he asked, “or amazing bad?” — “Amazing perfect…” was all I could utter. He peeled off the bathing suit and approaching me, he put it over my head so it hung around my neck like a dickie, and took my face into his hands and gave me a long, unforgettable kiss I still recall to this day. “I’m glad you like it,” he said “I’ll be back to claim it later, until then, you’ve got something to look forward to.” Stepping away he put his clothes back-on. “I’ll see you after work, shall we say 5:30?” All I could do was nod. He tucked his 9×6 back into his trousers and was fully dressed and out the door before I’d completely processed what had just happened.
I was inert for the remainder of the day. I hardly remember finishing my client project, or handing it over to the courier but I do remember keeping the bathing suit around my neck all day long waiting for someone other than me to take it off.
Derek and I became lunch buddies. He worked near my house and would stop by every couple days for a regular lube-job and a pipe-cleaning. I may have been the top, but a good bottom always has the upper hand. I was at his beck and call. Sometimes it was just quick and dirty sex. Sometimes if his boss was out of town, he’d linger a while and stay for lunch. I was starting to feel something more than the dictates of our unspoken ground-rules — and suspected he felt something too. That said, I know what an afternoon-delight means… It means he’s taken. Claimed. And the only way I’d ever win him would be to steal him.
Over time I learned he was in a long-term relationship with a guy he’d been with since college. They owned a home together. Their families had become socially intertwined. He felt something for me, but it was increasingly obvious he wasn’t going to extricate himself easily — if he intended to at all. After making love he would tell me about his partner, who STILL after 16 years together, was intimidated by Derek’s good looks and the way other men lusted after him. The 2 of them had stopped making love, but they’d not stopped loving each other. Derek satisfied his needs outside the relationship and left the matter unspoken with his partner. It became more difficult to make love with Derek now that I knew of another man of 16 years — a man named Dennis. “Derek and Dennis” — “Dennis and Derek” — it sounded so right. I actually started to identify with Dennis. I’d been in Dennis’ position more than once. I’d had my share of lovers who were far better looking than me. It can become intimidating — demoralizing. It’s belittling to have your ego crushed while watching other men openly flirt with your partner as if you’re invisible and can be brushed aside. I recalled a lover where I’d regularly done our laundry and fished-out business cards or little torn slips of paper with hand-written telephone numbers out of all his pockets. I’d never let-on that I knew. I’m sure Dennis did the same thing. I’d put the papers with my ex-lovers belongings as if they’d been there all along — I never read the names — and I left the subject unmentioned.
I can’t help being who I am, and while fighting mixed-emotions, I started to guide Derek back to Dennis. I told him they needed to try couples counseling again. Derek had to stop playing online and confront his partner’s pain if he really loved the man. If Derek felt invested in his relationship with Dennis, then there would never be a proper place for me that I could comfortably accept. We stopped seeing each other, and I took to working through lunch. Once in a while Derek would call, and I’d weaken followed by a periodic isolated afternoon ‘delight’ I’d regret later in the day.
After not hearing from him for a while, Derek called me, agitated and obviously in a panic. He needed to talk to me right away. I assumed Dennis had somehow learned about of me — or some other man — from the many of whom Derek obviously had his pick. He came to my door with the color drained from his face. He was having a health scare. He didn’t feel well. There was a spot on his leg that worried him. We had always played safe, but I had no idea what he did outside of my sight. I know people at the AIDS clinic where I’d occasionally volunteered, and made an emergency appointment for him to get an STD screening. I went with him and waited in the lobby while he had blood drawn and spoke with a doctor. He never told me his results and I never asked… But immediately after the appointment we went back to my house and without a word spoken made love again, safely, more sincerely and passionately than ever before. I told him I loved him, and he told me he knew that.
He did not volunteer reciprocation.
Occasionally I see Derek on the street. Sometimes we nod or say a quick ‘hello.’ The past is the past. I run into them as a couple every once and again at parties — maybe a little small talk as if no history existed between us. As it’s been said before, Philadelphia is really a gigantic small town. Derek looks perfectly healthy to me, but his looks have faded — changed over time — and I suspect to his own relief. He’s older, probably wiser. But he is not now, nor was he ever, mine.
I decided to go the orchestra last night rather than watching the Grammy Awards. Like everyone else, I was deeply saddened by the death of Whitney Houston. She had been so beautiful and gifted — and her decline beyond painful to observe. I didn’t think I could take watching what would inevitably be performances in a room filled in memoriam. To be truthful, I didn’t want to watch it by myself at home alone. I wanted to be around people.
What was I thinking?
For years I’ve wondered why it’s always me who winds-up sitting next to the chatterbox in the theater? As the dumbing-down of civilization progresses, more and more people seem blithely unaware when watching a film or live performance, that they are NOT in their own living-rooms in front of the TV set. Generally I react with a benign but unmistakable glare in the direction of the noisy offender. Next I try a gentle “shhhh” which progresses to the word “hush” until everyone is telling everyone to shut-up and eventually I get-up, go to the management, and have the offender removed from the theater. I’m brutal that way. By that time my theater experience is ruined and the moment is gone. Sensible people don’t come to a theater to hear some stranger’s gossip update with the orchestra providing Prokofiev as a background soundtrack. It’s a pretty simple concept: Keep quiet and sit still when you’re in the theater. Is that so difficult to grasp?
Invariably there are folks who forget to turn-off their cellphones in spite of the opening announcements and THEN with indifference take incoming phone calls all the same. Even worse are people who’ve turned-off their ring-tones but still think it’s acceptable to endlessly send and receive text messages. Your eye is pulled to a light source other than what’s on the stage or screen, and again the moment is lost due to distraction.
I no longer play the piano – it’s been so many years and broken fingers ago that I wouldn’t know where to begin – but when a musician sits down in front of a piano I am there to hear the performance. Be it strings, wind-instruments or the human voice – we owe the person on stage our undivided attention. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dance troupe or a stage play, we are obliged to grant the performers and the people around us our silence until the artists are finished. Then, and only then, is it our turn to make noise — hopefully applause.
We live in what’s increasingly becoming a rude and discordant world. And with that thought in mind, it never ceases to amaze me how an orchestra or a small quartet can put aside all human differences and fill the air with the sound of beauty. It’s the rare witnessing of people working together in harmony for a common purpose. Sometimes the musical magic builds to a crescendo that lasts only a moment — but when it reaches that point it moves the heart — and nothing touches more deeply. If I need to vent tears caught within my heart, music is my answer. I highly recommend Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ for a good all-purpose cry.
I left the orchestra last night and got home just in time to switch-on the TV and witness Jennifer Hudson give an astonishing performance filled with grace and respect for the late Whitney Houston. To me, the primary appeal of the ballad ‘I Will Always Love You’ is the moment when the melody modulates into another key signature — it’s that moment when the heart strings are touched. I have tremendous admiration for Ms. Hudson’s performance in accomplishing a tribute void of imitation and without the vanity of making the song her own. And by doing-so truly earned the right to claim a piece of that song forever. I wondered how she held herself together with the layers of her own recent personal loss while honoring the passing of a mentor? Ms. Hudson lifted her arms in a gentle gesture to the audience to quell the sound of their appreciation and astonishment at her accomplished a cappella… As the piano then joined her, Ms Hudson was telling a room full of people saddened by loss — everyone pulling for her to succeed — to merely listen and allow her to perform. And perform she did, lending respect to a memory that deserved our silence and undivided attention.
The world does feel a little emptier when we loose a talent like Whitney Houston — and at once we are richer for remembering who and what we have known, appreciated and lost. Music itself is fleeting, evaporating into the air we breathe. The world has a way of renewing itself with new artists who come along while others pass. Death and renewal are the only constants in life. Memories remain and new hopes are born within other young talent. It brings to mind a poem I wrote for a struggling young musician…
The Hopeful Musician
The musician composes music playing solely in his ear,
Beating tempo for an orchestra that isn’t really there.
Striking chords on a guitar made from the finest, thinnest air,
He conducts with a chopstick, if you listen you will hear.