I received a text Christmas morning from my old friend Robert that read:
“Enjoy your traditional Christmas tree toss.”
Robert is one of those unforgettable people from my past who has an embarrassment of ‘dish’ about my personal history. I had to stop and think for a minute what the hell was he was talking about, when it struck me… Robert was referring to an incident from days long gone-by, and I couldn’t help but let loose a belly laugh. Reflecting on that long forgotten incident, it seemed anything but funny at the time – at least not to me – but some situations require the passage of time to fully ripen the bouquet of their absurdity.
There used to be a singing pretty-boy here in Philadelphia who I never took much notice-of. He was blond and much too pretty to be a man. His hair was thinning, and he went to great lengths to try and disguise the fact. But while I knew him, he was still getting away with an undetectable comb-over. I only knew him to say ‘hello,’ but I didn’t know him well.
One happy hour at Woody’s Bar, the pretty-man, Calvin Quinn, clearly a cocktail or 2 over his limit, started to hang all over me making it abundantly clear he had placed me in his cross-hairs. It was a week or so before Halloween, and I was only out for a drink not necessarily looking to hook-up – but if cheap, easy sex was landing right there in my lap, I figured, why not go for it? He wasn’t my type, but after a few cocktails in bar-light it’s surprising what kind of guy becomes my type.
Not knowing all that much about Calvin, he nevertheless joined Robert, and another friend, Joe and me in an unexplainable Halloween group-costume as trashy showgirls running in and out of a series of parties. Robert being the sexiest of us had his costume half-off midway through the evening advertising his gym-toned physique and drunkenly begging men to push him up a juke-box. The evening ended with Robert and Joe sharing or rather fighting-over an inebriated stud-muffin while Calvin came back to my house to scrub-off our make-up.
In no time at all, Calvin and I had become – to my surprise – no – make that my dismay – a budding romantic “couple.” We went to my place regularly and did what passed for the ‘wild-thing.’ He was very pretty, but pretty men have never been my preference. He was too pink and rosy – too soft like an inflated Playtex rubber glove. And his eyes when he drank, took-on the bloodshot look of a laboratory rat. But everyone raved about how ‘adorable’ he was, and so I started to believe what other people were telling me, rather than listening to my own instincts and tastes. That said, I try to keep an open mind about people, and in those days was often guilty of compromising my standards when it came to getting laid. Calvin was very full of himself, basking in self-importance, fancying himself as having a certain local celebrity-status – if only in his own mind. He was an actor, model and song-stylist – gay chanteuse is a more accurate description. For Calvin, having an unconventional artist-boyfriend both complimented his self-image and his outfits. Like most of my relationships, this one wasn’t well thought-out.
None of them have been.
I meet a guy at a bar, have a drink, bed ‘em and the next thing I know, I’m the other half of an “item.” At least I didn’t allow this dude to move in with me. Calvin had a roommate, which made him self-conscious about doing the deed at his own apartment. He also had 2 spiteful little designer terriers who took an immediate dislike to my gentle little mutt named Buddy.
Did I say Calvin didn’t move in with me? Well that’s not entirely true. Within days he had a key, toothbrush, contact solution, and various items of clothing strewn all over my house, not to mention those evil little devil-dogs, who were forever tormenting my sweet little Buddy. Calvin started foisting-off his demon-dogs on me because he was always too lazy, too busy or too hung-over to walk them. I could walk those spiteful little monsters to Montreal and back, and they’d still piss all over my sofa or crap on my bedspread as soon as we got back to my house. “Cute” as they were, they’d be looking me right in the eye, wagging their little tails as dark pools of liquid spread beneath them on my living room upholstery. Because they were nasty little things, I had to separate them from my junkyard mutt, Buddy for his own safety. He was far better behaved with an infinitely better disposition, and I didn’t like him being attacked.
It was early October when Calvin’s and my “relationship” took-hold and no sooner had Halloween melded into Thanksgiving, than it was quickly becoming too late to break-up with him before Christmas. I was allowing myself to be led, for which I have only myself to blame. Through a misplaced sense of honor, I had myself convinced I was going to have to endure this emotional mistake right through the holidays, and figure out how to set myself free at a later date. It’s poor-form to break-up with anyone right before Christmas. I pride myself on not being like other guys – I at least attempt to be honorable. Not a wise strategy when you’re the only one playing by antiquated Victorian rules of conduct.
As the holiday season progressed Calvin would be at a theater somewhere playing the straight male ingenue in a local musical production – or taking gigs in cabaret theater which was enjoying a resurgence in certain circles. To his own group of friends, musical theater was akin to religious faith, and everyone HAD to go to New York to see the latest Broadway production of whatever current show was the talk of the town – whether they could afford to or not. Fashion and style were tantamount to social worthiness – both subjects under normal circumstances were topics I find completely off-putting. But like a man who’d boarded the wrong express train, I was in a relationship and clueless as to how I might honorably jump-off that train without getting a concussion. I also freely admit to being nothing short of a coward when it comes to hurting other people’s feelings.
I should have been clued-in when it became clear that Calvin didn’t really like having sex. He just liked having me play the role of ‘boyfriend.’ We’d start doing the deed, and then he’d suddenly feign exhaustion or worse – take a phone call from another theater-queen and yack-away about who was currently rumored to be replacing Patti LuPone in ‘Evita.’ I’d be sound asleep by the time one of these theater calls were over. I was occupying the placeholder-spot as the ‘boyfriend,’ and there are few benefits to being cast in that kind of role. Still, I felt it was only polite to wait until after the holidays to bring this travesty to it’s logical conclusion. I’m such a wimp.
On Calvin’s non-performing evenings I’d be dragged off to parties held by a friend of his – a wealthy, local, eccentric dentist who surrounded himself with musical theater people. Everyone was fake, giving each other air-kisses and swooning over how FAB-U-LOUS each-other looked in that color, that hat, that outfit, that new hairstyle… It was ”dahling’ this and ‘dahling’ that…
The women in Calvin’s cadre of theatrical devotees swore undying love to him, making ‘kissie-lips’ at him bulging with botox. Their mugs were shoveled full of make-up applied to faces snapped-back so tight by plastic surgeons, their smiles tended to expose involuntary grins full of capped and bleached teeth – probably the work of the singing dentist. Everyone’s eyebrows, including the men had that look of eminent surprise, penciled-on a bit too high or merely displaced by the surgeons knife in an effort to keep everyone looking smooth and young(ish).
The men, if that’s what you wanted to call them, tended to be on the younger side, lean and dressed to accentuate their round, dancing musical comedy bubble-butts – poured into tightly tailored pants. Out of place, I found myself the unintentional witness to a subculture I didn’t think existed outside of vintage movie musicals. I was acutely out of my element.
The gay dentist’s dinner parties were among the most peculiar spectacles I’d ever witnessed. People didn’t gather around a normal dining table in his posh Society Hill townhouse, but rather, everyone was seated at separate tables designed to accommodate 2 to 4 people while waiters brought drinks and food. A pianist would be playing Cole Porter or Gershwin when our dental-host would pick-up a microphone and begin to sing in a less than professionally-trained voice that loosened the fillings in my teeth. Maybe that was how he drummed-up business…
Your first time dining at the good dentist’s home was always the most traumatic. Just as you put a forkful of food in your mouth, a spotlight would be aimed your direction, blinding you as if you were about to be sucked-up and abducted by a Stephen Spielberg spaceship. Seasoned guests acted like all this was perfectly normal, as our host would start scat-singing “Tonight-a we, doobbley-doo-ba delight in-a-in-a-in-a wel-com-ingggggg-doo-wah our newest guest, Beihl-a Beihl-a BEIHL – a skooby do wha-pow!”
What just happened?, I thought to myself as food drizzled down my chin, my mouth having fallen open in shock.
Our host continued with microphone still in hand… “Beihl, Calvin tells us you play a little piano.” I furiously shook my head in a gesture indicating NO-WAY trying not to choke myself to death on what I hadn’t yet swallowed. Suddenly there was a thunder of applause as I felt my elbow being lifted urging me toward the keyboard. I used to play a little piano, but I was never what you’d call good. And it had been years since I’d sat down in front of the ivories to try and hammer out a melody. But the applause didn’t abate… In a dream-like state of hallucination, I found myself scared-shitless, sitting in front of a keyboard which had been surrendered to me by the professional pianist. Wanting to bring this embarrassment to an end as soon as possible, I trans-channeled my inner Victor Borge and played a discordant version of “Peg ‘O My Heart” intentionally played in 2 conflicting, dissonant key-signatures creating a musical effect that could make dogs to howl and mirrors shatter. I thought it was funny.
I received a polite smattering of bewildered applause and floated back to my table confident nothing of the sort would ever happen to me again. It was like an out-of-body experience. I have no idea how I returned to my table. Calvin was looking at me with stern recrimination. “You can actually play, Beihl, why the hell did you do something like that? You’ve totally embarrassed me in front of all my friends.”
Defending myself, I replied, “Because I don’t like being put on the spot, and I’m NOT a professional musician.” He gave me a condescending pat on my hand and reassured me some of the dinner guests might have realized I was trying to be funny – but performing at the singing dentist’s house was serious business to Calvin.
No sooner had I settled back to eating my meal than another blinding spotlight hit our table. The singing dentist with mike-in-hand encouraged more applause coaxing Calvin up onto the stage….
I was left wondering what kind of person installs a stage and theatrical lighting in a multilevel dining room in the first place…?
Up Calvin sprang jumping onto the stage, grabbing the mike like a seasoned-pro and whispered a word or two to the pianist, then speaking into the mike said, “I’d like to dedicate this song to my new boyfriend, Beihl…” and with that, another spotlight with a blue-filter blinded me in an other-worldly hue while I was trying to inconspicuously chew and swallow my food. Calvin launched into a reasonably competent medley of sappy romantic ballads while I sat there stricken with a mouthful of dinner unable to swallow feeling all eyes were upon me as he warbled away…
“Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you
just one look at you my heart grew tipsy in me
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me…”
What the fuck is he singing about? He hadn’t put out in over a week, let alone like a gypsy. I was considering crawling under the skirted table until this ungodly, humiliation was over… It was bad enough he was giving me blue-balls in our private life, but why in the world was he broadcasting his supposed passion for me to the entire room like we were in a serious romance?
After the dinner party, things were a bit tense between us, but Calvin said he wanted to make-it-up to me. “Let’s go back to my apartment tonight, we can get the dogs and it’ll be a different setting – a change of pace.”
Stopping back at my house, Calvin’s awful little dogs were merrily pulling the stuffing out of my sofa while my poor dog, Buddy sat there with his ears down, doing his best canine impersonation of innocence. It wasn’t necessary. I KNEW which dogs were the culprits. “Don’t they look cute?” Calvin said, “That piece needed reupholstering any way.” And off we went to Calvin’s apartment on the other side of town with me thinking to myself “why am I allowing this relationship to continue?” Then recalling it was almost Christmas, and it’s really poor form to break-off a relationship right before the holidays.
At Calvin’s apartment we finally did the deed, with him making an unusually dramatic series of erotic noises, clearly disturbing the roommate he’d feigned not wanting to disturb. His moans and outcries in the name of “Oh God, OH GOD, OH GOD!” seemed a little too theatrical to me. Yeah, it was sex, and yeah, sex is fun, but is it necessary to broadcast to the entire apartment building what we were up to? I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I later learned Calvin’s roommate wasn’t just a roommate, but his ex-lover who he was still living with out of financial necessity. The moans were less about MY performance and more intended for the sadistic audience-appreciation of his ex-lover’s ears – but I wasn’t cued-in at the time. I’ve since made it a rule never to date theater folk. You never know when they’re play-acting or acting for real – if ‘real’ is even in their repertoire.
So it came as no surprise when Calvin’s ex-lover made a scene at the breakfast table the following morning, insisting that Calvin be “OUT OF THIS GODDAMN FUCKING APARTMENT BY THE END OF THE WEEK.” And no, I did NOT offer to let him to move-in with me. I was gonna dodge that bullet at all costs. There was however, a little apartment around the corner from me that was immediately available, so I went from boyfriend to furniture-mover, to wall-painter and back to dog-sitter all in the course of one hectic week. Against my better judgement, we had keys to each others places so the demon dogs could be dropped off if he had a late curtain – as Christmas crept closer and closer…
I did a sketch of his awful little dogs and framed it. That should be sufficient, I thought, and placed it gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree in Calvin’s apartment. The same Christmas tree that I’d had to carry on my back, saw-off the trunk to level-it-up and set into the base without much useful assistance. The same tree I’d had to string full of lights and prune to perfection so the shape would be ideal to feature Calvin’s prized collection of antique mercury-glass ornaments and old-fashioned strings of beads. After vacuuming-up the excess pine needles, I said to Calvin, “Let’s get naked.” His reply floored me:
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that Beihl. I don’t want to make love again until you tell me you love me.”
“Say WHAT…?!!!” I replied. “I didn’t have to tell you I loved you the night we met at Woody’s. I didn’t have to tell you I loved you when you were torturing your ex-roommate – besides, we’ve only known each other 2 and half months.” Love is a serious topic, and I knew full-well I was only putting-up with this bogus relationship out of cowardice and sexual convenience, which wasn’t working out all that well for me… Besides, if he wanted ME to tell HIM I loved him, why wasn’t he initiating the subject by telling ME he loved ME? It was 2 days away from Christmas Eve, and my plan was to regroup my thinking and decide whether to break-it-off after Christmas or wait until after New Year’s Eve. In all honesty, I wanted a ‘friends-with-benefits’ arrangement, not a “serious” Hollywood romance.
We had a quarrelsome non-argument, where I was preached-to about the true meaning of commitment and how the holidays were the perfect time to commit to a deeper sort of love. I admit to cowardice of the first order, but I’ll only admit to being just so much of a fool and nothing more – I was not about to tell anyone I was in love when I wasn’t. I was, however, cowed into putting on a jacket and tie and cajoled into attending another musical extravaganza Christmas dinner-party at the singing dentist’s house. The discussion about love was temporarily tabled.
In no time at all, I was back in that surreal theater-set dining room. I even acquiesced to sitting down at the piano and playing a little rendition of ‘When Sunny Gets Blue.’ I’d made it a point to never learn any Christmas carols. I can’t think of a single Christmas carol I genuinely like. Christmas carols get inside your head like an ear-wick rotting your brains and never giving you peace, forcing you to hear passages playing over and over again in your mind… When I finished my number, a portly woman wearing fashions she couldn’t logistically carry-off, leaned into the piano and said “Do you know ‘What I Did For Love?'” All I could say was, “Madam, I shudder to think…” and I headed back to my cabaret table.
No sooner was I seated than those blinding spotlights were on us again. It was like having dinner while being the subject of a police air search. Tonight’s lights were a triad of rotating red, white and green snowflakes piercing their extraterrestrial beam directly at our table. The singing dentist with microphone in hand announced “We have a special surprise tonight, Calvin Quinn and Philadelphia musical new-comer, Bobby LaCroix are going to treat us with a duet of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside.'”
Applause. Applause. Applause.
Calvin and some perfect stranger both hopped-up on stage, together with a lighting-effect snow-fall for a backdrop. On the count of three, two pretty boys sharing one mike started singing with piano accompaniment..
I really I cant stay
(but baby its cold outside)
I’ve got to go away
(but baby its cold outside)
this evening has been sooo ver-ry nice
(I’ll hold your hands there just like ice…)
The singing dentist sauntered over to my table and sat down in Calvin’s chair. “Calvin tells me you two are falling in love.” I choked at the sheer in-artful surprise of his comment. “Love is a serious subject,” I replied, “not to be taken lightly.” Calvin and Bobby LaCroix warbled-away in the background…
my mother will start to worry!
(beautiful what’s your hurry?)
and father will be pacing with fury
(listen to that fireplace roar)
so really I’d better scurry!
(beautiful please don’t hurry)
well maybe just a half a drink more
(put some records on while I pour…)
Having had several single-malt Scotches, I asked the well-meaning singing dentist, “What do you see in all these people?” Feeling bold, I continued, “They invade your house and take your hospitality for granted, and I can’t imagine that a single one of them so much as sends you a thank-you note.” He gave me that RCA Victor dog look, so I went on… “Hey, it’s none of my business,” I said “but it looks to me like you spend a small fortune on these dinner parties, and I can’t help but wonder if you’re not buying yourself a house full of shallow friendships.”
“I am,” he told me, “I have fantasy friends where I can create a moment in time where all of life seems just like the old supper clubs of days gone by.”
“Are you happy?” I asked him. “No,” he answered, “are you?” He stood-up, smiled and greeted another guest. By this time Calvin and Bobby were winding-up with a big finish demonstrating the chemistry of their stage presence bringin’ it home in perfect 2-part harmony:
“But baby it’s COLD OUTSIDE.”
Calvin bounced back to our table. “Honey, you really don’t look like you’re having a very good time. Do you feel OK?” — “I’m fine.” I answered, but Calvin continued… “You really don’t have to stay. I know you don’t quite ‘get’ this crowd of people. If you want to go home and walk the dogs, I’ll understand, and we’ll make love in the morning, I promise.”
“Bobby LaCroix is really very good.” I added carefully watching his reaction. “And very cute, but how old is he?”
“He’s a sweetheart,” Calvin answered. “He’s just a baby starting college at Curtis Institute. He’ll be 18 on January 15th.” —- “I thought he seemed a little too young for this jaded hen-house full of musical comedy wannabees.”
“Don’t be mean, Beihl, it’s only the Scotch talking. Really go ahead and take the dogs out, and I’ll let you do anything you want to do to me in the morning.” Immediately my mind snapped into high-gear: that motherfucker has already lined-up a trick for the evening, and he’s trying to gracefully get rid of me while keeping me on a tight leash…
I went home, walked all 3 dogs and counted to one hundred – I then made my way over to Calvin’s place. The apartment where I’d moved-in all the furniture, painted all the walls and even installed his all-too-perfect Christmas tree. I had the presence of mind to bring his idiotic ill-behaved little monster dogs with me. As I turned the key in the tumbler, I heard soft music playing in the background with only the romantic colorful glow from the Christmas tree illuminating his tiny efficiency apartment. Right away I saw what was undeniably two male figures trying to hold perfectly still paralyzed under the covers of Calvin’s bed, with one pair of size 12 feet attempting to curl their way under the covers so as to become invisible. I turned-up the dimmer on the overhead light to full blast so the room was only slightly less glaring than the dentist’s spotlights. “Honey, I can explain….” I heard Calvin say standing-up bare-ass naked as I picked-up Calvin’s Christmas tree, still plugged-in and covered with antique Victorian mercury-glass ornaments and threw it across the room at him with all my might. The other little queen hid under the covers with his shrinking hard-on collapsing like a little wilting tent under the quilt.
With veins standing out on my forehead I hollered at the top of my lungs: “Calvin, you are a badly-balding, former pretty-boy with no dick, no morals and no future. AND you’re certainly no one I could ever love.” With that I took-away my house keys from his hall table, and left him stranded, stark naked and bare foot in the middle of a floor scattered with shards of broken mercury-glass as his own little soldier went from full-attention to “at ease.” I slammed the door, spun on my heels and stomped my way home curiously satisfied with myself.
So I broke-up with Calvin before Christmas after all, and while it was more dramatic than I’d pictured, it was also much easier than I though it would be.
By that point it was almost 2AM, so I ran all the way to the Trocadero nightclub on Arch Street where my friend Robert was working as a go-go boy. I had tell SOMEONE what had just happened. When I told Robert I’d just thrown a fully decorated, lighted Christmas tree at Calvin, Robert sat down in his G-string and laughed out loud. At the time I didn’t entirely see the humor in the situation, but the harder he laughed the more I laughed. I was free.
I went home and spent the rest of the night, and well into the morning making hand-tinted Victorian Christmas ornaments from Xeroxes of deranged 19th century paper engravings depicting children frozen to death in snow banks – or eating out of dog bowls. My holiday gifts definitely reflected my mood that year. I gave everyone a perverted Christmas tree ornament – macabre and dark, but darkly humorous at the same time. I didn’t have anything close to a broken heart, but I did have wounded pride for being such a trusting fool by not having ended that annoying relationship sooner.
About a year and a half later, I got a call from Robert. He and a couple of friends stopped into a gay bar advertising live music on the 2nd floor. They went-up stairs to have a drink and there was Calvin Quinn singing an “Evening of Rodgers and Hart,” when he ad-libbed in scatter-song as the new audience members found seats “I-a spy-a shoobidie doo-boop a-group of old friends comin’-in for a drink. Scattley-ouee, a dang-pow. Are there any song-requests from the audience?” he crooned, when Robert chimed-up in a voice no one could possibly miss, “Can you sing ‘Oh Christmas Tree’?” Robert’s group left doubled-over with wicked laughter, leaving Calvin standing metaphorically once again naked and barefoot on a stage full of imaginary broken mercury-glass ornaments – his little soldier no doubt shrinking in his trousers.
Flash forward. I never became a famous artist. Robert works in hotel management somewhere down south. Calvin’s dreams dissolved into retail jewelry sales and a string of failed attempts at landing a rich lover. And the singing dentist took out a loan with organized crime to open a night club that tanked, sadly he tanked too – as the subject of a notorious unsolved Philadelphia murder. Maybe they were music lovers – but he certainly didn’t deserve what happened to him no matter how awful his singing. At least he left the stage with the cache of being the subject of speculation in an unsolved murder mystery everyone talks about to this day. The dentist left all his earthly belongings to a one night stand – go figure… I bet Calvin was kicking himself for not having had himself made the beneficiary.
Beauty, like life, is fleeting. Skiddley-doo-wap- POW.