The darkness was not his friend. The darkness
was fickle. It provided him with cover, there, in the bushes, where there were
other men looking for him, men whose satisfaction was achieving his. But it
was equally willing to provide cover to other men, whose satisfaction was harming
him and his like.
But here in this level town the darkness was the only matchmaker he had. No dance clubs. No bars. No promenade on sunny afternoons. No neighborhoods sporting rainbow banners, stores with coy names and clerks with earrings. Just -- the rest stop outside town, the bushes, the darkness.
Terry didn't go out there often. He didn't think of himself as a risky guy. When he did go he had condoms in his back pocket and he never went so deep into the bushes that his voice could not be heard if he called for help. And he never stayed so close to the halogen light that he would be caught.
And this morning, in the paper, a jumble of articles about the rest stop. Six men arrested for the behavior that drew Terry there. The background article, justifying the crackdown: tales of increasing violence, beatings, robberies. To protect the men, they had to be arrested, and have their names and pictures on the front page. Those arrests seemed to have taken place a half hour after Terry had come home, dissatisfied, discouraged, displeased with the scene, ready to give up and --
The evening news program featured an earnest reporter standing in front of the bushes -- in front of the place where Terry had almost blown a guy the night before -- excited, telling a story of compulsive, depraved behavior. Men with pixelated faces and altered voices telling of their exploits. Ten times in a night. And the epidemic not far off from anybody's thoughts. The reporter breathlessly chronicling the numbers. The taint of the blood passed from man to man in their intimate moments. The lack of intimacy in those intimate moments.
"Make up your mind," Terry said, though he agreed with the general thrust. Just not the condescending tone.
Then the national news. It was June, and in other cities, ones with enough population to support a subculture, there were parades and street parties. Rainbow flags and signs: "Straight but not Narrow." "I Love My Gay Son." "Silence is Death."
So many men. And women, too, but that was something else. There were men holding hands. That was the thing. Kissing. That was maybe a little rude, in public. Arms around each others' shoulders, dancing in the rally after the parade.
The piece was sort of an omnibus. City after city. And there, in the center, the jewel on the chain, the city of Terry's childhood. San Francisco. Maybe the first to have such a parade. More breathless reporting, showing a neighborhood that looked as if the parade had taken up permanent residence there. Odd coincidence: this was the neighborhood of his most poignant longings in high school. Before it belonged to men loving men, he had been a boy loving a boy whose bus stop was on that street. Castro Street. The place where he'd shared Russian tea cakes and a collection of silly old postcards and yearned to share more.
He could go home.
. . . .
"Only in San Francisco . . ." Only in San Francisco the cold sunlight this time of year. Summer light that can chill you to the bone. The wind scooting along the bleak sidewalk, the broad silence of Mission Street. Terry could imagine how it would be standing onm the corner waiting for a trolley bus, now as the Greyhound bus rolled into the vast unechoing station. The last time he had been here, fifteen years before, he had been fleeing this city for almost the same reasons he was returning.
People called San Francisco the city of last resorts. For Terry, at thirty-two, it was to be a place of beginnings. He was born here, and now he would be reborn here. It was not a "now or never" thing, he said to himself. It was just now.
To begin with he would head for the Mission District, where he had lived in his childhood and not too close to the Castro District and its heady challenge and complex memories. Anyway rents in the Mission District were reasonable, as rents in San Francisco go.
Terry felt as much at home here as he ever did, he thought. The street looked the same -- not that there had been no changes, but that it had the same quality and character as it had when he had lived here. The same battered buildings faced in brick or granite, some boarded and defaced and some spilling signs of industry and commerce on to the sidewalk. The same women at the bus stop, wearing heavy coats and scarves to ward off the summer chill, the same great nylon mesh bags filled with the fragrant necessities of life, both exotic and prosaic.
Some things were new. When Terry last rode the Mission Street bus the young men did not carry those large radios, as big as Terry's duffel. And they didn't wear those pieced shirts and gold chains. But they did cluster in the back like that, glossy and intimidating. And that other boy who got on after Terry, trying to disappear into the seat before he ws noticed by the thugs in the back -- that was familiar. The kid even looked like Terry did in those days: gracile, pensive, self conscious, wearing clothes so anonymous as to be awkward, defeating their own purpose.
Terry sat a couple of seats from the back of the bus, way too aware of the guys behind him, the glances flying, the evaluation: he knew too well he looked like a stereotype. He knew his posture was too correct, his clothing too precise, the look in his brown eyes too intimate. So the city had this reputation. It was still not safe. He stayed wary. A burst of laughter seemed to be all that would emanate from the boys in the back of the bus, but Terry would not relax until he had gotten off the bus and put blocks between himself and the bus stop. He was on his way to a plate of rice and beans in a Nicaraguan restaurant and a room above a shop advertising "Tamales -- Felafel -- Pizzas -- Dim Sum."
The room was a few blocks from Dolores Park, in a building faced with yellow bricks and windows painted shut. The ceilings were high, the color of aged cellophane. The spot right over the couch on which he slept was crackled in a way that suggested the feathers of a contemplative bird stretching its wings before settling in for the night.
The restaurant was quiet. It was early for dinner and later for lunch. He kept stealing glances at the pair of men at the window table, who held hands while they waited for their food and toasted each other with Chinese beer. A good omen, he said to himself, noticing the way the one with the hickey on his neck smiled.
Mornings he did the whole jobhunt thing. Resumes and letters delivered. Job market studied. Evenings -- and sometimes early mornings -- he ran around Dolores Park, up one side and down the other. It was both steeper and shabbier than he remembered it, with dry thin spots in the grass and the bushes worn to fragility. As Terry came down the western side by the streetcar line a man with the square belly of a long-time alcoholic approached him from the reear of the restroom, His red skin had been speckled and blasted by exposure to the weather in spite of the several layers of frayed and grimy clothes. His features were bulbous and indistinct. He didn't quite look at Terry even as he stood in his way. Terry knew what was coming. He stopped.
"You got a quarter for breakfast?"
There was no reason for Terry to be carrying money, but he had slipped a couple of bills into the tiny pocket of his running shorts, and now he handed them over to this shambling fellow who had asked for a quarter.
"Thanks a lot," he said, staring at the two fives briefly before turning stiffly away. Terry danced on his toes and ran on. It was two full blocks before he bothered to justify giving the wino ten dollars. He was a long way from being broke himself. And with that much money it was more likely the guy would get something nourishing to go with his bad liquor.
"But you can't just keep doing that," he warned himself. "You can't give it all away and leave nothing for yourself."
There were two things that had pulled him back here. Not his family: they had all moved to Southern California soon after he had left town. The main thing, the one he could say out loud but was having trouble facing, was Castro Street and the gay neighborhood around it. The other, the one he could hardly admit to himself but niggled at his brain every time he passed a phone booth, was John Eurick -- Eurick and Mary, actually. Of all his high school friends, Mary was the one he kept in touch with, and Eurick was the one with whom he had unfinished business. Though there was no special reason to finish it. Eurick and Mary were a couple, and that answered the question he'd been afraid to ask in high school. But still -- Mary was a friend. They'd communicated mostly by letter, occasionally by phone, but there was still warmth there. He kept telling himself he should be settled first, so he could have them over for dinner.
He finally worked up the courage to check out Eurick's old neighborhood. Castro Street had been the shopping street for a sleepy, genteel, working-class neighborhood. When he was in high school the street had changed, but only the way the whole city had changed: the Summer of Love came and went and suddenly all the houses were painted in improbable colors.
This Castro street now, fifteen years on, was not much like the Castro Street of his childhood or the Castro Street of his youth. Squinting hard he could locate where some of the businesses were. There were maybe three signs on the street which had the same names on them. Where, in particular, was the litle antiques shop where they had bought the postcards? It would have been nice to see the two soft-spoken men who had run the shop, who had been so civil to wisecracking teenagers riffling through the collectibles. They hadn't been all that old. They couldn't be dead.
The street was surging with handsome men who looked right at you and didn't pretend to be thinking about something else. The storefronts were filled with both compelling and trivial merchandise -- jackets and tables and records and leather straps with buckles and rivets. The windows were arranged so as to advertise not only the goods in them but also desire itself.
There were a bewildering variety of newsracks on the corners, with political news, neighborhood news, culture news, lifestyle news, and some which made Terry uncomfortable because they only seemed to be about sex. The others excited his curiosity and promised to tell him all about this new world at the end of the continent.
He took a stack of papers from the street, including the Chronicle and the Examiner, and wandered into a cafe where he also found a cup of capuccino and an empty table. He let his coffee cool while he perused the papers. And here he saw that, as he had been told, the golden age was over, innocence was gone. All of the papers were full of the epidemic. Back in his meantime hometown, the disease was all alarmed and alarming whispers. Here it was an open discussion, an urgent debate. Contradictory opinions about the disease, the way it was passed, the right measures to be taken against it, filled the pages. Terry had arrived at the tail end of a struggle over public health measures. Over many objections, the bath houses had been closed. Another bit of legend he would never see.
Obituaries crowded the pages. "In Loving Memory," "To a Noble Soul." "I feel you with me always." And this Terry felt keenly: he had lost no one to AIDS because he had had no one to lose.
The man who sat down next to Terry clearly ironed everything just before he left the house, his t shirt, his jeans, and all: but this punctiliousness did not, apparently, arise from an overdeeveloped sense of order. He laid his things on the little table haphazardly, barely not spilling his doubl;e espresso all over Terry's papers. He gave Terry the once-over and smiled warmly. Terry smiled back, ready.
"New in town?"
"Yes and no," Terry said. " I'm from here originally but I've been gone a long time."
"I thought something like that. You had so many papers I figured you had to be looking for a job or a place to live."
"My advice is, look outside the City and come in on wekends. Not enough jobs and the rents are too high, in town.
Before Terry could respond the man had tuinred to his espresso and a leather notbook. With a blue pen he scribbled notes onto a page already crowded with black ink. Terry was left to his pile of newspapers, wondering how that promising converation had died almost before it started. With nothing beter to do, he read every page of the newspapers, including the small print announcements of meetings and art shows. A name jumped off the page: Mary Theil was having a show. The other half of Eurick and Mary, and the only person he'd kept in any touch with at all -- and who still didn't know he'd come back.
Mary had probably been his best friend in high school, even counting Eurick. They had shared a taste for old movies, especially the atmospheric monster movies with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Another thing they had shared was pining for Eurick. Though Terry never said it. Mary had been dramatic enough to make up for it, though.
There had been a New Year's sleepover. Gifts were exchanged. Mary, already an accomplished artist, had been working in plastics and resins. She gave odd-shaped little plastic boxes to the others. Her gift for Eurick was shocking. The friends recoiled from the gruesome thing tshe laid on the table, even as they understood it was not real. Eurick smiled broadly, and thanked her sincerely, and even picked the thing up in his hands. As he turned it over it a little red fluid leaked out of it. It was hard to believe it was not what it looked like, a mangled human heart. Eurick proved his worth still further by cracking jokes to diffuse the scene and digging out his own presents for everybody.
Outside the odd art project, Mary had been the most even-keeled of the whole awkward crew. Terry thought so anyway. He depended on her in those days for conversation to keep him from thinking about the things which threatened to destroy his sanity. He confided in her so obliquely that he had been sure when he left town that she didn't know he wanted men. Though when he invited her to the high grass behind the school, she had accepted it matter-of-factly, and his embarrassment and confusion once they got there. He could still conjure up that discomfort remembering her still thighs under her long skirt, her hair in twenty braids and a slight smell of curry that was following her that week.
Then she'd gone and married Craig Jones after all, right out of high school. The only one in their group Terry could never like. At the time Terry wondered how come she didn't end up with Eurick. But then she had ended up with Eurick after all: Craig was dead.
He didn't know why he hadn't called her already. There were those unsaid things, of course. He didn't think that was all. Maybe it was her having Eurick. In any case, he missed her and wanted to see her, but he hadn't called her yet. He did have her number. He thought of it every time he went to make job search calls, but it always seemed like the wrong time to call a self-employed artist, the wrong time to call a mother.
He had an interview. He did what he was supposed to do. He studied the company, he thought of the questions that he might be asked and made up answers to have ready. He dressed carefully. He arrived a little early. Not too early. He wasn't too nervous.
Then the interviewer walked into the lobby where Terry was waiting and everything started to go wrong. It was a mess. He was awkward standing up and dropped the magazine he had been reading, a particularly flamboyant issue of Architectural Digest which had been sitting on his chair. He moved too slowly and caught a frown on the face of the interviewer as he watched Terry pick up the magazine and put it back on the chair. It's not my fault, Terry wanted to say, it was the only one here. And then he tripped over a break in the carpeting by the door. All the way down the hall and into the little office he was moving wrong, and he nearly fell sitting in the chair.
There was a long moment while the interviewer glanced over Terry's resume and Terry worried that it was not specific enough. He wanted to impress this man for more than one reason. Terry was impressed by him already. His coarsely-molded, strangely sensitive features, his ultramodern graceless black suit with all skinny lapels and a tie that was barely there, the two little crystals in his ear, one yellow, one blue -- he looked urban, sharp-eged, unluxurious. Beyond mere sophistication. When he did start to ask questions, none of them were what Terry expected. He couldn't figure out what they had to do with the job that was advertised.
"You were a librarian for a long time. Did you like it?" the interviewer asked.
Terry forgot his professional reserve and gushed about his former vocation. "It's pure service," he enthused. "A library is the most democratic thing in the country. Anybody at all can walk in and get anything they want for free. And when you're a librarian you get to give them what they want. You make them happy and you might make them better citizens, who knows? But it's not steady work any more. They'd rather spend their taxes on prisons and weapons."
He saw the interviewer's mobile face close downb as the interview proceeded and he was sure from the limp farewell that he would not be called back.
He was angry with the company, for misrepresnting itself in the ads and with himself for overpreparation and being so nervous in the clutch. Worse, he'd liked the interviewer. He thought he'd be pleasant to work with, and he even thought he might nurse a little private crush. And then he'd spouted off like that.
Going out was the only thing to do. Even those frustrating half-suggestive conversations he kept having were better than staying home and cursing himself, the company, the interviewer, and the job.
In the bottom of his duffel there was an old belt that he had carted East and back with him because it had been a gift from Eurick. He hadn't worn it more than a couple of times because the buckle embarrassed him -- it was one of those cast brass things in the shape of a rustic ankh. It startled him every time he looked at it. Tonight, though, he decided to wear it. It was a conversation piece. If it caught someone's eye he would have something to say. The disclaimer and explanationm might lead somewhere.
But Terry came home alone on a late bus, with two phone numbers, an invitation too vague to be a promise, and a new sense of real frustration. He fairly trembled to be so near and yet so far. The men had been congenial, and there was a promise in the air of the sex and friendship he wanted, but something wasn't happening. He had nothing to compare it with. Before, he had participated in no such scene: there had been no such scene that he could find to participate in. Before, he'd met men in the dark, in places nobody would linger in for conversation and flirtation. Even though he had come to San Francisco for exactly this, he found conversation exhausting. He couldn't seem to read the signals for when to switch from idle talk to a proposal for action. Was it merely a ,atter of time, of learning the language of the social ritual? Or was he missing some characteristic -- appeal? boldness?
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