Three of THE BOYS IN THE BROWNSTONE Short excerpts from the novel
The Brownstone Bar the opening scene of the novel
Head writer of the soap opera, Guiding Light, Ian Reath knew a lot about weddings. He’d written a wedding, a royal wedding, in the fictional kingdom of San Cristobel; a Midwest wedding, a sort-of barbecue cum hoe-down, in the no-less-fictional town of Springfield; and most memorably, at least for the cast and crew, a wedding at gunpoint on the sputtering edge of a not-at-all-fictional volcano in the South Pacific. These were straight weddings, of course. From bachelorette party with string of male strippers to honeymoon foreplay in the jacuzzi, protocol was well-established. For his own wedding to Bobby Bayard, a candidate for city council in Manhattan, Ian had fewer precedents to guide him. Two men in tuxedos standing at the altar -- (“You may now kiss the groom”) -- seemed silly. Better to skip all the fuss, get some friends together, and make a few toasts on the deck of his beach house in Amagansett. It was not to be.
What a smile. He had little square white teeth, slitty eyes and fuzzy hair like a koala bear. In his navy blazer and navy tie with little grey anchors on it, he looked like a big soft toy from FAO Schwartz. His apartment was miniscule and charming, full of art books (Klimt, O’Keefe) and theater posters (Angels in America, Into the Woods) and the phonograph albums of guys who had died of AIDS which he found in Chelsea thrift shops. He opened a shoebox and showed me pictures of his parents pushing a lawnmower, his brother sailing in Chesapeake Bay.
“Are you in touch with your family?”
“Not if I can help it.”
We had that in common. He had more to confess about his drinking and drugging: he had once come out of a blackout on the checkout line at Gristede’s, eating a frozen pork chop. The morning after watching a PBS broadcast of the Judy Garland Christmas Special, he had awakened to learn from his answering machine that he had pledged -- in another blackout -- to give the station $30,000.
"You must really love Judy,” I said.
"Not that much."
"They didn't make you pay."
"How could they?” he said. “I didn’t have a dime."
The first time Bobby cheated on Ian was after a fund-raiser in the Pines where, for many couples, infidelity is less criminal than forgetting to turn off the pool lights. Then there were a few trips to seedy sex-clubs. When he was pissed with anyone -- himself especially -- a nasty bout of leather sex was just the therapy he needed.
Until he met Ian, Bobby had always assumed that fidelity, like agriculture, was something women had come up with -- an advance, no doubt, but not one that men could adapt to with a whole hell of a lot of enthusiasm. Sure, it was admirable for two men in love to contemplate monogamy but, let’s face it, the odds are against them. It’s hard enough for straight couples to stay faithful. But when both bedmates have balls, the odds decrease exponentially. Ian made him think otherwise. Their first year together, Bobby had racked up six months -- a personal best -- without sneaking out for a quickie on the side. After all, Ian trusted him. He didn’t want to hurt him. And when they lay together, recalling their roles in prep school Shakespeare or planning a week in Santa Fe, those songs about you and me against the world and my romance and the nearness of you seemed a whole lot less silly. There was something beautiful about sharing your body, your secrets, with only one person on the planet. Of course, you can’t expect perfection, not with a discipline as grueling and unnatural as monogamy, but Bobby was doing pretty well, at least by his own standards, until the evening he met Victor on the train.
THE BOYS IN THE BROWNSTONE
It was the night before the night before Christmas, it was snowing, and the Brownstone would be just a block away when Roberto got off the tram from Roosevelt Island. The staid-looking Brownstone reminded him of the 21 Club, or at least the picture of it he'd seen in a book he'd just finished reading, the biography of a Brazilian industrialist who had dined at `21' with his northern counterpart, Henry Ford. Granted, neither of them would have been caught dead in the Brownstone for all of its armchairs and hunting prints. But times were changing. That very morning, in a daze of grief -- his wife had fled home to Sao Paolo with the kids, just days before -- Roberto had come upon a photo spread in the Times of a house on the Amalfi Coast owned by two men, lovers and business partners, who were not only celebrated for their taste and hospitality, they were neighbors of his favorite American writer, Gore Vidal. That The New York Times could be so matter-of-fact about, so approving of, gays was exhilarating. He was right to have finally told Olga the truth. She was spiteful to have been so stupid. What was Brazil? A swamp, the Amazon. New York was a snowglobe, magical and real, as the tram slipped through the air into Manhattan.
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
White Christmas: Roberto beamed knowingly at the introduction.
I've never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
Roberto loved all the old songs being sung round the piano. The best English teachers he'd had in high school were Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the other singers favored by the Kowalciks, his "host parents" as an exchange student in Pasadena. Fun-loving and unpretentious, the Kowalciks were everything his real parents were not. Their generosity lent the old songs a warmth and a casualness the newer songs could never match. The newer songs -- by Andrew Lloyd Weber and the others he didn't know the names of -- had come to represent for him all that was sapless and insincere about the English-speaking world. During his other stints away from home, a year at Georgetown and two years at the London School of Economics, where the only gay bar he could slip away to was a pub in the West End, he had added Stephen Sondheim: What's His Problem, Can't He Get Laid? to the small repertoire of topics he could rely on to impress cute guys with his rambunctious masculinity. (Other provocative topics: Philanthropy: What a Scam and Princess Di: Ninny or Psychopath?)
Roberto wasn't nervous at all, for once, as he joined the crowd bellying up to the bar at the Brownstone. He'd lost a little weight; trimmed his mustache; he felt almost attractive. Short and just a bit chubby-cheeked, with wavy black hair and a swimmer's shoulders, Roberto, if hardly a knockout, was decidedly pleasant-looking, even cute. Well-employed by Colcutt & Company, an investment bank that guaranteed him a green card and, any day now, an end-of-the-year bonus, at thirty-four, for the first time in his life, Roberto was self-supporting and soon-to-be single: in short, he was free to take somebody home. All afternoon he'd been tossing toys into plastic baskets and shifting Olga's toiletries from the rim of the tub to the back of the medicine cabinet. The snowstorm, of course, had made it less likely anyone would be willing to accompany him to Roosevelt Island. But as good-looking men continued to squeeze into the room, shoving all but the most steadfast showqueens downstairs to the darker room where they played disco, Roberto was in such a good mood, he found himself translating Sondheim, just for the hell of it: Nao e delicioso? Nao e esquisito?
Two years before, on his first visit to New York, Roberto had found his way to the Brownstone but he hadn't stayed very long: he had a job interview at Credit Suisse in the morning. The only patrons he passed in the wood-paneled expanse that night were middle-aged queens, barefoot in tasseled loafers. He couldn't understand: what was the point of liking men if the men looked just like women? It was no wonder he'd made so little impression; he could barely hide his contempt. All those jowls and chrysanthemums: it was a funeral parlor. Finishing his drink in a couple gulps, he took off for Chelsea.
The place was different tonight. The storm had cast a spell, keeping the few hundred gays who had not yet migrated downtown uptown. As the snow fell inch by inch, stupefying commuters, unnerving cabbies, scattering the homeless to underpasses and subway stations, the very last vestige of a tribe which had once been as entrenched on the East Side as psychoanalysis was now trapped in the Brownstone, listening to Les Miz, safely suspended in a warm solution of liquor and lust.
Roberto couldn't help smiling. The hearty Christmas trees with little red apples, the swags of evergreen drooping over seascapes of Maine: it was A New England Parlor, circa 18-something. Crowding into the room, however, was a troupe of revelers Currier and Ives could have never imagined. (Unless, of course, Currier and Ives were more than partners; you never know.) There were tenors in yuletide bow ties holding hands with hairy-armed baritones. There were Chinese toothpicks in turtlenecks and stockbrokers in camouflage pants. Too broke for the coatroom, sales boys in plump down jackets were tethered to the bar like balloons before the Macy's parade. Bags under their eyes, drug dealers and hospital interns counted their beers, dreading their beepers. Hypnotized by hustlers with improbable bulges, frail CEOs of non-profit organizations moved through the throng like sleepwalkers.
Flushed with freedom, Roberto beamed. He wriggled through a thicket of bodies, smiling at each man he passed as if one by one, they had trudged to the Brownstone just to reassure him, You've got nothing to worry about. She knows. You told her. You survived. Merry Christmas.
An older man in houndstooth trousers was bopping to Guys and Dolls like a chorus boy. "Still snowing?"
"Uh-huh." Roberto tried to get the attention of the bartender: "Rum and coke."
Downtown, amid the personal trainers and Ecstasy-heads, Roberto felt out of place. Not here. One part Carnival, two parts Bloomingdales: who could feel out of place in a place like this?
"You want lemon or lime in that rum and coke?" the hardpressed bartender shot out.
"Uh, uh, lemon. Thanks."
Sitting on a shelf, interspersed with the cocktail glasses, were decoy ducks, a thin blue condom package stuck in each bill.
Hey, there, you with the stars in your eyes
Roberto drifted awhile, dreamy as a schoolboy taking in the Christmas lights on neighbors' houses. There was no reason to hurry home. Olga would not be waiting up to weigh his story with anxious eyes. He could take his time, canvassing the crowd for the physiognomy of his dreams. A Thai here, a teddy-bear there, guys returned his gaze occasionally, casually, in passing, but only one showed serious interest, a kind-of Protestant Social Worker type -- cute, blond, eager to please, a middle-aged boy with a jaw rectangular as his wire-rimmed glasses.
"You know who else went to LSE?" The Social Worker pointed to the crest on the pocket of Roberto's sports coat.
"No. Oh, hardly."
"He did. You don't believe me?"
The Social Worker looked skeptical. But before Roberto could explain about Mick Jagger or find out who the other unlikely alumnus was, he was borne away on a wave of newcomers bound for the bathroom.
If I never had a cent
I’d be rich as Rockefeller
Roberto's second lap around the bar yielded one arresting sight: two black men in grey suits arguing in sign language -- and an intriguing shard of conversation -- "Incest was the least of her problems" -- but nobody who resembled the man of his dreams. Just as well, Roberto consoled himself. For some reason, every guy he met who fit the bill of his fantasy -- (short, fair-skinned, dark-haired, handsome and straight-looking) -- turned out to be a real handful. Only one, the little mechanic at Barracuda who disappeared with his wallet, had actually done him any harm. But why fuck with fate? What he needed, and in fact, almost wanted, was a guy like the Social Worker, easy to talk to, easy to look at, an instant boyfriend for a screw and a cuddle. They could kiss on the tram; they could fuck on the rug. In the morning, with Ella and Louie singing sympathetically in the background, he might even admit how many years he'd been waiting to watch the sunrise with a man in his arms without wishing he were dead.