Taking a Chance on Love

By Matt Brooks

Nick lay staring at the ceiling, wondering whether he should just die of embarrassment now and get it over with.  All he could think was that if this was the way the whole year was going to go, he wasn’t looking forward to the rest of 1972.  He didn’t suppose a first meeting could possibly have gone more wrong.  And yet, the handsomest man he’d ever laid eyes on had just asked him out.  The rational part of his brain told him that it didn’t make any sense.  The irrational part didn’t care.

When he recounted it to his best friend, Sheila was encouraging.  “You say he’s good looking and nice.  So? Go out with him.  Unless you want me to do it for you and report.”  When she said that, she made her face go blank suddenly, like an improv actor pulling the screen and emerging a new character.  It was something she’d learned from her mother, a power in Chinatown.  And yes, she would do it for him and report back.  Sheila believed in direct action.  She’d been on his case for months about not going out and meeting people, and then he’d run into this fellow, almost literally, and after they’d dusted themselves off the guy had apologized.  As though it had been his fault they collided on the Green Street hill, not Nick’s.

But Nick had been the one walking with his head down, toiling against the evening wind up the slope from the cable car line with grocery bags at the end of a long day downtown, not paying much attention to what was happening around him.  When he lost his footing and slid backwards a dozen feet, he collided with this man coming out of one of the apartment buildings, and they’d both skidded a few more feet before they could right themselves.

Groceries had gone flying, and the jar of pickles had broken so the paper bag was smelly, sodden, and useless.  Tony had smiled and said, “Hey, it’s okay, let me help you with these, do you live close?” and gathered up food until his arms were full, then followed him to his tiny sublet.

Nick couldn’t avoid asking him in, although the place was barely big enough for one person to turn around.  Tony didn’t seem to think there was a problem, and followed him to the cramped kitchen area in back, where he carefully set his burdens on the drainboard before retreating to the doorway.  Nick wanted to offer him a drink or something, but a glance at his watch stopped him.

“Oh, god.  I’m going to be late for work.”

Tony looked disappointed.  “Oh.  I hoped you were settling in for the evening.”

“No, I bus the dinner shift at Leonardi’s,” Nick answered, naming a restaurant in North Beach.

“Then I won’t keep you,” Tony said, still looking disappointed.  “But maybe we could meet for a drink later?”

Nick gulped.  This hunk of gorgeousness was asking him out! Now what was he supposed to say?

“Uh, well, I work late and have to go right to bed afterwards,” he stammered, feeling stupid.  “I have a day job.”

“Friday, then?”

“Can’t.  Day job on Saturday, too.” Nick swallowed, hard.  “A different one.”  He paused.  The guy really looked crestfallen.  “But Saturday after I get done at the restaurant would be okay.  I don’t work during the day on Sunday.  If you don’t have plans, that is.”

“That would be great!” Tony answered, his face lighting up.  “Here.  Here’s my number.  Shall I meet you at the restaurant? Or would you rather meet somewhere else?”

“We could meet in the bar there,” Nick said quickly.  “Then go somewhere quieter?”

“Sounds good to me,” Tony said, smiling broadly.  “I’ll get out of your way now.  But I’ll see you Saturday.  Around eleven?”

“Yeah, that’s about right.  See you then.” Nick smiled back.  “Oh, and thank you very much for your help just now.”

“That’s cool.  See you Saturday, cute stuff.”  And he was gone.

That’s the story Nick told Sheila.  He didn’t mention the four-inch rip in his brand new bell bottoms where his knee had scraped the rough sidewalk – she would have had a fit about the trousers and made him take them to her uncle Chen for re-weaving – or that the guy had called him “cute stuff”.  Offhand, but as if he meant it.  That was almost the most embarrassing part.

By Saturday, he had fretted himself nearly sick over what to wear, where to go, what to say.  He hadn’t had a date in three years.  It might have been even longer – he’d been working two jobs most of that time, trying to get far enough ahead that he could rent a place of his own, and now that he had, he was working three jobs.  He’d been appalled at what living alone would cost.  But he was tired to death of roommates: mess, noise, parties, tricks who showed up in the bathroom at the least convenient times.  When he got the chance to sublet the so-called studio on Augusta Place, he’d jumped at it, small and inconvenient though it was – he would be living alone at last.

The restaurant was busy that evening, and by 10:30 he was more than ready to see the front lights dim.  At 11:00, he could finally sit down at the family table, sweaty and dishevelled, his muscles aching and his feet sore.  But it was good to let his face relax, his arms rest quietly on the table for a few minutes.

The waiters were counting their tips, the cocktail hostess was adjusting her stockings, and the chef was having a smoke when Ernie, the bar waiter, stuck his head around the door and hissed, “Psst! Nick! Your date’s here.”

Nick startled, then smiled and gave Ernie the thumbs-up.

“Date?” Vicki asked, her husky voice lingering insinuatingly on the syllable. “Our little Nicky?”

“Leave the kid alone,” Al said, flicking a glance toward him.  “You got yours.”

“I’m just surprised, is all.  When has he ever had a date? All he ever does is work and go home.” She switched her attention back to Nick.  “You need a toothbrush, sweetie? I have a new one in my purse.”

Freddie chuckled and took a drag on his cigarette.  “Give the kid a break, Vicki,” he said.  “Maybe he’s selective.”

“Uh, thanks, Vicki,” Nick muttered.  “I’m fine.  I’ll just, uh . . .”

“. . . go splash some water on your face.  You’ll feel better.  And have fun.  Full report tomorrow night, though.”

Nick fled.

Five minutes later, he took a deep breath and walked into the bar. Tony was sitting near the door with a drink.  As soon as he saw Nick, he stood and moved toward him.  And then, Nick wasn’t quite sure how it happened but they were walking up the street to the Five Two Four.  You could have a conversation there without having to shout and it was only a block from the restaurant.  Tony held the door for him and they walked in and scanned the room for a free table.  The waiter pounced as soon as they were seated, and they soon had drinks.  Tony set down his Tiparillo when Nick reached for his cigarettes, and had a match ready by the time he’d pulled one from the pack.

Someone chose ABBA singing “Eagle”.  Nick was still so nervous he could hardly concentrate on the music or their conversation.  He lit another cigarette and tapped it on the ashtray.  Tony seemed to be interested in what he was saying, and he began to relax and brighten up.  Tony was nice, and he kept the chat easy.

They were working on their second drink, Streisand was crooning “Songbird” in the background, and Nick was winding up a brief account of a musical comedy he’d worked on.  “I sort of miss having a piano,” he said.  “There was one at my last place.  Too many roommates, but a piano – it almost made up for the overpopulation.”

“I can’t resist an opening like that,” Tony said, his eyes sparkling in the low light.  “I have a piano.  Would you like to play a while?”

“For real? That’d be great!” Nick exclaimed.  “I mean, if you don’t mind listening to show tunes.  I haven’t played in years.”

“Oh, I enjoy just about any kind of playing.  I’m sure you’re good – you have great hands.”

The jukebox whirred and ground for a moment before ABBA was singing again; this time it was “Take A Chance On Me”.

“Span of a tenth,” Nick said proudly, “and strong.  My teacher used to call them Rachmaninoff hands.”

“They look pretty good to me,” Tony said.  “But so do you.  Why don’t I get us a cab.”

They finished their drinks and Tony dropped a five on the table.  Tony gave the cabbie an address on Gough, and Nick had a moment’s surprise.  He should have guessed Tony lived in a nice place, from his telephone number – ORdway was the Pacific Heights exchange.

The place was nice, all right – seven stories of ornate 1920s cream stucco, beautifully polished brass, and a doorman who touched his cap and greeted Tony.  The lobby was tile and stucco, and the elevator was a fantasia of curlicued cagework that rose at a dignified pace to the top floor.

There was only one door facing them when they stepped out.  “It isn’t much, but it’s home,” Tony said cheerfully, setting his key in the lock.

“A home at the top of the world?” Nick asked.

“Don’t be fooled.  It’s hardly more than a studio.  Here, let me take your coat.  What can I get you to drink? Would you like another half-and-half?”

“Yes, thanks.  And a tour?”

Tony laughed.  “You can see the whole thing from here, Nick.  But I’ll do the guided in a minute.  You’ll need a stiff one to withstand the splendor.”  He stepped into the kitchenette and assembled drinks quickly, then took Nick around, pointing out the bath with its tiled shower niche and deep tub, the study/sleep alcove with its daybed and built-in desk, and finally the terrace that wrapped around three sides of the apartment.

“Gosh,” Nick blurted, when Tony pulled a curtain open to show the terrace.  “So private.  I’d never have a tan line if I lived here.”  Catching himself, he blushed.

Tony laughed.  “On weekends when we have fog, I go to San Gregorio.  No tail lights on this kid.”

Nick relaxed a bit at that, but still felt overawed by his surroundings, impressed both at being in a penthouse and by the elegance of the place.  The furnishings looked expensive, with a few well chosen pieces of art, some family photos, and plenty of books.  How the other half lives, he thought to himself wryly.  And the piano turned out to be a handsome walnut baby grand by Chickering, with a music cabinet nearby.

Tony lifted the keyboard cover and placed the stool.  “Run your hands over it and tell me what you think,” he offered.  “It’s been a while since it saw the tuner so there may be a clunker or two.  We can always play ragtime if it’s too far off.”

“Ah.  So you do play.” Nick smiled.

“Not well, and not often enough.”  Tony opened the music cabinet.  “I have most of my grandmother’s sheet music here.  We can work our way up from World War I, or down from World War II.”

“What about your neighbors downstairs?” Nick asked quickly.

“Not at home.  This end of the sixth floor is maids’ rooms, anyway, and none of the maids lives in.  Now, where do we want to start?”

They played and sang for hour or so.  Nick was cruising through “Indian Love Call” when Tony put a hand on his shoulder to lean over and turn the page.  Nick tensed and faltered, then went on playing, a stumble rather than a break.  Tony’s hand stayed on his shoulder, resting gently, spreading warmth.  Nick could feel it all the way to his feet.  He began to lose his concentration, and when he reached the last chord, he folded the music and pulled back from the keys.

“Thank you, Tony.  That was fun.  I’m so out of practice.”

“Sounded fine to me.  But I’m probably keeping you past your bedtime.”

“No, no, I’m okay.” Nick slipped the music back onto its shelf.  “Just, my hands are wearing out.”

“Why don’t I top up our drinks and we can go out on the terrace for a smoke?” Tony suggested, reaching for Nick’s glass.  “We can play more, later.”

The view was really magnificent.  To the west, he could see across the crest of the park all the way to Lone Mountain; to the south, twinkling lights from as far Mount San Bruno; and toward the east, the Bay Bridge and the Berkeley Hills beyond.  The terrace had waist-high glass to block the wind, and they leaned on the rail, shoulders just touching.  The rising sounds of traffic were infrequent and muted.

“So beautiful,” Nick said somewhat wistfully as he stubbed out his cigarette.  “You must come out here and soak this up every chance you get.”  He turned his head to look up at Tony.  “Do you ever get tired of it?”

Tony set his glass on the little table behind them and turned back to Nick.  “Oh, no.  But I ration the viewings.  Never more than twice a week; sometimes not that many.”  He took a last puff on his own smoke, and crushed it next to Nick’s.  “Right now, though, I have something else I want to do.”

Nick looked at him quizzically, and then he was being kissed.  Thoroughly kissed.  Tony took him gently by the shoulders and brought his mouth down to Nick’s, softly at first, then more roughly.  As their moustaches wove themselves together, Nick tasted cigar, and brandy, and underlying it all some indefinable sweetness that threatened to overwhelm him.  He put one hand on Tony’s chest, broad and firm in its gift wrapping of lambswool and Oxford cloth.  He could feel the slow bunching of Tony’s muscles, the nub of his left nipple, the heat radiating from his body.  Minutes passed, or seemed to, and Nick began to lose his sense of where he ended and Tony began.  Finally, Tony drew back, his lips still slightly parted, and grinned.

“That was nice,” he said softly.

“Yeah,” Nick said raggedly.  He gulped.  “Could we do that again? I’m kind of out of practice.”

“Practice makes perfect,” Tony said, leaning forward.  “Wanna try for Carnegie Hall?”

When he woke the next morning, the bed felt unfamiliar.  The light was different, too:  brighter than the gloom that pervaded his own place, but soft.  He felt . . . pleasantly tired, languorous, as though he’d spent half the night having the most wonderful sex . . . funny thing, since he really had.  He opened his eyes just as Tony walked up, naked, carrying mugs of coffee.

“Good morning, cute stuff,” he said, setting the cups on the nightstand next to Nick.  “Sleep well?”  He leaned over and kissed Nick on the forehead, then sat halfway on the edge of the bed.

“Oh, yeah.  Best ever,” Nick said drowsily, smiling back.  “You?”

“Like a rock.  Nothing like the right kind of exercise to guarantee a good night’s rest.  You take cream?”

“Not in my coffee,” Nick said, pulling himself up and reaching for the steaming brew.

“This a little leftover I see?” Tony asked, reaching toward Nick’s chest and running the backs of his fingers through the fur.  A reminder flake of their night together floated toward the sheets.  As he stroked, a well kept fingernail brushed across Nick’s nipple.  Nick jerked back, almost spilling his coffee.

“Sorry,” Tony said, pulling his hand back.  “I forgot you hate to have your tits played with.”

“Watch it, mister,” Nick growled, trying unsuccessfully to sound menacing.  “That’ll get you a knee in the balls, that will.”

“But you’d make it up to me later, wouldn’t you?” Tony teased, returning his hand to Nick’s chest.  “You wouldn’t want me to be in a lot of pain, huh?”

“Well, of course! In fact, I could probably be convinced to make it up to you beforehand.”  Nick set the mug back on the nightstand and reached to cup the back of Tony’s head with one hand.

He gave Tony a quick kiss, then slid out from under the blankets and swivelled off the bed.  “I need to piss,” he said, planting his feet on the carpet.  “Why don’t you get back in bed and keep things warm for me? I’ll make it up to you.  Somehow.”  He wiggled his butt mock-seductively, and headed for the bathroom.

Nick was soon back and sitting on the side of the bed with his coffee.  “You’re in for it now, man,” he said after a couple of appreciative sips.  He pulled back the blankets and stretched out next to Tony, snuggling against the taller man with a sigh.  “I figure we only practiced half the possible positions two randy guys can get into, last night.  We can either go over them again, or try for new ground.  What do you think?”  He slid a hand onto Tony’s chest and let it rest there.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Tony said, and bent to kiss Nick again.

“Which part?” Nick asked, kissing him back firmly.

“Both parts.”  He slid a hand down Nick’s side to stroke a butt cheek, rolling his fingertips in lazy circles before stroking toward the narrow cleft and carefully up to the tight pucker.

Nick pushed back slightly, letting his muscles relax, and was rewarded with the slightest of slight touches, a probing so delicate it sent a shiver up his body.  “Feels good,” he crooned.  “More please.  Please, sir, I want some more.”

“More?” Tony roared, rolling over onto Nick.  “More!?! The boy wants some more?!?”

“Please, sir,” Nick answered, meekly.

After another round of lovemaking, they rested, still joined but no longer striving, quiet except for a few soft chuckles from Tony.  Nick could feel Tony’s breath on his neck, and the flutter of an eyelash just below his ear.  He stroked Tony’s back slowly, and Tony’s breathing steadied, deepened, until he seemed almost asleep.  Nick turned his head then and kissed Tony’s forehead.

After a few minutes, Tony stirred.  “Damn, that was good,” he mumbled, nuzzling Nick’s earlobe.  “You certainly know how to punish a guy.”

“Yeah, well . . .” Nick shifted his gaze to the painting on the far wall.  “Guy has to be worth punishing, huh?”  He lowered his legs, wrapping them behind Tony’s thighs, and let his hips drop slowly toward the bed.  Tony slid out of him, soft and tender, and rolled to his side, keeping a hand on Nick’s chest.

“We have to do this some more,” he said, opening his eyes.  “Not just ‘again’.  I mean ‘more’, as in, lots more.”  He ran his hand slowly down Nick’s torso, massaging the remains of his orgasm into the skin.  “You can’t come into my life and then walk right out,” he continued.  “Not just like that.”

“Careful, Tony,” Nick warned, tapping him lightly on the shoulder.  “Don’t say anything I’ll regret.”

“You’ve heard it all before, haven’t you?” Tony said accusingly.

“No, I haven’t,” Nick admitted.  “I’ve heard about it.  I’d love to fall in love with you.  But . . .”

“But take it slow.  I know.  No protestations of undying devotion on the first date.  Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.  How about if I hold off until the second? Or maybe the third?”

“Or maybe the fourth?” Nick said, lightening his tone.  “Just to be on the safe side?”

“Deal.  That means you’ll go out with me again.  Hah! Gotcha!” He laughed, then turned and kissed Nick’s cheek.  “Meanwhile, I’m ravenous.  Let’s get cleaned up and go to Mama’s Café for breakfast.  How does that sound?”

“Wonderful,” Nick answered.  “They have the best green pepper and cheese omelets in town.”

“They do.  Wash my back?”

* * * * *

Tony was boyish and imaginative when it came to play time.  One Sunday when the breeze was strong, he pulled a couple of kites out of the coat closet and they went to Dolores Park to fly them, running down the long slope of the Church Street walk then veering into the enormous center of the lawn to watch them dip and sway overhead.

A week or two later, a late Spring storm drenching the city, they piled into Tony’s car and drove to the Asian Art Museum to spend hours gazing at ancient celadon and bronze in the saltillo-tiled galleries.  When they emerged into pale early afternoon light, Tony pointed to a pair of mallards intent on courtship on the rock outcrop in the middle of the turtle pond.  “Good omen,” he said.  “Chinese symbol of marriage and family life.”  Nick had heard that before, but had no objection to being reminded of it.

One Saturday night when the weather had finally warmed, after they had made love three times, Tony insisted they get dressed and drive out to the site of the old Sutro mansion to sit in the pavilion and watch the full moon sail slowly west over the ocean below.  They were alone at that hour, and holding hands was romance enough for Nick until Tony decided a kiss or two might be appropriate.

Then there was the time Tony suggested they enroll in a retreat for gay men featuring tantric yoga.  They’d been seeing each other for a few months and the idea of a long weekend together was irresistible.  Unfortunately, the retreat involved uninspired vegetarian food, fellow seekers who smoked far too much marijuana, a lot of pseudo-philosophical pretentiousness at meals, and primitive bathing facilities not much enhanced by patchouli-based scents.  The round-the-clock nudity was not a problem.  Tony was a giving, considerate, enthusiastic lover – inventive and skillful, Nick an appreciative co-conspirator.  They had thought the retreat might add some spice to their lovemaking, some new position they’d never tried, perhaps; in reality, the main spice seemed to be that intensely unappetizing patchouli.  Waking up the second morning on a damp, lumpy mattress, a glance between them decided the question: Without exchanging a word, they returned to their sleeping area after attempting breakfast, packed the few things they’d brought with them, and left.

Tony eased the car down the unpaved lane toward the highway, steering carefully to avoid potholes.  They still had a quarter of a mile to go when he turned to Nick and crooned, “Gaze into my eyes, dearest partner.  Gaze deeply.  See my soul as I see yours.”

Nick bit back his laughter and responded.  “Gaze deeply and see my beautiful soul as I see your soul’s beauty.  Caress me with your mind, ravish me with your eyes, speak love to me with your heart’s voice.”

Tony began the third stanza but couldn’t sustain it.  He broke up laughing and had to stop the car.  Nick slid his eyes toward Tony and cracked up, too.  When Tony was able to collect himself, he sat for a moment, thinking.  “We still have a day and a night of freedom before we have to go back to the City,” he said.  “Let’s go down to San Gregorio for a few hours, and then head for the ranch and spend the night with Ma and Pops.”

Nick was apprehensive; he hadn’t met Tony’s parents.  “Your Mom won’t mind having us show up uninvited?”

“I do it all the time.  We all do.  She and Pops love having us come home to see them.  And they’re dying to meet you.”  He put the car in gear.  “Grab the beach towels, would you? We don’t really have to be dressed until we hit the Bridge, but I’m not interested in being arrested for trying to pay my toll in the altogether.  Not this week, anyway.”

Nick leaned over the seat and pulled the two towels forward, folding one so that Tony could lay it across his lap in a semblance of a kilt, and loosely draping the other over his own.  It was early enough on Sunday morning that they saw hardly any traffic, and there was something wonderfully liberating about cruising down the highway naked with the top down and the wind taking their hair.

Once they were past the Bridge, Tony pulled off his towel and tossed it into the back seat.  Nick laid his aside, but kept it handy, just in case.  Tony loved to drive fast, and Nick always had speeding tickets at the back of his mind when they drove anywhere.  They made it through the City and onto the coast highway without seeing a black-and-white, and soon they were pulling into the grassy parking area for their favorite beach.  Tony put up the top, then they hauled ass down to the sand, whooping and dancing down the path and waving their towels overhead like boas in a burlesque finale.

Several hours later, pink and salty from sun and sea wind, they headed back to the highway.  “Are you hungry, kid?” Tony asked.

“Yeah, I am.” He felt warm and sleepy, but his stomach was growling.

“We can stop in Half Moon Bay and get something, then,” Tony decided.  “There’s that good Mexican restaurant there.  Or we can get burgers at a place I know.”

“After boiled lentils, boiled barley, boiled rice and boiled beans? Burgers! Red meat!” Nick said, settling back in the seat.  “And fries, fries, fries!”

“Is that the mating call of a potato lover?” Tony teased.  “Then you’ll be happy I don’t have to ask Ma to make her gnocchi for you – Sunday’s the day she usually makes them.”

“She makes gnocchi? From scratch?” Nick asked, half disbelieving.

“Ma makes everything from scratch.  She’s the best cook in the county, and everyone knows it.  Her gnocchi are so delicate, so tender, so subtle – you will weep when you take the first bite.”

“In that case, definitely burgers.  I don’t want to ruin my appetite.  And only one order of fries.  But they’d better be good.  Nothing worse than soggy french fries.”  He leaned into the back seat and rummaged around, finally pulling out shorts and tank tops for both of them, and their sandals.  They’d gone through the drill enough times already that he knew all he had to do was puddle the shorts at Tony’s feet and he’d be able to pull them on while he drove.  The tank tops came on next, and they slipped into their sandals as Tony turned into the parking lot at the burger joint.

* * * * *

Tony made a quick telephone call to the ranch after they’d eaten, and they were back on the highway in short order.  The day was warm and overcast, and the trip was over almost too soon for Nick.

His worries were groundless.  As they entered the gleaming yellow and white kitchen, Mrs. Molinari turned from the sink to greet them, giving Tony a big kiss as she set down the flowers she was arranging and taking both of Nick’s hands in hers as she welcomed him.

“I’m so pleased that Tony brought you today, Nick,” she said.  “Welcome! He’s said so many nice things about you.”

Nick stammered his thanks.  “I hope I’m not intruding,” he said shyly.

“Oh, my, no.  You can see from the cars in the driveway, most of my family are here today.  One more at the table won’t be a bit of trouble.  Tony,” she continued, “your sisters are in the living room with your father.  Why don’t you boys join them?”

Entering the living room, they found not only Susan and a heavily pregnant Daisy, Tony’s younger sisters, but their husbands and a couple of small children all grouped around Mr. Molinari and talking about the imminent conversion of the local telephone system to a full exchange plus four digits style.  Only the youngest of the family was missing, their “baby” brother – Marco.  Nick was introduced and welcomed, he and Tony were provided with short glasses of Cynar, and Mr. Molinari continued where he had left off.

“I don’t know that I’m happy about the change,” he said.  “We’ve been Coastside Two Seven all my life.  How am I going to remember more numbers? What if I’m in an accident and they ask me my number?”

“Oh, Pop, you’ll surprise yourself,” Daisy said, laughing.  “Two weeks from now, you’ll be reciting the new number in your sleep.  Just don’t get in any accidents before then, okay?” She ran a hand over her belly gently.  “As long as we have the new number before I go to the hospital.”

“Your mother will see to that,” Mr. Molinari assured her.

“When’s she due?” Nick muttered to Tony.

“Three weeks,” Tony answered quietly.  “You’ll be a triple uncle then.  Unless it’s twins.” Nick gasped.  Tony looked at him and chuckled.  “No need to be afraid, Nick.  Being an uncle is easy – you get to play with them and hand them back.”

Nick sensed movement behind his back and turned to see Mrs. Molinari waving to her husband.  Mr. Molinari stood and suggested they move into the dining room.

The meal that followed was simply spectacular.  Tony had not exaggerated – the food was some of the best Nick had ever eaten.  The table was well furnished with plates and bowls of appetizers when they sat down – herb-marinated olives, slices of eggplant and ribbons of sweet red pepper in oil, thinly sliced sausages, artichoke hearts.  Nick noticed that everyone took only a bite or two.  When the next course arrived, he understood why: Mrs. Molinari brought in two wide, shallow bowls piled with fragrant pillows of potato gnocchi sautéed to a delicate gold and served with a drizzle of clarified butter and a scattering of leaves that sent up a sweet, herbal perfume.  He could hardly restrain himself when the bowl came to him.

A roast rack of kid followed the gnocchi, so meltingly tender that he double-checked the carving knife – it would have to be razor sharp to cut the meat, which would have simply fallen off the bone otherwise.  For vegetable there was creamed spinach, prepared with a subtle hand – barely enough cream to moisten the leaves, heightened with a pinch of nutmeg.

Then a salad of blood orange, white radicchio, and crumbled goat cheese, scattered with chive blossoms and chopped rocket cress.  Finally, a bowl of fruit – beautiful peaches and plums, a few apricots – along with a bowl of toasted walnuts.

The conversation had been interesting, although he’d been mostly silent, listening, and the food was beyond praise, in Nick’s opinion.  Coffee and brandy appeared, and Mr. Molinari leaned back from the table.

“Thank you, my dear,” he said, lifting his tiny glass of brandy in salute.  “Once again, a wonderful meal.”

“Yes, thank you,” Nick said, finding his voice.  “This was more than delicious.  No wonder Tony knows from food.”

Mrs. Molinari smiled.  “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she said, deprecatingly.

Nick noticed the girls exchanging glances with their husbands as the talk picked up again, and soon they were pushing back their chairs, preparing to return to the City.  After the goodbyes and departures, he offered to help in the kitchen clean-up.

“Oh, that’s not necessary, Nick,” Mrs. Molinari said, patting his hand.  “Thank you, though.  Perhaps another time.  Right now, I’m going to sit with you men and relax for a bit.  Silvio, why don’t we take the breeze on the porch for a while.  I’ll make more coffee and bring it out.”

Mr. Molinari led the way to the verandah, where several wicker chairs surrounded a small table, screened from the road by wisteria.  Settling into a chair, he turned to Nick.  “Tony’s mentioned you several times in the past few months,” he said genially.  “I take it you’ve been seeing each other pretty steadily.”

“We do get together fairly often,” Nick said carefully.  “Tony’s fun to do things with.”  He wasn’t quite clear as to what the Molinaris thought about their burgeoning relationship, or gay people in general, and he wanted to be sure to color inside the lines in case there was a problem.

“Ah,” Mr. Molinari said, beaming.  “Discreetly put.”

Tony laughed.  “We do have a lot of fun together.  I just wish we could go out more.  But Nick’s schedule is really punishing.  This is the first time he’s had two days off in a row since we met.”

“I’d like to get a new job,” Nick said.  “One that pays better than where I’m working now.”

“You’re looking?” Mr. Molinari asked.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, but the job market’s not very good.”

“Shouldn’t think you’d have too much trouble, once you get started.”  Mr. Molinari looked up as his wife brought out the coffee.  “Ah, thank you, my dear.”

Nick started to rise, but Mrs. Molinari said, “No, no.  Sit.  Tonight you’re part of the family.”  She poured and distributed cups, then settled into her chair, reaching for her husband’s hand.

“It’s a plunge into uncertainty, though,” Tony said seriously.  “I think that makes Nick uncomfortable.”

“Well, yes, that’s part of it,” Nick admitted.  “But the economy’s in such bad shape.  I’d hate to start a new job and discover I didn’t like it, and then be stuck there.”

“Sometimes it just takes a change in routine,” Tony said.  “You should go shopping, visualize a new job, get something to wear for it.”

“Shopping.  For clothes?” Nick recoiled.  “I hate shopping.”

“Nah, you don’t hate it.  You just don’t love it,” Tony answered.  “Maybe you don’t do it often enough.”

“When have you ever seen me shopping? That’s my least favorite activity, way down the list, even below going to the Laundromat.”

“Tell you what.  We’ll go window shopping Monday.  Just to look.  You can get comfortable with the idea before you actually do anything about it.  How does that sound?”

“Like Purgatory on roller skates,” Nick said, sighing.  “But I suppose if anyone can make it pleasant, you can.”

“Thatta boy.  We’ll go to Joe’s for lunch after, and leave you time for a nap before your shift at the restaurant.”

* * * * *

The third floor of the old house had been the boys’ floor in Tony’s childhood, and he still slept there when he visited, returning to his old room or to the sleeping porch with the twin beds on the south side of the house facing the road.  Tony led Nick there, dropping his overnight bag next to a chair.  “Bathroom’s the second door on your left,” he said.

Nick set his bag down, took out his Dopp kit and tiptoed into the hallway.  He was back in a few minutes, teeth and eyes gleaming.  “You don’t have to tiptoe, babe,” Tony said.  “The folks sleep on the second floor, at the other end of the house.  And Pop snores.  As long as you don’t scream like a banshee when you come, we’ll be all right.”

Nick blushed a deep red.

“Aw, Nicky,” Tony said, moving to give him a hug.  “It’s all right.  They know we’re sleeping together.”

“They seem pretty cued in,” Nick said hesitantly.  “I like them.  They seem like a really nice, happy couple.  You’re lucky to have parents like that.”  He began to strip out of his clothes.

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve told them enough so they understand how it is.” Tony gathered up his kit and walked toward the bath, leaving Nick to wonder just how much Tony had said to them.

When he returned, he pulled back the bedclothes and slid into the narrow bed with Nick, nudging him slightly with his hip as he pulled the blankets back up.  He turned on his side and wrapped his arms around Nick’s chest, nuzzling his neck.  “I’m horny, and you’re very sexy, but I’m also tired,” he said sleepily.  “Let’s just . . .” His voice drifted off, and Nick realized he’d fallen asleep in mid-sentence.  He smiled to himself and settled into Tony’s arms.

* * * * *

They stopped at San Gregorio for an hour Monday morning on the way home.  Once they reached the City, Nick was puzzled that they didn’t go directly to either of their apartments, until Tony pulled the car into a spot directly in front of Roos Bros.  “Look at that!” he crowed.  “The Parking Goddess has smiled on us! It’s a sign, I tell you!”

Nick looked over at the expensive clothing in the windows and shrank into his seat.  “We can’t go in there like this,” he said.  “Shorts and tee-shirts? Sandals? Absolutely not.”

“Absolutely yes.  Come on.  We’re going to talk with Ken.”

“I can’t embarrass him by walking in like this, Tony.  We just dragged in from the beach.  I thought we were going to put some clothes on first.  You don’t go shopping downtown dressed like this.  It’s not done!”

“We’re doing it.  Come on.”  Tony hauled him out of the car, slamming the door firmly behind him, and led him into the store.

A salesman in a beautifully tailored suit approached them, his smile a bit forced.  “Good afternoon.  Can I help you, gentlemen?” He hesitated just a second before the last word.

“Thank you.  Is Ken Martin here today?” Tony asked.  He seemed perfectly at ease to Nick, but then he could afford to shop there.

“Just a moment.  I’ll get him for you.”

Ken was all smiles when he spotted them from the stockroom door, his bright blond hair like a beacon in the sober surroundings.  He greeted them with a grin and a lowered voice: “What brings you into my web today, said the spider.”

Tony lowered his voice as well.  “Hey, Ken.  How are you? We’re here to do a little exercise in visualization.”  He gestured toward Nick.  “This one needs to get a concrete picture in his mind so he can start looking for a better paying job.  And he hates shopping.”

“Well, I won’t try to dance you into a fitting room, honey,” Ken said, “but let’s see what might suit you for a move into the corporate.  Here,” he gestured toward a platform at the midpoint of one wall, “measurements first.”

Measurements were accomplished, Ken giggling when he discovered both Nick and Tony were commando under their very short shorts.  He threatened to add an extra measurement to his tally, but he could see Nick was uncomfortable and relented.  He patted Nick genially on the ass and assured him the only thing he really had to worry about was fabric choices.  He strolled among the racks lifting various garments and ranging them across his arm before ushering Nick into a dressing room.  “Take your time,” he said.  “Monday’s always a slow day.”

“Do you want some help?” Tony called after him.

“Oh, I think I can manage to struggle into a suit by myself,” Nick answered in a fierce mutter, latching the door with an audible snap.

“He really does hate shopping,” Ken said.  “It isn’t a pose with him the way it is for some.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Tony admitted.  “But he needed a kick in the pants.  He’s been talking about a serious job search for a month or more.”

“Well, I’m going to lay a bet with you.  I know which suit he’s going to pick, and why.  Do you?”

“I guess.  I mean, yeah, I think I know.  Why?”

“I’ll lay you $20, my suit against yours.  On?”

Tony thought a moment, then shook on the deal.  “The navy gabardine.”

“Oh, man.  I can’t wait to spend that money,” Ken said.  “The dove grey worsted.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

Nick left the dressing room, rejects neatly laid across his left arm, wearing the grey worsted over his tank top and shorts.  “I really like this one,” he said, his expression changing to puzzlement when both Ken and Tony began to laugh.  “What?” he demanded, handing the burden over to Ken.  “What did I say?”

“Tony thought you’d like the navy gabardine,” Ken said, chuckling.

“No.  It’s a nice suit, but it makes me look like an undertaker.  I need more warmth in the color, as pale as I am.  There’s enough brown undertone in this that it doesn’t wash me out.  I could wear a yellow striped tie, or a paisley, or Italian madder – red, but a mellow red.”

Ken cocked an eyebrow at Tony.  “We can settle up later,” he said, returning the various items to their places.  “Tuesday, Wednesday – they’re both good this week, and you’re probably busy tonight, right?”

“I thought you hated shopping?” Tony asked, walking around Nick to check the fit.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I can wear,” Nick retorted.  “How much is this one, Ken?” he asked, handing him the jacket and unbuttoning the trousers.  He held the waistband and lifted one leg out, careful to avoid any wrinkling, then the other, and folded them from the cuffs before handing them over, too.

“That one is $175.00.  Tropical weight, worsted spun in Scotland, woven in England, tailored in New York.  No charge for alterations.”

Nick nodded.  “I was afraid of that.”  He shrugged.  “Thanks for indulging us,” he said, turning toward the door.  “Stop by the restaurant some night soon – drinks on me.”

Tony reached for his wallet.

“No, no.  I meant what I said.”  Ken patted him on the cheek.  “You can settle up later in the week.  Call me tomorrow.  We can make a plan.  Bye-bye, lover.”

Nick’s ears pricked at that, but he kept walking toward the door.

“Well, that was quite a surprise,” he said as Tony pulled into the traffic.  His voice was guarded.

“Good suits don’t come cheap.”

That wasn’t what Nick meant, but he let it slide.  “I’m famished.  Aren’t you?”

“Joe’s?” Tony asked.

“Heck no.  Not dressed like this.  What I really want is a couple of egg salad sandwiches and a drink, anyway.  Let’s stop at the Rexall on Van Ness.”

“Whatever you say, babe.”

Back at Tony’s apartment, pink gin in hand, Nick rifled through the few things he had hanging in the closet and sighed.  “Now I’ve acquired a taste for better than I can afford,” he said ruefully.  “That fabric felt so good, and I loved the color.  I don’t suppose Penney’s has anything even close.”  He sipped at his drink and turned back into the room.

“Better than you can afford?” Tony asked around a mouthful of sandwich.

“Tony, I’ve never paid more than forty dollars for a suit in my life.  My charcoal pinstripe was that much.  The light weight Glen plaid was thirty-five.”

“Well, they look good on you,” Tony mumbled.  “And you look good in them.”

Nick would have preferred those two sentences reversed, but let it go.  “Sheila introduced me to a tailor who makes them fit.  One appointment, $10.  Beautiful work.  Otherwise, I’d swim in them.  Nothing ever fits me off the rack.  Not even that grey suit today.  The trousers needed to be taken in at the waist and through the butt, and the jacket was too long.  But, come on – $175 is three months’ rent for me.  I’d be afraid to go outside in something that expensive.”

“But you buy your shirts at Brooks Brothers.”

“Those shirts last four times as long as a cheap shirt.  They amortize themselves.  And the fit is much more forgiving than a suit.  What if I gained twenty pounds? I’d have to buy new ones.  The shirts would still fit.  I’d have to buy better shoes if I bought that suit, too.  You can’t get away with $8 loafers in a suit like that.”

“Sweet cakes, you always look nice.  Don’t worry about it.  Eat.  You’ll feel better.”  Tony reached over and gently pushed Nick’s plate a bit closer.

Nick sighed again and unwrapped a sandwich.

* * * * *

They made love twice that night, and as always, it was marvelous.  But Nick was still depressed when Tony switched off the lamp, spooned up, wrapped his arms around him, and murmured, “Sleep tight, babe.  Sweet dreams.”

“You too, hon,” Nick answered quietly.  Ken’s “Bye bye, lover” echoed in his memories of the day.  He closed his eyes and drew a careful breath.  He could hear Lillian Roth in the back of his mind singing “Too soon, don’t give your heart away,” and then his father’s voice faded over, saying, “Big boys don’t cry.” The tears would have to wait.

* * * * *

Nick began to pay closer attention to Tony’s social life, and a disturbing pattern seemed to emerge.  Once, twice, three times a week Tony would mention that he had done something with Ken.  He was off-hand about it, but it was pretty obvious they were dating, and dating much more frequently than he and Nick.  Nick reminded himself that Ken didn’t work six nights a week like he did, but he’d thought he and Tony were a couple, not just fuck buddies, and he’d been operating on the basis of monogamy for the last year.  Tony, apparently, had not, in spite of comments he’d made that sounded as though Nick had become part of his family, a sort of son-in-law to the elder Molinaris and an uncle to the kids.  From various things Tony had let drop, he figured Tony and Ken were enjoying a robust sex life.  He was used to winding up the slack, so to speak, in his own love life but Tony was clearly not singing the same chanty.  Slowly and with a good deal of regret, he began the process of disengaging.

He braced himself and began to look for a new job.  The employment situation had begun to ease a bit, and if he could get a couple hundred more a month, he would be able to quit at least one of his side jobs.  That wouldn’t repair things with Tony, but it would improve his chances for another relationship, once he’d extricated himself from what he now thought of as Tony’s clutches.  He began taking the few clothes he had at Tony’s back to his own place, one or two pieces at a time; as they went to the cleaners or the laundry, he took them home and didn’t replace them in Tony’s closet.

Talking with Sheila encouraged him, too.  She helped him put together a more aggressive résumé, pushed him to make the rounds of the agencies, bought him a couple of new ties, and shopped with him to find a new, more stylish suit for interviews.  His downtown wardrobe was conservative to the point of dowdiness.  Sheila made sure the new suit had somewhat narrower lapels and a closer fit in the jacket which, she pointed out, made him look eager and with-it.  The suit didn’t come from Roos Bros.  Although he wasn’t angry with Ken, Nick had no desire to add to the blond’s commissions.

Four months of lunch hour interviews brought success, and he only had to slide past a couple of half-truths to get a raise of not two but four hundred fifty dollars more than he was currently making.  He figured someone at the new place would be able to show him how to manage the dictation equipment, and he could memorize the spacing on an IBM Executive typewriter quickly even though he’d never used one.

He was elated when he got the news, gave notice instantly at his day job, and took Sheila out for dim sum on the weekend to celebrate.  The two of them spent Sunday afternoon in the lower level dining room at Yank Sing, drinking Dragon Well tea and stuffing themselves; they emerged barely able to walk from having eaten so much and hoarse from talking.  He hailed a cab and dropped her off before heading up the hill to his own place, where he fell onto the bed with a contented belch and slept for four hours.

The next Friday after his shift, he allowed himself to be picked up in Leonardi’s bar by a fellow he’d seen in there a few times before, a painter who lived on the upper slope of Telegraph Hill.  Robert suggested a somewhat darker ambience, so they went up the street to Katie’s Opera Bar and settled at a table in the window.  Katie always kept the curtains drawn, so Nick wasn’t worried about being seen from the street, and the sound was better at this distance from the piano.  After a couple of drinks, they repaired to Robert’s place and explored each other’s talents.

He went out with Tony on Saturday and they had a pleasant evening.  He begged off spending the night, however, and took a cab home to his own bed.

The Friday after that, he strolled up to the Five Two Four and got into conversation with one of the dancers from the flamenco troupe at La Bodega.  That led to a night of mutually very gratifying sex.  The date with Rodrigo was quite athletic, and when Tony called the next day, he made an excuse to stay home for the evening.

The dancer called on Wednesday, and they got together again on Friday.  Tony sounded disappointed when he turned him down for Saturday with yet another excuse, but not too disappointed to forget to mention he’d included Ken in the plan.  Nick shook his head after he hung up.  A quiet drink at home was fine with him.  He was feeling just angry enough to wonder whether he should have suggested Sheila accompany them too, but she was only a friend, not the other person in what apparently had become a three-man arrangement.  He decided after all to leave well enough alone.

He didn’t hear from Tony the third weekend.  On Friday night, he took the cable car over to Polk Street and allowed himself to be picked up at the New Bell.  The pairing was not a success, in large part because the guy went from genial to falling-down drunk in the time it took to get from the bar to his apartment two blocks up the street.

The next morning, thinking back on events, Nick puzzled over whether he should be happy or hurt that his former “boyfriend” had given up so easily.  On the whole, though, it was very restful to spend evenings at home, reading, and he decided not to worry about Tony.  If Tony wanted to see him, he could call.  And, Nick thought, if he wanted to see Tony, the phone worked both ways.  Maybe, after a while, they could go out again, just as friends.  He couldn’t see himself as part of a three-way relationship, somehow, and Ken had obviously got there first with the most.

Sheila asked him how things were going with Tony.  He told her they hadn’t seen each other lately.  “I thought you said he was ‘nice’,” she pointed out sternly.  “Now you don’t like nice guys?”

“Sure, I like nice guys.  But there’s nice and then there’s really nice.  That’s all.  Sometimes you scratch nice and don’t find more nice underneath.  Or too little more.  I haven’t stopped speaking to him or anything.  We’re just not dating.”

Sheila allowed one corner of her mouth to lift slightly.  Nick couldn’t tell whether it was scorn, irritation, disgust or puzzlement.  He didn’t want to think about it, either.

They explored the so-called antique stores on Clement Street the following Saturday.  One in particular had paintings and mottoes and samplers covering every inch of wall space in bewildering variety.  Sheila zeroed in on one and had a quiet chat with the shop owner.  Money changed hands.  A parcel made its way into her bag.

“I bought you a framed motto for your apartment,” she said when they got back to Russian Hill.  “It’s handsome, if I do say so.  You can hang it on the wall facing your front door so everyone who comes in can see it.”

“Cool! Let me see!” Nick exclaimed.  She reached into her bag and pulled out the package, neatly wrapped in newspaper and tied with string.  Nick gave her a kiss on the cheek and thanked her as he took it out of her hands.  It was a handsome frame.  Sheila had excellent taste, very refined, and he’d learned a lot from watching her shop over the years.  “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” it read in antique Roman type, black with a red “L”.  He looked up, uncertain.

“Is that Italian?” he asked.  “It looks like Italian.  I can’t read it.”

Sheila sighed.  “It’s Dante.  Of course it’s Italian.  Get your hammer and a nail.”

“But I don’t know what it says.  How can it be a motto for my apartment?”

“Because it’s perfect for the life you’re living, that’s how.  Just hang it.”  She was exasperated now.

“But what does it say?”

“‘Abandon all hope, you who enter.’  It’s the welcoming inscription the souls of the damned see when they arrive at the gates of Hell.  The store didn’t have ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’ or I would have got you that, instead.”

Nick opened his mouth to object, but one look at her face convinced him he’d better not say what he was thinking.  He pulled his small tool kit from under the daybed and got out the hammer and a picture tack.  Perhaps he’d use some of his new-found wealth to have someone letter him the first couple of lines of that Dickinson poem – “Hope is the thing with feathers” – to replace Dante’s dire greeting.  Next week I’m calling a calligrapher, he thought, or maybe a sign painter, as he moved the tack around on the wall and waited for Sheila to tell him he’d found the ideal spot.

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