Tidings of Good Cheer

 By Richard Natale

 

That time again.

Wade scanned the crowded shelves of the Macy’s holiday shop searching for the appropriate Christmas card. Once he passed the age of thirty, he decided to go traditional. No more irreverent holiday greetings plastered with cheesy images (“Peas on Earth” with the Jolly Green Giant as Santa), or that were snarky (“Happy Holidays Bitches”) or boasted double entendres (“If you ask me, Santa’s a bit too jolly for a dude who only comes once a year”).

Now he drifted toward bucolic winter scenes; majestic, starry nights; and red-nosed reindeers. He drew the line at crèches or Madonnas or Magi since he needed to cover a broad swath of friends and co-workers with differing religious convictions—if any at all. And he was not about to handpick individual cards for each member of his fifty-plus list. He already devoted enough time to personalized holiday messages written in longhand to each recipient.

What’s this, snowflakes? Who could object to snowflakes?  

Armed with three boxes-full loaded into a festive shopping bag, Wade hopped a bus on Market Street, which would take longer than BART. But the sun was shining today, the cloudless sky that signature San Francisco proud blue. He hadn’t seen Old Sol all week. It had been overcast when he left for work in the morning and, as usual, he hadn’t crawled out of the office until well after dark.

The bus doors opened with a whoosh and Wade alit onto the sidewalk to walk the ten or so blocks to his apartment gazing up into the splendor of the firmament where a large, white satin cloud stood motionless in defiance of all logic. On the way, he stopped at a taco stand for his weekly “the works” burrito, which he washed down with a chilled Dos Equis before depositing himself in front of the Danish teak secretary and donning his clever-hat to spend the evening and most of the following day scribbling out tidings of good cheer.

He took pride in conjuring up the apt phrase or sentiment to fit each individual or family, though there were times when his inspiration flagged and he wished he could just send out a photo card like his married-with-children friends did: hubby and the missus and their cute-as-the-dickens child (or two)—and (frequently) an adorable dog in a colorful sweater—framed against a festooned pine or fir, everyone brimming with Yuletide spirit, the imperfections that marred their lives the rest of the year held in abeyance in observance of the annual jingle-all-the-way ritual, a rare moment of total harmony captured in the flash of a bulb.

As a single man, Wade’s options were limited: a defiant pose in front of the ornate Victorian fireplace, a Santa cap tilting off his head, a tinsel boa flung about his shoulders?

No, tacky. Even worse, sad. Sad, sad, sad.

***

“Dear Paul and Jo and Ketchup…”

Wait, scratch that.

“Dear Paul and Jo and Ketchum….” One of these days he was going to slip in front of them, though he could hardly be the only person who called the kid Ketchup. And even if he was, just wait until he got to grammar school: “Mom, why did you name me Ketchum? It’s a stupid name. I want to change it.”

“Dear Paul and Jo and Ketchum. Counting the days before we all get together to trim the tree. Found the most spectacular ornament in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I won’t spoil the surprise. And yes it’s family friendly. You don’t have to tell me twice. Dieting in anticipation of Jo’s homemade butter cookies and a cup of cocoa. Wishing you all…”

And so on.

On the twentieth, he would be flying back to Lincoln via Denver to spend the holiday week shuttling between his folks, siblings and three best friends from high school, Paul, Ryan and Kit and their respective families. Everyone would be happy to see him. More than happy, elated. The giddy laughter, the extended man hugs (from Paul and Ryan), the way Kit jumped up and down when he walked through the door as if she was on The Price is Right and had just won a year’s supply of orgasms.

The enthusiasm often struck him as overcompensation: “Poor Wade. Looks like he really needs a hug.” It wasn’t just his imagination. He knew them all too well, intimately even. They still spoke on the average of once a week, and often it was his friends who initiated the call, squeezing in a few minutes for him despite their rigorous schedules and seemingly endless family obligations.

“How you doin’ buddy? Just thinking about you. What’s been going on? Still working your ass off?”

Translation: We know you’re alone out there in San Fran and deliberately neglecting your personal life, but we keep waiting for you to tell us you’ve met someone, someone special.

***

“Dear Kit, George and Josh: How’s life on the back forty” (they owned a turkey farm, a mere ten acres) “and which of your tenants will I be savoring this Christmas Eve? Please make sure he’s dead, plucked and stuffed before I arrive so I don’t feel like King Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents. I mean, what’s with the fad for slaughtering of infant males back in the day? Weren’t plagues and pestilence enough to thin out the population?”

Kit & her kin were unsanctimonious Presbyterians, the kind who give religion a good name. “Incorrigible,” Kit would say when she read his card aloud to George who would greet it with a harrumph. He was a big harrumpher. Kit, bless her heart, would stick up for Wade. Though they were the same age, she was his official “worry mom.” (His biological mother was oblivious, always had been.) Kit never came right out and said she was worried about him dying alone, but he could infer it from her pauses, and the not so off-hand comments. “I had to call as soon as I heard the good news,” she enthused on the day same-sex marriage finally became legal in California. “Aren’t you excited?”

A non-committal “yeah” was the best he could summon up. Excited, sure, just as he was anytime stupidity was vanquished by rational behavior. But what Kit meant was “What are you waiting for? Marry the man today!” as if someone was standing outside his door with a bouquet and a felt-covered box from Cartier.

Her conversations were frequently laced with hint-hint banter. Like the time she opined “Why is it unmarried women over thirty are still referred to as spinsters, yet there’s no equivalent for single guys?” It was ostensibly a feminist complaint, but Wade wasn’t fooled.

She was on the nose, of course. He could still recall the dubious argument that single women of a certain age had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than finding a mate. Of late however, the absurdity had been turned on its head and the latest media-perpetrated mythology was that uncoupled females were intrepid and ambitious while their male counterparts consisted largely of overgrown Peter Pan deadbeats. And that went double for gay men, especially since marriage had become an option.

When had the paradigm shifted? Once, gay men had been the secret envy of the straight world. Urbane. Attractive. Trend setting. Tons of disposable income and hot-and-cold running sex; whereas married couples resembled the cast of the musical “Company,” corseted and frustrated, sticking it out only because they were terrified of being alone—the men because they feared sinking into their own filth, the women because… as his co-worker Joel would say, “because it’s a shonda.”

Kit and especially Paul and Ryan had all been married since their early twenties, Kit right out of high school. Statistically speaking, one of them should have been divorced by now. Despite a kerfuffle or two (which they had confided to Wade), however, they were still clicking on all (or at least most) cylinders.

Wade had attended all their weddings and watched as the relationships evolved and strengthened year by year. At Kit and George’s ten-year renewal ceremony the vows and the kiss had knocked him out. The original nuptial kiss a decade earlier, he recalled, had been tentative. They were still in their teens and nerve-wracked at having just made a whopper of a commitment that only bitter acrimony and a good lawyer could reverse. Yet here they were ten years on, looking deeply into each other’s eyes as they reflected on their good fortune before bringing their lips together for an extended, almost embarrassingly tender and heartfelt kiss.

It had not always been so. Early in the marriage Kit, the easily excitable one, had clashed with her snail-paced and often spacey bridegroom, but in the interim they’d exchanged energies—or rather split the difference—especially after becoming parents. Kit had cultivated patience derived in part “from having a mouth sucking on your teats day and night for two years” and suffering through colic and teething and other infant rites of passage. In turn, the responsibilities of wedlock and fatherhood had roused George from his stupor. He quickly became disabused of the notion that two can live as cheaply as one and was further chagrined to discover that three can’t live cheaply at all. Unless he lit a fire under himself, Kit would use him as kindling.

Wade’s most recent vainglorious attempt at a relationship, with a guy named Ellis, hadn’t endured past the seven month mark before they both developed a serious case of emotional flaccidity. The attraction had been inconsistent from the start, their personalities clearly incompatible. The only reason they stuck it out was because both of them were sane, gainfully employed and seemed to crave commitment—an unfortunately rare confluence.

***

“Dear Ryan, Lindsay and Cassandra: I am thinking of reporting you to Child Services. What happened to all of Cassie’s front teeth? And don’t tell me they just fell out. I caught a typo in your card as well. You refer to me as her Dutch uncle. Don’t you mean Butch Uncle? Can’t wait to have her crawl all over me and sincerely hope she’s not past that stage yet. Keep the home fires burning…”

Paul and Ryan and their wives were essentially a foursome, actually a sixsome with the kids, doing almost everything together—vacations, Cornhuskers games, tailgate parties and barbecues. Wade once jokingly accused them of wife swapping, though he didn’t believe it for a second. Ryan and Lindsay were as hot and heavy as when they first met. (Ryan was hot, period.) Recently he’d confided to Wade that one of his cop friends had gifted him a pair of old handcuffs and that he’d recently gone shopping at a sex toy emporium for “a rubber duckie, the kind that sings.” The restraints (and the rubber duckie) were probably meant for Lindsay, but the image of Ryan handcuffed to a bed post…

Don’t. A lingering crush on your straight high school buddy is the stuff of bad gay fiction.

Paul and Jo were strictly missionaries, and their conjugal life was now largely restricted to holidays, special occasions and very cold nights. But they graciously allowed each other side assignations, though only in the realm of fantasy. Jo joshed about finding “sticky socks” in the hamper when she returned from visiting her mother and Paul didn’t bother feigning embarrassment. But then she was hardly one to talk, having recently asked Wade to buy her “a nasty boy DVD.” She confessed that she felt nervous about trolling gay porn sites since she might forget to erase them from her history. “I mean, that’s okay for Paul, but I’m a mother.”

“A mother who likes to watch men get it on,” Wade mentioned and was met with an “it’s a free country” glare of defiance.

Unlike many of Wade’s obsessive female work colleagues, Jo and Lindsay did not seem dissatisfied with their lot. They didn’t have it all but had never even considered that an option.  They both had to work to supplement their husbands’ modest incomes. Even so they rarely had enough money left over to afford a personal extravagance. It helped that Paul and Ryan were almost model husbands—masculine but not macho, total soccer dads, and almost overattentive to their children. He’d seen Paul, without having to be asked, pull out the vacuum and “give the place a once over” before the holiday guests arrived. Ryan was the original Mr. Fix It, a regular Tim Allen who could frequently be found under the kitchen sink. And he always looked amazing in overalls.

After Wade first settled in San Francisco, Ryan and Paul had teased him about having landed in a gay tub of butter, imagining that he was having frequent, extraordinary sex. They were half right; the sex was frequent, but extraordinary in about one out of ten (make that fifteen) encounters. The rest were prosaic and clumsy. Wade once likened them to playing the violin in baseball mitts.

By Wade’s late twenties, however, his friends’ attitude had changed. Now they cautioned, “I hope you’re careful on those internet hook-up sites,” envisioning a Craigslist killer around every corner. Or they said, “I just read somewhere that there’s been an explosion of syphilis out there. And a resistant strain of gonorrhea, and some flesh eating disease.” Or they proffered advice. “You were always good at sports. Do they have gay softball or soccer leagues where you are? Might be a good physical outlet, not to mention a good way of meeting a nice” (read: stable, serious) “guy.”  

All his friends could hear the stress and fatigue in his voice and understood that his social life these days consisted mostly of catching up on sleep and blowing off steam on the weekends. For the past several years, most of Wade’s energies had been poured into finance: assistant manager, branch manager, district manager, regional vice-president. A steady ascent. He was damn good at what he did, and boasted that easy heartland demeanor. He could smile through a blitzkrieg, whereas his peers were either too tightly wound or obnoxious bullies. But these attributes would all have been for naught if he hadn’t put in the hours. Sometimes when he got up from his office chair, he half expected to find it attached to his behind.

A consuming career provided him with the perfect out in terms of finding a mate or even a regular sex partner. His encounters mostly consisted of haphazard occurrences. If he wasn’t too exhausted to hit the gym after work, occasionally he would get hit on by someone with a similarly constrained life and they’d get together afterwards for a torpedo run. Or, if he was restless, he searched internet meeting sites, a pastime he considered analogous to Russian roulette. Most of the guys were blanks—sexually dyslexic and/or full-time residents of PNP land.

Weekends and major holidays were largely for vegging out. Going out dancing with friends, some drugs, and if the stars were aligned, he wound up in bed or in the men’s room stall with someone whose name and face he couldn’t recall twenty minutes after it was over.

***

“Dear Dan, Another memorable year, during which we just missed being arrested and getting killed several times. Maybe eating hash and trying to skateboard down Market Street was not our finest hour, but at least I didn’t whine when I got my stitches, unlike some people I know. And we’re beginning to run out of bars that will serve us. Let the good times roll.”

Dan Chesterton was the latest in a series of Wade’s inappropriate fixations, a work buddy whose invitations to “go out tonight and get into some trouble” he could never quite refuse and always paid for dearly the next day. Like all Wade’s straight male friends dating back to high school, Dan was confident enough in his manhood to hug him, kiss him on the lips, and even accompany him to Mardi Gras without the slightest awkwardness. One thing was clear: Wade’s interest would never be requited. He and Dan had gotten drunk on more than a dozen occasions, pie-eyed, especially in New Orleans where they’d shared a room, yet there had never been so much as a coy come-hither. Like Paul and Ryan, Dan didn’t appear to have a latent bone in his body.

Wade and Dan had made tentative plans to spend New Year’s Eve together at a swank bash on Russian Hill, at which some posh demoiselle would undoubtedly spirit Dan away right after the ball dropped. In frustration Wade would probably go out and pick up some stray cat off the street and then make another hasty resolution never to do anything like that again.

Out with the old and in with the old.  

***

“Dear LuMiSt, Hope you guys weren’t kidding about gluing rhinestones to your testicles for your Christmas party this year and inviting boys to hang them on your tree. Please make that delicious nog again. I don’t remember what happened last year after my second glass, but I cannot contest your claim that I got it on with someone in Steve’s bedroom, though the SnapChat pics you took were awfully blurry. It looked like a fake fur being balled by a coat rack. Stay unreal!”

Luke, Mike and Steve were called LuMiSt for short, since they were essentially the same person. They looked alike: wire thin, medium height, mop tops with shaved sides, similar arm tats, and a uniform consisting of blue or black jeans and soiled short or long-sleeve tee-shirts. Between them they earned just barely enough to pay the rent on the indifferently furnished three-bedroom flea trap they shared in the Haight and to order in pizza or Chinese five to seven nights a week. One of them, Wade was not certain which—did it matter?—had a prescription for grass, which explained the pizza/Chinese diet. Most nights they huddled in the living room to watch TV or listen to muffled techno (which Wade referred to as “gay Muzak”). One or two other friends usually joined them, including the intermittent boyfriend. They favored short, pit-bull types whom they liberally passed around until the whole LuMiSt symbiosis thing got to the guy and he split, only to be replaced by someone very similar.

Wade befriended them after having sex with Mike, though it might have been Luke. Definitely not Steve, who had the kind of raunchy B.O. some guys found alluring. But Wade was definitely not a “musk-ateer.”

He pegged them to be somewhere in their late thirties, and in all the time he’d known them could not recall a single unpleasant altercation. They were too laid back to bother expressing disappointment, or anger (apart from “Shit, we’re almost out of weed”), or to act out. They all had families but never seemed to exchange visits, though he seemed to recall Luke (or maybe Mike?) driving down to Pacoima for an aunt’s funeral.He hung with them most weekends, and in summer LuMiSt, Wade and a couple of others traipsed out to Stinson Beach, where they enjoyed lying side by side by side by side on towels, fully clothed and cracking wise and sleeping, and sleeping and cracking wise.

Admittedly, LuMiSt—or “The Trinity” as they were sometimes called—were a goof, and Wade always had a good time with them. If they appeared to be stuck in a groove, they also seemed to have patented the formula for living in the moment.

At the same time, he sincerely hoped he did not turn into them.

***

“Dear Brenner and Charley, Just checked your latest Facebook posts and can’t decide which of you is luckier; Brenner for finding his little “chipmunk” or Charley for having a father who can do a triple axel and teach a four-year-old the lyrics to “I’m Not Getting Married Today” and have the breath control to sing it coherently. That YouTube video was a hoot. You guys are the best.”

Sentimental cliché, love Wade.

Brenner Voorhees had the worst case of timing ever. They met soon after Wade migrated to a city he considered the adult version of Disneyland. In S.F., life was a showroom window. Almost everywhere he went, Wade drew ogles. On street corners and bus stops. Even at breakfast.

“Is this seat taken?” Brenner had inquired, catching Wade with his mouth half full of waffle at the Mission Beach Café. Brenner later admitted that he’d waited outside for the man sitting across from Wade to leave.

A man with a mission in the Mission.

Over their first dinner together, Brenner announced that he was a commitment-phile. “I’m warning you up front, I play gay on TV, but in real life I’m a lesbian. By the third date I’ll want you to move in, and after a year one of us will have to get pregnant.”

Wade laughed, because Brenner was funny—and attractive and smart and sincere and just a ball of fire. Despite the advisory, Wade fooled himself into believing that Brenner would make do with the little he was prepared to offer. Clearly he’d never dated a lesbian before.

In his early twenties, Wade could not differentiate between infatuation and love and became frightened by his growing chemical dependency on Brenner. Furthermore, he became suspicious of Brenner’s attentiveness, reasoning that there had to be something innately wrong with a man who thought Wade was all that.

So he did what many men do when they get their heart’s desire. He headed for the hills. Only in the harsh glare of 20/20 hindsight did he admit that Brenner was the one that got away—or more precisely, the one he got away from. His refusal to meet Brenner even half way had been such a miscalculation that he never spoke of it to anyone, especially not his close friends.

Then, just as Wade was scrunching up the courage to crawl back to him and beg forgiveness, Brenner found what he wanted. After a fashion.

Jorge, a total stand-up-guy and co-lesbian, moved in after six months. They made plans to adopt then opted for a surrogate and each donated sperm. Sadly, Brenner proved to have slow swimmers and Charley (actually Carlito) was the spitting image of Jorge. His biological father, however, soon developed a delayed case of ice cold feet and abandoned them when Charley was only eight months old.

So not a total stand-up-guy after all.

Brenner asked to legally adopt the child and officially change his name to Charley and Jorge did not stand in his way. Not long after, he moved to San Jose and out of both their lives.

The upside was that Brenner was more in love with Charley than he’d ever been with Jorge. The boy might be carrying his father’s genes, but his emotional core hewed close to his adopted parent. Charley had the gift of being as devoted as a puppy and, alternately, aloof as a feline. That he didn’t demand constant attention made the times when he did all the more satisfying.

“Jorge doesn’t know what he’s missing,” he told Wade one day in Dolores Park during a three-way Frisbee game. Implicit was a rebuke against Wade as well. Except that Wade did know what he was missing. Other than bad timing, Brenner had been right about them all along.

For all the good it would do him. Brenner had let Wade back in his life but had neither forgotten nor forgiven Wade for snaring his love and tossing it back. He was invited to Charley’s birthdays and other celebrations, which served as a regular reminder of his mistake, which Wade might have withstood, had parenthood not made Brenner even more attractive. He matured in all the most appealing ways: his looks, his personality, his viewpoint. He had become the kind of man younger guys point to and say, “When I’m thirty-five, that’s what I want to be like.”

Perhaps if Wade had stuck it out, he would have blossomed along with him, instead of being a sober adult all week and a deranged adolescent on the weekends, never looking for love in places where he might actually find it.

In a few years I’ll be thirty-five but nowhere near as centered as Brenner.

Still, he was probably more comfortable with Brenner than even with his high school friends. Brenner listened, let him vent. At the same time he did not extend himself beyond the parameters of friendship. Wade didn’t blame him, and fought against the impulse to plead for a second chance, fearful that Brenner would reject him and then feel the need to distance himself.

Half a loaf.

If Brenner was still alone, Wade might have pushed harder. But now he had Charley to consider, and he was hesitant to introduce emotional variables into the household.

Wade admired him all the more for his caution.

***

Wade finished the cards and attached colorful stamps of holiday wreaths while watching a rerun of The Sopranos, the slightly surreal episode with the ducks in the swimming pool. Later, he logged onto Manhunt and almost connected with someone who didn’t seem like a total loose screw before deciding to go it alone.

Two days after the cards were mailed Brenner rang him up to thank him and catch him up on Charley’s latest accomplishments. “Oh, before I forget, my folks are coming into town for the holidays and want to spend some quality time with their grandchild,” he told Wade. “Which leaves me free to do something irresponsible on New Year’s Eve. Care to join me?”

“You know me; irresponsibility is my middle name,” Wade said. Brenner didn’t contradict him. He merely laughed along, which could mean anything.

Wade tried to take the invitation at face value. Still, if he was going to kick himself into the New Year, might as well be because of Brenner.

Out with the old and… maybe, just maybe…

 

One Response to Tidings of Good Cheer

  1. I like the concept of introducing an “emotional variable” into the life of a gay man who already has one or more children (or other dependents) to care for. A terrific story. Many thanks.

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