I ended up going to the reunion. I had not been back to St. Louis for quite some time, and the city was both the same and different. I had been to a symposium many years back at WashU and had stayed in a hotel in Clayton. At that point, my parents had been long out of the city and I felt no particular need to revisit the haunts of my youth. When I left St. Louis for Northwestern in the early seventies, the city was starting the drawn-out process of emptying itself out into its suburbs. The city was still losing people … but there were signs of progress here and there, signs of the city trying to save itself from oblivion; I wished it well.
Now, though, it was pleasant standing on the terrace in front of the museum and taking in the park. Our house had been - was even now, I assumed - not too far from here, as was the school … but I still had no desire to delve that deeply into my past. Forest Park, with its gracious and gentle beauty, was enough for now. From my vantage point, I could see the towers of downtown and the silver bow of the Arch.
I had not yet gone inside to the reunion; part of me wanted to delay that until absolutely necessary. I trusted that Paul would be here and wanted only to see him.
If I could find him. I would be looking for a man in his late sixties, with graying hair … which described practically every man here this evening, including me. I still thought about bailing on the whole affair, but it had been no mean feat to get here … and I would have to admit defeat to Sarah, that I had not gone through with this thing, had left Paul hanging out to dry. But inside was the promising oasis of a cash bar.
As luck would have it, I shared a table with two of the three unholy witches who had bedeviled Tom into doing what he had done that day in the gymnasium. Emily Prescott, I was informed, had done battle with a semi only two years ago on I-44 during a thunderstorm and lost, but both Jane Callahan and Elizabeth Schulte were still alive and kicking. Each had married well, to spouses that proved themselves tiresome men of a certain conservative bent who wasted no time launching themselves pell-mell into the dull banalities of politics.
I knew that I would be making many trips to that oasis to get through this evening.
I shared my own story, as much of it as I gauged they wanted to hear, got sympathy for my wife and no small amount of praise for my career in Chicago. Neither Jane nor Elizabeth had ever thought of living anywhere else but St. Louis.
I managed to get through most of the meal, a surprisingly good one; in my absence from St. Louis, the art museum had built an expansion and included a restaurant within its confines. The political discussion between the two husbands threatened to put me off eating; before dessert, I excused myself to get another glass of wine.
And to look for Paul, who - I was beginning to understand - was probably going to be a no-show.
I shoved a ten at the bartender, got back change, slipped a bit of it into his tip jar - for which he thanked me - and turned.
And there he was, and fifty years slipped away in a heartbeat. I nearly dropped my wine. "Paul …"
He smiled. "There you are! I'm so sorry I'm late! I … well …"
I smiled in return. "… wasn't sure you wanted to show up?"
"Don't worry." I gestured with my free hand vaguely towards the flotilla of tables. "If I have to go back to that table, I'm going to kill someone. I'm with Jane Callahan and Elizabeth Schulte. And their idiot husbands."
"Oh, God, those two." He frowned. "Look, I … well, this whole thing looks positively dreadful. Why don't we … well, would you want to get out of here?"
Paul opened his mouth, thought better of it, turned to the bartender. I watched the two of them as Paul tried to wrangle an entire bottle of wine from him, despite the young man's polite-but-adamant refusal … which lasted until Paul discreetly offered him a not-inconsiderable sum and came away with the bottle and two glasses.
It seemed that no one really cared one way or the other what we did with ourselves this evening. Luckily, the restaurant had set a few tables up on the plaza overlooking the access road to the museum and we commandeered one; the rest of the plaza was taken up with the comings and goings of isolated smokers.
Paul busied himself with opening the wine, pouring himself a glass. I noticed his hand shaking, which I attributed to nerves, hoping it was nothing more serious. He capped the wine, set it on the table, raised his glass. "Cheers."
I tapped my plastic cup against his. "Cheers." I took a sip. "You know you just paid fifty bucks for something I can pick up in a drugstore for twelve."
He chuckled. "The price of freedom. I'd have paid that child twice that just to not have to sit through all of that in there. They were on the verge of putting up an 'in memoriam' slideshow, and I don't think I could have borne it."
"Yeah. Apparently, Emily Prescott bought it a few years back. Lost a fight with a semi."
"Can't think of a better end for her." He sighed. "God, I wonder if those three women ever understood just how much pain and heartache they were responsible for."
"I doubt it. You should meet their husbands."
"I hope their children hate them."
I grinned. "Maybe, uh … have some more of that wine, Paul? Take the edge off?"
He smiled. "Sorry." He looked at me. "You look good, Tim."
"So do you, Paul."
"Men of a certain age," he quipped.
We went on like that for bit, filling each other in on the last fifty years of our lives … which, surprisingly, was not as long a conversation as one might have thought. A silence settled between us, but I understood that there was one more thing - perhaps the most important one - that we had not discussed. I decided to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak.
"You want to talk about Tom, don't you?"
Paul said nothing for a bit. Then, "Yes. Of course, I do. I … well, I remember the last thing I said to you that day, when I told you we were moving to Atlanta."
"That was a long time ago, Paul."
"I knew what I was doing even as I said it. I knew that I was throwing away everything you and I were to each other, just because I wanted to … oh, I don't know … perhaps boast to you about me and your brother." He looked at me. "I feel like I need to apologize."
"You don't. I knew what you were doing."
He shook his head. "God, that day … so much anger. I was angry at my parents for dragging me away from all of it, I was angry that I was losing Tom." He sighed. "And then I was angry at him for what he did to you."
"For all of his life, Tom had this anger inside him. None of us ever understood it until the very end."
"And he took it out on you."
"Not just me, but … yeah, pretty much."
"You must have hated him."
I thought about it. "Yes and no. We were never going to be close - I knew that - but I did want to understand what was going on inside him. It took him forever to tell me, of course. In hindsight, I understand that. It didn't make any of it any easier."
"He wasn't that way with me." Before I could answer, Paul held up a hand. "Yes, I know. It - well, we were something different. But I think that he could unburden himself to me in a way that he couldn't with anyone else. We were alike."
"Did you love him?"
"Yes," Paul answered, quickly. "I did." He pulled a face. "I suppose everyone falls in love with their first. I mean, for the first time in your life, you feel … validated, in a way that you hadn't, before. You understood that you weren't alone any more, that there were others like you. And, let's face it … he was beautiful."
"It really hurt him, when you left. It changed everything."
"I know. I held off telling him for as long as possible, because I knew what it would do to him."
"What if you had stayed in St. Louis? Do you think you and Tom would have … stayed together?"
Paul looked away, then back to me. "I … don't know. Maybe. But it was the late sixties, right? Things were changing, but not that fast. At least not in St. Louis. Maybe somewhere else."
Paul frowned. "Maybe. Nowadays? Of course - it's become a mecca of sorts. But then? It was still a sleepy little Southern town that thought it was a city. Maybe San Francisco. Or New York."
There was something in Paul's words that didn't sound right; Not equivocation or outright lying, but … something. Evasion? I hesitated to say anything, not willing to jeopardize the mood. I was enjoying being with Paul, hoped that he felt the same.
"Well, that was a long time ago. Things change. People change. None of us is who he was back then."
"But, you and I …"
"We're still … alive."
"Well, yes, that's true, I -"
"I … need to tell you something," he said, the words coming out in a do-this-before-you-regret-it rush.
"It's - you're probably going to hate me." I said nothing; he went on. "I told myself when I first found you online that I was afraid of how I had left things between us, because of what I said to you that last day. But that wasn't the only reason."
"Tom went to Vietnam."
"Yes. I know that."
"I know you do. But - before he left - he …" I thought I knew what was coming, braced myself. "He … came to see me ," Paul went on. "In Atlanta."
Hearing this hurt less than I thought it would, but I was still surprised. "He did?"
"Right after he signed up, he came to Atlanta, looked me up. I was still living with my parents, of course, but it was the summer before I started school, up in Athens."
"What did he want?"
"He wanted us to get back together, of course. Run off and find a place where we could be with each other and not have to worry about it." Paul hesitated, took a breath. "He … well, he had some crazy notion of slipping over the border into Canada, go live in Toronto or Montreal, forget about the war. Just try to make a life with each other."
Obviously he had said no to my brother, but "Why didn't you?"
Paul looked at me for a long moment. Then, "It was all or nothing with him. I couldn't keep up. I couldn't be what he wanted me to be." He paused, looked into the middle distance. "Although I wanted to. I really did."
"It scared you."
"Of course it did. It was just something that one did not do, could not be, back then. Stupid, of course; so many of us were, as it turned out, but we were all afraid of what would happen to us if we owned up to it. So, we got along as we could, always sliding along in the shadows, living on the fringes."
"It's different, now, I think. It's changed."
Paul smiled. When he smiled, I could catch glimpses of the boy he'd been back then. "It has. Thank God." He made a kind of gesture at his face, at his body. "But, look at me. I'm almost seventy years old, now. Who's going to want this? "
"Did you ever have … someone?"
"I did. On and off. Different men, here and there. The longest I was with someone was almost ten years, and I counted myself lucky for all that."
"You could have made it work."
"Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know. When you're a high school teacher, you have to be careful. You remember what we were like, back then, always looking for the slightest weakness to exploit, to dig at, like scar tissue. If my students ever caught on that I was gay, that would have been the end of it. I could never go into a classroom ever again."
"Tom just ran away from it."
Paul closed his eyes, sighed. When he opened them, I caught the merest glimpse of moisture there, at the bottom edge. Unshed tears. "Yes. He did. In the most terrible way possible." He sighed a ragged breath. "I was afraid to see you because I was afraid to tell you that I … well, that I might have saved him, if I'd said yes."
A silence settled itself between us, not uncomfortable. Each of us lost in his own memories, perhaps.
"I'm not sure that's true, Paul."
"It might have helped."
I waggled my hand back and forth. "Maybe, maybe not. I once told our mother that I thought that Tom should go see a doctor, a psychiatrist. Mind you, that was after one particularly nasty fight between us … but I still think it's true. Tom had a lot going on, more than just being gay."
"I've always wondered how he was able to convince the Army to let him in."
I nodded. "I know. My brother had the ability to become whatever people needed him to be."
The sounds from inside the building filtered out to us; it sounded like some raucous and annoying game was being conducted, one that we were better off missing. Paul poured each of us more of the wine. At this time of the evening, the stars were out and a few of the braver ones were visible overhead. Other lights moved overhead: planes shuttling in and out of Lambert. Across the park, I could see traffic moving along Lindell. Paul followed my gaze.
"Do you miss it?" he asked.
"St. Louis?" He nodded. "Sometimes. I enjoy Chicago, but I liked growing up here. I wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed."
"So do I. It was never my choice, but my father's job in Atlanta wasn't all that much of a promotion. We could easily have stayed." He studied my face for a long moment. "I wonder what would have become of us , if we had both stayed."
I caught the particular emphasis he placed on the pronoun.
I remembered what I had realized about myself that evening, the last time I saw Paul. In a perverse kind of epiphany, I knew that I could have replaced Tom and become what he was. I had wondered if Paul had understood that, as well, but we had never gotten that far with things. I had insulted Paul, and he had left. At this point in my life, it didn't matter one way or the other whether or not Paul and I could have become a thing, except perhaps for some kind of wounded pride for a thing that had never existed. The horns of another bull presented themselves for the taking.
"Paul? Can I ask you something?"
"It's … awkward."
He smiled. "How could it be anything else but that? Everything about this evening has been awkward."
I took a deep breath, let it out. "I … well, when we met, did you … I mean, was there anything …?" I didn't know how to finish it, hoped that the ellipsis explained itself.
"Did I ever have feelings for you? Is that what you're trying to ask?" I nodded; he went on. "Maybe. At first. I'm not sure I understood what was going on. All I know is that I liked being around you, enjoyed talking to you. It might have gone on to something else, but … well, there was Tom." He shrugged. "Your brother - for all of his many faults - was a beautiful boy back then. It was hard to resist him, and when things became very clear between us, I knew I couldn't bear not to be with him." He looked an apology at me. "Sorry. If it means anything, I did consider it, at one point. But, Tom … he just sucked up all the air in the room, right?"
"It's okay. I understand."
"And, anyway, you weren't interested in … that . As far as I could tell."
"No. I … no."
He heard the hesitation. "Oh?"
"I … I don't know. It … seemed almost possible, at one point."
"Ah," he said. "Ah." He looked down at my hands, saw the band glittering there. "But, that …"
"I enjoyed being married. I loved Ellen very much, and I still do. The worst day of my life was when she left me." And here were my own unshed tears. I played with the ring that I would never, ever remove. "But I know myself well enough to understand that something very … different was possible. I knew myself well enough to know that I wasn't … well, that I wasn't like Tom, but …"
"I don't know," I continued. "Maybe it was jealousy. I don't know. You and he were experiencing things that I could only dream about. I was a virgin when I met Ellen. I had never had the opportunity to be with a woman … or maybe never took the opportunity." I cleared my throat. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I must be drunk."
"In vino veritas , and all that."
I blew out a nervous breath. "I'm sorry, Paul. Now I'm the one who should apologize. I … I don't know what I want. I don't know what I'm trying to say."
"Maybe that you just want companionship?" When I said nothing in response, he went on. "I have a group of friends, men that I've known for thirty years or more. We're all single, for one reason or another. Every weekend, we get together for brunch at a restaurant or at somebody's place and drink cocktails and shoot the breeze … and it's nice, it really is. But it's not a replacement for what I think all of us really want: someone else in our lives."
I looked at him; he looked steadily back at me. "I get that you loved Ellen," he went on, his voice soft. "I envy you that, you know, that you had that kind of life, with children. That was always going to be denied me, and I understood it, knew that I had made that choice." He looked down, played with the stem of his wineglass. "But …"
"What?" I asked.
He looked up at me. "You're not done, Tim. No one is ever done needing that. Just because Ellen is gone doesn't mean that you have to turn yourself off." He smiled. "Seems to me that you just need to figure out what that means, for you, at this particular moment." He reached out, took my hand in his, squeezed it … and I let him, left my hand in his. "Seems to me you already have."
A swell of music from inside washed over us, something from our past even if it wasn't the type of music we would have listened to as children back then. We looked as couples stood up from tables, moved to the center of the room, started dancing. Paul chuckled, stood up, started to lift me up by my hand. "Come on."
I stood up with him. "Paul, I can't … not in there …"
"I wouldn't give those people the satisfaction of watching the two of us." He led me away from the room, down the hill and into a grove of trees next to the museum. The music, although fainter, could still be heard. He stopped, turned me to face him, reached out his arms. "I haven't done this for a long time. I apologize in advance for stepping on your feet."
I let myself fall into his embrace, let him lead me in small circles in the dappled shadows of the trees. Ellen had enjoyed dancing, had enjoyed it more than I had, but I had learned enough not to embarrass her on the dance floor. I had danced at the weddings of both of my children.
Paul and I looked at each other; I could feel his breath on my face, and it was not an unpleasant feeling. I could feel the warmth of his body underneath the suit that he wore. As we moved, the moonlight danced in his dark, liquid eyes and I remembered those eyes from his youth, how very easily I might have lost myself in them, how very easily I found myself in danger of losing myself in them even now.
"This …" I murmured.
He smiled. "Yes."
"This," I repeated, an affirmation, an acceptance.
And I let him kiss me.
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