Other than business trips and an occasional holiday abroad, I had been living in New York City continuously since graduating college. I had dated about seventy women in that time, changed address five times. I had probably spent a million dollars on restaurant food, and if you were to categorize everything from theater tickets to hand jobs as entertainment, I had spent close to another million either entertaining myself or relieving myself of a loneliness so deep and so ferocious that I think I would have otherwise gone mad.
In New York, I was known and not known by the same people. Some of the women I dated conversed among themselves and saw “remarkable similarities” in their experience with me. The best I could have hoped for out of those comparisons of notes was their coming to a collective conclusion that I was a Real Gentleman. I certainly wasn’t “handsy,” as I heard one of my co- workers described. I certainly didn’t act as if allowing me to take care of the check or buy the tickets entitled me to intimate contact. If any of the women had expected real physical pleasure or perhaps even a lasting relationship, they may have felt some disappointment and irritation. By and large the women with whom I shared dinners and day trips, visits to museums, botanical gardens, flea markets, street fairs, lectures, readings, plays, concerts, and cozy evenings at home trying out recipes and watching movies were themselves highly desirable, busy and very accomplished— writers, film editors, actresses, lawyers, bankers, journalists— with no pressing need for me or anyone to save or shape their lives. I was quite sure they were as content as I was to enjoy the time we spent together and part friends before anything romantic occurred. I suspected that a few of them had similar agendas to mine, were closeted or otherwise conflicted, and wanted someone of the opposite gender to be seen with at one of New York’s innumerable fund-raising dinners. I was a presentable escort to sit with at the table their company purchased to support some worthy cause, such as cancer research or the Central Park Conservancy. My company regularly bought two tables for ten to support the American Heart Association (Adler’s father had died at the age of forty-two of heart failure), as well as galas for The Paris Review, cystic fibrosis, the Alvin Ailey dance company, and Meals on Wheels, paying as much as $50,000 per table. We at Adler were expected to fill the twenty seats with our spouses or significant others. I have to admit that for those evenings—and there were many of them, many—I took pains to be seen with a woman who was not only accomplished and vivacious, but who had a shot of being the most beautiful woman in the room.
The thing about New York is that when you first move there, it seems like an impossibly immense place with so many lives simultaneously unspooling, so many conflicting realities, that if you don’t do anything wildly strange and egregious you can live your life for the most part rather privately. And then one day New York doesn’t seem nearly so huge and complex and the thousands upon thousands who passed through your life, people you would in all likelihood never see again start to appear a second time, and a third— the cabdriver seems familiar, the fellow delivering your take-out lunch calls you by your first name, and Sean Tee, whose ad you saw in The Village Voice, comes to your apartment and you both realize he’s been there before, the previous time as Billy McDougal.
Wasn’t San Francisco the gayest city in the country, possibly the gayest in the world? Home of Harvey Milk, the Castro, a total bacchanal of a Halloween parade that made the one in New York seem discreet. Once, crossing Bleecker Street carrying home in an insulated sack a rotisserie chicken from Jefferson Market for my dinner, I had to contend with the parade as it rainbowed and glittered by a mere block from my apartment. I waited for a break in the procession of leather and feather and cowboy hats, Tin Men, Glendas, Spocks, and throngs of happy homosexuals who had not bothered to don their gay apparel but just enjoyed strolling through the city streets with twenty thousand of their closest friends, all to the accompaniment of drums and police whistles, tambourines and cheers. Freedom was in the air, freedom and joy and sorrow and survival.
History was passing me by.
I kept my head down, but my face must have betrayed me. A tall parader made even taller in high heels, fishnet stockings, spangled miniskirt, and a headdress spewing feathers stepped out of the parade’s flow and touched me on the elbow. A giant, something out of the Bread and Puppet Theater.
“Come on, honey,” he said. “Don’t be shy. Join the fun.”
What drew him to me? I was not the only one watching the parade from the curbside. There were thousands of us along Bleecker Street, fathers with kids riding their shoulders, old gay men wiping away tears, tourists with their cameras. But this towering marcher in a spangled skirt touched me with his long blue fingernail.
No thank you, I tried to say, but all I could do was shake my head no. He gave me a look— Really? Are you sure?— and on an impulse I stepped off the curb and fell in behind him, joining the weirdly holy procession, swinging my insulated bag of take-out chicken like a censor. I kept my eyes on my recruiter’s back. His dark skin glistened with sweat and glitter. My heart felt as if it were looking for a way out of my chest. I told myself I would take ten steps and then bail, cut through the marchers and go home, but ten steps turned to twenty, and twenty to thirty, and before I could peel away I had walked from Tenth Street to Perry on the gushing artery of Bleecker Street. At last, I said goodbye to the man in front of me with a quick light tap on his shoulder blade and cut a pathway through the parade muttering my excuses as I made my way onto the sidewalk.
From An Ocean Without a Shore; Copyright © 2020 By Scott Spencer. Reprinted here with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers