Lost History, 1986
Glen met Meg when they were both 19, the summer before her mother died, the Summer of Love. They talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail together, joining the Peace Corps in Africa, starting a band like Peter, Paul, and Mary – though they would need to find a Peter. They lost their virginity together on a blanket deep in Muir Woods, though neither of them would admit it was the first time until months later.
When Glen thought back on his first glimpse of her, he usually saw Meg in a long purple paisley dress with lace cuffs. Early in their courtship, he said it made her look like an orphan girl, bit his lip, and wished he’d said peasant girl instead. He remembered her hair hanging down in bangs over her eyes as if she didn’t need or care to see. When they went out on their first few dates, she alternated between wearing too much makeup and not enough, as if she didn’t know who or how to be. Surely if her mother had known, she wouldn’t have let her daughter go out that way.
But her mother was very sick, in and out of the hospital all that year. As Glen got to know the family, sometimes Meg’s dad would cook dinners for them – this in an era when men’s cooking was likely to be a can of Campbell’s Soup and a stack of Premium Saltine Crackers, or at best a pot of Dinty Moore Beef Stew with a few boiled frozen vegetables on the side. Glen sat through these sad little meals, making chit-chat, avoiding politics or talk of Vietnam. Another girl would have insisted on cooking, glad to show off her burgeoning domestic prowess, displaying her figure proudly in an apron, and playing woman of the house. Men liked a sensible girl. Not Meg.
Meg’s mom passed away in November, and then Meg really was an orphan girl. Shortly before her last trip to the hospital, her mother had taken Glen’s hand as they sat together on the couch one Sunday night watching The Lawrence Welk Show. “You’re a good boy, Glen. I know Meg loves you very much. You’ll take care of her, won’t you?” He would.
Years later, after they were married, he spoke of it as his deathcouch promise to her mother. They would laugh, both glad that the sad sting of those early days was over. They had kids of their own now, with joys and immediacies that pushed their history, shared and separate, off to the margins of the page.
“Or off the page entirely?” Keith asked him, as they lay together under the covers in the dark.
“Maybe,” Glen smiled. “Not completely.”
“So you need to be needed?”
“You could say that.”
“Did you ever really love her?” asked Keith.
“Of course. I still do. She may be the only person in my life, aside from my kids, that I ever truly love.” Glen knew as he said it that this sort of comment was bound to be hurtful, but he wasn’t about to pretend anything anymore. Not if he could help it.
“But you told me you’ve been in love with five other men in your life. Wasn’t any of that true love?”
“Sure, but you can’t compare that with what I had with my wife. Anyway, three of those guys were straight. I lived with Meg for over 30 years and we’re still best friends. We have children together. Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I wonder how gay men can be so clueless.”
Keith wondered what, exactly, would be the right way to take words like that? So he kissed Glen on his unshaven face and got out of their bed, much like the song by Meat Loaf, and rode into the night on his motorcycle, much like the song by Steppenwolf. They emailed and texted back and forth that next week at work, and Keith kicked any thought of a relationship with this man down the road. It was easy to do. He’d done it before.
But not so easy to sustain, for either of them, he found. A late-night text from Glen read: “Why don’t you come over this weekend and we can hash it out. I promise I won’t be an a--hole J.”
The next night, Keith sat in the tiny balcony of the Twin Peaks sipping at his third madras while his best friend recounted another story uniting the drama of yesterday with the technology of tomorrow: Meet Brett and Mickey, who’d met on adam4adam a few months earlier, beginning a long-distance relationship between LA and San Francisco. Mickey, instantly possessive, insisted on monogamy. Brett, congenitally incapable of keeping it in his pants, naturally consented and then did whatever or whomever he wanted on the weekdays when they were apart. Iceberg dead ahead.
Three breakups ensued in each of the three successive months. Like a cowboy shot off his horse and caught in a stirrup, Keith found himself dragged across the rough terrain of Brett’s each-day fresh indignation until, finally, he spoke up: “You know what, honey – we’ve been here before.”
“Meaning what exactly?” asked Brett, with fire in his eyes. It was one thing to feel betrayed by a lover, another entirely not to be supported by a friend: Friends are what we have as gay men, sustaining us in sickness and in health, as wives are not an option and husbands, well, elusive.
“I wish you’d just break up with the guy, already. Don’t do it for yourself. Think of me for a change.” Which is how, in one weekend, it looked to Keith like he’d blown a budding relationship with Glen and pushed an otherwise warm friendship into its iciest reaches.
Drinks at Twin Peaks was their little reconciliation, where Keith found that with a bit less blood running through his vodka-stream he could rediscover his own benevolence. Or, at least, listen with feigned attention to the latest, if not last, chapter: While Mickey was taking a nap, Brett had gone through his iPhone, with a special focus on his Grindr history. Every conversation had been saved, including one of immense interest, beginning “hey man, yr fkn hot,” progressing onward through “u wanna cm ovr?” on to “im downstrs – u there?” and – ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please take note – incriminatingly ending with “yep, b rght dwn.” All that was missing was a cum-stained blue dress.
Keith found his mind wandering all through the second act – in which, traditionally, the gun is loaded and a pellet of poison dropped covertly into the silver chalice of wine – so he missed some of the finer points of the denouement. Mickey had led with indignation at being snooped upon, tried surreptitiously to erase his own history (or at least the troublesome bit), and at last fled to spend the night on the couch of a woman who works for the Swiss Consulate. Keith perked up: “Does Switzerland even have a consulate?” Apparently, on Montgomery Street, they do.
So on Saturday night, Keith arrived at Glen’s place and handed him a bottle of cabernet with the words, “I am a man trapped between two worlds.”
“Didn’t Howard the Duck used to say something like?” asked Glen, and let him in. “Anyhow, I thought that was me. I’m the one who waited until I was 48 to come out. Technically, I’m still married. And my fundamentalist son tries to pretend he doesn’t know about me.”
“So you’re saying I’m the stable one?” asked Keith. “That’s very bad news for both of us, sweetheart. Pop the cork, please.”
They spent Sunday morning in bed, much like the song by Etta James, emerging into the sunless gray San Francisco summer air just as a line was gathering for a Castro Street Theater matinee showing of The Little Mermaid. They threaded their way past tons of adults with children – and you rarely saw kids on the Castro in those days – many of whom were holding balloon animals. Along the way, they passed a woman in full clown drag – oversized patent-leather shoes, baggy yellow striped pants, red pinstripe vest, white pancake makeup, blue mop hair, and maraschino cherry nose – enterprisingly selling them for two bucks each. Balloon animals, not children.
Just for fun, they got in line. Two hours later, they came out of the theater dabbing their teary eyes, wiping their noses on their sleeves, and holding each other close. They were both single, the sex was good, and now they had bawled their eyes out together in front of a Disney classic. There was nothing further to discuss.
By Glen’s birthday in early October, the weather had improved: A solid week of sweaty sheets, sleeping with the windows wide open, an electric fan pointed at the bed. To celebrate his partner’s birthday, Keith rented a cabin cruiser for a private party out on the bay.
That evening, Glen’s phone rang: his son, J.
Keith watched as the blood drained from Glen’s face, so sure was he, knowing where things stood between the father and son, that only a death – Meg’s death – could warrant such a call. J’s voice – usually strident, now diffident – shook Glen further.
“What’s wrong?” Keith cut in, as Glen cupped his hand over the phone.
It took a few more minutes for clarity to emerge. No one was lying in a hospital bed. It was, in words that Glen repeated and they both turned over for several days, a mercy call.
“Mercy for whom?” Keith asked.
“I can’t tell you,” Glen said, and then seeing the look on Keith’s face, prudently enhanced, “Because I don’t know. But I’m assuming it’s some sort of a Christian thing, cause everything is with J. More I cannot say.”
It was too late to call Meg, who had suffered for years from back and leg pain, and struggled most nights to sleep. The only other comprehensible part Glen could add: “J. wants me to meet his wife. Or rather, she wants to meet me.”