Gary's standing near the little couch next to my desk. I wasn't lying before -- I haven't seen him in years. He's got a goatee now, which suits him, but makes him look older than me. He's put on a little weight, which makes me happy for a second 'cause he was always so vain about his physical appearance and made a great deal of fun of my propensity toward pear-shapedness. He's looking at me closely, like he's trying to remember something. After a moment, he says, "I've been expecting your call since last night."
"Was that when you heard?"
He nods. "Two calls on my machine."
"Asking for confirmation."
Gary nods and sits down on the couch. He takes off the jean jacket he's wearing and I realize his clothes are pretty ratty. Not like he's been living on the street or anything, but maybe like he's been shopping at Goodwill. Or he's an IT guy. His hair is a little too long. He slings the jacket over the arm of the couch and asks, " What's the plan?"
I'm suddenly very conscious of my suit. I'm not wearing the jacket, but I am wearing the tie. I have very nice shoes on. Jessica picked them out. We can't really afford them, but Murray says campaign funds cover that stuff, since it's essential to getting elected. "There is no plan. Deny. Untrue."
"You should roll up your sleeves when you say it. It makes you look more like a regular dude, not some effete Ivy-leaguer."
"I don't know why I'm here. Why did you call me?" He's suddenly angry. "I'm a fucking accountant for a fucking ketchup packet company. Your guys acted like I was some political consultant when they came to the house."
"I didn't know you had a house."
I don't know what to say. I'm suddenly panicked, like this was a bad idea, like I didn't think this through carefully. Like I haven't rehearsed this in my head a hundred times in the past three hours. I sit down behind me desk so I don't fidget. "I told them you had influence in certain circles."
"They asked why they'd never heard of you, and I said I hadn't spoken to you in years. That you weren't into politics. But that you could help with the Times."
"Fuck. You're serious."
"So, is someone checking into my background as we speak?"
I'm worried the panic is starting to show. What if he's not who I remember him to be? I politic strangers all the time, but this is almost more dangerous. With strangers you have no assumptions, you just wing it, and feel it out as you go. Here I'm working a plan based upon knowledge which may be horribly outdated. That knowledge may make me misread signals. I'm derailed, so I cover. "Dude, I'm running for state senate, not President. I don't have those kinds of resources. You watch too much West Wing.
"24. I prefer Keifer to Martin Sheen."
"Everybody likes Martin Sheen."
Gary smiles. It's a smile I recognize. "I think he's a sanctimonious assbag," he says. I start to relax.
"Didn't he go to jail once for protesting for gay rights?"
"Probably. He's an attention whore."
For a second I'm in college again. Conversation with friends, apart from my wife, has become sort of a chore in the past few years. It's bizarre, but it's like unless I'm debating an issue or pitching a program or lecturing on our fucked-up political landscape, I have nothing to say to people. I just want to sit quietly. Watch TV. Small talk is hard work. I remember bullshitting for hours in college, with friends and acquaintances. I don't know what the hell we talked about. It's like time has eroded my personality. Unless I'm in politician mode, or with Jessica, who always brings out the best in me, I'm a fucking empty husk. I'm the most boring man alive. And don't even get me started about talking on the phone.
We smile at each other, and the easiness floats in the air for a second. For a second we are close friends again, like in the old days. For a second I'm a history major again, helping him out with some research for an Elizabethan-period play he's working on. For a second he's attending my first public lecture about the history of trade policy. For a second I'm in the audience, watching him hack his way through MacBeth.
"I need your help."
He is wary. "With what?"
"I need a promise. That you'll support me."
He just sits there. After five seconds, I know I've already overplayed my hand. But I have to move forward. I don't really have a choice. "Seriously. You're gonna get more calls. I need you to support me."
"What am I supposed to say?"
"Confirm that we are friends. That we ran in the same crowd in college. But that's it. Friends."
Gary stands. He wants to pace, but doesn't let himself. "I haven't talked to you in seven years."
I stay sitting. If he needs to feel in control of the conversation for a bit, that's cool. this is my office after all, my desk, my couch. He's a guest here. I'll let him stand while I sit, give him that illusion of power if it will calm him. I'll even apologize. He deserves that. "I know. I'm a bad friend. You aren't the only one. Barkley, Jill, Jase -- I barely talk to my parents once a month. I get distracted. You know that."
"It's not like I'm asking you to lie."
"I just always assumed that." He really does start pacing now. "You get distracted. I talk to Jason every once in a while -- I knew he hadn't heard from you either. we were all really proud of you. You were doing good stuff, and i just assumed that you didn't have time to reach out to me. But now I wonder if that was really the reason."
Steady. "You can't be serious."
"You were the one who convinced me to come out of the closet. To tell my parents."
"You were the one who convinced me it was better to tell the truth and face the consequences up front than live my whole life in fear of the truth being revealed."
I've got to stop this before it gets out of hand, so I stand and move toward him around the desk. Not too aggressive, but firm. I'm a good deal taller than him, so I stay a few feet away -- I don't want to push too hard. "This isn't the same thing."
"I'm not gay."
"I never said you were." His face is suddenly dark. This is exactly what I did not want. I wanted him to remember our friendship, our good times. Not the hurt. If he's hurt, he's not going to help me.
"And you weren't running for office. And anyway it didn't matter. You were a fucking theater major. The jig was up. Everybody knew -- they were just waiting for you to admit it. even your parents. Hell, I only told you to come clean to them because your mom asked me after Present Laughter."
"I know. She told me. She thought your were my ... special friend."
His eyes are hard. "No kidding." He goes back to the couch to get his coat.
I move toward the door. Not blocking it, exactly, but making it hard for him to leave before I'm done. "Look -- we can fight about this all night. It boils down to this: I'm not gay. You know it and I know it. yes -- there are grey areas. yes, I experimented -- no one is more aware of that than you. But we've already been down this road. We went down it for like 2 months. I'm not gay. You know it. I ... was confused and you bore the brunt of it. I'm sorry. I treated you badly. But we ended up friends again and I've considered you a friend all of these years even though we haven't talked much and I can't believe you are even considering not helping me in this."
"I don't understand why you can't just tell the truth."
"That's a fucking lie..."
"Just tell them what actually happened." He sounds a little frantic now. He's smarter than this, but he's too emotional. Always has been.
"I can't and you know it. You're not a fucking retard, for christ sake. You know they can't understand this. You know they won't tolerate any statement that lasts longer than 15 seconds. I can't tell them 'I thought I might be gay for about 10 minutes, but it turns out I just really like the first act of Carousel.' Jesus -- I'm an upstart liberal challenger in a fucking conservative district which, by the way, looks like it could vote democratic for the first time in years. This would kill me and you know it."
His next words are meant to hit me like a steamroller. "You *are* a politician."
Idealists are hard to deal with. Even when they have the same goals as you, they refuse to recognize the simple, essential need for compromise. They want the whole hog, all or nothing. They sneer at pragmatism, look down on it. Thing is, pragmatism gets things done. Baby steps in the right direction are better than standing still. Or falling backward. Politics is about baby steps, about compromise. About pragmatism. Carter didn't understand -- that's why he is a great man, but was a lousy president. Clinton understood it better than anyone. That's why he got stuff done, it's why he was so scary to the Right, and whey they had to resort to dirty tricks to try to bring him down. But for idealists; pragmatism, compromise, politics -- they're dirty words.
They're not dirty words to me. "Spare me the shit. You know I'll get in and fight for what I believe and do good work. You know what I did on the city council. Gay rights, workers rights, taxes." He expected me to crumble with the politician remark, and now he's clearly confused. "I'll never be elected to a second term here once my votes start moving, but I can be elected to a first term. I'll make a name for myself as a crusader. and then I can move on up the ladder. As a defender of the things that both you and I believe in. But I can't get on that fucking ladder if I don't get elected and I can't get elected if you don't agree to back me. Right now. We're less than 4 days from the election and I'm up by less than the margin of error and I need to spend time glad-handing swing voters right now, not trying to convince my friends to back me. Jesus -- you know this is true. You know this is the right thing to do."
"I don't ..."
I need to go in for the kill, now, while he's off balance. "Fuck. I don't have time for this. Yes or no?"
"I ... I don't know."
We both stand there for a moment. He's holding his coat in both hands. He looks disheveled, and small. He looks sad. He looks scared. All the things I didn't want from this meeting. I realize I'm standing with me legs spread and shoulders wide -- Jessica calls it my "Bully Pose." I'm not in the best shape, but I'm a big guy -- over six feet, just shy of 200 pounds -- bigger than most folks. I use my size to intimidate a lot, sometimes consciously, most times without realizing it. I got a little too close to him over the last few seconds, and I'm towering. I take a step back and relax my shoulders, which is enough to loosen him up a bit.
"I'm not a good liar," he says, slowly. "It never works."
"You have a fucking BFA in acting."
And we both stand there. I watch his eyes, but he won't make contact with me. He's thinking about something else. Weighing our friendship against his principles. It occurs to me he might be in a relationship -- it never even occurred to me before. I don't know why. He's probably got someone who loves him. Maybe a whole community of friends. Vocal gay rights supporters. Marchers. Guys who prop each other up so they can stand on principle. Guys I'll do my best to help win their rights and privileges if I get into office. Guys I'd admire if I didn't need Gary's help so fucking badly. Guys I'm pissed as hell at right now, because it's clear I've lost him.
I move away from the door. "If you decide not to ... call me, okay. So I can get prepared. Okay?"
Relieved, he jerks toward his escape. "I'll call."
"Thanks. Sorry about ..."
"Don't worry about it."
He stands at the door again, unsure how to end it.
I say, "I'll get some guys to take you out the back door."
A light goes on his his eyes, and he smiles. I get a glimpse of us both ten years younger. Thinner. More hair on my head, less on his face. "Back door." The oldest of gay jokes. Never gets old. I smile too, but mine is fake. This did not go as I needed it to, and now I've got to prepare for the worst. I can't blame Gary. A man who stands on principle is to be admired.
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