She looked so wan - so hopeless. More than forty years of marriage had come to this. The love of my life, the only love I'd ever known, was lying in a hospital bed, doped up on a morphine drip. I'd tried taking care of her at home, but even with a hospice nurse coming in every day, I just couldn't do it. Caring for Betty's every need was a lot of work, but it was a labor of love and I was more than willing to do it so that she could die at home . . . so that she could die in peace.
In the end, the pain became too much. There was only so much that could be done at home, and as the increasing dosages of narcotics came ever closer to blurring the line between pain control and euthanasia, her oncologist told us we had a choice. We could either keep doing what we'd been doing, and my wife would die in pain, or she could be admitted and monitored on her pain medications, allowing her to die with as little pain as possible.
"It's OK," she'd assured me. "I'd wanted to die at home, but not if I have to be in this much pain. It'll be so much easier on you if I return to the hospital, and I can be comfortable there."
And so the decision had been made. She was admitted to the oncology unit, she was hooked up to an IV and started on a morphine drip. Morphine is a powerful drug and the doses she was receiving would have killed an ordinary man but she'd become opiate tolerant and it took enough medication to treat an army just to make her comfortable.
But her comfort came at a price. She could barely keep her eyes open, and she was so drugged up that she didn't even recognize me any more. I held her hand as she took her last breath, and then her heart simply stopped beating and the monitor she was hooked up to showed only a flat line. There was no alarm that went off; she was a DNR - there was a 'Do Not Resuscitate' order written in her chart. There were no doctors and nurses rushing into the room to revive her. It was her time.
I pushed the call button and when the nurse responded, "Yes Mr. Wolfe," I answered, "My wife just passed away."
"I'll tell the doctor, and I'll be right there," she replied.
It was strange seeing my wife lying there after she'd died. It's so unnatural to see someone be perfectly still. I could almost swear I saw her still breathing but I realized that my mind was just playing tricks on me. Her heart had stopped. There was no reason for her to breathe anymore.
The hospital took care of everything; cleaning her up and arranging for the funeral home to pick her body up. I'd already made funeral arrangements in advance, so the only thing left to do was to call the family members and let them know.
Marcie, my daughter, lived right in town. She would have undoubtedly been at the hospital with me had it not been for her job. She'd already used up all her vacation time and a good share of her sick leave to spend with her mother when she was undergoing treatment. Marcie was a wonderful daughter and a gem of a human being. I still thought of her as a kid but she was middle aged with two teenage sons of her own.
My son, Stephen, lived halfway across the country, in the Big Apple. His mother's illness had taken a toll on his psyche and he hadn't been back home in many months. It had just gotten to the point where he couldn't stand to see her becoming weaker and weaker. Even still, he managed to call every day to see how she was doing and he spoke to her on the phone right up until the day she entered the hospital for the last time.
While Betty's illness and passing was hard on all of us, I think it was particularly hard on Stephen. He'd had a particularly difficult life, having been bullied throughout much of his childhood and treated as a virtual outcast in high school. He was a slight, shy youth who never dated and suffered from the ultimate curse of being smart. His life would have been hell had it not been for his best friend, Daryl, but then Daryl moved away just after the start of their sophomore year and Stephen really did fall into a profound depression - a depression that haunted him for more than five years and included a serious suicide attempt.
We spent a small fortune on therapy and medications but nothing seemed to help. And then he met Cindy and everything changed. Stephen fell head over heels in love with her and the three children that resulted from their marriage were the most beautiful I'd ever seen. It came as a complete shock to all of us when Cindy up and left with the children after sixteen years of what had appeared to be an idyllic marriage. Stephen didn't even try to get custody or visitation rights with the children and even Betty and I had hardly seen them in the last few years. Stephen denied that he'd ever had an affair but insisted he was to blame for the breakup of his marriage.
We worried that Stephen would once again fall into depression or even try to kill himself but our son developed a resolve we'd never seen in him before. He poured himself heavily into his profession as a professor of Economics at New York University, dedicating himself increasingly to his students even as he ignored his own personal life. Betty and I both hated to see our son go through life without someone at his side and estranged from his own children but he seemed to be happy . . . until now.
From the moment he got off the plane, Stephen couldn't stop crying. This was so ironic as he'd never been the crying type before, even when he was in the midst of his deepest depression. Neither Marcie nor I, nor Marcie's husband, Frank, nor even Marcie's sons, Tom and Joel, shed a tear. Perhaps it was because we'd been through the whole ordeal of watching Betty waste away and, hence, her final passing was in many ways a blessing. Stephen, on the other hand, was beside himself.
My heart went out to my son but there was only so much I could do to console him. We were all hurting, after all, and I knew that the only thing that could ever heel his wounds would be time.
Of course I invited Cindy and the children to the funeral but I was a bit surprised when they came. After all, it had been nearly ten years since the divorce and she and the children had barely known Betty anymore. Still, they came, and that was what counted. Funerals are for the living, as they say, and it was nice to get reacquainted with my ex-daughter-in-law and my grandchildren. God, they weren't even the same kids I'd known before. Connie was a senior in high school and the spitting image of her mother. Stephen junior was a sophomore and he looked so much like his father did at fifteen, it was eerie. Lance had his mother's hair and eyes, and was as rambunctious as any twelve-year-old I'd ever met. He'd been only three when his parents divorced and I suspect he barely could remember his father at this point.
The one bright spot, if there was one, was that Stephen and Cindy seemed to be getting along and the children seemed to be thrilled to see him. They did a lot to cheer him up during the brief time they were in town and he really needed cheering up right then.
But before I knew it, the funeral was over, the guests had gone and my family returned to the far-flung reaches of the earth. It finally dawned on me that I was alone for the first time in decades. Marcie tried to help compensate; calling me twice a day and inviting me for dinner constantly but that didn't change the fact that I always returned to an empty house. An empty house . . .
But then a curious thing happened. Not even a week after the funeral, Mrs. Browning showed up one evening with a casserole dish, filled with chicken cacciatore - her mother's 'world famous' recipe, actually. At best she was an acquaintance. Sure, we waved at each other when we passed on the street every now and then but I couldn't remember us having said more than a dozen words to each other in as many years. I knew she was a widow but that's all I knew about her.
Naturally, when she suddenly showed up on my doorstep bearing the offer of a home-cooked meal, I did the polite thing and invited her in. Big mistake. The next thing I knew, I'd invited her to stay and share the chicken with me. She was positively delighted. Wish I could have said the same thing. For the next three hours, I heard her talk about everything. By the time we polished off the frozen yogurt I served for dessert and drank the rest of our coffee, I knew all about her Albert and the wonderful thirty-two years they'd shared together, their four children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren. I knew where her kids had gone to school, where they lived now, how many marriages each had been in and the type of work they did . . . all except her son, Daniel.
She never seemed to get around to telling me about Daniel, so I thought that maybe something had happened and he'd died. I certainly didn't want to stir up that pot but when she mentioned that he lived in San Francisco and didn't say anything else about him, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked, "Is he OK? You've told me all about your other children and nothing about him."
"What's there to say?" she replied. "He has a partner, Harold, and they seem to be happy together. He never calls me, and I never call him."
At first it didn't register what she was saying and then it suddenly clicked and I realized Daniel was gay and she wasn't too happy about it. Truthfully, what parents are, but we can't choose our kids. It's the luck of the draw, after all. At least Daniel wasn't a criminal, he wasn't in jail, he didn't have a serious illness, and he was alive. There are a lot of things that are worse than having a gay son.
When I finally closed the door behind Mrs. Browning, or Ruth as she insisted I call her, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I thought I'd never get rid of her. For the first time since the funeral ended, it felt good to be alone.
The next day, it was Mrs. Williamson that showed up at my door. Her offering was a freshly baked apple pie, her grandmother's recipe. Well at least I figured enjoying a piece of pie and maybe some coffee with a neighbor couldn't possibly take that long, right? Wrong! Gradually, piece-by-piece, we finished off that pie while she told me about her Lenny and the forty-three wonderful years they'd had together. I leaned everything there was to know about their five children, thirteen grandchildren and six great grandchildren. I would have never taken Mrs. Williamson, or Janice as she wanted me to call her, as being a techie but she had her iPhone with her and, wouldn't you know, one of her grandchildren had scanned all of her photo albums into the thing? That's right, for two and a half hours, she showed me photo after photo of her family. Ah, the wonders of technology! By eleven o'clock at night, I was catatonic but wide-awake, thanks to three cups of coffee. Still, I managed to feign that I was falling asleep, just to get her to leave. I even walked her home - anything, just to get her out of the house.
Yes, food well may be the way to a man's heart but surely endless conversation has to have been banned as an inhuman means of torture by the Geneva Convention. Did these women actually think men enjoy this sort of thing?
The day after that, it was Mrs. Polanski that showed up unannounced, bearing a container filled with her home made pierogies - her great grandmother's recipe. At this rate, I'd be sampling recipes perfected by Eve in the Garden of Eden by the time the snow fell. When she asked if she could come in to show me the 'proper' way to prepare them, I politely begged off, telling her my daughter was coming over any minute. Of course she insisted she should stay and prepare the pierogies for the both of us but I explained that my daughter had something very private she wanted to discuss with me and after placing emphasis on the word 'private' for about the seventh time, she finally relented and left me alone.
The pierogies were delicious but I somehow doubted that she would have prepared them by heating them in the microwave. Did she really think I'd notice the difference between nuking them and 'sautˇing' them in butter, the way she tried to instruct me? All right, I probably would have noticed the difference but so would my doctor and I didn't need him to remind me of my elevated triglyceride level yet again.
When the ladies of the neighborhood started catching on that I wasn't inviting them in, they started calling. "Hello Jack, it's Samantha. I just wanted to see how you're doing." Samantha? Samantha who? She was calling me by my first name and I had no idea who she even was. And three years later, after I could no longer hear out of my right ear and we hung up the phone, I still had no idea of who she was, or even what the conversation had been about.
This sort of thing went on and on to the point that I was seriously considering changing to an unlisted number but then I had the thought of switching from voice mail with the phone company to buying a regular answering machine. From then on, I let the machine pick up all my calls. If it was someone I wanted to talk to, I could always pick up. For all the ladies I didn't want to talk to, their messages were deleted and their calls went unreturned. It may have been cruel but I needed some space. Even if I were ready to think about dating again, this wasn't how I wanted to go about it.
At last I had some peace and quiet but then the loneliness set in again. Wasn't there anything in-between? Was the only alternative to being alone, being talked to death by strange women? How pathetic could you get?
At least my grocery shopping gave me a chance to get out of my empty house for an hour or two while I restocked my frozen dinners, frozen yogurt and the like. I should have known that even such a mundane activity as grocery shopping was not without its risks. Shortly after filling my shopping cart with about twenty 'Lean Cuisine' dinners that were on sale, Mrs. Courtney, who'd told me she wanted to be called Cheryl, came barreling down the aisle from the opposite direction, stopped, took one look in my cart and said with apparent horror, "Surely, you aren't planning to buy all those, are you?"
"Well, the thought had crossed my mind," I admitted.
"Oh no, dear," she admonished me. "You absolutely mustn't eat that horrible stuff. Those things are loaded with salt, and preservatives, and all sorts of things that'll kill you," she went on as she dutifully took the dinners out of my shopping cart and one by one, restocked them on the frozen food shelves. "You men just don't know how to prepare food for yourselves." Then sighing, she added, "What you need is a woman to teach you how to cook." She then grabbed hold of my cart and started barreling down the aisle, abandoning her own cart for the time being. She headed straight to the meat counter and started throwing things into my cart at warp speed while she chatted away. Soon I had several packages of chicken, a few roasts, some steaks, pork chops and ground beef. I tried to stop her, to explain that my doctor wanted me to avoid red meat but she was moving so fast I couldn't keep up with her.
"Jack!" came a deep voice, seemingly from out of nowhere. I looked up to see my neighbor from across the street, Larry Sandler. Larry was also a widower, having lost his wife a couple years back to Parkinson's Disease. "Are you still planning to come over when you're done here?" he asked.
"Huh," I replied, since I hadn't even seen him since the funeral and had no idea what he was talking about.
Lowering his voice, he explained, "I'm rescuing you. In a minute, Cheryl will realize you're no longer with her and that she's talking to herself. She'll turn around and see you talking to me, realize she has two widowers available and hightail it back here. Just follow my lead, OK?"
I barely had time to nod my head in the affirmative before Mrs. Courtney was heading back our way.
"Larry!" she practically shouted. "What a nice surprise! I was just helping Jack here do his shopping and I guess I just didn't see you."
"Nice to see you, too, Cheryl, but Jack and I really need to get going. The tip-off's in just a few minutes and we certainly don't want to miss the start of the big game," he said.
"Absolutely not," I chimed in.
"We'll barely have time to get through the checkout in time as it is," he went on. "Jack, I think my eyes were a little too big with that sale on 'Lean Cuisine'. There's enough here for the both of us." It was then that I looked down into Larry's shopping cart and noticed that he'd retrieved all the frozen dinners that Mrs. Courtney took out of my cart and placed them in his cart. When did he do that?
"If you don't mind taking the extras off my hands," he continued, "we could leave right now."
"We certainly don't want to miss the big game," I said, and Larry and I headed off toward the checkout, leaving Mrs. Courtney behind in our wake.
"But wait!" she cried out. "Jack, what about your shopping cart?"
Larry said tersely through clenched teeth as we sped down the aisle, "Whatever you do, don't turn around. Don't look back. Just pretend you didn't hear her."
"Jack! Wait!" she continued to call out as we sped to the checkout.
When we finally got there, he asked, "You didn't really want any of that crap she was throwing in your cart anyway, did you?"
"Not on your life," I answered with a laugh. "I'm not even supposed to eat half the stuff she picked out."
"And if she'd succeeded in getting you to buy it, you'd have been stuck with her over at your place every night for the next several weeks as she tried to 'teach' you how to cook."
"A fate worse than death," I laughed.
"Damn right!" he agreed. "Seriously, I need to teach you how to shop without putting yourself at risk. There are something like ten widows for every widower, and they're viscous. They want nothing more than to get their claws into you to bag another husband."
"Come on," I challenged, "It's not that bad."
"Yeah, it is," he countered. "If you let them, they won't leave you alone. I mean, it's one thing to make genuine offers of help and to try to be your friend, but some of these ladies are parasites. They're leeches. The price for their help is nothing less than a trip down the aisle and they won't stop until you agree to marry them. Take it from someone with experience. Just wait 'til one of them starts crying when you rebuff their advances, claiming you've jilted them."
"You're kidding me," I said.
"No, I'm not. That actually happened to me, more than once!"
By now, the food was totaled up and bagged, and Larry got out his credit card to pay for it.
"Hey, I owe you for those frozen dinners," I suddenly realized.
"Don't worry about it, Jack," he replied. "You can reciprocate the next time we go shopping together. Speaking of which, if there was anything else you needed, we can come back later for it. I really do need to show you how to use a safe shopping strategy. It's like safe sex - you gotta do it every time. One slip and you could end up in a marriage made in Hell."
Laughing as we exited the store, Larry headed with me to my car and transferred my frozen dinners to separate bags, which we loaded in my trunk. As I slammed the trunk closed, he said, "I meant what I said about coming over, Jack. Just because there is no 'big game' doesn't mean we can't get together. We can talk about widow-avoidance strategies," he said with a smile.
"I might take you up on that," I agreed.
"Seriously? That would be great. Why don't you come over right after putting your groceries away and we'll make some dinner and shoot the shit."
Although having dinner with a guy might not have seemed all that different from having it with the ladies, there was a world of difference involved. Larry was a guy who liked to talk about and do guy things. There'd be no incessant gabbing, talking about family members I'd never remember anyway or any other crap like that. We'd talk about sports, not that I was all that interested in sports, and life after marriage.
"That sounds like fun," I agreed. "I'll see you shortly."
As I drove home, I couldn't help but think how much more enjoyable an evening with Larry would be than an evening with one of the ladies. Even when I was with one of them, I felt lonely. Spending time with Larry would be different.
Getting ready to head across the street, I realized I should probably bring something with me. Opening the liquor cabinet, I started to reach for a bottle of wine when it hit me - I was doing what a woman would do. Larry's a guy and I'm a guy, and while I was sure he'd enjoyed a fine wine as much as I would, I'd have much rather had a frosty, cold beer. Something told me Larry would, too, so I closed the liquor cabinet and went to the refrigerator instead and grabbed a six-pack of Beck's.
When Larry opened the door, he took one look at the six-pack I was carrying and smiled. Taking it from me, he said, "Becks . . . that'll be perfect."
Following him into the kitchen, 'cause guys don't care about formalities, Larry put the beer on ice and we struck up a conversation as he started to get dinner ready.
"Cheryl was right about one thing," Larry said with a laugh. "All those frozen dinners are going to kill you. It's not that there's anything wrong with eating a frozen dinner every now and then when you don't have the time to cook, but in the time it takes to heat a frozen dinner, you could grill a chicken breast or a fish fillet and some vegetables, and it's so much healthier."
Grabbing a couple of salmon fillets out of the fridge and turning to his stove, he said, "Several years ago, we put in a Jenn-Air cook top with a built-in grill, and let me tell you, it makes all the difference. It's so easy to grill up anything at any time and there's no charcoal or lighter fluid to deal with, no braving the elements outside and no messy clean-up when you're done. There's also a griddle insert, so making pancakes, or the occasional omelet is a snap. I love my Jenn-Air grill.
"But if you decide to do some cooking," he went on as he threw the salmon fillets on the grill, "you don't need to go to all the trouble of replacing your stove top. You can buy one of those George Foreman grills, which I understand work quite well. They're perfect for making dinner for one."
While the salmon was broiling on the grill, Larry went back to the refrigerator and grabbed a green pepper, a red pepper, a bag of baby onions and package of mushrooms. He quickly washed the peppers, then handed the mushrooms to me and asked me to wash them and put them in a bowl while he cut up the peppers. As I washed the dirt off the mushrooms, I watched Larry as he sliced open each pepper, cut away the fleshy stuff on the inside, rinsed out all the seeds and then sliced the peppers into chunks. When he was done with that and I was done with the mushrooms, he peeled and rinsed the onions - boy, did that ever sting my eyes - and then he grabbed some skewers from a drawer and loaded four of them with the vegetables and threw them on the grill, next to the salmon. Total elapsed time so far was eight minutes.
Lastly, he grabbed a package of pre-mixed salad from the fridge and poured some of it into two bowls as he said, "This is the one shortcut I allow myself. I realize these pre-packaged salads may not be as healthy as buying the individual ingredients and mixing them yourself, but I buy organic mixes that are preservative-free. Life's too short to spend fifteen minutes cutting up salad ingredients that I'll eat in five."
"I don't know," I laughed, "it sounds like you're slipping." Larry laughed with me.
In about fifteen minutes from start to finish, dinner was on the table and it looked and smelled delicious. Larry was right - it was fast and easy. It was certainly 'food' for thought.
Cracking open a couple of the beers, which of course we drank right out of the bottle the way guys do, we sat down to dinner and enjoyed some of the best conversation I'd had in a while. We did talk a bit about our families, as was only natural, but we didn't obsess over it the way the women did. We spent far more time talking about more interesting things, such as gardening, politics and even sports. I wasn't a big sports fan and, as it turned out, neither was Larry but we both followed the local teams well enough to have a basic conversation about them. I had a wonderful time.
One thing that stuck with me when we talked about our families was when he mentioned that his son, Peter, lived with his partner in New York. Of course, 'partner' could refer to either a man or a woman, but when Larry mentioned how much they loved living in The Village, that left little doubt. I'd never realized that Larry's son was gay; not that it really mattered to me at all - but it's just something I didn't know about. Larry certainly didn't seem to be bothered by it, and so neither was I.
During the next few weeks, Larry and I got together on a fairly frequent basis. We did our grocery shopping together, we often had lunch or dinner together and even went out together to see a movie. It was nice - we were becoming close friends. I really liked Larry. He had a great sense of humor, a dazzling smile and the kind of personality that makes you feel good about yourself. I certainly enjoyed being around him more than any of the women who'd been pestering me.
It was three weeks later that the issue of dating came up. Not that I felt ready to date again, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my days alone and I figured that I'd probably eventually find a woman who wasn't so pushy, that I might want to marry.
We were having dinner together at his place - nothing fancy; just some spaghetti with clam sauce, a side salad and garlic bread - when I asked Larry, "So it's been two years since you lost Marilyn. Why aren't you dating?"
Laughing, he said, "I'm not ready for some bitch to cut my balls off," which set us both to laughing hysterically. Then getting a serious look on his face, he said, "Jack, I hope I don't lose you as a friend over this, but I'm not interested in another relationship with a woman."
"With these vultures, I can't blame you," I joked.
"It's not just that," he went on to explain. "Even when I married Marilyn, I knew it was a mistake. Don't get me wrong - I loved her very much and I wouldn't want to trade the wonderful years I had with her and the kids for anything - but I married her for all the wrong reasons. I had these feelings that I wasn't supposed to have - feelings that were considered wrong and perverted and so I hid them even from myself and did what I thought I was supposed to do - I married a woman."
"I don't understand," I replied in confusion.
"Jack, I'm gay. I knew it back then and it only became more apparent over the years. You don't have to worry about me hitting on you or anything. I truly just want your friendship and nothing more . . . if you'll still have me as a friend."
I knew my eyes were bugging out and my mouth was open wide, and I was still having trouble wrapping my mind around what Larry had just told me. HE WAS GAY! How could that be? There were no gays back when we were young. Sure, there were a few sissies and queers that everyone made fun of and that some people beat up but there were only a few of them.
Larry wasn't like that. He was a 'man's man' - well, maybe that was the problem! Seriously, though, he didn't seem queer at all. He was very masculine in appearance and distinguished looking with his beard. He was muscular and very fit for someone in their early seventies. He liked to talk about 'guy' things, too. He couldn't possibly be gay. But then he said he was.
I just couldn't deal with it at the moment. I needed time. I needed space. I had to get out of there.
I couldn't have even spoken if I'd tried and so I just turned around and left, leaving a very baffled and hurt Larry behind.
The week after that was Hell. I felt so lonely again and I really missed Larry. He'd been a good friend at a time when I really needed one but he'd deceived me and I couldn't forgive him for it. I didn't think I could ever be his friend again.
I should have realized that avoiding Larry would be impossible in the long run and, two weeks later, we literally ran into each other at the grocery store. He was coming up one aisle and I was coming up the one next to it and our shopping carts collided when we both turned the corner. I was about to apologize to whomever it was that I'd run into but then I saw it was Larry and the words wouldn't come. But then I saw the look of hurt on his face - the pain - and my heart melted. I'd caused that and I just couldn't live with myself for putting him through what he must have been going through.
Larry didn't deserve the treatment I'd given him. He didn't deserve the way I'd walked out on him. He was one hell of a nice guy and being gay didn't change that. He was right - he'd never once come on to me. We were just friends who enjoyed each other's companionship.
"Larry, I'm so sorry," the words came from my mouth before I'd even realized I'd said them. "So, so sorry. I should never have walked out on you like that and I shouldn't have tried to avoid you since then. You just took me by surprise."
Then I added, "Why don't you come over to my place after we put away our groceries. I'll make us a tuna casserole," he rolled his eyes when I said that, "and we can talk and I really think we need to talk."
"I'd love to, Jack," Larry said. "I've really missed you. I've missed your friendship. If nothing else, I want that friendship back in my life."
"Me too," I admitted.
Back at my house, as I mixed together the tuna and cream of mushroom soup, spread the mixture in a casserole dish and added a layer of potato chips on top, Larry said, "Sometime if you'll let me, I'll have to show you my recipe for tuna casserole. A little pasta, two kinds of cheese and breadcrumbs instead of potato chips make for a delightful meal."
As I popped the casserole in the oven to bake, I said, "Well, today we're in my house enjoying my gourmet recipe." We then both burst out laughing.
I got out a couple of beers and, after opening them, clanked my bottle against his and said, "To friendship."
"To friendship," Larry repeated and then we both took a drink. We must have stood there for a solid minute, neither one of us saying anything, neither one of us knowing where to begin. I think this is exactly where the phrase 'awkward silence' came from.
Finally, I uttered one word. "Why?"
"It's not like I had a choice, Jack," he said. "I didn't wake up one day and say to myself, 'Oh, I think I'll turn queer, 'cause everybody hates them.' It doesn't work that way."
"Then how does it work?" I asked.
Sighing deeply, Larry began to explain. "When I started puberty, back when I was twelve, I think, I got a huge crush on my best friend. He was athletic, he was tall and he looked good in his underwear on sleepovers. I didn't realize what was going on at the time but I had this strong urge to get naked with him.
"All he could talk about was girls and all I could think about was him. I guess I talked him into fooling around a little but then one day, I guess when I was fourteen, I must have pushed it too far and he turned to me and asked, 'Are you some kind of faggot or something?' I was devastated. Not only did I lose my best friend but I realized I wasn't normal.
"Up until that time, I thought what I was feeling and what we did was perfectly natural. It was just an extension of the things we did when we were little, like playing doctor and the like. When Simon accused me of being a faggot, however, I realized what I felt for Simon wasn't the same thing as what he felt for me and I started to wonder if it was appropriate as a teenager to mess around with another boy. In the meantime, it scared the shit out of me that I didn't feel anything for girls. Simon couldn't get them out of his mind. He told me in graphic detail what he wanted to do with them but I got hard from Simon's excitement, not from what he was talking about.
"Well one thing was for sure . . . nobody liked queers, so I wasn't about to become one. From then on, I suppressed my normal urges and didn't allow myself to think about boys at all. I started dating girls and made out with them but when I had the chance to go all the way, I couldn't even get hard. It was so embarrassing! I finally ended up thinking about Simon in the nude while I was banging this chick. It took forever but I finally managed to get off. In time, my use of sexual fantasy when I was with a girl became automatic. I didn't even stop to think that I was doing nothing more than masturbating inside a girl's vagina. But at least for all the world, I seemed normal."
As I grabbed the oven mitts and took the casserole out of the oven, Larry continued, "I might have lived my entire life in denial, had it not been for Peter. Peter completely changed my perspective.
"Peter was such a happy child . . . so full of life and vigor, and he was a natural extrovert. At first nothing changed when he hit puberty but then he suddenly became quiet, shy and withdrawn. It wasn't like Peter at all. Marilyn and I asked him what was wrong 'til we were blue in the face but he kept insisting that everything was fine.
"Then one day Marilyn came home to find Peter passed out on his bed with an open pill bottle on his nightstand. We got lucky . . . the bottle wasn't full and he hadn't taken enough, but it was still touch and go for a while. At first he was in a mental hospital for several weeks because his suicide attempt had been a serious one and then he was released back home. During this time, we went into counseling as a family. According to the psychiatrist, his depression was reactive and wouldn't respond to medication. We had to help Peter accept himself as he was.
"It was then that we learned Peter was gay. He'd been dealing with it already for quite a while but then apparently some kid in the locker room caught Peter checking him out and decided to make a big deal of it. Rather than laughing it off, Peter panicked, effectively outing himself. By the next day, it was all over the school. The taunts were merciless and he couldn't take it. As far as he was concerned, his life was over.
"It was then that we moved into the neighborhood. Changing schools gave Peter a fresh start . . . a clean slate. Back in the seventies, there was no such thing as an 'out' teenager. If you wanted to survive high school, you needed to stay hidden in the closet at least 'til you went away to college. We came so close to losing him and we weren't going to take a chance on it happening again. We also gave him our unconditional support, and love."
Peter's story reminded me so much of what happened with Stephen during his teens and so I filled Larry in on our own bit of family drama from the past.
"It's amazing how many parallels there are between the two teenagers," Larry commented when I'd finished. "And his marriage failed under less than amicable terms and he never remarried. Did you ever think that Stephen might be gay?"
Honestly, the thought had never crossed my mind but I could see where Larry drew his conclusion, even though I knew better. "He's not, I answered. I can understand why you got that impression but he was always girl-crazy."
"That doesn't necessarily prove he was straight," Larry countered. "He could have been trying to cover the truth, or trying to convince himself he was normal like so many gay boys do.
"Peter and Stephen knew each other, didn't they?" Larry asked.
"Yes, but only for five or six months," I answered. "You guys moved into the neighborhood in the spring of Stephen's senior year in high school. Peter was only a sophomore, but they did get to be friends in spite of the age difference. Then Stephen left for college in the fall."
"I wonder if the boys became more than friends," Larry suggested.
"Believe me, I would have known if Stephen was gay," I replied.
We thought we knew Peter was straight," Larry pointed out. "Anyway, when confronted with my son's sexuality, it got me to thinking and I realized that I was just like him as a youth but that I'd suppressed my feelings and forced myself to date women. I'd been having sex with fantasies in my mind for so long, that I no longer even realized I was doing it, until I thought about it. Peter's coming out made me realize that what I saw going on in him, was what was going on in me. I too was gay.
"It took me another five years to get up the courage to come out to Marilyn . . ."
"You told your wife you were gay?"
"I should have done it in the first place," Larry admitted, "but I was in denial and I was chicken. When I finally did tell her, she told me that she'd long suspected it. We still loved each other very much and agreed we wouldn't even think of divorce until the kids were all out of the house, if even then. But then she got sick and I wasn't about to let her go through something like that alone."
"So where does that leave you now?" I asked.
"Believe me, I'd love to find the 'perfect' man with whom to spend the rest of my life but, realistically, it ain't gonna happen. I tried 'matchmaker.com' but the only men who responded were in their eighties and even nineties. Let's face it, the demographics are against a gay man finding a mate at this stage in my life. Not only are there ten times as many women as men but the incredibly few gay men our age are also facing the onslaught of widows. I'm sure many of them give up and marry a woman, just for companionship, but I'm not about to do it. I already lived a lie for more than twenty years and I'm not going to do it again."
Larry sure told an interesting story and it gave me a lot to think about. For one thing, was my son gay? It certainly would explain a lot of things. I didn't think he was but was I just in denial? Secondly, where did I want my relationship with Larry to go from here? Before I knew he was gay, he had become my best friend. After much thought, I decided I wasn't about to turn my back on him just because he might possibly be sexually attracted to me.
We resumed getting together on a regular basis, usually two or three times a week and sometimes even more often. It eventually got to the point that we were having dinner together most nights and even went to see most movies together. Although the thought of being next to him in a dark theater had me worried at first, I quickly got over it.
By the time it had been six months since Betty's passing, Larry and I were inseparable. Whenever I was with him, I felt happy and content. If a day went by that I didn't see him, I felt depressed. It began to dawn on me that I loved Larry but as a friend, or maybe as a brother. But then I noticed one evening when we were sitting next to each other on his sofa watching something on television that he had his arm around my shoulders and mine was around his. We were making body contact from our knees to our shoulders and I was hard - hard as a rock.
Turning to look at him - at his face - I noticed just how handsome he was, and how sexy. Then something clicked in my head and it all came back to me . . . the torment I felt as a youth, the unwanted feelings and the hours spent looking at playboy magazines, trying to convince myself that I wanted girls. I guess it had worked to an extent but mostly I had repressed all those feelings and even the memories of what I'd gone through and so I started to cry.
"What's wrong, Jack," Larry asked with obvious concern in his voice. I lost control - overcome by my emotions. Before I even realized what was happening, my eyes closed, my head tilted and I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his.
As the kiss deepened, I came to appreciate how different kissing a man was from kissing a woman. Women didn't have a beard scratching at my face. Women were soft, compliant and for the most part, passive. Larry was anything but passive and he was hard where a woman was soft. Yeah, he was hard down there, too, and so was I!
When our mouths opened and our tongues became involved, I nearly lost it. I felt like ripping Larry's clothes off right then and there but pulled back in my mind just enough to realize it would probably be better to wait.
When we finally came up for air, I said, "Larry, I love you. I love you every bit as much as I loved Betty and even more. I've also realized something. My youth was much more like yours than I'd realized but I suppressed my memories and emotions. I'm every bit as gay as you are."
"I love you too, Jack," Larry replied. "I've loved you since the day I met you in the grocery store. I love you so much it hurts. It's been so difficult, hiding my love from you, thinking you were straight and unobtainable. You can't imagine how happy you've made me. I love you and I want to spend the rest of our days together."
We both started crying again and then our lips came back together for a long, long kiss.
Although we did manage to keep our clothes on that night, we didn't the next night, nor the night after that, nor the one after that. From then on, we pretty much spent the night together at one house or the other, in one bed or the other. Gay sex came so naturally and it was nothing like what I did with Betty. I felt so alive!
After a couple of months of this, Larry brought up the issue of consolidation. He was right - I had no intention of ever being apart from him again, so it really didn't make sense to keep two separate houses, particularly when they were across the street from each other. We both agreed that his was a much nicer house and so it only made sense to sell mine but moving in with Larry would be a big deal. I knew there was no way I would ever go back to playing the straight role but in moving in with Larry, the whole world would know. There truly would be no going back. The scariest part was that we'd have to tell our children and that had me scared shitless.
We were going to do it, though, and sooner rather than later. I loved Larry more than life itself.
Because Marcie was the only one of our children who still lived in town, I decided to meet with her first. I called her up and told her I wanted to have lunch with her, just to catch up on things and to give her some important news but I didn't give her an inkling of what it was. I was sure she probably thought I was going to announce I was getting married, which wasn't far from the truth, but I doubt she had this in mind.
I took her to one of the finest restaurants in town and after we were seated, we started catching up on all that was going on in our lives - particular in her life and with my grandchildren. As soon as the salads arrived, however, she looked at me with her piercing eyes and said, "All right, Dad. What's this about?"
"Well, I've met someone . . ."
"I knew it! Who is she? Is it someone I know? When's the wedding?" she spewed out in a single breath.
Smiling, I said, "There isn't going to be a wedding, at least not until a lot of attitudes change, but it is someone you know and I'll be selling the house so we can live together."
"Wow!" Marcie said. "My father living in sin? That's a surprise."
"Oh, I think that will be the least of the surprises," I said with a laugh.
"So tell me already, who is she?"
"He is Larry Sandler from across the street."
"Oh my God!" she practically shrieked. "You're . . . you're . . ."
"Gay," I answered for her, and then I asked, "Does that bother you?"
"Don't be stupid . . . I grew up with a gay brother . . . OH SHIT!"
"So Larry was right," I said in surprise. "Stephen's gay?"
Rather than say anything more, Marcie simply nodded her head and then she finally asked, "Mr. Sandler knows Stephen's gay?"
"Actually, he sort of guessed it, based on the experiences he had with his own son."
"Oh my God! You mean Peter's gay?"
"Apparently so," I answered. "He went through many of the same problems Stephen did, even to the point of attempting suicide. He ended up outing himself to his school, which is why they ended up moving to our neighborhood."
"I can't believe the irony of Peter being gay," Marcie said. "I mean, Stephen had the biggest crush on Peter, but thought he couldn't possibly be gay. They were never more than friends."
"That is ironic," I admitted and then I asked, "So how long have you known Stephen's gay?"
"When he was not quite thirteen, I accidentally discovered his stash of catalog pages, all of boys in underwear. Of course, he was in denial back then, but there was no doubt about it. Then it became pretty obvious that he and Darryl were becoming more than best friends.
"I always felt so guilty about his suicide attempt. I knew what was going on and yet I was powerless to stop it. I just didn't think Stephen would try to take his own life."
"There really wasn't anything you could have done, Marcie," I tried to assure my daughter. "You were just a kid yourself.
"The thing I'd like to know is why Stephen never came to me with this," I wondered aloud. "Why didn't he tell me and why is he still keeping it a secret from me?"
"I tried and have been trying to get him to trust you but he was just so worried about you and how you'd take it. At first he didn't think you'd accept it and then there was all the Hell he put all of us through and he thought that this would be just one more source of stress on top of everything else, and then Mom got sick and he didn't want to be a disappointment to you."
"He would never have been a disappointment to me," I countered.
"But back in the early and mid '70s, would you have been able to accept it back then?"
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I replied, "No, I wouldn't have. I thought of it as a mental illness and would have tried to get him help. Look at how I'd already screwed up my life. It took Larry to make me realize that I'd been repressing my natural sexuality all these years.
"Did Mom know? About Stephen, that is?" I asked.
"She was the only other person who knew," Marcie admitted. "I think that's one of the things that made them so close and why he was so devastated by her passing."
"So what do you know about your brother now?" I asked. "Does he have a boyfriend or partner?"
"I know he's been with the same man continuously since Cindy left him. They share an apartment in The Village in New York City. Stephen's been using a business associate's home address for his contact with you, so that you wouldn't suspect anything.
"Although I've spoken to Stephen's partner on numerous occasions over the years, I've never actually met him, and Stephen's been terrible when it comes to sending me a picture of the two of them together like I've asked for at least a thousand times."
"Was his partner the reason Stephen and Cindy broke up?" I asked.
"I don't think so," Marcie replied. "Stephen insists he remained faithful and true to Cindy until the day she confronted him about his sexuality. However, being gay . . . yes, that was the reason for the divorce. She couldn't deal with it and she even kept her children away from him after that. I can imagine what their children think of him, which could make it difficult when you come out to them. At least Cindy and Stephen have started communicating again and the children actually seemed to by thrilled to see their father after all these years, so there's hope."
"Well, we'll find out soon enough," I said. "Larry and I are planning to visit New York in a few weeks. His son, Peter, lives there too, in The Village as a matter of fact. We're going to take in the sights and see a few shows . . . and gently break the news to our sons. From there, we'll fly to the West Coast and tell Larry's daughters the good news . . . at least we hope it'll be good news to them."
"It will be," Marcie insisted. "After all, just like me, they grew up with a gay brother."
I smiled at that.
"We're also stopping to see Cindy and the kids and break the news to them, too," I added.
"Good luck with that."
"Now, about Frank, Tom and Joel . . ." I began, "what do you think would be the best approach to telling them?"
Thinking for a few moments, Marcie answered, "I think it might be best if I tell them myself. Tom and Joel don't even know about Stephen being gay. I know they don't have a problem with gay people per se and they both have a gay friend but this'll still be a shock. Perhaps you can have the four of us over for dinner after you get back."
"That's an excellent idea," I agreed. "We'll have to plan on it."
It was a few weeks later that Larry and I headed east on a flight into Newark. We were staying at a place called the Washington Square Hotel, located right in Greenwich Village and adjacent to New York University, where Stephen taught. We'd have a full week in NYC and, staying where we were, plenty of opportunities to experience the gay side of The City. Not that I was ready to dress up in drag or anything - I was still the same old 'me' I'd always been - but now that I knew I was gay and had a partner and two gay sons, I had a lot of catching up to do.
The plan was that Larry and I would each take our sons out separately to lunch the day after we arrived and then we'd have the rest of the week for sightseeing on our own and, if things worked out, perhaps getting together with both of our sons and their partners. Little did we know how dramatically our plans would change once we arrived. After getting settled into the hotel, we decided to go out for dinner at a restaurant nearby, and then for a stroll in The Village.
We selected a cute little Italian 'restaurante' nearby and were seated in the outdoor section, right by the sidewalk. No sooner had we ordered our dinners than Larry suddenly got a shocked expression on his face and said, "Peter?" At the same time, I heard someone say "Dad?"
Turning around, it was my turn to be shocked when I saw my Stephen walking up to us, hand-in-hand with a middle-aged version of the boy who used to live across the street from us. "Dad?" said Stephen as he blushed furiously, coming to realize I'd seen him hand-in-hand with Peter. His secret was out. Little did he know that there were even more secrets to be revealed.
"Boys, why don't you join us?" Larry suggested. "We have a lot to talk about." I chuckled at Larry calling them 'boys'. Stephen was 49, which in all likelihood made Peter 47. "If you haven't eaten, you're welcome to join us for dinner . . . our treat. This place got great reviews on Yelp."
"Actually, we were just going to grab a bite, but we wouldn't want to put you out," Stephen said.
"Nonsense," I said. "We're here to see you."
As soon as they were seated at our table, Stephen started hyperventilating and said, "Dad, I know what you're probably thinking. Pete isn't the reason Cindy and I broke up. I was never unfaithful to her. You have to believe that. It's just that Cindy became suspicious and she asked me outright if I was gay. Dad, I couldn't lie.
"When she left me like that, I was so depressed but Pete and I already knew each other. I worked at NYU and he lived in The Village and worked nearby and we ran into each other all the time. We were friends back home and we became friends here in New York. He was the one who kept me going during those horrible days after Cindy left me and took the kids. I kind of suspected he was gay, with him living in The Village and all, and so I told him the reason why Cindy left."
"Plus you had a crush on him when you were kids," I added.
"What? How'd you know?" He asked, still hyperventilating.
"Calm down, son," I said. "It was Marcie who told me but before you get all defensive, that was right after she got a major shock. It was after I'd told her I'd fallen in love." I then extended my hand on top of the table toward Larry and he laced his fingers with mine as we turned and smiled at our sons. The looks on their faces were priceless. I looked at my son and said, "Don't get me wrong . . . I loved your mom with all my heart but my relationship with Betty was the same as yours with Cindy, only things were even worse when I was a kid and I was even more in denial than you were. I'm just grateful that Larry came into my life at a time I desperately needed someone to love and to love me. I'm happy . . . happier than I've ever been."
It was Peter who said, "Mr. Wolfe, or should I call you Jack, or maybe Dad? You were one of the nicest people I ever met in our neighborhood during my final years of high school. I can't think of a better 'husband' for my 'old man'." Then turning to Stephen, he said, "Steve, my dad's a great guy. As you know, he moved the whole family for my sake when I was outed in my first high school. No one could have been more supportive of their gay son than my dad was. He's a good, kind and very generous person. My dad will be a wonderful 'husband' to your 'old man'."
"Oh, I know they're perfect for each other," Stephen said, which made me smile. "I'm just still in shock is all. I'm finally out to my father, and he's out to me. Maybe someday we can all go to Connecticut and get married in a double father-son wedding. I wonder how many father-father, son-son couples there are out there."
"Not that many I'm sure," I replied with a chuckle. "I'm just glad we're one such pair."
Motioning for the server to come take our sons' orders, I couldn't help but reflect on how amazing my life was right then. Maybe the saying's true. Maybe life really does begin at seventy.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of David of Hope in editing this story and Alastair in proofreading it, as well as the support of Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Nifty for hosting it. This story was written as part of the 2010 GA Fall Anthology.