The Bench

    To Mike Cleaver's mother, he was the most handsome man in the world. Afterall, he was her son and she loved him; but the mirror told him  differently.  He was heavyset or what some would call stout. His confidence level was nonexistent, having tried everything to shed the weight but to no avail.  He had been to Weight Watchers, tried every new fad diet known to man, classes in behavior modification and joined gym after gym. At the age of forty-five he was grossly out of shape and still overweight. He had tried jogging and now wore orthopedic shoes that cost him over five hundred dollars a pair and his ankles and knee still ached in cold weather.

    To compound the felony, he didn't have a man in his life and hadn't had a serious date or been involved with anyone for as long as he could remember. His best friend, Tom Anderson was no help in affairs of the heart. Tom thought that sex, love and relationships were a waste of time and it was something that he had no interest in. At least Mike yearned for someone while Tom was content to sit at home with his cat and listen to opera CD's which numbered in the hundreds.

    Mike and Tom had breakfast every Saturday at the Flame, a Greek diner near Mike's apartment. To suggest to Tom that they might try eating someplace else would be an act of hierarchy. Tom was a creature of habit and change was something that he didn't handle well.

    "Any plans for the weekend?" Mike asked to make conversation knowing the answer but from Tom's demeanor he knew that  something was upsetting him.

    "Why are we sitting in the window seats," he complained in the whiny voice that grated on Mike's nerves early in the morning.  "You know how I hate the sun, it gets in my eyes and it plays havoc with my glaucoma. And why here? You know how I hate that waitress." He shook his head admonishingly. "Will you listen to that group taking at the next table?  It's only nine and who has that much energy this early in the morning. "

    "Get it out Tom. Did your cat take a dump or did he die?"

    "A lot you'd care if he did die," Tom said with sarcasm. "You're just ask hoping that I'll tell you he did. Thank God he's fine, but he hasn't gone to the bathroom in two days."

    "Is there ever a morning that you wake up feeling good about yourself and life?"

    "Why should I? I can't get the subscriptions to the opera's that I want and my schedule is fucked up but a lot you care." His watery blue eyes narrowed. "And look who's talking. Since when have you become Mr. Personality?"

    "Why do I bother?"

    "I tell you why you bother. You bother because if you look at us we are two of the saddest sacks that had the pleasure of inhabiting this earth. I'm a reject from a seminary and you want a man in your life and can't find one and together we are the oddest couple of friends."

    Tom had hit a nerve and Mike stared at his fruit salad. He was glad that the waitress had brought them coffee. Tom was right. Who wanted him?  Who wanted a man who tipped the scales at two sixty and he wasn't even six feet tall. His belly was round and he was large boned. He had robin blue eyes and brown hair that was graying at the temples. He thought about Liposuction but decided against it. He heard the laughter of two young guys who were evidently together and he wanted to be with someone to share his life with instead of Tom who complained about everything. But with all Tom's craziness, Mike knew that he was truly a friend and would be there for him if he was needed.

    "Is it so wrong that I want somebody in my life?" he stared at Tom who was smearing cream cheese over his bagel.

    "Your problem is that you hadn't faced it but I have. We're a couple of losers, lonely hearts  and the only difference is that I don't give a rat's ass but you do. Whether it's the medication that the doctor is giving me," he chewed on his bagel.  "Of which I am certain is going to kill me." He sipped his coffee. "And if it doesn't, it sure has killed whatever sex drive  I had which was nil to begin with. I have acne, glaucoma, gas that won't stop but thank God doesn't smell and now I can't walk since those hikes in the park that you take me on in your quest to lose a pound."  I joined  the seminary for peace and enlightenment and found guys thinking that they were on the meat rack in Fire Island. So when you ask if there's a morning when I feel good about myself, there isn't."

    They finished their breakfast and  they stood outside the Flame making plans for the evening. That would take an hour because Tom had hang-ups about food.

    "Not Thai, I hate it and don't you dare suggest that new Vietnamese that you discovered and like the family. No, Mexican because we ate it last week. And don't even think about Indian. I hate curry and those exotic spices that give me the runs for days.   I'm open for Greek, Italian or French."

    "You pick it. I'll leave it to you. My house for cocktails at seven."

    Mike bought a New York Times from the newsstand and talked with the young man who owned it and headed to Central Park leaving Tom who was going to the opera house to see if he could exchange tickets.

    The sun felt good on Mike's face. He looked up at the construction going up around him and wondered how the people were going to pay the rents of the apartment houses they were putting up. Store fronts were empty and he worried about the economy when he should really be worried about finding a date. As he entered the park, it changed his demeanor. Somehow he felt comfortable here.  It was alive with people out on a beautiful day, enjoying themselves.  He walked past the merry go round and stopped to watch young children as they happily rode on horses, their eyes big and wide as they passed by waving to their parents.  A balloon vender hawked his wares and kids stood in line to have their names imprinted on big colorful ones. Mike wondered if he was ever happy even as a kid. He walked past young people roller-skating and meandered towards his favorite spot. Flowers were in bloom and the park was a riot of colors. He walked down a narrow path, pass giant rocks that had been there since the Ice Age to the bench at the water's edge. The bench had been hewn out of a tree trunk. He liked to sit there for it was peaceful and quiet and he enjoyed watching the ducks that swam along the marshy reeds.

    Sitting on the bench was a man doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. He appeared to be in his fifties. He was wearing shorts. He spotted Mike.

    "Sit," he said. "There's room for two big guys," he said putting down his puzzle and smiled. He was heavyset with a round face and soft blue eyes. His gray hair was cut short and his legs were tanned and smooth. He was a handsome man with fine features. His belly protruded over his beltline. "Not many people know this spot," he said. "My name is John."

    "Hi, I'm Mike."

    "Well, Mike, sit and stay a spell. It's a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky although we do need the rain."

    They sat there looking at the lake and the kids fishing from the rocks. The stillness and the smell of honeysuckle filled the air.

    "Do you come here often?" Mike asked."

    "I use to come here a lot with my partner but he died and somehow I stopped coming. Today is the first time I've been here in ages. It hasn't changed and I'm glad I came."

    "I'm sorry Mike said. "Sorry about your friend."

    "Don't be sorry. I'm sorry to burden you on this glorious day. I didn't mean to."

    "How long has your partner been dead?" Mike was surprised that he was engaging John in conversation. It was so out of character for him. But John initiated the conversation and he did seem receptive.

    "Three years last month. He suffered at the end and that is now how it should be." He threw a roll that he hadn't eaten into the lake and the ducks came to feed. "I know I shouldn't do that but I know how they love to scavenge.  Are you married?"

    Mike laughed. "Do I look like I would be married?"

    "Why? Is there a look when somebody is married. I must check to see next time I talk to my neighbors or friends. "

    "I mean," he hesitated. "I'm gay." He blurted it out to a  complete stranger and was surprised at how easily it came out.

    "So, do you have a partner?  Is that the correct expression? It use to friend, lover, mate. Now it's Partner. I'm  so confused with names and handles. It's like countries that change their name every day. Siam is now Thailand and Russia." He shook his head and put his hands to his face. They have split into more countries with names that I can't pronounce let alone spell. What about groups? It use to be Orientals, now it's Asian.  Even the woman who takes care of my house reminded me that she is no longer black but  an African American. I'm getting to old. So, do you have a partner?"

    "I have no partner. Nobody in my life."

    "John looked at Mike closely. "Why not?"

    "Do you know anybody that wants a heavy guy that doesn't look like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise?"

    John had straight even teeth and his eyes were kind. There was a softness about him. He asked questions but they weren't to offend but to know.   "Why are you so hard on yourself?"

    Mike looked at John closely. "That's a good question and I haven't thought about it but it is deserving of an answer." He had known him all of twenty minutes and he was discussing his life history with him. "I would love to have somebody in my life but it hasn't worked out that way. I see myself getting older, set in my ways and wonder if it's too late for me. You had a partner, who you shared your life with. You know the pain of his death but you also experienced the joy of his love. I have never had that and I want it. I want to know what it's like to wake up next to someone, touch them while they sleep knowing that they are safe in my arms. I want to know what it feels to love someone with my whole being and that it is us and not just me. I do know what it is to come home to an empty apartment and that tomorrow will be more of the same emptiness."

    "Bravo," John clapped. "That was a beautiful speech which I'm sure comes right from the heart. I'm certain that you meant every word that you said."

    Mike's face reddened, his brown eyes flashed and felt himself beginning to get upset with this stranger who asked questions and was putting him down.

    "Can I be frank with you?"

    "Why not. You just put me down and I've told you that I was gay and I've never done that with somebody that I just met."

    "You're right. Every man and woman should have somebody in their life to love and we are no exceptions. But the reality of meeting and keeping someone is hard work. Relationships of any kind are difficult at best. They are like flowers and they must be tended to or they will wither and die."

    "So what are you getting at and what does all this have to do with me?"

    "Such impatience. What I'm saying is that platitudes are wonderful but action is what really counts. You, my friend have done nothing to help yourself." He smiled benevolently. "Don't mind an older man who talks. Listen for sometimes they do make sense. Feeling sorry for oneself is fine unless it gets in the way of your goads. It's wonderful to dream but in order to make those dreams a reality, you can't sit home watching TV and them bemoan the fact that you have no one."

    "So what are you suggesting?"

    "If you want money you have to work for it. If you want a man you have to go to places where they congregate.

    Mike looked perturbed. "What do you mean?"

    "It means just what it means. What kind of business are you in? If I get to personal tell me. I was in the printing business. I sold it and am enjoying the golden years.

     "I'm an accountant. I have my own business."

    "As an accountant, you know about debits and credits, pluses and minuses, Lifo and Fifo. But what have you done about finding a man? As a businessman, you promote yourself and your business. In the game of love, what have you done to market yourself? Nothing." He smiled. " What have you really done about searching for this mister right that you so desperately seek.  For someone who has waxed poetic, I bet you  sit home at home most nights and bemoan the fact that you have nobody?"

    John was so on point that Michael stood there with his mouth open. "You mean looking as in searching?"

    "Yes, looking in bars, on the web, in the street when you walk. They are out there waiting to be discovered but you have to look. You, my friend, are like the horses in the park that walk around with blinders on their eyes. So, if you say what you say you want, them you must do something about it. "

    "You're right but I have this thing about my weight and feel uncomfortable in bars where there are beautiful men with great bodies."

    "So don't go to those bars that cater to the young who wear no shirts and drink their beer from the bottle and dye their hair golden. Yes, there is nothing nicer then a beautiful body but that is not us and if we worked out forever it would never happen. We have fat genes but we also were given brains to make up for the loss in other department. Go to bars that cater to men that look like us. In certain societies avoirdupois is admired. It took the internet for some heavy men to realize that they were a sort after commodity. You my friend would do very well. You have a nice looking face and a nice smile when you laugh which I bet isn't often. There's a world of men that desire you."

    "Well, as of this morning, nobody has broken down my door."

     "You also have a sense of humor. I like that.  You're bright and have made me laugh. Something that I haven't done much of lately. One more person question."


    "Why kind of men do you like?"

     "A warm body."

    John laughed. "I'm glad that we met. I needed a laugh today and you have made me laugh. You look nice when you smile. You should do it more often."

    "Looks have never been important to me nor age. If I liked the person I would go to bed with them. I want to be with someone because he sees me for me. Do you understand?"

    "I do."

    "I'm not interested in movie stars or adonis's but a guy who will go the movies or a museum and to have dinner and yes, have sex with. It just hasn't happened for me. So I am frustrated and feel sorry for myself."

    "When Tony, my friend died, I didn't know how I could survive. I had lived so long with one man that I was like the ducks in the pond if they were out of the water. I retreated into a shell. I was angry and bitter. But the world didn't stop and neither could I.  so I went out and little by little I came out of the darkness. You're a nice looking man and don't sell yourself short."

    Mike was touched. "John, that was very kind of you to say."

    "Look Mike. You may see the glass as half empty and I see it as half full. We all look at things differently. I like heavy men so I see somebody sitting next to me that is attractive. Now if you were twenty five years old and looked like Brad or Tom I would just sit and do my puzzle and ignore them You, I am trying to promote."

    "Are you telling me that you find me attractive?"

    "I hope you're better with numbers then you are when someone is coming on to you or your clients are in serious trouble. I bet you lost many opportunities because you weren't aware of men propositioning you?"

    You're interested in me?" He once again looked at John. This time with a renewed interest.

    "Yes, I think that you're a very nice looking. I like men with meat on their bones. You happen to be padded the way that I like them. You do understand that?"

    "John, I have always been insecure about my weight and how I looked. Now a man I just met tells me that I'm attractive. I would hug and kiss you here if there weren't people around. You have made my day, month and year." He began to blush.

    "You're as red as the beets in the borsht that I make. Do you like borsht?"

    "Cold or hot but with pirogue."

    "I knew that I liked you."

    "Do you like plotshy?"

    John smiled. "Nobody makes them better then me. With apple sauce and sour cream.  Mike, would you like to come to my apartment. We could have some coffee and talk and then who knows."

    "I would love some."

    "Then what are we waiting for."