In the morning after I awoke, I laid in bed for some time. I was worried about Stacy, how I would tell her, how she would react. I played the scene many times in my mind, but each time I became less sure of how it would turn out.
I got up and padded into the kitchen, looking for coffee. My brother was sitting at the table reading the paper; our parents were both at work.
"Hey, bro," he greeted me cheerily, "how about some coffee?" His tone and breezy manner suggested that he was completely at ease with our conversation from the night before. After almost twenty years, I really liked having a brother.
"Perfect," I said, scratching my head and yawning. "How long have you been up?" It was nearly ten, a bright sunny winter morning. The glare on the snow was blinding. I was still squinting as I sat down with cup in hand.
"Few hours," he said. "I don't sleep in anymore."
"All right, who are you and what have you done with my brother?" The Dave I knew rarely was up before eleven. He used to joke about being up at the crack of noon.
"I think the steroid abuse fucked up my circadian rhythms."
At twenty-one, he already had a slight paunch; he worked out about as often as a cat takes a bath.
"I thought you were bulked up a little from the last time I saw you," I told him.
"Yeah, well, you know, ya gotta stay in shape. When's Stacy getting home?" he asked, abruptly switching subjects.
"Tomorrow," I said.
"Why are you nervous?"
"I don't know," he said. "I guess I'm nervous for you. I don't want her to react badly, but I'm afraid she might."
"If she does, she does. I'll handle it either way."
"Yeah, I suppose...it's just that...oh, man...I don't know..."
"What else is bugging you? You're acting oddly, even for you."
He looked at me a moment and finally blurted, "Well, I like her a lot and I want to continue to...think highly of her."
"How much is `a lot'?" I asked.
He looked slightly embarrassed. "I've sort of had a crush on her since high school."
"You've been in love with my girlfriend for three years?"
"I didn't say, `love,' and it's closer to five, actually."
"Doesn't your religion have some kind of proscription against coveting your brother's keeper?" I needled him, mangling a commandment and Cain and Abel. He was a practicing Catholic in a family of lapsed ones.
"Something like that. And anyway, I never coveted her. I just sort of...intensely wanted something bad to happen to you so Stacy and I could comfort each other."
We stared at one another for a few seconds before breaking into laughter.
"You bastard. You're the one to blame for this."
"No, no, I swear." He was still laughing. "I was thinking along the lines of an accident that left you in a coma for six months. You always got better."
"Just in time to stand up for you in your and Stacy's wedding?"
"Well, I always gave her a lot of comfort. It's not like we meant to fall in love."
"I can't believe this. I'm in a coma for six months and my brother steals my girlfriend. Now that I'm awake, I'm no longer speaking to you."
"Yeah, but now it's got a happy ending. While you were in the coma you realized that you were gay, and when you woke up you didn't know how to tell Stacy. Think of all the trouble I saved you."
"You've got a point there," I said. "All right, I guess I'm talking to you again."
"That's a relief. Did you have any plans for today?" he asked. I shook my head. "Good, go get dressed and let's go shopping for mom and dad's Christmas presents."
"Great idea," I said.
Half an hour later we were on our way. The malls were all crowded, and this late in the season people were having trouble faking the holiday cheer. We shopped for about three hours and then had some lunch. We still beat our parents home from work and we decided to surprise them by cooking dinner.
It was an amazingly restorative day. My brother and I seemed to find a new-forged friendship in the place where I thought we would find further estrangement. Even my parents seemed to notice a change, as I caught my father regarding us thoughtfully a few times, and my mother smiling contentedly at the two of us as if she finally saw something she had been expecting for a long time.
I went to bed that night reflecting on how life so often provides us with what we need, if not always with what we want. I wanted support from Rich; I expected distance from Dave. Instead, I got the opposite. `What should I expect from Stacy?' I wondered. If my experiences with Dave and Rich had taught me anything, it was to forget about expectations. And anyway, Stacy was a wildcard. There was no anticipating her reaction. Besides, all my questions were about to be rendered meaningless: tomorrow I would have the answers.
I tossed for a while, finally falling asleep when my mind agreed to shut down long after my body had begged for it. It was not a restful night's sleep; I was plagued by strange dreams and nightmares filled with desolation and loneliness. I awoke in the morning feeling as if I had not slept.
* * *
My day hadn't gone much better; I was as jittery as the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. By the time I was supposed to go to Stacy's house, my nervousness was threatening to make me physically ill. At the same time I was feeling sick, a part of me was fascinated at the degree to which mental concerns can manifest themselves physically. I also knew that once I got the thing over with, my symptoms would disappear.
The trouble was, I was going to her house for Christmas Eve dinner with her family. I had more suffering ahead of me; the kind that would make what would be, in the best of circumstances, an interminable evening even more unbearable.
To my mind, Stacy's parents were right-wing fanatics; that is, they were conservative Republicans. They were the kind of people who spoke of the need for a return to `good Christian values,' and yet Mr. Kurtz was the kind of starched-shirt who could tell a beggar that he had already made a contribution to all indigents' welfare through his taxes, and mean it. I tried not to despise them, but his supercilious condescension and her mindlessly cheerful Stepford-wife acquiescence to his attitudes made it difficult; that, coupled with the fact that Stacy once told me her father felt I was `beneath' her. I wondered if he had any idea how many times I had been.
Stacy and I had spoken by phone late in the afternoon when she got home. I arrived at their house promptly at six, so we could spend a little time together before joining the family. I debated telling her immediately, before dinner, and then just leaving, but in my confused state of mind I had decided that I didn't want to ruin her Christmas completely. Maybe I thought that I should suffer a little before I made her suffer, I don't know. In the immediate aftermath of what was to happen, I wished I had taken what I then considered to be the coward's way out and talked to her before I was supposed to go to her house for dinner. The years have added a certain luster to that night, though, and since my friends today often make me retell the story at cocktail parties, I have come to realize that we really must do some things for posterity (or least for a story to tell when the subject of youthful follies comes up).
I walked up the drive to their house expecting Stacy to come bounding out the door. Instead, before I could knock, Stacy's father yanked the door open.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't our nation's answer to the question of the next generation," he said, smiling like a jackal. "And how's the young bleeding-heart?"
"Fine, sir," I said, shaking his hand. "How's the old Nazi?"
He laughed long and hard to prove what a marvelous sense of humor he had. His wife was standing behind him in the hallway. It occurred to me that she was always behind him, figuratively and literally.
"Hello, Richard, dear," she said. She wore her most pleasant, unctuous smile.
"Hello, Mrs. Kurtz. Happy Christmas to you." And please, you empty-headed troll, by all means call me `Richard' even though I know Stacy has told you how much I hate it.
"Stacy's just upstairs refreshing from her trip, she'll be ready to receive you shortly," her mother said.
I almost laughed. Any number of vulgar double entendres about her `receiving' me played through my head. Who the fuck talked that way? `Receive you.' Please. "Thank you," was all that I said.
"Come and join me in the study for a drink. I'm assuming college boys still drink?" Her father winked at me, his smile wolfish. I had smelled the alcohol on his breath when I shook his hand. His condescending asshole-ishness got worse when he was drinking.
"Surprisingly, we still do. Even after you college boys graduated and went on to change the laws making it illegal," I said, smiling broadly.
Again, the loud laughter. We were just a couple of regular buds, Stacy's dad and I.
"C'mon, then. We'll have a little Christmas cheer and chat while Mrs. Cratchet puts the finishing touches on the Christmas goose." Jesus, what a shining literary sense of humor.
I followed him into his den like a condemned man walking into the chamber.
"What's your poison?" he asked. "I mean other than brewskies, I'm all out."
`Brewskies.' Man, was he hip. "I don't drink beer," I lied. "Whatever single malt you're pouring these days will be fine. Neat," I added.
"Do you have a favorite?" he asked with a thin smile.
"`Royal Lochnagar' is my favorite, but other than some of the real peaty, outer-isle malts, I pretty much like them all."
"Is this the part where I'm supposed to be impressed with your mature-beyond-your-years sophistication?" he asked, his thin smile now overtly unfriendly.
"No, it's the part where you pour me a drink and ask me about my intentions toward your daughter, all the while thinking that the only way I'll ever be your son-in-law is if I marry your daughter standing over your prostrate corpse."
His smile gone, he stared at me for a moment, then turned and poured our drinks. Handing me one glass, he absently clinked it with his own, saying quietly, "You think you're pretty smart, don't you?"
Of all the asinine, irritating questions to ask someone, that one ranked high on my list. I said, "As Socrates did, I consider intelligence a function of a man knowing how much there is that he doesn't know. So, in answer to your question, I think I'm fairly intelligent because I have an inkling of how much there is that I don't know."
"You just have all the answers, don't you?" He seemed genuinely irritated now, so the fact that he asked me another asinine question didn't even bother me.
"No," I said, "like most young people, I have all the questions. It takes someone of your stature to have all the answers."
"Yeah, I guess so. You're a smug little bastard, aren't you? But then, I was a Democrat when I was your age, you know," he added, apropos of nothing.
"So was Roosevelt. What's your point?"
Now he was getting very angry and I was really starting to enjoy myself. "My point," he said, icily, between clenched teeth, "is that my daughter is only interested in you right now for what you're not: you're not like her father, not like anyone in her family, not like anyone in her social circle. She'll grow tired of you, though, and marry someone like us."
"Someone like you, you mean. I hope you remember how badly things turned out for Oedipus. Is Mrs. Kurtz anything like your mother?"
His face red, he slammed down his drink and said, "You are an impertinent...fucking smart-ass, and you are no longer welcome in our home."
I stood up. "I was never welcome in your home," I said, "and when you find out that I'm gay, I'm sure you'll think with that self-satisfied smirk of yours that you knew all along that there was something wrong with me."
He stared at me for at least five seconds, and then started sputtering, "That you're...find out...when I...what?"
"You heard me. I'm gay."
He crossed swiftly and stiffly to the study doors and opened them. I had a momentary panic attack that he was going for some kind of weapon. "Bonnie!" he yelled, "Bonnie, get in here!"
In a few seconds, his wife came scurrying into the room. Looking at his face, she became quietly alarmed. "What is it?" she asked timorously.
"Repeat what you just said," he demanded.
I looked at Mrs. Kurtz's pallid face and said, "I just told your husband that I'm gay."
She looked at me blankly, then back to her husband, confusedly. She looked back and forth between us at least three times and then her face brightened, in on the joke. "Of course you are, Richard, dear...it's Christmas!"
"No, you idiot," he snarled, "he's saying he's queer!"
She sat down on the couch, looking very much like someone had just punched her in the stomach. "Well, no," she said to the floor, "that can't...I mean...how could?...no...I just..." she trailed off, pathetically. She looked up at me, lachrymose, and said, "Oh, Rich."
Although I didn't want her pity, it moved me in spite of myself. "It's all right, Mrs. Kurtz, it'll be okay," I told her.
She smiled wanly and said nothing.
Stacy chose that moment to come bursting through the doorway. "Hi, Swee..." she started, then took in the faces in the room and stopped short. "What's wrong?" she asked quietly, expecting I'm sure, that someone had died.
"Your so-called boyfriend's a goddamned queer, that's what's wrong!" her father shouted.
"What are you talking about?" she snapped at him, then turning to me, "What the fuck is he talking about?"
Stacy had never sworn in front of her parents, for which I teased her about being repressed. This whole deal is going to be good for everyone, I thought, perversely.
"You and I need to talk," I told her.
"No you don't!" her father screamed. "You are never to talk to my daughter again! You are a goddamn degenerate, and will burn in hell for your sins!"
"If I do, I can stand on your shoulders to look out the window," I told him. "Stacy, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen like this. Why don't we take a drive so we can talk."
Her father was near apoplectic. "You are not taking my daughter anywhere, you..."
"Shut up, Daddy!" she yelled back at him.
I waved the back of my hand towards his face. "I've been fucking her for two years, I owe her an explanation," I said, reasonably.
His face turned a frightening purple hue, and he launched himself at me, shrieking, "I'll kill you, you fucking faggot, I'll kill you!"
Thank god for youthful reflexes; I stepped aside a split-second before he reached me. He crashed into the door and sat down hard on the floor, holding his head. His wife had not moved a muscle, and continued sitting on the couch, weeping quietly. She twitched slightly when he smashed into the door, but remained on the couch. `Good for you,' I thought.
Mr. Kurtz sat on the floor holding his forehead. "Get out! Both of you, get out!"
He seemed to have transferred some of his anger to his daughter. Probably because she had told him to shut up, or maybe for dating a homosexual in the first place, and bringing him into their idyllic home.
I stepped over his outstretched legs and turned to survey the damage I had wreaked. His wife was sitting, catatonic, staring at the floor. He was holding his head, moaning softly. I glanced at Stacy, who was already on the far side of the next room, looking at me as if I was a ghost.
"Well," I said, turning back towards the den, "if I don't see you, have a happy New Year. Thanks for the drink."
"Out!" he managed to croak feebly.
Stacy was already in my car when I walked outside. She sat in the passenger side, staring straight ahead. I got in the driver's side and before I put the key into the ignition, I started to say something.
"Drive," she said, still staring straight out the windshield.
"But, Stacy, I just..."
"Drive," she repeated, more forcefully. Then, "Are you really gay?"
"Yes. I wanted..."
"Drive," she said again.
Fair enough, I thought, I at least owe her as much as to dictate the terms of the discussion. We drove in silence for a few minutes.
"Why would you tell my parents before me?" she asked. "What possessed you to even tell my parents at all?"
"Good question," I said. "Your father was starting to go down the `you're not good enough for my daughter' path and I just got pissed. I've been under a lot of stress lately, and I guess I kind of snapped. It wasn't intentional, or pre-planned, or anything. It just sort of came out."
More silence, then, "Man, he really smacked his head."
"Good thing for me," I said. "I think he might have killed me."
She actually giggled. "Yeah, you had him pretty fired up. I can't believe you said that about fucking me for two years. I don't think he'll ever get over that. Even when I tell him you were lying."
"I guess I should make other plans for dinner tonight, huh?"
"Nah, I'm sure this will have blown over by the time we get back," she deadpanned.
"You don't seem quite as upset as I was expecting," I ventured.
"I'm still in shock." A long pause, then, "Are you sleeping with your suitemate?"
"No, I'm not sleeping with my suitemate," I said, snidely. "I'm not sleeping with anyone."
"Is he gay?"
"Who?" I asked. "Rich? No, he's not gay. Do you want me to set you guys up?"
"I knew it," she said. "You were jealous of us."
"A little," I confessed. But not how you think, I thought.
"Why were you jealous, because I was flirting with him or because he was flirting with me?"
Very perceptive, I thought. I let it pass. We drove for a while in silence again. She started sniffling softly.
"So, how long have you known?" she asked, echoing one of my brother's questions.
"I've known since I decided a couple of weeks ago that I wasn't happy in our relationship. Since no straight man in his right mind wouldn't want to be with you, I had to do a little soul-searching to find out what it was that was making me unhappy. The truth of it hit me when I realized I had feelings for...a guy in one of my classes with whom I spend a lot of time studying." I don't know why I didn't want to tell her it was Rich, but it was as stupid as it was transparent.
She looked at me for a moment. "You're trying to tell me it's not Rich you have feelings for? Please, it was obvious to me when I left that there was more than friendship between you two."
"Nothing has ever happened between us, I'll swear that to you."
"I'm not saying that. It's the way you look at each other. I even remember having a fleeting thought along the lines of, `I remember when he used to look at me like that.' I put it out of my head immediately, of course, but I should know to trust my intuition by now."
`The way you look at each other?' I was intrigued by the notion that she thought Rich looked at me that way, too. Could her intuition be right twice? I refused even to consider the possibility, since I had felt such crushing rejection when it seemed he didn't even care to say goodbye to me. "All right, I admit that it's my feelings for Rich that made me realize I'm gay. But you're dead wrong if you think that he looks at me the way I look at him. Trust me, I've seen him in action with women."
"You're not exactly a slouch with the women yourself, you idiot. Aren't you proof enough to yourself that it doesn't necessarily mean anything?"
She was starting to get my hopes up, which was the last thing I needed. Or maybe she was just setting me up for a fall? A little payback? Stacy wasn't like that, I told myself. Then again, hell hath no fury...
"I don't think so. About Rich, I mean."
"So you two haven't even talked?"
"About this? Absolutely not. What the fuck am I supposed to say, `Hey, Jeff, buddy, the weirdest thing just occurred to me, I'm gay and in love with you. Wanna order a pizza?' He's my friend, Stacy. I don't want to ruin our friendship."
"Like you're ruining ours?" she asked, quietly.
I got angry. "That's not fair, and you know it. I have to tell you, because trying to live a lie with you would be unfair to both of us. Living a lie with Rich is only unfair to me."
She relented immediately. "You're right. But you have to allow me a little bitterness. I was planning on riding into the sunset with you."
That touched me unexpectedly. I started to cry. "Stacy, I am so sorry for hurting you. I just never knew, and I..."
"Oh, stop crying." She looked at me with a half-smile playing at her lips. "You little faggot," she added, sweetly.
We both laughed. God, I really did love her...like a sister. She seemed to be reading my thoughts.
"This could be kind of cool, actually," she said. "It's getting really chic for a woman to have a gay man for a best friend. Maybe they don't usually start out as boyfriend-girlfriend, but that probably just makes it even more hip. You just better not get jealous when I start telling you about my love life."
"I won't," I promised.
"I do have to ask you about one thing, though."
"Anything," I said.
"Well, our sex life," she started. "I mean, it never seemed to be lacking anything. Or was I just always selfish?"
"Not at all," I told her. "You're an awesome lover."
"But how could...I mean, how do you know...?"
"As enjoyable as our sex life was, it was never...I don't know, complete, I guess. It's kind of like being hungry and not quite knowing what you're hungry for. So you eat something, and you go, `Well, that wasn't it,' but you're not hungry anymore, even though you're not completely satisfied. Sex with a woman is like that to me. I just never knew what I was hungry for."
"I find that description somehow grotesquely fascinating, and absolutely illuminating. The next time I sleep with a man I'm going to ask him, when we're done, if he's completely satisfied or would he like something else to eat?"
I laughed hard at that. "Oh, god, promise me you will."
"I will," she said. "Now take me home. I have to go administer CPR to both my parents, thanks to you."
"You probably won't believe me, but I feel bad about what happened," I told her.
"You're right, I don't believe you," she said.
I drove her back, and she actually made me drop her off at the end of her street. She was afraid her father would be waiting for us with his shotgun in his hands. I half-believed he might. We said goodbye, and hugged each other for a long time. She told me that she would call me when she got back to school, but that she wouldn't be able to talk to me for the rest of the break. I understood. She needed time, and she didn't need her lunatic father breathing down her neck for the next couple of weeks.
Before she got out of the car, I reached into the backseat and handed her a small wrapped present.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Your Christmas present," I told her.
She started to say something, then bit her tongue and opened her gift. It was a gold half-heart on a chain. I pulled down my shirt collar to reveal the other half. I had bought it for her shortly after we agreed to give our relationship another chance.
"That's so sweet," she murmured. Then she smiled. "I didn't get you anything, yet," she said, somewhat sheepishly.
"That's okay," I said. "As a matter of fact, it turns out to be pretty appropriate."
She kissed my cheek and got out of the car. She took two steps away, then turned and opened the door back up. She threw her present onto the front seat. "I want to hear about it when you find the person that belongs to."
"I mean it, goddamn it," she said, slamming the door.
She turned and walked briskly down the street, every heavy breath swirling around her head an evanescent, steamy corona. I watched her for a moment, then drove off. If I had known then how it would be the next time we saw each other again, I might have watched longer.