Absolute Convergence: Tahoe Shores
By John Yager
This is the fourth of five chapters of a new Absolute Convergence sequel.
While this story is being added to the existing Absolute Convergence file, it constitutes a self-contained narrative. I've given this sequel the subtitle Tahoe Shores for reasons which will become clear as the story unfolds. While it will be helpful for readers to know the original Absolute Convergence series, in which all the principal characters were introduced, this story should be enjoyable as an independent story.
Absolute Convergence made its first appearance in January, 2001 as a series which eventually ran to a total of eighty chapters, the last of which was posted in January, 2004. I never anticipated the series continuing for so long and I am still amazed by the incredible loyalty of readers who stayed with it, or with me, from the beginning.
I am also appreciative of those newer readers who have contacted me from time to time to say that they've discovered the series and worked their way through the collected chapters.
I'm always glad to receive comments, questions, criticism and encouragement and hope to continue hearing from you. I try to answer all messages promptly. If I'm slow at times it's only because of the pressures of work.
Andrew continues to give me much needed proofing and editorial help for which I am sincerely grateful.
The author holds exclusive copyright (© 2006) to this story. It may not be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author. It is placed in the Nifty Archive under the terms of their submission agreement but it may not be copied or archived on other site or in any form without the written permission of the author.
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The life William and I led in LA, with occasional trips to London and frequent weekends at Lake Tahoe went on at its own rhythm during the early 1990s.
We were surrounded by a close circle of friends and professional associates who were, by and large, gay or gay friendly. We felt insolated from the large world, knowing that we were very fortunate, but also aware that the plight of gay and lesbian people was not nearly as good elsewhere as it was for us in the rather insular world of LA, Hollywood and the film industry.
We were also so busy with our individual careers that we had little time to worry about much beyond that rather small and rather unique world. What time we had after long hours of work we chose to spend together. Our private life was relaxed and easy. We were at ease with ourselves, with each other and with those around us.
On a trip to see my mother in Mississippi in April of 1993, I came upon the reality of gay life in areas other than the open society of Hollywood, and the environment in which a majority of gay people were forced to live. William was in England on Starmark business and had not made the trip with me. Growing up in the South in the 1950s and 60s, I had a frame of reference William lacked. I knew that there were deep currents of prejudice which were less visible by the 90s, but still there. Racial prejudice was still a reality but there was part of a deeper and more dangerous fear, a fear of anything which was seen as different, and therefore threatening to traditional values and culture.
On Thursday, my second evening back in Spring River, I took my mother to Claudes', a new restaurant which had opened since my last trip home. It was quite nice, in an old 19th century house, which faced the levy. It had been converted to seat people at a dozen tables scattered through what had obviously been the living room, formal dining room and library. It was more formal than anything else in town, with a menu which looked like those you'd see in Natchez or even New Orleans. I was surprised to see they even offered a fairly respectable wine list. We had an excellent meal, a mix of Cajun and traditional Mississippi Delta cooking.
As we were finishing a rich gooseberry and cream desert the man who'd waited on us came back to our table with a little plate of handmade chocolates to round off the meal.
"I'm Claude Rice," he said, introducing himself. When I said I was Robert Ballinger and extended my hand, he shook it, smiled and said, "Yes, I know. I think you must be Spring River's most famous son."
"Really?" I responded, looking from him to my mother, who was smiling broadly at his kind words.
"Yes, and I'm really honored that you'd try our restaurant."
"The meal was wonderful," I assured him. "You can count on our return business the next time I'm back in town."
"I hope we're still here," he said, the smile disappearing from his strikingly angular face.
"You aren't doing all that well?" I asked.
"Starting a restaurant is always risky," he went on. "Trying one like this in a town the size of Spring River isn't easy. We gave ourselves a year and will just have to seen if we can keep it going longer."
"My partner, Claude Jefferson and I."
"Ah, that would account for the punctuation," I said.
"Yes, plural possessive."
"If you have a moment I'd like to introduce you."
"Certainly," I agreed as he refilled our coffee cups.
A moment later he was back with a second man. Both men seemed to be in their early thirties, near twins so far as height and weight were concerned, other than the obvious fact that Rice was white and Jefferson black. They were both strikingly handsome.
"We met at culinary school in Phoenix," Rice said. Jeff is from New Orleans and I grew up here in Spring River, so our mutual love of southern cooking was just one more thing that drew us together."
"How long have you been a couple?" my mother asked.
"Almost four years," Jefferson said with a broad smile.
"How nice," mom responded. Jefferson's smile was contagious.
"So you do the cooking?" I asked him.
"We trade off."
"Usually each of us cooks one night a week and we both jump in on Friday and Saturday. We have additional wait staff on the busiest evenings. On Sundays we do a brunch buffet so a lot of the work can be done in advance."
"A workable schedule," I responded.
"Yes," it gives us Monday and Tuesday to rest up and scour the area for interesting edibles."
"Like the wonderful gooseberries we had in the desert?" mom asked.
"Oh, you liked that?" Jefferson beamed.
"Amazing," I said. "I never had anything like it."
"Our own invention," Rice smiled. "We try to do a lot of original things."
"Apart from the restaurant, how is life here for a gay couple?" I asked.
"A gay interracial couple," Jefferson added.
"Okay so far, but we tend to keep to ourselves. There isn't a real gay community here."
"But we get back to New Orleans ever few weeks. My family still lives there so we see them and hit a few of our favorite places in the Quarter."
"Any interest in moving your operation there?" I asked.
"If we can't make a go of it here we will probably head for the west coast, but the competition in larger cities can be intimidating," Rice said.
"Yeah," Jefferson agreed, again giving us one of his wonderful smiles, "here we have a corner on high quality food."
"And on multiracial gay relationships," I grinned.
"Openly admitted multiracial gay relationships, anyway," Rice agreed.
"You'd be surprised what goes on here," Jefferson laughed, looking for a moment at my mother, as if thinking perhaps he was being too brazen for her delicate ears.
"Oh, don't worry about me," she laughed. "I've heard it all in my lifetime."
"Well, enough said," Jefferson conceded. "There are a lot of relationships which go on in secret but are never publicly acknowledged. You'd be surprised how many married white men have gay boyfriends on the side."
"I'd not be surprised at all," mom said. "Such relationships, both same-sex and . . . "
"Straight?" I suggested.
"Heterosexual AND homosexual relationships outside of marriage," she continued, "have been a part of southern culture for as long as anyone can remember. It's as if no one really cares as long as things are done discreetly."
"That's not just true in the south, Mrs. Ballenger," Rice put in. "I've spent a lot of time in other parts of the country and never ceased to be amazed at what goes on."
Our conversation ended soon after those remarks when my mother reminded me that it was well past her bedtime.
"It was a lovely meal," she said as we said goodbye to the two Claudes. "I will insist Rob bring me back again the next time he visits."
When mom and I returned to her house the little red light on the phone message machine I'd given her a year or so before was blinking. "That's probably for you," my mother said, gesturing toward the gadget. I picked up the receiver and pressed replay. The voice which I heard took me totally by surprise.
"Hey, Rob," the male speaker said, "I called my folks and they told me you were there. Is there any chance we could get together? If you are free we can arrange to drive down on Saturday. Deb would love to see you and I really want you to see the kids. You won't believe how big they've gotten. Deb needs to spend some time with her mom and maybe you and I could have some time alone, just to talk."
There was no need for Rick Carlson to identify himself.
My head was spinning when the machine kicked over to the second message, which was from William. "Hi, lover," he began, "I hope all is well. Give me a ring when you can."
My mother called down from the upstairs landing to thank me again for a lovely evening and to say she was off to bed.
"Good night, mom," I called back. "I need to return these calls. I'll see you in the morning." I went into the kitchen and used the phone there, wanting a bit more privacy than the hall phone provided.
William answered on the third ring. "Hi, love," I said, my heart leaping at the sound of his voice, even from five thousand miles away. We talked for a few minutes, exchanging unimportant bits of information, greetings from my mother to him, greetings from his father to me.
"Anything else?" he asked when there was a brief lull in our conversation.
"Rick Carlson called," I said. "He wants to come down on Saturday."
An awkward pause followed. I knew William was considering the implications of my news. I was not, however, prepared for his eventual response. "Are you going to fuck him?" he asked.
"William!" I said, not knowing whether to be shocked or amused.
"Seriously," William said after another brief pause. "You know he wants to have sex with you, Robert."
"I don't want to have sex with him," I said, perhaps sounding a bit too insistent. "I value our monogamy too much for that."
"Well, if it happened, Lover, I'd forgive you." His voice was low and he spoke slowly, as if with great care.
"I don't think I'd forgive myself."
Another long and very awkward pause followed and then we said goodbye. "I'll see you next Tuesday, back in LA," William added.
Later that night, alone in my old bed, longing for William, I again reflected on how fortunate he and I were. Our relationship was stable and completely open. We had no secrets and we lived in a supportive and friendly environment. So many gay men and women had to live in the shadows of prejudice and fear while we were surrounded by friends and associates who fully accepted our sexuality. We were healthy and successful, financially prosperous and happy in our personal relationship.
Somehow, despite all that, I couldn't help wondering, even worrying a bit, about the comment William had made. Was he actually inviting me to step out of our monogamous relationship and engage in sex with Rick? Did his acceptance of my possible infidelity suggest he was himself unfaithful, or at the very least, considering sex outside our relationship. Was this, perhaps, the first sign of some sort of mid-life crisis? Was William suddenly plagued by the desire for something more than I could offer him?
I slept fitfully, thinking about the implications of our phone conversation. At four the following morning, knowing with the time difference between Mississippi and England, that William would be up, slipped out of bed and as silently as possible, went down to the kitchen and called him.
He was at his father's estate in Sussex and it took several minutes for one of the servants to find him and get him to a telephone. "Robert," he said suddenly when he finally came on the line. "Is anything wrong?"
"No, not really," I admitted, suddenly feeling foolish. "I've worried all night about our conversation. What did you mean about me and Rick?"
"I didn't mean anything. I just wanted you to know that my love is unconditional. I love you for who and what you are, Robert, not because of anything you do or don't do." I was silent, not knowing how to respond. "Are you still there, Lover?" William finally said.
"Yes," I managed, then blurted, "have you ever been unfaithful to me?"
"No, not once."
"Have you thought about it? Have you been tempted to have sex with anyone else?"
"No, not really."
"Well, you know, I see some hot guy and think he'd probably be great in bed, but it never goes any further than that."
"You've had other men come on to you, though."
"Sure, and a few women."
"But you've never strayed?"
"Not once, Robert."
"Say hello to Rick for me."
"I will," I agreed. We talked a minute longer and said our goodbyes. I went back to bed and slept soundly until 10:00 AM.
"Oh, I was afraid you were ill," mother said when I finally came down stairs.
"I'm fine," I said, "just couldn't sleep and came down and called William about four o'clock." I always left money to cover my rather excessive phone calls but knew she'd see the call on her bill and figured I'd just as well mention it.
"And once you talked with him you went back to bed and slept soundly."
"Yes," I admitted.
She smiled as she poured coffee for me.
Later that day I walked along Main Street, looking into the windows of a couple of shops and finally went into a surprisingly trendy little bookshop, were to my surprise, I found the two Claudes talking amiably to the two women standing behind the sales counter.
When the four of them saw me Claude Rice called me over and introduced me to Anne Bourke and Sharon Tolliver, the two women whom, he explained, ran the shop and lived together above it.
"There's another reason which keeps us here," Rice explained, "other than the restaurant."
"Oh?" I responded, not knowing what might be coming next.
"Yes, the kids," he said.
"You have children?" I said, perhaps sounding a little shocked. Had this lesbian couple and these two gay men conspired to produce biological children their individual relationships not allowed?
"Not our kids," Rice laughed, reading my thoughts, "the local kids. The four of us sponsor an after school program for gay, bi and lesbian kids in the local high school."
"Now that is something I didn't expect to happen in Mississippi," I admitted.
Mississippi needs it as much as any other place," Anne said, "maybe even more than other places."
"Can you imagine how isolated gay kids feel growing up in a community like Spring River?" Jefferson added. "And it's even worse if you are young, gay and black."
"You're forgetting I grew up here," I reminded them.
"But you weren't out."
"Nobody was out in those days," I said with a laugh, but not one of mirth.
"Well, now out is more common, but still not easy."
"So the four of you started this local support group?"
"Yes, but it's grown to include quite a few others. Even the local school administration has gotten behind it. We also have support from a couple of churches."
"I'm amazed," I admitted. "There really has been progress in Mississippi."
"Well, don't think it's all acceptance and approval," Sharon said. "There is a great deal of prejudice left here."
"But the four of you are doing something and you are getting some local support."
"And some local harassment." Rice added.
"Yes, serious, but anonymous and nothing you can say for certain was targeted against the group, even though we feel it obviously was."
"What sort of things?" I asked, wondering if I really wanted to know what small mindedness and prejudice still existed in my home town.
"The most serious incident was the burning of a house which had been offered to us for a club and meeting place."
"Was it overt arson?"
"No way to be sure. The sheriff said it was just bad wiring and could have happened to any old building, but the announcement of the loan of the house and our plans for it had appeared in the local newspaper a week earlier."
"So where does the group meet now?"
"At the Episcopal church, in the parish hall, which is fine, and quite bold of the rector and vestry, given the house burning, but we need to schedule around regular church events and we can't just keep it open as a club or meeting place as we'd planned to do with the house."
`Interesting," I said, filling the comments away. "Have there been other problems?"
"Nothing you can put your finger on," Sharon said. "For the most part the people here are friendly and tend to leave us to ourselves. In fact, there is a small, more progressive group of men and women who really go out of their way to be friendly. Anne and I are lucky. We have a great group of regular customers and even host a reading group on women's issues which meets here at the shop. Some of Spring River's most prominent women are members."
"Still," I said, thinking of the accepted way of life William and I enjoyed in LA, "this must not be the easiest place to be out and gay."
"No, but it's getting better. We just want the local kids to have an easier time of it than we did."
To be continued