by Helen Beer
Pablo was my friend, my confidant, my dance partner, and the first man I truly loved. It was for purely practical reasons that I landed in his bed for the first time. It was for purely selfish reasons that I returned, time and time again.
“I sleep in the nude.” Pablo stood before me, peeling the layers of his clothing, folding the pieces neatly on the bed as they came off. “Do you mind?”
“No.” I stared at him, taking in his graceful, slim features, his lashes longer than my own. “I do, too,” I lied. I stood there awkwardly, suddenly shy in his presence. He laughed at me.
“You’re the pretty linen type, I just know eet.” My sweet Spaniard; he worked so hard at his English, but when he was tired, he’d occasionally slip. As he stood there before me, wearing his nakedness with confidence and nonchalance, I was reminded of a perfectly sculpted matador. “I’ll just go see what I can dig up.” He wandered out of the room, and as he did so, my eyes planted on his perfect ass, its contours exquisite in their symmetry.
“You’re wrong, Pablo,” I told his ass. “T-shirt. I’m the t-shirt type. The longer, the better.”
He poked his head around the door’s threshold. “That will be easy.”
I stood there, surrounded by Pablo--his music boxes, his lace, his photographs of Madrid and his mother. The very smell of him. And then I sat on his bed, suddenly exhausted, ever so slightly dizzy. We’d had a long night, dancing at Trocadero Transfer, then belting out Streisand songs at our favorite piano bar, The Purple Pickle. When the bewitching hour arrived, Pablo had escorted me to the BART station, where we learned of the fire from the ornery crowd. It was minor and electrical in nature, but it had managed to delay all the trains to the East Bay. Pablo, ever the gentleman, had announced, with finality, “You’re tired, you’re drunk, you’ll stay with me.” I had not argued, for I was, indeed, tired and drunk. And then there was this: I wanted to stay with him.
We’d met in the elevator of our mutual employer, a conservative San Francisco accounting firm known for its squeaky-clean image. He was a member of the audit staff; I worked as a proofreader in the Checking Department. It was my first job out of college, and it was dreary, but it paid the rent and covered the car payment, if barely.
“You’re too bright and cheery for this place,” he’d said.
“So are you,” I’d said.
And it had been so true. We were surrounded by a sea of banker grays and blues, in the heart of the Financial District, in a firm that recruited its accounting staff straight out of Brigham Young—emphasis on the straight. I was in my flowered dress, opaque tights, and clog mode; he was in his European-tailored, chocolate brown, silk suit mode. The variegated color and texture of the fabric matched his eyes perfectly. The pale lilac of his shirt, and the splash of grape that served as a tie, elegantly softened his light olive complexion.
“I’m taking you to lunch today,” he’d said as the doors slid open and he slipped away.
“But you don’t …” I said to the closed doors and the drones around me.
He found me. And he took me to lunch. It became our daily ritual. We’d leave behind the monotonous grind, and enter the candlelit, serene world of Trinity Place, tucked in an alley just off Sutter Street. It was a five-minute stroll, but it may as well have been a thousand miles away. It was our sanctuary, our haven—and our opportunity to imbibe in something stronger than the apricot nectar peddled from the office juice cart.
Over the Special of the Day and a lingering glass of wine, we’d share our most intimate histories. I learned of his boyhood in Madrid; he learned of mine in the Washington suburbs. I learned of his “flight of freedom” to San Francisco, as he called it, and how he’d left behind his hidden, closeted life for an open one. He had come at the urging—and open invitation—of a flight attendant he’d met in a Madrid bar, and who had described to him the Mecca that was the Castro. He, in turn, learned of my “flight from Mother,” when I’d left high school at sixteen, halfway through my junior year, for college a thousand miles away. She’d married her boyfriend, given away the family cat, and converted my bedroom to an office—all during my first semester. I’d come to San Francisco, like so many before me, to “find myself.” The search was damn near futile, I’d concluded. What I’d found, instead, was a tiny apartment in Walnut Creek, close to where my father lived with his 26-year-old second wife—and a dead-end job.
We accepted each other without judgment or condemnation. No subject was too silly or trite, no subject too painful or embarrassing for us to broach. We craved each other’s company and entrusted ourselves to the bonds of friendship. We became childlike innocents again when we were together. I was his “little Celia;” he was my “thilly Thpaniard.”
When the gray/blue machine tried to be rid of him, Pablo took it in stride. I couldn’t. I wrote a five-page affidavit on his behalf, defending his work and his character, and got all his co-workers to sign it. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to be his champion in that small way, but my actions surprised and overwhelmed him, nonetheless. Fearful of a lawsuit, the machine backed off. Pablo was grateful it was over but too hurt to stay. He found a City job without difficulty.
While his Civic Center office was too far away for us to continue our lunchtime ritual, Pablo wasn’t ready to give up on me. Nor I him. We’d meet for dinner Mondays and Wednesdays, and every Friday was “date night.” I’d pack a little bag with my dancing clothes and shoes and pull a quick change in the eleventh-floor ladies’ room. Over the weeks and months, I met dozens of his friends, and danced and drank and dished it out with them all. When he took me home to meet Larry and John, I felt so honored.
Pablo’s house was actually Larry’s and John’s house, a three-story, French vanilla, stucco Victorian, in the Edwardian Style. The simple, yet distinctive, egg-and-dart cornice work, along with all the windows’ frames, were painted robin’s egg blue. The effect was striking.
Larry and John had met each other as students at Tulane and had been together ever since. They were in their late fifties when I met them and had recently been wed in the Metropolitan Community Church—symbolic, not legal yet—although they’d always considered themselves a married couple.
“Welcome, Celia,” Larry said as he hugged me, “Pablo’s told us so much about you.” John grabbed me next, held me tight, then said to Larry over my shoulder, “Pablo’s right… she’s just so cute!”
“I hate that word,” I’d said, and meant it. “It just makes me feel like such a little girl. I’m twenty for chrissakes!”
They all laughed. “One day, Celia… one day…” said Larry prophetically.
“One day, what? I’ll be some cute, fat, middle-aged hausfrau?” I couldn’t help myself.
“Not you, Celia,” said Pablo, with finality.
“No, not you,” agreed John as he held me tighter.
We proceeded to polish off a full-bodied, Spanish rioja, and I listened as these men predicted my decidedly Bohemian fate. I drank them in along with the wine and felt intoxicated by their words. My life seemed open to me for the first time; the possibilities exciting and limitless.
“How’s this?” Pablo stood before me, holding a black t-shirt emblazoned with “SFPD” in stark white letters.
“Should I ask?” I said, through giggles.
“Best not,” he replied as he threw the shirt at my head. “Suffice to say, the shirt is big and long, like its former owner.” I immediately knew he’d gotten it from Fernando’s extensive collection; he kept a shirt as a souvenir of every man he’d ever slept with.
“I have to pee,” I said as I slowly raised myself off the bed, still wearing the shirt draped over my head.
“You know the way.”
I did. But I couldn’t stop staring at him.
“Never seen one?” He knew exactly what I was staring at.
“Of course, I have… many. But not like that.” It was the first uncircumcised penis I’d ever beheld.
“Ah. So big … it’s nice, no?” He cupped his flaccid penis in his hand.
“It’s nice, yes,” I said through the giggles, gathering the t-shirt and myself and passing him closely as I made my way to the toilet.
“You’re okay with this?” he asked as I passed.
“I’m okay with this,” I said and meant it.
When I reached the bathroom, I literally ran into Fernando, dressed only in a towel. The room smelled of Nair and Chanel No. 5; the combination was heady and intoxicating.
“Celia! Sleeping over? How fun!” He was always that way; I never saw him sleep. “I’ll make you breakfast.”
“Hey, that’s great. How was work?” Fernando was a woman six nights a week, at that San Francisco institution, Finocchio’s, and a convincing one at that, owing to a dancer’s pair of legs. He was prettier than I was but would never admit it.
“Same old same old, Celia... conventioneers, tourists, the usual crowd. I was really on tonight, though. You shoulda seen me!” And with that, he was gone, tripping gracefully down the hallway, throwing in a pirouette, which resulted in the loss of his towel. He swept down in a fluid motion and gathered it, then stretched it between his hands overhead, and leapt a perfect leap. He’d been a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater until he destroyed his Achilles tendon in a single, career-shattering misstep.
“The night is young, Celia! I’m going dancing!” It was nearly two AM, but he was always at the ready to dance. And there were always those ready to join him.
I stared at my sleepy visage in the mirror, a bit distracted by the ornate, gold filigree surrounding it. I remembered I had to pee. I didn’t remember to shut the door.
“Hi, sweetie,” came the voice from the hallway. I sat on the toilet, mid-stream, too tired to gather myself. My panties and hose were strewn on the floor, hiding my shoes. My dress was hiked up around my waist.
“Duc? Is that you?”
Duc leaned against the threshold of the door and watched me. It didn’t make me the least bit uncomfortable.
“It’s me,” he said. “Staying with us?”
“About damn time,” he said and disappeared.
When Duc was fifteen, his father had tried to kill him. If his mother hadn’t intervened, he would have—all because he’d found a magazine in Duc’s room with photos of naked men. It hadn’t set well with his father’s traditional way of thinking. Duc was disowned and tossed out on the streets to fend for himself. He’d sold himself in the Tenderloin, until Fernando had rescued him, brought him home, cleaned him up, and got him a job as a waiter at Finocchio’s.
I wiped myself, stood up, pulled my dress over my head, and looked at my own boyish nakedness in the mirror. I turned towards the toilet again and poked my index finger all the way to the back of my throat, forcing myself to vomit. I didn’t have my syrup of ipecac, but the old finger worked in a pinch. It was a habit I’d learned from my high school gymnastics coach, who’d handed out bottles of ipecac a week before every meet. She’d made us deny our female forms, justifying it with talk of “balance.” Years later, I was still doing it.
I splashed my face with warm water and brushed my teeth with my finger and baking soda I’d found in the cabinet. I rinsed my mouth out several times to rid myself of the bitter taste, then reached over and patted my face dry with a plush pink guest towel. I flushed the toilet, gathered my things and the t-shirt, and stumbled back to Pablo’s room.
“It didn’t fit?” He was lying under the covers already, propped up by two pillows.
“I didn’t try.” I dropped my things in his closet, then wandered back to Pablo’s bed, suddenly feeling a bit chilled. I climbed in and greedily grabbed at the covers. “God this feels great.”
Pablo wrapped his arm around my waist, pulling me close to him. “Yes, it does. Warm enough?” I rested my head on his chest, curling my body closer.
“You’re such a sweetheart.”
“And you’re so cute.”
I punched him ineffectually and fell asleep in his warm embrace.
As I awoke the next morning, still entwined in Pablo’s arms, I felt safer and more loved than I ever had before. Fernando, true to his word, made breakfast for all—Eggs Benedict with Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s served elegantly in the garden behind the house. It was to become my new ritual and one which I hungrily embraced.
Come August, I had been sleeping with Pablo at least once a week for three months. And in those three months, I’d grown less and less interested in anything outside our little world. My female co-workers pointed out, with great concern, that I’d descended into “fag hag” territory and felt the need to intervene.
While I wore the title proudly, I’d agreed, reluctantly, to go sailing on the Bay with Eileen and her boyfriend, Jack. It meant giving up my Friday night/Saturday morning ritual. I spent Friday night with them instead, on their houseboat in Sausalito. We rose at dawn, walked the half-mile to the marina, and set sail on Jack’s 30-foot toy, “Marmaduke.” Oh, and yes, they’d invited Billy, a perfectly nice stockbroker, who spoke of nothing but the fluctuations in the Dow.
Things got interesting when the Esmeralda caught us in her wake. The four-masted schooner was a training vessel for the Chilean Navy, and she’d been expected to arrive that day, although I’d forgotten until the name jogged my memory. There’d been some controversy or another played out in the media, something about her being a “torture ship” for the Pinochet regime, something about bomb threats and protests, and something about the Navy giving her safe harbor for the weekend at Treasure Island.
She was a beauty. The sailors climbed the masts in their dress whites, while others lined her decks. We came closer, as did others. I caught the eye of a sweet-looking young man, and in a slow-motion moment, I became the bearer of his calling card, which had drifted down from above. It bore his name, “Enrique Laroucau Marino,” along with “Esmeralda, Valparaiso, Chile.” As the Coast Guard approached, we tacked hard to the right. I nearly got dumped, but I held the card tightly in my grasp.
I wore a smile the rest of the day, lost in my own little fantasy world. Billy rattled on, and I felt my head nodding, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what was said. Nothing of importance, of that I am certain.
“He likes you, Celia,” said Eileen at dinner.
“You’d make a cute couple,” offered Jack in support.
“Cute?” It’s all I could say on the subject. I left as soon after dinner as I could without appearing rude or ungrateful, thanking them for their hospitality.
“You’re not going there, are you? To Pablo’s?”
I assured Eileen that I was not. I didn’t have to lie. I found myself driving my little gold Mazda GLC hatchback over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the city, then over the Bay Bridge. I’m not sure to this day why I did it, but I veered off at Treasure Island.
The SP looked at the card, looked at me, cracked a smile, then waved me through. He probably thought I was a hooker, in hindsight. I wound ‘round curves, then found myself facing the Esmeralda. It was too late to back out, but in all honesty, I didn’t want to.
I marched right up to the glorious vessel and showed the card again to a sailor standing guard duty, all the while wearing my most gracious smile, all the while trying my damnedest to appear cute. I was told to wait by this lovely young man in white, who then rattled off something in Spanish to another lovely young man in white a bit further up the gangplank. This latter gentleman then disappeared.
Enrique descended the gangplank moments later, dressed in crisply pressed jeans and white silk shirt, gold gleaming around his neck. He was accompanied by two other guys, both similarly dressed. My first thought? These are three wild and crazy guys—straight out of the Saturday Night Live skit. It took all the self-control I could muster not to burst out in laughter at the sight.
“I knew you’d come,” were his first words. “Where’s your car?” were his second.
I chose to ignore the cockiness and simply replied, “Where do you want to go?”
“On the town,” they announced, in perfect, three-part harmony.
I cracked up, then and there. “Celia,” I managed to say and offered my hand all around.
Enrique, Viktor, and Juan proved that my first impressions had been correct. They were wild, and they were crazy. I found a parking garage at the Embarcadero first, then we hit all the touristy spots, one by one. They had crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf, ice cream at Ghirardelli Square, then we rode the cable car to Chinatown, and strolled through the streets and alleyways. We topped it off with espresso in one of my favorite North Beach haunts, then hit Finocchio’s. I just couldn’t help myself. Once we retrieved my car, I drove them up to Coit Tower. We sat and talked for hours and watched the first rays of the morning sun break through the fog.
“We leave for San Diego tomorrow morning,” Enrique said over breakfast at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “Come see us. We’ll arrive Wednesday and be there through the weekend. Oh, and the Captain will be hosting a special dinner Friday.” Viktor and Juan smiled hopefully, while Enrique leaned over and kissed my cheek. “I want you to come.”
“Okay. I’ll come.” I’m not sure where the words came from, but by the time they left my mouth, I couldn’t take them back.
At dinner Monday night, Pablo gave me the push I needed. While I felt guilty for abandoning him two weekends in a row, he was positively giddy at the prospect of my adventure. He called Fernando from the restaurant, and we all rendezvoused at I. Magnin on Union Square. Just before closing time, they’d settled on the perfect little black dinner dress for me—their treat. Of course, Fernando admitted to having designs on it himself for future occasions; it had fit us both so perfectly.
The next morning, I put in my request for a vacation day Friday—my very first—then made reservations at the Holiday Inn at the harbor in San Diego. Come Friday morning, I was as giddy as Pablo had been.
I’d gotten an early start and ran into little traffic once I hit Interstate 5, but it still seemed to take forever to get there. When I arrived, I checked in, splashed my face, threw on my dress, a swipe of lip gloss, and a splash of Jovan Musk, and strolled literally across the street to the Esmeralda. She was a sight to behold—her masts all lit up with white Christmas tree lights that glowed surreally off the dull gray of the two U.S. Navy ships flanking her sides. Apparently, San Diego hadn’t been consumed with rumors of the Esmeralda’s alleged torture activities.
I was greeted warmly by a familiar, lovely young man in white, who waved me up the gangplank, where I was greeted by another familiar, lovely young man in white, who escorted me to the Captain’s mess. I walked into a sea of dress whites, formal linens, polished silver and brass—and smiling male faces. Everyone had stood upon my entrance. There was an empty chair between Viktor and Enrique, and I was politely led to it. As the chair was pulled out, then pushed in for me, the men in white collectively found their seats as well.
After I was introduced all around as “Celia from San Francisco,” we feasted on abalone and a variety of Chilean specialties whose names escape me. Perhaps my memory lapse has something to do with the fact that we consumed a different Chilean wine with each course, including dessert. I remember feeling very warm and silly and vaguely recall saying something like, “If this is torture, bring it on!” After dinner, I was given the grand tour of the Esmeralda, but after I nearly tripped or hit my head a dozen times, Enrique just laughed and escorted me back to the hotel lobby. We made plans to visit the San Diego Zoo and Sea World the next day, with Viktor and Juan, then he kissed my cheek goodnight.
I remember the monkeys and the dolphin show, and the fact that my picture was taken at least a hundred times—but that’s about it. My head was still reeling from the wine. By nine o’clock Saturday night, I was sound asleep, having been escorted back to the hotel, once again, by Enrique.
The next morning, we were off early to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, just the four of us. By the end of the day, I’d had enough of freeway driving—and quite enough of spirited Chilean folk songs sung decidedly off-key. When I could stand it no longer, I flipped on the radio. When the boys began singing along to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” I just threw in the towel and joined in.
Once again, I was escorted to my room. I could easily have slept with Enrique; I think he’d expected it. But instead, I kissed his cheek and said, “goodnight.” He smiled, took my hand, kissed it, then simply said, “Thank you for everything. Goodnight.” As he turned down the brightly lit hall, he called over his shoulder, “You’ll be there tomorrow to see us off, won’t you?”
“Yes. Of course, I will.” I felt so free and oddly in control. I’d enjoyed Enrique’s company and the attention he lavished upon me, but the thought of sleeping alone was curiously empowering.
I walked into the room, threw myself on the bed, and called Pablo.
“Hello? Is that you, Celia?” He sounded sleepy. I looked at my watch and realized it was past midnight.
“It is I, dear Pablo. Did I wake you?”
“No, no. I was up. Are you okay?” He sounded genuinely worried.
I’m fine. Exhausted, but fine. I’ve had a lot of fun, but I’m ready to come home. See you tomorrow? For dinner?”
“Get a good night’s sleep. It’s a long drive. I want you to be safe. If you’re too tired…”
“I won’t be too tired to see you, Pablo. But I think I’ll need to crash with you … if that’s okay.”
“Of course, Celia, of course, it’s okay.” The worry was still in his voice. “Are you sure you’re all right? He didn’t…”
“What? Try anything?”
“Well … yes.”
“No, Pablo … he was a perfect gentleman. My chastity belt’s lock is still intact ... hell, it’s downright rusty! I’m just a little punchy, that’s all. We did Disney today, and I just can’t get that stupid ‘It’s a Small World’ ditty out of my head. And then … they had to sing all the way back. Three Chilean Naval officers, all off-key … enough to make you wanna puke.”
“Go to bed, Celia. And promise me you won’t make yourself sick.” My secret was out. But how did he know?
“I didn’t eat anything today … except a cold roll for breakfast. I’ve been a little queasy.” It was true. Since my dinner on the Esmeralda, I’d felt a little green around the gills.
“Can you get some crackers? Go, get some crackers … maybe the desk clerk can help. You’re sick, aren’t you, Celia? You’ve got to take better care of yourself.” He sounded like a Jewish mother, but his concern was genuine; I knew he cared.
“I’m okay, Pablo. I just need some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“When? When should I expect you? You need to take it easy … if you’re not feeling well, Celia …”
“Between six and seven. I’ll take it easy. Promise. You can stuff a cracker in my mouth when I get there … can I go to bed now?”
“Yes … yes, you can. I love you, Celia. Goodnight.”
“’Night, Pablo. I love you, too.”
I called the front desk for a wakeup call at five and promptly fell asleep in my clothes.
As the Esmeralda was prepared to leave at dawn Monday morning, Enrique hugged me, kissed both my cheeks, then handed me a card with his address in Santiago scrawled on the back. He handed me another card and made me scratch out my own address, using his back as a writing surface. As he turned to walk the gangplank, he called out to me, “Come see me in Santiago! Come meet my family! My mother will love you!”
I just waved and pretended I hadn’t heard over the rumbling of the engines, then turned and walked back to the hotel. When I’d packed my things, I proceeded down to the front desk to check out. When I handed the desk clerk my key, he smiled and said, “It’s been taken care of.” I must have looked a little dumbfounded, for he quickly added, “Courtesy of the Chilean Navy.” They’d paid my bill in full, including my phone call to Pablo. As if that weren’t enough, the desk clerk pulled out a box of Saltines and a thermos of hot tea and handed them to me saying, “And these are at the request of your brother in San Francisco … our compliments. Drive safely, now.” I stood there for a moment, clutching the box and the thermos, gathering my thoughts. “Thank you,” was all I could muster while my chin started to quiver.
The long journey back was made longer still by my unsettled stomach. The crackers and tea helped but lost their appeal somewhere northeast of Los Angeles. I took I-5 again, as it seemed the most direct route, but the miles were difficult to endure. When I made the turn westward on 152 and reached the outskirts of Gilroy, the strong, acrid smell of garlic was just too much to bear. I puked four times on the side of the road and drove as quickly as I could through the town. I turned north, up 101, and things got a little bit better. At least I was finally able to tune in a radio station that didn’t fade in and out in a cacophony of static every ten miles. Just past the airport, Gerry Rafferty came on, singing “Baker Street.” The combination of exhaustion and his plaintive lyrics made me cry.
As I pulled up in front of Larry and John’s, it was quite a bit later than six or seven. Pablo was sitting on the front stoop, looking very worried. He looked more worried still when he saw my face. I made it to the first step, then collapsed.
I woke up in the fluorescent glare of an emergency room, IV fluids running into my hand. Pablo was ordering nurses around, taking charge. When he saw my eyes open, though, he rushed to my side.
“It’s food poisoning, Celia. You should be okay now.” He was wearing his brave face.
I stayed “home” from work the next day, snuggled in Pablo’s bed. He stayed with me, curled up next to me with a good book—when he wasn’t bringing me soup, crackers or ginger ale, or walking me to the toilet and back.
Come mid-September, Fernando managed to finagle front-row tickets to see “Nureyev and Friends” at UC-Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. It was a Sunday matinee performance—and the last in the Bay Area. I came from Walnut Creek by BART and met the gang at the box office. A beautiful blonde man was standing with Pablo.
Christopher introduced himself to me, before Pablo ever had the chance, by saying, “I’m the former lover.” Everyone laughed but me. He quickly threw his arm around me and added, “I’m the commitment-phobic one… the one that he’ll never forgive. I broke his sweet Spanish heart more times than I can remember.”
Pablo jumped in, only half-joking, with “I remember each time.” Then we all wandered inside and down to our perfect seats, so close to the action we could feel the sweat land on us when the dancers leapt across the stage.
After the performance, Fernando introduced us to several of his old friends from New York. I was particularly envious of the hug he received from Rudy himself.
Halloween in the Castro was a blast. Fernando had decided back in late September that we’d all—Duc, Pablo, me, and him—go as the corps de ballet from Swan Lake. He measured us, then set out to find just the right leotards, tights, tutus, slippers, and feathers.
We were a sight to behold; all perfectly matched, all perfectly white, all perfectly camp in our feathered headdresses. We twirled and leapt our way down the street, alongside cowboys and nuns and fairy godmothers and S & M masters and slaves. I’d never seen so much proudly displayed flesh—June’s Gay Freedom Day Parade had been tame by comparison.
When we’d tickled the asphalt long enough, we retreated to Troc to dance the rest of the night away. Many others had the same idea, apparently. The crowd was enormous; the noise level deafening. I vaguely recall leaping from the bar, leaping from tables, leaping out of Fernando’s arms (actually, he’d thrown me). Between Fernando’s ballet training and my high school gymnastics background, we were a lethal combination on the dance floor.
It was while dancing with Fernando mid-twirl that a dark shadow suddenly loomed over us. The biggest, meanest looking biker dude you ever did see positioned himself between us and said, with conviction, “Take your tits and pussy and get the fuck outta here.”
Now, owing to the hour and my lack of sobriety, I took the brute on. Screaming loudly enough to be heard over the incessant bass beat, I launched into a tirade.
“I’m here to dance, not fuck!” I pulled down my already low-cut leotard, exposing my bare chest. “Tits? What tits? I have no tits. My sister got the tits. I’ve seen pecs here bigger than my tits. Hell, I’ve seen mosquito bites bigger than my tits!” I tugged my leotard back into place. “And my pussy? God, I hate that word! It’s seen no action since Carter’s inauguration. Nada. Zip. No big dicks, no little dicks, nothing. So, if you see me as some kind of threat to your masculinity, honey, you’re barking up the wrong damn tree.” The music had stopped somewhere around ‘big dicks,’ but I hadn’t noticed. There I was, all five foot six and 105 pounds, taking on a guy who was at least a foot taller and three times my weight, dressed in black leather and enough chains to sink Houdini. “And besides,” I continued, undaunted, “it seems like half the damn time, there’s this goddamn string hanging out of me… and…” It finally dawned on me that the whole room was quiet, and all eyes were on us. A dozen guys, including Fernando, Pablo, and Duc, had formed a human chain around me.
And then he laughed—this big, raucous, full-throttle belly laugh.
“Wanna dance?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “You’re just lucky you didn’t call me cute. I’d have kicked your ass.” I was only half-kidding.
And dance we did, although the chains got caught a few times in my feathered tutu, so by night’s end, I resembled a semi-plucked chicken. It turns out I reminded him of his sister back in Ottumwa, Iowa. She had bad periods, too.
I settled in next to Pablo, feeling very heavy and bone-weary.
“You’re not going to lecture me, are you?” I’m not sure why I asked, as he’d never lectured me before.
“For taking on that asshole? No. You couldn’t get yourself into trouble if you tried.”
“That’s not true, Pablo. I’m always opening my mouth and saying the wrong thing.”
“And what consequences have you suffered? None. If I’d tried the same thing, I’d probably be dead. But you … you just seem to be able to sway the crowd.”
“The crowd? Well, if I supposedly have such a Midas touch, Pablo, why was my mother so relieved to be rid of me and move on with her life? Why have the men I’ve fucked always turned out to be users?” I sat up in bed and stared out at the darkness, the depressive effects of the alcohol kicking in with a vengeance. “Why am I here with you, Pablo? And why is this all I need?”
He sat up and put his arm around me. “You’re just a kid in so many ways, Celia. You don’t know what you want yet. You’ll need more one day. And then you’ll grow up and away from me … from us. We’re safe. We’re your stepping-stones.” He kissed my cheek.
“Are you tired of me?” I was afraid of the answer, but I had to ask.
“No, Celia. You’ll grow tired of me long before I’ll ever grow tired of you.” He lay back down and pulled me with him. “We’ve both got work tomorrow.”
His words played themselves over and over in my head. I couldn’t imagine not being with Pablo; I couldn’t imagine not needing him. I felt so damn selfish. My thoughts turned to Christopher.
“Am I using you? Am I doing to you what all those men did to me?”
“You’re not fucking me. That’s the difference.” He laughed at me and held me tight, stroking my hair. “It’s okay, Celia. It’s my role in life.” He made me cry. “Now go to sleep.”
“But I love you, Pablo,” I choked out through the tears.
“I love you, too.” The words were like a sweet elixir, carrying me off to sleep. Three hours later, wearing clothes borrowed from Fernando, I punched my 10-key to the rhythm of those words: I-love-you-too, I-love-you-too.
Come Friday night, I was stuck going to a Halloween party at Eileen and Jack’s. The boys dressed me as Sappho, but nobody got it; I was just another Greek goddess to those preppy Sausalito types. At least Billy wasn’t there; he’d found himself a nice secretary who was fascinated by his talk of hog futures.
But there was an odd creature in the room who immediately caught my fancy. The only one not in costume, Nikola was a tall, muscular, confident—no, cocky—presence with a heavily Slavic accent. I introduced myself in Russian, and he chatted on endlessly in response. Four years of high school Russian under my belt, and I was still lost. He suddenly stopped, laughed at me, and said, “I’m Yugoslavian, but my Russian’s better than my English.”
How I ended up in his bed is beyond me. I vaguely recall following him up 101 to the Mill Valley exit, then climbing Molino Avenue, breathing in the putrid exhaust of his vintage Lancia. I don’t remember him asking or my answering, only that we slept together, and it was good. My self-imposed celibacy had come to an end, its only fanfare being the quiet snores of the man who had broken it.
The very next Friday, we were riding a high that came from the defeat of Proposition 6. Larry and John held a celebratory party, inviting several organizers of the Bay Area Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative, and several close friends in the teaching professions. It was a satisfying victory and one which seemed to signal a new era of enlightenment and political activism. It gave me great personal satisfaction, as my lesbian aunt was a guidance counselor in the Miami-Dade public school system. That John Briggs, an ineffectual California State Senator, could try to copy Anita Bryant’s failed campaigns in Florida, and fall on his face trying, was gratifying. That both the gay and straight communities came out against the proposition in such great numbers was truly amazing. It gave everyone tremendous hope.
It was at this party that I met Harvey Milk for the first—and last—time. There was no one person who gave the gay community more hope than this man—the first openly homosexual member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the man who’d said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
To this decidedly emotional gathering, I’d invited Nikola—at Pablo’s insistence. Looking back, I think it was something of a litmus test. Nikola was his charming and beautiful self, appearing perfectly at ease. The only hint of his nervousness was the clammy hand that held firmly to my own the entire evening.
When he’d left, with the explanation that he had an early commitment Saturday morning, I was nearly pounced by Pablo, Fernando, and Duc.
“He didn’t look in your eyes the entire evening,” said Pablo, looking me squarely in the eyes.
“He looks like he’d be good in bed,” said Fernando, barely containing his envy.
“Do you love him?” asked Duc, concern written across his face.
“He needs a green card,” was my only response.
“Dump him and find yourself a nice Jewish boy, Celia,” said Larry in passing, “they make the best husbands.”
The Jonestown disaster was soon looming over the Bay Area like a dark cloud. So many of the perished had had roots in the area; so many were left to mourn them and ask the question, “why?” No one could have predicted that things could get worse, but they soon did.
On Monday morning, November 27, Pablo called me at my office, his voice quavering. He told me to turn on the radio. As I did, I heard the halting words of Dianne Feinstein, “Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot… and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
“Pablo… I’m leaving work. I’m coming there.”
Violence of any kind distressed Pablo. Harvey had been a friend, a neighbor. He was devastated. I literally ran out of my office, flew to the elevator, cursed its slowness, ran to the Montgomery Street BART station, hopped the first train to the Civic Center station, then grabbed the Muni to Larry and John’s. The crowds were already forming on Henry Street and at 18th and Castro. I bought the last bunch of flowers from a Market Street vendor and ran the rest of the way.
Pablo was sitting on the stoop, wrapped in Christopher’s arm. Christopher looked up and said, “Thanks for coming, Celia… Pablo needs us.”
I never cried so much as I did that night. We joined the waves of people, holding candles, walking silently through the streets from Market and Castro to the Civic Center Plaza. We were fifty thousand strong, by most estimates. I held onto my candle with one hand and Pablo’s hand with the other. Christopher had his arm around him. Between us, we comforted him.
When Joan Baez sang, “Amazing Grace,” we joined in, choking out the words through our tears.
I cried for Harvey and George, of course. But I also cried for Duc, who hadn’t seen his mother or two brothers in four years—even though they lived just miles away in South San Francisco; they may as well have been back in Saigon. I cried for Fernando, who left a life of poverty in Manila for a shot at stardom—and had so fleetingly found it, only to have it snatched away. He snuffed out his pain with cocaine and amyl nitrate and a succession of anonymous lovers in the backrooms of the bathhouses. I cried for sweet, gentle Pablo, who left his beloved mother and glorious Madrid so as not to bring shame to either.
And selfishly, I cried for me, for it would all be coming to an end. I knew and accepted that Christopher would be spending the night with Pablo. And I knew and accepted that I would marry a man I did not love.
I fled San Francisco in January of 1984 with my two-year-old son, his teddy, and the clothes on our backs, returning to the Washington suburbs of my youth. My loveless marriage had descended into the realm of violence; in five years’ time, the man had never looked me in the eyes, even when he struck me.
By 1985, I was married to a “nice Jewish boy” from Baltimore, who looked me in the eye and told me he cared. He was my friend first, then my lover—and a more loving father to my son I’d never find.
He accepted my past and its players; he understood the impact of my friends’ loss.
And by 1989, I’d lost them all. Contradicting Pablo’s prediction, they were taken from me long before I’d grown tired of their presence in my life.
Fernando had been the first, stricken in the days when its name was “gay flu” and “God’s vengeance;” the days before they closed down the bathhouses. When the heavy pancake makeup no longer hid the purple lesions, he had taken his own life.
Duc was next, then Christopher, then Pablo. Ironically, before they’d fallen ill, Duc and Fernando—and Christopher and Pablo—had all finally settled into monogamous relationships with one another, which helped them immensely through the pain and loss that would soon visit them.
At the onset of what was to be his final bout of pneumonia, Pablo returned to his beloved Madrid—and to his mother’s home. His fear of coming out to her had been unfounded; she’d always known and had never been ashamed. He called me the day he died to tell me he loved me still. As I lay there in my bed, before the sun had risen, my husband’s arm in a familiar hold around my naked body, my tears soaked through to the very core of my pillow. And when his mother called an hour later to tell me of his passing, I sobbed in my husband’s arms, unable to speak or respond.
Larry suffered a massive heart attack in late ’87. He and John then sold the house and moved back to New Orleans. Within a year, another heart attack would claim him. Within six months, John would follow; even in death, they were partners.
It was the Water Pollution Control Federation’s annual convention and exhibition that brought me back to the City in October 1989. As my company’s marketing director, I manned our booth at the George Moscone Convention Center, assisted by my colleague, a fresh-faced, twenty-one-year-old innocent from Poland, Ohio.
I’d planned on taking her to dinner in the Castro one evening, followed by a walk through some of my old, familiar haunts. But our plans were interrupted by the disastrous and horrifying Loma Prieta earthquake—occurring just as we were leaving our booth for the evening and heading to our hotel shuttle bus. Dinner that evening was free bar food and drinks in the lobby of the Holiday Inn; we weren’t allowed to stay in our rooms overnight for fear of structural instability. The fires burning out of control that night took me back to the White Night Riots ten years earlier.
The next morning, our attentions turned to practical matters: packing our exhibit and heading to SFO, where we camped out for two days with thousands of other shell-shocked and weary travelers. In some small and perverse way, I was grateful for the diversion; the devastation of the present moment prevented me from dwelling on the devastation of the recent past.
Perhaps one day in the future, I’ll return to the City by the Bay with my husband, a man who loves and accepts me as Pablo once did. And when we go, there’ll be no need to visit the old neighborhood, no ties to bind me. For I’ll have long since said my farewells.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Beer sells for a living, as a sales engineer for an industrial foundry, and writes to maintain some semblance of sanity. She is the author of numerous short stories, poetry, essays, and feature screenplays, some of which have actually seen the light of day--through publication, or contest honors--while some remain hidden under a rock somewhere. She's an old married fart with three cats, a horse, and an adventurous human son.
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