Bring the Bottle
Image by Phyllis Chekenian, inspired by this story.
Commissioned in Collaboration with Yarnslingers & the WCAA.
The air is brisk. Soon it will be my first Minneapolis winter. Last night to wear shorts.
We walk past the Basilica of St. Mary reminding me to call my great Aunts, Sisters Mary Rita and Alma Rita. Despite never being quite sure which one is which, we meet for breakfast once a month at their convent in St. Paul. Which is basically a nursing home for retired nuns.
Obviously, they insist we pray before our meals together. I ask God for better food. The convent eggs taste like scrambled communion wafers.
We head to Café DiNapoli, my favorite Italian restaurant. The tiled façade, the red and green interior. Heavy matching cups with real saucers. It’s a time machine. The waitresses are a mafia in hairnets and sensible shoes.
“Here’s your check,” says Jill to one of her tables. Painfully shy, she has chosen a job where she’s required to talk to strangers. She takes a deep breath.“The manager gave me permission to tell you you’re the worst table I ever waited on. Don’t come back. Just pay your bill and leave. Thank you.” Then, remembering she is from Minnesota, Jill turns back and adds, “enjoy the rest of your evening.”
When she comes over to take our drink order, we applaud.
Jerome gets up to check his answering machine but returns quickly. Rather than pry, I push the conversation in another direction. “Randy and I broke up.”
“Randy?” asks Jerome.
“What? You fooled around with three guys this week.”
“Well, Randy was my boyfriend. My uptown boyfriend.”
“Sleeping with someone more than once doesn’t make him a boyfriend. Did you love him?”
Despite myself, I laugh. “No, I didn’t love him.”
“Have you ever been in love?” asks Jerome, clearly assuming the answer is no.
“Twice?” says my best friend Tommy, who has obviously taken Jerome’s side.
“Michael and Paula,” I say, feeling defensive.
“A woman? You loved a woman,” says Jerome. “That doesn’t count. What about the boy?”
“It was high school,” I say. “I’m not even sure it was love.”
Donny looks me in the eye. “Don’t say that. It was love.”
“Yep. That’s why we’re still together. He and the kids are picking me up after dinner. There’s Greg, Marcia, Peter…”
“Stop it. Don’t act like love between two men doesn’t matter,” Jerome says in a small voice.
I put my hand on his. “Are you okay?”
A heavy silence follows. Something is about to change,
“I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday.” Jerome pauses, before looking up.
“There was bad news.”
In the late 1980s, there’s no mistaking bad news. HIV if you’re lucky. AIDS if you’re not. I can immediately hear it in his voice. Jerome is not lucky.
As he shares details, I can see my grandma, staring at a picture of her son, my Uncle Greg. The first soldier from WI to be killed in the Korean War. I hear her saying, “The first soldier to die is the one you never forget. The ache in your heart that never goes away.”
Gay men are at war. There will be many casualties. It’s not going to end anytime soon.
Each day you hear or read something horrible about AIDS. People turned away. Funeral homes refusing to bury the dead. Gay bashing. Things which should be impossible to imagine when you’re twenty-two-years old. Things that should be unimaginable at any age.
Each morning at my breakfast table, I pray for strength. I pray to be brave if my friends get sick.
None of us are out to our families yet. In that sense, we only have each other.
Four Midwestern boys hoping to live long enough to become men.
In a scary world
In a frightening time to be gay.
That which we have been dreading has found us.
Tommy hugs Jerome from behind. Donny grabs his hand. I kiss his impossibly well-defined cheek.
Jill places a glass of chianti in front of Jerome.
By instinct I say, “Bring the bottle.”
Jerome laughs. Loudly.