by Leo MacAlbert
September 1966 • Vol. 1 No. 12
Originally published in the September 1966 issue of Tangents
Three. There are three big cruising streets in New York City: Greenwich Avenue, downtown, in the Village, Third Avenue on the East Side, and on the West Side, where I live. Central Park West.
I wasn’t cruising that night, the night I met Henry.
But if you are gay you are always cruising.
And there he was on the bench, one of the many benches lined up along the wall bordering Central Park.
He looked a little sad and diffident. Colored boys weren’t that IN this year in the gay world, though in the Village every white girl from the Bronx and Brooklyn was looking for one to take home to Mother. Another fad we started.
There he was, looking a little sad and cross, and trying not to look too sad and cross because that wasn’t good politics.
He was wearing expensive sandals. This was summertime. That meant he was OK. Junkies had tattered worn shoes, hoods’ shoes with too much shine.
I had just made the Good Friends pact (“We’ll always be good friends”) with my last colored boy, Basil. But in the New Life, “good friends” are not much company. You even hesitate calling them up, thinking they are waiting for a call from the New One. So I was lonely that night. And he looked a little like Basil—not as stockily built but the same round head. And those bare brown toes in the moonlight did make me think things. Enough to make me walk half past him, peer at him and say:
He, shifting, saying “No. I’m not Basil.”
And I, quickly coming over, sitting on the bench to apologize, asking for the obligatory cigarette.
The New Life is short, quick and easy. Half an hour later we were in bed together in my apartment.
I have the impression that New York is formless and atomized. Yet these rituals, sentences, occasions have an odd rigid formality. Somehow this Invisible Underground World with its blind sightless fishes has managed to become as mannered as Jane Austen’s.
I waited, when sex was over, to see if he would give me his address. I had told him he could sleep over if he wanted to.
He stared in front of him.
“I live in a hotel,” he said. “No one is allowed upstairs after eleven o’clock at night.”
He continued to stare in front of him.
A hotel with rules is a cheap hotel.
He had seen better days, I was sure. I looked over the edge of the bed at the sandals. They were really good.
He noticed my glance. “My old boyfriend gave them to me.
“They’re very good,” he said. “We shared an apartment. We had nice modern Swedish furniture. After we broke up and he was going to move to a different place he said he was going to buy all new furniture and asked me if I wanted it. I was living in a hotel, though, so I couldn’t take it.”
I looked around my room. I lived in a rooming house. It was old furniture in my room, painted over with the same dark cinnamon color that covered the walls. Quite a change from Swedish Modern.
I felt sad.
“Did you call me Basil when you first saw me?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s the name of the boy my ex-lover went with after he left me,” said Henry. “Is he a colored boy, shorter than me, stockily built, muscular?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s him,” he said.
“Do you know him too?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I never met him.”
“He’s very nice,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Henry. “My ex-lover thought so too. He’s supposed to be very smart.”
I thought of Basil. Basil was not so much smart as MADE. One of those Negro boys, slightly effeminate, who had grown up in Harlem and had MADE himself in that extraordinary way a whole corps of Negro homosexuals had—through white lover entering into the white gay world, their whole culture coming through the current of gay life, he had risen from gay bars to middle-brow, flossie Noel Coward songs and the-a-tre, then to Opera, Proust, the mandatory trip to Europe (“Vienna is really just a small town. You can really do the place in a week”).
Basil was through with Henry’s ex-lover now. But Basil had been able to retreat to his own apartment. No shabby hotel room for him. He had solace in his hi-fi set, his Tiffany lamps, his not-too-expensive but carefully chosen objets (“It’s Burmese teakwood. It’s defective, of course, but I find the defect is part of it, by now. I want to stay with it till I die”).
Will it ever he told? The story of these homosexual generations who came to New York City, the culture they built, those like Henry —soft, pliant, non-aggressive, part of its structure.
The ex-lover, Marshall, had come from Detroit. He had had money, but no career. He still had money but no career. The years had passed and he had kept his youth. And for five years he had kept Henry.
Not that Henry had thought of himself as “kept.” He had worked, on and off. When he had worked he had helped pay the rent, buy food. He had cooked for the two of them—Southern cooking, smells of cooking pork in this apartment of modern Swedish furniture, the Siamese cat sniffing curiously with a note of slight distaste on its face.
That night Henry could not stay over. But he did give me his address and phone number.
It was now my move.
I moved forward. But with hesitation. I tried to see a life for Henry and myself. I couldn’t. I wasn’t rich. I didn’t have an apartment for him to fix up or a house at the Pines. And even if I had had money I don’t know if I could have entered that world.
I smiled going to sleep that night, thinking of the worlds people can go through but not enter.
When the ex-lover — Marshall’s—parents had been in New York City for a visit, Marshall had taken them to the ballet. His father was in automobile manufacturing.
His father had patiently watched the dancers go through their motions, then had turned to Marshall and said, “What do these people do during the day?”
I, alone in bed, smiled, thinking of Henry, Marshall, Basil, myself. Kisses, lies, hugs, appointments, theatre, dinner, kisses, cruises, curses, tears, kisses.
What do these people do during the day?
Marshall had no work, Basil was program director at a radio station, I was a writer, and Henry — like the tar in Pinafore—was of low condition. He was only a clerk, a shipping clerk.
If the fairies had not protected him, he would have been a manual laborer. He would have gotten good money, had a wife, children, paid for the house, the groceries, gone out with the boys sometimes, drunk sometimes.
But he wouldn’t be sitting alone on Central Park West in good, good sandals waiting for a new White Father.
My sunburnt child was a burnt child. I couldn’t get him to do much after that but come in and sleep over. He had been to the art shows with Marshall, the opera with Marshall, the Broadway and off-Broadway shows with Marshall.
He didn’t realize—although he was my age, in his thirties—that New York is a small town and you are going to have to live each day meeting the thousand people you had wished never to see again. It wasn’t that he was afraid of seeing Marshall at these places. He had seen Marshall again—and, of all places, at the place they had first met, the St. Marc Baths. No. He just didn’t want to do IT again—look at someone for signs of approval.
In the evenings, when we talked, he went over the years with Marshall again, as if drawing a map. There had been the minor defections. Both had been continuously and mildly unfaithful during their five years of love. Now come the big breaks. First one girl, then another. Each girl coming during his vacations, when he went—without Henry—to Mexico, to Nova Scotia. He would meet them—the girls. Pretty nice, obliging, sympathetic. He would tell them of his Problem. They would obligingly set out to cure him.
And then, the vacation over, Marshall would come home with his partial solution, his Girl. He thought he could make the Great Change.
And Henry would stand in this expensive apartment with its Swedish Modern furniture and say, “What will happen to me if you marry?”
And Marshall would stand and hold the Siamese cat and stroke it and stare at Henry and say, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Then it hadn’t worked out with the girls. Marshall would find himself becoming impotent with them and drop them. And then he found Basil—Basil of the hi-fi, the Tiffany lamps and small and select (though inexpensive) objects.
And Henry was sent to wander in rooming houses and hotels without nice furniture or a kitchen to make up meals for his Marshall. Which was a pity, since Henry didn’t have a good stomach and really liked to cook anyway.
What do these people do during the day?
Finally I arranged a day for Henry and myself. We were to go to the Fair together. Sunday morning.
“Come over at nine,” I said.
“No,” he said. “If I’m alone Saturday night I’ll go out and you know I’ll stay out all night long and won’t make it Sunday.”
“What do you want?” I said.
“I’ll come over Saturday night.”
This had been the week before.
That Saturday night he came over. He had brought a copy of Ebony lo read. It was the first time I had ever seen him reading anything.
“I used to read a lot when I was a kid,” he told me. “My father had a little house in the back yard. It was a playhouse for the younger kids. But I took it over—took my books there. I read Forever Amber.”
There was a moment of silence as he wondered to himself how one ever got there, to that world of people who had read Gide, Proust, Camus.
I stared at him, calmly, like a tailor thinking of fitting a suit over a form. Yes, he could take it. He wasn’t very smart — but you don’t have to be. All you have to do is read the right things, know a few passwords. I tried to think of his first reading of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. Then something caught me up. He wouldn’t. I just knew he wouldn’t. There was in him some great reluctance, a terrible holding-back. It was the ONE mistake you couldn’t make. I knew that mistake from writing. There were many writers better than me, more intelligent, more critical, more literate, more full of ideas. But their very virtues told against them. They didn’t write. And he wouldn’t read, just as he wouldn’t go out with me to do so many things.
My burnt child.
I was tired.
I bent over and kissed him.
“No,” he said. “You don’t want that.”
“What?” I asked.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve been out all Friday night. I had it eleven times.”
“Eleven people?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Nine. One screwed me, then went down stairs—this was at the baths—and took a shower and came back a second time. Then in the morning I met a real nice guy I had known before. I call him Prince Charming. And he made it with me and then asked if he could sleep over. I said sure. He sleeps real close. Nice. And then before he left we made it again.”
“Are you injured?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I just don’t feel like doing anything.”
“Okay,” I said, “But we’d better get some sleep if we’re going to the Fair.”
I turned off the light. He moved over and I got into bed.
He was still talking. Now about Marshall, now about Basil, now about himself and Marshall, now about Basil and Marshall, now about me and Basil.
It was angry talk.
I was drifting off to sleep, but I tried to keep awake. I was being accused. Basil was snide. I was snide.
“Basil’s very nice,” I said. “You’ll like him. I’ll get you to meet him.”
“How can I meet him,” he said, “after the things you said about me?”
“What things?” I said.
“You know what things,” he said.
“No—I don’t know what things,” I said. “Tell me.”
He hesitated. “About my intellectual deficiencies,” he said.
I smiled. He had all the hesitation in getting out the words that other people have about sexual matters.
“Stop laughing at me!” he said. “Turn on the light—I want to smoke.”
I got up and turned on the light and came over with the cigarettes, matches and an ashtray.
“I want to tell you something,” he said rapidly.
“It’s three o’clock in the morning,” I said. “Can’t it wait?”
“I want to say it now,” he said.
“Say it now,” I said.
“I’m a whole lot smarter than you think I am,” he said.
“Is that what you wanted to tell me?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I wanted you to know that I could see what you were doing.”
“What was I doing?”
“You were trying to get me attached to you,” he said.
I was silent for a second. “I guess so.”
“But I was too smart for you,” he said. “You and Basil think I’m dumb— you’re laughing behind your backs at me. But let me tell you something, baby. I’m a whole lot smarter than you and Basil, ‘cause I let you be-come attached to me but I didn’t become attached to you.”
I looked at him through my half- opened eyes. He wasn’t looking directly at me, but he was trying to see the effect of [his] words. This, like the account of his eleven-crisis evening, was supposed to set me, I guess. But nothing registered.
“Look,” I said. “Let’s get some sleep We can talk about it in the morning.”
He puffed his cigarette and looked straight in front of him—and then said in a tight voice, “I’m going out.”
Then it hit me.
The terrible-wonderful thing that life was, the absolutely precious thing the company of another person was—things which I had not known—a knowledge Henry had, gathered from his years of life shared with Marshall, and his present Exile. I heard, then, in my ears—as one does at the UN—a translation of his words:
After my years of devotion and service I was shown the door. When he no longer needed to sleep with me he stopped seeing me. I am alone and in Exile.
In my mind’s eye I pictured the stairs leading to my apartment and felt a quick stab of pain in my heart. I remembered the words of Dante:
Tu proverai si come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come’ e duro calle
lo secendere e il salir per l’ altrui scale.
Thou shall make trial how salt doth taste
another’s bread, and how hard the path
to descend and mount another’s stair.
And I heard the unsaid words of Henry:
I will not be trapped in this house as I was in Marshall’s! I would rather be a faceless figure in the baths!
“I’m going to go now,” he said. “Give me my pants.”
“Are you going to cruise?” I asked.
His face contracted in pain. “You shouldn’t ask that,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laid my head against his chest. He did not push me away. I held him, afraid to change my position, afraid to let go.
I could feel his heart beating rapidly, feel cold on the palms of his hands, like the cold on a cat’s paws when it is afraid.
Then the fear began to retreat.
“It isn’t you,” he said. “It isn’t you.” Yes—yes, I knew. The full knowledge had been withheld from me until this night.
Three. There were three sides to the triangle. (1) Henry (2) Basil (3) Marshall.
No side for Leo in the triangle. There is no fourth side to the triangle.
I breathed in deeply, feeling both pain and relief.
His hands, no longer cold, loosed their grip on my back.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to sleep.”
It was almost seven in the morning. Through the slit between the shade and the windowpane I could see the blue-milk color of the early morning sky. The whiteness fell into my eyes, flooding them.
Then I felt Henry’s arm, heavy with sleep, resting on my back.
I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
What do these people do during the day?
©1966, 2019 by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.