The holiday drinks thing at Sam’s place was meant to be low-key, but wound up feeling funereal. The others hadn’t seen Sam in months, since his stroke; and now, for the first time, they saw what I saw: he seemed elderly. A retired interior designer of some note, Sam was decades older than the rest of us, seventy-one, but socially he’d long played in our groove, as it were. In all the summers the five of us spent out in the Pines in the same rented house, with and without the not-quite-boyfriends any of us might have brought along for a weekend, Sam, always buoyant, was game with a youngishness that people often remarked upon, a quality that explained how he attracted much younger not-quite-boyfriends, and suggested how vital he must have been at their age. One of his favorite art forms was dance, so he served on the board of a hot-and-happening contemporary dance company, one of whose twenty-something performers he’d been seeing for a year before the stroke. But now, despite his trademark handsome white crew cut and trim white beard, Sam was suddenly another person—frail, hesitant, his once icy blue eyes a little milky—and the dancer, gone.
Around Thanksgiving, Sam told me he was feeling lonely, so I volunteered to put something together for him. A four-to-six p.m., Sunday at-home in his apartment in the West Village was what he wanted, for the five of us housemates, plus a few of his other friends. And on the particular Sunday we settled on, a week before Christmas, it turned out that that timing was perfect to sync with the date I had made for seven that evening with the guy I’d been seeing, an actor named Alastair. I knew that Sam’s might be dismal, so I arranged to meet Alastair afterward.
“That’s the way it happens sometimes,” said Vincent, when I called him about the party. “You stay strong and with-it into your seventies or even eighties, then boom, you hit a wall or something. Rather than, you know, a gradual fade.” Vincent was the richest guy in our little circle, though he often told the story of his mom and him being homeless for several months when he was a kid. The year before, he’d allowed Sam to hold a dance company fundraiser for a hundred people at his sprawling Tribeca duplex—as much to populate his living room with hot dancer boys, I thought, as to support a fragile art form.
“He was doing so well in rehab,” I said. “But he’s still slurring words, getting confused by the simplest computer stuff.”
“Poor soul,” said Vincent.
“Then you can come? The others are coming.”
“Of course they’re coming. How could we say no? Sure, I’ll be there. It’s so nice of you to do this for him.”
I’d also repainted Sam’s bathroom, after he came home from rehab and discovered that a leak there had been sloppily repaired during his absence. Of the five of us, I was the one who stayed closest to Sam after the stroke. Automatically—but certainly not because I had any more time on my hands than the rest of us, to help with doctor visits and shopping errands—Sam and I shifted from the kind of casual, mutually respectful friendship that makes for good housemates at the beach to a care-partner level of companionship that I wasn’t prepared for but didn’t hate. It was simply new territory for an old buddy. He didn’t return my calls about final party arrangements, on the day before and the morning of the thing, which was typical; and he’d ignored all the menu suggestions I emailed him earlier in the week. Sam could find himself daunted these days by even tiny tasks, I knew, which frustrated and sometimes frightened him, and which dissolved any shortness I had in response to his lapses in an ocean of patience I was surprised to find growing within me. I’d never been a particularly patient person; in fact, I resist becoming one, since I associate my previous, well-documented habit of impatience in some way with the glory of youth and the privilege of a leadership position in a large media company. Yet here was Sam, once the owner of an elegant shop off Madison, now reduced to a slow decline that was probably permanent, which meant a different kind of relationship between him and his friends, him and life.
I arrived at his place that day around one and found him discarding the remains of a frozen burrito he’d microwaved for lunch—dismaying, as Sam had always loved to cook. But I stayed cheerful and gave him the task of trimming the little tree I’d brought and set up in the living room. Desultorily he went about it, after the drama of locating the Christmas ornaments. Meanwhile, I did a quick spruce of the toilet bowl and bathroom sink, and concluded I couldn’t do much about the rest of the place, which was luxurious in an overstuffed 1980s way but never updated and now noticeably undusted. Sam hadn’t gotten around to replacing his cleaning lady, who’d chosen the moment of his stroke to retire. Around two I went out again, for the wine and nibbles. Is there a word for the love one feels for someone who’s no longer an equal, I wondered—”pity,” perhaps? That wasn’t the way I would frame the thought, if it came up later that day among the rest of us, but it was the way the thought hung in my mind as I went back out into the mess.
It was a gray and sleety day, the mien of which harmonized with the silvery décor of Sam’s building lobby—a pre-War Deco scheme that had been renovated in the ‘70s with a ‘70s idea about Deco. The West Village, too, was a tasteful renovation now, having evolved from a bohemian enclave that retained some spirit of the rural village it was two centuries before, to a domain for the comfy elite, complete with photo-spread homes and upscale boutiques. Gone from these blocks was all evidence of social protest and louche antics. Bleecker Street was now as decorous as Madison Avenue—the Christmas decorations in store windows as clever, the shoppers as blithe. Off-the-grid possibilities had moved out of the Village and, really, out of Manhattan. A plaque would be nice, I thought as I passed a luxury-brand bakery in whose doorway, late one night in a bygone summer, when the place was a mom-and-pop hardware store, I had received a monumental blowjob from a coked-up stranger. Inside, a couple of quilted-parka-clad gay men were selecting from a tray of colorful macarons while sipping complimentary champagne from crystal flutes.
Just as I got back to Sam’s place, Vincent texted for the address. I gave it to him once more. “What ru doing for new years, btw?” he added. “Am having a small party.” Since Vincent’s parties were often big and bouncy, I assumed “a small party” might mean twenty or thirty, which sounded like a nice, civilized idea for New Year’s Eve.
“Haven’t thought about it,” I texted back. “But any party of yours sounds like fun. Count me in.”
“Wonderful. 9 sharp. And look sharp as you always do.”
Luthor, TJ, and Robb arrived at four on the dot, not having to be told that the time was selected because it was when, during Sam’s day, he expected to have the most energy. Vincent came late, as if this were any old get-together—though he did bring with him a pretty box of macarons. And as good as it was to see everyone, and to meet the other guys whom Sam asked me to invite, the cheer felt a little pressure-cooked, since for most of the party we were all assembled in a clump in the living room, engaged in a single conversation, without an opportunity to break into little tête-à-têtes and small groups, the way parties usually did. It felt more like a meeting than anything else, or perhaps a viewing. We sat there trying to entertain Sam, and he, feebly, us. And for the five of us housemates, the gathering had the added resonance of a commemorative reunion, since we knew we’d never be together at the beach house again. Robb, from whom we rented the place, had had to sell it. A real estate deal had gone wrong for him, and he’d lost the better part of his capital. He’d moved from a splendid place in Chelsea, comprising two apartments he bought and combined, to a second-story floor-through rental in Sunset Park, halfway to Bay Ridge.
Friends would remain friends, we all said, when the subject came up and we raised our glasses—and without heed for the other guests we binged for a moment on some Pines reminiscence: Sam’s morning trips to the Pantry for croissants and the Times; Doug’s welcome efforts to keep the towels freshly laundered; Vincent’s tendency to treat us housemates to expensive bottles of wine (and his tales of occasional visits to the dick dock between tea and dinner); TJ’s epic skills at the grill; my own willingness to get the dishes in and out of the dishwasher every day. I always thought our long summer weekends were a nice, modern-day version of “a house party of many guests,” as my great-grandmother, the Irish matriarch, my family’s own Rose Kennedy, might have put it. Ironically, she’d grown up in a big house not far from the Pines, across the sound on Long Island, where her emigrant family settled in 1849.
Actually, I was the one out there least likely to have or find a not-quite-boyfriend. My first season was right after Hudson left me; this was before the group gelled and the rental thing was established, and Robb invited me as a guest, to recuperate. But ours was never that kind of house. We were professional gay men who worked and cooked and read books by the pool, not party animals. Mornings were quiet, with people on their laptops; we joked that the dining table often looked like something from an Apple showroom. Afternoons meant the pool and the ocean, evenings meant a “look in” at tea and then dinner at home en groupe around eleven or midnight. Hardly ever did anyone, least of all me, bring someone home from tea or a party or something. The vibe was genial, even gracious—and for me, oh, it took years after Hudson for my spirit to right itself, so genial was all I wanted. Which is why my new crush, Alastair, has been so seismic. I wasn’t even physically attracted to him at first—which is the way it started between Hudson and me, and is also, of course, a distinctly un-Fire Island-like way of going about things. Alastair and I met at the reading of a mutual friend’s play, chatted afterward, and really hit it off. Attraction—wild attraction!—erupted only a few weeks later, with crazy energy. Neither of us knows where it’s going, but I think we both know it’s going somewhere.
Alastair texted me around five. “Rehearsal’s going late, sorry. Can we meet at 8, same place?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Dinner’s on me.”
“Unless you want me to meet you at your friend’s thing.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, darling. Tell ya why later. Meanwhile, we’re invited to my friend Vincent’s place on New Year’s Eve. I think you guys will like each other. He’s a corporate lawyer, but supports the arts.”
As the afternoon wore on, conversation moved from disability insurance to demographic changes in the city, to gay marriage—the latter which cued a round of pleasant clucking about Vincent’s recent marriage to his boyfriend Emilio, whom he’d known for less than a year. There had been a small family wedding that none of us was invited to—odd, we thought, since Vincent loved to throw big parties with bartenders and waiters—and they’d honeymooned at a schloss on the Danube. Then Vincent surprised us all by saying he and Emilio were “pregnant with twins.” More congratulations, which were perhaps the more ardent for being unconnected to any idea leading back to a stroke. Vincent explained that he and Emilio had contracted with an agency to adopt two children to be birthed by surrogates. The newlyweds had met both women and liked them. Semen was commingled and exchanged. The conversation moved on after a word from Vincent about surrogacy law gave way to a round of thoughtful but silent nodding.
At which point I piped up with something stupid.
“So you’re assured you won’t have any post-partum harpies stalking up your driveway, demanding their spawn.”
“What do you mean?” said Vincent.
“Well, you keep hearing about these hormone-crazed girls who want their babies back.” I had just seen Baby Mama on television, but really, there was no excuse for such a tactless remark. Instantly I regretted it. These were Vincent’s children we were talking about, after all.
But he maintained what I thought was cheer, as TJ made a little joke about how much fun it was going to be for Vincent and Emilio to shop for baby clothes. Everyone laughed.
“I always wanted kids…,” said Sam, prompting another thud of silence. For years Sam was the alpha gay guy, defined by all things that connoted alpha in our world: money, good looks, great press—Vanity Fair had covered his sixty-fifth birthday. Now the idea of having kids was over for him, though he’d probably not put a lid on that box until forced to by our jolly little get-together. For the third time that day, talk turned to the yucky weather.
It was when I started to apologize to Vincent, a little later, in the kitchen, where he’d gone for a drink of water, that I realized I had truly displeased him—not by making a joke at the expense of his future children, but, I think, by implicitly challenging his legal expertise.
“I was completely out of line,” I said. “Really, I am most desperately sorry. I just didn’t know.... you know, this afternoon, with this get-together… what to say.”
“No worries,” said Vincent, coolly. “But I have gone over these risks with the agency. They’re the top people.”
“Of course. You and Emilio are so lucky,” I said, trying to steer the conversation in a positive direction. “Not only to have met and decided to take these great steps together, but the house and all….” Vincent had bought a house upstate the previous spring, and with astonishing speed redid it completely with a famous designer, including a nursery. He had also installed a swimming pool and landscaped terrace that were ready for use by July.
“Oh, yes, well…,” he said.
“Fatherhood is a very special thing.”
“That’s what Emilio keeps saying.”
“Who would have thought this possible for you, the star of the dick dock?” This last remark was not out of line, since I was always the one to whom Vincent felt most comfortable confessing his nastiest beach exploits.
“Well, sure…,” he said, with a trace of pride in a certain eminence that I suddenly realized he was trying to put behind him, now that he was a husband and father-to-be.
Then Vincent asked me how I was doing, and I told him about Alastair.
“I guess it’s as serious as anything,” I said. “I mean, I could even see us getting married. I guess. And you know better than the others what this means to me, because we’ve talked so much about it—that I was afraid it wasn’t going to happen for me again.”
“Anyway, good for you,” said Vincent.
I was surprised that he didn’t want to know more about Alastair, but happy not to have to explain why I found this particular guy so great. I wasn’t sure why, myself! And there was the party to get back to. As Vincent and I stepped back into the living room I mentioned that I’d probably bring Alastair with me on New Year’s Eve.
The others were discussing the new Federal guidelines for Fire Island beach reconstruction as Vincent and I reseated ourselves, but soon it was clear the party was over. People started rising, talking about where they were going next, how much fun it was to get together, how great Sam was looking. And after a flurry of coats and hugs and promises to get together and admonitions to stay warm, the house was empty.
I cleaned up while chatting with Sam, who seemed happy but depleted. Then I went off to meet Alastair. He and I had a nice little dinner at a restaurant we like in Chelsea. I told him all about the party and how sad it was to see Sam in such a reduced state, but that I took solace in the fact that, until faced with the actual loss of my friend, I would remain focused on the new splendors that often take the place of old splendors that are lost. With that sly but sincere smile I have come to adore so much, and reaching across the table to take my hand, Alastair agreed.
It was just after I’d said goodnight to Alastair outside the subway station—we were going home that night in different directions—when Vincent texted me again.
It was good to see you, and Sam seems OK. We’re gonna catch up after the new year. Listen my New Years thing started as a dinner party and there’ll only be about 15 there all people I know very well. I was a bit surprised you planned to bring someone I don’t know. While happy for you to have a new love interest I think it would be better if you spend new year with your new man and let’s plan to get together properly after the 1st. We probably could talk about a lot of things.
For a moment, I was stunned. I’d never been disinvited from a party before. I checked the original text, just to see if there was any explicit mention of dinner, as in sit-down, which would have caused me to pause and think carefully, with family matriarchs somewhere in mind, about whether or not one was being invited as a “single man,” to balance out a table or something. Even now, I know several uptown ladies who operate this way, and they have their way of communicating such situations smoothly, using the right language. Yet Vincent had only said “a small party.” And then I remembered that, in parting Sam’s, Luthor said he and his new boyfriend were going to that party—apparently among the people whom Vincent knew “very well.” So why not me? I thought. Was this about my stupid remark? Had something made me less attractive as a friend or a guest?
I texted back.
Of course, of course, I didn’t realize it was to be quite so intime. Let’s get together after the turn of the year. Am off to LA for the holidays. Great to see you.
I had to chuckle. On one level, the disinvitation was comically clumsy. The bad manners of it, even its ham-handed phrasing, were quite out of sync with the gracious lifestyle that Vincent seemed bent on pursuing, with his fine wines and week-long stays in five-star relais and chateaux. On another level, I was disappointed that my buddy who’d recently landed the husband he’d long wanted was indifferent to my own significant step in that direction. Chats about the dick dock had often given way to girlish mooning about marriage; and—Jesus!— shouldn’t Vincent be excited that I’d found someone I deemed worthy of bringing to his damned home…?
The matter might simply admit no explanation, I realized. If I’m invited upstate next spring, we’ll see how things feel then. And if I’m not, well, no big deal.
Vincent texted back: “Wonderful we’ll pick a date. Enjoy LA.”
I stood there trying to compose a text to follow, just to keep things seemly, in case I had misunderstood something. But then I caught sight of a full-size, leather-clad Santa Claus, pictured in a copper tinsel-trimmed liquor store window, pouring premium scotch into a dog dish labeled “Fred”— and I suddenly felt ridiculous for trying to calibrate a breezy text message that my great-grandmother would approve of. Fuck breezy, I thought. So I scrapped the text and descended into the subway, careful not to slip on the ice.
Stephen Greco is the author of the novels Now and Yesterday, Dreadnought, The Culling, and Other People’s Prayers. His short stories have appeared in Chelsea Station, Boyfriends From Hell, Queer and Catholic, and several other anthologies, including volumes of the Men On Men and Flesh and the Word series. His first book, a collection of erotic fiction and non-fiction entitled The Sperm Engine was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.