An Unexpected Museum
On the morning the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage, Andy began to be haunted by his ex-boyfriends. He had slept late because of a business dinner the night before, and read the news of the ruling on his laptop as he was drinking his first cup of coffee, immediately awed and astonished, proud that the American legal system had finally caught up with social consciousness. But his euphoria was short-lived. As he stepped out of the shower, the ghost of Mark appeared in his bathroom.
“You’ve let yourself go,” Mark said.
“Who let you in?” Andy asked.
“I still had a key,” Mark answered. “Though I didn’t need it. Want to see me walk through a wall?”
“You always were a show-off,” Andy said, reaching for a towel to dry off and preventing the ghost’s further inspection of Andy’s anatomy. Mark had liked to prance around the apartment nude, showing off his trim body and large endowment. Andy was more modest and had grown even more modest with age. At least this ghost of Mark was fully clothed, he thought, although his shirt and jeans are decidedly retro, just like when we had met. Andy wasn’t alarmed by the visit (or visitation). For years he had been having arguments with his least-favorite now-absent-from-his-life boyfriend, wishing for the opportunity to say all of the things he had never had a chance to say when they were together. Truthful, honest thoughts and replies that always devolved into a phrase highlighted by obscenity, such as “Fuck you,” and “You really are a piece of shit.” Now his wish had been granted and he patted down his spiky gray hair and said his favorite response to the ghost of his former boyfriend and then added, “Feel free to walk right back through the closed door you came in through.”
“Aren’t you glad to see me?” Mark asked. “It’s been, what? —Twenty-two years?”
“How time flies when you’re happier.”
“You’ve gotten a gut, you know,” Mark said, smirking and crossing his hands across his chest, as if he had decided to stay and taunt Andy, just as he had done when they were a couple.
“It’s called aging, something you didn’t stick around for.”
“I would never have let that happen to me,” Mark said. “I would have kept up with the gym.”
“You mean the steam room, don’t you?”
“No one ever objected to anything I had to offer.”
“Except the management.”
Andy missed Mark’s retort because he had turned on the hair dryer and was drying his scalp. When he turned it off, Mark leaned in close and said in a loud whisper, “You’ve even got hair growing in your ears!”
Andy found his hair trimmer and waved it at Mark. “You were always pointing out my flaws because you were jealous of my looks,” he said. “That’s another reason why we broke up.”
“I thought we broke up because you were seeing someone else—Geoff, I think that was the guy’s name.”
“We broke up because you started seeing Geoff,” Andy answered. “After I introduced him to you.”
“What’s a little blow job between buddies?”
“You were fooling around with him for months! You took him to Vegas right behind my back! You never could get your story straight.”
“I was never straight a day in my life,” Mark said. “And proud of it.” And then he was gone, disappeared, vanished, not even bothering to dramatically walk through the closed door.
Andy spent some more time arguing with Mark, the absent one, not the ghostly one, as he dressed, checked his work emails on his cellphone, replied to his assistant and a client, and then made his way out into the city. On the morning of the Supreme Court ruling Andy was fifty-nine years old, a baby boomer on the countdown to retirement. He had seen technology change his life—from color TVs to answering machines to video tapes to DVDs to faxes to cellphones to tablets and instant messages. Sometime in his late-forties, after decades of picking the wrong guy, Andy grew tired of dating men who tagged themselves as horny but romantically “unavailable” and became content sleeping alone, and which also gave him the opportunity to focus more on a career and a business. He bought out the retiring owner of the small accounting agency where he had started working after he realized that becoming a successful actor or cabaret singer or even a yoga instructor was an unlikely path and his desire for a company-sponsored health insurance and pension plans became a greater requirement. But all of a sudden thirty-seven to forty-two employees (depending on the season) were his most immediate concern—not securing clients or offering new services—but learning how to balance benefits and raises against profits and losses—and as his office family grew larger his gay one diminished. Like any good businessmen, he added up his pluses and minuses of fate and choice, realizing that even though he was single and unattached and decidedly less gay he had still outlived or outlasted thousands of lovers, partners, boyfriends, tricks, and blind dates. He was lost in this calculation when the ghost of his former boyfriend Jay sat down beside him on the subway.
“Did you read it?” Jay asked, pointing to the cellphone Andy held in his hand.
“Why are you here?” Andy asked. Jay was so thirty years ago, when Andy was in his thirties. They had sung show tunes together every weekend driving to a rented house near the beach.
“Because you want me to be with you.”
“I do not.”
“You need someone to celebrate this historic occasion,” Jay said, and began to read aloud in a grating sing-song way from the ruling that Andy had downloaded onto his cellphone, “No longer may this liberty be denied. No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
“Stop, you’re torturing me.”
“Think of all the history we’ve lived through—Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation, 9/11—and gay history, too—Harvey Milk, Rock Hudson, the March on Washington, and now this!”
“If your mission is to make me feel old, you’ve been successful, so you can go now.”
“You used to be a really nice guy,” Jay said. “Lots of fun to hang out with. Now you’re just mean and boring.”
“When did you change? We never talked about historic moments. You weren’t interested in politics or even paying your share of the rent. We only sang show tunes together. All you wanted to do was to get high or drunk.”
“Was I really that shallow?”
“I never felt more lonely than when I was in a relationship with you. You were always off to meet someone else behind my back. As if I didn’t know about it.”
“Everything is not always one sided. Your side of the story. You are not the only martyr in the world because someone you liked liked someone more than you. And by the way, I only came back to see you today because I forgot to tell you that I loved you,” Jay said.
“You didn’t forget. You told me, then you changed your mind.”
“But you were the one who walked away.”
“How can you say that when you had already left me for somebody else?”
And then Jay was gone, just as the subway car pulled to a stop and the doors sprang open.
The ghost of Paul was waiting for him when Andy entered his office.
“I had a feeling you would be next,” Andy said.
“Isn’t this great? Gay men can get married!”
“Did you forget that you were already married?”
“To a woman. That doesn’t count.”
“It seemed to count when we were together.”
“I didn’t love her.”
“But you wouldn’t leave her. You wouldn’t get a divorce. We could never live together because you didn’t want her to know your dirty little secret even if you got up the courage to divorce her.”
“I had kids. I wasn’t going to leave them.”
“You didn’t want them to know what their daddy was up to. So you gave up on me. Didn’t even say goodbye.”
“It took me months to get over you.”
Andy was grateful when they were interrupted by his assistant, Elaine, knocking on his office door, annoyed about rescheduling a meeting Andy had missed because another one had run late. Elaine was absent more often than she was at her desk—leaving early for a doctor’s appointment or to something before it closed or because her mother or her husband couldn’t do something and she had to do it herself. She took no notice of Paul—why should she, since he was only there to haunt Andy—and she mentioned she would need to leave in an hour to pick up her son from elementary school and that the report she was working on wouldn’t be completed until next week. Andy held his annoyance in check, knew he couldn’t demand of his workers the high standards he held himself accountable. And the truth was, he liked having Elaine around, liked giving her the space he wouldn’t give others, liked hearing her excuses and the sure-to-be follow up anecdotes of blunders and more requests for time off—as if this was his new cross to bear, absent the miserable boyfriends. His life was more complex now, he convinced himself, filled with meetings and conferences, reviewing reports and presentations, entertaining clients and keeping employees inspired. But even with Elaine and the thirty-six to forty-one others in the office, at the end of the day, Andy still went home to an empty apartment. And he knew on those days when the ex-boyfriends weren’t haunting him, loneliness was.
“You should take the rest of the day off, too,” Paul said mockingly, when Elaine had left the office. “I heard a lot of guys are looking for you today. Word is out that you were once a heartbreaker too.”
“Unfortunately, I have a lot of people who rely on me. I have obligations now.”
“Look who’s finally the responsible one! You’ve turned yourself into a straight man.”
“What does that mean?”
Paul waved his hands dramatically around Andy’s office. “Show me one thing in here that proves you are a modern gay man? I bet you don’t’ even have a dildo in your drawer.”
“Paul, this is not the appropriate place…”
“You’re mocking me.”
“I bet you can’t even tell me the last time you had sex with a guy,” Paul said.
“Even the art in here is dreadful. A blurry photo of downtown? Where’s the Warhol? You can afford it now.”
“I’m an accountant. I don’t spend money. I only make sure the math is correct!”
“How gay is that? I bet you wouldn’t even give all of this up if I told you you were the one and only one for me.”
“You’re dead and even if you weren’t, you’re dead to me!”
“See, now it’s you doing it. You’re breaking my heart.”
Andy ignored Paul, downloading a spreadsheet that showed the expenses he bore for his employees over the last three years. His business dinner the night before had been with his attorney, discussing an offer an international firm had made to acquire his company. The offer was too good to refuse—but the acquisition would mean terminating several employees. Andy went down the list of the potential candidates for severance—all of them invaluable to him and the company. What would happen with Ben? he thought. Would he become homeless? Would Carson become an addict? Would Gina file bankruptcy?
“You used to be so proud,” Gus said. “Marching, chanting, zapping.”
Andy looked up from his dual computer screens and saw Gus standing before his desk, as handsome as he was thirtysomething years before. Andy and Gus had marched together in pride parades, demonstrated against pharmaceutical companies, testified before investigation committees. In the end, Andy had become Gus’s care partner in the last year of Gus’s life.
“They didn’t expunge my arrest record, you know,” Andy said. “It cost me a lot when I needed a loan.”
“And look at you now. One of them. I would have never thought you would become a capitalist.”
“I’m not,” Andy said. “And I’m not part of the one-percent, either. I’m as broke as I always was. I’m just a formal part of the system now.”
“But you know all the ins and outs. All the dirty little corporate secrets instead of the sexy ones.”
“Only a few. And they’re called loopholes.”
“But you’re the boss.”
“More like the guy behind the curtain.”
“But in charge?”
“If you say so.”
“So you’ll introduce me to the cute guy in the last cubicle?”
The comment exasperated Andy. He knew who Gus was referring to—Jason, the extraordinarily good-looking twentysomething accountant Andy had hired a few months before.
“Even if you were alive, you’re too old for him. He could be your grandson.”
“How do you know he doesn’t like older men?”
“Well, for one, I don’t know whose team he’s on. And as his employer, I am not allowed to solicit that kind of information from him.”
“My gaydar is still working and it is pointing directly at him.”
“After all I did for you, this is what I get? You’d steal the only good looking guy in the office right from under my nose so I can’t even have age-inappropriate indecent thoughts?”
“I’m not the enemy,” Gus said. “I’ve always been on your side. I always wanted you to be happy. Or to find happiness.”
“What’s it like being dead?”
“Empty. You’d even be bored. But I have to tell you something before I go.”
“You always had to have the last word.”
“This shouldn’t stop you.”
“What shouldn’t stop me?”
“This—” Gus said, waving his ghostly arms around the room. “This office, this business, these employees. You’re using this as an excuse not to live your life.”
“You’re wrong. This is my life.”
“You’re gay. Have you forgotten that?”
When Andy didn’t answer, Gus said, “So I don’t want to hear any complaints when I steal that young man from you.”
“My hands are tied. He’s all yours.”
Gus disappeared, and Andy began to fret that it would be Jason he would have to terminate, who would be out of job, who would suffer disappointment, and out of need and necessity would end up with a gorgeous boyfriend like Gus who would eventually dump him and break his heart. And that Andy would be the cause of it—that because he would be laid off, Jason might never reach his full potential. And this would also be all of Andy’s fault.
The ghost of Dan found Andy a few minutes later in the restroom, in a stall where Andy was seated with his forehead pressed into his hands, worrying about the employees he would have to terminate.
“We could do it here,” Dan said, whispering in his ear. “Stand up and spread your legs a bit.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, just horny, like you.”
“This is not the place. Or the time.”
“Which only makes it hotter. Dangerous. Exciting.”
“Don’t you realize—it wasn’t just sex.”
“But the sex was great.”
“But it was all you were interested in—and it wasn’t enough to keep you around. Now go away.”
When Andy returned to his office, his worries grew deeper, and his memories continued to haunt him, as if he had wandered unexpectedly into a museum of his past relationships. For more than forty years he had tried everything to meet the right man: bathhouses, personal ads, hotlines, speed dating, chatrooms, sex clubs, social apps. No one wanted love more than he did. But he had the uncanny ability of choosing the wrong man, always a guy who wanted someone else. But was it them or was it me? he thought. Whose fault was it? Was I the lousy boyfriend? Were my standards too high? Did I expect too much of others?
When he looked up again from his dual computer screens, there was a crowd of men glaring through the sliding glass door which separated Andy’s office from his employees. All of them the ghosts of former lovers. Dead, horny, unavailable.
“Go away, all of you,” Andy said. “There’s nothing here. There’s nothing left.”
But he couldn’t look away from the crowd of men who had shown up to torment him. He was counting, recognizing, when his office phone rang.
“You’re not answering any of my texts,” a voice said harshly.
“You promised when this happened you would be there for me,” Sam said. He had the same annoyed tone that Andy’s assistant Elaine had had earlier. As if Andy were not doing enough and not doing it fast.
“Where are you?” Andy asked.
“We’re downtown. Waiting for you.”
Sam was the first guy Andy had slept with. They had met in college, paired together in chemistry lab. But their friendship had grown when they had both joined the glee club, then the drama society, and then pledged the same fraternity. Sam had taken Andy to his first gay disco, his first gay bar, his first bathhouse, his first pride march. They had made it through the death of Sam’s father and brother, Andy’s mother and nephew. Sam had never wanted to settle down with Andy, but Andy had never wanted to have Sam absent from his life, so their friendship had endured decades. Andy had accepted things about Sam that had infuriated him in others. They had traveled together to Florida and California and London and Tokyo. They spoke on the phone every other day. Sam had been there through Mark and Gus and Dan and Paul and Jay, just as Andy had been there for Sam through Wayne and Ralph and George, and finally when Sam had met and settled down with Phil. Andy often thought Sam might be the last link to his gay life. And now he had forgotten the promise he had made to Sam—that he would be there for him.
Andy found his jacket and hurriedly left the office, leaving all his ex-boyfriends to stare at an empty chair. But on the subway downtown to meet Sam, the ghost of Mark found Andy again.
“I can make my body split apart,” Mark said. “Want me to show you?”
“Not necessary,” Andy said. “Do you really need to torture me?”
“I come in peace,” Mark answered, holding up two ghostly fingers for Andy to see.
“That’s so unlike you.”
“But you’re never gonna be rid of me. Our lives are entwined forever.”
“Please tell me that is impossible and a lie.”
“I’ve made an impression on you,” Mark said. “I’m up there.”
Mark took his two fingers and tapped them against Andy’s skull, or at least tried to.
“You made your mark, so to speak,” Andy said.
“Clever. Your wit always impressed me.”
“Flattery got you everywhere. And then nowhere. Why are you here?”
“To remind you of your faults.”
“That’s so like you.”
“Right, huh? Let’s start with the weight.”
“I’m almost sixty, why should that be a problem?”
“It’s holding you back.”
“From meeting someone.”
“Are you body shaming me?”
“Is it working?”
“Go away,” Andy said. “Where’s Geoff? Why don’t you go haunt him?”
“Oh, Geoff got married when it became legal in Boston.”
“Then go find someone else to stalk.”
Exiting the subway, Mark faded away as Andy outran him up the stairs. Andy walked a few blocks huffing from the exertion, lost in thoughts about being too heavy, too out of shape, only surfacing to consciousness when he noticed that photographers and camera crews were outside the building where the marriage bureau was located, circling around couples who wore rainbow sashes and waved rainbow flags to gather illustrations and sound bytes for the evening news. Andy felt odd without arriving with some kind of gift for the newly-to-be-happier couple, so he stopped and bought a small bouquet of multi-colored flowers from a street vendor before finding Sam and his partner Phil inside. He kissed both men on the cheeks in greeting and handed the bouquet to Sam. The couple was stylishly dressed in white shirts, black ties, and gray suits, red carnations in each of their lapels. Their happiness was infectious, and Andy shook hands with Ian, who was there as Phil’s best man.
Slowly, Andy’s circulation calmed, his breathing became regular, though now Andy’s thoughts of high blood pressure and unexpected heart attacks worried him. The small group waited in the corridor outside the chapel as other couples went in to have the ceremony performed by a city officiate. There was a gleeful communion between all those gathered in the hallway, and Phil and Sam struck up a conversation with the lesbian couple waiting behind their group, while Andy eavesdropped on the conversation Ian was having with the two gay men ahead of them while answering work emails on his cellphone. Gina was writing to see if Alan had a copy of the new statutory audit requirements. A client had accepted a meeting invite that Elaine had rescheduled. Ben was forwarding a request for information the state had sent to the firm. The steady river of business emails continued until Andy finally had to step away from it.
Inside the chapel, the wedding party was greeted by the city officiate who wore a pale blue suit and had a bushy moustache. He reminded Andy of a guy he had dated back in the late Seventies, when bushy moustaches were all the vogue, but he let the memory fade away quickly, worried that another ghost might appear and stalk him. Sam placed the bouquet of flowers on a chair as they stood before the officiate. Andy tried to hold his cellphone steady and take pictures as the vows were exchanged, but by the end of the ceremony, he was simultaneously smiling and sobbing with happiness and all he was able to capture were blurs of joy.
As Andy was exiting the chapel, a thickly built man with a salt and pepper goatee and wearing a ridiculously bright rainbow bow tie who was with the lesbian couple touched him on the sleeve of his jacket and said, “Don’t forget the flowers!” and Andy, embarrassed, retrieved the bouquet from the chair where Sam had left it.
Back outside the building, Andy said goodbye to the couple and Ian. Everyone was on their way to other appointments. Sam and Phil would have a party on Sunday, Sam said, and he pressed Andy to make sure he would show up.
“Of course,” Andy answered. “You’re so lucky. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
They parted at the subway stop. Andy needed to find an ATM before he returned to the office. Ian hailed a taxi and disappeared.
At the bank, Andy checked the transaction history of his bank account, then stood in the lobby and read more work emails. In the time since he had left the office word had leaked of the proposed sale of the company. Gina was now asking how she could take a loan from her 401(k). Ben was worried a client wouldn’t accept an assignment and assumption agreement if the sale went through. Andy’s cellphone rang and he saw that it was Elaine calling him from her home, no doubt trying to confirm the office gossip. He let the call go into voicemail.
He allowed his worries to follow him out onto the street. Andy hadn’t prepared himself for breaking the news to his employees of the impending sale so soon and it wasn’t like him to be at a loss for explanations or plans. He always tried to think things carefully through before he acted or reacted. Sometimes to exhaustion. Andy wasn’t even certain there was a position for himself once the transaction was complete. He might be the one most likely to lose his job. What would happen then?
Andy wandered through the queer euphoria that was accumulating and escalating in the park that surrounded City Hall, aware only now that he still carried the bouquet he had bought for Phil and Sam as he tucked his cellphone into the pocket of his jacket. He thought about tossing the flowers into the trash because he wanted his hands free, to be able to knead his fingers together with worry, but he couldn’t part with the sentiment the flowers held. He wasn’t the sort of guy to toss the memory away, no matter how many invisible arguments he had, no matter how annoyed and hurt and frustrated he was, no matter how straight his life had become. Memory was memory. It was a part of him, just as Mark had reminded him. Perhaps Andy would have the bouquet preserved, pressed into a keepsake he could give to Sam and Phil as a wedding present.
When he reached City Hall, Andy found a bench opposite the building, sat down and had a strong cry, releasing both his joy and frustration. Then he sat calmly and played witness to the fascination of city life, watching others move around him with a purpose he had shed for a few minutes. He thought about the future, his future—about selling the company, about retiring, about traveling to all the places he had never been before, about learning new languages, about exercising again and losing all the extra weight he had gained once he had become the boss. Sixty was approaching speedily. How many years did he have left to enjoy? Was time running out? Was it time to get in shape, get things in order?
A few minutes later Andy recognized a man walking across the park. At first he thought it was the ghost of another boyfriend hunting him, then he realized it was the man with the goatee and bright colored bow tie who had been with the lesbian couple at the marriage bureau, the one who had reminded Andy of the forgotten bouquet. The man nodded as he approached Andy and sat down on the bench beside him. He smiled tentatively and dropped his eyes to the flowers that rested on the bench between them. In a soft voice, he asked, “Are you Andy? Andy Bowen?”
Andy turned and nodded, though he was worried this man was a ghost and not a real person.
“We had a mutual friend. Long ago. Keith Howell. I recognized you from his funeral. We met then.”
“Keith? Yes.” Andy nodded and pressed his lips together, feeling uneasy with this memory. Keith had died in the early Nineties. “I wished I could have helped him more,” Andy added. “But Gus was sick too, and I didn’t have the…”
“This probably sounds funny,” the man said, interrupting Andy’s loss of words. “But Keith kept telling me I should call you up and ask you out.”
“Keith?” Andy asked. “But Keith never gave me a chance.”
The man looked directly at Andy then and their eyes locked. After a moment he introduced himself as Nick. They spoke some more about Keith, about the years that had passed, and their lives in the city. Finally, Nick said, “I thought I would get some coffee. Would you like to join me?”
Andy regarded the invitation as if it held a secret formula he would only discover at a later date, but he answered instinctively, following the impression he felt in his oversized gut. “Yes. That would be nice.”
The two men stood up together and Andy awkwardly retrieved the bouquet from the bench, wondering why he suddenly felt lightheaded and giddy, as if he was embarking on something for the first time.
As they walked away, Andy felt Nick place his hand against the small of Andy’s back, as if it had always been there, as if it were the perfect place to be.
Jameson Currier is the author seven novels, four collections of short stories, and a memoir. He is the editor and publisher of Chelsea Station.