Mary Ann had asked them to get to her condo in Sonoma two hours before the fireworks. The park filled up early and she wanted to make sure there was space for the whole gang to claim a spot.
“We’ll be there,” Robert promised. ”We’re skipping the barbeque. You know how long it takes Will to get out of the house.”
They really should have left by now. He stood at the bedroom door watching Will, dressed in an olive green polo and boxer shorts, sort through a humped mountain of pants piled on their bed. He was fretting about which pair of khakis would best survive the grass stains and wine spills.
“Why not go with jeans or shorts,” suggested Robert, trying his best to be patient.
“Jeans are so pedestrian and it’ll be too cold for shorts. We froze our asses off last year.”
He remembers, thought Robert. Strange how sharp Will could be at times, then just bonkers. The doctors told them this was normal after brain trauma. Memory function should improve with time, but no guarantees.
He was numbed by it all at first, protected from reality by disbelief. Then grief set in, so deep and cutting he wondered if he would survive it. After Will was released and Robert took a leave of absence from the museum, he sometimes felt trapped, like an actor contractually obligated to perform in a reality show.
Friends asked him if he was angry the driver was never caught. He told them that punishing the perpetrator would not undo what had undone Will. He was angry about what happened, that Will was damaged and would never be the same man he dated, courted and married. He did not add that he was angry at himself for not yet fully accepting the damaged Will.
One day last week Robert returned home after running errands and found him stringing a network of lines between the side of the garage and the back of the house. Will explained it was for hanging the wash, recalling how his mother dried clothes in summer. Robert explained that no one did that anymore, showing him the washer and dryer in the laundry room and demonstrating how they worked.
“Oh, yeah,” was all Will said.
Robert wasn’t always so forbearing. He had to keep reminding himself it was the accident that caused these lapses, not his husband’s fault.
In the seminary, exercising patience was his biggest challenge, an only child thrown into a family of brothers enjoined by the Franciscans to silently repeat Corinthians 13:4 whenever they became annoyed or angry. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
Will held up a light khaki and a darker pair Robert purchased for himself at Banana Republic. “What do you think?”
“Whatever. Just put one of them on, for God sakes! We have to go.”
Will screwed up his face, looking hurt. “Help me please.”
Robert sighed. “The dark ones. They look warmer.”
Will considered, then tossed the other pair onto the bed. “With you in a jiffy.” He smiled, the dazzling smile that first attracted Robert on the Atlantis cruise to Mexico years ago.
Will had lost weight, fifteen pounds at last count, since he was taken to the ER that night six months ago. They were now the same size. Mary Ann said they really had begun to look alike, a long-married couple even though they exchanged vows at City Hall only two years ago, married by an elderly justice of the peace with a Dutch accent who hesitated at their names, then pronounced them “man and wife.” Will laughed. Robert felt cheated of their moment.
After the ceremony, their friends took them to lunch at Zuni, and again Robert felt let down—not by Ben and Paul, Mary Ann and Sheila—but by the haughty attitude of the wait staff who treated them as a nuisance, a party prolonging their shift.
Robert grabbed two bottles of wine from the kitchen counter on his way out. The garage door rolled up with a rattle and he pulled the Jeep onto the driveway. To his surprise, Will was waiting for him at the end of the sidewalk, dropping his windbreaker along with a Trader Joe’s bag onto the floor of the backseat.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Aren’t we supposed to bring wine?”
“I told you I had it covered.”
“I don’t remember.” Will’s tone was defensive.
“I’m sorry, Will.” Robert felt guilt invading and beat it back. Love was supposed to conquer all, but apparently not always. Shitty realities came along with love too.
For some reason, he thought of the lyrics to a song he used to roller-skate to in the basement of his boyhood home.
He played his mother’s Billie Holiday albums along with show-tunes, rolling across the concrete floor wearing a sheet tied around his head like a bridal veil. He forfeited the skates and show-tunes years before entering the seminary. He didn’t like musicals now, and saw them only because Will liked them: one of a thousand compromises people make to mutate into a couple, a singular noun defining two, accommodations that supposedly made you a better person. He had drawn the line, though, at paying good money to see Mamma Mia.
“What is it?’ Will studied him quizzically.
“Oh, just how strange life is.’
“Tell me.” Will meant it as an affirmation, not a request.
* * *
The drive from their house on Vicente was mostly downhill to the freeway. If only everything could be this easy, thought Robert. He spotted the jam-up of cars on the 80 heading west into San Francisco and elsewhere, carrying families anticipating the late afternoon sun and barbeques, looking forward to helping their kids light sparklers and hoping fog wouldn’t ruin Fourth of July fireworks.
The traffic going east was lighter. He might make up for some lost time.
“You shouldn’t store air freshener in the medicine cabinet,” Will declared.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s easy to confuse with the cologne.” Will offered his wrist for Robert to smell. Mango peach.
“How’d you manage that?”
“I wanted to smell nice. It was on the bottom shelf.”
Oh yes, Robert thought, the pink and green-colored ‘Mango Fruit’ bottle was a dead ringer for Calvin Klein’s “Eternity.” Will never used to wear cologne, claiming it was pretentious, minor evidence of a man who had been altered.
He sped through the Fastrac lane on the Carquinez Bridge. Sad-looking motels, fast food restaurants, a boarded-up Family Diner and auto body shops lined this strip and always depressed him. He heard Vallejo’s waterfront was being revitalized. Two of their friends renting in San Francisco were considering buying a house there. It’s really quite nice,” they claimed. “We can actually afford three bedrooms and a view.” Yeah, and live next door to a meth lab, Robert was tempted to say.
The exit to the 37 curved past Six Flags Marine World, the Medusa’s metal monolith looming over the vast filled parking lot.
“Can we go sometime? Will asked. “Maybe on Pride night.”
The former Will would never— “Okay. We can do that if you like.” Did Six Flags have a Pride night? Will would probably forget anyway.
One moment irritated by Will’s forgetfulness, then banking on it the next. Everyone championed their own agendas in relationships, but he held an unfair advantage with Will. Guilt again.
He decided to take the 12 to Sonoma through rolling hills and vineyards, veering north via Napa.
“Why are you going this way?”
Will apparently remembered there was an alternative route. “The 37 can be a pain in the ass on holidays. NASCAR at the speedway, cars cutting across from the 80 to the 101. Besides, this way will be prettier.”
As if contradicting his assertion, they passed a Walmart and a McDonald’s. “Hey,” exclaimed Will. “There’s a drive-through Caffino kiosk here. For people in a hurry to get more in a hurry!”
“They have drive-through funeral parlors in Southern California.”
“No way. Death on the run.” Will snickered.
Robert’s throat constricted. That was nearly Will’s fate, a hit-and-run. One moment jogging alongside the road, the next hugging a tree, blinded by blood streaming from his forehead. Robert was at a meeting that evening with the museum’s director. Will said he’d fix something for dinner after his run and a shower. “Shower” was their code for sex. He got the call at his meeting and rushed to Kaiser ER. An off-duty surgeon had been called, a team to assist him hastily assembled. Will was in the operating room four hours before Robert could see him.
He veered onto the 12, most traffic hopping on the wine-trail treadmill of 29.
“Wouldn’t that be fabulous!” enthused Will.
“I was just thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if we continued driving all the way to the border.”
“Oregon, or maybe Canada. I’d like to visit Vancouver—”
“Again.” Robert finished the sentence. Will’s expression revealed confusion.
“Remember our visit three years ago with Mary Ann and her ex, John? We took a ferry to Vancouver Island and stayed at that rustic hotel for a couple nights.
“Oh, yes.” Robert knew Will was faking it.
“We borrowed waterproof jackets from the front desk for a walk in the rain forest but got soaked anyway. It was the first time we ever saw Mary Ann with flat hair. You made a joke of it.”
They passed a café owned by a celebrity chef and sped by yet another sparkling new example of some vintner’s fetish for chateaus.
Robert slowed down. “There’s the diRosa Foundation,” he pointed out, “that museum with the eccentric art collection.”
“Oh, yes,” Will brightened. “There was a Cadillac inside the entrance completely covered with objects. A fake rhinoceros head stuck out of the hood.”
Passed with flying colors.
“And when we went outside in the back,” Will continued, “a peacock swooped down from the roof and you screamed really loud. Even the tour guide jumped.”
“I didn’t scream.” Robert straightened in his seat. “I yelled.”
“You screamed. The two dykes standing next to us were in stitches, a fag afraid of a flying pheasant.”
“Peacock. And I’m never afraid of beauty.”
Will smiled, savoring his moment of one-upmanship. Robert focused on the road, feigning offense, but secretly delighted. His husband still had juice, bent but not broken.
Traffic slowed at the outskirts of Sonoma. The sun hovered above the hills in the west, as if reluctant to leave behind a perfect summer day.
“Where are we?” Will asked, suddenly anxious. The doctors said this would happen sometimes, “mood episodes”, happy one moment, disoriented and lost the next.
“We’re almost there.” Robert pulled onto Jack London Street and made a right into the driveway lined with palms. Four-unit buildings sat among English plane trees he heard were unsuited to California’s climate. The fenced pool area was loaded with kids cannon-balling into the water, their sunburned parents sipping glasses of wine and hoisting bottles of beer. Thankfully, Mary Ann hosted her friends in her home.
“You can bring the wine.”
“Both bags?” asked Will.
“One will do since everyone has a head-start on us.” He caught himself before he said, “and we don’t want to have an accident driving home.”
Mary Ann’s door was open, voices coming from inside.
“I told the guy if he was only interested in sex, he should look elsewhere.”
“Mary Ann, you are such a WASP!” bellowed Ben. “You should have taken him up on his offer.”
“We know you would have, Ben.” Sheila’s voice.
Robert entered the living room, Will behind him. Their friends sat around a glass coffee table littered with bottles and empty plates. Sheila sported a new girlfriend, introduced as Becky, and a new haircut, short, spiky, dyed jet-black. Ben’s partner Paul stood to greet them. Pushing sixty, he was still handsome, a tall, sandy-haired Midwesterner. Ben’s dark curly hair was chased with silver, the Italianate cherub turned aging roué.
Mary Ann hugged them, beige silk pants marked by a red wine stain, the wineglass she held veiled at the rim with lipstick.
“Sorry we’re late— the traffic.” He didn’t embarrass Will and explain about his prolonged wardrobe conundrum.
“The important thing is you made it.” Mary Ann turned to the others. “Ready?”
* * *
The park was packed, but they found an unclaimed patch of ground and spread their blankets. Will sat with Ben and Paul, who were treating him to horror stories about their landlord in San Francisco. Robert wondered whether his husband could focus on what promised to be a long story.
Cozying-up with Mary Ann, he gave them both generous pours. They clinked their plastic glasses.
“What’s happening there?” he asked nodding toward a cluster of Adiroindack chairs off to the side. Two waiters dressed in white shirts and black shorts were busy organizing flutes and buckets of champagne on a cloth-covered table.
Mary Ann took a sip. “Reserved VIP seating. It’s one of those hotel package deals. Guests pay an extra $100.”
Robert shook his head in disbelief. “For fireworks in a public park?”
“Just because you’re cheap.”
“I’m not cheap. I’m prudent.”
“Well, Prudence, how is our man?” She glanced in Will’s direction.
Robert didn’t quite know where to begin. “He’s doing okay, I guess. He has his good moments. He gets depressed sometimes. Yesterday, I found him in the kitchen crying. I asked what was wrong and he told me he had forgotten why he was there.”
“I do that sometimes.”
“But he gets afraid that he’s really losing it.”
“What do the doctors say?
“Only that he’s making good progress. Nothing specific.”
“So how are you doing?” Mary Ann put a hand on his knee.
“It’s hard. Sometimes it’s like living with a different person. Not a stranger, exactly, but—our rhythms together are different now.”
“How so?” Her eyes held his.
“The balance we achieved, the responsibility we shared, is gone. He’s like a child, relearning his world.”
“What do you mean?”
“Living partly as a child sounds wonderful.”
“It’s really not. He knows he’s been damaged.”
“I think I like him better now,” Mary Ann whispered.
“You didn’t like him before?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I mean that he’s softer. He used to be so cynical. His humor could be so cruel. Remember the last 4th? John and I were breaking up. It turned out to be our last holiday.”
“I remember you two weren’t sitting together that night.”
“John was complaining about one of his clients, going on and on how difficult the owners were being about the renovations. Will was obviously bored. He kept nodding up and down like one of those bobble dolls as John kvetched, shaking it so fast I thought he was going to hurt his head. Oh, sorry—”
“That’s okay, Mary Ann. Sorry is my forte.”
“Will eventually blurted out: ‘John, you’re like a whining queen, except you bitch in baritone.’ I couldn’t stop laughing, which may have finally finished things between us.
“My funny man.”
“But it never stopped, did it? The sharp judgments and snappy rejoinders, I mean. Will is—kinder now, innocent in a way. It’s like he’s starting over, a kid in awe of the big world.”
She leaned over and kissed Robert on the cheek. “Oh, I know it’s been hard for you.”
“It could have been a lot worse. I almost lost him.”
“He’s still your Will, just different.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s what his therapist keeps telling me.”
“You’re in it for the long haul, right?”
“Of course. For better or for worse.”
“Because if you bailed, I’d kill you.”
“That’s one viable alternative.”
They were suddenly startled by a high-pitched whistling sound, followed by a series of stuttering explosions. They raised their eyes to the sky. A glowing white chrysanthemum burst against the darkness, crackling like a bridal veil as it gradually dissolved. Missiles shot into the air, erupting into cascades of red, white and blue, shaking the ground with their booming and leaving behind smoky white clouds. Glowing fountains of gold blossomed like lotuses.
Robert gazed toward Will, his handsome face illuminated by the fireworks, eyes bright with delight. It was the face of a boy-man who might not remember this moment tomorrow, but was clearly savoring it now.
William Torphy’s poetry, critical essays and articles have appeared in Sebastian Quill, Artweek, High Performance, Exposee, The Fictional Cafe and the Occupy SF anthology. Ithuriel’s Spear in San Francisco has published “Love Never Always” (poetry), “Snakebite” (young adult fiction) and “A Brush With History” (biography). Short stories were recently featured in The Fictional Café and Volume 5 of ImageOutWrite. William works as an art curator in the San Francisco area.