Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Turning a Gay Man Straight

I still remember the phone call that changed my life; the call which set off a flurry of unfortunate events and sent my life into a tailspin. It was my friend Tommy on the other line, and by the breathless way he was talking, I knew he had big news for me.

“I’m getting married,” he told me. I could envision him literally beaming through the phone lines. “And I want you to be my Maid of Honor.”

“I’d be honored to be your Maid of Honor!” I answered him laughing. “Brent is a lucky man.”

Tom was gay and single. He was the 7th member of our tiny troupe of friends, and he had always been the odd man out; the third wheel as it were. The rest of the six were in pairs. Tom had been searching for love since I met him, but he could never find the right guy. I was thrilled to see him so happy.

We had all met his betrothed, of course. Young, handsome and boyish, Brent was the life of the party. He loved to drink, he loved to laugh, and he loved to shock. Our first impressions of him were pretty good; he wasn’t shy in the slightest, and had us all in stitches in the first hour that we met him. He was loud, flamboyant, and quick witted. I thought they made a good pair.

Brent asked my boyfriend to stand up for him as Best Man. He had only just met him, of course, but he explained that all of his friends were on the other side of the country. He had come to San Francisco on a vacation; he had long been curious about the Castro District of San Francisco, and he came out for a fortnight and an adventure. But he would never use his return ticket home, as it turned out, because when he met Tommy in a gay bar one night, it was love at first sight. And least that’s the story they loved to tell, while holding hands and smiling. They ended up framing his return ticket and later hung it in their marital home.

The marriage took place on Twin Peaks. A perch high above the ivory buildings of San Francisco, it has a panoramic view that rivals any other place in the city. On a clear day, which their wedding day was, it can be positively magical.

I wore a black sequin gown and white orchids. Brent was very insistent as to what I should wear, and as I got to know him more, it seemed he was always trying to dress me. He loved picking out clothes for me, but he often went with six inch high heels and a dress befitting a Diva. His choices were never really my style, but when I was with him, it always felt like I was playing, and when it came to clothes, I felt as though I were playing dress up. When he wanted black sequins on his wedding day, I didn’t even blink, and bought the dress he asked me to buy. I was sipping on cold champagne, staring out into the view when the first sequin fell off of that dress. By days end it would have completely disintegrated right off of my body.

The wedding went well. Brent and Tom wore white tuxedos with purple orchid leis. They wrote their own vows and both shed tears as they made promises to each other that should have lasted a lifetime. My boyfriend and I stood at their sides, while the rest of the wedding party fanned out in front of us.

I remember a tourist bus pulling into the parking lot. In a moment we could hear feverish shouts from its inhabitants; “It’s a gay wedding! Oh my GOD! We ARE in San Francisco,” they bellowed, when suddenly dozens of flash bulbs began blinding us. When I stared out into the sea of faces watching, all I could see were cameras everywhere. I felt for a moment as if we were movie stars surrounded by the paparazzi.

Following the ceremony, we bid our adieus. Brent and Tom had rented a limousine for the rest of the day, and Brent had made it clear to everyone that the Newlyweds wanted to leave directly after the wedding with only my boyfriend and me, for an afternoon and night of drinking and revelry. “I just want the four of us,” Brent said over and over as others tried to join our fun. And in a moment we had made our getaway, and the four of us were speeding down the hill toward the city, pouring champagne and laughing.

Our first stop was the Top of the Mark, the famous restaurant and bar that turns slowly like a planet on its axis, for stunning and ever changing 360 degree views. When I got out of the limo at that first stop, I noticed the seat was covered in sequins. “I think my dress is falling apart,” I said laughing. But that didn’t stop me at the Mark, nor did it stop me at the half a dozen or so bars we visited after.

Our last stop was to be the Castro, for a drink at the very bar where Tom and Brent met. When I climbed out of the limo, the seat was covered in sequins. The driver was incensed; he began sweeping the shiny circles from the back with a noticeable grumble. “Damn it,” he mumbled under his breath, shooting dagger looks in my direction. “You’re making a mess,” he told me.

“My dear,” Brent said in his lowest baritone, “your entire rear end is now exposed.” And it was true. There was nothing left of my dress behind me except a few bare threads. “Thank god I’m wearing underwear,” I said as I laughed out of sheer embarrassment. Brent immediately wrapped me in his tuxedo jacket, and told the limo to rush us to his house. There he gave me a pair of jeans, and let me to continue to wear the tuxedo jacket. It seemed he always wanted to take care of me. And soon the party made its way to Uncle Bert’s Saloon, in the heart of the Castro District.

Brent and Tom were the toast of the town that night in the gay district of San Francisco. They seemed to epitomize the dreams of many a lonely gay man in that town; men that were sick of the rather sordid and prolific sexual encounters that many of them enjoyed; one night stands that went on nightly into infinity, without the love and commitment they craved. Tom and Brent were happy and healthy; robust and obviously in love, and their union seemed to give hope to so many. I was welcomed into their community with open arms; and it was a neighborhood I would end up spending a lot of time in.

We had a grand time on their wedding day. I still remember the moment when Brent left the bar briefly and when he returned, he had roses for me. This was a gesture that he would repeat many times in the future; whenever we were all out together he’d leave and bring me back flowers and gifts. “Are you trying to make me look bad?” my boyfriend would joke, who didn’t make these gestures toward me nearly often enough. And in truth, it did make him look bad, because I so obviously enjoyed the attention. But all of it was in good fun. No one at first raised so much of an eyebrow of Brent’s fondness of me. He was gay, after all, and we were nothing more than friends.

The wedding day came and went, but Brent’s gestures toward me didn’t stop with flowers and gifts; he worked overtime to befriend me. He would call me constantly, and he continually suggested we spend a day alone together. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough at first, and I resisted his many requests, but slowly he wore me down.

At the time, I had every Tuesday off from work, and it eventually became our ritual to spend that day together. I would drive into the city, pick Brent up at their Twin Peaks apartment, and we’d spend the day in the Castro at the bars.

I really had no idea that Brent was an alcoholic at the time. I knew he drank a lot, and it took me a long while to get used to the idea of plunking myself on a bar stool at nine in the morning and ordering my first drink. But I followed his lead, and this is what we would do; we’d do shots of hard liquor and we would drink all day and all night, roaming from bar to bar, and getting ourselves in all kinds of trouble.

The community loved me. I was known everywhere by name, and they’d call out my name when I’d enter a venue and holler with joy. The two of us had become the life of the party; we would dance, sing, engage with everyone, and fully participate in their worlds. At one place, they named a sandwich after us. At another they’d have our drinks made before we even ordered them. The lesbians wanted to kiss me, and the boys wanted to do my hair. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in one of those bars, my hair all rolled up in curlers, with several boys fussing around me with brushes and bobby pins. We had become quite popular.

Tuesdays seemed endless, and for good reason. Our days together would stretch out into nearly 24 hour marathons of drinking, misbehaving, and carousing. We would find ourselves in all sorts of dastardly situations; we found ourselves in the middle of sex, drugs, and just about everything in between. Some of the things I saw at that time in my life I couldn’t possibly repeat here, but it all fascinated me. Our times together became increasingly wilder, and we’d stay up later and later. Eventually, we’d crawl back to Brent’s house at dawn, still giggling and carrying on.

Tom would just shake his head when he’d see us walking in at 5 in the morning. “I’m getting up for work,” he would say to us as we stumbled in the door. “Instead of me making up a bed for Cathy, why don’t you both just sleep in our bed for a few hours?” he would suggest.

And that is what we would do. We would get into bed together and sleep for an hour or two, before I’d jump up and head off to work.

My boyfriend became increasingly annoyed by this growing alliance between Brent and me. I would write off his concerns as hogwash; there was nothing to be jealous of, the man was gay for goodness sake. I would tell him he was being ridiculous, and I’d look forward to the next Tuesday with increasing anticipation.

Brent kissed everyone, so when he began kissing me, I didn’t think much of it. Fueled by alcohol and fun, we would often kiss; sometimes even driving up to Twin Peaks where their wedding took place to smooch. I was kissing a gay man after all; a man who would kiss strangers right in front of his husband. Tom never seemed to care; he would only laugh at his antics. I believed it all was perfectly innocent.

Months later, the four of us decided to take a trip together to Vermont, to Brent’s home town. It wasn’t until that trip that I began to wonder if Brent’s flirtations toward me meant much more than I had thought. His friends and family treated me more like his wife than they treated Tom like his husband. It was as if they all knew that I was going to be Brent’s next victim, even before I did. Because they knew him, and they knew his patterns; and they knew he’d chosen me to circle like a hungry hawk after its prey.

But my life didn’t fall apart until we returned to California.

Tom and Brent had a party at their house, which my boyfriend and I attended. The party began to thin out, one by one as parties do, but we were having such a good time, I didn’t want to leave. Tom suggested we stay the night, and eventually both Tom and my boyfriend took to their beds, leaving only Brent and I up and alone.

We didn’t do anything bad that night. I have a vague recollection of us playing horsey. We were both wearing bathrobes and Brent took the rope of his robe and wrapped it around my neck, like a halter. He was standing up with his robe untied, and I was on my hands and knees in front of him, with the rope around my neck, when my boyfriend came into the room.

He didn’t say a word. He got dressed, and with a slam of the door, left me there.

Not for even a minute did I really believe this was the end of our relationship. I loved my boyfriend more than I could possibly love anyone; what we had was rich and deep. This alliance with Brent was just for laughs; it was a distraction and nothing more. Besides, my boyfriend and I had been together more than 16 years, and when you reach those kinds of milestones you know it’s for life. I believed it was for life with all of my heart. But shockingly my relationship did end that night.

There were phone calls and tears; promises and regrets. But he left the key to my house on my kitchen table, and he told me it was over. I don’t think it really would have been, but I believed it at the time. I was so distraught, I asked Brent to run off to Mexico with me.

Within three hours of making the decision, Brent and I were sitting in an airplane awaiting take-off to Cabo San Lucas for 18 days. We didn’t tell a single soul we were going, except for my boss whom I called from the airport.

If I hadn’t run off to Mexico, I’m sure my boyfriend and I would have found our way back to each other. But that little trip sealed the deal. No one knew where we had gone; Tom came home, discovered Brent gone, and being the sleuth that he is, he hit redial on the last number we called from their phone. It was Mexican Airlines. When no one had seen or heard from either of us for days, word spread like wildfire that we’d gone off to Mexico.

When I think back to that trip, I can still smell our cheap hotel; I can still hear the thump of the music playing; I can still smell the odor of enchiladas, tequila, and exhaust fumes. I can still remember the horror as it dawned on me at last that Brent was a raging alcoholic.

Brent went on a bender for 18 days, the likes of which no one has ever seen. We would take a boat every morning to a bar that was on an island, and the bar owners would scream “Borracho” as he got off the boat and headed toward the bar. Borracho means ‘drunk’ but Brent was proud of his title and began referring to himself that way.

When we returned from Mexico, Brent moved in with me. Tom didn’t want him back, and I had broken my boyfriend’s heart. It felt as though we had no one but each other, and out of need more than anything else, we became a couple. I began to wake up in a nightmare that would last six years.

I’ll never forget our first visit to Uncle Bert’s, our favorite bar in the Castro. We approached the door, chatting happily, when the bartender came out from around the bar and ran up to the door. He shoved his hand in my face. “Brent can go in,” he told me. “But you’ll have to wait here.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, still laughing, and pushing his hand down. I assumed he was joking and tried to go around him. He grabbed both of my shoulders and pushed me backwards. “What are you doing?” I said, growing angry.

I looked behind him and noticed something had changed about the dart board that I had seen so many times hanging above the bar. I squinted in its direction, trying to make out an image that had been placed in the center of the dart board.

The picture on the dartboard was me.

As of that day, I was blacklisted from the community. Brent would argue with them loudly, saying that if anyone should understand prejudice, it should be the gay community. And aren’t they now ostracizing us because we’re straight? We had many heated discussions on the streets of the Castro, but I was no longer welcome there. It took me years to be able to return and not be noticed.

From that point onward, my life only endured. The idea of saddling up to a bar and drinking all day sickened me. I found myself living with a full-fledged alcoholic, which is a story unto itself.

It is interesting to me how we can look back on our lives and see the precise moment we went around a bad corner. I never got back what I lost that summer, but my life moved on from there. It was a chapter where everything that I knew I trusted blew apart in smithereens, as though hit by a bomb.

For years, I felt that episode had been the biggest mistake of my life.  I had made so many mistakes; my behavior was selfish and I hurt so many people.  But whenever I’d share the sad saga with people I met, they weren’t interested in my pain or my regrets.   They weren't interested in the pain I caused, or what I had learned.  They were really only interested in one thing.

It always began the same; they’d stare at me as if I had some kind of magical power; as if I were a Siren of unbelievable proportions. I would begin to feel they were no longer listening to my story; they only had one thing on their minds. And staring at me with a creepy look of admiration and awe, they’d bring the entire relationship down to one question. “What’s your secret?” they would titter.

“My secret?” I’d ask.

“How did you turn a gay man straight?” they’d ask me. I would only smile in response and stare down at the ground. 
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Saturday, January 2, 2010

The New Year Good-bye

It had been a great New Years, and I faced the prospect of returning to work with my usual dread. My thoughts were still wrapped up in tinsel; my memories were lit up with party hats and noise makers, and it felt nearly impossible to leave the brilliant fireworks of the season behind me. January is always a tough month for those who do accounting work, and each New Year I would find myself despising the ledgers that called me back and extinguished the festive lights of the holidays. And this January was no different.

As I headed to work that morning, I felt depressed. But the last thing I expected on that winter dawn was that death was coming to my day. But death was indeed coming; with its bony fingers, it was scratching the back of my neck, warning me of its presence.

I found an empty space in front of my office and parked, and then I looked up at my office window and sighed.  Because while January is a time I most wanted to hibernate in the comfort of my heaters and quilts, it was also the busiest time for me at work. The year had ended, and it was time to send out W4’s, 1099’s, and begin the arduous task of closing out the fiscal year. There were accounts to close, journal transactions to be entered, and new books to open. And that morning as I arrived at work, I felt like I was a helium balloon that had just been popped, and all of my joy was hissing out like a sorrowful gas. It was Monday morning.

I got straight to work.  It has always been my goal to get out W2’s and 1099’s as soon as humanly possible. It has also been my belief that employees have the right to know, once the year ends, what their prior year earnings were so that they might plan for their taxes. But I have also always done them first thing for selfish reasons. I had learned over the years that the longer I would delay this task, the more phone calls and questions I would receive from my co-workers. So, in part, I cranked out the forms quickly as a way to give myself a little more peace; as a way to keep the hoards of curious and anxious employees at a distance.

It was a busy morning. I spent hours that day reconciling the 1099 accounts and I finally began printing the forms out on the printer. This particular task always filled me with stress; because if the forms moved even a millimeter, they would print incorrectly and render the rest useless. I stood by the printer, my heart in my throat, and watched the forms like a hungry cat; I pawed at them from time to time to guide them in the right direction, and I was ready to pounce on them should something go terribly awry. But on that morning, I had few problems, and soon enough I was stuffing the forms into envelopes and was ready to distribute them.

At the time I worked for a Real Estate office, and most of the employees were Independent Contractors, who worked strictly on the commissions they received from selling homes. Only the office workers were on payroll, so when I produced the 1099’s that morning, the vast majority of them were for people I worked with every day. My office was on the second floor, and I had a little balcony, and if I peered over I could see the entire ground floor of the office and an overview of all of the agents in their cubicles. Rather than wasting money on stamps, I began passing the 1099 forms to my co-workers as I spotted them, running up and down the stairs to bring them their envelope. I felt like the Grim Reaper; because although people wanted these forms as quickly as possible, they didn’t like receiving them. As the Accountant, I have always noticed the looks on faces as I hand out the forms; it’s a pinched, barely discernable expression of scorn and dread.

Directly below my balcony sat a nice man named Rob. Since his office was squarely below mine, I often would stare at the various pictures and things that he hung on the walls of his cubicle. He had children, of that I was sure; as I often saw childish scrawls in bright colors tacked beside his computer. And I would also peruse his photographs and the bits and scraps that made up his life. He seemed like a kind fellow; a sentimental fellow. He was always supremely polite to me.

On this morning as I was staring down, I saw Rob scurry by, and rush into his cubicle. I watched him as he hurriedly removed his coat and I noticed he looked unusually anxious to begin his day. He might have just sold a house, I mused to myself, because he looked particularly harried.

“Happy New Year Rob,” I yelled down from my perch.

He looked up like a skittish rat, obviously unnerved by my outcry. “Yes,” he said, slowly smiling. “Happy New Year to you too.”

“Morning. I finished the 1099’s,” I called back. “I’m going to toss it down there; are you ready to catch it?”

I saw his face fill with a slight twinge of pain. “Those are what we need to file taxes, right?” he asked me.

My face scrunched up without my even realizing it. I was frankly a bit surprised that he didn’t seem to know what a 1099 was. “Yes,” I called down. “Let me know if you need any help deciphering it,” I finished, smiling. He nodded, and I flew the envelope toward him like a paper plane.

He didn’t thank me. They never thanked me. They unknowingly treated me more like I was a cop handing out speeding tickets. At best, they seemed to accept my New Years gifts with polite loathing.

He caught the envelope and looked up and nodded. I smiled then returned to my work.

I don’t know how many hours had passed, but I had been working steadily all day, completing one dreaded task after another, going as fast as I could so that I might be finished with it. But when I looked up, the sky out of my office window had gone from light to the darkest black. It was winter, and the days were shorter, but I suddenly felt as though it were the middle of the night. I looked over my balcony, and noticed that Rob’s cubicle was empty, and then as I allowed my eyes to wander around the entire ground floor, I noticed that most of the agents had gone home for the day, and only a few lamps were burning. I had decided it was time to pack it up and head home, just as my phone began to ring.

I answered with my usual nonchalant greeting; the name of the company followed by my own name. I was tired, and didn’t feel like dealing with anything more that day. “May I help you?”

“Hey, this is Rob,” the voice on the other end said. He sounded frantic and hurried, and he was strangely out of breath. It alarmed me a bit.

“Evening Rob,” I said, listening with only half an ear. I was busy turning off my computer and shutting everything down for the night. I was ready to go home.

“Okay, can you explain this 1099 to me? What exactly is it.” His voice was rough; accusatory.

“Well,” I said, stopping to grab a pen and begin doodling, “it’s a report of your gross income for the year. When you do your taxes, you’ll take this number, and depending on many factors, such as dependents and deductions, you will use it to determine what taxes you owe. I assume you’ve been paying quarterly?”

There was a pause. “Paying WHAT quarterly.” He almost yelled it, and his voice scared me a little.

“Your taxes? It depends on your income, but most Independent Contractors have to pay their taxes quarterly.”

“And how in the hell am I supposed to know that?” he asked me. He was getting angrier. “Why didn’t you mention this to me before now?”

I didn’t like his tone, and I pushed back. “Listen Rob, I’m not in charge of your income taxes. I’m in charge of the company’s income taxes. Your income taxes are your responsibility. What did you do last year? Is this your first year as an Independent Contractor?”

He let out a long seething sigh. “Yes. My taxes have always been taken out in the past. I thought you were taking my taxes out.”

“No, that’s not how it works with commission,” I answered him. “You pay your own taxes. You’re not technically an employee. You get all of your money gross.”

There was a pause. “GOD DAMN IT,” he screamed into the phone.

“Excuse me?”


I was becoming increasingly annoyed by his attitude. “Rob, this isn’t MY fault,” I said softly, trying to steady my voice. “I’m sorry this came as a surprise to you.” I noticed my hands were shaking.

“OH WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO DIE,” he screamed in the phone, and then I heard a deafening click as he hung up on me.

I sat there for a moment dumbfounded as his voice still rang in my ears. When I looked down, I saw the doodles I had created while talking to Rob; I had pushed the pen so hard that I had made holes in the paper. My doodles were overly dark and angry. The way he had talked to me had shaken me to the core, and as I gathered up my belongings and shut off my lamp, my heart filled to the brim with nagging sorrow. I knew that I wanted to cry. I knew I hated my job. I knew that I hated January. And that night as I got into bed, I tossed and turned for hours, going over every last word that he said to me, wondering how I would face him the following morning.

But I wouldn’t have to face Rob.

When I awoke the next dawn, I dreaded going to work even more than I usually did. I decided that I would give myself a little treat so that I would feel better, so I went in a little early so that I could enjoy a cappuccino before work at the coffee shop across the street. On this morning it was bustling with patrons, and I spotted at least five of my co-workers talking excitedly in the corner, their eyes dancing wildly, their voices frenzied.

I smiled hello and walked toward the counter to get my coffee. But the group waved me over; it was apparent they had something urgent to talk with me about.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I approached them.

“Did you hear about Rob?” they asked, almost in unison.

I felt a black shadow pass over my heart. “What about Rob?” I asked.

“He killed himself last night,” was the answer.

It was one of those moments that time seems to stand still. It was difficult to believe what I was hearing; I almost felt as if I were dreaming. I was stunned into silence, and couldn’t speak. The group of agents continued to talk. “Apparently he left the office last night and killed himself. He never spoke to anyone after leaving here last night.”

I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. “Yes, he did. I talked to him last night.”

The group of agents stared at me, their collective eyes as wide as saucers. I heard a gasp. They wanted every detail; every last word that was uttered. But I didn’t want to talk about it; it felt strangely private. I knew now that I was the one who had witnessed his grief; his final hour. I knew what I had heard on the phone the previous night was his last good-bye.

But I also felt a horrific sense of guilt creeping over my extremities. I felt somehow responsible, as though it could have been my words, and my actions, which pushed him over the edge. Or at the very least, I knew that in those final seconds before he took his life, it was me who he blamed.

I felt connected to him, and strangely protective of him. My throat was dry. But the group continued to hound me for details. “The family will want to know what he said to you,” they scolded me, trying to coerce the truth out of me. “And probably the police too. Because if you have a clue as to why he did this, you have to tell. So you might as well tell us. What did he say? Come on. It’s important.”

Their voices were shrill, like cackling hens.
Nosey bitches.
I felt sick.
But I couldn’t get the words out that cold January morning. For just a few more hours I was going to allow this man his privacy. I was going to allow him to rest in peace.

Instead, I was treated to a diatribe of what had occurred.

He must have been at home when he called me. There were no cell phones back then.

After he spoke with me he gathered several necessary items from his house, and then packed them into his car. He drove for over an hour, to a remote cabin that his family owned.

But he didn’t park in the driveway of the cabin. He parked about a mile away, and left his car hidden in a grove of trees. His car couldn’t be spotted on the road; he made sure that no one driving by could see that he was there, and surprise him.

He walked a mile to the cabin. And once inside, he gave himself the triple cocktail of death. First he swallowed a bottle of pills. Then he covered his head with a plastic bag. And if that wasn’t enough, he took a gun and blew his brains all over the gnarled walls of his family log cabin.

There would be no mistake. He took every possible precaution. This wasn’t a cry for help, a dramatic gesture; a plea for someone to find him. He made sure he would die. Triple sure.

When my co-workers finished telling me the story, I could taste the poison. I could feel the plastic sticking to my sweating face. I could smell the gun powder.

I was not self-absorbed enough to believe I caused this man to take his life that evening. Nor did I think his suicide was my fault. But I do believe I might have been the final straw that snapped the back of the proverbial camel. And for that reason, I have always felt connected to him; it has always felt as though my left hand holds his, six feet under the damp earth,  and I touch his corpse with compassion.

On a cold January evening, when the year was brand new again and ripe with possibilities, and when smiling people were still wishing each other a Happy New Year as they passed by on the street, this man let a monetary reality determine the value of his life.

I am still saddened that he felt that the numbers on that form were of greater value than his own soul. Because I am assured that whatever that number was, it was only a fraction of his worth.
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Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten