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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