When I arrived, I was surprised to find the party already in full swing. Knowing Raj, I expected that I'd be the first one there, with the others coming in fashionably later.
The other thing that surprised me, and made me slightly uneasy, was that everyone in the room -- and they were all men, of course -- turned to stare at me as I paused in the doorway. I felt like bolting there and then.
"Shea! You are here!" Raj hurried to the door and yanked me inside. "Let me take your coat." He practically pulled the leather jacket off and then scrutinized me carefully. "Yes," he said in satisfaction. "You look very nice indeed. Let us find you a drink. A glass of white wine, perhaps? Or a beer?"
He hustled me to the bar, which was stocked to the rafters. I also noticed a side table laden with a ton of food, obviously set out by a professional caterer; Raj was many things, but a cook wasn't one of them.
He poured me a glass of chardonnay. "This is a bottle I bought for the party. It's from California. I am sure my friend Dennis will tell me it is completely wrong, but then I am no expert. Later, perhaps, we will have some champagne. I have been saving a bottle of Moët Imperial for a special occasion."
"And what's that occasion?" I asked warily. "Labor Day?"
Raj smiled. "If you wish. Try one of these samosas," he said, abruptly changing the subject. "They are very tasty." He piled a plate with goodies from the buffet. "Try this." He popped a tidbit into my mouth. It was fiery hot and I began coughing. Raj put the glass of chardonnay to my lips to cool my burning tongue. "I am so sorry!"
"No harm done." I wiped my mouth. The entire party had paused to observe this little scene. "Maybe something blander and cooler. I'm a bland, cool Irish boy, remember?"
"Never bland," said Raj. "But always cool." He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. "Come. You must meet a few of my friends."
In the next two hours I was introduced to ten men, all gay and all friends of Raj's. In fact, from the general conversation I gathered they were members of the Gay Men's Professional Association, an exclusive organization for the queer movers-and-shakers of Cleveland. The GMPA was always being mentioned in the Gay People's Chronicle, the local free rag, as involved in various charities, including sponsoring an auction in support of same-sex marriage, funding an HIV awareness workshop, and providing a college scholarship to a homeless transgendered youth. In other words, they were the A-List do-gooders of the gay community -- wealthy, well-connected, and high-profile. It seemed odd that Raj Kumar, who I knew was married and had a teenage daughter, would belong to such an openly out bunch. But there was a lot about Raj's relationship with his wife and family that I didn't understand.
"Dennis is an attorney with Byrnes, Marshall, and Parnell," said Raj, naming one of the most prominent law firms in town. "He's also our resident wine connoisseur. He will undoubtedly tell you that my California chardonnay is inconsequential and unworthy of sullying your lovely lips, Shea."
"I told you I'd bring the wine, Raj," mumbled Dennis, a tall, blond man in his 40's who was just beginning to go gray at the temples. He was very attractive, but seemed to have difficulty meeting my eyes.
"It tastes fine," I insisted, taking a slug. "I'm not a big drinker."
"I belong to a wine tasting group," said Dennis, shifting from side to side as if his feet hurt. "You should come to one of our meetings."
"Um, sure," I said. "That would be... fun."
Now I was really confused. There was no way in hell that I would ever be considered for the Gay Men's Professional Association, so what was I doing here? Aaron would fit in perfectly, but not me. I was too young -- all of the men were in their late 30's or older -- I was too poor, and I hadn't accomplished anything notable. Except for fucking Raj. Maybe that's why I was being introduced -- as Raj Kumar's new boyfriend. Which I wasn't. The whole thing was absurd.
"Geoffrey owns the Hamilton-Kent Gallery in Ohio City," said Raj. "Specializing in Art Deco pieces and Modernism."
"Oh, we do more than that, Raj." Geoffrey Hamilton shook my hand, giving it an intimate squeeze. He was lazy-eyed with long, thinning hair and a haughty manner. "We have an exhibition by a new Romanian artist next month. You should come to the opening, Shea. You might find it amusing."
I nodded. "Sounds... interesting." I had no idea what to else to say. I didn't know a thing about Romania or art. But I did know when a guy was coming on to me. And Geoffrey was certainly coming on to me.
"Hiya! Nick Santini here." He slapped my hand hard and then grabbed it, practically snapping my arm off. "Glad to meet you!" Nick was stocky and muscular, his shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal his pumped biceps. He also had thick curly black hair and dark, sexy eyes. A real Italian Stallion. "Santini Brothers Contractors."
"I've seen your trucks," I said lamely. But it was true. The Santini trucks and billboards were ubiquitous all over Cleveland.
"Ha! That's true!" Nick brayed. "You like baseball, Shea? Been to the Jake yet? It's an amazing ballpark. The company has a box. I never miss an Indians homestand. And the Brownies are back, too! I got season tickets."
"I haven't been to any games. I just got back into town," I said, apologizing for my lack of sports cred.
"You should come down and kick back," said Nick. "Any time. We'll watch the game and have a few brews. Just let me know. I'll set it up."
I glanced at Raj. What was I supposed to say? Did he want me to say yes? But Raj only smiled passively. "Okay. Sure."
"Dr. Howard Lindeman." Raj introduced the unassuming little man and we shook hands primly. He had a red face and a bad comb-over. "Howard is an Internist at the Clinic. He was one of my first friends when I came to Cleveland. And this is Dr. Milt Solomon. He is a dentist. I've known him almost as long as Howard." I also shook hands with the second man, who had dark hair and thick glasses. For a couple of minutes I thought they were partners, but they weren't, just friends.
"I live in Beachwood," said Dr. Lindeman. It was impossible for me to think of him as Howard. "And Milt lives in Shaker. Where do you live, Shea?"
"Lakewood," I said.
"Ah!" said Dr. Solomon. "The Gold Coast!" That was the exclusive area on the lakefront.
"Not quite." I thought of my parents' modest street and all the working class families that lived on it. So very far removed from the richer, more gay-centric streets only a few miles to the north.
"Do you like opera?" asked Dr. Lindeman. "We love it!"
I winced. Opera queens. But they seemed nice. "I've been to the Met when I lived in New York." Which was true. Aaron got free tickets once and we went to see 'Carmen.' I fell asleep.
"Splendid! Who was singing?"
"I can't remember," I admitted. "It was a few years ago."
"Oh." Dr. Lindeman was disappointed. "No matter."
"I'm Bart," he said.
I was standing by the buffet table, putting some rice and chicken curry on my plate. After the first round of introductions I was starving.
Bart was the youngest man there except for me. Mid-30's, or else very well botoxed, with a frat boy air of entitlement and a gym body he showed off in skin-tight jeans and a red tank top. "Bart Carsey." He licked his lips. "You're hot, Shea. You ever go to the clubs? The Grid? Club Out? Or Flex?" The last was a bathhouse in the Warehouse District.
"No, I've never been there."
"It's a hot scene," said Bart. And so was Bart, but he was also more than a little creepy. "I've had my eye on you since you came in."
"Thanks." I think.
"I'm a top," he stated. "And I've got an 8-inch cock. Cut. Interested?"
"Um, not right this moment. I'm a little hungry." I smiled and held up my plate.
Bart leaned closer. His breath was warm and smelled like scotch. "So am I." Then he laughed. "I'll catch up with you later."
"Hi! I'm Terry and this is my lover, James." Terry was thin and willowy with bleached blond hair in a razor cut. He was a queen and proud of it.
"Hey." His partner nodded. James was short and butch. They looked like Mutt and Jeff. "Raj says you live in Lakewood. We have a house just off Clifton."
"My parents live on Thomas, between Detroit and Madison."
"One of my businesses is on Madison," said James. "Hairanoia. I own Shear Perfection, too. Terry's the manager and main stylist there. I also own Gizmo's." That was a gay bar on Detroit, just over the Cleveland line. "And Creme de la Creme." That was a chi-chi coffeehouse and bakery on Clifton, right next to the Clifton Web Giftshop.
"I've been to Creme de la Creme. Great chocolate chip cookies."
James was pleased. "Got a guy who makes them in his kitchen. They're my top seller."
"They're really good. My nephew loves them, too."
"Bring him by," said James. "I'll give him a free cookie. And one for you, too."
"And honey -- we have to do something about that hair!" Terry ran his long fingers through my mop. "You need some conditioning, too. Call me and make an appointment. It's almost 2000! You can't walk around looking like a Beatle!"
Raj was suddenly at my side. "What are you saying?" He frowned. "Terry, I forbid you to touch a hair on this boy's head! His hair is absolutely perfect!"
Terry rolled his eyes. "I know you have this thing for the British schoolboy look, Raj, but he looks like he hasn't read a fashion magazine since 1965!"
"I don't read fashion magazines. And I wasn't even born in 1965," I asserted.
"Obviously, honey! You're a mere babe!" said Terry, toying with a lock of my hair. "Just a trim. I promise I won't cut off too much."
"Don't believe him," said Raj, steering me away. "Once he gets his scissors out he won't stop until you look like a Marine."
"Maybe I'd look hot as a Marine," I joked.
But Raj didn't smile. "No," he said. "Never." We moved towards the bar and he poured me another chardonnay. "Only one more. I want you clear headed."
"Oh, you have something in mind for later?"
"Hush. We will discuss it after everyone leaves."
"I'm telling you to back up all of your data!" A brown-haired man in brown pants and a brown jacket was getting himself a vodka. "Listen to me, Dennis, I know what I'm talking about!"
"I've heard all this before, Russ," said Dennis, the lawyer I'd met earlier. "I just don't believe in this Y2K or Millennium Meltdown or whatever they call it."
"Then don't listen!" Russ snorted. "When all of the computers and telephones and everything else that's connected crashes and we're all sitting in the dark, don't come crying to me!"
"I don't think you've met Russell Boyer yet," said Raj. "He's my investment counselor."
"That's means I'm his accountant," said Russ glumly. "No one believes me. Do you have a computer, kid?"
"I have a laptop. A Mac."
"Back it up! Save your data or you'll lose everything! You'll thank me on January 2, 2000!"
I was taken aback by the man's vehemence. "I will."
"Don't scare the boy, Russell," said Raj.
"People should be scared." Russ knocked back his vodka. "But everyone's an ostrich! It's just like the 1980's when everybody was getting sick. No one wanted to face facts."
"Let us speak of more pleasant things, Russell," said Raj. "This is a party."
The man shrugged and he and Raj walked away, discussing something about money.
"Russ is a bit of an alarmist," said Dennis, who seemed more at ease now. "All his talk of the computers going down and civilization as we know it ending on New Year's Eve -- well, I think it's bullshit."
"I don't know a thing about it," I said.
"Just as well. A beautiful young man like you shouldn't worry about such things. On New Year's Eve you'll probably be at a party with a lot of other beautiful young men."
"I'll more likely be at home with my parents, watching Dick Clark and the ball dropping in Times Square."
"That's what I'll be doing," said Dennis.
I turned and saw the only other man I hadn't met yet. He was the oldest one there, gray-haired and distinguished, like a TV judge or soap opera patriarch. He was the only man at a Labor Day party wearing a three-piece suit. He was also wearing a wedding ring. I wondered if he had a partner -- or a wife.
"I'm Carter Kingman. Raj has told me all about you, Mr. Desmond." He shook my hand very formally. The man was old school all the way. "You graduated from Columbia."
I was surprised Raj had talked about me to his friend. "Yes. The Graduate School. Ph.D. in Literature."
"I'm a Princeton man. B.A. in History. Harvard M.B.A. Kingman Associates Investments. I saw you talking to Russell Boyer. He works for me. So does Bart. He's my nephew." Carter Kingman paused. "Tate Jameson is also my nephew. I think you know him."
My sister's boyfriend. And Danny's father. "I've never met him."
"You aren't missing much." He held out his hand and shook mine briskly. "I'm most pleased to have met you, Mr. Desmond." And then he walked away.
Dennis watched this encounter with a sour expression. "Carter founded our group. And he thinks he's the leader of the pack, if you know what I mean."
"He founded the Gay Men's Professional Association?"
"He was one of the founders of the GMPA. But I meant The Club. The inner circle." He gestured to the rest of the party. "Our group."
"Oh." But I had no clue what he meant. "Of course."
There was another hour of eating, drinking, and mingling and then the party began to break up. Carter Kingman was the first to leave, followed by Terry and his partner.
"We have to check in at Gizmo's. There's a party there, too. Drink specials all night and a wet jockstrap contest at midnight. I want to see how things are going," said James.
"Don't forget to call for that styling, honey!" said Terry. "Give Priscilla your name and she'll set you up with me."
One by one, they all left, until by 11:00 it was just Raj and me.
"Did you enjoy yourself at the party?" he asked as we sat on the sofa.
"It was fun," I lied. "Your friends were nice. But something else would be even nicer." It had been a long evening and after that all that chardonnay I was in the mood for something harder.
"Wait, Shea." Raj pushed me away gently. "Now that you have met the members of The Club, there is something we must discuss. Something very important."
"And what's that?" I asked, my stomach gurgling in dismay.
"Your future," he said.