Pepper Pike is on the East Side, a suburb that couldn't be more different from Lakewood, the one my parents lived in. It's a place where the houses are spacious, the yards sprawling, and the incomes excessive. You can smell the money the minute you get off the freeway at Chagrin Boulevard and that smell gets stronger the further into it you get. There's an aura of entitlement that always makes me self-conscious. And Pepper Pike is only one of the rich-bitch enclaves that have superseded Shaker Heights, the exclusive suburb of an earlier generation: Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills, Hunting Valley, Gates Mills -- all clustered around a quaint and expensive little village called Chagrin Falls.
I remember the single time we drove to Chagrin Falls when I was a kid and stopped at the Popcorn Shop, the world's most fashionable ice cream stand. The old man bought us cones and we walked down a long wooden stairway to look at the falls. I thought about what it would be like to live in a place like this, in a lush valley of trees and beautiful houses, with pastures filled with horses, where all the people looked sleek and pampered and had only to reach out for something for it to be theirs.
Dennis Marshall lived in an older development just off South Woodland. When I say older I don't mean run-down or shabby the way you'd find in corner of Cleveland, but satisfied and settled, the houses all mellowed shingles and raw stone, the one and two acre yards well-tended and well-wooded. Dennis' house was a contemporary ranch, probably dating from the early 1960's, with huge glass windows all around to take in the view of maples and oaks and birch trees that filled the property. I drove up the long driveway and parked next to a dark blue Mercedes. The garage door was open and I saw another sportier car inside; it was bright red.
The side door opened. "Shea! In here!"
Dennis was wearing dark pants and a dark red sports shirt. I hadn't been certain what to wear to a wine tasting, so I'd gone with jeans and a plain blue cotton shirt. When I saw Dennis I knew I'd chosen correctly.
Like Dennis' fashion sense, the house was modern, but nondescript -- plain, functional furniture, neutral carpeting, beige walls. I looked around for any clue to what might make this man tick, but couldn't find a single thing. Except for the wine.
"Did you have any trouble finding the place?" he asked, ushering me into the large kitchen. His hand hovered behind but didn't touch me.
"Nope. I just followed your directions."
"Good." He rocked back and forth anxiously. "I was just putting out a little food. I bought some appetizers at Heinen's that I thought would go well with the wines we'll be tasting. Cheese and sausages. And these little wraps."
Since I had no idea what food would go with what wine, I just nodded and tried not to look stupid. "It all looks great."
"Help yourself if you're hungry. I'm just going to heat everything up and then put them out on the side table. I have the wine set up in the dining room. Maybe you can lend a hand bringing things out?"
"Sure." I didn't mind playing waiter, although I knew damn well that Dennis Marshall wasn't paying $200 an hour for me to carry a few plates. But what exactly was I supposed to be doing at this party? Mingling? Pretending I was Dennis' boyfriend? Or was 'wine-tasting' a euphemism for some kind of up-scale all-male orgy, with me as the main course? I found that I was getting excited thinking about what might be ahead.
"You can help me set up the glasses." Dennis pointed to a line of freshly washed glasses on the sink. "And if you could also take out the bread and water that would be great."
"Bread and water?" I joked. "Like prison!"
But Dennis obviously didn't get my cutting edge humor. "It's to clean the palate between tastings."
"Oh." That would teach me once again that stand-up is not my forte. "What's this thing?" There was a large metal container on the dining room table.
"That's the dump bucket."
I had to laugh at the word 'dump' because I'm really twelve at heart. "Excuse me? That sounds ominous."
"It's a spittoon. To spit out the wine after you taste it."
Okay! "I thought the whole point was to drink it? Isn't that what the party's all about? Drinking wine?"
"Tasting," he corrected. "Yes, we'll drink some wine afterwards, but this is mainly about tasting."
Dennis fussed with the bottles, explaining about correct temperature and letting the wine breathe and bouquet and clarity as he turned the bottles around so the tasters could read the labels. I'd thought that kind of stuff was an exaggeration, but he was really serious about it all.
"Looks nice," I said.
"Thanks." Dennis puffed out a nervous breath. "This is the first tasting I've hosted and I want to make a good impression."
Great. No pressure, Shea. "I hope I don't screw anything up."
Then he smiled for the first time that night. "You won't."
A few minutes later the guests began to arrive. The orgy idea was immediately laid to rest -- most of the other members of the group were middle-aged women and older couples. I only discerned one other gay man in the bunch, a sixty-ish high school music teacher who made a bee-line for me and introduced himself as Chuck.
"Dennis didn't say anything about new blood tonight!" he leered.
A sturdy blonde woman named Vivian stood next to Chuck and it seemed like she was leering, too. "Dennis has been keeping him under wraps, it seems. How long have you and Dennis known each other?"
"Oh, not long."
"Are you a wine connoisseur?" Vivian asked, reaching for a piece of extremely smelly cheese and popping it into her mouth.
"Hardly. I'm just the clean-up boy."
"Dennis!" called Chuck. "This boy is cute! Isn't he cute, Amanda?"
Another older woman sidled up to me. "Very. Are you a lawyer, too?"
"No, I'm a teacher. College."
"Interesting," Chuck nodded. "What subject?"
"Ah," Vivian cooed. "I better watch my grammar then!"
"Don't bother. Mine isn't all that hot, either."
They all laughed hardily at my witticism. With this crowd maybe I could make it as a stand-up -- as long as I did my set in my underwear.
"Leave Shea alone, please." Dennis herded them towards the table. "We're about to start the flight."
I admit that I learned a lot about wine tasting groups that might, even though I learned nothing about the actual wine. A 'flight' was a group of wine about to be tasted, usually chosen around a certain theme. Tonight it was dry whites from various places -- New York, California, Australia, Germany, France, and Italy. There was a lot of looking at the wine, swirling the wine, smelling the wine, sipping the wine, and then spitting the wine. That was the part that got to me -- all the spitting.
"Shea! You swallowed!" Chuck scolded. "You're supposed to spit, not swallow."
I almost choked at that line. "That's the first time I've had a complaint about that."
Chuck smirked at me. "You naughty boy! I can see Dennis has a tiger by the tail with you."
All that swallowing was making me a little tipsy. But just a little. I was mainly pretending, having no fucking idea what I was supposed to be tasting for or how I was supposed to be judging the wines. The group was throwing around words like 'nose' and 'finish' and talking about the 'in mouth' quality of a particular vintage. It all sounded a little pretentious and a lot ridiculous, but they were all enjoying themselves and having a fine time and their good humor was infectious.
By 10:00 they had tasted all the bottles and scarfed down most of the food. Dennis was smiling, so I knew the party had been a success. And Chuck was still following me around, making pointed comments and trying to find out more about me. But I wasn't biting. I just played dumb, which wasn't too difficult.
"You must come to our next tasting, Shea," Vivian insisted. She and Chuck were the last to leave, however reluctantly. "It's nice to have a young person interested in wine."
"It's nice to have a young person, period!" Chuck chimed in. "Isn't that right, Dennis?" He raised an eyebrow suggestively.
"Good night," Dennis said firmly as he hustled them out the door. "Thank God that's over!"
"I thought it went well?"
"Oh, it did." Dennis began cleaning up. "But I felt like I was under the microscope the whole time."
"Maybe this wasn't a good time to have me come over?"
"No," said Dennis. "One of the reasons I invited you was to take the heat off me. I knew they'd be so curious about you that they'd cut me some slack for my selections. Usually they're brutal, really brutal." I tried to imagine the good-natured swillers I'd met being brutal in any circumstance and could not. At all. Except maybe for Chuck. "But it turned out all right. They especially liked the Lacrima Cristi."
"What was that?"
"This." Dennis held up a bottle with a colorful label showing a smoking mountain. "It's Italian. From Naples. From grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius."
"Seriously?" I took the bottle and looked at it. "They grow grapes on a volcano?"
"Volcanic soil is very rich. It's a very old and famous wine. Lacrima Cristi means..."
"Tears of Christ. Yes, I know."
Dennis seemed surprised. "You know Italian?"
"No, Latin. I went to Catholic school. And I was an altar boy. They said the Mass in English, but made sure we knew some Latin, too."
"Oh." Dennis turned away, as if embarrassed.
I waited, unsure of what to do next.
"It's getting late," he said finally.
"Not really," I said. "I don't have get up and to go to Mass tomorrow."
Dennis wasn't a young, hot guy, but he was nice. And he wasn't buff, but he was good-looking in that square-jawed, traditional WASP way, like one of my Columbia profs I was always getting crushes on. And if I wasn't drunk, I was halfway there. Not to mention I'd been thinking about having sex with Dennis all day. Anticipating it. And now looking forward to it.
"Look, Shea," he confided. "You don't really have to... I mean... I've never done this before."
"Had sex?" I poured myself a slug of the leftover Tears of Christ. It was pretty good. Dry, but not caustic.
"No, of course I've had sex! I have two kids. I mean, with my ex-wife."
So, Dennis was a late-out-of-the-closet guy. "You mean you haven't had sex with a man?"
"Just... a couple." Dennis was very still. "Two in college. And then Doug. He was the man I left my wife for. We were together for four years."
"He left me. Two years ago." Dennis' face was tragic. "For a trainer at his gym. How could I compete with that?"
"Maybe he wasn't the right guy," I said lamely. But I understood. I'd been there.
He shrugged. "I haven't been with anyone since he left. I thought that if you came over, I could..."
I bolted back the rest of the wine and put down the glass. Then I put my arms around him and kissed him. I could taste all the wines he'd had tonight.
Dennis had to be at least fifteen years older, but I felt like Mrs. Robinson. I felt powerful and knowledgeable. Dennis might know about wine, but I knew about this. Making love. And I could teach him a lot more about fucking than he could teach me about swilling.
And no spitting. That was a given.