parts (maybe they're chapters, maybe not): the "Red Shirt"
prologue, and Part 1, which is everything else I've posted
up to now. That ends with Shea's session with his therapist,
Dr. DiGiglio (pronounced "D'Jill-ee-oh" in case you're
So if you want to think of this as the start of Chapter 2,
go ahead. I'm working on Part 2-02 right now.
I was excited to tell Aaron all about my decision to quit therapy, but of course he wasn't home when I got back to the apartment. That gave me time to reconsider. To obsess. To re-think. And then re-think and obsess and reconsider some more.
By the time I'd stopped having my mini-panic attack, Aaron really was late. I called his office, but there was no answer. I didn't feel like cooking anything new, so I reheated some chicken and made a salad, then sat on the sofa and picked at it while I watched the news. Then I called Aaron again, but it just rang in the empty office.
Fuck it. I wasn't going to worry. I'd made the decision to blow off Dr. DiGiglio and I was sticking to it. Of course, in the long run it wouldn't matter because we were leaving town. Going to Indiana. Wasn't that an old movie? About a farm boy and his horse? Aaron would know. He knows all the old movies, especially the obscure ones. He's a Distinguished Professor of Film; it's his business to know the obscure ones.
I got online and surfed around, looking for information on Indiana. I went to the website for Eastern Indiana University, but didn't learn much. Most university sites are pretty much the same. We're a fun place! Pictures of multi-ethnic students laughing and playing Frisbee. But we're also academically challenging! Pictures of multi-ethnic students looking at test tubes in a lab. We love our professors! Pictures of white, middle-aged professors in tweed jackets and glasses. They love their students! Pictures of multi-ethnic students sitting in the office of a white, middle-aged professor in a tweed jacket. We have a beautiful campus! Pictures of the Quad from different angles. I think whoever designs these websites needs to find a new paradigm to sell their institutions.
The phone rang and I grabbed it like a teenaged girl waiting for a call from the cutest boy in school.
"Hello?" The minute I said it I felt pathetic. Wherever Aaron was, he'd be home -- eventually. And, knowing my partner, he was unlikely to call and apologize for running late.
"Shea? What's up? You sound strange."
It was my friend Rich, calling from Cleveland.
Rich Sharpe is a professor at Forest City University. He's only two years older, but in every other measure he's miles ahead of me. Sometimes I think he's everything I'm not. He teaches in a Gay Studies Program. He's respected by his colleagues. He started at Forest City right out of grad school, he's an Assistant Professor, and he already has tenure. Rich has also written a couple of books, including a volume of poetry, while I can't seem to get my first book finished. In other words, Rich is already a success, while I'm stuck in the academic mud.
Rich is also one of the few people, outside of my family and my therapists, who knows anything about my past. On one of the rare occasions when I had too much to drink, I spilled the whole thing to the extremely sympathetic -- and attractive -- Richard Sharpe.
We met two years ago at a mixer at the 1997 Modern Language Association Convention. It was cold in Toronto, much colder than Philadelphia, where Aaron and I were stationed at the time. Aaron was a Visiting Professor of Film, but, as usual, he was already looking ahead to a shiny new position at Boston State. I, on the other hand, was stumbling along, trying to complete my dissertation and working as a fill-in lecturer. I was also trying to build up my vita by going to as many conferences and giving as many papers as I could cram in. Since the MLA is the big event of the academic year, there I was, presenting a paper in the Gay Lit section on 'Queer Subjectivity in the Novels of Truman Capote.' The presentation went all right, but the panel discussion afterwards was dismal. The old school geezer who was moderating it treated me like some piece of fluff and shut me down every time I opened my mouth to make a point about Queer Theory. I later found out that the other guy on the panel, a pompous ass who read a snooze-inducing paper on 'The Wit of Oscar Wilde' -- now there's an uncharted bit of territory! -- was the old queen's prize student. I was screwed from the get-go.
So I skulked into the cocktail party for the Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transgendered Caucus already feeling shaky. They handed me a small sherry as I walked in the door -- they take the 'cocktail' part very seriously at the MLA -- but I soon found myself at the open bar, downing shots of Canadian Club. Unfortunately, my then-scrawny form, already battered by stress, a lack of sleep, and an inability to keep down any food since I'd been in the Great White North, couldn't handle the impact of all that booze. Somewhere, my alcoholic forefathers were shaking their heads in disgust at producing such a wimp.
Luckily, Rich Sharpe was standing by to catch me as I slowly slid to the floor. He had a handy room upstairs and he managed to walk me up to it and get me to the bathroom just in time for me to vomit out all the liquor I'd busily spent the last hour taking in.
Granted, getting me into bed had been number one on Rich's agenda: it would have been an easy fuck and I admit that a little R&R with the husky Professor Sharpe might have been just what I needed at that moment. But once he bundled Baby upstairs, he felt sorry for me in my pitiable state. We did end up sleeping together that night, but we didn't fuck; I was smashed and Rich was, after all, a perfect gentleman. Sex didn't happen at that MLA Convention, or at any subsequent meeting. But what began as an alcohol-fueled pick-up turned into a much-needed -- for me, at least -- friendship.
Instead of humping my brains out, Rich used the coffee-maker provided in the room to make a series of strong cups of hot coffee to sober me up. That also meant the two of us were up most of the night, trading life histories. First off we found we had a Cleveland connection: Rich worked there and it was my hometown, so we had some common reference points. Rich lived on the East Side (Coventry), and I'd been a West Side boy (Lakewood), but in ice-cold Toronto we felt like long-lost next-door neighbors. Rich told me all about his family (a long line of ranchers), growing up in the West (Colorado), coming out in college (Brown), his travels around Europe (Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam), and his classes and colleagues at Forest City (he loved them). And I, still more than a little loaded and perceiving that I was in the presence of an empathetic soul, told Rich everything about myself. And I mean everything.
It felt good to tell someone who wasn't my therapist. I realized as I was recounting the whole sordid tale that I probably should have simply gone to confession years ago, gotten it all off my chest, and saved thousands of Aaron's dollars in therapy bills. But Rich seemed like the next best thing to a priest, understanding and non-judgmental. And that's exactly what I needed.
I also found myself very attracted to him. That didn't hurt, either. I thought he was a lot older than he actually was, and, as Dr. DiGiglio would point out so cogently, I definitely have a thing for older men. I guess you'd say Rich is a bear: he's burly and bearded and looks like he could pick you up and carry you off without breaking a sweat. And maybe that's what I was looking for right then: someone to pick me up and carry me off. Which was pretty much what Rich did that night.
"I can't believe you were an escort!" Rich marveled as he poured me yet another cup of coffee. It was around 3:00 a.m. by then. "That's so outlaw!"
"Not an escort," I corrected. "Escorts have websites and ads in 'The Free Times.' Escorts are ex-porn stars who charge by the hour and travel to South Beach to service famous designers and closeted millionaires. Escorts are buff, have artful tattoos, and are 9-inches, uncut. That's not what I was. I was a hustler and a drug addict. I was a street whore. I slept in warehouses and sucked off guys in parked cars. I spent most of my waking hours running from the cops and looking to get high."
"That's still totally outlaw," Rich reiterated. He was impressed by my squalid resume, even enamored by it. And, I realized later, enamored of me.
"And totally fucked up," I returned. "Don't romanticize it."
Rich laughed. "You just told me that your dissertation is on John Rechy and hustler culture! So who's the one doing the romanticizing?"
"I don't romanticize it," I insisted. "I analyze it. I problematicize it. I critique it. Who can do that better than someone who's lived it?"
"You have a point," he agreed. "But it's still such a leap. You're the last person I'd peg as a hustler. You look so innocent."
"Former hustler. Believe me, I looked a lot less innocent when I was 16. In fact, I've gotten younger looking and more innocent as I've gotten older. That's the secret of my success."
And the basis of my failure, I wanted to add. But I couldn't admit that then. I wasn't ready to admit it. Or face it.
Rich and I spent the rest of the convention together. He'd been hoping to hook up with someone -- academic conferences are infamous for bed-hopping, whether you're gay or straight -- but in the end he seemed happy to make a friend. And I was relieved to find someone outside of Aaron's extended circle I could talk to. Someone who wanted to know me for myself and didn't think of me as merely an appendage of my powerful and often overwhelming partner.
And as a friend Rich turned out to be a godsend. Whenever I had to be in Cleveland, I had a place where I could retreat from my parents and all the family kerfuffle. Rich and I would go out to dinner or just go to his apartment and I could vent about all my troubles. I could tell Rich things I didn't dare tell to Aaron, mainly because they were about Aaron. My partner had already made it clear that he thought I was catering to my dysfunctional family way too much and he didn't want to hear any more about them. But with Rich, I could talk about my fear that my old man, with the double whammy of a bad heart and an even worse prostate, was dying. And about my frustration with my mother's passivity. Or about my two sisters, Good Twin and Evil Twin. Or my little queer nephew. Rich didn't mind hearing about all of them. He was the perfect listener in many ways.
He was also a safe listener.
Because about five months after that MLA meeting, Rich called me up to tell me that he'd tested HIV+. He'd been having an on-again, off-again relationship with Garry, another professor who taught at Ohio State, for about five years. Rich had no clue that Garry was positive, but Garry knew and decided not to share that information. Frankly, Garry was a shithead. I don't know what happened or how it happened, but something went wrong, or they weren't always safe, or whatever, and Rich came up positive.
Rich was obviously upset about his diagnosis, but he seemed to be dealing with it in his typically mature manner. But being the lunatic I am, I was the one who became hysterical. So hysterical that Aaron grabbed the phone away from me and screamed at Rich for about ten minutes. You'd have thought he'd infected me. Maybe that's exactly what Aaron thought. He'd suspected that something went on between the two of us up in Toronto, but I could honestly say that nothing had. And now I was relieved that nothing had. I know it's selfish of me to be thankful that I'd dodged a bullet that had hit my friend, but there you go. Aaron hadn't trusted Rich before and he trusted him even less after that, but we still remained friends. Ironically, Rich's HIV status made him safer. We both knew that a casual fuck would never be an option now. We could never simply fall into bed, drunk or sober, and change the whole dynamic of our relationship. And that made our friendship much easier, at least for me, draining it of a lot of the tension I always felt around other men who I knew desired me.
But not all of the tension.
"Nothing's up. I'm just sitting around, waiting for Aaron to come home."
"Then this is a good time for me to call. I have your full attention," Rich said.
"You always have my full attention."
There was a brief silence while we both processed that lie. Then Rich continued, "I got your e-mail. So Aaron got that position."
"Yup. We're moving to lovely Indiana. Aaron got me a job, too. I'll be just what they need: the new English Department fag."
"Listen, Shea, I know you hate this, but there are worse places than Indiana. And knowing Aaron, he won't stay there long. Didn't you say Hollywood was beckoning? I bet you guys are in L.A. within two years, if not sooner."
"And then I'll have to start all over again at another university, where I'll owe my job to Aaron -- again. It's a fucking vicious cycle!"
Rich paused. He always pauses at this point in the conversation -- the point where my relationship with Aaron inserts itself between us.
"When are you going to wake up, Shea?"
This is also the point where I always have to stop listening to what Rich has to say. "And smell the coffee?"
"It's not funny!"I could hear his voice turning angry. "At least not to me. It makes me sick to see you wasting your life with someone who takes you for granted. Because you deserve more. A hell of a lot more."
"I can't talk about this now." I looked at my watch. Where the fuck was Aaron? It would be so much easier to dismiss what Rich was saying if my partner were in the house. Or even in the neighborhood.
"You never want to talk about it. You only want to complain, mainly to me. Well, Shea, I think it isn't me you need to vent to -- it's your boyfriend!"
"Aaron is a little more than my boyfriend." I touched the platinum ring on my left hand. "Ring. Commitment ceremony. Sit-down dinner for a hundred. Three toasters. My old man drank too much champagne and almost punched out a rabbi. You should have been there."
"Hilarious," he said sarcastically. "But if you don't tell the guy now, then when will you tell him how you feel? What does your therapist say?"
I bit at my lower lip. "I've quit therapy. This afternoon was my last session."
Rich made a puffing noise. "All better now, Shea?"
Now I was angry, too. "It was a waste of fucking time! Give me a break, Rich!"
"Okay, I will. I'll give you a break. I don't want to fight with you," Rich said in resignation. But part of me didn't want him to give up. Part of me wanted him to keep talking. To keep challenging me. "You know how I feel about you, Shea. You know and your partner knows, too, which is why he detests me!"
"He doesn't detest you. He's just a little possessive."
"And you like that, don't you, Shea?" Rich offered. Now he sounded like Dr. DiGiglio. Analyzing me. Deconstructing me like a flawed text to show the ruptures and the contradictions. "Wanting to possess someone isn't the same thing as love."
I swallowed. "It is with Aaron."
"I have to go," Rich said abruptly. "If you need to talk, call me."
"Wait. We might be in Cleveland in the next month or so. It depends on when we're going to move. I told my mother we'd probably stop there on the way to Indiana to break up the trip."
I heard Rich sigh. "It would be great if I got to see you. I hardly had the chance to say two words to you over Christmas."
"I know, but there was so much family stuff going on. And Aaron..."
"Yeah. Aaron. I'll talk to you, Shea. Take good care of yourself."
"You too, Rich."
I put down the phone and although it was just after 9:00, I went in to bed.