"What are you making?" asked Aaron as he came into the kitchen. It was the afternoon of the Sanfords' cookout.
I proudly displayed the results of my morning's work. "Chicken satay. Cold sesame noodles. And a very large pitcher of margaritas." I'd already sampled the margaritas.
"Shea, the woman said to bring chips and dips! So why are you making all this?" Aaron reached for one of the satay skewers, but I swatted his hand away.
"This is our official introduction to the neighborhood. You want me to let the team down by bringing stale potato chips and a tub of clam dip? What kind of self-respecting homo are you?"
"This is too good for them," said Aaron. "Let's stay home, and eat it ourselves."
I'd actually considered that, but we'd made a commitment to the picnic. Besides, I knew that if we didn't show up Jeanette Sanford would be at our door to find out why. She didn't strike me as the kind of person who gave up easily.
"It's too late for that. Now or never, Aar."
"Crap." Aaron looked out of the kitchen window. "There are already people over there. And I smell something burning."
"Ah! The suburbs! Grilling wieners! Slugging back martinis! Swapping wives!"
Aaron made a face. "You're making me ill, Baby!"
"You wanted to house on 'Leave It To Beaver' Street. This could be good material for you," I point out. "An expose of the dark underbelly of suburban life -- the cookout!"
Aaron rolled his eyes. "Let's just go over there and get it over with."
I pointed to the pitcher. "You can carry the margaritas. And don't spill them!"
"Yes, dear," Aaron snarked.
I know the whole backyard cookout scenario a lot better than Aaron. Even the Desmonds, as dysfunctional as they are, have family gatherings. While our little segment of the family is packed with crazy, my old man's brothers and sisters and their progeny are a lot more in the normal range. My aunts, especially Mary-Pat and Sally, had a lot of kids and they always invited us over for holiday parties and summer picnics. I tended to watch from the sidelines, suspiciously, wondering what horrors were going on when everyone went home. But I later found out that there were no horrors. My aunts and uncles all got along and my cousins grew up disgustingly well-adjusted.
Jeanette greeted us heartily and began introducing us to a horde of people we'd be expected to remember later. The Sanford backyard was large and there were a lot of kids running around. There were also a number of men in shorts gathered around a gigantic gas grill that seemed to have multiple stories. And women were going in and out of the house, carrying plastic bowls and large platters.
"Shane! What's this?" Jeanette's eyes widened as she admired my chicken satay and cold sesame noodles. "This looks delicious! Did you make it yourself?"
"Shea -- not Shane. Yes," I said. "I thought it would be better than bringing boring old chips and dips." I looked around, but I'd already been abandoned by my partner. Aaron had carried the margaritas over to where the men were flocking around the grill. That's also where the coolers of beer and other alcoholic beverages were located.
"Oh, sorry, honey. Shea. I'll try to remember that. Dana!" Jeanette called. "Come over here!" A blonde in pink shorts bounced over. She looked like she was in her late twenties. "Shea, this is my sister-in-law, Dana Sanford. Shea's our new neighbor."
"Jeanette's told me so much about you!" the blonde said eagerly. "You're from New York?"
She couldn't have told her much, since she was still having trouble getting my name right. "Originally. But we moved here from Boston."
"I love New York! My friend and I went to New York about five years ago," Dana gushed. "We had such a good time! We saw 'Phantom'! Have you seen that?"
Yes, I had to admit that I'd seen 'The Phantom of the Opera.' What gay man who lived in New York could get out of seeing a certain number of Broadway musicals? Even Aaron had seen 'Phantom' -- and he hates musicals. But you have to -- it's a queer cultural requirement.
Dana, who had been designated my new best friend, proceeded to talk. And talk. And keep talking. I had no idea what she was talking about half the time: she flitted from New York and 'Phantom' to Chicago to Indianapolis to Las Vegas, touching on every place she'd been in the past ten years and who she'd gone with. I just nodded.
"Why don't you two sit over there?" Jeanette suggested. And I was swept to a seat at the largest picnic table -- there were three -- next to Dana. Aaron was nowhere to be seen.
Now I'm pretty slow when it comes to women, but even I could figure out what was going on. Dana was my date. She kept laughing and clutching my arm and piling food on my plate, having a great old time. I don't know what Jeanette had told her about the two guys who had moved in next door, but either she had neglected to mention to her sister-in-law that we were a couple of fruits, or she still didn't know herself.
You'd think the chicken satay and cold sesame noodles would have been a dead giveaway. Evidently not.
"Oh, no!" cried Jeanette. "We're out of potato salad!"
This revelation was greeted with dismay by all of the women and with shrugs by all of the men. I finally saw Aaron -- he was sitting by the grill, a bottle of Bud in hand, talking to an older man. I tried to catch his eye, but he was pointedly not looking my way. I'd accepted this invitation and now I'd have to stick it out.
"Dana, do you think you could go up to the store and get some more potato salad?" Jeanette gave the blonde a nudge. "And ice cream, too. Shea can go with you to carry everything. You don't mind, do you, Shea?"
What the hell? "No, I don't mind."
And we were on our way to the store. Dana drove.
Dana was one of those people who ask questions and then never wait for the answer. So I let her keep asking. It was a hot day; I put down the window and leaned my arm out, enjoying the breeze.
We passed the university. I needed to go over there and check things out, but I dreaded another round of introductions. There'd be enough of those right before the semester began in August. I already had the list of classes I was going to teach -- two American Lit survey courses and one 'Special Topics' for upperclassmen. I had hoped I could do the 'Special Topics' on Gay Literature, but they had it listed as 'Short Stories.' I guess I could interpret that any way I wanted to. Truman Capote. Tennessee Williams. David Leavitt. Edmund White.
"I asked you how you liked Hastings?"
Dana was actually waiting for an answer.
"Oh. Fine. I haven't seen much of it yet."
"I bet it's different from New York! There's something to do all the time there." She sighed. "There's nothing to do here. I mean, nothing exciting."
"What about your job?" I forgot whether she'd mentioned what she did.
"It's the same thing every day at the office. Typing and filing. Sometimes I'm ready to scream."
"I can relate to that," I said.
"But teaching must be so interesting! Jeanette used to be a teacher, but she stopped working when Josh was born. I'd love to go back to college and finish my degree. I quit when I was a sophomore. I was never much of a student. But I love kids! Do you like kids, Shea?"
Oops. The 'do you like kids?' line of questioning. "The kids I teach aren't really kids anymore. But I have a nephew I'm fond of."
"Is he in New York?" The woman was fixated on New York!
"No, he's in Cleveland. That's where my family lives. I was born there. I went to New York later. That's where I met Aaron."
"Oh," she said. "He seems nice."
We arrived at the store. It was a mega-supermarket, with special areas for fresh produce, dairy products, and video rentals, a full-service bakery, a cafe, and even a children's in-door playground. After shopping at our little corner market in Boston and similar places in Philly and NYC, it was a dizzying display of suburban consumption.
Dana ordered three different kinds of potato salad, then picked out two large tubs of ice cream. "Dutch Chocolate and French Vanilla," she said. "That should cover it!"
"At least the European flavors. Unless you want to get into the gelatos."
Dana laughed. "You're so funny, Shea!"
"Really, I'm not," I insisted as we went through the check-out line. I paid.
"I love to cook!" Dana continued as we walked back to the car. "Nothing fancy. But I make great spaghetti. Do you like spaghetti? With meatballs? And Beef Stroganoff. I hope you aren't a vegetarian?"
"No, I'm not a vegetarian."
Then she was off and running again. "You should come over next week for dinner. I can make my spaghetti. And I'll get a bottle of wine. Red wine. And I'll make dessert. Do you like pie?"
It was uncomfortable to hear the desperation in her voice. She was trying so hard to make a good impression. But now it was time to stop this. I knew the invitation to dinner was coming and I should have told her the truth before things had gotten this far.
"Listen, Dana, I need to tell you something," I said as she unlocked the car. I put the bags into the backseat and we both got in. "I don't think dinner would be a good idea."
Her face fell. "Oh. Why not? I wasn't planning anything too fussy... And I'm a good cook!"
"I'm sure you are," I reassured her. "But... I don't think Aaron would like it. And I don't want to give you the wrong idea."
"Aaron?" She frowned. "Why would your roommate care? What do you mean?"
"Aaron isn't my roommate," I said carefully. "He's my partner." She stared at me blankly. "My boyfriend. My lover." I held up my left hand to show her the platinum ring. "My husband."
She blinked a few times. "Shit!" she said, turning the key and cranking the engine hard. "That goddamn Jeanette! She's so stupid!" She turned to me. "And so am I! I knew it was too good to be true! Two single guys in the Stinsons' old house. Just come over and take your pick, Dana, she said. Screw that!"
"I'm sorry. I thought it was pretty obvious we were a couple."
Dana stared at me. "Obvious to who? You look normal to me! You and your friend don't look like a couple of fags!"
I winced. I know I use the F-word more than I should, but I'm one and I only use it in fun. But hearing it come out of a straight woman in anger was stinging.
"We prefer the term fudgepacker, if you don't mind," I retorted.
She slammed the car into gear and we lurched forward. "I don't know why you're so angry! You have a boyfriend! You're all set! Just try to find a single man in this town who isn't a farmer or an alcoholic or who's 45 and still lives with his goddamn mother!"
"I should have put the breaks on this at the start," I said. "I'm sorry. Truly."
"How old are you, Shea?" she asked.
"Well, I'm 34. I'm sick of my nowhere job! I'm sick of this nowhere town! And I'm sick of the nowhere men in it! You're the first decent-looking guy I've seen in months. It figures you don't like women. That's the way my luck has been going!"
"Then why don't you get out of Hastings? Move somewhere else? New York. Or Chicago. Or even Indianapolis?"
"My family is here," she said. "I'm the only daughter and I'm expected to take care of my parents. They don't like me to go too far from home for too long. There's no way I could move away! No way..." Her voice trailed off. "I didn't mean to insult you, Shea. You seem like a nice guy."
"And you seem like a nice woman. Maybe we could have a truce? I don't need a girlfriend, but it would be okay if we were friends."
"Maybe," she said grudgingly. "I should have known something was up when I saw that ring."
"So you did notice it."
"Yeah. So did Jeanette, but she thought maybe you were separated from your wife and that's why you were staying with your friend."
"Aaron has a ring, too."
"But I don't think she saw that. At least she didn't mention it."
We drove the rest of the way in silence. When we got out of the car, Dana grabbed both bags and bolted for the backyard. I saw her make directly for Jeanette to give her an earful.
Well, now was the time to make my statement. Just to be clear. Just in case anyone didn't get it.
Aaron was still sitting by the grill, talking with the older man. I walked up to them. "Hey, Aar."
My partner smiled. "Hey, Shea. What took you so long?"
"Dana and I needed to discuss a few things."
"What things?" he asked.
"These things." I bent over and kissed Aaron on the lips. Not a peck, but a real kiss. A make-no-mistake-about-it kind of kiss.
"Shea! What the hell are you doing!" Aaron pulled back, flustered.
"Showing the natives how the fags do things," I said. And then I went home.