Let it Burn: End of a Saga

I flew home over winter break, and found Bearbait at the baggage claim, where he’d been when my mother had been dying and I’d flown back from Minneapolis. During my time away I had missed him terribly. He had been, and still remained, my AA sponsor, and it wasn’t until I was thousands of miles away that I came to understand how much he had saved my life. And it wasn’t until I was in New York that I had what felt like a stunning revelation; Bearbait had come into my life six months before my mother died, and he’d taken on her role gently, unobtrusively, and faithfully. It was such an obvious connection, yet I’d missed it for over four years.

Now he waited for me at the bottom of the escalator, dressed in an absurdly tight black t-shirt. Since I’d been away he’d hired a personal trainer, something he’d been considering forever until one day, just before I’d moved away, I interrupted him in the middle of a conversation.

“Can I say something? As your friend?”

His eyes widened. “Uh oh.”

“You’ve been talking about getting a gym membership for four years.”

“Ouch.”

“God knows you’ve helped enough people. Go be selfish for a while.”

And he had. And I knew that he was wearing the t-shirt to show off his progress, because he wanted to impress me, and I was deeply, immeasurably touched.

“What the hell are you benching?”

He giggled, turned bright red, and hugged me.

A minute later I tried to extricate myself from his embrace. “Bearbait…”

“I’m not letting go, so shut up.”

He dropped me off on my little dead-end street on the hill. And when I stepped out of his truck and stood on the sidewalk outside my old apartment, all I could hear was the wind through the trees, and I breathed in the smell of damp eucalyptus leaves, and for the first time since I’d been away, I relaxed.

Bearbait rolled down his window. “Sweetie?”

“I’m having a moment.”

“I can see that. Pick you up in the morning?”

I nodded, and watched as he turned the truck around. All of that revelation business, about him being my mother, could wait.

Rain fell the entire week I was home, but I didn’t care. I sat on the couch in the living room looking out at that view. Across the way was a lush green hill, sparsely scattered with pale Victorians. Against the green hill the rain fell in curtains, twisting and curling in the wind. I watched for hours in the warm and quiet house, and I felt things settling within me, as if I’d been a jar of dirt and water shaken continually for months on end, and finally I’d been set down and left alone, and the layers of sediment could slowly drift down and fall into place.

And with the sediment other things drifted into place. With time I could build another family in New York. But I was tired, finally, of starting over every five years, tired of losing touch with people. What would it feel like, I wondered, to know friends for ten years? Fifteen? Louie yawned and stretched out across my feet, and I leaned forward and rubbed his ears. He was nearly eleven years old already, an old man. Where would I be when he died?

One night the Manly Fireplug and I squeezed into Bearbait’s pick-up and the three of us drove over to Cathedral Hill for an AA meeting. When we climbed out of the truck I glanced at my watch. “We have an entire hour to kill.”

“Let’s go save seats,” Bearbait said.

“Oh my God, an hour early?” I said. “You’re kidding right? They don’t save seats in New York meetings.”

Bearbait and the Fireplug glanced at each other. “Listen to him,” said Bearbait. “Like he’s a New Yorker now or something. I suppose we could grab some coffee.”

“You have to move back to San Francisco,” the Fireplug said as we set off towards Polk Street. “And keep Bearbait and I from turning into a couple of old women.”

Polk Street, a commercial strip on the edge of the Tenderloin, had been the city’s original gay ghetto back in the sixties and seventies. After the emergence of the Castro, Polk Street had grown tarnished, though gray-haired men still bought drinks for the hustlers at Rendezvous and the Giraffe until recent years, when the bars closed to make way for straight nightclubs and tapas bars. Here and there the last decayed storefronts remained. Trannies, meth dealers, young professionals, and immigrants shared the sidewalks. As we turned the corner we saw fire engines blocking off an intersection. Thick clouds of black smoke spilled from an old fish and chips restaurant and rose up against the night sky. I’d never seen a fire in person, and I lingered among a crowd of onlookers. The Fireplug disappeared around the corner and came back with a greasy slice of pizza, and the three of us leaned up against the outer wall of a laundromat and watched the building burn. The firemen aimed a hose at the roof, and sheets of water ran down the plate glass windows. One fireman swung his axe, the wooden storefront cracked open, and smoke pushed through the fracture. The Fish-n-Chips sign blackened before our eyes. Windows shattered, the firemen called to each other, and red lights spun in patterns over the street and across the faces of the crowd. Two cops waved cars through the intersection, bellowing at the drivers who twisted in their seats and gaped at the spectacle. The firemen leaned a ladder against the one-story structure, and a half dozen in full gear climbed up and lumbered across the tarpapered roof. They moved steadily, without hurry, their movements obscured by black smoke. Slender flames curled up along the doorframe.

The Fireplug turned and silently offered me a bite of his pizza. I shook my head and turned back to the fire. “That looks dangerous,” I said. Bearbait was quiet beside me, his shoulder pressed against mine. Standing beside my friends, I knew that I had already made my decision.

Back in New York, I found work as a research assistant to an author who’d written a biography that had sat on my bookshelf for several years. He’d recently been named one of New York magazine’s “Fifty Most Beautiful New Yorkers,” and I’d spend a few hours a week with him at his apartment in the Village. Patti Smith was his next-door neighbor. Once I showed up a few minutes early to find a film crew interviewing him for a documentary about gay artists who’d died in the AIDS epidemic, and while I waited I glanced through his bookshelves. Propped against the cracked spines of Isherwood and Cunningham was an engraved invitation to his fiftieth birthday party, hosted by Diane Von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. Another time he showed me a ballot that Vanity Fair sent him, to vote for the city’s “Best Dressed.” Later that afternoon we discussed my post-graduate career options.

“Well, you could go to Milan and be a model,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m kidding,” he said. “That’s what I did.”

“Oh, right.”

“What are you doing this weekend?” he asked, as I pulled on my jacket.

“Reading.”

“You’re always reading.”

“I know. What are you doing?”

“I’m going to Kurt’s birthday party.”

“Kurt?”

“Kurt Vonnegut.”

“Oh, right. Tell him hi for me,” I said.

The next week I asked him about the party, and he pulled up a website on his computer: “New York Social Diary.” And there he was, a glass of red wine in hand, smiling next to Kitty Carlisle, Kurt, and Billy Collins.

What would Rick Bass do?

“You’re name’s in bold print,” I said.

Later that week Columbia sent me an email, asking if I planned on renewing my lease at the end of May. I wrote back, “no.”

The dream – of a new life in New York – burned quickly. Its death was surprisingly painless. I only felt relief, as if I’d just shed an enormous burden. I’d carried that dream with me for thirteen years, everywhere I went, and everywhere I went I’d held a tiny part of myself back, saving it for the dream. “What if I lived in New York?” I’d always wondered, looking at my surroundings with disdain. What a relief to know that I no longer had to “live up” to a city. I’d already found the one I wanted. Looking back, I wonder if I moved to New York not so much to pursue the dream, as to put it to rest.

The Manly Fireplug, of course, had cut my hair while I was visiting San Francisco. The barber in the second chair, Jeff, grew up in Brooklyn, and had a rugged, Harley-driving exterior, though I’d always suspected that there was something tender underneath. As the Fireplug buzzed my scalp, I asked Jeff how he was doing, and if he was dating anybody. “Nope,” he said.

“If I moved back to San Francisco, would you let me take you out on a date?” I asked.

He paused for a second or two. “Well, you know, there’s so many kinds of ‘dates’ in the gay world.”

“Like what?”

“Well there’s the coffee date, which could be just between friends. Us sober guys go on a lot of coffee dates. And then there’s the sex date. Self-explanatory.”

“Jeff…”

“And then there’s the date-date, which would be dinner and a movie with the possibility, but not the guarantee, of sex. And then there’s – ”

Jeff…”

“What?”

“Just tell me what the fuck I should ask you when I move back.”

I’d never seen him speechless before. He may have actually blushed. “A date-date,” he said, quietly.

“Alright,” I said. “But just so you know, I don’t put out on the first date-date.”

He nodded. “That’s fine.”

Looking back, I realize now that my request contained a hidden motive: to make the Fireplug – who had sworn off boyfriends after his last relationshiop – jealous. I glanced in the mirror, to gauge his reaction. But if it did the trick, he hid it well, looking down at the back of my neck, clippers in hand. A moment later he caught my eye in the mirror and patted my shoulder. “New York’s been good for you,” he said.

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