In the beginning, the time I spent with Louis was limited to Friday nights. He would insist on going home at sunup on Saturday. I didn’t ask any questions. I was grateful for his attention, and I didn’t look much beyond Friday night anyway. In my twenties Friday night was my time to shed the relentless work week, to slough off Monday morning’s alarm through Friday afternoon’s office goodbyes. Friday night allowed me to abandon the weekday mindfulness, an abandon that took place in any number of cheap and loosely-monitored bars in Northwest Washington, DC. No place as reliably as the Ben Bow. The running joke there was, “We’ll just have five drinks, and then we’ll go.”
I was a regular, as was Jack, my roommate, a friend from earlier days in New Jersey. Once I’d met Louis, after he and I hooked up as they say these days, he became a reliable show as well. Jack and I would arrive at the bar in time to claim a booth, and I would wait for Louis. He would come in platform shoes, tight shirts and pants that flattered his fitness. His hair in those early days was pressed straight, like James Brown, and his walnut-colored skin was always moisturized. He spoke in a thin, reedy voice, smiling with each observation, looking slightly away from his interlocutor, a trait that many of my friends read as shyness. Louis and I didn’t categorize the arrangement, even when some started calling him my boyfriend. We simply spent Friday nights together. What would you call that? Queers made no use of the boyfriend category. We lived beyond the Pale of bourgeois conventions. We were simply doing what we were doing, seeking satisfaction, not seeking introspection. Over time Louis forged a certain camaraderie with some of my friends, an acknowledgment of the time shared in each other’s company and the irony that this should be the case.
The established pattern was that any dancing begun at the bar would continue, after the place closed, back in Jack’s and my place. LPs by the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes carried us on through the night’s insistence. Livin’ for the Weekend. Wake Up Everybody. People drifted away at their own pace. Louis would spend what was left of the night and the bleary, pre-dawn Saturday in my bed. I would ask him questions sotto voce, curious to know more about him. I learned early on that he had been a paramedic in Viet Nam, though he would say very little about what that entailed. He admitted to bringing bodies in off the field, sometimes under fire. Some were live bodies and some were not. Pressed further about the war, he once talked about a “mamacíta,” a young Thai woman he hired to spend two weeks of R-and-R with him in Bangkok. Even with the two of us lying naked alongside each other I was too shy to prod for more details. He explained the terms of the arrangement with her by saying, “That’s what you did.” This was followed by a resetting of the talk, a broadening out, a trailing off. I thought often about the courage the war required of him.
He was more open sharing memories of growing up in Savannah, describing the bus boycotts and the sit-ins. He seemed almost amused by those stories. He had tales of places he didn’t want his mother to know about, local clubs where black and white boys mingled, some dressed in drag. He secretly set out from his house once in makeup, wig and dress. He was waiting for a city bus when two neighborhood boys who recognized him started to taunt him. He said he picked up a plank from a construction site and beat on them. I pictured him swinging a two-by-six, never flinching or letting up until they were gone. At the end of that story he sighed that he turned back and sneaked into his house, both victorious and defeated.
My apartment was in Glover Park, a bedroom neighborhood above Georgetown, a leafy retreat removed by Rock Creek Park from the rest of what was then called Chocolate City. It was one of scores of garden-apartment buildings there that housed mostly single white people who commuted to work downtown. The tenants sometimes threw Redskin parties – Sunday afternoon get-togethers where people opened beers, dipped crispy things into creamy sauces, and shouted at the linemen or pass receivers on the television. I had no understanding of why the referees whistled infractions. I never had understood, nor cared, but it was an embarrassment that I didn’t, one that dated back to similar gatherings in my teenage years. Football was seasonal, but, like the more constant Friday night ritual, it engendered its own set of friendships. At the end of one afternoon game a woman I admired, a friend of a friend, unexpectedly and rather formally invited me “and a guest” to her Christmas party. By then Louis sometimes spent more time with me at the weekend. To honor this extension of life beyond Friday night, I asked him if he would come.
Her guests were straight white couples who all seemed to know each other. As with the Sunday gatherings, finger food sat out, now interspersed with candles, Christmas cookies and neatly fanned cocktail napkins. Most everyone sat on the floor. Louis declined to do so. He brought a wooden chair in from the kitchen. I brought him a drink and a small snack on a plate, self-consciously signaling our connection. He was the only black person in the room, and we seemed to be the only gays, a word just gaining acceptance then, replacing harsher terms we had all used since high school, emerging as an acknowledged orientation in some social circles. I made conversational efforts to break the ice, grasping for something beyond how-do-you-know-so-and-so, while Louis maintained his stoic posture, as if recognizing that no one was completely at ease and that would be the baseline for the evening. A few of the guys side-eyed us, but no one was rude. I did what I could to circulate and turned in a serviceable performance. Before the evening reached its natural peak, while a Joni Mitchell album was playing, Louis, on his way back from the bathroom, slipped in one of his clogs and turned an ankle. The wince of pain on his face said we should make an early exit. We made our apologies and accepted a small bag of ice along with expressions of concern. I wondered where the conversation turned once we left.
The next summer brought another in the series of realignments to which late-twenty-something singles are prone. Jack moved in with the girl he was seeing, then she moved out. That left me alone in the apartment. Inspired by a friend who was a master furniture maker, I took up cabinetry as a hobby, now that I had the space to store pine planks and the freedom to run hand tools. I never sought to replace Jack. I liked having all that personal space. A couple from Georgetown invited me to join the private swimming pool where they had a season pass. I’d gone there a few times the previous summer with Jack, who joined, too. I liked the feel of hot sun on bare skin and swimming free-form, like in the pools and lakesides of my childhood.
Louis wasn’t interested in joining. He couldn’t swim. After some coaxing, he did agree to go with me once as my guest. We came with swimsuits on under our clothes. At the shallow end we turned toward the chain-link fence and slid off tee shirts and cut-offs. I dove in and managed to swim the length of the pool underwater in one long-held breath. I popped my head up for air at the deep end where the others were sitting on funky wet towels that smelled of hot cement and chlorination.
“I see you brought Marilyn with you,” the woman grinned.
“Marilyn. Marilyn Monroe.”
She nodded her head to where Louis edged along the pool in silver blue speedos like a black Charles Atlas come to rule the beach. He glistened darkly under the summer sun, his white teeth beaming. I heard Jack chuckle, and I suddenly caught her drift. Marilyn Monroe: curvaceous white woman; Louis: muscled black man. The juxtaposition intended irony, granting both were beautiful, both objects of desire. One a photonegative of the other. Marilyn Monroe was shorthand for desirable woman in the male gaze; Louis was the anomaly. I laughed slightly. Louis heard me. He might have heard her.
Lying on my towel, face up, eyes shut, sunlight red on my eyelids, I turned the Marilyn Monroe trope over in my mind. I had laughed at it so easily – in part, I suppose, to signal that I was cognizant of its wry wit. But in what conceivable way was that remark not ridiculing Louis? It was prurient, its humor resting on the fact that Louis wasn’t white, wasn’t female, wasn’t straight. It suggested that he was thus laughable, worthy of ironic comment. It converted what was at his core – his male beauty, his diffidence, his race – into a negative thing, something that fell short of Marilyn’s femininity, effusiveness and blondness.
Louis and I had experienced many awkward moment before then. Neither of us was any more sure-footed than the city in which we lived about the evolving ambiguities of racial integration, sexual liberation, or social tolerance. Fag jokes. Race jokes. In the black clubs downtown, dating a white boy was referred to as “eating cheese.” When we came in, many customers turned their backs on us. When we met my work colleagues at public events, they invariably, pointedly, asked either me or him – sometimes both, as if to trip one of us up – how we knew each other, scrutinizing a white guy and a black guy hanging out together. We stood firm in the face of the disapproval. We shrugged such things off in a tacit acknowledgment that they came with the territory. Friday nights were still our core practice, and we had moved beyond them to share more time together. We found steady comfort in each other’s company and had settled into that comfort. None of this had required much awkward talk between us.
But the Marilyn Monroe joke, comfortably dropped among friends, clarified a few things. The woman who told it intended to make the remark out of Louis’ earshot, thereby revealing who she meant to be in on the joke, and who not. It was, as they say these days, privileged-class snark. I wondered if Louis had heard the remark and had simply absorbed it as another jibe. I had been a coward not to ask him.
Looking back now, I suspect that he did hear it. He kept things like that to himself. We both did. There were gaps between us, things that we didn’t say aloud. I knew instinctively that my race, my sex and my physical bearing helped my career advancement. Louis would not have succeeded in that same space. He didn’t fit the proper mold. I didn’t talk about Louis with work colleagues. Dating him didn’t fit that mold. Equally, I didn’t know Louis’ friends, and I didn’t ask about them, or ask who he talked to during the week or where he went when we weren’t together. I had an unexamined sense that I wouldn’t fit in, that I wasn’t included for a reason. I now see the irony in the gap between what I thought was my world and the evidence that it wasn’t. Gaps between that world into which I labored to incorporate Louis, and his world, to which I was not introduced. Gaps between where he saw himself going and where he saw me headed. Gaps between the courage I thought he had shown throughout his life and the temerity in which I thought I lived. The Marilyn Monroe joke was delivered as malign irony. I now see the real ironies in our relationship, unaddressed but just as clear and present, just as dangerous.
I was curious about them, but too timid to ask. I didn’t want to hear anything that wasn’t true. I didn’t want to say anything that wasn’t true. I didn’t know what was true.
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“Dan Juday’s Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self is a coming-of-age memoir that is a must-read. A compassionate journey of self-acceptance that follows Dan Juday from the rural communities of Indiana, across Europe, and among the East Coast searching for a life well-lived.”
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