Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 18: Clearing the Air

Chapter 18
Clearing the Air

When I awoke the next morning, Edmund‘s bed was empty. I found him in the kitchen drinking coffee, waiting for Tennessee to emerge.
“Gavin went out walking,” he said, and then, mimicking Gavin’s British accent, “to enjoy the light.”
Rising before Tennessee, Gavin could enjoy the intensified colors of the angular morning light. In fewer than twenty-four hours, his plane would descend into the fog of a London winter.
I poured a mug of coffee and went outside to clean the parrots’ cage. Working so close to the kitchen, I soon heard Tennessee’s voice inside. I worked quietly, listening to him and Edmund, but I made out little of their exchange.
I worked carefully around Juanita’s egg. There was no longer any hope for it, but Helen was still attached to its possibility. I would not remove it until everyone in the household had completely given up. When I finished cleaning, Juanita climbed up my arm, and we walked into the kitchen to get some grapes.
Edmund was still making his case. Tennessee, in a bathrobe and flyaway hair, appeared cornered. Cornelius sauntered in from the dining room.
            “Cor-NEE!” Juanita screeched.
            Tennessee exclaimed, “A perfect analysis given by a parrot!”—the title of one of his short plays. He cackled, then added, playing with Edmund’s last name, “. . . or by a Perret.”
Edmund opened his mouth, but closed it when Tennessee waved his arm like the pope ending an audience. No further petition would be accepted. Edmund looked dismayed, but Tennessee was full of the morning. He sashayed around the kitchen searching the cabinets for something. Giving up his search, he wiped the coffee from his beard with his sleeve, and said, “I believe I’ll take my swim before Gavin returns.” He marched out the door toward the pool, dropped his white terry robe on a chair, and dove into the pool wearing only his briefs.
Topaz slinked in from the patio and jumped onto the counter. The cat’s food and water bowls sat at one end, out of Cornelius’s reach. I had not seen her in days, and had not brushed her long hair since the week I moved in. Cornelius had more character and the parrots were more amusing. I did put out food for the cat daily, but other than that, seldom gave her a thought. Her coat had become matted and full of souvenirs from her travels through the Key West underbrush. Juanita paced nervously on my shoulder. I returned her to her cage, and then looked in the cabinet to find the cat’s brush.
“Time to pick up Leoncie,” Edmund said. “I’ll go with you.”
My ears pricked up. If I had hoped for a sign of morning-after warmth from Edmund, this was the best I was going to get.
“You can show me around town. I’ll take you to lunch.”
Topaz had waited this long. She could wait some more.
The day ran long. Edmund had only wanted a shopping companion, and someone to make comments to as he ogled every man under fifty that we passed. He bought some island clothes. Then, after lunch, he went to explore Old Town while Tennessee and I took Gavin to the airport.
Late that night, I sat on the patio nursing a glass of wine—waiting. I had been shut out of my room, and had no idea how much longer I would have to wait. Edmund was upstairs in bed with someone he had met cruising the bars. I was exhausted, and angry with myself for believing I might be something more than a trick to him. Topaz approached from the bushes and scolded me as she weaved between my legs. I reached down to pet her, but she scooted off toward the house. I was in no mood to chase her down and brush her—or much of anything else. 

“Tennessee wants you to talk to him more,” Gavin had said to me that afternoon. He pulled me aside before we took him to the airport. “Do you know what I mean? He says you don’t talk to him.”

Of course I knew what he meant. After two months, I still felt intimidated in Tennessee’s presence. At least I knew it was my own problem, although I had no idea how to solve it. It stemmed from my dissatisfaction with myself. In Tennessee’s shadow, I felt inadequate. Discussing it only made it worse.
I could not explain this to Gavin. I told him it was shyness, a part of my nature, and that I would do my best to get past it by power of will. “Around him,” I said, “I seize up. Feel like I have nothing worth saying.”
“Well, say something anyway. You don’t have to be brilliant. He wants company.”
We left it at that. Time had run out. Tennessee joined us, and I loaded Gavin’s bags into the back of the car.
That night, after dinner, I went with Tennessee and Edmund to The Monster. On the way, Tennessee asked me to stop at the convenience store. He disappeared inside for a few minutes. Edmund and I stared as he returned across the oil-stained macadam. With his hand clutching a sack around the neck of a bottle, he looked like a wino. He opened the car door and sat sideways on the seat, keeping his feet on the ground. He unscrewed the cap from the bottle, raised it high, and took a swig. He sat a moment swishing, and then leaned way out and spat blue liquid onto the gum-pocked pavement.
After he brought his legs into the car, I started the engine, but he did not close his door. He fumbled in the bag for a moment, found a small tube, opened it, and broke the seal. He leaned a tooth in the front of his lower jaw forward, blotted around it with a paper towel, then squeezed a drop of Super Glue behind it and pressed it back into place.
He put the bag and its contents on the floor, closed his door, and grinned widely.
 “OK! Let’s go!”
When we arrived, The Monster was packed. We had a drink together, and then Edmund disappeared into the crowd. Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” segued into “Disco Lucy.” It was oldies night.
Tennessee and I got another drink, and then moved through the crowd, assaying the men and commenting between ourselves as we edged our way through them. Moving in crowds was easy for me, but Tennessee said, “This is too much. Let’s go up upstairs.”

We climbed the stairs to the rooftop bar. An ancient tree sprawled above it, sheltering the bar and tables. Strings of tiny lights wound round and round its massive limbs. Usually, the roof was quieter. People climbed the stairs to escape the din downstairs. However, that night, a portable movie screen had been set up, and John Waters’ film, Female Trouble, was being shown. It appeared that all the table and bar seats had been taken. People crowded around the edges of the seating to watch.
“Maybe we should go home,” he said. He was tiring and wanted to sit, but a film was not what he had hoped to watch. Then he spied two open seats at a table next to two blondes. Young and verging on drunk, they were camping it up, reacting to the film like others in the crowd, calling out and gesticulating extravagantly at Divine’s every word. Tennessee’s vigor renewed, he led the way to the seats. He ordered our drinks, and then scooted closer to the boys and wedged into their conversation. I had already watched the movie twice before. The blondes were silly—I needed more man in a man, and a movie starring a fierce drag queen was not going to provide that either. I folded my arms across my chest, tipped my chair back, and, gazing out beyond the immediate scene, watched the passing parade.
As we drank, the three of them grew louder, Tennessee letting out hoots and cackles. The blondes had a bottle of poppers they hit on periodically, but Tennessee and I did not join in.
Earlier, as summer turned to autumn, rumors had reached the bars. Disturbing rumors. Rumors that became persistent. Stories began appearing in gay papers. A few men had become sick with confounding illnesses: Karposi’s sarcoma, fungal infections, and a rare strain of pneumonia—illnesses healthy people never got. And they were dying. Almost all of them were gay men. At first, it was called Gay Cancer. Few reports could be found in mainstream newspapers, and that confused the issue. A pattern emerged, if not an understanding, and the illness was named GRID for Gay Related Immune Deficiency. No one knew its cause, and no one knew anyone who had it, but as the months passed, it was beginning to be true that everyone knew someone who knew someone who did.
Many people thought inhaling poppers, amyl nitrate, which gave a rush to dancing and sex, must be the cause. But poppers were nothing new. Perhaps it was something the back-door manufacturers had begun adding. Whatever it was, everyone was confident we would soon read that medical researchers had solved the mystery and prescribed a cure. A storm beyond our horizon, GRID was out there, but in the delirium of expanding freedoms, few believed they could be touched by it. The party continued.
The movie ended. The blondes made exaggerated goodbyes and ran off. Tennessee was dismayed, but the martinis had caught up with him, and he was no longer in condition to continue the hunt. He waved off his disappointment and was ready to leave.
“You don’t need to worry about Edmund,” he said on the way home. “He’ll return eventually—hungry and bedraggled. Leave the door unlocked,” he said. “I think we’ll be safe enough.”
I did, but after Tennessee went back to his bedroom, I locked the door. I had given Edmund a house key as Tennessee had asked earlier. I knew not to remind him of things he forgot—there was no telling how he would react. I hoped if Edmund returned home that night, he would not keep me awake with his crowing.
I climbed the stairs, but when I reached the top, the bedroom was occupied. Jealousy stabbed me—Edmund had company. I wanted to throw them out, but I buried my feelings. Who was I to make assumptions? Edmund was not my boyfriend, and this was not my house. I imagined they would be there all night, and I would never get to my bed.
During the sixties and seventies, sexuality had become an open celebration—especially for gay men who were coming out of the closet in droves. Freed from taboos by the Sexual Revolution, many gay men proudly enjoyed sex with anyone attractive and willing—and the willing had become easy to find. No need to tie an emotional knot. In Key West, where men from across the country came to relax and let loose, the party was at a frenzied pitch.
Angry at the inconvenience, desperate for sleep, and feeling powerless, I retreated to the patio after stopping in the kitchen for wine.
And there I continued to sit. An hour had passed. More than an hour.
I heard the screen door bang. Light illuminated the pushed-out shutters at my bedroom windows. I stood and saw someone on the street walking toward town. A college student—no surprise.
I sat down again. I did not want to talk to Edmund. I gave him a few minutes to settle in. I went inside and climbed the stairs, but at the top, the air was pungent with the odor of amyl nitrate. They must have spilled a bottle during sex—probably into a mattress. Edmund lay silent in his bed. I undressed, slipped into my own bed, and turned my back to him. The odor was too strong. An occasional hit was one thing, but I was not going to breathe poppers all night. I reached down to the box fan that sat in front of the window. I turned it on low to exhaust the room. I was proud of my health; I was not taking chances.
Edmund turned in his bed. “Good night,” he mumbled, not convincing me I had awakened him. I grunted as I pulled the covers tight around my shoulders. The air cleared quickly, and, soothed by the drone of the fan, I soon fell asleep.


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