Authors: Armistead Maupin
“Do you have your own car?” he asked.
“I got more than that,” said Lasko. “I got a dozen cars, and they're all air-conditioned.”
Andy gaped at him. “The Rexall Train?”
“See?” said Lasko. “Look how smart you are!”
rong Diana,” said Ben as a smile exposed the gap between his teeth.
They were standing on the brink of the continent at the new visitor center next to the Cliff House. Michael had already admired its low profile, the clever way its timber and raw concrete echoed the ruins of the Sutro Baths down below. The swimming pavilion had once been as glassy-eyed and cavernous as a Paris railway station, but a suspicious fire had gutted it in 1966 (over a decade before Michael's arrival in San Francisco) leaving only this footprint of a temple, a sea-stained Mondrian. Harold and Maude had famously frolicked among these ruins, and Michael himself had often reflected on them, back in the day, when exploring the nearby pagan shrubbery.
This was their Sunday expedition. Couples could get stuck in ruts if they weren't diligent, so Michael and Ben had resolved to seek out a different venue every week. In recent months that had meant the Point Isabel dog park, the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio, the Kabuki Theater (for movies with margaritas and turkey salad sandwiches), and the Hunky Jesus Contest in Dolores Park (a repeat, admittedly from last year, though there was always something original). Michael had heard raves from the poppers guy at Does Your Father Know about a statue of Diana recently erected at the new visitor center, so he had proposed a visit, never once considering that it might have been Diana the Huntress and not the Princess of Wales who had been depicted. Ben had found the mix-up amusing.
“Why would you even think it was
There was no way out of this but a pokerfaced gag. “Because she is loved by our people.”
“Yes,” he replied with exaggerated dignity. “And anyone who might enjoy her company while gazing upon the Pacific.”
The truth was that people barely talked about the sad Spencer girl anymore. She was yesterday's tabloid, a one-off episode on the History Channel. There was a new princess now, a pretty non-troublesome Disney brunette who seemed to have been special-ordered by the palace for smooth operation. Michael felt old and silly.
Ben, sweetly, let him off the hook with a sudden change of subject. “So why Winnemucca?”
Michael grinned. “That should be the slogan for tourists.”
“And they're driving there in Brian's Winnebago?”
“That's what he said.” Michael turned up the collar of his peacoat against the tiger bite of a blue summer day. “They're spending the first night in Tahoe. Part of it's about spending time with Wren. The rest of itâwhothefuckknows?”
“Have you ever been to Winnemucca?”
“No, as a matter of fact. Have you?”
“Once. A long time ago. It's a strip of motels and casinos and fast food places. It can't come close to whatever Anna remembers.”
“I know,” said Michael. “I've Googled it. They still have brothels, butâoh, it's tragic, you don't wanna know. It's not about tourism for Anna, I can tell you that. Brian said she said something about âunfinished business.'Â ”
“When was she last there?”
“Nineteen thirty-six, as near as I can figure.”
“I know,” said Michael. “What could possibly be unfinished? Everybody must be dead. The Blue Moon is long gone.”
“But Mona went there, of course. Back in the seventies.”
It was wonderful to hear Ben speak of Mona as if he had actually known her. Michael's old roommate at Barbary Lane had died of cancer in the Cotswolds well before Ben entered Michael's life, but she had already become a substantial deposit in Ben's memory bank. Michael had heard him regale strangers at parties about Mona at the nude beach, Mona going ballistic at the ad agency, Mona chasing women on the island of Lesbos, as if Ben himself had been witness to those moments. It was one of the joys of being married to him. The line between the past and the present, as Edie Beale once called it, was penetrable when Ben was around to listen.
“She not only
to the whorehouse,” Michael said, giving it the drama it deserved, “she worked as a fucking receptionist. She was the reason Anna saw her mother again. Mona, the last of the big-time hippies, this unregenerate gypsy, was the glue of the three generations. That ended up being her purposeâyou know.”
“I do know,” said Ben.
Michael sighed and gazed at the gulls loitering above the ruins, their cries as random and unmelodic as creaky hinges. “You know all my stories now,” he said. “It's bound to get tedious.”
“I wish I'd known
,” Ben replied, sidestepping the question so adroitly that it offered the gentlest imaginable honest answer.
“So we're all heading to Nevada this week,” said Michael, ticking them off on his fingers. “Us .Â .Â . Jake and Amos .Â .Â . Brian and Wren .Â .Â . Anna. Can you believe that? It's kinda weird. It's like
goes to Hawaii.”
Ben smiled. “Winnemucca's a far cry from Burning Man.”
Michael mumbled in the affirmative.
“They're in the same part of the state, but you get to them on completely different highways from different directions. There's a wilderness between them.” A crazed pearly light in Ben's eyes suggested nothing so much as a forest ranger who has just been mobilized for a wildfire. He was so ready for all this hardship. “I found the tent,” he said. “It was in the garden house under a piece of plywood. Pretty good shape, looks like. And there's a big sturdy tarp we can use as a windbreak.”
“That's good,” Michael said.
“Is Shawna taken care of?”
He felt the tiniest twitch below his right eye. “In what way?”
Michael tried to sound nonchalant. “I doubt we'll see her again once we're there. She's bunking in three camps, near as I can make out. And access to a daybed at the Ashram Galacticaâwhatever that isâgod help us all. Has she called you yet?”
“No,” said Ben.
“She's going to. But don't tell her I told you, because she wanted to tell you first, but I don't want you to be put on the spotâand you will be, believe meâbecause it's very sweet, it's just as sweet as it can be, but it's also very embarrassing and .Â .Â . deeply, deeply icky. I just wanted you to be prepared.”
Ben regarded him, slack-mouthed. “What on earth are youâ”
“She wants your sperm when we're at Burning Man.” Michael threw up his hands, relinquishing the concept to the winds. “She wants to get pregnant there. She loves you and admires you and thinks your sperm would be most excellent. She doesn't expect you to be the father, just the donor. That's pretty much it, except the spiritual angle, which I'll leave to her. Oh, yeah, and it's fine with her if I'm around during the sperm extraction process. In fact, it would be great. Even lovelier.”
Ben made a disbelieving face. “She did not say âsperm extraction process.'Â ”
“Not in so many words, but .Â .Â . c'mon, honey, this has gotta be creeping you out.”
His husband shrugged. “It's a little .Â .Â . too close for comfort, yeah. I'll give you that. With all of us in the same tent.”
“Not in the
! Ugh, no. Is that what you thought? Another tent, for God's sake. At another camp. With a bicycle ride in between. And her friend Sharon from Zynga. And a big fertility theme party with Tibetan prayer bells and Aimee Mann's second album while she lies perfectly still for half an hour with legs thrown over her head. Why are we even talking about this?”
“Why you acting so horrified? People do this all the time.”
to do this?”
“I didn't say that. I just can't figure why you sound like somebody's Aunt Gladys.”
her Aunt Gladys. You hit the nail on the head. I practically became her second father after Mary Ann left, and it just feels weird to me. I can't help it. It's too personal or something. It's almost like .Â .Â . incest.”
The word came out like a rattlesnake's hiss, prompting a short blond woman standing nearby to turn and glare daggers at them.
“It takes way too much explaining,” Michael told her with a shooing motion. “Look at the scenery, please.”
“In the first place,” said Ben, leaning closer and lowering his voice significantly, “it's not you she's asking, it's meâ”
“And it's a lovely compliment, sweetheart, it really is.”
“In the second place, I've never known Shawna as anything but an adult. I'm not related to her either. Neither are you, for that matter. Nobody's related to anybody here. And Shawna is almost thirty years old. Chillax, Michael.”
You don't say Chillax.”
“I'm saying it now. Because you're acting like you're twelve and hormonal.”
If only he knew, thought Michael. Sixty-two was a
like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.
“There's such a thing as emotional incest,” Michael said, in lieu of exposing his petty fears, the hard truth of what he was feeling. To admit that, here and now, would have been humiliating. Not to mention unattractive.
“It's not incest,” said Ben. “It's not even close.”
“It's Soon-Yi incest.”
“Oh, please.” Ben snorted. “Soon-Yi incest.”
“Woody Allen was
Soon-Yi. This is a procedure, Michael, nothing more. And again, it's not
she's asking, it's me.” Ben seemed to ponder the ramifications of that. “Did you tell her how you feel about this?”
“Of course not. I told her to talk to you.”
“But she knows. You can't hide shit. You must've hurt her feelings.”
“I don't think that's true at all.”
“So why hasn't she called me?”
“I couldn't tell you that. I'm trying to stay out of this.”
“Oh, and a great job you're doing, too.”
It wasn't like Ben to clock him so snidely. Michael was on the verge of defending himself when he saw the never-disguisable hurt in his husband's eyes. And he knew instantly that he was not the person who had put it there.
“Oh, listen, honey, the only reason she came to me first was that she and I have known each other for so longâ”
“âand you're the official keeper of my sperm.”
Michael regarded him, hand on hip, incredulous-ghetto-chick style. “Shut up, okay? The only reason she came to me first is that she wanted me to know that she would have asked me first if I hadn't been HIV-positive.”
Ben took that in for a moment. “Before me, you mean?”
“Well, not before you, but .Â .Â . in addition to.”
“You said first. You said she would have asked you first.”
Michael blinked into the wind. “She was being
, Ben. Trying not to hurt my feelings. She wanted this to be about all of us, and she felt awkward about it. Understandably, if you ask me. She's already got another guy lined up, and she knows we have no interest in babies, but she wanted to run it past us anyway. Just in case.”
“And she couldn't have said all that to me?”
“I suppose she could have. But she didn't. She confided in me the way she always has, and I've fucked it up in my usual asshole codependent way.”
Ben gave him a heavy-lidded look that said,
No argument here
. “She can read you like a book, Michael. She must know how you feel about it, so that's the end of that. My guess is, she's hurt and mortified. I'm not expecting a phone call.”
Michael hesitated then asked: “Do you want one?”
“I do now, yes.”
“Really?” Michael drew back like he'd been slapped.
“Yes. So I can at least tell her I was honored to be asked, and I'm not as repelled by the invitation as you seem to be.”
“Fine,” said Michael. “Do you want me to call her?”
“No. Just leave it alone. If she doesn't call, I'll talk to her when we're on the road.”
“Not when we're all in the car?”
“No. When you're out taking a leak or something.”
“No problem. Do you feel like breakfast?”
“Louis'?” Ben had cast his eyes at the newly reopened diner on the highway.
“Pancakes,” said Michael. “Pancakes and applewood-smoked bacon.”
And thus the storm appeared to pass.
en had cabinetry to finish for a client in Pacific Heights, so after breakfast he dropped Michael at the house and left for his workshop on Norfolk Street. Their Sunday excursion felt truncated to Michael, though not in a perilous way. They were nice to each other during the drive, and they both knew that a check from a client would be useful right now. It made sense for Ben to finish this job before they left for Burning Man. The mortgage on their mountain property in Pinyon City (now on the market at a savagely reduced price) was about to balloon like a hemorrhoid. Foreclosure would soon be upon them without serious groveling to the bank.
Social security would help, eventually, but that was still three years away, and Ben, though legally Michael's husband in California, would not be eligible for the check after Michael died. Assuming, of course, that social security was even around in three years, that Congress hadn't gutted the system to bail out a bank. It was easy enough to rail against the 1 percent, but the truth was that Michael and Ben had become their willing handmaidens in these New Hard Times. Their clients had once come from all overâfrom people like them, artists and office workersâbut now only the rich could afford tended gardens and custom furniture. It was the 1 percent or nobody.