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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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He pulled himself out of a swimming pool and toweled himself off, then retired to the chaise longue where, conveniently, someone had left a dildo. He performed various autoerotic acts with it and then another boy, one of the two pink musclemen from the cover, came upon him. He talked streams of juvenile smut while he yanked Zack’s legs over his shoulders and began to fuck him without a condom. Except for their genitals, their bodies did not touch. The pink boy muttered things like “Take my big dick, faggot,” while Zack grimaced and blinked the sunlight out of his eyes. Otherwise, his face revealed nothing, but it was the nothing of someone whose mind was elsewhere. When they finished, they jumped into the pool, and then the film cut to the next scene. I rewound the tape.

That night I had a long, complicated dream that ended with me being drunk. When I woke up, the only other thing I could remember about it was that Josh and Bay had both been in it. Afterwards, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. As I poured water into the kettle I glanced out the window. Across the street, a man sat in a parked car smoking a cigarette. I took my tea out to the terrace. The smell of jasmine seeped through the chilly air. I only dreamed of drinking when I was anxious, my unconscious seeking the relief that I no longer permitted my conscious self. I knew it was about Josh but also, thrown into the mix, was the guilt I felt over deceiving Bay.

We hadn’t really become friends until after Chris had graduated from Stanford and moved to Los Angeles to work at her father’s firm, while she returned north to finish her last year of college. I was finishing my last year of law school. At first we saw each other because we had in common that we missed Chris, but then we discovered another shared interest: we both liked to drink.

When Chris was still around, I would go out with them from time to time. The three of us went through many bottles of wine together, Bay and I easily outdrinking Chris. I never gave it a second thought. After Chris left, Bay and I were a little shy in each other’s company and it took a few drinks to relax us. Soon enough, drinking became a central, if unspoken, reason for our get-togethers. We released something in each other because, except when I was with her, I rarely drank, and from what she told me I gathered it was the same with her. Sober, she was a quiet girl of twenty who made self-deprecating remarks about her weight and her intelligence, but after a few drinks an entirely different person inhabited her body: a smart, sensual woman who could be bitingly shrewd and funny. Drinking with her took on an aura of romance.

We’d meet in the bar of a second-class hotel on Geary. It was dark and deserted, with a jukebox that played Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. The bartender was an Australian and a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor in a fat phase, who poured drinks with a heavy hand. In a booth upholstered in worn red leather we’d listen to old songs suffused with that warm alcoholic glow that lifted us out of the ordinary and made everything bigger and more dramatic.

One night she insisted that I take her to a gay bar.

“Why?” I asked warily.

“I want to see that part of your life.”

“It’s not that interesting.”

“It would be to me. Please, Henry, I’ll behave.”

“It’s not a stop on the Gray Line tour.”

“I don’t want to gawk,” she said, offended. “I want to size up the competition.”

“What competition?”

“The competition for you,” she said, smiling provocatively. This was a familiar line of banter between us.

“You’re almost a married woman,” I pointed out.

“Almost, Henry, almost. Come on, I hear the best dancing in the city’s at gay bars.”

“Cha-cha-cha,” I said, and we were off.

The Hide ’n Seek was, as usual on a Saturday night, packed and smoky, musky with sweat and cologne. In the darkness, Bay grabbed for my hand and whispered, “I can hardly breathe in here.”

“You’ll get used to it,” I said, pumping her hand reassuringly.

I got us drinks and edged her against the wall near the dance floor where the boys moved like liquid sex to the throb of disco. A tiny blond sashayed past us, stopped, looked at Bay, touched her breast and said, “Nice drag, honey.”

“It’s real,” I said.

He yanked his hand back as if burned and went on his way, laughing.

“Was he making a pass at me?” Bay asked.

I explained drag to her.

“He thought I was a boy?” she giggled. She looked around the room. “I wish I was a boy tonight. These guys are gorgeous.”

“Looks aren’t everything,” I told her.

“No? What do you want in a man?”

“Don’t be a bitch.”

“I’m serious,” she said. “You never talk about your boyfriends. What are they like?”

“I don’t have one,” I said.

“But if you did, what would he be like?”

Like Chris, I thought. “Oh, Bay, I don’t know. I’m just looking for that certain special anyone. Let’s dance.”

I dragged her out to the dance floor, where we wedged ourselves among the dancing boys. She was as snaky-hipped as they were. I watched her move, studied her body, tested myself for responsiveness. But it was the boy in the tight black jeans behind her who raced my pulse.

“What are you thinking?” she shouted over the music.

“Not thinking,” I said. “Dancing.”

She pressed against me, her breasts soft on my chest, her hair swishing against my cheek and said, “Don’t I turn you on, just a little?”

“I’d have to be dead if you didn’t,” I replied.

She smirked. “Liar. My tits terrify you.”

“Yeah, they’re pretty scary,” I agreed.

And we both laughed.

At last call we were sitting on empty beer boxes against the wall, watching the boys frantically pick each other up.

Out of nowhere, Bay asked, “Did Chris ever cheat on me?”

“Why are you asking?” I replied, neutrally. “Do you think he did?”

“No, not Chris,” she said. “Maybe I want him to. Maybe I want him to fall in love with someone else. Maybe I don’t want to get married.”

“No? Why not? Don’t you love him?”

“He’s just so safe,” she said. “I want an adventure.”

“Who’s stopping you?”

“The only time I feel free is when I’m with you,” she said, leaning against me. “Are you sure you don’t want to sleep with me?”

I put my arm around her and marveled, in my twenty-three-year-old way, at the irony of the situation.

“I’m sure,” I said.

I finished my tea and went inside. Bay and Chris were married eight months later at a church in Pasadena. They wrote their own service and she asked me to help her find a poem to read. I gave her some lines from Whitman:

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick together as long as we live?


I left for Bay’s, I called Sam Bligh’s number. The man who answered was not Zack Bowen, but I recognized the voice, deep and mellifluous, as the same one condemning censorship as unAmerican on
Asshole Buddies.

“Hello,” he said.

“Mr. Bligh?” I guessed.

“That’s right. Can I help you?”

“My name is Henry Rios. I need to talk to Zack Bowen.”

A pause. “I’m afraid Zack’s not here.”

“He was yesterday,” I said. “I spoke to him. He was supposed to meet me last night, but he didn’t show. Maybe you can tell me why.”

“No,” he said, in his deep rumble, “I don’t think I can help you, Mr. Rios.”

“Mr. Bligh, I’m a criminal defense lawyer. Zack is in a lot of trouble, but I assume he’s already told you that. The police have already been around to see me once, but I fended them off. I can’t continue to do that if he won’t talk to me.”

“I see,” he said. “What did the police want with Zack?”

“I think you know that, too. Let’s stop playing games.”

“You’d better come around then,” he said.

“I have another appointment this morning. I could come after that. Where are you?”

He gave me an address. “Let’s say one-thirty,” he said.

I agreed and hung up.

As I drove to Bay’s, I wondered how much McBeth had told her about Chris’s arrest fifteen years earlier. I had only the vaguest recollection of the arrest report, but I remembered in great detail the night he’d called me from jail. It had happened five years after Chris and Bay were married. I was working in the Public Defender’s office in Palo Alto. I had only seen Chris and Bay a couple of times after their marriage, but Bay wrote once or twice a year. She always enclosed pictures of Joey, who’d been born a year after they’d married. She seemed unhappy, and I thought I discerned the effects of alcohol in her long, rambling letters. I scribbled postcards in return. From Chris I heard nothing until that night.

It was a little after three in the morning. I picked up the phone and mumbled, “Hello.”

Even before the caller spoke, I knew from the background noises—clanging metal, shouted commands—that I was being called from a jail.

“Henry,” a man said. “It’s Chris Chandler. I’m in the San Francisco jail. Can you get me out?”

His voice drove the fog from my head. “Chris? What happened?”

“We can talk about that later,” he said brusquely.

I sat up in bed. “I’m not asking out of idle curiosity,” I said. “It’s relevant to whether I can get you out.”

“Lewd conduct,” he answered. “Are you coming?”

“Don’t talk to anyone until I get there,” I said. “I’m going to make a few calls and see if I can’t get you out on your own recognizance. If they release you before I arrive, wait for me outside. Got that?”

“Thanks,” he said, in the same short-tempered tone. “I’ll wait for you.”

I called a D.A. acquaintance in the city. He roused a judge, who agreed to let Chris out O.R. As soon as I heard back from Mike, I got dressed and drove to the jail. Chris was waiting outside beneath a street lamp. I pulled up to the curb and opened the passenger door. He came toward me walking like a barefoot man across a bed of broken glass. He got into the car and slammed the door shut.

“Are you okay?”

He was disheveled and his eyes were bloodshot. He smelled of liquor.

“Fuck,” he said, pounding his fist against the dashboard. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Then he began to sob.

I put my arm around his shoulders and he buried his face in my chest. When the sobbing eased up, I asked him, “Where are you staying?”

“The St. Francis,” he said, sitting up and wiping his face on his sleeves. “Thanks for coming, Henry.”

“No problem,” I replied, and started up the car.

An hour later we were sitting at a table in Chris’s suite, plates of untouched food between us. A window looked down on Union Square where flocks of pigeons peppered the faded winter grass. Chris had showered and changed, but still looked awful.

“Eat something,” I told him.

“I’m not hungry,” he said. He reached for a cigarette from the pack on the table. The ashtray was already overflowing. “I guess you want to know what happened.”

“I can’t help you unless you tell me.”

He exhaled a snake of smoke. “It’s funny being the client instead of the lawyer.” I said nothing, waiting for him to gather his courage. “Yeah, okay. Yesterday I was in deposition from nine in the morning to six at night. After that I had dinner with the client, who screamed at me for two solid hours about our bills. Then I came back here and called Bay and we had a fight over Joey’s bedwetting.” He drew on the cigarette. “She wants to take him to a shrink. The kid’s only six.”

“Tell me about the arrest.”

He smirked. “Just the facts, right, counsel? Okay. After I hung up on Bay I went down to Polk Street to the P.S. and got drunk. I haven’t been to a gay bar in five years, but I went just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Didn’t even stop to think about it. As I was sitting at the bar, a blow job began to seem like a really good idea. I didn’t want to pick up anyone there. I didn’t want conversation. I remembered that park, the Buena Vista. There was always a lot of action in the bushes. You been?”

“It’s not my scene, Chris.”

“No, of course not,” he said. “Anyway, I drove to the park and started walking around. This guy stepped out from some tall bushes playing with himself. I went over and helped him out and then two other guys came out of nowhere and threw me on the ground. I thought I was being mugged. Then one of them said, ‘You’re under arrest, faggot.’ They handcuffed me and put me in a police car with a couple of other guys. They took us to the jail and booked us. After that, I called you.”

“When the first guy, the cop who came out of the bushes, when he approached you, was his penis out of his pants?”

“His penis? Henry, he was jerking himself off.”

“What was the conversation?”

Chris looked away. “He said, ‘Looks good, doesn’t it.’ Then I said, ‘Looks good enough to eat.’”

“And did he say anything else?”

Chris looked back at me. “He said, ‘Go ahead.’ That’s when I touched him.” He drank some water. “That’s it.”

“There’re the makings of a very good entrapment defense here.”

“Are you crazy? I can’t go to trial. I’m up for partner in my father-in-law’s firm. I’ve got a kid. There’s Bay.”

“Are you willing to plead guilty?”

“I can’t do that, either.”

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t want to go to trial, but you don’t want to plead straight up. So here’s your only other option—bargain the charge down to something innocuous, like disturbing the peace, and cop to that. It’ll stay on your record, but you can lie about it. One more lie won’t hurt you.”

“Don’t be so fucking sanctimonious.”

“I noticed you didn’t call your father-in-law to get you out of jail.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re like those closet fags who keep a gay doctor in reserve for when they pick up the clap at the bathhouse. You called me because you assumed I’d keep your secret.”

He glared at me. “That’s so easy for you to say. What do you know about my life? It doesn’t matter to you that I’ve been a good husband and a good father. Well, fuck you, Henry. My wife loves me, my boy loves me, and I’ve earned that love. I don’t deserve your contempt because I made a mistake.” He stubbed out his cigarette, making a mess of it because his hands were shaking. “Until last night, I haven’t gone out on Bay since we got married,” he said. “Most of the time I think I’m over it and then I’ll see someone and I’ll feel this intense sadness.” He drew a deep breath. “I still think about you. I still wonder what it might have been for us. Maybe that’s why I called you last night. I don’t care if you don’t believe me.”

BOOK: The Death of Friends
3.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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