When the Stars Come Out (2 page)

BOOK: When the Stars Come Out
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“Max?” asked Frieda. “You’re so quiet. Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said, catching a sidelong glimpse of the curvaceous

cocktail waitress out of the corner of his eye as she passed and wondering not about her sexual voltage, but whether she, too, poked at her salad, one lettuce leaf at a time. “Just thinking about the movie.

Go finish poking your salad.”


your salad.”

She looked at him, not quite comprehending his words but still

knowing that there was something about the way she was eating her

salad that annoyed him. Her first instinct was to push the salad plate away; her second instinct—the one she obeyed—was to finish the

salad at her own pace. She picked up the fork and began poking.

Max was saying something, but his words weren’t registering with

her. Instead, she was thinking about how fabulous it must be to

walk in Kitty Randolph’s shoes. Rich, famous, and now free to live her life exclusively by her own rules. And if the world, like her husband, thought
When the Stars Come Out
was anachronistic, well, the
with them. Kitty Randolph didn’t need a man, and neither did . . .

She felt something.

“Max,” she said, in an instant forgetting her dissatisfaction as she looked at her husband and beamed. “The baby! It kicked!”

Washington, DC, September 2005

Noah Abraham kicked, and the wastepaper basket toppled over.

Balls of crumpled paper poured out and rolled across the slightly

warped hardwood floor of his living room.



Damn The Project . . . damn The Project that was slowly but

steadily frustrating him, destroying every last trace of his creativity.

Noah had months earlier stopped thinking of it quaintly as “his

project.” Now it had a capital T and a capital P: The Project. It was the quintessence of a good idea gone heartbreakingly bad and, in

the process, consuming him. It cost him sleep, it brought on unfa-

miliar frustration, it stopped his creativity dead in its tracks. In short, it was a major pain in his ass.

He didn’t consider himself a quitter, but The Project had been

making him reconsider. He didn’t quit when he sank a ton of fam-

ily money on a weekly community newspaper in western Massachu-

setts, exposed a hotbed of municipal and business corruption, then learned belatedly that weekly community newspapers depend for

their survival on the goodwill and advertising dollars of municipal officials and business leaders. Yes, the paper had to close, but he hadn’t quit.

He didn’t quit when his stint at an environmental group ended

after a series of unfortunate run-ins with the executive director.

The woman was an egotistical, incompetent jerk, running the or-

ganization into the ground and compromising its principles. Just

because the board of directors unanimously if erroneously decided

that he, not the director, was the problem, thereby bringing about his abrupt severance pay–free exit from the staff, he hadn’t quit.

And the fact that the executive director later took a job as a petro-chemical lobbyist proved his point, in a sense. Yes, she remained on friendly terms with the not-for-profit board and had quadrupled

her salary but, to Noah, it was a moral victory, and he moved on.

He didn’t quit.

And then came his project, which quickly morphed into The

Project, and that, well . . .
made him want to quit. It was dead end after dead end, a string of furtive meetings and mumbled conversations offering neither insight nor depth. It was a maddening

process yielding questionable results, at best.

And, worst of all, there was no one else to blame. No corrupt

politicians, no incompetent executive director . . . Noah Abraham

had only Noah Abraham’s brainchild to blame. And his brainchild

had grown into a very troublesome, morose, uncooperative, and

disobedient brain-adolescent.

In his idealistic moments, he told himself he would push on, de-


R o b B y r n e s

spite feelings of hopelessness and frustration. He had always

moved on. He had moved on from the newspaper to the environ-

mental group to The Project, and he would just keep moving.

But in his realistic moments, he thought,
Well, what the fuck did
you expect when you decided to write a book about closeted gay congressional staffers?
To which his only answer was, “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Noah picked up the spilled wastepaper basket contents and

tried to press on, repeating his “you are not a quitter” mantra to the point where it became numbing. But it was too late; his eyes

were now open. He had a great book idea, confirmed by a decent

advance from a decent publisher, but there were good ideas and

there were good ideas that are ultimately unworkable, and Noah

was coming to the conclusion that his months of research would

have no payoff.

He sat back on the couch, briefly closing his eyes and wishing

everything would become clearer and easier. He wished . . . he wished he could understand.

Noah Abraham understood a lot of things—the AP Stylebook,

the rules of most professional sports, the novels of Fitzgerald, the electoral college system, and on and on—but he did not understand the closet. He spoke a little Spanish, a little French, and even a little Russian, but he couldn’t speak the language of those people.

He tried to hide it and project empathy, but more than a few of

Noah’s closeted subjects thought he was arrogant. That wasn’t just his supposition; they had told him that in no uncertain terms. To

their faces, Noah conceded the point and apologized, but in his

head he was never apologetic. First and foremost, his premise was,
What is wrong with this person that, thirty-six years after Stonewall, he or
she cannot come out?
If closeted Washington could not deal with that premise, then it was
problem, not his.

Noah had done it, after all. He came out to his parents during

his junior year of college, and had lived a full and openly gay life for the fourteen years since that day with no repercussions. Now, a few months short of his thirty-fifth birthday, he hoped to learn

what led other people to bury their sexual identities for the real—

or, more likely, imagined—sake of a job, family harmony, and so-

cial acceptance. He would write about his new insights and maybe



change the world just a little bit for the better. He would help people embrace their sexuality and finally come to peace with them-


If only, he thought. If only . . .

If only these fucking people would say something! If only they’d let themselves be visible!

Racial minorities couldn’t hide their race. The handicapped

couldn’t hide their handicaps. Religion, well . . . yes, you could hide your religion, but who bothered in 2005? As Noah saw it, it was only too many of his fellow homosexuals who were hiding. They were

hiding, and they were mute.

Which made it his job to end the charade. Or so he saw it.

And The Project was to have been his tool to end the charade,

but . . .

He walked to the kitchen, poured a glass of merlot, and again

tried to wrap his head around his frustrations. It seemed like only moments had passed before he refilled the glass. And then he decided that maybe watching a movie on HBO would be less frustrat-


A few hours later, somewhere in the latter half of the movie, he

felt no better. But at least he was a little bit drunk, which helped him fall asleep on the couch. Because those nights in bed, sober,

torturing himself, were the worst.

Two hundred miles away, at the exact moment Noah was drift-

ing off to sleep on his couch, Bart Gustafson strode into The Penthouse, a bar tucked onto a leafy side street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. From the safety of the doorway, he carefully assessed the crowd before advancing forward, squeezing between patrons

who lined the narrow space along the bar until he reached the spi-

ral staircase leading to an upper level. There, as a pianist sang to an indifferent audience, the crowd was notably thinner. He easily found an opening at the bar and ordered a drink.

“You’re new here,” said the youthful bartender, as he set the

scotch and soda on the bar. Bart couldn’t identify his slight accent.

“I’m Paolo.”

“Bart,” he said in response, adding a friendly nod. “I’ve been

here before, but it’s been a while.”


R o b B y r n e s

Paolo smiled. “You’ve been here before and still you came


Bart scanned the room and laughed. “I guess I’m a glutton for

punishment.” It was a joke, whether the bartender knew it or not.

The Penthouse was the epicenter of the older gay bar crowd in

New York, which was a demographic Bart felt comfortable with. He

knew there were eyes in the room sizing him up—young, good-

looking . . . was he new in town, lost, or a hustler?—but he paid them no mind. He was out for a friendly drink in a city that often overwhelmed him, and so he went for the comfort of The Penthouse

and its gentlemanly clientele.

Bart waited until the pianist finished his unique version of
Son of
a Preacher Man
to an almost unnoticeable smattering of applause before turning back to Paolo, who still stood nearby. “It’s sort of quiet up here tonight.”

“Mondays,” Paolo said, as he emptied a departed patron’s glass

into the sink behind the bar. “It’s busier downstairs, but every place uptown is dead on Monday night. If you’re looking for action, I

could recommend maybe a club in Chelsea.”

Bart shook his head. “No, I’m fine. It just seemed quiet.”

Paolo turned slightly while he straightened a row of stemware

behind the bar, but kept his new customer in his peripheral vision.

This kid was half the age of most of the men in the bar, and he didn’t want to go to Chelsea? Well, if he thought he was going to make

cash transactions in the bar, he had better think again.

The glasses straightened, the bartender walked back to where

Bart sat on the other side of the bar. On an ordinary night he

might not have bothered, but with seven patrons lining the pol-

ished wood bar—all of whom had full drinks in front of them—he

had the time and, more importantly, he had the curiosity.

“So, what brings you out tonight?” he asked, when he had Bart’s


“Oh, I just came in from Long Island for the week. Sort of a


“I see. A vacation from your boyfriend?”

“No, I’m single,” Bart said, and he wondered if the bartender

was trying to pick him up, which in turn intruded on his comfort

level. “I just needed to get away for a few days.”



“You live alone on Long Island?”

What was it with this guy?
“No. I live with a couple of older guys.”

He hoped that would warn the bartender away.

Paolo smiled conspiratorially. “So you’re like a houseboy?”

Bart sighed. “Uh . . . yeah, sure.”

Now things began to make sense to Paolo, as he ticked off Bart’s

comments in his head. The kid’s a houseboy for two older gentle-

men, and he knew what
usually meant. Now he’s in town for a few days and he wants to hang around with the older crowd.

Probably looking for a little business on the side. And he’d almost certainly get it: he was very good looking and obviously well built, and he had that All-American Boy look working with his Ralph

Lauren shirt and khakis. He would be considered totally fuckable if he wandered into one of the hotter bars in Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen . . . in fact, he could have any man in The Penthouse. He probably could have even had Paolo, had they met more innocently on

one of those rare nights he wasn’t working.

True, Paolo—who had seen his share of hustlers pass through

The Penthouse doors—wasn’t getting those vibes off him, but Bart

was definitely getting the message . . . all the more so with every little bit of extra attention the bartender was giving him. And those messages made him uncomfortable.

For his part, Bart was now convinced that the bartender was, in

fact, trying to pick him up. Why else would he be virtually on top of him, when he had a number of other patrons to talk to? Why

else would he care about his relationship status? Or who he lived


He was relieved when Paolo finally excused himself to tend to

another customer. But, sure enough, as soon as that drink was served, he was back.

“Another one?” he asked, motioning to Bart’s almost-empty


“No, thanks.” He rose from his stool, dropped a few singles on

the bar, and left. He really hadn’t wanted to return to the couch on which he’d be spending the week so early in the night, but the bartender’s attention was proving to be too much.

When he was gone, a regular customer seated at the other end

of the bar asked Paolo, “So who was the cutie who just left?”


R o b B y r n e s

“Some ‘houseboy.’” Paolo’s eyes danced at the description. “He

he was just visiting. But I’m betting he’s a hustler.”

The man frowned. “Too bad he left. I wouldn’t have minded get-

ting a piece of that.”

Paolo playfully swatted at the regular with his bar rag and said,

BOOK: When the Stars Come Out
4.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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