In the first of these excerpts, 21-year-old Oliver Duncan comes out to his best friend, 20-year-old Ned Surwicki (the POV character). In the second, Ned comes out to his father. Most of this novella takes place in 1970, although it concludes in 2010, and both men must face many comings-out in the course of those four decades.
* * *
When Oliver's gaze met mine, I saw the same terror in his eyes I’d once felt myself. Occasionally, it still crept up on me.
“I think…I might be gay too.” Oliver snatched up the pint of scotch, spun off its cap, and poured a good half-inch of liquor down his throat. I knew his reflexive grimace wasn’t triggered just by the alcohol.
“Okay,” I said soothingly, although my mind was whirling like a waterspout. “Now don’t panic. Let’s talk this over before you jump to any conclusions. You could be misinterpreting.”
“Misinterpreting what?” He had traffic-accident eyes, my-baby-just-fell-out-the-window eyes.
“Jesus, will you calm down?”
Fuck. Dueling stridency. Blowing out a breath, I rested my back against the wall beside the bed. “Oliver, what makes you think you’re gay? Let’s start there.”
He dropped his head to his hands for a moment. I cautioned myself not to take his assumption seriously. Oliver’s aversion to marriage and narrow escape from the altar might have clouded his thinking. My own confession might’ve muddled it further. In any case, the last thing either of us needed was to take his belief at face value.
“I feel as if I’ve had to work my ass off to get and keep girlfriends. I mean work at it, Ned. It never came naturally. It was always such a goddamned effort.”
All I could do was nod, because I no longer trusted my voice. Just wait. Let him work through this. He’s misreading his feelings.
“I haven’t let myself think about this too much,” he murmured, more reflective than uptight now. “I just pushed it down and kept doing what was expected of me. Just pushed it down and pushed it down.”
I cleared my throat. “What did you think was expected of you?”
“To be like my brother, I guess.” Oliver smiled wryly. “Except for the hound-dogging. Go to a good college, sow some wild oats, be a ladies’ man. Then go on to be successful in some lucrative profession, be an upstanding citizen, husband, father.”
I nodded. That picture did fit the standard Oliver’s family had set. They were nouveau riche and very status-conscious. “But that vision doesn’t jibe with what you want?”
He paused, staring at me, then lowered his eyes. “Not the husband part. I, um…I keep having these…fantasies and…” He let out a quavering exhalation. “Wet dreams.”
Hearing Oliver talk like that began to make my nuts ache. If he got any more explicit, I’d have to feign a chill and crawl under the covers. “I assume you mean about guys.” My mouth felt numb.
We suddenly couldn’t seem to look at each other.
“That happens,” I said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“But it’s been getting worse, month after month. It’s been getting harder to ignore.”
I snuck a quick glance at him. Son of a bitch. That face. That body. I’d forever adored both. At least it seemed like forever. Because my life before Oliver had been nothing more than a babble of voices, a blur of insignificant events. Everything, Eddie Edwards included, paled beside Oliver’s beauty and our effortless compatibility. I’d always fancied we were vibrant together, lackluster apart.
“I tried to seduce you in the hotel room last night.”
My gaze shot up to meet Oliver’s.
He chuckled weakly. “You look shocked.”
“I guess I didn’t do a very good job of it.” He reached over and nudged me under the chin. “Close your mouth, Ned.” His fingertips were cool, but his touch was tender. “I just wanted to see if I was right about myself. And I wanted to do it with someone I cared about instead of a stranger.”
“It worked,” I whispered.
And here it came, the confession that was more monumental than my earlier one, the confession that had the sticky tentacles of all my strongest feelings dragging along behind it—love, fear, hope. I could sense it scrabbling out of its hiding place, climbing up my throat.
“You’ve been seducing me since we met,” I said. “Without even trying. And you’ve succeeded. You just haven’t known it.”
A smile touched Oliver’s lips. “Would you mind letting your hair down?”
“What?” I didn’t know if he meant figuratively or literally. Hell, I didn’t even know what had prompted the request.
He pointed toward my head. “Take that rubber band or whatever it is out of your hair. You have such beautiful hair, but you always put it in a ponytail like some goddamned bobbysoxer.”
I hand longish, dark auburn hair with a slight natural curl. It didn’t hang down to my ass or anything—maybe touched the middle of my shoulder blades—but I usually tied it back just to keep it out of my face and off my neck, especially in the summer.
I pulled off the elastic band, gave my head a shake, then finger-combed my hair.
Oliver’s smile grew. “You’re hot, Ned.”
That observation also threw me. It could’ve meant a couple of things.
“You don’t think so,” he said.
“I don’t know what—”
He kept looking at me as if I’d changed right before his eyes, magically, like a reliable mule into a storybook stallion.
“Would you mind doing me a favor?” he asked shyly.
I licked my lips. “What?”
“Would you mind kissing me?”
My steps were deliberate as I walked to the ratty recliner. Stiffly, I sat down and rested my arms on the chair’s arms.
I was ready. My journey with Oliver had braced my spine. If love couldn’t validate my worth and give me a reason to be proud, nothing could.
The snideness and swagger melted out of my father. I could tell. No matter what suspicions he might be harboring, the old man loved me. Maybe, just maybe, he’d also come to respect me.
“Is there something we don’t know about you?” he asked quietly.
I swallowed. I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t know how.
He leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. “Let’s try this. Is there anybody who means a whole shittin’ lot to you outside your family?”
“I think you already know the answer, Pop.”
Nodding, he took a deep breath and blew it out, then scratched at his hairline with both hands. “And that means—”
“You’re like Liberace.”
I sure as hell hadn’t expected that, and I reflexively started laughing. “No, Pop, I’m not like Liberace.”
He relaxed just a tad, which wasn’t good either. He’d misinterpreted my meaning and probably thought I’d just denied being queer. In my father’s mind, all gay men were the same, like so many shiny, scarlet pomegranates hanging from a single tree. I don’t think he realized there were as many differences among us as there were in the straight population.
“I’m not like Liberace because I’m still me,” I said. “I just happen to be homosexual.” I didn’t know if he was familiar with the word gay.
His face fell. “Don’t kid around, Ned.”
“I’m not kidding around. It’s true. I’ve known for years. I guess it’s time you knew and Mom and Pam knew too.”
“Oh Jesus.” Shorn of hope, my father dropped his face to his hands. “So you and Oliver…”
My stomach felt funny at the mere mention of his name, especially in this context. “Leave Oliver out of this. He has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. This is my life.”
“And you’d rather be a
than a Ned,” said my father’s muffled voice. Nancy
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. He was a way bigger drama queen than my mom. “No, I don’t want to be a
. I’m happy with who I am.” Nancy
“When your mother’s slips disappeared from the clothesline…”
Pop slid his hands down just far enough to reveal his eyes. The message they conveyed was familiar: Come on. You know damned well what I mean.
“Don’t give me that look,” I said. I leaned forward, mirroring his position. “Pop, trust me. I don’t know what the hell happened to Mom’s lingerie, but I didn’t filch it. I’m not a cross-dresser. I’m not a drag queen. I like being a guy.”
He uttered a pitiful groan and again covered his face. My assertion must’ve conjured unpleasant images for him. “Where did we go wrong?” he mumbled.
“You didn’t ‘go wrong.’ I’m pretty sure I was born this way.” Sighing, I got up from the recliner. “Want a beer?” I figured his favorite panacea would make him feel better.
“Yeah, you better gimme one.”
“You wouldn’t have even known I was gay if I hadn’t told you,” I called from the kitchenette. “When did I ever embarrass you?” I opened two bottles and carried them into the living room.
Pop had finally raised his head, but he still slumped forward. He wearily rolled up his hazel eyes to look at me. “When you sang ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ in front of the whole relation at Bobo’s one Christmas.”
“You know damned well Mom made me do that. She thought it was cute. I was only like five years old at the time.”
The old man shot me a disgruntled glance as he took a swig. He finally settled against the back of the couch. “I don’t get it. I just don’t.”
“And I don’t expect you to get it,” I said. “I only expect you not to treat me any differently.”
We both knew I’d just laid down the bottom line. I tried to read Pop’s face to see if he’d accepted it. The old man was a former union steward, and he’d yammered plenty about the art of reading people during contract negotiations.
Yes, he’d accepted it. More or less.
Probably less than more.
He drank in silence for a while. I didn’t say anything further but merely let him mull over my big revelation. That was the only way to deal with Pop when he was upset—just leave him alone with his thoughts.
“Do you want to inform your mother, or do you want me to do it?” he finally asked, managing to sound both exhausted and resentful.
“I think I’d rather do it myself.”
Christ, I could just hear him: How’s this for some goddamned good news? Your son’s a fruit, Eleanor. He all but admitted he’s been dropping the soap with Oliver
. I’ll betcha anything if you dig through his room, you’ll find those missing slips of yours. Duncan