Continuing gratitude for their help and guidance to Alison Picard, John Scognamiglio, and Michael Vicencia.
Thank you to Steve Code and James McCain Jr., who get their own line for going above and beyond.
Special thanks to Dorothy Cochrane, Caroline De La Rosa, Paul Enea, Erin Swan, and Bill Thomas. Additional recognition for support, encouragement, interest or inspiration to Noel Alumit, Dave Benbow, Shanon Best, Christine Bradley, Tim Brookover, Rob Byrnes, Jason Cabot and Jeff Heilers, the Carter family, Colin Chase, Jean-Marc Chazy, Darryl Coble, the Cochrane family, Andre Coffa, Leonard Cohen for the title, Darren Connell, Jason Crawford, Jennifer Damiano, Carlton Davis and Veronique Gambier, Jonathan De Michael, Lynne Demarest, Jone Devlin, Kim Duva, Ghalib El-Khalidi, Jeffrey Fischer, the Forry family, the Garber family, Amy and Richard Ghiselin, Lowry Greeley, Terri Griffin, Jennifer Hackett, Will Hatheway, Larry Henderson, Dennis Hensley, Lisa Hicks, Gregory Hinton, Wendy Howell, Anthony Johnson, Judge Joe B., Christine and John Kovach, the Lambert family, Marla McDaniel, Robin McElfresh, Christian McLaughlin, George Michael for the title and a great ass, the Miller family, Debbie Milton, Helen C. Morris, Riley Morris, Steve Nordwick, David Outlaw and Michael Ryan, Steven Parkhurst, Felice Picano, Ron Pratt, the Rambo family, Lori Redfearn and Bob Corrigan, Christopher Rice, the Rose family, Carmela Roth, Rhonda Rubin, Trish Rumble, Mary Russo, Terry and Allen Shull, Laurie and Marty Smith, Clifton Snider, Marc Stauffer, Denece Thibodeaux, Dana Thomas, Ben Tyler, Steve Vargas, Jeffrey Wallen, Ellen Ward and Pat Crosby, Don Whittaker, Jessica Wicks, Carissa Williams, Sarena Williams, Tracy Wilson, the Wocken family, Casper Yaqoub, Yojo, AOL friends, especially Lora, Patti, and Michelle, A Different Light, Lobo Bookshop, and timothyjamesbeck.com.
In loving memory of Louise Wocken and Pete Martinez.
For enduring and unquestioning love, thanks to Arthur, Brandi, Guinness, Hailey, Lazlo, Margot, and Merc. Especially for Striker, who taught us how to live and who will be missed always.
We will never break the chain: Jim Carter, Becky Cochrane, Timothy Forry, and Timothy J. Lambert.
'd never been the kind of man who'd break a date, even one that was made over a month earlier in the previous millennium, before my life changed in ways I could never have predicted. But I wasn't thrilled about leaving my warm, dry Hell's Kitchen apartment to go forty rain-sodden blocks on a Saturday in January Y2K to a Woody Allen film festival in SoHo.
Still, a promise was a promise, and I waited as long as I could outside Film Forum for my friend Gretchen to show up before I finally bought my ticket. Feeling damp and a little surly, I made my way into the small art house to find Gretchen already there, sitting in her favorite place, just to the left of center, about midway between the screen and the door. My bad mood evaporated instantly. I should have known that Gretchen was even less likely to break a date than I was, and she gave me a bright smile when I slid into the seat next to her.
If I had to sum up Gretchen's appeal, I'd give it a yin-yang quality. She had a brisk, no-nonsense male energy, but eyes that communicated feminine compassion and intuition. She was solidly built, but moved with a woman's fluidity and grace. She was a woman's woman; it was a mystery why she spent so much time at the movies with me. She claimed to be unlucky in love. I suspected she always chose the wrong woman because she really loved nothing more than her work and her friends. Often she combined the two, to the satisfaction of anyone who wanted to be financially stable.
I'd been told that when she was in her early thirties, Gretchen was stocky because she tended to grab fast food on the run between endless meetings, spending the rest of her time at her desk eating takeout while she helped build financial empires for her clients. She'd also endured a series of unhappy love affairs, consoling herself with her favorite vanilla bean ice cream.
By the time I met her, she'd invested in Happy Hollow, her retreat /resort in upstate New York, where she spent a lot of time outdoors renovating the property's old hotel. She'd also cut back her workload and dedicated her energy to a healthier lifestyle. She'd remade herself into a svelte, stylish businesswoman, with tousled chestnut hair cut short and streaked with blond highlights.
“Hi, Blaine! I wasn't sure you'd make it,” she said, affectionately patting my knee as a welcome. “Is it still raining?”
“Yes,” I said. “What's gay about Woody Allen?”
The question wasn't as strange as it sounded. For a couple of years, Gretchen had arranged dates for us that were meant to improve my cultural awareness as a gay man. Although many of these involved parties celebrating the Oscars, Pride Week, and Halloween, they often centered around movies I hadn't seen. I'd never heard that Woody Allen was a gay icon, however, so I wasn't sure how today's event fit into the gaying of Blaine Dunhill.
After thinking it over, Gretchen finally said, “Woody's synonymous with Manhattan, and Manhattan . . .” She trailed off and laughed when she saw my dubious expression. “Okay, I confess. I like
Hannah and Her Sisters
because it's quirky and sweet, but hardly anyone I know watches Woody Allen. Especially after the scandal sheets got finished with him.”
“I never pay attention to that crap. If you like the movie, that's good enough for me,” I said, meaning it. In the three years that I'd known Gretchen Schmidt, she'd never steered me wrong, either in her role as my financial advisor or as my friend. I'd been asking myself a lot of questions about the changing nature of my friendships. It was comforting to feel that this one was intact in spite of what it was originally based on: our mutual connection to my ex-boyfriend, Daniel Stephenson.
When the lights went down and the movie began, I became absorbed in the intertwined love stories. I refused to think about Daniel, even when Woody's character reminded us that love was “really unpredictable.” Nor did I shift in my seat over uncomfortable reminders of love affairs in crisis. I knew I'd think about it later, when sleep eluded all my best efforts. But for a few hours, I could be happy to see a movie with a friend and go out afterward for good food and conversation.
After the movie, we walked down slushy sidewalks to Herban Kitchen, one of Gretchen's favorite restaurants. Though Gretchen was a vegetarian, she never inflicted her dietary beliefs on others. Herban Kitchen offered meat, poultry, and fish on their menu, all of which were organically raised. I could rest assured that my steak had lived a better life than I ever would.
After Gretchen decided on something called the Harvest Plate and relinquished her menu to the waiter, she turned to me and asked, “What did you think of the movie?”
“Carrie Fisher sang. What's not to love?”
“Wow. You almost sounded gay that time,” she teased. “But you're right. I've had a crush on her for years. Women have that Princess Leia fantasy, too, you know.”
“It was nice to see Barbara Hershey stay alive,” I said. “After watching
so many times, I assumed she died in all of her movies.”
“No. You're thinking of Mary Louise Parker.”
“Oh. She was in
Fried Green Tomatoes,
right? Or was that Maria Conchita Alonso?”
Gretchen laughed, then said, “You were right the first time. With Mary Stuart Masterson.”
“How do you keep all those three-named women straight?”
“I know my girls,” Gretchen said with a salacious grin. She suddenly switched gears, leaned forward, and said, “Was it awful of me to take you to a movie about love?”
“Oh, please,” I groaned. “Don't pussyfoot around me. I'm a big boy. I'm fine.”
“What, no rending of garments? You break up with the love of your life, and you're fine? Come on, Blaine,” Gretchen urged, “this is me you're talking to. It's okay. Fess up.”
“I think the worst thing about breaking up with someone is how everyone who knows you asks, âWhat happened?' Then you end up repeating a condensed version of the story ten to twenty times. It's like issuing a press statement to your friends and colleagues,” I complained.
“That's not the worst part of breaking up, and you know it.”
She was right. There was no worst part. The arguing, going to bed together angry, the silent dinners, the final fight, the loneliness the morning after; it was all pretty awful. I felt my eyes start to well up with tears and said, “Maybe I'm not ready to talk about it.”
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up. It's just that I'm concerned,” Gretchen said, reaching across the table to place her hand over mine. “I want to make sure you're okay. The circles under your eyes are darker than Sarah Jessica Parker's roots.”
“Or do you mean Sarah Michelle Gellar? Seriously, I was happy that you kept our date tonight,” I confessed. “When I was waiting outside the theater, before I found out you were already inside, I thought you ditched me out of loyalty to Daniel.”
“That's absurd,” Gretchen admonished and lightly slapped my hand.
“You were his friend first,” I reminded her, “before he and I ever got together. He's known you for a thousand years. I've only known youâ”
“Long enough for me to know that I like you and value your friendship,” Gretchen interjected. “I know what it's like to have well-meaning friends get in the middle of your relationships. Or breakups. If you want to talk about how you're feeling, that's fine. What you say to me stays between us. The same goes for anything Daniel and I talk about.”
“Have you talked to him?” I asked.
“Until tonight, this is the first time I've seen either of you since we were together at Happy Hollow for Thanksgiving,” she said. “After that, you went to Europe on business. By the time you got back, I was in Barbados.”
“That's right. Your trip. Did you have a good time?”
“Terrific,” she said. “First chance I've had to relax in years. I spent most of my time alone. It helped me make some major decisions about my life.”
“We aren't talking about me. We're talking about you,” she said. “When I got back, Daniel had gone to spend Christmas with his family, and you were in Colorado, undoing all my gay lessons with your straight friend. How was your ski trip?”
“Being with Jake was exactly what I needed,” I said. Jake Meyers had been my best friend since we were kids growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It had been a relief to spend time with someone who didn't know Daniel except through me and didn't ask any questions about the breakup, letting me decide how much I wanted to say. However, I understood that Gretchen wasn't merely being curious. She genuinely cared about Daniel and me, and I valued her opinion. I went on. “Like you, I needed time away to think things over. If you haven't talked to Daniel about the breakup, who told you?”
“Sheila,” Gretchen said. Whatever expression flickered across my face prompted her to say, “You're mad at her, huh?”
“Not really. I don't know. Maybe.”
Our waiter came with our food, giving me a chance to consider Gretchen's words. Sheila Meyers was Jake's younger sister, and there was a lot of history between us. More than ten years before, we'd even dated for a while, when I was a high school senior and she was a freshman. But we'd been friends long before then.
“Sheila would never do anything to hurt you, Blaine,” Gretchen said, reading my mind and picking up where we'd left off when the waiter was gone. “She can be impulsive and flighty, but her heart's always in the right place.”
We spent a quiet few minutes eating while I thought about Daniel and Sheila. It was strange that she'd been a part of our breakup, since she'd helped get us together in the first place.
I could still remember the first time I'd seen him. My fifth-floor apartment overlooked the alley between my building and Daniel's. His apartment was first-floor rear and had a patio, where he'd created a garden. While he labored over his plants, I'd watch from my window and try to figure out a way to meet him. From a distance, I couldn't see how handsome he was. Since it was summer, he was usually dressed in nothing more than a pair of shorts and sometimes a T-shirt, so I knew that he had a good, if slender, body.
But it wasn't his looks that made me return to my window to watch him every day. I liked the graceful way he moved; the way his hands so lovingly and gently tended to his plants and flowers. I felt like I was secretly sharing in something sweet and intimate with him. Sometimes it even seemed like he knew I was there and returned my interest.
Eventually I found out that was true. A few months after I moved to New York in 1997, Sheila followed and became my roommate. Daniel had contrived to meet her so he could find out about me. They became best friends; and he became my boyfriend.
Three years later, our breakup didn't require a moving van, since our only baggage was emotional. Like Woody and Mia, we had maintained separate apartments. Unlike them, however, our rift didn't rate a mention in the tabloids, so I had no idea what was going on with Daniel. When I came back from Colorado, I noticed that his first-floor apartment stayed dark every night. Nor was he ever outside in his patio garden during the day. Even in the dead of winter, Daniel took painstaking care of his plants, using heaters, lights, and plastic to keep things alive until spring. Evidently, most of his plants had been moved inside, and I'd seen no sign of him. It had started to worry me.
“Did Sheila by any chance tell you where Daniel is?” I abruptly asked Gretchen.
“Yes,” Gretchen said. “He's in L.A. in preproduction for a TV movie. Then he'll be filming.”
“He got the
movie?” I asked, feeling a mixture of relief, happiness, and pride.
“It wasn't too long ago that he got a better contract with his soap,” I said. Daniel played America's favorite daytime villain, Angus Remington, on the daytime drama
“I'm surprised they gave him time off so soon.”
“Angus Remington is sending videotapes to terrorize the residents of Splendor Falls while he's away on a sinister mission,” Gretchen said. We both laughed, considering that Daniel's
movie would feature him as an angel sent to help three of America's sitcom sweethearts: Meredith Baxter, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jasmine Guy. “Daniel shot the videotapes before he left. That's how they're keeping his storyline moving.”
“That's great. He must have been thrilled when it all worked out.” Gretchen gave me a strange look and I said, “You're surprised that I'm happy for him? Daniel deserves the best.”
“I'm not surprised,” she said. “You've always been supportive of him. He
the best. I don't understand how he let it slip away.”
“I'm not sure I understand it, either,” I admitted. “I don't think I realized how many problems we had until after the Maddie Awards.”
Gretchen sat back to indicate that she would listen while she ate.
The Maddie Awards were held at a gala dinner and recognized people who'd done outstanding work in Manhattan advertising. I'd been nominated for a campaign I did for my advertising firm that featured Sheila as our model. Sheila's fiancÃ©, photographer Josh Clinton, was nominated for a Prada spread he'd shot for
We were all excited about the nominations and, at Daniel and Sheila's request, broke tradition and sat with one another rather than at tables with the other nominees and executives from our respective employers. When both Josh and I won our awards, the night was declared a triumph, and we partied until dawn.