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Feeding Pigeons

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The story of one man’s gay flight of fancy.

My freshman composition students are free to choose their own essay topics. In four years I have read about beer, love, a paper clip, adoption, commuting, college, anorexia, and cancer. I’ve also read about homosexuality.

The first of these essays was from someone who’d used the occasion to come out, the second was a woman’s ode to her lover, and the third was a condemnation of gays and same-sex marriage. I kept the writer of the third essay after class and gave him an F for the course. When I reached my office an hour later, there were three messages from his father. “This is Sal Calvino,” the first one said. “Please call me.” The next was: “Look, Dr. Walker, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I don’t like it.” And the third said, “I know what your problem is. You like gays.” His son was a plagiarist. I’d paid $30 for the proof, courtesy of Essay.com. I called Mr. Calvino and told him this. He stuck to his opinion. “You got a thing for them gays,” he said, “don’t you?”

I considered his question, my mind taking me back 20 years to when I was working as a clerk at a hospital and had become friends with Dr. Jones, a man who expressed himself with a certain effeminate flair. I introduced him to my twin brother, who’d recently been hired as an orderly. They shook hands. Dr. Jones left to do his rounds. My brother snickered and whispered, “So, when did you start hanging out with a gump?” I had not heard that expression for many years, not since we were growing up in the ghetto. It was used frequently as a form of playful insult, but rarely as a serious accusation. Blacks had had their fill of emasculation over three centuries; the need to not see male homosexuality was strong. So we did not see our friend Paul’s skin-tight jeans or the way he tossed his hips while dancing, and the locks of hair he twisted and let dangle before his brow weren’t there. We saw his girlfriends. We saw the tattoo he’d carved in his arm with a knife dipped in ink. We saw a man. We saw him die. His ghost still haunts my old neighborhood. I spotted it, during a recent visit to my mother, drifting along 79th Street. It was ravaged and shriveled, wrecked, someone told me, by two decades of heroin and booze, but I knew that this was only partially true.

The only two openly gay people I knew were both female. One was a gang-banger with lots of scars and muscles. When I was 14 she beat me up and stole my new leather All Stars, and two years later, when I at last got a steady girlfriend, she stole that, too. I was crushed when Donna told me, because I was in love, but otherwise her revelation caused me no concern. Nothing between us would change, I knew, except the awful fact that I would be single again. We continued to spend a great deal of time together, and she continued to sneak to my house for sleepovers. We would lay on my bed fully dressed, as we had before she was an official lesbian, talking for hours and finally falling asleep to the sound of my nine-inch black and white TV. One night, she leaned over and asked, “How come you never tried to do it with me?”

I pushed myself up on my elbows. The light from The Johnny Carson Show bounced off her face. “I did do it with you.”

“Once,” she said. “But we were drunk, so that didn’t count.”

“Trust me,” I said, “it counted.”

“Still, what about all the other chances you had?”

I didn’t recall any other chances. We’d logged hundreds of kissing hours, but she’d insisted on no  more. “You’re right,” I said. “I could have raped you a half-dozen times, easily.”

“Unless…”

“Unless?”

“Unless… you’re gay, too!” The notion thrilled her. She broke into a smile as she rolled over to hug me. “We could get an apartment together!” she exclaimed. “There’s this great gay neighborhood on the north side called Lakeview. That’s where I’m moving next year, as soon as I finish school.”

And she did. I did, too, but it took me five years, when a new girlfriend landed me there. My apartment was small but in a good location; a short walk to the beach, near preppy restaurants and bars, and just a mile from a theater specializing in noir films. It was also, as Donna had said, in a haven for gays. At all times of day and night, same-sex couples walked openly hand-in-hand, pausing to kiss beneath the flashing marques of clubs with names like “The Man Hole” and “Men At Work.” Rainbow flags flew from virtually every business, their doorways partially blocked by stacks of magazines with beefy men on the covers. There were even condos that catered to a near exclusive gay clientele. On a windy winter night, I found myself sitting in one. It was owned by Professor Homewood. He’d invited me and two other students to dinner. We’d consumed four bottles of Chardonnay, and now we sat in the living room chain-smoking and nibbling cantaloupe wrapped with ham, getting to know each other. The subject of relationships was raised. Someone, Vicky, I think, asked me if I was dating.

I nodded.

“Is it a he,” Tony asked, “or a she?”

“A she,” I responded.

He frowned. “How disappointing.”

Very,” agreed Professor Homewood. And then he told a story I’d hear maybe a dozen more times over the next 15 years; two elderly men were sitting on a bench feeding pigeons, when one of the men confessed his lifelong love for the other. The other responded by crying, since the feeling was mutual and they’d spent the last 60 years as mere friends. When Professor Homewood finished telling this story, he lit another cigarette and scanned our faces. “Avoid sitting on such a bench,” he warned us, “at all costs.”

“The gay bench of regret,” added Vicky, an aspiring poet. “I like that.”

“But what if,” I asked, “what if the second man wasn’t gay?”

Professor Homewood shook his head emphatically. “There is no such man. Or woman, for that matter. We are all gay. We are all straight. Some people, those residing at the peak of Mount Darwinian, are simply more in touch with their full selves than others.”

I thought about this for a moment. “So, you could fall in love, romantically, with a woman?”

“God, no.”

Vicky, Tony, and I looked at each other, then back at Professor Homewood.

“I am, in terms of sexual evolution,” he said, “I’m a slug.”

Tony patted my knee. “But you,” he said, could be romantic with a man. And my plan is to prove it to you.”

He tried very hard. He flirted with me, complimented my clothes, brushed his leg against mine when he, Vicky, and I sat in dark theaters. He bought me meals. He even got jealous, on occasion, as if the mere fact of his plan had made us a couple. Once, a year into this plan, he snapped at a man who’d offered to buy me a beer. We were in a gay bar.

“You may not,” Tony told him, “do any such thing.”

The man nodded and tipped his white Stetson. It was rodeo night. Banjo strumming and hoots filled the air. “No offense,” the man said. “I didn’t know you two were together.”

Tony shouted, “Well now you know, buckaroo!” He was drunk. So was Vicky. So was I. Earlier that day she and I had watched Tony break down in tears as he told us his boyfriend had left him. He had found Vicky and me at our usual coffee shop, where we sat by the window trembling from triple cappuccinos. We all needed a drink. Tony said he knew just the place. We stopped at Woolworth’s and purchased three red bandanas, tied  them around our necks, and then went to Halsted Street to enter the wild wild west. That was three shots and 20 beers ago. Vicky leaned to me and whispered, “I’m going to vomit.”

“In that case,” I said, rising, “we should go.”

How could mid-January be so warm! Even with so much snow, so much wind! Reveling in this climactic miracle, we locked our arms and decided to walk. An hour later, just as our terrible sobering was complete, we entered Vicky’s apartment. It was a studio, minus the bathroom and kitchen, which were down the hall. The only furniture was a day bed and a blue easy chair. “Dibs on the chair,” Tony said. He flopped down and began removing his shoes.

“You and I can sleep together,” Vicky said to me. “It’ll be tight, though.”

I was already anticipating my girlfriend’s wrath for being out all night. A tight fit on a daybed with another woman didn’t seem like a good idea. “I should leave,” I said.

“Aw, come on,” Vicky coaxed.

“My girlfriend, she’s already going to kill me.”

Tony rolled his eyes.

“Call her.” Vicky took the phone off the receiver and held it out to me. “Tell her where you are.”

But it would have been no use. My girlfriend was already annoyed about how much time I spent with them, the subject of several fights. Besides, I’d told her I’d be at her place by 10.

I removed my bandana, stuffed it in my pocket, and turned to leave. Vicky joined me at the door. We shared a long hug. As we parted, she kissed me on the mouth. It was a mere peck, as a brother might give a sister, a mother to her son, but it was something we’d never done before and caught me by surprise. Now Tony rose and approached me, his arms extended. I suspected he would try to kiss me, too, but after we’d embraced he turned to walk away. I pulled him back. The look of shock on his face after our lips parted was priceless. It stayed with me during my long walk home, and it would be the first thing to come to mind when my student’s father asked me if I had a thing for gays. I would think of Donna then, and of Professor Homewood. I would even think of my childhood friend Paul. “Not all of them,” I would say. But, yes, I have loved a few.

Jerald Walker is an assistant professor of English at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The North American Review, and Best American Essays 2007.

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