The two boys across from me were sitting uncomfortably in their seats. Jason Thompson unconsciously reached down and grabbed Travis Armstrong’s hand and squeezed it gently. He quickly let go when he saw me look down at their entwined hands.
“It’s all right, Boys,” I assured them with a gentle smile.
“Are you going to suspend us?” Travis asked with tears in his eyes. Jason placed his hand on Travis’s knee and squeezed it.
“Why should you be treated any differently than other students?” A look of relief appeared on their faces.
I looked down and reread the disciplinary note that Coach Arnold, the gym teacher, had angrily thrust into my hand the previous afternoon.
“I demand these boys be expelled!” He had shouted as he paced angrily around the room. Earlier in the day, he had caught Jason and Travis kissing in the locker room after all the other boys had left. According to the report, both boys were dressed, and it was apparent they were leaving the locker room when the incident occurred.
I had been more upset with Coach Arnold’s reaction than I was with the boys’ behavior. When he referred to them as fags, I reacted immediately. I informed him that he was being given a written reprimand, and I ordered him to take a sensitivity class that the school district held on Saturday mornings.
“That’s outrageous!” he shouted. “I’ll be damned if I do that!”
“If you don’t,” I remarked calmly, “then you’ll be given a one-day unpaid leave of absence.”
“What!” He approached me as if he was going to hit me. “Those faggots kiss in the locker room, and you’re going to discipline me?”
“That will be two sensitivity classes,” I announced angrily. “Would you like to go for three?”
He tried to stare me down, but I defiantly stood my ground. I’d been dealing with homophobes like him all my life, so I was prepared for his reactions. After a minute, he turned and stormed out of the room. “What’s this goddamned world coming to?” he muttered angrily as he slammed the door behind him.
“You have the same punishment as any other students who exhibit inappropriate conduct that violates the school code,” I informed Jason and Travis.
Jason asked, “Two nights of after-school detention?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But that can be waived.”
“Waived?” Travis asked. “How?”
I thumbed through their records on my desk. They waited nervously while I read through them, looking up occasionally.
“You are very impressive students,” I finally spoke. “Marching band, tennis team and reporters for the school newspaper. You seem to be very active in extracurricular activities.”
“Yes, Sir,” Travis replied. “It keeps us out of trouble.”
“Obviously not enough.” Their faces turned red with embarrassment when they realized that I was referring to the kissing incident. “Perhaps you need another activity.”
“Another activity?” They asked in unison. I sat back in my chair and put my hands behind my neck. I smiled when Travis reached down and held Jason’s hand. It was obvious they felt relaxed around me.
“For some time I’ve wanted to form a Gay-Straight Student Alliance here at Southwestern,” I said. “I think I’ve found the perfect students to help me organize it.”
“Are you serious?” Travis released Jason’s hand and sat on the edge of his seat. I could tell he was interested in the idea.
“Are you both out?”
They looked at each other and then nodded. “Yes, Sir.”
“To your parents also?” I knew I couldn’t ask them to take on such an assignment if it would risk trouble at home.
“Yes, Sir,” responded Jason. “We’ve been dating for two years. We told our parents when we realized we were in love with each other.”
“Wonderful,” I said. They grinned and reached again for each other’s hand. I pulled out a desk drawer, took out a packet and handed it to Travis.
“I’ve done some research and I’ve contacted the State Board of Education. This is everything you’ll need to start a chapter here at Southwestern.” I watched as they looked over the material.
“I don’t need an answer right now,” I said.
“No, Sir!” Travis replied excitedly. “We’ll do it!” Jason nodded his head in agreement.
“Do you think there will be other students who would be interested?”
Both boys began laughing. “Dr. Carpenter,” laughed Jason. “Do you have any idea how many gay and lesbian students there are around here?”
I smiled. “Well, I haven’t taken a survey lately.”
“Don’t worry,” Travis assured me. “We’ll probably have one of the largest chapters in the state.”
Jason pointed to a page. “It says here we need a faculty advisor. Do you think you could do it?”
I sat back and laughed. “I don’t have enough time to do all the things I need to do now. I’d love to, but I just can’t.” Both boys disappointedly slumped back in their chairs.
“If you don’t do it,” responded Travis sadly, “then I doubt we can get anyone else. Who is going to help a bunch of gay kids?”
“He’s probably going to kill me,” I answered tentatively, “but why don’t you ask Mr. Wendelmeirer?”
“Giant?” Travis asked excitedly. I had to repress a smile.
“He won’t if you call him that,” I chastised him.
“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I have Mr. Wendelmeirer for American Literature third period. He’s a cool teacher. Do you really think he’ll do it?”
“You won’t know until you ask him,” I said. “However, I think you can rely on him.”
“This is great!” Both boys jumped from their chairs and hugged one another. They then came around my desk and wrapped their arms around me.
“You’re the greatest, Dr. Carpenter,” said Travis. “We can’t wait to get started on this.”
“You have my complete support,” I assured them. “If you encounter any problems from anyone, and I mean anyone, student or staff, then you come to me.”
“Thanks, Dr. Carpenter,” Jason replied appreciatively.
“What about the detention?” Travis asked. Jason nudged him in his side. “Umph.”
“I think we can forget about that,” I smiled. “But be more careful in school. Keep your amorous behavior behind your bedroom doors.” I laughed when they began to blush.
They gave me another quick hug before leaving my office. I watched them talking animatedly as they walked down the hall. I felt satisfied that one of the goals I had set when I became principal was finally going to happen.
“Mr. Albright, I think we have a serious problem.” I was sitting across the desk from Mr. Solomon Jefferson, CEO of Amalgamated Biotech Research Laboratories. An hour earlier I had been called by his secretary and told to report to his office. “We have seen an eight percent drop in sales in your division the past two quarters.”
He pushed a folder across his desk to me. I took it and thumbed through it. I was familiar with the numbers, but I didn’t want to appear to be to dismissive. Phil Hanson, my sales analyst, had shown me the figures a few days earlier.
I looked across the desk at the tall, domineering man. ABRL was one of the most profitable prescription drug distributors in the country, and it was only because of the proficient reputation of the man now glaring at me.
“What’s the matter, Gene?” he asked fatherly tone, even though he was three years younger than me. “At one time you were my most ambitious salesman.” I tried to hold his gaze, but I looked away, reading the various plaques on the wall. My office was also adorned with achievement awards, but they had been declining over the past couple of years. I heard papers being turned as he continued to thumb through the folder.
“You missed two major meetings,” he continued, “one in Los Angeles and another in Chicago. It cost our company millions when the contracts were awarded to one of our biggest competitors. Would you like to explain that to me?”
What was to say? I had gotten drunk the night before in a bar, and after staggering back to my room, I fell asleep and missed my appointment. While I slept, the company took a major loss.
After several more minutes, he shut the folder. “I think you need a vacation,” he stated. I looked up only to see a disappointed look on his face. “I’m appointing Sarah Livingston to take over as interim district manager.”
“I don’t want a vacation,” I insisted. “I’m in a slump. We all go through it.”
“But they don’t cost the company millions of dollars,” he responded sharply. “I’ve made my decision.”
I knew it was senseless to argue with Solomon T. Jefferson. I had sat in too many meetings and observed his stubborn determination once he had made up his mind on a matter. To argue would only cause more ire and the possibility of losing my job.
“How long a vacation?” I asked dejectedly. He sat back in his chair and interlaced his hands behind his head.
“Until you sober up,” he replied adamantly. I looked at him in amazement. I had always thought my drinking was something that was unknown to others. Around my coworkers I only drank in moderation. It was the long, lonely hours on the road that I drank heavily.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked challengingly. He pulled out a desk drawer and pushed another folder across the desk. With shaking hands, I reached for it and began scanning through the report.
“You had me followed?” I asked angrily. Mr. Jefferson looked defiantly at me.
“You were costing the company millions,” he explained. “I had to know why.”
I looked back down at the report. It had dates and locations of bars I had frequented. Even I was amazed at the frequency and duration of my drinking episodes. There were several pictures of me sitting in a drunken stupor on a bar stool.
“Take a couple of weeks,” he said. “Check into a rehab center and get yourself dried out. You’re too good a salesman to lose to the bottle.”
I slumped down in my chair as I weighed my options. My first thought was to quit. I was angry that he had hired someone to follow me around the country and take pictures of me in bars. But then I realized that no one would hire an alcoholic who had cost his last employer millions of dollars because of his drinking binges.
I also thought of Tina. We were living rather comfortably. I had little else to offer her other than stability and a certain social status within our community. I realized her reputation as an attorney would be tarnished by having an unemployed, alcoholic husband.
I sighed and rose from my seat. I extended my hand to Mr. Jefferson. “Thank you, Sir. I’ll do what I have to do.” I wasn’t sure of the meaning of those words, but he seemed satisfied.
“Take a couple of week, Gene,” he replied. “See a doctor and get some counseling. I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of why you feel the need to drink.”
His words stung. I released his hand as if I had been electrocuted by a surging bolt of electricity. He gave me a puzzled look.
Bottom of why I need to drink? Need to drink? Did I need to drink? If so, why? I drank to forget, but I had hidden the reason away to the back recesses of my mind.
A kiss. It was just a stupid kiss on a night eighteen years ago. One kiss. Yet it was that kiss that obsessed me. Tormented me. That one kiss had ruined my life, but it also gave me the greatest memory. A cherished memory. A lonely memory.
Tina was home when I arrived. As usual, she was in her office going through legal briefs. “Hi, Honey,” she smiled as I stuck my head in the door. I entered and sat down in the leather wing back chair in the corner of the room.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. I only entered her office when something pressing was on my mind. Normally, we’d avoid each other until dinner time.
“How would you like to go on a vacation?” I tried to sound upbeat. “You’ve wanted to go to Spain for years.” She sat back and stared at me. Like Jefferson earlier, I could tell she was trying to figure out what had brought on my sudden suggestion for a vacation. I’d spent the past four years trying to find excuses not to go.
“What do you mean, what happened?” I asked indignantly. “I asked you if you wanted to go to Spain. Christ, you’ve been after me for years to go. I thought you’d be happy.”
“Your secretary called earlier.” I noticed a look of disgust appear on her face. “She told me about your meeting with Mr. Jefferson.”
“That bitch!” I spat. I stood and approached Tina. “She couldn’t wait to let you know, could she?”
“It wasn’t Miss Evans fault,” Tina replied. “She mentioned that you had a meeting earlier with Mr. Jefferson, and I coaxed it out of her.”
“Always doing a cross-examination, huh?” I asked angrily. “So you know. I’m a failure.” I sat down and placed my head in my hands. She walked over and placed her hand gently on my shoulder.
“You’re not a failure, Gene.”
“Yes, I am!” I stood and shouted. “I’ve been a failure for years.” I walked over to the window and looked out across the manicured backyard. “I’ve failed you, the company, and myself.”
I walked over, took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes. “I’ll always love you, Tina. No matter what happens, I’ve always loved you.”
I then turned and left the room. I could hear her shouting my name from the front door as I got in my car and sped away.
“Here.” The bartender pushed a drink in front of me. It looked like a gin and tonic. I was still holding a similar drink in my hand.
“I didn’t order that,” I responded. “I’m still drinking this one.” I held up the glass and showed him that it was nearly full.
“The guy over there did.” I looked on the other side of the bar. A guy, perhaps in his early thirties, smiled and held up his glass.
“Tell him I don’t want it,” I replied as I shoved the drink back to the bartender. He shrugged his shoulders, moved over to the other side of the bar and said something to the guy.
I hate this bar, but I find myself coming here often. It’s called the Mr. G‘s, a gay corner bar. The clientele is an older crowd, and they don’t attract the younger crowd. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, but when I’m really depressed I find myself here. I guess it’s my way of reminding myself just who I am.
There’s the sound of soft jazz playing in the background. I discovered that if I just sit at the bar, I lose myself. That is, until some guy approaches me and tries to hit on me. Just like the guy who ordered me a drink.
I don’t know why I come here. I’m not looking for anything, or anyone. I’ve turned down countless guys simply because they aren’t him. I can’t imagine being with anyone but him.
It’s a strange feeling. I know I’m gay, but I don’t want to be with other men. Only him. I am repulsed when another guy approaches me, places his hand on my ass and then asks if I’m looking for some fun. I remember the softness of his lips, and I feel I’d betray him to be with someone else.
“What’s the matter?” I am startled by the deep voice speaking next to me. “I thought you were drinking gin and tonic.”
“I’m not interested,” I said rudely. I’m hoping he’ll get the hint and leave me alone. I look over at him. He’s an attractive guy, not like most of the men who approach me. They are usually about twenty years my senior. A couple even had the nerve to offer me money to have sex with them.
“Rodney Graham.” He extended his hand to me. I tentatively shook it.
“I really don’t bite,” he laughed. “But I will if you want me to.” His smile is infectious. His teeth are perfect and glistening white. His face is tanned and handsome. I would guess he’s probably a few years younger than me. He has brown eyes and short, light brown hair. He has on an expensive tailored suit, and his silk tie is loosened. He seems confident, but not arrogant.
“Well, Mr. Gene Albright,” he smiled. “How about that drink?” Our eyes meet, and I can see a playful glimmer coming from them.
“Sure,” I relented. “Why not.”
“Good.” He motioned for the bartender. “Hey, Dwight. How about another drink for my friend, Gene?” The bartender raised an eyebrow. He seemed surprised that I’m letting someone buy me a drink.
I sat nervously as he let his eyes roam over my body. “How come I’ve never noticed you before?”
“I don’t come in here often,” I offered.
“Wifey let you out tonight?” He grabbed my hand and held up my ring finger. I pulled my hand quickly away.
“Not exactly,” I replied indignantly.
“It’s all right,” he assured me. He held up his hand I showed me his wedding band.
“I’m sneaking out tonight myself,” he laughed. “Does she know?”
“That you mess around?”
“I don’t mess around,” I answered defensively.
“Sure, Buddy. Whatever you say.” The bartender returned with our drinks and we sat quietly for several minutes. Finally, Rodney turned and faced me.
“Look, Gene,” he apologized. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” He let his eyes roam over my body again. “It’s just that good-looking guys like you don’t come in here too often.”
“Thanks,” I replied appreciatively. “Look, Rodney. I’m not looking for any action.”
“Who said I wanted any?” His brown eyes bore into mine. “You looked like you could use a friend. Maybe I judged you wrong.” He started to rise from the bar stool. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “It’s just been a bad day.”
“How about telling me about it over dinner?” I hesitated before answering. My initial reaction was to reject his offer, but I felt comfortable being with him. Maybe it was the fact that like me, he was married. Maybe it had something to do with him saying he wasn’t interested in having sex with me.
I was surprised when my mouth uttered, “Yes, sure.” A wide smile appeared on his face.
“Good.” He reached down and grabbed my hand. I pulled it away quickly. “Sorry,” he apologized when he realized that he had gone too far. As we were walking out of the bar, he started to put his hand on my back, but he quickly removed it. For some reason, I didn’t think I would have minded if he had kept it there.
I found dinner enjoyable. We ended up at an upscale steak house downtown. I had followed him in his car, and we parked in a parking garage nearby. On the way to the restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice that he always seemed to want to touch me.
Our conversation started out getting the usual pleasantries out of the way. Rodney owned one of the largest car dealerships in the area. He had inherited it when his father had a heart attack two years ago and was forced by his cardiologist to retire.
“You’re the guy who does all those crazy commercials on television?”
“Dressing up like a sheik and saying you’ll find an oasis at Graham Ford is not crazy.”
“Yes it is,” I laughed. “I have to admit, though, I did find the commercial extremely hot.”
“Oh, really?” He raised his eyebrows flirtatiously.
Rodney also told me that his wife’s name was Greta. She was German. Like me, he had met her in college. They had been married twelve years, and he had two daughters, nine and eleven.
“Does she know you’re gay?” I asked.
“She suspects, but I think she really doesn’t want to know the answer,” he confided. It made me wonder if Tina felt the same way. She had to wonder why I know longer found her sexually appealing. I guess the last thing a wife would suspect is that the man she loves is gay.
Rodney looked at his watch. “It’s almost midnight. Why don’t we go across the street and check into the Marriott?”
“I can’t do that,” I stammered nervously. “Besides, don’t you have to get home to Greta?”
“She’s visiting her sister,” he replied. “She took the girls with her.”
“I really have to go.” I started to get up, but he grabbed my arm.
“Look, Gene,” he pleaded. “I’ve really enjoyed your company. You’re the first guy in a long time I’ve enjoyed being around. I just don’t want the night to end.”
He watched me fidget nervously in my seat. “Wait here,” he said as he walked away. He walked about fifteen feet, pulled out his cell phone and began talking. After a minute, he walked back over and sat down.
“I’m leaving now,” he announced. “I’m going over to the hotel. I just reserved a room. He took out a pen and wrote on his napkin. He folded it and placed it in front of me.
“Here’s my room number.” His eyes met mine. They were filled with anticipation. “I’ll be up about another hour.” He called the waiter over and paid for our meal. I insisted on paying, but he refused.
“You can buy next time,” he replied slyly. “That’s the only way I know I may see you again.” He rose, and I watched as he ambled across the street and disappeared inside the double doors of the hotel. I walked back to my car and headed out onto the street.
I was about six blocks away, when I turned right and circled back downtown. Before I realized it, I was standing nervously before room 3442.