I'm pleased to share with you Chapter Seven, "Broken," in its entirety below. The content of the chapter is self-explanatory; all you need to know is it takes place in late 1988. Oh, and it's suitable for all audiences.
Thanks for taking the time, and I hope you enjoy it.
Two weeks later, I went to David’s for an early Christmas dinner.
It was the first time someone, other than a relative, had invited me over for a meal–certainly another gay man. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to go.
When I arrived at David’s apartment late that Saturday afternoon, I was surprised when he told me it would be just the two of us. Especially considering how much work he was putting himself through, going all out as though he expected a houseful of family and friends.
In addition to the traditional roasted turkey, stuffing, and gravy, the meal consisted of a tossed salad with homemade dressing, garlic mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, oven-warmed buns, and cranberry sauce, which David told me he’d made using a secret recipe of his grandmother’s. And, for dessert, he’d baked a pumpkin pie, including the crust, which he garnished with fresh whipped cream and sprigs of mint.
Overstuffed, David and I sat at his intimate, candle-lit dining table–the everyday items normally found on it moved to the floor, in the corner and out of the way–where we talked, laughed, and enjoyed ourselves until well into the evening.
When it came time to clean up, we worked together to transfer everything back to the kitchen. Afterward, I stood in the short hallway, leaning against the narrow half-wall, and watched David fastidiously rinse the dirty dishes, piling like items on top of each other. In amongst his impatient and frustrated mutterings about the lack of counter space, our lively dinner repartee continued.
Once everything had been rinsed and stacked, David excused himself to use the bathroom.
As I sauntered about his living room, admiring the things he had–and, dare I say it, allowing myself to consider sharing them with him, if and when we became a couple–I felt I needed to do something more to show my appreciation for dinner. After all, David had done everything he could to make me feel like an important guest. Perhaps, I thought, I should start washing the dishes and help free up some space on the counter.
Having rinsed the sink, clearing it of remaining food debris, I turned on the hot water and added dishwashing liquid, just like I would if I’d been home. As I did, a tingle ran up my spine and spread throughout my body; I found myself humming a familiar tune I couldn’t place.
For the first time, I felt what I imagined it must be like to live with someone, to be in an honest-to-goodness relationship. Having shared a delicious meal, and after cleaning up, David and I, the two of us, would settle in for a quiet evening together at home–watching TV, talking, or just being in each other’s company. As I thought of that, I felt warm and full inside.
Standing at an unfamiliar kitchen sink, washing someone else’s dishes, admittedly felt unusual, foreign, because I’d never done it before. But it also felt somehow right, like it was meant to be.
I’d never considered the possibility, but I discovered an unexpected intimacy doing such a mundane task–working with those things someone else uses everyday to prepare and eat food. Perhaps, in some respects, more intimate even than having sex together.
That’s when it happened. Caught up in my reverie as I was, I’d added David’s crystal wineglass to the sudsy water without realizing it. Then, absentmindedly, I’d pushed the dishcloth into it, snapping off a large piece glass, and driving the resulting sharp edge into the base of my right index finger.
Searing pain shot through me, and I instinctively retracted my hand from the water. In amongst the soap bubbles, I saw a flap of skin. Blood and water ran down my hand toward my wrist. When I tried to see if a piece of broken glass had lodged into the wound, seeping blood obstructed my view.
The first impulse I had was to dip my hand back into the sink of hot, soapy dishwater, to wash away the blood before it dripped onto the floor. But I already knew that would sting like hell. Not to mention, mixing blood with the clean water didn’t feel like the right thing to do.
Then the thought of HIV came to me.
While there was still some confusion about how the virus was transmitted from one person to another, there was no question contact with infected blood was one of the primary ways.
Since I’d had sex with only a few people, I was almost certain I wasn’t HIV+.
Still, Kurt and I had engaged in risky sexual activity, just after I’d come out a few years earlier. And I hadn’t been brave enough, or saw good reason–that is, I hadn’t entered a committed relationship yet–to get tested. The last thing I wanted to do was contaminate the dishwater with my blood. Even though, in the unlikely event I was infected, I doubted the diluted virus would be dangerous.
As I stood in David’s kitchen, holding my hand upright, using a tissue from my jeans pocket to wipe up the blood and water so it wouldn’t drip on the floor, I started to panic. How could I have been so careless? Would David be upset when he found out I’d broken one of his wineglasses? How could I have ruined an otherwise perfect evening?
I looked at the cut on my hand. It was still bleeding. A lot. And I didn’t know what to do. I was no longer thinking clearly.
Just then, at the other end of the hallway and across from the kitchen, the door to the bathroom opened.
“What happened?” David asked, looking at my hand, then up at me.
I pointed to the water in the sink and explained about the wineglass.
As I spoke, David went into action. He opened a cupboard door and produced a roll of paper towels. Unrolling several sheets, he tore them off and handed them to me. When I’d cleaned my hand and arm, he inspected the wound. Blood kept getting in the way.
“I don’t think there’s any glass in it,” I told him, my voice shaky.
David tore off several more sheets of paper towel, folded them into a thick pad, and gave them to me.
“Keep your hand up,” he instructed. “Apply pressure to stop the bleeding.” The calm yet earnest tone of his voice reminded me of my mother, on those occasions when she’d shown concern for my wellbeing as I was growing up.
Several minutes later, I removed the soiled pad.
“It looks deep,” David said. “You might need to get stitches, to stop the bleeding.”
My heart sank.
The word “stitches” took me back to a hot summer evening in my late teens. My father and I had been on our way somewhere in his pick-up truck. To our right, the driver of a car on a side street missed the stop sign and slammed into us. In the passenger seat, I was thrown to the left.
When we were safely out of the vehicle, my father took a look at me and said I needed to go to the hospital. Without realizing it at the time of the impact, my head had hit the steering wheel, opening a gash. I felt something warm on my forehead and touched it. My fingers were covered in blood.
As I laid on a stretcher in the Emergency ward, a doctor injected my scalp with a local anesthetic, then dabbed at the wound to clean it. He threaded numerous stitches through the layer of skin to close the cut.
At the time, I hadn’t felt much beyond a pulling sensation, as the suture thread had been drawn through my skin. But the idea of what had happened, as if hemming a pair of pants, had made me sick to my stomach.
Regardless of what David had said, I wasn’t going to Emergency at St. Paul’s Hospital–that was for damn sure. Not only did I not want to inconvenience him, by having him take me there–even if he did like to drive his car–but also I had no intention of allowing a doctor to stick a needle in my hand, to freeze it or to sew it up. Eventually, the bleeding would stop on its own. It had to.
Blood kept oozing from my hand, faster than I was willing to accept.
Determined to stop it, I returned the compress to the cut and pressed even harder. David prepared another pad of paper towel and exchanged it for the one I had. Several minutes later, we looked at the cut again. The bleeding seemed to have slowed, somewhat anyway, and I breathed a little easier. Still, I couldn’t get the idea of stitches off my mind.
As I continued to hold my hand up, pad firmly in place, David drained the sink and sprayed water over the items in it, clearing the soap suds to find the broken wineglass and shards. He looked at me and smiled.
“You drama queens are all alike,” he said. “Always needing to be the center of attention.”
Several times while he worked on washing and drying the dishes himself, David asked to see the cut.
Finally, when the bleeding had mostly stopped, he opened a cupboard door and took out a first aid kit. He unzipped it, made a compress from several feet of gauze, and affixed it to my hand with medical tape.
“I missed my calling,” he said. “I should have been Florence Nightingale.”
The excitement of the evening thankfully over, David and I carried our cups of tea to the living room and settled into the two cozy, wingback chairs.
The table lamps on both sides of the sofa, reminding me of tall, narrow, Grecian urns, cast the room in a warm glow. Smooth jazz tunes from David’s favorite radio station out of Seattle played quietly in the background.
I shifted uneasily in my seat and cleared my throat several times.
“I have a question,” I said tentatively, as though seeking permission to ask it.
“Why am I not surprised?” David responded. I heard the tick of his teacup as he set it in the saucer on his lap.
“It’s been on my mind for weeks,” I said.
That was true, it had been. Just as it was true I’d been determined not to bring it up.
But the events of the past few hours–from the fantasy of being part of a couple, to feeling vulnerable when I’d cut my hand, to seeing another side of David as he’d tended to me–had weakened my resolve. If there’d been a time to raise the subject, I thought it was then.
I gathered my thoughts and tried to select my words carefully.
“I was just wondering, you know, when you told me before…um, that I’m not your type. I mean, how did you know?”
“Here we go again.”
“What do you mean, ‘here we go again’?” I tried to ask it in a joking manner, to keep the tone of our conversation light. “I haven’t brought this up before.”
“Maybe not directly, Priscilla. But I know where you’re going with this.”
“Oh, yeah? And where am I going?”
“We already discussed it.”
“No, you discussed it. I listened.” He gave me that skeptical stare. “But I don’t get it,” I continued.
“That’s right, you don’t. And you’re not going to.” I attempted a laugh.
After a moment, I tried again. “When you said I wasn’t your type, you didn’t even know me. How could you be so sure?”
“I knew. Like I said before, it’s either there, or it’s not.”
“But I don’t understand. How am I not your type?”
“You won’t give up, will you?” David said, taking another sip of tea. “Well, for starters, you’re too desperate. People can smell how needy you are from a mile away. No one wants to be with a needy, old queen.” He smirked at me.
I shot him a look. “Thanks a lot.”
“You’re welcome. I know you don’t mean that now, but you will…one day.”
Neither of us said anything. Then David spoke up.
“I see how you might have gotten the impression I changed my mind, that I’m interested in you now. But, as far as I’m concerned, Gertrude, nothing’s changed. We’re still where we were before.”
“No more buts,” David said firmly. “And no begging. It’s not becoming to a woman like you.”
I wanted to say something else, I really did, but I stopped myself. What was the point?
For some time afterward, David and I sat quietly, drinking our tea and listening to the music.
But my mind was churning.
In less than a year, I’d turn thirty.
I knew, or I’d been led to believe, anyway, that once a gay man had reached that milestone age, it was all over. Just like that, he’d be old, undesirable, and invisible, especially to those he most wanted to find him attractive.
From that point onward, the chance of meeting a partner would be even more difficult than it had been (read: impossible). Through no choice of his own, the poor sop would live the rest of his life isolated, lonely, and miserable–what he’d probably dreaded most happening to him.
Seeing myself end up like that scared the living crap out of me. I couldn’t conceive of the possibility I’d go through life without ever experiencing real and true love–at least once. In the event that was the case, I believed little else would have any meaning.
The light and airy riffs of George Benson’s “Breezin’” floated about David’s apartment.
Time was running out.
Despite my persistence, the clubs had been nothing but a disappointment, and I had no reason to believe they’d be any different in the future. Before it was too late, I had to try something else.
The only other thing I could think of was what I’d told myself I never would. After all, I had to draw the line somewhere.
As I pondered the situation I was in, I knew I might not want to do it. But the decision had already been made for me.