My twenty-sixth summer was one of those rare times when everything in my universe came together. I was living a charmed life. I had recently landed a job as sales/office manager for a small custom furniture company on Manhattan’s upper east side. The salary was enough to pay my rent, phone and electric bill with a little extra left for eating and playing. I’d become a pioneer in Chelsea, (a just beginning to bud Manhattan gayborhood), signing a lease on my first solo NYC apartment. It was a funky studio on the sixth floor of an elevator building with functioning wood-burning fireplace, and a palladium window onto West 17th and Eighth Avenue. I was acting with an off-off Broadway theatre troupe in a church basement near Lincoln Center, plus learning guitar and writing country western tunes with my friend Janet from Kent State. I had more friends–gay and straight–than I had free time to enjoy them, and the world was my oyster.
But I didn’t have a boyfriend. I dated like a courtesan, had sex more than I often could handle, yet lacked that special someone–the final puzzle piece greedy me still hungered for. I suffered from chronic chapped lip syndrome from kissing so many prince wannabes. I was constantly on the look-out, confident he’d be found in the least obvious place at the most unexpected time. And those were the exact circumstances in which I met The Man With the Three First Names.
My wonderful apartment had only one drawback. It had no air conditioner. Being on the top floor, once our tar-beach roof heated up, it radiated through my ceiling beginning at sundown, re-heating with the dawn. Too many nights I’d fall asleep in the swelter, only to awaken at one or two a.m. in a profusion of sweat. I took to getting up and dressing, then walking the neighborhood to 14th Street, a major cross-street. There I could seek the temporary pleasure of several air-conditioned stores which sold frozen treats, slowly devouring their cooling effects on my way back home. Luckily my neighborhood was safe any hour of the day or night, because there were always people coming or going someplace.
One hot, unsleepable night, I began my post-midnight stroll. Not halfway up the block I spied this tallish figure walking on the opposite side of the street. I assumed he saw me, because he’d now meandered over to my side. He was dressed in jeans and a pastel tank top. He had dark curly hair and a manicured black beard. So did I at the time. So did probably one out of every five gay guys in The City. I slowed my pace and he followed suit as we approached one another. The closer he got, the more my hormones raced in rhythm with my heart, while on the outside I continued a nonchalant stroll. When we passed on the sidewalk, only a foot or so apart, I turned my head slightly toward his, and smiled–more with my eyes than my mouth, without breaking my stride. God he looked gorgeous!
Giving myself a healthy number of steps forward, I stopped at the crucial point in our gay dance. Dare I turn around in hopes he had done the same? And in one of those truly magic moments in life, he’d swung himself completely around on the pavement, grinning shamelessly. His dark, piercing eyes looked me over as though he could see me naked. “Well… good evenin’ guy”, he coolly drawled, extending his hand reaching to take mine. He shook it like we were meeting at the punchbowl of some lovely social function. The man was handsome as hell and slathered in creamy Southern charm. I was so taken by his seductive allure, that the name he gave never registered in my brain. He acted like nothing but a gentleman, and certainly not street trash as one might expect at that hour of the night, cruising the neighborhood.
He lived some blocks away, over on the East Side. He was a psychologist, working in a city social work office. Neither of us had anything to write on or with, but, it turned out he had quite a distinctive name, very southern, consisting of what in reality were three first names. He told me proudly “Ahh am thee only one in the Manhattan phone dye-rectory”. I was to call him once I got home from work much later that day. My ice cream never had a chance to melt, since I rushed home to look him up the moment I got in the door. I had to be certain this all hadn’t been a dream. There he was–all three names of him–just like he’d said. He was neither a phantom of the night nor a bull shit artist.
I began phoning every one of my friends after sunrise that day, telling them about The Man With the Three First Names, and how, where and when we’d met. My women friends were either scandalized or fearful for my safety, while most of the boys were intrigued and/or aroused. I called him before I left work. We arranged to meet for a drink in the Village. We talked together non-stop for over an hour. He asked if I was free to have something to eat in his neighborhood. Was I free? He was absolutely enthralling and the evening is memorable to this day. By the end of the following week we became steady boyfriends.
Ours was an odd relationship. Well, at least for me it was. For The Man With the Three First Names, I believe it was like any other he might have ever had. We saw each other regularly, getting together a few nights a week to eat and have sex. He was a real foodie and enjoyed an eclectic range of cuisines, as did I. He’d cook one night of the weekend at his apartment and I would do the same at my place on the alternate night. We both loved classical music. I was more opera-centric than him, but often couldn’t afford the tickets. He favored piano and orchestral music, so we would attend recitals or concerts at colleges and smaller venues. It was pure joy sitting next to him, watching the music move inside him, as though he were able to draw it up through the bottoms of his feet then register the emotions onto his face. I learned a new way to listen simply by being with him.
The Man With the Three First Names had no friends. If he did, he never talked about them. I continued to socialize with my close circle, but he was neither interested in meeting them nor in joining us when we got together. Rather than question this behavior, I chose to explain to my curious cronies that it was a truly adult relationship–that we shared our lives, without losing any sense of self in the process. I wasn’t deluding myself. It was working well and there was genuine caring in both directions. Besides, The City this special summer was celebrating the Bicentennial in a huge way. At times, it appeared the celebration was in honor of our wonderful coupling.
My parents typically visited every other summer since I’d moved from Ohio. Because of the huge red, white and blue crowds invading an already busy city, they moved their trip to the fall. I wasn’t certain how I would pull it off, but I did want them to meet this guy who’d become so important in my life. Up to this point, my parents knew nothing about my love life, nor the direction in which my sexuality leaned. One of the reasons I’d moved five-hundred-plus miles from home was in order to live, what I was certain my family would view as a depraved lifestyle, without them knowing anything about it. I had no plans to formally come out to them. Still, I wanted to share a morsel of the life I’d hidden from their view. Should they wonder how this handsome southern gentleman fit into my world, then all the better.
As uninterested as he was in my friends, The Man With the Three First Names was super enthused about meeting my parents. He planned their entire final Sunday which began by meeting him in Central Park for a morning walk, then brunch in an east side restaurant. The weather was perfect and brunch was a delight. My mother melted each time he called her Ma’am, even though she insisted he call her by her first name. Dad wasn’t moved one way or another, but then he seldom was.
We had a couple of hours before heading back to pick up their suitcases and leave for the airport, so he suggested stopping at The Plaza to show them how ‘the other half’ enjoyed vacationing in NYC. Mom and Dad walked through the lobby and into the Palm Court with open mouths, awed by their surroundings and the clientele. He invited my folks to enjoy a final drink at the bar in The Oak Room. Instantly he’d become number one in Dad’s book. My father came alive whenever he’d belly up to a bar and park his ass on a stool.
I sat at the end of the bar, my mother next to me, then Dad, then The Man With the Three First Names. We’d already enjoyed several cocktails each at the restaurant, so my mother’s Southern Comfort Manhattan ‘up’ quickly went to her head. She began speaking quietly to me, and her usually animated face looked as though she was struggling with something difficult she needed to get out. She told me she was worried about me. It was obvious I’d shown I could be responsible, and that I was living on my own in a very difficult place. They were proud I’d made a good home for myself, yet something was missing. I never talked about any women in my life. Then she fumbled around–something about the importance of a sex life.
I smiled and told her not to worry about my sex life. I was doing fine. It might have been my third drink kicking in too, because out of nowhere I softly announced, “You see that guy at the other end of the bar? He’s my boyfriend. I’m gay”. It was that simple. It just sort of fell out of my mouth and I couldn’t have said it better if it had been scripted by Neil Simon. She paused, looked me in the eyes and countered, “I knew it. I knew it since you were five”. She took another sip of her Manhattan, then concluded with “Don’t say anything to your father. I’ll tell him myself when we get back to Cleveland”. I quietly smirked the rest of the afternoon.
Summer turned to fall, and we carried on our life as we had from the beginning. For my twenty-seventh birthday he cooked Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe and gave me a membership to a gym. We added workouts to our time together. He was handsome, sensitive, intelligent, passionate and caring, and I’d fallen hard for him. I traveled back to West Buttfok for Christmas. It was weird not being with him, especially amidst the holiday mania of family and friends. All I could think about was the two of us together again. I got back to my apartment loaded with holiday goodies from Ohio and a beautiful old book my mother had found for The Man With The Three First Names. It was biographies of Bach, Beethoven and the great composers with incredible steel engravings. She’d inscribed something about “taking good care of my son” and he was quite moved.
Things began to turn strange in the early new year. It was like he’d switched something off inside, and didn’t have time for us anymore. One week in late January, we hadn’t seen one another for days. After suffering too much from his estrangement, I did something I’d never done before–showed up at his apartment door, unannounced. I half expected to find a new me enjoying dinner at my place at his table.
That would have been easier to bear than the scene I was forced to play. He was alone, looking grim, but not ruffled by my unexpected presence. I asked him what was wrong, what had I done, what caused the sudden alienation. He looked at me blankly. “Who is he?”, I nearly shrieked, my voice cracking in fear.
“No one. I promise.” He calmly sat down in his chair, devoid of emotion. “We just shouldn’t see each other anymore”, he delivered flatly. He said he didn’t want to hurt me. He couldn’t find a way to tell me his reason for avoiding me lately. He knew he’d never insult me by saying we could still be friends. That wasn’t an option. He understood that.
I can still see myself falling to my knees at his feet, pleading to know why. What had changed? I was hugging his legs, sobbing into his jeans, reduced to blubbering a single word question. “Why?”
His hand cradled the back of my head, in an attempt to comfort. “You’re not cerebral enough.”
My universe stopped with his words. It was that ton of bricks you always hear about, landing squarely onto my head. First came disbelief. Then numbness set in. Finally, anger brought me to my feet. “You are so fucked up you really need a shrink. But…I don’t know a good one to recommend.”
Blearily, I grabbed for my coat and headed towards the door. He called my name as I opened it, and I stopped. I almost turned around, but couldn’t bear to look at him knowing it would be the last time. I’d been decimated. Even without a mirror, I knew my face looked hideous and I refused to let him see the damage he had done. I have no idea how I found my way back to my apartment. I only remember he’d made the bitter January cold worse.
For days after I remained in a stupor. Nothing felt real. I sat in my apartment alone, burning Duraflame logs in my fireplace, hoping to get warm. I watched the fire in silence, because there wasn’t an album I could play whose music didn’t make me think of him. The quiet was interrupted only by the echo of his words in my head. I was ashamed I’d allowed him to make me feel like a fool. My truly adult relationship had left me a sniveling, helpless infant. After several days, fearing for my sanity, I began calling my closest friends in an attempt to jump-start the old me–before I’d ever met The Man With The Three First Names. Those people were my treasures and the medication necessary to heal a battered ego.
They helped me back onto my feet. Still, I continued to find it difficult to listen to music. It had been the glue that kept our relationship together. But the music that Janet and I wrote and played was ours alone. He’d never heard any of it. I would draft the lyrics–concerned only with the story, the rhythm, and rhyme. She had the gift of creating the tune that fit–the important piece of the puzzle. Together we’d written probably half a dozen songs. We played and sang regularly, performing our tunes at parties and get togethers with our combined Kent State and NYC friends.
Long about week three after the breakup, the oddest thing occurred. This tune came into my head. I found myself humming it, wondering where I’d heard it before. I knew maybe a dozen chords which served to satisfy the extent of my guitar strumming/picking expertise. Alone, with just me and the guitar, I figured out the chord progression. The words followed almost instantly. The process proved therapeutic. I sensed it had all come from deep inside my gut, where it still hurt badly. The song was never written down, because I had no idea what the notes were. I didn’t sing it for many people. It was very personal, in a corny, country-western, tongue in cheek way.
Just like I will never forgot The Man With The Three First Names, I will never forget the song he’d inspired, which eased an aching heart.
Six Months a’ Heaven (And Just Three Weeks of Hell) music and lyrics by Matthew Schuster