Mr. wOw ponders love, after 34 years.
B. insists he fell in love with Mr. wOw the moment he saw him. I was just 17 – and as the Beatles sang – you know what I mean.
There I was in some sleazy West Village bar, propped up against the jukebox (back-lighting still flattered Mr. W.). In my jeans and tee-shirt and ratty denim jacket, trying to look tough – it was that kind of bar. Succeeding only in looking younger even than my years, and more than a little sad. (Or so I was often told – in repose, Mr. wOw had a deeply serious look.)
B. was actually shy, and did not introduce himself. We met, officially, through the auspices of a terrible creep we both knew. I’d slept with him. B. hadn’t, thank God! I liked everything about B. His adorable nose, his dark eyes, his quiet humor. And the nape of his neck. His smile, which transformed his face. He’d just had a haircut, and it made him look 12 years old. There was something oddly vulnerable there. It almost made me cry.
It was unusual for Mr. W. to notice anybody else’s vulnerability – I was too busy marketing my own well-practiced waif routine.
The first night I spent with B., after I woke up, I was appalled by the sloppiness of his apartment. I swept and washed dishes and made breakfast. Really, who lives like this? I wondered. (As I still wonder!) He was amused by my efforts.
Over the next few years, B. and I would run into each other periodically, and “got together.” We had never exchanged phone numbers. Or, if he had given me his, I’d lost it. I thought he was much nicer than most of the men I met – he always seemed a bit concerned. Once, I ran into him as I was leaving the Upper West Side hotel at which I was living. I was unhappy, I’d gained some weight, and earlier that day, I’d actually broken out in hives. He was visiting a friend upstairs. I was mortified by my appearance, but B. was as kind and concerned and wryly affectionate as ever. He told me I was just adorable – what’s a hive or two? – and please come up to the party he was attending. I can’t remember if I did. But his manner struck me. He never treated me like the foolish, empty boy I was – a barfly, aging out. I didn’t love him, but I often thought of him.
I didn’t know very much about B. Unlike the voluble Mr. wOw, B. kept many painful facts to himself. It would take me years to know all – if indeed I even do now.
In 1976, after Mr. wOw made a brave and brief attempt at an independent life, he ran into B. at yet another bar. I was shaggy-haired and skinny. Living on the streets again, at 24. “Come back to my place,” said B. I did. But I didn’t get what I expected. He fed me. He made a steak and a big plate of pasta. He indicated no other interest. Sex was just a way of saying “thank you” but he would not, at that moment, take what I was offering. We made an awkward farewell. “If you get hungry again, come back.” I was all, “Oh, no – thanks, really not. I’ll be fine. I’m a big boy.”
I came back the next night. I loved steak.
Two days later, he handed me the keys to his apartment. “This means you’re living with me. But – let me warn you, I can be a bitch.”
Ah, understatement! B. drank. B. flipped out. B. had an unstable ex-boyfriend he was still attracted to. B. had a current boyfriend in Chicago who was arriving at some point to take B. away. And Mr. wOw? He became the star of his very own Susan Hayward/Lana Turner movie. Suddenly, he was in love. Crazy in love. And in love with a crazy person. It was beyond ugly. It was beyond wonderful. Who knew the self-absorbed Mr. wOw could feel so much? And to what end? B. was bound and determined to leave Manhattan with his friend, and go to Chicago. Though he kept saying, “I love you!”
And so he did. Leave for Chicago. In my despair I went so far as to track him down at the airport and call him to the phone. I was in a phone booth, it was raining. (Lana and Susan never had such a scene!) I begged him to come back. He couldn’t. His own issues and the nice person who was spiriting him away from some of those issues couldn’t be ignored.
But we kept in touch. In time, B. and his friend separated and Mr. wOw, who had drifted back into hustling, was suddenly on a bus, headed for that Toddlin’ Town. I wasn’t so sure about this – I was no Rosa Moline, desperate to get to the big city. (Bette Davis, “Beyond the Forest.”) I was almost 25 with no education, no job, no job history – two months working in a card store. That was during my “independent” era.
Could I ever fulfill another person’s needs? Wasn’t I too selfish, too childish, to commit? No, yes and yes. And yet, we carried on. Through Chicago and then Detroit (Oy, don’t ask!) and back to the NYC area. Mr. wOw was on welfare! Nice. But … he recovered. Jobs, little jobs and then even something that sort of resembled a career happened. Sort of a career. Fear and insecurity have ruled that, too.
B. was and is no saint. At least twice I organized my very definite plans to leave him, and felt I was within my rights to feel hurt and angry. I didn’t leave. Well, he always made me laugh. And there was the nape of his neck.
B., despite some “excited utterances” – “God, if you could only hear yourself! You are an idiot! We should separate!” – claims no such doubts.
Mr. wOw could not (and cannot) accept the concept of being loved for himself alone. Oh, sure, when I was young and cute, I could have moved the world, if only I’d been more motivated. As it was, I accepted being wanted by people who asked little of me, and expected even less in return – on a human being level. And so, I certainly could not accept B.’s love. What the hell was the matter with him, that he could make “the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me.” (Thank you Mr. Edward Albee and Miss Elizabeth Taylor.)
When I was young, I loved to have my picture taken. It was like – this is the proof I really exist. B. was a wonderful photographer (among his many skills). He indulged me every time I said, “Let’s take pictures!” I look at these photos now and realize only a person in love could have taken them. Garbo never had such lighting! Still, I was who I was – how could I be truly valued?
In 1997, however, I had come to grips with the fact that I was loved. I became ill. I had AIDS. In my desperate attempts to hang on to my youth, to validate my appeal (and to prove what a bad person I really was), I had drank and flirted myself into a series of one-night stands that led me to death’s door. (B. had remained faithful. Not because Mr. wOw was such a wow, but that’s just how B. is – he’d made that commitment. He was not looking to see his charms and tricks work on somebody new – and this despite his own lurid younger days!)
I was sure, once the results of all my tests came in, that we would separate. He had put up with a lot from me – my emotional distance, irresponsibility, childishness. But this – this was too much, I feared.
Nope. Not a single word of reproach. The only signs of anger or frustration came when I felt “too weak” to take my medicines, or complained they made me throw up, or why was he waking me to take them – I was sleeping for God’s sake! “Missing one dose won’t kill me!” I said with my usual pouty face and tone. “Actually” – and then he addressed me by my full name, which always means business – “missing one dose might very well kill you. Go downstairs right now and take those pills. I don’t care if you can’t sleep. I’d rather have you tired and alive.” B. was a doctor, and he knew how to make a medical point.
And so I lived and, in the years since, B. has been more tender, loving and understanding than he had been before. He still doesn’t like to talk about “feelings.” Once, after Mr. wOw sent B. a sentimental e-mail about our long relationship, he replied, “We were right for each other. No need for endless BS.” At first I was shocked. Now it’s a joke between us.
Happy? Not me. I have dragged my ass through bottomless depression over the past decade, and pulled B. with me. He is content with our life. I am not. But because I have been foolish about money, I’m not in the driver’s seat.
I hate to be a person who says, “I hate …” all the time. The house, the town, the cats, the mess (which he cannot control. I watch “Hoarders” to calm myself down.) All he wants is that I be happy. And I want that for him, though I am hard put to express it properly. “I’m nicer to people in the elevator than I am to you, most of the time!” I said to him the other night. B. replied with a little leer, “Really? Nice in what way?” And then he hugged me.
He took an early retirement. When I come in at night he gets up and does a little welcome home song and dance (no kidding!). He knows when the day has been especially stressful because I have obviously had a drink or two on the way home. “Bad day?” I’ll nod and go upstairs to brush my teeth. Often he cooks. His chili is incredible but we both suffer afterward.
I guess we’re in it for good. I can’t imagine life without him, though I often imagine a life in which I was a more equal partner – sometimes I play the lottery.
No matter how often I gaze at my face in the mirror, like Vivien Leigh in … well, a lot of her movies! – and mourn what was, I know this. To B., I’m still the boy propped up against the jukebox, trying so hard to be loved, not knowing what love was at all.
And when he has a fresh haircut, he still looks 12 years old. And I still feel like I want to cry over it.