Sam was grinning with long brown hair falling across his forehead when Eugene opened the door to his new house. He gushed, “Come in, come in.”
Sam dropped his bag and grabbed his hand. “I like it.”
Eugene was excited about the small Victorian on Seventeenth Street. “Take a look around. You want something to drink?”
Eugene had wanted to get to know Sam since their strange meeting at the street fair. And he’d changed. San Francisco’s freedom, unlike anything he’d ever known, was both temptress and inspiration, and he found himself easily breaking boundaries and falling in love without consequences. While the rest of the country was mired in the muck of politics and civil unrest, San Francisco was a haven for gay men. It offered cultures far more exotic than anything in Wisconsin to a generation of men who quickly had to re-imagine themselves. What Eugene once considered radical, like kissing a man was common; it was now almost mandatory for gay men to express their love openly. Men like Eugene were creating a culture unlike anything that came before them with homes of personal treasures and sumptuous food. No one paid attention. Because he was meeting so many men who all made the same decision, he wanted to know what fact of early childhood or parenting made it possible for them to do the impossible. He couldn’t get over the way men talked openly of sex. His unspoken quest was to meet as many men as possible and know everything he could about them. Sex for him became an introduction and means to absorb their experience. From them he would piece together a decent life.. His first instinct was to mimic, do he bought the flannel shirts and boots; he knew how to slouch suggestively. Then he tried LSD and discovered he was the most fascinating person he knew and whole worlds opened to him. With seemingly little effort Eugene was finding his niche. Wanting to connect with Sam beyond superficialities, he made sure he was comfortably settled with something to drink before grilling him on what made him tick.
The oddly shaped living room smelled of incense. Deep purple irises in a milk bottle had pride of place on the window sill. Eugene sat opposite Sam in his overstuffed chair and asked, “How did you make it? What was your family like?”
Sam casually inspected the room and answered with a question to put off talking about his stepmother, “You really want to know?”
Eugene had to know, “How long have you known?”
Sam’s years with his stepmother after his father died were debilitating, and he didn’t want to get into that part of his life. He said simply, “Since I was about eight.”
“I never did anything.”
Sam had to smile “You weren’t in the right Boy Scout troop.”
“Is that where you did it?”
Eugene grinned when Sam said,“That’s where everybody does it.”
Hoping to entice Sam, Eugene ventured, “I have sex every day.” Flicking lint off his pants Sam’s quick response was “No surprise.”
When sun broke through the fog it cast angry shadows on the carpet. Not paying attention Eugene was jubilant, “I just love it here.”
Curious about this gay man’s paradise Sam said, “I figured you’d be busy. I saw yours in the creek.”
Eugene blushed. “I didn’t know you were looking.” Suddenly embarrassed Eugene got up abruptly and went to the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror he tried to muster the courage to admit he was addicted to sex. When he got back he sat down as nonchalantly as possible and lit a joint. Once Sam had inhaled he asked, “How’d you like the bar in Dallas?” thinking that was an easy way to get him to talk about sex.
Now Sam had to get into the details. He started slowly. “It’s a long story. My stepmother sent me to a prep school for rich unwanted kids in the wilds of Connecticut. One day when I snuck out I met a man named Knife. He said his uncle, a Mohawk, gave him the name because people would remember him. I spent hours in his cabin learning about life. Just as I thought it would lead to sex he takes off to take care of his people as a healer.”
Eugene imagined a handsome red skinned warrior and asked, “Was he gorgeous?”
“He was all man with a blond beard I’ll never forget, but, as luck would have it, never saw him naked.”
Eugene was confused. “If he was Mohawk why did he have a blond beard?”
Sam was reliving his time with Knife when he said, “His father was German.”
Eugene got up and went to the bureau where he’d placed a pitcher and lemonade and glasses. As he poured himself lemonade, Eugene queried, “Did you go from there to Dallas?”
“I hightailed it to New York and enrolled in Pratt for art.” Now Eugene could find out about gay men in New York where all trends started, do he continued his questioning. “Were there lots of men?”
“I was alone. This woman Gretchen, a big boned dame from Cologne, told me about this place of gay men. This was nineteen sixty six, a very fucked up time, and that was just what I wanted to hear. She said it was “the” place for hip artists. Not my idea, but it was the only game in town. She told everyone I was the next big thing and dragged me to galleries One gave me a show of my space cowboys, and I ditched her.” Eugene had no idea what kind of family produced such a strange son. Bewildered he queried, “Space cowboys?”
“Cowboys are my thing. Why not cool rocket ships?”
Eugene shifted back and forth in the chair. “Do they have sex?”
“Galleries didn’t go for porno; I keep those at home.”
Eugene boldly asked, “Is that where you have sex?” Sam had carefully partitioned his life. No one at work knew he was gay. He worked at home part-time, but no one guessed his studio was also his playroom. To Eugene Sam seemed nicely put together even though there was something about the rigidity of his sex that chafed. With Sam’s brains and fit physique he would have his choice of countless bright ambitious men in San Francisco. His gallery could have a sling if he used one, and no one would care. Some would call it daring, but they were the ones who always moved back to Los Angeles or New York. Here Sam could take risks, and true San Franciscans would welcome his fetish as an honest expression as an artist.
Sam described the first gay bar in New York filed with Broadway show posters and men who drank cocktails and didn’t wait until five. Sam talked about men with serious heroin addictions, and with families so dysfunctional they ended up murderers. This was not gay life. San Francisco was a real-life where men manufactured beauty from what they found and loved everything they did. Sure, he could be exaggerating, but that’s how it felt to him. Friends taught him how to indulge and how to nurture his environment. Castro Street wasn’t the Yellow Brick Road, but some days it felt magical. The men entertained and thrilled him when he wasn’t awestruck by thier honesty.
When Sam stopped to light a Camel, Eugene used the space to get on with seducing Sam. No longer shy he said, “Let’s do it.” That broke the barrier and both could do what they had repressed talking about directly. Now he could explore the inner life of a man he’d wanted the minute he saw him. Eugene felt stupid for putting off asking so long. Second and third marriages often create awkward families of distrust and misgivings, but this one gave Eugene the brother he never had, and a gay one at that. He could learn to live with his peculiarities; everyone had them. When Sam seemed to hesitate Eugene nervously wiped dust from the suitcase he used as a coffee table. “Everybody’s fucking, and no one’s stopping us.”
Sam pointed to a photo of a man on the mantle. “Who’s that?”
Eugene crossed his legs to hide his excitement. “That’s Al my boyfriend.”
Sam’s eyes darted back and forth from the photo to Eugene’s face, His curiosity got the best of him, and he asked, “Does he let you mess around?”
“We have an open relationship.”
Sam scowled at the photograph. “You’re shitting me.”
Eugene was not going to let that get in the way. “Why not?” He watched Sam who scrunched his nose, and said with distain, “He says that because he wants to fuck around.”
Open relationships made sense to Eugene when he thought about them, but in reality they weren’t easy. Al had warmed him to itt with long talks and always cheered him when he talked about men he had sex with like a pleased parent. He took Eugene aside after watching two men arguing in a bar and told him, “What makes sense is more important that some rule. Men in the Bible screwed around. They say with women, but they must have had male lovers. The Greeks celebrated multiple partners. Stop putting old ideas on sex, and it’s easy. Men are hunters. That’s what we supposed to do.” He could have gone, but Eugene stopped him because he felt threatened when Al got serious.
An open relationship made no sense to Sam. “I do a scene and the man tells you what to do.” How could Sam be gay and limit himself? Eugene asked, “What kinda sex is that? Don’t you ever fall in love?”
Sam was uncomfortable in situations he couldn’t control and said defensively, “I look for trouble when I go out.”
Eugene was on a mission and insistent. “You’re missing the joy.”
Coming out is never easy and never a single event. Over time men come to either accept their native homosexuality or retreat to lives of quiet desperation. For some the process matures with experience, and so far Sam had found a safe way to have sex without acknowledging intimacy. He could write off an experience because he never had sex with a man more than once, except for a master he served for ten months.
Eugene continued “It’s easy to fall in love.”
Sam’s body stiffened. .“Whoa!” He felt undermined. Eugene lay back and tried to hug Sam saying, “I want to be them,” but Sam pushed back and leaned over to pick up a copy of After Dark next to the bed. As he stared at the magazine, he said. “A blow job‘s a blow job; don’t go existential.”
“Al says the best sex is reaching into a man’s soul and finding his little boy.”
Sam twisted his t-shirt nervously. He wasn’t going to move. “Sex is sex.”
“Sam, it’s not what you do but what you feel.”
Pulling his shirt defiantly tight, Sam said. “I’m not going to get into it, but sex and love aren’t the same.”
Eugene quickly responded, “I love falling in love.”
Wanting to end the discussion Sam said, “You’re wasting your time.”
But Eugene continued. “I can’t stop myself.” Sun was disappearing behind Twin Peaks.
Sam pointed at the picture on the mantle, and asked “What about him?”
“I love him.”
Sam was impatient, and his only recourse was saying, “Do you want to do it or not?”
The tables had turned. Eugene was the one who initiated things; he wasn’t prepared for Sam being so forward, so to give himself time he asked “You want to go to the baths? Al got some acid.” The thought made Sam uncomfortable, and he asked, “Is Al going to be there?”
Eugene looked at Al’s photo and smiled saying, “Sure.”
For Sam the idea of couples having sex with a third was unthinkable. In his highly structured S&M scenes any third person would have to be there only to support the Sir. Any other role would complicate the situation, and for Sam they would disrupt the mood that was essential to him leaving satisfied. He asked, “You’re going to have sex with him?”
Eugene didn’t bat an eye when he said, “Of course, in his favorite room.”
Sam felt sudden sadness. To dismiss the thoughts he said, “You don’t want to play with me.”
Eugene was not going to miss an opportunity to play with Sam and affirmed, “I do, too.”
Sam had a strange sense of not wanting to be taken or dominated but connecting with Eugene in some unknown way. The idea of playing with two men still made him wary, but having sex with Eugene overrode his aversion. He asked, “How’s that going to work?”
Eugene wanted to make the experience for Sam easy, so he instructed him to “Take off your pants.”
Still, Sam had trouble understanding the notion of playing with a couple. It didn’t make sense. He asked, “Can we wait in that?”
Eugene opened a drawer on the end table and pulled out a tin box with marijuana and started to roll a joint.
As Sam stared at him he asked, “You don’t hide that shit?” Sam checked to see if the blinds were closed.
Eugene smiled and said with confidence, “No one’s gonna see it.”
Sam’s horror could be seen on his face. “But they’ll find it when they raid your place.”
Eugene kept rolling and said, “That doesn’t happen.”
With the constant flow of marijuana coming into the Texas from Mexico pot busts were part of life in Dallas. Eugene was taking unacceptable risks; he didn’t know what happens. As Sam adjusted his butt on the sofa he warned him.“You don’t know when they’re gonna pull a raid.”
Eugene enjoyed watching Sam’s discomfort. He laughed as he told him, “They won’t raid us in the next hour.” Eugene lit the joint and passed it. He watched Sam take a hit, and as Sam exhaled he started to open his jeans. Once they were open he grabbed Sam from behind and pushed the joint from his hand. This uncontrolled outburst rattled Sam who demanded to know, “What are you doing?” In the background Judy Collins sang. I look at clouds from both sides now . . . Eugene merely smiled and said, “I’m trying to seduce you, Sam.”
Sam grabbed the top of his jeans. “What’s all this?” he asked. Since meeting Al Eugene had been living a life of outrageous sex, deep connections and a freedom beyond his wildest dreams. Growing up if he’d thought about being an adult that might have meant a secretive life that allowed him to escape the prying eyes of others. Happiness was rare; he measured his father’s approval by the size of his present at Christmas. His sex was furtive, explosive, and always resulted in promises to rid himself of his affliction. Al taught him to trust love as a gift to honor and share.
Sam was having none of it and pulled away. He said, “You just go for it.”
Eugene didn’t feel he had to justify anything, but Sam had to understand his life had changed. He told him, “I’m liberated!”
That didn’t make sense. Sam asked,” Do you have sex whenever you feel like it?”
Smugly, Eugene said, “Almost.”
Sam worried that if what Eugene was saying was true, it undermined everything he used to justify his sex. Hoping Eugene was saying something that retreated from his assertions, he asked, “At work, too?”
Eugene continued teasing Sam. “Let’s say I have sex during the work day.”
Sam was frustrated. He wanted to have sex with Eugene, but everything he said made no sense to him. Sam had quick exciting encounters he tried to forget, and now his feelings for Eugene felt like that only stronger. Something about Eugene made him feel he could reveal indiscretions that violated the leather code. He volunteered, “I did an instructor at the art museum.”
Eugene in his underwear waited for Sam to make a move and teased him.“I thought ad agencies were hot beds of infidelity.”
Now Sam was on familiar ground. He explained, “Not for us. You have to be straight to get a key to the bar.”
Eugene remembered the life he’d left. He said, “You guys have a bar at the office?” Maybe San Francisco isn’t so weird.
Sam said matter of factly, “That’s what keeps our agency going entertaining clients.”
Running a business was the last thing Eugene wanted and asked scornfully, “So three martini lunch isn’t just an expression?”
Sam needed to get resolution and said, “Can we talk about something else? I’m not here to talk work.”
That as all Eugene needed. He said, “Then take off your clothes.. As he started to loosen Sam’s belt he wiggled away and then with a change of heart he playfully pulled his t-shirt over his head. When he pulled it off Eugene said. “You’re handsomer than I remember.”
Sam stared at the ceiling. “Same haircut.”
“You’re turning me on so why waste time talking?” Eugene said as he grabbed him again and they toppled onto the sofa where Sam curled up as Eugene tried to stick his tongue in his mouth.
Sam pushed him away and said, “Cut it out!”
“I don’t want to live with you. Can’t we just do this?
Sam told him “You were upright at the wedding,” but Eugene wanted to get on with it and countered by saying, “You’re the one who’s uptight.”
When Eugene bent over to open Sam’s jeans Sam squirmed trying get away. Eugene said, “Can I see you cock?” He pulled it out of his underwear. “Pretty handsome piece of equipment,” he pronounced. Uncertain, Sam said nothing. Eugene wanted to encourage him so he told him, “This is 1979, Sam. We’re not losers any more. We’re making our own world, and this is our city.”
“What I’m dreaming right now is kissing you.”
When Sam looked at Eugene he saw a younger man peacefully looking back. No man had ever done that. He stammered, “Can this wait?”
“Have it your way,” Eugene said as he got up and went to the bedroom where he flopped down on the bed. He had failed to make the kind of connection with Sam he made so easily with others. What did he do wrong? Had he been too forward? Can gay men in Dallas be that different? They should all share the same desire for love.
Sam curled up in the window seat and looked out at skateboarders testing the curb with little success. The sun annoyed him and something was unsettling but not the usual troubles. Work was not a problem; he was making enough to get by. Even when he dredged up his ongoing complaint about not working out the thought annoyed him further. Whatever was gnawing at him was more than being in a new city, and Eugene was a friendly, sexy guy. It was something else.
When Sam closed his eyes he saw men he’d seen earlier unloading plywood from a pickup and smiling like they enjoyed it. And the man who just walked up to him and asked if he wanted to go the Mission to watch the Cinco de Mayo parade with him. Something about each made him uneasy. When he closed his eyes he was in the middle of an empty stage with a ferocious need to grab anything solid.
When Sam opened his eyes and looked around nothing had changed. The sun still warmed his ankle and now he saw two men across the street about his age carrying groceries in from the car smiling like they’re planning a special party for someone. Then it dawned on him. There were no walls! He always had the prison walls of his stepmother’s mansion and laws that kept his sex secret.
Why was being gay in San Francisco so easy for Eugene and so difficult or him? As he thought about staying three more days he knew if he complained Eugene would try to fix it, and if he made a snide comment about a faggot Eugene would giggle. With no walls to rail against Sam felt adrift in a vast ocean. He couldn’t say anything to Eugene.
Eugene came back in the room. “Snap to. We’re gotta eat and do acid.”
In a whisper Sam said, “I don’t think so.”
“You’re teasing me. “
Sam confessed, “Acid scares the Bejezzus out of me.”
Eugene heard Sam’s fear, and that made him all the more endearing. He said, “I like you more all the time. Then we won’t do it.” Eugene couldn’t resist watching Sam when he got in the shower. He pulled the curtain back and kissed him. Sam blushed and turned his face to the spray.
They ate, got dressed and drove to the Hothouse. Sam was hesitant but felt compelled to have sex with Eugene, and he’d take the risk of going to a bathhouse designed for serious anal sex.
The club was once an SRO hotel South of Market. The main floor was a large sitting area with old couches and chairs next to lockers separated by a chain link fence. As they started to undress Eugene who was down to his underwear watched everyone else worrying he didn’t wear the right thing and put his jeans back on. Sam put chaps on over his jeans, a leather vest and kept his boots on. They cruised men as they walked into the lounge area and plopped down on an overstuffed couch where they opened cans of Dr. Pepper. Sam saw a tall older man at a locker who waved when he saw him. Eugene said, “That’s Al” and after quickly getting undressed Al joined them wearing a jock strap and boots.
As he lit joint and pulled tabs of acid from his jock Al said. “You must be Sam.”
Sam nodded and said,. “You’re Al.”
“I am. Gene talks about you all the time.” Al’s voice was full and confident.
Sam said, “He’s told me about you.”
As Al mentally undressed Sam he said, “I hope good things.”
“He said you were his boyfriend.”
Al mimicked a circus clown. He chirped, “Only his boyfriend? Not the finest man in the whole wide world. How dare you Gene!” Eugene laughed and slapped his ass. Al got down to brass tacks and told them,” First, if either of you gets nervous, come back here. I’ll check back, but you’ll be busy.”
Sam asked, “Are there rules?”
Eugene laughed, “Don’t worry about rules.”
Sam was distracted by a passing muscle type. “Yeah, sure,” he said, but he kept looking nervously at men undressing at the lockers, and this time asked, “Is the bathhouse upstairs?”
Al pointed to the stairs and said, “The second floor has rooms like a bathhouse.”
“Where’s the hot tub?”
Al responded, “There isn’t one.”
Then Sam asked, “Where’s the steam room?”
Al winked, and said, “Aint none, sorry, but the third floor has slings and fun gear.”
Sam shook his head in disbelief as two men with jars of lube in their hands stopped, nodded at each other and walked off. Sam sensed their excitement. Then he envied them. Then he hated himself.
When Al noticed Sam was avoiding him he gently took his hand. In a soft voice he said, “I’ve cut the blotter into quarters. Start with one, and do more if you’re having fun.”
Sam asked, “What happens?”
Al said, “Sorry. Just assumed you done acid.”
Trying to cover himself, Sam said, “I took is a long time ago, and I forgot what happened.”
Al was quick to say, “If you did it you’d remember.”
Sam bristled at the insult, and Eugene interrupted. “Sam isn’t cool with it. If he’s not going to do it, I won’t.” Eugene checked with Al who nodded.
Sam couldn’t help asking, “What’s it like?”
As Al massaged Sam’s his hand he told him, “You see rainbows around light. Most guys will spend hours looking at a leaf or anything that interests them. It’s extravagantly beautiful.”
Sam asked, “Do you get sick?”
Al put his arm on Sam’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.” Ever the teacher Al continued, “LSD opens your mind, so everyone has a different experience but it’s usually a beautiful trip and can be spiritual.”
“You mean like booze?” Sam wanted something he knew.
Al told him, “Booze relaxes your hole, but it disturbs the body. LSD is totally different. It takes you out of your body. Don’t worry. It’s beautiful.”
As Sam played with this boot laces he said quietly. “Maybe I’ll try next time I’m here.”
Eugene hugged him. “How about going to Al’s room?”
As Al offered another joint he said, “We’ll lie down. The DJ”s phenomenal.”
To get to Al’s room on the third floor they walked down a hall lit only by the neon green exit sign. The only noise was men having sex. Al’s room was entirely black with a large platform bed on one wall next to a huge mirror and a old wooden chair in a corner. Eugene and Sam sat on the bed and watched Al light incense. Looking out the window they saw two men having sex across the air shaft in the room on the other side of the building. Watching them Eugene said in a loud whisper, “Gotta love it!” Al wrapped a hairy arm around Sam and kissed him as he moved him back onto the bed. Eugene got behind him to catch Sam when he fell, but Sam struggled and got up and sat against the mirror. Ignoring Sam Al locked Eugene in an embrace, and as soon as they hit the bed Al flipped Eugene on his back. Al spat on his dick and bent down to kiss Eugene before slowly entering him. Eugene rose to meet him with a gasp.
Sam’s mouth was agape. Sam had never seen men fuck; he’d heard them, but they were strangers and it was very dark. Now he had feelings about the man being fucked next to him. It was degrading, but the joy that radiated around Al and Eugene angered him. He got up to put on his jacket. “I’m going back to your place.”
Eugene pleaded, “Stay.”
Sam was adamant. “I’m leavin’.”
Eugene said, “Take the car. I’ll ride home with Al.”
Sam’s voice trailed off as he left the room. “I’ll take the bus.”
Back at Eugene’s Sam curled like a fetus on the bed after turning on the TV. Lying motionless his breathing got easier, but his mind swirled with unanswerable questions and tormenting contradictions that kept him from falling asleep. Hours later the sound of a can of Dr. Pepper being opened jarred Sam from his stupor. When he opened an eye and saw Eugene he asked, “Why were you being so nice?”
Eugene said sweetly, “We love you.”
Sam’s voice was raspy, “Don’t say that. You don’t love me, and neither does Al.”
Eugene corrected him, “We’re brothers.”
Sam said, “Whatever. Can we go out for breakfast? I didn’t see anything in the fridge.”
When Eugene asked, “I hope what happened last night won’t affect us” Sam did not respond. He was quiet the rest of the day but watched everything Eugene did. Driving back to the airport Eugene said little fearing he’d further alienate Sam if he pressed him. As they parted at the gate Eugene asked, “Are you OK? Next time we don’t have to go to the baths if you don’t want to.”
Sam was curt, “I’ll be fine.”
Eugene said, “I’ll miss you” He hoped Sam would say he’d miss him, too, but all Sam said was, “Sorry I messed up your evening,” and he didn’t turn around as he walked through the gate. Eugene blamed himself for ruining their relationship.