No one squeezed more into a suitcase than my Rudy. He folded his socks into the tightest little squares imaginable. I plopped myself onto the corner of the bed, right on top of the undershirts piled there. “Will they stick leeches on you,” I asked, “to suck out the deviance?”
Rudy tugged at the shirts underneath me. “Have you been drinking?” he asked.
I had been drinking the entire two hours Rudy had been packing. I had been drinking and blocking out images of the Spanish Inquisition. My research into conversion therapy had unearthed nothing but horror stories. Of course, I had to share every last detail.
Rudy cringed, “but nothing like that will be happening where I’m heading.” His treatment would consist of: rigorous exercise; a diet heavy on red meat (with no milk products or sugar); testosterone injections; psychotherapy and hypnosis. Hypnosis set off alarms inside my head. Whoever was running this camp had studied too much Freud.
“You know who else was born in Austria?” I asked, then pressed the tip of my index finger sideways under my nose.
Rudy slammed his suitcase shut. “I want a normal life with a wife and children.”
In the six years we’d been together, my Rudy had never mentioned wanting children. I never realized he even liked them. I didn’t. When my brother banned me from all contact with his sons, I never suffered one twinge of loss.
“I want to hold someone’s hand in public.”
I did too, but not just someone. I wanted to hold my Rudy’s hand. And I could see that day coming, maybe not before my hands turned arthritic but definitely while they could still feel. In the past ten years, I had witnessed too much progress to imagine that it would suddenly stop.
Maybe because I could envision the changes ahead, idiots didn’t bother me. I didn’t care if the Jewish guy downstairs muttered “faygelehs” whenever Rudy and I wished him good morning. I didn’t care what boys on street corners yelled or how loud they laughed.
But I wasn’t Rudy. “I’m sick of all that,” he said. “I want to be normal.”
“You know what I’m sick of?” I told him. “You using normal to mean not like me.”
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Six weeks ago, a former regular had come into the bar where Rudy and I stopped each night on our way home from the bookstore. The man looked familiar, his hair blonder and his eyes even bluer than Rudy’s. He sat down at our table, but said no thank you to the wine I offered. He didn’t drink anymore – and thanks to “this amazing camp” he discovered, he also no longer sought out men for sex.
“Then what are you doing here?” My wineglass circled the room, pointing out all the men, and only men, with drinks in hand.
This former regular had trekked back here to spread the good word. “This amazing camp saved my life.”
“I didn’t realize homosexuality was fatal.”
My joke was not appreciated, so he only showed his wedding photo to Rudy, who had just celebrated his parents’ thirtieth anniversary. He’d gone home without me, of course. (Why would he bring his boss to a family party?) The entire weekend, his mother haunted him about finally growing up and getting married.
Two weeks later, a letter arrived confirming Rudy’s spot at this amazing camp. What I read justified my opening his mail. He was expected to arrive on August 17th, two days before an inventory I could not handle on my own. Neither the logical or emotional side of my brain could fathom how my Rudy could leave behind six years with me for an unpredictable future with someone he might never even meet.
“Maybe I have met her,” he said. “Maybe I just haven’t been able to see her the way a man should.” He then told me about some girl at the bakery who always smiled at him and slipped extra cookies into his box.
“Do you think she’d want you,” I asked, “if she knew about us?”
“Why would she need to know?” Rudy’s question reminded me of the night we met, when he introduced himself as “Thomas.”
I patted the top of his suitcase. “Let’s go to Paris. The other day, you were talking about the Louvre, complaining how we hadn’t spent enough time to see everything.”
“Maybe when I get back,” he half-promised.
“You might not want to then. They might cut that part out of you. It’s all tangled inside there.” I tapped my index finger against his forehead. “Men, museums, theater, opera … ”
“Normal guys go to museums,” he said. “Normal guys listen to opera.”
While Rudy dragged his suitcase into the hallway, I checked myself in the mirror: unshaven, uncombed, bloodshot eyes – not a face I would regret never seeing again.
I knew that I wouldn’t like Rudy’s answer, but I had to ask. “How do you think you’ll see me after this treatment? How do you think you’ll feel?”
Rudy studied my face. “I’ll try to remember you as a really good friend.”
“That’s all?” I didn’t want to cry again, not this early in the day.
“Come with me,” Rudy suggested, and not for the first time. “This will be easier if we go through it together.”
“I don’t want a wife, and I don’t want someone making me want one.” At age forty-one, I wasn’t going to change. I also couldn’t bear watching my Rudy change.
“I need to change.” At the moment, he was talking about his pajamas. He was wearing the green pair I’d given him last Christmas, which meant that he had packed the dull gray ones from his mother. He pulled down the shade and asked me to close the door, suddenly uncomfortable undressing in front of me.
In the living room, I uncorked another bottle of wine, the cheap stuff this time. Last night, I had taken Rudy out for a farewell toast, but the bar was closed for reasons unknown, which neither disappointed nor concerned Rudy. “When I get back,” he was boasting, “I’ll be able to drink anywhere I want.”
At home, we opened a bottle of warm champagne. After a couple of glasses, the two of us drifted into the bedroom. In Rudy’s mind, he was just sowing his one final oat. I didn’t care. I clung to him and to the hope that the night might keep him from leaving. I actually woke up thinking it would. Then I heard his suitcase scraping across the closet floor.
The maroon striped tie Rudy picked for his journey probably belonged to me, but we had been borrowing each other’s clothes for so many years, the lines of ownership had blurred.
He allowed me a good-bye hug, but no kiss. I shook his hand with all the strength I could muster, practice in case I ever saw this man again.
“There’s probably room for you on the bus,” he said.
“A bus. Such luxury accommodations,” but for one moment, I considered going, if only to sit next to my Rudy for another hour or two or however long it takes to drive from Berlin to Dachau.
Gerard J Waggett, a former journalist for Soap Opera Weekly magazine, has published 10 books on soap opera trivia, including The Soap Opera Book of Lists and the humorous lifestyle guide titled You Know Your Life Is a Soap Opera If… In 2003, Waggett became a two-day champion on the game show Jeopardy! Waggett teaches first-year writing at Suffolk University in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill as well as classes on comic books and horror fiction at Bunker Hill Community College. During breaks, Waggett is working on two novels: one a mystery, the other a horror story involving vampires.