Turbulence. Manny gripped his knees.
Enter Freddy, as appealing a flight attendant as you could hope for, cat-walking the aisle. Dear Freddy was like a Hobbit you wanted to take home to not meet your mother. He was a dimpled, five-foot-two rugby player. That he was now an airline host was a too-perfect fit: Freddy had demonstrated to Manny his generosity in all the ways. Yet, when necessary, he could turn on a dime, seizing control with a ferocity that inspired terror and compliance — he was a Texan.
Manny prayed to his savior (Judy Garland), ”What’s the protocol when you’re stuck on a plane with your ‘Man That Got Away?’” I-need-everybody-to-love-me-so-we-can’t-be-exclusive Freddy was serving drinks and things nine rows up. What to say? “I’ll have one decaf with room, and do you still happen to have the other half of my heart?”
Eight rows away. Should he feign sleep? Hide in the loo? Fallout from previous liaisons suggested that the harder he avoided a guy, the more embarrassing the inevitable run-in would be. He was two inches too tall for stealth.
Manny sleuthed the airline wifi. Shit. According to Whozitfinder.com, Freddy lived in Fort-Worth, his final destination. Double shit. He tippity-tapped his arm rest.
Six rows. The performing arts complex Manny designed was going to have him popping in and out of Cowtown for two years at least. And what’s more, Manny presently discovered, Freddy lived half a mile away from the building site, according to the internet. Or fate. Whichever.
Five rows. Manny took audible straw breaths. When he had listed his exes to his husband, Reggie, he omitted Freddy, his protégé at the University of San Francisco. Maybe because his voice cracked every single, dingle time he said his name.
Sensitive to vocal nuance, Manny grew up in Mississippi. Safety dictated speaking in code, and conquest relied on intonation over information. He belonged to that final generation of gays sans apps: covert operators. He was famous in certain circles for dismissing “I love you” as a superfluous rite. His alternative litmus test: if your squeeze says your moniker like his dog’s name, it’s the real deal.
Four rows. Manny shut his eyes. What would his Zen Master say? Something cutting, if last weekend’s hike was any indication. While leaves crackled underfoot, Manny confided to Shane that a growth of lucrative opportunities was affecting his well-being in inverse proportion. Shane stopped dead and said, “Look, dude!”
“Look at what?” Manny said. There was no view of the SF Bay yet, and neither of them were out of breath.
His master took off his sunglasses, hooking them on his tie-dye. Hippie garb on a San Franciscan could mean drug-addled, scatterbrained, or enlightened. Shane belonged to the last category. A gifted fabulist, strangers could often be found wandering within earshot of his voice, sensing a wind-up to a home-run maxim.
“Stop talking and look at your life,” Shane said. “My friend, you have a cornucopia of privileges surrounding you, and keys to more doors than I could ever amass in a lifetime. Look at your life like a fridge. Toss the stuff that ain’t healthy. And that may include some of the expensive crap, my friend. Take control. Feel me?”
A pair of older runners cut through them, anaerobic.
His breath shallowing, Manny said, “Can I ask a favor?”
“Can you please — ”
“Let me go?”
“Could you forgive me if I, you know, disappeared myself?” Manny said. He sat on a tree stump. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Any of it. I can’t feel anything. My life is perfect on paper, but I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to live.”
The sun burnished off the sheltering fog. The sky was blank.
“I’m right here,” Shane said, squatting beside him. “Breathe with me. I got you. C’mon, breathe with me. Good. This is temporary, I swear. I’m going to be right by your side to get you through this.”
That’s as far as they made it that day — a quarter-mile from the parking lot.
Two rows. Manny smelled the bitter-sweet coffee Monsieur Kryptonite was pouring. Manny tongued his teeth and unfastened his chest-hair button.
Hubby Reg had bought him this Brooks Brothers shirt in “Bordeaux Blue” to poke fun at his “mélancolie” (a typical tone-deaf move), which was triggered two Thanksgivings ago in Gulfport, Mississippi. Manny’s Mom was never good at hiding her favoritism (especially these days, now that there was no longer someone to rein her in) and Manny’s three-year roll of architecture awards had made him incandescent to her. Over twice-fried turkey, she prompted her brood to fawn, and he ate it up, a pig at the trough. By the time the wine was emptied, the bungalow’s wallpaper was dripping with ego.
In the middle of dessert, Ruth, Manny’s sister, had to shuffle off to her nursing shift. Manny escorted her out under their late dad’s ginormous country club umbrella — it was really coming down. “Emmanuel, when did you become such a blowhard?” she said, pinching his cheek, ”Where’s my baby brother?”
“So, things are good. Shoot me. You have children. You live near Mom and Dad. I get one day of family a year, Ruth. Cut me some slack,” he said.
She backed into the downpour. “I just…I never thought you’d end up acting like such a fairy. I’m sorry, but I thought you were different from all the other fags. ‘Look at me, I’m fabulous!’ Manny, if Thanksgiving…if family is a contest, count me out. You are thirty-six. It’s time to act like an adult. The spotlight belongs on your nieces and nephews. I don’t like you like this.” Ruth slammed the door and choked her steering wheel.
Now they had shared custody of family events.
One row. Manny adjusted his seat belt for visual impact and popped an Ativan. He had promised his doctor to take it only in case of turbulence. A propeller flight he was on four years ago went into free-fall over Wichita – twenty seconds. The next week, he copped to his newborn skittishness in order to score some pills, and something in the act of confessing his experience to his doc amplified his fear from scant to profound.
Manny’s train of thought went like this: phobia is an irrational fear, by definition. But how illogical, really, is being afraid because you are perched miles in the air without a net? A little over a hundred years ago, human flight was thought of as malarkey. Now, society says you’re crazy for being scared to imitate a bird. The laws of convention look so arbitrary from one century to the next. If society says fucking a guy is fine, it’s fine. But in times past (and other countries present), if you fuck a guy, you’re incarcerated. Or worse. Freedom is always up to someone else, and what’s worse, air safety is up to whom? Judy? Buddha? Gaga? Or, God forbid, God?
Wham. Freddy slammed down his credit card charger, percussing delight. “Professor McClaren, as I live and breathe!” Freddy said in an I-love-you-like-Waldo-my-St.-Bernard timbre.
The stuff Manny had amassed to fill his life since Freddy absconded with his heart flashed in front of him: a jumbo phone, a Zen master, a cross-fit regimen, a five-year-abstinence-from-cigarettes token, a husband.
“Take control,” Manny said, almost out loud. But there was no point. Shane was wrong. His fridge wasn’t too full. There was nothing in there he wanted. Until now. God, Freddy in that burgundy vest.
“So? Talk to me. How the hell are you, professor?” Freddy said, thickening up his drawl, caramel sweet.
The plane hit an air pocket. Manny thrilled.
“Flight attendants please take your seats,” the captain said.
Freddy grasped Manny’s shoulder, staking a claim. “I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”
Have you ever seen a punishment fit its crime congruously? In the three years hence, Manny braced for his personal life to explode, but matters orbiting his secret affair with Freddy in Texas mutated in queasy increments. Teaspoons of shame, reconciliation, frustration, stagnation, rekindling, neglect, and resentment were doled out amongst Manny, Freddy, and Reggie with no flowchartable logic.
Then Manny ghosted Texas.
The color of the exterior paint for Boomtown Performing Arts Center got botched. Unforgivable. The shade of peach Manny picked was velvety and suave, but because of a budget bungle with the Southlake Council, they got stuck with a saccharine and show-offy hue. Manny washed his hands of the project and everything else in Texas two months before the completion date.
Reginald never found out about the truncated affair. They remodeled their house in Marin, unconsciously preparing it for new owners, which in three years came to pass. The divorce was uneventful.
Untethered, the men found new people, projects, pets, air routes, notions.
Even though Freddy was obsessed with Randy Travis, who played the inaugural concert at the theatre, he never laid eyes on the damn place, even from the air. Forty years later, though, something ultimately got him there: its demolition.
On that crisp November morning, Manny ducked behind the spectators to avoid recognition, his cane seeping into the mud. He refused to meet the hot-shot who designed the new building, which was more stadium than theatre, if you please. Well, Judy Garland maybe hadn’t performed here, but Liza had, despite that paint job, which, you know what, ended up looking not so bad after a few decades in the Lone Star sun.
The razing sounded festive: “Bang!”; “Hooray!”; “Oooh!”; “You don’t see that every day!”; “It was over so soon!” But then, the silence where a brass brand should have been playing gave the spectacle’s aftermath a tepid aftertaste, not unlike that feeling you get when you find out an enemy had died — a stillborn thrill.
All that was left standing on the block was that effing lemon tree a neighbor petitioned to save. Score one for another Southern sweet-talker, Manny thought. He investigated. The tree was worn and misshapen. But its fruit was ripe.
And lo, there Freddy was. He must have been at least sixty-three, but he was still unmistakably a “Freddy,” not yet a “Fred.” Manny adjusted his pants strategically, moving his waistline down so it wasn’t quite so near his belly button. Seeing Freddy was like that time Manny and Reggie moved out of their starter house in the Marina; While giving the basement a final once-over, Manny found a bottle of 1886 Hochheimer Chardonnay behind a pillar — a housewarming gift from his mom. The taste was anomalous, bitter-sweet. Reg asked, “Is this good or bad,” What did it matter? After generations of fermentation, Manny was intoxicated and happy.
Freddy approached, waving the dust away. “Professor McClaren, as I live and breathe.”
Each man’s smile was bigger than the other’s.
Brandon Adams was born in Texas and lives in NYC. He will be attending the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program this year. He is an award-winning music director and an emerging writer. He has taught writing and music at American University, San Francisco State University, and the Urban School of San Francisco. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College. Website: https://brandondavidadams.weebly.com/
Cover photo by Paula Adams