‘Bitch.’ The word hung in the air between the two young men standing in the dark entranceway. Neither paid me the slightest attention as I approached.
* * *
The snow began falling around midnight. On a trip to the toilet around three, I pulled the curtains away from the hallway window and looked out. Enough had fallen by then to hide the ground. Beneath the streetlamp in front of the Lovatts’ house, the flakes spiralled slowly downward. When I awoke again at six, there were three or four inches on the ground and a fitful wind had sprung up. The snow would be whirled about in a sudden gust only to resume drifting leisurely when the wind died. The weather forecast on the radio said that the wind chill had brought the apparent temperature down to minus twelve Celsius, and the snow was expected to continue until mid-day, with another seven to eight centimetres of accumulation. I don’t think I shall ever grow accustomed to the metric system. Too many years of inches and pounds. I mentally translated the figures into around ten degrees Fahrenheit and another three inches of snow.
It was even darker outside than customary for that time of the year and that hour of the morning. I debated whether I should forgo my usual morning cup of coffee because of the cold and the snow. It didn’t take me long to decide. Coffee in the morning is a habit of a lifetime, and I’ve always liked walking in the snow, especially at night. I like the way one feels isolated within the snowflakes, the way they come cascading out of the sky in a vortex that swirls around you. The hissing noise the snow makes as it falls, and the crunch as it compacts beneath your feet. The hesitant way a flake touches your face or settles on your clothing, almost as if it were surprised at finding something in its path. Falling snow engages so many of the senses.
I wrapped a woollen scarf around my neck and jaw and then pulled on my boots and heavy coat. I decided the day demanded a knit cap and thick gloves. As I walked out, I glanced at myself in the hall mirror. ‘Stocky’ would be a generous description of my build. I looked like an aerosol spray can with a domed lid and a push button on top done up in wool. I had pulled the scarf up over my mouth and the tip of my nose, and the only part of my face visible was a narrow band around my eyes.
The snow was still fresh enough to be light and fluffy. I used the broom we keep in the small entryway between the hallway and street doors to sweep a path down the steps and along the short walkway to the street. The plough had been by earlier, but enough had fallen since then to leave an inch or so of new accumulation on the street. The snow had covered everything over and flattened the landscape, robbing it of detail. Our small front garden and those of our neighbours looked pristine and fresh beneath a smooth blanket of snow. Only humps with a few twigs poking out hinted at shrubberies growing beneath.
Kinross Street is an old residential area. The houses, all of them solid brick structures, were built in the 1890s. The street itself is narrow, and the few streetlamps are spaced widely. Beneath each light, a radiant circle of white faded quickly into thick darkness. A few of our neighbours were awake, and lights dimmed by draperies cast yellow-grey squares on the snow. It was one of those magically private moments when one feels unobserved and free.
I had to walk in the street because the pavements had not been cleared yet. No one had been out since the plough had been past. There were no tyre tracks or footprints. Mine were the first. I felt a responsibility settle on my shoulders to make my prints neat, to disturb the snow as little as possible. When I reached the corner at Strathmore Road, I looked back toward our house. It always surprises me to see evidence of how my feet turn out. I think I walk with my feet pointing straight ahead, but my footprints gave the lie to that notion. Two lines of prints, each one angled outward about thirty degrees, marked my passage down Kinross.
Strathmore is a busy street, and the council gives it priority for cleaning. The plough must have been by only a short time before. The street itself was almost free of snow. The shops begin a block from the intersection with Kinross, and some of the pavements had already been cleared and salt crystals, or whatever ‘green’ product that is used now, thrown down. The snow was already becoming slush in the gutters. Not nearly as attractive as the fresh version, but then that never lasts long. A sharp blast of wind made me suddenly feel the cold, and I began to walk more quickly. I could see the lights of the Veneto coffee bar ahead. Other than the news agent’s further down the street, it was the only shop open at that time of the morning.
Veneto opened about three years ago. The shop is long and narrow. There is a counter on one side toward the rear, with the coffee machines on a ledge built against the wall behind it. At the back are shelves with packages of coffee and brightly coloured and intricately patterned cups and plates from Italy. Travel posters featuring scenes of Venice hang on what little open wall space there is. The small floor area is packed with seven round tables, with two wire-mesh chairs at each. A well-wisher might say that the seating is snug and conducive to friendliness. Someone intent on being truthful would say that it is crowded. The tops of the tables are made of brushed stainless steel. The surface is polished enough to reflect objects and faces, but the patterns and accumulated scratches scoured into them break the images up and distort them. The odour of roasted coffee permeates everything in the shop. For a coffee lover like myself, the smell alone is a promise of heaven.
Leo, the young man who owns and runs the Veneto, isn’t from Italy, but he has a love of all things Italian. I’m not even sure that Leo is his real name. I suspect he may have been christened Leonard and was a Len for all but the past few years. His light brown hair and fair complexion argue for an English background. He is in his mid-twenties, I believe, at most late twenties. He is unfailingly polite toward his customers and friendly with those of us who are regulars. I am usually the first or one of the first customers in the morning, and we have over the years since Leo opened the Veneto chatted often. He knows me well enough to know what role Gabe plays in my life and to recognise him on the street. Leo lives above his coffee bar, and we occasionally see him in the other stores and restaurants in the neighbourhood.
Now that I think about it, I actually know very little about Leo’s personal life. I suppose I do most of the talking in the morning. I am become a garrulous old man since I retired. Well, truth be told, I was both garrulous and old long before I retired. In any case, Leo listens to me and seems to have some interest in my life.
I have always been a quiet walker. Gabe sometimes complains about my ‘sneaking up’ on him. That may have been why the two men standing in the doorway of the Veneto didn’t hear me approaching. The man with his back to me as I walked up was wearing a duffel coat. The other man had no coat on, as if he had just stepped outside for a moment. There is no light over the door and the two men were illuminated only by the light coming through the shop window beyond the entrance. They were standing very close, almost embracing, and conversing quietly. When I was within a few feet of them, I saw that the man without a coat on was Leo. The two were so intent on each other that neither registered my approach.
It was then that the man wearing the coat said, ‘What time will you be through today, bitch?’ Leo smiled at him and said something I didn’t catch. It was so cold that their words came out as white puffs that lingered in the air. Then Leo looked up and saw me. He stepped back from the other man and opened the door for me. ‘Good morning, Mr Simmons. I’ll be right with you.’ I nodded to both of them and greeted them. The other man glanced briefly at me as I went in, the polite smile on his lips quickly fading, whatever interest he may have anticipated dying as soon as he registered my age.
Even before I had divested myself of my coat and other paraphernalia, Leo came bustling into the shop and took his place behind the counter. I always order the same thing every morning, a triple caffè lungo--at least that is what Leo has taught me to call it. Whatever its name is, I love the richly nuanced bitterness of the taste. There are days when I feel almost heady after drinking it, rather like the feeling I get when drinking whiskey on an empty stomach. Without asking, Leo began tamping the coffee into the filters and wedging the holders into the espresso machines. Soon the machines started to hiss, and the coffee began straining into the pots. Leo swirled the liquid in the first pot around and then sniffed at it cautiously. He scowled and then dumped the contents into the sink and started over. When he was satisfied with the brew, he poured the contents of all three pots into a large cup for me and carried it over to my table.
‘Sorry about that earlier, Mr Simmons.’
My confusion must have shown on my face. I didn’t know what he was apologising for.
‘My friend.’ Leo tilted his head toward the door of the shop.
‘Ah.’ Comprehension. ‘Nothing to worry about. I’m glad to see that you have someone.’
Leo gave me a rather uncertain look, as if my interpretation had drawn his attention to the question of what his relationship to the man in the duffel coat was. Perhaps I had simply misread the situation, and it hadn’t occurred to him that others might see a relationship where there was none. For a second I thought he was going to speak, but then he simply nodded his head and went back behind the counter. The surface of the coffee was covered with a layer of foam. As I waited for it to cool, several of the bubbles popped, and the black liquid under the brown foam began to appear. I cautiously took several sips to gauge the temperature and then half-turned in my seat to speak to Leo. ‘Oh, that’s perfect. You worked your usual magic.’
Leo looked up from the cups he was arranging on a towel and smiled at me. ‘I think you may be the only customer this morning. No one else is about in this weather.’
‘You and your friend were the only other people I’ve seen this morning.’
‘We made a late night of it, and it had started to snow when he was ready to leave. So he stayed the night.’
‘May I ask something? It’s not personal. I am just interested in a word your friend used.’
‘Sure.’ He shrugged and looked at me with curiosity. ‘His name’s Jerome, by the way. Most people call him Jer.’
‘I’ve heard other people use the term on the telly and on the street. He called you a “bitch”--I know what the word means, but this usage is unfamiliar to me. What does it signify when one young man says it to another?’ Sometimes I sound stilted and pompous even to myself. I tend to ratchet myself up a notch when I fear that I am becoming rude--formal politeness seeking to excuse and ameliorate nosiness.
‘Means different things, doesn’t it? Depends how it’s said. Jer likes me. With him, it’s a . . . a term of affection, I guess. It also means that he’s trying to make a claim on me, calling me “his bitch”.’
‘Ah, I see. Thank you for enlightening me.’ I took another drink of coffee. I’m never sure what sorts of questions are considered too personal nowadays. The young seem to discuss everything so openly. I supposed that’s why my next remark was spoken so tentatively. ‘So this relationship with Jerome could be serious?’
Leo looked toward the ceiling as if the answer might be written there. He hesitated not, as I first feared, because he was trying to think of a polite way to tell me to mind my own business but because he wasn’t sure of the answer. After a moment, he dropped his eyes and looked at me. ‘Might be. Not yet though. I think he’s trying to rush things a bit, and I’m not sure I’m ready to be his “bitch”--or anyone else’s for that matter. I hope you weren’t offended. He was just saying goodbye. He’s affectionate, like. Very physical.’
‘No, I wasn’t offended. It’s heartening to see that two men can demonstrate their feelings toward each other on the street. It wasn’t that way years ago. So we’re--gay people, I mean--we’re making some progress. When Gabe and I were your age, it was still against the law for men to have sex with each other, even in private. We could never have kissed on the street like that.’
Leo gave me a polite half-smile and went back to his work. He wasn’t interested in ancient history. I returned to my coffee and the view out the window. Most customers at that hour of the morning read the newspaper or pull out a laptop or their phone and start tapping away. I like to look out the window and watch the traffic and the people walking past. I’ve reached an age when I enjoy being a spectator. I have all day to read the newspaper, and I feel no need to be linked electronically to everyone I know during every waking moment.
It was still dark enough outside that the interior of the shop was reflected in the glass of the window. The images in the glass weren’t as clear and ‘solid’ as those in a mirror would have been, and they overlay the background of the scene outside. What one saw depended on the focus of one’s eyes. When I looked at the reflection, I saw my outline dark against the light behind me and Leo moving about in the background. When I looked at a distance, the reflection faded away, and I saw only the snow falling. Although long delayed by the heavy overcast, the light outside was growing. The wind appeared to be getting stronger. The snowflakes were no longer floating down but were being driven almost sideways and forcibly blasted into the ground.
Gabe and I had been so circumspect when we were younger. Furtive. I suppose that lent our relationship a certain excitement. We were being daring. The camouflage of convention was as much a part of our lives as the wonders of love. Two staid young men at the beginning of their adult lives and careers secretly making out like rabbits as often as opportunity allowed. We thought we were being innovative and avant-garde. I’ve never spoken about it with Gabe, so I don’t know what he thought, but I was certain that we were re-inventing sex and creating previously unknown pleasures.
Now, of course, an hour ‘surfing the net’ provides an advanced tutorial in the sorts of activities we stumbled across by chance. But there weren’t any models for us, sexual or otherwise. The only visibly gay people were comedians and actors who exaggerated their ‘swish’ side and camped it up for effect. We knew we weren’t like that. The only examples we had were straight couples--our parents and others--and we wouldn’t have been allowed, or allowed ourselves, to copy them openly.
We didn’t dare live together at first. Gabe was a teacher in a secondary school before he retired, and in the nineteen-sixties and even up into the seventies he would have been dismissed if it were suspected that he was gay. If it had become known at the bank that I was gay, I wouldn’t have been fired, but I would probably have been shunted aside to some corner of the office doing tedious tasks that no one wanted to do, safely removed from contact with the bank’s customers and clients. I would never have been promoted or granted a rise in salary. The bank would have done everything it could to encourage me to leave.
When Gabe and I met on the street, we greeted each other with hearty handshakes. In public, we were always careful to maintain a physical separation. Straight ‘blokes’ touched their ‘mates’ in public far more often than we did. We couldn’t do that because we couldn’t afford gossip about our friendship. When I visited his flat, I always left at an early hour, and vice versa. Our visits to gay pubs and other such places were restricted to occasional trips to London. Secrecy and discretion just seemed second nature to the way we had to live, part of the price we paid for being gay lovers if we wanted to remain respected members of society. Or even if we wished to remain members of society at all. We had so many subterfuges, so many masks. People who knew us may have suspected, but we were never indiscreet enough to supply them with proof for their suspicions. ‘Such good friends’--‘Bryan and Gabriel are such good friends’--that was the arch euphemism others used to allude suggestively to our relationship.
Once in the mid-seventies, the bank sent me to San Francisco for a week to supervise the negotiations over a loan. The end of the term at Gabe’s school fortuitously coincided with the projected end of the negotiations, and I arranged to take time off to tour California. He flew over to join me. It was such a week of freedom for both of us. We weren’t making out in the streets or anything like that, but it felt so comfortable just to be able to walk around together and not have to pretend to be just friends. Nobody noticed one more couple of whatever gender or orientation. If anything, our accents attracted more attention than did the fact that we were a gay couple.
It was our first trip together. It was a wonderful luxury to share a bed for a full night with Gabe. The bed was enormous, but we occupied very little of it. When I woke up the first morning, we were curled up next to each other, my face pressed into one of his shoulders. He held me tightly against his body. We shaved and showered and then went downstairs to the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel. Oddly enough, that was the first time we had ever had breakfast together. Gabe conformed to the waiter’s expectations and ordered a pot of tea. My lover was very surprised when I asked for black coffee.
‘I didn’t know you drank coffee in the morning. Or is that just because we’re in the States?’
‘No, I always have coffee in the morning. Don’t you?’
‘Not very often. I usually drink tea.’
We had been together for nine years by that point. Each of us knew a lot about the other, but there were many details of our personal lives that the other never saw. In some ways, ignorance was bliss. When we finally moved in together, it was just such petty details that caused the most squabbling.
That visit to San Francisco did propel us into making a big change in our lives. We decided after that we could no longer live apart. Our jobs were secure enough that we could contemplate the added expense of home owning, but at that time there were legal complications about two, unrelated men buying a place jointly. We decided that, because of my connections in the bank, I would buy the house and take out the mortgage in my name. We found the place on Kinross Street. It was made for us and our situation. A previous owner had remodelled the place so that the top floor was a separate flat, reached through a back stairway. I had the first two floors, and Gabe ‘rented’ the flat.
It proved to be a perfect arrangement. When necessary, we could keep up the fiction that Gabe was just the tenant of the rental unit. He could invite his colleagues over for drinks without confronting them with the awkward question of who I was, and I could do the same with my associates. And when we were alone, we could spend time with each other.
We had a few gay friends, most of them couples of our age. None of us flaunted our orientation. We were true to our upbringing and kept our private lives private. Two of our friends lived together fairly openly as a couple, but most of the others were as careful in public as we were. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the 1980s that I noticed a change in attitudes. Change must have been happening all along, because when it finally drew my attention, it was well developed.
Oddly enough, it was remark of my mother’s that drove home to me how much things were changing. After my father died, I began taking her out to dinner every Wednesday evening. She was a far more adventurous eater than my father had been. Unlike him, she liked to try new dishes. She read the reviews in the papers each week and was always eager to try restaurants that had impressed the critics. One Wednesday she wanted to eat at a place in the country near Chelmdene. It was raining when we arrived at the restaurant, and I let mother out at the front door and then drove off to find a parking spot. The closest one was a good quarter of a mile away.
By the time I walked back to the restaurant, mother was seated at a table and deep in conversation with the two men who ran the restaurant. While I was hanging my coat up in the entranceway, I watched her through the doorway to the dining room. She had taken her coat off, but she still wore her hat, one of the feathery confections she favoured. She belonged to a generation of women that never appeared in public with hair uncovered. In some areas, change could be tolerated, perhaps even welcomed. In others, tradition was sacrosanct. The feathers trembled lightly as she turned her head from side to side to talk to the two men. One of them, it turned out, was the chef, and the other was the maitre d’/wine steward/waiter. The three of them had already decided what I was to order. Mother liked us to eat different things so that we could sample what the other had.
The two men weren’t flamboyant, but it was clear that they were gay. They were apparently a couple. Each demonstrated a familiar joy in the other’s foibles. When I asked about the contents of the entrée that had been chosen for me, the non-cook informed me, ‘You have to be careful with Richard. He thinks certain dishes require an excess of pepper, and that’s one of them.’
‘I do not. I use only the amount of seasoning needed, never an excessive amount. If Geoff ran the restaurant, everything would be smothered in ketchup. We’d be serving sardines on toast with tomato sauce.’
‘Oooh, one of my favourites,’ said the man named Geoff. ‘That and beans on toast. Both underappreciated classics of English cooking. It takes talent to scorch toast to attain just the proper degree of crispness and burnt charcoal flavour. Not everyone can do it up right.’ He addressed his next remarks sotto voce to mother. ‘He’s been trying to educate my taste buds for years. He finally gave up and opened a restaurant so that he could feed people who appreciate his skills.’ The two men smiled at each other over our heads with easy affection.
When one left to cook our order and the other to open the bottle of wine for us, mother turned to me and said, ‘I think God makes people what they are, don’t you? What’s important is how people treat each other, not what sex they are.’
My face must have registered my shock. I didn’t know what to say in answer to that. It was a remark so unlike mother.
It was mother’s turn to look at me with easy affection. ‘It doesn’t matter so much about being gay these days. No one thinks anything of it any more.’ One of my hands was lying on the table, and she reached over and patted it and then clasped it tightly. ‘I think it’s past time that you asked Gabriel to join us, don’t you? He must get tired of sitting at home on our Wednesdays eating beans on toast or takeaway while we’re feasting. Invite him next week.’
Another sign of the change in attitudes came a year or two later when the headmaster at Gabe’s school invited me to his annual garden party for the staff. The invitation came as a surprise. Gabe had introduced me to the headmaster many years earlier, but I had no idea that he was aware of our relationship. My inclination was to decline, but Gabe was uncharacteristically insistent that I accompany him.
The party was held at the headmaster’s house, and as was my habit when Gabe and I appeared in public together, I separated from him shortly after we arrived. I was sipping at a glass of wine and examining the rose bushes when a young woman accosted me. ‘I saw you arrive with Gabe. Are you Bryan? Gabe’s always talking about you.’ She didn’t pause for answer. She turned around and waved to someone standing with a group several feet away. ‘Andy, come meet Gabe’s Bryan.’ Everyone in the group turned to look at us. Six or seven pairs of eyes looked me up and down. I suddenly felt very exposed. I couldn’t imagine what Gabe might have said about me that would generate such curiosity. I had to fight an urge to bolt down the pathway along the side of the house to the street.
The next moment, I was surrounded and people began introducing themselves. I was able to identify some of them from comments Gabe had made about them over the years, but most of them were strangers to me, but not apparently I to them. To judge from their remarks, I was already well known to them. All the other guests were colleagues of Gabe’s and their partners. Most of them were married, but there was one other gay couple, much younger than Gabe and I. I felt rather envious of the straightforward way they passed in and out of each other’s orbit and how physically comfortable they were with each other. They weren’t kissing, but they felt no hesitance about touching one another in public, the same way that any married couple might do. When Gabe came up to me later, I automatically stepped back from him. I couldn’t bring myself to stand right next to him.
Later that night, when Gabe and I were together in bed, I expressed some surprise that he had spoken freely of our relationship with this colleagues. I tried not to let my dismay at his openness about us show. It took me some thought to formulate a neutral question that would not sound critical. We often discuss the events of our day in bed after turning the lights off, and I spoke in the most casual voice I could muster, as if I were half-asleep. ‘You’re not worried what they will think?’
‘No, they’re adults. They know other gay people. And why wouldn’t I talk about you? I’m very proud of you. We all talk about our marriages and our families. Don’t you talk about me at the bank?’
‘No. The subject has never come up. Some of the staff discuss their families, but I never pay much attention to that. Does everyone at your school know about us? Surely not the students.’
‘I think everyone on the staff does. Some of the students know that a few of the teachers are gay. William and Harry’ (the other gay couple at the party) ‘are the staff advisors for the student gay, lesbian, and bisexual club.’
‘There’s a club for gay students? And they supervise it? But doesn’t that hurt them in school?’
‘No, they’re both quite popular. They’re known as the “two princes”.’
‘What about you? Do the students know about you?’
‘William and Harry asked me to talk to the GLB club about the “old days” and how it used to be. So at least those students know that I am gay. I imagine that word got out and a few more students have found out that I am gay.’
‘You talked about us?’
‘Yes. They were very interested in how we had to live. They thought it hilarious at first that we had to be so careful, but I was able to show them why it was necessary. Don’t worry. I didn’t mention your name or what you do. There won’t be students coming up to you in the streets and asking about us.’
‘I should hope not.’ The very idea of a teenager confronting me on the street for information on my relationship with their maths master appalled me.
‘You know, Bryan, we don’t have to be as secretive any more. Things are changing. At least in this area, straights realise that the world isn’t going to come to an end just because a few of us are gay. Despite what you may think, most of the neighbours have a good idea of what goes on between us.’ He kissed me on the side of the neck and burrowed his head into my shoulder. ‘We’re quite an old couple now. People can learn to accept us for what we are. If they can’t, then fuck them. Speaking of which--’
I do admit that I tend not to be very observant about strangers. I had schooled myself so strongly not to look at other men in public that I hadn’t really noticed how many gay men there were on the streets. I suppose that sounds like a stupid statement, but I had kept my own head down for so long that I truly hadn’t allowed myself to see what was there.
I did try to be a bit more open after that. But it’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime. I was so used to being in the ‘closet’ with the door tightly closed that I was reluctant to venture far outside it. I was used to it, and I had grown, perhaps not to like--that would be an inaccurate word--but at least to be comfortable with its conventions and to draw some satisfaction from the notion that I was doing the right thing and behaving correctly. It came as a surprise to me that many people regarded this as old-fashioned and asinine if not immoral.
A week or so after the headmaster’s party, Gabe and I were having dinner at a friend’s house. I mentioned my reaction to discovering that Gabe’s colleagues knew about us. It turned out that everyone at the table was ‘out’ in both their personal and their professional lives. They all agreed that they didn’t make an issue of it but saw no reason to pretend to be other than what they were. In fact, several of them chided me for not being open. One of them even accused me of being a capitulationist and of failing to speak up for the freedom to be ourselves. I was giving aid and comfort to the enemy by allowing myself to be manoeuvred into obeying ‘their’ rules. He grew quite hot on the subject. The very behaviours I had adopted to forestall a negative reaction from outsiders were being criticised by a group I thought would understand. The support I expected wasn’t forthcoming.
Of course, I took it all with a show of good humour. I even had the presence of mind to defuse the situation by mocking my own insecurities. But Gabe knows how much that sort of unpleasantness upsets me. We’ve been together long enough for him to know what to do to excite me, and what to do to comfort me. And he realised that I needed comforting that night. As we lay next to each other in our dark bedroom, he pulled the covers up around me and then rolled on to his side so that he was facing me. He held me for a while and then began gently massaging my shoulders and the back of my neck. After a while, he kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘We just have to be what we are. We’ll take things at our own pace and not worry what other people think. Their opinions of us don’t matter. This is our life.’
I hope I provide as much to Gabe as he provides to me. I would guess that most couples at some point find themselves bored with their common life and irrationally irritated by some everyday behaviour on their partner’s part. I know both Gabe and I have at times longed for things to be radically different, if only for an hour or two. But there are moments when the familiar enchants and the well-trod path confers the blessings of unexpected grace.
Gabe was being polite in using the first-person plural and in pretending that both of us were still in the closet. He would in the months to come gradually ease that door open. I’ve always done most of the cooking, but he began accompanying me on the trips to the market, pushing around the trolley and making suggestions about dishes I might prepare. Anyone who overheard him would have no doubt that we not only ate together but lived together in every sense. Occasionally someone would stare at us or pull a child away. Perhaps I gave those acts more weight than they deserved. But for the most part we attracted no more attention than any other couple shopping.
One evening when I returned home from work, Gabe was standing in our driveway talking to a neighbour. When I walked up, he put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. And left it there. The neighbour’s eyes drifted to his hand on my shoulder, registered it, and then looked back at us. The three of stood there conversing naturally for several more minutes.
Loosening up in public did take some effort on my part. I did finally manage during a meeting at work one day to bring myself to refer offhandedly to ‘my partner Gabe’. One of the juniors in my department asked if Gabe was the ‘distinguished white-haired man’ she had seen me playing golf with. When I nodded yes, she said that we made a handsome couple and gushed, ‘Oh, you two must have looked absolutely fabulous when you were young.’ I advised her that her flattery would have been more successful had it not been tempered with an insinuation that Gabe’s and my looks were in decline. Everyone laughed, and that was that--a brief bit of banter, and Gabe and I were officially a couple at the bank.
Small things to be sure, but I found that the sky would not fall if I acknowledged being gay. Oh, life wasn’t suddenly perfect and everyone tolerant and understanding. There are still many who feel a need to register their hatred and contempt. But one learns to accept even that. There are people whose behaviour I disapprove. But my disapproval won’t cause them to change the way they act. It took me a while to learn not to let others’ disapproval make me feel I had to change mine.
It isn’t a world I had ever expected to live in. I’m not sorry it’s here, but the habits of a lifetime still impose a certain reticence on me. I could never, for example, refer to Gabe as ‘my bitch’, even in private. I’ll tell him about the incident later. It will amuse him.
* * *
‘Thank you, Leo.’ I carried my empty cup over to the counter. ‘I don’t know what I would do without the Veneto. You start my day off right.’
He smiled at me with delight. ‘I’m always happy to make coffee for you. Not everyone appreciates a good cup of coffee. Most of them just want something so sweet and tarted up with other flavours that you can’t taste the coffee.’
‘My lover among them. If by some miracle I could ever persuade Gabe to come in here, he would want a weak cup of milky liquid with lots of sugar. The smell of coffee in your shop alone would be too strong a brew for him.’
‘Takes all sorts, doesn’t it? Well, it leaves more of the good stuff for those of us who appreciate it.’ He pointed to the snow falling outside. ‘Are you going to be all right walking home by yourself? I could close up and walk with you, just to make sure you make it back safely. It’s no trouble.’ He reached behind his waist and began tugging at the strings of the dark blue butcher’s apron he always wore at work.
‘Yes, it takes all sorts. And no, thanks for offering, but I’ll be fine.’