YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED ON A KING WEEKEND.
FRIDAY, THREE DAYS FROM NOW, MEET ME ON PIER 33 AT 6:00 P.M. DON’T BE LATE. IF YOU SPEND THE NEXT 40 HOURS FOLLOWING MY EVERY COMMAND—ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING—YOUR LIFE WILL CHANGE IN SURPRISING WAYS. COME AND MEET YOUR TRUE JOY.
THIS IS NOT AN S&M THING. YOU WILL NOT BE DRUGGED. YOU WILL NOT BE ABUSED. WE MAY EAT ONION RINGS IF I’M STILL CRAVING THEM BUT HONESTLY, I DON’T CONSIDER THAT ABUSE UNLESS THEY’RE COLD. BUT YOU MUST SUBMIT ALL WEEKEND; NO SUCH THING AS A TIME-OUT. PACK A SMALL WEEKEND BAG.
REMEMBER WHO YOU WERE ALWAYS MEANT TO BE, PERRY. REMEMBER THE KING.
P.S. WEAR SOME SEXY UNDERWEAR; YOU HAVE A GREAT ASS.
“THANK you,” I say to the ponytailed caterer after she offers me wine. “Fancy party, huh?”
She smiles briefly, nodding with deference before stepping deeper into the gallery. Okay, not much reaction. She’s working; let it go.
I sip the red wine, swirl it in my plastic cup, creating little maroon waves of merlot. I’m more of a beer guy, but I like doing this, wandering around this art gallery as if I’m part of this town, as if tonight is an average Tuesday night for me. I love how faraway places sometimes feel like home.
This party is groovy, a bash for lesser-name surrealists of the 1960s and ’70s. Painters who understood a doorknob could wear a green sparrow’s beak, and yeah, it works. With red and brown tiger stripes spilling out of a bathtub behind it, somehow it actually works.
The jagged colors, the juxtaposition of impossible realities, so similar to real life. Sometimes this world is hard for me to reconcile, its unfair sorrows and unexpected brilliance. I love that surrealists tried to paint the reality they saw, this impossible world. I dig this one with the bathtub and the sparrow beak, the Trombone Symphony Drowns Alone. No trombones in sight. I guess they drowned.
Looking around, I’m not the only tourist pretending to be a San Franciscan, examining art. Instead of gawking and taking photos, we work hard to pretend that we live right around the corner and popped out for a carton of milk. Maybe it’s only around the Castro where we gay tourists fake our residency. We have a certain swagger we hope communicates, “I belong. I have always belonged.”
This isn’t exclusively the pretentious queens, oh no. It’s the bears like me. The twinks. The leather daddies and the androgynous gigglers. The white collar gays with slick briefcases and the business lesbians openly cuddling at Market and Castro, waiting for the light to change. We’re so eager to slap on our labels and march behind our distinct parade banners, but inside we’re fundamentally the same: we all want to belong in the Homo Homeland, to find a corner of the world where we are each uniquely celebrated.
Wandering around, twice I overhear the famous joke repeated: “How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Fish.” Gotta love the classics.
One painter strikes me as truly unique: Richard Mangin. He’s no one particularly famous, but I’ve read his name once or twice as an innovator. Details in his paintings hum to me, whisper things.
The largest of his three, Siren Song, really snags my attention. A shapeless guy plays a cello in a funky green desert, and a pumpkin patch melts into gold in the lower right corner. I recognize that Dalí reference. The purple sky includes a dozen shades of violet occasionally slashed by a crimson streak. In one corner of the sky, white dove wings fade through tarnished iron bars, wings more on our side than caged. Maybe a little cheesy symbolically, but still, it’s cool. He wanted his point crystal clear. I wonder why? Then again, maybe I’m reading it wrong.
That guy over there is watching me. I swear I have acquired a rat’s twitchiness about these things.
I study Siren Song and simultaneously check out my watcher. He’s handsome. A few years older than me. Maybe thirty-three or thirty-four? Short brown hair, a few locks carefully flopping over his forehead in one spot. Clean-shaven. He has those classic, sharp-planed features you’d see in a Sunday Sears ad, a father pretending to enjoy lawn furniture, showing off his wrinkle-free Dockers. Lawn Furniture Guy wears a charcoal gray suit that hangs off him perfectly, possibly custom tailored. Peach shirt, peach tie. That guy from Millionaire is doing the same color shirt and tie combo. Regis someone. Okay, this man’s definitely a step or two up from Sears. Let go of first impressions.
Is he the painter? No, that guy would be in his sixties or older by now.
I drop my key ring, stealing a glance at his shoes as I bend over. Gucci, which means he has money. Is he… I dunno, a Realtor? Or… huh. I also pick up a certain unease, even from this far away. Nervous? Nah, that’s not quite it.
No, not a Realtor. A Realtor would network around the expensive art, meeting potential clients. I certainly wouldn’t stake out someone dressed like me. I bet I could work as a San Francisco Realtor.
Ms. Ponytailed Caterer passes near me, and I wish I could have made her smile. She’s so demure, almost apologetic. In a few more months, she’ll have enough experience to become more callous.
I stand before Siren Song, waiting for him to get over here, and puzzle at the multipurpled sky. He’d better make up his mind soon or I’ll miss my ride. In the sky across from the prison bars, those must represent—
A firm voice at my side says, “You a big fan of the surrealists?”
“Not really,” I say, smiling wide. “That’s my initial in the sky. V.”
“Oh. Actually, I think those are—”
“I know, I know,” I say, grinning like an idiot. “My name is Vin Vanbly, so it caught my eye. With two Vs.”
Though it’s awkward with my wine glass, I make two peace symbols with my fingers and then bring them together, index fingers touching, as I sometimes do when I’m being goofy with my name. People relax around me when they think I’m stupid.
His face halts its surprise as he tries hard to suppress any further reaction.
“The painting is cool,” I say, turning toward him and jabbing my thumb over my shoulder for emphasis, “and I was grooving on my initials in the sky. I like the wings and bars part too. Very symbolic.”
“Hi, Vin,” he says, recovering quickly. “My name is Perry.”
I raise my plastic cup. “Good wine.”
His eyes flinch, but he says, “Yeah, it’s okay.”
I say, “I fix cars. I don’t know a ton about surreal art, but I know what I like.”
I launch a few questions about the mighty San Francisco. He answers politely at first, then a little friendlier. He’s actually warming up, not being a dick. Good for you, Perry. And while I’m definitely playing blond bear, I’m not being a complete idiot, so we have a couple of nice moments together, chuckling at a comment the other makes.
Let’s see what happens when the game changes.
I say, “I can totally see the cello guy as the Surrealist Manifesto’s concept of absurd humor.”
Perry says, “Didn’t you just say you knew nothing about art?”
“I said I didn’t know a ton. I read a few books.”
He pauses and then says, “How many car mechanics know the Surrealist Manifesto?”
“How many car mechanics do you know?” I say, keeping my face pleasant and blank, interested to see where he takes this.
Perry extends a cautious smile, deciding whether I’m teasing or getting angry.
“None,” he says at last. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude.”
“No sweat. I read a lot. I brought six books with me on vacation. You read much?”
“Financial journals, mostly. I’m an investment banker.”
His eye contact changes after this, like he’s no longer searching for a way out. I believe I’ve been upgraded from Dumb Tourist to Person of Interest. We chat about the exciting life of an investment banker, and the also exciting life of a garage mechanic. We discover we both enjoy Thai, and he recommends a good place for panang curry in SOMA. Over slightly more friendly smiles, we find additional common ground. He owns a home e-mail account, which not everyone does. I share my AOL website address, and he says how he’s been meaning to sign up.
I nod at his shoes. “Gucci.”
“A mechanic who knows surrealism and fashion. Clearly I need to meet more mechanics.”
“We’re into show tunes too. Put a bunch of mechanics near a piano, some beer, and watch out. Gay or straight, it doesn’t even matter.”
He smiles. “Show tunes, huh? You also a big Madonna fan?”
A willowy man, midtwenties, appears at our side and inspects Siren Song closer, dragging a lock of long blond hair behind his right ear for Perry’s benefit. He nods toward the painting and says, “This represents Vietnam, right?”
Perry hesitates before he speaks. “I don’t think so. It’s around that time, but a few years later.”
Wait, what was that? What was that thing on Perry’s face?
Our interloper, finding no suitable reaction, pretends to study it a moment longer, then saunters away.
“That guy was hitting on you, Perry.”
He smiles and says, “I don’t think so.”
“Please. That whole ‘isn’t this Vietnam?’ He didn’t give a crap about the painting.”
“In this town, everyone hits on everyone and nobody counts it as flirting. It’s practically saying hello.”
Is it possible that Perry couldn’t see it?
“Check out that one,” I suggest with a nod. “Mother’s Day gift.”
Perry says, “Arbor Day.”
“Doesn’t your mom like trees?”
He says, “I think she preferred her trees with less blood.”
Perry says, “The branches are fingers and they’re bleeding down the trunk.”
I exhale hard. “Thanks. Now I’m queasy.”
He used the past tense when mentioning his mom. Is she dead? I should check that out.
I shoot a barrage of questions his way about absurd topics: favorite birthday presents, great vacations, San Francisco neighborhoods perfect for night walking, giving him the chance to trot out his best stories, the ones that show “this is the real me.” I want to understand his connection to these three paintings. I could ask him directly, but this is more fun.
“Vin, check out that dude over there.”
“Dude? Are you sure you’re young enough to use that word?”
Perry ignores me and shares his observation, during which an idea pops into my mind, a theory about my new friend.
I point my wine cup at a painting across the room. “That one looks like onion rings smothered in cheese. I’m so fucking hungry, I’d buy it. Would it kill your city to put out some damn chips and salsa?”
He tilts his chin upward for a split second and laughs.
Got it. I know who he is; I now understand his interest in these Richard Mangin paintings. Well, it’s a guess. But I make good guesses. I don’t think I’ll bring it up. Let’s see where this goes.
“Are you Irish?” Perry says. “You’re fair. Of course, you could be German.”
“Maybe. Or Nordic. My birth records were spotty on a few key details, and I grew up in foster families, so I’m one of those oddballs who doesn’t know his own ethnicity.”
“Oh.” Perry’s face falls. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Don’t sweat it. I’m curious myself. My guess is German, you know? Pale, big square head like a block? Who knows, though, maybe I’m a blond Russian.”
“You’re built like a German dude,” he says, his shy smile returning. “Big chest and all. I bet you’re hairy.”
I guess Perry decided to go for it.
Glancing around the gallery with pretend distraction, I unbutton my top two shirt buttons, scratching my strawberry-brown curls. I’m a bear, by the gay world’s definition: stocky and hairy, the only two requirements for membership. Two weeks ago, someone on AOL used the term otter, so maybe we’re evolving into a “woodland creatures” group.
My face is fairly undistinguished, except I have a goatee. I’m not hideous and I’m not Lawn Furniture handsome, which nobody is now that Perry revealed his name. Vin, let that one go. Perry.
He sips his wine and shakes his head, chuckling. “I’m not usually this forward. I sucked down two vodka cranberries at an after-work party before I came here. You’re terrible, by the way. You’re turning this into the opening scene in a porno.”
I make my voice deep and chesty. “Fuck yeah, buddy…. Oh, yeah, just like that….”
Perry snickers. “You know that your name sounds like a fake porn star name, right? I mean, Vin Vanbly?”
“Fuck yeah, baby,” I say, slapping the imaginary ass in front of me.
Perry says, “That’s why you thought that guy was hitting on me. Because you’re hitting on me.”
“Maybe. You like?”
One corner of his mouth curves upward. “Maybe. What’s with the lumberjack outfit?”
“Just got back from camping in Marin County. You like to camp?”
“Sure, sure,” he says, “being out in nature is great. But I assumed you dressed that way for some leather bar later.”
He insists on checking my biceps to see if I chop wood, but we both recognize and appreciate the sexy excuse to be extra close, to touch in public. I have some muscle, but it doesn’t show much. Well, maybe biceps show a little bulge. I can run two city blocks, but after about three blocks, I end up wheezing, hands on my knees.
Who am I kidding? When was the last time I ran two city blocks?
We talk about the movie Fargo, which he loved, and the Minnesota accent, which I love. He asks about winters in my adopted state, as everyone must. I explain the beauty of Minnesota’s spring thaw, and he dismisses it instantly. There should be a word for an attitude between snobbish and unconscious, describing someone who doesn’t realize how strongly he holds his own opinions.
I like Perry, and he’s definitely sexy, but that doesn’t guarantee I will find the spark I seek. I can’t fuck casually, and I’m not great at small talk unless I’m hunting for that spark. But I can probe a bit longer, see if I recognize kindling for a bonfire I might try to ignite. If nothing comes of this, I will have enjoyed chatting with the handsome investment banker in a San Francisco gallery. That in itself is pretty sweet.
More people enter the gallery, and as others nudge by, the two of us jostle for position. Our chests graze together as someone squeezes behind me and we bare naughty grins. I want to believe that Perry and I are both imagining each other naked. Well, I am. The shifting crowd becomes suddenly too much for Ponytailed Caterer, who falters behind Perry, her tray of wineglasses dipping disastrously for a split second, three of them sliding to the floor right at his feet.
“Sorry,” Perry says, raising his voice. “Sorry! I did that. I bumped her.”
Almost no time passed before his reaction.
She shoots him a look of gratitude so quick and sly that it’s gone right away. For everyone else, she wears an impassive expression, clearly bearing no ill will toward the man who, everyone believes, professionally humiliated her. Group consensus shows it wasn’t her fault.
No paintings are damaged, no Pradas irrevocably stained.
People gaze at him coolly, and he nods in meek apology. She mops up the floor with napkins and then disappears into a corner to restock. He’s so busy accepting silent reprimands from the art patrons that he doesn’t notice her two white-aproned coworkers fixing on him with undisguised anger.
“Sorry,” he says to Cute Twink, who also bears an unpleasant expression.
The commotion is over, the wine scrubbed from the scene. People turn away, gossiping about him, everyone eager for a topic besides the art. I can’t help but notice Perry and I have a few extra feet of space around us, no one eager to be implicated by proximity.
Perry turns to me and says, “Well, that was embarrassing.”
I wait a few seconds before speaking. “Why did you do that?”
I cut him off with my hand and say, “No you didn’t.” I nod to the space behind him. “Seriously. Why?”
He blushes and then lowers his voice. “I worked as a caterer when I first moved here. That was my third job, my weekend job, in addition to my day and evening jobs. In San Francisco, competition for the good catering gigs is savage.” Perry adopts a sinister, serious face. “You’ll never pour merlot in this town again, kid.”
Compassion toward someone who can do nothing for him, someone who offers nothing in return. He’ll never see her again, but his response came immediately. They’ll never even exchange names.
I’ve got to keep him talking. “Did you like catering? I bet you have some good stories.”
Okay, don’t get ahead of yourself, Vin. But while he talks, I can run the checklist.
Personality. He’s unconsciously snobbish and spontaneously compassionate. He’s got humor and humility. But damn, he’s way uptight. He evolved his first impression of me, moving beyond his initial judgments. Chemistry. Fuck yeah, I’d suck his dick, and I think it’s pretty mutual. Issues. He still hasn’t volunteered his connection to the paintings. That’s big. I’ve got an idea to test this. He seemed pretty happy about that Transformers birthday present, so I’m thinking he was under twelve. Need to establish timelines; I can’t do the math this quickly. 70-what? Skip it; come back. Emotions. Other than a little affected, I think he’s solid.
And he couldn’t recognize a suitor. Why is his heart so shut down?
Who is this man, this handsome banker with a broken heart?
My own heart pounds.
Okay, that’s it; message received. Let’s fucking do this.
I wait for Perry to wind down his catering anecdote and then say, “Are you ready to get kinged?”
“Not sure,” he says, and glances around the gallery with a mischievous smile. “Which painting are we talking about now?”