This morning, a house guest

A friend in Fairfield, Iowa, where I’ve lived several times, put me in touch with a young guy who needed a place to crash during some film work he had here in New York. I was happy to have the company. We spoke briefly before his arrival.

“I’ll clean your place,” he told me, “Or do something else you need.” I had no inclination to charge him at all, but I hadn’t told him that. I knew he was a young guy starting out on his way. I’m all for that. I love the energy of young men. I love young men—probably because, though I was young for the usual number years, I was never fully engaged in being a young man. I was too afraid inside. I had a confidence vacuum that, most of the time, sucked the boisterous, playful, light-hearted young man out of me.

“Just enjoy your time here in the city,” I told him, and we left it at that. My friend from Iowa had correctly advised me that my guest was very polite.

Around 9pm I thought I heard a faint knock on my door.

He wheeled a small red case inside, unceremoniously, quietly, with dispatch. We spoke briefly. He said he was part of a film crew. “I’m a PA. Production assistant. The lowest of the low.”

After he said that, I went into a very brief, slightly comedic routine about the “lowest of the low”, based on a line I remember from a TV show. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t smile. He was probably waiting for the end of our exchange so he could rest for the night.

“I have to be there at 5:30am. It’s a long day.”

“Do you get a break?”

“We get a half-hour for lunch.”

“I could never live that way.” In that moment, giving that revealing answer, I was more aware of my 63 years than is usual. I have no need of hurrying, especially over the wholesome, unhurried lunch that’s now my custom. Yet it is painful to know that I can’t keep up with the pace of the young.

I showed him how to work the sofa bed, opening his venue of rest for the night. The conversation moved into silence.

He woke early the next morning and left soon afterwards. It was still dark when I heard him leave.

In the hour before he arrived that night, I cleaned the bathroom and made space at the sink for his bathroom things. He put his stuff there before he went off to sleep, his toothpaste, contact lens solution, and a small container of something white. When I saw his things clustered around the faucet the next morning, IMG_4613a feeling both comforting and romantic welled up inside me, a feeling of fulfillment that a young man was sharing my space. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. I would not begin to acknowledge my attraction to men until 2010, even though I had fallen in love with several men before then.

In June 2010 I took a week-long acting workshop with 30 others here in New York. We were paired, and each pair chose a scene from a play and rehearsed it at least a hundred times before performing it in the workshop. We had other homework, too, none of which I completed, because I wasn’t wholeheartedly committed to the adventure.

My scene partner, chosen for me by the workshop staff, was an Indian man from Toronto who had obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome. I knew little about plays and theater, so I let him pick our scene. He chose one from William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. We had zero time to rehearse together before the workshop, and what little time we had together in New York was made more complex by our complexities. He obviously had his, and I surely, though not as obviously, have mine. That acting workshop may have been exactly that for everyone else there, but for me it was a door to a personal breakthrough, rather than a tool for sharpening my acting skills.

My partner and I were almost the last to perform. We did the scene—sort of. We forgot lines. We had low energy. We screwed it up, and royally. Moments after we finished, the director asked me how I felt about what we did. “I thought my voice was strong,” I told him, a man whose voice could dominate gale-force wind.

And then he lit into me with an intensity I hadn’t felt since my father dressed me down some years ago at work.

“You read those lines like they didn’t mean anything to you at all. Did you rehearse the scene 250 times? Did you read “The Four Agreements?” Did you memorize the pointers on the sheets we sent? Oh, and by the way, you shouldn’t have picked Shakespeare. He’s ‘way beyond you right now.”

To all of his questions, I answered “No,” and I was too intimidated to explain that I was not the man who had chosen the Shakespeare.

Then he asked me, “Why did you come?”

I answered, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” At this point the guy was yelling, just as my father did, to “get through” to me, as if I were too stupid to be swayed by quiet reason or logic. “That’s not an answer. What do you want out of life?” He wasn’t about to give up.

Again I answered. “I don’t know,” I said.

“That’s impossible,” he said. “You must want something.”

This exchange went on long enough to completely demolish me. He pounded me. He beat me. He drilled into me. He was very loud and very strong. I grew increasingly upset, angry, overwhelmed, confused, a sweaty and trembling shadow of my already weak self, perched uncomfortably on a stage with an audience of 50. I was unable to think and ready to cry. I knew only one of those 50: Ed, my Iowa buddy, who induced me to go on this adventure with him. But in this moment, I had forgotten that Ed was there, or that anyone at all was there—except for this maniacal, lunatic, raving acting coach and me—but mostly him.

Ed came on stage, held me around my shoulders as I knelt there. He spoke quietly to me. “Russ, he’s giving you love,” he said, and some other stuff I’ll never remember, only because when I heard Ed use the word “love” to name what was going on there, I thought he had lost his mind. And in some tiny remnant of quiet space inside my mind, I wondered “Is this love?” My scene partner was somewhere behind me, completely out of the spotlight and out of my mind as well.

The monster was quiet for a few moments after Ed left me alone on stage and rejoined the audience. I’d regained some lost ground. Once again, the coach asked me, “What do you want out of life?”

This time I had an answer for him. I told my story. “I have no family,” I told them. “They’re all dead, my father, my mother, and my sister. She died of Lou Gehrig’s in May. I have no direction in life. I’m alone in the world. I have no idea what I want to do. I live in Iowa now, but I’m from North Carolina, and I don’t really like Iowa. I don’t know why I’m here today. I’m lonely. And I’ve fallen in love with both men and women, so I’m afraid to get close to anyone.”

When I looked up, I saw that some in the audience were crying, notably a couple of men. My delivery was uneven, punctuated by tears. Maybe they were moved by my distress. I can’t clearly recall all that I said. I just know that I moved somebody.

The monster certainly liked what I said. “Oh-ho! You like men and women. That’s interesting.” He wore a big smile now. He was at the top of his game; I was the lowest of the low. “You’d be easy to cast. An outdoorsman, a businessman.”

My scene partner and I repeated the scene. We were much stronger. But the main event was that I had finally revealed details of my life to complete strangers, especially that I had fallen in love with both men and women. I had little idea how significant that declaration would become. At the time all I knew was the uncertainty that bisexuality brought to my life. I was terrified of close relationships: I could not trust myself. I couldn’t know that my affections were solid and secure.  I did know that I could never be promiscuous; human relationships were not to be a sexual playground. And I didn’t want to cause any heartbreaks; I have had plenty of my own.

I’d been moving back and forth between Raleigh, NC and Fairfield, IA, since 1991, according to my heart’s desires, roughly following the heartbreaks in my life. Before I moved to Fairfield in 2010, I made friends with a young man who lived in my building in Raleigh. He was very fond of the building and very appreciative of the work I’d done on it. He even wrote a tribute that showed his feeling for the building. We shared that feeling, and I would soon discover much more that we shared—or so I thought.

Before my move, I gave him space in the building’s garage for his cars. “I’ve always wanted a garage,” he told me. While I lived in Iowa, he did some repairs on the building. He never asked for any money for what he did, so I’d send him a gift from time to time. After he received the Victorinox knife I sent, he wrote back, “I’ve never had a Swiss army knife. Thanks, Russ.”

We kept up an email correspondence. He’d inquire about my life in Iowa, and he’d let me know what tasks he’d completed at the building. Once he wrote something that left me reeling: “Of all my friends, I hold you in the highest esteem.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I took it to heart. I wrote back, “I’m deeply touched by what you say.” He didn’t respond. But in some emails, he’d write, “You can always come back”, punctuated with a wink, if I had expressed dissatisfaction with life in Iowa. I took all his words as an expression of some fondness for me.

I returned to Raleigh for a month in late 2011 to renovate an apartment that had been continuously occupied by a blind couple for 40 years. It was a real disaster that required the careful attention I had always lavished on that building. While there, I spent time with my friend, bits of time here and there to use his wifi and to chat. One night I was in his apartment, reading my email and hoping for some company. He sat at his desk doing something with his computer. He turned his attention away from me, onto his task.

At some point while I watched as he worked, I noticed in particular the strength of his face in profile. I thought to myself, “This guy is really handsome, beautiful even.” It was then that I fell in love with him. At the very least, I was powerfully attracted. I wondered why he was so aloof that evening, so cold after all his warm words. I hadn’t revealed anything of how I felt about him. His task on the Mac that evening didn’t seem terribly important. I’d driven a long way to spend a few weeks on the renovation, and, right or wrong, I hoped for his attention even in some small way.

I finished the renovation and drove back to Iowa in early December. Once there, my decision to return to Raleigh came quickly. In March I emptied my house, put it up for sale, and moved back to Raleigh again.

Back in Raleigh, I was thrilled to see the fresh new green of springtime that would not come to Iowa for several weeks more, to walk barefoot on crisp lawns of my building, with a little thrill in my heart knowing that someone right there might be glad to see me. That’s what I hoped, of course. He was the critical force for my moving back. True, I needed the routine of work my building always offered. But I needed something else much more. And I hoped that this new love would grow into something real, something lasting.

That hope, along with my memory of the seemingly heartfelt things he’d told me, was why I was so confused when he suddenly seemed so unavailable, so out-of-sight and out of reach. Still, I was undaunted. While this love grew within me, there were some very difficult times. I was baffled that he didn’t feel as I did. I thought that the strength, the intensity of my love was enough to move him. “Let’s get on with it, man, can’t you see how much I love you?” I couldn’t stop it. I felt love for him almost all the time. He absorbed it all. He handled it with amazing grace.

I could simply say that I loved him more than I have ever loved anyone. Or that I did everything I could to support him, honor him, respect him, forgive him, and just let the story end there. But it was complex, worrisome. I had a constant, gnawing fear that our every moment together would be the last. One evening at supper, he asked me, “How do you see me, Russ?” I told him, “You’re like a bird on a branch of a tree, ready to fly away at any moment.” Maybe I was the unsteady one, caught as I was in my own web of romantic love. His was the gift of a steady friendship, a very fortunate aspect of his life, and one sorely lacking in mine. His company meant the world to me.

He was 28 years my junior, unusually wise, and quiet almost to a fault. Though we had several common interests, we were in very different stages of life. I had very little understanding of his situation, how hard he worked. Several times I’d run upstairs to see him, only to discover that he was napping. I felt a sweet tenderness in my heart when I saw that he was at rest. I’d watch for a few moments and just think softly about him.

What lived largest in my awareness was my desire to spend my time with him. I loved his sprightly, alert demeanor, his lively, quick intelligence, and his penchant for the unusual in conversation. I came to love the sound of his voice. He seemed to have it all—and he was so handsome to me. When he complained of a lingering cough, I ran up the stairs to his flat with my favorite cough syrup. I enjoyed cooking great suppers for him for at least a year of Saturday nights, after which we’d talk and smoke cigarettes. I introduced him to the symphony and live theater. Various gifts I gave him just hit the spot perfectly. Truth be told, the giving came very easily and naturally to me.

Sometimes I catch myself remembering certain moments. When I took his hand, looked up at him and said, “I love you so” while he stood in the doorway of his flat. When he looked up and smiled so warmly at me as I put my hand on his shoulder one evening at his favorite bar. When he told me, “You put out a lot of love, Russ” while he looked down at his shoes rather than at me. And when I noticed him as he sat on the fire escape, knowing that he’d seen me and chosen to ignore me. Sometimes it hurts. What may have hurt most of all was that in that particular moment, he seemed so lonely, and afraid, and there I was, ready, willing, and able, so I thought, to bring the comfort that would serve both of us.

One afternoon, late in our dance, I texted him that I’d like to have a moment with him. I usually felt like I had to ask permission for his time. “C’mon up, ” he replied. I ran up the fire escape and took a moment to catch my breath. I was excited whenever I had a chance to see him. He met me at the fire escape door and we stepped inside. I began with some small talk that soon became loaded with emotion. He stood facing me, his arms folded protectively across his chest. He looked concerned. I said to him, “I know that you will never be what I want. But I want you to know that I cannot stop the love.”

I moved toward him, unfolded his arms, and placed them at his sides. Then I turned and kissed his right cheek. As I moved away, he came awkwardly toward me with arms open and a big grin. I had never seen him so innocently happy.

My house guest came and went so quickly and quietly I wasn’t sure he was there. I hope the next time someone lands here, he’ll stay longer—a lot longer.

IMG_4614

NY

About Russ Wollman

My feet are finally in the water, and I want to keep them there.
This entry was posted in Friends, Loneliness, Love, Manhattan, New York, Raleigh and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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