Sometimes leaving a person alone is an act of love.
I was riding on a bus along Christopher Street when I looked out the window, past the gingko trees that were just turning yellow and dropping stinky fruits on sidewalks around Manhattan, to see Jason walking with his arm resting across the shoulders of his long-time girlfriend, Clarissa. Her long black hair tumbled over his steady shoulder. He enfolded her in his warm embrace. His lips were near her ear, and by his half smile, I imagined he was saying something clever. Jason’s face was heavier than when we were a couple. The top of his head was smooth and new white patches of hair appeared at his temples as well as in his thick beard. I thought about sliding my window open and shouting a hello in their direction, but I stopped and just watched instead. As they waited to cross Seventh Avenue, my bus swung past them moving me further east.
Jason once loved me. His black-in-brown eyes used to study my face until I blushed with embarrassment. On the night we met, in 1982, after an evening that bristled with potential, we parted (him headed up the hill toward Syracuse University’s main campus, me headed down toward my dorm). Jason turned and caught me looking back at him. I whipped around, quickly suppressing a thrill of laughter. He had peeked too, I marveled. We both needed one more glimpse of each other.
Jason was an artist, a filmmaker, a painter, a writer, a violinist. Jason was painfully quiet, tender, thoughtful, affectionate. Once we began kissing and touching we couldn’t stop. Where my previous sexual partners were ignorant, he was curious. When other men didn’t want to be seen with me in the bright of day, he invited me to family dinners. I fell for him, his mother, his potential, his Armenian family, his olive skin, his hairy body, his family’s art-filled house, and his love for me.
When we first moved to New York, we rode the train in from Queens with our hands touching. Or I leaned into his solid-soft body as I occupied myself with a book during the half-hour commute. It was all so easy until I made it impossible.
More than 23 years ago, I stood on the elevated platform in Queens, just a foot away from the edge. Cold autumn winds blew in from the East River and pressed against my face.
“I don’t feel very well,” I said as I stared at the traffic flowing underneath. “Richard and I went out after rehearsal and he started us on shots. Anyway… I kinda lost count you know? I got sick. In the park. We just walked by the spot.” I turned back and looked at Jason. Drinking to excess was not a new habit, the venue had changed when we moved, but I still carried on much like a new college freshman finally away from parental disapproval.
Jason’s heavy brow folded in consternation. He focused on his hands. His fingers, intertwined, rubbed up and down, knuckle rubbing knuckle, a constant movement of agitation.
“What?” I said. He shrugged his shoulders. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
His face tightened, eyebrows squeezing together, lips disappearing between heavy mustache and beard.
“What? Just say it!” I demanded. He looked up, about to speak, then pulled back, hunching his shoulders and rocking slightly.
The platform shook. I looked at the oncoming subway car and saw the motormen, hands on levers, controlling the hulking train. For a moment I considered leaning toward the tracks, but I hesitated and the train pushed past me. When the door slid open Jason and I took seats, careful not to touch each other.
Finally, he turned to me, taking a breath, “It’s just that you tried to have sex with me when you got home last night. You woke me up, grabbed me, then passed out. You smelled terrible, I couldn’t sleep after that.”
I blew air out between my lips, letting them flutter. What he said sounded about right. It wasn’t the first time that I staggered home drunk and woke him up to be forgiven. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He shrugged. We rode in silence, stations and people coming and going. The train pulled into Times Square. I had to get out and transfer uptown to get to rehearsal. I was a stage manager at the time.
“I can’t talk about this now,” I said standing in the doorway of the train. I stepped out of the subway car. The doors closed between us. We stared at each other from opposite sides of the glass. The train pulled out and I watched it get smaller and smaller until it disappeared, leaving only the black tunnel.
* * *
Jason and Clarissa looked so settled and happy. After being together for almost 20 years, they looked like they were still in love. Jason and I had only managed to eke out four years. It was early 1986 when we broke up, or, rather, when Jason was finally burned badly enough to let me go. The last thing I did to him was to go on a national theatrical tour.
My friend Robert called it a “B-class bus and truck… with a little drek thrown in.” I was the stage manager. We chased around the United States presenting a version of Cyrano De Bergerac starting from upstate New York, traveling to the Midwest and on to California, looping down through Nevada across Texas, through the South, pausing for a month in Boston and eventually limping into Baltimore. We did our best to present a good show and have sex with as many locals as possible. I resisted the impulse to betray Jason. At night, as the rock-and-roll style bus we rode on tore down dark highways, I tucked myself into my coffin-sized cubicle with my bottle of scotch for companionship. After the incident in the park, I depended on Jason to keep me from drinking too much. Zooming across the country, miles away from him, I was lost.
In Ames, Iowa we all got hotel rooms. A rare two-night stay in one city meant that we had showers, beds, and most of the next day off until show time. When we walked into the theater and got introduced to the crew, I saw that my prop man wasn’t the usual grizzled stagehand, but a sweet, corn-fed, college student with smooth, milky skin and innocent eyes.
Later that night, after a party in the hotel, I pounced and ravished him.
“So did you do it?” asked Robert, the production stage manager, as we stood in line for the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
“Oh Jesus, yeah. I did it,” I moaned. “I wish I hadn’t. I don’t deserve a man like Jason.
“Don’t be hard on yourself. What happens on the road doesn’t really count,” said Robert.
“Maybe,” I said brightening.
Drunk one night, I raged into the arms of Bobby the one-eyed bus driver. In Corpus Christi I screwed a stagehand on the bus after the show. I paused for a few days in Austin to be with Jason. The day after he flew back to New York, the costume woman commented to me, “I’ve never seen you with a black man,” so I picked up Jimmy in Huntsville, Alabama. In Dayton I tried to have sex with a lighting technician named Kenny; however, due to lack of heat at his house, we ended up in the hotel room that Robert and I shared. Robert kindly pretended to be sleeping while Kenny and I tousled on the next bed. After Robert’s challenge that he hadn’t seen me sleep with a woman, I hopped on the back of a motorcycle with a cute lesbian from Sarasota. At a post-show reception in Richmond I met a reporter, Jerry, and spent a sleepless night seeing the sights and then having sex in his filthy apartment on top of his dirty laundry. Through it all I smothered a faint guilty voice with top-shelf scotch and cans of cheap beer.
In Boston the ground stopped moving. Jason visited. Perfect, except that I had a sexually transmitted disease. If I could have lied or bargained my way around telling him, I would have. I resolved to only release a fraction of the facts.
“Jason, you have to go to the doctor,” I said as he sat in my hotel room high above the Boston Common. Large windows faced out onto a silver-grey sky filled with snow clouds that were ready to burst. “I have Chlamydia and… there’s a chance I gave it to you. If we both don’t get treated you could re-infect me.”
Jason sat quietly for a second, the storm passing through him. He looked up, a new expression on his face, one I hadn’t seen before, the look of righteous anger.
“I could re-infect you? Wait a minute. How did I get infected in the first place?”
As I looked at Jason, all the men from the tour marched through my brain. How many had I given the disease to? Some of them were married. How many turned around and gave it to someone else?
“I think I gave it to you,” I spoke quickly. “I had sex with the bus driver — once. I think he got it from the costume lady. I sorry; he’s gone now. He didn’t mean anything to me. It just happened.”
Silence. Jason’s eyes fell. It was like the spotlight that I had come to enjoy suddenly dimmed. He brought his hands to his face and rubbed over forehead and cheekbone, up and down, trying to erase the information.
“Jason, I missed you so much. It was so hard out there. I’m sorry.”
He rose, walked past me and gathered up his black wool coat. He left me standing alone in my icy hotel room. I walked to the window and looked out on the street far below. Shoppers hustled through the area carrying packages and darting across the road. I curled up on the bed and waited.
Jason came back a few hours later. His silence seemed like a good sign. He left for New York the next day without breaking it off, begrudgingly promising to see a doctor and get the necessary prescription.
He never visited me at our last stop, Baltimore. I drank to drunk every night and had sex with five men in 30 days. One morning I came to and turned on the television news. The space shuttle “Challenger” had blown itself up.
I went back to New York with an ounce of cocaine, a new, bitter, ironic, world-weary laugh and nothing left inside to give anyone. Jason looked at me like a stranger who just parachuted into his bedroom. I gave no hint that I wanted to mend our tainted relationship. He broke it off a month after my return.
Jason eventually settled with Clarissa while I continued to wander from barstool to barstool, pausing long enough to pick up my neighbor and hope that we could build a relationship based on drinking in the same bar at the same time. I still had eleven more years of alcohol ahead of me.
* * *
The sun was just fading on St. Marks Place when I got off the cross-town bus. Golden autumn light bounced off high windows and created squares of brightness on the sidewalk. As I passed through one, a moment of sun flashed in my eyes. The eastern sky was beginning to take on the deep blue hue that reminds me of summers in the country and endless possibilities. I walked toward home where my husband, Charles, another sweet and gentle man, was waiting for me. Now free of alcohol and the self-imposed flurry of drama, I had built a new, happier life. I could leave Jason to his own — happy, far away, and untroubled by me.
Susan said it best, “Stark and honest.” Well done and thank you so much for sharing.
Loved this. Stark and honest and wise.
This story really tore at me. Wonderful.
I love the honesty in this piece. And–fortunately or unfortunately–I also can relate to much of this subject matter. I worked in the music industry in my early 20s, what can I say–our motto was often, what happens on the tour bus, stays on the tour bus! Thank you for being so open and honest–and willing–to take us on this journey of personal growth and discovery. We at Hippo are glad this piece found a home. – Donna