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I should have known better. I was thirty-four years old. I'd made peace with the who, what and where of myself. I did not crave importance or fame. Nancy thought I might be depressed. She would, but she may have been right. We'd been each other's sounding board, witness and back scratcher since college.
I went down to Washington to see Nancy Wenceslas. She was feeling unhinged in her new life and wanted my help. "I seem to need a mental health visit, Eck," she admitted sadly. So I went. The other thing began as a lark, a diversion, a harmless stumble. But the stumble became a fall, a long slide down a slippery slope that later landed me in the public white noise. You probably think you know all about me, if you ever caught my name.
The world is full of other people's words.
"Hear about Keanu and Geffen? Woo woo."
"In your dreams. Wishful thinking by some old fag."
"I hear Klein pays beautiful men to humiliate him."
"Gee. I never have to pay for that."
"Proposal: Clinton is Bush with a Southern accent and est training. Respond."
"Who said that? You're an idiot cynic to say that. After the last Republican convention?"
"But he's right. Talk is cheap. All the nice talk from the Crats hasn't changed squat."
"My dears. If you want to talk like newspapers, go to a room and leave the rest of us to our fun."
What sounded like a party had almost no sound at all, only the sporadic dice-like click of my computer keyboard. Our sentences were silent, instant, words jetting across the screen, lines scrolling into oblivion. Once you grew accustomed to it, Gayworld was no stranger than talking on the telephone. You stopped seeing the format, abbreviations and misspellings:
The Cardinal: Who the f is Gefen???
But I was a newbie and still found the chatline odd and metaphorical, an elastic black hole, a computer game of words. I often felt like I was talking to imaginary spirits on an electronic Ouija board, with only the example of my friend Peter Hirsch to assure me that these people were real. Peter had introduced me to Gayworld, goading and coaxing me into the future with the promise of bold new freedoms.
The dark green ether was honeycombed by rooms much like my own, mostly in New York, with occasional aliens dropping in from other area codes. I sat in my shadowy shoe box five stories above East Ninth Street, beneath my overloaded bookcase and a ceiling that shed yellow eggshells of paint. A cold November rain beat against the glass and slurred in the leaky window frame, but there's no weather in cyberspace. It was the Tuesday night before my trip to D.C. and I'd turned on my computer to chat before bed, like dropping into a bar, only I didn't have to get dressed. I wore a ratty sweater and the gym shorts I sleep in when I sleep alone. Peter said that when his boyfriend Nick was out he sometimes sat naked at his keyboard, not for sex—one used the phone lines for that—but simply to remind himself that he was more than a bombardment of electrons.
Everyone had a handle, a pseudonym, so it was like a masked ball in the telephone system. We were an eclectic mix of fantasy egos: the Cardinal, Billy Budd, Tom of Chelsea and Shanghai Lily, who was Peter—"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Peter had met most of the regulars and reported that they tended to be techies and nerds. A nerd manqué myself, I was in no hurry to meet anyone. I enjoyed remaining mysterious. Torn between pretention and camp, I became Sergeant Rock, which seemed a good joke, although people who didn't know me had no truth to rub against it.
"Mr. and Mrs. Clinton appear to be making enemies left and right. (Pun intended.) What do you New York types think of that?"
There was a new handle on the screen tonight: Thersites. He insisted on talking politics, but only Billy Budd rose to the bait. Our preferred subjects were movies, books, gossip and computers—the medium was often the message here.
"My dear Thirsty. I rap my fan across your knuckles," went Shanghai Lily. "Politics nix."
Dry and soft-spoken in life, Peter was a tyrannical hostess in Gayworld. And his camp side, which peeked out in an occasional "dear" at the bookstore, ran wild. He was forty-two, a former actor-singer who worked with me at Left Bank Books, although we'd known each other before. I'd gotten Peter the job a year ago when he needed to get on group health insurance. He was okay now, but still carefully rationed his time, energy and passions.
I couldn't remember who or what Thersites was. A character in one of Plato's Dialogues? I pictured an older man in the boondocks with a classical education and too many magazine subscriptions.
"Anyone going to Hell this Friday?"
"No way. Got caught in the darkest back corner last time."
"The elephant's graveyard," I quipped.
"Bingo. You never know whose clammy butt you're pawing."
"I prefer Tunnel of Love at Wonderbar."
"More like the Broom Closet of Love," I typed. I knew the clubs well, but hadn't visited them in months.
"Whatcha doing this weekend, Sarge?"
"Going to DC to see a friend."
"A friend from college," I explained. "A woman."
"I have tickets to Rigoletto," announced Billy Budd.
"SOSO," typed someone else—same old same old.
"And I take the flying boat to Bermuda on Friday for bridge with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor," said Shanghai Lily.
I knew that Peter was scheduled to spend Friday at St. Vincent's for his monthly tests.
"May you come up trumps every time," I told him.
A longer entry crowded the screen:
"You say that you are coming to Washington, Sergeant Rock? What a coincidence. I live in DC. You sound like an intriguing fellow. Would you care to meet for coffee while you are in town?"
Thersites. He'd been drafting the invitation while the conversation moved on.
"Thanks but I won't have time," I quickly answered.
"Don't be shy, dear. Go meet him," said Shanghai Lily. I could just see Peter smirking lewdly at his screen.
"Please, Sergeant. I meet so few people F2F"—face-to-face.
"Do it, Sarge."
"Go get him, tiger."
"What else is there to do in DC?"
Everyone jumped in, a pack of computer yentas determined to see Sergeant Rock, who never met anyone, actually make a date.
I couldn't think clearly in the cascade of input. "Can we step into a room and discuss it?" I told Thersites.
I brought down a box and clicked myself in.
"Wish me luck, gentlemen." Thersites clicked himself in with me. I clicked again.
The others would see our box sucked to a dot while an empty field filled my own screen. I needed the space to think. Because, despite myself, I was already tempted. What else was there to do in D.C.? I expected several long, heavy conversations with Nancy, but she would be busy during the day, and coffee with a stranger, even a stuffy old man, might break up an idle afternoon.
"Hello," he began.
"You live in DC?" I was stalling. Being alone in the digital dark with a stranger had a disturbingly erotic quality.
"I began in Maryland but now live in the District."
"I might like meeting for coffee but don't know my schedule yet," I typed.
"Mine is quite flexible."
"Give me your phone number and I'll call when I'm in town."
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
He must have a boyfriend or, more likely, a wife. "What if I give you the number where I'll be?"
"When are you most likely to be free? Day or night?"
"Day I guess."
"Then why don't we meet at the zoo? Do you know the National Zoo?"
"Let us say four o'clock, Thursday afternoon, the zoo."
The zoo made it comically wholesome. Maybe he was literal about having coffee. He must be retired if his schedule was so flexible. Talking with a real New York homo might be enough for an old Southern gentleman.
"OK. If I'm free."
"What if something comes up and I can't be there?"
"That's a chance we must take."
"You don't want a number where you can reach me?"
"Let's leave it like this. For the suspense. (Gentle laughter.)"
He made it easier for me to stand him up. "Suit yourself. Where in the zoo? It's a big place as I remember."
"The reptile house."
"What cage will you be in?"
"(Hysterical laughter.)" Only the most literal man would regularly type in his stage directions. "Shall we meet by the pythons?"
"OK. What do you look like?" I typed.
"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
"How old are you?"
He spoke in footnotes. A retired academic? "But how will we know each other when we meet?"
"It adds to the mystery."
I decided to take no chances. "I am 34. I have a shaved head. I am more Mr. Clean than Sergeant Rock."
"Stop! I refuse to read what you wrote. I want us to surprise each other."
"(Sigh.)," I typed mockingly, although the irony wouldn't transmit. "All right. I will be there if I can."
"I will look for a male who is looking for a male. Am I right to assume you are male?"
"(Gentle laughter!) Most definitely."
"I feel like Kitty Carlisle."
"Never mind. Shall we rejoin the others?"
"I will say good-bye. Until Thursday at the reptile house."
"See you Thursday. If I can make it."
His cursor blossomed into a square, the black bar blinked and he was gone.
Back in the main room, the yentas were hungry for details:
"Who is he?"
"You meeting him?"
"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies," I replied.
"Did you at least learn what a Thirsty-ditty-do was?" said Shanghai Lily.
"Not yet. There's a good chance I won't."
"Puss puss puss," someone chided.
I told everyone good night and booted down. I took out my date book and lightly penciled, "Reptile house, 4 pm." If it was a joke, Thersites had a very private, cryptic sense of humor.
When I replaced the computer jack with my phone jack, the telephone promptly rang.
"So why not meet this guy?"
After the silent words, Peter's velvet voice was so startlingly physical that I could hear his long, deadpan face, his lanky frame, his elongated fingers.
"I don't know if I'll have the time. I'm not going down there for fun, you know. Nancy needs my help."
"You are such a frigging Boy Scout," Peter said. "You know, most people, if a friend sold out, would write them off as a lost cause. They wouldn't take time off to go hold their hand."
I frowned. "That sounds like Nick talking."
Peter clicked his teeth, embarrassed to be caught with a borrowed observation. "It is. But he has a point."
"Come off it, Peter. Nancy's a good friend who needs to see me. And she didn't sell out."
"Okay, okay. She seemed nice enough the few times I met her." He quickly disowned the charge. "But you know Nicky. Power corrupts. They're all crooks or cowards and D.C. is closet city."
"Nick underestimates Nancy. And she's out down there." So out that she suspected she was known as the Other Lesbian, to distinguish her from the assistant secretary at HUD. "Nick wouldn't be so scornful if he still had a little power."
"I won't argue with that," said Peter. "He misses his glory days on the barricades."
"I respect his anger," I claimed. "When it doesn't turn self-indulgent." I liked Nick—I once liked him very much—but couldn't forgive his constant sniping at Nancy.
"When you coming back?"
"Saturday. So I'll be there at breakfast on Sunday."
"Well, tell Nancy hi. And seriously, if you meet Thirsty, I want to hear the gory details."
"There'll be no gore to share, Peter. See you Sunday."CHAPTER 2
The brick hulks of dead factories and high stride of power-line pylons swung across a cold blue sky in my window. It was a weekday afternoon, the train half-empty. I had two seats to myself and sat sprawled with Can You Forgive Her?, the first novel in Trollope's Palliser series. I loved to read on trains. It was like time tripping. I especially enjoyed visits to the nineteenth century, not because it was more restful than the present but because it seemed thicker, more solid and knowable, its people embedded in a dense cake of custom and conscience.
I was not quite of the decade. I preferred Victorian novels to new movies, trains to planes, Fruit of the Loom to Calvin Klein. I owned a computer only because a friend had left me a Mac in his will. On the other hand, there was my head, which I'd been shaving for a year. Not razor shiny, but once a week with electric clippers, a haircut that ranged from five o'clock shadow to a skullcap of springy brown velvet. I did it first for the novelty, then continued because it saved twenty dollars a pop at the barber. And it provided instant distinction, easing the chore of proving myself cool or queer or artistic. My skull had a nice shape and the brain can be a sexy organ. I was not who I looked like but I knew who I was. The distance between appearance and reality gave me more room to breathe.
I began to think about Nancy once we passed Wilmington, but with more curiosity than fear. I enjoyed being needed yet knew she'd need me only so much. This trip was for Nancy, yet I didn't see myself as a Good Samaritan. I looked forward to escaping the cramp of New York knowingness, and to spending a few days with my oldest friend.
Nancy had phoned a week ago, sounding frantic yet amused by her panic, which was her style. She did not plead or whine. She gave no single cause for her emotional crisis, but cited work, stress and loneliness. "I need a reality fix," she said.
"You must be in trouble if I represent reality."
"You better believe it," she said with a laugh.
I offered her two days of vacation available to me before the Christmas rush began, plus my Friday and Saturday off. We often took holidays in each other's troubles. When she broke up with her first lover, I went down to Philadelphia to provide distraction and continuity. She came to New York to do the same for me when Alberto went into the hospital for the last time.
"I need a reality fix myself," I said. "And I want to see life in the new regime. You're my window on Washington, Nance."
"That's all I am these days. Glassy essence."
"Out the ass."
Our friendship had a highly literary bass line. We'd met on the school literary magazine at Chapel Hill, when I was going to be a poet, Nancy a teacher and critic. Our ambitions were perpendicular yet complementary; we extended each other. Not that anything literary came of either of us. Twelve years after college, I no longer thought of myself as an unhatched Yeats or Stevens, but as the capable head of shipping and receiving at a bookstore near NYU. And Nancy worked on Capitol Hill.
She was not in Congress. She wasn't even a politician. You may have seen her on CNN during a Senate hearing. You've certainly seen people like her, the aides and staffers lining the wall behind the men whose very public faces have the half-animate familiarity of life-sized Muppets. Women senators are too rare to look like cartoons, and the staffers are clearly human, young unknowns anxiously waiting for a split second of celebrity when they pass a document to the boss. The guys can be quite cute, as many of us discovered during the Anita Hill hearings.
Nancy didn't go to Washington until a year after Anita Hill. It was a surprising move for a Ph.D. with a dissertation on codes of lesbian desire in Emily Dickinson. Unable to find a tenure-track teaching post, she'd taken an administrative job at Penn that included writing speeches for the dean. A gift for snappy phrases that Nancy herself dismissed as "the thousand clichés of light" caught the attention of the president of Bryn Mawr, a former state representative who'd decided to run for the Senate. She hired Nancy as a speechwriter and, when she won in an upset that pundits ascribed to female anger over the incumbent's cross-examination of Hill, took Nancy with her to D.C.
"Does your crisis have anything to do with Melissa?"—the lawyer Nancy had been dating since August.
"Oh no. That's turned out to be purely social. We squeeze each other in once a week, if we're lucky. If either of us had time to meet someone new, we'd quietly disengage. Just as well. I can't be myself with her. You know me, Ralph. I have to present a tough front. Which brings out the pathological liar in me. Even with Melissa."
"It's not pathological. It's just—"
Excerpted from Gossip by Christopher Bram. Copyright © 1997 Christopher Bram. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 2, 2013
Christopher Bram is one of my most favorite authors. I have read most of his books, but apparently missed this one. I have yet to be dissapointed by any of his work. This story moves right along as he deals with issues that truly plague gay LGBT culture. Dr. August still remains for me his best.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2004
'Gossip' is one of those 'read until 3am 'cause you just can't put it down' novels. You, too, will be caught up in the Washington gossip wheel, the neck-breaking speed of a murder investigation, and the torrid love affair of two seemingly different yet appealing men, one a closeted Washingtonian, another an 'out, proud, and loud' New Yorker.' The sense that you're on a train bound for disaster is palpable. How one character (insert self here) could end up in such desperate, dire circumstances-when it becomes hard to breathe-is truly mind reeling and dizzying. A totally satisfying read! Read it...trust me.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 14, 2001
I cannot believe that I am the first person writing a review for this great book! Previously, I had read 'Father of Frankenstein' and 'The Notorious Dr. August' by Mr. Bram, which were excellent. 'Gossip' was totally beyond anything I imagined. A great story. Realistic characters. Plus, the story is a slow boiling, escalating whodunnit. Bravo, Mr. Bram. A real page-turner. You will be up until the middle of the night reading it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.