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For a generation, Ethan Mordden's tales about a tightly knit circle of friends who live within the shifting confines of gay Manhattan have entertained tens of thousands of readers and devoted fans. Now Mordden returns to his best-loved characters - the ultimate hunk Carlo; the best friend Dennis Savage; J. (who was once Little Kiwi); Cosgrove the maturing elf-child; and narrator and ultimate observer Bud - in this eagerly awaited new volume in the cycle.
How's Your Romance? brings the series and the characters full circle – from the early days just post-Stonewall to the vicissitudes, delights, and challenges of the early twenty-first century. Blending the comic, the sexy, the tragic, and the at once realistic and idealistic, these stories are Mordden at his very best.
About the Author
Ethan Mordden is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and many other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.
Read an Excerpt
Tell Them About the Flip
Twice a year, each of my publishers mails a financial statement, indicating how many copies of each title have been sold and including a royalty check — that is, my percentage of the gross.
These checks can be pathetically small, yet they arouse Cosgrove's interest. As he cannot absorb the concept of royalties, he believes that somehow, somewhere, somebody is accidentally paying me for work that was compensated for years ago. And as this is clearly found money, Cosgrove feels that we should bank it in a special "rainy-day fund."
"Meaning," I said, as he handed me the mail, containing two pieces of what he has come to recognize as publishers' accounting department communication, "you want to use it to buy CDs."
He said nothing but sweetly whistled "We're in the Money" as I opened the envelopes and examined the statements.
"One of these checks is for twenty-eight dollars," I told him. "You want it? It's yours."
He clasped his hands at his throat like an opera diva going for high C as I endorsed it over to him.
"What's the big deal?" I said. "You don't even have a checking account."
"I know someone who will cash this for me," he explained, tucking it into his wallet.
"If you really want extra money," I said, filing the bills and dumping the junkmail, "why don't you write porn stories like J. and sell them to the slicks?"
"Would they publish my stories?"
"Here's a secret that was confided to me some years ago by the porn king himself, John Preston. One day a month, an editor assumes control of the pile of submitted manuscripts and makes the following deductions: everything handwritten, out; everything on both sides of each page, out; everything with no margins, out; everything entirely in capital letters, out; and so on, till three stories are left. The editor accepts those three stories."
"But how do you write porn?" Cosgrove asked, following me into the bedroom.
"By idealizing. Bring together two hot men of a very disparate type who in real life would never meet, much less have sex." Changing my clothes for some imminent socializing, I went on, "Banker's car breaks down near farm, farmer invites banker to spend the night, both go whee! Or: high-school teacher meets former student, the two repair to teacher's apartment, student reveals titanic gym development and longtime wish to ball teacher, both go whee!"
Cosgrove looked doubtful. "It isn't hot to say whee!, though, is it?"
One pats his head or rubs the back of his neck at such moments. "Figure of speech, pal."
Buzzer: Doorman: Peter Keene coming up.
"Look, I'll help you," I said. "Give it some thought, then I'll show you how to outline it. Remember, though: you don't start with a situation. You start with characters."
"Could I start with Vince Choclo? Except what type is he?"
"Why Vince Choclo?"
"Because it's such a good name. It's so dumb and dippy, he'll have to be hot. He will be pleading in the big scene, where everything's at stake and the crowd are fearful as the Zombie Contessa goes into her monkey dance." After a moment he added, "I may be writing postmodernesque porn."
Peter came in wearing running shorts, a sleeveless muscle-T, and a do-rag; I think he would have failed the dress code at a dog fight.
"Hey, pirate, where's your doubloons?" Cosgrove asked him.
"You go make coffee," Peter told him. "For I have news, friends. I have fallen very, very heavily for a fellow man, and if I could only — no, you mustn't congratulate me, for this is a wondrous yet terrible thing. You feel so enlarged, so re-created ... but you, yes, mope with joy, you worry ..."
He sat on the couch, excited and flustered, wanting to spill thirty secrets at once.
"Could this be just the slightest bit premature?" I asked. "I mean, you picked up some guy in the street for the three hundredth time and —"
"No, no, my — and I don't blame you — cynical friend. I've been a glad slut. But I never mentioned the 'L' word before, did I? For the last three weeks, I've been trying to ... well, yes, to shape this lecture I knew I'd be giving you, yet I still don't know where to —"
"Let me call Dennis Savage down," I put in, going to the phone. "If it's that serious."
Peter went right on talking, ignoring the fact that I was briefly speaking to Dennis Savage and completely missing the appearance of the head of Fleabiscuit from under the couch, deftly to teethe on one of Peter's shoelaces and pull the knot open. It's his latest trick. Through all of this, I caught snatches of the time-honored phrases. You know: " ... when I realized I couldn't wait the required three days ..." and "He wasn't going to get out of my apartment alive" and "We just held each other and ..."
Absently retying his shoelace, Peter mused, "If I told you his name, would it ... or if I tried to describe the taste of his ..."
"Week-old underpants?" said Cosgrove from the kitchen doorway.
Peter was quietly beside himself, running down like a fake Rolex. "Where do I even start?" he bleated. "It all comes out at once. One ... raves."
"'That is the usual method, but not mine — My way is to begin with the beginning,'" said Cosgrove.
Peter paused, then asked, "Isn't that Byron somehow?"
I nodded. "Cosgrove's studying Don Juan in preparation for a writing career. He's starting with porn, but who knows? Maybe one day you'll publish his first novel, perhaps a high-society whodunit."
Cosgrove agreed, and even offered a working title: The Secret Diary of the Zombie Contessa.
"The beginning ... His name is Lars Erich Blücher. His family came here when he was six, so he speaks fluent English with the sexiest little accent and blunders that bewitch one fatally. I met him in Sheep Meadow three Sundays ago, and we haven't been apart for a day since, because he's life itself. Around him, everyone else becomes ... meaningless. But then, you two must know what I ..."
Regarding Cosgrove and me, Peter stopped, decided not to go there, and as he dived into a rhapsody on Lars Erich's looks, he again failed to notice that Fleabiscuit had poked his way out from under the couch and untied his other shoelace.
"Wait a minute," I said. "I'll be the last to discount the importance of a healthy physical appearance in gay courtship etiquette. But what's this guy's personality like?"
"If you saw the way that tiny waist draws up to those en garde shoulders," said Peter, retying his shoelace, "you wouldn't ask."
Then Dennis Savage came in, and Cosgrove served the coffee as Peter tried to bring Dennis Savage up to speed. But the Master simply held out his hand, saying, "Let's view the evidence."
"What evidence?" Peter asked.
"You must have a selection of photographs for us to consider. George Bush wouldn't. Rudy Giuliani wouldn't. You do."
Peter hesitated, blushing, then dug a few snapshots out and passed them around. An opulent silence filled the room as we examined and shared.
Cosgrove asked, "What type is this?"
"Big blond boy," I said. "With intelligent eyes. It's a seventies build with nineties details. Or no —"
"You cannot type him," said Peter. "He is beyond type."
And yet. Lars Erich Blücher belonged to some category; every beauty does. He was in his early thirties, with a Teutonic face at once buoyant and hard. His hair was a blend of yellow and light brown, cut short around the ears but thick on top, he sported one of those lean torsos, all the muscle packed into the arms and thighs, and, in these snaps, he was clad only in dark green Lederhosen and kitschy suspenders. The silly clothes on the astonishing person created a paradox: the grinning man, the authoritative boy. He respected the taxonomy while outwitting it, which made him impossible to categorize.
"If you knew what it is to love as I suddenly know it," said Peter as we studied the pictures, "you would flee from love."
"Why is it," asked Dennis Savage, "that everyone who finally falls in love thinks he's discovered radium or something?" A sip of coffee, then: "And when do we meet the prodigy?"
"Gradually," said Peter. "You know? He had me to dinner two nights ago, and I thought it would be we two and a meat loaf. Well, ha!: seared tuna, spinach almondine, silver on the table, and six of his friends. I felt very, very auditioned, my pals. Inspected. At least they were mainly gym bunnies. The most incredible stomach crust but very little between the ears."
"How did you know they have crust?" Cosgrove asked.
"Well, they're always pulling each other's shirts up and holding mini-contests, aren't they? If I weren't so hefty myself, they ... well, they'd turn quite against a fellow. Now, imagine plopping Lars Erich among you intellectual cut-'em-ups all at once. What would occur?"
Cosgrove said, "I dread to think"; and Dennis Savage snapped back, "Everyone knows you dread to think."
Without shifting his seat on the couch in the slightest, Peter held them apart while continuing, "So I thought, let's not have a general scrutiny of my ... Yes, Lars Erich wants to expand his CD collection. Weak in his classics, it seems, though like all Europeans he's horribly brisk on the rudiments. Knowing how many symphonies Brahms wrote and even the D Major or e minor part. Does the key matter, one wonders?"
Taking advantage of the altercation between Cosgrove and Dennis Savage, Fleabiscuit had slithered out from under the couch to reopen Peter's right shoelace.
"A symphony in D Major," I observed, "really is a different type of music from one in any minor key. Boys," I then warned Cosgrove and Dennis Savage, who were winding down anyway. "Each type creates a different drama."
"Yes, but so I thought if you alone went with Lars Erich and me to Tower Records for an expert's buy, it would smooth my friend's way into the ... well, coterie. I was thinking this Sunday, with lunch after."
"This guy with the gym-bunny friends and the Lederhosen," I said. "What does he do for a living?"
"He trains seeing-eye dogs."
That so startled us that even Cosgrove and Dennis Savage shared a wow! look. Fleabiscuit sought to celebrate the moment by opening Peter's left shoelace.
"You found some hero?" I said. "A good guy?"
"Would I fall for a ribbon clerk?" Peter countered.
"But what is his type?" Cosgrove insisted, holding up one of the Lars Erich photos.
"His type is love," said Peter, retying his shoelace.
"You've hooked up with a man in a charity service industry," said Dennis Savage, incredulously. "Why did I foresee a liaison with a soap-opera stud? A circus strongman?"
"Because you think all gay men are materialists."
"No, just you."
"I want to come to Tower, too," said Cosgrove. "This guy could model for a character in my series of porn stories. Only there is no desk for Cosgrove in this apartment. Some may ask, Does he have a theme? Yes. Yet there are those who will fear the dire mythology I unveil."
"I would need a decoder ring to even begin replying to all that," said Peter. "Except this first time it really should be just Bud. The rest of us are so ... unpredictable?"
Followed then a bit of scurrying around. Dennis Savage went upstairs, Cosgrove set out on household errands, and Peter took a refill on coffee.
"It's okay about Tower, right?" Peter asked me, relaxing a little, as, I've noticed, he always does when a group boils down to a twosome. He doesn't like having to Hold the Stage. "I can't wait to see how you ... But that's gay life, isn't it? Presenting your new boy friend, and your buddies hold this pep rally thing, and deep bonds are forged. Why do my shoelaces keep coming undone whenever I sit on this couch?"
"Would you please finally take that ridiculous thing off your head?"
He did, and that was even worse: he was bald.
"Christ and Judas!" I said. "What are you doing?"
"Well, it's a look. The hair'll grow back. Haven't you ever wondered how you'd seem without ... Some men find it attractive."
"I've never wondered how I'd seem being eaten by wolves. I've never wondered how I'd seem going down on the Andrea Doria. And I've never wondered how I'd seem bald."
"Lars Erich digs it."
The next few seconds hosted a gently rapturous moment, as Peter contemplated his great good fortune.
"Just to ... to talk to him," Peter finally fluted out. "His smile as he dives into little German phrases. The fierce way he pushes me onto my back, his hair falling across his forehead and his mouth frowning like a little boy's. Can I whisper to you?"
Not waiting for a reply, he leaned over and quoted, in a synthetic German accent, "'Now it is my Peter who is being fucked, you will see that!'"
Retying my right shoelace, I set up the logistics for the Tower trip in a tone designed to conclude the visit, but Peter appeared to have one more thing on his mind.
"Yes?" I said, stopped while working my way to the door.
He rose; he didn't follow. "I need to say this, but I'm afraid you'll think I'm crazy."
"I already think you're crazy."
"It's a sort of ... yes, a ... a dream, you see, that I, you might say, entertain. You'll find it strange. I don't know where it came from, but it's in me somehow. I can't get away from it, shocking though that ... But I have to tell you, or someone. It's funny how concerned one can be about appearances, then ... suddenly ... you aren't at all."
"Sure you are — you've just changed the appearances."
"It's about a sacrifice ceremony. Drums and feathers in a sacred grove, the Maria Montez thing. And he's the sacrifice, struggling in the grip of burly guards ... or why use that silly vague straight term, 'burly'? No, they're lavish dynamite, as hungry to fuck him as to ... You see how frontal it gets? As if a boy this beautiful cannot simply be loved. He must be done to on the highest level, an ultimate worship, with a sort of ... death love ... like Tristan and Isolde?"
"Bound and crying out and looking around for help that will not come and he has never been more beautiful. He's too splendid to live, almost. It's like that exposé on talk radio, did you see that? Where the black voice said, 'I want to kill a pretty white boy.' It's all so ... Oh, wait till Sunday."
As we walked to the door, Fleabiscuit came running out from under the couch, began to frolic, suddenly realized that he was About to Be Left Alone in Bud's Sadistic Grip, wurfed, and raced into the bedroom to hide.
"Thank you for listening to me," Peter said. Then, impulsively, he gave me our first hug.
"Now, that's gay life," I told him as I opened the door. "Someone is willing to hear what you need to say."
It is worth remarking on Lars Erich's unique sophistication of looks, because we have been graduated from a time when everyone in gay was either a type or invisible. Nowadays, most guys are not types; and the whole typing system has grown so complex it's meaningless.
It was so simple before, in the early days of Stonewall. Fantasy cartoonists proclaimed the styles: on the one hand Tom of Finland's dangerous giants, and on the other Toby's plunderable goslings. I kept wondering whether these artists were tapping into something universal or were outlining a vision dear only to themselves. But the porn stars were not kids: hairy-chested Richard Locke, one of the first gays to take a tattoo (a butterfly on the right thigh); an eerily handsome galoot named Paul something who Colted under the billing of Ledermeister; and an angel-faced hoodlum named Jimmy Hughes who won The Advocate's Groovy Guy contest and was almost immediately after convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault upon women he supposedly abducted from supermarket parking lots.
So you could not be a kid, it seemed. You could not even be you. You had to be big, rough-hewn, surprising. Bright and funny — the essence of urban gay — was unhot. But what was hot? Abducting women from supermarket parking lots?
"I hate this," Dennis Savage would wail, coming back from the gym in his early days there. "It is so sheerly punishment." Still, his mesomorph structure took on the extra flash easily, and he so enjoyed the results that he upped his program. Then, too, the gym — Profile for Men, just down Second Avenue from our building — was notoriously cruisy. Orgies were known to break out in the steam room.
One day, as a shirtless Dennis Savage flexed and paraded around in his apartment with a sinful grin, I asked, "Are gays having so much sex simply because it's pleasurable? Or is it part of a psychological transaction?"
"You have to teach a guy to like himself," said Carlo, coming out of the kitchen munching an apple.
"How do you do that?"
Carlo thought it over while examining Dennis Savage's waist-to-shouders ratio. "You will show him solutions to his problems," Carlo began. "Always side with him against the world. ... Now you want to work the delts extra-heavy, my friend. Give yourself the wing look. Extra wide at the top is best. And not so much arms now."
"But they notice those first," Dennis Savage protested, moving to the mirror to see for himself what Stonewall had made of Jane Austen's Eligible Young Man: the hunk.
Excerpted from "How's Your Romance?"
Copyright © 2005 Ethan Mordden.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Table of Contents
Introduction: In Which Nothing Happens,
1. Tell Them About the Flip,
2. There Are Only Three Kinds of Love,
3. The Rock People,
4. We've Been Waiting for You for a Long Time,
5. A Death Threat from My Father,
6. Will All the Straight Guys Please Get Out of This Book?,
7. The Porn Story,
8. The Emergency Dollar,
Other Fiction by Ethan Mordden,
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