At sixty-five, Mark Armstrong was the same weight he’d been as a high school point guard—one-hundred-fifty-five pounds on a lean five-foot-eleven frame—though, as he liked to joke, the distribution was different. Still, he felt good about his health, about how he looked, brown hair moderately flecked with grey, near-sightedness camouflaged with contacts, face relatively unlined, good muscle tone from daily workouts. He considered himself a disciplined man in every way but one, and that he regretted.
Mark stood at the bar in the Oak Room and lifted his vodka tonic, took a small, deliberate sip and then carefully put the glass down on the napkin in precisely the same wet spot it had rested before. Casually, he did a half pivot, put his right elbow on the bar and looked out at the tables opposite the bar rail.
The Oak Room was a shotgun bar, narrow, and it seemed as long as a city block. The huge oak-encased mirror stretched the entire length of the bar and was complemented by a set of angled mirrors at the entrance so that the patrons could survey new arrivals.
Mark looked at his watch, just seven o’clock, yet there were only a few open spots at the bar. Most of the tables were also occupied, though there were a few empty chairs here and there.
There wasn’t a woman in the place. The locals would be shocked to learn there were so many gay men in Omaha, the “Heartland” of family values. So would his family and friends, Mark thought, looking again at the traffic entering the bar, fearing, as always, that a straight friend or acquaintance might see him. Not that he knew many people in Omaha. Besides, the locals would know the Oak Room was a gay bar. The problem would be if someone from home wandered in and sized up the situation. After all, Kansas City was only a few hours down the road.
Breathe, he told himself, relax. “Imagine you can just follow your breath,” his wife Barbara was always telling him, parroting the mantra of her yoga instructor.
Mark knew it wasn’t logical to worry so much. He’d never been outed in any of the Midwestern cities he traveled to, unless he counted himself, and maybe the operative word was acknowledged, because except for the occasional encounter after college, he’d been in denial until that autumn night forty-one years ago. Coincidentally, that had been in Omaha, at another gay bar called the Joker, long out of business, now, ironically, an Omaha Police Department satellite.
He had known the Joker’s reputation, had told himself that he was merely curious, and so, like a young woman of his era who wanted an excuse, he had drunk too much, hooked up with a trio–two older men and a girlish boy–and awakened the next day with the morning sun shining through the bedroom of a lovely brick home somewhere near the University of Omaha.
The hangover had been excruciating, the self-admission even worse. There could be no more rationalizations about the enlightened Greeks or a casual experiment. He was a gay man, a gay man with a wife and family to support.
Fortunately he was married to an asexual woman. Had he subconsciously seen that in her?
Their honeymoon had not been the stuff of dreams, both of them virgins, Barbara dry as a bone, crying, Mark doing his manly best to penetrate her. “The second immaculate conception” Barbara called it when she learned she was pregnant with Carol.
To say their sex life was sporadic would be an overstatement. The only stimulating exception was a trip to the Ozarks three years later, their first get-away since their honeymoon, when he and Barb drunkenly fucked like teen-agers, both of them apparently having decided they needed to be fueled by alcohol. Mark had been terrified at first that Barb had experienced a sexual awakening. But not to worry. The evening was an aberration, one they never talked about, though they were reminded of it nine months later when Scott was born. After that, what with the kids and their activities and Mark’s travels, sex wasn’t much a part of their life together.
Mark’s very private joke was that old age might be his sexual nirvana, a time when a closeted gay man could pretend his same-sex preference was simply the result of Alzheimer’s.
“Penny for your thoughts” a young voice said from behind Mark’s right shoulder.
Mark turned, startled.
“Jason,” the man said, extending his hand.
Mark automatically reached out to shake it. “Mark,” he said, smiling, seeing a young man in his mid-thirties, about the same age and size as his son Scott, even with his son’s slightly fluttery air, pleasant looking, non-descript, summer tanned, thinning brown hair, square jaw and brown eyes, average height and weight, most likely a beta male judging by his bearing and demeanor.
Notwithstanding his workout regimen, low fat diet and healthy life style, Mark was grateful for the diffused lighting. He looked ten years younger, unlike most married men, the lion’s share of whom, like their wives, had given up on their appearance. Whenever he heard straight men and women, divorced or widowed, talking about the dating rat race, he wanted to tell them they didn’t know the half of it. At least when they found someone it was for both companionship and sex. In his private world of one-nighters, it was all about how you looked. It made him appreciate Barb, his emotional anchor, and their best friend friendship, except for the one thing he kept from her.
Mark and Jason chit-chatted, superficial, vague, general talk. The crowd was increasing, as was the voice volume. More people. More distraction. Greater anonymity. It was now two deep along the bar railing, although the tables still had a few empty chairs with some interesting possibilities. For now, he’d hold his position at the bar. The night was young.
Maybe that’s how Jason had felt, why he’d drifted away after one drink. Or maybe he also preferred an alpha male. Or maybe Jason wasn’t interested in a pick-up old enough to be his father.
Mark glanced again in the mirror toward the front of the bar. He couldn’t help himself, his wariness ingrained. The angle of the sun’s glare had passed and now the people entering the Oak were easily identifiable, like snapshots reflected in the bar mirror.
Mark noticed two young women enter from the street. They were both in their early twenties, only a couple years older than his granddaughter Amy. They stood out in the sea of men, momentarily unaware of how out of place they were. Mark felt a flutter in his chest, a bird wanting to take flight. What if it was Amy and she saw him in a place like this? He couldn’t possibly explain himself. What irony, out of everyone in the family, she would be the most accepting, and yet her learning the truth would hurt both of them the most, not because of his being gay, but because he had hidden it from her.
Everyone in the family knew they were each others favorites, both bookish and quiet, “still water runs deep” someone would say, and he and Amy would look at each other and smile. Over the years he had treated Amy as an adult, had discussed social issues with her, unlike those formative years with his own children, with Carol and Scott, when his life was a blur, his suppressed sexual energy so intense that a conversation about politics, race, religion, sexual revolution would have lit a match to his powder keg of conflicted emotions. Controversial subjects did not come up. Theirs had been a family that avoided any hint of confrontation. Life was not a subject for discussion.
Everyone, every family, had secrets. It was just a matter of degree. He had protected his family from his and they were surely better off for it. Carol was happily married, a high school math teacher, mother of Amy, wife of Bill, a community bank President in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, their lovely home only fifteen minutes from Mark and Barb’s. Scott, a patent attorney, made partner in three years and was minting money, living the single life in New York City, comfortable finally in his own sexual identity.
Amy’s graduation from the University of Kansas two months earlier had been the most emotional moment of his life. “Tears of joy,” he’d said to Barb and Carol and Scott. But they weren’t all tears of joy. How could he not grieve, for Barb, for the kids, for himself, for his life of deceit and deception? Once, he remembered, over a drink at a backyard cookout, he had stupidly said to a neighbor that he could imagine the pent up feeling of a suicide bomber waiting and wanting to explode. “Hey man, you need a different career path,” the man said, shocked, but making a joke of it, not having any idea of his dual life, of what Mark had really meant.
Mark kept watching the two young women. They were huddled together, still up front but off to the side of the entrance, heads down, whispering to one another. Then, with a sudden confirming look at each other, they wordlessly turned to the door and left.
Mark took a deep breath, gulped down his drink and signaled for another to one of the half dozen stud bartenders, buffed and young, decked out in black tank tops and tight black jeans with slicked hair that jutted out and up as if they’d been electrocuted. Mark wanted to laugh at the obvious marketing lure, but he couldn’t deny their sex appeal.
The idea of retiring was terrifying. He needed his work and the space it created. The job itself was easy. He could do it in his sleep, cultivating and harvesting his network of independent insurance brokers. Barb said she couldn’t understand why he didn’t slow down. So did their friends. It was an echo chamber, friends and family telling him to take it easy, shaking their heads, calling him a workaholic.
Mark shuddered at the thought of trips, just him and Barb. What in the world would they talk about? It was one thing to sit companionably in their living room, quietly reading a book, or to attend a local art opening or a KU basketball or football game, it was another to consider ten hours in a car together or to be joined at the hip for a week-end, twenty-four to forty-eight hours straight in another city. It wasn’t as if he didn’t feel affection for her. He did, and it had grown over the years, and at this point he couldn’t imagine their not being together until death do us part, but he didn’t want any more togetherness than they’d had for most of the marriage, nor, he suspected did Barb, content in her volunteer work, her quilting and reading.
It had been important to be a good dad, his own father killed in a car accident one month after he started first grade, his mother having to go to work full time, too tired and busy for school events. Long before he understood his sexuality, Mark had vowed he would be there for his kids. But there were those other times when he knew he’d let them down, was sure they sensed the artificiality of their parents’ relationship.
As if to drive the point home to himself, he put his hand in his coat pocket and rubbed his wedding band with his thumb and forefinger. If he could still feel disgusted with himself, maybe that was a sign of some moral responsibility, guilt as conscience. Yet it seemed so unfair that he felt that way.
Reflexively, he turned toward the front again to check out the newcomers entering the bar. The effect was immediate, as if someone had punched him in the gut. There was his son and another man. Heart beating like a drum, his chest a hollow vacuum, Mark craned his neck forward as if he’d been yanked by a bungee cord. Pop-eyed, cursing his near sightedness, he strained to see if it really was Scott, or maybe it was Jason, the young man he’d talked to earlier.
Mark looked away for a split second, blinked once, twice and looked again. The man, Scott or Jason, had turned around. He and the other man were walking out of the bar. Mark couldn’t see their faces. He sucked in a giant mouthful of air. He’d been holding his breath, again. He felt light-headed. Hands shaking, he reached for his glass and took a long pull on his drink.
Of all the things Mark had worried about over the years, running into his son in a gay bar was not one of them. But he should have, he’d known for years that Scott was gay, long before he noticed Scott’s confused awareness in his early teen years when his self-image as an athlete conflicted with his sexual identity. It was a struggle that Scott faced alone. He could have told Scott or at least counseled him. But he didn’t.
Mark squared up to the bar, head down, sending a signal to be left alone. The more he thought about it the more confident he was that he hadn’t seen Scott. From now on when he was traveling he would make sure to touch base with Scott, to make sure they weren’t somehow going to be in the same city.
Mark took several peanuts from the dish in front of him, tossed them in his mouth, chewed for a moment and then washed them down along with the Viagra pill he had pulled from the pocket of his sport coat. He was drinking too fast but he had a feeling it was one of those nights when it didn’t matter, one of those nights when it would be impossible to get drunk.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on his shoulder.
“A penny for your thoughts?” a quiet voice said.
Mark froze, fear overriding reason for a moment before he told himself that the voice was not Scott’s. He turned to see Jason tucked in at the bar behind him. “You again,” he joked, hoping the young man couldn’t tell that his smile was more a relief than a welcome.
Jason nodded toward the long line at the bar. “They really pack them in here.”
“Man, I guess,” Mark said, pleased to see him but surprised. The place was loaded with men mostly in their late twenties to fifties, younger and fitter, however much he hated to admit it.
Jason smiled, “you from Omaha?” he asked.
“No, Kansas City, just here on business,” Mark answered. There was no point in lying. If something developed it was likely Jason would see his Missouri license plates.
“Great city, though I don’t know it real well.” Jason took a sip of his drink. “Lived there long?”
Mark laughed. “Pretty much a lifer.” A lifer, that’s what he was all right. He took a big breath as if he’d just surfaced from a deep dive, a lifetime underwater. What would it have been like to have truly fallen in love thirty years ago with someone his own age, to have been absorbed, engulfed in a relationship? It was too late now, impossible in every conceivable way. He could not, would not, under any circumstances, come out in a public way. But could it be private? Could he tell Barb? For a split second he felt absolutely certain that she knew, that she’d always known. But that couldn’t be, could it? Yet, there had been that conversation, brief as it was, a few years back about the Hadleys, Don Hadley leaving his family, moving to California with a young man from his law firm. Everyone in the neighborhood had been aghast, but Barb hadn’t. “He shouldn’t have gone public, he shouldn’t have broken up his marriage. They had too much invested,” she had said. “Too much invested?” He had said. They had been in the kitchen, at opposite ends of the countertops, each with their Saturday morning cup of coffee. She had looked at him then, directly, “a marriage isn’t just two people, it’s also everyone else.” Yes, he had agreed, wanting to change the subject, thinking too of Scott, that he and Barb had never had a discussion of Scott’s orientation.
“What?” he said, aware that Jason had said something.
“Hey, ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem,’” Jason said, kiddingly.
Mark shook his head back and forth. “Oh, yeah, sorry about that, either my brain’s too crowded or there’s not much in there. I’m not sure I want to know which.”
“Too crowded for sure,” Jason said. Jason nodded at Mark’s drink.
“I’m good for now.” Mark said.
“Oh,” Jason said, in a surprised tone, as he raised his glass and made eye contact with one of the bartenders.
“I think I’ve reached my limit,” Mark said, making sure he kept a light tone in his voice. In fact, Jason did not look all that much like Scott, but it didn’t feel right, he and Jason. How much could he have helped Scott in those difficult years, those years when Scott was emotionally vulnerable? For tonight, he would go back to his hotel room, alone. He wasn’t sure Scott would forgive him should he ever discover the truth of his father. But Barbara, Barbara would understand if he told her. Surely she would.