Poor Tom's Tale (Loosely Based On A Story Once Told To Don Quixote Of La Mancha)
Let us interrupt whatever insignificant thing you may be doing to tell an unchivalrous story from post-medieval times, what happened to Tom and his closest friends at the beginning of this even darker millennium.
Tom and Rudy's tradition of bimonthly drunken Saturday nights dated from undergraduate days. Occasionally, they invited others (plain Tom's lovely betrothed, for example) but the confessional nature of their conversation generally precluded the inclusion of anyone else.
As the hour grew later, Tom's talk inevitably turned to the lost opportunities of youth, the female signals he'd ignored, fucks poignantly lost. This particular late winter evening, Rudy finally loses patience.
"The way you talk," he says, "you'd think you were the pretty one."
Extremely attractive himself in the Latin lover mode with spiked black hair, olive skin and warm green eyes, Rudy moves on to his own tales of lost opportunity.
While Rudy discusses his latest misadventure, the "pretty one" comment sinks in.
Tom knows that when he arrives in a room with his betrothed, people shake their heads in private wonder. Though round-faced and crooked-nosed, he's not exactly ugly, but Sarah is stunningly lovely in her red-haired, freckly Irish way.
When Rudy first told Tom he was gay, Tom warmly explained that he fully understood but did not feel the same way. "About you?" was his kind but overly honest friend's obtuse response, "you're kidding, right?"
After Rudy had gotten over the hurdles of initial outness (informing his immediates, reentering the dating world with furtiveness gleefully shed) he'd been under the mistaken impression that everyone could tell. So when the new associate at his firm asked him out for drinks, he thought she wanted the simple pleasures of out-of-orientation friendship and was flummoxed when she invited him back to her place with the same kind of predatory gleam in her eye that the young Tom was apparently so unable to recognize in women. The best Rudy had to offer was Tom.
Burned by the more attractive guys she'd been with and still a bit stung by the Rudy rejection, Sarah was ready for the constancy and devotion that Tom could provide. He was attentive, occasionally witty, efficient both professionally (a software consultant) and sexually (Sarah seldom left the act unsatisfied), and how could anyone with Rudy for a friend be considered dull?
How lucky for Tom. Despite his bi-monthly ramblings about lost opportunity, he felt literally blessed. He periodically thanked the God he'd spent much of the last decade being quite snarky about. But the anxiety stayed with him. What would happen, he continued to wonder, when a more conventionally attractive fellow came around? Wasn't he safer with a plainer partner?
The "pretty one" comment that blustery evening (now we're getting to the crux of the story) exacerbates his anxiety. Drunken Tom wants to confirm his betrothed's fidelity.
"You know I've been thinking," he interrupts Rudy to declare. His thinking can have serious consequences.
"Okay what?" drawls Rudy in his not very gay way.
Who better than Rudy to administer the test? How far could it go with a queen like him? Tom wants it to be easy. He doesn't want her to fail.
"But what will she think?" says Rudy after Tom has demanded that he try to seduce his betrothed, "Won't it seem like a joke?"
"Just keep your cool, man, you know she digs you."
"She'll think I'm a creep."
"She'll be flattered, a secret you two can have on me."
"That we really have on her."
"Right," says Tom.
In a cab on his way home several drinks later, Tom tries unsuccessfully to remember what Rudy had said after that.
In the wee hours of the morning, head pounding and obscurely needy, Tom creeps into Sarah's arms and whimpers pathetically.
She doesn't ask him what's wrong as that would only wake him and lead to a confusing and pointless conversation. What's wrong is that he's had too much to drink.
That morning as Advil, water and lots of coffee gradually restore him to his senses, the memory of his proposition has the feel of a dream.
Sarah is wonderfully sympathetic with our hung-over Tom, delicate, much more so than he deserves.
She fixes him a compassionate lunch of scrambled eggs on rye toast, an afternoon tea with a slightly doughy scone, which she bakes herself. Later in the afternoon, she makes tender love to him, managing not to seem put off when he has the misfortune of relieving himself of gas in the middle of ejaculating.
When Rudy cancels their next Saturday night drinking bout mysteriously at the last minute, Tom dwells even more on his horrific proposal. To make matters worse, he arrives a little late to their usual watering hole for their next meeting to find his preternaturally prompt friend conspicuously absent. He's made a nervous dent in his martini by the time Rudy finally shows up.
To his great relief, Rudy embraces him warmly, launching comfortably into a recent romantic misadventure without mentioning their last evening together.
The lover in question, another married man,
had disappeared into Rudy's bathroom and
stayed there for upwards of an hour before finally emerging to make an abrupt and unexplained exit. What the story seems to confirm (despite its unfortunate resolution) is Rudy's firm unheterosexuality. Surely, he's not about to seduce Tom's betrothed.
By the end of the evening, Tom's comfortable enough to get into his old chestnut about the evening he'd discovered the nymph-like Julia Barnes alone in his dorm room only to lie shoulder to shoulder with her all night listening to her breathe.
More trouble lies ahead, but first some time has to pass. Several more drinking dates with Rudy, a trip by himself to Tom's mom and step-dad's place in Maine, and our young friends find themselves in the foothills of summer.
Rather than meet at their usual dreary bar, Tom and Rudy pick an outdoor café where the boats moor near the towers that used to loom large over downtown.
It takes them longer (and is, of course, more expensive) to get drunk, but two hours later and nearly forty dollars poorer, a certain inebriation sets in. This evening's reminiscence takes a somber tone as Rudy describes a poignant moment with his fifty-year old lover in the years between college and grad school, a long kiss in the doorway of his apartment building before slipping back into the night to yet another wife.
"It doesn't bother you to hear this stuff?" Rudy suddenly feels bashful about the explicit kiss details upon which he's elaborated.
"No, really, not at all," says Tom, who doesn't want to have to explain that the puzzled expression on his face has to do with the May/December qualities of gay romance. How can you kiss fifty before you reach thirty? On the other hand, he could kiss Sarah even if she were old.
The conversation sways politely back and forth from Tom to Rudy like the studied moves of old fashioned jazz.
Tom does not take up his next turn, remarkably enough, with another tale of lost sexual opportunity. What he finds himself discussing, as another expensive drink arrives, is something he hadn't quite known was bothering him.
The last time they'd made love he'd had to stop somewhere in the middle when he found tears in her eyes.
"And there's this, I don't know what to call it, distance about her, irony."
She seems to be avoiding him, too, coming home late most days. She picks up the phone when he calls at work, so he knows she's not having some affair.
Lost in the onslaught of his own observations, Tom takes a while to notice the pinched expression on Rudy's face.
"I shouldn't feel badly about this," says Rudy, "but I do somehow."
Tom's lungs collapse into his stomach in the way they did when his mom first told him about their divorce.
"Yes, badly, bad, shitty."
Not as shitty as Tom does after he hears the story.
It happened when he was with his mom and asshole step-dad in Maine (it must have been the night she hadn't picked up the phone.) Sarah invited Rudy over to watch a movie almost like she was in on the proposal. Rudy hadn't been planning any of it (however much Tom had begged that night), but it was like perfectly ripe fruit, skin peeling away at the touch.
"Did you, I mean, could you?" asks Tom, wondering absurdly about the physical part. Note to self, he thinks, not such a fucking queen as all that.
As there was no way to drink fast enough at the yuppie joint, our Tom throws his money down and allows Rudy to accompany him to the nearest old-man alcoholic bar, desolate at this late hour. The more Rudy tries to get him back home, the more Tom insists on imbibing. Deeper and deeper, he sinks, into the biggest hole ever.
Hours later, he miraculously manages to fit his key into the lock and make it to the couch, but after only a few minutes, he's wide awake.
His achy brain is extinguished of thoughts. What remains in their wake is an overpowering rage. The objects destroy themselves. The lamp next to the couch, the Chinese pitcher in Sarah's family for generations. He tosses three small chairs across the room before exhausting himself. Unable to get back up to the couch, he collapses on the floor.
Soon he's burrowing his head into his arms to keep out the morning light. Footsteps snake close to him, muffled distress creeping into his ears. There isn't much to do but whimper pathetically at her feet. Valiantly, he wrestles his sleeping self out from under his waking self, coming closer and closer to consciousness before sinking paralyzed back onto the floor.
When he next wakes up several hours later, he has to get to the bathroom before yesterday's meals spill out onto the living room carpet. After washing his face and brushing his teeth, he opens the door and calls her name. The words cluster around his mouth without enough resonance to make it through their small apartment.
"Sarah," he quivers, "where are you, Sarah?"
Something doesn't look right in the bedroom, so he goes into the living room where he's confronted by the shattered glass and ceramic, the chairs lying wounded on the floor. One of Sarah's paintings (apparently hit by a chair) is down as well. Searching the kitchen and the little room adjoining it that they use for a study is purely an academic exercise.
A few hours later, he does not feel any more normal. Puttering around the apartment, he reads parts of the newspaper he usually ignores, turns the television on and off and eventually cooks a ham and egg concoction, which proves inedible.
Surely, she'll contact him before deciding to leave for good. On the other hand, there is really very little he deserves in the way of consideration. Allowing himself inside her Saturday night, he hears eerie crashing, yelling too, loopy misogyny in a slurred, reedy voice. "Asscunt," it comes back to him like the taste of turned milk, "cuntface queenfucker..." The fact that it turned eventually into self-loathing, "asshole, fucking asshole...", would hardly have dimmed her outrage. She'd dumped a guy, she'd told him once, just for calling her a bitch when he got angry. And given that she'd just screwed around with another man, she probably wasn't so favorably disposed to him in the first place.
He forces himself out of bed and on to work the following morning. When he gets out of the subway, he sees there's a message on his cell.
In as cold and remote a tone as we might expect, she informs him that she's staying elsewhere while she "figures things out," and that any sliver of a chance of reconciliation hinges on his not trying to find her.
The week proceeds wearily on. Normally, Tom only drinks on those riotous bi-monthly Saturdays, but now he needs quite a bit of booze to get him through each evening. He realizes (in a way that he hadn't quite realized before) that without Rudy and Sarah he doesn't have much.
When he calls his mother in Maine, she fills him in about their comings and goings, his step-dad's approaching retirement, the mystery novel-writing course she's enrolled him in during his spare time so he won't be such a burden to her. Tom wants to tell her at least some of what's happened, but it's all too unpalatable. It would remind her too much of his real father. Even if she hears him cry like she hasn't since fifth grade, she won't necessarily insist he go right back up there to receive the comfort the absent Sarah has not been providing. She's got her hands full with his step-dad. When they get to the end of the conversation and his mom asks him about Sarah, he just says she's "doing okay," and soon finds himself clinging helplessly to an empty receiver.
No species can go on like this, least of all ours. We're not intended to be solitary. Tom puts down the phone, gets up from the kitchen table, and heads for the door.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, his closest friends rehash the same point.
"Like he was possessed," says Rudy.
"Just hurt," says Sarah.
"Well, it's true that he's not been like that before."
"And what we did was wrong."
"It served him right."
"But it made things worse."
They refer to a story, which we have not been privy to. On the morning after Tom asked him to seduce his betrothed, Rudy woke up troubled, disturbed. A plain fellow like Tom might naturally worry about his attractive partner's fidelity, but actually arranging to test it just wasn't
sane. It was like the time Tom drove half way up to Maine in the middle of the night to confront his step-dad over something that had happened in high school, those warped ideas that kept getting into his head. Didn't Sarah have the right to know what she was getting herself into? Rudy was almost as good friends with her as him by this point.
For weeks, Rudy didn't say anything, but the thought of it shadowed him as he went about his days, an unshakeable malaise. While Tom was in Maine, Rudy finally called Sarah. What he hadn't planned was for her to decide to actually terminate their engagement. Perfectly loyal, despite several tempting opportunities, she didn't need an obsessively jealous man. Rudy's attack of Over Honesty Sydrome (OHS), the ailment that his last boyfriend attributed to his years of remaining single, threatened to ruin poor Tom's life. Quick-thinking Rudy's suggestion, a type of practical joke, what might have been called a scherzo in his grandfather's Naples, allowed Sarah to draw blood without knocking Tom out altogether. At some point later, Sarah can let on that she hadn't really slept with him, but first she could let him suffer the consequences of his malign distrust. Neither could have predicted the middle of the night rampage.
During the five days that Sarah had stayed with Rudy (she'd spent the first half of her time away at the house of a girlfriend from college), she'd listened to him sing Tom's praises. Those barfly nights, in Rudy's telling, changed from valedictions on lost sexual opportunity to paeans to a delirious love. She would never, Rudy assures her again and again, find someone as dedicated as Tom. What were a few vases and chairs in the face of such adoration?
"We shouldn't have done that to him," she says again after another long pause, "it wasn't right."
The doorbell rings.
Just because Tom sees Sarah in Rudy's apartment doesn't mean he's required to assume further romantic malfeasance. The sight of her traveling bag on the far side of the room makes clear she's been staying with him but doesn't prove the occurrence of anything more untoward.
But bear in mind the addled state of his brain, nights of not near enough sleep, alcohol his only real nourishment. Rudy returns his gaze inscrutably, but Tom can't stand to look into the face that's been haunting him lo these many days. He closes the door and walks away. There must be some word for it, some obscene expression in the dialects of all our ancestors, the man who was cuckolded by a queen.
Tom returns to his apartment, packs as many of his possessions as can fit into his traveling bag and goes away. His mother doesn't hear from him. Sarah doesn't either. (A year or so later she marries someone else.) At a certain point in the future, Tom will resurface, but our story doesn't stretch that far. In the days of knights and squires, misunderstandings of the heart left many wounded and worse, but stories of this kind still creep up in modern times. The next time you have a mind to distrust your lover, think of poor Tom wandering some godforsaken corner of the earth. We could say he took his own life in a desert motel, but we must stay true to our tale's partially comic intention.