I had a friend Ed, who asked me something over a beer: straight or gay? The question stayed in my mind many years, like an unwelcome lodger – then went away. So many times in my life I had skirted it – unabashedly skirted it – and now, thanks to Ed, the idea of it ricocheted back in my head: Come clean; spill the beans. It’s good for the soul.

Years before, I’d begun to back down from the world; I walked on eggshells. Socially awkward and painfully shy, not to say supremely depressed, I became an unnaturally frightened person. My dog followed suit, cowering under the couch during thunderstorms, while before he had not. But I was okay with the dark, and he wasn’t.

Equally inept as I was with women, friend Ed, as far as I knew, had never had his preferences questioned, and, thus assured, put it to me. By then I had stopped holding back; I was forthright:

Of course I am – aren’t you?

Our interest flagged and we left it at that.

One time, friend Ed and I bounded, all cock and balls, on two straight – consecutive – nights, into seedy establishments – a run-down eatery in Everett for grub, a ramshackle pub for students in Roslindale – and were bounced from them in disgrace minutes later. We were young – we looked young – but not underage; perhaps, friend Ed offered, we were “fairy-faced.”

How had he learned of that term, and I hadn’t?

Other times, other people, resurrected the question. Most are out of my orbit by now. The answer stopped mattering. Their concerns dissolved like a pillar of salt.

It no longer mattered to curious friends, who took to their graves their grounds for suspicion, or to those too timidly kind, who cared not. It no longer mattered to beard-stroking analysts, whose oddly queer questions, too much to the point, made me squirm; and it no longer mattered, either, to me, emboldened with age to spill all the beans.

That grub-shack was crowded, and the ramshackle pub, except for our presence, was deserted. One of us must have looked like a kid who’d go merrily on, as I myself did, to take a big wet one, smack on the cheek, from a friend of his wife who’d had more than his share of the beer they were drinking, in the restaurant in Rio where Jobim and Vinicius, and a forgotten third man, had written the world’s most popular song to a girl; one of us must have looked like a kid who thirty years later could not turn away from an uncle not long for the world who, in bidding farewell, sought his lips not his cheek; and one of us must have looked like a kid who, too late in life, saw the Big Man on stage kiss the Boss unawares on the lips, and thought it a dazzling thing.

Frank X. Christmas is a lifelong, itinerant New Englander from Boston whose earliest work appeared in the Chiron and Seattle reviews. He studied journalism and writing at Northeastern University and theology with a retired Jesuit; he recently retired from editorial work. In both the distant and not-so-distant past, his stories and poems have appeared in Painted Bride, Raleigh Review, Manoa, Northwest Review, and a number of other venues.

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