by Aaron Mayer Frankel
We were out to dinner for only the second time, my new girlfriend and I, on a frigid and snowless late February evening, at the Barba Yianni Grecian Tavern in the northernmost tip of the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. The restaurant is across the street from the back end of Garcia’s Mexican and just down from the Chicago Brauhaus—the longtime and famous German saloon with its wide selection of German beers, blond waitresses in dresses the pattern of the original Pizza Hut tablecloths, and a full polka band featuring two accordions and a white-haired vocalist. Our first restaurant date a month earlier—my first nongay date in thirty years, in fact—had been at a Moroccan café on Irving Park, and in the interim all our joint meals had occurred at one of our places of residence. Now, a few weeks in, we were venturing out again.
Things had been escalating at an unanticipated pace in these few weeks, and so I had barely a half hour before I met her kids for the first time, five months earlier than she had originally anticipated. Why she decided to make this introduction now I couldn’t entirely say, other than she had determined in the brief but growing-in-intensity time we had known each other that our connection was deep enough to last the requisite period, so why wait. Plus she had very recently admitted to them the very fact of her dating now, a year and a half after her divorce, first to the oldest son and soon after to the youngest, so the point keeping the identity of the subject of the dates theoretical served only to keep the meetings furtive. The introduction itself was brief, casual, low pressure, about ten minutes long. Rather than honking I came to the door as they ate their own dinner, and I sat briefly with them at the dining room table, where the youngest mumbled hi without facing me and then ignored me completely, concentrating only on his peas, and the oldest with good humor and grace engaged me in pun-laden conversation.
So already for this reason the date had an even more heightened quality, the implication of that child’s hello quivering in the background like the second verse to some British seventies folk ballad. And this served to put ballast on whatever this was I was doing, to weigh it with the lead of reality—that I was really in this, that this wasn’t just a diversion or a histrionic reaction to the split from a long-term boyfriend; expectations were beginning and had been raised, a test of hers had been passed, and my exploratory lesson was turning rapidly into a whole curriculum. Our acquaintance had taken on a trajectory all its own, faster not only than both of us had anticipated, but faster also possibly than I could easily integrate, having only a month earlier been publically and officially occupying the opposite side of the fence. Now here I was, standing in the middle, and the view was interesting but the balance precarious.
We sat at a round table in the well-lit middle section, examining the menus. A large open area to the right served as a dance floor on Thursday and Saturday evenings. Some weekends dozens of couples gathered for Greek line dancing and couples’ dance lessons (I had seen this a few weeks earlier, when I had eaten there with a couple of friends from out of town), followed by a buffet. This evening, though, the place was mostly empty, with only one other couple in our general vicinity, two or three more in a narrow section over by the full bar and the front door, just underneath the flickering but silent television, and no one, not even much light, in the dance area—just a lonely line of amplifiers pressed powerless against the far wall.
Fresh bread and olive oil had been delivered, along with water, and tea for Jenny, but we had not yet placed our dinner order. I had been expounding to her about my favorites, since I had been coming here for years. The chicken riganati, baked with lemon and oregano. “Tons, tons of food. Not just half a chicken but also green beans and roasted potatoes and rice and soup and salad, all for around $10. And the arni psito!” Thin slices of leg of lamb, along with all the same extras. I had already closed my menu, since I knew it almost by heart. But when Jenny shut hers, in almost the same fluid motion she reached out and grabbed my hand, which had been resting near hers inattentively on the table, just to the left of the small yellow candle lamp. Like snatching a fish out of the water. This took me by surprise, this hand grab. Since all my visits to Barba Yianni had been with friends, hand holding had never been included and didn’t figure in my memory of the place or in my conception of a dining evening. Still, this had a romantic quality, sweet and intimate; her palm felt warm, and I reciprocated, wrapping my fingers around hers. This wasn’t a silent hand holding, obscured by jackets or the rubbing of sides, with dangling digits intertwined. This was a loud, public hand holding, with her arm stretched across the table passing by both our plates, the full length of the elbow to the wrist, and even beyond that. This shouted out with no subtlety, no ambiguity: We are together, me and this woman, on a date, in a relationship, together. Recognize this, all you who see. The earnestness of her expression, combined with the firmness of the grip, added to the portrait, the illusion perhaps, and I felt glad to be with her and touched by the earlier introduction of the offspring and our presence out of the house together and her willingness to be seen with me in public. Affirming even of her decision to order the lamb. But almost simultaneously the really good-looking late-twenty-something Mediterranean busboy walked over to refill our water glasses and her tea. And he looked at me with the tiniest of smiles and I thought immediately, instinctually, I was certain: he knows. Who are you fooling, he is thinking. You want me, he is thinking. You don’t want her. Of course, you can never have me, because I am young and hot and you are a troll. I became hyperaware at that moment of our hands together like that. And in the process of imagining, assuming, interpreting what the busboy was thinking, I separated from our presence together at the table, saw our hands sitting there as if from a distance, the hand of this strange and indecisive guy clutching the hand of this woman, on a date, and I thought, Wow, that bus boy really is kind of hot.
And then I glanced around and it seemed everyone in the restaurant, the people at all four of the occupied tables were looking at us and wondering why this gay guy was holding hands with a woman in the restaurant, a restaurant in which no one holds hands, it’s not that kind of restaurant, the lighting isn’t all that romantic—way too bright, even though there are really nice murals and frescos of Athens and Sparta—maybe this is a sympathy hand holding, they think, that he is her gay best friend, and she just broke up with her heterosexual, her human boyfriend. Or maybe her cat just died, or her boyfriend died. Perhaps she hadn’t realized this man she is with was gay until this very minute. He has just told her, but he holds her hand out of support, to let her know he still cares. She still matters to him in the same way, out of deep feeling and love, only they could never ever have sex, ever, because he is a homosexual.
At the same time I thought she looked beautiful, and I was really happy we were out together.
I am a very private person. Even aside from the impression I imagined we were giving to everyone around us, their curiosity about this odd gender play in progress around them, I don’t really like holding hands in public normally. Perhaps this is a gay thing, since originally in my relationships with guys you couldn’t hold hands silently in public. It was an act with volume, one that shouted. People on the best day would notice with sweetness and support, but notice nonetheless, and on the worst day, in the wrong neighborhood, it could lead to snickering or ridicule or even injury. As a private person, since man-on-man public hand holding could not be quiet, could not be anonymous, I shied away from it for many years, even though my partners preferred it. This was never out of a desire to obscure our presence together, or to deny I was with a gay partner or boyfriend, but out of a general wish not to be noticed, to be left alone. Even so, eventually I came out of my shell and grew to really enjoy that part of togetherness, that public display, at least in the highly gay Chicago neighborhoods that I called home, especially as the world changed around us.
So maybe it wasn’t just the feeling of being a fraud at that moment, or my conception of other people’s impression, but just feeling the hand holding was so visible and so out of place in this particular restaurant, it just felt weird being so noticeable. Maybe that’s all it was. Maybe. The pretty and dark-haired waitress came over to take our order, smiling, while our hands were still clutched together—they had been intertwined for more than five minutes now. We grabbed our menus then and let go of our fingers to order, but the waitress continued to smile, and I partly thought she was just a nice person and partly thought she felt it was so sweet if a little saccharine that these two were holding hands so publically, in a restaurant where no one really holds hands. But then I also recalled she had been my waitress a number of times when I had visited the restaurant with gay friends, with Jerry or Gary, gay friends with gay-sounding conversations that she must have partially overheard. Gary’s recounting of recent sexual escapades, for example. Gary always talked about sex too loudly. So she too felt curious about the story, smiling because she wondered what I was doing, who was this woman, what game was this man playing.
After dinner we strolled up Lincoln Avenue in the mist, looking for a café to grab dessert and coffee. Because it was cold and the tone of the evening had already been set, and because in spite of the psychological oddness of the scenario that was unfolding within me we were having a really nice time, I had my arm around her, romantically, in a very heterosexual way, a very Chicago dude way. Suddenly, a group of actual gay guys walked toward us from the other direction—there were five of them, and they were talking. I felt increasingly sheepish as they approached, conscious again, as in the restaurant, of the image we must be creating, aware of the paradigm within which we walked. Like a live marionette, engaged in a form of theater, detached from the moment and trying to remember all the lines, the gestures recommended by the manuals, the advice of patriarchs. The look they gave us as they passed, this cluster of thirty-something gay guys, the look they gave me, cemented the entire evening. Curiosity and confusion, that’s what I picked up, dusted with a touch of ridicule. Just like before. But harsher than at the restaurant, without the smiles, without the sweetness. Who do you think you’re fooling? they said with their eyes. What the fuck are you doing? Get a grip, and drop this woman off in a cab and go home to your trick hustler boyfriend where you belong.
Category: Short Story