South Carolina 198?: So by this time, the newspaper article was out and so was I. Social engagements were few and far between. So were dates. Being seen with me meant you were out too. But one guy was changing jobs, he was going to be a lawyer, so he was throwing caution to the wind and came by my office late one night where he managed to push me against the wall and undo all of my clothing except for my tie, which I was grateful for because I’m terrible at tying ties.
So we had some dates and he was letting his freak flag fly as people between jobs are wont to do. And one night we’re out and about and he said something about Thursday and I said no, it was Friday. And he said “oh my God, when you don’t work, you lose track, the party is tonight.” I said “what party?” and he gave me that poor dear look. “It’s THE party, you must go. Everyone will be there.” And he turned the car around and off we went. “I feel like I’m bringing a celebrity,” he teased.
I’m not sure where we went. It was dark, it was way out in the country, which is saying something in South Carolina. So we end up down a dirt road at an 1800s two-story house in the middle of a huge field surrounded by cars, and cars, and cars, and woods. I wondered if we were dressed for this, and he said, “it’s all jeans, it’s the country, only the hosts do the big dress-up, and they love to be the only ones. You’ll see.” Well, that sounded like a recipe for sitcom disaster, but he was right. The two old guys were in tuxes, and everybody else was in jeans and polos or oxford shirts. They held court at the bottom of a large staircase, surrounded by admirers, in a house decorated in late fifties country club. It was someone’s very old family home, they didn’t use it often, but just for get-togethers. The two men were — famous — in Columbia for their well-known businesses. They were married to women and had children that often appeared in their ads. But they absconded to the country and parts unknown together often, and in this case to throw the biggest all-male gay party the area could muster on an annual basis. I’ll leave it to you to connect those dots as you see fit.
My friend said he’d catch up, and told me to go on as he went to greet the hosts. It was odd, because I thought I should greet them, but I turned and there was a large room full of gay men holding cocktails and chatting. And the men is tuxes hadn’t deigned to notice anyway. The way the house was set up, the entrance hall was raised, so you descended into the rooms on either side. So I’m at the top of three small steps and — the room got much, much quieter. There were glances. I seemed to be a focal point, and not in a nice way. Something must’ve happened behind me. Or not.
I descended quickly to get out of the way, and went to the bar. A very handsome but serious bartender handed me a drink. I hadn’t actually ordered one, or even said anything, he just handed me one, looked at me briefly, and turned to do busy work. I recognized more than a few faces, but they weren’t too interested in recognizing me.
“Well, hello!” a voice said behind me, and I turned to find an older man, pleasant, smiling. “My partner and I have really wanted to meet you! You see, we’re cousins! I guess it does run in families.” He chatted away and I was grateful and said all of the usual things when one meets second or possibly third cousins, and we spend some time in the comfortable Southern tradition of tracing lineage. But he wouldn’t let me leave. He seemed a little furtive, a bit tired of duty. It’s a moment any Southerner understands, the well-meaning family member who is deliberately holding you in place for your own good. Manners are a code that once understood reveals a system best described as an iron fist in a velvet glove. There’s nothing friendly about it, it’s all about holding your place and keeping others at a cordial arm’s length. It’s a machine. And the machine was hard at work. His partner never wanted to meet me, apparently. My cousin kept looking over my shoulder, back toward the tuxedo men. I finally followed his gaze. My friend had just stepped out from the group of the tuxedo admirers. He was pale, pale white. His forehead glistened. He saw me, I saw him, and once again manners asserted themselves. I graciously extricated myself from my cousin, and went to my friend.
“Perhaps we’d better go,” he said. It was clear. He had been invited to disinvite me. I was — known — and that just wasn’t — appropriate. He had been given a talking-to.
“Yes, I have a little headache, actually.” And we walked out into the night, through the field, to the car.
It was a quiet trip, I gamely recounted meeting my cousin and how nice it all was. He didn’t come in, he let me out at the sidewalk. We were kind and gracious. He drove away and I wasn’t sure if he was going back to the party or not. But I was sure, and I was right, that we were not friends anymore.