From time to time I will reprint--with permission of the writer, of course-- various pieces of writing that I believe are a "must-read." This piece is written by the writer and editor Sydney James.
by Sydney James
So the other night my friend T. and I went to a place across town because
she said it has the best (though the most expensive) cocktails. We were
standing at the bar when my drink came, some mixture of stuff called, I
think, a "Florentini," and the guy standing next to me asked about it, so I
handed it to him so he could taste it. He was with a group of about six
beautiful men who all had their arms around each other, and I realized this
was one of those near-gay bars where everyone can come in but gay men
outnumber everybody else about 3 to 1.
So Josh, his name was, struck up a conversation with me about where he comes
from, which I know a little about because I work with people from the same
part of the country, and then he was introducing his friends-not so very
young (because they probably wouldn't have talked to us if they were, T. and
I being not) but really lovely every one of them.
Josh was one of those people who watches everything: motivations, dynamics,
shifting currents, and when his friends' tray of cappuccino martinis came he
handed one to me to taste in return for sharing mine. At church I'm used to
drinking communion wine out of the common cup, and with that much alcohol
sloshing through the glasses I really don't think either of us could have
caught anything, but even if we could (both of us were implying),
hospitality trumps germophobia.
And T. and I spent, I don't know, maybe half an hour with these men, and
they talked to us, they kissed us and hugged us; they were nice. It was just
basic human contact, and certainly it's a shallow thing when people are
saying "we love you" when you're never going to see them again, but it beats
a lot of other things you can get in a bar, dunnit?
There was a certain gentleness on both sides that surprised me, a kind of
hope underneath the politeness that we were going to preserve one another's
dignity and value as human beings, that if fire broke out we would make sure
everybody got to the exits instead of trampling one another. T. and I made a
few comments about the difficulty of meeting kind straight men, and Josh &
co. shared some stories about trying to navigate through a straight world
when you're not, and really underneath I think we all felt a desperate
relief that for a little while no one was getting hurt-because we were all
old enough to know how often in an exchange between strangers, however brief
and trivial, somebody does.
It made me think that our culture-a misspelling, there, the first time I
typed "our vulture"-is dying of a lack of tenderness. It seems like
tenderness couldn't cost very much, and yet to be so rare it must cost a
lot. How hard is it to lay your palm against someone's cheek, how risky is
it to wrap your coat around them? Do mothers still do that? Mothers are
supposed to be the heavy hitters at this and yet I don't much see it even
there, at least in public. To tolerate a person's need or hurt or failing-to
not only tolerate it but accept it and make room for it-to put your arms out
under someone to keep them from falling into despair-I hope it's going on
between parents and children, between spouses, lovers, friends, but I don't
know for sure.
It's as if tenderness is more private (or more shameful?) than sex. I mean
at work you can get CAUGHT in the act, and somehow it's never an act of
kissing your cube-mate's temple or cupping their face in your hands. Do you
ever have to will yourself not to reach out and stroke someone's hair? Is
this just one of those things we never talk about, or are we so encased in
Lucite now that we're never even tempted?
We're not supposed to want tenderness from anyone, either-women put on their
mascara and high heels and pretend they don't because of course they're just
hard-drinking hos-men are ashamed of wanting it so they just [insert any
half-violent sex act you like here]. Only in the most extreme circumstances
are people so reduced that they can admit to needing it: you have to damn
near be standing in the smoking ruins of the world trade center.
That night T. and I were only standing at the bar, and at the end of the
half hour the guys' table was ready, and about half of them had gone while
two or three were still with us trying to extricate themselves gracefully. I
mean I think they were still enjoying the conversation, but Josh was wanting
to get his ducklings in a row and we knew they needed to move on. So I was
saying go on now, you have to have dinner-and one of the guys said oh, they
want to get rid of us, and I said no, no, we just don't want to get in your
way. And I didn't. I wanted to give them one last kiss and let them go
without leaving any kind of mark. But it was a little hard and sad watching
them walk away. It was a strange night and a strange encounter, and I do
kind of miss them even now.