“You’d probably be dead.”
We were having dinner Friday night at an Italian restaurant in the Castro with George and Lee, new friends whom we had met on our Croatian gay cruise in September. They had invited us to have drinks in their stateroom and to join them for dinner with some of their friends. Mark and I had been feeling down that night, depressed about Mark’s cancer. Their invitation saved the evening for us, and we greatly enjoyed our time together. Before the cruise ended, they had asked us to contact them if we ever came to San Francisco, and we had arranged to have dinner together Friday night.
We had been talking about coming out, their stories and our stories. They’re both about my age, and it was fascinating for me to hear what life had been like for them when they were young, While I was working for my father’s company in Zanesville, Ohio, heavily closeted but desperate for friendships and relationships, George had arrived in San Francisco. He told us how one of his first jobs in the city before going on to dental school had been working as a dental assistant across the street from where we were eating.
“I started keeping a list of people I knew who had died of AIDS,” he explained. “but I stopped counting when the list reached 100 names. I was lucky. Chances are very good that if you’d come out as a young man, you’d probably be dead now.”
Mark and I had often said the same thing to each other, partly to ease the regret we sometimes felt at not living our life out loud during those youthful years. This was the first time we had heard it from someone else’s mouth, and it felt strangely comforting.
“Are you guys monogamous?”
We had finished dinner and had just said good-bye to Lee and George on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Across the street, several bars were full of Friday night customers.
I turned toward the source of the question and saw a slightly overweight blond woman who appeared to be in her late 30’s or early 40’s. It was immediately obvious that she had been drinking rather heavily. I could have taken offense to her very forward question, but I had been drinking as well and was in a pleasant, warm mood.
“Yes,” replied Mark.
“Cuz I was over there,” pointing to the bar across the street,” and I was talking to guys who have been together for years, but they have sex with other men.”
“Not us,” said Mark.
“You know,” veering of onto another subject, “I’ve lived in San Francisco for years, but I’ve never been to the Castro. It’s amazing.”
At this point, Mark preoccupied with ordering an Uber, walked a few steps away into the street, leaning heavily upon his walking stick.
“Hey,” the woman called out, “how come you’re using a cane?” I think Mark had had enough by this point, and he ignored her walking a few more steps away.
Again, I could have taken offense, but I decided just to be honest. “He has cancer,” I said. The woman’s demeanor immediately changed. She looked directly at me, compassion in her eyes.
“I lost my husband to cancer,” she said, her gaze sliding down toward the payment before looking back up. “How long?” she asked.
“Four to six months,” I replied.
She didn’t say anything, but she immediately reached out her arms, drawing me – a total stranger – into a warm, firm hug. We held each other for several seconds before she released me, drawing back and saying, “I’m so sorry,” she said.
By then, Mark had walked back over. The Uber car was drawing up on the other side of the street. The woman turned toward him.
“This man loves you,” she said to Mark. He hadn’t heard the recent conversation and seemed irritated by her forwardness. “I know,” he muttered before turning around.
I started across the street before turning back toward the woman. “Thank you.” She was wiping tears from her cheek. I waved. She waved back. Then I stepped into the car and we drove off.