Tea for Two

originally published in Best Date Ever: True Stories that Celebrate Gay Relationships (Alyson Publications, 2007)

“What do you want to do today?” I asked Allen while we were still lying in bed.

“We could install the wire for your stereo speaker.”

I considered his offer. This was a task we’d been putting off since I moved into my new apartment a few weeks ago.

“Or we could take a drive to someplace merry,” he suggested.

It took a minute before I remembered that Allen could talk while he was still asleep.

“Let’s not waste this beautiful day working on my speakers,” I said, getting up to survey the panoramic view through the bedroom windows. It was a sunny San Francisco spring day. “Let’s go somewhere ‘merry’.”

“Where do you want to go?” Allen sat up a little.

“Let me call the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay to see if anyone has canceled,” I said, walking toward the phone. I had tried to make a reservation for afternoon tea there days earlier hut had been told the room was fully committed and that we would be placed on a waiting list. “I hope this works,” I said as punched in the ten-digit number. “We could drive down the coast slowly and then have tea.” I looked over at Allen while I waited for the hostess to check her book, until she was able to tell me, yes, they had a four o’clock seating.

I had wanted to do this for months, ever since my friend Claudia and I had driven down the coast to Santa Cruz and stopped at the new hotel. We had marveled at its large scale, so at odds with spectacular setting on the dramatic bluff overlooking the ocean.

When we wandered around the warm interior spaces with the dramatic views, I was inspired. “I’ll bring Allen here for afternoon tea on Valentine’s Day,” I told Claudia.

“What a good idea,” she concurred, impressed with my romantic idea. She seemed a bit rueful that her own husband wouldn’t have thought of it.

But when I called for a reservation, inexplicably the ho wasn’t taking reservations for Valentine’s Day. The alternate date I chose turned out to be the weekend I was moving into my new apartment, so it wasn’t until now, late March, that Allen and I drove down the coast in anticipation of a lovely afternoon.

As the freeway twisted toward the coast, I noticed wisps of white clouds  licking  the  tips of  the hills. “Uh, oh,” I groaned.” Looks like the coast may be socked in.” And sure enough, heading south down Highway One, the left side of the road was sunny and clear, and the right side was foggy and gray. The dramatic demarcation across the expanse of asphalt seemed surreal as continued south.

Each time we rounded a bend in the road I kept hoping the sun would be strong enough to bum through the fog.

“We’ll enjoy it whatever the weather’s like,” said Allen politely and we fell silent.

As I drove, I looked over at Allen, appreciating his blond hair and sweet countenance. I thought back to how we met. He was stage-managing a concert produced by Lawrence, · my ex-boyfriend and now best friend; I was helping “front of house.” I thought I’d noticed a bit of a buzz between us that night but gave it little thought. A few weeks later, I received an e­mail from Allen congratulating me on my essay about Gustave Caillebotte on the Web. Allen had apparently stumbled upon my article on the French impressionist painter while playing with his new computer. He invited me to lunch, and I accepted. The lunch pleasant, but uneventful. We talked of singers and shows and gay gossip, but not much of substance, and not much about ourselves. Then he started extending offers of free theater tickets.

“I think Allen likes you,” Lawrence counseled me one day.

“I thought so too,” I admitted. “Bu … ” Frequently, when I dropped Allen off in front of his apartment building after an evening out, he’d leap from the car almost, it seemed, before I got to his corner. There was no invitation to come up, and not even any awkward, lingering “good night.” I didn’t give it much thought. I was dating someone else, but I continued to accept his platonic overtures.

After about a year of this, and once my other relationship had ended, Allen invited me over to demonstrate the wondrous capabilities of his new DVD player. “Come for dinner. We’ll have a DVD party,” he promised.

“A BVD party?” I asked, escalating the situation with faux misunderstanding.

“If you’d like,” he said suggestively.

When he discovered I’d never seen The Red Shoes, Allen loaded his favorite film into the machine. Sitting together on the small sofa watching the movie, I started playing footsy. At first I couldn’t tell if he was responding. Was I misreading this situation? Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first and then more noticeably we rubbed our feet against each other. One thing led  to another  and soon we were on his bed wearing only our boxer shorts. Suddenly the horseplay stopped.

“I have something to tell you,” Allen said seriously. “Okay,” I said. A knot stuck in my stomach. “Let’s have it.”

“I have a partner.”

Lawrence had told me that Allen had a long-term partner. But there seemed to be no sign of him, and Allen had never mentioned him. Now I learned that Allen and Tom had been together for twenty years. Tom currently lived in Portland, and they saw each other a few times a year for several days or weeks at a time.

Summoning a nonchalance I wasn’t sure I felt, I said, “That’s okay with me. If it’s okay with you.” It seemed to be, so we continued. I figured Allen just wanted to have his way with me. was fine by me. He could count me as a conquest as long as I laid.

We both got what we apparently wanted and I was impressed when he gallantly got dressed and walked me to my car.

A few days later, Allen arrived at work unannounced bearing a card and flowers. How sweet, I thought. Then he called to set up lunch. More cards, flowers, gifts, dates. Maybe I was wrong I thought. Maybe this wasn’t just a one-night stand.

So, the affair continued, with theater and concerts and lunches and watching DVDs, usually followed by sex. Our relationship seemed to be mostly based on the sex, since our conversations weren’t particularly intellectually stimulating. This was surprising since Allen was a playwright and a director. He didn’t read much, except newspapers and magazines.

“I can read,” he said with mock haughtiness when I teased him. “I just choose not to.” But he was wise in other ways.

How did I feel about having an affair with a “married” man? It certainly wasn’t the first time. This was only the most recent demonstration of the unavailability to which I seem attracted in men.

“I’m not leaving Tom,” Allen reminded me repeatedly. Was that to reassure me? It worked. It made it safe enough for me to know that there would be no talk of monogamy or marriage or moving in together. Topics that had terrified me with former boyfriends. It took a long time to realize he wasn’t going anywhere. But I was; I was growing closer to him and to myself.

Allen continually told me how handsome I was. “I can’t believe you don’t have a boyfriend. I’ll be your training wheels. I’ll be your boyfriend until you find one of your very own.” I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that meant, but the flowers and gifts kept coming, the cards signed “Fondly, Allen.” He called me mornings, and often during the day, and always in the evening. We got together frequently for a quick tumble in bed, even if I didn’t end up spending the night together. “I’m fond of you,” he told me often.           

Then Allen started referring to me as his boyfriend. At first it made me uncomfortable. I had been content to be the “Back Street” boyfriend, hidden in the shadows, like Susan Hayward in the movie of that name. But Allen had held my hand and kissed me in public, presented me to friends, referred to me as his boyfriend. “But you already have a boyfriend;” I protested, bewildered.

“Do you think a person can only have one boyfriend?” Harvey, my therapist asked.

I thought for a while. “I guess I do.” I was surprised.  Where did these beliefs come from? Allen may not have set off fireworks when we were together, not like the feverish frenzy I usually felt when I met someone new to whom I was attracted. This had start­ ed so slowly that I hadn’t even noticed that it seemed to be turning into something significant.

“I can’t see it coming,” I said, describing the ongoing deepening of our relationship. “I don’t even see it while it’s happening. It’s as if I can only see it in the rear-view mirror, once it’s passed. “Then it’s safe to see it, to say it.”

What Allen had to offer came in subtle, unexpected ways. There was the time he refused to let me dismiss his offer to accompany me when I went for an MRI. “I’m coming with you,” he insisted. Thank goodness he did because I freaked out, my claustrophobia triggered by the coffin-like canister. It required several aborted attempts at sliding me into the tube before we found that only if he hung on to my toes could I endure the almost the five-minute episodes before being pulled out. I hadn’t wanted to accept his generosity. I thought I could do it alone; didn’t realize I needed him to help me get through. The lessons slowly sank in and the relationship continued.

It was tough when Tom was in town. Even though he had told Tom what was going on, I was not to call Allen at home, his calls were surreptitious and infrequent, our dates reduced to lunchtime trysts at the nearby ostensibly-straight hot tubs. I had trouble adjusting after having enjoyed such a level of intimacy. Over the months that we had spent time together, I had become angry and pulled away, become hurt and pulled  away, felt abandoned and pulled away, but always Allen was there. He didn’t get defensive,· he didn’t argue, he didn’t explain or remind me that I knew what I was getting into. He listened, he acknowledged, he agreed, together we developed a plan to avoid the particular situation had triggered my anxiety. Sometimes the strategy worked, o times it needed tweaking, but slowly I learned I didn’t have hide myself from him. That he was reliable, trustworthy, and dependable.

I spoke to Harvey about not understanding what was happening between us, and surprisingly he encouraged me to pursue “But what about Tom?” I asked every week.

“This isn’t about Tom,” Harvey inevitably replied. “This is about you.”

”But … ” I’d sputter, trying to accept my inability to understand. I didn’t want to jeopardize their relationship, but I did like spending time with Allen.

Neither of us had ever uttered the L word, until one afternoon, during one of Tom’s extended visits and we were having “lunch.” Lying naked in the seamy setting of the wood-paneled  room of the Central Hot Tubs, amid the threadbare sheet, cardboard towels, and smell of chlorine, I held him in my arms and looked into his eyes.

“I love you,” I said, trembling.

“You mean you’re fond of me,” he responded. And then looked at me intently. “I love you too.” We looked into each other’s eyes and held on tightly.

We had crossed a line, now there was no going back. I continued to get upset whenever Tom came to town and I felt the connection with Allen dissipate.                                                                                  ,

“He has integrity,” Harvey said, after I recounted yet another of my many meltdowns. An odd word under the circumstances, but it felt right. The powerful and painful opening and closing of my hand continued. At one point, in the candlelit comer of dark downtown cocktail lounge, I sobbed. “I didn’t mean to fall in love with you,” I wailed.

Allen just held my hand and let me cry.

“I can’t do this,” I continued. He held my hand tighter.

“If you want to break up with me,” he said softly, “let’s do it together. Don’t run away and do it on your own. We’ll do it together.”

I stopped crying for a minute and looked at him in disbelief. Was this for real? This sensitivity and strength. This apparently unconditional love that I had heard about but never believed in, and certainly never experienced. Allen smiled at me, the candle­ light catching his eyes, causing them to sparkle. He was so sweet and handsome. With my puffy, red eyes and runny nose I felt un­ attractive, and ridiculous. I blew my nose, again. I realized that no matter what happened, everything was going to be just fine.

Now I watched the road as the fog and the sun continued to dance capriciously against each other, neither giving way for more than a few feet. Wisps of ethereal whiteness wafted and waned in a celestial tango as we chatted about the scenery, or lack of it.

We turned off the highway and headed west through the green undulating golf course. The fog was getting thicker.  Damn, I thought, we won’t be able to see a thing. The hotel loomed dimly before us, an ungainly edifice on the steep headlands. From a distance it looked like an immense condominium complex or the huge movie set of an east coast hotel. Its scale was so inappropriate for the spectacular natural setting, it was little wonder its construction had been controversial. I drove past the valet parking sign and through the curving streets reminiscent of a suburban housing development, looking for a place to park. NO PARKING signs were posted everywhere.

I suddenly remembered that the reservations person had told me that valet parking was validated. I turned around and drove up the grand circular drive to the hotel portico.

“A bit pretentious,” I muttered to Allen. He didn’t say a word. The liveried valet opened the car door and handed me a stub·.

“Checking in?” he asked.

“No, just having afternoon tea,” I replied, getting out of the car.

“Your tea will cover all but three dollars of the parking.”

“I was told the parking was validated.”

“It is, except for the three dollars.”

I could feel my face get hot. I took a breath. “That’s not what the reservation person said. The attendant quickly acquiesced, but I couldn’t resist making one final comment. “You might want to inform the people who answer the telephone not to be giving out misinformation.”

“What was all that?” Allen asked, getting out of the car. More attendants opened the double-leaded glass doors for us as we walked into the luxurious hotel.

“Oh, nothing.” I’d hoped he hadn’t heard my exchange. I hurried him inside. We walked down the polished marble floors, the handsomely appointed hallway looking for the library where tea was to be served.

There was no maitre d’ with whom to check in, so we stood in the wood-paneled room waiting to be acknowledged. We saw several servers in a variety of uniforms, their hierarchical codes eluding us. They passed us without a word or nod. Through picture windows we saw a wall of swirling fog.

“That’s where the incredible view would be,” I pointed out. Eventually we flagged an employee and were seated in a cozy room overlooking a larger space, beyond which was the nonexistent view.

We sat surveying the intimate surroundings. The cream-colored damask tablecloth, white porcelain dishes with subtle floral motif, and the classical design of the silverware were all high quality. A small glass vase held a single pink rose, the brightest color in the otherwise muted surroundings. There were only four other tables in the alcove, filled with family or friends, overwhelmingly heterosexual. Finally our tea sandwiches, scones, and petits fours were brought to us on a three-tiered tray.

“Here is your high tea,” the server said sweetly. She graciously poured Allen’s orange spice tea.

“It reminds me of my grandmother,” he said. Then my blue sapphire tea, “available exclusively at Ritz-Carlton” according to the menu, was poured. I half expected it to be blue in color.

“It’s not high tea,” I hissed, as soon as she’d left. “High tea is a working-class mid-afternoon meal. This is afternoon tea. Everyone makes that mistake. You’d think for twenty-six dollars a pop they could get it right.” I rolled my eyes.

Allen smiled. He lifted his teacup. “Here’s to Valentine’s Day.”

I raised mine to meet his. I looked directly into his eyes. “And you are one of my Valentines.”

I returned my cup to its saucer and glared at him. “Why did you have to say that?” I had planned this outing as a romantic interlude.

“I don’t know.” He lowered his head, murmured softly. “Being with you has been incredibly healing,” I began. “And then you catch me off guard by saying something very wounding.”

Allen remained silent.

“I wasn’t even going to bring up Valentine’s Day,” I continued. I tried to prevent the tears I felt welling. I didn’t want this special afternoon to be ruined. And I certainly didn’t want to think about Tom. “I was going to say that it’s been almost a year that we’ve been seeing each other, and I’ve had a most marvelous time.”

“I have, too,” Allen agreed.

“I know you have two,” I said with mock frustration. “Why do you insist on bringing it up?”

Allen laughed. I laughed too at having successfully diffused the situation. Our eyes sparkled.

He leaned over to give me a kiss. “I’m sorry.”

I brushed at the wetness around my eyes and smiled. “So how do you like this Devonshire cream?” I looked around the room to see if anyone had witnessed our emotional display

“It’s like a mixed cream and butter,” he said slathering more of what looked like mayonnaise from the tiny ramekin unto his miniature scone then he happily spread a little of the lemon curd on top of that we quickly resumed our tender mood laughing about the ill-clad people wandering through the hotel we discussed our favorites from among the many small delicacies we’d been served I knew Alan didn’t care for cucumbers so without a word I exchanged my soaks salmon sandwich for his cucumber one we agreed that the scones were light and play key I asked for more hot water for my teapot and then went to the bathroom. I surveyed the other people trying not to feel somehow superior when I returned real again how handsome and sweet Allen was, how his resolute steadfastness was exactly what was called for. We agreed that whiling away the afternoon sipping tea and nibbling tiny comestibles was the height of hedonism. Without either of us saying anything it was apparent that something significant had suddenly shifted

We lingered a while longer after we had finished off the last of the tiered tray of goodies savoring the deliciousness of the moment as we sipped the now tepid tea. Then we acknowledged that we were ready and rose to wander through the overly ornate hotel. Exiting the hotels large glass door as we took a stroll along the paved edging the promontory, we could hear but scarcely see the surf pounding below we laughed ruefully at the opalescent fog that surrounded us. After being buffeted by the damp mist for twenty minutes, we went back into the hotel.

Standing in a secluded alcove adjacent to the floor to the ceiling window, I put my arms around Allen. He turned toward me and kissed me. “Thank you for the tea. It was lovely.”

“It nearly wasn’t,” I said.

Yes, thanks for so cleverly saving the day.”

“Well, I decided I didn’t want to go into high drama.” I kissed him.

“It wouldn’t have been high drama, Allen corrected. “High drama is a working-class phenomenon. It would have been afternoon drama.”

I kissed him again we held hands as we walked back to the hotel hallways to retrieve the car, ready for our drive home.