The personalized invitation was printed on plain white stock, folded over and stapled:
Please say you’ll come to our annual
LABOR DAY BASH (Wahoo!)
We missed you last year (not that we’re keeping score).
And it’s just not the same without you.
We’ve grown accustomed to your face. Your lame jokes. The way you get tipsy on a single glass of wine (talk about a cheap date) and how your jokes get lamer with each passing year. But we laugh anyway.
Because we love you!
Seriously, buddy. As an incentive, we’ve invited lots of available women (attractive too, which is not to imply that you’re shallow).
So don’t make us beg.
Bring nothing but a swimsuit. Though if the afternoon progresses as we hope it will, you might not even need that (Wink. Wink.). And if you’re thinking we’re too old for an orgy, kindly keep it to yourself.
You know the address. Drift by any time after four. Earlier if you like.
And did we mention that we miss you?
CHANTAL AND RORY
Gloriosky phoned him at around three the day of the party, rousing Gary who had dozed off watching a pre-season football gabfest on ESPN. Her actual name was Gloria Sinofsky, but back in freshman year at Cattaraugus High, when they were dating, Gary smashed together her first and last name and it caught on. She’s been Gloriosky ever since.
“Are you going?” she asked.
“Where?” he said, his sleepy voice betraying a tinge of rasp.
“Chantal and Rory’s. C’mon. Don’t make me walk in there by myself. At least if I arrive with a hunky guy, even if he’s only a friend, I won’t seem like such a pathetic middle-aged loser.”
“Gloriosky, you are not a pathetic loser. And it’ll be a few years before either of us is even technically middle-aged,” he said, sitting up and taking a swig of warm beer.
“All right. A somewhat pitiable thirtysomething divorcee then,” Gloriosky continued, “We don’t have to stay long. I promise. And you can feel free to ignore me the whole time and hit on single women.”
“Funny you should say that, because you’re the one who usually scores at these shindigs.”
“What can I say? Men like perky breasts.”
“Men like breasts, period,” he reminded her.
“Except you. Both your wives were on the flat side. Do you have a secret thing for boys?”
“No, that would be your ex-husband.”
When Gloriosky and Gary split up in high school, she drifted to his best friend, Teddy, who in senior year, got her pregnant. They were married for the better part of a decade until Teddy ran off with a guy he’d met in Cleveland on a business trip.
“Do you really want to go down that road?” Gloriosky asked pointedly.
“No, I guess not,” he said. Someday their bitterness would dissipate and they’d have a hearty laugh about their respective marital fiascos. But the wounds were still a bit raw.
“Come on. I’ll even drive, so you can get totally hammered,” she pleaded.
Gary’s exasperated groan signaled his begrudging acquiescence. “Okay, but an hour tops.”
“Great. Pick you up at five.”
Who are all these people? Gary pondered, as he freshened his drink. His third drink. Chantal and Rory seemed to have an inexhaustible number of acquaintances and friends. He’d attended most of their end of summer celebrations but recognized only a scattering of faces. Perhaps, if they’d actually sponsored orgies, the guest list might be more consistent.
His brain, already somewhat blurry, Gary flopped onto on the oversized, microfiber couch in the den, which overlooked the patio, and propped his toned runner’s legs on the oak and glass top coffee table. True to form, Gloriosky had ditched him and was standing by the pool talking to a slight man named Han for whom she’d developed an instant attraction the moment she learned that he was a heart surgeon. Like any red-blooded Asian-American male, Han was ogling her perky breasts into which he spoke as if she had a microphone concealed in the cleavage.
Oh, there’s Andrea what’s-her-name, Gary thought. The one who used to be married to that gasbag, Lowell. Andrea once told Gary he had puckish eyes. Since then, they’d flirted regularly; but their timing was always off. If she wasn’t with someone, he was. At the moment, Andrea seemed riveted by some wide-shouldered, trim guy in a form-fitting tank top and even tighter cut-offs.
Though he was facing away from Gary, the man’s wide-legged stance struck him as oddly familiar. Andrea listened with that faux look of interest women affected while waiting patiently for a man to stop yakking and make a move.
Too bad. Looked like their bad timing would continue, Gay reasoned. Ah well, there’s always next year.
Then the man wiggled his ears and it sent a jolt through Gary. One leg jerked involuntarily, upsetting an empty bottle of Chardonnay, which made a clanking noise as it tumbled onto the table’s beveled glass surface. Andrea looked over and offered a smile. “Hey Gary,” she said, waving. “What’s doin’?”
Then the man turned and Gary’s jaw dropped.
Sally. Correction. No longer Sally. Noah. That’s who Sally was now.
Or so he’d heard. They knew each other well. Intimately. Though they’d not been formally introduced.
In senior year of college, Chantal and Rory, who’d recently gotten engaged, invited Gary to be a fourth in a game mixed-doubles. He was paired with Chantal’s Delta Nu sorority sister, Sally Clarkson. They immediately clicked and put on their A-game to impress one another. For the remainder of the afternoon, they filtered out Chantal and Rory and then went home together. They continued to date through graduation and were married a few months after Chantal and Rory tied the knot. They spent a year backpacking, eventually wending their way to Goa, where they both came down with dysentery, lying side by side during their recovery, talking, confiding, peeling back layers, until it seemed they knew everything about one another.
At least, that’s how Gary perceived it.
The one not insignificant detail Sally neglected to mention to her loving, devoted husband was that, at her core, she was a man. And while she adored Gary, in retrospect, the attraction had been, for all intents and purposes, that of one guy for another, the only difference being the plumbing.
Sally kept this precious nugget to herself and, for a time, the marriage thrived, marred only by her occasional dark moods. Sometimes she just needed to be alone, she asserted, and Gary respected that, though he suffered whenever they were apart for any period of time. He could take his male friends only in small doses. The perpetual college freshman humor and priapism wore on him. Sally, though, was a genuine wit and possessed a facility for acute observation. Sexually, she put a new spin on their intimacies that would make a sailor (and even a landlubber like Gary) blush.
The moody intervals aside, when Sally was present, she was gloriously present. So, the day she announced that the marriage was over, he was blindsided. When he demanded she give him a reason, Sally said that if she did, he would hate her. Which led him to the logical assumption that she’d been cheating. And she said nothing to dispel his conclusion.
The separation and her subsequent disappearance from Gary’s life crushed him. He had never ascribed to the hokum that two people could be soul mates, and Sally would have mocked him, mercilessly, if he had. But she had come close to being an ideal partner, and he despaired of finding any woman her equal.
Maybe that’s where I went wrong, he concluded. If he’d viewed Sally as a normal, fallible human being, he might have been able to accommodate whatever indiscretion she had committed and they might still be together.
Like many abruptly uncoupled men, he sought to fill the emotional vacuum with the first decent woman who came along – Pina Castaldi, whom he admired and respected but did not and could not love as he did Sally. He tried, gave the relationship his best effort. After two years of marriage, however, she cut him loose.
“You might have been honest and admitted that you’re still in love with Sally,” Pina said, without bitterness, then shot him in the face point blank. “Oh, and by the way, Sally’s a man now.”
Some kind of sick joke, Gary thought, based on the hell-hath-no-fury theory.
Except it wasn’t a joke. Sally now identified as male and Gary, stereotypically, was the last one to know. Sally had moved to the opposite side of the county, placing thousands of miles between them, as well as her unforgiving parents. Among the few people she’d informed of her transition, was Chantal, who had been sworn to secrecy. She never even told Rory. Yet, when Pina confessed her frustration at being the rebound mate to Chantal, she let slip this confidential information.
When Gary confronted her, fuming and red-faced, Chantal let him vent. After he stopped spitting and flailing, she informed him that Sally no longer existed. She’d legally changed her name to Noah. “He’s healing, coming to terms,” she claimed. “He’s not there yet. As you can appreciate, it’s a life-changing event.”
“Yeah, you bitch. I know a thing or two about life-changing events,” Gary snapped. “Sorry,” he added, immediately regretting his anger, then walked out the door, careful not to slam it.
“Hi, Gary,” Noah said in a register two octaves below that of his former wife.
Gary stopped breathing as he took in the full picture, the living embodiment of the theoretical he’d had little success conjuring until this moment. Some of the changes were cosmetic. Noah’s hairdo was merely a closer cropped version of Sally’s normally short bobs. An active pharmaceutical saleswoman and athlete, she’d preferred low-maintenance styles. For the same time-saving reason, Sally wore minimal makeup. Her eyes were naturally dramatic, large and round with deep brown pupils, which would expand and contract when they made love. She had full dark lips that were a delight to kiss and run his finger along, and prominent cheekbones. While never technically beautiful (but then neither was he), Sally glowed, and others often remarked upon it with envy. Men and women.
Even Gloriosky’s erstwhile husband, Teddy, who had left her for a man, had once confessed to Gary, “if Sally ever gave me the sign, I’d cuckold you in a New York fucking minute.” “Thanks, you’re a true friend,” Gary had replied.
That was were where the similarities ended. Noah sported an unnervingly flattering goatee and sinewy musculature in his arms. The once barely-a-handful breasts had morphed into well-defined pectorals, and the supple middle upon which Gary laid his head and felt peace, had been replaced by an incipient six-pack. The legs were still taut but now unshaven, though the bottom remained pert and cuppable.
“This is kind of awkward,” Gary said.
“Ya’ think?” Noah replied.
The wry sense of humor is still pure Sally, he thought.
Uncomfortable with the tension, Andrea excused herself, though neither Noah nor Gary noticed her retreat. “I heard that you’re living in Arizona,” Gary continued.
“I am. Came back East to see the folks. My first time.”
“I see. And how did that go, if you don’t mind my asking?” he asked.
“Oh, you know Pete and Marnie,” Noah said. “I doubt that I’ll be invited home for the holidays anytime soon.”
Gary nodded knowingly. He’d never much cared for Sally’s parents, whose only point of agreement was their mutual dislike for one another, which they voiced to anyone within earshot.
“I was kind of hoping you’d be here,” Noah said. “I’ve missed you.”
Gary exhaled and took a giant step back. “No, no, no, no,” he said, choking, and ran off.
He’d cried a great deal after Sally left, but always in private. Now the tears gushed out freely as he raced toward the large wooded expanse behind Chantal and Rory’s house. Though concealed by a large oak, his wailing was audible and, after a few minutes, Gloriosky tracked him down.
“Oh god, Gary,” she said, alarmed, which only increased the volume of his bawling.
In between heaves, he spewed a few unintelligible words. Finally, a coherent sentence emerged. “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Women are different,” Gloriosky said, and caught herself.
“No, not a woman. She…he, can’t have it both ways,” Gary said, his bloated cheeks coloring in anger.
“Sorry. I’m out of my depth here,” she replied. “Maybe you two should talk it out. Not now, but I could get his number if you like. Then when you’re up to it…”
Gary shook his head violently. “I can’t. I won’t.” He braced himself against the tree though he had the presence of mind to think “pull yourself together, man.”
“All right. Then let’s leave. You don’t have to go back inside. I’ll get the car and you head out through the woods toward Targee Road. It’s about a half mile straight down that way,” Gloriosky said, pointing to the right. “I’ll be waiting there.”
“Okay,” he said, and set off through the underbrush. A hundred yards on, in the distance, he noticed two men and a woman engaged in what appeared to be the early stages of a ménage. One man was behind the woman fondling her breasts, while the other kissed her neck and ran a hand under her floral silk skirt.
He recognized the hosts, Chantal and Rory, though he was unfamiliar with the other man. As he approached, they all separated.
“And here I thought you were kidding about an orgy,” he said with a smirk.
“Don’t judge, Gary,” Chantal said.
“Fuck you,” he spat. “How could you not tell me he was going to be here? I still haven’t forgiven your first betrayal, but this cuts it.”
“It was last minute. I didn’t know he was in town until this morning. I couldn’t not invite him. Noah’s one of my best friends. Besides, when I told him you might be coming, he pretty much said he’d be a no-show.
“C’mon, Gary,” Rory added. “It’s not as if we’ve chosen sides. We want you both in our lives.”
“Of course, you’ve chosen sides. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have sprung Noah on me like that. A phone call. A heads up. Did you not give any thought to how much this would upset me?”
“Gee, buddy, I…” said Rory, looking remorseful, but was interrupted by the other man. “Oh, you’re the husband,” he said.
“And who the hell are you?” Gary said, turning on him.
“I’m Jerrod, a friend of Noah’s. We came together.”
“What, his boyfriend you mean? And you’re out here fooling around with these two?”
“No. Not like that. A friend friend,” Jerrod said. Gary scrutinized his features and it suddenly hit him. “Un-fucking-believable.”
Turning to Chantal and Rory he said, “if you were so desperate for a three-way you could have asked me instead of this goddamn gender blender.”
And with that, Jerrod clocked him and Gary went down.
By the time he’d recovered, the threesome had departed. Gloriosky and Noah were standing on either side of him. Gary sat up and grabbed his head in both hands as if trying to screw it back onto his body.
Turning to Gloriosky, he said, “I need to talk to Noah. Could you give us a minute?” As she walked away, he added, “on second thought, go home. I’ll catch an Uber.”
“Jerrod told me what you said about him,” Noah began, in that snippy, maternal tone Sally had affected whenever she was angry. “And you wonder why I was afraid to tell you?
“Please tell him I’m sorry. I was still reeling from seeing you and then to run into him with…It was like a one-two punch.”
“Jerrod and I are very protective of one another,” Noah said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Gary rubbed his sore chin. “I imagine. I still can’t believe that, after all we shared together, you didn’t trust me enough to tell me,” he said. “I thought we had no secrets.”
Noah looked away, embarrassed. “Everybody has secrets, even from the people they love. Especially from the person they love the most. I guess I figured it was better that you hate me than continue to love a person who didn’t exist.”
“Are you saying it was all a lie?” Gary said.
“Not at all. Except that you were in love with Sally, but it was Noah who loved you back. Only I didn’t own him yet.”
“Great. Glad we cleared that up,” he said, crossing his eyes.
“Jesus, Gary. If you’re looking for a simple answer, I don’t have one,” Noah said.
“You might have given me the courtesy of trying to understand instead of ditching me and disappearing. Erasing me out of existence.”
“No, that I never did,” Noah said. “Why do you think I came here today? I almost didn’t, but my need to see you outweighed it. Are you going to make me sorry I did?”
Gary shook his head. “I’m glad you came. It had to happen sooner or later. I just wish I’d been better prepared. If you’d only…”
“I can’t go back and undo what I’ve done. When I left, I didn’t think you could understand something I was only beginning to grasp. Remember how you reacted when Teddy left Gloriosky for that guy?”
“Only because I was pissed at how he’d humiliated her. Which is exactly what you did. Humiliated me. If you’d been honest, who knows, we might have been able to salvage something out of it. I miss Sally. I still talk to her all the time.”
“Well, I don’t miss Sally,” Noah said. “I haven’t fully come to terms with Noah but I’m growing into him more every day.”
Gary studied Noah closely, then cried out in frustration, “This is all so confusing.”
Noah nodded. “Tell me about it. I spent twenty-eight years being confused. And frustrated. The only reason I kept Sally alive was because of you.”
“Then why did you leave me behind? Whatever happened to thick and thin? In sickness and in health?”
“It’s my biggest regret; the one gaping hole in my life that I can’t seem to fill.”
“Good answer,” he said, forcing a smile as he rose and brushed off the damp leaves and pine needles. He scanned Noah again. “I can’t believe how pumped you are. I’ve gotten so pudgy, especially around my middle. But then, you were always the better athlete.”
“I was not. You kicked my ass on the tennis court.”
“Only because you let me win,” he said, moving closer and inhaling the scent of Noah’s chestnut hair. Overcome, he grabbed Noah and kissed him, then he pushed him away. “Same lips, but dude, you need a shave.”
“Oh, Gary. Same lame sense of humor,” Noah quipped. Noticing Gary’s eyes roaming, he snapped, “Stop checking me out. It’s…unnerving.”
“You used to like it,” Gary said, acting coy.
“Yes. When it was lust, not curiosity.”
“What? You’re still you,” he said, his eyes continuing to roam. “The eyes, the legs, the curve of your back.”
“Stop it,” Noah ordered. “I’m not the same person. I’m not.”
“If inside you were always Noah, how are you a different from the person I fell in love with? I mean, are you attracted to women now? Is that it?”
Noah shook his head. “No, still guys. But I’m not ready to act on it. And certainly not with you.”
“Now you’re just trying to hurt my feelings,” Gary said.
“Come on, Gary. You’d never be able to handle being with a man.”
“You’d have to get me pretty drunk,” he said, only half kidding.
“Right now you smell like a distillery,” Noah observed.
“Yeah, I’m still pretty tipsy. Why, are you thinking of taking advantage of me?”
“Only with permission,” Noah taunted, the same kind of amiable sparring they engaged in while married.
“Then you’re not half the man my ex-wife was. She violated me whenever she felt like it.”
“Oh, how you must have suffered,” Noah said, moving in and kissing Gary boldly. Initially, he resisted, but his will was weakened. He began to nip at Noah’s neck, revisiting the tender and vulnerable spots he’d memorized, even if they were now covered with patches of stubble. Emboldened, his senses heightened, Noah’s hands wandered as if by reflex.
“My, my,” Gary said, almost amazed. Tentatively, he began to caress Noah, then stopped himself. “My body wants to, but my head is….”
“Forget it. How about if I blow you?” Noah suggested.
“I’m definitely not ready to do that with a guy,” he said. “Wait, I know.”
Gary eased Noah onto his back and explored a part of him with which he had years of intimate knowledge. The groans, while more guttural than his ex-wife’s, echoed her music in a lower key, and built to the same crescendo.
“We’re going to regret this,” Noah said afterwards, as they made their way back to the house.
“Perhaps. But at this moment, I really don’t give a shit,” Gary said, taking his hand. “Right now, I feel terrific. Let me have this moment. Please?”
Noah replied with a soft nod and was about to speak when Gary placed a finger over his lips.
When they arrived back at the house, all the guests had departed. From the rumbling noises on the second floor, Gary assumed that Chantal and Rory had proceeded with their seduction plans, and involuntarily shuddered trying to imagine the arrangement of bodies.
“Jerrod texted me,” Noah said, looking at his phone. “Says he’ll meet me in the morning in time for the flight.”
“You’re leaving already?”
“Yeah, I have a treatment scheduled day after tomorrow.”
Gary nodded. “You know, after I found out, I read up on this whole…and though I’m not supposed to ask…”
“Let me stop you right there,” Noah said.
Gary was chastened and changed his tack. “Will I see you again?”
“I’m pretty settled out there and I don’t have much reason to come East.”
“I see,” Gary said, deflated.
“Don’t do that,” Noah said. “I can’t resist that sad face.”
Encouraged, he consciously made his face sadder.
“Now you’re just being a dick.”
“One of us has to be,” he said, arching his eyebrows.
“I shouldn’t have come today,” Noah said.
“You mean to the party?” Gary replied, provoking him.
“Stop it,” Noah said.
“Admit it. You’re still in love with me.”
“And you’re still in love with Sally.”
“Sally never gave me the chance to make the leap of faith. Perhaps Noah will be more generous. You know, man to man.”
“I can’t. I’m not ready to become emotionally involved.”
“But you already are.”
“You’re not being rational. Whatever my feelings, it can’t work in the real world. It’s too complicated. You need to find someone who’ll make you happy, unconditionally.”
“You’re right. That should be my Tinder profile. Looking for someone to make me happy, unconditionally.”
“Goddamn it, Gary. Stop pretending that my being a man is not an impediment for you. You’re just not evolved enough.”
“Wow, you really are a guy, what with the mansplaining and all. It’s possible that I am a Neanderthal like you say. But at least I’m willing to try. I kissed you. I had sex with you. On the first day.”
“That was just unfinished business. We got caught up in nostalgia.”
Gary did not respond. Noah’s comment had hit a nerve and amplified his self-doubt. “Okay, you win.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a pyrrhic victory,” Noah said, softening.
“So, this is goodbye?” Gary asked. “We’re still in love with each other but that’s not enough?”
“I’m afraid not. When I’m ready and I’m not sure when that will be, I have to find someone who understands who Noah is and is attracted to him.”
“Whoever he is, he’ll never love you as much as I do.”
“That’s a shitty thing to say.”
“Why? If we can’t be together, I’d rather you hate me.”
“As you wish.”
“Screw you, Noah. You’re not fit to shine Sally’s shoes.”
Noah leans over to kiss his forehead, but Gary raises his face and their lips meet and the kiss lingers, neither able or willing to end it.