ILLUSTRATION BY LYNAS
BY SAM OGLESBY | As we had been doing once a month for several years, Edith and I met at 11:15 a.m. in the lobby of the Film Forum on Houston Street for a “members only” sneak preview of a critically praised, but obscure film. I think it was an early Cary Grant picture that nobody has ever heard of. As a contributing member of the Film Forum, Edith receives regular invitations to these events and, back in 2012 or 2013, began inviting me to join her.
When she extended her first invitation, I did not know Edith very well. We had met one summer through mutual friends at a picnic in Central Park on the Great Lawn. One of those group get-togethers where everybody brings something and you always end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another, a surfeit of dessert or not enough wine (“Oh, I thought I was supposed to bring cake, not booze”) — the kind of oversight that makes everybody laugh and feel relaxed. On that Sunday afternoon, the crowd ice-breaker was Bono, a huge, imposing Alsatian of impeccable breeding who sat obediently at the edge of the picnic blanket dolefully eyeing plates of human goodies — hummus, salami, gruyere — wanting, but never daring to lunge forward to claim his share.
The group must have numbered a dozen or more, old friends who had known each other over the years and had dutifully kept in touch in spite of foreign postings with the United Nations or the multinational corporate world. Central Park in the summer was our usual reunion spot. Several newcomers had been brought along as candidates for admission to the circle. Edith was one of the new faces introduced by a woman working in Geneva who had met her on a mission to Kenya and found her interesting.
Occupying opposite, far corners of the picnic blanket, I had little chance to befriend Edith on that first encounter. There had been a brief introduction after which I promptly forgot her name. Midway through the festivities, I glanced over and noticed Edith sitting quietly in her corner, rather alone, but not unhappy, contentedly looking out at the hundreds of bodies on the Great Lawn engaged in the ritual celebration of another New York City summer. I found myself forming that initial impression which is always so important in human contact. Edith was, I thought, plain and unassuming.
Although I don’t remember doing it, Edith and I must have exchanged contact information, because several weeks after the Great Lawn event I received an email from her asking if I might be interested in going to a midday screening at the Film Forum. By way of explanation for inviting me, Edith said she knew I had spent five years in Indonesia and the film she was proposing dealt with that reprehensible era in the 1960s when hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed in an ethnic blood bath during the rise of the dictator Suharto.
I readily accepted her invitation, making a mental note that she must know that I am gay and have a husband, an Indonesian man, whom I had been partnered with for over 30 years. Our film date went well, very well. I had not had so much fun in years. After the movie we lunched at a wonderful hole-in-wall off Houston and then walked in Soho for what must have been several hours. Edith was an expert, par excellence, on Lower Manhattan, full of factoids and anecdotes about the buildings and shops we passed. During our stroll we talked effortlessly about many things; the quiet, plain woman I had first seen on the edge of a picnic blanket was, in fact, brilliantly stimulating and at the same time unassuming and modest, despite what I later learned to be her Harvard doctorate.
Our post-Film Forum date was followed by long email exchanges on everything under the sun, from shoes and ships and sealing wax, to cabbages and kings, so to speak. The film get-togethers became a regular event that I greatly anticipated. After half-a dozen encounters, I found our friendship warming into intimacy. We often linked arms when we walked the streets and sometime we would finish phrases the other had started. And in spite of Edith being a modern woman in every sense, I came to see that she appreciated having the door opened for her and help with putting on her overcoat. I greatly enjoyed making these gestures for her.
Our most recent film date took place on a sunny, spring-like day in early January. I noticed gratefully as we strolled to our spot for lunch Edith’s subtle accommodation to my slightly reduced pace due to debilitating and painful arthritis that has cropped up in my knees. Other friends, including my husband, were not always so understanding, urging Lazy Bones, the Old Man to get with it and walk faster. I treasured Edith for her empathy.
We ended up lunching at one of those delightful old-world New York City eateries that are easy to overlook if you don’t know about them and, of course, Edith did. Settling in to our checkered table cloth and crisp white napkins, and attended by a lovely lady server with a lilting Irish brogue, I was in high spirits. I felt closer to Edith that day than I ever had before. Our orders arrived. Mine was a steaming bowl of seafood soup and Edith had fish and chips. Her portion was enormous, a veritable mountain of French fries spilling over the plate. With a twinkle in my eye and with what I thought was a playful wave of my hand, I plucked a fry from her platter with a flying pincer movement of index finger and thumb. I reveled in what I realized was, for me, a newly-found flirtatious intimacy with the opposite sex. After digesting my prey, I dove in for another morsel of chips, then settled into my soup du jour, laughing quietly to myself about what a flirt I had suddenly become.
A minute later, I went for a third raid on Edith’s huge mound of chips. Incredible to me, my playful theft was greeted by an angry snarl from Edith. Her face turned dark and mean and in a high-pitched, strident tone, she hissed at me, “That’s my lunch you are eating. STOP IT !” I immediately withdrew my hand, the fry dangling helplessly from my thumb and forefinger. I let it drop on the table cloth and pointed my face toward my soup bowl. Another word was not exchanged between us for the rest of the lunch. When the meal was over, our Irish server removed Edith’s plate; half of the fries were still there, uneaten. When we found ourselves out on the street an awkwardness enveloped us; I mumbled something perfunctory about what a fun day it had been and Edith gestured to the subway stop, saying she had to go.
Unaccountably my mind raced back 68 years to when I was a seven-year-old boy in Tokyo. I was sitting on the stairs in our house next to our beautiful young servant girl, Chioko. We had a game that I loved playing with her. I would point to features on my face — nose, lips, eyes, chin — and say the words for those things in English and she would then do the same thing in Japanese. Our mispronunciations would result in giggles and laughter and Chioko would always end up hugging me and saying to me in Japanese “Kawa-ee nay!” (“You are so cute.”) My first flirt with a girl had just occurred. But at the end of one of these playful language lessons, my mother appeared. Standing over us, she said with a mocking tone and a frowning sneer, “Well, Sammy Boy, I see this little maid has got you in her clutches ! Get back to work, Chioko !” I was so ashamed and embarrassed that I never flirted with a woman again until I pinched Edith’s French fries.
They say that things always happen “in three’s,” so that means I am bound to have another flirtatious encounter with another female. But I am 75 years old now and 68 years passed between my first two fumbling hetero attempts. So I doubt if I will have that third chance. And you know what? It doesn’t really bother me. I take comfort in a paraphrase of an old saw: “Better the (gay) Devil you know !” My experience with Edith saddened and confused me for a while, but now when I look back on what happened, I smile and think maybe sexuality is a floating crap game with no losers. She put me back in my place where I really belong as a gay man.
Sam Oglesby is a New York-based writer who won the 2013 New York Press Association Award for Best Feature article.