Phillip Lopate

Straight Man

 

Dear Warren, I often think about that night

you took me to an all-male gathering

for someone in the City Ballet corps.

A small brownstone apartment; we got jammed

against the kitchen table with the wine,

and some corpulent, red-faced, oily queen

accosted you with his belligerent lust:

“Well! Where have you been hiding out?” he screamed,

and dove his hand down-shirt, squeezing your chest.

You winced, still looking tolerant and amused.

Yes you were quite the favorite that night,

as well you should have been, my handsome friend.

Discouraging no one, giving none consent,

the perfect coquette, while I stood by your side

for safety’s sake, as though your newest date;

I must have been the only straight man there.

 

But then I went into the living room

and gave you time to operate alone.

Besides, I was afraid to stick around

and see you in too-vivid an embrace—

collecting memories which might disturb

the fragile balance of our new friendship.

The men inside were making out or cruising;

that didn’t faze me, they were not my friends.

What hurt, however, was the eye-contact,

first greedy, then disgusted when they saw

I didn’t know the code. They looked through me,

as if to say, “You don’t belong with us.”

I sensed hostility—or at least chagrin

at my blocking their visual line of fire—

and circled, finding nowhere safe to stand.

 

Then Dave, your critic friend, came up to me

in kindness, and we started talking films.

He told me he’d been reading Noel Burch;

Burch claimed most Westerners misread Japanese films,

they thought they understood the little cues

but their ethnocentrism deluded them,

all part of bourgeois–humanist hegemony. . . .

His words kept getting more abstract, the more

I saw the party heating up around us.

A moment’s paranoia made me think

he was insinuating a connection:

Just as the Japanese codes eluded me,

so did I misperceive the patterns here.

 

I kept insisting it was possible

for a round-eye like me to “get” Ozu.

The argument went drily circular

but I clung to it, having nothing else,

til from the corner of my eye I caught

your leather jacket and red flannel shirt.

You whispered in my ear: “Nu? Had enough?”

“I’m ready to go,” I said, and seized your sleeve.

You laughingly apologized on the stairs:

“What an obnoxious party. If I’d known

such boring assholes would be there, you can

believe I’d never have invited you!”

 

We walked up Broadway to the subway stop.

I wanted to complain to you how strained

the whole experience had been for me,

how real the gulf

between men of your preference and mine.

We were like ancient enemies who posed

threats to each other by our being,

mocking the turn where each had gone his way.

how could I trust you—or you me?—

beyond formal exchange of the latest tastes.

Why had you put me through this nightmarish masquerade?

 

Yet even as I framed the words, I sensed

the party hadn’t been that strange.

I was exaggerating the sensual shock

to alienate myself from what had been

as unoutrageous as my shadow, as

the doctor’s question put at seventeen:

“What are you most afraid of? Speak, first thought—!”

“That I’d become a homosexual.”

So I didn’t, though I might have, and you did.

Friends live the lives we don’t have time for,

or temperament, or talent. Forgive me if

I still seem both repelled and envious:

a part of me may never understand.

Copyright 2019 by Phosphene Publishing Company

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