You ever listened to Roy Orbison? That voice. That fucking voice. Cuts deep into you, slicing you bit by bit. Until you’re just chunks of meaty, exposed flesh on the ground. All that remains is the pain you had before you started listening to one of his songs.
Been listening to him a lot lately.
Zack loved Orbison. Sung him in the shower.
I don’t think about him that much these days. Well, guess I am now, ‘cause I’m telling you all this, but trust me, he don’t come up much in my dreams. There was a time he did.
Like the song. You know, the one in that David Lynch film. In dreams, we were together. Always together. But those are dreams of yesterday.
I don’t know why I’ve been thinking of him lately. Don’t get why he’s hanging out in my head, as if he’s bought a piece of brain matter and moved right in, furnishings and all.
Maybe it’s this new song I’m writing, one that would be perfect for him. But he ain’t ever gonna sing it. Not ever.
◊ ◊ ◊
We used to go to this place near the Castro in San Francisco. The Mint. Karaoke nights seven days a week. Nothing like a bunch of drunk queens singing Queen. Of course, he’d sing Orbison.
I don’t usually sing. I write songs.
But those nights I did, just to humor him.
A little Lauper. Some Benatar. And all the Lilith Fair lineup. He liked Sarah McLachlan. I liked Natalie Merchant. Ah, aren’t they the same anyway?
In those days, we were roommates, sharing an apartment in a nearby neighborhood. A two-bedroom. Rent controlled. It was cute for a minute.
Sure, we’d have tricks come and go. That’s what everyone in San Francisco did. But at the end of every night, it was just us. Quiet moments punctuated by laughter, and the occasional sweet compliment. Zack liked my writing. I loved his voice, which had a lyrical, almost mystical, quality when he sang. We’d share a nightcap. A glass of red for him, bourbon for me. Later, each at our door frame, saying goodnight, the long hallway between us. I stared at him as we did.
He was chiseled in a way I’d never be. As if Michelangelo whittled away marble to make him.
Then came Josh, the boyfriend. His, not mine.
Josh came over every night. Stayed until morning.
“You don’t mind?” Zack asked.
“Oh, not at all. This is as much your place as it is mine,” I said.
Every morning, I got up to find the boyfriend in my kitchen, drinking the coffee I bought from the pot that I brought to this living situation. Even using my creamer.
“Next time, bring your own coffee and creamer, Josh,” I finally said. But Josh ignored me, still made my coffee, and used my creamer.
When I came home from working down in the hell that was the Peninsula, that long stretch of smaller, uptight cities south of San Francisco, he was drinking my top-shelf whiskey.
“Hey. I don’t mind sharing but that’s mine. Maybe ask once in a while, Josh,” I told him once.
Of course, he didn’t. Still drank it. I finally kept the whiskey in my room. Shoulda done the same with the coffee.
Weeks turned into months. And soon it was serious. Fancy ring serious. High-end serious. Diamond serious.
But there was just one problem — the fiancé loved to go out. Every night. Drank like a drowning sailor on shore leave. Drugged like the aging circuit queen he was. Then there were the fights. The pleas for forgiveness. The promises of stopping.
But they were engaged. What could be done, right? And still one night I dared to ask, “Are you sure?”
We were alone in the apartment. Josh out in the Castro somewhere.
“Sure, he drinks a bit too much. But so do I. After all, I’m the original party boy. Circuit parties and all.”
“But are you sure?”
He shrugged and retreated into his bedroom.
That was the closest I’d come to saying what I truly felt for him in those days. For the love I’d never say outright.
I never knew where we stood. Maybe I didn’t want to. Although Zack sure got possessive a few times when we were in the Castro. Someone would talk to me and he’d swoop in and drag me away for another round.
“This man has more intelligence in his pinky than you’ll ever have,” he said once to this twink chatting me up.
Sure, the twink wasn’t the brightest strobe in the club, but Zack couldn’t stand seeing anyone chat me up, or so it seemed.
“You know that wasn’t nice,” I said later. “Actually, it was pretty fucking cruel.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Should tell him, not me.”
Too late though. The twink was long gone from the bar. Zack didn’t care much about hurting others’ feelings. At least, those of strangers.
After another fight, Zack slept on the couch. But the boyfriend came charging out of the room, yanking the throw off him and yelling at Zack, who yelled back. And so on and so on that night. Finally, I swung my door open and told them to “shut the hell up.” Then, I slammed my door, shaking the wall.
I woke to find a note on my door. From him, not the boyfriend.
“Sorry for the noise. Won’t happen again.”
But it did. Constantly.
◊ ◊ ◊
Eventually, we left that apartment. He went to live with the boyfriend — now the fiancé.
We saw less of each other but still talked. After all, we had music in common.
“Hey, I have this new song that I’m working on. Want to give it a try?” I asked over the phone one day.
I wrote the song in a flurry of angst. I wanted him to hear it because it was the only way I knew how to express my love for him.
“Sure. Let’s meet next week. Oh, by the way, I didn’t tell you, we’re sending over the invites for the wedding. It’s gonna be in Napa. His family has a vineyard there!”
We never met. The wedding took up much of his time. I found someone else to sing the song. But it wasn’t the same. So, I put it away in a drawer, much like my feelings for Zack.
I didn’t see him until the wedding. A gay Catholic wedding. Can you believe it? Mass and everything. Shit, I gave up my Catholicism for Lent years ago. Reception was nice. They made a great couple, I suppose. The husband didn’t seem to drink as much and was reasonably wasted.
◊ ◊ ◊
Years passed. We talked once in a while. Saw each other every now and then. But it wasn’t the same. More like old acquaintances meeting for a coffee.
His singing career was taking off, so they moved to Los Angeles. I stuck to the City… San Francisco that is. Before you knew it, I turned 40. The death of a queen like me. The moment when you become a daddy. I wanted to mark the passing, so I went down to Los Angeles. West Hollywood. WeHo. Was going to be us and some close friends we shared. Then, the call came.
“Hey, you mind if I bring a friend?”
“Oh, is Josh not coming?”
“Nah. He’s gonna stay in. You’ll like my friend. He’s an actor. Remember that little indie movie… that one with the kid who does that funny dance?”
I did. I hated it. Pretentious dribble. The jokes were obvious. The music was the worst. Lame ass sappy alt-rock punctuated the melodrama of the picture. This “friend” both acted and sang in it. Let me tell you, he ain’t no Roy Orbison. He ain’t even as talented as Zack.
Dinner was at a trendy, swank WeHo restaurant. The kind of place where it’s best not to look too much at the prices. A place to see and be seen. Mostly, D-list queens trying to be A-listers. Like us.
Zack walked in. Still chiseled and perfectly angular in all the right places. My heart sank.
His arm, slung around his actor friend.
Short, about my height, but wiry like a wet spaghetti noodle. Pencil thin ‘stache. Guess he thought it looked cute. It didn’t.
“Oh this is Esteban. And this is my old roommate from San Francisco I was telling you about. Oh, you two should talk ‘cause you sing right, Esteban? He’s got a huge role where he’s gonna be doing a lot of singing. He’s gonna try to see if he can get me booked for it too.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, far colder than I intended. But now thinking back on it, maybe I actually wanted to deliver it with all the warmth of an arctic tundra.
We sized each other. If this had been another time, I’d declare a duel. All for the affection of Zack. All for his attention, which he barely paid any of to me while Esteban was around. Something about them. They had a way together. A familiarity and a secret language.
A few drinks in, Esteban regaled the group with stories of his one claim to fame. Living off the fumes of that Sundance darling flick.
“So have I heard any of your songs on the radio?” Esteban asked.
“Not yet. Been trying to break in. I play sax in a local jazz band. And I teach music for cash.”
“Oh. Well, keep at it. All it takes is that one yes. I mean that’s what happened at my audition,” he said. “They hired me right there. Next thing you know I’m at Sundance. And doing this musical.”
I wanted to rip that snotty little shit’s moustache from his upper lip. But I shoved it down. My anger. My disappointment. The realization that Esteban was fucking Zack when I wanted to be the one fucking him.
I ordered another drink. And another. One more. To drown out the nonsensical prattle of Esteban.
And as all dinners go, people drift to the bar or to the toilet, not to pee but to do a bump.
Soon it was only me and Zack. At last.
“So, Josh and I aren’t doing so hot, you know,” he confessed. “It’s gotten worse. We sleep in separate bedrooms now. I haven’t seen him naked in years. I can’t even remember the last time we had sex.”
“Are you guys open?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, I didn’t want to assume. But I figured it out.”
“You do have more intelligence in that pinky of yours than any other queen in this place,” Zack said.
I took a drink. Flagged the waiter for another. A silence fell upon us for a second. Then Zack said something I still think about to this day. Something I never expected him to ever say. Something that drove our relationship right into a brick wall.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” he asked. “Why didn’t you stop me from marrying Josh?”
What could I say? It wasn’t my place to stop him. What was I gonna do? Pull a Dustin Hoffman and bang on the church windows? Would it have made a difference? Nah, saying something would’ve made things worse.
Or so I deluded myself into thinking. Even today. So, I said the only thing that came to mind. The only way I could ever express my feelings for him.
“I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing songs for you to sing. Still do.”
Zack heard the words, but he didn’t hear the feeling. He was never any damn good at picking up emotions.
“That’s sweet,” he said with a smile.
Eventually, Esteban and the others returned, noses properly powdered. And that was that. What Zack said, what I said. It all washed away with the cocktails. Vanished like the coke in the baggie.
But after too many cocktails and bumps, I decided to say something to Zack later that night, in one final attempt to capture him.
We migrated to a gay bar near the restaurant. When Esteban fled to the restroom for another bump, I made my move.
“You’re a butterfly. You flutter in and outta my life. And I can’t catch you,” I said to Zack. “You’re fluttering right outta my grasp. So, this might be my last chance. I love you. I want to be with you. I want to write songs for you.”
He didn’t say anything. Only smiled. Then vanished into the smoke and throng of the bar.
◊ ◊ ◊
And that was that. The last moment I’d ever have with him. We drifted apart after that night. Until he finally fluttered out of my life completely.
Now, after all these years, I wonder if he knew how I felt all along and chose not to hurt my feelings. Maybe whatever I thought we had was one-sided. At best, our relationship was lopsided.
But if Zack was a butterfly, I was a moth drawn to a flame of false hope. I was a fool for believing there was anything more than what we had. Who the hell knows what we actually were to each other? Wild hearts, I suppose.
But like ol’ Roy said, wild hearts run outta time. So then why is mine still wound up?
Ryan Thomas Riddle is a screenwriter and award-winning journalist. Currently, he’s developing several projects for TV/Film and comics. As a proud Fil-Am queer, his work heavily features Filipinx and queer characters in a variety of genre stories. He’s the co-host of the SHIP FULL OF JERKS pop culture podcast.