Chip Miller struggles with his attraction to men during his longs runs in Central Park while his wife Sally is back in the apartment balancing the couple’s checkbook.
Published in Queer Ramblings Magazine (Fall 2005).
(NOTE: Because Queer Ramblings Magazine has gone out of business, I am including the entire story here, rather than just an excerpt.)
Chip Miller took inventory as he ran in the park one Saturday afternoon. Item one: He was lucky to land a good job at a major packaged goods company right out of business school. And on Park Avenue, no less—walking distance from the apartment he and Sally rented at 1225 Park. Yes, the apartment—item two. A solid building far up the avenue just before it dipped into Spanish Harlem. Someday they might move on to something even grander, something lower down the avenue, but for now he had no complaints. Though, of course, he knew Sally—yes, item three—Sally expected them to move up to Bronxville once they started having children. Good old Sally. Good sport Sally. She didn’t really understand his fascination with the city, did she? (Item four: He loved the city.) He felt safe and secure in the Park Avenue corridor within which he lived and worked, but came fully alive only whenever he ventured beyond its borders. He tried to share his joy with her, and she went along with him, all right—to the movies, the theatre, museums, restaurants, cabaret acts, modern dance performances, anything he suggested—but he could tell she was just marking time.
But they were a good match, weren’t they? Both good people. Reliable. Dependable. Both conservative—consistently so, even in a city subject to constant temptations to join a different parade. What did one of their friends call them recently? Blond bookends. As for the larger world—item five—even that was fine now that Ronald Reagan had been elected to a second term in the White House.
His thoughts returned to the park, Central Park—that world-famous human masterwork even more beautiful than what Nature intended—and only two blocks from the apartment. At his current pace, he could easily cover the complete loop of the Outer Drive. Weather permitting, he might even repeat the feat the next day.
He ran through the inventory one more time. The job. The apartment. Sally. His love affair with the city. The larger world. Each a source of happiness. Even the item he sometimes overlooked—his sex life. Yes, that was fine now, too. Although he continued to think about men whenever he made love to his wife—a habit that went back as far as he could remember—he felt that what went on inside his head was nobody else’s business. What mattered more was that he was honoring his commitment to Sally and wasn’t out running around with men—though he couldn’t help noticing all the beautiful specimens on the streets of Manhattan. Or in the park. God, there were so many of them! New ones every day, it seemed. And whenever one of them happened to smile at him, his heart melted just a little as he added the smile to his repertoire of images to be used in emergencies.
There goes one now, he thought, noticing the crumpled shirt in the man’s fist. Why did so many men insist on taking their shirts off when they ran in the park? Who were they trying to impress? All right, he admitted—he was impressed. More than impressed. He wanted this man. Oh, not really—just a thought. No harm thinking. Then again, wasn’t lusting after men bad form, if not simply wrong? Especially with a wife waiting back at 1225 Park? But, oh, the beauty of some of these men! Another one raced past him, leaving a trace of cologne behind. A rare specimen with hair matted down, a newly tanned body shimmering with sweat and skin all aglow from blood pumping through thickened veins—like one of the high school football players he couldn’t even look at in the locker room back in Alexandria, Virginia. Back then, he thought of them as a different species. But now that he was finally something of an athlete himself, he considered them fair game. And perhaps there was nothing wrong with lusting after them, since he wasn’t actually doing anything and hadn’t done anything since that time at Cornell when . . . But there was no point in thinking about any of that now.
Reassured that all was right in his world, he locked eyes with a handsome older man running in the opposite direction and smiling broadly as they passed. Did they know each other? When he smiled back, the man reversed direction and overtook him with a nod of his head. He sped up, not understanding why his heart was racing uncontrollably or why he felt compelled to follow the man. When the man veered off course into the woods near the American Museum of Natural History, he followed him across a bridge, up a hill, along a winding path, and into some bushes. Finding the man alone in a small clearing, he walked right up to him as if he knew exactly what was expected of him. As they grabbed for each other, he felt that something momentous was happening. This was what he wanted, what he needed, what he was destined to do.
“What’s your name?” he asked when they were done.
The man caught his breath and said, “Robert.” They shook hands and then laughed. He wondered what to do next. Give the man his phone number? Ask him out? Or tell him that their five minutes together had contained more passion than he had experienced in all five years of married life? Robert beat him to the punch, saying, “I’ll see you around,” and turned to go. He noticed the man’s wedding band, astonished to find someone else in his situation. Had he ever done this before? Would they do this again? Making his way slowly back out through the bushes, he plotted his return home until he brushed by another man entering the thicket and realized that the entire area was filled with men roaming in and out of the woods. They all seemed to merge into the scenery, as in those games he remembered from Highlights for Children, where assorted animals and household objects blended into an illustration, and it was the young reader’s task to find as many of them as possible. Had these men been there all these many months while he simply ran by unaware of the feverish activity in the bushes?
Reaching the Outer Drive, he caught sight of civilization looming beyond the trees, a discovery that signaled the end of his run and his obligatory return to the world that had been all but blotted out during the incident in the woods. Did he have to go back or could he settle down in a shack in the park to start a new life among his fellow wood dwellers? Perhaps they could start a new colony and carry on as they wished—a Plymouth Plantation for a new age. When his thoughts returned to Sally, who was back in the apartment balancing their checkbook, he vowed this would never happen again.
Until the next weekend, when, once again, the sight of half-naked athletic bodies made it difficult to concentrate on anything other than what might be happening in the bushes. His heart raced as he started down the hill near the museum. Would he stay on the Outer Drive or head into the woods and over the bridge as he had done the week before? His Nike Air Pegasus running shoes made the decision for him, leading him back to the winding path in the little urban forest called “The Ramble.” He stopped to catch his breath, appreciating the stillness of this innermost part of the park, where he could hear nothing but the chirping of birds and the occasional honking of horns off in the distance. With some difficulty, he found his way back to the clearing where he had introduced himself to Robert the week before. Finding nobody around, he stood still and waited, checking his watch, feigning nonchalance, taking his pulse to monitor his racing heart. Soon a man appeared from beyond the bushes and walked hurriedly through the clearing without even acknowledging him. Like Alice perplexed by the rabbit, he simply followed the intruder along a circuitous route deeper into the woods, where he found an undercover world of men milling about, all avoiding eye contact, yet intent on their mission.
He didn’t know where to begin. After surveying the scene, he approached a dark-haired man with big shoulders who took his hand and led him to an isolated spot near the lake. Stripped down to his Nikes and wedding band, he admired the man’s tan line while trying not to think about the keys and money in the pocket of his running shorts now lying on the ground. As the man kissed him, an onlooker suddenly stepped forward and touched him, prompting others to swarm in and fight for their share of the booty. Discovering that trying to free himself from the men’s limbs was a losing battle, he dropped to his knees and crawled through the pack, rescuing his running shorts from under a pair of Topsiders and running well away before stopping to take stock of his possessions. Deciding that he could not show up back on Park Avenue without his shirt, he returned to the scene and waited for the pack to disperse, finding the missing garment hanging undisturbed on a hedge of privet and the ground littered with crumpled Kleenex and trampled debris.
Sally commented on his odd mood several times that afternoon. He attributed it to a disappointing run, saying he just didn’t seem to have his usual energy.
“Maybe you’re coming down with something.”
“No, I’m fine. Just a little tired, I think.”
“Maybe you should skip a day every once in a while. That’s what my personal trainer recommends.”
“Maybe,” he replied, hoping to silence Sally’s concern. In the coming weeks, he mastered the Ramble as fully as any new product assigned to his brand-management group. His market research revealed the spots most frequented by similarly minded men looking for privacy, as well as those where group encounters were the norm. His consumer-marketing and media-planning skills helped him identify the best times of the week for meeting men, interpret the special body language of his peers, and master the site-specific rules of etiquette. The Ramble became a kind of spiritual home, a place to which his mind wandered throughout the day—indeed the place he felt most alive. Like an eager Little Leaguer, he became melancholy on rainy days when the game had to be called off, even heading out one stormy Saturday despite Sally’s protests, running desperately, but in vain, to each of the usual spots until he could barely lift his soaking Nikes off the ground.
Among his many new friends, Robert—the man who led him to the Ramble in the first place—emerged as his special object of affection. Spotting him through the window of a gourmet food shop on Madison Avenue one afternoon, he smiled and waved, only to discover that the man didn’t like to be acknowledged in public places. He continued to run into him around the neighborhood but kept his distance, gradually piecing together the details of his life—the brick townhouse, the well-turned-out, brunette wife and self-confident teenage children. Despite the distance he seemed to require in public, Robert drew no such lines in the park, dropping everything to go off with Chip whenever they encountered each other. Soon enough, he believed he was in love with Robert. In a sense, he loved all the men in the park, for his sexual encounters always fueled his yearning for an emotional connection as well, but Robert had a special hold on him, his image displacing all the others in the large inventory he relied on when performing his duty with Sally.
When they ran into each other in the usual place in the woods one lazy weekend afternoon, Robert took him to a grassy perch atop an outcropping, a special place where they were hidden from view but could spy on the woods below as well as the buildings of Central Park West off in the distance. Lying back down after making love—for that’s certainly what it felt like—Chip seized the moment, stroking Robert’s arm as they talked.
“I don’t know if I should say this or not, but—Robert, I love you.”
“No, you don’t,” Robert snapped back, sounding like an authority on the subject. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“It’s not ridiculous. I know how I feel.”
“Saying ‘I love you’ doesn’t count when you’ve got your clothes off.”
“Then I’ll put them back on and say it again.”
“Don’t bother!” Robert sat up and took a deep breath. “You don’t know anything about me. Whatever it is you’re feeling, it can’t be love. It doesn’t work that way. And anyway, what good would it do falling in love with me? We’re both married. We just can’t think about these things.” Chip was dumbfounded. He couldn’t possibly feel what he felt if Robert didn’t share some of the same feelings. His thoughts were interrupted by the squeal of kids running through the woods, a jarring sound that brought him back to his senses. It was time to go home. He pecked Robert on the cheek, like a distracted spouse heading off to the morning train, and climbed swiftly down the rock, regretting the conversation.
It was weeks before he ran into Robert again—a sensuous, early September evening. As the smell of fall merged with the lingering humidity of summer, he felt half lazy, half exhilarated, and fully open to whatever possibilities lay ahead. Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Park and 79th Street, he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps rushing up behind him.
“I thought that was you,” Robert said, catching his breath.
“Hey,” he replied, uplifted by the sight of his friend in running clothes. “Are you just starting or finishing?”
“Just starting. Will I see you in the park?”
“Not tonight. I haven’t been able to go running all week.” He brightened at an idea. “Why don’t we get together for a drink?” Pushing a card into his friend’s hand, he added, “Call me at my office tomorrow, and let’s set something up.”
Robert studied the white card with the familiar logo. “Nice name—Miller. So much for my policy of never exchanging last names with men I meet in the park.”
“We’re out of the park now, and you haven’t given me your last name yet.”
“It’s Bildstein. Talk to you tomorrow, Mr. Miller.”
When Robert Bildstein called the next morning, Chip suggested a cup of coffee after work at an inconspicuous Cuban-Chinese restaurant far away on the Upper West Side. Arriving early, Chip strolled up Broadway to Shakespeare & Company, a neighborhood bookstore. Instead of heading right for the bestseller section, he wandered aimlessly around the store until he turned a corner and came face-to-face with a shelf labeled “Gay and Lesbian,” astonished by the number of volumes on display. He scoured the books, looking for photos of nude men. Finding only a few—but enough to whet his appetite for his date with Robert—he examined some self-help books until his eyes landed on the title Intimacy Between Men. He opened the book slowly, like a boy checking out an issue of Hustler at a magazine stand. Intimacy—was that what he wanted? Was that what his date with Robert was all about? He knew there was an increasingly visible world out there in which men had relationships like the kind he had with Sally and most of his friends had with their spouses. But did that have anything to do with his encounters with Robert? He put the book back on the shelf and hurried out to meet his date. Seated at a booth within sight of the door, Robert stood awkwardly to shake hands, his neck pulled askew out of the collar of his suit jacket, and motioned for Chip to sit across from him.
“Are you nervous about meeting me outside of the park?” he asked. “I’ve seen you several times around the neighborhood, and you always pretend not to notice me.”
Robert smiled back sheepishly. “Oops. Guilty. But things are different now that I know you love me.” He winked at Chip and smiled again. His wink and smile were charming, but they made Chip fear that he didn’t harbor similar feelings—that maybe Robert saw the whole thing as a joke.
“Do you mind my being blunt and asking you what you think of me and where you’d like to go with this relationship?” Chip bit his lip, regretting the question.
“It’s all right,” Robert replied. “I like being honest and direct, though that may surprise you, given how I carry on. You see, I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t know the last name of anyone I’ve met in the park. And I’ve never had a man tell me he loved me before.”
“It was the first time I ever did that,” Chip admitted.
“You don’t seem like someone who’s had a lot of experience with men. That’s part of my attraction to you.”
“Are you saying you’re attracted to me?”
“Oops. Caught me again. It’s going to be tricky enough explaining where I’ve been to my wife. I wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t mean something to me.”
“Goddamn!” Chip smiled broadly. As they looked at each other, he felt a sudden surge, as if he had just completed a sprint in the park. Until this moment, he had only read about what happened when two lovers first realized their feelings were mutual. He felt infused with superhuman power—power over sickness, death, and other people—and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about it. All he knew was that nothing else in the world mattered as much as continuing to look into Robert’s eyes. Relieved and giddy, he dared to push his case forward.
“Then maybe my question wasn’t so out of line, after all. Where would you like to go with this relationship?”
Robert reached out under the table and grabbed his knee. “I don’t think it can go anywhere, my friend.” His pulse slowed down as he took in the import of Robert’s words. “I’m married; so are you. I’ve got kids. I made a pact with myself long ago that I’d do what I had to do with men so long as it didn’t interfere with the rest of my life, that I’d keep it all hidden. Not a pretty picture, I admit, but I’ve got to be careful.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because I like you. Because I thought I’d experiment and see if it was possible to be friends with a man I’d had sex with.”
“And how’s the experiment going, Doctor?”
“It’s a failure.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” He turned away to study the menu on the wall, reciting the names of Chinese and Spanish dishes over and over in his head until he suddenly thought about Sally—and felt like a fool. If he left now, he could be home almost at the usual time.
“No, you don’t understand. I mean, I’m discovering I can’t just be friends with you. I want more. I mean, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t get you out of my mind. That’s what’s not working.” Robert’s voice softened. “Look, you told me you loved me, and ever since then, that’s all I’ve been thinking about. I think I love you, too. Now, what the hell am I supposed to do about that?” Chip reached under the table and grabbed Robert’s hand. He wasn’t a fool, after all. He was in love with a man who loved him right back. That’s the way the world was supposed to work—except for the fact that they were both married.
“Can we get out of here and go someplace? I’ve got to hold you right now or I’ll burst.” Robert suggested the park. “Haven’t we graduated beyond that?”
“OK,” Robert replied. “I’ve got a better idea.” He led Chip to an all-male bookstore on a nearby side street and paid $20 so they could pass through a turnstile into a back room, where a handful of bored men paced up and down a dark hallway feigning disinterest as they inspected the new arrivals. He led Chip into a private booth and locked the door behind them. “Welcome to paradise!”
In the dark, Chip carefully lowered his briefcase onto the floor, hung the jacket of his Paul Stuart suit on something protruding from the wall, and turned to his friend. “That’s exactly what it is, Robert.” They made as much love as they could manage standing up in a space no bigger than the bedroom closet back at 1225 Park Avenue. By the time they stopped to catch their breath, he had made up his mind.
“Tonight I’m going to tell my wife I’m in love with you.”
“That’s absurd,” Robert replied, the experienced, sensible man again. “She’ll throw you out and you’ll be nowhere. And I can’t do the same thing, so what good would that do?” But he would not be deterred.
“All great ideas seem absurd at first. Maybe you don’t feel the same way I do, but if you did, you’d know it was our manifest destiny to be together.” He resumed kissing his prize until Robert broke free from his grip to lay out a more sensible plan.
“All I’m saying is it’s going to take me time to think this all through. I’ve got to move slowly. Please move slowly, too. Please don’t tell your wife just yet.”
Chip knew Robert’s words made sense, but his emotions were now in charge. He remembered the time he was desperate to own a ten-speed bike. His parents had promised to get it for him for his 12th birthday, but since that was three long months away, he went right out and bought the bike himself, getting his hands on $100 by selling the family’s collection of Hardy Boys books from the 1930s. He had no idea the books were worth well over $1,000. His parents were furious when they discovered what he had done, but he suffered their anger gladly because he had to have that bike. And now he had to have Robert.
Marching up Park Avenue, he ignored Robert’s warning and rehearsed what to say. He wasn’t doing this for Robert; he had to come clean with Sally and make a fresh start. As he waited to cross at 86th Street, he thought about how this one conversation would change everything in his life. How his parents and the rest of the family would eventually have to know the truth about him, too. How his life at work might change forever. How his whole circle of friends might have to be taken apart and rebuilt from scratch. But at the end of the nightmarish changes, there would be Robert and happiness.
As he unlocked the door to their apartment, he started to shake as if he were about to speak in public. Holding the image of Robert firmly in his mind, he closed the door behind him and practiced his opening line. Before he could finish collecting his thoughts, Sally came rushing out of the kitchen smiling more sweetly than ever before, took his hand, and led him to the sofa to share some big news. He looked at her nervously.
“Chip, I just got off the phone with Doctor Max.” She looked right into his eyes. “We’re going to have a baby. I’m six weeks pregnant. Isn’t that wonderful?” As the words sank in, he envisioned a moving van transporting all their worldly possessions up to Bronxville, leaving the park and Robert behind—and his heart sank, too. He wanted Robert, not Sally, but he couldn’t even think about abandoning his wife now that a baby was entering the picture. He might have to wait until the baby was grown up. Would Robert wait that long? Could he wait that long? Then he thought about Sally, dear Sally, the woman who loved him more than anyone else in the world. And he thought about the little being growing inside her even as she broke the news, picturing a perfect little person folded up, eager to come out and join its parents. Hadn’t he always wanted to be a father? Couldn’t this work?
He looked back into Sally’s eyes and said flatly, “Yes, sweetheart, that’s wonderful.”