Let Me See It: Stories

GROWING UP in the sixties, Elliott Biddler and Tom Amelio are gay first cousins who live several states apart. Their parents are estranged, and they share little in common besides a need to make the honor roll and an interest in foreign languages. Cautious Tom, the first Amelio to go to college, attends Purdue on a wrestling scholarship while Elliott, a reckless charmer with daddy issues, is an Ivy League French major who gets lost in translation his junior year abroad.

Building post-graduate lives in the crucible of the Reagan Recession, the cousins navigate the closet and the office, learning hard, hilarious lessons about resume boosting, libidinous co-workers, Italian suffixes, men in toupees, and frozen condoms. The summer of 1985 finds them in Manhattan, where their differing approaches to the AIDS crisis leads Tom to a deeper understanding of which things matter and what things cost.

By novel’s end, Elliott is on his lonesome in a studio apartment on the Île St. Louis. He invites Tom, whose life has stalled in a Denver law firm, abroad for the first time. As they tour the streets of Paris on Elliott’s Trail of Tears and prepare for the society wedding of his old college boyfriend, Elliott tries to impress upon Tom his final thoughts on the conduct of living.

Spanning the Age of Aquarius to the Act-Up era, and told in varying perspectives, the stories in Let Me See It are marked with the rueful blend of comedy and tenderness that Magruder brought to Sugarless, his fiction debut that was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize.

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Buccellati

“Buccellati”

Tom and Elliott
1985

noodle-bowlONE PLACE TO LOOK for a suitable husband was the monthly dance at Columbia University. Suitable meant, among other things, suited: we were looking for a junior associate at a law firm, a thirty-ish bond trader or ad writer or public relations exec with money to spend on above-ground transport, illegal stimulants, and surprise packages from the better department stores. We wanted a man at least two desks past entry level, preferably with a summer share. Or at least I did. My cousin Elliott was a different story.

It was late May, and I had been in Manhattan for less than a month. Contrary to my expectations, I had quickly found a job at R. R. Bowker, “the publisher’s publisher.” I worked for Zoltan Breslau, the man who had invented the ISBN number in 1957, but you can’t eat prestige. My annual salary was $14,600. I needed nicer shoes. My sublet on Jane Street, brokered through a recent ex of my cousin, would end in September.

Elliott knew where to look for a husband. He was shameless, fearless, and apart from the hours we’d spent in awkward proximity at his father’s funeral when we were nineteen, I couldn’t believe we’d lived a quarter of a century without ever meeting. Elliott had just done this thing called “Direct Centering,” a human potential “course” that involved weekly sessions of ego reintegration. It wasn’t a cult, he wrote to me in Madison—not that I had asked. Whatever it was, Direct Centering had given him the gumption to change jobs every six months, ask for better tables in restaurants, and pick up strangers, as well as the power to convince me to come to New York, where he said I belonged, plague be damned.

There was no physical resemblance between us, though Elliott, if bored in a restaurant or movie queue, sometimes asked people whether we looked like cousins. We rarely got more than a glance and a no, but an older woman once took her time before saying that there was something similar in the shape of our mouths. Elliott’s delight at the news embarrassed me at the time. He called us Snow White and Rose Red, as he was fair and fine boned, and I was swarthy and strong featured. In the game of love and chance it was the other way around: I was the priss and he was the slut. I resisted the feminine implications of his nicknames; I was a working stiff in the big city with suits of my own and so I tried to rechristen ourselves Nord (short for Nordic) and Med (short for Mediterranean), but the names clunked out like cartoon barbells.

The name for what we were, archaic today, was Twinkie. We were Twinkies, moist and pliant confections to gulp in three bites, welcome sponges to soak in stronger flavors, with a faint, helpful grit in the aftertaste. Our freshness was hypothetically perpetual. At what point, after all, might a Twinkie, could a Twinkie, shrivel, sour, melt, or fester?

Owen Teeter called me a Twinkie, decently, hopefully, as he walked me to the 110th Street subway stop after we’d had enough of the Columbia dance. My phone number was folded into the small triangular pocket of his jeans, just in front of his right hip bone. It was two o’clock in the morning. At last sight, Snow White was striking hieratic poses in the center of the swarm, his hair swept into the improvised turban of his Cornell T-shirt.

My Purdue wife-beater had stayed put in my khakis. Elliott thought my legs were too thick for shorts and had talked me out of wearing them, a mistake. The combination of dried sweat and prickly heat from four hours of dancing made my thighs feel like they’d been rolled in cracker crumbs. I realized a train might take half an hour to show up, there would be no express stop until Seventy-second Street, and I had no air conditioning. Irritation flowed into the hand I offered Owen. “You can call me,” I said. He smiled and shot his arms up in a sudden stretch of victory.

I wasn’t so much of a priss, but Owen wouldn’t find that out until the third date, should we get that far. We’d get that far, I grumbled to myself on the platform. Owen, thirty-one with thinning hair, had my phone number. Sticking to the first man who’d said hello wasn’t effective husband hunting, and Elliott would chide me for it. It was like accepting the first job offered, which I had. It was like buying a madras shirt at Lord & Taylor, which I had. It’s the Kansas in you, Elliott would say, shaking his head.

Kansas of me as well to have waltzed with Owen Teeter. Once the crowd discovered that the violin figure in three-quarter time wasn’t a false start to the latest British import, the floor emptied with comic haste. Owen held out his arms. I placed my hand on his shoulder and said he should lead. His fingers tapped, then curled around my flank just below my ribs. The trick, Owen half shouted, was not to lean in. Don’t look down, he said. Keep your back straight!

We weren’t terribly terrific at it, but a waltz with a man was worth a try. Like cold sesame noodles, my culinary discovery that far-off summer of 1985. Peanut butter mixed with chili sauce, I wrote on a postcard to my parents, hard to imagine.
Elliott was working a plate of them the next day at a Szechuan restaurant off Abingdon Square that we liked.

“Did you go home with anyone?” I asked, launching the postmortem.

He grunted no and cut the glistening cable of noodles with his teeth before speaking. “First I mashed with a lawyer in a window seat. But I sent him off for drinks and ditched him when he started smelling like a hamster.”

“A hamster?”

“I had hamsters when I was little, OK? He got excited, it happens, and the smell of Eau Sauvage mixed with his personal musk made him smell like a hamster. Or hamster shavings . . . perhaps,” he finished daintily, a tone at odds with the sight of his chin gilded in swirls of peanut sauce. For all her pretensions, Snow White had terrible table manners.

“And then after the lawyer?” I asked.

“I let somebody do me in the bathroom.”

I frowned. The first to take his shirt off on the dance floor, my cousin was also the kind of guy who managed to lay a groomsman at every wedding he went to. “Hand or mouth?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he said, his thumb bearing down on some egg roll filaments. Elliott didn’t consider hand-jobs sex. I did. Strike three for Kansas.

“What did this one smell like?”

“What’s bugging you?” he asked.

“Did you wear a rubber?”

“They haven’t proved that mumbo jumbo yet.”

“You mean safe sex.”

“Is that what they’re calling it?”

“That’s the gist of it,” I said.

“The point to sex is danger, Tom, and I’m not talking about doing a baker’s dozen in a row at the Saint. I just happen to believe that every intimate encounter should make room for the edge.”

The arrival of our food tabled the discussion Elliott never wanted to have. Acknowledging the existence of the plague was the extent of his prophylaxis. On our side so far was the fact that neither of us knew anyone who was sick, or knew anyone who knew anyone who had died. Elliott forked a shrimp off my Triple Delight while I called the waitress back for chopsticks.

As expected, Owen Teeter’s dossier horrified Elliott. Staten Island. SUNY Binghamton. Five years with the Peace Corps. In Ghana. Owen managed no accounts of any kind. Not even a paralegal, he taught English as a second language to refugees in the basement of St. Bartholomew’s Church. His father was a trigonometry teacher, so a trust fund seemed the longest of shots. What was the attraction, Elliott wanted to know. Owen was a gentleman, I replied. The hand on my back as we threaded our way out of the waltz was courtly. “Very Edith Wharton,” sighed Elliott, but I hadn’t read her yet. Owen was cute, he was Irish Catholic, but, I quickly added, out and proud. My cousin and I had both fallen hard in college for Irish closet cases. That was the first of three oddball things we shared in common. The other two were an interest in foreign languages and a hyperactive Cowper’s gland, which means we generated a lot of pre-cum, which was not the sort of detail we could have asked our older brothers about.

When I finished, Elliott tilted his head and went to the heart of the matter. I might not adhere to his rulings, but I respected the thinking behind them. “Tom,” he said.

“Elliott.”

“When are you going to learn how to take a compliment?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, flushing. I knew where he was headed.

“What I mean is, you’re not under any obligation. A stranger comes up to you and says he thinks you’re a sexy young man.”

“I shouldn’t have told you that,” I hissed.

“I admit you were alone and vulnerable, I was off scoping—”

“Mashing.”

“I apologize, but still.”

“But still what?”

He sighed. “You can just accept the compliment. Say thank you and leave it at that. You don’t have to sleep with him.”

“I didn’t sleep with him! I don’t just sleep with people.” I also didn’t let people “do” me.

“You have to own your appeal, Tom.”

Compliments were not part of an Amelio upbringing. I eyeballed the restaurant in a panic. Where was the hissing wok to slip and scar us with hot oil, the slosh of boiling water, the poisoned scallion hiding in a pancake, the thrown cleavers spinning toward our ears, the particle of virus in a chopstick splinter?

“We’ll be trolls before you know it,” I said.

Elliott dropped a heap of his empty sugar packets into my teacup. “Exactly my point, Rose Red.”

“You don’t even want to meet a man,” I said with as much spite as I could muster.

He laughed and suggested spumoni on Perry Street.
I WORKED IN A BUILDING at Sixth and Forty-sixth, a couple of blocks from Rockefeller Center, where I would go and marvel at my right to eat lunch in the crowd. Sometimes I pretended that summer that I was retracing my uncle Henry’s steps. In the early sixties, he had worked in midtown as a comptroller for the Sealtest Dairy Company. Elliott, who saved absolutely everything, once showed me a scrapbook of company photos and news clippings from sales conferences and charity golf tournaments that his father had chaired. He had even loaned me one of his father’s first briefcases. It was a simple zippered portfolio with frayed handles, his initials in gold long rubbed off the leather by his knuckles, and I fancied that Henry might be watching me as I bought fruit from street vendors, made bus transfers, carried home the dry cleaning, and signed chits for scotch and sodas.

As for what I did when the sun went down—well, better to have an uncle I’d never met watching from on high than my father, Alphonse, who only knew his way around a meat rack because he was a butcher. Elliott said he hoped the dead went to bed by ten, which was the hour he and I might begin to contemplate our plumage for the club crawl to come. Or perhaps Uncle Henry turned his gaze from our follies to revisit the haunts of his youth, the high-toned nightclubs and low-down bars where he had entertained clients during the June moon of Keynesian economics.

One thing was certain: both Henry and Alphonse would have been bored stiff to watch me at work. R. R. Bowker’s most glamorous product was and remains Publishers Weekly. I was part of the team that compiled and maintained the database known as Ulrich’s Serials, a comprehensive listing of all the magazines known to man. I was the German editor, hired to sort through the piles of new Zeitschriften sent to Bowker, classify them, and devise entries consisting of their title, their editors in chief, their frequencies, and, very occasionally, a one-sentence précis of their mission. Advances in Metallurgical Spectography said it all, while a fashion sheet titled The Blink of an Eye required my mindful explication. It was big news if a magazine changed its frequency: monthly to quarterly, or semiannual to annual. If an annual declined to the status of a biannual, it was expunged from the database. I myself would place the weekly list of German casualties on Zoltan Breslau’s desk and nod in sympathy to his pained sighs.

These professional excitements were actually some weeks away. When I started at Bowker, the newest database feature was phone numbers for the American serials. The forthcoming Ulrich’s had a hard June fifteenth deadline, so for my first month on the job, eight hours a day, I entered thousands of ten-digit phone numbers. Nine strokes of the tab with my left pinkie took me to the area code field, the tenth to the exchange field. Hit enter and clear. The novelty of using a computer, not a feature of my theater job in Wisconsin, faded faster than a nosegay of violets. I took no pride from the fact that I could enter roughly twelve times more numbers in a day than my office mate, Joby Waldman, who had started at Bowker the week before me. I was simply the faster of two chimps.

After twenty-three years teaching high school Spanish in Bensonhurst, Joby said he was ready to make a mark in the field of publishing. Joby—and was that short for Joseph or Jacob?—made me nervous. He kept his briefcase between his feet at all times and gripped it with both hands whenever he stood up. On his desk he had placed a Ziggy statue that said “You’re the Bestest,” and he stored rubber bands in a red crystal apple. The slightest change in the routine—different colored printout, a new pass code, a blinking cursor—could derail him completely. For Joby, each magazine was a brand-new world. My attempts to help him log on, my suggestions that he count tabs instead of reading the screen were always met with a defiant “Yes, I know that.” I got used to saying “Did you hit enter?” when I heard his fingers stop and his breathing get louder. If we ever finished with the phone numbers, Joby would be in charge of Mexico and Central America.

“Thomas Amelio,” I said, picking up the phone one Monday morning. From the corner of my eye, I could see Joby leaning intently into his terminal, as if there were aliens within beckoning to make him their king.

“Good morning, Tom. This is Owen Teeter. From the dance.” (Rose Red only gave out her office phone number.)

“Owen, I’m glad to hear from you,” I said truthfully.

“Would you like to have dinner with me?”

I laughed. “You know how to surprise a girl, don’t you?”

We decided to meet that Thursday at the Cupping Room Café. After hanging up, I tightened the knot on my tie and opened my weekly calendar. I loved filling up its rectangles.

“You’re a gay guy, aren’t you?”

I looked over at Joby. He was rubbing a spot on his screen with a putty-colored handkerchief.

“Yes I am, Joby,” I said, amazed by his powers of detection. Elliott and I screeched at each other by phone at least twice a day. Elliott was working for an ad agency with more queers in it, he said, than a library school.

“You’re fast with your fingers too.” It was the first time Joby had acknowledged any difference in our ability to keystroke. I didn’t know what to say.

“How many phone numbers did you enter last week, Tom?”

I shot out my cuffs. “They’re not keeping track, Joby. They’re really not,” I lied. We were already known as the Tortoise and the Hare.

“Yes, I know that,” he said. I flipped a page of my printout. He flipped a page of his printout. “I did seven hundred and thirty-seven last week,” he continued, goading me. “So my productivity has increased.”

“I should say so,” I replied heartily. “Way to go, Joby.”

“How many did you do, Tom?”
I halved my figure, then shaved off another hundred. “About thirteen hundred, give or take fifty.”

I rolled backward in my chair to give us room. After a moment, as I pretended to locate something essential in my briefcase, I thought I heard him say, “I’m gaining on you, gay guy.”
WORKING FROM AN OUTDATED ZAGAT’S, Elliott had given me the wrong price range for the Cupping Room. Refusing an appetizer and a glass of wine and dessert would have been strange on a first date, so I wound up five dollars short on my half of the tab. As Owen’s guest, I could duck it, but I felt bound to display some independence. The trouble was, my American Express account was all of three weeks old, so the options of splitting the bill with a card and cash, or paying with my card and pocketing Owen’s share, exceeded my level of sophistication.

Owen drew first on his wallet; I said oh, let me put it on my card; thumbing bills, he said absolutely not, he’d asked me to dine; I said don’t be silly, why don’t I just give you these three tens and we’ll figure it out later. At that, he struck the edge of the table with four fingers and said with unmistakable temper, “No half measures, Tom. If I’m buying you dinner, I’m buying you all of it.”

I was a hick. Elliott and Uncle Henry and Edith Wharton could amen to that, but I got even by putting out that night on Jane Street, two dates ahead of schedule.

The next morning, when I opened my eyes, Owen was sitting cross-legged to my left, staring down at me. “What?” I said rather sharply.

He smiled as a little boy might. “I was just imagining what it would be like to wake up, go to the mirror, and have your face looking back at me.”

I groaned and flung an arm over my eyes. He pulled it away, and I pulled him down to shut him up.

So that’s how a courtly English-language instructor became my first New York, three-nights-a-week boyfriend….