The morning of Greg’s lunch date with Ruth dawned cool, wet and gray—one of those tropical winter days that reminded him of a New England October’s first chill, and that he wasn’t a native Floridian, but a transplant. The low clouds moved quickly, like a heavy rug being drawn overhead. He left Marathon early, hoping to arrive in Key West relaxed and well ahead of their noon-hour rendezvous. He had until 6pm—if lunch were to turn into more than lunch—when he was to pick up his brother Ray at the Key West airport and take him to the gallery. The story Greg had told his wife Laura was that he would be doing research for an article on stand-up paddle boarding. He would interview some of the young up-and-comers, and maybe shop for some new sandals, and was there anything she wanted? Something for the kids?
He had been alone in the bedroom when Ruth called the previous week. How long has it been? she asked. Fifteen years, said Greg, picturing her as he remembered her from college, the two years they had for all practical purposes lived together. I was talking with Tara Mitts the other day. Remember her? Ruth said. Well, she’s always going to the Keys for vacations—didn’t she and her current beau stay with you one summer? Anyway, I’ll be in Key West this weekend, and what say we get together?
He covered the phone and walked down the stairs and checked the first floor to be sure Laura hadn’t snuck back in after driving the kids to school. He did not ask Ruth why she was visiting the Keys, only when she was coming. Meet me this Friday. Noon, she said energetically. She spoke at a fast clip, the way she had when they first met. Her enthusiasm caught him off guard. Their love affair in college had been intense, and its demise abrupt and painful for Greg. She had announced she was pregnant, ignored his knee-jerk offer to marry her, and went missing for a week. When she returned she informed him that she’d had an abortion and didn’t want to see him. His entreaties failed. The breakup had coincided with graduation, and the separation over time took on the patina of a faded photograph. With Ruth’s unexpected phone call, the obvious enthusiasm in her voice, the image so long drained of color bloomed intensely again. He pictured himself beneath her, in bed, in her hotel room, her hair flying as she pounded against him like a hammer against a nail, an irresistible force transforming his desire into a harmonic energy. There had been no other woman in his life with such a consuming sensuality, before or since.
After hanging up he thought of their mutual friend Tara, with whom he had kept in touch, and to whom he could have turned in the intervening years for information on Ruth. He had not. She could have filled him in at any time, but he had resisted her attempts to do so, even during the week Tara and her lover spent in the Keys with him and Laura two years ago. Laura’s knowledge of Ruth consisted of a few general strokes of the brush, wielded by Greg during an evening of confession early in their courtship. He had met the woman who would become his wife shortly after Tara had informed him—before he could object—of Ruth’s marriage to a man she had met while working as a secretary in her first job after college. The news was like a knockout punch, and when he recovered from the initial shock, the painful remnants of their breakup were gone.
There were gaps in the clouds by the time Greg reached Loma Key. Spots of sunlight flew across the roadway south to north like bubbles. The chill was wearing off, and he rolled down the windows as the car began to heat up in the fast-rising temperatures. He stopped for fuel.
“Headed to the Festival?” said the wiry young man pumping gas into the car next to his. He was skinny but muscular, with a youthful, smoothly tanned complexion and bright brown eyes. His long blond hair blew sideways in the wind.
“What festival would that be?” asked Greg.
“The Gay Arts Festival. Today’s a good day for music. You gotta claim your space early, though. That’s what I’m doing.” The more he spoke the younger he seemed to Greg, who would turn thirty-six soon.
“Forgot all about it,” said Greg, which was true. It made sense now that Ray was coming in tonight to meet with the gallery owner concerning his upcoming one-man show. He speculated: Maybe Ruth was gay now. Maybe she had evolved, as they say. How bizarre would that be? But the thought of her sexuality only served to arouse him, and while he finished pumping gas he ignored the teen and pictured Ruth naked, approaching him, pulling him towards her, taking charge, her pliant flesh belying her forceful nature, his erection more hers than his.
Ray would no doubt spring the idea of Greg staying for the concert; he would urge Greg to call his wife. Laura would resist, then Ray would get on the phone and plead, he was dying to see the kids, and she would relent. Ever since moving to the Keys, after a lengthy warming-up period of yearly month-long visits, Greg and Laura had avoided the festivals and holiday periods in Key West; they inevitably brought that extra element of antagonism to the gay community which only huge conclaves of similarly-inclined souls can generate. The day-to-day conflict of gay residents versus tourists was a status quo—part of the charm of the town. Gay pride was a daily exhibitionistic ritual in Key West, and Ray loved to come into town and soak it up. He was not into the sex, he said, just the camaraderie and freedom of expression. “Everyone assumes we are all less inhibited, more liberal,” Ray would remind his friends and family, “but there are plenty of uptight, bigoted, antisocial homosexuals in New York, and a fair share in Key West.” For Ray, a celebration like the Gay Arts Festival was a perfect opportunity to battle conservatism within the gay community.
Greg pondered the coincidence as he resumed driving: meeting the first great love of his life—the heterosexual’s typical definition of his or her coming of age—in the midst of a three-day affirmation of alternative sexuality. When Ruth and Greg first made love, Ray was nearing the end of his military tour of duty in Frankfurt, Germany. In his letters home, which Greg’s parents shared tearfully with him, Ray had written of his first love affair with a man. Greg let his mind entertain the possibility that—17 years later—events might repeat themselves. This musing was strengthened by remembering that it was his brother’s letters home during his two years abroad—so eloquent in their defense of his life choice, so articulate in the rendering of his emotions—that turned Greg toward writing as a career.
As the road veered left, following the bridge that attached Loma Key to Key West, his heart pounded. Seventeen years ago his heart had thumped in a similar fashion as he rode his Kawasaki 350 the quarter mile off campus to Ruth’s apartment, knowing he would not be returning to his own.