While attending a 20th high school reunion in Alabama, Blain Harrington loses the love of his life in the blink of an eye. He soon realizes that everything is not always as it seems as he sets out on a journey for answers.
What do you do when the world you thought you knew crumbles around you? How do you piece it back together?
Saturday, 10:00 p.m.
Helton Banquet Room
It had been longer than an hour since I had last seen my husband, Manny. The guy who really had no desire to venture to Culver Pines, Alabama, to attend my 20th reunion--who knew no one in the room other than my friend Rhonda--was somewhere gathering info about me from my high school hicks.
The reunion committee's timing for the June event was perfect. Classes were done at the college where I taught and I was off for the summer. Manny was always jealous about that part of my career. I secretly loved the agita it caused him.
I scanned the maroon-and-white decorated room looking for the man who stood out in the sea of overweight good 'ol boys and Wal-Mart fashioned gals, but I couldn't find him anywhere. I walked between the rows of round tables as waiters bussed away the empty plates that were once filled with chicken cordon bleu, piped mash potatoes (from a box), and dried-up dinner rolls.
People were obviously toasted from the drinks that were running like water at the bar; God, how I missed the taste of alcohol. Giving it up was the hardest thing I had ever done. I really had to think twice about traveling from Massachusetts for a reunion where I knew many people would be drinking to just make it through the evening. But part of me was dying to see how people had turned out.
Sure, I'd seen their pictures on Facebook, but to spend an evening to actually talk to them would be a fun "remember when" mixed with "glad I moved on". And that's what it had been for the most part.
People were on the dance floor living it up to late ‘80s and early '90s tunes. Some spouses were hanging out at the tables vigilantly watching their mates. Some opted to leave them at home--perhaps hoping to rekindle an old flame.
Where the hell was Manny?
We had a fight right before leaving for Logan International Airport. At one point I thought he might decide to stay home. But he got on the plane, even took a nap when we got to the hotel earlier in the day. I promised we'd make it an in-and-out trip, leaving on Sunday. Quick and painless like pulling out a thorn.
But once we arrived, he began to get his drink on with the rest of them and the fight subsided. I hated that he'd still drink when we were out together, but AA had kept me strong and my love for Manny was stronger. So if he needed a drink now and then, who was I to say no? He knew how to stop with just a few. I was the one that always went overboard with two turning easily into eight.
"Blain Harrington! You've been avoiding me all night," someone with a slightly familiar voice said from somewhere behind me.
Turning, I saw Melody Grainer, my high school prom date. And yes, I had been avoiding her.
"How the heck are you, Mel?" I asked, giving a tight squeeze.
"Married with three little ones," she said with her thick country accent. "I was hoping you'd be here tonight. I don't think I've seen you since graduation. I heard you headed up north."
If she'd heard I ran to the land of freedom, then I'm sure she'd also heard I was gay.
"That's where you have to go for an Ivy League school," I said, trying not to sound too snotty.
"You're a big deal, up there, aren't you?"
"Not really. I teach Drama as English at Lenora College in a small town outside of Boston."
Teaching classic plays as an English elective was a logical step for me considering all the drama I'd had in my life.
"I've never gone further than Birmingham," she said and laughed. "I'd love to go visit up there where people all talk funny."
"Yeah, this country is full of different accents."
I couldn't help but think what her life must be like staying in Culver Pines. I'm sure she was happy, but I could never imagine myself staying there. For one, they probably would have run me out of town for being gay. I already had to hide certain posts on Facebook from those few people who felt the need to preach to me about my lifestyle. I had posted a video of Manny's and my wedding online. One high school guy told me in no uncertain terms how both he and God expected more of me and that I "knew better".
I knew enough to get out of town right after graduation and I knew enough to de-friend his ass on Facebook.
"I'd love for you to meet my husband," Melody said. "You may remember him, as he was a few years older than us —"
"I'd love to, Mel, but I'm trying to find someone who came with me."
"Oh… your friend. I heard he was here."
Obviously everyone was talking about the fact that the gay guy showed up and brought another guy with him. I expected it, but I still wanted my husband there. Not to make some political point (though it felt good to put a face to what I'm sure they'd seen on TV), but because I loved Manny and I was ready for him to see my roots. I'd never brought him to Alabama in the fifteen years we'd known each other. I wasn't certain if that was out of fear or embarrassment.
"Yes, that's the one," I said. "I'm sure he's somewhere with Rhonda —"
"Oh My God! You still hang with Rhonda Kirby?"
"She comes up to visit us at times."
"That is so cool. Maybe sometime I could come up."
"Sounds great, Mel. Take care."
I was gone and winding my way through more people until Melody Grainer or whatever her married name was became a distant memory.
I decided that Manny had gone upstairs to the room. I wanted to make the trip as easy as possible and chose a room in the same Helton hotel. (No, it wasn't the Hilton chain; someone thought they were clever in their name choice.) My guess was Manny got tired and turned in without telling me. I called his cell phone; it rang and rang and then went into voicemail.
"Hey, it's me," I said. "I can't seem to find you in the southern sea in this room. Call me."
Sometimes there is that tiny voice in the back of your head. Some call it doubt, instinct--whatever you want to label it. It was making me nervous, but I wasn't sure why.
I could taste tequila and wished for a shot of that golden elixir to quiet the nagging voice.
I went to the bar, got myself a Coke and walked around the room some more, smiling at people and looking for that familiar face. Sure, the people in that room were my past--my roots, but Manny was home; I needed to feel his presence.
Everyone in this room knew the Blain from the debate club that could knock someone out without ever taking a punch. Manny knew that same tongue that had gained a cutting edge with age and could be just as deadly. The high school gang knew a boy who longed to march to his own beat, but hid that desire every chance he got. Manny witnessed a proud, gay man openly declare his love for his husband.
I sat at a table that was being cleared and picked up one of the paper cocktail napkins. Someone had been playing hangman and had added a phallic symbol between the legs. Guess some were pretty bored with the evening. Another napkin had stick figures of two men--again the overtly large dicks were the male giveaway--and some lame attempt at the two demonstrating a sex act. Above it, someone had written, "Class Spirit and his illegal alien."
My stomach flipped. I had won class spirit back in high school, perhaps because of my flamboyant personality. It wasn't because I liked sports, but I was at every game cheering on the team. (Secretly I had wished our school allowed boys to be cheerleaders, but that was never about to happen in Culver Pines.)
For the most part, people had been cordial toward me all evening, but behind my back I'm sure there were snickers and jeers. Not that I minded. I had the shell of a coconut. But they had no business calling my Brazilian husband an illegal alien.
Manny had worked hard his entire life. First in his home in Sao Paulo and then in American once he started his new life here in the mid 80s when he put himself through college and then headed an IT consulting business that touted many prominent clients in the Boston area.
The voice in the back of my head spoke to me again about the drawing. More nerves. More need for a drink.
"What are you doing sitting over here?"
I turned to see my friend Rhonda making her way to me. I shoved the napkins in my pocket.
"Taking a break from the evening," I said. "What time does this thing wind down?"
"I think they have the room until midnight and then people will head over to Rusty's Tavern."
I peeked at my watch; 11:35.
"Have you caught Manny anywhere?" I asked.
"I saw him talking to Patrick McMann a while ago. I really think it's awesome you brought him, Blain. Stir up these country folk a bit."
Rhonda was a good friend and a smart woman. She was in real estate and loved to travel across the country. Manny enjoyed her visits and hearing about my past. We'd take her to Cape Cod or on road trips to Maine and Vermont.
"I'm just concerned how much stirring we're doing," I said.
"Why?" she asked as she tossed her fingers through her long, red mane. That was Rhonda's sign she was getting drunk and I knew it too well. The more she played with her hair, the more she was going to be on the prowl for a man.
"People have been talking about us —"
"Fuck ‘em! That's what you wanted. Let ‘em talk."
"I'd feel better if I could find Manny."
"Maybe he got bored of us southern folk and went to bed."
"I'm gonna run upstairs and check."
"That will make you feel better. Tell him you want to go out with me. I never get you down here and you're leaving me tomorrow," she said as she wrapped her arms around my neck.
"I thought you'd be trying to hook up."
"I've had the ones worth having in this room," she said, winking at me.
I left the banquet room and went through the lobby where the noise from the party was substantially muted. I headed to the elevator and up to the fourth floor. I had the keycard in my hand, telling myself to be quiet so as not to wake him. Hoping that was what I'd find.
I opened the door and found both beds as we had left them: empty. The bathroom was also vacant. The tiny voice in my head had grown to a full-blown alarm.
Once back downstairs, I stopped at the front desk to ask if they had seen him, but too many people had been coming and going from the reunion for the front desk to keep up with them all. I went back into the room where people were leaving. Bon Jovi was singing "Never Say Goodbye" from the DJ booth. Rhonda waved me over.
"He has to be around here. He doesn't know the area or anyone."
"That's my fear."
"You're over-reacting. Maybe he walked down the highway to the Pancake House for breakfast. The food sucked tonight."
"You could be right, but he would have told me."
"Not if he saw you having a good time. It's hard for spouses at these things. They know no one. They feel like fifth wheels."
I didn't want to tell her that Manny and I were in the midst of a fight when we came to this shindig, so I changed the subject.
"Don't hang around. Get yourself to Rusty's," I said. "I'll just hang out a bit and wait. I'll call your cell."
Rhonda kissed me on the cheek and left with the others, some waving goodbye to me; others giving me an odd look. In retrospect, I suppose it wasn't the smartest idea to be the two gay men in the room. Not everyone wanted to be faced with something they weren't used to being around. Thank God for my quaint village of Wellmont and that I could get to Boston and be accepted for who I am. I sometimes forgot how good I had it.
I pulled the napkins from my pocket again as a reminder of how far I'd come in life to get away from Culver Pines. But I obviously didn't change the artists' minds. Then I finally saw the word being spelled underneath the hangman on the first napkin.
Perhaps it wasn't a game of hangman.
I stopped breathing.
What if that was a picture drawn of me… or Manny.
I quickly pulled out my cell and hit redial. I could hear the phone ringing through my own phone, but I could also hear Trisha Yearwood singing "How Do I Live." My eyes quickly darted to the DJ who was closing up.
That was our song. Manny and I had loved it from the first moment we heard it and preferred it to the LeAnn Rimes version that was released the same year. It was also the ringtone Manny had programmed for calls from me. I followed Trisha's voice to the fake ficus next to the entrance door and there in the planter's box was Manny's phone singing to me.
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