Living Out Loud: : Tommy James

This time next week

(Excerpt from Larry Gross' work-in-progress The Hurricane Café: a Novel)

My name is Tommy James. I know it's a strange name but it's what I'm stuck with. My last name can be my first; my first can be my last. The same holds true for my twin brother, Johnny James — or James Johnny, as we would say when we wanted to have some fun with it, back when we were kids.

We're not kids anymore and Johnny's dead. I'm a divorced man with no children and I write for an alternative newspaper in Cincinnati, Ohio.

This time next week, August 12, 2002, I'll be in Seattle. I'll be arriving pretty early. I think the plane lands there around five in the morning; need to check my ticket to make sure. That's how you get the good deals at Priceline.Com — by taking oddball flights.

I got a decent price, too, at a Days Inn advertised as being close to downtown, and that's where I want to me. Outside not being able to smoke on the plane, I'm looking forward to the trip.

I haven't been there since Johnny's funeral five years ago. He died of AIDS Sept. 24, 1997. When he first told me he had it, it wasn't really a big deal. These days, with all the modern medicines out there, AIDS can be controlled, much like diabetes. Well, that's what I thought anyway and that's what Johnny told me. It was a bit of a shock to get a phone call from one of his friends telling me he was in the hospital and going down quickly.

When I found out, I called him at Swedish Hospital and told him I was on my way there. He said it wasn't necessary to fly up, that he would probably be released in a few days, but I could tell he was lying and said I was coming anyway.

This was also an early morning flight — again, good old Priceline.Com. I remember being at the airport around 4:30 in the morning and I was paged just before getting ready to hop on the plane. It was the same friend who called to let me know Johnny was in the hospital. This time the news was worse. My brother had passed away in his sleep.

Johnny was gay, but it never was an issue in our lives. Despite the fact we never talked about it, I knew he was different. When we were little, I liked to play baseball, would tell dirty jokes to my pals and started jacking off and thinking about girls when I was around 12 years old. Johnny liked to cook, was a sensitive boy and didn't have many friends. I guess he was in the closet, so to speak.

When we got older and finished high school, we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to go to college. We shared an apartment. At that point, I think he just assumed I knew he was gay. Sometimes he would tell me about guys he found attractive, and once I accidentally went to a gay bar downtown and saw him sitting on a barstool talking to a guy much older than he was. It was all right. I kind of felt glad about it in a way, felt like he was trying to get a life for himself.

We continued to live together through college; but after getting his bachelor's degree in business communication, he announced to me and our parents he was moving to Seattle to work for a big corporation out there.

I can understand this, his needing to be away from me. During those years we lived together, I sometimes would have girls over and they would often spend the night and I knew he could hear us during some of the fucking. Johnny never had guys over — and I mean never. I don't know why. He was certainly welcome to and I told him so, but I think he felt funny about it, felt like even when there were no secrets between us about our sexual preferences, he just couldn't let me see him with a man. In Seattle he would be free of this, could truly be on his own; and while I didn't want him to go so far away from me, I knew it was time.

If you were to ask me if Johnny and I were close, I would nod my head and say yes, but the reality is I'm not sure. I mean, I felt close to him, but we never really talked about important things, never got down to the bone when it comes to emotions and real life. That's how we were and how I still am today, and it's something I don't like about myself — having difficulty in expressing how I feel. I think if Johnny were alive, he would agree this has something to do with the way we were raised.

Our parents are, and were, in name only. Johnny and I grew up in a fancy suburb in Madison, Ind., which is maybe a couple hours away from Cincinnati. My father, who's retired now, was a business executive at a manufacturing plant, and my mother liked to have and attend cocktail parties. We had a nanny who took care of us and who I need to get around to calling soon. Ellen — the nanny — was our mother, not Harriet, who pretended to be proud of her twin sons.

My father's name is Albert and sometimes Johnny and I would call him Prince Albert, the guy on the tobacco can. I remember Johnny calling him once at his office and asking if he had Prince Albert in a can. Our father, who has no sense of humor, didn't get the joke, so Johnny couldn't get to the punch line, which is "Well, let him out." We thought the whole thing was pretty funny, but our father, Prince Albert, never said anything about it.

I sometimes still talk to my mother on the phone, and she often sends me "Thinking of You" Hallmark cards. I can't remember the last time my father and I actually talked. Maybe it was after Johnny died, maybe at his funeral. There wasn't much to say. He never knew Johnny, nor me, could never take the time.

I wonder what he thought of Johnny being gay, wonder if he even knows what AIDS is. Did he tell his business associates how his son died, or did he make something up? One of these days, if we ever do talk again, I'll ask him.

My mother, of course, was at the funeral, mostly talking to some of the ladies there and smiling at me on occasion. I remember Johnny telling me, when he told her he had AIDS, there was dead silence on the telephone. She eventually came back with something like "We'll make sure you get the best of care," then changed the subject as to how he should be buying a condo instead of paying high rent for an apartment. Johnny thought this was odd, but not me so much. Much like her sons — me and Johnny — she doesn't like to talk about real issues. She would rather talk about the weather, what was said at the last cocktail party or, when in a real pinch, bring up real estate.

Ellen, our nanny, our real mother, couldn't attend Johnny's funeral, couldn't afford to pay for the airline ticket. I still kick myself to this day that I didn't simply purchase one for her, so she could say a proper goodbye to my brother. I know she loved him.

My father now plays golf everyday during the spring, summer and fall, and when winter sets in, he and my mother go on cruises. Since my divorce 10 years ago and on my birthday, I always receive a card from them with a check for $5,000 inside. I never read the card, but always deposit the check. My parents assume I have no money, and most of the time they're right. Writing for an alternative newspaper doesn't pay a lot.

I realize my parents don't consider me successful in life; and at the age of 50, which I am now, I don't think financial success is in the cards for me. In college, I graduated with an English degree and taught for awhile, but mostly I wrote short stories and sent them off to literary magazines. A few were published, but most were rejected.

Early on I got interested in alternative newspapers and took a job at the Cincinnati Reporter. When it went out of business, I started writing for Everybody's News; and when that paper went under, ended up at The Beat. I've been there for nine years now and so far the lights and phones are still working and the paychecks haven't bounced.

I do a weekly column for the paper called "Life Out Loud," write book reviews and sometimes interview famous literary writers. I like my job. It isn't very demanding, and the pay at least keeps me in vodka and cigarettes, what I call the staples of life.

I'm still writing short stories and have found a small publisher who's going to put out a collection of them. I'm a little old to be publishing my first book but I'm not complaining about it. I'll never be a financial success (Prince Albert, keep those annual checks coming) but maybe this book will lead to another. I'm excited to get it in my hands and know at least one of my dreams in life will actually come to pass.

I made the mistake of telling Lynn, my ex-wife, about my book being published.

The first words out of her mouth were asking me how big my advance was going to be. When I told her there was no advance offered, she just rolled her eyes and laughed.

Don't get me wrong. Lynn's a good woman, and we were together for almost six years, but she could never understand my fascination with words or my dream of being a successful writer. "Words don't pay the bills," she would often say as I would drift from one alternative newspaper to another. I guess she's right. Lynn's a CPA and works for a prosperous firm downtown. She was always the one who bought the fancy houses and kept the pantry full of food.

She stopped loving me 10 years ago. Now she would never say that to you or to me, but I know it's true. She always wanted to have children, but I could never see myself as a father and wasn't interested. She would never tell you this either, but she fell in love with another man at the CPA firm while we were married and realized she could have a better life with him. After we divorced, she married Steve, who's also a CPA, and shortly thereafter they adopted a son.

They appear to be very happy and they invite me over for dinner sometimes — you know, no hard feelings; and sometimes I'll go to these things but most of the time I don't. Like my parents' financial success, I also see the same with them and also their personal happiness and it makes me question who I am and throws my failures in my face.

Maybe that's bullshit. I think the reality is I probably still love Lynn and it hurts to see her with Steve and their young son. She stopped loving me, but I don't think I've never stopped loving her — if I can pretend to even know what the word means; and now she's gone. I think I told her about my book being published because I want her to be proud of me. I did very little in the marriage to make her feel that way and now, at this late date, I'm beginning to realize it.

I live in a small apartment in Clifton, about 15 minutes away from downtown, where The Beat is located. I have a cat named Phoebe and my best friend is the news editor at the paper. He's a guy named Jack Hammer. Something tells me this is only his byline name but he swears to me it's real.

I'm dating a girl named Susan. She's a freelancer for the paper and she's about 15 years younger than me. She's short, maybe five feet, and has the cutest face, long red hair and a smile that makes me smile. I don't think the relationship is going to be long term, however, because she has three young children and the idea of being a stepfather is scary and something I don't want. I don't like little kids that much and hers get on my nerves, but Susan is all right in bed and likes to talk about writing so on that level. The relationship is good. I wanted her to go to Seattle with me, but because of the kids, she can't.

Sometimes I ask myself if I'm happy, like my ex-wife Lynn, my girlfriend Susan and even my buddy Jack. I just don't know. Sometimes I feel nothingness inside me and around me, like life is empty and I'm just going through the motions. It's hard to explain, actually. I don't think a person can be happy all the time, and every once in awhile, life does have its moments. I just wish they would happen more often.

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