“Goodbye to the Gaiety” appeared in Mr Wrong: Real-Life
Stories About the Men We Used to Love, edited by Harriet Brown, and
published by Random House, 2007.
A memoir. Suitable for all readers.
Let’s say I’m 20 and the year is 1980. The place is a clinic for poor people on some bombed-out corner in Brooklyn. It’s nighttime, pitch dark outside. The clinic is nearly deserted and at this late hour, it’s supposed to be closed. However, tonight they’ve stayed open late for us. I’m there with my very first husband-to-be and we’re getting our blood tests done in order to apply for our marriage license. We’ve known each other only a handful of months, really. He’s come to this clinic in Brooklyn by way of Singapore, London, Paris; I’ve come less illustriously — by way of Ohio. Neither of us has lived in New York for a year yet.
“There is good news my friend!” The Pakistani doctor announces this with great relief, as he joins us in the poorly lit examining room. I’ve never seen this doctor before, never set foot inside this dilapidated clinic until now. “We were wrong, my friend; it’s not syphilis.”
He’s directing this heady comment at Liu, my intended. Apparently, they’ve met before. Liu is glancing at me uncomfortably, caught with his pants down, as it were, and I’m doing what I did best back then: politely acting like I hadn’t just heard something terrifically alarming and unexpected. Never mind the fact that it was indeed “good news.”
Let’s fast-forward to a few months ago: The Gaiety Theatre, a male strip-club and hustler bar on Times Square is finally closing its doors after 30 “wonderful years” of notoriety.
I’m not feeling at all wistful about the news. I’m glad to see it go.
Somewhere in those two seemingly isolated events, events separated by 25 years no less, is the crystallized essence of a marriage — mine. Or what came to be called, in my head anyway, the incredibly true disaster of Mr. & Mrs. Liu Man Rui.
* * *
It’s safe to say I was born a Kinsey 3; I came to it by birth. A right-down-the-middle bisexual, I could go either way with an equal amount of fervor and had been that way since before puberty, falling hopelessly in love with my female babysitters as easily as I fell in love with the boys at school or the male lifeguard at the community swimming pool. I had no idea this was in any way unusual. I just went with it and let the often-strange responses I received to my various confessions of love just roll off my back. It was everybody else who was weird; it wasn’t me. When I was in my teens, frustrated with the classmates who regarded my open bisexuality with contempt, but still getting plenty of action from both sexes, I decided that these classmates were just jealous of me and lying to themselves; that everyone was bisexual, that some were simply afraid to admit it.
By the time I met Liu, my world was populated mostly with gay men who sometimes fell in love with girls, and bisexual women who, like me, were all over the map. (It’s prudent to recall that this was New York City in 1980. The dawn of AIDS was on our horizon but usually we were awake only at night so we didn’t yet see it coming, that dawn that would eviscerate everything we loved.)
My deep-rooted belief that people were liars about their sexuality held true for Liu, as well. When he said he wanted to marry me, I knew he still wanted to sleep with men. Why not? I still wanted to sleep with girls. But it never once occurred to me that he had never been intimate with a woman in his life and wasn’t about to start anytime soon. It was one of those wedding night rude awakenings, of the rudest variety imaginable. “I don’t love you, you know,” he confessed over the roast chicken and the white wine. “I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward you for becoming my wife, but I’m never going to love you in any way.” And then he spent our wedding night on the floor.
In my fashion, I acted as if it were okay, those piercing words I’d just heard that had torn my heart to pieces. I’d just married the fucker. Why had I bothered?
They say people come to New York City to escape reality, or at the very least, to re-write it for themselves. It was certainly why I’d come. Terrible things had happened to me back in Nowhere, Ohio. After that, I couldn’t get to New York City fast enough. The folks at home warned me of the terrors of the Big City. But by then nothing could be as frightening to me as simply staying at home.
What had brought Liu to New York, I learned after our wedding night, was his homosexuality. Had I known before our wedding that he was “totally gay,” that not everyone was secretly bisexual and just lying about it; I doubt I would have married him. Which is not the same as saying I regret marrying him. I don’t. And I stayed married to him for nine years, just refusing to live under the same roof with him for seven of them.
It wasn’t so much that he was gay that exasperated me. It was that he was closeted about it. Nobody else I knew was closeted about it. Yet it was the sole reason why he’d married me, I soon found out–to have a beard, a lovely Caucasian wife to hide behind so that he could conduct business as a straight man, could present himself to his parents, his family, as a straight man.
In Singapore, where Liu had grown up, gone into the army, been educated, where his family still lived as part of the aristocracy complete with live-in servants in a grand home right next door to the Prime Minister’s, it was a crime punishable by imprisonment to be homosexual. Coming to America didn’t take away Liu’s innate fear of being found out to be homosexual. It simply enabled him to have many, many male lovers outside the confines of his acceptable-on-the-face-of-it marriage.
I felt sorry for him, for his need to keep his true self locked so tightly in a closet while everyone else I knew had been liberated. But what was worse is that I loved him and so part of me was in that closet with him. After a respectable period of, not necessarily grieving, but of being in stupefying shock over having agreed to this crazy marriage, it soon became way too close for comfort in that god awful closet.
* * *
Take a moment to imagine your most favorite memory of all. It’s probably hard to narrow it down to just one. Perhaps it’s easier to narrow the memories down to one favorite person.
For me, that favorite person, those favorite memories, all of it was Paul. We met in the high school theater department when we were seventeen. I was introverted and moody but smart, with a keen sense of humor. He was buoyant, outgoing, campy and side-splittingly funny. We became fast friends. When we realized we were both “out”–actively having sex with partners of our respective genders–we became inseparable. Two freaks of nature stuck in a high school of hostility together. Paul became my very best friend on the planet. The kind you are guaranteed to have but once in a lifetime. When it’s over, it’s over. That kind of friendship can’t come again because your youth, and all the excitement and crazy insecurities of it, can’t come again. After nearly ten years of being ravaged by AIDS, Paul died in the fall of 1999, on a crystal clear and cool October evening. The nurse told us that at around 8 o’clock, he’d smiled at something in the corner of the hospital room and waved, then he’d said, “That’s my grandma, she’s waiting for me.” He passed on peacefully, guided to Heaven by Grandma. It probably doesn’t get better than that, comfort-wise.
Let’s rewind to 1982. Let’s say I’m living in the theater district with my closeted husband, Liu, and that my best friend Paul, a blatantly gay guy who works in the theater professionally now, has come to visit us. Let’s say it bothers me not one iota that they have sex together right there in Liu’s bed while I sleep in the next bed over, or that they carouse together through Times Square until all hours. That they really hit it off in that way gay guys do–inseparable at least until the minute they are separated.
Let’s say both of them are already infected with the deadly virus that will savagely rob them of life, very slowly, due to all the new and unpronounceable drugs the doctors will be experimenting with. Now let’s say a prayer of thanks that we didn’t know it yet–how it was going to go for them, the merciless way it was going to end.
Amen, we say. Thank you, God. I’m glad we didn’t know. And God as long as you’re here, I pipe up, that misery I used to feel because my own husband steadfastly refused to sleep with me? Well, now I see it was a gift, God. With every fiber of my being I also thank you for that.
* * *
Thanks for the memories, Liu. And here they are now, those memories, those reasons why I loved you, why I hated you, but why I don’t regret the day you walked into my life.
The first time we met, I was bowled over by your very presence. I’d only been in New York a matter of weeks but I was already pregnant. Already running from myself again. I was looking for a place to live, to hide out from the man who’d knocked me up. He’d been superb in bed, but he was twenty years too old for me. He claimed to be in love with me, none-the-less. What he wanted more than anything, he’d said, was to get married to me, have a baby with me; a future together. But he was involved in organized crime–specifically, a hit man. He killed people for a living. On the day he decided to ask me to marry him, he confessed his profession to me over a light lunch in a local delicatessen.
“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to use a gun,” he’d assured me, not noticing I’d stopped eating and was in horrified shock. “You know, so you can protect yourself when I’m away.”
Instead of cluing him in that we were already pregnant, I made a run for it and never looked back.
In the crumbling, un-renovated townhouse where I would soon be renting a room, I met you, Liu. A Chinese man who was as tall as I was–not something I’d encountered before. You dressed impeccably in designer clothes, clear down to your Yves Saint-Laurent socks. You spoke with a very formal British accent and had been educated in London and Paris. You extended your hand to me and said, “My goodness, aren’t you beautiful. It’s so very nice to meet you. It will be such a pleasure to have you living here.”
What were you–continental, cosmopolitan? I mean, what were you besides secretly more feminine than I was, opening like a delicate Asian flower when you were with a man, any man, behind closed doors? I’d never met anything like you in Nowhere, Ohio. And you were so damned considerate of me. After I’d moved into the building, where we all lived in communal fashion, and you surmised I was pregnant, you never once mentioned the pregnancy. Yet you brought me Saltines and soda water from the bodega across the street. And you brought me a tiny bottle of eucalyptus oil from a shop in Chinatown.
“The women in my country use this,” you explained cryptically, handing me the tiny bottle. “They rub a drop into their navels when they’re feeling, you know, like they’re going to vomit.”
You never once asked, was I going to keep the baby? Get an abortion? Or even why I was pregnant in the first place, so obviously without the benefit of marriage.
Instead you sat next to me while I lay on the sofa in nauseated misery, and you chatted with me, asking me about my dreams, my goals, about what I was planning to do with my life. You didn’t judge me and you were so incredibly kind.
On the afternoon you asked me to marry you, I was no longer “with child” and we were no longer living in the same building together. I was now living in a walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen. When you came into my apartment that day, you were dressed impeccably, as always. As you sat on the small sofa, the only sign of your nervousness was the way you twirled your slender black umbrella while you spoke.
You handed me a handwritten list of all the reasons why I should marry you. And then you said, “If you become my wife, I will always take care of you. You will never want for anything. All my life I’ve dreamed of coming to America and having a beautiful Caucasian wife like you. You simply have to say yes.”
You believed in me, you’d said. You wanted to help me achieve my dreams, too. You couldn’t imagine me not marrying you.
Ten days later, feeling friendless and at lose ends in New York City, I wrote you a brief note and mailed it to you, saying that yes, I’d marry you.
On our wedding day at City Hall, the sun was shining like mad. After we’d said, “I do,” you told me that I was nothing less than a gift to you from Heaven. That you always knew you were going to meet a woman like me one day, that we’d be together.
I was swept away by your intoxicating romanticism. At a lonely time in my life, I suddenly felt loved. I felt like you were my destiny, too, and I said as much. It didn’t occur to me that I’d never once dreamed of being with a man like you. In fact, I never spent much time thinking about getting married at all. Then of course, later that night, as wedding nights go, ours was that complete disaster.
* * *
Our First Christmas Together. So many Hallmark Christmas ornaments display this commercially viable sentiment. In our happy home, our first Christmas together cut me like a knife.
That Christmas, you were having a platonic “flirtation” with the actress Nastassia Kinski. You were smitten with her and you spoke to me about it constantly. She wrote you harmless little love notes on paper napkins, which you’d squirrel away in your dresser drawer, for me to find later when I was alone.
“She’s so beautiful,” you’d rave breathlessly. “She reminds me so much of you, Marilyn, dearest, before you put on all the weight.” And: “Her skin is like porcelain, honestly–even up close. I’m certain your skin would be just like hers if you didn’t drink quite so much, dearest.”
Oh etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It never stopped. It tortured me. It was bad enough that you insisted on calling me “Marilyn, dearest” while the campy Mommy Dearest was all the rage. I couldn’t compete with a fucking movie star, and I was vain and egocentric enough to lament that I couldn’t, so I drank more.
In a light snowfall, we went to the Times Square Woolworth’s, long gone nowadays, and bought an artificial Christmas tree. Lights, glass ornaments, tinsel–the works. I was silly enough to feel excited about having your complete attention, about decorating our first tree together.
You helped me assemble the tree in the living room. The eggnog was ready; Christmas records were on the record player while I waited eagerly for you to come out of the bathroom and help me start decorating our tree. You seemed to be taking an inordinately long time in the bathroom–even for a fastidious man like you.
When you finally emerged, you were dressed exquisitely in a black suit and tie. “What’s going on? Why are you dressed like that?” I needed to know.
“I have a date, dearest,” you explained, throwing on your black, tailor-made cashmere coat. “I’m meeting a chap in Chinatown. Don’t wait up for me; I’m not coming home tonight. Enjoy your tree.”
I tried so hard not to hate you as you walked out the door that night. I took it out on myself instead; you’d rescued me from loneliness, hadn’t you? You believed in me when not many people did. With a splitting headache, I decorated that goddamned tree.
Two days later, I awoke from a mid-afternoon nap, staring at “our” Christmas tree, and I suddenly realized with a start that this was not the tree I’d decorated. While I’d been out the day before, you had completely redone it and now it looked fucking fabulous. Once again, I’d failed where your good taste had succeeded. God, I hated you.
* * *
Two years into the marriage. You sleep with men. I sleep with girls and occasionally with other men now. For some inexplicable reason, though, I still live for those private moments when we’re alone together and you find even a shred of a reason to praise me–like you did on our wedding day. To give me a reason to pretend as if this marriage weren’t a complete self-destructive mistake. You’re good about giving me gifts–clothes, jewelry, chocolates. You leave me little surprises of cash on my night table. However, you frequently wish aloud that I would “grow up” and stop running around with musicians. I’m a professional singer by this time, so it doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.
And look! Paul is visiting us again.
One afternoon, Paul and I take a walk. He angles us over to West 46th Street and we come to a stop in front of the Gaiety Theatre. Paul points up at it–it’s on the second floor of a tall building.
“That’s a hustler bar up there,” he notes.
“So, you know how come I know that?”
“No, how come?”
“Your husband took me there last night.”
“Did he?” It’s not fazing me. What do I care about the gay clubs you two go to together?
“Marilyn, he works there.”
I look at him blankly.
“Your husband’s a hustler–he turns tricks at night.”
Your husband’s a hustler. He turns tricks at night. My goodness. You don’t know how incredible that sounds, how foolish it makes you feel, until someone who cares about you is saying something like that to you in earnest.
What haunted me most was that I couldn’t understand why. You were a businessman with a Masters degree. You had a wealthy family back home that frequently wired money into your account at the Bank of Singapore in Rockefeller Center. Why this need to turn tricks, to get fucked by men for money? Were you really that hard-hearted?
You didn’t know yet that I’d found out, so it was hard to figure out how to ask you to explain yourself. From then on, though, when you left gifts of cash on my night table, the money disgusted me. Not that I would have judged you if we’d met and were friends and you’d confided in me that you were a hustler–so many guys I’d known back then were hustlers–but why did you have to marry me?
You cried when I told you I was leaving you, but I left anyway.
For the next several years, each time I tried to so much as broach the subject of a divorce, you’d cry again. You’d sob, actually. “You’re my wife,” you’d rant. “You’re supposed to stand by me. I need you.”
For what, exactly? To hold your ring?
Like that night many years earlier, when we’d stood together in a ticket line outside a movie theater in Times Square. “Here!” You’d suddenly panicked, pulling your gold wedding band off your finger as a man came toward us, waving happily at you. “Hold this,” you’d said, slipping the ring to me, “and act like we’re just friends.”
As always, to protect you, on instinct I did what you asked and acted like your denial of me hadn’t hurt.
That was not one of the nights I felt fond of you.
After we’d been living apart for three months, you took me on a “date.” We met on the corner of Mulberry Street, in Chinatown. We popped in at a Buddhist temple because you wanted to say a quick prayer. Then we went on to dinner together, to a place where only the Chinese people frequented. Everyone around us was speaking Mandarin. In those years, I couldn’t speak a word of it. After you died, though, I painstakingly taught myself to speak it, to read and write it. It gave me a degree of comfort, a measure of joy.
In the restaurant, you said, “Do you know what these people around us are saying?”
“Of course not,” I said.
“They want to know why a beautiful Caucasian woman like you is in a place like this having dinner with me.”
For some reason, we both found this very funny. Perhaps it was because we knew it was a question of cosmic proportions; that it was a question of destiny, a question of primal need and maybe even of unconquerable fear.
After dinner, we went for a winding walk through the busy, crazy streets of Chinatown.
“You look good,” you said to me.
“I stopped drinking,” I replied.
“It suits you–being separated from me, I mean.”
Then you handed me a small, gift-wrapped package. “It’s for you,” you said offhandedly. “I just wanted you to know I think of you now and then.”
I unwrapped the gift. It was a cassette tape of Willie Nelson’s song, “You Were Always On My Mind.”
Later that night, alone in my new apartment, I played the song over and over again. Of course, I cried.
Maybe I didn’t hold you, all those lonely, lonely times…
But you were always on my mind.
* * *
Fast-forward to here, to now.
I still have the Willie Nelson tape, although I know I won’t have it forever. Cassette tapes disintegrate and crumble over time, and it’s already been 22 years since Liu gave it to me. Not even cassettes are meant to last forever. I guess nothing is. By now, it’s no real surprise to me. Even a veritable institution like the Gaiety Theatre eventually closes its doors and vanishes into the outrageous night.
I take no issue with men loving men. I support it. I’ll go so far as to say I celebrate it and always have. But I don’t think it’s a woman’s place to marry into it. I feel sorry for those women I sometimes see on tabloid TV shows, who find out, in front of the televised world, that their husbands are raging queers after dark and the poor women are the last to know. I haven’t been spared too many travesties in my life but at least I was spared that particular one.
In the last note I received from my (by then) ex-husband Liu before he died, he wrote, “Marilyn, dearest, I am forever grateful to you. I will never forget you and all you did for me.” Here, he was referring to how I’d petitioned the Naturalization Services to help him become an American citizen, even though we were legally separated; and how, after he’d been raped by a deranged Filipino man and wound up in an Emergency Room in Honolulu, I’d stood by him; or how I’d held his hand while he’d wept uncontrollably, having just been unceremoniously dumped by his much older Brazilian lover for a much younger Chinese boy. Those types of things. The types of things any wife does in a pinch, I figure–right? Liu’s note indicated he was grateful for all of it and then some.
Why did his last note to me leave me feeling so defeated?
Still that darn gratitude, I realized, and not a speck of the word love. Was I still expecting it after all that time? Always a bit of a romantic, I’m ashamed to admit it; I was.
c – 2007 Marilyn Jaye Lewis