Faint Hopes by Ken Liebeskind
When David heard that his old friend Lee had died of AIDS, a strange sensation came over him. He was startled because Lee, though obviously gay and promiscuous, had always seemed invincible. Tall, strong and incredibly outgoing, he was in charge of his world and everyone in it. It was inconceivable to think he could be struck down in his prime by a virus.
Lia, who was a manager in the restaurant David and Lee worked together, had told David of Lee’s fate when he happened to see her in the new restaurant she was working in. David had always had a crush on Lia, so it was great to see her, but when she told him about Lee he was temporarily speechless. Instead of asking her out for a drink he mumbled something about how he couldn’t believe it, and left in a daze a few minutes later.
Walking down Broadway near Times Square, he had a new feeling about life: that it was temporal, uncontrollable, maybe even unfathomable.
Strange feelings about his own sexuality intervened. He remembered the way Lee used to tease him when they were standing at the bar. “I know you want me,” Lee would say, with that confident grin. “Yeah, right,” David would respond, with a casual grunt. He didn’t want Lee, but he couldn’t convince him otherwise and for the duration of their friendship Lee assumed he was gay. It made David question his own sexuality since he wasn’t involved with any women at the time. Indeed, he felt Lee had a certain power over him he couldn’t shake.
In Lee’s presence he felt weak, unable to establish his own identity. Lee thought he was funny and laughed at this jokes. But he laughed at his insecurities, too, always assuming they were the quavered emotions of a man who was afraid to come out. “What are you worried about, half of New York is gay” Lee used to say. “The other half,” David answered. “Leave me alone.”
But despite the taunts, David really liked Lee, because he was so dynamic and sure of himself. He never stopped talking about his life outside the restaurant, his beautiful apartment on the upper West side, the lovers who shared it with him and the tiny dog he bought at Macy’s that also resided there. “You bought a dog at Macy’s?” David asked him, incredulously. “Yeah, they’re right next to the whips and chains,” Lee had said, parading from the bar with his tray of daiquiris.
David was struggling in New York at the time. New to the city, he had few friends and had yet to embark on a career. So the job in the restaurant was ideal, because it enabled him to meet lots of people who were in the same position he was. Besides Lee, there was the rest of the wait staff, bartenders and others, each with their own funky story to tell. David took a liking to Dawn, a hostess from South Africa, who spoke with a wondrous accent and was simply radiant, her light brown skin shimmering in the fluorescent light at the front of the restaurant. When she greeted customers at the door, it was pure theater, and as she waltzed them to their tables, David fell a little bit in love.
Like Lee, Dawn talked up a storm about her active life, the theatrical auditions she was going on and the wild affairs she had with the directors and actors she met along the way. David could hardly hope to establish a relationship with her, yet she seemed to like him. She laughed at his comments about the customers she seated and seemed to think he was cute. She pinched his cheek once after filling his section with a five top, but before he could reach to pinch her back she was gone, gliding along the floor in the soft leather pumps, like a gazelle.
The waitpeople worked in teams, and David worked with Mike, a man in his 20s who reflected Lee’s statement about half of New York being gay perfectly. After recounting an experience at a club where he spent the night with someone he met on the dance floor, David asked if it was a man or a woman. “I can’t remember,” Mike said, with a vague hazy grin that David interpreted as a sign of the times.
And then there was Lia, the young manager who unlike most of the others was straight and completely at ease with it. She was also beautiful and spunky, which David liked. They trade jokes together, not just about the restaurant, but their lives outside of it. David learned about Lia’s family from Westchester and the big Italian meals they ate together. She sounded like the personification of an Alka-Seltzer commercial and she was fully aware of it, which came across to David as both hilarious and honest. He told her about his own family, his life in suburban New Jersey before moving to New York that he said was completely boring. “Watching fires was the highlight of my life,” he said, which cracked Lia up.
There were so many people in the restaurant, all seemingly ready for brief casual love affairs with other members of the staff. It was such a scene, coming to work every day and mingling, and serving meals to the executives and tourists who frequented the place, ordering tall frozen drinks that were like exclamation points for the lifestyle the restaurant preached.