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.
David thought, they were freaking icons for a world gone mad, and he was pretty happy to be in it.
But who would it be? Dawn was beautiful, Lia was wonderful, and there were lots of other women, too, their young, lively spirits seemingly ready to be tapped.
And then there were the gay men, who were always on the prowl. Lee basically joked about it, but some of the others were more aggressive. David had been propositioned by a bartender named Ed, who had invited him back to his apartment in Astoria one night after work. “No, I’m not into that,” David had said, as he walked toward the subway. But as he traveled back to Brooklyn on the F train (“F” is for fuck, David thought), he wondered if it was true whether he really wasn’t “into that.” Maybe he really was gay, as Lee always said. He tried to put the thought out of his mind, but there was ambiguity there that perplexed him.
In the summer, the whole restaurant changed with the summer garden opening outside where a skating rink was in the winter. Suddenly, most of the staff worked outdoors in the intoxicating night air, serving food and drinks under the stars. The atmosphere was charged with a new kind of energy.
A huge bar was set up under a canopy, with tables between the bar and a majestic fountain that spewed streams of water over statues of mythological figures. The classic figures suggested something, but David wasn’t sure what. A link between the ancient and present eras? David wondered if there were cafes like this in ancient Greece and how they would be decorated. With statues of cave men and dinosaurs, perhaps? He mentioned this to Lee who laughed and said he’d like that a lot, because he had a thing for cave men. “I’ll bet you’d love to see me in a loin cloth,” he said to David.
The money picked up in the summer as business boomed, with most of New York eager to sip drinks and eat salads in the majestic setting. David was working so hard he could hardly think about having an affair with a co-worker, but at the end of the shifts there was usually time. After work, a group went out to bars in the neighborhood, eager to spend some of the cash they’d just made on cold beer and other drinks. At McMahon’s, the Irish bar a block away, the group crowded around a small table one night, gabbing about the shift. David sat with Mike, discussing their valiant effort. They’d just made $150 each. “Are you happy? I’m happy,” David said. “I’m so happy I could puke,” Mike said nonchalantly. “Uh oh,” David said. He backed up and bumped into Dawn in the process.
She was holding a tall drink, a mimosa or something, that spilled onto David’s shirt when he bumped her. “That feels good,” he said, with a wink, and Dawn pretended to spill the rest of the drink on top of his head, which made him shake nervously for a second. She was wearing a brown halter top that showed off her figure, and a short skirt that exposed her long legs. She was basically a bundle of energy. “And how was your night?” David asked her. “Oh, it was a trip,” she said. It was hard to imagine a hostess job being a trip, but then again for Dawn everything was. He just had to smile at her.
“I spilled your drink, so I guess I owe you one,” David said. “What’ll it be?” “Sex on the beach,” Dawn said. It was neat hearing those words come out of her mouth and it made David laugh. Actually, the drink had become popular that summer, so it was no big deal. It was just vodka and a couple of fruit juices. But with Dawn it took on an added meaning. Not that she had to announce her sexuality, since she exuded it so easily.
David walked up to the bar and ordered two of them. The scent of the fruit juices was very appealing and reminded him of Dawn, who had come from South Africa, where things were pretty juicy. He thought about exotic fruit trees and other wildness, which Dawn readily personified. As she sipped her drink, her full lips sparkled with the liquid libation, her tongue glowed.
David suddenly had a goal in mind, to talk with Dawn about something other than the restaurant, the customers from Eastern Europe who had never heard of tipping, the mad chefs running rough shod in the kitchen. David wanted to know Dawn on another level, so he would try to communicate in a different way with her. He thought he might talk about South African politics, but decided against it because Dawn seemed completely apolitical.
“I think I want to run away with you,” he dared to say. How’s that for idle chit chat, it made him think. “Really?” Dawn said. “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know,” David said, “someplace where they have sex on the beach instead of tap water.” “Ooh, that sounds like fun,” Dawn said. “I think I’d like to go.” She lifted her glass, and David raised his and they knocked them together in a toast. “Cheers,” David said. “Double cheers,” Dawn responded.
They stood together for awhile, chatting about Dawn’s budding career as an actress and David’s as a graphic designer. The fact they had other aspirations in life seemed to bind them and within a few minutes they were on the verge of friendship.
David decided to make a bold move. “Want to go for a walk?” he said. “Are we running away already?” Dawn asked. “Just walking,” David said. “A little neighborhood stroll on a nice night.”
“Okay, lets,” Dawn said, with a suggestive smile.
They finished their drinks, put them down on the table and David led the way out. When he felt the fresh air and looked at Dawn, a feeling of wellness came over him. He reached over and touched Dawn’s cheek. She closed her eyes and seemed to enjoy it.
“So how long have you been in New York?” David asked. “C’mon that’s what all the guys ask,” Dawn said. David laughed. “Okay, what’s your favorite color?” he said. “Blue,” Dawn said, “the color of the sea.” “That’s where we can run away together, the sea,” David said. “We’ll live on the beach and collect shells.” “That would be nice,” Dawn said. “No cares in the world.” “Right,” David said, “just the two of us, lots of sunshine and salt water. “Of course, you’re crazy,” Dawn said. “But that’s okay, I like crazy.”
David made another bold move, wrapping his arm around Dawn’s waist in a loose, but tender manner. It was so soft and slim it seemed a “hands off” sign should have been posted, but Dawn didn’t object. In fact, she rested her head on David’s shoulder for a moment as they walked down the street.
Finally, they approached an all night coffee shop and David asked Dawn if she felt like stopping. “Yeah,” Dawn said, “I love these places.”
Sure enough, it was a trip. It was after 2 a.m., when coffee shops in New York take on a new identity, as havens for the late night riff raff that walks the streets. At the booths near them were what looked like a heavy metal band, a group of hookers, a couple of meat packers and three members of a motorcycle gang. “We fit right in,” David said, after they were seated. “I’m real comfortable,” Dawn said, with a gleam in her eye.
They ordered coffees and a muffin to share. David made jokes about coffee, muffins, diners, life in New York and whatever came to mind. He was on a roll. Dawn responded in kind, displaying a kind of international wit. “They don’t have diners in South Africa,” she said. “Whenever people have an urge for coffee and muffins, they eat their neighbors.” “And your neighbors had blueberries,” David said.
The heavy metal band was jerking around with a tape player, playing their latest tracks. The hard edged sound electrified the place. David thought he saw the muffin bouncing on the plate. “Want to dance?” he asked Dawn. “Get out,” Dawn said. But David stood up in the middle of the diner and offered Dawn his hand. She took it and stood beside him, and suddenly David rocked.
He didn’t have any special dancing talents, but with this kind of music it was easy. The idea was to jump up and down sort of stiffly, as if waves of the harsh music were charging through his veins. Meanwhile, Dawn was a natural, her arms and legs moving smoothly, keeping a perfect beat. She seemed to like the music, repeating the words “faint hopes” as they were repeated again and again, as if they meant something.
As they danced, the heavy metal band looked on, seemingly pleased that their music was so inspiring. They turned up the volume, pounded the table, creating a kind of mayhem. It was a little too much for David. “Time to go,” he told Dawn.
It was much quieter outside, a whole other scene that was ideal for intimacy. David put his arm around Dawn and kissed her cheek. She turned to him and their eyes met and for a moment David was lost in them, falling to a place he had never been before. He kissed her on the mouth, tasting the coffee they’d just shared. Like the coffee, her lips were rich and warm, and David kissed them again and again, experiencing bursts of pleasure.
She was so beautiful he had to be careful, but she responded in kind, which made it easier. A few physical minutes with Dawn was a revelation, it seemed, for the life he wanted to lead.
When David arrived at the restaurant the next day, he was a bundle of nerves. He couldn’t wait to see Lee, to set the record straight. He wasn’t sure he’d tell him exactly what happened, because there were privacy issues to consider, not that Dawn ever kept her affairs a secret. Still, he didn’t want the story to get all over the restaurant. He wanted his relationship with Dawn all for himself. But he was full of a self-confidence he had never demonstrated to Lee, and he was ready to express it.
He saw Lee in the employee cafeteria, before the shift even started. Lee was sitting by himself eating a plate of grub, which is what they served employees. But at least it was free. David got his own plate and sat down next to Lee. “This is the kind of food he-men eat,” he declared, stabbing his fork into a piece of something. “How would you know about that?” Lee asked. “Because I’m a macho, macho man,” David continued, taking a big bite and swallowing hard. “Oh, my God, you got laid last night,” Lee said. “I never thought it could happen.” “In your face,” David said, with a big grin. “So did he have a big dick?”
Lee asked. “No she didn’t,” David said. “She didn’t even have a small one.” For a second, Lee’s face turned red, and David thought he had finally turned the tables on him. “Does it surprise you?” he asked.
“Not really,” Lee said.
“Everyone makes mistakes.” He looked over at Don, another gay waiter, and winked at him. Don smiled back, confirming their world.
Two years later, it was a different kind of world, one without Lee in it, David thought.
Walking away from Lia’s restaurant, he struggled to make sense of it, but he couldn’t. He wondered why the power Lee had displayed in their relationship hadn’t been powerful enough to protect him from the disease.
Suddenly, he had the desire to return to Lia’s restaurant and talk to her about Lee. Perhaps she could put it in perspective for him. Maybe he would ask her out for a drink after all, and they’d go back to the old restaurant. David would close his eyes and think of Lee and there he’d be, standing by the bar in his Lacoste shirt and khaki pants, big and brawny, making David feel unsure of himself, a strange but somehow comforting place to be.