We’ll Have Champagne

Hal picked up his espresso at the counter and headed to the small, outdoor garden behind the café. San Francisco is full of these little neighborhood coffee houses. Shabby little places, a few flowers and plants growing, but not really attempting to cover up the falling-down fences or the neglected sides of the neighboring buildings.

He stood in the doorway, surveying the area. It was one of those rare San Francisco days, sunny and no wind. Scattered over the bumpy, bricked patio were four small café tables, each with a couple of chairs. Only one table was occupied. A man was sitting there, head slightly down, absorbed in reading the folded newspaper he held.

Hal blanched. Could it possibly be? He’d fantasized that he might run into Joel; he’d even considered trying to look him up, but he wasn’t prepared to stumble onto him like this. His heart raced, but his mind said, Slow down, you haven’t seen him in thirty years. That can’t be him.

The seated man was unaware he was being scrutinized, and yet, something made him look up. They recognized each other at once. Hal walked over to the table and said, “Hello Joel.”

Joel stood up, looked at Hal in amazement, and said, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns,” he paused for a moment, then raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth in an exaggerated pose of complete shock, simultaneously, he spread his arms wide with his palms up and finished his sentence, “What are the odds?”

“Well, I’d say pretty good. Isn’t this where I last saw you?”

“Not quite, but close.”

They shook hands and then hugged each other.

“For God’s sake, sit down,” Joel said. “Tell me what you’re doing here. For that matter tell me where you’re living, tell me everything.”

Hal began, “Well, I’m living in Bakersfield, if you can believe it. That’s where Denise is from you know. I went to work for her father years ago, a couple of years after our first son was born, actually. Short story, turns out I have a head for business. I pretty much run the place now. But, what about you?”

“We’ll get to me, but first, more about you. You said your first son. How many kids do you have?”

“Three, two sons and a daughter.” Hal pulled out his phone, pushed a few buttons, and passed the phone to Joel.

“Great looking kids, take after their mother, do they?” They both smiled. “Alright, tell me their names, their ages, their bios.”

“Okay, this is Ethan,” Hal said, as he pointed to the first picture. “He’s the oldest and has always been the most serious. He’s almost thirty.” Hal shook his head, “I can hardly believe I have a kid that old. He’s living in Palo Alto, working for one of those high-tech places. I had a little business to do in San Francisco, but I’m driving down to see Ethan tomorrow.”

“Married?”

“No, kind of a loner actually.”

“Gay?”

“I don’t know, probably not. I think he’d tell us. No need for a young guy to be in the closet these days.” He was silent for a moment, then pointed to the second picture, “Hannah here is twenty-eight. She’s trying to make it in the fashion industry, living in New York City and working in some sort of entry level position. Not married yet either, but definitely not gay. I think she has a different boyfriend for every day of the week.” Hal shook his head with a look that seemed to indicate both bemusement and pride.

“And what about this young fellow?” Joel pointed to the third picture.

“That’s our youngest. He’s twenty and a junior at Northwestern. He’s the real scholar in the family. I think he’ll end up a professor, or a writer, or both.” Hal shrugged and smiled again.

“And what’s his name?”

Hal hesitated, swallowed, and then answered in a soft voice, “Joel.”

Now, it was Joel’s turn to go quiet. “I’m thinking about crying,” he finally said.

They both sipped their drinks and sat silently for a few moments. Finally, Hal spoke in a forced, cheerful voice, “Your turn. What are you doing these days? Sitting in a coffee shop in the middle of the day? Looks to me like you might be retired.”

“Not quite,” Joel smiled. “I’m teaching math at S.F. State.”

“When I last saw you, you were teaching at a high school in the projects.”

“I quit teaching altogether for a while. I took a job at a start-up several years ago, not long after you left, in fact. You wouldn’t recognize the name of it. It went belly-up when the dot com market crashed. But, I had stock options and actually made some money when it went public. That was before the crash, of course.

“I was extremely lucky. I felt like I’d won the lottery. I banked my money, went back to school and got my doctorate. I wanted to teach again, but I wanted it to be at the college level. I just didn’t have the patience to teach high school kids anymore. A few years later, I bought a house near here. Remember, the housing market crashed too. I’d never have been able to buy otherwise. It’s a small place, but nice, cozy actually.”

“I’m surprised you left teaching, even for a while. You really loved it.”

“I think I just needed to change my life, shuffle things around.”

Hal looked at Joel, and then asked in a quiet voice, “Are you with anyone?”

Joel smiled, “Yes, his name’s David. My turn,” he added as he pulled out his phone, retrieved a photo of David and handed the phone to Hal.

“Nice looking guy,” Hal said, as he returned the phone. “Tell me about David.”

“He’s a great guy, about ten years younger than I. He teaches English Lit at State. We’ve been together almost twenty years now.” Joel shook his head in mock amazement at his own words. “We got married in City Hall, back when Gavin Newsom was mayor. Your turn, are you and Denise still together?”

Hal hesitated, then spoke, “Yes, Denise and I are still together and we’ve been happy enough, as these things go. We’re a picture-perfect couple on paper. I’ve always loved Denise you know. We started out too young, but we’ve made the best of it.” Hal’s voice trailed off.

After a short silence, he continued, “But, I want to be honest here, I never got over you. I never stop wondering what had become of you. I know, I could have Googled you in recent years. I think I was afraid of what I’d find. If your life had turned out badly, I would have felt guilty and sad. And, if your life had turned out well, as it has.” Hal paused and smiled, “I was afraid I’d be jealous.”

Both were silent for a moment, and then Joel said softly, “Do you remember the last time we met?”

“Every detail. And, I know it wasn’t here in this café. We were in that crazy parking lot way south of Market Street.”

“Yeah, years before south of Market became South of Market.”

“I can still picture that so-called parking lot, just a vacant lot really, not even paved, rocks everywhere. How they had the gall to put up a sign and a coin box and charge for parking is beyond me.”

“As I remember, they only charged fifty cents for all day,” Now it was Joel’s turn to pause. “I’d brought a bottle of champagne and two plastic glasses to celebrate. I thought you’d told Denise about us the night before. That was the plan.”

“That was the plan,” Hal echoed.

“I poured the champagne. You didn’t say much. Finally, I asked you how it had gone with Denise. I think I already knew something had gone wrong. Later, I realized that you were probably trying to get up your courage to tell me you weren’t going to leave her.”

“I was. Then we noticed that car with the flat tire. Flat as a pancake. I was glad to have a distraction.”

“Yeah, then that woman walked into the parking lot, a blonde. I remember she had a puzzled look when she saw us standing by her car. She should have been afraid, when you think about it. Isolated area, two strange men hovering over her car.”

“She should have. But, I guess we weren’t very threatening looking, especially with our fluted, champagne glasses.”

They both smiled slightly, lost in the memory for a moment.

“Copy that,” Joel answered. “I remember she was shocked when she saw the flat tire. Said she must have punctured it on one of those rocks that were all over the lot.”

“And remember how relieved she was when we offered to change it for her? Such gallants we were! Wasn’t she a redhead?”

“No, no, I’m sure she was blonde. And remember? After we’d finished, you said something about offering her a glass of champagne if only we had another glass. She laughed and said she’d come prepared. She got a coffee cup out of her car, poured the cold coffee on the ground, and held out her cup. I’ll never forget that. We all laughed and sipped our champagne.”

Joel was silent for a moment and then continued, “We must have introduced ourselves. I’m surprised I didn’t get her phone number. I remember thinking she could be our first, mutually chosen, straight friend. “ He smiled a little and added, “My fantasy was that we’d become lifelong friends with her, and we’d all laugh and tell the story of the flat tire and her drinking champagne out of her coffee cup.

“I still didn’t know what was coming. She never asked any questions, like what in the heck were we doing there, drinking champagne in the middle of the day in a run-down parking lot. Do you think she knew?”

With a half-smile, Hal said, “Yeah, she knew. Women always know. I didn’t want her to ever leave, because then I’d have to tell you. I wanted to be frozen forever in that moment, the three of us standing there together, laughing and drinking wine.”

“But, the moment did end,” Joel said, no longer smiling. “After she left, you told me that Denise was pregnant and you couldn’t leave her. That she’d told you the night before. You bolted pretty quickly after that. I was left sputtering. I’m guessing you never told her that you were planning to leave her.”

“No,” Hal hesitated and then repeated the word slowly and sadly, “No, I never told her.” He sighed and continued, “I’ve always regretted the way I left you that day. I’ll never be able to erase the memory of you standing in the middle of that godforsaken parking lot, still holding your champagne glass. I owed you more of an explanation, but the moment was so damned painful; I just hugged you, said ‘Goodbye,’ and ran.”

After another long pause, Hal began again, speaking softly, “It was over thirty years ago, but I remember every detail of that night. When Denise and I got home from work, I said we needed to talk. She said that yes, we did, because she had some amazing news. After she told me, she asked what I'd wanted to talk about. I mumbled something about not wanting to spoil the moment. Then I said I had to go back to the office for a while.

“I just walked, for hours. I walked and walked. I thought about what I wanted (you), and then I thought about Denise alone with a baby. I thought about this kid growing up with no father, possibly, or with two queer fathers, if Denise and her folks would have even let me be in the kid’s life. And, back then, they probably wouldn’t have.

“And, I thought about you, God, how I thought about you. In the end, I knew I had to stay with Denise, but to this day, I don’t know whether I stayed because I thought it was the right thing to do or because it was the easy thing to do. I just had to get through those dreadful moments when I told you, and the goodbyes, and the ache in my heart. I guess I never really got over that, the heartache.” Hal sighed again and continued, “But, I do love Denise, I always have, and we’ve had a good life together.”

Hal paused and then went on, “Did you ever tell David about us?”

“Oh yeah,” now Joel paused. “Of course, I did. When we first got serious about each other. He has a past too. Everyone does you know. How about you? Did you ever tell Denise about us?”