A Third Parent

We didn’t agree on politics and only discussed them once. Even with my gently persuasive techniques I could not get him to budge.

As originally coined by the French, the term “third world” was meant to indicate a fraction, one third of the world’s population. Then the English translation made it sound like a stand alone entity, a parallel existence.

In calling Billy a third parent I don’t know if that means a portion of his skills were parental. Or if he was an other worldly, third person daddy.

If I could ask him I know he’d say neither. He had no tolerance for nor little interest in raising children. Still, from when I first learned of him he was an adult older than me of whom I was always consciously aware. I ended up following his example and seeking his approval for most of my life.

I once asked him about the early years. Specifically, why he’ d never talked to me about being gay or given me some clue on what I could expect.

I knew it was out of discretion. He couldn’t be seen intervening in the lives of his clients’ teenage children. But I wanted to hear his answer which was: “somethings you just have to figure out on your own.”

He paused a beat then added, “anyway, when I saw the red shoes I knew you’d be just fine.”

I didn’t host much company in San Francisco because I didn’t have space. When I was younger and friends didn’t mind sleeping bags, futons or couches, it was no big deal. As we got older, it was just too uncomfortable.

The condo in Fort Wayne was the perfect place for pampering guests. However, whereas everyone wanted to come to San Francisco, no one was interested in Indiana. Through the years I was able to convince several friends to take the plunge. I would host two or three state visits a year.

It was a way to close the circle between my upbringing and the close friends I made as an adult, mainly in California. Most of my company left saying the same thing: they hadn’t expected to meet someone like Billy in Indiana.

Peter and Barbara were the first to visit and they helped lay the foundation for future tours. The Frank Lloyd Wright Houses, the Court House murals, Coney Island hot dogs, and the Cord-Dusenberg Museum. And, of course, a selected sampling of the food and drink of the region.

Billy was smitten with the handsome and galant.husband. He couldn’t stop talking about him after they left.

I told him to put it back in his pants. I’d been friends with both of them for a couple of decades and I didn’t want him mucking things up with unbridled lust.

He said of course not, he’d never do a thing like that. But still. . .

When my Kentucky Derby hosts, Jan and Mar, were in Michigan for the weekend I convinced them to spend the night with me on their way  home. That Sunday evening I invited Billy to join us for dinner.

I tend to surround myself with gregarious, outgoing friends as an antidote to me being too withdrawn and shy. These three were a perfect example. We were having drinks on the patio when I went into the kitchen to check on things. I wasn’t gone more than five minutes.

When I returned they had identified the woman who sold us the Scalamandre drapes upstairs as being the Mother of one of their good friends. How people who lived hundreds of miles apart and had never met could hone in on a detail like that so quickly was beyond me.

Billy talked about their visit for years to come. He couldn’t believe how open minded and accepting they were. In fact all of my friends were like that he said but especially them.

I mentioned the obvious, that their politics were more to the center and left than the people he surrounded himself with in Fort Wayne. He  dismissed it with “no, no, that’s not it. There’s just something about them.” I didn’t press the point.

Frank Lloyd Wright house that was part of the tour. Billy almost bought this house in 1959 but was in the process of starting The Corner House and couldn’t do both.

My friend who hadn’t lived there since Indiana became a state visited with his partner. It was perfect example of someone who hosted me several times that I could  now finally repay, if only once.

The day I was having a large dinner party I worked in the kitchen while his spouse decided to have a glass of wine. It was noon. All afternoon I worked and he drank. For good measure he popped a couple of pain pills too. By the time the guests arrived at 6:00 he was blotto and I was a nervous wreck.

As the others enjoyed their first drink of the day, he sat quietly on the love seat adjacent to the kitchen. His silence was interrupted randomly with blood-curdling Banshee cries at the top of his lungs. Then he’d clam up again.

By the time we sat down at the table his wailings had subsided. Now he was an incessant chatterbox who had no interest in eating. His glass was filled to the brim as he grabbed it to walk around the place. While the others ate, I jumped up and trailed him.

His need for attention stemmed from the fact when our group of Bloomington friends got together we were more focussed on his partner, who lived with us there, than on him, who had not. It was not a position he was used to being in or could tolerate.

Once when the IU group gathered at their house there had been an incident with a chocolate dessert stain on their sofa. He saw it as a malicious and deliberate act on our parts. In reality, it was just a pretext he created so he wouldn’t have to host us as a group again. There was not an ounce of grace or a hint of forgiveness as we heard about the chocolate stain for years to come. That evening it felt like he was ready to exact his revenge.

The skid mark on his damask was nothing compared to the Exon oil slick of red wine he was about to spill on the wool carpets. I followed him  around, mirrored his movements as I tried to coax the glass out of his hand. Finally I got it away from him. The evening was over, I was emotionally drained.

When I saw Billy after they left town I filled him in our past. It put into perspective an incident he otherwise thought was funny. He said he could tell something was bothering me but I handled the situation well. I didn’t make a scene.

To get me to move on and not dwell on it, he laughed it off saying the guy “was higher than a Georgia pine.”

The Duke Blue doors that I graciously took time out of my immensely busy schedule to paint for him.

When I was traveling back and forth, I’d leave San Francisco thinking why am I going to Indiana. I was having too much fun or in the middle of some project and it made no sense to leave. Then when it was time to leave Fort Wayne I’d have the same feelings about coming back here.

I shared this with Billy who said there was nothing wrong with that. “It just shows you’re happy in both places.”

But I would leave Fort Wayne with the extra baggage that we might not see each other again. It did not carry a heavy, emotional weight. Our goal was always on living life and having fun in the now. Increasingly, however, there was a now more than ever in what we did.

About six years ago I was visiting when Billy was recovering from a bout of something. It had been serious but he was bouncing back, recovering fully. His illness had not affected our activities.

During my stay he complained about all of the attention he was getting, people trying to do too much. Even if someone is a good friend, when they start showing up with coffee every morning and they’ve never done that before, it feels odd. Especially for someone who ferociously protected and enjoyed their privacy as much as he did.

The night before I left we had dinner at Catablu then I dropped him off at home. I gave him a hug and said he needed to be nice to people. I told him to feed them some crumbs, assign them a part of his routine as a way to let them participate. It beats someone calling everyday to “check in.” If they remained overbearing after that, then he could tell them to fuck off.

Billy mildly nodded his head in agreement, “yes, yes, I know.” Then he gave me an avuncular look that said: imagine that, a child like this telling me what to do.

Billy leading the Peru High School Band up Main Street, c. 1947.

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