The Vow by Monica McHenney | Short Story Contest 2019 | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly 33rd Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

The Vow

By Monica McHenney

About Monica McHenney

Monica McHenney moved from Michigan to Palo Alto in 1973. Since then she's lived and worked on both sides of the San Francisco Bay. In 1987, she and her husband settled in Palo Alto where they raised two sons. A social worker by training, she taught for twenty-five years in PAUSD's parent education program, PreSchool Family. She retired in 2014. Monica has read short shorts at the Flash Fiction Forum, posts weekly hundred word stories at http://monicaflash.com, and is writing a collection of linked short stories.

 

Inspiration:
As with most of my writing, The Vow started from a memory fragment. Unwashed socks and fasting to avoid the draft were images that inspired me to create Dash. A segment from NPR's This American Life about removing homosexuality from psychiatry's diagnostic manual set a context. I started remembering conversations and observations that raised the questions that infuse this story. What's it like to function in a society that pathologizes your sexuality? How does that affect who you become? For Dash, it meant learning to compartmentalize. But death and aging are unexplored territories. The most interesting part of writing The Vow was the way the characters develop as they cope with the unknown.

 

Judge's comments

In this moving story a straight woman, now a widow, tries to talk her old college friend, a gay man, into marrying his long-time partner who is dying of AIDS. The portrayals of the three characters are rich with detail and so persuasive that the reader wants to join the discussion.
— Nancy Packer

His draft number was fourteen. His goal was to fail the Selective Service physical. By November of freshman year, I could count his ribs when Dash took off his shirt. The night he announced that he had been classified 4F, he pumped his fist while I made toasted cheese sandwiches in the student kitchen of the women's residence hall where I lived.

We'd met fall term in chemistry lab. We swanned around Ann Arbor winter term, protesting the Vietnam War, along with hundreds of others. He took speed. I smoked doobies. It's a wonder either of us graduated, considering all of the distractions.

Dash was full of endearing quirks. The one I remember best is that he seldom changed his socks. You'd think it required superpowers to reach the bottom of his six foot frame. He even wore socks when we made love.  He did remove them when he showered. But, he didn't wash his foot coverings before pulling them on again. He and his socks were inseparable.

 We've been friends for fifty years, now. By the time Dash accepted that he preferred men, we were on different coasts. We've remained enthusiastic correspondents. Our letters carried us into an unspoken commitment. We took turns traveling between New York and San Francisco. We went to funerals together. We could talk about anything. Both of us like having someone who will pick up the phone at two a.m. Sharing a penchant for close listening and asking probing questions, we try to keep each other thoughtful and honest.

In June 2017, I opened a letter from Dash. A piece of copy paper, covered with pasted newsprint letters, summoned me for Independence Day festivities. Metallic pot leaves fell from the envelope.

I didn't give it a second thought before accepting the invitation for the Fourth. I booked a flight and sent an email to confirm. A month later, I hopped a plane to San Francisco. When he hugged me at the airport, Dash smelled like he'd been barbecuing.

Handing me flowers, he said, "Happy birthday."

"That's in December."

"It's so much more satisfying to give them to you in person." He took my bag and led me through a maze of walkways to the parking structure. Chucking the suitcase in the backseat, Dash closed the door and turned to look at me. "Not bad for a crone."

I had tinted my hair with purple streaks. His had finished turning white. I noticed the paunch of his belly pushing over his belt. "You're not so bad yourself," I said, "for a geezer."

"Call me queen, darling, never geezer. But enough of this mushy stuff. We need to shop." He opened my door with a sweep of his hand, sliding into the driver's seat as I got settled.

It was so like Dash to save things until the last second. Three o'clock the day of the party, and we were off to the deli for pickles. "The only ones worth eating," he told me. His spontaneity didn't hamper his ability to succeed. He directed a crisis hotline in the City. Buttoned-down Grayson, his partner, was a financial wizard who had founded a venture capital firm. Between them, they pulled in enough to own a home in Pacific Heights. Dash weaved in and out of traffic. I was content with the role of sidekick, sitting in the car while he double parked. He said, "Drive around the block if the meter maid gets close."

We arrived at the house, laden with bags and plastic containers. Grayson, a few inches shorter than Dash, was in the kitchen setting out serving dishes. "The caterers have been and gone." His bald pate shining, he glanced at his Rolex. "The servers will be here soon."

Dash pecked his cheek. "I'll fill these," he said.

Grayson stepped towards me and held me at arm's length. "No one would guess you just got off a plane. When did you get up this morning, Anne?"

"Really, you don't want to know. Coffee is what I need."

"Go get freshened up. When you're done, I'll have a double espresso ready."  Grayson took the flowers from me, shooing me towards the stairs.

I knew my way around. Before my husband died, we had often stayed in the Blue Room which was named for the color of the wallpaper. This time, I had asked for the smaller suite. It was painted a cheery yellow. There was a view into the back yard, where Grayson's green thumb was on display. I took a hot shower and dressed. On my way to the kitchen, I passed the bouquet of roses, baby's breath and blue iris that Grayson had arranged in a cut glass vase in the foyer. The roses smelled both rich and melancholy.

Grayson handed me a white cup. Crema floated on top.

"How fancy," I said.

"I plan to be a barista in my next life."

We talked to Dash's back, as he stirred batter infused with chocolate and weed in a steel bowl. Dash calls himself the Alice B. Toklas of medical marijuana. My husband used to take brownie breaks with Grayson when Jim and I visited California. He and Grayson suffered from the same slow moving cancer, though Jim had contracted it earlier than Grayson.

 I said, "The flowers in the hall are so fragrant."

Without turning around, Dash said, "Do you want them in your room?"

"I won't spend any time upstairs. You and Grayson keep me too busy for that."

Dash said, "Glad you asked. Here, these plates are finished. You can put them on the buffet in the dining room."

I picked up dishes of cold pickled vegetables and smokey smelling chicken wings. Following Grayson, I set them next to the rest of the party foods.

Grayson said, "He's so Type A. You'd never guess he's a psychiatrist."

"I don't know. Many of us are." I noticed that Grayson's face was thinner. His eyes suggested a kind of sad I remember Jim's took on during treatment.

Grayson told me the doctors were hopeful that the second round of chemo would help, but it was a matter of time. Grayson wanted to get married. "Then he'll inherit, but he can't face that conversation. Talk with him."

"Why would he listen to me?"

"He will. You'll know how to get through to him." Grayson flashed a smile at me. "Hope I haven't spoiled the visit."

I touched Grayson's hand. "How long?"

"I'll know soon."

We ferried the rest of the food from the kitchen. I had arranged the last of it when the doorbell rang. A cascade of waiters and guests arrived. Dash trotted me out, making introductions and steering me towards people I'd met before, but didn't recognize. I noticed the way that his hands invited people in, creating a warm circle around him. When the jet lag hit, I found an alcove where I could sip green tea and watch the passing scene. Dash split his time between chatting through the room and hovering over Grayson who sat, with his finance buddies, on a white sectional couch.

Dash and Grayson have known each other for longer than I knew Jim. They met in 1973 at UCSF where they both worked. Dash wrote me letters about this great guy from the finance office. I guessed it was something more than friendship. At the time, Dash wanted to be a psychiatrist. At the time, being gay was a psychiatric diagnosis. Dash considered entering the priesthood, among other things, before deciding to attend medical school as a closeted gay man.  Even when they bought the house together, in the flush of the dot-com boom, only good friends knew they were a couple. Everyone seemed to know by the end of the 2008 marriage campaign. They were prodigious fundraisers.

The room buzzed at the first burst of fireworks. I stood between Dash and Grayson, watching the panorama of lights. After the display ended, Dash urged me to go upstairs. Reminding me of our plan to see the Degas exhibit at the De Young, he promised that he'd cook in the morning and it would happen godawful early. I wanted to help clean up, but he said, "The servers will handle that." 

I went to bed. I tried to remember why he and Grayson hadn't tied the knot after same-sex marriage became legal. Maybe Grayson was starting treatment. That seemed right. In those days, Dash wrote persistently cheerful letters, while I shared the pain I felt watching Jim fade away.

...

Grayson had left for the office before I got downstairs and tucked into breakfast. "Remind me why you didn't go to City Hall the day after the marriage bill passed."

"Not even a compliment for the eggs Benedict? You do get down to business."

"You can't put this off any longer."

"Grayson verbatim. He said you talked."

"You don't have that much time. Grayson looked like Jim last night, and you looked like me."

"Moi?" Dash poured two orange juices. He sat down across the table and sipped his.  "Don't lay that guilt trip on me. Grayson has to conserve his energy. I do what I can to help."

"There were times Jim wanted me to leave. There were times I wanted to, out of either compassion or anger. Going through a terminal illness tests any relationship."

"And you think I won't pass the test?"

"Life is one long test. I'd say you've done well."

"Then let this go, Anne."

"Do you remember just after Jim and I met. You came to see me in New York City after dropping out of some ashram. You couldn't get over Grayson."

Dash looked away. "I remember we ate popcorn and cocoa whenever I visited."

"You're impossible. That visit was memorable."

"Oh, maybe I recall a bit. You reminded me of the sister I never had. All that advice."

I rinsed our empty plates. "Dash, don't push me away."

"I pride myself on the strength of my attachments, Anne."

"Then make it legal."

Dash shook his head. "When you're gay, you learn to love outside the law."

 "You're as good as married."

 He shrugged. "Then, why do it?"

I slammed the dishwasher closed. "Because, your partner is dying."

The muscles in his jaw stood out. "I am unrepentant. I might have done it thirty years ago. Now, I don't need anyone's permission to be with the man I love." He stopped, the way he does when he's on the edge of losing it. "Let's go. We'll have to wait twenty minutes if we miss the bus."

Outside, the Golden Gate Bridge seemed close enough to touch. I asked, "Do you change your socks?"

"Of course, I change my socks."

"You didn't used to." I frowned. "Change is hard. But this has to change. Grayson needs you to speak for him when he can't speak for himself."

Dash took a long slow breath. "Okay, okay, okay, I'll think about it." It had been a typical Dash storm; volatile, emotional, and brief. By the time we reached the transit stop, the outburst was over.

I said, "Think about why so many people fought so hard to get married."

He held his hands in the air, like I was pointing a gun. "I said I would. I will."

The bus took us along Golden Gate Park. We rode almost to the end, where we got off near the museum to see the art exhibit. Later, we strolled to the Conservatory of Flowers. Inside the glass greenhouse, moist air nurtured palms and exotic plants. Dash said he missed hiking with Grayson. Sharing experiences, the good and the sad, our conversation edged into recounting losses. Then, it was like we were family. We hadn't been honest that way in some time. When the alarm on his phone went off, summoning us to leave for dinner, I felt we were starting to catch up.

Dash had made reservations for three. Grayson was running late, so Dash said we'd like to be seated. Haloed in stained glass sunlight from the door, we were standing close together. The maitre'd said, "Right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Hartford." Dash held the small of my back, the way men do when they have a proprietary interest in a woman. He winked at me, no doubt delighting in playing with our host's expectations. When the maitre'd led Grayson to the table a bit later, Dash leapt from his chair and clasped Grayson's shoulders, kissing him on the lips. No telling what the man thought. It was classic Dash. He played it to the hilt.

After a delightful dinner, we drove back to the house. I packed and turned in early.

The next morning, Dash took me to the airport in slow moving traffic. We talked about books we'd read, nothing serious, nothing about marriage or illness. He asked, "Why is it that women dress in colorful plumage and men are so drab?" He was referring to the wide brimmed hats, heavy with decorative feathers and flowers, that we'd seen on display at the art museum.

"Hiding vulnerability. I suppose it's artifice. "

"Is unisex clothing more truthful?"

"Just more comfortable. Some things, we don't want to admit. Don't you think?"

Dash shrugged, pulling up to the curb. He helped me with my bag. We hugged, promising that we wouldn't wait so long between visits. Then, I rolled my suitcase through the big glass door.

...

A month later, I received a scrawled note from San Francisco. Would I witness Dash and Grayson's marriage? When I phoned Dash for details, he said, "I'm getting used to the idea." They'd booked a private ceremony room at City Hall for the end of August.

As it turned out, the wedding took place on an overcast day. The sun broke through as we crossed the bridge to Oakland, where we ate at one of Dash and Grayson's old haunts. We bought champagne, then headed down College Avenue to the Rockridge Cafe. When the waitstaff found out that Dash and Grayson were newlyweds, they gathered around to take selfies.

After lunch, we hiked up Strawberry Canyon. We stopped at the top, so Grayson could catch his breath. Standing on a flat section of the trail that was flanked by pines and oak, Dash undid his tie. He draped it around his neck like a liturgical stole. "Hold out your arms, palms up." He dabbed on ketchup from a plastic packet, blessing us with secret sauce. Dash said, "Nothing has changed." Rolling with laughter, Grayson rubbed wrists with Dash and me.

I laughed a deep belly laugh. Always an underdog, always a winner, Dash would always be Dash. When he broke a smile, I knew he'd be alright.


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