The first time I ever interviewed someone beyond a sound bite from a friend, it was Teddy Walker. He was a big-time actor, as in, he won an Oscar back in the seventies, but no one cares now. Anyway, I'd won a contest, been picked to have lunch with him (and twenty other people) and have a round table discussion. I hadn't said much, took a couple of notes, noted how wrinkled he was. He'd forbidden reporters, but I followed directions like Columbus followed maps. He went around as it was ending and shook everyone's hand (they were mostly theater people so they'd all talked back, told him how great he was, name-dropped his co-stars and blah blah blah) and then he came to me and shook my hand. I'd burned it a couple of days before, friction from really intense jerking off (at least, that's what I told people), and I still had it in a bandage. I winced, I think - no, definitely winced, but he kind of gave me a wink and asked me what my name was. "Good name," he said. "You're a writer, aren't you? I can tell," he said, and I kind of squirmed and nodded. He was about to go on to the next person when I had an acute conscience attack and said, "Not really. I'm a reporter."
And that wiped his smile. He gave me kind of a stern look and said, "Well, just remember, son, that you used to be human."
Yeah, it hurt.
He called me human.
After all was said and decided, I think the hardest part of my planned bomb-drop was deciding what to call it. I was going to out a sports star, publicly and truthfully, and the only part of that which needed work was the "out" part, since I hated the word. I was edging closer to "decloset," but somewhere between that and "gay-finger" (from bad to worse, you don't need to tell me), I forgot that the story needed, you know, an actual athlete. My column brought in enough money that my closets were ample, but I kept other things in there - suits for fancy dinners, organizers for shoes and old books and sex toys, dirty secrets that you'll never know--but I was fresh out of homosexual sports players, no matter what corner I poked into. Gay players--oh, those I knew. But sports stars, minor leagues, major leagues, ones with fans and endorsements and skills upon dollars upon skills? Nope, none of those.
Real work requires research. 'Course, there's real work done at the library, and there's other kinds, too. If I was a porn star, I wouldn't head down to the office, and I don't do it now. Instead, I head uptown, to the legal offices of Malone, Jones, Duran, and Johansson. The woman at the front desk, at the end of the echoing marble foyer, knows my face, and before I even reach her she's lifting her phone, saying, "Miss Johansson is upstairs. Are you meeting her today, or did you want to go up?"
"Going up, Shirley," I say.
"Of course, Mr. Sansorvino," she says, and taps a few more buttons, says nothing more, and then sends me up the staircase with a smile.
Tia Johansson's office is usually a mess, except when she's talking to clients. When that happens, she has an eerie, paranormal ability to clean everything in less than five minutes. If law school hadn't worked out, she'd have made a killing as a cleaning lady; she'd have cleaned fifty houses a day.
I'm not a client, of course, so I get treated to a bookshelf with half its books on the floor, a desk covered five-deep in case files, and what looks to be the remnants of a Subway sandwich or a sacrificed child (the wrapper suggests the former, the stains the latter). Tia herself was buried in the bottom drawer of a massive file cabinet up to her waist, though she waved a stiletto at me when I closed the door. The top drawer opened slowly, her hand waved backwards, and she called, "I'll be right out!"
Which was fine with me. I occupied myself with moving her lunchtime slaughter to a stack of turn-of-the-century law books that Tia had bookmarked with popsicle sticks.
She popped out of the cabinet, kicked the drawer shut, and dusted herself off. I told her, conversationally, "If anyone in their right mind saw you normally, they wouldn't just think twice about having you take their case, they'd want to have you committed."
"Right," she says, "so don't ever get in big lawful trouble, all right?" And then, seeing the look in my eye, "Okay, what am I supposed to look up this time?"
"Actually, I don't think you can help me," I say.
"That's a first and a half."
"I'm looking for gay sports stars," I say.
"And I'm looking for flying clients," she says, and flaps her arms.
"I'm serious. You know they have to exist."
"And I believe in aliens, but there's a difference between enjoying some Star Wars and painting UFOS LAND HERE with glow-in-the-dark paint on my roof."
"Glow-in-the-dark paint," I say, thoughtfully, and I know her mind (a longtime denizen of the gutters of the world) will head to the wrong places; I don't even have to mean anything. I'm right, and she says, "All right, all right, I don't want to hear any more. There might be a guy…."
"I thought there might." Honestly, having Tia--a civil rights lawyer--for a best friend keeps me in a job. In turn, I give her tips on the inside stories I come across--who will need what when and so forth. I've heard that we have a remarkable lack of scruples. I prefer that we're "efficient," or "symbiotic," if you must.
"His name is Joe Williams," she says. "He's a baseball player, a minor leaguer, for the Fairview Furies. He's maybe, eh, fifty miles away."
"What did you do for him?" I ask.
She turns to her desk, starts browsing a file very pointedly. "I'm sorry," she says, "but some things are strictly confidential."
Of course they are. "If you slept with him-"
She stabs a finger at the clock. "Meeting in five, Kalin, out! Go research."
"Then it won't help-"
Joe Williams is only slightly more than "John Smith" as far as useful names go, but thankfully the days of phonebooks and only phonebooks are long gone. The website for the Fairview Furies listed their lineup on a colorful page called "Meet the Furies!" There he is, number 14, listed as an "Infielder" and nothing else. Not much to go on, but the next page has their next game scheduled for tomorrow, and I'm in luck, it tells me. There are open seats in the dugout boxes, just behind home plate, for the bargain deal of nine dollars. Would I like one? Yes, yes, I would. Considering that I was still trying to remember if baseball had goals or goalposts, I thought it was a pretty good deal. Then, an idea: Reserve two tickets instead of one.
I called Tia once it was done, told her we had a date for the following night.
"Oh, Jesus," she said. "Don't tell me-"
Take me out to the ball game.
She was happy, though, once we'd dropped another thirty bucks on a couple of hot dogs, some overpriced beer, and a (free) rulebook. Of course, the book was more concerned with explaining the minutiae of the infield fly rule and not with our questions about, say, how many bases there were.
"This is ridiculous," Tia said, as a bat connected, a ball went flying over the fence, and the crowd crazy. "There are no fouls, besides foul balls."
"What if one of them takes a bat to another guy?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I think I saw a porno like that once."
The crowd was calming back down as the homerunner waved and the mascot, some kind of purple tornado thing, tried to do the Macarena.
"That's him!" I said.
"Walking up to hit. He's number 14."
"Well, duh. The one with the bat," she said, and rolled her eyes.
I wasn't listening, I was watching, but I don't know what I was expecting--a pirouette to the plate? A wrist-flip when he raised his bat? I didn't get either, but Tia covered for me:
"He sure knows how to stick his ass out," she said, but I shushed her: "They all do that."
He swung once, twice, three times, and the crowd groaned, he tossed his bat aside, and a fake organ started playing the Star Wars theme for god-knows-why. The purple tornado danced again, and I looked at Tia. "Is that it? No, it can't be, there have to be a couple of these quarters. Or are they halves?"
She was buried in the book, and she shook her head. "Nope, innings, and there's nine. Each team hits for one half and fields for the other, so it's really like there's eighteen."
"Maybe more, if they're tied."
"I'm thinking more beer."
There's a girl sitting with her parents behind us, maybe seven, eight, and she runs down between every pause to the dancing tornado and thrusts a little moleskine up at him. He keeps bowing down to sign it, but then the music starts and he has to get up and try and cha-cha in all his padded glory. Finally, by inning ninety-three or so, the girl figures out that she should go down beforehand and ends up with her arm outstretched when the teams begin to switch. The tornado squats down, and she has a mime fight with him. She puts her hands on her hips and pouts at him, and he does the same; she wags a finger at him, and he holds his giant Hamburglar hands to his face in horror. Behind us, the parents chuckle, and the mother says, "Oh, she's such a ham." I'm content to watch for a moment, just watch and smile as the little girl fights with the fuzzy cyclone, but then Tia pokes me.
"So what's the plan?" she asks.
The little girl's returned to her seat, and I can hear the mom complimenting her for her show.
"Whatever," the girl says. "It was just a man. He got up to dance next to me, and I saw up his suit. He smells."
My smile is far away, until Tia flicks my ear. "The plan."
"Oh, right. Okay, so, after the game's over, we…. I don't know."
"Get into the locker room and offer to blow him?" she asks, and rolls her eyes again. "See who he chooses?"
"I'm tempted to say yes, but … "A plan will … emerge," I say, and even as I'm trying to not think of one, one does. At least the shadow of one. "Can we get down there?" I ask.
"How should I know?"
"Well, look. They're all running into that tunnel between innings, right? That has to go to the locker room. We're only a couple of rows from the tunnel, and I bet they'll stop to sign autographs or something."
"So you ask him to sign your dick?"
"Gutter-mind, gutter-mind," I say. "I have a plan. Just watch."
I'd been distracted by some of the fun of it, but no more. The plan takes over, and I forget the names of the players, forget how they keep score, don't even remember who wins or not but when they do and that tornado starts its final jig, Tia and I are already pushing past, heading for the bit above the tunnel. I'm right, and kids are already clamoring with notebooks, sheets of paper, arms with markers outstretched.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Tia asks. "Go for it." She pushes through a gaggle of six-year-olds and I lean over as the Furies hustle towards it. He's one of the first, number 14, but that's not the point right now. He doesn't stop for autographs, either, but an older guy with a wide smile and a chubby face, number 42, stops for the kids like he's baseball's Santa Claus.
I let him get through a few scribbles before I lean forward and say, "Excuse me."
"Hello there," he says, and signs a girl's cast. "Do you have a pen?"
"I'm not here for an autograph," I say, and that gets his attention. "I'm actually looking for Joe Williams. We're -" and I grab Tia, pull her forward "- in town for the weekend, and we wanted to say hi."
He surveys us like he's trying to remember if he's met us or not, and I add, "Oh, we're old friends, from school."
"From school," he repeats, and that's the clincher. "Well, I could tell him you're here."
"Great," I say, "but I actually wanted to tell him that we're all in town, we're meeting at Suki's and we'd like to buy him a drink." Tia elbowed me--stupid name, I know--but I'd googled the bars beforehand.
"Sure thing," he said, and looked a little wistful. "Who should I tell him-?"
"The old gang," I said, and Tia nodded helpfully. The girl who was behind us pushed forward, we backed off. Tia gave me a look that either said she was impressed or disgusted, but I couldn't tell which.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Now we go have a drink."
There were no Fairfield gay bars per se, but the hearsay I found on Craigslist pegged Suki's as the bar where the gays went. 'Course, I should've realized then that if I'd staked the bar out, I probably wouldn't've have had any luck--he hardly would've gone to a gayish bar in his team's city to hook up--but now, it worked for what I wanted.
The night was young but the bar was already swinging, just beginning what the bartender identified as Ladies' Eighties. Some nice retro music, and a crowd of mostly women, some men, all sexualities from what I could see. Tia and I got seats at the end of the bar and watched the door.
"Like the creepers we are," Tia said, and I shushed her. She was having none of it, though: "You do realize, if he comes, that he's going to walk in and find us."
"No, he won't."
"Nope. He's not looking for us, remember, he's looking for some old friends. We have the upper hand here--we see him walk in, and then we get him."
"And then what? We ask him to dance and then you do him in the bathroom?"
"This part I'm less clear on," I said, "but I think this is where the 'I really work for a magazine' comes in."
"What about me? Reporters don't bring friends."
"So be a reporter, too. If I really am, it doesn't matter what you are-"
"That's him," she said, and we both looked, and then ogled, for a long moment. He was good looking, muscular, like you might expect. A nice face, one of those classical faces with the sharp lines, a tight green/white button down, black pants that hugged his ass when he turned to look for the friends that we weren't.
"Let's do it," and we swooped.
"Excuse me, Mr. Williams," I called, and stuck out my hand as I approached, took his hand as he brought it up and pumped. "I'm Kal Sansorvino from Warp magazine, and I was wondering if I might speak with you."
He was quick, or maybe just paranoid: "What's that? Who are you?"
"A writer for Warp magazine," I said. "It's devoted to culture, music and arts, current events, that sort of thing." Tia's fisheye at my vision's edge.
"Oh," he said. "Not sports?" And then, without waiting, "I'm meeting some people here, if you'll excuse me."
"Maybe if I could just show you-" I said, but Tia elbowed me aside and said, "That was us, actually. I'm sorry, but the message must've been confused. We're fans of yours, and we were hoping to profile you for a feature we're doing on up-and-coming sports stars."
This is where Tia shines. See, I'd thought out what I was going to do to get to him, but after that, he himself was the question mark. I mean, I didn't know how I was going to go from getting him in that bar to breaking him as gay in the May Warp. Tia doesn't just think on her feet, she solves differential equations while she skydives.
He was thinking about this, which was a vaguely painful process to watch; I had a feeling that if it was quieter, I could've heard wheels grinding and vents hissing. Paranoid, I decided.
"I guess that's okay," he said, "but if I'm not meeting anyone, I have to get home. Can we do it tomorrow? Maybe around eleven?"
"That would be perfect," Tia said, with the full knowledge that she wouldn't be there. I smiled, more at her and more than sideways, and said quickly, "Sure. Aren't you going home to someone?"
Tia said later it sounded like I was hitting on him and maybe I was, subconsciously. But it got me the (assumed) lie I was after: "No," he said, with a strange smirk, and then it was gone and he was saying, "just my dog and my bed."
I'll take the two-hour drive again in the morning, but for now, I headed back with Tia, the windows down, and a brilliantly deserted stretch of desert highway with thousands of littered stars.
We talk about nothing, remember what we learned about baseball, wonder about Tia's cases. Since I haven't asked or wheedled, I know she's skating something.
"This guy," she says finally. "I don't get it. He seems perfectly happy. So what if he's gay? What business is it of yours, or anyone else's?" She runs her hand through the soufflé the wind's making of her hair. "Think about it. If you call this guy gay in a public forum, you may ruin his career. What of that? What if he's chosen to do what's best for him? Can you really second-guess that?"
"Yes," I say. "Look at me."
She does, then says, "And?"
"When you think gay man, it's not him you're thinking of. Sure, gay men play sports, maybe, but if you turn on ESPN, can you pick out anyone who's gay? No. This guy is good--I mean, I looked him up some more, and he's definitely getting sent to a good team next year, they're only fighting over who gets him, and how much he'll get."
"You could end that, though," she says. "If you out him, you could shoot his career dead, right there. Can you do that, with a clear conscience? What point are you proving?"
"It's not a point. Listen, say they really do let him go after I publish this article. He's already on the books as a draftee, everyone knows it. If they just lose interest in him after they learn he's gay, what does that say? Who gets involved then? They're looking at the ACLU on their asses, they're looking at GLAAD and maybe Tia Johansson and then they're in trouble-"
"But what if he doesn't want this?" she asks. "He's chosen his life, and maybe he likes it this way."
I shake my head. "Changing the world isn't about waiting for the safest moment."
"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. But Joe Williams should decide for Joe Williams," she says.
Enough about that that's true.
Suki's during the day is a lot brighter, the first-floor bar of an old hotel called the St. Germaine. I arrived maybe forty minutes early, as one does, and ordered tea that came in a French press. The place was empty, except for an old man at the end of the sparkling bar with his newspaper. I was trying to figure out how the little room was the massive orgy of light and sound I'd seen the night before, but there was an easy explanation, a screen and a couple of large ficus. Probably they wanted it to look nice for the tea partiers.
The tea wasn't bad, but I didn't try and fool myself: The French press was something to play with, and I picture him showing up, dressed more nicely than the night before--a black vest, a green tie, a jacket over his shoulder even though it was nearly 65. He arranges his jacket on the back of his chair, orders nothing and sits.
"I took a look at your magazine," he says. "It looks pretty cool, but not the kind of thing that usually profiles sports."
"No," I say. "You're right. Actually, this would be the first time we talk about anything baseball-related."
"That's great," he says, "because I'm gay and you get to break the story! It's the perfect combination of current events, politicism, human interest, and all that, all wrapped up in my life of baseball. I'm exactly what you were looking for."
It breaks down around there, although I don't know why I let him get through that unlikely broadcast. He never shows up, by the way, even though I wait two hours beyond my plus forty minutes, wait through four more French presses of tea and nothing. I call Tia's office, because I know she takes lunch around one.
"Is it urgent, Mr. Sansorvino?" Shirley asks.
"Because Ms. Johansson will be in court until three o'clock. I could have her call you back-"
"No, don't bother. I don't know where I'll be. Thanks anyway, Shirley."
"Good luck, Mr. Sansorvino," she says, and the line's dead.
It doesn't seem like there's anything to do but drive home. I don't expect some clandestine meeting, some stranded motorist with a flat tire to turn out to be him. Nor do I expect him to come dashing in at the last minute--two hours is too many minutes past last.
One empty lead means nothing. I'll continue on.
He's called me on my office phone, the only one listed on the magazine's website that'll even come close to getting in touch with me. "Hey Kal," he says. He remembers my name. "I know I was supposed to meet you this afternoon so I hope you'll forgive me for not canceling earlier. I had an early practice and I did- I was-" He sighs. "I was freaked out. I've never done an interview, and I was nervous. I think I'm up for it now. Please call me back, and I'll try to accommodate whatever your schedule is, since I canceled this first time."
I'm left smiling, too widely, giddily. It's like a date with someone famous, but I wipe it off myself with a smear of clarity: He isn't.
It isn't a bar, isn't anything purchase-related. He suggests the baseball stadium, an easy place for him. I don't get out of my car until I see him arrive. I make it clandestine, really, but I refuse to sit in the bleachers, ask him to walk with me. "Okay," he says.
"Listen," I say, "there's more to the interview than I told you."
"I don't just want to interview you because you're a baseball player, I want to interview you as a gay baseball player."
He doesn't shout, doesn't swing at me, doesn't say anything; as the path splits, he walks away. I follow after him, but he doesn't slow down and I just follow, just follow.
"You know," he says, when he realizes I won't leave. "How do you know?"
"It's a long story," I say. "I want-"
"I don't care," he says. "No. Of course not, no. Why would I let you-"
"This isn't about you alone. How many boys could you reassure by telling them what you are, what you are? There's nothing wrong with you."
"It's no one else. It's me."
"But you could-"
"No," he says, and he leaves me.
I sit down at my desk. It'll work with or without him; I have a name, I have pictures. I can interview courageous gays about what they think about professional sports, and there we go. Nothing to do with libel, since it's the truth, and maybe it'll convince him that I'm right.
It doesn't come. I try it sixteen times, start at the beginning, start with a summary, start in the middle, start with a title, start by drawing pictures. It won't come. There's nothing to it, but even when I close my eyes and try and type something, anything that comes up, I end up with nothing that betrays my true feelings, nothing that shows me what I should do, a single word: Fuck.
I get a call later that day, from my editor. "Are we running with the gay gamers story?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "Yes. Gay gamers. I've changed it: We're profiling gay video game players."
"Kal," he says. "I hate it when you do that! What happened to the baseball guy?"
Maybe it's the hardest thing to do, but I shut myself down.
"There was nothing else," I tell him.
"An empty room," I say, and smile, "a bad beer, a strange meeting, about a million stars in the middle of the desert. When do you want the draft?
Tony Colella's poems have appeared in The 2river View
and one of his stories appeared recently in Wild Violet. He is
currently a college writing tutor while he pursues a program in biology
or something like it. He likes real letters and dancing, but only if the
dancing is considerably less real. He also attended Antioch College before
its closure (and, happily, its reopening). You can learn more about Tony
at his website: http://tonyrcolella.wordpress.com/