Behind The Silver Screen
By Jerry Miller
I didn't sleep much at all that night, thinking about what Ben had told me. The letters that Mike had written from Vietnam bothered me, the ones to his mother at least. I never opened the last three I got from him. I just couldn't bring myself to read them. They are safe in the black metal box Mike had given me, and I hadn't given any thought to ever reading them. The thought is there now. It's hard to imagine that Mike could be anything different then what I remember of him.
My thoughts kept coming back to Eric and Jay. Where was I going to go with this? Being with Jay seemed safe and comfortable, like an old blanket one doesn't throw away. Eric, on the other hand, is fresh and new. Well, maybe new, but Mike's brother isthe closest thing to a twin. I wondered if Eric looked identical to Mike naked. I tossed and turned all night with Mike, Eric and Jay.
I got up that next morning and showered. I felt like crap. I dragged myself out of the house and headed to Cincinnati since I had to work the matinee at the Esquire. It was Monday and I figured it would be a quiet day. I parked across the street, walked up the alley and stopped at the curb to wait on the traffic so I could cross the street. A man walked up next to me. I looked up and recognized him as one of the union picketers.
"We know where you live. Just remember that," the man said.
I looked at him. I realized that was a threat, though it wasn't blatant, it still had the same impact in my mind.
"Thanks for the information," I said, making sure I sounded like I wasn't intimidated at all. I crossed the street, went into the theater directly to the office and called the corporate office
to let them know I had just been threatened. I spoke with the vice president of the company; he didn't seem to care.
I spent the day teaching this really good-looking guy how to run projectors until the shift ended at the Esquire. I finished the day at the Ambassador. I spent my time there wondering why I was suddenly so conflicted. Ten days ago I was still a lonely, single guy. Now I had two guys on line. Was I letting Jay and Eric compete for me without knowing about the other? What have I gotten myself into?
Driving back to Dayton along I-75, I kept watching the rear view mirror to see if I was being followed. Ben's words came back to me about the union. If the owners of the theaters aren't worried about threats to the well being of the guys crossing the picket lines for them, maybe I need to find another job.
But Jay and Eric kept coming back into my mind's focus. Mike wasn't far from my thoughts either. I wondered whether I really needed to read those letters at all. I realized that if I had stayed in Indianapolis working for General Cinema, I wouldn't be stuck in all of these situations.
I got to the house about one a.m. and went to my room. I knew I was exhausted from working and worrying and not sleeping much the night before. I laid my head down on the pillow and didn't remember anything until the morning.
I got up, called Betty and told her I needed to talk to her. I assumed she thought I wanted to talk about Eric. I did, but the letters were now forefront in my mind. Although I had the afternoon off, I had to work that night so she told me that she could send Eric over to her mother's for a while so we could be alone.
I arrived around one o'clock. I knew Betty loved "Days of Our Lives" and I was going to make her miss it. Strange how I thought my life was like a soap opera. Soap opera stories are
full of love, sadness, secrets, tragedies and indiscretions involving truth or sex. Hmmm.
Betty let me in and we headed to kitchen as usual. Betty put the teakettle on for her coffee, went to the refrigerator and handed me a Pepsi.
"You're missing 'Days'," I said.
"You and Eric are more important to me. Besides, the way they write those stories, you could skip a day or two and not miss anything."
I nodded taking a sip from my bottle. She took a sip of her coffee and wiped her mouth. Betty always seemed so comfortable at her kitchen table, a cup of coffee at her hand and a conversation.
"You wanted to talk about Eric?"
Actually, I thought, I wanted to talk about the letters Ben told me about. I knew I would get to those.
"I went to talk to Ben Sunday night after I dropped Eric off," I said, taking another sip of my Pepsi. I knew the next thing I was going to say wasn't going to be easy. "There's a slight complication with Eric, Betty."
"Before I met Mike, there was this other guy," I said, watching for her reaction. She remained stoic. "This guy found me last week and we have talked about seeing each other."
"I see," She said without further comment. I was on the spot and I knew it.
"Jay was a guy I knew in high school. We were buddies. Nearly best friends. He and I would play together until he decided it was too gay and he severed his friendship with me."
"Did you care about him?" she said, her expression not giving me any clue as to her disposition on the matter.
"As a friend? Yes. There was definitely nothing romantic about it for either of us. After Jay left me, Ben came more into my life and he became the best friend that Jay hadn't been. For Ben and me it was just the friendship. Ben didn't know about Jay and me 'that way' until Sunday night."
"Jay and I accidentally ran into each other last week and had a long talk. He realized he was gay about three years ago and wanted to see me. Ben steered him away then for which I was grateful for."
"And now, you are interested in Jay?"
"I'm not sure. I was thinking before Sunday, yeah, I could be.But now with Eric in the picture, I am really confused."
Betty got up and refilled her coffee cup. Standing by the sink, looking out her window, she said, "You know, Mike. You loved my Michael with all your heart. No words were ever spoken to reflect that, but it was in your eyes, on your face, it was all about you. It worried me how deeply you were taken by his death. The grief seemed to run your life for a while. I have beenpraying that you would finally put Mike behind you and move on.We have both done that, Eric and I."
I knew in my heart that wasn't completely true.
"At least I thought we had let go of Mike until Eric came home from your date Sunday night."
"What did Eric say?"
Turning from the window, Betty looked towards me. "Eric told me that you took him to Mike's grave and that you suggested he talk to Mike."
All I could do was nod my head.
"I know now that I was so wrapped up in my own grief and anger that I hadn't really looked at Eric's. He seemed like he was doing okay with it all these years, but he confessed how much it still bothered him."
Betty's eyes began to moisten, as I believed she was coming to terms with Mike's death all over again.
"Mike just doesn't seem to let go of us, does he?" I asked.
"It's not Mike letting go, it's us," she said.
"Ben told me that I had to let go of Mike and start living again."
"Ben tried to give me some realities about..." I couldn't finish the sentence.
"What realities Mike?"
Betty just looked at me, her face seemed to pale but quickly recovered.
"He said Mike wouldn't have been the same if he had come home alive."
"I believe he's right."
"I don't want to believe it. Mike would always be Mike and nothing could change that."
"My son changed. He wasn't the boy who left me for the Marines.He became a man like his father wanted. But Mike wasn't the man he wanted to be." She turned back towards the window. "Damn that man, that son of a bitch."
I sat there watching and listening as her body tensed up. I could feel the anger she felt. I got up and put my arms around her. I immediately felt her relax.
"I guess none of us will never let go," she said as she placed her hands on mine.
"No, I don't suppose we ever will."
"Even Eric," she said.
"Even Eric. He told me things I don't think he ever told anyone before. I feel bad now that I didn't see what he was going through," I said.
"He watched you; he saw what you were going through."
"I guess we were all blind to his level of grief, being so deep in ours."
"He told me that he couldn't burden me with his feelings since I was hurting so much with Mike's death and the divorce. The only time I can remember when he revealed any sense of anger was at the custody hearing. He told his father how he felt about him."
"He's held it in a long time then. Sunday, I think he let some of it go."
"I think so too."
I released Betty and sat back down. After refilling her cup again, she too returned to her seat.
"I want to read Mike's letters," I said. "The ones Ben was telling me about."
Betty didn't respond right away. She seemed to be thinking.
"Why?" She asked.
"I want to know if Ben was right."
"Mike, don't you want to keep what you remember of Mike the way he was?"
"I think about that a lot. Maybe I am living in a fantasy that Mike would have come home and it would be just like it was before he left."
"How many letters did you receive after he died?" she asked.
"Have you read them?"
"Are you ready now?"
"I'm not sure."
We sat there quietly, mulling through our thoughts. Uncertain where I was going with this, I thought "do I have to read those letters?"
"Is Ben the only one you have shown his letters to?" I asked.
I looked down, studying the grain in the wooden table, trying so desperately for find answers to my questions.
Betty sighed and said, "You can read the letters on one condition. That you read the ones he sent you first."
"Chalk it up to a woman's intuition. Something tells me that the answers you are looking for may be in your own letters first."
This isn't how I thought it would go. I hadn't even reread the letters I had from Mike before he died. For all these years, I wouldn't let Mike go and now, when I thought I might be ready
to, he wouldn't let me. As I looked up at Betty, she was studying me.
"I'm not sure what I really want right now," I said.
"About a lot of things it seems," she said, finishing her coffee.
"Yeah, I know."
Could I move on or did I have to finish everything with Mike first. I never dreamed I would ever be finished with Mike.
"Eric is being patient right now with you. He knows it was a quite a surprise for you to find out about him."
"It was. I always had feelings for Eric, but as a friend. I was afraid to get too close to him."
"I'm not sure. Maybe it's what I am feeling now. He's Mike's brother and I can't seem to get around that."
"Eric reminds you too much of Mike?"
"Sometimes," I said.
"Maybe that's good."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"I can face reality too. You will never ever be over Mike either. It just won't happen for the three of us."
I could only nod my head.
"With Eric, you only think of Mike or how Eric reminds you so much of Mike."
"I watched them grow up. There are differences. It's easy for the mother to tell. You have to look beyond the physical appearances and look into Eric's heart like you did with Mike's."
"He kissed me."
"I know," she said looking me squarely in they eyes. "You immediately compared him to Mike."
"Have you kissed Jay?"
"Did you compare it to Mike's?"
"Actually, I don't really know. Jay is different. I guess I thought that when Eric kissed me, that it would be just like Mike's kiss. Maybe I wanted it to be just like Mike's."
"We both miss Mike for different reasons. I lost my son in a way that I can never understand completely. I remember holding him when he was a baby. He smiled and laughed all the time. He wasn't a fussy baby, just a happy one. I miss that. Eric was a happy baby too."
I watched her closely as she closed her eyes and sat back in her chair.
"I was hoping Eric would make me a grandmother with lots of kids. I realize now, that won't happen. I look at you and I have mixed emotions about the fact that both my sons fell in love with you."
"Mike never told me he was in love with me."
"And you never told him either."
"I didn't realize that I was in love with him until he left, and only then did I realize that I fell in love with him the first day we worked together."
"What makes it so different for you this time with Eric?"
I never discussed my relationship with Mike, in details with anyone before.
"It's different," I said.
"Betty, this is getting personal."
"I want to know," she said.
Realizing that I wasn't going to get out of this, I began by choosing my words carefully.
"When I met Mike, I immediately developed a crush on him. I wanted so much to get to know him. I kind of threw myself at him. It was strictly lust; it was not at all romantic. Mike never encouraged nor discouraged my advances to him. It took several months of..."
How far do I go with this? Talking about it made me feel like such a slut.
"...my persistence before Mike started to respond to me. When he did, it was like a dam had opened up. It was all sexual for a while before we started to have feelings for each other. Looking back on it, I don't think I could ever start a relationship like that again with anyone."
I sighed with relief to myself that I did better than I thought I would. Saying enough without giving away too much.
"With me and Eric, it won't be the same. Eric is already looking for things to turn sexual and I am not ready for that. I want to be sure that his feelings for me are genuine and aren't some infatuation he has for me. I don't want to hurt him, I care too much about him. I also have Jay to consider and where that might go. I didn't tell Eric about Jay Sunday because now I'm torn between the two of them."
"Does Jay love you?"
"No, I don't think so. If we continue to see each other, that's could be a likely possibility."
"Eric does love me, but doesn't really know me."
"So giving Eric a chance with you is also a possibility?"
"Yes." I admitted.
We sat there together, like so many times over the years talking about our feelings. Many times it was with Ben. I wanted today to be a day of hope and promise, but most of our thoughts and words were of regret and loss. Thinking about Eric gave me pause for hope. I felt that even about Jay. I had choices to make and soon and I didn't like the idea of having to make any choices in the first place.
I glanced up at the kitchen wall clock and realized I had to get moving.
"Betty, I have to go to work."
"Did I help you resolve anything?"
"Maybe," I said, getting up from my chair. "Though I suspect you have given me more to think about."
Betty smiled and came over to me.
"Mike, I've grown to know you over these last few years. I would rather have gotten to know you with Mike rather than without him. But fate had other ideas. I have found myself loving you like a son," she said putting her arm around my shoulders. "My motherly advise to you would be to find your own heart before you follow another."
With those words, I kissed her goodbye and drove to work. I thought about those words and began to wonder what they meant to me. My own heart, my own heart I kept thinking. I told Mikey about letting people into your heart, but what about myself. Am I even in my heart? Who's in my heart? I know Mike, Ben and Mikey are there. Even Betty is there. Eric, I suspect is crawling into it. I think even Jay is in there to some degree. Where am I?
Traffic was its usual heaviness southbound on I-75. I had grown to like Cincinnati a lot. The downtown area still boasted five theaters. The Times Town, The International 70, The Grand, The Place and the Studio. Sadly the Albee Theatre had been torn down a few years ago and I felt it was the most beautiful of the downtown locations.
When I entered the Ambassador Theatre Mr Gainer called me into office. He had my paycheck for the previous week. I opened to discover that it wasn't what I was expecting. The hourly rate had been cut.
"Why?" I asked.
"The company feels now that after six weeks the strike is essential over. The hourly rate you were receiving was known as 'strike pay'. You are now being paid the normal hourly rate for the position," he said.
I was pissed.
"You didn't tell me when you offered me the job that there would be two different pay rates."
"I didn't know. They didn't tell me."
"So now, I'm screwed," I said. "The picket lines are still up and yesterday I was threatened. But the company still decides the strike is over? That's crap and you know it."
I turned and walked out of the office. I hesitated for a moment in the lobby, trying to decide whether to turn and walk out or go upstairs and work. I went upstairs. I could hear Ben's voice in my head saying, "I told you so." I spent the whole time working that night utterly pissed off.
The next morning I called Eric and asked him to spend the evening with me at work. This way we could talk on the commute.
Eric got into the car and I pulled away and headed to the interstate.
"How are you doing, Mike?" he asked.
"I have had better weeks, Eric," I said, trying not to sound too depressed.
I felt his eyes on me, studying me. I was wondering what he could see.
"It's more than about me, isn't it?"
I was at a stoplight and I turned and looked at him. His eyes reflected concern and yearning. I wonder if his mother told him about our conversation.
"I have a lot on my mind."
"For what?" I asked as the light turned green and I accelerated.
Eric sighed and I could hear him half smile.
"I thought all this time that when you found out my feelings towards you that you would immediately fall for me. I'm very delusional sometimes."
"We all have our fantasies and perceptions, Eric." I took his hand in mine and squeezed it. "There are a lot of regrets going on in my life right now. Some of those include you."
I felt Eric's fingers tighten around mine. I sensed urgency, a need to feel wanted, even needed. It just added to my regrets over him.
"Did you ever see 'Amalh and the Night Visitors'?" I asked, wondering where in my mind that came from.
"The one act opera by Menotti. Yeah."
"I remember watching it on television and marveling at the story of the young boy, crippled, feeling no sense of purpose in his life until the three Wise Men appeared at his door."
"I am surprised you even saw it, Mike, let alone find inner meaning to it."
"Now, Eric," I said in a mockingly sad voice, "How could you say that?"
"I just can't imagine you appreciating an opera, when all you do is listen to movie scores that don't have a lot of depth to them."
"You're funny," I said. "Anyway, I was just thinking that to me it was about how Amalh's gift the only thing that kept him upright in his life. He found purpose in himself by presenting his crutch as a gift."
"Yes," he said. "The music was beautiful."
"Yes, it was."
"So what does that have to do with us?"
"I guess it's finding purpose in our lives. Since Sunday, with your revelation to me, things have changed. With everything else going on, I was wondering what my purpose in life was."
"Mike, what the heck are you talking about?"
"Eric, it's about life. It's about having friends to share it with. It's about one's life's work and what gifts he can give that defines his existence. It's about deciding if and with whom you want to share it."
Eric didn't respond to my words. I feared he might think that I had gone nuts or decided about a relationship with him.
"Mike," he began. "Are you wondering if I am absolutely sure about what I am and who I want in my life?"
"I think it's a question for both of us."
I held on to Eric's hand. Though he made no move to release mine, I felt so strongly not to let go of his.
It suddenly made so much sense to me. Ben was right when he said it would come to me. It was holding Eric's hand in my hand, sensing the feelings that were coming from him and remembering what his mother told me about my heart that this sense of enlightenment hit me.
As I began to emerge with contentment and exhilaration, I felt an awesome warmth throughout my body. I think Eric felt it within in my hand as he turned to me. For the first time I
heard hope in his voice when he asked, "Mike, are we okay?"
"Yes, Eric, I think we are. In fact, I know we are."
The end of Chapter 14