Ambrosia by Terrance Flynn
“For years I had been aware of an important deficiency in the English language: a word to describe something a person loses that was never really theirs.”
Ellen Miller, Like Being Killed
As a freshman in the mid-1980’s, I acquired a reputation no college student really wants—that of a good listener. Lacking a love life of my own to speak of, I was doomed to hear others go on about theirs. By second semester, I feared succumbing to the fate of a eunuch, which I imagined was a slow death caused by constant exposure to second-hand romance.
I solved my problem by placing a call. The 80’s version of Googling something was to dial 411, the number for Information. The call was free, but took a toll nonetheless. At nineteen, there were things I was loathe to admit to myself, let alone to some tetchy operator. I dialed anyway.
I hung up. After pacing my tiny dorm room, I rechecked that the door was locked. My ROTC roommate was away for the weekend on maneuvers, whatever that meant. I dialed again, hoping to get a different operator.
“Directory Assistance.” Same voice, maybe a bit more irritated like I had interrupted her lunch twice.
I told her what I wanted.
“You’re looking for a WHAT?”
I repeated myself in a halting stage whisper, the voice of guilt.
“Sir, you’re going to have to speak—”
“A GAY BAR,” I snapped. An uncomfortable silence followed. I waited for her to hang up on me. This was the dawning of the age of HIV/AIDS after all, when the hysteria about the disease lurked behind the mere mention of gay men. As such discrimination was sanctioned and had a casual cruelty behind it that made light of the myth that the disease’s only victims were also culprits. At my dorm orientation a few months prior, the resident advisor of my floor told a joke as a way to break the ice between all the freshman: Know what gay stands for? Got AIDS Yet? Everyone laughed, including me. Ice was broken.
I heard the operator’s nails clicking a keyboard. “OK.” She sighed. “Here’s a place. The number’s unlisted, sorry.”
“Can you tell me the name of the bar?”
“Something foreign. I don’t know how to say it.” She had the pre-hang up rhythm going.
“Please.” My tone of parched desperation was a surprise, “Could you just spell the name?”
She did—a three-word French cliché.
“C’est la vie!” I said.
The operator laughed, but not in a friendly way, “How did I know you’d be able to pronounce that just so?” She hung up.
Uncalled for, I thought, but so what. I had the information I needed. Later that night, after taking the bus then walking past the entrance a few times, I crossed the dimly lit doorway into my new gay life. It consisted of ten or so men standing around, watching music videos and pretending very badly to ignore each other. I bought a beer, leaned against the wall and thought kick ass, I am easily the youngest and hottest guy in C’est La Vie. This was not New York or LA after all, but Milwaukee—a city perched on the edge of a great lake like a few cheddar cubes left uneaten on a cheese tray. At least I stood out in that city, and especially in that dive.
That is until a certain guy clomped in. More than just my type he was my prototype, an example of something I didn’t even know I wanted. He was someone who, when I first laid eyes on him, bent my future slightly. Damage was done that took me years to trace back to him.
He looked like a twenty-something Kennedy up top: windswept blonde hair, a cleft chin. I imagined him in warmer weather hoisting a main sail or working a job I associated with out East, like interning or canvassing. Below the neck though, he was all blue-collar realness sporting a factory uniform with sleeves rolled past the piston-like forearms. He wore no coat, which on the south side of Milwaukee in February is saying something.
What it said to me was that he had a car, a real job, maybe even an apartment to go back to. He ordered an Old Style then looked from one of us to the next, like we were dishes on a smorgasbord, and I just thought man, pick me. When our eyes met, his stare was so intense I had to look down at my beer to compose myself.
His eyes were later described as those of a shark, but don’t believe it. The media assigns cruelty to eyes retroactively, only after it knows what mayhem the hands have committed. In person, his eyes were as gray and inviting as the half-frozen lakes of my Michigan childhood. Part liquid, part solid, and the broken up section where one turned into the other.
He downed a beer then bought two drinks that he carried into a dark corner, handing one to a guy I hadn’t bothered to notice. They were friends, I thought, until I saw them shake hands by way of introduction. They drank and talked, but soon began kissing. The factory guy helped his date stumble out the door into the frigid Milwaukee night. Had he not gotten a good look at me? I may have been a poor man’s version of Christopher Atkins, but I was still a version. What gave? Was he blind, this guy?
But I gave him another chance the next weekend. Not only was he already at the bar drinking, but the chair beside him sat empty, beckoning. I knew better than to hesitate, so I took my rightful place, so I thought, as Second Best-looking Guy at the bar, next to the First. This made sense, the two of us ruling C’est La Vie for the moment, even if we had yet to formally meet. When my beer arrived, our elbows made contact, and neither of us pulled back. If only I had removed my stupid coat, we might have been skin-to-skin, the thought of which made me a bit warm. I sat still, unable to speak, though the pressure to do so mounted.
For my own part, words were useless. How could I express how utterly I wanted to be burnt to the ground? Could a stranger even do that for you? I was counting on it.
When I think of his powerful hands, particularly the squared-off fingers, I can’t help but realize how disgusted you will be that you also know him. The hardest thing for you to accept may be how sweet he smelled, not just that night, but every night I was close enough to breathe him in. There is no mistaking the scent of chocolate, after all. Like all iconic smells, it so efficiently evokes memories. For me it was my mother’s kitchen, a place where my four siblings and I hovered over the sizzling trays of chocolate chip cookies. An olfactory hallucination maybe, but this guy smelled like he was stepping out my family memories rather than rubbing elbows with me in a bar that reeked so strongly of souring beer.
A powerful attraction to a stranger can disorient you in time. Like having a memory come from the future. The confusion is real, but the pickup line that expresses it—haven’t we met somewhere before? —is dismissed as boorish and uninventive. Sometimes though, it is an authentic question which, if phrased more accurately might sound even worse, something like don’t I remember you from later tonight?
Thank God I said none of that though I managed a smile, which he may or may not have returned. It was hard to tell. So little movement rose to the surface of that face. If it was a smile, it was subterranean—a look I came to recognize later in life as the look of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to be doing. Someone biding his time before doing it.
He ordered two whiskeys. I preferred my beer, but would drink whatever he put before me, like medicine. There was so much I wanted to be cured of, my inexperience, my own homophobia cultivated by stunted nuns, and the misogynistic priests who treated them like their personal servants. There was also so much love and kindness from my large family, all the more frightening suspecting how quickly it could have been withdrawn if I ever slipped up about what I was. I yearned for the loss of my careful self and the jumpstart of my love life that I hoped might take place as soon as our drinks arrived, and what was taking the bartender so long anyway? They finally came. He moved his elbow away from mine in order to lift our drinks, turn and walk away.
“Using this?” some man said, moving in to plop himself into the seat. I hunched my shoulders to make myself smaller, sipping my beer sullenly and watching the factory guy across the bar in the reflection of the bar mirror. He drank and chatted with a slight guy whose damn lucky face lurked in the shadow of his Brewers cap. Too big for his skinny neck and small head, I noted. Soon they left together. His date seemed as drunk as the guy he’d chosen the previous week. This one weaved more than walked, propelled by the factory guy’s beautiful hands it seemed, rather than by his own intentions to leave. Before they were even outside, his date complained drunkenly about the bitter cold. I heard their crunching footsteps navigate the icy sidewalk on their way to getting better acquainted. Some people have no idea how fortunate they are.
So I took a break from C’est La Vie to change tactics, make a plan. I romanticized my persistence along the lines of what my father told my brothers and I as teenagers: courting someone, as he called it, took time and effort. I ditched the Marquette sweatshirts for tighter work shirts and replaced my white K-Swiss tennis shoes with used army surplus boots. The factory guy was muscular, so I worked out when I wasn’t studying or working. My college friends noticed a difference. Not in my body, per se, more in the absence of it, my unavailability, as one put it, the way I disappeared from campus bars around midnight. Another friend accused me of no longer being a good listener. I was getting somewhere.
But not with the factory guy. Even as I rolled into C’est La Vie looking more like him, he left with guys who weren’t me, sometimes brushing close enough to crop-dust me on his way out with his signature smell of chocolate and whiskey.
One particular night near the end of my freshman year, a C’est La Vie regular named Latrelle commented on my relentlessness. “Why you always clear the decks for that guy?”
“He’s my type,” I said.
Latrelle rolled his eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“Telling me you don’t know that man is E.T.?”
“Everyone’s Type. Not just yours. Besides are you blind?” Apparently a popular suspicion gay men had about each other. “His type is black and skinny ‘case you haven’t noticed.”
I confessed I hadn’t put that together.
Figured, Latrelle said, then walked away exhaling, Jeeesus.
The last time I entered C’est La Vie, it was nearly closing time. I spotted the factory guy in the corner drinking alone. But he was somehow changed. More addled, even a bit seedy-looking. He glanced at me, downed his drink and rattled the ice in his glass like the warning of a snake. Of course it suited him, his funk, as did the fitful way he raked his fingers through his slightly greasy hair.
My mistake occurred to me only then. In my habit of admiring his form, emulating his type, I’d never spoken to him, not a word. Never once had I approached him man-to-man, introduced myself or shaken one of his sturdy hands. I’ll admit it was also his caginess drew me to him that night, imaginging how I might be able to help him figure something out. Honestly though, it’s hard to truly empathize with the beautiful ones. To think of handsome people’s distress as more relevant than our attraction to it.
I went to the bar and ordered two whiskeys. My plan was meet him properly, finally, then drink quickly, which seemed to be his style. Maybe then I’d suggest going to the Big Boy at Grand Avenue. People started relationships this way all the time, over pieces of pie. Bad Coffee. Laughter. I’d ask him what was eating him. What was the worst he could do?
The bartender set down the two whiskeys and yelled last call. By the time I turned around, the factory guy did something I had never seen him do, which was to leave alone. To him, I wasn’t even better than nothing. I stood there with the two sweating glasses wanting to chuck them one after the other at the closing door. How I hated whiskey. And the odor of chocolate for the moment.
“His loss,” the bartender said, noncommittally. I agreed but not really. In my experience as a Good Listener, I knew his loss to be a tidbit tossed to the loser, but that no one believed, least of all the loser. A thing needs to be valued before the loss of it hurts, or is even noticed. The worst he could do wasn’t to break my heart, but to leave it so painfully intact. Untested. Unseen. The information operator had spelled it out for me over the phone at the start of the semester: C’est La Vie. Such is Life. Expect little.
But I lived, then graduated. I came out then moved to New York City where, as the 80’s came to a close, my love life started in earnest. I would have forgotten the Milwaukee guy altogether if he hadn’t resurfaced in 1991 when I was teaching English as a second language in Washington Heights. That summer Madonna had sanitized and commercialized the subject of Harlem drag queens in her song “Vogue,” a huge hit that played constantly. On my classroom TV, we were practicing fluency and comprehension, watching a story about this Harlem scene when a news bulletin broke.
There he was doing a perp walk, hands cuffed behind his back, trying not to be photographed by the many cameras—the exact opposite of voguing. He was still handsome, but by then sported a redneck mustache. No longer E.T. No longer even my type. In fact, I now looked more like his old self than he did, with my cleft chin and muscles and rent to pay. If there were any doubt in my mind about who he was, it vanished when the TV showed his mug shot.
There was the swept hair, the half-mast eyes, even a hint of the subterranean smile. “Oh my God,” I said, startling my students. “It’s him!”
An Italian student frowned, “You know him?”
“Multiple alleged homicides,” the newscaster stated, but she was only warming up. My students whispered urgently to each other for definitions of words like dismemberment. Corpses. Roofie. Rohypnol. Stench. Everyone knew serial killer. The closed captioning helped. So did Latin and Greek cognates, in words such as cannibalism, necrophilia, decapitation. Students gasped. Hands rose to mouths and clutched stomachs. Any one of his alleged acts was atrocious, but the list, as it lengthened, became not just sickening, but inconceivable. At first my students tried pronouncing the unspeakable terms, but soon we were all left muttering the universal words of incomprehension, like no and oh, and Oh, no. I sat down heavily among my students shaking my head.
“Why do you know him?” a male student finally asked, sounding slightly hostile.
I turned up the volume to avoid answering. Together we watched the footage of HAZMAT teams in gas masks cleaning out his apartment using a dolly to hoist a white refrigerator sealed shut with yellow crime tape. A blue 57-gallon drum was said to contain acid, and the undissolvable remnants of Jeffrey Dahmer’s love life. Eleven of his seventeen victims spent the unimaginable last moments of their lives in unit 213 of the Oxford Apartment building located on 25th street. All of them were young men of color. His type, as Latrelle had pointed out to me. A desk scraped the floor unpleasantly as someone moved it further from mine.
I shut off the classroom TV and with a trembling hand dismissed the class. Most students left quickly though some asked if I was all right, mentioned I didn’t look so good. I closed the door after they were all gone. Most of them never set foot in my classroom again.
My nausea lingered. Confusion gave way to a prickly sense of guilt, a revulsion about the murky origins of attraction. Maybe Dahmer hadn’t really considered choosing me, but it wasn’t for lack of me trying desperately to be chosen. How many mistakes are we granted in the process of trying to share our life? At what point do you distrust your heart enough to dismiss its longing?
I was right about a few things, though. Like that he had his own apartment. Also, he smelled of chocolate and not just a little. Before going to the bars, he put in eight-hour shifts at a cocoa processing plant downtown called the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory. This was his place of employment during the most active phase of his killing spree. I also couldn’t help but to indulge in a moment of petty vindication. Jeffrey Dahmer was not blind in his serial rejection of me, only a sociopath whose tastes and proclivities I could not have fathomed, any more than he could have stomached my vanilla fantasies of him being my first boyfriend. Of us playing house—shopping, cooking and eating in, all things my straight friends and cousins and brothers and sisters were doing at the time with their girlfriends and boyfriends.
Dahmer’s last intended victim was someone he invited over, an African American man named Edwards, one of the few who escape apartment 213 alive, though not unharmed. He spent five hours getting to know Dahmer, who shared his collection of the skulls of his past victims, some of them he bleached, others he painted. With a butcher knife pressing into Edwards, Dahmer listened to his heart beat by placing his head next to Edward’s chest. He then whispered to Edwards the very specific plans he had for his heart. That’s when Edwards punched Dahmer in the face and ran out the front door into the street to flag down the two policemen who arrested Dahmer the day before my English class.
After leaving the school, I wanted to sweat something out of me, so I headed down Broadway intending to walk my way back to Chelsea in the hot July air. My boots slowed me down, and the clomping of the heels on the subway grates startled people as I passed them on the sidewalk. On the Upper West Side I crossed over to Columbus, bought a pair of white Adidas and wore them out of the store. I tied together the laces of my stewing surplus boots and slung them over my shoulder. The new Adidas felt so light that I ran for three blocks causing the boots to bounce against my chest and back, and the laces to bite into my shoulder blade. I ran past a group of school kids, and past the Hayden Planetarium stopping only when I reached a gay bar called The Works. The entrance was hidden under scaffolding. You’d pass it if you didn’t have the address, the proper information, but I did.
I waited hands on my hips to catch my breath. After a while, I lifted the laces off my sweaty shoulder and the boots spun briefly in opposite directions before I hurled them into a trashcan. Stepping in from the blazing sidewalk, I entered the cool dark interior of the bar. My eyes took a while to adjust so that I was blind until the exact moment that I wasn’t.
Terrance Flynn is a writer, psychotherapist and teacher. He earned a notable essay citation in Best American Essays 2015. His work has appeared in Slice, Sycamore Review, Southern Indiana Review, and in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, Oh Baby! (October 2015). His Fellowships include the MacDowell Colony and PEN Center USA (Emerging Voices). He is working on a memoir, Dying To Meet You, excerpts of which have won the Thomas A. Wilhelmus Nonfiction Award and the Promise Award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, where he now serves on the jury. He lives with his partner and daughter in Claremont, California and runs Storytellers Claremont, a nonfiction writing workshop. www.TerranceFlynn.com.