Frank arrived debonair, dressed in a powder-blue suit hemmed impeccably and tapered from knee to foot. His blonde locks of curls were manicured precisely, resting upon his head like the immaculate lawns of New York’s brownstone manors – the same lawns he walked along with Levi on his arm.
Levi Merrill stood a Cyclopean six feet with a subtle handsomeness about him, though his nose was obviously snubbed. His viscous pomade gooped in a puddle atop his head, holding in place his unkempt hair-do. Levi’s shiftless appearance reflected his attitude toward the brownstone affair. His sullen attempt to dress up indicated a man of imposed attendance.
Both men stood before the mansion’s gargantuan entry doors. Frank, a high-society, opera-gay juxtaposed his companion, Levi, a Third Avenue cruiser.
Frank knocked confidently.
In the forties, homosexuality remained an oriental curiosity – a full six degrees of separation from daylight’s exposure. Brownstones lined the Third Avenue thoroughfare, providing ample opportunities for seedy trysts within the darker alcoves. In this concentrated, damp environment, homosexuality bred like yeast.
Manhattan epitomized the environment Conservative propaganda preached as banal, horrific, and seedy. For the same reason, Manhattan also epitomized a mythical escape for ‘the Others,’ those outsiders from remote, hetero-normal upbringings, like Levi and Frank.
The two former classmates lived in a quaint apartment on East 59th St., sandwiched between The Jazz Parlor and a Turkish rug shop.
“Fifty-two goddam dollars? That’s gouging! Anita-the rotund woman from down the hall-I heard her say she pays four less than that.” Levi whined.
“Stop complaining, Levi. We have a view of the Park. It’s worth every penny. We live in a city of dreams now.” Frank proposed optimistically. He then left their cozy kitchen to stand on their three feet of balcony and admire the vertical city.
“Yes.” Levi agreed, rushing his hands through his hair and then wincing after his hand scooped a globby hair ball. “At least, for some.”
Shortly upon being knocked, the manor’s colossal marble doors thrust open and standing there was a supple man who the handsome Frank knew to be Nicky Romero.
Nicky Romero quickly commandeered the situation by speaking before the birth of an awkward pause.
“Come in, come in! You two are the last to arrive. Better late than messy, of course.” Nicky boomed while glaring reproachfully at Levi. The judgment then quickly wiped from his face and he smiled warmly. “Now enter! The chefs are fast preparing a gorgeous meal and we’ve got important matters to tend to, like wine!”
Nicky laughed as he turned and walked into the immaculate foyer.
Frank and Levi followed behind.
Levi’s change of heart surprised him. He intended to receive Nicky with much more disdain. For months Nicky remained this enigmatic name that continually popped up in his daily conversation, due to Frank’s association. Levi imagined what this shrewd, bombastic businessman could be like, none of his fantasies shed Nicky in a positive light.
Levi’s eyes circumscribed the environment, which was ornamented in ornate bric-a-brac, proudly boasting of Nicky’s caroming journey around the globe. Coupled with the exclamation point this man turned out to be in person, Levi found an innate, spontaneous, and entirely involuntary affinity for the whole situation.
Both Levi and Frank’s journeys in New York City progressed disparately upon moving in together. Bestowed with an exceptionally handsome appearance, quick wit, and the exceptional recall of first names, Frank’s fame within elite circles of Manhattan quickly elevated. Rich, lonely patrons bestowed extravagant gifts to the young gentleman, whom they felt was worthy of investment. A competitive business man wants the finest of everything, including life partners. No one was a more competitive trophy than Frank.
Levi’s strengths were more subtle, namely his writing. Fascinated by the complexity of the English language, Levi descended into the pages of solitude, resurfacing solely when he needed a muse to write about, where he’d then cruise Third Avenue for a paramour. Not long after, of course, he’d recede back into the paper, bleeding into the pages.
“Come downstairs.” Frank said excitedly upon entering the cozy, spic-and-span living room where Levi sat with papers scattered before him.
Frank’s eyes gravitated towards the papers with curiosity. “What are you doing?”
Gloomy, Levi glanced up, “I’ve got to tell you something.”
Frank then said, “Oh no, I know that look. This storm cloud can wait. I’ve got sunny news for you. Come downstairs.”
“Sheesh,” Levi faked a laugh, “you leave for two weeks, taken off on some exotic vacation with a millionaire and that’s how you greet your best friend? Ordering him around?”
Frank flirted, smiling sheepishly. “Come downstairs.”
“What are you going to do when I move out? Will your next roommate be handsome enough, – I mean strong enough, – eeeh, I mean nice enough to carry your luggage up all those stairs?” Levi asked.
Frank hardly heard him as he’d begun to excitedly descend the stairwell.
“She’s beautiful.” Frank said, standing proudly before a black Ford Roadster. “I bought it myself, my first investment. I’m so happy!”
Levi craned his neck, inspecting the automobile’s interior. “Yourself, huh? How much?”
“95 dollars.” Frank said.
“Where the hell did you get $95?” Levi demanded.
“Nicky gave me money to spend while he took us on vacation. There was a lot leftover.” Frank responded.
Levi could not contain his disappointment. “Well, congratulations. Hate to tell you though, a car is not an investment.”
“Are you okay? I thought you’d be,” Frank then paused, “happier.”
Levi stared at the concrete below his tattered shoes. “I’m fine. I’m really happy for you, Frank.”
Nicky’s dining room indicated an ostentatious attempt at flaunting wealth. A champagne fountain was erected in the corner, speckled with fresh strawberries and draining over a satin tablecloth. Nicky’s hearty laugh echoed deep within the cavernous ballroom after each crude sex joke. His obscene nature paralleled his elegant home adding to the endearing enigma of Nicky Romero.
Levi slouched in a corner seat, observing, like a Martian, the strange customs in a brave new world. His mouth dropped open, slack-jawed at the intelligent conservations convoluting art, politics, and philosophy.
Frank reached his hand under the dining table to rub Levi’s knee for comfort.
Levi, over stimulated already, didn’t notice.
“You’ve never looked so beautiful.” Levi told Frank on the balcony of a Beekman Place terrace one evening a month earlier.
This was one of the first times Frank invited Levi to one of his upscale parties. Frank never left Levi’s side the whole night. He felt comfort with a true friend in his midst, instead of the rich or beautiful strangers he often hung out with.
Intoxicated and confused, Frank stared into Levi’s eyes. “Manhattan’s a wonderful place, but would you know, after such high hopes, I’ve found the greatest, most spectacular thing in this world was found back at school?”
By this time, Frank’s hand raised to tease Levi’s waste. This sent immediate shivers through Levi’s body. Frank’s now tumid veins pumped wildly with a foreign excitement.
“Oh yea, what was that then?” Levi asked, brimming.
“You, you dummy!” Frank’s perfect teeth flashed brightly.
“You know, I’ve thought about how I’d feel, if I ever heard those words from you.” Levi began. “I never imagined though, that the feeling would be so wonderful.”
Proximity, luck, and liquid courage acted as the perfect ingredients in this ragout, sprouting a buried intimacy between the two men.
“I am sick of it all. Manhattan society is all smoke and mirrors. But not you. And you know me better than anyone. I love you.” Frank said, now completely open to drunk love.
Levi hesitated before speaking. “Frank, stop. I’ve got to tell you something.”
“What, handsome? Tell me everything.” Frank said, speaking a tone that Levi’d never heard until now.
“I joined the navy.” Frank stated. “I wanted to tell you before, but there was never a right moment.”
As fast as his new love built up, it crashed down just as quickly, collapsing into rubble. “What? When did you do this?”
“When you were away, sailing with Nicky. I was sad and lonely and unhappy with how life was turning out. There’s nothing I can do, I’ve got to head to basic training and thereafter, I’ll most likely be assigned.”
A moment of bullet time passed, while Frank struggled with an epic turmoil before responding.
“I don’t care.” Frank adjudicated with conviction and clarity. “I will wait for you. Funny, we had so much time together, wasted by our own ignorance. I’m sorry for that, Levi.”
Nicky Romero’s dinner party was Nicky’s last attempt to convince Frank that he, and not the bland, impoverished Levi, was the right man to be with. Nicky, being a competitive business man, found it incomprehensible that he could take a beautiful boy to an exotic island, pay for the entire trip, and then have the same boy break up with him for a fellow orphan. (To Nicky, anyone not living in a brownstone manor was an orphan.)
Nicky’s plan went amiss when Frank accidently spilled wine on his suit while recanting a joke with a caviar punch line. Frank was, and this is rare for him, unable to think of a clever retort when an insecure patron called the entire party’s attention to the faux pas.
Now red in the face, Frank excused himself, waving over to, and surprised that he even needed to, Levi, motioning him to follow. Levi slowly arose from his chair, approached the party’s host, grasped Nicky’s protruding trapezius muscles and whispered, then scuffled towards Frank.
“What’d you say?” Frank asked.
“Just goodbye. Had to be polite and all. Let’s just go, we’ve only got a few more days to be with each other before I head to training.” Levi said.
“Yes, let’s get out of here. I’m sick of this scene, two years of pointless parties with sycophants and bullies. Guess what?” Frank said.
“What?” Levi asked.
“I’ve decided to invest in the time you’re away.” Frank said. “I’m going to attend school upstate. I want to go to school, something my father always wanted for me, and learn business. I want to control my fate, not have it handed to me. I will do this to build a life … for us.”
“That will be good for you, exactly what you need.” Levi said.
Six weeks and a few days later, Frank was living in his new college dormitory. A letter addressed to him arrived at the school. After six weeks of no contact, Levi had written his first letter to Frank:
My world has become an exhausting exercise of tedium now that I’ve become a military man. Without you, I see through a black and white lens. Food taste rotten; stale. Music is out of tune. I yearn for you, for the comfortable silence and copious laughs we’d share. I am unnerved at the thought of another man finding the opportunity to steal you, causing you to forget our perfect passion. Please remember our commitment. You are now my sole purpose, my reason to return from war. I’ve been assigned. I’m going to Europe to fight. I’m scared to death, but mostly at the thought of never seeing you again. But your memory will keep me alive. I love you.
P.S. I will send you my address when I arrive overseas.
Frank read the letter over and over again, dissecting it down to the very ink type. The letter became a holy relic, a shrine. Frank bought, from a specialty gift shop, an ornate memory book filled with plastic sleeve that protected letters and photos. Frank prepared to build his collection, anxiously awaiting the next letter.
But the letter never came. A month, two, then four passed without anything like a whisper. Without military contacts, Frank had nowhere to turn for help. His family, hadn’t heard from him, nor wanted to after learning of his homosexuality shortly before moving to Manhattan. Frank tried to dig up answers from the military, but bureaucratic answers crawl slower than a snail.
His heart chipped away with each passing day without answers.
After 6 months without word, Frank organized a vigil in memory of his one, true love.
By now he assumed the worst, the final existential nail on his romantic coffin had been set.
“Would you like to dance?” A photographer asked Frank.
The night was New Year’s Eve, 1942. For holiday, Frank returned to Manhattan, a sprawling cathedral of worship for those on the frayed edges of society’s graces.
“I’ve only known sorrow. The only man, Levi Merrill, the greatest man I’ve ever loved, is dead. I’ve no use for dancing.” Frank replied to the photographer’s question.
Silence wafted over the photographer for a brief moment before he replied.
“Shit. A real poet, aren’t ya? Listen, poet, it looks like you spend a great deal of energy pining for this Levi Merrill. This wouldn’t be the same Levi who’s been living at that Nicky Romero mansion for the past six months, would it? He was kicked out of the military after exposing his lust for men. Ever since then he’s been Nicky’s kept boy. That wouldn’t be him would it?”
It turns out, that’s exactly who it was.
The city can be so cruel.
Oh and I made a mashup for you guys: