Not to be outdone by the Catholic school kids, the Unitarian Universalist youth ministry set up a Christmas crèche outside their church on Newbury Street about a block from Boston Public Gardens. It was the usual style: a cutaway view into the barn and manger, mounted on cinder blocks on the small patch of frozen grass between stone buttress and sidewalk, with a lonely bale of hay in front. What caused the stir was who was in the barn. There were plenty of papier-mâché sheep and donkeys, but no Marys, two Josephs, and a baby Jesus that had been adopted from Korea, whose birth name was Kim Yun Park.
Within three days, the figures were torn and scattered, and the plywood barn painted with the words "Fags Die."
Alan was chief architect of the movement to rebuild the crèche. With the help of several other do-gooders, he hammered the pieces back together, reassembled the menagerie, and posted a sign-up sheet at the Starbucks in the South End, so that shifts of equally well-intentioned gay men could volunteer to stand vigil and protect the crèche against further harm.
After a feature in the Globe pronounced crèche-duty as the hottest place to scope out eligible gay men, the sign-up list was choked with names. And phone numbers. Indeed, shortly before Christmas, Alan showed up for an evening shift and was told that twelve men who had signed up for the supper shift had refused to surrender their places. They had set up a space heater and had obviously taken the added precaution of fueling themselves with a little hot buttered rum. They were blowing kisses to passersby and to the fundamentalist protestors across the street. Prompted by churchbells, they broke into a decidedly un-silent version of "Silent Night" that dissolved into knowing giggles at the utterance of the word "virgin."
"Drama queens!" Alan scolded. "Get out of the way! Your turn is over."
The drama queens curtsied and laughed and told Alan not to get his panties in a bunch, and the cops insisted that Alan get his ass out of the street and back on the sidewalk where he belonged.
"Christ!" Alan complained to no one in particular. "This place is absolutely overrun with gay men!"
"No shit, huh?" Scott quipped. "Even the wise men are probably wearing Armani and Prada under their robes and bitching about how the weather in Bethlehem can't compare to South Beach."
Scott smiled, and Alan looked at him twice, and Scott swore the air between them was suddenly filled with the smell of burning.
Across the street, counter-protestors held signs that said "Shame" and "Repent" and "Matthew Shepard is in Hell." From time to time, one of their snot-nosed, red-faced children would drag their protesting parents to the gay men's side. These sudden periodic impulses made the cops nervous. They yanked at their belts and girded their loins and stopped wondering what in God's name they were going to get their wives for Christmas.
But the children skipped evangelizing and swooped straight to the pet shop window next to the church like balloons caught in a hard wind. They stood before it open-mouthed, heads tilted in an indulgent kind of awe, grubby, snotted mittens smudging the glass. Inside, the puppies were wrestling and clambering and thrusting their noses into one another's crotches.
"They don't know how lucky they are," Scott said.
"The puppies. There isn't a one of that crowd of hardcore Fundies you'd want to take you home." Scott hoped the longing in his voice wouldn't betray that he hadn't gotten laid in six weeks.
"I used to have a dog," Alan volunteered.
"She was a seven-pound white Maltese. She was adorable. I called her Miss Fidget."
Scott laughed, and then realized that Alan was not kidding, and converted it to a winter cough. They slipped away as a whisper snow began to fall, and the awnings over the shops on Newbury Street hung like heavy eyelids after a big feast. In the Macy's display window, mechanical elves harnessed mechanical reindeer again and again. Santa threw back his head and laughed. His sleigh was loaded like a promise, and stuck to every surface was a glitter that would never melt or brown, but was always clean and glam and new.
Out on the Frog Pond, Scott and Alan rented skates, putting more weight on one another than was really necessary to hold themselves up. Finally, they collapsed into one another, limbs splayed, cold bums on colder ice and wool mittens sticking to ice. They laughed uproariously, like drunks, as the other skaters indulgently made their way around. To Scott, Alan's red cheeks looked like a bunch of roses over his charcoal scarf, every rising of Alan's breast was a new excitement, and the world itself was spread with a kind of dizzying glitter.
Three years later, the crèche no longer caused a stir. No rum-soaked, chortling, Kenneth Cole Christmas elves were needed to keep it unmolested, and the puppy-loving protests had died away. Christmas shoppers hurried by and gave the display only cursory glances. They were obviously more troubled by Scott's rigid immobility and his long overcoat than by any shenanigans in the barn.
It was Christmas Eve and Scott was staring at the two Josephs and the wise men and the tired hay bale and the menagerie of little animals and the little Korean Christ-child in the manger. He was feeling nostalgic for a time when he had had a place on line and a purpose in life and the crèche had needed defending and warm puppies did not yet know rejection and little Christian children did not hate and deficit spending was not all the rage and everything in the whole world had been beautiful and honorable and new.
Someone shouted, "Hey!"
It was the baker, standing in the open door of the bakery next door, which had displaced the pet shop. The bakery's windows were fogged and inviting, a smiling figure in an elf hat freshly drawn with a finger in the window's dew.
"Come on in," the baker said. "I've got something for you."
"I really shouldn't. I've got to get home. Christmas Eve and all ...."
Scott nevertheless shuffled through the open door into an oppressive, seductive warmth, all yeast and dried cranberries. Somewhere in the back of the bakery was a cup of brewing tea.
"Attaboy!" the baker boomed and clapped him on the back. She was a silver-haired dyke, with a meaty, expressive face. Her eyebrows were dusted with powder and she had obviously been kneading dough. Her forearms were pumped. They looked like two stuffed sausages ready to split over a fire.
"Where's your friend?"
"Alan? He's home."
Waiting, Scott thought, for me to come home. To see if I come home. They had been talking about splitting up after the holidays. Talking about seeing other people. Scott had been trying to get Alan to consider this idea objectively, as if it were other people's lives.
"Here!" the baker boomed. She forced a warm, bagged loaf into Scott's arms. "It's his favorite."
Loaf tucked in the crook of his arm, Scott stole down Clarendon Street toward the South End, where the shop windows ended, toward their apartment. There were only townhouses in this neighborhood, bay windows and magnificent double wooden doors showcasing chandeliers that were like promises of something antique and fabulous, a throwback to the way it used to be.
Scott made a game of looking in these windows, to see the scenes dispassionately, to try to figure out why people stayed together or split apart, why they kept making excuses for not moving out. He saw exposed brick, a Crate & Barrel Rothko, scatters of black and white prints on walls so skillfully arrayed as to be haphazard, or perhaps in fact haphazard, the difference between the two being so fine and perhaps unimportant. In one house, the walls had been painted with fresh heather tones from Ralph Lauren and a collection of tchotchkes was arranged along the mantle. A man with an oversized head had skillfully perched on the mantle, among the tchotchkes, supported by an elbow and a glass of scotch and a stiff upper lip, spinning a jowly tale to someone Scott could not see.
He also did not see people lying in bed, next to sudden strangers. He did not see them staring out the window, with a warm unfamiliar body next to them, trapped in that initial sadness of the first infidelity, the sadness that precedes the guilt, when you look out and realize that you have made a liar of yourself and ruined something pure.
In the block before the apartment where he and Alan lived, a shirtless guy, maybe twenty-six or -seven, too young for the real estate, was standing in the window. He was lost in thought, one arm extended toward the window frame as if to prop up the wall, and the other drawing circles on his belly in a languid, bored way as if he were a longtime practitioner of the erotic arts. Their neighborhood was full of such exhibitionists, living uncurtained lives, and it was easy for Scott to stop here, or on any block he chose, and yearn to insert himself in the scene on the other side of the window and imagine the ways in which it might be better than what he had.
Scott glanced back the way he had come, and then to where he was going, and the package under his arm seemed suddenly meager and insufficient. He set off toward Chester Park, where -- even in the dead of winter -- a wooden fruit stand was set up, its front cover raised like a salute.
"Try one of these, my friend," the vendor advised, pulling a paper bag from beneath the shelf and blowing little clouds of breath. He was bundled against the cold like a Michelin man. "These apples are delicious. I saved them just for you."
Scott admired the apple, which obviously pleased the vendor, confirming perhaps that there were other people out there just like him on Christmas Eve.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
Impulsively, Scott asked, "Have you ever ...?"
He had wanted to say, "Have you ever broken up with someone?," but he asked instead, "Have you ever been in love?"
The vendor smiled sympathetically. Scott spilled a confession, and when he finished, the vendor called attention to the yellowness of the bananas and how they would soon be perfectly ripe.
"You will come to see me then?" the vendor asked. "You will let me know how it goes?"
Scott had somehow expected more from him -- an answer, maybe, or some advice. He demanded a quart of strawberries, but the vendor denied that strawberries were what Scott really wanted or needed. He explained all the reasons, patiently, and without piety, why strawberries at this time of year were not a good choice, and he sent Scott off with the apple, free of charge.
In the apartment, the sconces over the fireplace had been dimmed to starlight. There was incense burning, giving off the smell of hay and grass. A tray of cookies and port glasses was set out as if a visitor was expected.
Alan was in the kitchen. He had on a red apron that said "the best snacks are beneath," with an arrow pointing to his groin. His hair had begun to silver, as if he, too, had been out in the snow.
Alan helped Scott remove his overcoat. These loving gestures still came naturally to them: something funny in the paper called attention to, something wiped from Scott's lips, a collar straightened, a hand reaching to steady Alan's elbow when he slipped, or to hurry him so he did not get hit crossing the street. To Scott, these gestures had become small eulogies, delivered on the spur of the moment, for things they suddenly knew were not going to happen again. Sometimes, he reflected, you know instantly when love is over; sometimes the eulogies are years later, as if it took a while to get news of the dying.
Alan spilled out a couple of glasses of chardonnay. It was evident from the spillage that these were not the first two glasses.
"I was afraid you were not coming," he said. The words hung in the air a moment and soured, and Alan washed them back with wine.
Scott set the bread on the table. When Alan opened the bag, steam escaped and fogged his glasses. He flashed Scott a quick, grateful smile.
"This will be perfect," Alan declared.
Alan would have said the same thing even if the bread had been less than perfect. Even if it had been dense, miserable, misshapen, and tasteless, because Alan was the most gracious host in the history of the planet, excepting the fairy tale mother who had raised him, and because Alan loved the mere fact of domesticity more than he had ever loved Scott, and Scott suddenly felt weary, far too old still to be playing house.
Alan fluttered around their kitchen, putting the final touches on dinner, chattering and frantic. He was bitching endlessly about something inconsequential, some colleagues at work who insisted on their right to take a half day at the busiest time of the year to attend their children's Christmas pageant and leaving Alan alone in the shop as if being game gave him nothing to do on Christmas Eve.
"Why do you let it bother you?" Scott interrupted. "Let it go. Let them be stupid."
The tirade ceased and Alan put his hand on his hip defiantly. He leaned over as if he were going to kiss Scott, but placed his hand over Scott's mouth instead.
"I don't want you to argue with me," he said from a range of six inches. "I want you to indulge me and tell me I'm right and agree what assholes they are."
He nodded, indicating that Scott should nod. And he said all this in a voice that was slow and indulgent, as if he were instructing someone of limited intelligence, and/or teaching a small child the essentials of death.
"Do I have to explain everything?" he asked.
His voice cracked on the last word, and Scott saw into Alan as suddenly as if Alan had pulled aside a shade and exposed himself, a raw emotional crotch-shot -- all the ugliness, weakness, desperation, fear, every slight and delight, all the hurt feelings and dreams and tenderness and the watch-you-while-you-sleep. Then the window shut, and the view was gone, as if in revealing it so completely, it had been destroyed.
"How humiliating," Alan murmured without rancor or passion. "I am humiliated."
After dinner, Alan was noodling by himself in the living room window, flanked by antique photographs, showing on one side erect mustachioed Victorians and corseted wives, and on the other, big bears of lusty men, hairy and drunk, legs splayed over the edge of a big wooden tub that was a cask of whiskey sawed in half, brandishing a foot-long scrub-brush and a bar of caustic soap and beckoning to voluptuous bawdy women, half-draped in their falling-off dresses, and drinking from jugs marked XXX.
"I need to talk to you, Alan," Scott said. He was standing stiffly, not dancing, and he downed the last melting sip of brandy from a balloon glass.
Alan continued to dance, and with a start Scott saw Alan from a distance, saw him as the baker saw him, or the fruit vendor, or anyone else who had half a brain. He was beautiful, abashed, earnest, cheeks fired red by wine.
Alan moved close and ran his hands over Scott's face, over his shoulders, down to the hips. He shimmied his crotch over Scott's ass, close. He lifted Scott's free arm and draped it over himself extravagantly, as if the flesh were clay, and the night full of miracles, and Alan could blow a breath into it to make it come alive.
"I need to talk to you," Scott repeated, agitated, fragile, and needing now himself to explain everything.
"I don't like the sound of that," Alan said. He turned up the stereo to block out the sound. When he again snaked his arm around Scott's hip, his drunkenness gave him a certain gravity that forced Scott to move in time.
Scott gave himself to the rhythm. He could hardly hear himself speak over the din. Hardly trust the words. He felt like one of those storytellers in a neighboring window, whose lips moved, and expression changed, but nary an audible word could be heard in the street. If a passing visitor had bothered to look, he might not be blamed for concluding that dancing close on Christmas Eve was what it meant to be in love, that his special gifts were not needed here, and that the scene played out in the window would each year cause less and less a stir.