by George Gauthier

Chapter 7

I Don't Work Here Lady

So I was in my local wine shop picking up a couple of bottles of Valpolicella, a favorite red wine from northern Italy. As I was trying to decide among the different price points I heard fingers snapping impatiently behind me, the dreaded sound of a Karen in the wild demanding service from the menials put on Earth to serve entitled persons like themselves.

I didn't turn around, not wanting to even witness such rudeness directed toward the store staff. Anyway, as a customer myself, her needs were none of my concern. I did feel sorry for any one who had to deal with an entitled bitch like her.

"I'm talking to you, moron," she complained and poked my shoulder.

At this provocation I did turn around and told her to keep her hands to herself.

"If it takes a poke to get your attention, I'll poke you. Now stop fiddling with those red wines and do your job."

"I was not fiddling but checking the prices."

"Do it later. I need you to show me where the German white wines are located."

"No, you don't. Unless you are illiterate you should find those wines easily enough. Those signs above the shelves indicate varietal and country of origin."

"Don't get clever with me young man. I won't stand for it! Now do your job and show me where those wines are!

"Ask someone who works here. I don't."

Her eyes first widened in surprise and then narrowed in anger, but not caring to engage with the woman any longer I turned back to the shelf, grabbed a couple of bottles, and headed toward the register to make my purchase.

"Just where do you think you are going, young man?

"To the cash register to pay for my purchases like any customer would. And to repeat myself, I don't work here. Which means that it's not my job to assist you, lady. Nor do I take orders from anyone whose only authority is a loud voice and an entitled attitude."

"Such insolence! I'll have you fired."

"Good luck with that. I told you twice already that I don't work here. I am a customer, just like you, only I am neither entitled nor rude. But since you don't seem to be able to understand that let me put it in plain English. I do NOT work here. Leave me alone. Back off. Get lost."

With that she slapped me hard across the face. Of course I saw it coming. My nervous system operates at warp speed, both my reflexes and thought processes. To make her look bad I exercised self-control and did not even try to block her swing. I rejected the urge to slap her back though not from any sense of chivalry. I consider it cowardly for a woman to hit someone she expects won't fight back. I knew the optics were better if cameras showed her to be the aggressor. So I did not raise a hand to her but just stood there and took it, setting her up for charges of assault and battery or at least to be trespassed from the store.

That was when the manager came over.

"What's going on here?" he demanded.

"It's this insolent clerk of yours. I asked him politely for assistance and not only did he refuse to help me, he was unforgivably rude."

"You mean him? This young man does not work here, ma'am. He is a customer just like you, except he doesn't slap people around the way I saw you do just now."

"I did no such thing! How can you say that when you cannot see anything from behind the cash register." she countered.

The manager shook his head.

"Ever hear of surveillance cameras? From my station at the cash register I can watch every inch of the store on monitors. That's to thwart shoplifters, you see. So yes you did haul off and slap him just now. I watched it in real time, and it the system recorded it on tape. So I am afraid I'll have to ask you to leave and don't come back, ever. You're banned from my store. Violence toward a customer is unacceptable."

"What! Do you know who I am? My husband was just reelected as the senior judge on the Court of Appeals. I'm only surprised that you do not know that, regular customer that I am."

"So what? Your husband may be somebody, but that doesn't mean you are. You're just a nobody who happens to be married to a somebody, not somebody in your own right. Not that it matters. You have been banned. Get out of my store and stay out."

"Well, I never!"

Time for me to put my two cents in.

"Never, ever? Then your ego is long overdue for deflation, decades overdue considering your advancing years. I mean, how old are you anyway lady, sixty, sixty five?" I asked disingenuously.

Karen turned away and huffed her way out the door.

"Nicely played Troy, but you must know that Ms Oglethorpe cannot be older than her forties."

"Just rubbing it in, as you did too, Mr. Golden, pretending that you did not know who she was."

Sy Golden sighed and shook his head.

"Customers like that are the bane of any retail business. You put up with it as long as you can till you cannot. But I guess you know that yourself from your days as a bartender."

We shook our heads companionably at this sad example of human folly.

It's bad enough when you run into Karens time and again during a mortal lifetime. Imagine how much worse it is to live through more than three thousand years of encounters with Karens, though we only started calling them that just recently.

Don't forget the male of the species. Male versions are often called Kens, but that is a smear on the good name of Barbie's boyfriend, who in a version marketed as Magic Ken or Magic Ring Ken won my approval and loyalty thirty years ago.

In case you missed it, that version of the doll showcased Ken's new cool look. Forget preppy. This was a gender bender model of the Ken doll, designed to appeal to boys as well as girls. That was why Ken was dressed in a lavender mesh shirt, purple pleather vest, tight pants, a necklace with a circular "charm" and an earring in his left ear. Every gay guy on the planet instantly recognized Ken's charm as a cock ring. No wonder gay men bought the doll in record numbers. Indeed it was completely sold out by the annual Christmas toy buying season.

So no, I won't hear a word said against Ken. And didn't Ryan Gosling look fabulous, even at the age of 42, in the Barbie movie just recently?

Lapis Lazuli

"Afghan cuisine?" my boyfriend Paolo asked,

"Do they even do brunch in Afghanistan? And if they ever served champagne brunch before the Taliban took over again I'll bet they don't do so now. And it wouldn't be on a Sunday either, come to think of it. Not for Muslims."

"Forget brunch. Do they even do weekends in Muslim countries? And what would be their day of rest? For Muslims, I mean," my other boyfriend Kyle asked.

Being an inveterate world traveler, I could provide the answers to their questions. Raising a finger and speaking in my most professorial tone, I said:

"The weekend is a recent concept in the Islamic world. It normally means Friday and Saturday though Friday is not so much a day of rest as one of public prayer. Our concept of a weekly day of rest stems from the first book of the Bible which recounts how God labored for six days to create the world and all its creatures then rested on the seventh day."

"It was colonial rule which introduced the concept of a day of rest to the Muslim world. The Quran does affirm the canonical six days of creation but goes on to quote Allah as saying: "nor did any sense of weariness touch us". So there was no day of rest in traditional Islam, and Sunday is when their workweek begins."

"Different strokes for different folks." Paolo conceded, moving his hands apart in a characteristic gesture. Paolo is of Northern Italian heritage (Torino) so gestures are an essential part of his vocabulary, in English as well as in Italian.

I had invited both my boyfriends, Paolo Franco and Kyle Kavanagh, to Sunday brunch at the popular bistro Lapis Lazuli, named after the semiprecious stone, prized since antiquity for its intense blue color.

Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan for millennia even unto the present day. It was highly prized by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization who made it into jewelry. It was also used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamen. Renaissance and Baroque artists in Europe ground it into a powder to make the pigment ultramarine. Lapis is the Latin word for "stone" and Lazuli is from the Persian for "sky" or "heaven" so Lapis Lazuli means stone from heaven.

As you would expect, the cuisine at a restaurant calling itself an Afghan bistro was not the usual fare. It took a couple of minutes for my friends to make their choices, with Paolo rocking his head from side to side in indecision as he studied the unusual offerings. Kyle's pondering was less kinetic; he just frowned.

We all started with a butter or chocolate croissant and cappuccino. For our entrees Paolo opted for the Lapis pancakes described as rose water-cardomom pancakes, with warm rose water syrup and pistachios. Kyle chose a more conventional offering, a waffle, described as a house-made (sic) buttermilk waffle with mixed berry sauce. They both sounded tasty, but being more adventuresome I opted for the Kabul frittata, the afghan version of the Italian classic, made with eggs, leeks, cilantro, and potatoes. We passed on the bottomless champagne flute and chose mimosas or the Bloody Lapis which was made with vodka infused with horseradish and hot pepper, harissa spice, and a fresh herb tomato mix. Presumably the Christian connotations of its name kept Bloody Mary off Afghan menus.

As a concession to the American public, the tables were set with knife and fork. Paolo and I wielded them European style, not continually switching the fork from the left hand to the right in the deplorable American fashion, the way Kyle did.

"I can see how your way is more efficient," Kyle allowed, "but it seems so foreign to me."

I shrugged.

"It is foreign, but so what. If it's the better way of doing things, go with it."

"Anyway you are lucky we can use a knife and fork to consume our Afghan cuisine. Just as it is a more authentic experience in Chinese and Japanese restaurants to eat with chopsticks, so would fingers be authentic in an Afghan restaurant. Fully one third of the world including the peoples of Afghanistan eat with their fingers, not with chopsticks or knife and fork. Many a restaurant offering the cuisine of the Middle East and North Africa, especially those whose clientele are mostly their own countrymen, expect customers to eat that way and provide knife and fork only to those who specifically ask for them."

Paolo nodded.

"I've eaten Ethiopian food, which is especially savory, so you really should try it, Kyle, but though the peoples of Ethiopia don't use chopsticks or knife and fork, they just dig in with the fingers. Food is served on communal plates set down in the middle of the table. You tear off a portion of a soft flat bread called enjera and wrap it around the next bit of the stew or whatever the dish is and bring it to your mouth. So your fingers don't get messy as you might suppose. Besides the set out finger bowls to help you keep your fingers clean."

"Of course," I added, "the strict rule in cultures where folks eat with their fingers is Right Hand Only. For only the fingers of that hand may come into contact with the food in the communal plates."

"That rule is of the upmost importance," Paolo warned. "The practice of eating communally is why thieves in those countries get the right hands cut off, to exclude them from communal dining."

Kyle looked puzzled. "How come? Why wouldn't they just use their left hand."

"My goodness gracious!" Paolo and I intoned facetiously. "No, no, no. That would never do."

"The left hand is banned as unclean." Paolo explained patiently. "In the desert they don't have toilet paper or leaves so they traditionally use sand and the fingers of the left hand to wipe their asses."

"Gross!" Kyle exclaimed."

"Gross indeed. As was the telling of it. You did put that crudely and even graphically, Paolo," I chided, setting up my little joke.

"Oh? And you think you could have put it better?" Paolo challenged.

I just love it when my foil feeds me the straight line I had been angling for. So, delivering my punch line rhythmically, I intoned:

"Indeed I do. A more refined way...of expressing that same thought... would be to say that Middle Easterners...use their left attend to personal the nether end...of the alimentary canal!"

We chuckled at my witticism, one of those I like to keep up my sleeve for just such occasions. I later explained that modern bathrooms in the cities of North Africa include a bidet for that same purpose. So no more sandy fingers.

Paolo had stayed over the previous night but downstairs in Kyle's apartment, given our different sleep cycles. I get by just fine on three hours a night. Paolo and Kyle need seven or eight. We each of had our own apartments because sometimes you prefer or just need to be alone. Kyle lived downstairs from me, though the layout of our apartments was different. His rooms were original; their layout stemmed from their use as the third storey of a large mansion since converted into rental apartments.

I lived on the fourth storey where the walls between the small rooms formerly used for staff had been torn down and larger windows installed to provide cross-ventilation and fine views to the east and south. Mine was a two bedroom unit, one of which I used as my den. My unit also had a living room with a breakfast nook under a bay window which was where I took my meals. The full bath and small kitchen were more than adequate to my needs. I was a decent enough cook, but I preferred to eat via take-out, delivery, or in restaurants, preferably with company.

Then still shy of twenty-one, Paolo lived at home though in a mother-in-law suite separate from the main part of the house where his folks lived. So he had a private door to the outside as well as an entry just up the stairs to the family manse. That allowed Paolo to entertain privately, carrying on a social life in ways of which he had believed his parents and siblings were unaware.

Then came the day when Paolo got outed by his own mother, though happily in as gentle a manner as would happen a year later with his mentor on the police force, Sergeant Delany.

That afternoon Paolo and Gabe, that is Gabriel, his skinny sandy-haired boyfriend of five months and a fellow student majoring in criminology, were walking up to the house. By chance they ran into Paolo's mom who was heading out to the drugstore. Though Gabe was a more than occasional overnight visitor, he had only a nodding acquaintance with any of Paolo's family and had not yet been formerly introduced to any of them. So he nodded politely but did not stop to talk.

This time however, Mama Franco, Francesca Franco, held up her hand halting them both, having decided, on the spur of the moment really, to put an end to what she considered all the silly pussy-footing around Paolo and his sexuality, which was a secret to absolutely no one. The only secret in the family was that Paolo himself did not know that everyone knew.

"Paolo Adriano Franco..." she began, addressing her son by all three names, always a bad sign from Mama Franco or from any other mother for that matter.

"Don't you think it is long past time that you formally introduced me to your boyfriend who has been coming to our home for five months now, often staying overnight, under our roof, in your bed."

Caught flat-footed, blushing furiously, and hardly knowing what to say, Paolo squawked unintelligibly. He looked over to Gabe for support only to find his friend struggling to suppress a guffaw.

"What? You thought I was as clueless as your Aunt Connie who only realized her Tony was gay when she walked in on him and his significant other while they were in flagrante delicto?"

"You know then?"

"Of course I know. Mothers usally do, well, except for my sister Connie."

"Anyone else in the family know about me?"

Paolo's mother let out a theatrical sigh and laid it on him.

"Anyone else? More like everyone else. We know; we all know; everyone knows; who doesn't know, for crying out loud!"

So Paolo's later outing by Delaney had been a case of history repeating itself.

From that day forward till the day he graduated and got a apprenticeship at a crime lab in another state, Gabe had a place at the family table whenever Paolo went upstairs for a family dinner. Mama Franco really warmed to the personable college student, who like Paolo, was aiming for a career in law enforcement.

"Mangia!" She would urge him. "As we Italians always say, guests who merely pick at their food actually insult their hosts, even without meaning to."

Paolo's dad Salvatore Franco was also quite accepting of his son's sexuality though disappointed that his first born would not be giving him grandchildren to spoil. His wife consoled her husband with the thought that maybe their Paolo would not give them grandkids, but one day he might give them a good-looking son-in-law. Sal had to be satisfied with that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch or rather my apartment, I walked in one afternoon after spending some time out back reading in the shade of a magnificent American Chestnut, one of the last survivors of the chestnut plague which wiped out that magnificent tree from the forests of North America several generations earlier.

As I shut the door behind me, I heard a cry for help. I recognized that it was coming from our chamber boy, the pretty blond twink Jaeden.

"Help! Help me, Help! Troy or Kyle or whoever is out there. I'm back here."

Tracing his cries for help I found Jaeden stuck in Esmeralda's cat door which he had been trying to squirm through to enter the apartment. He was dirty from the sort of grime which could only have gotten on him from the servants' runs.

"What the hell?"

"Get me outta here. Please! I've been stuck in this damn doorway for over an hour with only Esmeralda for company."

"You'll have some explaining to do, Jaeden, but first things first. Let me get my toolbox, and I'll have you out of there soon enough."

Jaeden sighed with relief now that rescue was at hand. I used a pry bar to pull the frame of the cat door away from the wall then carefully sawed a section of wallboard and broke it off, making the opening in the wall large enough for Jaeden to squirm all the way through. The poor kid was badly shaken. He might not be claustrophobic, but he had reacted much as anyone would who got stuck as he had been, helpless and wondering how long his captivity might last.

He threw himself into my arms trembling and sniffling, tears of relief running down his cheeks as he buried his face in my shoulder. Poor kid. I held him tight and spoke to him soothingly and reassuringly. After a bit, Jaeden straightened up, and I let him go.

"Not exactly how I imagined myself in your arms, Troy," he joked weakly.

Under gentle questioning I got Jaeden's story from him. It seems he had been wondering how Esmeralda managed to go in and out of our apartments at will, mine and Kyle's, or get outside entirely, even though we were up on the third and fourth floors. Now the cat door in Kyle's place was not obvious, with his hinges inside the wall, but it wasn't concealed either. Following Esmeralda Jaeden poked his head through and discovered that our building had secret passages. Now what teenage boy could pass up a chance like that? And how could I complain that this charming twink had done what any adventuresome youngster would have done?

The geometry of our two apartments was different enough that I had used a larger size cat door down on the third floor than in my apartment above. So Jaeden had no trouble getting his slender physique through that door. After exploring the dimly lit servant run downstairs he followed Esmeralda up the spiral stairs to my apartment on the fourth floor, only to get stuck in the smaller doorway leading into my place.

We suddenly realized how dirty we both were, Jaeden from his explorations and me from transfer of grime from the boy's filthy body.

"Time for a shower Jaeden, and scrub those clingy shorts while you are at it. I am sure they will air dry in no time, as exiguous a garment as they are."

"Exiguous, eh? I like the sound of that."

"Off with you now. You know where the bathroom is."

"Sure, but what about you? You could use a shower too. Why not shower together? I scrub your back and you scrub mine."

"I think it is more like your backside that you want me to attend to, but tempted though I am, I must, most reluctantly, say no, even knowing I am going to kick myself later for passing up this golden opportunity."

The mischievous boy stripped off his shorts, giving me a good look at him in a state of nature, then, with a cheery wave, took himself to the bathroom. Alone. Damn it!

I also took my own shower alone, locking the bathroom door in case Jaeden tried to invite himself inside to join me, a wise precaution on my part because I heard him try the door. Afterwards we sat on the couch together and chatted. We hadn't wrapped towels around our hips for what could such false modesty mean to us, but we were on our best behavior.

Just as well that we were talking innocently about Jaeden's plans for a career in IT. – he had signed up at a community college for a course in systems administration – when Kyle walked in on us, having tapped the door with his signature septuple knock to let me know it was him then opening the lock with his fob.

"Well, well, well. What do we have here?"

"It's not what you think, Kyle."


"Really." I explained how he happened to find both me and our chamber boy sitting on the couch together stark naked. I don't think I really convinced him till he checked my bedroom and found the bed had not been slept in or otherwise used since morning. The destruction at the cat doorway sealed the deal. We were innocent.

Sworn to secrecy about the secret passages and with a promise of the grand tour the next morning, Jaeden took his leave.

So, all was well back at the spooky old mansion which I shared with Kyle and a number of like minded souls of the gay or gay friendly community. It was good to live so openly and without fear as a young or at least youthful gay male, without fear of legal consequences at least. It was not so very long ago, maybe half a century, that gay liberation in the modern sense got started in the West. Life really was much better these days, let no one tell you otherwise.

It is true that in the past some societies including Islamic ones tolerated same sex relationships and perhaps even expected it in certain restricted social strata such as among entertainers like actors, dancers, minstrels, artists, poets, and the like. But mere toleration – sufferance is more like it – is not legal freedom to be who and what you are. Even where tolerated, things can change suddenly and for the worse.

The Ship of Theseus

If I may wax philosophical about my immortality, let me point out that the body of every living being is like the Ship of Theseus in that famous thought experiment which asked whether an object really is the self-same object once all of its original components have been replaced over time, one by one. This is what is supposed to have happened to the ship on which the Greek hero of old sailed to Crete to confront the Minotaur. Kept in Athens as a memorial, over time, as each of the original timbers rotted away it was replaced till, in the end, none of original timbers survived. So the question is, was it still the Ship of Theseus? You could argue either way.

I would argue that yes, it was still the Ship of Theseus, just as, yes, I was still Ganymede, sometime prince of Troy and cupbearer to Olympian Zeus. What did it matter that none of the cells of my body and precious few of the atoms which make it up today are not original.

None of this should be surprising. After all the biosphere of our planet is all about recycling whether annually with the change of seasons or generationally whereby the phosphorus in the flesh of the living is freed by corruption and decay so as to be re-used to build the bodies of the successor generation. Even the lithosphere, as we have learned from plate tectonics, gets recycled.

So though I have lived for more than three thousand years, this body of mine is nowhere near that old. It is not even as old as a single human lifetime. All bodies of living creatures constantly renew themselves, replacing worn out cells in muscles, bones, viscera, and brains with new ones which do the same job as those they replaced. The replacement process is seamless. So even as bone cells are broken down one by one and replacement cells reconstituted from nutrients in the body, the reconstruction preserves the invisible scars which remain on bones where once they were fractured in an accident earlier in life. Only X-rays can let you see them, but if you ever broke a bone, the scar is there (though not in my body thanks to the Olympians).

By the principle of continuity then, like the Ship of Theseus, I was, am, and always will be that boy carried off to Olympus by a god in the shape of an eagle, which, hands down, was the luckiest thing that every happened to me.

That continuity manifests itself most importantly in the faculty of memory. For without memory what can our brains operate on but a disconnected jumble of sensory input? How can we be said to have a personality at all if we cannot remember who and what we are and have done? Some kinds of memory are functional like language, physical abilities including control of our bodies. But our personality is really defined by our experiential memories, the record of what we have seen, felt, believed, and done, or that portion which we recall.

Our brains cannot store the memories of everything we have experienced in our lives but only a fraction. So we remember things which excited, frightened, or saddened us, things which made for vivid memories but not the humdrum details of daily existence or only a tiny fraction of those. As an example, for some reason which even he cannot explain Kyle's grandfather vividly remembers seeing the trailer, not just the movie, the trailer for the 1951 version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still". Another such memory was a trolley ride in the final days of that mode of transportation in our fair city. Why those isolated humdrum memories? No clue.

Our faculty of memory filters out most of the useless stuff but some of it slips through the filter anyway and it sticks in memory like what Kyle's grandfather remembers all these decades later.

My memory works the same except that I have had so many more memories to filter out, more than three thousand years worth of memories. So I lose memories which would be significant in a single lifetime but which get crowded out by others pressing in.

Then there are the memories you cannot get rid of, those from the most traumatic events in your life. Forget claims about repression of traumatic memories. The truth is exactly the opposite. Trauma creates memories which you can never forget, however much you wish you could. Victims of the Holocaust or of war, and of horrible crimes like child abuse and domestic violence don't repress their memories of what happened. Quite the contrary. Those horrid memories are indelible, and they intrude at the most inopportune time. Just ask any combat veteran with PTSD.

For that is one cross I too bear, a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, stemming from all the bad things that have happened to me or to those I have cared about. And PTSD is much more than intrusive memories. Other symptoms include nightmares and night sweats, hyper-vigilance, anger, combativeness, jumpiness, and a quickly triggered fight or flight response. Fortunately my symptoms do not include substance abuse disorders. I don't much care for strong drink nor do I take mood altering drugs.

People around me wonder "what's got into him?" when I react to a sudden loud noise by crouching and spinning around fists raised to confront what my mind suggests is a gunshot or the clash of steel on steel when it is no such thing. Similarly creaking noises in the middle of the night can sound ominous enough to awaken me. Thankfully the worst symptoms fade over time, though only till the next traumatic event, and in a lifetime of centuries, the next trauma is not a matter of If but of When.

My gift of immortality does not make me invulnerable like some spandex clad superhero. I can be killed, not so easily as most humans, but someday I will surely die, whether from foul play or by misadventure.

I don't dwell on those possibilities overly much. I just carry on as best I can, hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. One thing immortality teaches you is patience. You also develop a wider time horizon and learn to take the long view. Finally you gain perspective from so much more life experience to draw upon. I may not be a graybeard, but mine is the wisdom of old age, though viewed through a youthful lens. Or that is how best I can describe it.

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