“LOVE IS LOVE ISN’T LOVE”
by Terence Hughes
Ben was the apex of the triangle and he felt like an asshole.
The bases of said triangle were Liz, his wife for 15 years and his ex for three; and Dave, his husband of two. Ben was cheating on his husband with his ex-wife, and this was where feeling like an asshole – a scumbag, really – came in. It wasn’t the fact of mere physical infidelity, it was the emotional thievery from one, an object of lust, to the other, an object of deep and abiding affection. Anybody but Ben would have called it love in either case.
Ben often kicked himself for his haste in dumping Liz and going off with Dave. If we just had the usual sneaky affair, he told himself. Life would be so much simpler now. But Dave was so charismatically handsome and so charming that Ben had no course but to throw in with him and forsake Liz. Anyway, he was tired of concealing his carnal desires from himself. And he wanted the world to know that he, unremarkable Ben Lyons, had snagged a trophy, a sexual god like Dave McNabb.
The landscape looked different from Liz’s POV. She was the deeply wounded one, and she wondered if she could get over Ben’s rejection of her for a man who was so beautiful to gaze upon but so annoying to be around that she considered Ben to be mentally impaired. In the course of several affairs with men better looking than Ben, richer than Ben, and smarter than Ben, it dawned on her that her pain was founded on true love. Despite Ben’s not being the ideal man in any single respect, she began to pine for him, and she dumped her suitors. This entailed some soul-searching: here she was 43 years old, nice enough looking, but fading toward an early change like her mother. It was do or ditch time.
One Saturday afternoon when Dave was at the spa, Liz and Ben lay in each other’s arms after technically mediocre but emotionally resonant sex. “Bunny,” she said, “we’re pretty confused, aren’t we?”
Ben shrugged. “No, we’re perplexed. That’s another story entirely.”
“But,” she said insistently, “you said yourself that sex with Dave is spectacular.”
He nodded. “It is. But – turns out, it’s just sex. We don’t have a history, Dave and me, everything feels like we just met at a bar and ran to his place for a quickie. There’s no store of little jokes, or sayings, or certain looks that say so much. There’s not a thing that reminds me of stuff like Aunt Ruthie saying in the middle of dinner, Speaking of psoriasis.”
Liz laughed. “Context is everything.“
“Exactly!” Ben propped himself up on an elbow. “We have this context that goes back to college. Our secret language and terms of endearment. Those funny little glances. Catchphrases that link to a hundred other ones.”
She stroked his plain face. “Or like when your father died. When my brother died. We were totally there for each – “
“Fuck it, Lizzy, I’ve always loved you even when I didn’t realize it.” To his alarm she burst into tears. “Stop, Lizzy, cut it out!”
“You are a douche,” she cried. And then the passionate clinch. Another roll in the hay.
Neither of them recalled that those tender, funny habits were old material. They had added nothing new to them for at least five years before the breakup.
Liz and Dave detested each other, and they never communicated except through insults via Ben. Unknown to each other, their preoccupation with him was due, in part, to an abiding interest in building him up. Dave emphasized his feats in bed – “you are the best top I have ever had!” – where Liz stressed his sweetness of temper, which was another way of saying he was obedient.
Ben found that his perceptions – revelations, really – about sex and love from both sides now were fundamentally different from theirs. Ben had worked it out, through rigorous empirical observation: sex was not fundamentally different whether with a man or a woman. There were approximately the same number of apertures (females up by one), but what you did with them and with your tongue and your dick were surprisingly similar. A lot of it came to how you felt about the person you were making it with. Ben considered the tautological cliché “love is love” and conceded that it was, by and large, accurate. Ultimately, it was the relationship that mattered.
This realization made him cringe. It sounded like one of those TV shrinks intoning: “The key thang is the relationship. That is, hayw you relate to one another. If love walks in the room, stand up and shayke its hand. Give it a kiss. Fuck it. Smoke a joint afterwards and go to sleep, and it dudn’t make a bit of difference if you’re a man and she’s a woman or you’re a woman and he’s a woman or – “ it was easy to make fun of these things, but they were true enough in their way.
Dave was offended by Ben’s Gnostic revelation. “That’s sick. To equate pure man-love with rancid hetero love – you’re a lunatic, Benny.”
See, Ben thought angrily, when you tell them the truth they don’t want to hear it.
Liz listened to Ben weaving around the subject and interrupted him. “You know, Bunny, that’s very interesting. You’re much deeper than I ever knew.” He searched her for sarcasm but, no, she was sincere and frank. Liz gazed at him with renewed respect. “So you’re saying we have a chance. For ever. Us two. Even if you still have those other urges.”
The forever part oppressed him, but, wisely, he affirmed what she said. “Exactamundo.”
Ben and Liz made secret plans to move in together – in a new place with a new context for their old memories and patterns. Maybe they’d move back into Manhattan -- but not back to the Upper East Side. Maybe the West Side, maybe Murray Hill, maybe this, maybe that. “Maybe to Philly,” Ben joked on his cell phone one day. “It’s nice and dull just like us.”
Liz laughed, “I’m not ready for Philly yet. We’ll see when I’m seventy.”
“If we’re still together then!”
Ben started to join her in laughter and stopped. Dave was standing in the doorway to the garage, holding his briefcase so hard all his knuckles were white. An expression of disbelief and infinite hurt was plastered on his face. He blinked rapidly to keep the tears from falling. He composed himself and said flippantly, ”I suppose that was Kevin Wilson -- or that hairy ape Lenny Katzman.”
Ben looked at him dumbly. “Who?”
“Goddammit it, Benny, I knew you had the hots for them but I – “ He got a funny look in his eye and said slowly, “Liz Hoch. Lenny Katzman. You have a weakness for Jews.”
Ben started laughing. “I’m a Jew for Chrissakes.”
“Well, there you go then!” Dave dropped the briefcase and approached him.
Ben shied away and said, “Just hear me out. It’s pretty funny.”
Dave led the way into the living room where Ben made martinis the way Dave preferred them: too much vermouth.
“Oh God,” Dave moaned, face in his hands. “Benny, you’re stalling a little too long. This won’t be good.” He draped himself on the Italian leather couch. It was Ben’s only contribution to the rather Eighties-ish décor. He didn’t much care for the house, and he disliked living in Westchester. Liz lived in Tuckahoe and didn’t know why she moved to the suburbs three years ago. She hated Westchester. What else did they dislike together?
Ben brought over the drinks and sat in the Eames chair. “Well, Davey, it’s like this. Liz and I, we’re speaking again.”
Dave was astonished. “After what she said about you? About me? Are you crazy? Do you hate yourself that much? Do you hate Us so much?”
Ben sipped his drink to buy some time. “Mmm. Vermouth,” he said, raising his glass to the light.
“Stop it this instant!” Dave could sound like quite the queen in moments of stress.
Ben put the drink down on a Mondrian coaster from MOMA. “Davey, honey – Well, we’re very friendly, in fact.”
Dave turned pale. “You’re sleeping together, aren’t you?”
Ben started to cry out, “It’s not sordid like that!” But instead hung his head. Dave got up, emptied his glass, and slammed up to the bedroom. He locked the door. For the first time in three years Ben was going to sleep in the guestroom.
To his dismay Ben discovered that everything – everything – was now a matter of negotiation between warring parties. It went as far as where to go to dinner. Dave would say, “I’d love some Italian tonight. But I don’t want to go to Mario’s – “ their favorite but Liz’s too. He look and tone were loaded with incriminations.
“What about Hunan Pagoda?”
“But doesn’t she go there?”
They’d go to a Greek place that neither of them liked.
Or with Liz it was where to go for drinks after their Saturday trysts. “Let’s go to The Attaché.”
“Dave might stop there after gay softball.”
“Why don’t you go to a game to support him? You’re not a very supportive husband to him, either.”
Ben was shocked. “Why in God’s name are you doing this to me?”
Liz gave him one of her inscrutable smiles.
All the while Ben operated under a cloud of suspicion cast by both of them. Liz questioned him on where he went when he was supposed to be with her. Dave did the same and made snide remarks about fish pies and periods. Ben studied himself in the full-length bathroom mirror and wondered why they were getting so possessive over him. He was sort of a nebbish – no, no, he admitted it.
The resentments grew and he was nearly to the point of leaving both of them; it didn’t occur to him that, in their desperation, they considered booting him out of their lives. As usual, he dilly-dallied and allowed decisions to be made for him.
Liz announced that she had rented an apartment in the East Village. “It’s one bedroom but has a bath and a half. I took a year lease. The rent is $4000 a month. You can start paying me your share next month. The market’s slow so I got a free month.”
One Saturday when Ben was at work with Liz, Dave moved all of his husband’s things into the spare room, which wasn’t as big or nicely furnished as the guestroom. It lacked an en suite bathroom. Dave didn’t say a word about it and acted as though everything was normal. Ben put his head down and wondered which of them was more determined to destroy him. He would tough it out and outlast both of them.
Yet Liz drew him closer every day. He took time off from work and told Dave he was going to Florida on his own. “Maybe some apart time will be healing,” he lied. He was going with Liz, who smothered him with kisses when he gave her the news.
“Oh, Bunny, it’ll be almost like a second honeymoon!”
It was chancy. Ben knew Dave would hook up the day he left for the Sunshine State. Dave fell in love easily – too easily, some would say, some such as Ben, because Dave urged him to move in with him a month after they met. “I love you love you love you, Benny baby,” Dave crooned in those good old days. “You’re the sweetest man I ever knew.” Then the wily ex-Manhattanite added, “You know, I have a lot of closet space in Larchmont.”
Ben had been flattered, incredulous. If he had this beauty snowed, he’d better consider it seriously next year. But Dave was carried away by his own lofty cravings, no doubt including compassion, and pressed for a permanent arrangement ASAP.
Telling Liz was hard. Excruciating. Ben’s overarching desire had been not to hurt her too much. Her reaction wasn’t what he imagined, especially after she caught Dave kissing Ben at a stoplight on Madison Avenue.
“I always knew you were queer, Benjamin, but I never thought it would come to this.” She collapsed on the bed wailing, “You fucking prick, get out of here! I never want to see you again! And keep that, that seducer away from me!”
“But, Lizzy, honey, I never meant – sometimes things happen – “
“You’re full of shit! People can control their emotions if they’re halfway adult!” She got up and ran around throwing the stuff that cluttered his dresser, then opened the drawers and began tossing his clothes into a heap. “Take your nasty junk and beat it!”
Again she fell on the bed and indulged herself in a grand old cry.
At that point Dave wasn’t comforting. “You’re better off without that goddamn shrew. I don’t know how a man like you – with your talents in bed -- could stand to touch that fucking woman. Cut her out of your life. She’s like an outbreak of herpes.”
Dave was right: like herpes, Ben would never be rid of her. She lived parasitically in his heart, he thought sourly.
And here they were, three years later, tangled in a hopeless web of perplexity, faithless love, and distrust. Ben was a fly, buzzing helplessly, held prisoner in a vast web they had woven to ensnare him. He envisioned them as contending spiders, preparing to murder each other for the morsel that was him.
He went to Key West by himself. He was miserable and couldn’t abide the company of either of them.
While Ben was away Dave and Liz bumped into each other in White Plains. They greeted each other frostily. Liz’s veneer of ice cracked. “Look, Dave, can we get some coffee? I’m feeling so…abandoned right now.”
Dave hesitated, then nodded. “Me too. I’m thinking about Ben and me. I’m thinking what’s wrong with me. To love him so? I must be stupid.”
Liz smiled ruefully. They walked a few blocks and found a mostly deserted coffee shop; it was Saturday afternoon. “What is it about him? Why did we lose our heads over him?” Liz asked, marveling, over a cup of weak coffee.
Dave shook his head. “I keep asking myself the same thing. Every day. I was asking myself that a year ago already. Although he is good in bed. I’ll give the son of a bitch that.”
Liz looked surprised. “Good in bed? Lucky you.”
Dave raised an eyebrow. “Well. That says a lot, doesn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t mind if he – if he had affairs with men on the side. I really wouldn’t.”
Liz looked him square in the eye. “Even if it was you.”
Again the raised eyebrow. “I mean,” Dave said, “he is pretty annoying. So fucking wishy-washy. Sometimes I hate him, I’m so dependent -- ”
“I know! Right? He’s infuriating.” She blew on her coffee. “He is. But. He’s lovable. I have never been able to figure out what it is exactly…”
Dave had a faraway look. “I know. There’s something adorable about him. It’s not that he’s good-looking.”
“Oh God no.”
Dave speared a piece of stale coffee cake. He became pensive, then smiled sadly. “Maybe because he seems so eager to please. He has zero self-esteem. Makes you want to cuddle the weasely son of a bitch and say, ‘You’ll be okay, baby.’ Even when he’s betraying you.”
Liz sniffed back tears and nodded, “He is a rotten sneak. Although…” She blew her nose on a tiny paper napkin. “But you’re right. Dave, you’re right.” As if his being right was a wonder of the world.
They locked eyes. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Both were miserable. Hopeless in the idea of losing him to their own resentment. Desperate.
Sigh. “I guess I am.”
Ben spent an exhausting ten days at a gay guesthouse in Key West. It was clothing optional, so he earned a bisque tan all over his 44-year-old body, which helped cover the ravages of Key West-level drinking. He was eager to get home to Dave, though: all was forgiven! It had to be! He bet Dave had moved his things back into their room! His excitement grew as the cab turned off 95 to Larchmont. He bounded out and trotted briskly to the house with his leather duffel, mind if not body cleansed, optimistic and ebullient. He had managed to put the messy contretemps of the triangle into a little parcel and stuck it in the lost and found pigeonhole. It seemed insignificant now.
The house gleamed golden in the light of the setting sun. He got teary-eyed and thought warmly of this lovely Tudor and, of course, Dave. His wonderful husband! Without whom he would be living in a 1 BR/1BA in Mount Vernon! They would greet each other with a hundred kisses! He was fumbling at the door with his keys when it opened and Liz stood there smiling with a drink in hand. “Bunny, I thought it was you! Come inside. You’re just in time for a cocktail.”
Ben looked at her stupefied. “What have you done with Dave?”
Dave sang out from the living room, “I’m here, Bunny! I’m fixing you a martini – just the way you like it – plenty of vermouth!”
Ben fought the impulse to run away. He stepped gingerly into the hall and saw the two of them sitting on the sofa, bursting with anticipation as he crept into the room. A double martini sat on a Mondrian coaster in front of the big armchair Dave usually sat in. Ben could spot its vermouth-y viscosity from twenty feet away. Without a word he marched over to the armchair, plopped down, and drank the martini in one grimacing gulp.
Liz and Dave had joyous smiles on their faces. They raised their glasses and toasted him, “Down the hatch!” Dave jumped up to mix another round.
They were silent until he was done.
“Well, Bunny? Are you surprised?
“I’m horrified. What the fuck are you up to?” The spiders!
Liz’s face fell. “You’re unfair to say that after we’ve worked so hard to make you happy.”
Dave chimed in. “Since we both love you…” He glanced shyly at Liz.
“We thought we’d all live in the same house,” she explained calmly. “So, no painful choices, no deception, and no sneaking around. Isn’t that a relief?” She laughed lightly and Dave smiled his winningest smile. “We thought it would be the ideal solution. We came together when we realized that neither one of us wanted to lose you. Isn’t that right, Davey?”
Dave chuckled and said, “’It Happened in White Plains.’”
Continued stupefaction. Ben asked, “Is this a spiteful prank? Your way of getting back at me?”
Dave and Liz looked at each other, hurt and on the verge of angry. “We did this for you. Don’t you get that? For you, Bunny,” Dave added.
“Stop calling me that. That’s for Liz to say.”
“Not anymore,” she told him. She gazed at him as she sipped. “We’re each going to have our own bedroom, and you can go from one to the other at will,” she said with evident disappointment in him. “We had the crazy idea that this would please you and, in fact, end all the perplexities that bedeviled you.”
“Why are you speaking this way?”
Liz didn’t understand. “What way? With frank and obvious affection?”
“Like Maimonides.” Maimonides, author of the quasi Scriptural Guide for the Perplexed.
She laughed bitterly. “Davey, do you believe this schmuck? We do everything to please him – “
Dave’s face clouded over. “You could show a bit of gratitude. That we don’t kick your ass to the Bronx.”
Ben’s head spun. He said in a diminished voice, “What about the apartment in the East Village?”
“What? Oh that,” Liz smiled. “I made it up to spur you into some kind of action. Which was you running off to Key West.” She said it with as good a good humor as she could muster.
“Yes, honey, did you have a great time down there? I know you weren’t a good boy. Tell me you were a safe one.
“I was – of course!” Well, some of the time. Nevertheless, Ben felt aggrieved. Their attempt at emotional blackmail was not going work on Benjamin Theodore Lyons. He jumped up. They were clearly ascribing every low-down motivation and intent to him. As if he were the only one who was selfish and heedless. He was merely their prey. They were toying with him.
“Oh, sit down, honey Bunny,” Dave said. “We have an understanding, your wife and I.”
“Your wife in spirit. And she always will be, so we’ll have no more bullshit on that score. I get it that you feel great love and affection for Liz. I do, too, believe it or not! And for me – well, you know. Sexual perfection is a rare and marvelous thing. We can both live with it, we really can. We do love you, you know.”
“We aren’t sure why, but we do,” Liz told him. “Maybe because you are so pathetically needy.”
Dave glanced at her and back at Ben. “Let’s face it, Lizzy, we’re needy too. For you, Benny.”
Liz didn’t approve of this admission. Frowning, she said, “Well, not so much, Benjamin.”
Ben sat down again. He picked up the second martini and sipped thinking how this was, in fact, a dream scenario. It humbled him to realize he was so loved -- adored. For them to concoct this arrangement – they were highly evolved, weren’t they? And they clearly wanted him in their lives at any cost. He was beyond happy, the happiest he had ever been. They weren’t selfish, theirs was the generosity of angels. He saw himself in the sky, perched on a crescent moon, arms behind his head, occasionally waving at the enraptured crowd of men and weeping women far below.
Ben was getting used to the idea. Love was all around, it was in the air he breathed. He was ecstatic. He had never felt so whole. He grinned. “I surrender. You got me. I’m all yours. I’m your dog. Somebody better come rub my ruff pretty damn soon.”
Dave and Liz looked at each other. “You go first.”
“No, it’s okay – you go.”
“Really, I insist.”
“Oh, all right.”