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Carlton’s glorious, dangerous denial.

My friend Carlton is a chain smoker, even if all his cigarettes are imaginary.

cigaretteHis standard pose consists of one hand resting on his hip — elbow jutting out as if in the midst of a runway strut — while the other arm is forever in motion, his hand swiveling constantly around his face and shoulders.

All that’s missing is the cigarette, which you would swear you witnessed him smoking after having met him. Carlton even punctuates wry remarks by tapping his index fingers soundly on some phantom, extended filter. If his remark is particularly withering or at least gets a laugh, he’ll bring two fingers to his lips and add “puff puff, darling…”

Carlton’s age lies somewhere on the distant side of sixty. He was raised after Stonewall but on a far more moneyed block of New York City, where discussion of queers was verboten. Even today, Carlton insists that coming out to his wealthy mother would be quite disastrous and a completely surprising bit of news to her.

“I lived in Dallas, dear, years ago” Carlton is saying during our lunch. We had just switched tables twice, trying to escape the draft that’s been stalking my friend since Reagan was ignoring AIDS. “And let me tell you something darling. The ranch hands one would meet out in the bars had terrible personal hygiene. And I had a few, trust me. Just wretched.”

cowboys1I wasn’t sure what line of questioning to pursue. What might constitute an authentic ranch hand, I wondered, or why one of them might wander into the kind of bars Carlton favored. But I was in no hurry to expose his curious thinking. Multiple opportunities would typically present themselves.

“Really?” I asked politely.

“Oh let me tell you! That Brokeback movie? There was a real lack of cleanliness, didn’t you see that? Those straight boys… maybe they were adorable, but my God! I was holding my nose just watching that movie.”

“Carlton, the guys weren’t straight. They were gay and living a lie. That was the whole point of the film.”

“Oh they were straight,” he reiterated, despite all evidence, cinematic and otherwise, to the contrary, “believe you me.”

Carlton insists that his conquests be straight, or at least a reasonable facsimile. A simple claim of heterosexuality will do. As he funds drink orders from male strippers at his local club, slipping bills personalized with his cell number into their posing straps, he is most likely to pause for any utterance that includes the words “my girlfriend,” “kind of hard up,” or “bus station.”

He keeps attachments at a proper distance, which also helps avoid bothersome questions from Mother. Romance, alas, is simply a matter of commerce.

Marlboro Man (2)“I had a fabulous date this week,” Carlton is saying. “Square jawed. Handsome. And everything just where it should be, darling. Puff puff!”

“You can’t call them a date if you pay them, Carl.” I liked injecting the proceedings with jolts of sanity, like a random slice of sunlight piercing a forgotten attic.

“Don’t say that! You’re terrible,” he cries, waving me away, his fingers gripping his phantom Benson & Hedges Menthol 100.

“This is reality checking in, Carlton. They’re called prostitutes. Street hustlers, knowing you.”

“Stop!” He protested, and then feigned resignation. “He was straight, believe you me. And I think he really likes me.”

I was tempted to respond, knowing the remark would lead down an entertaining rabbit hole of delusion and denial, but it felt like poking an animal with a stick. I let it pass.

“Carlton,” I scolded, “you should watch yourself.” I was truly concerned for his safety. His friends have all made it clear that he isn’t allowed to live in a building without security cameras and a doorman. We want footage to broadcast on America’s Most Wanted when the time comes.

“Oh please. I know, I know…” he relented, in an apparent moment of self realization. “I couldn’t possibly take time for a relationship right now, you are completely correct.” The moment had passed. “Besides, my phone is ringing off the hook this week.” He giggled and sipped his wine. “My dance card is filled, darling.”

“Oh Carl…” I sighed. “It’s the first of the month.”

“And so?”

“Rent is due, sweetie.” My eyes met a blank stare. “And so… your friends are calling for dates.”

He wrinkled his nose, considering whether one fact had anything to do with the other. He was unconvinced.

“Be that as it may,” he said finally, returning to his wine. “But please, darling, don’t try to take away from my funsy-poo.”

“Funsy-poo?” I responded. He smiled sweetly. Whatever bottle of lube rests on Carlton’s nightstand, you can bet it sits on an embroidered doily. From Mother.

Further discussion of his dating risks was a fool’s errand, and that went double for anything related to HIV, about which he spoke in faraway terms, like a Daughter of the Confederacy discussing the recent unpleasantness.

“I’m speaking at an AIDS conference next week,” I said suddenly, to test my own theory. Carlton glanced from his wine glass with a pitiful smile and then wiped it away with his napkin.

“Good for you, my dear. I would do more charity work myself but with my travel schedule…” He managed to find something fascinating in the bottom of his wine glass and his voice trailed off.

money clipI have made remarks about HIV testing to Carlton but he waves them away, often with a joke about his pitiful sex life, despite what he may say about his dance card. He knows I write a blog about living with HIV but he certainly has never visited it. He is a generous patron of other sites, however. Sites with secure transactions that help him populate date nights with young men who, if you believe them as fervently as Carlton does, are just a little hard up or without a girlfriend or need a bus ticket back home.

We strolled out of the restaurant and I madly craved a cigarette after all that Carlton had seemingly consumed. He lightly brushed me with a kiss and promised to call in a few days if he could possibly find the time. He slowly sauntered away, taking in window displays and the busboy at a sidewalk eatery with equal interest. He was without care.

Never have I known anyone who so charmingly operates only within acceptable truths. For Carlton, self preservation long ago vanquished self discovery.

It’s a delicate balance, believe you me.


I wondered, while writing this, if people like Carlton are specific to Ft Lauderdale — all that gay retired money crossing paths with desperate youths (or sly hustlers) and runaways and other unfortunates. When do our fantasies — romantic, sexual and otherwise — trump our better judgment, our need for safety, or even reality? I look forward to your responses, and please try my new “share” feature below. — Mark



By | 2011-01-04T10:24:25+00:00 January 4th, 2011|Family and Friends, Gay Life, My Fabulous Disease|3 Comments


  1. Carole Ann January 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Mark, “Carlton” is a lot to take in for this reader. I’m thinking I should wait to comment until I’ve “absorbed” the time you spent with Carlton. Until then, I am going to focus my comments on your piece as though we were sitting together having coffee and, quite presumptuously on my part, I’m your editor.

    You did a remarkable job of bringing Carlton to life with your pen. I could actually feel his presence and see the imaginary smoke drift from the imaginary cigarette. As a writer, you have the ability to interject the author’s thoughts without derailing the story. You blend both description and conversation in such a way that your writing flows without hesitation. I find I am most drawn to your responses, your thoughts and feelings than to Carlton. I can see him staring into the glass of wine but I am more interested in you sitting there with him. The world is filled with “Carltons” but there is only one Mark King who writes about them.

    When you get “outside” the story, outside the reality of what is happening and write with the wisdom you have about life, I always hope for more.

    In the end, I can speak to poor judgment, overlooking reality, and finding heart ache on the other side. I am confident the feeling and experience are universal and thus is your writing.

  2. Lain Benjamin January 6, 2011 at 9:09 am

    My first thought was that this is “Sordid Lives” on steroids. Having lived in Manhattan and Southampton for many years. I feel like I know Carlton. Does he summer in the Hamptons? I had gay friends there with whom I could not mention “gay” anything in mixed company. It just wasn’t discussed. For those familiar with “The Velvet Rage”, Stages 1,2,and 3 simply need expanding to include the world that Carlton enjoys. Mark you presented a brilliant picture of Carlton here. What a treat!

  3. Subversive Librarian January 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    When do our fantasies trump our better judgment? I can only speak for myself: left to my own devices and instincts, fantasy nearly always trumps good judgment. It’s a key symptom of my disease: the willingness to ignore or recreate reality in favor of the facts as I’d prefer them to be. It’s definitely not limited to Fort Lauderdale or the moneyed (or un-moneyed) class. For a lot of people, the fear of being alone trumps just about everything, and distorts reality something awful. So I often need a second pair of eyes (or a third or a fourth) to help me tell the difference. Great post, by the way, as always.

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