It Wasn’t Me He Wanted

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Running my hands down my jeans as I waited for a drink, I thought, “Can a 22-year-old even be underdressed?” In my corduroy blazer and dark-washed jeans, I was the youngest person in this Boston theater by a generation, the seemingly lone millennial delegate for an evening meet-and-greet with Fran Lebowitz before her onstage conversation. This V.I.P. access came at a higher cost, but I figured if I nixed buying almonds for a few months I could balance my budget.

I’d come alone, not having any friends who were eager to drop $100 to see Fran wax acerbic on secondhand smoke and Rudy Giuliani. But being alone was preferable. If I’d brought a friend, I might have felt forced to talk with someone I already knew instead of eavesdropping on all these people I didn’t.

Settling into a seat with my $17 glass of pinot noir, I overheard a woman say, “How funny you bring up Maria Sharapova. We watched a months-old Charlie Rose with her last night. So self-serious.”

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It all felt impossibly mature, with my fellow attendees seeming so intellectual and arty with their drinks cradled atop world weary wrists. I had never felt older. And I had never felt younger.

I heard a man say, “Such a nice evening.”

I had to look over my shoulder to make sure he was talking to me. He was white-haired and pachyderm-eared, his shirt snug against a Dionysian belly. I figured he was on his way to one of the other empty seats and that his observation was merely a means of entering a space I alone was occupying.

“Oh, totally,” I said. “I’m excited for her to get here. I envision her Bea Arthur tall. You know? Imposing. Have you seen her before?”

“I’m Ted,” he said.

Standing up, I said, “Brian. It’s my first time at this theater. My first time stepping foot in Watertown, embarrassingly enough.”

“Oh, hon — you are young.”

He was staring at me with a searching gaze that was perhaps explained by his rainbow-patterned bow tie. Before I could relish chatting with a fellow member of my tribe many decades older, Fran walked in.

“More Estelle Getty, it seems,” Ted said, flashing a shattered piano keys grin.

I’ve always had a big capacity for adoration, maybe something to do with being the youngest sibling and worshiping my older sisters from outside their bedroom doors as they got ready for parties and proms.

But Ted wasn’t making any effort to grab her at the elbow with the same “Fran, this longstanding donor is just thrilled to meet you” verve I was witnessing elsewhere. All eyes were on Ms. Lebowitz, but Ted’s were on me.

“What do you do for work?” he said.

“Well, I graduated last spring,” I said. “English major. I work at a hotel. And I dog walk. But hoping to write again. That’s my background. I guess.”

Nodding, he said, “I’m a member here. I get two seats to every show. And it’s just me now so I’m always looking for someone to join. Someone as adorable as you, if I’m lucky.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You should join me Thursday,” he said, reaching into his breast pocket and taking out a pen, which was inscribed in gold with his name, email and phone number.

“Quite the business card,” I said.

“These aren’t for business. Just pleasure.”

I had already tried excusing myself to the bar, hoping he’d take the hint I wasn’t in the market for my own J. Howard Marshall. He followed me and paid for my drink. Crossing my arms and darting my eyes, I tried to convey disinterest.

Instead I listened, politely, as he began to tell me about his partner of 33-and-a-half years.

After he described his husband’s final day, terminally ill and surrounded by their four poodles, I said, “That’s so special. That’s — honestly, that’s love.”

“It would have been nice to speak with Fran tonight,” Ted said, perhaps seeing in my eyes that she had left the room. “But it was even nicer talking to you.”

I should have been angry that my meet-and-greet ended up being with a retired software engineer. But I couldn’t blame him. Not immediately, at least. Because pulling out our respective tickets, we found our seats to be A12 and A13.

Settling into our neighboring spots, I told Ted that I was excited. He squeezed my thigh and said, “How excited?”

For two hours, Fran rained on parades. Our president, our pop culture, our luxury condominiums. Her wit was as much a scalpel as ever. The proceedings were eventually turned over to an audience Q. and A., and although I had arrived intending to ask if she was talkative with cabdrivers, I didn’t raise my hand.

Watching Fran loathe from the front row should have been the latest instance of my penchant for adoration. But as Ted tapped his leg beside mine, I couldn’t access that usual thrill of watching someone be so assuredly themselves.

As the house lights went up, I swallowed my disappointment.

“Ever ride on a motorcycle?” Ted said.

Suddenly picturing him on a Harley, I tried to deny his offer of a ride home: “This jacket is more midseason than winter. And I run cold. I’d freeze. I never even learned how to ride a bike. Like a bicycle bike. And I’m so tall. Plus, I have this whole thing with noise. But thank you, really.”

Minutes later, I swung my leg over the back of Ted’s motorcycle. He had equipped me with a windbreaker, gloves and the assurance I could hold onto him anywhere but his arms and face.

After giving him directions to an address that was close to where I actually lived, I braced his midriff and prayed. It was a clear night, and watching Boston’s skyline emerge as we drove down Commonwealth Avenue felt big and cinematic, as if it were playing out in a life that wasn’t mine.

Above the wind, Ted said, “I doubt it’s still open but there was this bar around here.”

Before I could say no to what I thought was the suggestion of another drink, he said, “My old company hosted its holiday party at this place I’m thinking of. And there was this man, this beautiful, beautiful boy, a colleague of mine, just about as old as me, who I always — I always presumed. And we were all there and it was fun but, eventually, with some liquid courage, I pulled him aside and asked if he’d like to take a ride on my motorcycle.”

We stopped at a light. Harry’s Bar was on my right, the market where I buy my cigarettes on the left. A familiar stretch of the city I’ve called home suddenly belonging to someone else.

“I took him back home to my apartment,” Ted said. “And I shared my first kiss, my first anything, with a man that night. And my entire life just exploded. This was way before your time and it was all so different. It was the first time I ever realized I could live my life that way, that it was even an option. Thirty-three-and-a-half years. And I saw him to the end.”

Ted pulled his bike over to the curb and cut the engine. We had arrived at the address I’d said was mine. More than at any other point of the night, I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to apologize for having not listened to him more intently, more heartfully. Yet I also felt guilty for possibly leading him on, for listening to him at all.

As he unstrapped my helmet, I told him how sweet a gesture it had been, driving me home. How appreciative I was. And how lucky his husband had been, even though “lucky” didn’t feel like the right word. It was all so clumsy, but Ted didn’t address it as he silently pulled me toward him, his face slack with disbelief.

I didn’t push away. He might have just shared his motorcycle with a man 50 years his junior, but I knew from the wonder in his eyes that it wasn’t me he was seeing. It wasn’t me he wanted to bring to the symphony and take to his Cape house and share that second ticket to life with. And as Ted kissed me on the cheek before I turned my head and let him kiss me on the lips, I think I felt old enough to understand that.

Brian Burns is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and works in Lower Manhattan as an educator at the Tenement Museum.

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