I worked at a small optical shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with Larry, the owner’s brother, and Paulo, the optician. Larry was a pharmacist who got caught dealing narcotics illegally out of his pharmacy. He was still on parole, and was now stuck working behind the eyeglass counter for his baby brother, Michael. This wasn’t the most ideal work situation for me, but one that fitted at the time. I just moved to the city and needed the extra money.
They had a weird camaraderie, with Larry’s interest in sports and girls and Paulo’s interest in neither, the only thing they had in common was being Jews from Brooklyn, a not uncommon thing in New York.
When I first told Paulo and Larry I went to church they assumed that I had a thing against Jews. I tried to reassure them that I wasn’t raised that way. Growing up in Buffalo, no one cared about what race or religion you were, just as long as you wore the right kind of jeans. Here in New York, people cling on to their ethnic and religious identities much more strongly. Native New Yorkers have this efficient way of sizing up people outside their clan by which borough and neighborhood they’re from.
Paulo asked one time, “So do you like your priest?”
“I’m not Catholic, I’m Protestant.” I tried to explain the difference, but Paulo could never keep it straight. Either that or he wasn’t at all interested. He would rather discuss more important things, like gardening and Barbra Streisand.
Paulo and I shared a passion for musical theatre and saw Broadway shows together from time to time. One summer evening after seeing “Gypsy” we took a stroll up Broadway and headed east past Trump Tower and crossed Fifth Avenue to the front of the Plaza Hotel.
“Let’s reenact the last scene from ‘The Way We Were,’” Paulo bobbed up and down.
“You mean you want me to be Barbra Streisand?”
“No, I’m Barbra.”
I was confused. “So I’m Robert Redford?”
He looked at me with a wistful nod.
“Uh, this is a little weird for me, Paulo. Much as I’d like to help you out.”
He sighed, and resigned to the fact that he was stuck with a five-foot-two Asian girl instead of a tall, square-jawed handsome blonde. He turned one last time to me and searched my eyes like Barbra’s character did to Robert Redford’s character named Hubbell.
“Oh, Hubbell,” Paulo murmured as he wisped my bangs away from my forehead, exactly as in the last scene from the movie. I wondered if any of his other female friends had to do this with him.
And that’s the way I came to see him, as a girlfriend. We would giggle together at the crazy customers that would come into the store. We would share recipes and talk about our favorite TV shows. We even planned a fall foliage trip together. A “Sound of Music” fan, Paulo picked Stowe, Vermont as our destination because it was the town where the von Trapp family settled after they fled Nazi Europe. I decided that we should leave after work and make the six-hour drive during the night. That way, we could wake up first thing in the morning at the inn and get in a full day’s worth of sightseeing. We ended up getting to the inn so late that there was only a single room left with a queen-size bed. Paulo freaked out more than I did about sharing the same bed.
“You promise to not take advantage of me tonight?” Paulo asked as he climbed into bed.
“I promise,” I mumbled, tired from the drive up.
I’m glad that we were joking with each other again after the seriousness of what Paulo told me during the long drive. I really wasn’t paying attention to the beginning of the story, as I was concentrating on the road, but after awhile, I realized that he was telling his story about how he found out that he was HIV positive. I didn’t know what to say. I was never good at forming consoling words. He obviously told me to get a reaction out of me, but I didn’t know what kind. Should I burst into tears and hug him? Should I tell him that everything will be OK and that he’s going to beat this? I don’t even remember what I said, something like, “Well, there are better drugs out now that prolongs one’s life.” The subject never came up again, and we went on with our simple friendship.
I eventually left that job and we quickly lost touch. I e-mailed him recently, just to see how he was doing. It took him two days to e-mail me back. He said everything was fine and was getting ready to go on a gay couples’ cruise in a few days. I was happy that I received a reply back and that he was doing OK.