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We were late.
It was my fault of course. After picking up my companion at the Bike Stop and slogging through midtown traffic, we'd finally crossed The Ben Franklin Bridge across the Delaware onto the cats cradle of New Jersey highways. Top down and wind streaming over our fresh buzz cuts, we raced through the glorious late afternoon blue skied sunshine. My companion navigated from the shot gun seat.
The proscribed turns of the print out directions he clutched against the rushing currents got us to the correct exit, but once in rural small townness, the turn lefts and bear rights had failed us, leaving us lost amid strip malls and car lots rather than farm stands and feed stores. Helpful locals at sawbuck tables outside of a barbecue shack offered enthusiastic but unintelligible assistance. All I gleaned was a right, a KFC, and another right somewhere after that, which ultimately brought us to a cross roads marked by the China Dragon Inn. The day host's broad gesticulations and pidgin of mandarin and Mid Atlantic ultimately proved easier to understand. We were only a two miles from the bear-b-que.
Friends who'd gone to last year's had told us all about it. They'd reported that the guests would be "A-list bears". (one of my homosexuality advisors answered my query as to what distinguished "A" bears from run of the mill ursa. His reply; "their wallets"). Part party, part potlatch, it would be catered and the liquor would be free flowing. Guests would shed inhibitions and clothing as the evening wore on, eventually ending up naked in the pool. Bear soup. Any who felt unable to drive home were welcomed to stay in one of the many available rooms. To add invitees to their circle of friends, the host couple canvassed the three levels of the Bike Stop, extending ink jet invitations to new found friends and attractive revelers they'd hoped to add to the roster. They gave my companion an invitation on two seperate occations, and confirmed the date the preceding week. They REALLY wanted him to come. When my companion asked me to accompany him (and give him a ride), I immediately accepted, gleefully dubbing the venture "The Teddy Bear Picnic". We'd brought our overnight kits "just in case".
Mr China Dragon had guided us well. Businesses had turned to dwellings hugging the blacktop, then set further back and apart, then fields and farm houses. I felt a nostalgia for my own home town and trips through the surrounding country in the green station wagon with the wood grain contact paper sides. We soon sighted the post and split rail fence strung with bobbling red balloons as indicated on the printout, and pulled off onto a gray gravel drive. The Sleek Black Leopard snaked through pine and oak woods, and heavy brush and scrub. My companion snatched a leaf from a reaching bough. We rounded the last bend and emerged at our much anticipated destination.
Before us, a shiny black Harley Davidson soft tail, tricked out with extra chrome and studded black leather saddle bags stood a glistening sentry at the mouth of the clearing harboring three parallel rows of the guests vehicles; lumbering black windowed SUVs, lacquered European sedans, and several self consciously rugged soft top jeeps. I smugly decided that my ratty convertible was infinitely cooler and more fun. We pulled into a spot under low branches near the Harley,
my companion spoke; " I keep thinking we should have brought something, but they said "Just bring friends"."
"That IS something" I replied, "Something for the other guests to look at. Decorations."
"Yeah. When their buddies, their 'peers' arrive, they'll each discretely give a fine bottle or good cigars or something for later,
but I'm guessing they're hoping that YOUR contribution would be other little hotties like yourself."
"Well" he reached across the console and squeezed my knee, "then they would be correct."
I put my cash, cards and key monster in the trunk , leaving only the one car key on the nylon strap clipped to my left hip, and secured my cell phone in one of the compartments of my favorite extensively seamed and zippered and pocketed shorts. I noticed my wife beater was stained with the evidence of a hurried lunch, so peeled off this other half of my typical summer uniform, and tossed it in too. I extracted a red, short sleeved button front shirt with patch flap pockets, white stitching, and epaulet's. The bears would hate it. It was in violation of their printed t-shirt, cut off sleeves and camouflage shorts uniform code. I reasoned that I wouldn't be wearing it all that long. My companion wore one of his Gap clerk outfits; blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and Addidas, so different from the boots jeans and chest hair ensemble I usually see him in. I was surprised when I'd picked him up in town.
"What, no harness?" I marveled.
"It's in my bag. Better to have it and not use it"
We set out toward the house. Sited across a sweep of manicured green lawn, the compound comprised a substantial steeply gabled cottage, separate garage, and guest house, all covered in raw brown clapboards mottled and darkened by the elements. The buildings clustered informally, connected by weed free red brick paths, interspersed with raised beds walled in ashlar laid sandstone and overflowing with the sorts of rigidly edged and compartmentalized, precisely random flora created by professional gardening service attention.
Following the laughter and splashing, we skirted the main house, passing by a glassed in porch and squat box hedges backed by waves of tiger lilies, and headed toward the back.. Men in camo shorts and surfer's trunks, many shirtless and even at distance kinda hairy, clustered in scattered groups behind the house. To the left in a leafy grotto formed by a towering willow tree, was a self service bar well appointed with multiple top shelf brand choices of each type of booze, lots and lots of empty bottles of mixers, and what would prove to be insufficient ice and too few plastic cups. An ice filled garbage can buoyed a battered silver keg of Coors Lite on the right, symmetrically balancing another galvanized can full of Miller Lite bottles on the left, shattering dreams of decent beer. Two hefty men manned the keg, one at the pump and the other holding the nozzle to the rim of a half gallon sized clear glass mug. Opposite, a broad buzzed and bearded fellow in wrap sunglasses pawed at the icy water as though attempting to snag a salmon.
Straight ahead of us was a landscape of levels climbing back up on the right toward the house like Mayan terrace fields. Up railroad tie steps was the main level and pool, paved in a crazy quilt of large irregular bluestone flags. Men in ball caps and bellies, muscle shirts, colored tank tops and olive drab sleeveless BDUs, stomped up and down the levels in their Teva sandals and floppy tongued Timberlands. Shirtless they populated the chairs and lounges before a Victorian gazebo. The focal point past them was a shoulder high stepped pyramid of more of the planting bed limestone, issuing a steady cascade of heated water from it's apex, piddling here and sheeting there over the strata and down into the amoeba shaped pool, where more furry brethren bobbed about. The wet hair on their ample bodies darkened and clung to glistening chests and backs in zebra stripe patterns. I could see that my slight winter belly, kept well past season, would be no liability.
We had reached the main level, where we paused in visual reconnaissance, making our initial greetings. We could see that the hierarchy of guests was also a pyramid. The aforementioned "A" aristocracy surrounded the hot tub at the apex on the uppermost terrace, by the French doors to the house. They was a higher concentration of good looking men here, more muscle and less jiggle. Status and attractiveness diminished down the levels though degrees of insiderness, diffusing as it descended into hangers on and wannabes clustered around the bar and the grass sloping toward the pond.
"Have you made any preliminary selections?" my companion asked. He knows I make my decisions quickly.
"I have. They're over by the hot tub. See if you can guess."
"Hmmmm." he considered the assembled.
"Tall black tank top. And. Green cut of sleeves."
"Excellent. You know me well. How 'bout yourself?"
He pondered a moment, scanning, "I think I can have pretty much anyone here. I'll just leave it open 'till later. Oh. I saw you looking at red beard. STAY AWAY from that mess. He's gonna be on you like a shark as soon as you get in the pool."
My companion has made himself my social director, sure that I don't get laid enough. His Henry Higgins has great plans for my Eliza Doolittle. Aparently, a linchpin is social capital, in which equity is grown as much by who you DON'T fuck, as by who you do. He's made it his duty to keep my stock on an upward graph. So many rules.
I had to piss. My companion was starving. He hurried to the buffet tent, in search of what ever scraps remained after three hours of onslaught by hungry bears. I was directed up the steps to the house.
The draperies billowed gently at the open door, cool air escaping under the ruffled hem and onto my bare toes. I fought my way through the layers and found myself in the livingroom. The walls and ceilings were white, edged and accented by rough timbers, which also spanned the eaves in the areas where the room was open to the second floor and then further up into the gables. Carpets of thick pile wool arabesques blanketed the floor leaving starkly contrasting borders of polished pine around the perimeter. Everything was faded beigey gold and dusty olive. Squishy rolled arm sofas and chairs upholstered in plush brocaded velours, buttoned and skirted with rope fringe, were attended by numerous delicate curliqued mahogany tables and stands, all crowded with effusively decorated objects in crystal ond porcelain. The mantle shelf was lined with a Victorian drygoods emporium worth of ornate easel frames on a crocheted runner, holding incongruous photos of burly men in ball caps and sleeveless flannel, shorts and boots. A couple who I gathered were the hosts were in each image; in the wooded mountains, in orange whitewater rafting vests, against gray wooden railings before sea side sunsets, and standing amid crowds of leather chaps wearing harnessed passers by on crowded city streets on both coasts. Smiling silently side by side, clustered together with other men, one arm around the next guy, and the other holding a plastic pint glass of beer. Swags of velvet wrapped the windows on three sides like bunting, their steady march interrupted by the piers between windows. Placed sentry like at these intervals were curved glass vitrines, their honey colored frames inlaid with wooden bouquets and enriched with gold mountings, filled with histrionic sterling teapots and sugar bowls, wavy edged trays and undulating posy vases, all carefully polished and precisely arranged in vignettes, with opera glasses, pierced ivory fans, and sepia photo's of pale women in high lace collars. It was as though all four Grandmothers had met their reward at one time, bequesting by the van load in their Last Will and Testaments. I walked up to the long narrow table along the back of a sofa at the center of the room. The marble top was almost covered by gold foil capped green champagne bottles, wooden cigar boxes, and small glossy paper shopping bags from boutiques in town. I could smell chocolate cedar and cellophane, even over the flanking bowls of potpourri.
I found the powder room, pissed and washed my hands. I stood in front of the ornate gilt mirror hung over a rosewood china trade demi table which supported another bowl of potpourri. I put a couple of eye drops in with my contact lenses, vigorously rubbed the stubble on my head and addressed my reflection. "Showtime!" I declared, to grinning teeth and jazz hands, Then pushed the paneled door open, crossed the expanse of carpet to the glass doors, and stepped out into the brightness and heat to locate my companion and find and greet the two men in the photographs whose hospitality I was about to enjoy.