As told by Peter Worthington
As a child, I remember the stacks of Christmas cards my mother would prepare each year. In those days it cost three cents to mail a sealed envelope. If you left it unsealed and tucked the flap inside, it was a penny. Postage has since gone up dramatically, and the number of cards sent and received has likewise dropped. So, you can imagine my surprise when this large envelope arrived in my mailbox.
I assumed it was a Christmas card, even though it was July, not only because of its size but also because of its Christmas red – color. Then I noticed what was pasted in the upper right-hand corner – a six-cent canceled stamp. The cancellation date read 1970. I wondered where in the world this envelope had been for the last forty-six years. There was no return address but the cancellation stamp contained the name of the city from which it was mailed – Chicago, Illinois. Apparently, it had slipped down behind something somewhere along the line on its way to San Francisco.
I was thirty-two years old at the time the envelope was mailed and had recently moved from Chicago to San Francisco. The lack of a return address on the envelope prompted several names of people I had known at that time but, unfortunately, I had lost contact with everyone over the years so my curiosity was piqued as to who this card might be from.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at my desk to unveil the mystery. I pulled out a rosewood letter opener given to me as a gift some years ago and had never used it until this moment.
My suspicions of a Christmas card were confirmed as I opened the envelope and pulled out its contents. There was nothing written on the card bearing Holiday Greetings, but there was a folded piece of paper inside. As I opened it, I saw the name ‘Russ’ at the bottom of the page. Memories of my friend, Russell De Luca, flooded back instantly as well as my regret in not having kept in touch with him after I moved away.
The letter was brief but packed an unexpected wallop. I was stunned at what he had written.
I can’t remember where I met Russ, probably at a bar, but we ended up at my apartment, apparently for sex which I can’t remember either. The only thing I do remember is when he was about to leave, he hesitated. I said, “What?” He said nothing, just smiled. Then it dawned on me. I said, “Again?” He smiled and nodded. It was a long weekend; he didn’t leave until Monday morning.
We became good friends, but we never did the deed again though I often thought about it. I wish now I had suggested it, especially when I’d cut his hair. He was so close I could smell him and the temptation was so strong to put the scissors down and put my arms around him from behind and bury my face in his neck and bite his trapezius muscle in hopes of arousing him.
I tried to convince him to stop doing the comb-over he insisted upon. “You’re a very handsome man, Russ. Balding men are more virile in appearance.” He’d laugh and ignore my suggestion.
He was devastated when he contracted a venereal disease and came to me for help. He didn’t know who to go to. I gave him the name of my doctor, who happened to be gay, and then berated him, “If you’re that horny, you dumb bastard, why the fuck didn’t you call me? I happen to know what you like in case you’ve forgotten.” I hugged him so tight he gasped, then sent him off to the doctor. As he departed, he turned to me, “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
It broke my heart he even had that thought but I assured him I would never mention to anyone and, indeed, I never have. Our friendship grew and continued but he never asked for intimacy.
He was a beautiful Italian lad; I believe he would be called a stud muffin nowadays. I swore there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his frame – well, maybe an ounce or two. We’d spend summer weekends at ‘the Rocks’ as they were called – a gay gathering place on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was the man-made barrier against storm tides.
Lying next to him I often would run my fingers along his naked body and tease him to tell me what he would like to have done to him. He’d laugh when I suggested tying him up and playing with him, but I think he liked the idea. He’d turn over when he got an erection and looked away from me. Russ was the consummate gentleman and very shy – two of the attributes that endeared him to me.
The letter he wrote was the most beautiful declaration of love I could have imagined, along with an apology for not having said so sooner. I sat there slack-jawed in disbelief. His final sentence was, ‘Call me and let me know what you think.’ I never called because I never got the card until now. I’m certain he was heartbroken and thought I didn’t care. But I did care and still do care in spite of the years gone by.
I dug out my old address book and wondered if he still lived on West Wellington. I dialed the number written next to his name.
“I’m calling for Russell De Luca. Is he there?”
“No, I’m sorry. There’s no one here by that name.”
“Sorry to disturb; thank you.” Now, what do I do? I searched the Internet for every possibility with no luck. He was probably retired from his job at the Merchandise Mart and could be living almost anywhere – that is if he hadn’t passed away. I penned a note explaining the late arrival of his Christmas card and wrote what I would have done and said if I had received his card forty-six years earlier. I included my e-mail address just in case.
I had to go to the Post Office and buy a bloody stamp. I never use them what with the convenience of the Internet. I took a last look at the envelope as melancholy flooded my consciousness, then dropped it in the mailbox with no hope of a response.
I forgot about the incident until one Saturday afternoon a month or two later when my doorbell rang. I was expecting my friend, Marge Claybourne, for lunch and an afternoon in Golden Gate Park. I buzzed her in, left the door ajar, and went back to the kitchen to finish preparing lunch. When a soft knock on the front door came from the foyer, I hollered, “Come on in,” and continued what I was doing until I saw a shadow come into the kitchen doorway and stop. I looked up into the smiling face of my friend. “Marge? You look like you just won the prize turkey.”
She smiled, then quietly whispered, “There’s someone here to see you.”
“What are you talking about? Who’s here to…?”
She stepped back and looked to her left as an elderly man moved into the doorway, “Hello, Peter.”
“Oh, my God. Russ.” I dropped my towel and grabbed him, embracing him so hard he gasped. I looked at Marge, “Where did you find him?”
“He was standing at the entrance. I came up behind him as he pressed your doorbell. He told me everything on the way up. Perhaps I should come back another time.”
“No, you won’t. Get in here.”
Russell was alive and well and had just arrived from Chicago after receiving my card which had been forwarded twice to his latest residence. His hair was gray, and he had gotten rid of the comb-over which left him looking as handsome as ever. I didn’t hesitate in telling him so.
After lunch, the three of us went to the Park and spent a delightful visit catching up while exploring some of the attractions the park had to offer.
As afternoon shadows lengthened, we went to the Embarcadero and had dinner at Boudin’s Bistro. Russ had never tasted Boudin’s sourdough bread. It was a delight to watch his reaction. After our meal, Marge announced it was time for her to go home. So, we walked her to the cable car turn-around at Aquatic Park and waited until a cable car arrived. The three of us helped the conductor, along with other waiting riders, turn the car around for the return trip. After helping Marge on board, we waved our farewells as the car moved away and out of our sight.
It was still twilight as Russ and I walked along the bayfront, reminiscing about Chicago and the times we spent together. I finally got around to asking him where he was staying. He said, “The Fairmont.”
I said, “No, you’re not. You can stay with me, I have plenty of room.”
He smiled that all too familiar smile of his, “No, I don’t want to impose on you. Why don’t you stay with me tonight?”
I hadn’t thought of that possibility and just stared at him.
“Not a good idea?” His smile faded.
“No, no. It’s a wonderful idea.” I took his arm, “But I never do anything on my first date.”
He laughed, “We’ve already had our first date, remember?”
“So we did.” I laughed and drew him closer to my side.
He knowingly added, “I’m not in my 30’s any longer, Pete.”
“Neither am I, my friend. It doesn’t matter. You’re here, and that does matter.”
Then I cautiously asked, “Has there been anyone for you since I moved?”
He was eager to answer, “Yes, there was. I met him about ten years after you left. We had just celebrated our 30th when he passed.”
“Russ, I’m so sorry. But I am happy you had that much time together.”
“How about you?”
“No, sorry to say. Too busy…”
“…with your career?”
“Yes, too busy.”
Russ was still the consummate gentleman. His shyness clung to him like a mantle of goodness. He paused and then struggled, “How about now. Did you mean what you wrote?”
“Yes, I did.” I looked at him questioningly.
“Well, I’m at loose ends now. If I considered relocating…”
He smiled and nodded.
“I think that is a wonderful idea. You can stay with me until we figure things out.”
“And if it doesn’t work out…”
“Don’t even think it, Russ. It will work. I promise. I’ll certainly do my best to make it work.”
“As will I. I hate to admit it, but I’ve always been afraid of growing old alone.”
I agreed with him and told him to forget it. “Contentment and love will be ours if we grab it and make it ours.” We continued walking until an idea struck me. “Let’s go to Boudin’s Bar and have a drink to celebrate.”
Russ laughed and agreed with me. So, we turned around and walked back to the bar for our celebration. I’ve often wondered if the Gods unveiled that lost Christmas card at that particular moment thereby assisting in bringing us together at long last. Maybe it was Kismet or maybe nothing more than chance. I refuse to believe it was just chance.