Men at Work?

Art imitating Life as it occasionally will, much of the fun in my novel Kiss Me, Straight takes place when a gang of flight attendants is turned loose on Sydney, Australia.  The beer flows, men chunder…

I flew international out of San Francisco for the first ten years of my career, and, like most of the gay guys, I loved flying Sydney and leapt at every opportunity to do so.  Nights like this were a big reason why:

You’ll know this story is from a while back, because it opens with me at the gym.  With three other flight attendants on a Sydney layover, mind you; I had mostly gone along to be sociable.  I think we were all a little surprised by quite how sociable our little outing turned out.

Except for maybe Mark.  A broad-shouldered, booming Southern queen who turned every chance meeting of two or more men into a tea dance, he was the first to zoom in on Henry.  More specifically, the first to zoom in on Henry zooming in on our friend Jim, of which he immediately made a big deal.

Henry was wielding some free weights across the room, stealthily sizing Jim up in the mirror, and Jim⎯strikingly handsome, short, and shy⎯was trying to blush unnoticed, but Mark jumped right in.

“You should come over here and say ‘hi’ to us,” he called out across the gym.  “We’re not exactly regulars.”

Henry smiled at Mark in the mirror while he finished his set and set his weights back on the rack, but he only had eyes for Jim when he crossed the room.  “Yeah,” he cracked, “your accent gave you away.”

“You don’t have an Australian accent, either,” Mark noticed.  “Where are you from?”

Henry smiled again, quickly meeting Mark’s eyes.  “You’re right.  I live here, but I’m from South Africa.”

“How exotic,” purred Mark, who I knew for a fact had been to South Africa more than once.  “You should meet my friends.”  He waved a perfectly dismissive hand at me and my buddy Taylor, and we smiled, waving politely, quite aware of our role as Non-Speaking Townspeople in this particular tableau.  “And this,” he announced⎯triumphantly, as if he was somehow able to take credit for him⎯”is our friend Jim.”

Uncomfortable as the center of attention, Jim nevertheless remembered his manners and shook Henry’s hand with a friendly ‘hello.’

“How are you?” he asked Jim and only Jim.

“Fine, thanks.”

“We just got in from San Francisco,” Mark chimed in.

“Ah.  Cabin crew, then?” Henry guessed without effort; most Americans out on Oxford Street were.  Same with many of the Aussies, for that matter.

“That’s right,” Mark said.

“How long are you in town?” Henry asked, turning his body slightly to isolate Jim as his interviewee.

“Til Monday,” Jim practically whispered.

“That’s right,” Mark said again.  “We’re here all weekend with not a thing to do.”

“Something will come up, I’m sure,” Henry said, focusing his attention on Jim.  “Maybe you’d want to get a drink or something?”

Jim blushed.  “Gosh, thanks.  That’s real nice of you,” he said, “but I don’t think so.  I’m here with my friends, we’ll probably stick together.”

“Sure,” Henry said.  “You guys have fun.”

How Mark sized this stranger up so quickly and with such deadly accuracy, I’ll never know, but he hopped off his treadmill and followed Henry over to the water fountain.  They chatted amiably for maybe three minutes before Henry went into the locker room and Mark rejoined us.

“Good news!” he sang.

“What?” Jim asked.

“You’ve got a date!”

“I what?  Mark⎯”

“Relax,” Mark commanded.  “We’re going with you.  I explained about how you were really quite attracted to him⎯”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jim interrupted him.

“But that you’d be more comfortable if you had your friends with you,” Mark carried on, uninterruptable.  “At least, you know, on the first date.”

Jim rolled his eyes.  “I wish you hadn’t…”

“Relax,” Mark said again.  “It’s just dinner.  But wear something cute.”

***

As directed, Taylor and I met Mark and Jim in the hotel lobby a couple of minutes before seven.  Henry was obviously prepared to wager that Jim was worth jumping through a few hoops for, because he rolled up in the driveway in his shiny red convertible right at the appointed hour and greeted all four of us with a kiss on the cheek.  Mark, Taylor, and I piled into the backseat, leaving Jim his rightful place, as our Meal Ticket, in the front.  And away we went, zipping through Sydney’s after-work traffic, back down Oxford Street and through the neighborhoods to the glittering slope of shops and restaurants lining the hill down to Bondi Beach.

Whatever deal had been struck with Henry, Mark had struck it, and Henry only had eyes for Jim, so Taylor and I tagged cluelessly along, content to gossip and boywatch, and eventually Henry led us up the stairs to a crowded, convivial restaurant, wall to wall with hip, hungry Sydneysiders.  There would obviously be a long wait, and we were settling in when a tall, thick beefcake with a unibrow and a ponytail shouldered the crowd aside and greeted Henry with effusive kisses.

“Hello, Eitan,” Henry said.

“Henry!  Have you come for dinner?”

Henry nodded.  “With some friends.”

The beefcake beamed at us.  “Excellent,” he declared.  “I’ll have your table ready straight away.”

Anything under an hour seemed unrealistic, until we saw him careen through the crowd and onto the patio, sailing up to a table of young after-work types.  There was little discussion; he promised them or threatened them with something.  But they were relocated to the bar, their dishes were whisked away, and we were ushered through the crowd to the romantic and glittering patio to overlook Australia’s favorite beach.

Introductions were made, along the lines of “These are some people I’ve met, and this is Jim.”  Eitan was suitably pleased to meet us all, bade us welcome to his restaurant, and scurried off to the kitchen.

I never saw a wine list, but was plied with glass after glass of a sweet, fruity white by a sweet, fruity waiter.  I never saw a menu, but our table groaned under Technicolor spreads and dips, piles of warm pita bread, plates of seasoned, spicy meats and cool, clever sauces.  Taylor and I contented ourselves to sit in the corner, sampling everything set in front of us, watching Henry ask Jim questions to which Mark had a never-ending supply of loud, long-winded answers.  The sky was ablaze as the sun set behind the hillside of houses that overhang the beach, ever-darker blues wafting from the pink and orange horizon out over the ocean, from deep within which the shimmering moon seemed to rise, filling the sky.  By the time dessert was served, the stars were fairly dripping from the Southern sky, silvering the crests of the waves as they washed ashore.  I certainly never saw anything as crass as a bill for this dinner, and precisely what it cost our friend Jim was never fully disclosed, despite Mark’s fervent cajoling for the duration of the 14-hour flight home, but Taylor and I agreed: even though the handsome man paying for dinner scarcely even knew we were there and we went back to our rooms alone, it was the best date either one of us had been on in a long time.

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