The Right Thing

by Denis Clifford

                          

"There really are facts," Kelly instructed Adrian, “genuine facts. That's one thing I learned from Judge McCann. We need a sympathetic plaintiff—not one with four different fathers for her kids."

"I like learning from an expert," Adrian dead-panned.

"Right," Kelly laughed. "I just lost big in the Ninth Circuit. That’s how to become an expert: Be the first one to lose big."

"I want to know how to get there," Adrian replied, hinting at the intimidation he felt in front of judges. He intended to master being a courtroom lawyer, but during his year In Florida Legal Services, there'd been no one who could teach him litigation. In the months since he'd moved west in mid-1968 to work in a large poverty law office in East Oakland, Kelly had guided him in preparing a major lawsuit against Governor Reagan's new welfare "overpayment" regulation: If a family was paid too much under the complex payment schedule of the Welfare Department, the state could "reduce the grant to zero"—give the family nothing for two months, even if the family had done nothing wrong and had no idea a mistake had been made.

The two men walked out of their shabby storefront office, onto the bleak ordinariness of 46th Avenue. Pale lemon-yellow light filtered through incoming fog. Three black men, leaning against the doorway of the Fish Market across the street that served various illicit purposes, appraised them coolly. Abruptly, Kelly asked Adrian why he'd gone to law school.

Adrian glanced wryly at Kelly. "I didn't want to write a Ph.D. thesis."

Kelly felt another spark of kinship. "Same reason I went."

Working together, the two had discovered many affinities. Both rebels and romantics, in their late twenties, of Celtic ancestry, they sought a life both meaningful and exciting. Adrian was a slender man, just under six feet. His arched nose and curly red hair set off an angular face, alive with vitality and smiles. Yet even when most energetic, he retained traces of watchfulness, his blue-green eyes observant. Kelly was slightly over six feet, lean, with the dark hair, blue eyes, and the volatile temperament of the black-Irish. Each had grown up in East Coast suburbs and gone to Ivy League schools. Both had "done well," a Fulbright for Adrian, Law Review for Kelly, and had developed a similar persona, valuing wit and quickness of mind.  Their doubts about "success" had been sharpened by the same authors and books, Sinclair Lewis, Marquand, O'Hara, The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, depicting the stifling fate awaiting them as corporate career slaves.

As they approached their cars—Adrian's Porsche convertible, Kelly's battered VW bug—Kelly, as nervous as if he was calling for a date, asked Adrian what he was doing that night.

 "Nothing. Want to come over for dinner?" Adrian knew that Kelly remained tormented by his wife Ronnie's abrupt abandonment of him, months earlier.

"Ah ... um ... ah ... sure, I'd love it." Kelly was awed by Adrian's bachelor self-sufficiency. Women flowed through Adrian's life. When he gave a dinner for seven, it was a feast of exquisitely prepared crab quiche, ham with glazed-orange sauce, tiny artichokes in lemon butter, spinach and bacon salad, fine wine and dessert of fresh fruit in melted chocolate, accompanied by suitably strong dope. Most impressive to Kelly, Adrian neither had a date nor seemed to miss one.

Adrian lived in a light-filled four-room apartment on a tree-shaded Berkeley street. Preparing dinner, he whistled, pleased that he had a role to play with Kelly, and wasn't the junior associate he often felt at work. Kelly wandered through the apartment. The walls and much of the furniture were white. A few small pictures, knickknacks, and plants were tasteful arranged in corners and shelves. The place exuded a spirit of controlled independence.

 Chatting after dinner, Adrian mentioned the "straight world."

"I won't do it!" Kelly erupted, as if ominous bullies threatened to drag him into a three-piece suit that night. 

"You're not doing it now," Adrian soothed. During college, he'd feared that he'd end up living his mother's dream for him, a distinguished Manhattan lawyer, trapped with a family in a Park Avenue apartment. But now he believed he could choose his path in life, and perhaps his fate. "We're doing fine."

"There's a difference between procrastination and escape."

 Adrian produced a joint. Stoned, he floated, feeling at ease, peaceful. One hit cast Kelly swirling, fears biting him, screaming doom of loneliness. Then he braved asking Adrian what had happened to Marlene, the woman who'd accompanied him across the country.

Adrian shrugged. "Wasn't meant to be."

Kelly sat silently, feeling that he knew little about love. He'd believed it was magic that, somehow, came over you. Now the truth seemed to be that it was often a tangled, dark business. He sighed, lying back on the couch. Adrian turned on the TV and they watched the news. False-humored men with razor cut hair babbled blandly about grotesque events as if they were explaining something. "Very weird," Kelly muttered.

"The thing about dope," Adrian said, "is that you learn you don't believe in what you're supposed to believe in." He shut off the TV and put on a Billie Holliday record. Each took another hit from the joint.

"Adrian," Kelly asked." Do you like living alone?"

"Yes ... There are times I'd like a warm body here every night but you know, when you live with a woman, you never get to finish a book." He shrugged. "Not that finding a warm body is much trouble in Berkeley."

"Don't you mind the loneliness?" Kelly pushed.

"Ah ... yeah ... but I like to make my own decisions." Adrian smiled encouragement. "Once you realize that a lot of life is passing time well, it gets easier."

"I don't want to be alone," Kelly announced.

"Love lasting forever," Adrian chuckled. "No, I think it's like the lines in that rug." He pointed at the oriental rug on his floor. "They come together for a while, blend, then separate."

I won't find out tonight, Kelly realized, how he's come to believe that. Since he hadn't read Of Human Bondage, he was correct.

Adrian poured more effort into his lawsuit: further research, pondering, rewriting, then grinding critiques of his complaint and legal brief with Kelly. Meanwhile both were trying to cope with the torrent of change they’d plunged into. Twenty-five, thirty, sometimes over forty clients a day brought their miseries to the East Oakland office: welfare hassles, evictions, unemployment denials, discrimination, debts, car breakdowns, beatings, scams. Beyond clients’ cases, the two men established relationships with a nascent welfare rights organization, attended Black Panther breakfasts, and forged an alliance with the leader of the East Oakland Panthers, Fred Benston.

Energy and change swirled around them: The Vietnam War, the Anti-War Movement, "Power to the People," Feminism, Black Power; the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, Hippies, "Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out," LSD. The two speculated on the meaning of all this churning, marched against the war, explored the Bay area, and returned five days a week to work in the ghetto and discuss the merits of big cases versus individual service work, how to locate the "Community" and the importance of resisting the urge to be leaders, the elitist error of whites in the civil rights movement. They felt at the center of their age.

After several more rewrites than Adrian thought necessary, Kelly agreed Adrian's case was ready. But they still hadn't found a viable plaintiff. Several more weeks passed, then a woman arrived at their office distraught that "The Welfare" had cut her off although she'd done nothing wrong. For two days, her three kids had eaten only beans. Now she had no more food and no money for food. Adrian checked. Her story held. The Department had stopped payment solely because of its previous budget miscalculations, which she had no way of knowing about. He and Kelly worked a frantic day and evening, turning her reality into a written declaration. "This is it!" Kelly shouted. "Make that judge cry."

Adrian had always loved theater. Now his cast was himself as the star, a stern federal judge, a bailiff, a court reporter, the Assistant Attorney General, Mr. Baxter, as the villain. "Do you have your rule 65 declaration?" the judge demanded. Adrian loved his crisp feeling of competence as he handed the original to the clerk. Mr. Baxter fulminated against federal interference in what was clearly a local matter. Adrian countered that federal law clearly prohibited this type of arbitrary punishment. The judge nodded agreement, than barked at Mr. Baxter, "Have you read the woman's declaration? Do you contest it?" Mr. Baxter couldn't. The theater became magic. The judge scrawled his name on Adrian's temporary restraining order. The next morning's San Francisco Chronicle bore headlines: "Judge Halts Reagan Welfare Cutback."

With his love of ceremony, Adrian had become the office leader of birthday parties, holidays, celebrations. About twenty people milled around in the secretaries' room, waiting for the stragglers to arrive so they could all set off for Adrian's victory celebration. Passing time, Opal urged Adrian to think of something really funny for the upcoming April Fool's Day.
         Oh," he drawled, "just tell someone you love them."

Whatever Adrian told them, Kelly was impressed that he got them.  "How do you do it?" Kelly asked one evening as they drove out to teach a welfare rights class in the Tassafaranga Housing Project.

Adrian felt an impulse to tell Kelly some truth, and a simultaneous delight realizing that was what he wanted. "I started training in prep school. We only got free during vacations. So I got to be an expert in the fast rush."   

"And Fran?"

"I told her over this weekend ... I don't want to get involved." He grinned, somewhere between embarrassment and amusement. "We're older Kelly. They fall in love so easily now."

 "You don't believe much in love, do you?"

 He flicked Kelly an austere look. "People have needs."

Adrian had expected to be alone since he was a teenager. So much in his life had felt like a conspiracy to make him wary: the treacheries of prep school; the mean vagaries of his stepfather, a man who'd growl "Should that window be more open?" and berate Adrian if he didn't guess the desired response; the fears and pressures of Princeton, or worse, law school.

Their East Oakland office talk grew drenched with angers and frustrations. Nixon and the Vietnam War raged on, apparently impervious to protests. Antiwar demonstrations turned violent. The Weathermen were planting bombs. Gays fought cops at the Stonewall bar. Hard-core radicals proclaimed they were "Taking it to the "Streets," or planned "From Protest to Resistance." Revolutionaries bought guns, took target practice. Kelly passed an uncomfortable but uneventful night in the Panther headquarters; they hoped to deter police raids by the announced presence inside their office of white attorneys.

Finally wearying of his lonely misery, Kelly dared ask a woman for a date. Soon, to his astonishment, he was enmeshed with an entanglement of lovers, learning that the "sexual revolution" included him. With lovers, Kelly instinctively hid what he risked discussing with Adrian: Why had he been so tormented when Ronnie left him? What did love actually require? Adrian spoke of inner peace, and, above all, trust.

"Trust?" Kelly laughed. "We Irish never heard of it."

"Saying what you feel," Adrian mused. "Giving up control. For that, you really have to trust."

Adrian had lived so long nurturing a dream of having a real friend, an equal, that he sometimes still felt astonished to now have one, a revelation that astonished Kelly, who'd always valued friends and made them easily. Adrian admired Kelly's seekings, from wrestling with the meaning of his work to drug-and-shrink aided stumblings towards understand his emotions. The two often adventured together, sometimes on recently acquired motorcycles, other times delighting in conversations soaring to where neither could reach alone.

Cautiously, Adrian revealed some darker feelings to Kelly. Lifting his normal control, he'd mutter a telling observation about an office colleague, or define the stability of an unhappy marriage by observing, "A hysteric needs an obsessive." Revealing that he knew his capacity for self-hatred, as Kelly was discovering his own, Adrian observed, "If my soul dies, it'll be my coldness that killed it."

They had fights. Adrian learned Kelly's brusqueness could turn mean and that his truth-pursuing could be gnawing, obsessive. Kelly learned that there was something deeply secretive about Adrian. Worse, he could be cavalier about work. "Look at this mess," Opal angrily told Kelly. "You know Adrian. So charming. 'Oh, I'm not good with these details. Could you just finish the declaration from these notes.' And I can't even read them." Distressed, Kelly acted the boss, sternly instructing Adrian not to palm off work. Adrian snapped a reply and soon Kelly was shouting and Adrian had withdrawn to coldness. The next morning both came to the office as distressed as lovers after an vicious quarrel. As soon as they saw each other, each sighed relief, knowing nothing irrevocable had happened. "We'll work this out," Adrian declared. "Interesting ... it’s sure is easier talking about openness than living it."

Society seemed to be erupting: illegal U.S. bombing in Cambodia, students murdered by National Guard troops at Kent State, revolutionaries proclaiming "armed struggle." People quit legal services to move to “back to the land," to live in an ashram or commune, to join some revolutionary group, even for straight jobs.

The stream of clients flowing into their office continued unabated. By the end of a day of seeing new clients, Kelly was usually exhausted. Worse, he increasingly doubted that legal reform could make a real difference. Most of all, he doubted he knew what would make a difference. "I don't know how the world should be run," he told Adrian. “I don’t know how to love a woman. I grew up pretty repressed. Thank god I didn't take to being an altar boy… You know, it may be a full-time job to save my own ass."

But soon, Kelly abruptly fell in love with Liz, a flamboyant, sensual Cal English student, shimmering and taut, like a fierce hummingbird. Both joyed in being with Adrian, who was often alone now; only occasionally was a woman passing through his life. Kelly was pleased when Liz and Adrian evinced instinctive connections, including a mutual love of flirting. After a motorcycle ride through the Berkeley hills, Kelly found the two of them enthralled in conversation and looked with pride at Liz, her full round figure sexily revealed in halter top and cutoff Levis. "What are you two talking about?"

"Our wicked ways," Adrian teased. Liz's eyes locked onto Adrian's and vibrated from playfulness to depths, as if to say—you take it anywhere you want, I can handle it. Adrian's winked approval of her provocativeness, while wondering at Kelly's naiveté, thinking that he retained more than a trace of the altar boy.

Liz moved in with Kelly. Discussing monogamy, each told the other they didn't really favor it, believed in "freedom."  Neither probed what the other meant. Kelly lived blissfully with Liz for several months, until she began demanding he get divorced at once. "I've told you and told you,” he said. “I can't risk it. Ronnie's demanding alimony. Half the judges hate me. Ronnie's an actress. Some Reagan judge would love to stick it to me."

"If you loved me, you'd get a divorce."

 Kelly didn’t seek a divorce. Liz’s occasional rages at Kelly grew more intense and he continued to love her.

By 1972, courts had rejected most of their major cases. The cases they won produced little long-term results. Governor Reagan and his minions were proving to be formidable welfare foes. They complied with court orders only when facing jail sentences for contempt of court. Then they responded rapidly with another, often also illegal, cut in welfare payments, and the struggle resumed.

 The ocean of client woes rolled endlessly on. While Adrian seemed untroubled, Kelly felt increasingly drained, and not just by clients. Why had he ever wanted to be head of the office? He was weary of personality clashes, supervising major cases, visits from Nixon-appointed evaluators, demands from people who asserted they were speaking for the Black Community or the Chicano community.

 "What are we doing?" Kelly demanded of Adrian. "Working hard, working hard. Isn't that what we were going to avoid? The only difference between me and a corporate lawyer is that at least he gets paid well for what he does."

"Yeah, but he does horrible work" Adrian countered.

 "Well, we're not changing anything."

"But it's such fun to be the good guy. The hero. We ride into town and clean out the bad guys. And we don't have to stay around after that."

"But we don't clean out the bad guys."

"That's not the point. The point is that we get to play the good guys."

"That's nonsense," Kelly growled. "I wanta quit."

"Quit? Aren’t you going to be the new Deputy Director!"

"A step up?" Kelly scorned. "To where? I want out! I'm no revolutionary, and I'm certainly not a social worker. I'm a pagan."

Nixon would again be President. McGovern's campaign was doomed. The Panthers were broken. Fred Benston's body was dug out of a grave in the Santa Cruz mountains. How, Kelly wondered, had he ever let his rage blind him to believing that the Establishment might be overthrown or collapse? At a welfare rights meeting Kelly asked the women what they wanted. "Go after our kids' fathers more," they urged. "Make them pay their fair share." They demanded more DAs, more prosecutions. "Probably good ideas," Kelly observed to Adrian afterwards, "but hardly a recipe for revolution."

Liz announced she was thinking of moving out, then cried. Pain seared Kelly's chest. "Don't leave," he pleaded. "I really love you. I'll call Ronnie, try to worked it out." They held each other. "I love you," Liz sobbed. Some days later, Liz got home late, and told Kelly she'd stopped over at Adrian's to talk to him, as she had before. Again, he'd helped. Kelly responded that Adrian was wise.

Kelly had doubts though about agreeing to Adrian's urging that the two go backpacking; Kelly had never done it.

"Hey," Adrian nudged, "You've been the one telling me life is really process, not results. Try it."

"Where to?"

"I'm not sure. Backpacking somewhere in the Sierras. I'll pick up some maps and we can just take off."

"Just take off." The words reverberated in Kelly, reawakening his college dreams of freedom, the thrill he'd felt reading ­­On the Road.

With a sweeping bow, Adrian unveiled their camping food—a ham, chicken, candy bars, fruit, eggs, chocolate, beef jerky and two bottles of wine. "Wine?" Kelly queried. He'd thought backpacking required cutting the labels off tea bags.

"You know I like to live well."

 In August heat, they drove through the sun-burned Sacramento Valley and browned foothills of the Sierras. Adrian whistled a sorrowful tune. In a dinner near Donner Pass, Adrian gathered in a man with the rugged look of a lumberjack, who jabbed his finger on their topo map. "Paradise Lake.  Beautiful. Pretty high up. Shouldn't find too many people there."

An hour later, they tugged on their packs and set off. Glimmers of sunset filtered through the tall pines around them. Silent except for Adrian's sporadic whistling, they hiked up a rising trail. The sky darkened. Trees seemed to loom larger, surrounding them like threats. Adrian stopped, shedding his pack. Kelly quickly followed, stretching his weary back. "When do you think we'll get there?" he sighed.

"Kelly," Adrian gently corrected, "we're already there."

"You mean I won't get a grade for this?"

The next morning Adrian woke early and made a fire. The clear sky was radiant blue. Two hawks swooped far away, then disappeared. The sun-drenched land seemed pungently fresh, like newly baked bread. Kelly woke to sounds of chirping birds. Adrian cooked breakfast of eggs, rolls, and much coffee.

Reeds bent in the wind and glistening ripples coursed over Paradise Lake. White-snow peaks of the Sierra Nevadas jutted in the distance. During the afternoon the two men existed on a small beach, hardly talking. Time, passing as immeasurably as the shift of the sun, slid by. Adrian sat by the water, idly throwing stones. Kelly joined him. Bathed in warm orange-yellow light of early evening, they stretched out on the sand.             

"Ah ... I feel peaceful," Adrian announced.

"I didn't know peace existed, until I met you," Kelly complimented.

"And I didn't know what a friend was."

 Over dinner, Kelly bemoaned his continued fights with Liz. "But I do love her," he concluded "I really do."

Adrian raised his eyebrow, saying nothing, reminding himself that he'd made it a rule never to get involved between a couple. Odd response, Kelly thought idly. Well, about love, Adrian did have ... call them peculiar ideas.

Cheered by the glow of a fire, they sipped Kaluha and hot chocolate. "Adrian," Kelly felt warmth flood through him, "it's been grand. Being your friend ... We both really are romantics."

"I think we're learning how to make the truth romantic." Adrian placed a hand on Kelly's shoulder; Kelly instinctively remained silent.

. "The truth ... " Adrian smiled. "That takes a tremendous amount of trust. I trust you." He paused. "I've wanted to tell you for the longest ... " His voice was soft. "I ... ah ... I'm gay."

As soon as he heard, Kelly knew that he'd somehow known that, subconsciously, for a time, and that it made no difference to their friendship. Adrian didn't even have to ask him to keep it secret. He knew he would, feeling pride that he could.

Adrian described years lived in isolation. "Strange" feelings buried during puberty, secret realities hidden since his first gay sex while on his Fulbright. By the time he was in Duke law school, he was adept in duplicity. As F. Adrian Bennett, he was president of the local chapter of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council and active on peace marches. As Bill Bouvé, he pursued his passions in Washington bars and bedrooms. "I knew how I'd end up—a sad but wise observer."

Adrian had written his mother that he'd realized he'd moved West to experience his own freedom. Of course he hadn't given her any details. He'd known that something was brewing for gays in San Francisco. Still, he was surprised, then delighted, then an active participant, in what he'd discovered—freedom of the cock. Tumbling in and out of beds, couches, sofas, back rooms, bathhouses. Acts still felonies in Florida. Suddenly, he could live the intensity of his desires. Fascinated with sex and sexual power, he thought occasionally of a line of Sherwood Anderson's: “if I am a creature of carnal lusts I will then live for my lusts." Somehow, living desire had thawed him so he now dreamed of a mate, a yearning he'd buried.

He smiled at Kelly. "For so long I wanted to tell you. All your searching, and I couldn't tell you mine. You must have thought I was standing still ... God, I admire men who are out of the closet ... I'm not ready."

"Scary, huh?" Kelly answered. "Besides ... there must be a part of you that likes living a double life."

Adrian raised his eyebrows with respect at Kelly's acuteness. “True ... but I think it interferes with my real dream—the search for the perfect boy."

Both stoned from strong dope, the two wound down their travels at a Berkeley bar. As Kelly sipped a beer, he suddenly sensed Adrian's vibrations change; an animal aura came over him, a palpable sense of desire. It was subtle; only because of their intimacy, and the dope, did Kelly notice. Without reflection, Kelly knew instinctively what those waves of desire meant. He turned to look at the attractive woman sitting at the end of the bar. His glance landed on a lean blond boy, with an open white shirt and pouty mouth. Kelly laughed aloud. The boy was no more sexual to him than a potato. He glanced back at Adrian, now enthralled with open flirting. "And then," Kelly told Adrian when they left the bar, "I really, finally, got it. No way you chose what you felt in there, what I couldn't feel. 'Sexual preference' isn't the right term at all. It comes before everything. It's born, not made."

Adrian hugged Kelly joyously. "Ah, it's great to be known."

Several weeks later, Adrian was pleasuring in a night alone, perusing a book on architecture, when the phone rang, "I have to talk to you," he heard Kelly's quavering voice demand.

"Sure ... breakfast ... "

"No ... now!" Kelly cut him off.

"I'm sort of tired tonight. Can it wait?"

"NO!" Kelly screamed.

Adrian shivered, a sensation he'd had since childhood when he felt accused. He'd done something terribly wrong. He didn't know it was, but he was evil.  Doomed.  Then he wrestled his demon to calm, assuring himself that he’d learned that he wasn't doomed.

Kelly arrived, shaking; he'd obviously been crying. "It all came out. Somehow, I knew. Me, who's never intuitive. I told her. She had to tell me the truth. So finally she admitted she'd slept with Ken, her T.A. We cried. Then suddenly I knew she was still lying. She denied it, but I knew. Finally she broke down. Told me about them all."

 As Adrian spoke soothingly, Kelly recoiled. "You knew!" he attacked. Liz had revealed that she'd told Adrian months before about her affairs. "Why didn't tell me?"

"I felt ... bad about it. But Liz swore me to secrecy before we talked ... and you had enough clues. She showed up here one night, crazed, blurting things out, crying. I promised her that I wouldn't tell.”

"You promised ... " Kelly felt emptiness, not betrayal.

"I didn't know ... I thought ... " Adrian fumbled for the words and charm to make it right. Kelly glared at him, and he felt knifed. He leaned over, sighing. "I'm ... I'm sorry."

Kelly released a mournful chuckle. "Well, that's something."

"I am. I was wrong. It  ... it wasn't you I identified with," he said with a sad sharpness. "It was Liz. We both like sexual power ... and I've been as lost as she was."

 Kelly suddenly sensed that the truth here could be very dark indeed. "Adrian, did you sleep with her?"

"No." Adrian trembled inside. He knew Kelly's code of male honor: You never sleep with a buddy's girl. Kelly had once described walking across the street to avoid saying hello to a girl who'd dumped his best friend months before. Adrian felt fear stab him, a clenching in his stomach. But he knew he had to tell Kelly all. He wasn't sure why he knew that, he just knew it. How did I get here, Adrian grasped, while Kelly looked at him with a strange mixture of expressions. Adrian had thought that there were big dramatic moments to life, when great choices were made. But his life wasn't working out that way. Somehow, you came out somewhere, and the only choice you seemed to have was self-betrayal or not. His life was an accretion; he'd tried to choose his path, and suddenly there was no going back and he'd chosen to eliminate the option of going back.

         "Kelly ... I almost did sleep with her. One night when she was over we started fiddling around on the couch. She was on the prowl ... I lay there ... and ... I  just didn't. I guess even I knew it was wrong."

Kelly sat stunned, suspicious that Adrian might be lying, and knowing that he'd be mistrustful of Adrian for a long time.

 Adrian saw confusion and mistrust surge in Kelly's eyes, and felt sharper fear. See, see a voice ranted in his head. I warned you. Keep your fucking mouth shut. Screw that, another voice surged out, rolling over his demon. You don't live like that anymore. He'd told the truth. Kelly would see that, surely. It'd be all right. It'd take time, but it'd be all right.

He felt a sudden pang. If he lost Kelly ... then he felt a wave of calm flood through him, and he knew that in some deep way, it was already all right. He'd done the right thing. At last, some mocking voiced teased, as he stood up to hug Kelly.

[1993]