Men Like Us

Set in 1980s New York City, “Men Like Us” tells the story of a man who has everything except the ability to be himself.

Under the Arch

Men Like Us

Set in 1980s New York City, “Men Like Us” tells the story of a man who has everything except the ability to be himself.

A dark-haired man with yellow highlights wearing a white shirt and a small, gold dangling earring with a red gem looks off into the distance while sitting to eat food at a diner with another dark-haired man.

New York City hasn’t always been a place of unapologetic self-expression and inclusivity. Is Anthony’s life really as together as it seems? A new coworker puts some things into perspective. (Manasa Gudavalli for WSN)

Catherine Kenny, Contributing Writer | Dec 11, 2022

The wedding was going to cost more than an arm and a leg. It would cost a sentencing to a life of domesticity — complete with anything from a broken dish, to a lost checkbook, to conversations about where to buy milk, to which overpriced Montessori to send their future first-born child. As Anthony sat on a stool, pushed against the wall of his first New York City shoebox apartment, he imagined writing his signature with the invisible ink pen that his dad bought for him when he turned seven.

He imagined the surprise etched on the priest’s face when he went to validate the marriage and found nothing but an empty line at the bottom of the page. Though the page wouldn’t be empty, would it? He would sign the paper. He would promise “‘til death do us part,” he would cut the firewood at her parent’s cabin in Minnesota, and he would sit in a cubicle for the rest of his life to fund the pair’s useless donations to the Catholic church down on West 21st Street. He would hide in the footnotes of “in sickness and in health.” He would say “I do” when the day came. 

Before he could imagine that future day in a constricting tuxedo any longer, his fiancé Emma graced the room, wrapping a baby blue silk robe around her torso. 

“Do you want anything from the butcher’s today, honey? I’m planning to stop by today after book club at Roseanne’s. I could pick up some baguettes and beef for fondue later this week.” 

Her brown eyes lit up as she shared her plan to make another frivolous purchase, fit for a happy couple.

“Sure, sure, sounds great,” Anthony replied, accounting the tiles on the sink backsplash. 12, 13, 14

“Whatever you’d like. And do you need anything brought to the dry cleaner? I’m going to get my suits pressed during lunch break.”

“That’d be great. Can you bring the silk doilies for the Ladies Auxiliary tea next week? Oh, how lovely they’ll look with vases of lilacs. I’ll pick some fresh ones up at the florist on 7th Street tomorrow — no, I’d better go to the one on 61st. The freshness is worth the extra cost, I’d say.”

18, 19, 20. Anthony checked the clock — 8:15 a.m. 

“Well alright! I’ll take the doilies and head to work. Send my best to Roseanne and the girls.” 

He gave Emma an absent-minded kiss on the cheek and started for the door. He walked downtown toward the financial district, briefcase in one hand and garment bag in the other. As he passed the local bodega and farmer’s market, he took notice of the people around him. Today was much like any other: a policeman aimlessly leaning against his car, a nanny with a stroller humming to her little one and some workmen yelling profanities and laughing to themselves. The bustling crowds of New York City had always felt safe to him. He loved hiding in a city where everyone else craved attention. 

Anthony had worked at the same environmental law firm, Douglas Law, since he entered the workforce with the rest of the class of 69. His cubicle was decorated with his framed diploma and a baseball from when his father took him to his first Yankees game. He liked to think of the two as representations of himself — there wasn’t much more to show. Mr. Elson, his boss, came up to him a few minutes after he arrived.

“Good morning, Tony! We have the meeting with the New York City government zoning committee today at noon. So, how’s the fiancé? Still going steady?” he asked at a decibel that could be heard by those working multiple floors below.

“Hello, Mr. Elson. Emma is well — she has really taken a liking to the Ladies Auxiliary group down at our church. And I’ll finish up our first draft of the agreement for the meeting,” Anthony responded. He knew that the best way to appease his boss was to show respect. “Thank you again for your advice on the prosecution write-up last week. I’ve learned a lot from watching you litigate.”

Mr. Elson chuckled and walked away. “No problem, Tony! See you at the meeting, and send my regards to the lovely Emma.”

Anthony would probably forget to send his own regards, much less his boss’s, but he nodded and went back to work. 

Following hours of bitter coffee and typing, Anthony stepped into the conference room 10 minutes before noon. He took a seat in the chair farthest from the head of the table and pretended to read the agreement he had worked on all morning. He could recite it in his head, and he knew the city zoning team was not going to like it — especially the third clause. Every so often, he glanced around, nodding at colleagues as they entered the room. Mr. Elson started the discussion promptly at noon. Aside from the occasional clarification, Anthony kept to himself. At 12:23 p.m., the conference room door sprung open, and a man strolled in. 

“Hey, fellas! I’m Chris.” 

Chris shook hands with a few of his colleagues as he took an empty seat at the head of the table. Chris was the head of the litigation counsel for the city; Anthony recognized the name from the research he’d been asked to conduct before the meeting started. Though Anthony hadn’t spent much time thinking about the head of litigation, Chris was certainly hard to miss in the flesh. It was something about the way he held himself — the way he commanded the room unapologetically, ignoring the fact that he was almost a half hour late. The meeting went on. 

“Say, unless you want me to ring up Mayor Beame himself, we’ll have to work on section five, paragraph eight,” Chris joked.

Anthony couldn’t help but notice the way that everyone turned to Chris after he read each clause. When men in the office like Mr. Elson made a joke, Anthony usually felt obligated to laugh. But in the span of the next 30 minutes, whenever Chris said something witty, Anthony felt a natural smile come across his face. Anthony was determined to figure out how Chris had the confidence to wear brown corduroy slacks and a tight, cream button-down with the top three buttons undone. He himself liked a navy blue suit and didn’t find anything else appropriate unless he had somewhere less formal to go after the work day concluded. All this thought of attire made him feel like his fiancé Emma, and he resolved to stay focused for the final minutes of the meeting. 

At 1 p.m. on the dot, the men from the zoning counsel left the Douglas conference room and headed to lunch downtown. Anthony stayed back to collect the empty coffee cups and leftover papers. He noticed that Chris did not leave with his colleagues, but rather took his time organizing the contents of his briefcase: an expensive leather wallet, a few manila folders, two ballpoint pens and a bound notebook.

“Hello there, I don’t believe we’ve properly met. I’m Chris Collins.” 

Anthony thought he must have stared too long at Chris’ briefcase — now the poor man felt obliged to make niceties.

“Nice to meet you, Chris. I’m Anthony Perez, one of the partners here at Douglas. We’re so happy to be working with you on the city’s environmental write-up this year.” 

They shook hands. 

“Yes, the counsel speaks pretty highly of you. Maybe I’ll get the chance to actually hear your thoughts at the next meeting. I look forward to seeing you next week.” 

With that, Chris grabbed his briefcase and left the room with just as much flourish as when he entered. 

For the next few days, all Anthony could think about was what he should say to Chris at the next meeting. He felt embarrassed about his timidity and wanted to prove that he had earned his place at the firm. He didn’t like how much time he was spending imagining himself standing in front of everyone at the next meeting, making his coworkers laugh while wearing a loud shirt. Every night that week, he pored over the last meeting’s minutes, rereading Chris’ jokes and researching the clauses he wasn’t familiar with. 

When the next Friday came around, Anthony made sure to be the first one in the room and took his usual spot in the back. When Chris arrived — this time at 12:16 p.m. — Anthony immediately looked down. He didn’t speak for the entire meeting. He had practically memorized the new draft, but every time he opened his mouth to interject, he heard Chris’ voice in his head, teasing him. Instead, he watched Chris, who was chuckling and joking around, wearing an orange blazer and plaid trousers. 

As he was cleaning up after the meeting once again, Chris sidled up next to him and said, “Hello again, Mr. Perez. I thought I’d be hearing more from you today! You know, it’s hard to guess what a man is thinking, especially if he doesn’t look up at all. The eyes are the window and all that.” 

Anthony could feel his face blushing, more intensely than the time he was forced to receive First Communion in front of the whole congregation from Father Leahy, his father’s close friend. In this case, however, Anthony also felt a bit exhilarated about the fact that Chris had taken special notice of him. This back-and-forth continued on for the next few meetings — Chris starring in the film while Anthony felt like an extra. 

About a month later, Anthony entered the conference room to find Chris sitting in his normal seat. Anthony checked his watch: 11:55 a.m. Chris was uncharacteristically on time. This escape from the norm fuelled Anthony, and he sat down right next to Chris, accidentally bumping shoulders. 

“Hey Mr. Perez, glad you finally decided to show up on time,” Chris joked.

He awarded Anthony with one of his signature smirks, and Anthony noticed his blue eyes now that he was up close. 

“You’re one to talk,” he replied confidently. 

To anyone else at the firm, the weekly meeting commenced in the same manner that it always did. To Anthony, however, this meeting felt like his first starring role. He wasn’t an extra anymore because Chris had chosen to sit by him. Anthony took his time after the meeting straightening up the table and chairs. Chris hung around like he always did, leaning on the wall without lifting a finger to help. Anthony could feel Chris looking at him wordlessly. He stared for a second longer than Anthony liked, so he left the rest of the chairs askew and nodded at Chris as he left. He counted the steps it took to get from the conference room to his desk. 22, 23, 24. He grabbed the laundry bag at his desk and decided to eat his lunch on a bench outside of the dry cleaners. 

After lunch, Anthony returned to Douglas, feeling better now that he’d made sure to drop off some garments for Emma, as he always did. He spent the rest of the workday concentrating on the new Fowler v. Washington Square Park case. Every now and then, he added another task to his daily to-do list: turn in the newest reports to Mr. Elson, stop by the grocery store on the way home, catch up on the local news, eat leftovers of Emma’s inedible soufflé, read another chapter of his novel and turn in early. By the time 6 p.m. rolled around, Anthony had his schedule down to the hour. He took the long way home from the grocery store, watching each person that entered his view: a group of schoolboys in uniform jaywalking, a businesswoman on the phone carrying bags of groceries, a man in a tan blazer and pinstripe pants. He recognized the man’s confident stroll as he sped along the busy street. Before Anthony could stop himself, he called out “Mr. Collins! Chris!” 

His correct assumption was rewarded with a wide smile that followed the quick turn of Chris’ head. He sauntered slowly towards Anthony, holding an expensive bottle of wine. 

“Hello, Anthony! What brings you to my street? A jar of pickles? Oh, you shouldn’t have!” he joked, glancing into Anthony’s bag of groceries. 

“I was just on my way home from the grocery store on fifth, I didn’t know you lived on this street.” 

Anthony wished he had a more clever line to match Chris’ quip. 

“Well, now that you’ve traveled all the way here, would you like to stop by my apartment? I just picked up a new cabernet that would be a crime to open alone.” 

Anthony couldn’t tell if Chris was serious or if he felt sorry that Anthony was spending his Friday night people-watching. Whatever the case may be, he did not want to offend. 

“I’d love to stop by for a quick glass before dinner.” 

Before Anthony could take another breath, Chris started jogging down the street. Anthony held tight onto his briefcase, took a much needed breath, and followed Chris until they reached the apartment.

Laughing, Chris continued to sprint to the top of his eighth floor walk-up, while Anthony trailed behind, trying to keep up. He’d never keep up, but he tried. When he arrived at the open front door, Chris was already leaning cooly against a bookshelf. He grinned and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his blazer pocket, nodding to Anthony as if to say, “Wanna join? Come on, one won’t hurt.”

He knew that it’d hurt. Anthony sat down in a chair across the room from the bookshelf to create some space. Still, he could feel the addictive nicotine entering his lungs with every breath. He couldn’t help but try to read Chris like the book he innocently flipped through. If Chris was a book, his eyes were the title page. That searing gray-blue color was hard to look away from. He took in Chris’ dark brown hair that curled across his forehead. The smirk that he wore at that moment was the same one that he wore when he teased Anthony or made a particularly good point at a meeting. His suits seemed perfectly tailored, fitting his body in a way that Anthony wished his own suits did. A silver chain peeked out from beneath his collar. Anthony wondered where he got the chain. Was it a gift from a sweetheart? What did she look like? Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was seeing someone? 

“Where’d you get your chain?” Anthony choked out, even though the smoke that spiraled through the air was nowhere near his chest. 

“Oh, this? From my mother,” he replied, pulling the chain out of his collar and moving toward Anthony.

Time slowed with each step. Anthony coughed again. Chris reached to grab a photo album from the table behind Anthony’s chair.

“She’s an angel on earth, my mother. Here she is the year I was born.” 

He flipped open to a page and put the album in Anthony’s lap. Anthony glanced down and saw a snapshot of a striking woman. Her hair was just as dark as Chris’ but was adorned with a flower headpiece. She wore a long, tulle dress and pointe shoes, pointing her toe to the camera while she smiled off to the side. She was lovely. Anthony could tell that Chris was cut from the same cloth. 

“A dancer, I see. What’s her name?” Anthony asked. 

“Catherine. She has her own dance studio, which she owns and operates. Not only that, but she raised me and my siblings with no help from my father. I never saw him lift a hand unless it was to grab another bottle… ” he trailed off. 

“Catherine the dancer. She’s lovely. Did you dance?” 

Anthony pictured Chris in the middle of a ballroom wearing a dark tuxedo and leading a beautiful woman through a perfect waltz. 

“Of course — still do. Say, would you like to come see some dancing tonight? The boys and I always go dancing on Friday nights. You must join the tradition. In fact —” He checked his simple wristwatch. “I’m meeting them in less than an hour. You simply have no choice! Now, let’s get you that drink.”

The entrance to the Palladium Ballroom alone was enough to send Anthony’s mind whirling. Dark blue walls adorned with Grecian pillars made the hallway appear never-ending. The stairs that led to the center of the club were lined with holes of light. He couldn’t tell if he could hear the bass thumping or simply feel its presence aching in his chest. Anthony was having a hard time putting one foot in front of the other. He wanted to stay in the entrance all night, where he could bask in purgatory without having to make the choice he’d been avoiding for 28 years. He’d been to simple, darkly lit bars with Emma before, and went to his fair share of fraternity parties in college, but nothing had ever drawn him in like this. Nothing — except maybe Chris’ hand on the small of his back, carefully pushing him through the crowd and toward the pit of pleasure awaiting below.

Oh I’m a victim of love, victim of love.” 

Elton John’s rich voice rang over the speakers, hypnotizing the crowd. Anthony felt overwhelmed and drunk, even though he had had less than a glass of cabernet. He had never seen people like this. Every corner of the club was packed with color, lights and cologne. Women wearing feathers in their hair swayed to the music, grinding on each other. Men in bell-bottoms and platform boots held hands unashamedly. The stage in the center of the room was graced by a beautiful drag queen, wearing nothing but pearls and lace. Anthony couldn’t breathe. 

“You took me for a ride.”

She moved her arms like water, so gracefully that Anthony felt like she wasn’t aware that she was even moving. With each movement, her pearls caught the light and sent cascading reflections into the crowd. 

“Victim of love, victim of love.”

Everyone looked in love with themselves, in love with each other, in love with the night. 

“I hope you’re satisfied.” 

Elton brought Anthony back to the moment with this parting lyric. Chris pointed to Anthony, dancing as the next song started playing. He moved with clean lines and purpose, enthralling the crowd with every beat — it was impossible to look away. Locking eyes with Chris, Anthony took a breath, letting himself fall victim to the scene around him.

After several hours of dancing, Chris and Anthony sat huddled in a corner booth at the Midnight Diner on First Avenue. A young waiter gave them a once-over before asking his coworker to take over their table. 

“Hello sirs, I’m Joan. I’ll be your server for the night. Want a cup of joe before you decide?” she asked, practically reading their thoughts.

She poured two steaming mugs of coffee and disappeared behind the counter. Anthony’s heart was racing with the leftover adrenaline of the Palladium Ballroom and the possibility that the waiter had abandoned their table for a reason. He felt like the walls he’d built brick by brick his entire life were cracking. He let out a sigh as he grabbed his mug, letting the heat sear into his palms until he had to peel his hands away. He liked the burn; it took his mind off of everything he wanted to think about.

“Anthony, penny for your thoughts?” Chris asked, nudging his shoulder into his. Anthony took his time taking a big sip of coffee and noticed Chris’ knee bobbing up and down.

“Well, I suppose I’m always thinking about what is coming up with work… ” he trailed off, knowing deep down that he was lying. “I’m thinking about you, okay? I want to know who you really are, besides the perfect facade that I know you kill yourself trying to protect. And don’t say you don’t have one. We all do, men like…  us”.

With that last word, Anthony felt the walls crashing down, falling around the handsome man to his right. Each memory — every plain, button-down shirt he bought at Marshall Field’s, every sign of the cross at Sunday Mass, every kiss he shared with Emma — didn’t matter anymore. He was the very kind of person that he wouldn’t make eye contact with as he watched people on Broadway, for fear that they’d see right through him and know the lies he hid from the world. Instead, this dancer-turned-lawyer was what he needed to finally confess. 

Anthony began to smile at Chris, giving him a look that said, “I know what you mean by ‘men like us,’ and you’re right, and it’s okay and we’re okay.” 

They sat in comfortable yet terrifying silence, each of their minds whirling with possibilities of what to say next. After the waitress came back to take their orders — a full pancake breakfast for Chris and a burger for Anthony — they began to ask each other the questions they had never answered before. 

“My mom was the first person to find out,” Chris said, pouring maple syrup. “She probably had a feeling when she found Ryan Murphy leading me through a foxtrot in the studio’s supply closet when we were 10. And maybe when I asked my older brother John to try on his girlfriend’s purse when I was six, though those things could be chalked up to a creative childhood, I suppose. No, she caught me sneaking home from the city one Friday in 1963. I remember because I had spent all night at Brandy’s Piano Bar singing Sinatra’s ‘Witchcraft.’ I forgot to change before I took the train back, and walked into the house looking like Joseph McCarthy’s worst nightmare. Mom was lacing up some new ballet shoes in the living room when I came in. She looked at me, really looked at me, and said ‘Goodnight Chris’ before she went to bed.”

Anthony wanted to put his hand on Chris’ knee, which was rattling the table so much that he feared the coffee would spill. 

He fiddled with the salt and pepper shakers as Chris continued, “Neither of us slept that night. The next morning, mom woke up early and drove herself down to the Clifton Public Library and researched what it meant to be gay. I’m sure whatever was in those geriatric ‘scientific’ journals scared her to high hell. That’s why she’s an angel on earth: all she wants is to do right by her children. I know how lucky someone like me is to get that kind of response to my ‘condition.’ At work and in the clubs I may seem like the most comfortable man in the world, but every day I walk through life wondering if I’m really doing right by her. I doubt she dreamed of raising a queer son.”

“You live your life unapologetically,” Anthony assured him. “I wish I could say the same for myself. Instead, I refuse to escape the cookie cutter life that I’ve created for myself. It’s only going to get worse for me and Emma and everyone else, but I’ve never been able to take a second to breathe. At least not until recently.” 

He shoveled his burger into his mouth to keep himself from speaking. Chris slowly touched his knee, which had thankfully slowed down, to Anthony’s underneath the table. Tables lined the diner — 10, 11, 12 of them in total — but Anthony hadn’t felt the need to count anything but his heartbeat since they sat down in the booth. He liked the feelings of danger and comfort that Chris brought him. The pangs in his chest that drew him to Chris that first day in the conference room were occurring more and more frequently as Chris let him into his mind, his history. Anthony wondered if he’d let Chris in like that one day. At 2:23 a.m., in a tiny diner with an intricately complex man by his side, he was half terror and half hope: a mix of beautiful extremes.