It was cold in Miami that December. Temperatures had dropped into the high 30s. For Miamians, this meant an emergency. Being cold-blooded: many an invasive iguana froze to death in trees. Their chilly corpses fell to the ground, to be found by dogs and their walkers on morning strolls.
I had moved to Miami with great hope that October. An boyfriend of mine, who was well-meaning enough, had sent me a one-way ticket. “I couldn’t find a man I liked in Miami,” he told our friends. “I had to import one.”
Import me, he did. Until writing this, I never quite realized men in my past often objectified me as one thing or another – blond, witty, unconventional (even cold or mysterious – which always seemed bizarre to me since I wear my heart on my sleeve).
By this particular man, I had been objectified as some sort of perfect boyfriend he could show off. I was instructed to say I was from New York, although I hadn’t lived there in five years. He even got me a job doing some questionably ethical customer service work at a call center. I got to tell people there was no way to cancel their subscription for our brand of teeth whitening. “Sorry madam. We can’t cancel the future orders and refund you the $200. I’m sorry you had to travel out of state to take your daughter for leukemia treatment. However, that’s no reason to expect…”
Things were going well in our relationship – well, as much as we could manage. But while I was working, he went repeatedly unpaid by a client whose children he taught privately. In mid-December, after the glitz and glamor of Art Basel parties faded fleetingly as champagne bubbles, reality set in. The company I worked for was raided the government. There would be no Christmas bonuses. There weren’t even jobs to go back to.
One day, a friend of my then-boyfriend came to give us haircuts in his apartment on Miami’s Upper East Side. We told her that our upcoming Christmas plans would be champagne and nibbles by the pool. After she left, he dumped me.
He said he was worried about, among other things, the financial stress of taking care of two grown men. Apparently he hadn’t noticed it was me who had been buying the drinks, the dinners and other party favors (which were pretty ubiquitous in Miami a decade ago – and probably still are).
At first, I kicked him out of his own apartment. (I had helped with rent, hadn’t I?), but a few days later he arranged for a friend – who was spending the holidays back home with her family in Manhattan – to FedEx back her keys so that I could stay in her apartment. It was in a high-rise that seemed frozen in time on South Beach near the Ritz-Carlton; here were many little old ladies in the building who ate most of their meals at a nearby deli — South Beach’s answer to Carnegie or Katz’s.
A Most Unusual Job Interview
Since this was not a permanent solution, I found myself scanning Craigsist for options. I found a man looking for an assistant – ideally, a live-in assistant. He was in antiques and – with several galleries and auction houses in my past (not to mention a couple of years dealing in vintage clothes) – I was an ideal candidate.
He suggested we meet at a little French cafe near his house. It seemed festive to him, I later realized, to be there on that sunny, chilly Christmas Eve afternoon. The air in Miami was sweet and cool like a poolside cocktail. He mentioned that he usually took his meals at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, which you might ecognize this as the diner in 2015’s LGBTQ film Moonlight.
It would be my job, he explained, to assist him at estate sales and antique shops, scouring them for finds. I would also take pieces he sold on eBay and ship them. On certain occasions, I would be required uniform: a jockstrap.
He asked me back to his place, where a small Christmas tree held a plethora of limited edition Wedgwood Jasperware ornaments. One wall boasted etchings and prints going back as far as the Renaissance. Pieces of 18th century Sevres and Meissen porcelain – little treasures – cluttered every horizontal surface.
He undressed, throwing on a silk robe, and expected me to strip down to my skivvies, as well. “Can you recognize that gentleman?” he asked me, pointing to the wall of art.
There was a little pencil portrait of Cezanne drawn by another French artist. He had picked it up at an estate sale. Like Gollum and his precious in The Lord of the Rings, he looked at it greedily and said, “I love it when sellers don’t know what they have.”
He opened his refrigerator, and is contents were a miniature gourmet shop. There were all sorts of tiny jams and marmalades, aiolis and mustards, cheese in wedges, beribboned clay pots of pickled or marinated veggies, summer sausages and charcuterie, olives and tapenades all glowing in the refrigerator. It was all so… tiny.
“Oh,” he laughed. “So many friends give me gift baskets this time of year it feeds me through February, when I’m not at Jimmy’s.”
He opened a pot of some spreadable cheese and prepared two crackers – one for me, one for him – and then closed the door: there were to be no more offerings from his horde. He was very anxious for me to stay over, to immediately move my things into his bedroom, which had two full-sized beds in it. “For guests,” he explained.
I’d later learn he not just owned the apartment, but the whole building.
When I did move in on January 6th (Three Kings’ Day), there was more to eat. The antiques dealer bragged that that he made the best homemade beef and vegetable soup in Miami. He poured me a glass of his boxed, sweet red and brought forth his culinary creation. Despite his love of fine china (including a plate from Lincoln’s White House!), we ate from glass bowls sourced at a dollar store.
The soup was pure salt. There were no herbs, and nothing seemed fresh. There were pieces of potato so lifeless they turned to mush when lightly touched and bits of carrots smaller than sugar cubes. Rather than their usual vibrant green, the peas had taken on a sad, autumnal hue. I asked for pepper, and he seemed offended. I was informed he didn’t like anything “with spice.”
A few weeks later, I would learn why the soup was so dismal. While cleaning his kitchen, I found a whole cabinet filled with cans of stew. It was not even a name brand – just something he found at a local bodega, its description written in Spanish. I realized that his “recipe” was to add two cans of the stew to a pot, thin it with water, and boil.More Hot Stories
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Meanwhile, Back on Christmas Eve
Though I would ultimately come to this man’s apartment as my refuge a few days later, I decided I couldn’t stay there that Christmas Eve. Being alone didn’t seem like a great way to spend the holiday, but sipping sweet boxed red wine and eating miniature gourmet selections in a jockstrap hadn’t seem any better. I told him that I had to tend to the cat back at my friend’s South Beach apartment.
She didn’t have a cat.
I remember writing a short story that evening for my godson, who is now ten years old. I thought I would stay in, sit on the balcony, and just listen to the waves crash along the beach. As always in Miami, there would be music coming from somewhere, faintly mixing with the smell of sand and sea, while clinking glasses chimed out merrily.
But after a while, this lost its appeal. So, like all the fashionable Argentine boys I’d seen walking along Lincoln Road, I loosely tied a light scarf around my neck, and threw on a jacket. It was my first Christmas with neither friends nor family, so I would go out to see the world.
I walked along Lincoln Road. I met a hot Colombian guy I would later see on New Year’s Eve, who bought me a drink at a bar called Twist. I met another guy who tried to wow me with his writing skills, but what he gave me to read was, at best, pornography – and not very imaginative at that.
I wasn’t homesick; maybe I should have been. But I wanted to feel that, despite the fact that all I had were the clothes on my back, very little cash in the bank, and some packed suitcases in a borrowed apartment, that I had… something.
South Beach was a peculiar place to be alone – always so busy one can’t quite fully feel lonely. There were funny little bodegas next to high-end buildings, tiny Cuban caféterias tucked into spaces no wider than an alleyway, the sounds of different dialects of Spanish mixed in with French and Italian, Brazilian-Portuguese, and Creole. I walked the streets, watching tourists carrying shopping bags from Italian designers. They were shopping and laughing and happy. I was, decidedly, not.
Then I heard it – a pizza place playing distinctly Italian music. At home we had always ordered pizza the night before Christmas Eve, so I gravitated toward it as a comforting reminder of home. I walked in and was greeted by the owner. I told her my sad story: the job loss, the boyfriend, the job I interviewed for that afternoon and its uniform, the refrigerator packed with petit delicacies, how alone I felt.
But, she made sure I wasn’t alone. After I had pizza, she brought out Sambuca, chocolates, and pastries. Later, she made me an espresso then sat outside with me so we could enjoy our coffee in the open air. And somehow, without a tree and without a soul I knew, Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, and all was right with the world.
Last modified: January 14, 2019