In the early 1990s I had just emerged from a long-term relationship (my first as, and with, a young gay man) that ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Being pro-active by nature, and more social than I am now, I decided that my sister and closest friends and I would benefit from a weekly get-together over cocktails; like me, most of them were at the end or in-between relationships, or in at least one case, bored with the status quo. We were all in our early to mid-thirties, the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation. At the time, my cocktail of choice was a Manhattan, and it was also favoured by my sister and our closest friends.
I was living in a charming, red brick building (reminiscent of those you find in NYC) in what is called the ‘Old South’ part of London, which was on a side street that meandered along in a curve above the winding Thames River. If you are wondering just where ‘Old South’ is in London, I am referring to the little London that is in Canada, not the Jolly Olde London that is in one of my favourite cities in the world! The London in question has its history and city plan modelled on its illustrious British namesake, which is ‘across the pond’ (an expression often used by Canadians). Aside from taking its name from its predecessor, as well as the presence of the afore-mentioned Thames River, there is a Regent Street and other regular reminders that the Canadian city was firmly founded, and remains rooted in, the mother country.
The Manhattan Club was formed for a specific reason, as indicated above, and indeed flourished. It was the social gathering that we ‘members’ looked forward to each week, and in time our little group became so well known to other friends and acquaintances of ours, that some of them wanted to be included. However, we maintained the membership of the original group throughout most of the early to mid-1990s: me; my sister, Barb (who had recently become single after surviving a difficult relationship with a narcissistic and mercurial, albeit Adonis-like in appearance, man); our long-time friend, Dan (in-and-out of challenging relationships with men at the time); Dan’s gal pal, Sharon (who had been recently and happily divorced, and bonded with Barb); Ted (a handsome single gay man, content to be in pursuit of fun rather than a commitment at the time); as well as the only couple, Michael and Mark (you can now connect the dots about the status quo comment; no reflection on these two great guys who were both in first relationships).
At what we came to call our Manhattan Club ‘meetings,’ we would discuss the latest episodes of our favourite television series: Seinfeld and Friends; or give our individual comments on favoured films: The Bodyguard and The Crying Game; as well as played the music of preferred singers: Whitney Houston and Madonna. However, the focus of each get-together was the celebrated and eagerly-awaited Manhattan, our cocktail of choice: it was chilled with much ice, made with Canadian Club rye whiskey, Martini & Rossi vermouth, Angostura bitters, and the crowning glory, a plump and ruby-red cherry – just to be a bit decadent, we also sometimes added some juice from the cherry jar! Cocktail lovers in general and Manhattan sophisticates in particular who are reading this story will possibly raise an eyebrow or two at the choice of rye whiskey (Canadian, no less!) over bourbon, or at the addition of cherry juice. We liked our Manhattan’s to be strong, sweet, and cold.
We took to paraphrasing that delightful writer and wit, Dorothy Parker and would chant, “I love a Manhattan/But two at the most/three, I’m under the table/four, I’m under the host.” In view that on most of these illustrious, Manhattan-fuelled occasions I was the host, no doubt I was usually the one raising the spectre of Miss Parker’s spirit and intoning what is perhaps her most famous ditty! In ensuing years, my friends and I switched to Martini’s as the libation of choice and then we really could chant Dorothy Parker’s witty ditty without having to paraphrase.
These cocktail gatherings on weekends usually were a prelude to going out to our favourite watering holes in the city: sometimes to gay clubs but other times we went to straight bars that were popular with baby boomers of our generation. We were enjoying our status as young, professional singles (although as mentioned two of our group were in a live-in relationship). Aside from our Manhattan Club ‘meetings’, we enjoyed going out for dinner to a range of fine-dining restaurants, and on Sundays often had brunch together at a favoured café near Blackfriar’s Bridge, owned and operated by a personable gay woman named Marla. At the time, Barb’s Pekingese dog had the same name: Marla. Thus, sometimes the hostess/waitress thought we were talking about her. I recall one time when Barb made a comment about Marla’s hair being too long and always getting in her eyes, at which our waitress Marla turned around from the cash register and raised her eyebrows. When we explained about the ‘other Marla’ we all had a good laugh about the misunderstanding.
The Manhattan Club was a fun-loving group, making jokes and bantering, discussing a variety of topics of interest to us. Anyone looking at us when we were together at a bar or in a restaurant would have thought we had nary a worry in the world. But of course, that was not the case. The 1980s had been a frightening time for gays the world over due to the devastating reality of AIDS. Although by the early-mid 90s the spectre of AIDS was not quite as alarming due to medications, it still at all times hung over the gay community like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.
Our friend, Ted had been secretive for a long time about his diagnosis, which was totally understandable. Eventually, everyone in our Manhattan Club group had been informed but due to Ted’s very private nature, we did not broach the subject with him. He was on medication that was maintaining his health and allowing the HIV to be kept in check. Ted was stunningly good-looking; in fact, the expression ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ could have been created with him in mind. Moreover, he was also intelligent, charming, and affable. At all times, it was enjoyable to be in Ted’s presence; he was a wonderful conversationalist but also an attentive listener.
Eventually, Ted met a man from Toronto and fell in love. They had a long-distance relationship and Ted was contemplating a professional and personal move to be with his partner. The Manhattan Club by the mid-90s was moving along and changing too. Some members of the group were no longer single but dating seriously or living with someone. I had been a teacher since the late 80s but by this point, I was seriously considering a professional move overseas into international education.
One evening I went into a popular take-out or sit-in delicatessen in the city centre and saw Ted there, so we decided to take our trays to a table and have a catch-up. Due to his relationship and frequent trips to Toronto I had not seen very much of him over the past few months. Ted told me about the possibility of moving to Toronto, which meant giving up his apartment and leaving his job. Ted had a dark complexion and always looked healthy; however, whilst we sat and ate our meals, I noticed how pinched and drawn his face appeared when he was not smiling. Ted told me about feeling listless and without energy but was looking forward to a change in his life with the proposed move to Toronto.
It was not long afterwards that my friend, Dan (who was Ted’s best friend) informed me that Ted had received bad news. His blood cell count was off the wall. From that point, it all happened so quickly. In a desperate attempt to not become a statistic, Ted made the unfortunate decision to try an experimental drug. The result was disastrous. Ted’s health quickly went downhill and within weeks had passed away. It was the summer of 1995 and Ted was only in his mid-30s. It was a devastating blow to his family and friends. The Manhattan Club and its members had been changing by then anyway. Ted’s death hastened the desire to discontinue any further get-togethers of what had once been a fun-loving group of young people that had a future of possibilities ahead of them.
On the 10th anniversary of Ted’s passing, I returned for an annual summer visit to Canada. In a tribute to our dear friend, Dan, Sharon, and I drove to the cemetery where Ted had been laid to rest a decade earlier. We had brought all the required items for a Manhattan Club get-together: cocktail glasses, Canadian Club rye whiskey, Martini & Rossi vermouth, Angostura bitters, cherries, and ice. At his tombstone we raised our glasses to the memory of Ted, thinking of him in particular and the Manhattan Club in general; and at the transitory, random, and precious nature of our lives.
John RC Potter is an international educator and gay man from Canada, living in Istanbul. He has experienced a revolution (Indonesia), air strikes (Israel), earthquakes (Turkey), boredom (UAE), and blinding snow blizzards (Canada), the last being the subject of his story, “Snowbound in the House of God” (Memoirist, May 2023). His poems, stories, essays, and reviews have been published in a range of magazines and journals, most recently in Blank Spaces, (“In Search of Alice Munro”, June 2023), Literary Yard (“She Got What She Deserved”, June 2023), Freedom Fiction (“The Mystery of the Dead-as-a-Doornail Author”, July 2023), The Serulian (“The Memory Box”, September 2023) & The Montreal Review “(“Letter from Istanbul”, November 2023). His story, “Ruth’s World” (Fiction on the Web, March 2023) has recently been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.