Time To Grow Up (Part 1 of “Career, What Career?”)

Even though I hold an advanced degree from a prestigious university known for its performing arts alumni, when I arrived in Chicago in 1987 my one skill which could be directly applied to working was typing.  Aside from the awards, the accolades, and the New York literary agent, I was essentially unskilled labor with a penchant for writing.

So what happens when serendipity is redefined, from inevitability to dumb luck; what happens when destiny becomes balls that bounce, cookies that crumble, and no matter how long or how hard I stare, there’s nothing in those damned cards!  On top of which the two of us (that beat the odds (especially “gay odds”) and weathered the turbulent tests of fidelity and loneliness to survive a three-year, trans-atlantic, long-distance relationship) will finally step to the front of the line and impart on one small corner of our American Dream.  We’ll rent our first apartment, gladly accept hand-me-down furniture from in-laws, establish bank accounts so that the perfunctory bi-weekly paychecks will magically appear, one after another ad infinitum  all building to an orchestral crescendo heralding every couple’s ultimate goal: a future of happily-ever-afters!

After a dozen interviews I heard the same inane reasoning:  “I can’t hire someone as educated as you for a job like that!”  So I rewrote (and removed) my post-graduate degree and within two weeks I was hired by a local messenger company answering telephones for $5.29 per hour (1987).  It took four months to develop into a caged maniac; promoted to A/R to photocopy microfiche eight hours a day – it took two months before the facial tics started; traded to Customer Service (at a messenger company, Customer Service is akin to W.C. Field’s dog: we got kicked a lot) where I survived thirteen days shy of one year until a brutal and prematurely cold and sleet-slickened Friday afternoon in early November hammered bike messengers and my phone lines were blinking “Mayday!  Mayday!” when, from the other side of dispatch, some moron kept calling my name like an impatient car horn stuck in gridlock. I actually can recall hearing that last straw snap as I bellowed to the moron a string of expletives which crackled loudly like firecrackers.  Problem was, the moron happened to be Mrs. Moron Owners-Young Second Wife.  Precariously riding the subway while holding a wet box filled with desk items, a pink slip and final check was crappy enough: I was an easy target for the pick-pocket whose style was anything but subtle.

There’s got to be a better way than this, I thought as I walked home from the subway station.  There’s got to be something or somewhere I can apply my skills as a playwright.  Within four months Serendipity and her cousin Veracity knocked on our apartment door with an idea. . .

An Angel Walked Behind Me

knowing that a long time ago
in October of an earlier
year, I had night-time

She was my first
taste of grass after
a long winter

and flowed like a charcoal
mare.  Tonight she’s
a tree after decades
of twisting, with a winter
She doesn’t want my voice
at the far end
of a wire; no, she wants
my heat my weight my breath. 

Talk In A Quiet Place

(to the Scarecrow & Tin Man)

One night after clouds
sprinkled the fire leaves
making them smolder
I and two shadows,
(friends then. . .now poorly written
letters posted too late to be news),
walked through a white cemetery.

Were clean there; twilight
showers often bathed
names on granite-storybooks.

So that bats that hung low
from winged-trees wouldn’t know
which way to swoop,
we chatted about tomorrow’s

Restless birds kept tossing and
turning, recalling triumphs over
worms and bugs — wings aloft —
we ran beneath the blackened

Rippling overhead to the clearing,
its eternity absorbing
the deluge.  Hands still protecting
hair, laughing at our

We walked across the forgotten
as fire leaves danced to the harmony
of my harmonica and the two
shadows singing Christmas

The neighborhood echoed our songs.
Tomorrow’s tomorrow is today and my
long-ago-lost harmonica and poorly
posted letters echo a haunted portent:

Two Equal Boys (excerpt from “On the Periphery”)

A few months after I turned twelve I recall a banal moment (whose date is wholly forgotten like a New Year’s resolution) when the shiny gleam of my childhood curiosities began to tarnish, to take on a darker patina, to age.  While still filed under curiosity this newly discovered interest and its mysterious appearance led to strange and eager investigations of objects which, until recently, ceased to exist as anything more than minutia painted onto the backdrop of my life.  This sub-category of curiosity I was to learn later that year or earlier the next was known as lust.  I found lust to be an odd emotion, dormant until mixed with the inaugural yield of testosterone.  Its arrival was both odd and enchanting; I often found myself adrift in a boat without a rudder (the consequence of idle thoughts and deficient attention), but now, now lust was the captain and I’d been demoted to deck hand, essentially parasitic lust’s adolescent host.

It crept up slowly, like an itch that can’t be reached; brought on by a passing boy, or a sound, perhaps the tenor of someone’s voice; or a smell, reminiscent of a piece of clothing someone wore and that I inhaled briefly or deeply; an odor so distinctive that I’d soldered it to my cortex.  But it never attacked, it charmed, yearned for freedom at night and returned as a daybreak half-dream like our cat’s nightly routine.  It was fun at first, a distraction to science class, a daydream to wile away minutes in the school bus; fantasies with neighbor boys who are skinned of their shirts and jeans.  What I hadn’t known was that lust wasn’t idle entertainment.  Lust required expression and freedom; lust could be caged but also required parole.  I barely noticed at first when lust was an intermission, but soon it was everywhere like crawling ivy; it edged out innocence and substituted indecency.  At first lust glowed like a nightlight but now its brightness was blinding like the spotlight of the police car behind you.  My lust became carnivorous:  Like a beast it hunted when hungry and will, if forced, scrounge or take riskier chances.  I discovered that lust could be sated quickly and privately.  Or it would wander off to hunt, rupturing trust, morality, and safety.  But once lust loses its grip, sensibility takes control like a police riot line and estimates the damage: silly actions, minimal integrity, lack of conviction paid with excuses, confessions, apologies, or a fake phone number.

One of my earliest fascinations was Robbie, a boy my age who wore a pea coat in the fall that smelled like the inside of his house.  He rarely wore jeans vying instead for plain-front khaki chinos made popular by Wally Cleaver and dark colored Ban-Lon polo’s.   Thoroughbred-brown, straight-edged hair crowned an otherwise waspy face, but he had those dreamy bedroom eyes, the kind that coax you, like quiet hand pats on cushions, to take a seat next to him on the sagging basement sofa from which extrication was impossible once it snapped shut like a Venus Fly Trap.  He was the brain behind  many mischievous pranks at St. Joe’s (our Catholic grade school).  Of course he never moved a muscle and wisely kept a safe distance from the exploding toilet, ruptured water fountain, or the infamous girl’s locker room mouse-capades.  Instead he’d delegate the execution to some of the bigger and dumber kids like Jim or Billy.  And like the suspicious neighborhood dog that discovers a chunk of meat abandoned just beyond the stoop where boys that torture cats live, I tried to imagine what might happen if I. . .and there it was!  Hidden behind those dreamy eyes like cops at-the-ready behind the billboard, were cold eyes, calculating eyes, entrapping eyes.  I grabbed my parka, tripped going up the stairs, and rushed out the door all the while hearing his cynical and cold-hearted catcalls echoing from the basement.

But the real deal, the apple of my eye was Jeff.  He was as beautiful as a boy could be and not be a girl.  He had that soft, ivory colored skin, baby-fine blond hair, cool blue eyes, and eyelashes that were the envy of all the girls.   But his smile, ah  — the smile was warm and crooked and always made one wonder what was hidden behind the grin; it was the kind one would have if he already knew the punchline.  Jeff was seduction.  Boys and girls alike were willing to cast aside moral convention just to please him.  Reciprocity was of no concern; just the opportunity to be close, to listen to his whispers, to see him waiting for you, to be his was all anyone wanted.

My chance happened  in the alley behind my house at dusk on a summer week night.  Jeff and I and a few of our friends were involved in some kind of pursuit game when suddenly both Jeff and I realized we’d been hoodwinked. The sun had just set behind a row of bungalows and an iron husk of a retired steel plant carved the last bit of sun into the crooked and bony fingers of old women.  Jeff stood on the rise of a hill, and I at the bottom in the alley. Cupping his hands around his mouth he said, “Looks as though they’ve left us.”

Taking a quick survey I finally looked up at him, “Seems like they have. What now?”

“How the hell should I know,” he snapped.

Walking up the hill to face him I said, “because they’re in your freakin’ club, is why!  Brotherhood, ain’t that your motto?”

He turned quickly and after a long moments pause said, “Hey, blow me!”

And without hesitation I blurted out the dare of all dares, “Whip it out!”

I watched his face as I heard that familiar pop of a brass snap at the top of his jeans, that notorious crawl of teeth as they fanned out from each other, and that silent stop, knowing that his jeans were now thrown open like the agitated jaws of a dog, the white of his underwear exposed  like the sharp teeth. “Stop there”  I muttered to myself, “Don’t  go any further” I wished under my breath.

I knew that no matter how often I’d drifted off to sleep thinking of him, no matter how often I had glanced quickly as he ran down the gym floor to the other basket and scored; no matter how often I risked my own humiliation to stay in the shower five questionable minutes longer to perhaps catch a brief glance at his naked body; no  matter that I tried out for wrestling just to have an opportunity to hold him once in an embrace that no one would suspect; I nearly turned and ran as fast and as far as I could. But for those thirty seconds as Jeff stared at me and as I struggled to lock my eyes on his; and to not, no matter what happened, to not look down at the front of his jeans, to keep my eyes focused like a bird dog pointing at a grouse; in those brief thirty seconds my silly little life flashed before me and although what I had wished for all those erotic, half-asleep, fully aroused nights, all those embarrassed, wall-hugging gym classes in the pool as he swam laps and sideswiped me with every turn, he was now presented to me and if I were to act I would certainly be condemned to a life I abhorred, even before I was completely aware of the consequence. One that I was certain held only loneliness and abandonment, a life of damnation, accusation and reproach.  A life of darkness.  A life of listening over your shoulder  for the snickers; of always wearing up-turned collars; nocturnal; predatory.  And I suppose as I reflect on that  incident,  the confusion that  had  really gripped  me wasn’t so much my desire versus my identity, but rather my longing versus my dream.

I so wanted him.  But not presented in that grotesque, obvious manner.   I noticed then that although my body enjoyed the sensations that another boys’ body could provide (and it was clear that there were other boys’ bodies available), there was an intricate piece missing, a small one, down in the corner somewhere, it would’ve been easily masked, an ornate frame or wide mat, or even some other piece forced to fit, but it was that piece that I searched Jeff’s eyes for:  It was in his eyes that  I saw  a  reflection  of  my own desperation:  And it was then, at that very moment that I crawled out from under his spell and separated lust and love, and realized that boys weren’t interested in matters of the heart, but instead were only interested in lusty bravado, and that any method was as good as the last or the next so long as the method wasn’t self-inflicted.

It was  then,  right  then,  that  I decided  that  although I imagined I’d enjoy all the activities associated with a sissy, I was not going to be a pansy, and if Jeff wanted me to blow him, then he was going to show me how!

I backed away from him, unzipped my jeans, yanked down my shorts, walked back over to him and stood, half-naked and double-daring. He was dumb-struck.  And then, as if the whole incident never happened, he turned around quickly and closed his pants.  “Come on,” he said, “let’s go find the other guys before they think we’re queer or something.

He started down the hill as I stood there in the deep dusk, arranging myself in my jeans, and finally running after him.  I lowered my shoulder and bumped him in the kidneys.  He hesitated for a moment, then threw himself at me and wrestled me to the ground as only two equal boys could.