Hey! Who’s Got the Key to my Closet?

When I was a junior in college I made the conscious decision to climb off the fence and declare, for the indeterminable future, that I was going to live my life as a gay man.  *(Included with membership was: style, wit, fashion awareness, detail, grooming, manners, art, martini, and the male girdle appreciation, secrecy, caution, abuse, scandal, misunderstandings, stereo-types, profiling, and a great number of acronyms: DINKS, A-GAY, GLB+T+Q+. . ., GUPPIES and, of course, your very own fruit fly selected for her precise complementation of my pointed wit, sarcasm, design style, performance art preference, iPod playlists, and ultimately her unconditional allegiance to all things me!)

But gay by choice not by default.

I have several friends that have absolutely no sexual or romantic interest in women.  They do not find the female body (and it’s intimate components) curious or alluring.  A few stumbled into confronting and compromising degrees of sexual exploration and determined that (while rounding second base and signaled to slide face-first into third base by Coach Conventionality) instinct was missing supplanted by determination.  How fun might determined sex feel as opposed to instinctual sex?  When I say “instinct” it includes a deep, gnawing curiosity; hunger that causes selfishness, self-concern, and manipulation; desire under pressure like a shaken can of pop.  Most of my gay friends have profound respect for and completely empathize with the daily struggles women face in our culture today.  They just lack any degree of sexual interest.

I, on the other hand, was different.  The exploration of a woman’s body was like walking through a dense green forest, lush, abundant, enchanting, and yet dangerous, secretive, thick canopies cripple directions, and customary trails challenge the most experienced — twisting and turning and vanishing into a thicket.  A man’s body isn’t explored, it’s an ascent, with carefully calculated base camps strategically dotting the vista; a man’s body like a mountain is built of craggy rock, covered by a dense base of snow, hardened like iron, ancient, as though Hannibal crossed it; age, like summit storms, blankets the snow pack with uncertainty; simply put, both man and mountain, there’s but one direction, up, and it’s the peak which they all seek to conquer.

And it was back in college that I failed horribly at coming out of the closet.  And not for any of the reasons most gay men site: fear, ridicule, retaliation, physical harm.  I failed at coming out because I fell madly in love with a wonderful woman.  My sexual attraction was clearly stronger for men, but every time I attempted the summit, I found myself lost in the enchanted forest.  While my roommates hopped from bed to bed like Goldilocks, I was stepping deeper and deeper into the gloomy and impervious forest sensing that the clearing would soon disappear and so would I, the real me, into a world which was pleasant and decent and impossible to promise fidelity.

What I determined was that I could easily marry a woman, but I couldn’t promise fidelity.  No matter the depth of my love for her, a strong chin, broad shoulders, narrow hips would always catch my eye.  And even though I never had the chance to fall madly in love with a man, I was absolutely certain that when I did fall in love with a man, I could promise fidelity because my desire for women was lower than my desire for men.

Above all I refused to live a life of avoidance, determined to be faithful, and desperately trying to deny my fundamental identity.  I wanted a life of unrestricted expression and a promise which I would never break.

(POST NOTE:  3 years later I met Nick and fell madly and deliciously in love.
28 years later; promise intact.)

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

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

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
nose.
She doesn’t want my voice
at the far end
of a wire; no, she wants
my heat my weight my breath. 

The Literature Student (2/10 – “The Other: A Collection of Doubt”)

I slowly struggled with my bags through the compartment quickly losing hope that my usual and coveted southbound window seat was still vacant.  As I approached the familiar row of seats I spied an opening, a seat on the window, but, unfortunately, a hurdle across a studious young lad on the aisle.

The train suddenly lurched forward and frankly I don’t recall which struck the poor lad first; was it my laptop bag, my workout bag, my triple-shot short latte or me.  But all at once I found myself face first splayed across his chest and lap, atop the physics or astronomy or bio-medical text like a filleted tuna.  My arms hung over the back of the seat like a marionette, and my full combined weight crushed his small frame.  Before I could begin to stammer an apology I felt two small hands worm their way between our bodies and onto my chest and push me upright as though I were a multi-colored beach ball.  I felt the muscles of his chest expand as he lifted me to an awkward, semi-straight position.  With this help I was able to tuck my hand under his arm and assist in him in the lift.

He pressed me higher and with a gymnast’s dexterity he leveraged my body between himself and the seat back in front and lowered me into my southbound side window seat next to him as though I were his favorite stuffed animal.  Bags, triple-shot short latte and I landed with a thump which caused my fellow passengers to careen their necks to our side of the train convinced they would witness the deer or elk or moose bounce off the train and back into the brush from whence it came.

I sat rigidly still for a moment afraid to draw in even a single breath for fear of losing any semblance of balance.  When I finally dared to turn my head in his direction, he had already straightened the crushed pages of his book and quietly resumed his private study.  At the same moment the conductor with whom I had become routinely familiar appeared like an aberration soliciting our tickets.  My hands had become bound like a criminal by the numerous straps of my assorted bags and I desperately tried to work them free like a trapped illusionist.  Seeing my predicament, the lad reached across his lap and took swift hold of my triple-shot short latte instantly understanding its critical importance.  Even with his quick help I still could not free my hands and I asked if he would reach into my hip jacket pocket and extract my ticket.  He looked at me, quickly turned to look at the conductor who by now had smelled the blood of a stowaway, and reached his small hand into my hip pocket.

Instantly I wondered what else I had packed into that pocket this morning or last night or nights before.  Instantly I tried to recall when last I had worn this jacket.  When last had I tucked something into this pocket.  The moment his hand touched my hip I felt a very unfamiliar sensation.  A sensation which immediately catapulted me back years: back to a time when ignorant, curious, hurried hands explored my clothed body: back to a time when eager hands explored the various folds, searching for flesh or muscle or hair: back to a time when familiar hands probed, searching for intimacies.

In a moment his fingers plucked the ticket from its warm pocket and presented it to the disappointed conductor.  The conductor quickly scanned its validity and then pivoted and scurried down the aisle.  The lad sat stoically for a moment, my ticket in one hand and my triple-shot shot latte in the other, a frail, youthful, poised representation of myself.  He slowly turned towards me and began to laugh, quietly at first, then louder.  I saw the humor but couldn’t myself laugh.  I was terribly embarrassed and in desperate need of the sudden jolt of caffeine.  With my free hand I reached across and took hold of the triple-shot short latte and in one quick motion threw the cup back and swallowed its entire contents.  By the time I emptied the cup the giddy lad had regained some semblance of composure, turned to look at me, and slowly returned the ticket to its rightful place.  However, this time the hand lad paused a moment on my hip.  It hovered there, on the bone, warmly, slowly moving as the fingers and their tips dug softly into my flesh.  Fingertips kneaded my flesh as though they were kneading sand.

In the meantime I had been able to untie my hands from the baggage straps and quickly moved my hand on top of his, and held his hand for a moment.

“I think we’re okay now,” I said quietly, “I think everything is right where it belongs.”

He slowly withdrew his hand, trailing his thin fingers over my hip, down my thigh, and across the narrow strip of vinyl seat cushion which separated us.  It finally retreated onto the crushed pages of his book.  He continued to look at me, and then slowly returned to his book.

I turned my attention to the window and tried to watch recognize the blur of landscape which flew past.  This was new to me, this embarrassment, this excitement.  It dawned on me as the forest blew by that I was not really embarrassed but titillated.  Had I imagined his hand on my hip?  Had I been projecting some sort of flirtation?  He was a youth, and as a youth he couldn’t be so certain of his motivation as I imagined.  He was a student, buried in his text until I stumbled into him this hurried morning.  What motivation besides accommodation could he possibly have? I was simply an errant traveler in need of assistance.  Wasn’t he simply being a good Samaritan?  Could someone his age be so certain of himself as to actually grope a complete stranger?

I slowly pulled my attention from the window to see him foraging in his backpack.  He withdrew a yellow highlighter and placed it in his mouth.  He continued to dig through his backpack and withdrew a pen which, when he attempted to also place in his mouth.  When he realized that his mouth was already holding the highlighter he looked confused.  I reached across and took hold of the highlighter.  His jaw loosened and I extracted the highlighter remembering a time not long ago, in Rome, when I had taken hold of a newly lit, slightly moistened cigarette from the lips of Antonio.  I held the highlighter as though it were on fire and watched as he deposited the ballpoint in his mouth, smiling slightly.  He slowly stowed his backpack beneath his seat and withdrew the ballpoint.

“Are you studying medicine?” I asked.

“Chaucer” he replied quietly.

“Chaucer?  I wouldn’t have taken you for a lit major” I responded, immediately regretting my profiling.

“You expected me to be studying medicine or physics or astronomy maybe?” he said, acutely aware of my gaff.

“I guess so,” I stammered, feeling caught, “but I guess there’s time for that given your age.”

“Or given I’m interested in it regardless of my age,” he said turning his attention back to his text.

I quietly handed him his highlighter and turned my attention back to the window wishing I had sipped my triple-shot short latte so I’d have something to occupy myself.  Now all I had to think about was how old or silly or short-sighted he must think I am.  What an old fool he must think I am.  I turned back to him.

“Thanks for helping me out there.  I don’t normally behave like that.”

“Neither do I,” he said without looking up.

“Of course not,” I said wondering if he meant being helpful or forward.

“You don’t seem the type,” he said as he was highlighting text “to be so rushed in the morning,” and then looking up from his book “you seem to be the more organized, routine type,” and then turned back to his book.

All this, I thought, from one interaction?  Could he possibly be so perceptive?  Or was I blatantly disheveled?

“You’re right” I admitted, “this morning was terrible.”

“But it’s gotten better, right?” he asked.

“Yes it has, especially now since I’ve had my coffee,” I replied.  “My name is Tom,” I offered and extended my hand.

“Scott,” he said and extended the hand which moments before had found its way into my pocket.   His hand appeared small yet strong.  A confident hand, smooth, marbled with bluish veins which mapped its top.  I studied the crisscrossing veins like a road map thinking they would take me somewhere new.  They converged into one main artery which disappeared into the thick flesh of his forearm.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“I wish it could’ve been under different circumstances,” I admitted, hoping I didn’t sound too interested.

Going back to Chaucer he said, “under what kind of different circumstance?”

“Well, not so bumbling to start,” I answered, “I’d like to think that first impressions play an important role in how we are perceived.”

“And what’s wrong with being perceived as bumbling?”

“I don’t think bumbling is particularly attractive,” I replied, laughing slightly.

“I think bumbling is very attractive.  It shows that you’re not perfect.  It shows that you need help every now and then,” and then Scott turned to look me straight in the eye, “and I think that that is very attractive.”

“Oh,” I said quietly.  Very attractive he said.  Me, in state of total disarray is something that he finds very attractive.  I turned back towards the window and remembered in painful clarity the number of hours I have primped and preened myself into a dizzying fervor trying to look my absolute best before hitting the bars at night.  Selecting just the right jeans and just the right t-shirt, or just the right tie and suit.  And here Scott finds embarrassment attractive.  “Well, I think helping a teetering stranger says plenty about your character.” I said turning back to him.

“Like what?”

Cornered like a child about to be caught in a lie, Scott pauses for a moment reflecting on how this happenstance began.  Turning in his seat to face Scott he said, “Helping someone in need is an act of kindness.  Kindness is a quality we all share, yet few ever display it and even fewer have the chance to feel it.  Your kindness felt strong, careful, and conscientious; important qualities to share with those close to you.”

On The Periphery (novel excerpt)

 

The school day at St. Joe’s started promptly at 7:30 am with a Latin low mass. We were ushered into the high-backed wooden pews and told to face the altar, to stop fidgeting, ignore a classmates whispers, to focus on Christ’s suffering for our sins and pray to God Almighty for trespassing. The nuns, clothed from head to toe in long black habits waddled up and down the aisles, on the look-out for any misdemeanor, and at the first sign of insurrection, would crush an entire pew of second graders to surprise the hoodlum from behind; her thick, strapping hand landing with phenomenal precision on the scruff of the heathen and plucked him from his spot like an ugly weed.  They all appeared to be well over the age of eighty and kept their hands tucked snuggly beneath wide, white sashes or knotted behind their backs.  Corporal punishment by way of rulers, canes, and paddles was customary even for the pettiest offenses like wetting your pants.  They enforced zero-tolerance of misbehavior almost daily.  It was rumored that they were part of a special Holy See order of nuns responsible for nurturing young and vulnerable catholic students:  Sisters of the Evil Stepmother.

I began St. Joe’s in the second grade.  The coagulation of cliques hadn’t yet occurred so a new kid didn’t draw suspicion and I was able to easily take my seat in the third row, behind Peggy, in front of Billy, and next to Jim.  But it began soon enough, the curdling, the formation of small clumps of friends; those that chased girls at recess; those that sat quietly against the fence; those that hoped and waited for an indication to advance, the willowy ones, still too shy to attract and too timid to pursue.  For the better part of the next five years I sat on the periphery, looking in at the popular, my nose flattened coldly against the window of their circle.  They were the small, the athletic and most importantly the obnoxious boys; the same boys that would terrorize the girls, but those same girls would wait, patiently, like the family dog for the briefest encounter after school.  I’d bet my mom was one of those girls when she was growing up.

That small, popular group of boys appeared to be completely satisfied; life occurred like a roaring adventure; the next day was another step towards their adulthood and independence. But for I and the other three boys on the periphery; Billy (who lacked personal hygiene); Gary (the nerd); Timmy (who had an affecting odor) observing the popular group, each day seemed to be just another  in a long line of days, some horrendously long life-sentence, perhaps passed on generation after generation.   It was a fact that a boy in the popular group was always the son of a popular father, a father that had a full-time job; a father that was a scout leader or athletic coach; a father that was found at home.  That was what the boys on the periphery envied, more than friendship, more than even membership, even more than the popular group leadership, was a home-focused father, a man that taught manliness.  For boys on the periphery it was an abysmal and persistent  absence, a longing to have that one guy to show you how and what and where and when, that guy and only that guy you could call dad; your dad to look up to, to count on, and whose discipline was fair and to the point and feared.  As I look back there was a void, a yearning that was never sated, a howling that never quieted, a wink never seen, a slap on the back that never stung.

The boys on the periphery seemed destined to spend their life in orbit, circling around others, singular, finding comfort in ourselves rather than as a pack.  However, when the popular group would turn their attention to something other than themselves it usually turned  to one of us; one of us on the periphery.   And when the popular boys would begin their attack we would scatter like a flock of pigeons, only turning back to see if we had been caught or remained free.  Unlike their pursuit of girls where each boy would target one girl like a pilot in a dogfight, one of the popular  boys would leave the pack like a scout, sniffing out the school yard for the oblivious periphery boy, and upon selecting his patsy, tempt his thirst for attention through false complements, and finally summon the rest of the pack.  In they’d come at full run to taunt, slap, tease, jeer, punch,  push, tickle . . . any action that would confuse the stooge, until the desired effect would come to pass, tears, stuttering, even urination.    It was in the grotesque embarrassment that the popular boys seemed to draw energy.  It was a hideous game and all the boys on the periphery knew that their time would come when a gangster with wandering eyes and too much time would turn, setting his sights.

I flew under the radar until the fifth grade when I learned that Jim (the boy that smiled when I first arrived in second grade) despised me from the start and his perfunctory “smile and nod,” as benign as it was, didn’t mean “welcome,” it meant “game on, big boy.”  Jim never missed an opportunity to exercise his animosity, a four-year commentary on my shortcomings, misgivings, and awkwardness.  His rancor finally turned the corner of hatred and hostility during a mid-morning lavatory-break: I was using a urinal during his standard, derisive monologue when he noticed the absence of his audience (bullying him is boring, the other boys thought) and that was it, his disgust had compounded daily and that day he decided to close his account.  I felt the hand on my shoulder grab tightly and pull me back, away from the privacy of the urinal; belt, snap, and zipper open, my fingers entwined in the fly of my brief’s, I stood there, the epicenter of mockery, ridicule, and indignity, my distress instantly appearing as damp and darkening spots on my trousers.  Initially there was raucous laughter (to which I’d become accustomed), but slowly, boy-by-boy, the lavatory grew quiet, pity replaced ridicule as boy after boy turned and walked out.  I stood there until Sister Reynolds threw open the door determined to discover delinquents but stopped immediately upon seeing me.  She closed the door quietly, walked to me, and placed her ample arm around my shoulders.  All I remember after that extraordinary display of compassion was letting four years of shame finally come out as sobs and weeping and finally dead silence as I finally understood that I would always remain outside the circle.


The Run For President Is A Bully’s Pulpit

Me?  I deplore competition.  I have hated competition since I was very young because, I assert, I was a fat child (that was before it was sassy, vogue and fattering – my modern form of flattering, as in “are these jeans fattering?”) and competition was synonymous with failure and embarrassment and yet another reminder that I was one of the periphery boys.

Although I joined seasonal teams through high school, I was never competitive, i.e. an athletic threat, to any opponent.  I weathered all those losses because it was smarter to belong to and be a loser, than to be a loner and a loser.  Loner losers were to high school what a duck that clangs is to a shooting gallery: irresistable to insecure men that accumulate trophies as proof of their asserted dominion.

Haven’t we witnessed too many examples of the tragic consequences when potent, tightly-wound, explosive or obstinate pack leaders torment the dissimilar, solitary and contradictory by exhaustive humiliation, unyielding fear, and physical harassment to an exasperated degree of hatred and revenge expressed externally as murder or the lowest depths of hopelessness that the victim’s acrimony and contempt is so great and that their thirst for retribution will never be quenched, so they turn inward to find their self-inflicted exoneration and release from misery.  When did we, as a nation, agree that in order to succeed we’ve got to hit the disenfranchised with such a degree of “shock and awe” that they’ll eventually submit to extinction?  When did we, as a nation, adopt bullying as our de facto reaction to threats and danger?  It’s the exact moment that the practice of instilling fear into the minds of the voting public by egregious negative attack campaigning accusing the opposing party or candidate of misfortunes, errors in judgement, or personal infractions so dubious or diabolical, that if the opponent won the election America would resemble the wasteland once known as Cherynobl.

When bullying is permitted, incited, or rewarded as a rite of passage or a strategy in a competition, it reinforces a recent and troubling change in our idea of sportsmanship.  Competition used to be the identification of “winner” as one that was better at <whatever> than his/her opponent(s) and was able to prove his/her superiority by way of fair, impartial, and equal sportsmanship.  Competition has become the identification of “winner” as one that was better at pointing out weaknesses, instilling doubt through repetitive and escalating degrees of fear, taking advantage of the recent breakdown in civility and propriety by deliberate and calculated unearthing, followed by wanton pillaging and inference, leading up to the zenith: a quiet, little leak to cable news outlets which, within a few pre-dawn hours hits all the major wires and airs as the lead story on every morning news program and goes viral in time for most voters coffee break.