From the VaultsI haven't done much writing in fiction lately. I haven't got the time, I haven't got the direction... and when I start poking through that which I've already written, I think I simply haven't got the talent. I mean, yes I can tell a story, and yes I write fairly well, but the whole fiction thing seems to escape me. But today I was poking around in the old Word files and came across something I rather liked when I wrote it, and thought I'd share it with you. It is of course fairly long. It is probably quite stupid, as well. My understanding of motives seems shaky, and the character seems more a product of a callow youth's wish-fulfilling imagination rather than a creation worthy of the reality of print. My only excuse is that I wrote it when I was still in college and didn't know how difficult it was to create a believable main character, especially when that character is the narrator.
On the Care and Training of a Baby Queen
My memory is a strange and mysterious place. I can remember the exact taste and texture of a fried-egg sandwich my father made for me when I was four years old and my mother was recovering from the birth of my sister, but I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday. I can recall the faces, physical highlights, smells, flavors, and proclivities of all the men I’ve ever slept with (an astonishing number); yet I never remember people’s names, and have had to develop the habit of addressing people by little endearments, such as Sweetheart, Dear, Dearest, Honey, Doll, Punkin’, or Sweetie (this can be very embarrassing when introducing people: i.e., “Doll, I’d like you to meet Punkin’.”). I can never really recall my own telephone number, and always have to refer to my own calling-cards in order to ring my own home; however, I remember the number and combination of my locker in high school.
Sometimes I remember things unbidden, a vision or smell or sound floating suddenly into my conscious. On other occasions I remember the oddest trivia on command, such as when playing along at Jeopardy or discussing some arcane topic of European history. Often I can sit and try to remember things, and the answer comes back after much searching through the circuits and byroads of my cerebral cortex, the lost datum springing from my lips about twenty-four hours later. Much of the time, though, I simply draw a blank and have to ask someone who was there what actually happened. Then I write it down, in indexed chronological journals, so I can discover my own actions and thoughts on a given day at any past time.
My earliest clear and unassisted memory is a sunny afternoon in the third year of my existence, when my mother went to the beauty parlor with long brown hair and returned with short blonde hair. I declined to believe, for several days, that this strange blonde woman was my mother, and cried incessantly while steadfastly refusing to listen to this interloper’s commands. Finally she grabbed my earlobe and yelled at me:
“I am your mother, you obnoxious little monster!”
“Am not,” I replied with great hauteur.
“Oh, you’re impossible. I give up!”
I decided at that point that—whoever she was—if she would give up that easily, she was better than the mother I lost. This blonde-bobbed lady was also prettier than the mouse-brown woman I remembered from the past, so I figured she was just as good a mother as anyone else.
I think the reason I remember this rather bizarre little episode is that it was the moment I un-bonded with my mother and became an independently cognitive individual. It is an unfortunate feature of our culture that a toddler with a mind of his own is not highly valued, the preferred model being a type that accepts the most fanciful parental utterances without question or rational disagreement. I still can’t believe the lengths my parents went to, attempting to convince me of the existence of Santa Claus. I spent my entire childhood under a cloud of consternation, led into the depths of censure by my free-thinking ways.
It was extremely fortunate, therefore, that I was a remarkably pretty baby. With golden ringlets, vast baby-blue eyes, and an adorable rosy blush to my spherical white cheeks, I got away with murder by smiling my little pearly-toothed smile and flinging my chubby little arms around the neck of whatever adult I’d offended with my candid opinions. It is a truism that we can forgive anything of a beautiful child, taken in easily by the seeming innocence of it’s cherubic little face. It is a family legend that I wouldn’t allow some ancient aunt to kiss me because I objected to the rather vivid green of her polyester double-knit dress—this tale is told with indulgent smiles, remembering my glowing countenance as I apologized to her with excessive politesse (after, it should be noted, she had changed her clothes).
Besides, my outspokenness notwithstanding, I was a relatively well-behaved child. It never once occurred to me to apply crayon to a wall, considering the ease and convenience of coloring in between the precise lines provided for such purposes by a coloring-book. I was never particularly curious about the contents of cabinets and drawers, nor did I find it especially amusing to play in mud. The sound of breaking glass was anathema, and I was never seized by the desire to fondle the objects on the top shelves of etageres. Though I once used my mother’s makeup to paint myself like a hooker and more or less bathed myself in her favorite and most expensive perfume, I did tidy up the mess I made in the process and left her dresser more orderly than I found it, having folded her scarves rather neatly and placed her combs in order from largest to smallest. I went to bed promptly at seven-thirty every night, without any argument, preferring the quiet of my nursery to the raucous and somewhat idiotic television shows my parents favored; I kept my toys clean and whole and in their chest when not using them, and brushed my teeth twice daily for three solid minutes.
One would think that quiet orderliness would be enough: but no, I was also expected to eat Mother’s indifferent cooking without comment, clearing my plate entirely every time I sat at the table. While I didn’t often have trouble with this simple expectation, every now and then Mother would spring something that I could not bring myself to touch. I was born sensitive to certain shades of green, and cannot abide avocadoes or split pea soup. Furthermore, I refused to eat anything remotely slimy, such as creamed corn or steamed squash. I disdained greasy fried foods, and became violent over cooked spinach or chard, infinitely preferring such roughage in its natural state (ideally en vinaigrette). I spent many a long evening contemplating a plate of boiled rutabaga or glutinous black-eyed peas, only to confront the congealed horror again upon rising the next day for breakfast. It was in searching for new ways to insult this grotesque cookery that I developed such a large vocabulary.
Ours was a materially pleasant existence, entirely typical of suburban life. My father had been raised with appropriate middle-class comfort in a pleasant house located in the hilly Crocker Highlands district of Oakland. His father Edward Cole, a third-generation Oaklander, was a personnel manager at the Clorox Company; his mother Margaret was from a small farming community in Texas, and they’d met during World War II in San Francisco. Daddy, who is actually named Robert, grew up with his brother Edward Junior, his sister Diane, and a Springer spaniel called Freckles. He studied Marketing and Business Administration at U.C. Berkeley, where he met my mother at a Senior mixer. Mother, born Catherine MacAffrey, was raised with her brother Marty in a pleasant maisonette apartment on Chicago’s North Shore, by John and Claire MacAffrey, an administrator for Central Pacific Railroad and a housewife/genealogist, respectively. She migrated to California to obtain a Liberal Arts degree from Mills College in Oakland, and attended a Berkeley dance with her room-mate, where she met and fell in love with Daddy. They married the summer after graduation.
Shortly after my birth on December 27, 1967, Mother and Daddy abandoned the newlywed-cozy Oakland love-nest in which I’d been conceived (on the kitchen table, Mother claims!), and plunged themselves into the Great American Debt for a three-bedroom split-level ranch home with a half-acre of tree-shaded lawns in the quiet suburb of Orinda. The BART train system had just been completed, and Daddy could get to his job at a Dodge dealership in Oakland with previously undreamt-of ease. Mother was of the old school, quite happy to be a career housewife, and spent her days making the new nest cheerful with gingham curtains and bedspreads, poring over issues of Woman’s Day and The Lady’s Home Journal for tips on how to keep her home immaculate and shiny, her dinners exciting and economic, and her marriage happy and carnal. We had a large Dodge station wagon, a luxurious nineteen-inch color television, a houseful of brand-new Sears furniture, and a wealth of shiny appliances that came as wedding gifts. Though I had no friends among the diapered denizens of peaceful Hawthorne Drive, I felt no want of them, and spent my days in blissful solitude under the elm tree in the backyard, observing Mother in her daily home-making rituals, or watching old movies and rerun episodes of Bewitched or I Dream of Genie on the television, plumped up in my very own child-sized chair with colorful picture books to entertain me during the commercials.
One fine day, as I was explaining to my father that, on the grounds of his expertise with fried egg sandwiches, he should take over the culinary duties from Mother—which were obviously beyond her powers—a new presence entered our tranquil (if sometimes strained) little ménage à trois. That new presence, apparently a benign bundle of pastel pink blanket, turned out to be the second-greatest disaster of my young life. Though I’d been informed of this creature’s imminent arrival, after having questioned Mother on the increasing sloppiness of her waistline, I didn’t really understand the ramifications of what threat, exactly, a little brother or sister might present to my own satisfaction and peace.
Heather Lynn Cole was the bane of my existence. She had colic and cried incessantly, the odor of her body-waste emanated like a miasma from the white plastic bin in the bathroom, she subsumed what little of my parents’ attention I cared to possess, and I was forced to be gracious, gentle, and happy about the whole affair. The first time the squirming parcel was placed in my arms, after much instruction on how to hold the little beast, she attempted to endear herself to me by simultaneously upchucking on me and wetting herself with such a copious torrent of urine that it soaked through her diaper and on to my skin. I was considerably less than enchanted.
More irksome than Heather’s presence was my parents’ seeming delight in her boorish ways. It was stated quite clearly in my baby-book that I was fully toilet-trained, entirely ambulatory, and possessed of a varied and well-enunciated working vocabulary long before I reached my first birthday—but all of these grand achievements were overlooked in favor of Heather’s vomiting, bed-wetting, creative but tasteless attempts at interior decorating (notably an Expressionist abstraction rendered in grape-juice and strained carrots on the beige sofa), and unparalleled fascination with kitchen garbage and the admixture of hazardous cleaning products. When she was dragged kicking and screaming to bed, Daddy spent a full hour reading to her, often borrowing my favorite books for this exercise (they were usually returned in a state that would outrage the most lenient librarian). Mother turned the brushing of teeth into a riotous game for her, inventing ingenious ways of making fluoride fun. One was forever tripping over or stepping on Heather’s toys, all of which had been viciously maimed within minutes of being taken from their packages. To my utter mystification, Mother and Daddy cooed over these exploits as if the heinous brat had invented the cotton gin.
At four-and-a-half, I had two options open to me: I could either learn to ignore the little gargoyle, regarding her with the complacency of a Fakir on a bed of nails, or I could mount an all-out campaign of mayhem and destruction, forcing my parent’s attention back to myself. The Path of Least Resistance suited my temperament better, and I really didn’t have enough of an imagination for devastation to properly pull off a counter-attack. I ended up by learning to ignore her when she wasn’t actively in my way, simultaneously becoming more forthright in my speech and adding new and shocking words to my repertoire. The colorful discourse of a visiting uncle, who had been in the Merchant Marine until recently, supplied me with no end of ear-catching colloquialisms, and I’m proud to say that I bested Heather in the attention-getting department quite easily. Though I had to develop a taste for Ivory soap and spent much of my time pondering the northeastern corner of my bedroom, I was relatively pleased with the results of the offensive. The balance of power shifted to a more reasonable and equitable pattern.
Having more or less conquered the second-most disastrous event of my childhood, I had more time to deal with the third-most horrendous thing to color my young life. One morning I was leafing through the snapshots of my fifth birthday, and I was quite surprised to see a strange and hideous little boy wearing my clothes and blowing out my candles. I confronted Mother with the idea that she had picked up the wrong envelope at the processor’s, and had accidentally brought home the cherished mementoes of some woefully inbred Appalachian family with a similar last name.
“That’s you, silly,” she said, not taking her eyes from her sudsy dishes while I was consumed with terror.
Could that really be me? What happened to the gilded halo? The baby-blue peepers? The rosy cheeks and cherubic dimples? The child in the pictures what frightfully thin, with board-straight ash-brown hair enlivened by ill-placed cowlicks instead of curls. The eyes were small, almost squinty, and a much darker and duller shade of blue. The skin was not pink-and-white but closer to red-and-yellow, like the used tablecloths of an Italian restaurant. The teeth were unfit for description, snaggled and gapped. His wrists were huge and knobby, as were his knees, and there wasn’t a dimple in sight.
Running to the bathroom mirror, I was stunned and dismayed to find that there was no mistake. I was homely. Though I was aware that I’d grown a great deal recently, pleased by the brand-new wardrobe such development entailed, I had been so busy despising my sister that I had let the fascination with myself fall by the wayside: while I wasn’t looking, the Ugly Fairy had come along and beat me repeatedly with her Magic Ugly Stick. I gazed with morbid absorption, studying the five-car-pileup-with-fatalities that I’d become. From that day on, I had a fascination with mirrors, giving constant scrutiny to my face, for fear that the Ugly Fairy would sneak up on me again while I wasn’t paying attention and turn me into something Quasimodo would shiver at. I never passed a reflective surface without minutely studying myself, and spent so much time in the bathroom that Mother began to think I’d reached puberty freakishly early.
As if this weren’t enough, after a mere summer of musing on my sudden homeliness, Fate decided to unleash upon me the single most fiendish torment ever devised by the human mind. Without explanation or the possibility of reprieve, I was abruptly thrust into the seething hoi-polloi of. . .
My parents perhaps didn’t realize this, but with the exception of a few well-mannered cousins and my despicable sister, I had never experienced the company of another child. Perhaps they assumed that all the time I spent daydreaming under the elm tree was actually spent playing with the neighborhood kids. I myself, having no idea what children were like when not under the watchful eye of relatives, was taken completely unawares. Most of the children smelled worse than Heather, with a tropically humid odor that I never smelled before and wished never to smell again. They were also indescribably loud, incapable of making the slightest utterance without shattering nearby windows with their banshee-like shrieks. They were unimaginably violent, apparently preferring the expediencies of foot-stomping, rib-jabbing, and hair-pulling to the more refined pursuits of dialectics and diplomacy. I began to regard my sister with new eyes, realizing how well-off I’d been with a mere cretin instead of a horde of Vandals and Visigoths.
I believed I could have handled this dreadful disaccomodation, if only I had something else to hold my interest. Unfortunately, the intellectual fruits of academia were sadly lacking in my curriculum. I already knew how to read pretty well, having watched the words as my stories were read to me, instead of the pictures (which I could do on my own); I was forced, throughout that perilous first year of instruction, to sit idly by while rolling my eyes as my classmates struggled with the complex sequence of the ABCs. Though I had never really encountered numbers before, they held little mystery, and I mastered the technique of counting from one to ten with bored facility, and had figured my way into the hundreds while many were trying to remember if four came before seven. When it came to colors, I was horrified to find that my peers could not correctly distinguish between blue and orange, while I was well-versed in the subtle differentiations of ecru and taupe.
I do not mean to imply, however, that I was considerably more advanced than other children: I spent a great deal of time puzzling over activities that my fellow tykes took quite for granted. I had caught balls thrown gently by my father, but viciously hurling such a ball at an opponent, whom I was supposed to despise for reasons never made clear, was beyond my comprehension. Pretending to be an animal in a zoo or barnyard was equally confusing to me, being incapable of comporting myself as if I had more legs and less speech than I already possessed. Finger-painting was looked upon with fastidious disgust, and construction-paper collages were quite outside my abilities for abstract art. Horror upon horrors, I was once told to cut pictures out of magazines, which I had never imagined doing—I had an inborn respect for bound paper, and couldn’t conceive of desecrating a precious glossy periodical with uselessly blunt scissors. The only part of the day for which I was neither over- nor under-qualified, and was able to enjoy immensely, was nap-time.
The smelly, noisy, violent children caught on rather quickly that I was vastly different from themselves. Incapable of reciting the alphabet without singing (much less looking up new words in the dictionary, a favorite pastime of mine), they were nevertheless swift to perceive that my monkey-bar skills were negligible at best. If I thought such ineptitude would pass without comment, I had underestimated the hostile Huns who shared my captivity. Unimaginative epithets were immediately attached to my name, most of which were aimed directly at my bony limbs and clumsy gait. “Snotty” and “Booger-Brain” were perennial favorites as well, frequently paired with the more elaborate “Stuck-up Skinny Butt-Head”—“Scarecrow” proved to be the nickname that would haunt me for years.
Anybody familiar with my previous forays into the art of repartée could be sure that I wouldn’t take this puerile badinage lying down. Unfortunately, most of my barbs went straight over these geniuses’ heads. “Simian Troglodyte” meant nothing to them, nor did “Trailer-Trash Imbecile.” Eventually, I had to bring out the big guns, and Uncle Marty’s obscenities stood me in good stead. In the midst of a circle of taunting imps, the sudden cry of “Fuck Off You Goddamned Bastards!” would ring out over the yard, causing panic and scurrying chaos. From a great distance, my tormentors would stare at me with saucer-sized eyes of disbelief before they galvanized themselves into a committee of outrage to snitch on me to whatever authority figure was handy. Though such displays brought short-lived glory, and generally resulted in punitive action, they made me feel much better.
This lasted throughout my tenure in elementary school. My mind continued to develop despite the well-meant efforts to train it into an average child’s brain, and occasionally a teacher would divine the spark of intelligence behind my guarded gaze and pay special attention to me with advanced instruction. I continued to fail miserably at any attempt towards sports or physical activities, and craft projects remained my Achilles’ Heel. By the third grade, the word “Faggot” and it’s many synonyms were added to the standard stock of names applied to me, not to the exclusion of old chestnuts like “Booger-Brain” and the ever-popular “Scarecrow.” The other children became somewhat blasé about being sworn at, so I was constantly having to improve my vocabulary to further impress them with a healthy fear of the skinny ugly faggot child. That fear, though deeply ingrained, did not alter their behavior, but merely increased the distance from which they hurled their insults and projectiles at me. I learned eventually to ignore them when I could and terrify them if they came too close. Though my IQ had been tested high enough to skip a couple of grades (if not enter college), my poor reports in such arcane and fascistic categories of “Citizenship” and “Team Play” prevented me from entering the upper echelons of accelerated learning. Quite simply, they could do nothing with me, too smart to be with the normal children and too scary to be with the brains.
Other societal disappointments became part of my life. Though Mother and Daddy understood my reluctance to play Little League, they were subjected to weeks of inflamed defiance and undirected wrath when I was not allowed to take ballet lessons. My sister was forced into her tutu and toe-shoes every Saturday, crying and fighting the entire way; but I, who was eager to plié and jeté, to twirl like Nureyev and leap like Nijinsky, was not allowed to participate because I was a boy. I pointed out that there was quite a bit of disagreement over that fact in my immediate social circle, but I was overruled on the grounds of ballet-school regulations. Piano lessons were also denied me, as there wasn’t enough money that year (Daddy was selling Cadillacs while everyone was buying Datsuns) to purchase a piano. A used spinet might have been obtained, but of course I had insisted on a black-lacquer Steinway baby grand. This was a less devastating disappointment than the prohibition of ballet, since I didn’t really want to practice piano so much as I wanted to posture at a piano, complete with candelabra, in the gaudily jeweled manner of Liberace, who I had recently discovered and fallen in love with.
By the seventh grade, I had pretty much gotten used to it. It was such a predictable pattern, after all. If I wanted anything badly enough, I could be sure it was unobtainable. I would show up at school, get teased, and do my homework under a tree at recess while praying to be left undisturbed. Physical Education was my daily ring of fire, waiting to be picked last so I could go stand in the farthest reaches of left field, recovering from the humiliation of hitting the ball directly and infallibly into the second-baseman’s glove. If it got to be too much, I just swore a blue streak until I was ushered into the relative sanctuary of the Principal’s office. My scholastic endeavors were insistently marred by my antisocial behavior, so my only joy was achieved on the weekends and vacations, where I could sit in the quiet of my own room, completely cut off from the world I hated. I read every book I could get my hands on, from steamy romances and macho spy-thrillers to Shakespeare for Children and annotated copies of Milton. It was in the pages of books that I lived, occasionally taking outings to the glamorous world of film, absorbing every movie made before 1965 from the local stations and PBS. The gift on my tenth birthday of a little black-and-white TV was the greatest blessing ever bestowed upon me, and I was most often found in front of the flickering box with a book in my lap to read during the commercials.
I have learned that complacent misery is a neon invitation for the Fates to drop a new catastrophe on you. Getting used to the little purgatory that was my life put me in just such a frame of complacency, and that ever-amusing trio of Clothos, Lachesis, and Atropos decided to have a little fun with me. To begin, I turned thirteen and puberty overcame me like an Alpine avalanche. All in all, the experience was less damaging than it could have been: Daddy gave me The Talk, quite forthrightly and informatively, so I was prepared for the hormone surges, the distasteful hair that would appear, and the erections that would plague me at inopportune moments. I had discovered masturbation quite accidentally on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, and Daddy told me that it was perfectly normal so long as one indulged in it sparingly and in private. I later learned that he’d taken an adult-school class on Giving The Talk, so he was considerably more prepared for it than many fathers are. That was all well and good, and I enjoyed masturbating so much that it added a new and pleasant dimension to my life. I was not horrified by the tiny hairs that darkened on my legs and pubis, and I simply retreated to my room when I felt a jag of irrational screaming or unmotivated crying coming on.
On the other hand, I was not prepared at all for the brand of sexuality that kicked in at that time. I was armed with oodles of information on venereal diseases and pregnancy-prevention measures, and was equipped with all the convoluted etiquette necessary for intergender relations. I was not, however, ready to deal with an attraction to boys.
During the course of our Talk, I’d asked Daddy what a homosexual was. I had found and cross-referenced the word when I looked up “Faggot” in the dictionary, but the definition meant nothing to me. Daddy was schooled in the most child-psychologist-approved method of dealing with this question: he explained that it was a boy who liked other boys the way most boys liked girls. To me, this was another evidence of the stupidity of my peers, who had been misapplying this term to me for years, when I loathed boys with every fiber of my being. He then asked if I had such feelings for boys, and I hotly maintained that I entertained no such infirmities of the mind. He neglected to ask if I harbored any feelings for girls, whom I also strenuously detested. We left it at that and I spent the first months of my pubescence in happy masturbation and distant fascination with the changes in my body.
One sultry May afternoon I was sitting dejectedly in my seventh-grade French class, suffering slightly in my powder-blue sweater and navy corduroys, doodling a Rhennish castle in my notebook, adding a turret here and a trefoil window there while daydreaming about jousts and ideal friendships, lending half an ear of the proceedings of the class. The teacher was taking us through the inanities of J’ai dans ma valise, pointing her baton at students in random order. Confident I wasn’t paying attention, Madame tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
“Monsieur Cole, avez-vous un éléphant dans vôtre valise?” she asked me, do you have an elephant in your suitcase, hoping no doubt to embarrass me into attentiveness.
“Non, Madame, je n’ai pas un éléphant. J’ai une chemise bleue dans ma valise,” I responded with careless ease, and just a touch of exasperation, my accent almost better than her own. I have a blue shirt in my suitcase. Quelle drôle.
“Bon,” she conceded grudgingly, then waved her three-foot rubber-tipped pointer around the room, seeking her next victim.
For reasons unknown to myself, I did not return to my chivalric fantasies, but followed the direction of her stick as it aimed itself at the boy next to me.
“Monsieur Janacek, avez-vous une autruche dans vôtre valise?”
“Oui, Madame,” he blurted—pronouncing it ‘Whee, maddim’— “j’ai une autruche rouge dans ma valise.”
“You have a red ostrich? How interesting that it fits in a suitcase.”
The class laughed on cue as Brandon Janacek blushed plus rouge than his alleged autruche. I sat there spellbound, watching the faint carmine flood down from the fringe of his sandy hair, suffusing the taut golden-brown skin of a face so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that I felt myself on the brink of tears. As Madame continued her rounds, accusing various persons of having automobiles and armchairs stashed in their luggage, I continued studying Brandon’s every fascinating detail.
His face was clean and handsome, with skin the color of fresh-baked buttermilk bread. His eyes were cornflower blue and turned up at the ends, fringed with dark blond lashes. His mouth was pouty and pink-gold, his nose short and dapper, his chin mannishly square. Even his ears were pretty, like sundrenched seashells dusted with the faintest golden down. His neck was strong and smooth, his shoulders broad, his chest high and round like a Roman shield. His ribcage narrowed enticingly to a slim waist and tight hips, with long flowing thighs, and golden down dusted the meaty brown calves that showed below the knee-length cut-offs. His feet looked enticing, laced into the padded confines of Nike running shoes, with exquisite white gym socks making a clean line across the ankles. Moving my eyes back up to center stage, I saw a lump in his pants that reminded me again of fresh bread, a beautiful fluffy pan de leche biscuit hot from the oven. I was sweating profusely, my heart was pounding, and my erection threatened to pierce my fly. I was suddenly enslaved by one of the boys I despised even more than the rest, a loud-mouthed jock who took special delight in calling me names. I was undeniably falling in love (which I was too young to separate from lust) with one of my chief tormentors. En bref, I wanted to die.
When I got home, I went straight to my room, locked the door, pulled the drapes, and relieved my agonizing arousal. Afterwards, feeling shattered and spent, I pondered this new turn of events. How had someone I hated inspired such a reaction? Not only had I wanted to touch the malevolent Brandon, but I’d wanted to lick him all over to see if he tasted as fresh-baked as he looked. I wanted to put my arms around him and hold him forever. I wanted to tickle those tiny golden hairs wherever they might have presented themselves, and I couldn’t cease imagining what that pan de leche biscuit looked like underneath the tight faded denim. But why?
In hopes of finding an answer, I started scrutinizing all those boys I most despised. Almost all the horrible jocks shared this glistening allure, and I found gym class enlivened by the new lust-colored glasses I wore. Instead of watching the pot-bellied ex-Marine coach to make sure he didn’t see me standing stock-still during calisthenics, I kept my eyes on the jumping buttocks in front of me, the quivering lats on each side, and the bouncing treasures concealed in loose blue shorts all around. I had taken the precaution of not tucking in the oversized white tee-shirt I wore, so my trouser-tent went unnoticed, though my lack of vigilance toward the authority figure resulted in being forced to run laps. As I loped slowly and laboriously around the track eight times (which took me the bulk of an hour), I meditated on this unforeseen enchantment. The visions of those boys executing their jumping-jacks and windmills floated before my sweat-clouded eyes, and the friction of my gym shorts brought me to orgasm the moment I finished my last lap.
In the steamy gulag of the locker-room, I lingered momentarily before going to wash and change in one of the toilet stalls, and much was revealed. Standing about in sweat-soaked white briefs, or cavorting in white towels, twenty-two glorious young males burned themselves into my corneas, and my erection returned to stay with me the rest of the day and on through the weekend. The greatest revelation of this eye-opening gym class was that the odious jocks were not the only boys to enthrall me—in fact there were only two boys who didn’t pull my strings: an unwholesomely obese boy with breasts worthy of Mae West and a face exactly like an unbaked ham with two cloves stuck in it, and a recently immigrated Laotian lad with a gruesome scar on his bony chest. But for these two anomalies, every single boy, be he athletic or academic, tall or short, stocky or slim, was an erotic paragon.
For the rest of the semester I studied these boys, memorizing their every tantalizing particular. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the semester ended only a few weeks later, and my beloved Summer brought its annual respite, during which I might reflect upon these novel insights at my leisure. For the remainder of June, I reread all of my books that dealt with Ideal Friendship, such as prose translations of The Song of Roland and a heavily edited Iliad. I recast the parts of the heroes in the images of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old suburban youths, and the friendships became less than ideal by Judeo-Christian standards—though I was not long in learning what the Greeks thought about such things. When my maternal grandmother belatedly commemorated my birthday with a ten-volume set of the Loeb Classic Library, I went into paroxysms of delight, adding Alexander and Hephaistion, Apollo and Hyacinth, Zeus and Ganymede, and the entire guest-list of the Symposium to the soft-core porn movie my mind had become.
June brought more revelations. The Fall issue of the Sears Roebuck catalog arrived, and I found a new toy. Sears had but recently begun displaying gentlemen’s undergarments with gentlemen in them, and I (previously only interested in the jewelry and home furnishings departments) began peopling my fantasies with full-grown muscular men garbed in briefs and boxers. A mix-up in postal addresses blessed me also with an International Male catalog, one of the first of it’s kind, and the not-so-subtle homoeroticism of the pages became quickly tattered from much feverish thumbing-through.
Another mix-up (God bless the United States Postal Service) became the manna-from-heaven of my neo-pubescent summer. An issue of Playgirl magazine was accidentally delivered to our house, and by extreme serendipity I was delegated to visit the mailbox that day. Stuffing the magazine into my shirt, I quickly deposited the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and sped into my room to investigate this unexpected treasure.
Due to various reasons, I had never seen a naked man before. My family is almost dementedly committed to privacy—bathroom and bedroom doors were always closed and often locked—so my father’s body was still a complete mystery to me. I had adamantly refused to learn to swim, and had never ventured into the changing room of the recreation club we belonged to. During my seventh-grade introduction to the tradition of changing clothes for gym, I had always kept my eyes ashamedly downcast as I scurried from my locker to the toilet stalls, and hadn’t seen my classmates au naturel until that fateful day in May. My collection of books had not yet included tomes on Greek and Roman art, and the books at the school library were graced with draperies and figleaves, occasionally rendered in black Magic Marker by an overly conscientious librarian. So, at thirteen-and-a-half years of age, the only penis I’d laid eyes on was my own rather miniature beginner’s-kit model.
But here, in glorious (if slightly amateurish) color, was a collection of seven beautiful, muscular men with nary a stitch of clothing on them. Seven different sets of genitalia, in various sizes and hues, presented themselves for my delectation. Manly buttocks, usualy highlighted with a tanline that made the nudity somehow more nude, danced before my eyes whenever I closed them. Swelling pectorals and massive thighs gleamed in garish sunlight or romantic fireside gloom. Handsome faces were almost incidental, perched upon bodies that shackled my attention and imagination. If I had known then how much use that magazine would see, I would have had the foresight to laminate the pages.
Inspired with this new knowledge of the attractions inherent to male anatomy, I quickly became a skillful voyeur. During trips to the recreation club, I no longer used the the small restrooms at the far end of the clubhouse, but instead made my way through the pool changing-room; these slow and furtive perambulations divulged to my eager gaze a never-ending supply of boys and men, their skins glowing with that peculiar luminescence derived from braising in the sun and soaking in chlorinated water. By the time I got to the stalls, I would be too hard to urinate, and had to jack off before returning to the trio of blue-haired ladies with whom I’d been playing cribbage for the last three years. Back at my umbrellaed table, I lost round after round of cards, my eyes too busy studying the frolicking males in the pool, the oiled flesh in the chaise-longues, and the almost indecently snug red shorts of the devastating lifeguard. I also noted that I had been winning in the past because Madge, Eunice, and Dolly, my golden-age girlfriends, had been watching the lifeguard with similar concentration.
One afternoon, a little boy hit his head on the pavement while cannon-balling into the pool. The lifeguard, whose name was of course Chaz, leapt from his accustomed tower-chair torpor, plunged into the water with knife-like grace, and emerged from the pool with the seemingly lifeless body of the child held close in his powerful arms. Chaz’s hands searched the boy’s body for damage, then settled on the ten-year-old’s ribcage, pushing out a deluge of inhaled water. Then his mouth descended on the child, breathing life into his little lungs. I sat entranced, the cards in my hand forgotten, as this little Passion Play was performed. When the lifeguard cradled the now-crying child against his muscular chest and carried him into the clubhouse, I fell in love. I also wished fervently that it had been me who almost drowned.
That wish formed itself into a plan. Since I had never been in a body of water larger than a bathtub, it was almost certain that I would sink like a stone to the bottom, were I to enter the pool. Inevitably, Chaz would have to haul me out, run his hands all over my body, revive me with his own breath, then carry me off to the clubhouse. The imagining of such an operation filled me with carnal delight. While plotting out the finer points of this strategy, however, I became self-conscious: the idea of the beautiful Chaz touching my broomstick-limbed body, pushing at my attenuated stovepipe of a ribcage, and putting his mouth on my plug-ugly face struck me as repugnant; I could not bring myself to subject the beloved lifeguard to such an unpleasant duty. Besides, there was always the chance that, since I really couldn’t swim, I might descend to the floor of the pool unseen, stupidly dying in the midst of my outlandish charade. To top it off, I would have to appear publicly in a swimsuit, my never-sunned body glaring in the light, enduring the humiliation of being teased for not knowing how to swim. I didn’t even own a swimsuit; my fantasied stratagem shriveled like a salted snail.
To add insult to injury, or to beat a dead horse (I’m not sure which), my ugliness was, late in July, enhanced into the monstrous. Due to my slight overbite and the spacious disportment of my teeth, I was sent to an orthodontist, who at great expense to my parents shackled my mouth into an agglomeration of glittering braces that made my smile look like a bear-trap. The pain in my gums was insignificant compared to the agony of seeing this brilliant claptrap in the mirror, and nothing could prepare me for the humiliation of wearing the head-brace that accessorized this hideousness. Like a shaved cat, I hid in my darkened room for the rest of the month, dreaming my dreams and abusing my magazine.
Those good old fun-loving Fates, perhaps disgruntled by the so-so disaster of my burgeoning sexuality and the common tragedy of my orthodonture, added a new element to their attack. In the middle of August, Grandfather Cole, my father’s father, died unexpectedly of an aneurism. Death had never touched my life before, and I was entirely undone; even worse, my father, who had heretofore been a strong and stoical presence, was inconsolably heartbroken. The entire family descended into a Jamesian gloom, with multitudes of relatives haunting my widowed grandmother’s home, floating around and mumbling quietly to each other. The funeral itself was ghastly, trying to appear only moderately devastated when confronted with my embalmed grandfather during the open-casket ceremony. I sat overwhelmed by the memory of Granddad’s pipe-tobacco smell as he held me in his lap to trim my fingernails, or the taste of the lollipops he always kept in the pockets of his houndstooth-checked sportscoats for us. Quick to grasp difficult philosophical ideas, I understood that Granddad had gone on to a far better place (in this, for the first time, I never questioned the assertions of my mother), and also that he was gone for good. No longer would I taste bacon and eggs on raisin toast from his own plate, nor would I see his Shriner’s key-chain dangling from his left pants-pocket.
By the time school started again, I was comfortable in the grief, though still preoccupied by it. I wandered dazedly through my new eighth-grade classes, silent and ghostly, innattentive as always but now with a reason. If I thought that my classmates would respect my bereavement, especially when they knew nothing of it, I had again underestimated their cruelty.
Over the summer, I had recast the school jocks into my fantasies to such an extent that the brave and friendly entities of my dreams had become more real than the bestial, taunting, gratuitous realities of the boys themselves. Having become accustomed to Brandon Janacek as a kind and virile Roland to my worshipful Olivier, I was terribly startled when Brandon tripped me in the hall and laughed uproariously as I scrambled to retrieve the books he maliciously kicked out of my way. Trembling with betrayed fury, I stood and looked into Brandon’s cornflower eyes, wondering what I had done to deserve this brutish treatment.
“What are you looking at, faggot?” he sneered in my face. Without thinking, I brought up my arm and slapped Brandon so hard across the face that I heard my own knuckles crack. He stared at me in amazement for a moment, then punched me in the stomach and the jaw, almost simultaneously. In a perfect frenzy of emotional and physical pain, I launched myself at him and brought us both to the floor, where he beat me senseless with a series of well-trained punches to my abdomen and a few good shots to my face.
About halfway through this pummeling, it occured to me that I was finally touching Brandon Janacek. He smelled exactly like baked bread, as I had imagined him to—and he tasted like bread when I bit into his arm. I moved my hands wherever I wanted to, the pain of his blows like an annoying insect in comparison to the information I was receiving through my hands. I finally ended the struggle when I got to his surprisingly large testicles, which I squeezed like two walnuts in my palm. He howled, delivered one last punch to my eye, and fell over backwards just in time to see the looming figure of the Principal standing over us.
When my mother finally retrieved me from the Principal’s office, she was speechless—perhaps for the first time in my life. She couldn’t decide whether to be angry at my behavior, concerned about my injuries, or proud that I’d finally, after all these years of fretting her with my effeminate ways, done something overtly and essentially masculine. During the week of my suspension, she treated me with both scorn and admiration, tending gently to my innumerable bruises and cuts while lecturing me on the inappropriateness of my actions.
In a matter of weeks, the transformation was complete: my volatile temper crossed over from the verbal to the physical, and I got into at least two fist-fights a week. I lost every fight, of course; I was still horribly thin, and entirely uncoordinated, and I was incapable of making a fist when I was angry. I slapped weakly and kicked ineffectively while stronger, more athletic boys would punch me in various vulnerable spots until I was subdued. Little did those boys realize the erotic thrill I was recieving during these beatings—I got my hands on the cocks and asses of half the boys in the school. Thrill of all thrills, I sometimes blundered into a locker-room brawl, and was treated to the extraordinary sensation of being pummeled by a naked boy on the floor of a slippery shower-room. The gym teachers ignored these fracases entirely, viewing it as a natural form of exercise and highly recommendable, though my “permanent record” was becoming spotted with detentions and suspensions when I incited riots in the hallways and cafeteria.
Though I quickly got used to the pain, and had become quite expert at applying Absorbine Junior to the less-accessible parts of my body, the battles were taking their toll on me. I was a solid mass of bruises, artistically relieved by grotesque scabs, and one or the other (and sometimes both) of my eyes were always blackened. My lips were semipermanently swollen, and my mouth was a network of abrasions inside and out. My braces had been disaligned three separate times, incurring expensive repairs. My heretofore meticulous grades plummeted; I spent so much of my time at home or in the principal’s office that I was seldom ever in class.
Though this was a public school, it was in an affluent suburb, so we of course had a school shrink, a graduate clinician doing her doctoral thesis on institutional child psychology. Whenever I was sent to Miss Melanie’s office, I would quiz her on Jungian versus Freudian theories and carry on discussions about the efficacy of psychogenic drugs; if she tried to turn the conversation towards my own violence and disruptive proclivities, however, I would clam up like a Sphinx. There was nothing anyone could do for me, especially since I wouldn’t let them.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, I got into what proved to be my last fight. Brandon Janacek had gathered together a group of right-thinking individuals, and decided to rid the school of the dangerous skinny faggot-boy. They waited for me behind some shrubberies that stood between the front doors and the curb where my mother had become accustomed to picking me up, and snatched me off the sidewalk before any authority figures could see what was happening. Eight beautiful musclebound boys beat the tar out of me for a solid ten minutes—holding down my hands, so I didn’t even get to have any fun—before they were scattered by the shrill of an authoritarian whistle and the approaching footseps of myriad adults. The last thing I heard, before I passed out, was Brandon saying, “Oh shit, I guess the faggot’ll live. Let’s go.”
I woke up in the hospital. Every part of me hurt, and there was a ringing in my ears. My nose felt inside-out, and I couldn’t open my mouth.
“That’ll have to be broken again and reset, or he’ll look like Jerry Cooney,” came a voice from above.
“What’s wrong with kids these days, to gang up on a boy like this?” came another voice.
“He probably started it, the little monster,” this from my loving Mother.
“Well, it’s lucky for him I’m pulling ER duty,” said the first voice, “I’m a plastic surgeon, Mrs. Cole. I’ll have that nose set even better than before, and he won’t have a scar on his lip. But I need a renal exam for this kid. It may be more than a bruise.”
Just as I was coming to, I was drugged again, and I wallowed around in my dreams while the medical staff tended my injuries. When I next came to, I was in a noisy ward, and my mother was standing beside the bed telling me to get up. I climbed out of bed and put my arms and legs in various places as instructed while Mother dressed me. I groggily noticed, for the first time, that I was taller than her. An orderly wheeled me out to the car, and Mother took me home, undressed me again, and shoved me back into bed.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself, boy. This is the last time, do you understand? It’s a good thing you have a medical plan, or I might have just let you die there in those bushes. Take this pill, go to sleep, and pray I’m not this angry tomorrow,” then she kissed me and suppressed a sob.
As I slept, I plotted hideous revenges for Brandon and the others. The Shining would read like The Little Engine That Could when I was done with the likes of them. Blood and viscera would be my daily fare until I had exacted retribution. Mother told me later that I was chuckling madly and rubbing my hands together in my sleep, alarming my father to such an extent that he contacted the minister of his mother’s church.
When I came out of my stupor, sometime during the night, I discovered my father sitting by my bed, holding my hand and apparently praying. When I stirred, he turned on the light and looked closely at my face.
“What’s the matter with you, Bobby?” he asked, a small catch in his voice.
“I hate everybody,” was my sullen reply.
“Are you not getting enough love and attention from me and your mom?”
Oh great, I thought, Daddy thinks this is all his fault. He’s sitting here holding my hand, which he hadn’t done since I learned to cross streets by myself, awake in the middle of the night, thinking that the violence that had reduced me to this pulpy state was because he didn’t hug me enough. I was immediately consumed by guilt.
“It’s not your fault, Daddy. It’s those bastard cretins, my so-called ‘peers.’ I wish they’d all drop dead. No, I wish they’d all contract leprosy and rot slowly, horribly, and painfully.”
“Do they tease you?” my father was such an innocent.
“I’m a faggot, Daddy.”
“No, you’re not,” he replied, somewhat horrified.
“Yes, I am. I’m sexually attracted to boys, to use the clinical euphemism.”
“Then you are a homosexual. ‘Gay’ is the word we use nowadays. You’re not a faggot. Besides, Bobby, you’re a little young to know whether or not you’re gay. But if that’s what you are, your mother and I will still love you. You’re still our son.”
Now it was time for me to have tears in my eyes.
“Do I look as bad as I feel?” I asked, trying to lighten the tone of the conversation.
“That depends,” he laughed, “Do you feel like a train wreck?”
When Daddy had gone to bed, I turned on the lights and went to inspect myself in the mirror over my bureau. My hair was a mess, as it usually was, and my pajamas were buttoned wrong. In between the messy hair and the skewed jammies was a black-blue-and-white mess that was the remains of my face. My nose had been broken, and was covered in splints and white adhesive tape; my eyes were twin puddles of aubergine mottled with ebony, and a huge chunk of plaster clung to my lower lip. There were more bruises on my jaw and cheekbone, as well as my neck and clavicle. Squirming out of my pajamas, I discovered another bandage over a fractured rib, and bruises of inconcievable size and lividity covering my entire torso. The pain was starting to nag at me, but I figured that I deserved it, so I didn’t call Mother for a new dose of pain-killers. I crawled into bed and pondered my life.
It eventually occurred to me, after much self-argument, that I had been acting irrationally about my peers for years. After all, it wasn’t really their fault that they were backward suburban hillbillies, and perhaps my mother had been right in her declaration that they would have stopped teasing me if I had ever learned to not encourage them. And really, when was the last time I had dropped my hostilities and given the horrid beasts a chance? I had loathed everyone on principle since the first grade: maybe I had been wrong.
The cycle of violence that had brought me to this woeful end would have to stop, and I was the only one who could stop it. I could change myself before I could change the two hundred and twenty-seven morons that populated my school, so change I would: to save my face from further disfigurement, to save my self from my mothers’s acid tongue, and to save my father from the monster he’d given life to. The only question was how.
The answer was not long in coming. Part of my new benevolence involved not snitching on Brandon and his cohort, claiming to have started the fight myself, and I was expelled from school as an example. Grandmother’s minister suggested that, as a possible solution to both my scholastic disgrace and my grandmother’s widowed loneliness, we should try cohabiting. So, shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I moved into my grandmother’s Crocker Highlands home, was enrolled at McChesney Junior High, and launched on a new life.
Though Grandmother Cole was fiscally comfortable, with a generous pension and no debts, my father insisted on paying her for my upkeep; he was doing rather well in his new job at an Oldsmobile dealership (the Eighties Boom was happening, and luxury automobles were in the ascendant), so these checks were pretty lavish. Since Grandmother didn’t need the money, she let me use it on a new school wardrobe, and set me up with a rather tidy allowance for entertainment expenses. Better still, she did not accompany me on my outfitting excursions, hovering over my every choice with kvetching suggestions as my mother routinely did. I was allowed to garb myself in whatever eccentric manner I chose, so long as it did not look like “something you’d wear to clean out the chicken-coop.” I discovered vintage clothing stores, supplying myself with double-breasted pinstripe jackets, baggy flannel slacks, black-and-white spectators, vee-necked tennis sweaters, and flaring tropical ties. The dull preppie clothes my mother usually made me wear were discarded in favor of luminous silk shirts and unfashionable flat-front chinos, sneakers of a style worn by Jazz-Age yachtsmen, and pastel socks that matched my cardigan vests. Grandmother augmented this antiquated wardrobe with items from my dead Granddad’s closets, which she had yet to clear out (she also burned his tobacco in potpourri jars around the house and retained all of his magazine subscriptions). By mid-January, I was the nattiest fourteen-year-old on the block.
She also decided that I should be given carte-blanche to make myself comfortable in the room my that father had grown up in with his brother. It took me quite some time to divest the room of Daddy’s sports-fan paraphernalia and Uncle Eddie’s varstity track and baseball trophies, since every old tchotchke had a story attached to it, which Grandmother would share with me before we packed the object away in a tissue-filled crate. Little else was needed in the pleasant mahogany-furnished and forest-scene-papered room besides a new bedspread in a soothing shade of emerald green, and a few posters of favorite silent-movie stars (Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Rudolph Valentino) framed on the walls. The end result was ever so much more cozy than the dreadful choo-choo motif I’d been living with up till then, a blue-and-yellow suite Mother had chosen while I was safely in utero and could not object.
My first day of school was somewhat confusing, but entirely devoid of shouted epithets or sneering commentary. McChesney was about five times bigger than my school in Orinda, and there were hundreds of people there who were considerably more strange than I had ever tried to be. From what I could tell, there was no social classification of Populars, Jocks, Nerds, and Stoners; the multi-ethnic student body tended to devolve itself vaguely along racial lines, but one would see cliques of friends who had no visible personality-attributes in common. Great lumbering boys in football jerseys joked happily with skinny bespectacled boys in nylon windbreakers and pocket-protectors; elaborately coiffed and exquisitely overdressed girls traded gossip and eye-shadow with plump and dowdy girls carrying brass musical instruments in tattered cases. Pretty debs walked arm in arm with pimply geeks, and handsome jocks played footsie with matronly frumps. While I saw no clique that I would automatically fit into, there was no clique from which I was automatically excluded.
Joy of all joys, Grandmother managed to get me excused from Physical Education on a trumped-up medical pretext. Instead of being humiliated on the fields of sport, I got to sit in the gym office, sorting enrolment forms, keeping attendance records, typing up requisitions, organizing supply closets, and looking up locker combinations for forgetful students. The semi-illiterate former varstiy stars that operated the department thought I was the best thing since Our Miss Brooks, and spent a lot of time tousling my hair and asking my opinion on their sportscoats and toupees. Better still, I was in charge of handing out towels, and I got to perch on a stool behind a counter, fully and lavishly dressed, while nude boys paraded past me and said friendly things as I handed over rectangles of tatty terrycloth. I was in heaven.
A well-adjusted child is the product of a happy environment, and I was so happy that I got into the habit of pinching myself to make sure I was awake.
When the bandages had come off my face, I had the cutest little nose in the world, perfectly straight and entirely symmetrical; my idiotic fighting had at least given me this one benefit, and I started taking greater pride in my appearance. Though my hair was still a disgusting shade of shit-brown, I learned to highlight it with lemon-juice, bringing out strands of gold that gave the impression of blondness without resorting to obvious bleach; I also learned how to blow-dry it, working around the cowlicks with a curling brush, transforming my careless scarecrow’s mop into a rather elegant coiffure of subtle, poetic waves. I somehow escaped the teenage anathema of acne, and I was getting quite skilled at smiling and talking without revealing my braces.. This new pride in my improving looks, along with the new wardrobe and new lifestyle, created a mental atmosphere where my self-esteem flourished. Pretty soon I was actually confident, happy, and ready to become a functioning member of society.
On the other hand, though I had no enemies, I still had no friends. I was entirely unskilled in the art of meeting people to whom I had not been formally introduced, and I continued to eat my lunch alone under a tree while doing my homework. Instead, I became friends with my grandmother: I would come home in the afternoons and we would have tea and cookies, chatting about our respective days, Grandmother telling me stories about her past, and me telling her dreams about my future. I could talk to her about anything, and she told me things about herself that I’m sure my father didn’t even know. We got along famously. One afternoon I remarked that I had never felt as close to my mother as I did to her.
“That’s because you weren’t breast-fed,” Grandmother stated matter-of-factly.
“Poor Cathy didn’t have any milk, and the doctors didn’t know, back then, that breast-feeding is important for mother-child bonding. Nowadays, if a mother doesn’t have milk, they give you all sorts of bonding exercises to do, like bathing together and giving massages.”
My grandmother was the sixth of seven children, and each of her siblings had three to four children each; those twenty-two children were all married, with two to five children apiece, most of whom were my age and older, bringing the grand total of relatives up to seventy-four, not counting the few infants produced by the children of my generation. Most of them lived in various rural and suburban parts of the Central Valley, with satellite settlements in Washington and Texas, and Grandmother’s house was something of a route-hub for visiting-tours. Granddad’s two sisters lived in Oakland, as did their four children and seven grandchildren, and my Aunt Diane lived in nearby Hayward with her two children while my Uncle Edward lived about fifty miles away with his three children. The house was forever awash with relatives. I became acquainted with a legion of cousins my own age, both male and female, whose entertainment Grandmother would put in my charge. Over the summer, tables turned and Grandmother took me on several different visits to such towns as Eureka, Redding, Placerville, Madera, Bakersfield, and Visalia, where we would stay with her siblings or nieces and enjoy the quieter pace of life beyond the city, where solemn boy and girl cousins would solicitously take me around to their social spots and try to show me a good time. Though I had very little in common with these cousins, they were all of angelic temper and kindly disposition, regarding my various eccentricities with the fascination of country-cousins confronted by a city-cousin. We would go to movies and pizza, or simply watch television together, and I was slowly becoming accustomed to social contact. I would be as polite as I knew how, utilizing every trick of good manners I’d ever been taught—funny that it had never before occurred to me to lay on the etiquette with my peers instead of my elders.
Sometime during the summer, I underwent a bodily change that I assumed to be the next phase of my puberty: I suddenly began yearning for physical activity. I often began my mornings with the calisthenics that I had earlier disdained, endlessy repeating jumping-jacks and sit-ups before breakfast, and I had finally learned to swim when Uncle Eddie built a pool in the back yard of his San Jose house. When visiting with far-flung relatives, I often went swimming with my cousins in their home pools or a nearby natural body of water, and would occasionaly join in a lighthearted game of softball or basketball with a cousin who played for the joy of exercise rather than to win. Sometimes, if I sat still long enough, I could feel the energy building up in my limbs, and I would have to get up and do push-ups or run around the block before I could sit still again.
This sudden rush of exercise, along with the delicious and well-balanced meals my grandmother and her nieces cooked, conspired to give me a body that I was not entirely ashamed of. Between June and September, I put on nearly thirty pounds, though I only grew an inch in height. Muscles began to define themselves under my soft skin, and even my genitals enlarged substantially. Aside from the autoerotic delight I took in this sleek and elegant body, it gave me a degree of confidence that I had never before posessed. I could wear tight jeans and close-fitting t-shirts, tank-tops and shorts, though I still preferred to drape myself in the loose shoulder-padded styles that I had previously used to disguise my grotesque gauntness.
Along with this physical enhancement, I learned a certain amount of physical grace. My entire method of walking was different: I had always walked with small steps, slightly hunched over, with my arms close to my chest, afraid that I might fall down or knock into furniture if I became too free with my movements; now I strode about with long steps, shoulders straight, chest expanded, head held high on my long neck, with a jaunty sort of swing to my hips that was vaguely effeminate but more closely resembling the gait of a dancer. I developed a natural sort of rhythm, and worked off a great deal of my excess energy by dancing in the living room, trying to copy the dances on American Bandstand. I wasn’t very good at this sort of thing, so Grandmother taught me ballroom dancing, leading me through the courtly steps of waltzes and foxtrots. I took to this old-fashioned gracefulness immediately, and discarded Dick Clark and his San Bernadino teenie-boppers in favor of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley. Though I was incapable of the quick movements required for tap, I did manage to emulate those routines that didn’t sound like machine-gun fanfarades.
When school started up again, I maintained my position in the gym office, but it was because I enjoyed the work, not because I was ashamed of my body. Also, I still lacked the ability to compete in games—school sports tend to bring out the barbarian in teenage boys, and I wasn’t sure that I could maintain my newfound sangfroid in the kill-or-be-killed realms of athletics. On the other hand, my position in the office gave me keys and access to the gym facilities when nobody else was about; when I got into one of my spasms of kinetic frenzy, I could skip lunch or stay late to do a few laps in the subterranean pool or futz about with the new Nautilus machines. There are few freedoms in life as luxurious as having a junior-high gym at your sole disposal, able to swim naked or take showers with all the taps on and water spraying from every direction.
However, my confidence and grace were not enough to plunge me into the social stream. I knew how to behave with new people, but I did not yet know how to talk to strangers. Cousins who had to be nice to me, and then discovered they could like me, were a different sort of challenge than people who had no idea who I was or why they should want to know me. I often spent time studying my peers, wondering who I might talk to and how I might approach them. I thought of trying to endear myself to boys I found attractive, but was afraid that they might divine ulterior motives that I wasn’t fully aware of myself; I was distrustful of girls, having no idea why I was supposed to be attracted to them, terrified that they might think I was attracted to them, or, even worse, might be offended that I wasn’t attracted to them. I toyed with the possibilities of joining an extracurricular organization, such as the French Club or the Drama Club, but I was apprehensive that doing so might brand me in some mysterious way, that I might make a social blunder that would haunt the remainder of my compulsory education. The intricacies of teenage society were fraught with peril, and I couldn’t afford a mistake.
One afternoon, I was sitting on a bench near the volleyball courts, enjoying the egg-salad-and-tomato sandwich Grandmother had packed for me and working the New York Times crossword puzzle. I paused and looked up, trying to think of an eight-letter word for ‘break’ (it turned out to be entr’acte), and was startled to confront a dramatically attractive, dark-haired girl standing directly in front of me, her arms crossed over her surpisingly ample bosom, staring at me as if I were on display in a natural-history museum. She wore an Egyptian linen jumper in the most startling possible shade of purple, with a fuschia shirt and leggings under it, and yards of clattering Indian beads hung around her neck. She was stunning, somewhat frightening, but apparently friendly.
“Are you working the crossword in pen?” she asked incredulously.
“Am I not supposed to?” I countered, wondering if using a pen on a crossword was some sort of arcane faux-pas.
“What do you do if you make a mistake?”
“I don’t,” I replied, before it occured to me how snotty that might sound, “If I’m not sure of a word, I write it very lightly, and fill it in darker if it turns out right.”
“That’s very clever. I’m Julia.”
“My name’s Robert,” I said, putting my hand out to shake. She took it enthusiastically and pumped my arm like a whirligig.
“Why do you always sit by yourself?” she asked, seating herself on the bench next to me.
“I don’t know,” I answered, “I don’t have anyone to sit with, I guess.”
“Why don’t you come join us?” she offered, sweeping her arm eastward to indicate the noisy troupe of oddly-dressed people that stood congregated about ten yards away.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose on you.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted you. I guess you like being alone and were too polite to say so. I’m sorry,” she repeated, sincerely embarassed that she had intruded upon my solitude.
“Oh, please don’t be sorry. I would love to join you. I just didn’t want to put you out.”
Julia Schoenburg was the president of the Shakespeare Club, and fancied herself the hostess of a Bohemian salon. She couldn’t stand to see people sitting in solitude, and it was her life’s-work to gather every loner and misfit in the school into her boisterous coterie. Most of the people I was introduced to were shy and retiring, and they all had very little in common besides their asocial proclivities. However, Julia orchestrated them with the virtuosity of Paganini, and all of the them were the very best of friends. When conversation waned, Julia would expound on some controversial topic, such as whether or not Don Johnson was absolutely dreamy or if President Reagan was the Antichrist. Each coterie-member’s personal talents were highlighted and praised, and any adolescent crisis one encountered was shared with and solved by the group. If petty feuds or latent hostilities broke out in the ranks, Julia soothed and moderated with the finesse of a UN ambassador.
The girls ran the gamut from supermodel prettiness to apple-doll quaintness, though most of them were overweight and played in the band. There were only two boys in the coterie, one of whom seemed to be a handsome jock until he started talking yearningly about Beat poetry; the other was a plump African boy who lisped and dreamed of being an avant-garde fashion designer. They all gossiped about each-other in a light-hearted manner, and there were no secrets or taboo subjects among them.
This particular McChesney set was only one facet of Julia’s social machine. The school district was laid out in bizarre patterns, so the friends she made in elementary school were often matriculated to different middle-schools, and middle-school friends later scattered to divergent high-schools. Julia would not be thwarted by district boundaries, however, and kept her wide-flung coterie cohesive through weekly entertainments held in her parents’ rather grand home or in the homes of other coterie-members. In fine weather, we would go on twenty-person outings, picnicking in the cemetery or descending on some run-down delicatessen. Every Saturday night we got together and danced in various living-rooms and rumpus-rooms, or went to inexpensive second-run movie-houses to bray at some inane horror-film while taking up a great deal of space.
I can thank Julia Schoenburg for turning me into a social creature. In the length of a week, I went from having zero acquaintances to having fifty best-friends. I spent many afternoons on the phone, gossiping with girlfriends and making plans for the weekends. I developed a little crush on Stephen, our hetero beatnik athlete, and the lisping Mustapha developed a little crush on me. Several of the girls flirted embarrasingly with me, and I flirted back in a calculatedly non-committal manner. Crushes were a common occurrence among this set, and occasionally a romantic relationship would surface for a few weeks before it was subsumed into the group again. Ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends were not allowed to cause schisms in the coterie, and Julia kept herself busy by forcing couples who had once made out madly in a dark corner, and then fought bitterly over some imagined transgression, to resume the happy comradery of the larger society.
From these cross currents of romance and flirtation I learned a great deal about social dexterity. Julia was a virtuosa of subtlety, and I was her studious acolyte: I learned how to flirt expertly with straight boys, expressing my attraction and affection without threatening or offending them; I learned to deflect the affections of girls without hurting their feelings; I learned how to dance with girls without appearing to partner them, and to dance with boys without their realizing what I was doing. I learned to modulate my manners to a situation, never too fulsome yet never too brusque, taking exactly the right tone with whatever person I confronted, be they friends’ parents or new coterie-members. Within a few months I was a social triumph. Everybody liked me immensely, and I began to be seen as the co-host of the coterie.
After ninth-grade Christmas break, Spring Fever struck the coterie, and sexual experimentation became the order of the day. I was not immune from the fever, and spent sleepless nights plotting the seduction of Stephen; in desperate moments I even considered having a go at the ambiguous Mustapha. So many of us were having our first sexual experiences, which were shared in great detail over coterie lunches and picnics; for the first time, I felt left out, set apart from the group by my minority sexuality.
I became fascinated by one question: how do two boys have sex? What do they do? What is physically possible? One of the girls explained to us about oral sex, how to give the best blowjob, and what happens if you suck ice-cubes beforehand (her boyfriend was less than pleased to find that we all knew about his reaction to the ice-cubes). I added this knowledge to my encyclopedia, and pondered what it would taste like, how I could convince someone to let me try it on them, or to convince someone to do it to me. Later on, another of the girls brought a sex-manual that she’d filched from her parents’ night-stand. Much was revealed, yet I had no idea if one could have coitus with a boy. The manual described anal sex, and boys have anuses; but it seemed rather dirty, and it might hurt. I experimented with my own anus and was quite surprised by the sensations I discovered. So, anal and oral sex were explained to me, yet I had no one to experiment with except Mustapha, who I just couldn’t imagine being that intimate with. I mean, I liked him, but he was so frightfully unattractive with his strangely dark skin and jiggly obesity. It seemed callous to want to use him just to satisfy my curiosity. I knew how he felt about me, and it would be criminal to abuse those feelings. After all, I would be very hurt if someone did that to me: I had learned empathy.
In mid-April, just before Spring Break, a new member was added to the coterie, a beautiful Latino-Italian boy named Anthony Fiore. He was an artist, and traveled everywhere with a huge drawing-pad tucked under his arm; Julia came across him on the playing-field one lunch hour and co-opted him immediately. It took me about ten minutes to fall in love with him. He was much smaller than me, delicate yet strong-looking; his face was Latin and perfect, with huge melting-brown eyes, a luscious red mouth, and the most elegant Roman nose imagineable. He had soft black hair that waved exquisitely over his head and curled seductively behind his ears; his hands were as fragile as bird’s-wings, and he used them with intricate skill on his drawings. That is to say, he was beautiful. Beyond this, he had a charisma about him, and I was not the only one who fell for him: half the girls were besotted, and the other half considered becoming besotted. Even Stephen seemed to be attracted to him. I was learning about jealousy now, and the hideous traps of comparison. Stephen was much better-looking than me, and Anthony was utterly gorgeous: I no longer seemed as attractive to myself as I had once been.
Imagine my surprise and delight when Anthony became comfortable enough in his new surroundings to express his sexuality. He had but recently moved to Oakland from Los Angeles, where he had attended Catholic schools; he knew a great deal more about sex than any of us did, particularly about the sex that springs up in schools filled exclusively with hormone-crazed boys. He was gay! Hooray! Then I remembered that he was more beautiul than me, and that he was just as unattainable as a straight boy—no, even more so: a straight boy is unattainable because he’s straight, which is his fault, and a beautiful boy is unattainable because you don’t measure up to his beauty, which is your fault. I learned what it tastes like to eat your own heart.
My coronary dining turned out to be unnecessary. I discovered, through various conversations, that Anthony and I had one more thing in common: he had a crush on Stephen. I exulted! After all, Stephen was handsome, built like a brick shithouse, and immensely chaming: but I was available. not only could I capitalize on our shared attaction, creating a common bond of lust, but I could offer a release from the frutration of lusting after a straight-boy. I didn’t know how to seduce Anthony, but I did what I could to create a physically intimate relationship with him. I touched him as often as I could, but kept my touches chaste and friendly. In an attempt to establish further intimacy, I invited Anthony to come swimming with me in the school pool after hours, and he accepted.
The swimming pool was brand-new, recently donated by some athletic philanthropist, and swimming classes had not yet been scheduled; therefore it was seldom ever used. It was quite small, of Olympic length but only three lanes wide and four feet deep, tucked into a low basement under the gym. The lighting, on the other hand, was immensely erotic—with the flourescent ceiling-lights turned off, the only illumination came from the two lamps inside the water, and rippling beams played lazily across the dank cement walls. Feeling very self-important, I let myself and Anthony into the deserted locker-room, and unlocked the pool. With only a fleeting attempt at modesty, Anthony agreed to join me naked in the warm, heavily chlorinated water, and we froliced playfully for a half-hour, sliding against eachother and wrestling companionably before pulling ourselves breathlessly to the side. His body was delicately muscled, with warm amber-toned skin, smoothly hairless and exquisitely touchable. With his black hair slicked back and his long black lashes dewed with water, he looked like a boy-Nereid. His narrow chest heaved with his labored breath, and his delicious red-lipped mouth hung slack, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. Gazing into his violet-flecked amber eyes, I closed in on him slowly, until we were only an inch apart.
* * * * *
Pardon the abrupt ending, but I didn't know where to go from there. Writing about sex is more difficult than I imagined when I started out.
Those who've read Richard Friedel's The Movie Lover will note certain similarities; I didn't intend to plagiarize, but I was mightily influenced by that novel. And those who know my own history will notice certain similarities between the fictional Robert Cole and myself; that is where the wish-fulfilment nature of my writing comes in. That was the childhood I wished I'd had (or at least one of them).
Anyway, if you've made it this far, I'd love to know what you think. Criticism is important to learning the craft.