Age: 8 years old
Place: Spring Valley, CA (Suburb of San Diego)
This one took a bit of time to gestate. Yeah, writing these is the closest I’ll come to giving birth. Now, I know my dad always said that that distinction was solely for the passing of kidney stones (and yes, I’ve had one and I’ll have to agree with him on it), but in my case – cranking these bad boys out is just as gut wrenching because they’re my memories, my life experiences I am allowing to bubble up and show up here on the VQR blog.
So, why do them? That’s the obvious question, right? So obvi – as the kids say these days. Jesus, as a sidebar conversation, can I tell you I am always in a constant state of grousing that I get to refer to people younger than me as “kids” and it actually means something? I just fucking hate that. I have such a great appreciation for my elders (who are still kicking it around) now that I am at that age they were when I was younger. They were right: it looks totally different from this side of that youth obsessed, ageist fence.
To answer that question, before I get rolling on the topic at hand, I am doing it because I don’t feel queer people document their lives as much as we should. It’s sort of a catch 22 with me: in that, I come from an early enough era where I am highly suspicious about what our governments are doing with all of this information that is constantly pouring from the masses. We’re being cataloged, categorized and reduced to algorithms that work to predict our next move. So, given that, why contribute? Because our voice is an important one. Each of our journeys is what’s missing from the greater discussion. As queer people we’ve become inured to the heteronormative message out there as if our own voice has less credence and doesn’t belong in the mainstream context. That’s why I am doing this.
Adding one more queer man’s voice to the mix, preserving another queer history, even if it is only my own.
This one took a bit because it deals with three areas of my life that have always been a bit of a quandary to me, mostly because they center around my intimate relationships with other boys. Some were good, others, yeah, not so much. But the one common thread – they were all definitively male.
Yeah why not go with the worst part, right? Like ripping off of a bandage, just do it first and do it fast and the worst will be over.
Here’s the dealio: every queer kid who didn’t have the luxury of passing as anything but queer has their battle stories, how the other boys made their lives hell. Yeah I have mine, too.
The first real “incident” (as it was come to be called by the staff at La Presa Elementary) was between me and an asswipe of a guy named Eddie. He was Latino, like me (remember, Collins is a nom de plume), something that should’ve made me a part of the tribe, right? Only in this case, being singled out as a sissy, a faggot, or queer, my being Latino like him only served to make it worse.
Latino men are consumed with that whole macho masculine mystique. Yeah, I am here to bear witness that ninety-nine percent of that is utter bullshit. For the most part it is all put-on airs and doing what’s expected of them by those pushy Latina women who do their level best to make sure their men act like some fucked-up myopic view of what a man is. Believe me, women should be the LAST fucking word on that. Look to your own, ladies. That whole “I need me a real man” is so fucked from the moment that fecal-laced thought ever forms in your fucking heads.
Yeah, I went there.
I do blame Latin women for it, HOOK, LINE and FUCKING SINKER. Ninety-nine point 999 percent of male-induced homophobia can be drawn right back to that whole concept of “what makes up a man.“ Yet, that’s never been the case for women. You got tits? Ya got a vagina – bang! You’re a woman. I’ll not devolve into the fucked up male connotations of what makes a perfect woman because I am not using that POV to apply it to men. Body modifications, imagery aside, we’re just talking what makes the grade of being Man or Woman enough. Women get an automatic pass. Got the anatomy (trans ladies aside for the sake of this point, if tangentially relevant)? Then you’re in, you’re a part of the club. Got a cock and balls, is nowhere NEAR good enough to label you as a man. We have qualifiers for what makes up a “real man” and that shit is what builds bullies. That shit is what makes queer boys like me fret for our very lives.
[stepping down from my soap box]
So, La Presa Elementary and Eddie.
He was not the first to bully me at school, but he was the most significant. He was the first to move beyond the name calling. He was the first to physically threaten me and he did it while other kids were around. Publicly.
I was in the third grade. He was in sixth. Hardly a match to begin with, wouldn’t you say? But that’s the way of bullies. They only target those that are a sure win. They’re bullies, not brave. Let’s not confuse the two. There is no courage on breaking the weaker among your own. That’s nothing but cowardice, plain and simple.
Only, knowing that, even at that age, and being the precocious child I was, I did have that partially sussed out, on some level. I knew he was afraid of who I was. He didn’t like me, yet he didn’t even know me. He only knew what other kids had said about me. I was in third grade for fuck sake. Why else would a sixth grader bother?
Looking back on it now, I can sort of see that maybe he was afraid he was more like me than he wanted to admit. We’ll never know.
Wanna know why?
Here’s how it went down:
I remember that it was a fairly good day for me. Music time was right around the corner for me (remember Mrs. Sowers and my Julie Andrews ways in third grade?). So the day was looking up for me. I had my favorite lunch – cheese sandwich on Roman Meal bread. So life was good. I wanted to think it was just going to be a peachy school day.
Then Eddie changed all of that.
The lunch recess bell rang. We all had to make our way to our respective class lines to march – well, walk back (it wasn’t a military school) to our classes. Only I got waylaid by Eddie. He came up from out of nowhere. A bunch of kids were walking alongside me and I remember running my fingers along the chain link fence, humming a song that had been trapped in my head for a good part of that month. I had just begun to notice popular music that was on the radio. And that only created a new form of musical torture – musical ear worms, songs that you just couldn’t give up humming no matter how hard you tried. I remember being so caught up in humming that song, taking my sweet time to fall into line for Mrs. Sowers class, that just as I was about to get to my class line, a rough hand reached out, gripped my shoulder and pushed me very hard into the fence.
My whole world stopped …
This was the first time anything violent had happened to me. I was stunned. The funny thing was, kids saw it, but didn’t stop him from doing it, they didn’t say a thing about it.
In their defense, Eddie was a big guy for a sixth grader. From what I’d heard, he was actually held back twice because he just wasn’t smart enough to move on. I don’t know if that was true, and as I said earlier, it wouldn’t matter much in the long run.
To give you an idea of what I was up against, he was a few inches shy of five and half feet tall. Big for an elementary kid. He had a frog-like face, oblong from side to side – wide, and emphasized by the coke-bottle-bottom horn-rimmed glasses he wore that made his eyes look like they were about to pop out of his eye sockets at any moment. He was a husky boy. You know the type – fat-ish but no one had the balls to say that to his face so everyone said husky – the code word for fat on the playground. He had curly longish greasy black hair. When you added a bad case of acne, and his breath stunk like death warmed over, it only completed the monster image I had of him at that moment.
I remember every detail about his face and breath because it was now inches from my own.
“I don’t like you.” He breathed heavily into my face.
“Why? I don’t even know you.”
“‘Cause you’re a queer kid. All the guys say you’re queer. I don’t like queers. I smear queers.”
I don’t know why I remember those words as clearly as I do. Or why his greasy hair, bulging eyes and fetid breath still are as clear to me all these years later but I guess it’s because it was the first time I was truly scared.
But something in me changed. I don’t know where it came from. I’ve always had a smart mouth – it’s both my curse and my joy. I’ve used it to great success and to my utter demise at times. I know it now for what it is. I do my best to curb it when I can feel it won’t do me any good.
Only this time? Yeah, I didn’t know when to keep my trap shut.
“What’re you gonna do? Hit me?”
He smiled. He had teeth that were so yellow that I just knew I wasn’t going to come out of this alive. You’d think that’d be enough to keep my trap shut. It wasn’t.
“I’m gonna mess you up good.”
And I don’t know where the next thing that fell out of my mouth came from, but I went there.
“If you hit me, you’ll be sorry. ‘Cause I curse you. Something really bad is gonna happen to you.” What that was, I had no idea. It just fell out of my mouth.
That stopped him for like a second, then he laughed his ass off, exposing those yellow stinky teeth. I remember seeing his fist pull back and I knew in the next second I was gonna feel a whole lot of pain.
“Eddie! What do you think you’re doing?” Mr, Tibbets called out to him. I was never more thankful for that growly-assed teacher to be near me as I was then. Brown growly bear suit or not, he was a godsend.
“I think you need to get into our line, Eddie, and we’re gonna have a little talk with the Principal after school.”
See, my little curse was already working.
Only I didn’t think it would go beyond that. But it did …
A week later he was hit by a car crossing that same damned boulevard where all the accidents happened. He didn’t die, but he was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. He never did come back to our school.
Word spread from the kids who witnessed it. I remember all the kids giving me a wide-birth when word finally got around to what happened to him. I knew I didn’t do anything other than let my mouth get the better of me. In a way, it was a very lonely time on the playground. No one wanted to be near me. I was the kid who gave curses. I didn’t mind, really. Being left alone was safer. I began to just use my imagination and invent things and people I could feel safe around. I’d walk the large perimeter of the recess grounds – which were quite large. I’d sing songs to myself. I would stop and watch other kids play. I wanted to be a part of it. But it was safer for me if I didn’t.
So I didn’t.
Empty victory, really. But I learned a valuable lesson. Two, actually, when I thought on it:
Recesses and playtime were never the same after that. I was always looking over my shoulder, always an ear to the ground. Danger could come from anywhere.
Words. It was when I learned he power of words.
Words were only the warning flag. Being called a sissy, a queer or a faggot was only the beginning of where it could go. Boys could do real harm to me. Boys I liked could be part of that. That’s an awful lot to swallow for a third grader. My parents reared my brother, sister and me knowing that life was often unfair and something could happen to them at any time. We needed to be prepared for that. I memorized our phone number from an early age (kindergarten, in fact) just so I would always have a number to call when something went wrong. Grandma would be there during the day to take care of things if something happened.
But with all that preparation, I don’t think they ever thought that something could happen to me. Maybe they did. They often thought of a great many things before I did. But it was the first time I realized that something could happen to me and I could be hurt. Badly.
My world changed that day. Eddie got his. I hated thinking that, but some small part of me was glad that he wasn’t going to be in a position to do anything to me in the future.
I was a big fan of Bewitched. I practiced twitching my nose and practiced my spell-casting as an extra means of protection. It never worked, obviously. But it gave me something to take my mind off of being so alone. My brother and sister were at the same school but being in first and kindergarten they were relegated to the smaller kids’ part of the playground. So it was just me, to myself.
I learned later on that Eddie didn’t have a great home life. He was picked on by his family at home. That’s another indicator of bullying – they’re usually bullied somewhere else and its a learned reaction.
So I forgive you and your fear of me, Eddie, wherever you are. In a very odd way, you gave me the lens that I needed to see how to watch out for myself. So in that way, I thank you.
I got by, made the transition to fourth grade before that homophobic monster would rear its head again. But I’ll leave that for another telling.
Until next time …
Years: 1972, 78, 81, 82 and 84.
Ages: 8, 13, 17, 18, 20.
Place: San Diego, CA USA
I’m gay. I’ve never made bones about it. I remember being fascinated by boys from a very early age. Didn’t know what that meant back then, but yeah, big queer boy me. Boys like Vincent, Gregory, Raymond, Neil (sweet holy Jesus, NEIL – I crushed HARD on that boy) as well as others in my class and at school.
After my year of kindergarten at Highlands, I was able to be relocated from the first grade on at La Presa Elementary which was directly across Jamacha Boulevard from our house (Jamacha, if you’ll recall from my previous posts, is the main four lane thoroughfare that ran perpendicular to our street – the one where people drove 50 mph down that street and kids would still dash across it to short-cut not having to walk an extra couple of blocks further to an actual traffic signal cross-walk). Youth being eight bags of stupid and all.
Anyway, my life at La Presa was a mixed bag. For the most part, I loved going there. The teachers I had were all amazing in their own way – even Mr. Tibbitts in my sixth grade year who had his growly bear (read: brown) suit that when he wore it we were on notice not to fuck with him that day ’cause he was in a baaaaaaaad mood. But yeah, for the most part my years at that school were fairly golden.
I had friends. Well, kids I got along with. I wouldn’t say we were “friends” in the strictest sense. More like agreeable playmates. Because even then I was singled out as being different. I was not only bright and delighted in making my thoughts known (even back then I didn’t hide my opinions) and loved to demonstrate my mental prowess with the teachers and class, but I was always, always, always trying to be nice to everyone. It wasn’t easy. Somehow I broke a rule for boys that I never knew existed. I dunno, maybe I missed a boyhood meeting and that memo never made it to my house with a great big ol’ “where the fuck were you? we had some serious shit to discuss …” attached to it?
Anyway, my über smartypants ways didn’t win me any big awards with the guys at my school. I was an insufferable know-it-all, I suppose. But I think most gayboys are. It’s our defense mechanism that is trying desperately to kick in and somehow send a big ol’ signal that you better not fuck with us. When all it does is say please, fuck with us. [You can insert your eye roll here – ’cause it’s what I’m doing.]
I was also artistic in every sense of the word. I knew every song from all the classic Broadway musicals – like The Sound of Music (I was a snob about it, too – only the Julie Andrews version. Mary Martin’s singing drove me up the fucking wall – even at six or seven). I just couldn’t handle Ms. Martin’s constant sliding into every damned note she sang. It wasn’t a style, it was a sloppy way of singing, is what it was.
But I knew how to sing them all (King and I, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, and My Fair Lady, you name it – I had them ALL memorized).
I got to demonstrate this early on in life when in the third grade, Mrs. Sowers, who I thought was a dead ringer for Barbra Streisand (and she could play the piano REALLY well – an added bonus for a burgeoning gayboy like me!), would have music time and I sang my ever-loving-heart out. I knew passages to songs that no kid in their right mind would ever know. Sore thumb doesn’t begin to describe it. I was a boy soprano of the highest order. Right up there in that vocal register that Julie loved to sing. Lord, it’s a good thing I hadn’t heard Queen of the Night by Mozart at that stage or I’d’ve driven my family bonkers. I could easily assail into that whistle register that some boy sopranos had in spades. I was right there with them. And I sure as hell knew how to use it.
Anyway, Mrs. Sowers loved that I was a precocious little singer and didn’t mind in the least to lead the class on Do-Re-Mi and even sang the introduction that Julie sings before the part everyone else knows so well …
Yeah, the kids hated my ass whenever we got to that song. Me? I loved it. I got to be Julie for fuck sake! I had SUCH a boy crush for Christopher Plummer as the Captain. Still do. I watch that movie for him, don’tcha know. The songs are the icing on the cake (and yeah, even to this day I can’t watch the damned movie without singing along). But when the Captain is on the tube, yowsah – I am on full-on crush mode.
Damn, he is a fuck stud of a man. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe him.
See what I mean?
Anyway, the overriding point I am trying to make here was that my queerness was set from a very early part of my young gayboy life. I didn’t run from it. I embraced it – once I knew what “it” was.
So where do the girls come into this? And how did they cloud the issue? First off, let me clarify something here that I think is very noteworthy: sexuality is a very sticky wicket (yeah, I went there with the double entendre), in that even when you know who and what you are, there are always exceptions. Recently both Ricky Martin and Jussie Smollett, both self identifying gay men, said that they were definitively gay but wouldn’t rule out a relationship (sexual or otherwise) with a woman. That’s were the queer factor kicks in for we gayboys. Now, admittedly, not every gay boy feels this way.
I’ve had small conversations and FB exchanges with an established gay porn star (and prolific business man), Antonio BIaggi (if you don’t know who he is I recommend you look him up – ’cause uh, yeah, yowsah doesn’t begin to cover him). I’ve followed him on Facebook and follow his twitter and blogs. He’s not only a prolific gay porn star, but he’s a great human being and a champion of animal rights. But even he, a self-identifying gay man in a sex oriented business (he recently branched out into fashion), recently posted he went to a straight strip club and found one of the girls there hotter than shit and he said he’d entertain “doing her.” So see? Not so cut and dry.
The point I am trying to make is that even when you self-identify as something, the lines are often blurred on where gay ends and something else begins. Not for every queer boy, but yeah, it happens. And that’s where I was – er, uh, am. It still is.
That was me in my early queer kid years. Girls, especially tomboy girls, confused the hell out of me. I had two such friends/playmates I’d hang around with at recess: Norma and Silvia. Both were definitely girls in that they didn’t have short hair cuts (they both had long hair – Norma’s was dishwater blond and Silvia’s was a very curly dark brown). They were nice to me and we got along. Oddly enough, they both came from a very strict household and generally wasn’t allowed to see or go over to other school friends houses once school was over. That didn’t mean I didn’t break that rule with them at their parent’s house, we just had to be clever about it – doing so before they came home from work.
Norma wasn’t overly pretty – in fact you might say she was rather non-descript. She had straight eyebrows (literally, they had NO arch to them at all), they were slightly bushy (this was before Brooke Shields made it a thing with Blue Lagoon), and she wore clothes that had been in fashion at least a few years before. Never anything current. I remember when she first came to our school in the third grade she wore a simple dress that definitely had a thrift store look about it that was a drab brown with four pockets on it – each pocket had a word embroidered on it – Handy, Candy, Daddy, Mommy. The kids teased her mercilessly by singing a made up song – “Handy Candy Daddy, Handy Candy Mommy” – I am sure she hated it. She never wore the damned thing again after that day.
Anyway, Norma (and Silvia) were sort of havens of safety for me. I could hang out with them at school and eventually I would go over to their houses and, by the sixth and seventh grades, I’d go there and just do stuff.
But here’s where the other part eked its way into my queer world. Both girls kind of got me excited. And by excited I meant in that way that young boys get excited about being alone around girls. I admit it. I wanted to fuck them both. I’d seen Playboy by this time, I wasn’t so off the fucking mark I didn’t know what went where and why. But here’s the deal that took me a while to sort it: looking back I can see that they both were very boyish in their body types. Neither girl were buxom in the remotest sense. They had very boyish looking bodies. Norma was the friskiest of the two – Silvia was far more prudish as she was a Latina from a very strict Catholic family. I was raised Catholic, too, so I got that. Silvia also had four older brothers that I did NOT want to tangle with. So I kept things cool there. Didn’t mean I didn’t want it, though.
But Norma, yeah, for some odd reason she turned my crank. I’d heard from other guys that she was already having sex. She was thirteen at this point. Her father was a piece of work and her mother was a vicious bitch so I can see where that aggression to do something was probably eating away at her to stick it to her parents. Sex, I guess, was a good way to go. We messed around a bit. She seemed to like me – god only knows why, it was pretty clear I wasn’t into girls in that way. Every kid who knew me sort of knew it. Yet, there I was, with a girl, and we were – close.
To be honest, I don’t think it meant anything to her. Not really. She was already frisky with boys at that point. I think I was just another boy for her to flip the bird to her parents (she got pregnant fairly early in life, too). But she wasn’t the only one.
I even had a girlfriend in high school for about a week (okay, it was a bit longer, but, my point being: it was brief). She was a lovely Italian girl whose entire multi-generational family lived within a one mile radius of her house. Talk about intense. The first time I went to her house they were all there. Yeah, no pressure. Thank God my parents brought me up with some solid good manners. I liked Carolina. I truly did. I just didn’t know how to tell her that my head and heart wasn’t into her sort of plumbing. It was a very awkward time for me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We went to a school dance together – Sadie Hawkins. The pictures are somewhere at my parent’s house and she gifted me with a silver bracelet that was engraved. Jesus, no pressure there, either.
My sister had a friend in high school (this was in my senior year and my sister was a freshman) whose name was Stacy. Stacy was hot for me – again, why, I have no idea – because at this point I was definitely GAY with big bright letters and flashing light bulbs and feathers and sequins. Hell, at that point I was going out to under-aged queer clubs.
She fascinated me. I couldn’t sort it. Why me? I was obviously gay. Now, mind you, this was at the height of the eighties New Romance movement. I was already gender bending it with guyliner and makeup. Boy George, Peter Burns and Adam Ant were my fashion gods. Maybe that was it. She was into my shit because I was already out and proud and had makeup to prove it. Nothing came of it. But it did garner my attention.
So fast-forward it a bit and there was a girl at the nightclub I went to – Studio 9 – that was a definite gay club. Boys would show up there clutching their girlfriends hands so tightly while the rest of us gayboys were placing bets how many days of coming to the club that he’d ditch the bitch and be sucking face with some other boy. It happened – A LOT …
Well, Rebecca was into me in a big way. I liked her. She was extremely pretty and very fun to be around. She’d often snake up to me, we’d dance off and on. She was close. She was cock blocking me with other boys, that’s for sure. I don’t know how or why but one night we decided to go driving around for a bit of a break. I think it was to get some booze because she had a fake ID. She was 20 and I was 18. She had dark blue-black hair that was cut in that Vidal Sassoon cut that was all the rage for girls in that era. She was glam, had a strong fashion sense, and was very forward with her sexuality. Somehow I found that alluring. Anyway, she suggested that we go get something for the gang to drink and I said I’d go with her. In truth, she wanted to have sex. We ended up in the queer section of Balboa Park in downtown San Diego (an area that was a long one-way loop that the fags and dykes called “the fruit loop”). It was a big cruising spot for gay men (and dykes hung out there, too, during the day) to hook up and have sex either in the bushes or in the lone bathroom at the far end of the loop.
Somehow we managed to drive there and park. We made out. She was very aggressive. It sort of turned me on. I don’t know if it was because we were in the gay part of the park and there I was making out with a girl or not, but we never did the actual deed. A lot of heavy petting and foreplay (rubbing through clothes and such) and yeah the windows got steamier than fuck. But no real shit happened. It wasn’t like I didn’t want it. I was bone hard through it all and she was definitely into my junk.
I can’t deny it, she turned my crank. But it didn’t happen. I think I broke it off. She giggled, we kissed some more and then went and got the booze and hooked up with our friends to party the night away in the parking lot behind the nightclub. She stuck by me most of the night. Then she never went back again. I never saw her. I knew she was close to turning 21 so maybe she just gave up the underage thing and moved on. I don’t know. I never told anyone about it. I never have even mentioned it in passing to either of my long term partners (my boyfriend of 10 years or my current husband of 20). This is the first time I’ve put it out there in the universe. But yeah, girls do sometimes eke into a gayboy’s life and muck things up.
The odd thing about it all? Back when I was sixteen and I read the Peter and Charlie series by Gordon Merrick, he introduced a woman into Peter and Charlie’s romance and made it a threesome (there was even a child in the mix later on in the series and both queer men had fucked her that night (Charlie’s perverted idea and he made his boyfriend Peter do it so they wouldn’t know whose kid it really was (the story was set in the early part of the 1900’s when it was not possible to test for paternity)). Anyway, I remember becoming so incensed when Charlie did that to Peter – forced him to have sex with her (he got Peter all hot and bothered and then had him fuck her to climax) that I kept inwardly screaming NO, NO, NO! I hated that she was involved in their lives. I was distraught because it was telling me that via Charlie’s POV that they could ONLY be a happy queer couple if they did the straight thing between Charlie and this woman he’d brought into their lives. To this day I can’t even write or say her name because those emotions were so strong back then that I still get pent up about it.
Funny thing, that, right? I mean, given everything else I’ve put down here.
Yet I find it a bit odd that sex is one thing for me, love is another. You can have both at the same time and it’s fucking fan-tab-u-lous, but I can definitely separate the two (something I’ll address in another post later on in this series). Sex and love are exchangeable and transferable in my world. I don’t require both to get it on. I have it within me to fuck someone or someones (which has happened on multiple occasions – again, for another posting) and not have it mean anything other than the pure hedonistic pleasure of it all.
Anyway, each time I was with a girl after I read that in the Charlie and Peter series – some part of me would think of that woman in those stories fucking up their perfect gay romance that I would put the skids on whatever girl had crossed paths with me. Odd how literature can affect you like that, isn’t it? Books have always done that for me. While I love film (and television), books still rule my world. I’ve always been a lover of words. They were my first boyfriend, really. As a pre-teen, there were moments where sex was definitely eking its way into my world.
Sex and sexuality isn’t so cut and dry. I don’t self-identify as bi or pan. Not that I have anything wrong with those identifications. I just know the only person I could love has to be a man. It’s just deeply entrenched in who I am. But, like Ricky, Jussie and Antonio, I know that there are exceptions to those rules where sex is involved. I rail at the whole “gay for you” trope (even if I have my own story about that – which I’ll detail in another post). But I’ve come close to the opposite, too. There were girls in my past that I could say, with a slight nod to it being fleeting and probably wouldn’t stick in the long run – that I could “go straight for you.”
I watch porn. I watch it regularly. I get off on it. I make no bones about that, either. No shame in it from my perspective. I interact with porn stars from time to time as well. It’s a part of my queer life (hell, it’s no surprise when I say men in general are drawn to porn – I think we’re wired to be very visually stimulated). Testosterone is a very potent thing. I even watch and get off on straight and bisexual porn and have found it very stimulating. Trans porn, too – though that’s a bit harder to find. I am not so rigid where sex is concerned. But love? Now that’s another matter altogether.
But I’ll save that for another time.
Year(s): Fall 1970 and Spring 1999
Age(s): 6 and 34
Place(s): San Diego and San Francisco, California
I realize the title reads like some fucked up re-write of Harry Potter:
– or some other such nonsense.
But this is the story of my father’s passing. As he was epic in my life, his passing was epic in how it was felt by my family, too.
So let’s get the odd part of this post’s title out of the way, shall we? The Doodlebug, you see, wasn’t some strange contraption or odd freak of nature we had trolling around the house, though my mother probably would raise her hand to contest that last statement. The Doodlebug was the family’s name for a car my father wanted to restore, a project that never saw completion. It was a constant work-in-progress.
It was a Studebaker. A classic 1952 Champion Starlight Studebaker, much like the one below. Mom is looking for a picture for me and I’ll update this post once we find it. It’s worth seeing it in all of its patched up glory.
It was a four-door that my father whacked out the middle part (yes, down to the driveshaft) to make it a two-door coupe. So for the majority of its life, spotted grey primer dominated its look and trailer park appeal. The undercoat was a coppery rustic (rust?) brown. My mother argues that she remembered it being two-tone sea-foam green. I don’t recall green at all. It always appeared to be a dark horse of a car. To be honest it was hard to tell what the original color was because of the patchwork primer.
The interior was a mismatch of original production work, dotted with rust here and there. Luan board, easily manipulated to a curved surface, was cut to replace the missing interior of the doors with the vague hope that they would be upholstered at some point. They never were. My father dreamed on the big side and could equate himself quite well with the dreaming, the planning and even the execution. But he was a broad stroke sort of creator or craftsman. Fine line and finesse didn’t come so easily to him. He had grand ideas, just not the finesse to make them happen as I knew he had them in his head. I remember the window handles lay on the floor and had to be picked up and applied to the cog sticking through a cut-out in the board along the door and spun at a steady rhythm so the damned thing wouldn’t come off in your hand. Most of it was a rusted out mess that he was lovingly trying to restore. My mother really didn’t pay much attention to his little project.
“Just make sure it doesn’t cost a lot” was the prevailing wind when it came to the Doodlebug in our lives.
The Doodlebug has real sentimental value in my mind and heart. It was emblematic of everything my father was. He wanted to be more than his humble beginnings. He was always trying to better himself. He didn’t have much to work with in the beginning. He was a kid from the Rez, who struck out at an early age to the sights and sounds of the big city of San Diego when his older brother enlisted in the Navy. It always sounded slightly romanticized when you say it like that – he struck out with his older brother to find the world and himself. That sort of thing. The truth of the matter was Dad had a very angry streak in him in his youth. On the eve of his older brother’s leaving for San Diego, Dad got into a fight and severely beat another boy. My grandfather told my father to go with his brother, better to get him off the Rez and out of Washington altogether. So, not so much a wanderlust adventure as it was fleeing from a life that was slowly driving my father to an early ruin.
I thank my grandfather countless times in my thoughts for having the foresight to get his son out of Dodge when the time came. It couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
How my father and mother met was, like our lives would be from their marriage forward, happenstance, luck and a tremendous amount of love. Heavy on the first two with the third making up for lost time in a big way once their wedding vows were exchanged.
Mom was a dyed-in-the-wool card-carrying good Catholic girl. Dad didn’t have religion, but converted to Catholicism when things got serious between them to appease Mom’s family. I asked my mom about my father at some point in my life, probably more than once, I’m sure. What drew her to him? I mean, we grew up hearing the stories of their courtship, and there were some doozies in the mix, but when I knew what my attraction to other boys meant to me, I wanted to hear what a woman went through in falling in love with a man. Her queer son was doing a little comparison note taking. Turns out, it wasn’t much different from what I saw in men and boys.
But there was no better person to ask than my mother. Her answer, laced with the love that I saw blossom across her face with a look that I could only imagine must have been on her face after they shared their first kiss, was rather interesting and not quite what I expected. But it did sort of shock and intrigue me. After all, if she had not met and fallen love with my father, she thought she’d go into a nunnery, a cloistered one at that.
Knowing that their marriage almost wasn’t gave my life perspective. I had to embrace the randomness of how I came to be: how many things had to fall into place to get to where I could contemplate that, quite literally, blew my young gayboy mind. I was a pre-teen when I asked her about what Dad was like when they met.
“I remember the first time I saw him. Your Uncle Sonny had rented the other side of the duplex your grandparents owned. We lived on the other side of that duplex. I was walking home from school and, wham-mo, they came flying out the front door wrestling with each other. They hit the lawn and continued to wrestle without a break in their horse play. I remember looking at him and thinking: show off.”
Show off! Okay, Mom. Seems to me Dad had the right of it. It sounded like the classic case that Dad was the right “bad boy” to come along and tempt my mother’s eye and heart. To hear my father say it, he saw her for a moment, and continued to wrestle with his older brother. But he said he knew in that moment that it was her. But my father was like that, absolute about things when it came to him. He just knew what to do, where to go, how to take care of whatever it was. It didn’t happen all the time, but often enough that there was a thread throughout his life that he could point to that said that was the case. Remember, he knew when my mother was pregnant with me before she did (he told her), said he knew it from the moment they made love. He knew I was on my way. He also knew I was a boy, and that I would be gay. His patience to watch each of them unfold over the years, as he had foretold to my mother the following morning, was truly astounding. He wasn’t always so patient with things (crowds would drive him to distraction in his later years) but with certain things he had the patience of a Bonsai master (funny thing, that – he actually tended to a Bonsai at one point in our lives). My father had a quiet but purposeful core to him. He could level a look that would stop us kids cold.
Before I give you her answer to my query of what attracted her to him – when did that spark for her – you have to understand, another way we were very different from other families around us was that the concepts of love and sex were expressed without reservation. My parents shared their lives in very real ways. Warts n’ all. There was even one time early on in their dating when he was in the kitchen of her house and she thought she’d be coy and sit on his lap at their small breakfast table. When she went to get up, she farted for the first time in his presence and it was on his lap. She was so embarrassed that she wanted to run out of the room but he wasn’t having it. He just laughed and eased her away from any embarrassment she felt. We knew stories like that, too. We heard of their chaperoned dates in Tijuana, Mexico (just across the border from San Diego), back when going there was a fun night out. This was before it became the cheap, tawdry and corrupt place it is now. Back then, TJ had style with a light stroke of class.
But you see, those stories, the goofy mistakes and awkward moments they shared with us, made us realize what we had to look forward to when we got older. We grew up hearing their stories, stories of my parents’ romance, of how my father wooed the girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day because he was such a rough around the edges boy. It’s odd that I don’t write romance, because romance was very much front and center when it came to how we heard about the early beginnings of our little family. It was a constant in their marriage.
Often my father would buy my mother some doll – not a Barbie™, mind you – but a collector’s doll of some sort, that she’d been eyeing. He’d just leave it on the bed for her to discover after a long day at work. He was like that. He worked on their marriage. It was sacred and important to him. To all of us, really.
Mom did finally confess to my question of attraction. She was very clear about one point that drew her attraction: he had a rockin’ bod.
“Your father had a very muscular body when I met him. And the tiniest waist, 26 or 27″ at most, that tapered to very broad shoulders. A nice V-shape. I don’t know what he saw in me. I was such a dorky girl.”
I recall she would paint on a wrinkled nose when talking about herself. I got that. I do it, too, whenever I talk about myself. She clearly gushed like a high school girl with a hard crush about my father, which is saying something, given her Latino Catholic roots. Back in those days, girls didn’t talk openly about such things. My mother didn’t have much of a social life, not many friends she could socialize with after school, either. For her, it was school, followed by homework and then helping to rear her younger brother and sister (making dinner, cleaning the house) was her entire world. My father changed all of that, swept it away as surely as he swept her off her feet.
The thing is, rather than be repulsed by my parents’ love and their physical attraction to one another as so many kids are when the subject comes up about their parents, my brother, sister and I found it deeply instructive and endearing. We knew from an early age what our parents went through to bring us into this world. We had a real example of what we’re shooting for in our own adult relationships once we got there. My parents were high school (aged) sweethearts. Their marriage is the example I strive for every day in my own. Commitment was evident no matter where you turned in our home and laughter was its lifeblood. Even when we were screaming at each other in anger or distress, you could feel the love pouring out of each other in the argument. As my mother was always quick to remind me as I stewed after a heated debtate:
“If we argue with you, disagree with what you’re doing, just know it’s coming from a place of love. If we didn’t love you, if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother debating what you’re about to do.”
Not caring was the easy path. Caring and fighting with the other person because you didn’t want them to make a mistake they would regret, that’s a hard thing to follow. Many choose not to. My parents always got into the thick of things when it came to that. Unlike so many of my friends growing up, my family was on solid footing, even if we rattled windows doing it at times.
But we’ll come back to the car and my family’s unique way of doing things, including that Doodlebug, in a moment. The Doodlebug has significance precisely because of its patch-worked, mismatched, primed, rusted out, threadbare parts spoke volumes about us as a family, and in particular, my father.
But before I can tell the story of my father’s passing, I have to share the first one that ever happened in my life, the first time Death came calling.
The thing is, this one is dark. Beyond the pale dark. It’s one of the four milestone deaths that gave definition to my queer life.
Death is never an easy topic of conversation. Well, not for most. In my family, nothing was too sacred that it couldn’t be discussed. Death was a topic that would meander across our lips and minds. But when he decided to pay a visit, I was very young. It was unexpected, violent and completely horrifying. It colored how I see death to this very day. It is a violent act – death – the snuffing out of a light. Even if it’s a gradual slide to that distant horizon we’re all sailing toward, it’s still violent when it happens. It’s just how I see it.
This particular death is the reason why.
It’s the rending of a physical presence from emotive bone. The person it targets may go quietly into the night, but those of us left behind have to deal with the aftermath. That’s the violent landscape I speak of: the grief, unimaginable loss, and fiercely deep regrets. Nothing short of being enmeshed in that maudlin web.
Death first rattled my world in the form of a playmate I had at the age of five or six. Her name was Mickey and she was the daughter of a friend of my mother’s. How my mother became acquainted with her mother I can’t quite recall. I think they met while attending meetings to sell Sarah Coventry Jewelry. (My mother is even wearing a Sarah Coventry piece in the family picture above.)
This was back in the days when you did shit like ride in a car without a seat belt (yes, we did that, and survived). My mother used to take my sibs and me to her sales training meetings. They were held at some hall (like a VFW or something of that sort). Children weren’t allowed inside when the meeting was called to order so we would sit in the car (yeah, you did that, too, back then) and my mother would step out to check on us every so often while we played with our toys in the back of our Ford LTD station wagon. We met Mickey’s mother, Troy, and Mickey’s older brother, Billy. Billy was about four or five years older than I was.
Their family lived just a couple of blocks from where we lived. We were practically neighbors! The coolest part? We had gained new playmates.
My mother would take us over there from time to time.
Mickey was my age, maybe just a few months younger. She was a bright child. She loved to laugh and to make us laugh. I remember it was a bubbly laugh, one that begged you to join along. She was a slight, bird of a girl, with near-white blonde impeccably straight hair. The mental image that comes immediately to mind was of her in this periwinkle blue dress that was quite plain, with simple pearl white buttons and a simple collar (not too unlike the dress my sister is wearing in the family photo above). I remember she wore Keds™ shoes a lot, well, when she wasn’t wearing a certain pair of black patent leather shoes with big buckles that she liked.
I remember her mother, Troy, being very nice. She was a bit taller than my 5′ 3/4″ mother (that 3/4″ mattered to my mother). Mickey’s father, Bill, Sr., on the other hand, always seemed a dark figure to me. That’s a perception on my part and not from anything I’d overtly witnessed. The guy just never smiled much, at least not around the kids. From what I was told later, he and Troy divorced not too long after, partially due to his having an affair driven, no doubt, by the events I am about to relay.
But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that we would go to their house to play while our mothers visited with one another. I remember her older brother, Billy, Jr., being a troublemaker. If something went wrong, Billy was usually in the middle of it all. For a ten year old, that was definitely saying something. I remember going to their house. The eastern part of San Diego County has a rather hilly terrain. They lived on a hill and their house was on a knoll on that hill. So when we walked the two blocks to get to their house, it was up a hill. Then you reached their house and had a long uphill driveway to scale before you even got to ring the doorbell. For a kid, that was like climbing Everest to see your friend.
When Halloween rolled around we always made it a point to go to their house. I think my mother did this because she knew the climb would tucker us out and we’d be begging to go back home rather early (though we were never for want for candy on those trips – my brother and I scored big time).
We’d spend time with their kids off and on over the year or so we knew them: play dates before they were called such things. We’d run around the house or their backyard while our moms visited with each other.
I was well into the first few months of first grade. I think if I remember it right, Mickey was just beginning kindergarten when it all happened.
It happened all too quickly and off-stage (in my life). We found out about it later. This was the first time Death touched my life, and he took my playmate. He made me realize that none of us were safe. He reached in and ripped a hole in what I knew to be true and real.
“Mijo,” Mom began, “something’s happened to your friend, Mickey.”
It was something like that. And she told me that Mickey had died. We wouldn’t be going there to play anymore. I am sure it was handled delicately. My parents were brilliant when it came to sussing out what we could and couldn’t process. Yet, I was a very precocious child, remember? And this wasn’t an easy thing to understand. I thought I knew how the world worked, even in my young six year old life. I was just getting used to things, and finding the joy of discovering new things. The world was a wondrous place. Shouldn’t it be for a kid like me?
I didn’t know what to feel. Not about this.
This rattled me inside in ways I couldn’t put words to. And I was already cultivating words with the on-going dictionary game I played with my mother. But this had no words. All I kept thinking about was Mickey was a part of my world one moment, and then she wasn’t.
But even in this, the Doodlebug had played a part. Death and the Doodlebug had become entwined from that moment forward.
I remember not long after it happened, my father took me to 7-11 in the Doodlebug, probably to get something quickly rather than go to the grocery store, or to buy us all a Slurpee™. I can’t remember, but I do remember the trip. I remember looking around as we turned into the parking lot that I wanted to see if there was evidence of the whole thing – of when Death cheated me of my friend. Not because I was a morbid child, but because I thought there should be some sort of physical evidence that it had occurred, some reason to justify what I was feeling about it all – of why my friend had been spirited away from me. I remember Dad pausing once the car was off. He watched me looking over the seat at that corner. I think he knew what I was doing. We didn’t speak. He just let me be, watching and trying to understand what had happened in my little boy mind. After a moment, his big hand caressed my head.
“C’mon B, let’s go inside.” That was all he said. I looked at him and saw the love, and somehow I moved past it for the moment. He was like that. He knew what to do or say (or not say). It was that quiet ease that would often color what I thought about him.
A few nights later when my mother came to pick us up from her mother’s house on her way home from work, I broke, clutching a relative around their legs, my wet face pressed to their lap. My godfather? My aunt? My grandmother? I can’t remember who. I just remember doing it. Crying in the harsh light of their porch and being so angry that I couldn’t just ask to go over there, certain that they were all lying to me. She was there. She was. I just knew it.
Only we never did – go there again, I mean. That was my confirmation that it did happen, that she was gone. There was nothing to go to.
We didn’t go to the funeral. I don’t remember if we went to a service for her or not. I don’t think we did, probably because my parents thought it might be a bit much for us. If we did go, I think I blocked it from my memory.
I remember it became a topic of conversation several years later. At the time it happened, my parents didn’t think it was wise to explain how it all played out. A neighbor friend of my mother’s had witnessed the event (or the aftermath) and remembered the little girl had been to our house. She called my mother and informed her what she saw. Mom finally explained what happened.
“Chela called and told me. She was there, when it happened or just after. Mickey’s brother, Billy, had taken her to 7-11 to get a Slurpee or something. To get to the store you have to cross Jamacha* Boulevard. Remember at the time there wasn’t a light at that intersection. It was really dangerous to dash across the four lanes of traffic. Those cars going the speed limit of 50 miles per hour didn’t help. I used to worry about you kids going up there. Thank God, you never did that. Kids were always dashing across the street at odd places. Thank God you kids would take the lighted intersection at La Presa by our house. But they didn’t; they dashed across that street. Mickey charged out in front of her brother and a car hit her so hard her shoes were still on the road. Billy had no way to prevent it. The impact happened so hard and so fast it flung her across the street and she cracked her head open on the sidewalk. She died there. Never had a chance.”
(* – pronounced: ham-a-shaw)
I remember hearing those words years later. The pain was still there – an old wound that never healed. I felt physical pain when my mother explained it, Death’s hand stroking across my belly. I was driving by then. Actually, I had just started. I had to pass this intersection to get to the part-time busboy job I had at a Mexican restaurant at the far end of Jamacha. They ended up installing a traffic light at that intersection not too long after she was killed. Every time I would drive across that place, I felt something stir, a twinge in the pit of my stomach, sometimes further down, like Death giving a kick to my balls. Death lingers there for me. Always will, I suppose. A bloody spectre from my past.
Even looking at the photo I inserted below, I still sort of feel it.
This said Death was something to be feared. You were a player in the game, but Death held all the cards. Well, the cards that ultimately mattered in life, that is.
Hearing the details, knowing finally how it all transpired, solved the mystery of what had happened to my friend from so long ago. But it didn’t do a thing to alleviate what Death meant to me. Unfortunately, with HIV just down the line in my life from my mother’s revelatory moment, Death would become a large part of my journey forward. A swath of amazing people would be taken from my world. But it all started with her. She was the first.
I remember your laugh, gentle girl. I remember your bright eyes. I remember how you helped define what friendship meant to me as a young boy and how freely you gave it. I remember how it was all suddenly, way before its time, ripped from me. Physical light from my darkening world. I cherish your life, brief though it was. I lament what you never got to do – who you would’ve loved, where your journey would’ve taken you. Death is hard, but not so hard as when it happens to a child, I think.
She taught me a lot, far more than I think she would ever know. She taught me about life, and how truly precious and precarious it is. We’re all walking on a knife’s edge, just doing our damnedest not to get cut. Mickey got cut. I know my mother was thankful that we kids never did anything like that – dashing across a four lane road with cars whizzing by at 50+ mph – but that wasn’t always the case. We took chances. I know I did. It was stupid, it was rash and foolish. But you can best believe that as I reached the other side of the road, I spared a thought for my friend who didn’t make it.
Even now as I write this, I remember things about her that waft to the surface. Her family fell apart after she was gone. Her death brought about suffering on an epic scale. Billy got involved in drugs very early on in his teen years. I don’t know what happened to him because Troy and Bill divorced and she moved to Colorado, taking a troubled son with her. We lost contact after that. It goes that way sometimes.
My father always said that life was like a walk in the woods. Sometimes people joined you in that journey, only to have something on another path catch their fancy and they’d have to follow that. I want to think that Mickey just found another path away from my walk in the woods. It’s easier, less violent, if I think of it like that. Poetic. An inherent quietude. It’s a lie I tell myself to remember her without the horrific events of what happened to her.
Death had claimed his first life in my short years on this planet. It wasn’t the worst I’d felt over losing someone, but it was the first.
The Doodlebug has many chapters in its part of our family history. It was just a constant presence that marked the span of time I was living at home. By the time my father passed in ’99, the Doodlebug was ancient history. Shortly after I moved out of the house to live with some friends in another part of San Diego, he tried to sell it. When there were no takers, and his body would not allow him to work on it any more, he just called a scrap metal company to come take it away, make it into a box.
So the Doodlebug was hauled away, scrapped and crushed. I guess it had fulfilled its purpose. I remember at the time I didn’t think much of it. When my father died, however, that car was constantly on my mind and I’ll come to why that is in a bit.
My father was enormously liked and loved by everyone who met him. He cultivated people and friendships like a master gardener. He always seemed to know just how much to tend to and let them know they were important to him. I’m not putting that on him; it’s not something that I would only say about him, others would say it, too. He was one of the most fair men I had ever met. He taught us that race was not something to judge, it just was. We had friends across the rainbow spectrum. We treated everyone of them and valued them all equally. That was my father. Mom supported this and made sure that we understood the whys and the importance it had for us as a family. But my father was nearly obsessed with being fair. Your past didn’t matter as much as who you were in the here and now. He measured you by what he saw, not what people said. And he was a very good judge of character.
He didn’t have it so easy in life. Shortly after my parents were married they moved to a small suburb of San Diego that was just developing: Spring Valley. It was tucked under the largest mountain in that part of the county – San Miguel.
There wasn’t much out there. My parents bought the house with $1 down. Yes, ONE DOLLAR. Something my mother laments to this day that she should’ve been smarter and put a saw buck down and picked up five or ten houses and rented them out. But they were preoccupied with just starting out. They had a family to start. That was the focus. I sort of smirk when I look at the photo above, because family life with my mother and their amazing Mexican family recipes were already having an effect on my Pop’s waistline. He yo-yo’d a bit back then.
Shortly thereafter he got a job with the City of San Diego Water Department. It was a good paying job and had great benefits. They were set. Well, at least it was a start.
The thing was, while this was a great job for my father, and he met some really great guys with that crew who became family friends, it was also the job that completely derailed his life.
In 1974, he was installing a new water main with his crew. He was down the manhole and was checking the pressure with a gauge that was inserted into a place along the pipe. My dad was in a squatting position to read the gauge, which showed the pressure in the pipe was fine. He was talking to one of the other guys on the team when something went wrong. The pipe shuddered and burst, shooting the gauge straight up into the air. Luckily, the guy who my father had been talking with turned to relay the last message my father relayed to him when the gauge was ejected from the pipe. Had he not turned he would’ve been decapitated. My father wasn’t so lucky. As the pipe ruptured, the first wave threw him off his haunches and against his back. The force was strong enough that it knocked him for a loop. By the time he came to a few moments later, the water was already waist deep. He struggled to get out when the pipe really burst, throwing him up through the manhole and whipped him against the metal rim, not once, but three times. The third time caused him to black out. When he came to he couldn’t move much but the water had risen to his neck. He hollered for the guys to help get him out. No one seemed to be responding so with enormous effort he pulled himself out of the hole and onto the rim of the manhole and crept out of it. His back was severely damaged. He never recovered and had back pain for the remainder of his life. This began the steady decline of my father’s health.
I often wonder if this event hadn’t happened what my life with him would’ve been like. Because of the injury, three discs in his lower spine were severely damaged. They were eventually fused to provide support, but the nerves were pinched and damaged in so many places that any physical effort on his part was an exercise in endurance and pain tolerance. He often didn’t win that battle. It severely limited what he could physically do.
Eventually permanent disability was the medical prognosis and he was medically retired from the City. On one hand it was good in that he was not going to be in danger physically again, but on the other, it meant that insurance investigators became a way of life for us. We were constantly watched for any sign that my father was faking the injury (which he most certainly wasn’t – I know, because we kids had to pick up the slack and would jump in if he was hurting too much).
This was but one more physical injury in a long line of them. The first in his life happened when he was eight or nine. He was struck by a car on his way to see Bambi at their local theater in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The whole time he was mending, he kept crying out that he wanted to go see Bambi. That was all he kept talking about. So to ease his trauma, after they patched him up they took him to the theater and he sat there nearly bandaged from head to toe to watch Bambi. Ironic really considering that is the one movie from Disney that gave me nightmares. I didn’t like it much. All it said to me was don’t go with your parents (particularly your mother) into the forest. Some fucker was gonna shoot her. That was my childhood takeaway from Bambi. I hoped my dad got more out of it than I did.
My father and I always had a unique relationship, probably because I was his first. But I learned quiet contemplation from him. That quietude he had down in spades when he was thinking about something. I would often bring things to my father that I thought were important to talk about, much to the amusement of both my parents. I was five when a very important topic crossed my mind and I had to bring it to my father’s attention a point in our relationship that was sorely lacking. Precocious doesn’t begin to cover this one:
“Dad, I wanna talk to you about an allowance.” He eyed me from the book he was reading.
“Oh. you do, do you?”
“Yes. Some of my friends get an allowance from their dads. I want to know where’s mine.”
He quietly set aside the book, and looked at me, giving me the full attention I thought the subject warranted.
“Well, what do you call all those toys and things I buy you when you say you want them when we go to the store? Isn’t that an allowance?”
He had me there, I remember thinking. Then a bright idea occurred to me and I shot back, “No, Da-a-ad, those aren’t an allowance.”
“No, those are presents.”
He had a good laugh at that one. I didn’t get my way, either. He negotiated that we’d revisit that little idea down the road a piece. I’d have to be content with my presents for a while.
But we were always like that. He once said to me when I was getting ready to graduate that soon I would be needing to move out. He said it with a solid twinkle in his eye so I knew he was goading me.
“I’ll just break your plate and then you’ll have to leave. See how that works.”
Then I immediately shot back, “I’ll just buy paper plates, then.”
As my fifth year started to come up my mother had failed to get me enrolled into the elementary school across Jamacha Boulevard from where we lived. It would’ve been only a five minute walk to school. But she missed the admittance deadline so I had to go to another school that was a few miles away for kindergarten. I got to ride a big school bus to get to school.
I liked riding that bus. I would sit behind the bus driver, a really lovely lady named Dorothy. I would talk her arm and leg off all the way to school and back. My grandmother would apologize for my being so talkative, but Dorothy said she loved that I was so engaging; she really looked forward to my sitting behind her. I guess I made her day. I was only too glad to help.
But one day I got my wires crossed. I had overheard that my father was going to pick me up from school and I took it to mean the following day. So when school ended, Dorothy expected me to get onto the bus. I told her that I wasn’t going to because my father was coming to pick me up. She asked if I was sure. I said yes, my parents talked about it the night before and I knew he was going to be here any minute.
Only it wasn’t that day he was going to do it. I just took it upon myself to think it was. So I waved Dorothy off and watched the bus go down the hill to take the other kids home. I sat at the front of the school, watching teachers and admin people picking up and leaving for the day. Each of them stopped to ask me why I was still there and why didn’t I take the bus. I calmly told them my father was coming to get me. They were concerned but I seemed so convincing that they thought it must be true.
The thing was, I didn’t realize I’d made the mistake. My father wasn’t coming to get me that day. When my grandmother didn’t find me on the bus, Dorothy explained that I was adamant that my dad was picking me up at school. She took my brother and sister back to her house so my mother could pick them up as usual – only sans me.
My father worked an earlier shift in the day so he got home around 4:00 each afternoon. By that time we kids would’ve been at my grandmother’s house already. So basically I was at the school with no family member nearby to speak of. I sat and sat there, thinking that Dad would be along any minute now. I don’t remember being frightened at all. Dad was coming. It was that simple. Finally a secretary to the Principal came out because they’d been watching me. She asked me if everything was okay.
I told her I thought my dad might’ve forgotten to come get me. A few minutes later I walked into the Principal’s office and calmly asked if I could call my dad. They handed me the phone and I dialed the number. I don’t remember how I knew it but I did. My father answered the call.
“Daddy, where are you?”
“At home. Where are you?”
“I’m at the school. You were supposed to come get me. That’s what you said last night.”
“That wasn’t today, B. It’s next week because I have an appointment so I’ll be home when you get off of school.”
“Well, you better come get me now. I missed the bus.”
He told me he was on his way and asked to speak to the secretary. They chatted and she told him I was very calm and it was fine that they could wait the five or so minutes for my dad to get there.
I remember sitting on that small berm next to a planter that had juniper bushes in them. I liked picking the berries from them while I waited. The rumble of that Doodlebug was the most comforting sound to me. He came up alongside the school and leaned over to open the door. That image of him, in a white t-shirt, rolled up sleeves to his shoulders, the curls of his dark hair, the cut of his jeans, in that rust bucket of a car, is the most heroic image I have of him in my mind. That Doodlebug was a war pony and Dad was the warrior, and he came to save me, his boy. I climbed into that car and he ruffled my hair as I got settled. I leaned up and gave him a peck on the cheek and sat back down. All was right with the world ’cause my father had done what I’d said he do. He came to get me. And that meant everything.
It is that memory that would come to have major significance for when he took his leave of us. Like a horse charging out of the mist of my memories, that car and my father visited me in dreams the evening of his death. It shook me in profound ways that I haven’t addressed to this day. His death caused a tempest of emotions that still rage there, behind a massive door in my mind and heart. Emotions I dare not touch. I don’t dare look at them because I fear I wouldn’t return. And if I did, I wouldn’t be the same person I was going in.
I was living in San Francisco at the time. It was a day in April like any other. The year was 1999. The day, the 19th. The following day would have a significance on the consciousness of America, but for me, the 19th was a normal San Francisco day. I remember it being overcast and quite windy. My husband and I lived in the City in Cole Valley, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Castro, tucked up against the hillside of Mount Sutro/Twin Peaks in the center of the City. I remember being in the kitchen getting ready to start dinner with my guy when the phone rang. It was my father.
“Hey, Dad. Whassup? Something wrong?”
“No. I just wanted to hear your voice. I wanted to remember what it sounded like. It’s been a while, you know?”
I smiled, “Yeah, I should call you more often. I was really glad when you and mom came up the previous fall and spent time here in San Francisco.”
“We enjoyed that, too.”
We talked, Father to Son. Looking back on it, there were threads my father was trying to tell me, trying to gently get me to see that this wasn’t one of our normal conversations. Those carefully placed questions and phrases whizzed right by me. I don’t know if I disappointed him because I was just prattling on about my current state of affairs at work and life in general. He seemed to take it in his stride. But looking back on it now, he was trying to tell me to really pay attention to him, to listen to him, not about what we said, but about how much he wanted to reach out to me. You see, I think he knew it was his last day. I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it. He spent that day contacting everyone. He even walked down the street to where his older brother had bought a house so they could be together (like they were when Sonny was in the Navy) – Sonny and my dad were fairly inseparable. So when Sonny wanted to live in San Diego, he bought a place very close to my father. My dad made the trek down to his brother’s house that night, spent time with him, did the things they normally did. When he went to leave he gave his brother a big hug and told him he loved him. They’d been like that all their lives so it wasn’t too out of the norm. Sonny told me later that he noticed the look in my father’s face wasn’t the same. Sonny told him he’d see him in the morning and they’d go get a donut and coffee like they usually did. My dad nodded but said nothing. Sonny said there was unease about the way it ended that he couldn’t shake that night.
We all went to our separate beds that night.
Unbeknownst to me, my father had been sleeping in the living room. He was on a respirator because breathing at night was difficult for him. My mother said she woke, went to the bathroom and heard something in the living room stir, but it settled down again. She meant to check on my father but since it was quiet again she thought she should let him rest. He was getting spotty sleep at this point. They discovered him a couple of hours later. My mother realized that what she heard earlier may have been when he was beginning to die. They tried to resuscitate him but he wasn’t responding. He was picked up by the ambulance and by the time he arrived at the hospital he had passed. Nothing could be done.
That same night in San Francisco, I had a dream about being five years old and sitting on that same planter of my kindergarten class, waiting for my father. It was an overcast and windy day; fog swirled around me. I sat there; no one else around. The roar of the Doodlebug clamored closer to me – I could hear it in the distance as it came up the long hill to the school. I was me as I was in ’99, sitting on that planter in that way that dreams can do to switch things up without a moment’s notice. The Doodlebug pierced the mists and swung around the drop-off point at the front of the school and the door opened. There was my father sitting there just like when I was five. I got up and started to make my way to the car. He held up his hand and stopped me.
“Not now, B. But I’ll come back for you. Just not now, okay?”
I didn’t know what it meant. He smiled; it was a warm, slightly pained smile. The door closed and the Doodlebug rumbled back into the fog, leaving me there as a five year old boy again. I woke up unsettled. I wanted to call him. I looked over to my husband in the bed next to me. I wanted to say something to him about it because it unsettled me so. But instead, I let him sleep. It was just a dream, I kept telling myself.
I had put my cell phone on vibrate that night. I usually did. So when I got up at 5:00 am to get ready for work I discovered the voice mails from the family distraught about my father and that I wasn’t answering their calls. My world imploded. The conversation I had with him the day before rattled in my head as I ran back to my guy and broke as I told him the news.
So after explaining the situation to work, I made the long trek back to San Diego. I had eleven hours to think about what it all meant. When I reached my parents’ house I remember the TV being on, but no one was watching it. Every station had the same events playing out. You see, my father had died the morning of the Columbine Massacre in Colorado.
I remember vaguely watching the events of that whole thing play out on the large screen TV my parents had but couldn’t connect to what it all meant because we were so caught up in our own grief. It seemed like some terrible made-for-TV movie. Every time there is a retrospective on that event, I go right to my father’s death. The two are inextricably tied to one another. But at the time, I was simply too lost in my own grief to care.
The thing is, I didn’t break. Not really. I held it together. I greeted family and friends from across the years and the country who descended on our home in Spring Valley. My mother was beside herself with loss. I knew I had to hold it together for her. Work gave me leave to take as much time as I needed to help my mother along. I never once allowed myself to grieve about it all. It was there; it still is. Only one crack in that fucking fake smooth as marble surface showed itself. My father had a poem he found in the newspaper that he liked. He kept it in his wallet. I had to read it at his funeral service. It was the last line of that poem that I broke. It was brief, but it gave me the smallest glimpse of what I was holding back. My voice cracked, I stuttered on the last word: home. That’s where I wanted him: home. Being the eldest, I knew a lot of people were looking to me to keep things moving where my mother couldn’t. I had to man up. So I set everything I felt about his passing aside.
It colors my works. The things I write about are very heavy with the father-son dynamic. It’s my cathartic way of processing it, slowly.
Stories about my father and me are now a part of Nick and Elliot Donahey in my Angels of Mercy series. I memorialize my father in Nick Donahey. I know he may read as idealistic to some, but what I put down about him in those works are the very essence of the man my father was. He didn’t have all the answers, and he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t. But he would also roll up his sleeves and do everything in his power to get his children whatever we needed. That is the basis of the fathers I write in my works. My own father taught me the importance of fatherhood, of compassion to your fellow man, the fairness of it all. To do your best to set prejudice aside and to see the person, and not the stereotypes others put on them. To see each person for who they truly are. To value them for who they are, in the here and now. Everyone has a past they might not be proud of, what matters is what they are doing with it in the moment.
I often walk over that final conversation I had with him the day before he died. If anything just so I can recall how he sounded, the timbre and tone of his voice. I don’t know if it is because I’ve studied voice to be an opera singer or not, but the memory of how he sounded is fundamentally important to me. And it’s fading. I mentally clutch at it, fearful of losing a single intonation, an inflection, of it.
Miss ya, Papa-san, in ways that I can never fully express.
I am not a religious man. I can’t buy into any of that. But what I will say is that when my time comes, whether by some force of nature or the chemical compositions in my head forming that vision for me, I’ll see him again. And I know, with every fiber of my being, that it is the love he had for me being his boy that I will slip from this life and into that. In reality, it may be a blackened abyss, a nothingness that will consume me, but I know I’ll inwardly smile and my last thoughts will probably be of him, picking me up in that heap of a car, that Doodlebug, the battered war pony and the over-worked but compassionate warrior spiriting his son away.
And in that, I find great comfort, a quietude that I know awaits me when the time comes. Because of this, I don’t fear my own death. My father will be there in spirit to guide me along, as he always did when he was here. A big rough hand, cradling his son’s head, my face pressed to his chest, just as I was when I was a baby napping against him.
That, to me, is a real piece of heaven.
Year: Summer of 1980
Place: San Diego, California
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
– Lewis Carroll
Talking was big in my family. We could never complain that we didn’t communicate. We did. And sometimes at volumes that would shake the rafters, too. So when I first heard this poem by Carroll, it said something to me. The desperate things listed in that stanza sort of represented the randomness of talks that went on in my house.
My childhood was a mixed bag of good and bad, not too far removed, I suspect, from most kids my age. My coming out was a slow meandering process. Oh, there was a moment when I said the words, “I’m gay. I like boys.” I even said it to my father, no less. But you’d have to understand my family. We were not the usual, everyday, hum-drum average Americana family.
And by meandering I mean it took me a long time to get to where I said those words. But it wasn’t like I’d kept it secret, either. Like I wasn’t dropping clues along the way. I mean, even I could see where I was heading. And, to be absolutely clear, it wasn’t from some deep-seated fear that my parents would lose their shit over my saying so, either. My parents were beyond cool and supportive, so much so that our house was the de-facto “Kool-Aid™” house (that’s a reference that perhaps only peeps my age might get, and just the Americans, at that). It meant that every kid in the neighborhood was at your place. We were that house.
And the parents of our friends were just fine with my parents watching over us all. To be clear, it was a gaggle of kids, up to twenty or so at a given time. Not just one or two (though that sometimes happened, too). My parents ran the house with a firm hand that every child has the right to express themselves – and in safety, too. No judgments, other than you better not be hurting someone else while you were busy expressing yourself or there’d be swift action from my parents on that topic. But our friends knew our house was a very safe place. And we could explore anything we wanted to (within reason – though to be honest, that gamut was fairly wide as my father and his twenty-two brothers and sisters always got into trouble on the reservation (in Wisconsin and in Washington state). My dad was full-blown Rez kid. And yeah, you read that one right – twenty-three kids, eighteen of whom found their way to adulthood. My mom, on the other hand, was a cloistered (nearly nun-like) woman. Their marriage was a learning experience for us all – but in the best way possible. It’s a family joke that when we have a family reunion we have to rent Rhode Island. Our family is that big – on both sides.
A lot of kids can’t connect with their parents. But every damned kid who came to our house connected with mine. “Your parents are so cool” was a very common and recurring theme throughout my life. It still is today.
So I was in the MOST supportive environment a burgeoning gay kid could be. So why’d it take me so damned long to say those words? I mean, I’d figured it out fairly well by the time I was eight or nine. Not the sexual aspect so much as that boys were infinitely more interesting to me. I knew it back then. Probably even earlier but I just hadn’t fingered it as a strong theme in my young life. And there were a few girls along the way who totally screwed with my blossoming fabulous gayboy life. So it definitely took me a while to get there.
So why were my parents so accepting and supportive? That had to do with my father.
My dad wasn’t a scholarly man. He’d only made it to the eighth grade on the Rez and then had to find work to help supporting the large family. It was fairly commonplace for guys in his situation. But what made my father mythic in my eyes was that while he wasn’t so book smart, he was one shrewd and savvy man who had the street smarts to see right through people and situations. He even ended up going to night school and got his high school diploma in 1972. As a young boy it was sorta cool to see my dad do the graduation thing (the school had a ceremony for the adults in his class). I got to keep the cheap satin-like robe and hat and wore the shit out of it for YEARS after. I loved to run through the house or outside with it on and it billowed in the breeze.
From that point on, my dad was a voracious reader, whatever he could get his hands on. I saw that words mattered to him. It was a very big influence on me and why, from a very young age, I cultivated words no other kid my age would use. Part of this was helped along by my mother, from around when I was at the age of five when I was already reading and writing quite a bit. Not long essays, mind you, but still had started to find words of great interest to me. I was a very precocious child, especially with the written word. The dictionary was one of my favorite books. It was a catalog of words and ideas for me. My mother recognized this and we played a nightly game where she would find difficult words for a five year old (like facetious or impenetrable … things like that) and would challenge me to find them in the dictionary and to re-write the definition. By the time she came home, I had to spell it and to try to use it in a sentence. This went on for years. It was one of the cool things I did with my mom. My dad was always around when I would “give my report” of what I’d discovered. I had so much love for my super-involved parents.
Yet, through it all, there was always a look in my father’s eye. It had been there all along. For the longest time I never knew what I did that brought it out in him. I knew was never in trouble when I saw him look at me that certain way. My fear was that he was judging something, taking stock of some measure of me, and the jury was still out. It wasn’t until I said those infamous words (well, to me, at any rate) that my mother provided clarity on it.
“It was because your father knew two things when I became pregnant with you. The first was he knew I was pregnant before I did. He told me so. The second was that he knew you were going to be gay.” (Well, she used that word when I was a teenager, but I don’t know if they used that word when I was still a collection of growing cells in my mother’s womb.)
My dad and I had a special relationship, too. From the time I came home with them from the hospital, I preferred contact with my father. Whenever I cried as a baby, I only fell asleep and was comforted if I was in his arms or asleep on his chest. It didn’t help my father and his sleep patterns much. In fact, he said to my mother on more than one occasion that he nearly freaked out when we were both napping together (with me on his chest) and he would wake with a start because he thought I was slipping off of him.
So there was no separation, no bad and distant relationship with my father like all those psycho faux doctors used to say back then that distant fathers were the reason why boys like me sought comfort and sexual relations with men/boys because of that missed connection. I was waist deep in love with my father. He was epic in my eyes. He was a fair and honest man. I couldn’t respect him more. And I’d like to think I made him proud as his son. He said so. I wanted to believe that. But the gay thing was a sticking point – not with him. That was all me.
So that occasional (but persistent over the years) look my father would give me was his polling whatever I was up to, probably trying to gauge if he was right about me all along or not. I think he knew well in advance I was before we ever had that talk. And in my family we talked about everything. Nothing was off the table. Well, except for inane gibberish. My parents couldn’t tolerate what they called “stupid talk.” You know, unsupportable positions in conversations. We kids could bring to my parents whatever we wanted to – no judgments. None whatsoever. Total safe zone.
I made sure to take advantage of that at every turn. Like our having “the talk” (about sex and where babies came from) when I was five. Yes, FIVE. My mother only today remarked as we reminisced about this very moment in our past how she inwardly thought ”Oh shit, we’re here already?” My barely three year old brother and two year old sister looked at my parents with wide-eyed amazement. And I didn’t want some kiddie version of the events. When I asked I was rather assertive that I wanted the truth. I always been like that.
So, without going into some long, boring medical harangue, she simply explained that I was what they called a natural birth. My mother said my birth was, relatively speaking, fairly good – even if I liked room service so much I wanted to say an extra month (I was due in July but was born in August).
“You just slid right out.” (Meaning through the birth canal)
To which my brother said, “See B, you slid out and I slid out.” No doubt my brother thought slides were actually involved in the birthing of babies. I don’t recall if my mom corrected him on this point at that age or not.
For the record, my brother was a BIG baby. There was no sliding out for him. He was full on C-Section – eleven pounds, nine ounces of C-Section. I wasn’t tiny either, for that matter: nine pounds, two ounces. So, that part of “the talk” happened when I was five. But nothing was held back from us. If my parents thought we had an honest question, it deserved an honest (if age context aware) answer.
I should point out that there was very little that was sacred or not to be spoken of in our home. Every topic was on the table – and invariably was talked about. Kids who ate dinner at our house got an earful. We even once had a debate on the birth of words (lexicography) and how they came to be. This was encapsulated with the familial classic line from my mother:
“I mean, who got to call a rose a rose? What if they had called it shit? Oooh, this is a lovely smelling shit. I want a bouquet of this shit.”
We laughed for a good five minutes on that one alone. A girl who lived down the street, named Kelly who we’d known all of our lives, was there for that dinner. I’d like to say she was shocked by the subject matter, but she’d been around us since she was like four or five. She was right in the thick of things and laughed right along with us.
“Think how funny it’d be if people wrinkled their nose and said, ’Ew, did you smell this rose? That’s some nasty assed rose.’”
You get the picture.
So why this meandering to get to the point of when I admitted to my father I was gay? Because it’s indicative of how things worked for my young gayboy life. It was all happenstance, with minor milestones along the way. That’s not to say it was boring. My life was definitely not boring. I was keen enough to notice that.
You see I worked up the courage to say those words to my father because of the books I’d been reading of late.
It started after a family visit to the local mall that had sprung up a few years before. It was one of those new indoor malls people were raving about. In a warm weather city like San Diego, anything indoors, in the comfort of air-conditioning, during the oppressively hot summers was a welcomed thing. I went to the mall with my family on a particularly hot afternoon when we were trying to escape the heat.
Once we entered the mall I broke away rather quickly. My family didn’t have any reason to guess where I was off to – the bookstore – where else? It was a home away from home. I was always in there, usually looking through the SciFi and Fantasy section. This time, however, I couldn’t find anything that satisfied. About an hour into perusing the shelves and lightly reading a book here or there I was growing restless that I couldn’t find any resolution to my quest for some new place to mentally escape into.
So I began wandering around elsewhere, going through other shelves. Eventually I happened along the self-help and then onto literature. I had no way of knowing as I fingered books along the literature shelves that I stopped on a book with a salacious title: The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy.
Within its pages the possibilities of what had been stirring in my mind and body (through intensely avid self-exploration) had been percolating, bubbling up from time to time as my teenaged testosterone practically poured from my pores.
2:25 P.M. The Pier.
Jim twisted his body away from the young man’s spidery touch. Not yet. He wanted more sun …
… He looks into the gutted pier. Years ago it supported a carnival street, brazen in its garish tackiness, a discord of colors and “architecture” waning furiously. …
… A gladiator, Jim stares at the arena under the pier. … He sees shapes of vague geometry. … Jim moves fully into exile country. Just as he knew, there are many other outlaws here. At least six shadows materialize into bodies as they glide closer like hypnotized birds. Against a pole, two men are pasted to each other. Muted sighs and moans blend with the lapping sound of the ocean beyond.
Knowing that a loose circle of ghostly figures is focusing on him as he stands in a pocket of dim light, Jim pulls out his cock as if to piss. Quickly, a tall slender young outlaw holds Jim’s cock. … For seconds only, Jim inches farther into the dim-lit cave within the darker cave, so that his gleaming body being adored will be visible like a pornographic photograph.
This was pornographic poetry. There was a carnal cadence to it. My mouth watered, my pits became moist, a flush of blood coursed throughout my body.
My hands were shaking as I read these words. I began to sweat all over. I looked up from the page and glanced around, sure that everyone in the store was staring at the teenage kid discovering his sexual awakening from these bold words about sex between men. It was no longer conceptual in my mind. Here I had in my hands words that completely turned every terrible and horrific word about who and what I was turned on its head. How? Because this man survived. He survived and wrote about our experiences. With furtive glances around I continued to read as Jim (or as he sometimes calls himself Mat, sometimes Jerry, sometimes John) continued his next sexual conquest. One after another. It was gritty, carnal work. I’d never really seen porn, well, definitely not gay porn at this point, but this was somehow more salacious and tantalizing than what I imagined porn being. I knew I had to have this book. Part of me was frightened about what was within its pages; the other part of me couldn’t wait to devour every sexually charged moment. It wasn’t that I wanted to go out and replicate every part of it, but just that I would know the possibilities, of what sex between men could mean, was truly earth shattering.
It was then that my sister showed up and startled the shit out of me. It was as if I’d been in the shower doing my teenage boyhood pleasures and labelling it under the guise of ablutions and my sister suddenly whipped the curtain aside at the height of my pleasures.
I nearly dropped the damned book. It took me about a second or two to realize she would have no idea what I’d been reading.
“C’mon. Mom and Dad said to come get you. We’re going to get something for dinner.”
Shit! I didn’t have any of my money with me (this was before ATM cards and things of that nature). I needed cash to get the book. After shooing my sister out of the bookstore, I scrambled to find a place to hide the fucking book (literally, a ‘fucking’ book). I think, if I remember correctly, I hid it behind some gardening books. I knew I had to come back when I remembered to bring my wallet with me and buy it.
I did, a day or two later. I made a paper bag cover for it so I could read it anywhere I went. I read that damned thing in nearly one sitting – taking a short nap to recoup and then finished it in the early morning hours, only to reread it again the next morning.
After about a week of this, I wanted more of what he had out there. I began to search him out. On one such afternoon scouring the shelves for more of his books, I happened on a title that at first made me recoil (mostly for its religious overtones – which I had started to pull back from) only to find that I kept coming back to it over and over again. Finally, and thankfully, I gave in and pulled it from the shelf. I remember it being just above my head and I leaned to the right as I angled it from its resting place. As soon as I saw the cover I became overwhelmed and quickly pulled it down and began to scour its pages like a parched man to water.
Peter lifted his arms in the air and wriggled his body in closer against Charlie’s, making a deep animal growl of lust and longing in his throat. He dropped his hands on Charlie’s shoulders, still growling, and kneaded his neck with strong fingers and ran them through his hair. “I know,” he said, smiling into Charlie’s eyes. “I love everything about you. Your looks, of course, your huge cock, but lots more than that. I love everything you say, I love your voice, I love the way your lip curls here when you smile.” He put a finger on the spot. “And that’s just the beginning. That’s just the first day. Think of all the other things I’ll find to love. Golly, when I got out of that train this morning and saw you, I knew something tremendous was happening. Darling, dearest love, dearest, beautiful lover, precious love, my champ.” The words poured from him in a gentle croon as if they had been locked away for years, saved up for this occasion.
As I turned the pages I saw that this had a completely different tone. This stirred me in another way. This was the love between those men I’d been religiously rereading about Rechy’s semi-autobiographical exploits (it was label as a sexual documentary) but now it had the romantic leanings. It was set in a time period where there was still a grace in speech and manner in the upper classes.
I’ve mentioned this before both on my blog, and on the podcast: but Rechy satiated my lust while Merrick warmed and filled my heart. Together these men and their words gave me a reprieve from the hurt and loneliness that overwhelmed me at school.
These were words that literally (beyond the figurative “literature” nature of the work) saved me. They saved me from feeling and thinking the worst of myself. I owe these men my young gayboy life. Nothing short of it. When words came my way from nasty, scared-of-anything-that-wasn’t-like-them straight boys (who oddly enough, weren’t always so straight and narrow – but that’s for another time, too), who found it necessary to belittle me, spurn me, cast me out away from them and rattle my world.
You’d think friends, family and a supportive home environment would help that. To a small degree, it did. But only just so. What I needed was connection. What I needed more than anything else was not to feel alone. To feel like I was not the only gay in the village. I didn’t have that. The boys who I thought might be like me kept me at arm’s length as well. So there was an in crowd there that even I couldn’t penetrate.
But those words from Merrick and Rechy informed me. They were my light; they were the passion for my own life, for thinking that if I could just get to the other side, I’d be okay. So when days were tough because I was teased, I took refuge in their words. Those paper bag covered words, hidden from everyone, were alive in my head and heart. So their words helped me lick wounds and try to get through another day.
All of this, the discoveries that I found within those pages were what were rolling around in my head when I found myself eating lunch with my father. I don’t know if my mom and dad had worked it out to have her take my brother and sister out to the store so he could talk to me about it, but somehow it was just him and me.
So there we were, eating somewhat silently when he asked those words that would shift things irretrievably from how it was before. A definite milestone.
“So is there something you want to tell me?”
Yeah, that made the bite of sandwich I had just taken suddenly swell to the size of our cat in my throat. And for the record, we had a big fucking cat.
“Uh, like what?”
He sighed. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“What? About my liking boys and not girls?”
“Yeah, I do. I’m gay.”
It was silent as we ate some more. His eyes would search out mine; there was no malice there. No disgust. Inside, I lost my appetite, but I kept eating because it was something to do – eat up nervous energy in the form of a deli sandwich and chips.
After letting me stew in my anxiety for a bit, he finally gave me a release.
“You know, sex with a woman is an amazing thing.” He looked at me and then shrugged as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and said words that totally amazed me: “But I suppose it could be just as amazing with another man, too. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone and no one is hurting you, and you’re happy, that’s all I ask for. It’s all your mother and I want for you. For all you kids.”
That was it. That was my epic coming out. No drama. No rattling and screaming and hurtful words. My parents are truly the coolest parents on the planet. That’s why when people say it now, I get where that’s coming from. Believe me I totally appreciated hearing it and was proud of that each time it came my way.
Despite all of this, despite the love I had from them, from my friends who sort of figured me out, I still felt this disconnectedness from everything around me. Only those books, and the people I held dear, kept me going. Those books said to me one thing that was irrefutable: a life outside of the thirty-seven levels of hell in high school was not only possible, it was a foregone conclusion – if I made it through my final year of high school.
It was the summer of my junior year. I was half-way through my four years of high school. I looked back on the previous two years. It had been tough. I had endured verbal abuse and down-cast eyes from many kids over the years since the third grade. The last two years were the most brutal, because now it had a sexual edge to it. But you see, I knew that I would have a way out. Sure, having family and friends who still loved and cared about me gave me a leg up when I felt the lowest. They helped. It all did.
This was the beginning of my writing career. It would take me several years to actually start to pen something, but the power of those men’s stories planted the seed that words, words that I’d been cultivating since I was a boy, had power. On some level something started to germinate. When I was bullied, I would use words as my weapon. It didn’t always work, but it did often enough to let me know words did have power. I had to learn to master it, harness it, make it something I could truly use to keep me safe.
But I also learned, through my non-scholarly, but infinitely wise, father that how you used them mattered.
His compassion and empathy for my oh fuck me, I’m really gonna do this moment made me realize just how lucky I was. He was the true measure of a man to me. When others questioned my masculinity, I realized just how fucked up their view was. I’d seen the best. I don’t think I always told him that as often as I should. But he was.
Love ya, Pops. I’d give just about anything to have five minutes more with you, just to explain how much your empathy for your eldest son when I needed it most, mattered in ways that have lasted my lifetime. I try to be that guy every damned day. I’m not always so successful, but it gives me something to shoot for, a goal that lights my way. In that, even though you’ve been gone for over seventeen years now, it’s like I still have you here with me.
Moments of what contentment that I can only imagine I felt in my baby boy body napping on his father’s chest. And that’s the most amazing feeling of all.
Place: San Diego, California
I’d like to say that I knew what I was doing once I’d figured out I was gay. But I didn’t. It wasn’t like I had many options to choose from to help me out.
There was no internet; there wasn’t much in the way for a gay teenage boy to find other boys like himself. The best hope you had was to see a gay rag (the local gay newspapers and handouts) while in the gay part of town (in my case, Hillcrest in San Diego) where there would be notices of men looking for other men/boys to meet, or some group meeting somewhere for whatever. There was a whole world out there that I wanted to explore but how I found out about them was pure happenstance.
Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies there wasn’t much to see that said I belonged somewhere.
One of the few images I had for queer representation of my young gayboy life was Billy Crystal’s character, Jodie Campbell, on Soap. Despite the humor of the show, and the great over-the-top performances, Jodie started out as a fiercely proud gay man but was quickly and purposefully migrated to being a gay man gone straight. This only helped underscore that while we had a major win in seeing someone like me represented on TV, I would only find true happiness if I decided to go straight. This served to add more confusion just when I thought I’d begun to find myself.
Other queer oriented characters and stories started to follow, but Soap broke that in a big way in 1977. Up to then if there was a gay character, it was a guest spot which usually ended tragically. Soap dealt with the same issues but did it through over-the-top humor.
But I wasn’t completely in the dark about the possibilities. I’d been devouring the works of John Rechy (The Sexual Outlaw, Numbers, etc – more on him and what he meant to me in another post) that fiercely detailed what sex between men could be like. I was a teenage boy. My hormones were raging. But it was more than that. Rechy satisfied my growing queer awareness of what my body could do, but not my heart.
And it wasn’t like I didn’t have gay men around me at that time. My tia (aunt) had been going to gay clubs and had even married a gay man and lived in San Francisco for a time. So, queer men were around me growing up, especially when she was around. Tia was a connection to where I was going to go in life. She was a bridge into that world that I wanted to be a part of, but eyed it from afar. Though at this point in time, I wasn’t ready for that just yet.
But her being in my life gave me my love for dance music. My very first album was Thelma Houston’s Any Way You Like It, which featured the Grammy award winning dance classic, Don’t Leave Me This Way. That song title would prove pretty damned prophetic at this stage in my life.
You see, high school is crushing for a gayboy. And I use the term “gayboy” purposefully, as a noun, because I think that encapsulates how we aren’t just any other boy. It demonstrates the division and isolation we feel from the rest of the world moving about us. I always mentally used it that way. I knew I was separate. It wasn’t that I was leading a lonely existence, either. I had numerous friends in school, well, more like good acquaintances that I got along and spent time with. But there was always a veil of separation. Whether I was causing that feeling isolation or not, didn’t matter. I just knew I wasn’t part of them.
I know most teens go through the trauma of trying to find themselves sexually. That’s part of the game; I get that. But for gayboys (and girls, I imagined as well) it is doubly hard because the most you have to go on that there are others like you (at least back then) was the barest of whispers about someone being a fag, queer, whatever. Your gayboy radar was working overtime just to pick up any random signal that there was at least one other person in the 600+ kids at your high school who was like you. Then you had to hope they didn’t spurn you because an association with your gayboy status on campus might make them sink to another level of social hell.
Choir wasn’t an option for me. Not really. It was run by a devout Mormon musical director who peopled the guys in the choir from within the members of his church. So there was a whole lot of magical-underwear-wearing boys in that class. A good collection of them were jocks in various sports as well. The local Mormon church sits right next to my high school. I was told by one of them that their church does that purposefully. There are church related things that they are required to do before school, so the church often establishes a location very close to the local high school. Ours just happened to be next door.
So why go on about the Mormon boys? Well, here’s the thing: they were nice guys. They were solidly into the music we did – mostly of a classical nature (one of the few high schools I knew of that annually performed Handel’s Messiah at Christmas every year – I knew that score backwards and forwards by the time I graduated). But I digress. I only mention it because they were nice to me, despite the gayboy aura that followed me around. Some of them were hotties, too, and I’ll admit to a lingering eye during rehearsals or prolonged conversations I really didn’t want to have, but did, just so I could be near them.
But choir was emphatically for the straight kids – there was no escaping it, either. It just reeked of boy/girl shit. So, while it was a haven of sorts, allowing me to feel I was in a safe environment, it left me feeling quite bereft of any happiness I could find in having some boy for me. Relationships were springing up all around me in that class. I was the lone salmon swimming downstream while they all went the other way to get their spawn on.
Drama, on the other hand, well, that was another story entirely. There were whispers of gayboys there. There was a clique in my drama class of stoner kids who all did the midnight shows of Rocky Horror Picture Show. I became enamored with one boy in particular.
His name was Tim.
It wasn’t that he was over-the-top male model material, but that was totally part of the appeal. He was kind, for the most part. He was just like every other boy out there, except I heard about his sexual exploits through the drama rumor mill of his being with this boy or that one. He never really talked about it himself. But he never denied it, either. That was more than enough for me. Hell, he could’ve been straight or just queer-questioning at that time. I was just removed from him enough that I couldn’t get the 411 on him to make sure of anything. It was maddening. But I had to try get closer, if anything, just out of friendship.
There was just one problem. And it was insurmountable, too. He was of that collection of kids that were just starting to make itself known. It would become better defined in the late eighties and nineties as being alternative. But he was a stoner, a full on rock n’ roll sort of guy. I admired him from a distance.
It all started two years before. We did a show together – Any Number Can Die. It was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot. Somehow, I was magically cast in it. I was a freshman; I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I’d been in shows before but this had a whole new level in that it was with kids I saw every day. That was a new experience for me. I stumbled, a lot. But, hands down, it was one of the best times I’d ever had in school. That play brings back many memories, mostly because it was riddled with so many production problems (at some point I’ll detail them because this play, more than any other, colored my professional life in so many ways, but I’ll save that for another posting). If I remember it right, he played Chuck and I was Carter Forstman (you can read about the play from the link above).
This play was when my path first crossed Tim’s. He was in the play as well. We only had one scene together. But it was an ensemble scene so I was one of many in it. Not really any way to be as near to him as I’d’ve liked. Best part? I got to see him change into his costume every night. And you can bet I looked. Without fail. He was a tanned, lithe but toned boy. His dark hair only emphasized his brilliantly vibrant eyes with long lashes. Radiant eyes. He was about four inches taller than my 5’7″ height. Easily 6’1″ or 2″. He wasn’t a homely boy, far from it; but he wasn’t drop-your-shit-and-follow-him-off-the-end-of-the-planet gorgeous, either. I liked his normal, average, good-looking, well, look about him. I desperately needed normalcy where my heart was concerned. Tim fit the bill. I only got to interact with him before or after rehearsal whenever we all hung out.
You see, I knew even then, despite how much I liked him, it would never be. For starters, it was rumored that he was into another boy in drama who liked to do the production work. His name was Mike. I did my best to be cordial to him, but inwardly, I hated the guy. He wasn’t good enough for Tim. This despite my knowing that they were always around one another. Mike wasn’t even remotely agreeable looks-wise. Well, not to me, at any rate. I am sure now, looking back on it, it was colored by my liking Tim so much that I emotively made Mike ugly. I think I put that on him. I took delight in taking him apart, seeing every flaw and mentally exploiting it. It’s just how it worked out in my head and heart.
I loved to hear Tim laugh. It was the sweetest thing to my ears. He was affable, got along with everyone, and he was a decent actor. All wins in my book. So when Any Number Can Die closed, I slid into a funk that I wouldn’t see him after school as much unless I got cast in another show. He was a year ahead of me so I knew I had three years to try to become his friend. I worked tirelessly to get into shows, especially if he was cast – which he invariably was. Most times I didn’t make the grade for what the director was looking for. So, on those shows I did production, just so I could be there. It’s amazing how motivated a teenage boy can be when a spark of sexual interest was there.
Tim never really saw me. Not really. Not in all of the years we were in school together. If he ever did, it was because we had to do something together to put the show on. But it was at arm’s length. Pleasant, but never close. Not like I wanted. I was an oddity to him, that was for sure. I was sure he knew about me, about my being gay, but he never gave me any indication that we clicked on that level.
To be honest, I never really stood a chance. That clique of Rocky Horror kids was pretty fucking unbreakable. They were in, and I was most definitely out. I suppose I could’ve gone with them, sorta weaseled my way in, but I knew that would’ve been seen as extreme by them and would’ve made any real chance very awkward.
While a teen’s life is often steeped in pools of awkward, you did everything you could to avoid it.
You see, I was doing everything cliché that a fag boy should do – only for older fags, gays who were already out in the world and going clubbing. I wasn’t there, yet. So for me, it was just awkward and misplaced.
I wasn’t into sports, I sang and danced, and horror of horrors, I liked disco. And everyone was shitting on disco when I was in high school. There were stadium events that brought in crowds of people to burn disco records for fuck sake. I knew that wouldn’t make me popular with the kids my age. And I knew how to dance. I got my groove thing on early in life. I’m half Latino; it’s sort of the law. But those Rocky kids, they couldn’t keep a beat in dancing if their lives depended on it. That was evident every year when the drama department did its annual musical show. I got the dancing; I could move easily on stage. But even though we were all striving to learn our performing craft, that clique was comfortable in their barely able to get through it dance skills. Just one more way I was out of it.
Thinking back on it now, I sort of wish they were mean to me. At least that would’ve given me an out. I could ignore them instead of spending those three fucking years pining to be one of them so I could get closer to Tim. But they were nice, though they mercilessly teased me about my liking disco.
I even tried in my junior year to get into what they were listening to: Blondie was big. And Blondie had provided me with a way to get closer – Heart of Glass – their bona fide disco hit. That band became my gateway. It was the lone spot where I could connect with them. I bought Blondie because Debbie Harry and crew were going to give me access to that clique once and for all and then I’d show Tim what a great guy I was. That was the plan at any rate. I had no way of seeing just how horribly I would embarrass myself before Christmas was over.
They would still tease me about disco, but they let me peripherally hang out with them. I went to a few of their houses to woodshed stuff we were doing in class. Sometimes Tim was there; other times, not. I even started hanging out with a couple of girls in school my brother called the rocker chicks because I figured listening to it more, I’d have a broader understanding of what Tim and his friends were into. So my musical tastes began to evolve and change. I didn’t give up on my R&B, soul, jazz or disco; I just expanded my musical tastes to include other music. Queen, Heart, Led Zep, Stevie Nicks, they were all added to the mix now.
My gayboy heart and mind exploded. He was so fucking hot and aside from his burgeoning rock n’ roll career, he did musical theater! (His performance in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway (and the subsequent film during the early 80s only solidified this in my mind). He was every gayboy’s wet dream. Well, to me, at any rate. I began to see the draw to these men, these rock gods. The slick, highly polished, synthetic fabric era of disco began to crack and crumble for me. Things were breaking through. Rex was a big part of that.
My celebrity crush of Rex Smith aside, you see, I pined for Tim because he represented what I thought I needed at that point in my life: someone who was kind, someone who laughed a lot, someone who everyone else thought was cool and liked to be around. I was drawn like the proverbial moth to the light he carried just because he was so confident without being cocky. I realize now that perhaps he wasn’t so confident in everything he did, but that’s the way it appeared to me back then. His gayboy rumor oddly didn’t follow him around campus; he got along with everyone. He was never bullied or teased like I was. He had a magic that I desperately wanted to understand. Actually, I needed to understand. My safety in my senior year might depend on just that.
I didn’t care that other kids in school classified him as a stoner first – and some days he came to school with eyes clearly bloodshot from it (he had beautiful eyes, too). He was golden to me. He was comfortable in his own skin. Not many kids knew how to exude that. Fuck, I aspired to do that. I figured if I got close, I could learn it, too. Be a cool kid by the time I graduated, and Tim would show me how.
By this time I had a driver’s license, and I had a car. It was a fucked up Opel Kadet piece-of-shit, painted boat blue (no, really, it was painted with marine quality boat paint – it was so blue it practically glowed and had the oddest texture to it if you touched it) but it was mine. It got me to and from my part-time job at a gift store in a newly opened indoor mega-mall. Sometimes my parents would even let me take the family car, which was infinitely more respectable. So I could get around. This was the winter of my junior year, and I knew I only had a few more months to get Tim to see me. I don’t know why I was obsessing as much as I was. But it just was.
As Christmas drew near I thought, why don’t I buy him something that said, hey, I sort of like you and would you be my friend (and not just some passing drama student acquaintance)? At this point, I’d take friendship if it couldn’t be anything else. I’d heard that Tim had moved out of his parents’ house. It was said that he had an apartment just down the street from the high school. I didn’t have any confirmation of why Tim had suddenly moved out of his parents’ home, but there were whispers that he had to get out. I guessed that his relationship with Mike had gotten their attention. That was what I’d overheard, but never was able to confirm. There were some terse conversations between Mike and Tim that I’d observed. Something was up. But anyway, I found out where he lived. And miraculously, I found out what apartment number, too, though I can’t recall with any clarity how I did that. Necessity being the mother and all that rot, I suppose. But find out, I did.
So there I was, working in a gift shop and making new friends outside of school. They were all twenty and thirty somethings who worked there and to my great surprise, they treated me like I belonged, even if I was only seventeen. That was a cool thing and very new to me. I began to see my way out of the social hell that was high school – even if it was somewhat in the distance yet for me. I was often in charge of unboxing shipments and checking inventory on lines either being discontinued or added to the current lines. I had responsibilities now, well, as meager as they were at seventeen. But my life outside of school had started, and yet, my affections for Tim only grew more desperate as the winter break edged ever closer.
Just after the thanksgiving holiday a new shipment arrived that my boss was eager to get out onto the floor. They were large rock n’ roll artwork images that were inspired by the Frank Frazetta style.
They were mounted on highly polished wood with a layer of lacquer on it that had to be at least a half-inch thick.
Tim was a hard core rocker boy. So I hatched a plan to buy one of them for him and give it to him for Christmas. And that’s what I did. I spent the $40 or $50 bucks on the fucking thing, which for a teenage boy at that time was a lot of money. It was massively huge, too, just larger than a movie poster one-sheet (2’x3′). And it was sort of heavy.
It sat in my room for like a week. I’d wrapped the damned thing and had it facing the wall at the foot of my full-size waterbed (it was the era where those were still in fashion and I had one). I kept asking myself, “What the fuck are you doing? He is so going to see through your shit and know that you’re letting him know you like him.” Well, that’s what I kept telling myself. But the heart wants what the heart wants, ya know?
So three days before Christmas I finally decided I was going to do it. School was out. He’d probably be working any way. I sat in his apartment’s parking lot with the thing in my back seat for like an hour or so. I was beginning to worry that someone might let management know someone was loitering in the parking lot.
“Fuck it.” I was going in.
I pulled the fucking thing from my car, trying desperately to come up with some sort of excuse on why I was giving him something when I never had before. So while I lugged the damned thing down the walkway to his apartment, I finally came up with something.
There I was. 21B. I stood outside the door for like two or three minutes, debating if I was really going to do this. I rang the doorbell. Just as I was about to chicken out, the door opened and there he was, standing barefooted in jeans and a loose fitting black Ramones t-shirt, surprised as shit to see me. I just stood there, this big fucking present in my hands (I hadn’t even had the smarts to set it onto the ground – I was holding it (it weighed about 25 to 30lbs)).
“Hey, (he said my name), whassup?” Still taken aback on why I was there and what was I doing with this big fucking present in my hands.
I spied over his shoulder just beyond him and everyone of those members of his clique was there. Mike was there, too. Damn him.
I stuttered out my reply. I wasn’t as cool or as collected as I thought I’d be. I’d fucked up; this was wrong. I was doing it all wrong but the spotlight was on me. No way out, now.
“Uh, well, you see, every year I put my friends’ names in a hat and I draw one out and buy something for them for Christmas. This year it was you. So, uh, yeah, here.” I handed it over to him. He had it in his hands for just a second before Mike took it from him and into their apartment. I could hear them all whispering about it. It may have been innocent enough, but it felt like they were all making fun of me and what I’d done. I wanted to leave. I wanted to get in that fucking car and drive and drive – maybe right off into the ocean.
“Wow, okay, uh, thanks? You uh, wanna come in?” (It was cold and sort of damp out – which was unusual for sunny San Diego).
I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t take the stares, the whispers and glances that would go on around me.
“Uh, no. That’s okay. I see you have people over. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just, um, wanted to make sure you got it before the holiday.”
He smiled softly. On some level I think he saw past everything I’d said. But he didn’t say or do anything to let me know that, just a small twinkle in his eye, imaginary or not, that I desperately clung to.
“Have a nice Christmas.” And I turned and left. He stood there for a moment before closing the door.
I sat in the car for well over five minutes just letting the tears of embarrassment pour out of me. It was a silent cry, an angry cry. I bared my heart and put what I felt out there. In true Tim fashion, he was kind about it. I don’t know if they had a good laugh at my expense after he closed that door. I don’t know what he thought about it. No one ever said another word about it when school began in the New Year. It was like it never happened. Hell, he could’ve taken one look at the damned thing and chucked it.
I don’t know.
I never will, I suppose.
He was still kind to me, if a bit more distant. He was moving on. Something happened between him and Mike and I heard he was living alone now. Maybe it was nothing more than roommates and I’d dreamt up the rest? I didn’t think so. But even I had to admit I didn’t have all the facts, just hearsay and some small gossip. Fragments, really. The group, his little clique had started to break up. They were all there but seemed to unplug as a cohesive group. They stopped going to the midnight showings of Rocky Horror, or if they did, it was separately. That was my impression anyway. Hell, maybe I had it wrong. The end of school year came. I heard that Tim was going into the Air Force and would be moving to Washington.
That light he had was going somewhere else. The end was drawing near like a bullet train and I knew he’d be gone, off to the world as I would be the year after – flung far and wide.
The pay-off? When it came time to pass around annuals to have our friends sign, I came up to him in drama and asked if he’d sign my book. He smiled softly, took my book and penned something while I wrote something in his. I didn’t repeat my blunder of being mushy in what I wrote. It was something innocuous like Best of luck in life or something equally inane and uninventive. He handed me my book and I returned his to him.
I didn’t read it just then, too afraid of what he wrote. I figured it didn’t mean anything to him. I’d convinced myself this was all me. I was making this into something it wasn’t. I think he knew how I felt about him on some level. Maybe not to the extent it was, but somehow he did.
I walked away from that class. It was the end the school year and I had several friends graduating. Most of my friends in school were upper-classmen. It’d always been that way. I had a few people in my current year who I as on friendly terms with, but a good chunk of them were graduating that year.
I got to the far side of the campus and scrambled like mad through the book to find what he wrote.
It was two lines:
Have a great summer.
I’ll probably regret saying this but – disco rules!
I smiled. We never were close. We never shared any real special moments – other than my awkward and embarrassing Christmas offering – but in that moment, he saw me, and he was kind enough to give me something. It was small, almost nothing really, but it meant so much. In that he gave me something I carry to this day. It doesn’t hurt to be kind. It doesn’t hurt to give something back. In that moment, when his book was exchanged with mine, he saw me. And it mattered. I’ve always tried to do that moment justice.
It is something that I really needed when another moment of unrequited love reared its awkward head.
But that’s for another time.
– SA Collins