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.
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