Daddies and Twinks and Bears–OH MY!

 

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While the LGBT population world-wide struggles for acceptance and equality, at the same time we insist on separating ourselves into categories which we came up with–all on our own. The society we fight to find our place in had absolutely nothing to do with it. No wonder it’s tough to be gay. Sometimes we contribute to it by stereotyping ourselves, insisting on choosing a specific compartment that classifies us according to some physical trait or insignificant preference. It wasn’t always like that, this dinosaur is here to tell you.

Back in the last century, in the early 1970s in Ohio when I first came out, you went to a gay bar and there were two kinds of homosexuals–dykes and fags. We were so happy to be able to be out, no one thought to be anything more than simply GAY. In those clubs we could hang out together and just be ourselves, which we dared not do anywhere outside the safety of the places we frequented. It wasn’t that these gay bars were particularly fabulous or fun–they were all we had–a place to be comfortable in your own skin a few hours each week.

Moving to New York City, my gay world expanded. Actually, it damn near exploded. Unlike northeastern Ohio, where you could count the number of gay establishments on one hand, here there were dozens of places in Manhattan alone. And NYC is where I began to notice the development of gay stratification.

At this point there were: jocks, leather men, daddies and elephants. The jocks were hardly the buff gym rats of today. In fact, in those days a six-pack meant only one thing–six bottles or cans of beer. These jocks were closer to preppies, in button-down shirts, loafers with or without socks, clean-shaven and well-groomed hair. Leather men were easy to spot in their chaps, vests or black leather jackets and huge, heavy belts and boots. They made facial hair fashionable again. Leather men were the first to embrace piercings–initially just ears–then they commenced to travel south–way south. In the beginning these guys intimidated me, until I smartened up and realized for many, it was simply costume, and had zero to do with how they performed under the sheets. Daddies were men forty-plus years who dressed more sophisticatedly than any of the others. Technically they could have been a twenty-something’s father. While I found most daddies tantalizing in my heyday, I hesitated to pursue their advances because the age difference made me a bit queasy. And the elephants, oh those poor elephants, were the older, grandfatherly men who most gay guys ran from, (except for the gold diggers who took full advantage of the poor old horny dudes).

There was an unnamed category that a majority of gay men fell into in this same era. I would have to call it the ‘denim crowd’. It was the strata I identified with in my single days. In fall and winter we wore flannel shirts or work shirts and jeans with a jean jacket. In summer we’d don the same jeans, wife-beater tank tops or go shirtless with a jean jacket. Some guys wore heavy boots if they leaned towards leather. Others chose sneakers or loafers if they were more jock-inspired.

I dated my first denim guy for only a month or so. He worked in the interior design industry like myself. By day his job required he wear a suit and tie. Regardless, he wore this tiny gold hoop earing which I found an odd juxtaposition, but so very hot. His name was Robb (with two B’s) and his last name (French Canadian), also began with a B. I affectionately referred to him as ‘Robb Bone-air’, frankly because that’s what he gave me whenever I caught a glimpse of that shocking earring and the dirty grin always pasted on his handsome face. Even when dressed in denim, there was something about his earring that hayseed me found so provocative in those olden days. Robb was also responsible for making me go commando…but I’m getting a bit off-track here.

Just before the end of the 70s I went off the dating market, settling down with a man who didn’t belong to any of the above-mentioned categories. He was Alejandro, and we were together for a dozen years. During my time out of the gay loop, a few new categories were formed. The biggest was the Bear Community. They surfaced somewhere in the early 1980s. Of course Bears have been around since forever, but this is when they became a huge thing, perhaps because there became so many kinds of them.

Bears, first and foremost, are guys with body hair. Bears are not into manscaping. This does not mean you have to wear a chest wig to be a Bear. There are some burly Bear dudes who are not terribly hairy. These men might compensate by cultivating hair where it does naturally grow, like on their heads. And if it doesn’t grow there, then maybe they’ll sport full, bristling beards. The Bear population has grown so large they’ve developed subclasses: younger bears are referred to as Cubs, older bears are often called Polar Bears, there are Musclebears, Panda Bears (Asians) and then, to totally confuse things, there are Bears who are hairy but thinner and extremely muscular, termed Otters (which in the animal kingdom aren’t even in the same family!).

I’ve always found Bears adorable. Although we shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about any one group of people, I’m sticking my neck out here to say almost every Bear I’ve ever met has been a really cool guy. They’re fun-loving and playful. They don’t intimidate and for the most part are very open and accepting of non-bear types. They couldn’t be less pretentious, and typically dress totally for comfort–fashion be damned. I’ve always secretly wished to be a bear, but I’m (1) not entirely hirsute, (2) too old and never was nearly in-shape enough to dare to call myself an Otter, and (3) unfortunately, a little too overly concerned with what I wear. Perhaps they will someday bestow an Honorary Ursine membership upon me.

If the 80s introduced the Bear, the 90s was the dawn of the Twink. These guys existed even in my youth; only the name is new and their growth in numbers appears to have increased. They could be considered the other extreme of the Bear. Twinks are slender, young, boyish, typically clean-shaven, manied and pedied and always dressed to go clubbing. They have their fingers on the pulse of what is most current in fashion and anything that is of no earthly use in the real world. It would be difficult, I imagine, to be thirty-something AND still be a Twink. I never got what they were about in my day, so I am even more in the dark concerning the Twinks of today. They’re the kind of people my Grandmother would pray for daily, were she still alive and able to recognize their existence in her world.

Dating sites and apps like Grindr will no doubt create some new categories of gay men perhaps even I will get wind of, as David pushes me in my wheelchair up Commercial Street in Provincetown, should I live long enough. Who can say what will be considered cool and appealing to the next gay generation? The only wisdom I can impart at this point in my life is simply this:

Whether you are a Twink, a Cub, or an Otter, please don’t get so wrapped up in the look or the trends of the day, that you miss the now–the moment you should be living. Forget about your outfit for Tea Dance–nobody cares if your shorts are just a little too baggy, or your sneakers are last season’s. Dance your ass off, even by yourself if no one else asks you to dance. Order dessert if you want. Only you see the extra half pound the next morning. Looking back on my gay life, it is as if only three summers ago I came out at twenty-one. A year later, I was forty and single again. And just last week, AARP sent me my first invitation for membership while still in my late fifties. Life happens so goddamn fast you become a dinosaur, before you’ve even had the chance to begin to sample life.

 

Epilogue

I have always longed to visit Provincetown for Bear Week, as it is one of the most popular weeks of the summer, when the town is overtaken by a Bear invasion. My job schedule has never afforded me the pleasure, but this year I will be able to at least make a day trip on Friday. I can’t wait to report on my day there in a follow-up post.

God I’m N O T a Dancer, A Dancer Dances


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Those of you too young to recollect the 1970s, or for the unschooled in the Broadway musical scene, you may not recognize my paraphrased title. It’s from A CHORUS LINE, and a huge moment in the second act, when Cassie, the lead character, performs a desperate show-stopping solo song and dance. She’s a diva, looking for a second chance in her career. She sings “God I’m a dancer–a dancer dances”. Of all the things I am or once was in my life, dancer was never anywhere in my expertise. Although unbelievably not once, but twice, I danced in an abbreviated version of THE NUTCRACKER, as the mysterious Uncle who gifts Clara with the magic wooden toy.

My ballet debut came as a favor to a friend who taught in a large dance studio in our area. Liz and I met in a community theatre group I became involved with when I first moved to New England. She did the choreography for a production of MUSIC MAN I directed. In payment, I would be in her NUTCRACKER, as she had no male students in ballet, and needed a guy to lift her prima ballerina in one scene, then make it snow in the second act and lift her some more. I’ve seen Liz work miracles with young tykes, non-graceful teens and adults with two left feet. What she’d need to do with this woeful klutz was far beyond even Liz’s talents.

So the lifting stuff was easy. All I needed to do was secure the lithe twelve-year-old artfully around her tiny waist and ‘lift’. The kid did all the rest. Clara looked glorious up there in the air where I’d lift her several times during each performance. A few times it was necessary to carry her in the air, taking several steps to the right or left. That I could also manage, and come off looking relatively competent. But the hitch was, I needed to first sweep in, disrupting the merriment of the party scene, just as the adult guests finished a bright gavotte. I was to achieve this air of mystery in a black floor-length cloak. Liz assured me the cape would miraculously cause me to ‘swoop’ onto stage, frightening guests and the audience at the same time. It would take more than a hunk of tacky satin for me to pull that off.

Liz and I rehearsed my entrance literally for hours. After the girls were all home and asleep in their beds, I would still be attempting to swoop gracefully from upstage left to downstage center. We’re talking maybe less than twenty steps maximum. But lonnnng, sweeeeeping and graceful steps–which was my problem. I looked like I was executing my choreography with a load of shit in my tights, the cape only serving to conceal my huge pile of caca from view. And in the second act, when I needed to make it snow, I had the same horrible, swooping entrance–only this time I entered from upstage right, attempting it backwards. Liz was so kind, so patient, and I was so very bad. A few nights before final dress, I spent half of our private post-rehearsal rehearsal, trying to persuade Liz to bind her breasts, shove her hair under a top hat and perform the role of Drosselmeyer herself. But she had faith I could do it. Poor deluded Liz!

They taped the final dress rehearsal and made the mistake of having me watch it while the kids changed to go home. I studied my entrance like Nijinsky might have looked upon his first Rite of Spring. I did not swoop in as I’d feared, with a load in my tights. I galloped in, as though the turds had already worked their way down both legs, ready to plop out onstage if I wasn’t careful. It was embarrassing, but far too late to do anything about.

Once out there, Clara made me look great. I lifted her higher than high. When I presented her with the nutcracker, my broad mime gestures were brilliant. When I made it snow, even I bought into the theatrical magic. It was such great fun, I consented to do it again the following Christmas with a second, even younger Clara. I just never watched another video of me doing it again. It was too painful for my un-dancey ego to bear.

There were times when my lack of dancing ability did not yield this same happy ending. Such is the story of my audition for GREASE on Broadway. In 1972, when I arrived in New York, GREASE had only been running a few months. By the summer of 1975, there were national tours and many cast changes. They’d announced open auditions for both Broadway and tour replacements. The show was at the Royale Theatre on West 45th Street. One of my favorites, I’d seen it at least three times. As incredible as the movie is, there was something wonderfully simple about the original stage version. You were caught up in the fun the cast was obviously having, sitting there in your seat, watching the show happen at you. It was a dreamer’s dream to get a chance to be a part of it.

You needed to have a ballad and an up-tempo song ready. The ad instructed NOT to sing a song from the show, nor dress 1950-ish. Several of my friends didn’t even get through the first interview (which was presenting your eight-by-ten picture and resume to one of about six people sitting at long tables who looked at you, then looked at your picture and either said “thank-you-we’ll-call-you” and put the picture on one pile, or said “do you have sheet music–have a seat” and put yours in another). I’d heard stories many actors only got through just a few bars of their first song before they were told “thank-you-we’ll-call-you”…and of course, they never were.

My friend Dennis was a talented performer and musician. He came to NYC just a few months before me–is still there–and never once has he needed to take a job other than in theatre or music. I called and begged him to help me find two songs for my audition. He had stacks of sheet music of obscure tunes. We decided on To Know, Know, Know Her, a really cheesy 50s ballad he was sure no one else would dare to sing, and Jingle Bell Rock as my up-tempo choice. Mind you, it’s August, during a heat wave, so we’re certain none of my competition would think to choose this one either. We rehearsed both songs the night before for several hours, and I was ready for B’way.

Audition day I arrived at The Royale, greeted by an ocean of actors. You believe you are this totally unique individual who somebody’s dying to discover–until you see two dozen people show up, all who look like they could be your first cousin. Instantly this puts you right in your place. Working my way through the crowd I make it up to the table and hand an attractive woman my picture and resume. She studies my face in the photo, looking up briefly to check if it at all resembles the guy who gave it to her. She smiles. I smile back while my heart is thumping so loudly I am certain she hears it too. “Have a seat over there in the corner with the boys. You have your music? It shouldn’t be too long”. I float over to the metal folding chairs and sit down quickly, before she has a chance to change her mind. I’ve made the first cut.

In about a half an hour, they bring our group of guys backstage. The stage is in partial view from the wings, as we listen to our competition singing to an invisible piano hammering out the tunes. It is like every movie I’ve ever seen about show business. Soon a disembodied voice calls my name. As I begin my walk onstage I’m beyond nervous. I am petrified with fright–yet so pumped. There is a tall stand to my left with a long panel of a dozen bright lights, blindingly illuminating me as I take my mark center stage. A guy appears from behind them and asks for my music, handing it to the accompanist in the pit. You can barely see a thing in the blackened theatre. A voice comes from somewhere midway in the center of the orchestra seats. I stupidly force a fake smile in that direction. All I can make out is a yellow legal pad. “Hi there”, he says. “Why don’t you sing your ballad for us.”

The piano begins and so do I. My nerves have dissipated somewhat, but as the words come out, I immediately realize this was a dumb choice. Why did we pick this boring song, anyway?

“To know-know-know her, is to love-love-love her. Just to see her smile, makes my whole life worth while. Yes-yes to know her is to love-love-love …”

“Matthew, do you have ANYTHING else you can sing?” he breaks in quickly as the piano trails off and I stop mid-song. I know this cannot be a good sign. Have I blown my big chance, I worry? Dammit, am I going home already?

“Why don’t you give us your up-tempo” he adds, brightly. A second chance–I breathe again and really smile his way this time. I begin thinking–while the piano player below rearranges the sheet music–Matthew, there are very few second chances. There won’t be another. Sing this song like your life depends on it. Your life does depend on this, so don’t blow it!

With that, the christmasy intro to Jingle Bell Rock begins, and I am singing my little heart out. The spirit of the 50s overtakes me, as I rock-and-roll my way through this tune like I’m Bobby Darin, complete with the finger-snapping. My hips have taken on a life of their own, while I work the stage like it’s all mine. I know it sounds impossible, but as I sing, I am at the same time marveling at where I am and what I’m doing. Me–onstage at The Royale Theatre on fucking B R O A D W A Y , singing Jingle Bell Rock like it’s my hit song, and as if the empty theatre is filled with enthralled fans who’ve come just to hear me sing. And I wish there was a video, because for sure, this was the performance of my life–two minutes of pure Mattie-perfection. He lets me sing the entire bloody song to the very end. Just before my performance is over, a woman’s head appears behind the dark legal-padded man. They are talking as I finish singing with a genuine shit-eating grin, now for just the two of them: “That’s the jingle bell, that’s the jingle bell, tha-att’s the jingle bell-el raah-ock!”

Once I’m done he says, “Nice to have that early Christmas present. We’d like you to stay and read for the part of Sonny. The stage manager will give you the script.” I nearly pass out, but quickly revive when the same guy who took my sheet music appears from behind the lights again, to escort me offstage. I’d been too nervous earlier to notice how hot this guy is. I quietly chastise myself for jeopardizing my moment of glory by even contemplating picking up the stage manager. I follow him to a small room where we run lines together.

The scene is only about a twelve line exchange. Handsome Hottie will be reading with me. He’s really sweet and gives me some pointers on how to play the scene–like I’m a real actor, or something. He works with me for maybe five minutes, then is called back onstage. He leaves me in the room and only then do I have a moment to sense what’s all come down in less than two hours at the theatre. I feel so good about myself and my abilities. I don’t want to jump the gun and spoil everything, but a wave of confidence over-takes me. Maybe I can do this. Maybe my dream of theatre isn’t just a dream.

An intercom voice breaks my reverie. “Matthew Schuster onstage please”. How long have I waited to hear those words? I bolt for the door, probably tripping my way back onstage. There is Handsome, who leads me to my mark and we begin. The scene is over before I even have time to worry about it. “Do you want to hear it again?” Handsome calls out to Mr. Legal Pad.

“Yes, please. This time Matthew, could you give us a little more accent and a little more stupid?” I know exactly what he means. I was playing the part of Sonny—who is talking about flunking freshman English for like a second or third time–quasi-Shakespearean. This reading, I give him what I remember from seeing the show. “Great”, he says. “we’d like you to come back this afternoon for the dance audition, Matthew. The stage manager will give you the times.”

The DANCE audition? I freeze in my tracks as the blood drains from my body. I follow Handsome again, but this time with trepidation. My appointment is a few hours later. Once outside in the sunshine and heat, I look for somewhere to sit down and simply breath. In the theatre district, this means a coffee shop. I grab a booth by a window, order a cup and light up a smoke (perfect dancer preparation) and continue my inner dialogue. Nobody I’d spoken to ever mentioned a dance audition. What’s that about? I can’t dance. Well what did you expect, asshole–it’s a musical–of course you’ve gotta’ dance.

Drinking my coffee I realize this time I’m on my own. There’s no friend to call for a two-hour crash course in Broadway hoofing. They are going to throw some complicated combination at us in two minutes and expect us to BobFossee our way through it. Of course I shall make a total fool of myself and be laughed off the stage in humiliation. I need another cigarette. So goes the next hour–berating myself, smoking a cigarette, worrying I’ll trip or worse fall on my face, literally, then smoking another cigarette until the pack is empty and it’s time to dance.

Back at the theatre I am now in a small dance studio. There are a couple dozen of us, male and female. Three of the guys amazingly resemble me in height, weight and ethnic look i.e. big-nosed ItaloGreekJew. A young woman, who I’ve not yet seen today, is in charge. She looks friendly enough, but we sense she’s out to get us all with some intricate choreography, designed to ruin our chances at getting a part. She splits us into two groups and begins teaching us the “simple combination”. Luckily I’m in the first group, so I’m able to watch her teach it twice. As she breaks it down, none of the steps looks too difficult so far.

Next we put it together and then she goes and adds arms/upper body stuff to the mix, and my palms and pits start to get sweaty. There are people already looking like dancers here, yet I am not one of them. A few of us are stumbling, asking for her help with certain steps. We drop back behind the second group, and I attempt rehearsing while at the same time watching her instructions again. Maybe I will get through this and come off looking half decent. Think Jingle Bell Rock, Matthew. We will have no music to move to, only her incessant counting in eights.

Within minutes we are broken down into groups of six. Three in front, three in back. Luckily I am tall enough to be in the back row. Maybe I can hide from obvious view. I’m not in the first group of six, so I have a chance to watch and walk through the combination yet again. It is very fast and over quickly. I can do this. Jingle Bell Rock.

My group is up. “And five…six…seven…eight” she calls and off we dance. Watching the feet of the woman in front of me, I hope I’ll be safe. Oh no, my arms are over my head when they should be crossed against my chest. Is it left foot stomp or right? I forget to swivel and turn and just stand there for several counts like a ninny. I get through it without falling on my ass, but not much more could be said about my performance than that. We drop back to make way for the next group.

Once the final six finishes, she tells us “Thank you for your time today. They will be making calls in the next few days. Good luck everybody.” I leave almost numb. Overall it was a good day. I sang really well. I did a good job with my scene. Mr. Yellow Legal Pad liked me a lot. The choreographer chick–not so much. But maybe the dance part didn’t count too much. I throw in this last part, hoping to take the sting away and make me feel better.

So I check in with my phone service every two hours for the next three days. By the weekend I am losing hope. By Sunday night at midnight, I pretty well figure it out. I will not be playing the role of Sonny in GREASE at The Royale Theatre on 45th Street, or in any of the national tours. But I will be able to say, I once sang Jingle Bell Rock–one hot August afternoon on Broadway–and totally wowed my audience.

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1500 Words on Friendship

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These are some words I delivered at a double memorial service for two exceptional friendships which began in my college days at Kent State in the late 1960s. Skip died this past March and almost a month to the day later, Madeline followed. Since their lives overlapped in so many ways, their memorials were celebrated together. I read the following:

I was going to see my first show in The Cellar Theatre my freshman year, Winter 1969, with a friend from my high school, also a new theatre major at Kent. It was a Tennessee Williams one-act called I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow. There were only two characters. This woman appeared onstage. She was amazing. I knew little about the tiny student theatre in the basement of the Music and Speech Building, but I certainly was not prepared for the performance I witnessed. It was like I was watching Colleen Dewhurst or Zoe Caldwell–or as I’d imagined it would be to see them perform live.

I stood in line to meet her in the hallway outside the theatre afterwards. She looked even more amazing offstage. And her name was Madeline DelCielo. Initially she did strike me as almost otherworldly “of the heavens”. It is as though in that first memory of her, the rest of us were being filmed in black and white, while Maddie was in Technicolor–luscious black hair tumbling all around her, china white skin and exotically dark eyes. She was nothing but warm and cordial, but she scared me to death. She was already a Kent legend.

Later that semester my same high school friend invited me to a rehearsal of Tea and Sympathy, once again in The Cellar. As I walked into the theatre, they hadn’t started yet, and this blondish All-American boy was carrying on–flirting and singing love songs a cappella to the woman who was directing the show. He was dishing it out and she was eating it up. My friend introduced us. Skippy Hendricks. He had a perfectly round face, chubby cheeks and big, big blue eyes. This kid Skippy was a charmer, it was obvious, trying to be clever and funny. Truth be told, he struck me as kind of corny, but a lot of fun.

Near the very end of the school year, I finally got my chance in The Cellar in a musical called The Sap of Life. Maddie came to several performances. Skippy to at least one. I might be imagining it, but I want to say we were all together for the very first time at a party after one of those performances. The first of a lifetime of parties we all celebrated together at Kent, in New York and years later in my home in Massachusetts. We didn’t need an occasion; just being together was most times cause for celebration.

Maddie began to invite me to her Kent apartment, first home to her famous salons. Before I met her, I’d never even heard of Colette. The apartment was tiny, dark, filled with tchatchke covering the walls, hanging from the ceiling and more owl statues than a person could imagine. She had this oversized sofa which took up the entire back half of the room. Curious how every one of Maddie’s sofas was half a foot longer than the space it required to fit in. We would talk about theatre, politics, Nixon, the occult, and of course love and sex. There could be five or six of us jammed into her salon, or I might be the only guest, but we went on into the early a.m.

I will never forget one particular late night with just the two of us, talking about this guy. All right…dishing this guy, and sitting back, she looked right into my eyes and told me Maddie-matter-of-factly “I think you’re gay and that you’re in love with him”. Silence descended the room. My heart stopped. Even I was amazed by her pronouncement. But she was so right–on both counts. Every bit as wise as one of her owls.

Skippy and I were drawn together by a production of The Boys in the Band. He did a two-hour makeup job on me every performance. It was that production which served as a catalyst for many of us gay theatre boys to finally come out. Skip and I jumped out of the closet and became fast friends nearly simultaneously. All the years I knew him, Skip never had just an idea, he had a project, and he dragged me into as many of them as I dared to involve myself in.

In 1972, everyone began leaving Kent State. By summer of that year, Maddie had moved to New York and in the fall so did Skip. I followed the very end of the year. There were already probably a dozen or more KSU theatre folks living in The City. I vowed to get settled on my own and make some New York friends before rejoining the safety of my Kent cronies. In spring, I bumped into a familiar face somewhere in the West Village. I’d just signed a lease on a one-bedroom on Sullivan Street–two blocks south of Houston. This friend informed me Maddie was living one block up from me on the same side of the street, and Skip just catty-corner on the opposite side of the same block. Seems fate refused to allow me to avoid these people–even in a city of eight million strangers.

Now our friendship took on a new dimension. We were neighbors, spending our grown-up lives just as we had in Kent, together most nights of the week. Maddie’s new salons on a new green velvet sofa were held on Sullivan Street. We protected each other from the big bad city. Grew to love the Village and make it our own. I would tell Skip the gritty details of my sexcapades as a single gay man; he was always partnered. And Maddie would be the one I would pour out my wounded heart to. They both became bizarre surrogates in my love life. Between the two of them, they had all the goods on me, and luckily I loved them both like crazy.

The end of that first year in Manhattan, we were all going home to Ohio for Christmas with our families. None of us had any money. That didn’t hinder Maddie, because she had her Macy’s charge. She spent the better part of December getting ready for the holidays, buying for family and friends back home. Since we would all be in Ohio on Christmas, she invited us to the apartment somewhere around the 20th for a Christmas get together.

Of course she’d been up the entire night before, decorating the studio apartment with tinsel, garland and stuff she’d schlepped from Kent. It was Christmasier than all of Macy’s windows put together. She’d bought us stockings with candies and trinkets. There were boxes wrapped for us, which she made sure we opened together–me, Skip and his first partner Nicky. They were pajamas, and Maddie insisted we put them on so she could see us wearing them. So there were the three of us boys, crammed into her teeny bathroom, bumping asses, giggling while we put them on for our fashion show. For decades after, Skip and I laughed about the night we showed off our PJs for Maddie.

And it was on that special Christmas evening that I realized I’d got what I’d always wanted. No, not matching pajamas, but a Big Sister. And in Skip, a brother like I’d always hoped one of mine might be. Maddie had magically turned us into a family, brought us together and kept us together–brothers and sisters. Both Maddie and Skip had lost their only siblings–sisters–at an early age. I think it became a special bond between the two of them. They understood the pain that came from losing and how amazingly special it was to find it again.

Almost more difficult than it was getting Benedito’s unfathomable news on the phone that Skip was gone, was calling Maddie a few days later to speak with her. We both found his sudden passing impossible to imagine. As I write this, I still can’t believe I’ll never be able to phone him again, or laugh with him about our private sillinesses that would mean nothing to anyone but the two of us.

On my last visit with Maddie, (less than one month later), it warmed me to see a wonderful picture of Skip at the foot of her bed, keeping vigil. The hospital bed was too big for Maddie and her apartment bedroom. She was surrounded by mementos, newspaper clippings and memorabilia of her long (but not long enough) life. That last visit we talked about our years together. We both agreed if we had to do it again, we’d neither of us change one thing–even the painful stuff. She was tired, so there were several minutes gaps between our conversation. Near the end, and I’m paraphrasing here, because it was a difficult afternoon for us both, she said: “I made my family and took them with me wherever I went.” Once again, wiser than the wisest of her owls, she was so very right. Just look where we are today. Together as family with Maddie and Skip, one last time.

Does Anybody ‘PINE’ Any More?

This seemed a fitting follow-up to Falling in Love.
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pine 2 |pīn|
verb [ no obj. ]
suffer a mental and physical decline, esp. because of a broken heart: she thinks I am pining away from love.
• (pine for) miss and long for the return of: I was pining for my boyfriend.

 

I’ll bet if you took a survey of incoming college freshman, maybe 25% or less would know that pine is also a verb–or anything other than a Christmas tree. This is one of those things that makes me feel freakishly dinosaurish, since in hindsight, I’ve spent so many precious months of my life pining away for someone or something. In fact, much of my memoir is an homage to that part of my life. I’m an incurable romantic; so shoot me.

My first severe case of pining was for a man I met on a visit to New York City, just before moving there. I was twenty-three and he was thirty-two. His name was Richard. He was a plainer version of the American-boy look, but so beautifully gentle inside he became gorgeous in my eyes. He was waiting for me the night my bus arrived in The City. I’ve written at length about him in some of my very earliest pieces. He was my would-be boy friend those first months living in the West Village. We finally consummated our relationship after much painful longing on my part—the only time we made love. Yet I will never forget him nor the rainy wintry afternoon it happened. It was absolutely mystical. Only days later Richard announced he could no longer continue seeing me. Confused and stunned, I asked him why. He admitted he was possibly bisexual, probably totally straight, and longed for children, a wife and normalcy. Of course I was crushed, and pined for weeks afterward, nursing a severely broken heart.

A second, more devastating instance was with Ron, in Atlanta. We worked together in a lovely restaurant for the half-year I lived in the Deep South, and we became the closest of friends. I possessed the patient ear which listened to his unhappy story. He was a man whose lover of over ten years had become a Born-Again Christian, swearing off his homosexuality. What was so gruesomely painful for Ron was that, of course, he continued to deeply love his partner. Frustrated, and searching for a way to maintain their relationship, my wounded friend began to depend on my counsel to give him direction. What was so agonizingly painful for me was that in the process, I had fallen hopelessly in love with the badly broken man.

And after months of tearful scenes, he gave up his impossible battle, told me I’d saved his life, and declared he too had fallen for me. I was returning to my beloved NYC with my beloved Ron to begin a life together. But then he panicked. I would end up leaving Atlanta alone. He vowed to follow soon after. A month later I continued to wait without him. I was shattered. It was over. This time my heart wasn’t broken. It was decimated. I was way beyond pining; I don’t know the word for what I did.

But this story is not about Richard or Ron. This story is about James, and his tale is unlike any others. I was taking a graduate seminar in comparative literature. At the time I was in my early forties.  After splitting with Alejandro, having shared nearly thirteen years together, I’d begun starting all over again. I attempted to not reinvent myself this time, but rather to rediscover the me I had lost while living my life for so long as the other half of a couple. Those days were tough and at the same time exciting. I was looking forward to this class. There were less than a dozen of us. I remember none of them except the professor and James.

You know how on the first night, you’re always a bit hesitant, concerned how you might come off to a group of new people? Not James. He made his entrance into the classroom just before we began, and had the professor not already been in his place, you would have thought young James was the man in charge. It wasn’t that he was cocky or presumptuous, he’d simply been gifted with super self-assurance and an amazing smile of near-perfect white teeth. I was buying whatever this man was selling. He took his seat in the first row, right next to the window.

James looked quietly handsome–a classically figured man. I’m guessing he was in his early twenties. He resembled a Tuscan Italian, black-haired and bearded with creamy light skin. His brown-black eyes somehow always managed to catch the light and sparkle like the rest of him. Those already midnight eyes were encircled with the longest black eyelashes imaginable. I watched them dance in profile from my desk. His nose was flawless, beautifully formed and in perfect proportion to the rest of his face. He wasn’t tall or short, and his physique thin, but at the same time tight and muscular with a gorgeous little ass. It seems obvious from my description so far that I found him deliciously attractive. Luckily the seat I’d chosen afforded me the luxury of sneaking glances at him, so neither he nor the others were aware I found James far more appealing than the lecture that night.

The two of us teamed up early and tended to dominate every evening’s dialogue. I realized James thought and felt things much like me. Often our exchanges were between only the two of us, rather than along with the rest of the class. He would look right into my eyes when he spoke, unusual for a typical straight man, no matter how sure he was of himself. Still I could not get a clear reading on my gaydar. James was sensitive, but probably straight, I told myself–just as well, with twenty-some years difference in our ages.

Not too many classes later he cleared it all up for me. We were analyzing one of the main characters of a story when someone referenced a Shakespearean sonnet. In a millisecond James was up on his feet and at the board, chalk in hand, giving a mini dissertation on the probability that the poem had been written to a male lover. I beamed at him, gay pride in my heart. As he walked back to his seat I watched every movement he made in slow motion, while the others in the room disappeared from my sight. So strong were my urges, it was all I could do to keep from planting a wet kiss on those tempting lips. What was going on with me and this boy?

Gathering my things to go that evening, I noticed he seemed to linger, as if he was giving me time so we could leave together. Or was this simply ‘Matthew wishful thinking’, I wondered? He began chatting as we left the building, continuing some unfinished point from the evening’s conversation.  I looked right back into those resonant eyes of his this time. My legs became rubber and I melted into a puddle, grinning all the way back to my car like a goofy teenager. From this night on, that is how we left every class–together as curious colleagues. We talked about favorite novels, movies and plays. We recommended videos to rent. Our relationship became a mind-meld, with my own personal version adding a sexual slant to the mix. There was this palpable energy being shared between us and James fulfilled something I’d forgotten I both needed and craved.

On one of those early walks after class he provided me with an important piece to the James puzzle. He confessed he was a Jesuit, studying for the priesthood. He hadn’t planned on making it general knowledge to the class. Suddenly his every mystery made perfect sense to me. Having always been bewildered by the idea of a religious vocation, I couldn’t help but question why such a perfect specimen would choose to give up the chance at a normal life.

Somewhere before the halfway mark in the semester, an epiphany of sorts took place during an extremely moving point in one of the books. It affected us all, but James would suffer an emotional catharsis. I’d begun reading a portion of the passage aloud and as I did, I looked on as his tears began. They came instantly to his eyes, quickly overtaking him to the point where I wanted to stop once his chest began to heave in his attempt to stifle his sadness. I continued the mournful passage until James became overwhelmed with sorrow. He’d turned away, looking out the window, composing himself. It was at that very instant I saw his tender heart totally exposed to me. It was like seeing a holy picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from my childhood prayer-book. I wanted to go to him. He got up and was out the door before I could move.

I allowed a few minutes breathing time between our departures from the classroom. James was coming out of the men’s room when I found him.

“Are you okay?”,  I questioned my swollen-eyed companion, carefully touching his shoulder to connect.

“Why did you have to read that?” he shot back, almost as a reprimand.

I said nothing more as the two of us walked back into the room. Who or what had hurt this beautiful man so very much, I asked myself as we took our seats for the second half of class. Suddenly it was perfectly clear–all I wanted to do was take him home to my bed and hold him through the darkness until morning. It was that moment when it all came together for me. I had fallen in love with James.

He never mentioned the episode on our walk together that night. As we said goodbye, he found his glorious smile again, which told me he was all right–or would be soon enough. I recall sitting in my car, taking time to process the emotions tumbling inside my gut. I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror, and ticked off my list out loud: “Matthew, he’s a kid. He’s dating Jesus. Where could these feelings possibly take you except to some painful spot in hell? You’re old enough to be his father. All James has to offer you is an amazing friendship–don’t be greedy. And buddy, you’re about twenty-five years too late.” But at forty-something, I’d never imagined I’d be given the chance to enjoy again what I felt when in the company of this remarkable guy.

So began an imaginary relationship which took place in my head–somewhere between my heart and our two minds. He had no idea I carried him with me that night and each night after class. I rushed home and climbed into bed, thinking once I got under the covers his essence would be trapped beneath my blankets. By dawn he’d have dissipated and it would take the next class to bring him back into my world. Some mornings, if my longings for James were strong enough, I could conjure him nude in my shower once the curtain was closed around me. Although I’d never enjoyed so much as a glimpse of his nakedness in the flesh, I’d made such a thorough study of him I knew every molecule of James.

When we’d meet in class and speak afterward, I’d feel twenty-something myself. I needed to win him over–make him see what a life together with me could be. Now I was seven years old and James the cool new kid in the neighborhood. I’d let him ride my two-wheeler or even use my good crayons–anything to make him adore me as much as I did him. And we did grow closer, and shared some personal bits from our pasts, revealing tiny glimpses of our guarded hearts. But I understood early on, my chances of any real relationship with my James were further away than even the twenty-something memory of me I was vainly hoping to revive.

Knowing all of this, I still couldn’t help but pine. I pined for James like I’d never pined before or since. I was a crazy man by day, distracted and scattered, and managed to pull myself together only those two evenings when I would be with him. Part of me knew the whole charade was as unhealthy as sin, but more of me was enjoying the high I got from my unrequited love affair. He fed my mind, my heart and my sex. I had no one to tell this to–that I felt comfortable sharing it with. James could be the only one to ever know, and I promised myself I had to do it before the class was over, for fear I might burst.

Our last class was meeting on a Saturday for several extra hours in order to present our final papers. I’d often dreamed of asking James to go out for a drink to relax, and enjoy one of our walking conversations sitting down. But I knew he needed to get back to the house. We arranged to have lunch together and chat on that last afternoon. I told him there was something personal I needed to share with him. I feared perhaps I’d appeared too obvious, and my affections were already showing. I rehearsed my scene a thousand times, because I needed to get it right–more for my sake than his.

He looked even more beautiful in the daylight than he had at night. Younger, prettier, sexier, sweeter. We drove to the restaurant in my car, and that’s where I told him my wonderfully awful truth. “Didn’t you know? Wasn’t it obvious?” I fired the questions rapidly before he’d even had time to react to my painful confession of love. It took him totally by surprise. He hadn’t an inkling that I loved him like crazy–literally.

“I just thought we’d made a real connection”, he answered simply–so sweet and innocent it made me love him even more. I shed some cleansing tears. I touched his hand, (his knee at one point) and his tender heart, I’m fairly certain. I thanked him for the precious gifts he gave unknowingly. I thanked him for listening to my confession.  He would make a wonderful priest. The sense of relief that came from telling James I’d fallen in love with him was uncanny. It didn’t diminish the love one bit; it clarified my place in the universe–if that makes any sense to anyone else. And I enjoyed the afternoon and our time together for the very special date that it was.

So here’s my take on unrequited love. It’s much akin to someone dying at an early age. JFK will always be that stunningly handsome forty-six year old god-man with his gorgeous thick mane of brown hair. Likewise, we’ll never have to witness a frighteningly face lifted, eighty-year-old Marilyn Monroe–she will always be a gorgeous blonde bomb shell. So James shall always remain a perfect lover to me. He was perfection, because I never got to know if he slurps his hot coffee, drools in his sleep, or cleans his ear with his pinky finger while he drives. All those terribly human things we learn as we live the day-to-day with the real-life loves of our lives. James will forever be super-human perfection incarnate.

There are those in this world who may think it foolish that anybody should pine for anyone or anything. That it is a waste of perfectly good emotions–something which taxes us and causes undue pain in an already painful world. These same people view unrequited love as an even greater waste. Why squander such a gift of caring and affection to fall fallow by the wayside? I’ve come to learn the heart has an unending capacity for love. My heart has room for Richard and Ron, Alejandro and James–still never jeopardizing David’s place or my family of friends who nestle deep inside.

 

 

Falling in Love

Two men holding hands Spring finally arrived in New England just midway into April. We’d begun to doubt we would ever feel the sun’s warmth again. It was a brutal winter that took hold in December and simply would not let go. I was beginning to blame the fact that I am in the autumn of my years, which made it so especially nasty. But that was the general consensus even among the young. We have enjoyed some glorious days lately, putting a lilt into our walk and a grin on the sourest of faces. Everyone is in a better mood. Science may try to tell us it is merely the effect of the vernal equinox and some nonsense about the tilt of the planet on its axis. We all know the reality is Proserpina or Persephone, (depending on whether you follow the Roman or Greek religions), has been released from her six months in Hades to bring life back to the Earth. Spring also is the season we connect with falling in love.

The times that I was fortunate enough to have it happen to me, (there were perhaps a half-dozen) it was never spring. It was autumn for Guy and Julio. It was summer for Alejandro and David. I can recall specific details of our meeting and those awkward beginnings that relationships sometimes initially suffer. For Guy, it was my first real kiss. He came at me in the darkness, unsuspected. His kiss was as innocent as a child’s, yet fevered with passion. It was running in a cold, late night rain up Hudson Street in the West Village holding Julio’s beautifully strong hand. Alejandro and I were introduced by friends, so our first weeks were a mutual game of hard-to-get. With David it was the heat of the beach, then the sound of water slapping under the dock during a bayside dinner by candlelight.

Once each relationship began forming, my memories become more vivid. I insisted on learning my new lover’s history; I still hold each of their precious stories inside. “Tell me what you like and what you would never tolerate from me. Tell me a beautiful secret from deep in your heart.” I see myself sitting next to Guy. He’s driving his MG with the top down, both of us stoned out of our gourds at 1:00 a.m. on our way to the truck stop for munchies. I can close my eyes and feel the heat of being in Julio’s bed. I still smell the chocolate-brown paint Alejandro and I slathered on the walls of our first apartment and all the food we cooked together in its tiny kitchen. I see David with an armload of shirts and pants on hangers, trying to cram them into the only closet in my bedroom.

Why can I not remember the sensation of falling in love? Way different than being in love. It is that which I long for, especially on those days when I am feeling older than I am comfortable being. These feelings are something I’ve attempted to include in many of my tales. Try as hard as I might, I failed each time to summon them from my mind’s heart. But then, I’d always searched for some tangible memory to hopefully trigger those emotions. Perhaps it wasn’t that simple.

Then amazingly, with the heralding of spring, came the solution to my quandary. Spring is also the season for the arrival of the muses, who–if you are fortunate enough–will sit on your shoulder and whisper into your ear all the answers you seek. Being a proud gay man, my muse is not one of those Grecian girls with curly tresses and diaphanous dresses you may have seen depicted on urns or murals. Mine is this man with dark hair and beautiful, warm eyes that make you melt when you look into them. He made me see it all without whispering one single word.

Falling in love is a condition, a state of being that is not limited to a moment or a time frame like a memory is. It is called falling in love, because it is a stream of emotions which continues to move us through our day-to-day, even when the object of our love is not with us. Especially when they are not with us. It is this condition which heightens our senses and delivers us to an altered state of joyous euphoria.

When you are falling in love, you begin to rediscover music. Suddenly every song you hear is somehow written just for you and your new-found love. Each one holds a line or a phrase you are certain could only relate to the two of you. A tune that once used to make you tap your foot or gently move your hips, now compels you to dance with abandon, alone in front of the mirror. Those songs which once touched your heart, now leave you weeping with joy. Or you yourself become this poet, leaving little notes in inconspicuous places that your love will find throughout the course of his day.

You are sitting at your desk at work and look up at the clock. Before the actual time registers in your brain, you wonder what he’s doing right now. Could it even be possible that he is thinking about me at this exact same moment? Or you are at home alone, doing whatever mundane thing you might do, when the phone rings. You jump to answer it before the first ring has finished, as your heart stops beating. It’s him telling you something silly, like there’s a program on TV you probably would enjoy. You speak for a few minutes, and as you hang up, you pray every moment you are not together, his every thought will always be of you. Of course today this part would all be different, I imagine. Those who are falling in love now must be texting or tweeting, checking their email quarter-hourly, waiting to hear that special ringtone that makes them feel warm inside. Still the basic premise remains the same.

But are these universal symptoms suffered by all who fall in love, I wonder? I certainly hope so. I’d like to believe I am normal in at least this one way, and that some things, like love, haven’t radically changed so much in our world of today. I am aware that it is not healthy to live a life steeped in memories of yesterday, like some Tennessee Williams emotionally wounded character. But oh! To be able to live in a constant state of falling in love. That–that would be my idea of heaven on earth.

Listen to Chasing Cars

 

Why We Don’t Go “to” Home

images

Currently I’m teaching a class of intermediate English as a Second Language students who were recently stymied, (as most non-native speakers usually are), by the phenomenon of the word home. We go to school. to work, to bed, yet we go home–never to home.  Furthermore we say our spouse is at work, at the movies or at home–or simply home–both of these are correct. They ask me why this is, yearning for a rule to make it seem logical, and therefore easier to remember (so they think). A few students glare at me, as though their problem with this unruly language is somehow my fault.

Our conversation the other evening segued into how to answer the question “where are you from?”. I explained it depends on the situation. When people detect an accent, they’re usually curious to learn your native country. But often times, I tell them, we can answer the same question in different ways. I gave them my own example. When I first moved to NYC, I would say I was from Cleveland. If I was traveling in Europe, my answer would be I was from the USA. If in Canada, I might say I was from New York.

Then one of my students innocently asked me an extremely loaded question. Which one of those places was my home? She said she was certain no matter how long she might live here, Albania would always be her home. I told her she was absolutely right. The young man in the seat next to her, a student from Ethiopia, looked at both of us and shook his head in confusion.

I’ve been frequently pondering the concept myself. Leaving my parents’ home for the first time to go to college, my freshman dorm was far from home-like. Being on my own was a dream I’d looked forward to since junior high days–finally escaping West Buttfok and my parents. Yet I realized on school breaks, holidays and the occasional weekend, the place I went back to was still home. Each succeeding year at Kent I lived in a different apartment. I tried to make them all as livable as possible, filling them with a mixture of things from my past as well as collecting new ones representing the me I’d hoped I was becoming. Those three places were only pied-à-terre during my days at Kent State, which had become an exciting and nourishing home away from home.

New York City, long before I’d ever visited it, was my dream home. As a kid falling in love with those black and white films of the 1930s and 40s, where so often The City played the main character, it had beckoned me: “come live with me and be my love”. When I finally made my move in 1972, it felt as though the sidewalks already knew the step of my feet. It’s hard to find the words today to explain the sense of belonging our symbiotic relationship had been from day one. For years I’d say I grew up in Ohio then grew up again in NYC. It allowed me to come out in real-time, unleashing the gay man Ohio had buried deep inside.

Sure, I suffered many dark days there, due to disappointments that came from my pursuit of a theatrical career which never was. Likewise in my search for a mate–the bits of my heart scattered along its pavement and lonely times I spent amidst its eight million inhabitants, still The City never abandoned me. Just the opposite–in those days it had a way of fortifying me. When it seemed I couldn’t bear living there another minute, I had only to pull up my bootstraps and go outside. I’d drink in the lights, the traffic, the dirt, the chic people/bag people, the noise of the subway, and smells from every direction. Smiling in relief, I knew I was home.

I left after thirteen years. I was neither abducted nor coerced. My partner Alejandro and I were ready to start a new life in New England. After losing an incredible job, it became difficult for me to find one that would pay what I’d grown accustomed to making. We could have stayed in NYC, but I felt ready to move on, before I began to hate The City I so loved. The first year we found ourselves just getting through a month or so in our new Massachusetts digs, then fleeing to The City for a long weekend to live life again with our friends in the world we’d left behind. We’d be re-energized enough to get through another month in Nowheresville, before repeating the process. Although it appeared to be the epitome of bucolic loveliness, it was difficult to call home, having experienced the very best of the best.

I finally surrendered to Massachusetts. It was the end of a twelve-year relationship with my partner which caused me to actively search for home again. I had been lost. Buying a house was only the initial step. Working on making the tiny bungalow my own, forced me to work on myself at the same time. It was a long, difficult process. Is it possible to create home, I wondered?

My Dad died around this same time. It happened quickly and took us all by surprise. A month later my sweet Gramma passed away. Cleveland suddenly became the place I went back to for funerals. In only a few years more the family house was sold. Although still on the map, Cleveland was piece by piece dissolving from my view. Once my mother was gone, any hope of hanging onto my Ohio roots had been severed. I recall the ride back to Massachusetts from her funeral, in the car driving out of downtown Cleveland. As we passed the old Stadium and Lake Erie, I bawled like a baby. Not for my dead mother, but selfishly only for me. I turned to David and between sobs said “Now Cleveland is just the place where I grew up”.

Something different happened to my NYC home. Now when I visit, it is not my New York–the one I left behind–it’s a new one. That’s the beauty of a vibrant world capital, I suppose. They’re ever-changing. While you live in a city, changes can come quietly, little by little and without fanfare. Sometimes they are subtle small things, like a bodega becoming a trendy eatery. It’s there one day, and the next time you round the same corner, it’s not there any longer. Sometimes you’re pissed, because you loved the old place. Other times you’re relieved because that block always needed a really great place for lunch. In contrast there are the huge projects which take forever and alter an entire neighborhood.

Each time I return, even knowing how the world works, I still expect to find the city as I left it. Like the Times Square area. While I still lived there, it was loaded with sleaze and porn–XXX cinemas, peep shows, sex shops, pimps and whores. At two a.m. any day of the week you could buy a foot-long dildo or a plastic blow-up doll–see any kind of porno movie or a live sex show featuring gorgeous young men performing simulated sex acts. What a fabulous place! Now you can buy over-priced boxes of Hershey Kisses, eat at your favorite chain restaurant or see the ferris wheel inside Toys-R-Us. Oh, and the subways and the sidewalks are cleaner. What a sadness. Even more tragic, it is no longer possible for a young artist to come here to live and struggle like so many did in my day and for decades before us.

Still, what was I to do about my being homeless? I’d never been enamored with the second-rate city where my little house is, but it was one of the few areas I could afford to buy in. Filling it with as many creature comforts as I could gather together, I made it a welcoming place. I entertained friends and colleagues, wining and dining my brains out. I got a rescue dog, traveled on weekends, and had a steady boyfriend. At the end of each workday, I told myself I was going home, and for all intents and purposes I was.

“Maybe when you get to be my age”, I told myself, “home doesn’t carry the same weight as it once did”. Now, twenty years later I know that was bullshit, because the last few years I’ve been having these amazing reoccurring dreams. In the first version I’m in a house which I’ve never seen in the real world. It’s supposedly my house, and while exploring it I discover a room I never knew existed. It’s absolutely filled with wonderful furniture and bric-a-brac. As I go through drawers, searching every corner, I’m thrilled with my discovery, and always wake up in a state of sheer elation. In the second dream I’m in NYC, which remarkably resembles a movie set, and not the real place at all. Either I have this wonderful job but no place to live, or a fabulous penthouse and no job to pay for it. In either case I can’t find David and am frantically searching for him, fearing for his safety. No, this home issue is hardly settled.

Obviously I have forgotten the lesson Dorothy Gale (aka Judy Garland) taught me so very many years ago. Not that “there’s no place like home” crap, but the true theme of the story. Home isn’t any place on a map. We carry it with us wherever we go. Home is a collage of countless faces whose images never completely fade from our mind’s view. It’s a secret collection of all those tiny pieces of our heart we thought had been broken away by hurt and by the people who’ve left us behind. Home is the comfort some find in a favorite movie or book–a song that makes us happy or melancholy–the aroma of an especially wonderful meal–a vacation spot where we can go and just relax, or simply our own incredibly welcoming bed. It’s that feeling that fills you with warmth and love when you hear the back door close and a familiar voice calls: “I’m home!”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

Scan10002Time:     Both Sides Now – Judy Collins

Place:    Kent, Ohio / Westerville, Ohio

There was this long, narrow diner-kinda place called the Dog House, which from day one became a hang-out of mine at Kent. It didn’t have the typical reek of a fast food restaurant because they didn’t serve fast food. I suppose they might have made burgers and other sandwiches, but I went there for the hot dogs–fifteen cents a piece. Since the dorm food was uneatably atrocious, I would frequent it after dinner several times a week, typically alone. I’d befriended two freshman from my dorm, both architecture majors, but they were paranoid about flunking out and continually up to their ears in assignments. They had no free time to play, so I found myself literally on my own.

The Dog House was a spot where I could feel comfortable alone. They had those small countertop jukeboxes strategically placed, and I would sit near one, sipping a jumbo coke and feeding dimes, playing sad songs to savor my loneliness. It was there I took the letter that had already been waiting for me in my mail box the Sunday afternoon I moved into my dorm. I’d read it over and over several times each night, until I knew it like a Shakespearean soliloquy:

Timmy,

I HATE this SHITTY SCHOOL already and it’s not even ONE WEEK! I can’t believe how much I miss you. Hell, I even miss my mother and she is calling me constantly almost every night after supper. My father’s gonna kill her when he sees that phone bill. Ha-ha!

I can’t even remember your voice anymore. At night I lay in my GODDAMN bunk bed in the dorm room and wish I had you here to talk to and convince me that going to this university was really a good idea. I should be there at Kent with you. What a blast we would have. Together we could take that campus by storm!!

My roommate is okay. His name is Rodney…can you believe that name, I know, right!?! But he’s nice and is easy to get along with….SO FAR. He’s from the eastside of Cleveland. He’s smart. He thinks he’s funny, but he really isn’t. Nobody I met so far makes me laugh like you. I haven’t smiled very much since I left home. How are you doing? You were lucky you had an extra week in Lynfield—even though I know you say you hate the F-ing town, I bet you are already missing it too by now.

I wish I was still there. I wish we had another year of high school and the chance to do more theatre. It’s almost impossible for freshman to get very involved down here in anything but classes. I wish you were here instead of there. I miss you SOOOO MUCH and don’t know if I can wait till Thanksgiving to see you and laugh with you again.

Write as soon as you get this and tell me about what’s going on in your life. If you go home some weekend, call me in my dorm room. I’m dying to just talk to someone who knows me like you do. You are THE BEST.

Love,

Sammy

I’d put off answering his letter for too long. It was written so honestly, there were no lines to read between. He was a guy who couldn’t possibly hide any emotions. There was his heart–on his sleeve–as plain as the huge nose on his face. How I longed to see that face again. If only I could pick up a phone and we could talk for a few hours, these horrendous longings would pass and I’d be fine–I was certain. But our dorm phones could only make local or collect calls home. And there weren’t enough quarters between us to shovel into any pay phone to fund the call we so desperately needed to make.

Someone else began playing my favorite song on the jukebox.  I took it as the sign I’d been waiting for. With purple felt tip in hand, I answered him, right there in The Dog House:

Best Friend Sammy,

Thank you for your wonderful letter that was waiting for me when I got here. I hate my roommate. He is a pig–literally. He only takes a shower on Saturdays. Our shitty little room smells like him, or he smells like the room. Either way it’s disgustingly odorous. Plus he is a jerk. NO ONE in the dorm can stand him. He’s a junior. Can’t believe he hasn’t flunked out long ago. Enough about him.

Sorry you are so down. It’s called homesickness. Yes, I admit I have it too. But I miss my room. Not my family or our malignant hometown, just my own bedroom. I wish I could have brought it here to Kent. I actually enjoy the town. It’s quite beautiful (in parts). The neighborhoods have some pretty old houses and lots of trees. I walk around after my 4:15 class, M-W-F, exploring a new street every day. I think about how great it would be to find a place to rent together next year, if things don’t work out for you there. 

They have this ‘rider’s board’ in the Student Union that I’ve been checking, to see if anyone is going down to Otterbein looking to share a ride. Maybe I’ll just hitchhike. I’ve always longed for adventure and I don’t need to ask anyone’s permission anymore. I’ll call you next Friday at eight p.m. so be in your room. I don’t want to spend my quarters talking to some cornball roommate named Rodney. I’ll have figured out a plan by then. Thanksgiving is too far away when we have so much to talk about.

Miss you,

Timmy

I found a guy who’d be driving within about fifty miles north of Otterbein the Friday afternoon of mid-terms’ week. He guessed I could hitch the remainder in probably three rides. In the process I’d made contact with a girl who was also going there to visit her boyfriend. He could drive us back to Kent on Sunday night. So we joined forces to share the journey. Hitchhiking with a nice-looking college coed would make it easier to get a ride. All I could think about was seeing Sammy again. Each succeeding week moved more painfully slower, while my desire to be together grew stronger.

After our second ride dropped us off, we found ourselves in a godforsaken rural area in the pitch dark, walking for nearly an hour in a driving, frigid October downpour. We were picked up by a quasi-toothless man in a small truck with a rifle on display. I was certain he would surely rape my pretty companion, then blow my brains out with his gun–me being the only witness to his crime. But we were totally drenched, chilled to the boned and needed to get out of the rain. He turned out to be quite a harmless guy, worried that our parents were careless for allowing us to hitchhike in the first place. Driving miles out of his way, he deposited us at the door of the campus library, where we called the dorm rooms of the men we’d struggled for nearly six hours to visit.

The sight of Sammy again, after two months apart, was nothing short of wondrous. I still question how I might have reacted had my traveling companion not been standing right next to me. Sammy never looked more handsome and I’d never felt as complete. His smile was so big, it looked like it must have hurt to maintain it. Once we were outside and walking towards his dorm, he draped an arm around my shoulder, pulling me gingerly towards him. Even though I’d just arrived and had never seen this town before, instantly I was home.

His dorm was relatively quiet. On a Friday night around nine o’clock, if you weren’t on a date you were out seeing a movie or eating pizza, just like at Kent. Roommate Rodney had gone home for the weekend and thoughtfully left his cafeteria pass behind, so my meals would be taken care of. Sammy introduced me to absolutely anyone he could find as “my best friend in the universe”. The exaggeration and showiness which once had made me cringe when around him, now made me amazingly content. God! I didn’t know it was possible to feel so a part of someone and still look for something more.

As safe as I felt in his tiny room, there was a layer of apprehension which hung overhead, somewhere just above the thick cloud of cigarette smoke we’d produced after three hours of catching up. We took turns monopolizing the conversation, cramming experiences, new people and ideas all together in a huge mish-mash of thoughts. What would happen once we’d run out of things? Would we move on to dream our dreams of the future, or had they stayed in the ether of my bedroom in Lynfield?

We got ready for bed before midnight. Sammy slept on the top bunk. It was late and I was exhausted from my odyssey, but I knew I would never fall asleep. My head was still racing and my heart pounding in anticipation. The room was totally black. We were silent for several minutes. Even though I couldn’t see him from my bed below, I knew he was awake like me. Finally his voice broke the silence in a hoarse whisper.

“The first two weeks here, I missed you so much I started to get sick. I was scared that I might be losing it.”

“I know”, I whispered back. “I was so lonely I’d start crying, in the middle of the day, for no reason at all.”

“Really?” I felt him sit up quickly overhead.

After a pause lasting only seconds, but which felt like an eternity I answered, “Yes. And if you don’t come down here in my bed this minute, I think I’m gonna’ die.”

He was next to me in an instant. We nearly filled the compartment of the lower bunk. Both of us slept in white briefs and tee shirts, and our hands began a careful study of the bare arms and legs entangled about us. All the many times we’d shared the night together these last few years, we’d been careful to never touch. Tonight would make up for all that. His strong swimmers’ legs were covered in coarse short hair, and just brushing my thigh against his was electric.

Tee shirts were lifted, and pulled over heads, exposing lean, undeveloped chests. We sat face to face Indian style. Our eyes now accustomed to the dark room, I could see his smile as I reached to touch that magnificent nose, then gently brush his cheek. He leaned in close and went to kiss me. I diverted my face quickly, offering my neck instead which he caressed with his mouth, working his way up to my ear. The touch of his wet lips sent me spinning. I pulled him to me so we were pressed together chest on chest.

Briefs disappeared minutes later, and again our hands took over, exploring one another with a mixture of boyish curiosity and passionate gusto. In unison our heads disappeared into the private darkness of one another. With no practice, or knowing any of the steps, we danced the Dance of Eros well into the night.

Once we’d satisfied ourselves to contentment, he curled up next to me, nestled himself under my arm, making his clumsy frame feel small and compact–as though I were protecting him from the world.

“Why didn’t you let me kiss you?”, he asked as though afraid of my answer.

“You caught me by surprise……just wasn’t ready for it. You understand, don’t you?”

“Uh…sure”, he said. But I knew he hadn’t. How could he? I didn’t know myself.

Then we talked until the sun came up, about somehow getting through the next four years–graduation–where our apartment would be in New York City. We fell asleep snuggled in each others arms, just like we would every school vacation and the summers in between.

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