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

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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.

Dead Man’s Float——-NOT

YMCAPOOLSoon after my thirty-second birthday, I felt it was time I learned to swim. I swear, I possessed no aquatic abilities whatsoever. I couldn’t even float. People at the beach might comment, “but you know the dog-paddle, right?” or “you can tread water, of course”, and I’d answer “No”. When it came to fear of water, I also had absolutely none.

While single, I loved to romp in the ocean at Jones or Riis Beach, wading out until the water came just over my shoulders–till only my scrawny neck and head were above the surface. One time I was horsing around in the waves with a group of hot looking men, and this one guy swam beneath my legs and dolphin style, started carrying me out further. He stopped only after I grabbed onto a huge handful of his hair for dear life, shoving his head deep into the water, nearly drowning the both of us. Bobbing up to the surface, as I went down for my second or third time he shouted “Why the f—- did you do that?” and I gulped/gasped/burped back: “Can’t. Swim”. He dragged me, swimming to shore to rescue me. Great way to meet a boy, huh?

At the time of my decision to become amphibious, I was partnered with Alejandro, living in NYC.  We visited his family in the Caribbean a lot. If we weren’t at the beach, then we were around a swimming pool somewhere. One certainly might find it difficult avoiding water when both living and playing on islands. Our friend Giuseppe had just completed an adult swim course at a local YMCA with great results, so it only seemed right that I enroll in that same learn to swim program.

It was a very small class for such a very big pool. There weren’t a dozen of us. I don’t remember anybody’s name. Those poolmates still lodged in my memory bank are the scared little lady, the woman in the black one-piece with huge pink polka dots, and the older guy with the gold Italian twisted-horn charm dangling from a thick chain, most of which was buried in a pelt of silver chest hair.  This sweet man was the only male in class who’d speak to me. In my skimpy navy blue Speedo with the white stripes at each narrow hip, seems it was obvious I was the only gay one in our group. The two or three other dudes in their ballooning, over-sized K-Mart specials never came anywhere near. They obviously feared that by sharing the same pool water, no amount of chlorine could safeguard them from becoming fags themselves.

Our instructor was this guy probably not yet thirty, with a name like Chris or Sandy. He was average height with dark brown hair, and stocky–just bordering on chubby. He was attractive enough to get my interest, but not so much as to be a distraction. More importantly Chris was an incredible teacher. You’d have to be to take on the issues that come with people well over thirty who still can’t swim. We spent the first class sitting on the green tiled floor surrounding the pool talking. Each of us spoke about (1) why we’d never learned to swim before and (2) what brought us, at this point in life, to finally learn. Once we’d finished our confessions he got us to sit on the edge of the pool kicking our feet in the water. Before class was over we’d all entered the pool standing together in the low-end. All of us except the scared little lady.

She wasn’t scared of the water–the poor woman was terrorized by it. She’d avoided it for so long she had demonized it. Scared Lady and her husband had been going to Boca Raton for several weeks every winter for many years. They were retiring and they’d bought a condo down there. She explained how much of people’s social life in Florida centered around the pool, and she felt compelled to swim to not feel so out-of-it in their new home. The zaftig woman in the black one piece with pink polka dots had a similar spiel. My aging Guido friend would horse around at the beach, but like me, never learned even the basics. Sandy assured us, we would all leave the class with our fears conquered and at least some basic water survival skills.

The next class we learned dead man’s float and the back float.  Even though water didn’t frighten me, the name dead man’s float was not particularly appealing enough to hold my interest, but the back float amazed me. Our chunky little instructor supported me as I leaned into his fuzzy chest the first few times. The sensation of lying back into the water and bobbing up like a buoy was so freeing–the warm pool water relaxingly womb-like.

Chris added some breathing and kicking exercises and in the following classes we advanced to practicing strokes in place. I was having a great time in the class–proud for each of my mini-milestones. We all celebrated every accomplishment of our classmates, and broke out into spontaneous applause when finally Scared Lady joined us in the water. She became partnered with Pink Polka Dots. Guido and I had been paired from day one. We both were thriving like fish, and Sandy used us as models to demonstrate.

He was teaching us to swim Free Style and believe me, most of us were perfecting the free part much more than the style part. We were all over the place, though everybody seemed able to move forward with our heads above the water. Chris continued to remind us to “breathe”, or “keep kicking”, or “bring those arms up”. Never having been the most coordinated person on land, it was an awful lot to remember while at the same time being immersed in water. Progress was being made and we all managed to swim across the pool to the deep end a few times before the last class.

That final class brought a challenge. Sandy asked us to swim the length of the pool from shallow end to deep, then across the width and back to the shallow end again. We could stop and rest at each corner for as long as we needed to. There was no time element involved in the task. He hoped we’d all at least try to see how far we could get. Chris assured us it wasn’t a requirement, just a personal goal to work towards. Plus there was no ribbon ceremony at the end to make anyone feel like a loser if he or she didn’t or couldn’t finish.

Even the order in which we would swim was on a volunteer basis. I distinctly remember Pink Polka Dots going first, because she was really driven and swam well for a big, bulky gal. Guido had gone before me too. Once a swimmer made it across the deep end, and was heading into the home stretch, the next person started. An excitement began to build with each new contestant and we got into cheering one another on.

By the time I hit the water, everyone had worked themselves into quite a state of enthusiasm. I think even the dudes in the K-Mart specials had come around to root for me. I remember wishing somebody had a camera, cause I knew I looked just like Mark Spitz, only without all the medals around my neck. I kicked like crazy, my arms were near perfect and I made it to the deep end in a flash. I lifted myself up with my elbows at the first corner and watched the person ahead of me finish, while breathing several times before making my short, but very deep crossing. I wasn’t going to let the thought of all that water beneath me freak me out; I knew it could if I wasn’t careful.

In no time I made it across, since it was maybe only half the distance. I realized when concentrating on swimming, it really made no difference how deep the water was, and proudly I rested again anticipating the final leg of my swim. I don’t know whether it was cockiness on my part because I’d been doing so well, or just being an airhead, (as I so often was when it came to physical challenges), but I did a superbly dumb thing. Before commencing the last lap, I took in a wonderfully huge breath. As I started in to swim, I executed an equally huge exhale just as I hit the surface of the water. The next thing I knew, I was standing at the bottom of the pool, looking up at about five or six feet of water over my head.

I remember silence coming towards me in slow motion waves. I began thinking, okay Matthew, don’t panic. You need to float. You know how to do that. I stood there on the floor of the pool, waiting to miraculously ascend to the surface–like I could simply think myself up to the top where the air was. Nothing was happening. Suddenly I realize the only way I know how to float first requires two lungs-full of air. And even with that air, I likewise need to be ON the water and I was now definitely totally UNDER it and oxygen-less.

Here then is my inner dialogue, standing motionless on the floor of the pool, as one might do at the corner while waiting for a bus:

“So I’m not going to float because I have no air. He never taught us what to do in this sort of situation. If he did, I must not have been paying attention. I can’t believe this is the way I’m going to die. Alone. In twelve feet of chlorinated water that’s quietly gurgling in my ears. If I look up, can I see anything? I hear muffled, echo-y voices. Pink Polka Dots is at the pool’s edge. She’s yelling something. Probably cheering on the person who went right after me. Oh God…are her huge thighs the last thing I’m going to see? I suddenly feel very weak. I can’t believe I’m not panicking. Is this what it’s like to die? Silently just waiting for my life to end? I try closing my eyes to see if that makes things any better. No tunnel of light to enter. I open them again. No life flashing before my eyes either… just those thunder thighs and big pink polka dots.”

There is an explosive splash behind me, stirring the waters nearby. I don’t turn round to look because I’m so dizzy I’m afraid I might keel over and I don’t want to risk drowning while flat on my back. There is a porpoise-like creature at my feet who’s grabbed me and is moving me up to the surface. Finally going up! I feel his hairy chest against my naked back. It’s Chris saving me I realize, as I gulp my first breath and he swims to the pool’s edge with me in tow. Pink Polka Dots pulls me up by my shoulders and onto the green tiled floor. I want to kiss those cellulite thighs of hers, that’s how happy I am to be out of the abyss. The class surrounds me in seconds, shouting, firing questions from every direction. Giddy from no oxygen and with being alive again, I sit up and grab onto my fuzzy life saver’s arms, shaking them both, repeating “thank you so much” ad nauseum.

“You were just standing there when I dove into the water”, Sandy said quietly, as if the others hovering around me couldn’t hear. “What were you doing?”

“Waiting to die”, I answered matter-of-factly.

“But why didn’t you kick…or fight…try to get up to the top somehow?”

I just shrugged my shoulders. “Didn’t think I had any options.” And I really didn’t.

Our teacher was really shaken–maybe even more than me. It took a few minutes before he could break the trance that had fallen over the entire class. “Who’s up next” he asked as he clapped his hands like the cheerleader coach he usually was, yet it was obvious he was still preoccupied.

His question haunted me all the way home on the subway ride and for days after. Me–the life-grabbing enthusiast, hungry optimist, connoisseur who believed in the life is a banquet theory had totally caved. I’d begun the class with absolutely no fear of water. I graduated down on the bottom of the pool floor–never again comfortable in or near water.

My Friend Skip

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I am pissed at the Universe! It’s like I’m three or four years old again, having a fit because I cannot get my way–still–at sixty-four. Throwing myself on the floor, kicking and screaming, or holding my breath till my face starts to turn blue never worked then, but I am considering, perhaps, with the advanced years, it might work this time. Last week, a dearest friend of mine since Kent State college days died suddenly. This is only one day after dozens of us wrote on his Facebook wall our special wishes for his 65th birthday. I rage inside, because none of us were ready to let him go. Worst of all, knowing him as well as I do, he has to be angrier than all of us put together. Skip had an especially acute love of this world and the wonderment he found in it every day. How can he no longer be living in it? And-it-makes-me-so-mad!

To clear things up from the start, his name is Skip only here on my blog. Most of my friends I’ve chosen to rename for their privacy and so that I can be brutally honest without fear of reprisal. When I christened him in the first post, he sent me a brief email followed up swiftly with a phone call, giggling hysterically over his pseudonym. What had caused me to choose that particular name, he wanted to know? I explained that growing up in the very ethnic Cleveland suburb that I did, it was not until college that I’d met any Wasps, and he happened to be the first I got to know and befriend. Skip just sounds so very whitebread. He was enthralled with his new name.

We met in the theatre department my sophomore year. We both lived off-campus in a brand new apartment complex. I worked costumes on a student musical production he was in. We didn’t have much interaction, but hung out with some of the same people. Gaydar told me who he was/what he was about and vice-versa. But not many people recognized, nor did anyone talk about that out in the open quite yet. Both of us moved to different apartments the following year.

The Boys in the Band happened my junior year. Miraculously, all at once, everyone sprang from their closets. My role in the play called for the character to have extremely bad, pock-marked skin. Skip did my make-up, developing an incredible method using mortician’s wax that looked frighteningly real. It also required over two hours of work before every performance. We got to know one another after spending so many hours so close together. His boyfriend and my boyfriend were in the play as well. A friendship formed, grew and blossomed. We were like first cousins.

The last year there at KSU we acted together for the first and only time. He had the lead, and we had a huge scene together. By this point we’d become family. But rather than brothers, we were more like Lucy and Ethel. This remained the basis for our friendship. It depended on the circumstances, which one of us was Lucy in a predicament, and which of us played Ethel the one who’d get us out of it. Skip moved to NYC in fall of 1972 and I followed that same winter.

When I got to The City, I was making a conscious effort to start off on the right foot in my new home. Aside from Skip and his boyfriend from Kent, there were about a dozen and a half KSU theatre people who’d moved to the city within a two-year period. I wanted to meet some new friends while starting life as a New Yorker, so I avoided most of them for a while. I learned many of my Ohio friends were scattered throughout the Village. Besides, Skip had landed a dinner theatre job his first weeks in NYC and was gone for many months. That following spring I moved into an apartment on Sullivan Street in Soho, not knowing Skip lived one block north on the opposite side of the street. Guess you sometimes can’t fight fate. Once he got back to town, Lucy and Ethel were back in business. Boy, were they.

During those early New York years, most of us struggled to make a living. We couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway show or meals out in nice restaurants, but we took full advantage of living in the big city. We drank in the excitement of Manhattan, riding the subway and buses in the daytime, going to midtown office buildings to do temp work or some crappy job. We’d celebrate together every audition we went to, and share each other’s heartache at not being cast. At night we’d walk through the West Village, memorizing the sidewalks on our way. Our little family would dine in all-night Greek coffee shops, and every so often enjoy a beer together. We always ended up in one of our apartments, talking and laughing into the late, late night. Who needed Carson? We had each other. Skip’s can-do attitude was infectious those times when I’d get to feeling down.

Skip figured prominently in my posting Aunt Charlotte, In the Back Bedroom, With the Pink Light Bulb. It was the pinnacle of our friendship in The City, while we both were riding the crest of our youth. I shared an apartment with Skip and his new boyfriend. There we graduated from being wide-eyed newbies to gay men comfortably at home in our own skins. We were never closer. From that address I moved to an apartment on my own. Soon, however, Lucy and Ethel would find themselves in a predicament that neither could bail their friendship out of.

Shortly after I was settled in my new place, Skip’s relationship hit a rough patch. I realized I’d never known the man when he wasn’t coupled with someone. A trust issue came up between the two of us, testing our own relationship. It was a truly complicated, truly baroque sort of thing which merits no more explanation here. But suffice it to say, it hurt badly and I saw no way to fix it. Skip and I did not speak for probably three years, even though we saw one another frequently at parties and get togethers all over The City.

It wasn’t until we both found our first real partners, and finally grew up a little more, that without reason or fanfare, we began speaking again. It took maturity, and loosing our first friends to AIDS to realize what matters in life, I suppose. We rejoined forces with significant others in tow, and our renewed friendship continued on–a little differently, but strong and loving as always.

My partner Alejandro and I moved to the big house in Towncommons, Massachusetts a few years after.  Skip and Benedito were always welcomed guests there. Many the long weekend we passed, cooking together, enjoying each other’s company, laughing about the old times–then only twenty years earlier. Skip would fill me in on the KSU folk back in The City, catching up on all the gossip. Often we were bitchy, in a fun-catty way; other times we were just plain nasty. Either way, we roared with laughter, amused at our droll brand of humor. Whenever I would visit NYC we’d get together there to play as well. Looking back, I wonder how much time we clocked together, making each other laugh.

When my relationship with Alejandro ended, as some weird sort of defense mechanism I still question more than twenty years later, I drifted far from my beloved city and most of my family of friends there. Something to do with my constant quest to reinvent myself, I think. For a huge chunk of time I communicated with very few of them. Only a Facebook-inspired reunion, nearly a decade ago, brought those people back into my life. At that reception, (unbeknownst to the photographer), someone captured a photo of the first face-to-face Skip and I had after all those years. At first I hated myself in that picture. Suddenly it has become a treasure. Again, the past having a way of repeating itself, Lucy and this time Viv came back together, because now Skip and I were silver-haired men of a certain age.

As I write this, I have to continually go back to change some tenses from present to past, making this even more difficult to get down.

When David and I visited Manhattan, we’d meet up with Skip and Benedito for lunch or just a quiet catch up visit. There have been other celebrations since the reunion, and we carried on much the same as our days at Kent. Initially there is the momentary shock when confronted with a lined face, wrinkled neck or spotted hand–not the person from nineteen-seventy-something that lives in our memory. But after only a few smiles and a good laugh or two, all of that fades into the present. Mellowing, I believe it’s called.

It has taken all of us time to put ourselves in the proper perspective, yet we each have come to terms in our own particular ways with the realization that our youth is gone. Those ‘crazy college kids’ most of us struggled to keep alive through the better part of our forties, live only in our hearts.  A bit of the essence lingers about us when we are back together. That is what makes me so very angry today. We’ve been robbed of Skip. How do we continue to play the game when left with such a gaping hole?

Who wants to live to be one hundred? Certainly no one I know. But selfishly I’d hoped to be able to sit side by side, approaching eighty (only fifteen years from now) with Skip and the rest of our family. Maybe we’d struggle to remember each other’s names, but at least one of us would still be able to retell for the umpteenth time, some silly theatre story of fifty years before. We’d survived so much. What could a dozen or so more years with Skip have meant in the space-time continuum?

And of course there is the most obvious reason for all my wrath–an extremely selfish one. That is my own mortality–something we tell ourselves we are okay with. Everything has its season. Nobody lives forever. Everybody dies eventually. Shocks like this sudden loss of my friend Skip, bring the messenger so close to my door that it makes me uncomfortable.

Post Script: The weekend before he fell ill, Skip left a very brief and cryptic message on my Facebook wall. It prompted me to immediately make one of our infamously long phone calls we’d come to enjoy over the past few years. We caught up on our holidays, and what we were up to. We discussed a visit to the city I’d been planning, hoping for a break in the nasty winter weather we’d suffered most of January. And as always, our conversation led us back to Kent State and the play we acted in together. We laughed so hard, and so much at one point, it was as though it had happened just the day before and this was the first chance we’d had to talk about it.

Skip was an avid follower of the blog from its very beginning. He brought up an earlier posting which we hadn’t discussed before. Something in it caused him to revisit that first break in our friendship, and he began apologizing all over again. I laughed and told him “Uh, I think we covered this already, like…in 1977???”. Still he insisted on apologizing once more, saying how badly he felt.  At the time I thought it was almost silly. Now I find it eerily curious. Oh Skip, the world has lost a bit of its shine for me. Miss you, Ethel,

Love,

Lucy

Rent Boy Bobby

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In all my years of trashing around, at least I can truthfully admit that never once did I pay for sex, except with a few broken or severely bruised hearts. In hindsight, there were times I wish I’d charged myself, to compensate for the gratification that occasionally might not have been returned. Still I am in awe of the world’s oldest profession. The business is a curiosity to me, even though briefly and quite innocently several decades ago, I got a good look at the underbelly of the trade.

On a nasty, wet night in late fall of 1975, I met this guy Julio at a bar in the Village interestingly enough called Julius’. After buying a beer, I headed toward the barrel that served as a table near the back door. It was my favorite spot. The place was wall-to-wall men, probably owing to the wind-driven rain. Right where I usually stood was this guy. Not tall/not short, in a plaid flannel shirt, moustached and wavy brown-haired, he wasn’t beautiful by any means. I’d put him somewhere between sexy and hot. With huge, almost black eyes and rough skin, he looked like trouble and therefore, exactly my kind of man. We played a game of gay boy peekaboo for several minutes until I won, and forced him to crack a wonderful get-over-here smile.

Julio was Cuban-American, a wanna be actor like me, a criminally flirtatious tease and one of the most passionate men I’ve ever had the pleasure to share a mattress with. We carried on later that night and for probably the next four months. He was a major boyfriend in my life and he shattered–not broke–my heart. However Julio is not the one this story is about. He had this friend named Bobby.

Julio had tons of friends it seemed; he knew somebody everywhere we went. He lived to network 24/7. When I first arrived in NYC, I had this really bad acting teacher who taught me nothing except one thing, and that was on the first day. He said “You kids come here from all over the country with the same dreams about show business. Forget about the show part and concentrate on the business part.” Julio understood this and practiced it better than anyone else. So all the people he introduced me to every place we went, he’d introduce as his friend _____. None of these people were anything like my circle of friends. Bobby, it turned out, was the exception.

There was this restaurant right off Lincoln Center, always mobbed by theatre folk, and Julio worked there weekends. He told me “Any queen with a cute face can get a job waiting tables. This queen is gonna’ work in a place where at least I can make some connections.” Often I would meet him there before closing and we’d head back to his place for the night. One of those times, only weeks into our relationship, he was talking to this guy at the bar when I came in. At first I was pissed, because he was being terribly chummy and I was a jealous little bastard. Julio was unfazed and eager to introduce me to “my friend Bobby, just back from Tucson”. Something about Bobby’s face, so genuine and peaceful, calmed me at once. Plus Julio was obviously excited about me meeting this guy; perhaps he could be his friend.

A few days later, over a meal at my place, Julio relayed that I’d made an impression on Bobby and he was interested in ‘playing’ with us. At first, boneheaded me thought he must mean ‘hang out’ together. Then he tagged on “if you’d be interested in something like that.” Instantly I was certain I’d just been invited to participate in a menage a trois. Back in college, I’d experienced a few group-gropes with naked acquaintances while in a stoned stupor. Julio’s proposition had a certain ring of worldly sophistication, appealing to my curiosity, yet at the same time it put a sleazy face on a relationship which already meant a lot to me. It wasn’t easy to respond. He said we didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. I ended up telling him “Surprise me.”

Bobby and Julio appeared at my door the following weekend. My disappointment wasn’t in the sex; there was just nothing sophisticated about it. As a critic I might say everyone’s performance that evening was superb, and a great time was had by all. As for me it was just too much and too confusing. One-on-one sex could oftentimes, in those early days, be complicated for me. Our tryst had been simply an embarrassment of riches.

While we shared a post-coital joint, I was able to finally talk with Bobby. All I really knew about him was that he’d just come back from Tucson. He smirked, telling me he sometimes traveled for his job. He had a ‘client’ out there. His answers to my questions were coy and cautious. It was clear he didn’t want to say too much. It was also clear that Julio understood the reason for his smug behavior. I knew I could wait and get the full scoop later, but I was stoned enough and still savoring the buzz from our intimacy.

Point blank I quizzed, “So Bobby, what do you do for a living?”

“I jerk people off. Well, not literally…” Bobby took a toke and burst into a wasted laugh, quickly adding, “but sometimes I do…literally”, then Julio joined in. Now I was the only one not in on the joke. “Sweetie, I’m an escort—a hustler”, he squeezed my arm gently, as if to ease the blow. “I take advantage of horny men.”

Stoned, still processing our evening’s entertainment, I must have looked a fool. I felt like a total ass wipe. We dressed and went out for a drink in the Village, pretending like the sex never happened. And in an hour I was fine, getting all warm and snuggly with Julio, as if the start of our evening had been simply taking in a movie. When Bobby left us at the club, he whispered “we’ll talk”, as he pecked me on the cheek.

He phoned the next afternoon, wanting to know how I was doing. “You’ve really fallen for that crazy Cuban.” He claimed it was obvious from our encounter the night before. He asked if it would be okay to drop over later. He’d bring a bottle of wine. I’d no idea why he wanted to visit, but he certainly couldn’t shock me any more. I think I cooked a pot of soup, or some other comfort food.

When I opened the door, I looked at Bobby–really looked at him. He was at least six-foot, lanky but not thin, sandy-haired, light brown eyes and plainly handsome. If casting the film, he would be a twenty-five year old Anthony Perkins. When he grinned, you just wanted to get him home and take care of him, which is why he was so suited to his career. The kid had everything working for him.

He explained he’d met my Cubano Romeo while staying with a casting director Julio was trying to woo. They’d gone to lunch and clicked as friends. I had millions of questions that needed answers, because the thought of getting paid for sex boggled my mind. And someone so pleasant, so amiable didn’t fit into my image of ripped jeans and shirtless street hustler. He was too sweet. Bobby gave me the answer to every question I asked.

“How can you have sex with someone you’re not attracted to?”

Bobby was young enough to still be selective in choosing clients. Besides, they were mostly wealthy, extremely discreet men who not only compensated him very well, but provided a wonderful place to live temporarily while they wined and dined him. He was not turning tricks in Times Square hotels for twenty-five dollars a pop. He had many businessmen who passed through The City several times a year. Mr. Tucson was one of those.

“Have you ever fallen in love with any of them?”

Bobby just laughed quietly at me. “Oh sweetie, you are way too much! Love’s got nothing to do with it.”

“But haven’t any of them fallen in love with you?”

He assured me that most of them had, which is what kept them calling back. He had enough commitments to very comfortably get him through the next few months. Bobby had a rat hole of an apartment (he allowed no one to ever see), because he was rarely there. He didn’t even have a telephone. He used a phone service and checked in frequently from pay phones on the street. He’d given me his card that first night we met at the restaurant–on it was only his first name and the phone service number. I thought it was odd at the time. Mysterious. But now it was obvious he was the most regular guy in the world.

“Do you ever feel trashy selling yourself for money?”

It wasn’t himself he was selling, he corrected me. It was sex, which 99% of people gave away for free. Did I feel trashy getting a crappy paycheck for selling my personality, intelligence and forty hours of my life each week, he asked? He made like five times what I did, plus his ‘boss’ took him out to breakfast, lunch and dinner, and shopping and the theatre when he worked.

Bobby always had the best weed, and we were stoned before the wine bottle was empty. During the time I was seeing Julio, we had one or two more of our little private visits, in addition to hanging out with us when he wasn’t working. I think he enjoyed the normalcy of me and my apartment. I never learned a thing about his family, or what dreams he had about the future. I never even knew his last name. Still I understood him more than some of my own friends, and certainly much better than Julio.

Julio was not the boyfriend he pretended to be. Turns out he was a more accomplished actor than I’d ever given him credit for. Shame on me for being so gullible. He began traveling between NYC and the west coast looking for film work, which made it easier to cut ties. We never had a formal break-up. He landed a fantastic little three-minute scene with the star in a huge hit film of the late 70s. The picture made her career. It got him to move out to LA. Julio had two more small roles in some truly bad 80s action movies. I’ve visited his patch on the online AIDS quilt many times.

Bobby, I have no idea about. He called a few times from Arizona to chat, threatening to visit me once he got back to The City. I lost his card, so even though I’d have loved to see him, there was no way to find him. What could possibly have happened to him, I’ve so often wondered?

Scenario A

The guy from Tuscon was diagnosed with either MS or Parkinson’s. Bobby became his caregiver and he put him through nursing school. He was with him to the end. He began caring for AIDS patients and aging gay men. He retired a few years ago in Palm Springs, and has a fantastic partner nearly twenty years his junior.

Scenario B

He somehow found himself mixed up in a small drug deal gone bad and was arrested. After serving five years, he was released and given community service. He began job training, and got so involved, he ended up career counseling first time offenders. He was responsible for developing and running a New York State Program which has been used as a model for eleven other successful programs. He lives upstate in a tiny historic farm-house on ten-plus acres of land. Bobby and his partner of nearly fifteen years were legally married last spring.

Those are the endings I would write for Bobby. If only it were that easy to make them happen.

Chapter Five

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Time: To Sir With Love - Lulu

Place: Lynfield, Ohio

If those first five years at Lynfield Junior-Senior High were hell, then certainly my sixth and final year had to be at least purgatory. Heaven it was not, since it was, after all, still Lynfield. Senior year was also when I’d first discovered love. It was not for any one person in particular, but for life itself. Now when I walked through the halls, I no longer tried to blend into the beigeness of the painted cinder blocks, nor prayed to be swallowed up by an oversized green asphalt floor tile. I would make no more apologizes to the student body for my existence. To all of them and the majority of the faculty we were still Kassouf and Kazmarek. To each other we’d become Sammy and Timmy. It sounds insipidly sweet now, but in those golden days it fit us to a T.

Theatre was our world. I landed some amazing parts and hammered home to Sammy the value of going after the best role rather than the biggest. We learned to share the glory and managed to keep our egos at bay, recognizing friendship was more valuable than the pursuit of any lead. And although the humanities were looked down upon by ninety-nine percent of our peers, we still pretended to be the cognoscenti of Lynfield. We carried ourselves like movie stars, elevated to a position of fame that didn’t allow us to mingle with the likes of the lowly jocks, cheerleaders and popular crowd.

The two of us were seldom apart, and those rare times were made up for when we overnighted at each other’s houses on Saturday nights. It was usually chez moi, since I had my own bedroom and he didn’t. Our mothers had instantly adopted us both, sharing joint custody. Sammy opened our refrigerator door as if it were his own, and Mrs. Kassouf knew which Lebanese delicacies were special favorites of ‘my Timmy’. He had become the brother I’d always longed my own might be.

I was still going with him to clean the library a few nights a week. In early fall the Drama Club had gone to see Carol Channing in the national tour of HELLO DOLLY! Sammy was mesmerized by her performance. I thought she was abominably bad, chewing the scenery every chance she got. He called it comedic genius. The library had a copy of the album and Sammy played it continuously until I thought I would puke. He’d pipe it through the huge speakers in the lecture room. Late one school night, as I was nodding off in a dark corner while he finished buffing the floors, the well-known strains of the orchestra’s intro to the title song came blaring in my direction. Out the lecture hall door danced Sammy.

Not content to merely lip-sync, full-voiced and throatier than Miss Channing, he performed the entire number before me. At first I nervously giggled, somewhat embarrassed watching such a private performance, typically only attempted in front of a mirror when no one else was home. At least that’s how it was always done by me. Without aid of make-up or red-feathered headpiece, he was mimicking the tacky diva’s rendition, matching her note for note.

His musical extravaganza was obviously well-rehearsed. I whooped in great peals of laughter as he maneuvered about in the dance segment with those big hands attached to awkwardly flailing arms. I could almost make out the chorus of dancing waiters behind him as he executed those high kicks for his big finish. How comfortable he was in his own skin. How brave he was, doing exactly what he felt like doing with no regard for what anyone might think of him. Or else, he was just so at ease and one with me, that he recognized we had, ever so gradually, become kindred spirits. When he drove me home that night, I smiled all the way-not because of his silly show, but at the gift his friendship had become.

The following Saturday night he slept at my house. As usual, we’d taken in a movie with our group of theatre friends. It was well past midnight and we were exhausted, yet way too energized to fall asleep. We lay in my dark bedroom-me uncomfortably on my single box spring and him sprawling across the mattress on the floor beside me. We often talked for hours into the night, the conversation continuing until one of us passed out mid-sentence. It was my favorite part of being best friends with Sammy Kassouf.

Turning on my side to face him while he lay on his back, after we’d run out of things to say about the movie and thoroughly dished all our friends, out of the blue I asked  “Tell me what your dreams are.”

“You know them all already. I want to go to college…”

“No. that’s a reality”, I interrupted. “Come September you’ll be at Otterbein.”

“Yeah, and you’ll be at Kent, I get it. So then what d’ya mean by dreams?

“Escape Lynbrook immediately”, I began enumerating. “Get a job teaching English in a great school. Marry a girl like Patty or Barb. She’ll help me grade papers. I’ll get involved with the drama club-direct a play at least every spring. My wife will do costumes or maybe assistant direct.” My litany of dreams that before had played silently in my head, now tumbled out of my mouth and into our secret chamber for his ears only.

“Kids. I want a kid…well ….maybe. Do you? Can you imagine being somebody’s father?”

“Not really. No. I don’t see either of us with kids. But who knows what’ll happen ten years from now. Where either of us will be.”

“I hope we’ll be close by each other. Not like next door neighbors. But close enough to drive over to each other’s places, or meet for dinner or a movie. Right, Timmy? Don’t you think we’ll be best friends…like… always?”

I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how much he wanted to hear, or how much I was ready to offer. He was quiet for several minutes. I waited, listening for his breathing to see if he’d fallen asleep. Just when I was ready to drop-off myself, Sammy turned on his side facing me, our noses less than a foot apart.

“I want to be an actor. I want to make movies. I want to be like Dustin Hoffman.” He waited for my reaction.

“Is that all?”, I finally teased. “We’re from Lynfield, Ohio. Nobody remotely famous ever came from a place like this.”

“Clark Gable from Cadiz, Ohio. Tyrone Power from Cincinnati.”

“But that was then”, I negatively countered, throwing water to put out his fiery dream as he sat up on the mattress.

“Paul Newman AND Hal Holbrook are from Cleveland.”

Seeing he’d obviously done his homework, I reached for my cigarette pack, snapped on the bedside lamp, sensing we’d begun a second round for the night. We talked and smoked into dawn. Our confessional ended with my final quote: “I don’t much care what I end up doing. I just want to someday sit in that chair next to Johnny Carson’s desk.”

By the time the sun actually appeared in my window, we determined once we’d finished college, regardless of our degrees, we would go to New York, share an apartment, and study acting. No more talk of wives, or children, or good friends getting together for drinks every other weekend. We had formed a secret, solemn pact.

The school year continued as it had started-best buddies joined at the fucking hip. Sammy feared fall, with both of us nearly two hundred miles apart. I was confident it would only make things better.  We each had to work in order to get through college, which I viewed simply as a necessary formality. Only then would we be ready to begin our real lives in New York City. The forced separation was something I was privately almost looking forward to, though I wasn’t sure why.

The weekend before we left for college, he arranged for us to have a brief getaway. He’d borrowed a four-man pop-up camper and we headed a few hours south to a small lake where his father had taken him fishing years before. We invited two guys from our theatre group to come along. They were juniors that we would be leaving behind. We bought provisions for two nights. All of us sensed this would be a welcomed last hurrah.

It poured the first night, and we became prisoners of the cramped trailer until the following afternoon, when the deluge halted enough to light the Coleman stove and grill burgers. We hiked a bit, but it was chilly and dark, so we built a big fire. We passed that evening around the blaze, rehashing our three years of theatre stories, honoring the people who made us laugh and cursing those who made our lives miserable. We paid tribute to ourselves for the stamina we showed to endure it all.

Our last morning the sun broke out gloriously. Everyone headed to the tiny lake to skinny dip for a few hours before driving back. Sammy was the swimming teacher/lifeguard. Me-I couldn’t swim or even float-though I had no fear of water. We’d brought these huge black inner tubes, and while the three of them horsed around, dunking and splashing like nine-year olds, I floated a distance away to watch them. Without realizing it, I was filming this scene with my mind’s eye for a day like today, when I would need to tell our story. We none of us had a care in this world, though we were certain we held the keys to the mysteries of the universe in our pockets. Foolish, silly Buckeye Boys that we were.

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