Category: College 1968-1972

A Cavalcade of Birthday Memories

Scan10009I’ve had many, many birthdays since my earliest recollected fifth, and even many that I don’t remember at all. Like thirty. I know I was living in New York City, yet there is not a glimmer of recall at how I spent it and thirty is such a nice round number you would think there should have been some memory. And yet I see vividly my seventh, because I had my first “kid” birthday party with boys and girls from both school and the neighborhood. There was my mother, hosting over a dozen rowdy rugrats in our rec room, while being nine months morbidly pregnant, carrying my soon-to-be-baby brother.

The theme was circus, so of course it was clown everything: plates, cups, napkins, tablecloth, party favors and matching cake. The only thing NOT clown was the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game which I hated playing, because already at age seven I understood the meaning of passe. Mom’s ankles were swollen like the balloons hanging from the ceiling and she was feeling miserable, (she was only months away from being forty years old), but she was smiling and cordial to all those rambunctious little bastards who were my guests.

About half-way through the fete, after traveling up and down the basement steps schlepping for the umpteenth time, I caught a glimpse of the angst and discomfort show through her own painted smile. She resembled the clown faces that surrounded us everywhere we looked, pretending to be happy for my birthday while these rotten kids were making a mess of everything and creating still more work than her poor, expectant body could ever handle. On top of all this, my father was on the verge of his first ‘nervous breakdown’, a concept we were all learning to comprehend and work into the daily routine of our simple lives. I can never look back at seven and not first flash to that seminal period of our family history when crazy took over the reins.

At sixteen a friend from high school named Gemma attempted to throw a surprise party for me. She was supposedly cooking a birthday dinner at her parents’ house at 8:00 p.m. which was tres chic for West Buttfok, Ohio where by 5:30 most everybody had already finished doing the dishes even on Saturdays. We were super-close pals and had been hanging out together for a year or so. I’d gotten ready way ahead of schedule so I decided to walk over a little early. Maybe I could help her out with the cooking. I showed up at her door a bit before 7:00. I still remember her little sister’s face at the door, totally shocked which seemed odd as she adored me and enjoyed when I  visited because I fussed over her.  Gemma came up from behind her with shower wet hair, clutching her bathrobe to her chin. She looked really pissed and before I could say a thing she announced something to the effect of “So surprise, asshole”, (she definitely used that particular term of endearment), “you just blew your own surprise party by being the first one here!”.

Twenty-five was one of those birthdays that I judged as a traumatic mile marker. I was aggravating myself for several weeks before, announcing to anyone who would listen that I would soon be celebrating my Silver Birthday. It sounded like such a pivotal number. You could be in your early twenties and still be considered just a crazy college kid. That had long been my excuse to family elders my first few years in NYC trying to land an acting job. They viewed it as having no career and absolutely no direction in life. (Forget about the fact that I was unmarried with no sign of a girlfriend.) Twenty-five I was somehow interpreting as a serious signal that my frivolous years were behind me. I took the day off from work. I spent my entire birthday alone going out for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between meals traveled from one cinema to another, taking in three different movies. I was home in bed and asleep by nine o’clock that night, over-fed, filmed-out and now seemingly devoid of my youth.

My fortieth birthday was spent in NYC even though I was living in an eight-room Victorian on the common of a sleepy New England town with my partner Alejandro. We went into The City for the weekend to celebrate. My good friend Giuseppe took me to lunch at Le Cirque and spent a fortune on a simply amazing afternoon of food, wine and conversation. To this day I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a more magnificent luncheon! Then it was off to the theatre to watch a college friend play Mother Superior in NUNSENSE. She was incredibly funny in the role and just seeing her ultra-Protestant self in her nun’s habit was a scream to this forty-year-old lapsed Catholic/lapsed thespian.

Turning fifty looked to be an inexorable milestone. The year was 1999. My mother had died that June, so it was official – I was now an orphan. Everywhere we turned we were being bombarded with Y2K hysteria. I refused to stuff my mattress with my meager life savings and my retirement package likewise was going to stay put, doomsday advocates be damned. Certain unnamed relatives of mine in Michigan were stockpiling dried beans and rice in the cellar to no doubt observe their End of Days final meal. What sort of last hurrah style celebration would be appropriate for my golden birthday with all these factors considered? I settled upon a trip for David and me to see our dear friends Mickey and Minnie in Orlando. My younger brother and his family flew down to meet us, as we had vowed after Mom’s funeral that we would get together before the end of the millenium to do something together that was actually fun. It was a childishly wonderful fifty we all celebrated that year.

Once you have tallied these many years, birthdays seem to take on another meaning all together. You truly miss those friends and family who aren’t around any more to mail a card, make that phone call to sing an off-key version of the birthday song, or send an email. Now your refrigerator’s face is peppered with those ubiquitous little doctor’s appointment cards reminding you (sometimes seemingly into the next millenium) that you are mortal, slowly falling apart piece by piece. Yet even though I begin each new morning with an aspirin and three different pills for my blood pressure, I am still that foolish twenty-five-year old. When I pull on a pair of jeans I wonder why the tag reads W34 when I am certain my waist is the same 29 inches it has always been. Passing the medicine cabinet mirror as I stagger into the shower each a.m. without my glasses on, why do I catch a glimpse of my grandmother? The woman has been gone since 1990. I have always adored her, so why should she haunt me?

I think for my seventieth, if I am still around and still possessing all my marbles, I shall throw for myself a surprise party with a clown theme. I am betting I can pull it off without a hitch. And by then, so much time might have elapsed that Pin the Tail might have come round full circle again.

The Corn Stand Caper

That schmaltzy poem about ‘friend for a season/friend for a reason’ has made its way into nearly everyone’s email inbox, but the truth is you are extremely fortunate if you have made even one friend for life. The high school clique that had formed in my sophomore year, due to a formidable yet ephemeral young drama teacher, hung together even after we graduated and left West Buttfok. Deb Mae remained home our first three years of college. Billy, my closest compatriot attended a small state school in southern Ohio. Selma and Eddy went to Kent State with me, although with twenty thousand students it was easy to lose hometown acquaintances, so we tended to lead separate lives at university.

Deb Mae had been Debbie until The Group went to see Bonnie and Clyde our senior year of high school. The two of us were so taken by the film, we went back the following day and sat through two consecutive showings (remember when you could spend the day in the movies for the price of one admission?). We adopted these truly lame southern accents, so in order to make her a more believable belle, I christened her Deb Mae and it stuck. The two of us had solidified a friendship the first year of high school, long before Mr. Allen came and worked his magic. She was new to the school, having gone through eight years of Catholic indoctrination. We often walked home together, living just a few blocks apart. Debbie’s mom died when she was eight, leaving her father with three children – another daughter, five and a baby boy, three. The day her mother passed away, her father returned from the hospital, took her aside and announced “your mother is dead, so you’ll have to be the mommy now”. She assumed the role seamlessly, cooking, cleaning, raising her siblings and keeping everything in line, including a sometimes unruly Dad. She did a remarkable job, seldom complaining about her lot.

I would stop in regularly on our way home. She’d make a pot of coffee for me (she only drank Tab) and we would smoke cigarettes and kibbutz as Debbie cooked supper. We realized a few months into our friendship that we had been in the same kindergarten class. It was easy to remember the only kindergartener in the entire school with pierced ears. She was of Hungarian descent on both sides, and a blonde beauty to rival any of the Gabor sisters. Wonderfully female, curvy and attractively big-busted Deb Mae possessed the sweetest, softest voice and a loving heart.

Eddy and Selma I had known since sixth grade chorus. Eddy had always had this ‘thing’ for Selma and they related to one another like a feisty, sparing couple who’d been married for at least thirty years. She was tall and lanky with long, straight hair and bangs – the perfect hippie. He played piano and loved the Motown sound long before we even knew there was a name for that kind of music. Eddy needed to hear a tune on the radio only two or three times before he started banging it out on the keys of the nearest piano. He was our accompanist whenever we wanted to sing, possessing a biting sense of humor that made us roar. A Polish American, he bore the brunt of all those horrible pollack jokes which were the mania of the time.

Billy was my nemesis turned counterpart. Sitting in the desk directly in front of me in homeroom from seventh grade on, I hated him because he was so heinously obnoxious. He was loud and silly and so horribly fey it made me uncomfortable to be in his presence. I was acutely aware of my own feminine propensities, doing everything I could to keep them at bay. Here was this flaming fairy mocking himself in a desperate attempt to gain attention anyway he could. I either ignored him or ridiculed him until Mr. Allen cast us in productions and our characters were forced to play off one another. In time we grew to become brothers. I’ve had no closer friend in this world than my best buddy Billy.

The first two summers everyone came home from college. Returning to the womb to work and save for the following year, no sooner would we be back when those group dynamics would kick in and we were tenth-graders again. Eddy would be bossing everyone around trying to get us to do whatever he selfishly wanted. Billy, ever the idea man with a relentless drive to see it through, choreographed our lives as a group, scheduling each minute and chaufering us in his family’s pale turquoise Rambler station wagon. Deb Mae was our heart and our den mother. Selma was the misfit in this group of misfits. She was there because Mr. Allen had put her there and neither Selma nor any of us ever challenged his decision. She was one of those sad souls who meanders through life with a dark cloud hovering overhead. Me, I was the mediator, the peacemaker who smoothed the ruffled feathers which regularly came from five people foolishly attempting to live life as a single entity.

We’d started our own West Buttfok Summer Theatre after graduating from high school, so at night those first two summers we rehearsed for a show like we always had. Even though we all loved theatre, it was more of an excuse to not be apart. As if this extreme togetherness wasn’t already more than unhealthy, and our summer jobs were not enough, Billy devised a scheme to make some easy money on weekends. We would open a corn stand – yes, a CORN stand.

Billy’s Lebanese grandfather had done this for years. He lived on the last rural route in West Buttfok where a handful of old family farms still existed, although none were in operation. Some of the families kept large vegetable gardens, selling tomatoes, peppers and the like on the roadside when there was an abundance they couldn’t consume themselves. Being business savvy, his grandfather had hooked up with a farmer about thirty miles away who grew sweet corn and he bought it weekly to sell with his homegrown vegetables. He told customers he grew it all out back in his fields.

Billy figured we could do even better, being college students working to pay our way. Selma’s folks lived on that same road but at the opposite end from Grandpa. Our only problem was her back yard was small, which was evident from the road. The story we would tell was we grew the corn, but “on our farm in Aurora”, (exactly where the corn did come from – so we wouldn’t really be lying). Selma’s parents thought our scheme was brilliant and loved helping our enterprise.

The first weekend we had one hundred dozen ears delivered. At the crack of dawn Saturday morning the farmer’s truck dropped off these oversized burlap bags filled with more corn than any of us could ever have imagined. Concerned we surely had been cheated, Eddy charmed the girls into helping him count each bag full. There was a substantial overage. We paid 35 cents per dozen for which Grandfather-up-the-road charged a dollar. Being new, we opted for 75 cents a dozen. We sold out early that first day, more than doubling our money, disappointed there was nothing left to sell on Sunday. The next week we increased the order to two hundred dozen. Greedy Eddy longed for more, so he talked Billy into visiting a wholesale produce market in Cleveland at five a.m. and buying tomatoes and cucumbers. Again, there wasn’t a veggie left by Sunday afternoon.

Billy and I realized that with blonde, buxom Deb Mae and long-haired, hippie chick Selma kept front and center, cars were stopping, looking and buying. Eddy worried that the girls might give incorrect change, cutting into the profits, while Billy and I feared that his obnoxious personality might frighten customers away. In the end, we all hovered around the corn stand the better part of the weekend. Between our theatre background, group dynamic and the delicious Silver Queen corn, we were moving lots of produce and having a great time together doing it. We planned on running through the last weekend in August. We’d built up quite a following our first month and regular customers were bringing us new ones.

Early in August Billy got a phone call from the Corn Man. They had over picked their fields and would not be able to supply us for the coming weekend. Billy and Eddy were devastated. The girls and I said no big deal, we’ll just sell the vegetables from the market. Billy worried that no one would stop without the corn piled high on the side of the road and promised he’d figure something out. Friday night, when typically we all took in a movie, he announced the solution. He contacted a neighboring farmer near our supplier who could give us as much corn as we needed, but….we would have to pick it ourselves. “How hard could picking corn be?” I can still hear the pollack saying.

The plan was for the three guys to drive separate cars in a caravan before dawn, pick enough corn to fill the first car and return to Selma’s so the girls could open. We would  drive the other cars back when they were sufficiently corn-laden. Deb Mae and Selma would go to the wholesale market to buy the produce. The most remarkable news was the corn would cost only 15 cents a dozen since we were doing the real work. We could all hear the cash register which was lodged somewhere in Eddy’s chest going”ka-ching”.

My bedroom was pitch black when Billy and Eddy frightened me awake with their cackling taunts to “git up boy, we gottsa’ pick us some corn!”. As we reached the farm, the sun was finally visible and the owner gave his five-minute lesson in corn picking. The three of us had dressed for perhaps a backyard barbecue, but certainly not to manuever our way through the tall August growth. There was barely enough room to work your way down the endlessly long rows. We were shooing off pesky bugs who were busy biting as the early sun was toasting us. The long green leaves on the stalks had razor-sharp edges which microscopically sliced our arms and legs and there was no avoiding them as we reached into the plants to pull off each ear. We were giddy and sweaty and scratched and achy but we were picking with a frenzy, filling up burlap bagfuls of corn, desperate to take advantage of the 15 cent price point. Eddy drove the first car back, eager to check on the girls to see how they fared at the market. He was uneasy leaving this task to anyone other than himself.

We spent another several hours picking, but by noon the overhead August sun was unbearable and we still had to fill the cars with so many bags full of corn we barely had room to drive. Unloading the corn back at Selma’s, we guesstimated we’d picked way over two hundred dozen – much more than we paid for or had ever sold in one weekend. The girls bought two crates of beautiful Chiquita brand cantaloupes at an incredible price along with the customary tomatoes and cukes.

As I came out front to sit with the girls, I saw an obviously heated and animated lady hanging out of her car window, gesticulating with a cantaloupe under Deb Mae’s nose. Our Deb was so gentle she would never defend herself so as I ran to her rescue the woman leaned out further. “Is there a problem, Ma’am?” I asked approaching.  She slowly began “I was just asking your college friend here how you grew these beautiful cantaloupes with a built-in Chiquita label? Special seeds, maybe?”. This was a huge oops. Well-intentioned Deb Mae had been telling people the cantaloupes were grown on “our farm in Aurora”, without checking for the colorful label stuck to  each melon. Thankfully there were no other customers around as I attempted to make Deb Mae look innocent, however this lady felt she’d been duped. We gave her all her money back, plus a half-dozen ears of corn with our apologies. Luckily my corn-picking battered body served as proof to her that we did grow the corn and she apologized to us profusely once Billy and Eddy joined in Deb’s defense, similarly bruised and bleeding. “You kids are really hardworking. Your parents should be so proud of you!” and off she drove.

We chastised the girls for not peeling the labels off the cantaloupes and we waited in fear that someone else might show up and cause a similar scene. No one else did complain, but at some point that afternoon, we agreed this weekend should be the swan song for our corn stand. We’d made an incredible amount of money, deciding it best to quit while we were far ahead.

Epilogue 

Billy left for acting school in London midway through his junior year of college. Deb Mae moved to Houston with an aunt and uncle who were ex military to find a husband. Her mission was accomplished quickly but she was divorced after only three or four years. I never even met the guy. There she remained and ended up with a Texas drawl which sounded remarkably like her bad Bonnie Parker imitation. I moved to NYC and Eddie landed a public relations job in San Francisco after we left Kent State. Selma began teaching and moved to Florida a few years later, eventually marrying and having a son. We’d managed to get out of West Buttfok as we had always dreamed, just all to separate parts of the world. The years began to pass quickly. Around Christmastime we would make our way back to the scene of the crime, but never all of us at the same time. We didn’t see Billy for years while he was in Europe, but he corresponded regularly. Before the end of the 70s he came back to the states and moved to L.A. It looked as though time and distance were wreaking havoc on The Group.

It probably shouldn’t have seemed anything but obvious that inevitably all three of us guys came out around the same time and later settled into long-term relationships. I never met Eddy’s partner, but Billy and I shared several wonderful visits both on the West and East Coasts with significant others in tow and alone. The piece de resistance was 1988 and our West Buttfok twenty year class reunion which I’d vowed since graduation day I would never attend. The group came together, deciding we would meet in spite of the high school we all loved to hate. It was a three-day weekend I treasure to this day. We celebrated our five years of breathing as one – laughing, crying, holding on to our youth for dear life. Each of us left our spouses in their respective homes so as not to bore them and to give us the freedom to be our silly tenth grade selves. We were all thirty-eight, grown up and responsible, each of us stunning in our own way, yet malleable enough to sneak back in time to our golden callow days. It was seventy-two hours of unabashed bliss in which we relived our life moment by moment, memory to memory.

It was there, on the last evening before boarding planes in all directions back to real lives that Billy told me his partner of nearly ten years was HIV positive. Billy wasn’t being tested yet, because he was healthy and needed to begin his role as caregiver. His companion was gone in a little over a year. Deb Mae was visiting Eddy in San Francisco and the two went to the memorial service. Eddy announced shortly after that, he too was positive. It was something I had almost grown accustomed to hearing about in our community in those days, but when it came so dangerously close the hurt was all the deeper. A few years later Eddy was hospitalized for the last time with pneumonia. I called and spoke with his sister who stood vigil over him and she held the phone as I told him to keep fighting, knowing from the feeble, broken voice he had long-lost the battle. He was buried in a small cemetery in West Buttfok. All these things came so swiftly together I cannot say exactly when Billy told us he also had fallen prey to the insidious plague. THIS was more than I could bear.

Luckily he was able to get the cocktail and though he battled a laundry list of incredibly gruesome diseases, he lived and worked and traveled and we corresponded and spoke regularly for several wonderful years. He spent a few days in Boston while in a period of exceptionally good health and we had a fabulous visit, even though it was obvious there was a third party coming between us that we neither wished to name or face. My best bud Billy died in 1998, six days short of his forty-eighth birthday. He requested that I speak at his memorial service in L.A. but I knew he was always the stronger of the two of us and that I could never weather the pain of such an ordeal. I wrote a piece entitled A BEST FRIEND and his sister delivered it for me at his celebration. His passing was one of those slap-across-the-face realities that causes you to sit up and marvel at the gift we so take for granted.

So it was Deb Mae and me. Selma had drifted from us soon after the reunion, cutting off all communication. Deb learned she was divorced and battling an auto immune disease which made it difficult to teach and raise a son on her own. Deb Mae and I made it a point to chat together monthly. She held a top position for a huge corporate travel company – imagine – the girl Eddy doubted could make proper change for 75 cents worth of corn. She never remarried but had a long-term relationship with a guy who could not commit for over a dozen years. She and I now met in West Buttfok every other year during Christmas. And as wonderful as it was to be together, as much as we laughed, reminiscing about The Group, our bad jokes, pranks and fights, I sensed we both were thinking the same thing: who would it be? Who would bury whom? She had written on the back of her senior picture “If you die before me, I’ll kill you”. She often said it to me in jest, until the deaths began and it ceased to be funny.

One of those years we didn’t get together for Christmas, we also hadn’t touched base until a few months afterwards. When I finally called, she was short with me, asking why I was calling. I was totally taken off-guard. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” I asked my friend of a million years. She assumed someone from her family had called to tell me the news she couldn’t bring herself to share with me. The virus she thought she’d been battling all winter was actually stage four lung cancer. It looked bad. No, it was grim. She had an appointment with a new oncologist who was doing a drug study. She would try anything, she told me sobbing. I began literally shaking in fear of her words, making those horrible grimaces you can when invisible on the other end of the phone, finally breaking down to cry along with her. THIS JUST WAS NOT FAIR, GOD DAMN IT.

In six months the tumors had shrunk remarkably and she was feeling good. She could laugh again and make plans. We met in West Buttfok and spent a weekend visiting and she got to meet David. We had begun planning our committment ceremony for the next spring, and she was excited to finally get to see Provincetown and to celebrate with us. Other than a wig, she seemed to be her old self. Everyone was hopeful.

Then there were these spots on a brain scan and a whole new treatment regime began. It nose-dived from there, but she still talked about what she was going to wear and what we would do in Cape Cod after the ceremony. In a few short months she ended up in the hospital. Once again I found myself making another deathbed call, talking with yet another sister. The cancer had spread rapidly throughout the brain. She was losing motor functions and the ability to speak, but she could still hear. Her sister held the receiver for her. What could I say to the girl I met in kindergarten, the woman I adored like a favorite sister? All I managed to get out was “I love you, Deb”, over and over. Palpable emotions and this awful moment in time had caused me to lose the ability to speak myself. She babbled some unintelligible sounds into the receiver. Her sister assured me her face had registered she knew it was me and that she understood. She died the following afternoon, April 2, 2003, a month before our committment ceremony.

So it was me. At fifty-three I was the last one. What were the statistical chances of my surviving them all I wondered? Who cares. What a sense of loneliness I was feeling! I longed to know if there was some purpose in being the last one. Was I saved because there was something left undone for me to do, or was this all some grand cosmic joke? Though I had decades ago shed the mantle of The Group to take on my own persona, there was still a comfort in remembering the safety we had shared in our cocoon. It shielded us as outcasts in a place where none of us felt we’d ever belonged. And when I needed some protection to not be so alone, I found I’d been left instead the lone custodian of memories for people and stories and laughter that had now fallen silent.

Elizabeth, May 4, 1970 and me

Unless it’s a birthday or an important anniversary of some sort, May 4th probably comes and goes like any other day in your life, but for anyone who went to my University, it is our Pearl Harbor. I attended Kent State University, and in my sophomore year 1970, my fellow students and I found ourselves thrust into the pages of history in a matter of a few days and thirteen seconds of gunfire. Before May 4th, if we traveled anywhere outside of the Cleveland/Akron area and people asked where we went to college and we responded “Kent State”, most often they would question: “Penn State?”.  And after May 4th, the question became: “Really? Were you there then?”. It happened late in the school year, when the long Northeastern Ohio winter was finally gone and spring was crawling towards summer. It became a horrific ending to what had been an incredibly wonderful and magical year in my life at age twenty.

In fall of 1969 the school year began with Nixon’s Draft Lottery, the only big contest I’ve ever won. I drew number 33, and my draft board would be calling up thirty numbers per month, beginning the following January. Even though I had a deferment, this roulette game did not sit well with any of us boys of draftable age. War was hanging heavily all around us and death counts of soldiers and innocents were being tallied with the same nonchalance that we watch gasoline prices escalate today. Being born so soon after the end of WW II, my childhood was peppered with pictures about trench and jungle warfare.  The thought of reliving it firsthand had frightened me more than my scariest horror movie nightmare.  The daily footage from Vietnam, played out each night on our TV sets in living color, only fed my fears and fanned the flames for any reasonably intelligent person to see how wrong any war was, let alone this senseless one. Despite all this, I still was not terribly politically engaged at this point in my life.

One year of dormitory life had been way more than enough for me.  This year I was living in a brand new apartment complex called College Towers, two seven-story buildings just off campus with in ground pools and full gyms, wall-to-wall carpeting and air conditioning, yet close enough to walk to campus. I was sharing a one bedroom with an old friend from West Buttfok High School. In my sophomore year of college I was living with more comforts than at my parents’ house. I even got a cat named Sarah to satisfy my passion for pets and make it feel more like home. I had found a comfortable niche in the theatre department, getting roles in some good productions and assembling a circle of friends that I enjoyed spending time with. In the middle of fall term I began seeing Elizabeth, the first and only woman in my life and I fell in love with her and fell in love even harder with love itself.

Elizabeth was jokingly the “older woman”, one year my senior. She sang like an angel – a lovely soprano voice and would often burst into song for no apparent reason, like an unbelievable character in a musical comedy. She was playfully witty and had perfect comic timing both onstage and off. Her naturally blonde hair that she wore in a short-cropped pageboy, she coaxed a few shades lighter. Pink and pretty with big, round, blue eyes, her lips were almost always either parted in a toothy smile or opened to let out a hearty, giggly laugh that was truly infectious. She was not very tall, but womanly round and was self-described as rubenesque. Without being corny, I would describe Elizabeth as a doll.

We went from seeing each other to being with each other nearly 24/7 in a matter of weeks. We were rarely apart.  She had an apartment literally across the road from mine in an older complex with two roommates, so we spent nights after rehearsals (we were both always either in rehearsal or doing a show) at my place. My roommate often worked late nights giving us time alone. Most evenings we camped out on my College Tower living room floor. We did manage to have the apartment totally to ourselves on that fateful night when we finally “did it”. I’d had this romanticized vision of my first time being as close to movie perfection as possible, and that called for a bed with clean white sheets and it did happen as I’d always imagined. Elizabeth was a patient and tender partner. I had absolutely no idea how to make love to anyone except myself, but she put me at ease and somehow made it all possible. I can’t image that I was a very good lover, but I certainly enjoyed trying to improve techniques with her.  We went at it every chance we got.

Christmas break I went home to West Buttfok, and she to Youngstown. We were apart for nearly three weeks, and we called and sent each other cards and missed each other like crazy. I drove to see her one night at her house, and we ended up going to a movie and then necking in the car afterwards because we couldn’t do anything with her parents there. It took this very special young woman to finally make me feel a man. We both of us were ready to get back to Kent and continue our life together.

Once back for winter term, I began directing a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe in The Cellar Theatre, a small student stage and Elizabeth played the ingenue role. She also did costumes, which was a huge undertaking for this period play, as we were very limited in what we could borrow from the university and only had a teeny budget that needed to be used for sets, publicity, and the like. Elizabeth and I spent hours, often into the early morning, sitting at sewing machines long after rehearsals were over trying to make the impossible possible. The program also gives her credit for wigs and makeup – she was involved to the max. After the first dress rehearsal, as I gave my notes, I concluded with: “And Elizabeth, you look like a big blue jellybean”. Everyone laughed hysterically, especially me for recognizing my own particularly brilliant wit. Everyone except Elizabeth, who ran out the back of the theatre in tears. It took an hour to calm her down.

In early spring we planned a weekend in West Buttfok to “meet the parents” and I was hesitant because I didn’t know what to expect from my mother and father. I knew Elizabeth was a natural at impressing other people’s parents. I had seen her work her charms on our friends’ parents and no one could help but love her. However, these were my parents. It had taken me twenty years and still I could barely deal with them, let alone turn them loose on unsuspecting prey, especially my beloved Elizabeth. Only about a week before our scheduled trip, she gave me the news that her period was late – very late. Maybe it was just the anticipation of our upcoming weekend, she’d hoped. Maybe it was just the fact that we were not using any sort of contraception. Oh my God, I was scared shitless. Elizabeth took it all in stride. I was in love with her, for sure, but having a baby was totally not on my to-do list.

My parents came Friday afternoon to pick us up. Sitting in the backseat of my Dad’s boat of a Pontiac, I rehearsed how I might break the news to them that they were going to be grandparents. We didn’t know for sure that she was pregnant, yet already I was experiencing morning sickness and I wanted to puke. Of course, just as I’d hoped, my folks were totally delighted by sweet Elizabeth, even before she began clearing the dinner dishes and started filling the kitchen sink to wash them without saying a word. My mother was mesmerized and I was shocked that she had allowed her to take over her kitchen without a word of protest.

The next morning, as Elizabeth came out of the bedroom she’d slept in, to give me a kiss, she whispered “Congratulations! You’re not a father”. The remainder of our visit was sheer joy for me. We ended our stay by going to the Cleveland Art Museum. It has always had an incredibly wonderful collection. In a small room we paused before a huge painting by David entitled “Cupid and Psyche”. We stood in front of the larger than life-sized recumbent nudes, taking it in with our mouths gaping. It looked as though the two of us had posed for it and Elizabeth was the first to say it aloud. It is a vivid, personal moment the two of us shared that I can still summon all these years later.

So we come to May – Friday, May 1st. The evening before, Nixon had admitted that “we” had begun bombing raids into Cambodia. It ignited like wild-fire and I remember seeing banners hung in dorm windows and people in small groups throughout the sprawling campus, gathered around impromptu speakers debating the spread of the government’s useless war. This was a state university with 20,000 students who were cutting their teeth on the issues of the day in a truly chaotic and super scary world. It is almost surprising that only about 500 rallied at noon on the Common in protest. I didn’t go, nor anyone from my immediate group of friends. Everyone sensed that this was not going to blow over with a few signs and a demonstration.

That night there was some trouble downtown, an area with a concentration of bars. Some windows were broken, the cops called in and bars were closed early. This caused concern among even the most apolitical. Drinking 3.2% beer was a popular pastime and curtailing students by denying them access to their beer did not help ease any tensions, so the original small crowd grew in numbers and the police used tear gas for the first time that night.

The following day, there were meetings galore all over Kent with Campus Admin, police and city officials and finally the National Guard was called in. I remember we stayed close to home that day, just going between my apartment and Elizabeth’s. We listened to stories from somebody who talked to somebody who knew somebody… I was becoming uneasy and didn’t know quite what we should be doing. We were all growing angry, watching our government, that most of us did not trust anyway, slowly take over our perfect little world in our insignificant university. For the first time I heard my circle of friends change the topic of conversation from Broadway and musical comedy to global issues and their own personal beliefs about politics and war. Being in College Towers, probably two of the tallest buildings in Kent, I remember hearing helicopters in the distance that evening. We learned late that night the ROTC buildings were burning and students were hindering firefighters from putting out the fires. We knew this would not be good for any of us. It turned out that some friends we had been in shows with were right there and had tasted the tear gas themselves.

Sunday the Governor held a press conference railing about the unrest and the damage that had been done to the state’s University. A curfew was put in place by the mayor.

We had planned, before the weekend’s turmoil, to go to a student production that evening in a theatre in one of the churches off campus. There was a group of about eight of us going. I think we all were ready for a distraction from the tension which only grew worse by the hour. If memory serves me, the curtain time was moved up to comply with the curfew. I have no recollection of what the play was that we saw. I only remember the walk back home. It was dark, probably after 9:00 p.m. and the group of us was traveling up East Main Street towards campus. Knowing us, we might have been singing something, practicing harmonies, or just laughing and joking our way home. Out of the darkness above, the frightening thunder of a helicopter overhead stopped us, as a piercing beam of intense light shone down onto us. The noise was deafening, the copter blades hovering so close we could almost feel the moving air they displaced above. A booming, megaphoned voice cut through the chopping noise calling us from above “Students, you are considered a mob. Disperse at once and return to your dormitories”.

The temperature instantly shot from apprehensive and disturbing to sheer terror. Without uttering a word, our panicked harshly spotlighted faces questioned one another as to what we should do. Elizabeth let out a shouting kind of scream and ran across the street and immediately I followed her lead. A couple of others crossed to our side as well. The helicopter turned off its light and our hearts began to resume their regular rhythm as it flew off ahead, towards campus.

We quickly continued our walk home, keeping the distance of the street between us. All the while we shouted back and forth to each other “Do you believe this shit?” What are we supposed to do now?” “This is fucking crazy!” We went back to my apartment and all of us began planning possible scenarios to follow. Some who had cars on campus might have even left for home that night. Neither Elizabeth nor I had a vehicle, although we had concerned parents who could be at our door in an hour or two’s time to get us out of there if need be. I was staying put. Monday was the beginning of a new week and I was going to plan on life as I knew it continuing just like always.

I don’t know what we argued about, but I doubt it had been either the war or campus strife. All I do know is that Elizabeth and I were not speaking on Monday, May 4th when we got up. Later in the morning, we continued the argument and she left in anger with a door slam. I was getting dressed to walk to the Common where an art student in one of my classes was going to take some photographs of me for his portfolio. We were to meet up at 1:00 p.m.  As I left my apartment and started walking to the elevator, I saw Elizabeth’s horrified face running towards me. “Jimmie, DON’T GO OUT THERE! They just shot some students”.  The two of us hugged, holding onto each other out of fear, not passion.

She was getting a ride from someone to go back to Youngstown. I should try to find a ride to Cleveland. Elizabeth and I kissed goodbye and in moments, doors started opening up in the long hallway as students collected outside their apartments. News of the shootings was just reaching our building. Neighbors, who before were only faces to me, suddenly became fellow victims of the disaster. I ran back to my apartment to try to call someone to arrange a ride, but the phone lines were overloaded and I couldn’t get a dial tone. And then I heard once again, the chopping monster helicopter blades flying over College Towers, so close now, they almost didn’t need the loud-speaker. This time they were shouting “All students report to your permanent address at once. Repeat. All students to your permanent addresses”. I remember stumbling into the kitchen, grabbing black plastic trash bags from the counter. I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew I had to get the hell out of Kent before more people got shot. We hadn’t heard for sure yet if anyone had been killed. The fear level was palpable. We all had our apartment doors wide open and people were calling out city and town names where they needed to go, or where they were willing to take others. Into one plastic bag I shoved some text books and clean clothes –  in another dirty laundry and toiletries. I scooped up my frightened kitty, Sarah and was out of my apartment and down in the lobby in minutes. Chaos reigned. I never saw so many students move so very fast in all directions at one time. But there was also a strange order to our evacuation. I stood in my lobby calling out names of neighboring west side suburbs of Cleveland, desperate for a ride, a garbage bag stuffed under each arm and poor Sarah clawing at my neck and chest, terrified – nearly as terrified as me.

I had to settle for a ride to downtown Cleveland. I don’t remember who the person was that gave me a ride, but prior to the moment I threw my trash bags into his car, he had been a stranger, and after our ride I never saw him again. There were others in his car, again no faces or names register. We were all operating in a great fog of confusion and fear and disbelief and we wanted out and some sense of safety. What I do recall, quite vividly, was driving down West Main Street and seeing military jeeps and soldiers in helmets on our pretty front campus lawn and guns with bayonets pointed at the caravan of our cars slowly exiting the small, verdant “Tree City” that was Kent, Ohio.  It was like living a nightmare or being stuck in a very bad movie. Once out of town, the car ride with my fellow refugees is a total blank. It took hours before I was safe in Mom and Dad’s house. I had never been happier to be living in their home before or after that horrific day.

By midweek they announced the term was ended. The University would most probably reopen for summer session. On that Friday, I asked my father to drive me to Kent. I wanted to go back to my apartment and pack up my things. I became very bitter; the shootings of May 4th had ended a great happiness in my life. I was having this incredible year and all of it revolved around Kent, but now this ugly black cloud had descended over everything, killing it all for me. Selfishly I made the tragedy not about the four dead students or the nine wounded, but all about me and my personal contentment.

In order to get onto campus, I had to go through a security check and actually sign in with the police or the military, I can’t remember which. There was still a strict curfew in place. My father dropped me off at the check point and was coming back on Sunday to take me and my things back to West Buttfok. As I left Kent the end of that weekend, the remnants of my life stuffed into the trunk of the car, it was hard to believe only one week had passed, yet my whole world had been radically transformed.

My relationship with Elizabeth didn’t make it through the summer. I cannot blame that on May 4th, but it certainly contributed some to its demise. I was so angry and depressed that summer of 1970, I seriously considered not going back to Kent. In fact, I didn’t want to go back to school at all. Had it not been for Vietnam and my deferment, I certainly would have taken a break from life altogether. The carpet had been pulled out from under my feet and I’d landed hard on my skinny young ass.

GAY BARS: My Own Personal History

The first time I set foot in a gay bar was Saturday, February 13, 1971 when I was twenty-one years old. Even some of my good friends might say to me at this point, “Oh come on Matthew, how the hell do you expect anyone to believe you could remember such details after so many years?”. This milestone is easy to recall, because it was Valentine’s weekend and the entire cast of BOYS IN THE BAND went together, even the straight ones, under the guise of doing research for the play. Research – hell, not me!  I was going because I wanted to, even though terrified by the prospect. As we walked through the door one of the straight boys remarked “well, there goes my reputation”, joking of course, but for me that was the reality. It was the act that clinched the deal for my gay-ness, not to mention the fact that I was accompanied by my first steady boyfriend, Guy.

As we entered the bar, an old, dark oaken saloon of a place, all heads turned to gawk at us young college boys, or rather fresh meat as the somewhat older crowd of regulars surely must have viewed us. I remember moving into the main bar area clustered together in our brood, looking for all the world like little kindergarten girls holding hands so they wouldn’t get lost in the bus line. Over the mirror behind the bar itself, hung a gigantic, tacky, handmade heart-shaped sign. It read simply: Mother Loves You. To clarify, the bar was named MOTHER’S.

That following summer, returning to my parent’s house to work before my last year of University, I visited a hometown bar which was not much better, only much bigger. The name of that one was The 620, the address of the building in the heart of downtown Cleveland. There were crowds of people, many younger like myself and loads of thirty/forty somethings – guys, who those my age considered to be older men. Everyone was dressed in finery, trying to look their best. Jeans were still just jeans then, too ordinary for going out to look and be looked at, (I can’t remember “cruising” to be part of my vernacular then). The horrible thing about the Cleveland bar was that a police officer in full uniform stood outside the door and carded you. They didn’t do that in any straight clubs in town. It was truly intimidating and the cops made the most of it as they glared at your face, glancing back at the picture on you license, as though they were committing to memory each and every gay person who came through the door.

It always gave me the creeps so I seldom went out in Clevetown and certainly never alone. I would go with my buddy Ed, who I met doing summer theatre in the area.  Although I’ve always enjoyed spending time with him, I can’t ever remember having much fun going out in Ohio. It was much akin to visiting the dentist or getting your hair cut. So why do it then, you might ask? Because I saw it as a rite of passage and a sort of grace to finally be together with my peers. For the most part, every guy in that bar spent the better portion of his week hiding: behind an office desk, in a warehouse or factory, in a classroom or dormitory pretending to fit into a straight world. Here we could relax amongst our own and try to appreciate who the man inside really was that we’d been carefully camouflaging.

New York City had a different take on the bar scene. I once talked Ed into driving his late 60s gas guzzling boat of a car to Manhattan one Friday night after work. We planned to go out on Saturday night, only to climb back into the car Sunday morning once the bar had closed at 4:00 a.m. to return home to Cleveland. The trip is typically at least eleven hours each direction. THAT was a fun time for sure. The excitement of just being in New York made it sensational and we still laugh about that insane trip today.

And once I had moved to the City and experienced all those early unpleasantries connected with my time spent at Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I thought it best to find a better place to meet eligible men. I began to frequent Julius’ on Tenth Street and Waverly Place. It was (and still is) an intimate bar, long and narrow with fresh sawdust on the floor each night. To me it looked much like any comfy neighborhood watering hole with a great mix of ages and types. I was doing this on my own, so it wasn’t always a comfortable thing for a somewhat innocent twenty-three year old hayseed from Ohio. In those days, I could count the number of men I had been to bed with on two hands and still have several fingers left. I would walk into the front door, order a drink and find the least conspicuous place along the wall somewhere near the back door. There I watched, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, puffing nervously and sipping carefully. From my vantage point I could scrutinize both doors and the traffic which came and went all night. New Yorkers seem to always be in a hurry and it was never more evident than in a gay pick-up bar, which is all Julius’ was. No dancing, no piano playing or singing drama queens – just two doors to move em’ in and move em’ out.

I was going to this place several nights a week, hoping to fall into the open arms of Mister Right the moment he waltzed through either door. I loved watching the regulars who would kiss each other as they oozed their way through the tightly packed, elongated room. There were men with greying temples wearing loafers and khakis with blazers or V-neck sweaters. There were shaggy haired guys in tight jeans, work boots and plaid shirts or white T-shirts and leather vests. Who would I go home with tonight, I’d ask myself as I fantasized the evening away. Sometimes a pair of eyes belonging to a guy I was studying would lock onto mine. Should I look away or return the glance and maybe smile? I’m sure I must have looked terrified most times and was woefully lame at both the rules and how to play this game they all seemed so proficient at.

I can recall the first time a guy actually cruised me and crossed over the room to speak. I have no idea exactly what he looked like or how he was dressed, only that he was thirty-something and alarmingly handsome. After a few minutes of trading smiles and cautiously eyeing each other up and down, he Rhett Butlerly sauntered across to my side of the room. Leaning in closely, he cupped my small ass in one big hand and as he did, whispered wetly into my ear  “wanna come home and warm up my bed?”. It was so forward and took my midwestern sensibilities by such surprise that I whispered back into his available ear something to the effect of “maybe you’d like to know my name first?”. Without a beat he released my ass cheeks from his clench, moving smoothly away, as I stood there, wishing the floor would collapse beneath me.

That had been a good night for me; at least I was finally attracting somebody. Why hadn’t I said yes and just left with him? Because I was still of the mindset that you had to know the person and care about them before climbing into bed together. I was playing by the rules of generations before me to find a life mate, rules originally tailored for a straight world yet the only ones I knew. There had been a game change even before our generation and those old principles were no longer valid for most straight people either now. Why did I persist in thinking any of it would ever fly in the gay world? With few role models, without ever having heard the terms life partner, long time companion or significant other, still I knew it had to be possible to find someone to share a life with, even if you were queer. But it looked as though I would have to bend a bit to make things work in my world. New York was a freer place that allowed me to be whatever person I wanted, but I had to be willing to make some big personal concessions.

I took a break from Julius’ shortly thereafter. My social life needed to take a backseat to my everyday existence: rent, employment, electric bills, food in the belly, these became my priorities. Even if I found my Prince, I knew I couldn’t expect him to foot the bill. Our rendezvous would have to wait.

to eventually be continued…

My Guy Part Two

What a difference a kiss makes. It took our first night together to another galaxy. The passion between us and the testosterone level was nearly palpable, as the years of pent-up everything had been released by us both. That tiny room had been filled with the collective sexual energy of a group orgy that was produced by only we two. We lay together until the sun came up, nestled into each other in a perfect fit, amazed by what we had found in the darkness of the night before. Without saying a word, we sensed that we had begun something that would take our lives on a totally new course. In a heartbeat we had become a couple.

From this point on we woke up either in my room or his, or possibly on the floor of someone’s apartment, had we crashed after a night of serious post-rehearsal partying. Guy hadn’t been a smoker before we met, but let’s just say that Tareytons were not the only smoke I introduced him to. We were rehearsing nightly and continued having weekend afternoon rehearsals on Saturdays or Sundays. We ate most meals together at the diner, the site of our first date, or the Student Union. I cannot remember ever cooking a meal in my apartment kitchen for him. About the only time we spent apart was for our classes in the day and if I could be with him, I often cut class to do just that. We were mutually consumed with each other, but not to the point of smothering. It was simply that we were absolutely nuts about one another and enjoyed laughing our way through university life together. It had always been enjoyable for me, but now, with the addition of Guy, it was heaven, because I wasn’t alone and had someone to care about and who truly cared for me. I loved to make him laugh and I believe I fine-tuned my sense of humor of today, by being my silly self for him all those years ago.

The play was coming together really well, after a lot of hard work on all our parts. We knew it was going to be BIG and it was also getting a lot more interest and publicity than a typical production because of the gay subject matter. So aside from being in this nearly constant state of ecstasy, I was enjoying a huge theatre high too. The entire cast had really bonded, so we also had a great group of friends to socialize with. Life was near perfect. I did worry, in a tiny dark place in the back of my mind, what might happen when the play was over. Would this all go away when the set was struck and the costumes were put into storage? Was this relationship just another part of the make-believe that comes with theatre? Every time that thought snuck out, I would push it further back, because I felt so confident that what we were enjoying was so much more than just a game of pretend.

And I was right; it wasn’t make-believe at all. Once the run of the play was finished and we came down from our hour in the spotlight together, we had so much more time to ourselves. We went back to being more vigilant about classes and schoolwork. I had papers to write and he had artwork to turn out. We enjoyed quality time together doing couples things: seeing movies, shopping, spending more time with our friends in the theatre department and meeting each other’s friends from our pasts back home. We even regularly visited his mom, a stunningly beautiful woman who adored her “baby” and luckily for me, anyone important to him. I wasn’t quite ready to bring him home to meet the folks, although my mother had come to see the play and spent time with the two of us afterwards. Without ever saying a word to either of us, both ladies were perceptive enough (and knew their children perhaps better than we knew our own morphing selves at the time) to read what was obviously going on between the two of us. For the first time in my life, I really wasn’t concerned what ANYBODY thought about me. I was so goddamn fulfilled.

There was a small town near the University called Hartville that had a flea market (every Monday I believe) and most weeks we would go religiously and dig through the tables of junk. Every once-in-a-while I found a piece of vintage clothing that I’d buy for him, like a shirt or a vest and he would buy a chotchke (knick knack) for me. On one visit I fell in love with a little framed miniature print that he secretly purchased then gave me for some silly anniversary, like three months together or some such nonsense. I treasured that tiny thing as if it were an original Degas.

He needed a portfolio of pictures for a painting class final grade that he had fallen behind on, so he was putting in late hours at the studio to finish. I would go and read while he worked. He decided the last piece was going to be a large nude of me. Of course I was thrilled. It was the ultimate in romantic-posing nude for your lover, to be forever captured in oils, seeing his fiery passion for me displayed on canvas. We would go to the studio at night, but there were still always lots of wonderfully weird characters around, working to finish end of the semester projects themselves. Guy wouldn’t let me see the painting’s progress because, he kept telling me, he didn’t want me to anticipate the outcome. “This was not going to be a traditional portrait” almost became his mantra. I had no idea what to expect. I only hoped he would capture his feelings for me visually. The student in the space next to Guy was a friendly kid. He always had a radio playing and I remember hearing Elton John’s YOUR SONG several times during the course of each evening. It was a huge hit that year. It always seemed to me, one of the songs in the soundtrack of my life, mirroring my feelings at the time as though I had written it myself. Little did any of us know that Elton was gay. I guess he may not even have known himself in those days. It’s ironic that this song was performed by a now gay icon. In those days, the only gay icons that I knew about were Oscar Wilde, or  Alexander the Great. There were no contemporary icons, because they were hiding safely in the closet with the rest of the gay world.

So the painting neared completion and Guy decided I could finally get my first glimpse. It’s difficult to imagine what I thought it would look like, but what I hoped I would see was nothing like what I saw, as I made my way around the back of the canvas. Instead of my near-black, thick, curly mop of hair, I was completely bald with multi-colored wires connected to a box in the upper right corner of the painting. Granted, my profile was spot on, as was my upper torso and thighs, but my legs from the knees down ended at the canvas bottom. And shockingly, my penis was attached to my thigh, it’s beautifully formed head melted somewhere inside. So much for capturing his feelings for me-at least that’s what I hoped as I tried taking it all in, mouth gaping in disbelief. “You hate it. I knew you would”, he said breaking the silence which rarely existed between the two of us. And for maybe the first time ever in my life, I had nothing to say. But I got over it. He had no idea why he painted it the way he did, he admitted, other than hopefully appearing to be somehow provocative. And P.S. his professor hated it even more than I did.

Late in spring Guy auditioned for an original musical our mutual friend Dennis was directing and choreographing. Guy got to take his tap shoes out of mothballs and tippy-tap his little heart out. He even had a tap solo in one of the big musical numbers. I had committed to doing costumes for the show and so we were back being a theatre couple again. It was fun, but quite different, since I was out of the direct loop in the rehearsal process, and he had no talent and little interest in costuming. But we both thought a bit of a break from the 24/7 would be fine for us. And it was, until this boy named Michael (aren’t they always somehow named Michael?) rode in on his cute little Honda motorcycle from God-knows-where. He was new to the theatre department and was doing another show at the same time as ours. I seem to remember meeting him at a party after rehearsals just before opening. Evidently he and Guy noticed each other more than I realized. I remember him riding on the back of Michael’s cycle one beautiful late spring afternoon to my apartment to pick up a shirt or sweater or something because they were going for a ride. I can still hear the sound of the bike leaving the parking lot with the two of them on it, still feel my heart sinking in my chest, stomach churning and the tears rolling down my cheeks. I knew in an instant, in that same heartbeat in which it all had begun, that this was the beginning of the end.

It only got a little bit ugly. We both cared and respected each other enough not to ruin all the beautiful goodness that we’d enjoyed. Was I so naive to have ever thought it would last forever? Probably, yes. How could you ever enter into a relationship anticipating its expiration date? But a summer’s worth of tears and the loneliness of being away from my University life and back in my parents’ home working my summer job, finally began to ease my broken heart. That, and the knowledge that he and Michael only lasted as long as that summer did. When I came back to school the following fall, I saw him for the first time in almost three months. It was in the lobby of the theatre building which had been our second home for the entire school year before-our year of loving. This meeting was something I had been dreading, but it was as inevitable as the seasons’ change. He asked if we could go for a coffee. I think we must have gone to the Student Union; I wouldn’t have been able to bear a return to the scene of the crime that was our first date. At one point in our sombre reunion, he took both my hands in his, and told me he didn’t expect to ever find someone who’d care about him as much as he knew I had. It was a lovely compliment, and a truly tender moment, but it didn’t replace the gaping hole I still felt inside where something huge was missing. It was the place I’d made for him. What I didn’t know then was that it would be many years before I’d ever feel for anyone like I had for my Guy. We got along fine my last year in school, but we had become two very different people living totally separate lives. He didn’t even look the same to me anymore.

I moved to New York City the following year. He went south the year after to New Orleans, I believe, and got a fantastic, very creative job. I heard through mutual friends how he was doing, and maybe five years later, literally ran into him crossing an Avenue in mid-town Manhattan. We hugged like crazy. He was in town on a business trip and we arranged to meet for drinks one night. It was a very grown up moment, and we enjoyed a wonderful long catch-up chat. I don’t believe either of us even had steady boyfriends at the time. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses before saying goodbye, but time and distance and the years apart just got in our way and we never met or even spoke again. It was in the early 90s, long after I left the city and moved to New England, that I got the news he died-another victim of the plague. Like all the names in The Quilt, it was so sad, but even sadder for me because of what it once had been.

After leaving University I’ve led a sort of gypsy life, moving from Ohio to NYC (in four different apartments) to Atlanta for nine months then back to NYC (in another four apartments) then finally to Massachusetts (in three apartments and one house). In all that gypsying about I’ve packed and unpacked, accumulated tons of crap and lost or threw out even more than a small town’s landfill could hold, but I have always managed to keep that little framed miniature print.

My Guy

Should I live to be an octogenarian in some nursing facility, merrily messing my pads and staring emptily at a tv screen in the lounge, may I somehow manage to recall the unequalled joy of my first guy love affair. Ironically, his name happened to be Guy. He was an extra-special bonus that came with my college production of BOYS IN THE BAND. He was an actor in the play with me. I had never seen him before on campus, since he hadn’t done any theatre, being an art major and also because there happened to be nearly 20,000 students in our University. He was a sophomore, and a very, very young 19 years old. Even though our two characters had little interaction in the script, I singled him out immediately as a person of interest on the very first rehearsal.

He was dreamily handsome to me. Tall and quasi-tanned, (soon I would learn it was only bronzer), he had a sweet, dimpled smile. His nose was strong and seemed purposely sculpted to give a look of elegance to the rest of his features. But Guy’s hair was definitely his crowning glory, naturally curly and a warm sandy-brown color. It was beautifully cut in a fashionable shag style, quite the rage at the time. He seemed genuinely friendly, but a little guarded and uncomfortably stand-offish which made me even the more fascinated. By this time in my nearly three years in the theatre department, my own personality had become so gregarious that I could bring out the shyest of the shy from their protective shells but Guy was not one of those. Yet I would never pursue anyone if I thought there was more than a fifty-fifty chance of being rejected. Wait a minute, was this what I had in mind? Was I actually going to go after another man in pursuit of romance? I think this is what one might refer to as a pivotal point in life and I needed to get ahold of myself, or maybe not.

Some background information is necessary here. My sexual experience up to this point was somewhat limited. I was technically a virgin all the way through high school. I had dated my high school sweetheart into the better part of my freshman year of college and I’d only gotten to second base with her. My sophomore year of college saw me determined to lose my virginity, which I did with the only woman in my life, Elizabeth. We were together for most of the school year in a great, sexually healthy relationship. That all ended (for me, at least) one morning in spring when I woke up next to her, as we had nearly every morning we were together, and I thought to myself: “is this what I want to do for the rest of my life”? I realized nearly immediately the answer to my query was a resounding “no”.  And it was not just no to Elizabeth; it was a no to all women. This was not the me I had become and now I was not able to fool even myself anymore.

My sexual experience with men at this time was what I would term playing doctor graduate level. My best friend from high school, Billy and I had played during the summers when we came back home from college. It wasn’t much more than mutual masturbation with a little puerile sexual experimentation. I remember at one point early on he had tried to kiss me, and I pushed him away knowing that doing that would take it further than I was ready to go. To this day I still feel guilty for rejecting his kiss, because it wasn’t him I was pushing away, but rather my acceptance of where our sexuality was headed and it frightened the hell out of me. Billy’s and my “friendship” was something I will cherish forever, because we grew from boys to men-from innocence to worldliness.

BOYS IN THE BAND rehearsals started in the middle of a long school break. Not many other students were on campus yet, and when it was just the townies, our college town looked and felt empty. It was a weekend afternoon, and probably our third or fourth rehearsal and as I gathered up my things to go back to my off-campus apartment, Guy approached me, smiling a melt-my-heart little smirk. I could tell he was trying to be casual, but there was a nervousness behind the grin. “Are you doing anything, or would you like to go grab a coffee?” he asked.  Am-I-doing-anything? This is the moment I had been waiting for since I first laid eyes on him, but I was going to be together and cool and not let on that my heart was leaping in time with the butterflies in my stomach. I felt like I was going to either pass out right then and there, or possibly piss my pants. Luckily I did neither, just smiled and matter-of-factly said something to the effect of “I could use a cup of coffee and a cigarette right about now” (I smoked like a Turk in college-Tareyton 100s). He had a car, a little white Triumph Spitfire that was almost as cute as he was. He certainly didn’t need a car to be more attractive to me, but it sure didn’t hurt either. I felt like a prince climbing into his sports car to sit next to him. Off we went to a little diner that was popular with the theatre folk, not that the food was so special, just that it was located within walking distance from the theatre building.

Normally the place was packed, but this late afternoon they had closed off most of the sections, so only a few tables near the door were being used. We found a table and ordered a pot of coffee. I lit up, offering a cigarette to Guy. He still seemed a little edgy, nervous, preoccupied with something.  He took a cigarette, and I could see he was holding it like a novice, or someone who only smokes a cigarette or two after they’ve gotten stoned. He admitted he was a bit nervous and that he rarely smoked, but it acted like the ice breaker he needed to relax a bit. He said he had noticed me from the first day and that I seemed to be one of the friendlier boys in the play, and that he was nervous about the part and fitting in with the rest of the cast. It was his first theatrical venture, except for dance classes he’d taken as a kid. He still loved to tap dance he admitted. I assured him he would be fine, that all shows start off shaky. He began his bio: he was an only child, spoke about his mother a lot and his father very little, lived at home in a city only about eight miles from campus, but rented a room in a house off campus where he stayed during the week most nights. I took in everything he told me about himself, making mental notes as though there might be a pop quiz at any moment. I was grinning until my face almost hurt, so happy to finally be alone with Guy and loving that he was sharing so much about himself with me. We were quickly becoming not strangers. As he spoke, I carefully watched his face, those graceful gesticulating hands, his small, golden-brown, piercing eyes punctuating his dialogue and at the same time I was savouring my own good fortune.

Suddenly, in the midst of this prologue, he announced: “I’m bi”. I almost laughed, having just assumed by now the boy was gay. It seemed so obvious to me, but he was being as honest as he could be and I respected his candid admission. Hoping to make things easier on the both of us, I leaned into him closely so that we were nearly nose to nose. “I’m gay”, I whispered, “but I think you already knew that when you invited me on a coffee date”. He started to laugh, a huge, billowing laugh and his entire face and body relaxed like magic for the very first time. I joined in the laughter, roaring myself, and no doubt the few people in the diner must have wondered what those two silly homos in the corner were carrying on about. We talked for at least another pot of coffee and most of my pack of Tareytons.

He  said he’d drive me home, but insisted first on buying me cigarettes.  On the way out he invited me to see his room. He said he hated it because it was just a place to sleep, and that the room had no personality because he spent time only sleeping there. Looking back, I really DO think all he meant was for me to see his room that night, and that’s all I expected from the visit myself. It was a tiny room, and he was right, it didn’t have any personality, just a cot-sized bed and a window. It was spartan incarnate and made the two bedroom apartment I shared with a roommate Versailles at the very least. We sat on the cot and continued talking, the both of us chain-smoking and chatting and laughing and drinking diet soda, which was all that he had. Hours were passing and by now it was evening, late evening. He suggested I could stay there. We had another rehearsal early the next day. His landlady had an air mattress in the basement we could put on the floor if he got rid of the cot. Now, I was getting scared, because there was only one place this was going. I thought I was ready for this in my head, but the reality of physically dealing with him in the flesh made my heart pound, but more in fear than from passion. Together we wrestled the cot out of the room and into the back hall, and carefully maneuvered the air mattress to fit into the itty-bitty room.

And there we were, face to face, with no distractions, nothing to look at but each other. We began to undress and I had already decided I would sleep in my underwear, even though normally I slept nude. I was so nervous, I didn’t even think to notice if he was nervous too. We found our places on the mattress and he turned out the only light in the room. It was pitch black. I wanted a cigarette so badly, but my lungs were aching from hours of power smoking and I had no idea where the pack, lighter and ashtray had ended up. I doubt that a minute had transpired, when I felt Guy’s body shift suddenly, and the warmth of his face over mine. And in seconds, his lips were on my lips as he kissed me, and I opened my mouth in amazement and our tongues met and the flame was lit in an instant.

(to be continued)