My Beautiful Ugly Sweater

I have always had a special appreciation for beautiful sweaters, so much so that late in life I even learned to knit in order to create my own. The passion started in my early teens, when I began to earn my own money by doing odd jobs and saving for something that I wanted badly. While shopping for back to school clothes on too measly a budget, I stopped into Halle Brothers Department Store in downtown Cleveland just to look. We seldom shopped there because my mother only had a charge account at Higbees but more importantly, Halles was a high-end retailer – Cleveland’s answer to Lord and Taylor. There on a mannequin in the middle of the men’s department was this incredible Fair Isle patterned cardigan of Shetland wool with metal buttons that absolutely took my breath away, as did the $29.95 price tag. This is at a time when a well made pair of men’s shoes could be had for under twenty dollars. My mother could get me two pairs of slacks and an Oxford shirt for what this sweater cost. But I already had half that much money saved, so I claimed the sweater as soon to be my very own.

Several weeks later on a solo trip downtown, I breezed through Halles to make sure they still had the sweater in my size. It was no longer on the display form, but there were several sweaters folded artfully on the wooden table. While checking for my size, I noticed the price had been reduced to $24.95. The following week I went without buying lunch at school, saving the stipend and together with allowance, spare change and whatever I could manage to hoard, I was at the store the following Saturday morning. Once home to show off my prize, my mother declared she thought I had wasted my money and that I was totally out of my mind. “You could have gotten a perfectly nice acrylic sweater for under ten dollars”. I didn’t even begin to argue with her, because I understood she shopped purely for bargains and we would not even go near the subject of taste in clothing. She herself often commented, when looking through her closet for something to wear, “I have taste where I sit!”. I was thrilled with my wonderful find and didn’t care what anyone else thought about it.  Shortly after its purchase, I wore it to a junior high dance and a few people I didn’t even dare speak to in school commented on what a gorgeous thing it was.

I wore it for Thanksgiving dinner at Grammas, for my birthday in early December and several Christmas outings. I felt like a million bucks in it, because it was classic quality and I’d bought it with my own money. The first few times I finally wore it to school, I fancied myself somewhere else – a really cool school in a wealthy east side Cleveland neighborhood. It made me feel I was better than the assholes who continually looked down on me, the uncoordinated geek (now with horrid black framed eyeglasses), who couldn’t catch or throw a ball and therefore, a non person in their estimation. My sweater became a costume that transformed me into an exotic character who’d been dropped into this truly bad play that I would eventually act my way out of, finding myself in another more refined milieu. I would prove the adage wrong; clothes could make the man.

A month or so passed and on a weekend, while doing chores, I went down the basement to put in a load of laundry. On top of the dryer lay my metal-buttoned Fair Isle cardigan, shrunken to one-third its size. Unbelievingly, I grabbed the woolen aberration and flew up the stairs. Clutching it with clenched paws, I waved it into my mother’s face literally millimeters away from her nose, screaming at her in full voice. “You ruined my sweater! You washed it in the washer?!? A Shetland wool sweater in the washing machine? How goddamn stupid are you?” I raged at the woman just like all the times I’d heard my father berate her, using every curse word I knew strung together in garlands of profanity. She remained silent. She sheepishly offered to replace it, but she had ruined everything for me and I wanted to make her suffer just a dollop of the guilt she had been heaping on me all my life. “Don’t bother!”, I roared at her. It was at this point in my life that I ceased to be the good boy and our maternal/filial love-hate relationship was born.

I no longer blindly followed her bidding. I challenged her whenever her irrational behavior stood in the way of my life or if my well-being was affected. “Because I said so” no longer served as a valid answer in any argument and there were arguments galore, even after I had reached adulthood and moved five hundred miles away. The older each of us became, the more hot and cold, mild and wild was the ride. We battled each other and took each other’s side when the world was battling us. We dealt with family crises, giving strength to whichever of us needed it more. At times we would take turns creating problems for the other to work through. There was an intervention I was forced to perform to save her in her later years and when I ended my first relationship, it was more difficult to face my mother than it was my partner of over a dozen years. She backed me in every crazy venture I ever attempted and was the one who wildly applauded me whether my attempts were worthy of it or not. She was my mother – who else is ever gonna’ care about you as much?

Fast forward to Christmas, 1996 and my spouse David’s first trip to Cleveland. We spent a few days between Christmas and New Years with my mother in her house in West Buttfok. We exchanged small gifts. When I opened my box, there was this sweater staring back at me. It wasn’t the ugliest sweater in the world, but a close second and certainly not anything I would ever have chosen to wear. I am a winter person: olive skin, greenish hazel eyes and once dark brown hair (now grey). The sweater was striped khaki green and burnt orange and of course, acrylic. I feigned an “Oh wow, I love it ” response, but my acting days were long over and you can’t fool moms anyway. She made a comment about knowing I didn’t like synthetics, but she thought it looked very mannish and that I’d like it. I took it home with me and put it away in the closet in the same Christmas box, not having the heart to give it to Goodwill so quickly. A while later I was looking for something to put on one evening and decided to wear the sweater to appease my mother and assuage my guilt. It wasn’t too uncomfortable and I smirked throughout the evening thinking about our sweater history together.

The following year she turned eighty and we went home for a big family get together to celebrate. At the party we could all begin to see she was not her usual self. Something was going on, or perhaps NOT going on. It wasn’t long after that she was diagnosed with dementia and the downward spiral accelerated so that she needed to sell her house and move in with my younger brother. It was sad visiting her diminished self, the long silences and sometimes empty stares. When we’d visit, she always knew all of us there and put up a brave front, but she was present in body yet absent in spirit. Her fire was going out and try as hard as I might, there was no engaging her in much of a conversation, let alone in a good fight together like the old days. Not five years before, she had become so incensed about some ridiculous thing we chose to spar about that she hurled an empty wine bottle into the room where I was watching tv and I laughed so hard it spoiled our battle. Now a conversation with her consisted of two or three sentences from me and “yes”, “no” or “really?” from her. No, this was not my gabby, run at the mouth mother anymore. That Christmas someone shopped and wrapped for her. She was as surprised as we were when we opened our gifts from her.

Suddenly my ugly sweater began taking on a special beauty all its own. I still hated it, aesthetically speaking. The colors were down right awful and there is something about the plastic-ness of acrylic fiber that is hard and stiff and makes me cringe when it’s wrapped around me. Yet she had picked it out for me, knowing I was a fiber snob, perhaps as a provocation to get my dander up one more time. There wasn’t much of a Christmas for us the following year. On my birthday, my sister-in-law bought a card for her to sign to send me. She said my mother must have asked her three or four times whose birthday it was, yet she had signed her full name, including middle initial. It was the saddest of sad realities in my life. Yes, now this sweater had become priceless.

It is many years now that she is gone. I do not miss the fighting, but there are days I yearn for a long, catch-up chat around her kitchen table, the site of so many of our grand spats. I wear the sweater a few times every winter, on really cold days, because the goddamn thing doesn’t breathe at all like good wool does. Sometimes I’ll wear it when it’s not so cold, when I’m feeling a bit down and I need a little TLC – the kind of morale boost that can only come from your mom.

Show Me Yer’ Dick

“Show me yer’ dick”. If delivered in just the right way, that phrase can still get a rise out of me.  As mundane as those four words may sound, for years they have served as my Viagra. I was once a member of a very exclusive sex club. No, it was not during my Manhattan heyday, but rather in West Buttfok, the summer between Kindergarten and first grade after my mother lifted the travel embargo she’d imposed on me.  I could now locomote the entire block on our side of the street. This covered an area from “the school bus corner” to the bottom of the hill that ended in the main thoroughfare in town. There were exactly twenty houses and two vacant lots, which we termed fields, even though the frontage could not have been more than forty feet and they were entirely overgrown. And because I was allowed to manuever two corners, I met kids from the streets that flanked ours on either side.

Most of us had stuff in our backyards to keep us occupied: swing sets, sandboxes, pools and outdoor toys. Regardless, we gravitated to those empty lots, most probably because they were postage stamp sized microcosms for jungle warfare, cowboy and indian massacres or whatever backdrop was required for our own particular brand of pretending. Of the two places, my favorite was the more popular one near the school bus corner. It had a large tree (perfect for climbing) almost dead-center, a few boulder sized rocks for crawling on and hiding behind, over grown scrub bordering the lot all around and ankle high grasses covering everywhere else. As long as it wasn’t raining, you could count on finding somebody to play with from early morning to supper time.  Enjoying my new-found freedom, I typically spent a good part of my day there. I confess that most of these new friends from the neighboring streets are now both nameless and faceless.

On one particular summer’s day several of us were engrossed in play. Even though the place was closely sandwiched between two houses, we were protected by the over-growth so we couldn’t see out, and being so small, we were hidden from the street. We weren’t able to see anyone coming until they were inside our private world, unless they were bigger kids, and none of them were interested in hanging around with us babies. Suddenly, into our field appeared Donald Bianchi, my older brother’s best friend. His family lived near the bottom of the hill. He came over our house all the time to hang out with my brother and they usually went to the railroad tracks on their bikes a mile or so away to smoke cigarettes. I knew about it, but helped keep the secret for them so my brother wouldn’t give me a harder time than he already did. Donald was a bit older than my brother, probably around fourteen. He was a good-looking kid, with beautiful brown hair combed back into a duck’s ass just like Elvis and full pouty lips like Ricky Nelson. Even at six years old, I could notice such things and find them most appealing.

Donald went over to the tree and climbed into its Y-shaped crook, putting himself several feet above our heads. He looked down at our group as the five or so of us congregated in front of him. He started to give us orders to do silly things – his own version of Simon Says. He told us told to hop on our right foot, then maybe on both, or turn around quickly in circles. We did as he instructed, having a great time being silly at the direction of a big kid who was actually being nice to us. Very soon the commands changed and it became “girls show me your butts” and “boys pull down your pants”. We giggled. Maybe a few blushed or hesitated, but Donald’s orders were dutifully met and we were laughing like crazy. He smiled warmly, as though he was letting us in on the usual game that big kids played when they were together.

Before we left, he swore us to not tell anyone about our special play, because now we had our own club and he was our leader. As the kids began heading for home, he jumped down from the tree to talk to me alone. He told me not to tell my brother about our club, that this would be our secret – his and mine – that we would keep like the cigarette smoking one. He was paying attention to me and I was totally enthralled. I would do anything this handsome older boy asked me to do.

The next time Donald came to the house, I wondered if he would treat me differently. He made no sign that we shared our unique confidence. In time, he wandered back into our field and took his place in the tree again. Some kids left right away and I remember it being only me and one other boy and girl. It began the same way and soon after the boys pull down your pants routine, it came down to only the girl and me. In almost no time, we ended up totally bare assed, standing there waiting for Donald’s next command. Then he announced he wanted to see the girl pee. I don’t remember now whether it was that she couldn’t pee or just didn’t want to, but in minutes she got dressed and ran home.

I pulled my pants back on and he jumped down from his tree. Now he was standing in front of me. I was ready to leave, assuming our club meeting had adjourned. Donald looked into my eyes and murmured “Show me yer’ dick”. I had no idea what a dick was; I had never heard the word used as anything but a guy’s name before. I only knew wiener, which most of my peers called it, or peeney, what my mother insisted I call it. I always hated her word because it sounded like something tiny or totally insignificant. “My what?” I questioned. “Yer’ dick” he pronounced more seductively, – ” yer’ wiener”, and he grabbed at his own through his jeans for clarification. I thought it was the coolest sounding word for that heretofore very private part of my body. My dick.

I had only glimpsed a few of my contemporary’s wieners. I had never seen my father naked, only in his boxers which he slept in. Nor had I seen my older brother, because his white briefs never came off anywhere except behind a locked bathroom door. I responded to Donald’s request by saying something to the effect that he’d already seen mine. He told me he wanted to look at it up close. How I ever found the courage I’ll never know, but I countered with “Show me yer’ dick first”. He looked around cautiously, then knelt down at my feet, leaning back on his haunches against a rock. He opened his jeans, exposing his white boxers. My eyes were riveted on his crotch. I remember him nonchalantly pulling down the elastic waistband and all at once seeing a crop of dark curly pubes, something I never even knew existed before Donald’s tantalizing unveiling. I was mesmerized as though I were viewing some alien creature. “You have hair down there?” just tumbled out of my mouth. He laughed, realizing from my face and reaction, that he possessed something I had never seen before and he was enjoying all of this so very much. Then he reached down into his shorts and pulled out his meat and flopped it over his boxers. The image is still retrievable from my memory as sharp and clear as my young eyes had recorded it that very day.  His fat, hairy dick.

I did take mine out, only because he insisted I do it. Even though I had already grown very fond of my own penis, it paled in comparison to Donald’s and I had not taken my eyes off his from the instant he’d exposed it. I remember liking this feeling that came from the two of us showing off what we had to each other, and he studied mine with a genuine interest that bonded us for that moment. He never touched mine, but I am almost certain that I had to stop myself from reaching out to fondle his tempting surprise. He never visited our field again, although I continued to play there until school started in September, praying each time he would return. He still came to our house regularly to hangout with my brother throughout high school. Every once in a while he would leave our bathroom door open when he knew I was near and could see, and he would show off a bit for my private delectation. It was Donald who made those four words come alive and his image that I substituted on many nights for many years to come.

Sissy Boy

It’s taken six decades to accomplish, but in that time, I have been called: fag, faggot, fairy, fruit, homo, nellie, pansy, and queer. But by far, the most painful pejorative of them all has to be sissy and it was the very first I remember ever having been called at a very tender age. It was my older brother who often called me sissy boy whenever he was forced to have to include me in his play, or look after me while my mother had to do something that required her full attention. Being seven years younger, I was always a burden to him, something he was forced to put up with and he made it quite clear that it was with great detestation that he had to recognize my existence in his world at all. I didn’t expect him to like me, just not demean me by name calling. But that he did and with great gusto and he knew just how to zero in and make it hurt deeply. It was bad enough to have the cruel world of West Buttfok, Ohio hurl abusive epithets, but when it came from your own flesh and blood it was almost too much for me to bear. I even heard sissy from my father and mother, discussing me when they thought I couldn’t hear. And it all started very early in my life.

My mother saved most of my elementary school report cards, along with my childhood photos. I especially enjoy the one from Kindergarten. Miss Pete was my teacher, and we were evaluated at four separate times in the school year. Each of the evaluations was a typed paragraph which summed up our progress throughout the school year. In the first, she detects “a slight lisp which might be outgrown”  It wasn’t.  I had speech therapy in the third grade for a sibilant “s” (how appropriate for a gay-to-be). But more concerning “he does not seem to join in the play with the other boys in his class” and she was right. I naturally chose to hang out with the girls because they were a lot more well-behaved and played wonderful make-believe games while all the boys wanted to do was build forts with the huge wooden blocks, then proceed to knock them down and rough-house. What kind of fun is that? She comments in the following two paragraphs that “he enjoys story time” and that “he is a perfect gentlemen”. In the final paragraph she is “happy to report that he now enjoys the company of both his boy and girl classmates” which I think was actually bullshit, because I didn’t like them anymore than I did the first day and I had always identified more as one of the Kindergarten girls.

Elementary school got much better, and so did the boys. I enjoyed being one of the top students and each year, one of the teachers’ favorites and popular in the class as well. I always had one boy “best friend” each year; I guess I have always been a monogamous kind of guy. But none that I could play doctor with until fifth grade and that was a kid named Jim, who must have been held back twice, because he was already a few years older than me. To clarify, we didn’t play doctor in the classic sense (we were far too old for that-especially him) but he did teach me about masturbation, and demonstrated his technique for me and a few others in our class after school in his garage on several different occasions. I found it fascinating and couldn’t wait until it was physically possible for me to accomplish.

Then came junior high. It was a disastrous period for me. The whole socialization process had changed and it became boys against girls, yet at the same time our foes were also supposed to be our focus of sexual interest. It was all too confusing for me, perhaps because I was getting very different signals about who I was really attracted to in the first place. The only positive thing that came out of seventh and eighth grade was the locker room before and after Phys Ed class; I absolutely hated gym and anything connected with sports, but did I love getting naked with all those boy-men! Unfortunately, I had to endure all the awfulness of what junior high was daily, weekly, for only a few minutes of nakedness with about forty guys three times a week. Similarly, I had to brave a ton of name calling throughout each week as well. Junior high is where I learned, quite surprisingly, (and when it was far too late), that if you wore green on Thursdays you were a “fairy”. Up until this point, the only fairies I knew about were Tinkerbell and friends. Imagine my chagrin that first Thursday I chose to wear an outfit of olive corduroys and multi-shaded green sweater, that I would, for the balance of my West Buttfokian education, be forever branded “fairy” by some of my fellow students.

I need to interject here, that at this time I was thirteen, just under five feet tall and weighed not yet one hundred pounds. In other words, a typical skinny, scrawny  geek who would later that year be fitted with eyeglasses. Early on in the school year I made friends in study hall with a heavy-set girl named Connie. She wasn’t very pretty, over-teased and peroxided her hair and dressed like trailer-trash, but she had a filthy mouth and got into trouble a lot and for some reason this appealed to me. Maybe I felt she was “safe” because I knew she’d never expect to have a boyfriend , or maybe I was just attracted to her bad-girl image. She danced incredibly well and loved music and always had cigarettes for us to smoke. We walked home from school together, often with some of her friends. She wasn’t popular among the regular girls, but maintained her own pack of cohorts by shoplifting items according to their requests. It was limited only to what she could steal from a local store similar to K-Mart. This was totally out of my comprehension; I never knew anyone like this before. Finally, after several weeks of hanging out after school, I asked her if she could “crook me” a 45 of YOU CAN’T HURRY LOVE . Sure enough, a few days later she slipped it into my notebook as she entered study hall. I was amazed. But no good deed goes unpunished, and I was going to pay big time for Connie’s gift.

Shortly after the delivery of my hot 45, I began receiving a series of anonymous phone calls. They were from a guy, who referred to me alternately as either sissy-boy or queer-boy. He said I didn’t know him, but he knew me and he was going to beat me up one day after school. I asked him why he would want to beat me up if I didn’t even know him, and how could he know me and I not know him. That wasn’t important, he would quasi-explain, the only important thing was he was going to be waiting for me at my corner bus stop soon and “would beat the shit out of my queer face”. It was amazing how he was able to fill each of his short sentences with those stinging words sissy or queer. I always received these calls soon after coming in the door from school and he would make two or three brief, threatening calls each week. I was scared to death. I had, up to this point, avoided physical confrontation of any kind. I knew I would never be able to defend myself from even an elementary school kid. I now was the sissy-boy he accused me of being because all the years of name calling had instilled it in me.Who was this person, and why was he so angry with me? The only one I could speak to about it was Connie, because she was always threatening to beat everybody up, so certainly she would understand. I figured as a last resort, maybe she would help me beat him up. I know I would have been afraid of her in a fight because she was one tough broad. With each phone call and every passing week, I grew more and more paranoid. I developed eagle eyes whenever walking, especially to or from school. I was leery of any strange guys I saw anywhere, any time of day. This was crazy. I was being stalked long before I knew the word existed.

After nearly a month of these calls, my anonymous caller made a slip-up. As I attempted to reason with this insane teen terrorist, I asked him what school he went to. He had admitted earlier he didn’t go to West B. He gave me the name of a high school in the next town over. I knew no one there, but I remembered instantly that Connie had a cousin she often spoke about in that school who she was very close to. I paused, took a deep breath, and said “so then you must be Connie’s cousin”. There was silence on the line. Then he shot back with something to the effect of yeah but it didn’t matter because he was still gonna’ kick my queer ass. I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but knowing that he wasn’t totally anonymous anymore gave me a tiny morsel of courage, so I turned the tables on him. “OK, so when are we going to get this thing over with? When do you want to meet? Tomorrow?” Another longer pause. “I’m busy tomorrow”, he says. “Maybe next week. Don’t worry sissy boy, I’m still gonna’ get you”. He hung up.

The next day I didn’t even wait for study hall. I met Connie outside her homeroom. I told her we had to talk before study hall. We arranged to get hall passes at the same time from our first period classes. She knew what was up, because I’m sure her cousin must have called her after he hung up with me. I asked her point-blank why he was harassing me and the only answer she gave was a shrug of her shoulders and “he’s just a crazy asshole”.  I never did find out why this guy started calling me. Maybe she needed to intimidate me and couldn’t do it face to face so he was her surrogate. Or maybe he was jealous of Connie’s and my relationship (whatever the hell that was) and wanted me to leave her alone. I only know that he never called again. And Connie and I were civil to each other but never buddies again.

But it didn’t matter that his phone calls stopped. The ordeal made me so frightened, so unsure of myself and so afraid of even my own shadow, that I was haunted by the thought that sissy-boy-me would forever be taunted and jeered at and threatened with physical harm for the rest of my days. And for many, many years afterwards I was. Anywhere I walked, any time of the day or night, I lived in constant fear of being beaten up for being queer-just being me. If I saw a teenage guy coming my way, I hurriedly crossed to the opposite of the street. If, God forbid, a group of older boys was walking in my direction I would duck into the first open door or safe place and wait until they passed before continuing on my way. Even in my twenties, and my first few years living in Manhattan, I was intimidated by the mere sight of teenage boys, certain they would beat me up because I had “sissy” tattooed in invisible ink across my forehead. It literally took years to get over my phobia. It’s been uncomfortable for me just to write this paragraph nearly fifty years later.

Did any good come out of this? We always want to feel that overcoming obstacles in life makes us better people. It usually does. It toughened me up, certainly. Did I learn anything from it? Yes, that it was really difficult growing up gay back in the old days. And today with television shows like GLEE, and all the “out” pop icons, and Gay/Straight Alliances in high schools, and Pride Parades in cities all over this world, it’s still really difficult growing up gay.

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)