Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Invariably, drama ensued between various groups at various times. Men fought over who would have sex with who, straight girls fought with themselves as to why they came to a party filled with gay men, stoic lesbians stared at everyone as if they were a bunch of morons and I stood back and watched.
Being a divorcee with no real desire for anonymous sex is a fascinating place to be right now.
There is a theory I have been fascinated with of late. It's not new, but it's become extremely relevant in urban NYC gay culture.
This is the theory: gay men act like sixteen year old girls because they never had a teenage adolescence as gay boys, never had the chance to date a boy, hold hands in the hallway, go to sporting games as a couple, call their friends and, like, talk forever about how Adam was so looking at Tiffani and not ME.
Sitting in the corner of the slimy pool at Cherry Grove in Fire Island, I watched all of my brethren drink and smoke their way into oblivion and wondered how true this theory was.
I thought back to a summer in my life.
Come with me to 1978.
It was a cold day in March. Winter in the Pacific Northwest meant rain, rain and more rain.
My Mother was working part time at a urologist office. She had recently gotten her nursing degree from a local college a few years before and had secured a part time job she found very rewarding.
My Father was working at Boeing and would often be gone for long stretches in Europe. He'd bring back little pyramids from Egypt and tiny little European shirts for me. It may sound very cosmopolitan, but trust me, it wasn't. Most of the gifts were cheap and tattered, but I didn't care. It was from my Pops so I was thrilled.
On this one particular day, my Mother came home from a long day at the urologists office, made dinner and sat down to eat with the family. Dinner for my Mother was a frozen beef patty with a side of cottage cheese and canned beats. Homemade pie if her meds were all working in tandem.
We had our evening prayer (yes, we prayed -- it was the 70's) and my Mother passed around the meal. She looked off into the distance as she chewed on her ground hamburger stuffed bell pepper and said in a wistful voice, "You know, I held the firmest, nicest penis today in the office. It's so nice to work with a well-formed penis, you know? The old one's are so tired looking. Like they need a little love."
My father stared at her, slack-jawed, then shot me a look of exasperation (still slack-jawed) and then did what he did every time my Mother said such things...he turned his attention back to his dilapidated bell pepper, shook his head and muttered, "There are things called filters, Joyce, for a very good reason. Filters, woman, filters."
I relished this side of my Mother's madness. One nice perk being raised by a mentally ill woman -- you learn how to be all sorts of funny and abnormally inappropriate all at the same time. But it was an inappropriate response based out of an unspoken truth which, as an adult, I find to be an extremely attractive (and rare) quality in a person.
Problem with my Mother was I never knew if she was joking with me or making fun of me.
In my mind, my Mother wasn't being too bold. She was simply saying what everyone was thinking. In my thirteen year old brain, our house was the same as any other. Isn't this how everyone talked at the dinner table?
On this night, after my Mother finished stabbing her bell pepper mindlessly with her fork, she looked up at me and said, "Yes. It's time." She resumed eating.
I was confused. This could mean anything from my mother. "Yes, it's time..." could mean she thought it a fine time to up her Valium or that it was an ideal time for the world to end.
"Your father and I want to talk to you about something" she said.
My heart sank. My childhood was a childhood of many, many secrets and every day of every moment was spent dreading the day my parents would say, "Your father and I want to talk to you about something."
I couldn't find my voice. I was afraid my Mother would fix me with one of her stares, the kind of stares that made my blood run cold. My Mother was funny, yes, but she also had a horribly sadistic side to her that made me wish Sybil had never, ever written that book.
"Your father and I have been talking and we think it's time you spent a summer away from us." My Mother sat back in her chair, crossed one leg over the other and picked at a piece of sirloin from between her front teeth. "What do you think about that?"
I knew she was picking a fight. She was defying me to tell her it was a bad idea and I already knew at thirteen how to avoid an argument with her.
"When?" I asked.
My Mother shared a look with my father and said, "It's weird you don't have any friends, Mike. You sit here all day and read or watch TV or go to the movies. It's kinda creepy, kid. You need friends."
She gestured around our tiny, Ranch-styled house, as if she were a Southern Realtor showing off her newest prize property which was, to everyone else, a shit shack.
"But I have you guys," I said.
My Mother frowned. "You're such a creepy kid. Do you want me to say it?"
"I dunno know what you're gonna say but I'd prefer it you didn't," I said, gently pushing away from the dinner table.
"We need a break from you, kid," she said, tilting her head back and looking at me. "What do you think of them apples?"
I wanted to pull my Mother's tongue from her mouth and snap it back in her fucking face, but I figured that's probably not what a good son should do.
My Mother watched me sitting still and not responding. I could see the mix of emotions in her face. She knew she was being mean but goddamn if she could stop.
"Son," my Father said, putting his calloused and warm hand on my forearm, "I had a great time at camp when I was a boy. We went to one in Billings. Best time of my life."
I looked at my Dad. His pale blue eyes were sunken so far into his face I had to squint to see them.
"Camp?" I said.
Summer camp. Dear God. Were they kidding? The last thing on earth I wanted to do was spend time at summer camp with kids my own age. I only liked old people. Kids were terrifying.
"Oh, don't get that look on your face, Mike. You'll love it," my Mother said with a sigh as she stood and started clearing the dining room table. "I would have given anything to get away from my Father when I was your age," she said, stopping in the middle of the kitchen, her back to me, the late afternoon sun atop her shock of white hair, framing her neck in such a way I could see the creases and deep lines in her aging neck. "Anything at all."
I spent the winter dreading Memorial Day, the weekend I would be shipped off to camp. I had been told the camp was sponsored by the YMCA and was in a place called the San Juan Islands. To me, it was San Quentin.
The day came and my Father drove me to the bus at the local mall. As the car pulled up, I felt my heart sink deeper and deeper at the sight in front of me.
Buses. A dozen buses filled to the brim with kids my own age.
This was worse than I'd imagined. I'd never make it out alive. Dead at thirteen. Oh, well. They were thirteen relatively good years.
Ten minutes later, I found myself being yelled at by my father on the opposite side of the passenger door. I refused to come out. I'd locked all of the doors and cranked up the volume on the radio and sang along with my soul mate, Olivia Newton-John. "Don't stop believin'! Don't stop believin'! Don't stop believin'! You'll get by! Bad days, bad days will hurry by!"
Twenty minutes later I found myself sitting in the second to last seat on the bus. It rocked and rolled along the Seattle freeway and would soon take us the the outer edges of Washington State and into the San Juan Islands.
I was doomed.
All of the kids were yelling at the top of their lungs and making fast friends on the bus. One kid offered another kid his dessert from his lunch box. The girl next to me was trading hair barrettes with her new camping friend. I wasn't sure if it was appropriate or not to ask the huge boy next to me if he'd like to borrow my copy of Carl Jung's "Memories, Dreams and Reflections".
I had a duffel bag wedged between my knees. Inside my Mother had thrown every conceivable thing I'd need for my first month away, as well as a note that read, "Watch your back. Don't trust anyone and don't let them steal your stuff. Signed, Joyce and your Mom."
The Caravan of Doomed Children arrived at the ferry dock and stopped. Ferry travel is very common in Washington State. Since Seattle's weather is what one would call moderately depressed, one is never too hot or too cold, so riding on a ferry is always a nice, brisk experience if you enjoy paying to be chilled to the bone and the sound of your own teeth chattering.
Ahead of us was a huge line to board the ferry. I knew I'd never survive the summer. I was so anxious I kept tying and retying my duffel bag tie to such a degree it looked like a seasoned sailor had created the greatest and most indestructible knot of all time.
In a slow crawl, the buses inched towards the loading dock. The sharp smell of the sea water and nearby low lying grass filled the bus. For the first time since the beginning of the trip, a hush fell.
In silence, we watched as the bus rose slightly into the air and gently pitched over the huge, metallic ferry ramp. I watched as the bodies of all of the children rose into the air and then settled back into their seats.
The moment we cleared the ramp and drove into our parking space in the wide, open center of the boat, the bus erupted with a thunderous scream as all of the kids shot to their feet and scrambled for the exit.
"SIT DOWN NOW UNTIL THE BUS STOPS MOVING."
Everyone's head snapped towards the front of the bus where the bus driver now stood. She was well over six feet tall. Her hair was pulled back from her head in a giant ponytail that rode down the back of her neck and out of sight. Her face was pert and small.
She was smiling but her eyes were focused and roaming the face of every kid on the bus.
"Hi everyone. My name is Jenny Piles. Yes, my last name is Piles. If you think I haven't heard a joke about my last name you're wrong so please don't even try," she said with a laugh. I laughed as well. I was the only one.
Jenny shot me a quick look and a wide, big smile. I felt a flutter in my stomach. I had just made my first friend.
"Okay," she continued. "I have to read off your name from this list before you are allowed to go to the upstairs deck. Okay. Here we go."
Once atop the boat, I walked the length of the upper deck of the ferry until I reached the front portion which was closed off in glass, like a fishbowl. I'd sat there before when I traveled with my parents by ferry. It had a heater for your feet and a small dispenser you could put a drink or pop in ('pop' is all the rage in the West; the word 'soda' confuses people in Washington -- say 'soda' and your liable to get an antacid).
It was hermetically sealed and it was hard to feel the wind or the elements once inside. It was considered the Old Person's seating area.
It was perfect for me.
I sat inside the encased area and watched as endless streams of camp kids ran up and down the length of the boat. I felt my stomach flip twice. I wasn't ready for this. Too many kids and too much activity. I sipped my pop and snuggled into the far corner of the Old Person area and counted the minutes to my certain death.
The bus rocked and rolled along the rural island road until we came to a battered looking wooden sign next to a dirt road -- "Welcome to YMCA Camp Orkila."
The camp was huge. It was over two hundred and eight acres and had over three hundred open cabins in two sections. The dining area was a massive structure which jutted over the water with the always tranquil waters of the Pacific Sound beyond.
There were soaring trees (a Northwest speciality), a two tennis pools, five dozen canoes for day trips, an archery range, a crafts lodge and wide, open fields to frolic and play.
It was terrifying.
Despite being raised in the Pacific Northwest and visiting Montana as a kid, I was outdoor phobic. I know now my parents were the victims of a baby-swapping misfortune. Some poor schmuck who should have been born in Seattle was probably plunked down in the Bronx longing for the smell of pine cones and salt water and morose, maudlin rock music to kill oneself by.
As a child I dreamt of New York. I was obsessed with Woody Allen. While everyone was seeing Star Wars and Superman, I was going to double features of Ordinary People and Sophie's Choice.
I found my cabin in the far corner of the boy's section. The boys were sanctioned from the girls for fear of (as the camp brochure said) 'retaliation'. That confused me. What were they expecting? A full scale war amongst the foliage and fawna? The only relationship I was afraid of was from the other boys. I had never done well in friendships with other boys.
Lee, our camp counselor, met us all as we lined up single file in front of the cabin. He was a tall man with a bright red beard and a big, bushy head of red hair. His green eyes twinkled in the sun. I was immediately smitten.
Being from the Pacific Northwest he was partially lesbian at birth so he discussed how we had to love Mother Earth, how we couldn't harm trees or birds and must always be respectful of them.
He also made a point of telling us no circumstances could we kick the deer for sport. That last part gave me pause. What kind of camp was this?
I hesitantly looked at the boys around me. To my right was a black boy named Richard. As far a I could tell he was the only black kid in the entire camp.
His body was lankly and thin, except for his stomach which was enormous as well as his eyes. They were comically huge. He reminded me of a Pug dog. He roared at every joke I told and said to me, "We're going to be life long friends if we ever survive this summer."
Next to Richard was a tiny boy with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a birthmark on his neck in shape of a goose being held upside down.
The two boys next to him were clearly brothers. They kept throwing a basketball back and forth and grunting and groaning as if the ball were an anvil and they were entering the Olympics.
I looked to my left and saw a boy near the end of the row who had thin hair slicked down the middle, wore overalls and no shirt and was barefoot. I figured he and Lesbian Lee would probably start a basket weaving competition around the campfire later.
And beyond him was another boy. He was taller than most of us and had shiny, chestnut colored hair. I knew he used my favorite shampoo, Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific. I could smell it from fifty feet away.
His Star Jeans hugged his body tightly and his velour shirt was open the top and the elastic untied, flowing freely in gently Orcas Island breeze.
His nose was bent in the center, as if someone had shoved a staircase in his nose, creating a simple platform which gave his face a cut, rugged appearance but the roughness was undercut by his eyes.
They were brown and soft. His eyelashes were nearly blond and I knew as the summer progressed his hair and lashes would become nearly luminescent and white.
I cursed myself for forgetting my Sun In at my house. I loved my Sun In. One year I decided to shampoo with Sun In versus just spraying it on and my Mother said last time she checked she didn't give birth to an albino. My hair was so white I had to get a crew cut so it would grow as it's natural color.
"Well, then a little about this summer, okay guys?" Lee smiled at all of us. We smiled back. It was impossible not to. I felt like he was the mother I never had, except this one had a beard and probably bathed twice a week. "Before we get going, there is one thing we have to do first."
Lee turned, walked into the cabin and came out moments later with a small bag in his hand. It was made of burlap and someone had crocheted on the outside, "Save The Whales".
Lee smiled, opened the bag and said, "In this bag is something very precious." I was hoping it was a Big Mac. I was starving. "It's your future."
He then reached into the bag and pulled out...scarves. Yellow scarves. On the tip it read "YMCA Camp Orkila".
Lee had each of us walk to him, turn around and very gently he would tie the scarf around our neck so the logo and the name draped over our backs. I realized as he did this for every boy that I had seen these as I was on the bus entering the camp for the first time. I thought it was system for signifying who had food allergies or were handicapped.
"These scarf's have been a tradition at Camp Orkila since we first opened in 1906. The idea of the scarfs is that there are many different levels of different colors. Over the course of the summer, you will all become friends and begin your journey from boys to men."
Lee gave us all a very solemn look. "I'm honored to be part of your life path. To begin, I'm going to pair each of you up. After I've done that, then you will go off in pairs and spend time alone and talk about something in your life which concerns you. After you have done so, you will come to me separately and privately and tell me if the talk was helpful and resulted in you learning anything about yourself. If the answer is yes, then you graduate to a higher level scarf."
Needless to say, all of us were thrilled. Richard poked me in the ribs and said to me, "I hope were partners. You made me laugh." I smiled and poked him back. I felt warm and safe with Richard. And he laughed at my jokes, so he was aces in my book.
Lee began pairing us together. Richard went with the flower child in overalls. He thrust out his bottom lip as he past me. When it came my turn, Lee looked at me and then back at the attendance sheet on the clipboard he had in his hand. He ran his finger over his bottom lip and muttered to himself. "Curt", he said.
"Yes?" It was the boy with the brown hair and Star Jeans.
Lee nodded to himself. "You and Mike. Yes. Curt and Mike."
Curt turned and looked at me. He smiled. His top row of teeth were slightly bent. The front two teeth met in the center, creating a small ridge in his upper lip. His nose was sharp, angled and when he looked at me it caused a small shadow over the right side of his face. He shook his head to brush the hair from his eyes and walked over to me and extended his hand.
"Hi," he said, smiling.
"Hi," I squeaked. My voice was changing and it was frustrating. I was a kid who could never shut up. For verbal children, the voice changes is as shaming as the endless dreams I'd had of being in my underwear in the school playground as all of the bullies tied me to the tether-ball pole and assaulted me endlessly with ball after ball after ball.
Curt laughed. "Puberty sucks, huh?"
"Tell me about it. I tried to sing in the choir at school but they weren't sure if I should be an alto or baritone. I think I sound like a drowned fish."
Curt shook his head again. Small strands of hair billowed over the side of his face, but two strands stuck to this pale eyelashes. They reminded me of dandelion ends in the wind.
He laughed. "A drowned fish? I'm sure you weren't that bad."
The day progressed and Lee said it was time for us to all head to our first separate time together. Curt told me he'd heard of a place called Chapel Rock Apparently, the rock was at the edges of the camp and overlooked all of Puget Sound and a small, isolated island in the distance. I told him it sounded great.
Away we went.
We walked down a rocky beach which led to the sheer cliff of Chapel Rock. It was huge. In order to get to the top, we'd have to scale the small steps embedded in the rock. It looked about as stable as dental floss strung over the Grand Canyon.
Curt looked at me and laughed. "It's not funny," I said, more hurt than angry. Curt sighed and pushed me gently in front of him. "Why don't you go first. I'll follow behind. If you slip I'll catch you."
I looked up at the steps leading to the top in a chaotic zigzag pattern. I was afraid. I stepped up on two steps, then three. My palms were sweating. I couldn't grab the next rung. I turned to look at Curt when I felt his hand on my low back. "Don't worry," he said. "I've got you."
Up the rock we climbed. I was two seconds away from absolute hysteria while Curt was marveling at the view. Higher and higher we climbed. We reached the top and collapsed on the dusty top. We laughed and stood up and looked ahead of us.
Gnarled, dry old trees grew out of the rock and extended over the edge and into nothing. The water ahead was tranquil and calm. In the far distance we could see the other San Juan islands. In front of us, just as we were told, was a small island nestled in the water.
It was overcast and a little cold. June in Washington State. Curt looked at the island closest to us. "We should take a canoe out there sometime."
Curt laughed. "Don't tell me your afraid of a canoe!"
"No! It's not the canoe I'm afraid of. It's the killer wales."
Curt laughed uproariously. He looked at me. His laughter slowed. "Wait. You're serious."
I solemnly nodded my head. "I saw Jaws. Four times. Orca twice. Not a very good movie. But you saw what they did to Bo Derek."
"That's a movie, Mike."
"Movies, real life - what's the difference?" It was true. I didn't see a difference. If there was one thing I knew in life it was that all of my true life lessons would be found in movies. It sure wouldn't come from my Mom and Dad. The only reason I knew a penis went into a vagina was because I found my sister's husband's secret porn stash in the basement of their Yakima, Washington house. I still found the image repulsive and confusing but at least now I knew.
Curt scraped at the dirty rock floor beneath us. "So...should we talk?"
I nodded. "Sure."
We both sat down and Curt told me about his life. He and his family had moved to Seattle from Southern California. His father worked in the military so they traveled often. He was an only child. He never met his mother. She left him and his father when he was a baby. "My Dad never tells me why she left, just that she left," he said to me as he absently drew in the dirt at his feet with a thin stick.
He was quiet after that. I cleared my throat. "Is that what you wanted to talk about?"
He didn't look up from the dirt. "No," he said after a moment. "Why don't you talk?"
"I dunno what to say."
Curt turned his head and looked at me. His hair fell across his face. "Were you -- never mind."
My stomach flipped. "What?"
Curt stared at the ground. I sighed. "Lee said we can't get the new color if we don't say what's really --"
"-- were you glad Lee put us together?" he said. I looked at him. He was staring at the ground. My stomach was in knots. It took everything in me not to barf right there and then.
"Why?" he asked.
"I like you."
Curt looked up at me. "You do?"
I was terrified. Play it safe, Mike, play it safe. "You seem like a cool guy."
"That's it?" Curt asked?
I couldn't catch my breath. "Yes?"
"Because I was hoping you'd like me like me...you know?"
Sweat rolled down my back. My vision was blurry. I could only speak in a whisper. "I do."
Curt wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He looked off, into the distance, to the far away island. "Can I sit next to you then? Is that okay?"
I nodded. "Sure".
Curt laid down his stick and stood up, wiping the dust from his pants. The star of his Star Jeans was filthy. He walked over to where I was and looked down at me. I scooted over so that my legs were dangling over the edge of the rock. Curt sat next to me so our legs were touching. He folded his hands in his lap and I did the same.
He then turned to me, leaned forward and very gently kissed me. I could feel the ridge in his upper lip. His teeth tasted of sugar and grass. We stayed in the kiss, our lips unmoving. We then parted and held hands as he told me about his Mother and I told him about my secret life as a gay boy in a small town.
We walked back in silence to the cabin. Curt found an entry into the dark woods by the beach. He said if we took the woods we could hold hands and no one would see us. The moon was high. We took turns guiding each other through the woods. At one point, Curt put his hand on my chest. It was pitch black. I could barely see, even with the moonlight.
He leaned forward in the dark and said, "Can you see me?" I nodded my head. He kissed me on the lips twice, then ran his fingers through my hair. "So soft..." he said.
When we got back to the opening leading to camp he quickly pulled his hand from mine. He didn't look at me as we walked across the dark and nearly deserted camp grounds and to our cabin.
That night we ate dinner at separate sides of the dining hall. The room was a hive of madness Kids ate and screamed, threw food and listened to music.
Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow...
Don't stop, it'll soon be here...
It'll be here, better than before...
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone...
Later than night I lay on my back in my bunk bed in the cabin. Outside I could hear the water on the beach. It sounded like someone clapping very quietly.
Lee had asked all of us is we felt the talks went well. Curt and I nodded our heads but didn't look at each other.
I couldn't sleep. I stared at the wooden planks in the ceiling and counted how many beams it took to make the cabin.
I turned on my side and looked across the cabin towards the top bunk in the far corner. Light from an outside campfire flickered on the wall.
Curt lay on his side as well and stared at me. I watched his face plunge in and out of darkness. We stayed like that for hours, simply looking at each other, not making sound, not making a move. As the night wore on, sleep overtook both of us.
The last thing I remember as I fell asleep was Curt looking at me from across the room and smiling as he waved to me. I waved back. I closed my eyes and slept.
(...to be continued...)
Friday, June 3, 2011
We of the Broken Hearts Club (gawd, what a bad movie that was) align with our own kind. Those who smoke too much and drink too much to avoid the horrific reality of our own naked, alone existence. I have many friends who are suffering the aftermath of a break-up and let me tell you, motherfuckers -- this is major aftermath.
Someone told me once for every year you are in a relationship it takes a half a year to get over someone. So, basically, by 2018 I'll be all set to sleep with someone and not break out into blubbering sobs or take seven and a half hours to orgasm. Great. Life is good! I can't say I believe this math, but emotionally, right now, it sounds irrationally right.
Every pop song I'm forced to listen to at Duane Reade, every dance song shoved down my throat at every dance club in this country tells me that I have to be my own commander, my own soldier, I have to push ahead and lift my head to face another day. Every time I hear one of these songs I raise my chin and feel a surge of excitement in my breast(s) as I push open the Duane Reade door and walk into the urine-laden muggy, summer city air, saying hi to my fellow scowling New Yorkers, giving money to homeless dogs and children and solider on into the urban landscape which is my home.
Then I see them.
They usually come in pairs. They can be small and may be perched in a tire. Or in their teens and jumping through a round Target store shaped circle, or holding cell phones and skipping in Central Park or old and smiling at the camera as they blow out candles atop a celebration cake.
Of course, I'm talking about happy people and people in love in ads on city busses or on TV in Times Square. The minute a sappy song comes on and the actors pretending to be in love appear I tear up and have to turn away and mutter something horrific, such as "I see dead nuns riding on a bicycle with no bicycle seat" to make me stop from being overly emotional.
The mantra of all love songs and insipid TV ads is the same as the lyrics from the song Smile sung by the incomparable Mr. King Cole...
Smile through your heart is aching...
Smile even though it's breaking...
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll be by...
If you smile through your fear and sorrow...
Smile and maybe tomorrow...
You'll see the sun come shining through for you...
Some people were raised to solider on better than others. I learned to solider one from one thing and one thing only when I was nine years old -- a boomerang.
Now, a fair warning -- I have a sneaking suspicion all of these blog posts will be published in a book in the near future. So if there is an agenda here, it is of 'memoir writing'. I've been reading a lot of memories by gay men lately and they are like eating Wonder Bread. The look good and taste nice, but afterwards you're hungrier for something much more substantial.
Most of these writers discuss their zany and wacky (but lovely) family and their zany and wacky (but domestic and classic suburban) relationship to the point where I wonder, "Is there something wrong with me? 'Cause their reality ain't the reality I had growing up."
I remember years ago I asked a therapist if my family life was normal compared to her other patients. This therapist - let's call her CD -- was a salt and pepper haired older gay woman with a thriving practice in the East Village section of Manhattan.
Looking back, I feel sorry for CD. She met me at my most neurotic. I was living in a dilapidated loft in the East Village, I made $6.00 and hour under the table at a dirty video store in the East Village, I was horribly in debt and had terrible credit, I ate at McDonald's every night and I was living with the kind of Mother rage that would have made Hamlet blush.
I chose her as a therapist because A) She was a woman who looked like my mother. There is no "B". If you knew me at all you'd know "A" was all that was needed to lite this transference powder keg.
In the end, I was more than she could handle. The end came when she came into the office one day looking rather distraught. Now, I'm a very caring man. I am overly caring sometimes. There are days I want to take away everyone's pain, but back then when I was in my mid-20's, it was all I could do to get out of bed and make it through the day. I was what therapist term 'really fucking depressed.' And when you are really depressed, it's very hard to see outside of your own narrow reality no matter how well meaning your intentions.
So when CD came in looking distraught, I immediately said to her, "You know, just because you're upset doesn't mean I have to take care of you. I know that's not my job. Okay?"
What I didn't realize is this person across from me is just that -- a person. And on this day, this person went into full-blown Lose My Shit Mode.
"This isn't always about you," CD bellowed to me. She looked at the ground and shook her head. She jammed her fingers into her hair and let out a huge exhale. And let me tell you -- when a lesbian as big as her exhales it's best you stand back because something is gonna blow.
And oh boy, blow it did.
She bolted up in her chair, pointed her finger at me and screamed until the veins on her neck reminded me of the kind of Red Vines licorice you'd buy at the movies. "I had a death in my family today! I'm suffering too you know! You're not the only one who feels!"
I felt like a bucket of cold water had been splashed on me, aka, Catholic guilt. "I'm sorry I didn't know. Who?"
I sat up in my chair. She had a daughter? "Oh my God. How..."
She shook her head and looked away, her clenched fist cupped at her mouth. "She ran out into the street, she didn't see the car coming..."
"CD...I...I...I"m sorry I didn't ask you about your child."
"Yes, they are like children aren't they? When we got her from the pound she was so small."
She pulled her fist away from her mouth and took one step towards me. In a flash I saw my drugged up and wine filled mother from my youth advancing on me and felt my balls rise up into my body. The beginnings of a full-blown panic attack was starting and all I knew was I had to get out of the room -- now.
CD glared at me and screamed, "She was my dog, okay? My dog! She was the most perfect Doberman Pincher there ever was. I'm sorry it wasn't a child but it was a child, Michael! And to answer your earlier question, no, Michael, you're family was inordinately fucked up. They were a mess and regardless of what you may think, most people are happier than you. Okay?"
I stood up. "Okay, well, I think we're done here." I ran to the door and pulled it open.
CD ran to my side. "I'm sorry, Michael. I lost my shit. I'm sorry. Stay."
"We can work this out. Please don't leave. Please."
"I can't," I said. "I just can't".
I ran out of her office that day and never looked back. I was too afraid to work through our small disagreement.
But of course, her words stuck with me. And as time marched on and I got older and went to more and more and more therapy, I learned she was right.
I came from a really fucked up family.
I grew up in a suburb of Seattle. It was a tiny town with a population of less than twenty thousand. It wasn't a farming town but it was rural white trash. We had one strip in the center of town where there was one of everything. It was walkable and white trashy cute.
Of course, I now live in a town in Queens, a sorta-suburb of New York City, that looks exactly like my home town. Your past is like herpes - no matter how much you try to cover it up it never, ever goes away.
My Mother and Father were friends with The Hardy's, our neighbors who lived nearby. Edna Hardy was a short woman, no taller than five feet four inches tall. She was very pretty, her hair a bright, fiery red that fell over her shoulders like silk over a summer lounge chair.
And she also has the biggest tits I'd ever seen.
But not just any tits. She was the kind of woman for whom the term Torpedo Tits was created. I used to watch my father around Edna at parties and neighborhood gatherings. Whenever she would talk to him he'd run his hand over her neck and stare intently into her eyes.
"Jesus Christ, Edna really loves her tits, doesn't she?" My mother said to me one winter day as we walked back to our house after a party at The Hardy's.
I was nine at the time. She glared over her shoulder at the Hardy's house. "The woman doesn't have a brain cell in that red head of her's but she's sure got a great pair of knockers. I'm telling you, those aren't naturally that high. It's all about the bra, sonny boy, all about the bra. God, Edna and her tits. See how you father was afraid to look at them? Men. All the same, all the goddamn same."
Remember what I wrote about how gay men wax poetically at how perfect their mothers were and how wonderful they were and how divine they are? Well, my mother was what you'd call a saucy dame. Sure, she was mentally ill, but who doesn't have a few personalty quirks!
My Mother had a great Bullshit Detector. She taught me how to smell someones bullshit a mile off. Many times she used to tell people off and many times she lost friends because of it. I had the same issues up until recently. I now know how to be polite and observe social etiquette. But get a couple glasses of wine in me and get ready to hear the truth weather you like it or not.
Saints are boring and belong in fantasies. My mother was real. God bless those other writers for having such well-balanced and loving families and mothers. I'll take my turbulent and truly crazy one any day of the week.
Back to the story -- so the Hardy's had a son...we'll call him Paul. And Paul was a shit. He hated me. He was exactly the same age as me. He had light blond hair and very thick eyebrows. His eyes were green and his face seemed to cave inward, as if his nose were being sucked into his face. It gave him an impressively devilish look. He scared the shit out of me.
One night he asked me if I wanted to come and play. I said sure.
It was the summer of 1978. The music of the Bee Gee's, Commodores and Olivia Newton-John filtered out into the crisp, summer air from open windows off of tiny AM radios. I grew up in a white trash neighborhood so no one could afford an actual stereo. All we had were radios from Fred Meyer, a local trashy store that sold shit on the cheap.
I was an awkward kid. I never knew how to play with other kids. I preferred to stay at home and watch old movies with my father or sit on the couch and count how long it would take for my mother to pass out from one too many Valium and glasses of wine.
I met Paul and a few other neighborhood kids as the sun started to set.
Paul took me and the other kids behind a small, Ranch-style house at the end of the block. He had something poking out of his back pocket I couldn't quite see. Night was falling and with the arrival of night came the arrival of something I dreaded almost more than puberty: bats.
For reasons I'm still unclear on, in the summer my hometown became home to numerous bats only at sundown. They would circle in the sky in figure eight's and make small, whimpering sounds. It freaked me out and Paul and his bully buddies knew it.
So when Paul and his friends invited me to see the new backyard at a neighbors, I should have been more suspicious. But I was a trusting child and trusting children almost never make it unscathed through childhood.
Into the backyard we went. It was nearly dark. The sky was a pale ash and light blue. Paul pointed to the tips of the trees behind the house (having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, soaring trees were as common to me as hypodermic needles are to kids growing up in The Bronx). Atop the trees was a swarm of bats. But not just a swarm.
"A super swarm", Paul said, his voice filled with wonder and a touch of malice. I felt my throat clamp shut. My palms were sweating and I wanted to pee.
Paul reached into his back pocket and took out the object I'd seen earlier. He handed it to me. "Go ahead, Mike", he said, his eyes never leaving the Super Swarm. "You know you wanna."
In his hand was a black and yellow striped boomerang. My heart skipped a beat.I felt a rush of adrenaline as I looked up at the black, whimpering bats in the air. Paul was right. I did want to. But I was a good boy. I was raised a good boy. I did well in school, I helped old women across the street, I never cursed and I always ate my vegetables.
But boy oh boy did I want to nail those fucking bats.
I'd learned a few years prior my Percoset loving mother may have been an addict but she was a fun addict and politely rebellious. She said she had the manners of a nun but the mouth of a sailor. I had a sneaking suspicious I was the same, but I had yet to dip my toe into those overly rebellious waters.
"I hate them," I said aloud.
Paul smiled and then took four steps back, his shoes lost in the thick, uncut dirty grass beneath his feet. For some reason in white trash neighborhoods, people never mow their lawn. Our neighborhood wasn't the exception. If you dug deep enough you could find washer's and dryers and maybe a charcoal grill or two.
Paul licked his lips. "Throw it, Mike."
I looked up at the bats. I was lost in their swirling, chaotic mass. I turned my body to the side, bent my wrist and as I'd seen on TV, flicked my arm back and snapped it forward and let the boomerang fly.
It made a sound not unlike that of a coat zipper being pulled quickly apart as it flew threw the air and headed straight into the center of the Super Swarm. The bats scattered, emitting a spine-tingling scream. They furiously dove into the trees and out of site...and so did the boomerang.
I turned to look at Paul. "I thought the boomerang was suppose to come back."
Paul shrugged his shoulders. "That's what my Dad said. I dunno."
"But I just threw it over the trees. Wouldn't it --"
I heard Paul scream. He sounded like a three year old girl. A terrified three year old girl. He was pointing at me, his finger shaking.
I noticed it was getting very dark very quickly. I looked up at the sky and saw it was still the normal grey, light blue...and I also noticed something sticking out of my forehead.
It was the boomerang. It had returned.
And it had lodged straight between my eyes.
Being the heroic boys they were, Paul and his Posse ran as fast as they could away and out of sight. I stood alone in the middle of the quite back yard. I wasn't sure what to do next.
I looked at the grass and as I did, the boomerang gently dislodged itself from my forehead and fell into the dirty lawn with a soft thud.
I realized I should probably go home and tell my Mom and Dad what had happened. I knew Paul would make me the cause of the entire thing and I'd be in trouble.
As I walked home, I remember thinking, Why is it so dark?
I was confused and afraid of what my punishment would be at home. I walked up the small, concrete driveway leading to my house and I noticed my parents cars were gone but my sister was home.
At the time I was 14 years old and she was 24 and in college. She had come to raid the refrigerator had no idea I was out playing with my friends. My sister openly detested my Mother and it wasn't until many, many years later (and much more therapy) I realized she may have a point to her pain. Every time she'd come to visit doors would be slammed, tears would be shed and silence would follow after.
Up to the front door I walked and opened the door. My sister saw me from inside the house and ran out to greet me. I saw my Mother in the kitchen. She was making dinner and looked annoyed doing so. My Mother detested the fact she had to feed us. She felt takeout should suffice and was sick and tired of having to feed her brood.
To my mother, eating high on the hog was a burger with pickles and a open container of cottage cheese with a spoon stuck in the center. Oh, and if she was feeling generous, she's open a can of green beans as well and sprinkle them with canned Parmesan cheese.
No holding back in the Bryan household!
My sister opened the door. I remember she had an ice cream cone in her hand. When she saw me she dropped the ice cream cone. It plopped on the carpet floor right as my Mother started screaming.
My next memory is of my sister grabbing my hand and pulling me into her yellow Volkswagen Bug. She gunned the engine and peeled out from the driveway of our house (peeling out in a Volkswagen Bug in the 70's was no small feat) and drove me straight to Edmond's Hospital, a fairly large small town hospital a few miles away.
I remember the face of the ER nurse as me and my sister walked into the hospital. I'd never seen a person turn absolutely white before. She looked like a ghost.
She grabbed me and pulled me into an examination room and it was only as I passed a long mirror on the wall leading into the room I saw my face: it was coated with deep, red blood. Rivulets of it continued to pulse and fall down my face and neck. I was a living, breathing horror movie.
The doctor cleaned me up, sat me down on the exam table and told me and my sister he couldn't put the stitches in unless I had no Novocaine. Now, my memory may or not may be right here, but I do remember it was either as the stitches were being put IN or taken OUT that no Novocaine could be used.
Those details don't matter. What matters was that my sister, God bless her, sat there and held my hand as the doctor poked me again and again without the use of Novocaine. My Mother, of course, was at home popping pills to cope with this trauma that had mysteriously been inflicted upon her.
Oh, my Mother was a practicing nurse, by the way.
What was that part about my family being fucked up?
It was on that day, as I felt the needle going in and out of my skin I realized that even in the worst of times, it's possible to make it through the pain and come out the other side.
I am reminded of this every time I look in the mirror. Wedged between my eyes is a thin scar. Doctors tell me it will never go away and back in the 70's my doctor told me I missed losing an eye by a quarter of an inch.
If I can make it through that...and my Mother...I can make it through my new divorce and onto bigger brighter days.