Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The crisis of "Puer Aeternun", or, Why Gay Men Can't Grow Up - PART ONE

For the past two weekends, I've gone to two very hot and busy gay party spots for two consecutive weekends -- Asbury Park (the emphasis on Assss) and the Cherry Grove section of Fire Island.

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.


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."

"A canoe?"

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...)

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