Friday, August 5, 2011
The crisis of "Puer Aeternun", or, Why Gay Men Can't Grow Up - PART THREE
I was scared shitless.
I hid inside a bank of trees near the water's edge. I could see Curt and our entire cabin standing by four long, wooden canoes. Everyone was putting on their bulky orange life-preservers.
I can't go down there, I can't go down there...
I watched as Curt helped Richard with his vest.
Richard stared straight at Curt and said something to him in a silent whisper, his right hand on the low of his back and his left hand on Curt's shoulder.
I didn't know what to do. On the one hand I knew Curt was only being nice at breakfast yesterday. But he kissed me. We kissed.
It was the first time I had kissed another boy.
And all I could think about was Curt.
Curt in my cereal. Curt in the ceramic house where I made a bowl, Curt 1.
To the dining hall where I see Curt in the Salisbury steak.
Back to ceramics to make Curt 2, Curt 3, Curt 3.5 and the finale: a green vase that looks like a cucumber on a hot road after it's been run over by a semi and left for dead. It did have a nice color to it, though. And it had stars. Little gold stars in a circular pattern all over.
I called this: Curt 10.0. All desperately true.
His hair, his small, upturned nose, his green eyes and the way his mouth sloped down and defined his face, down to his tapered chin, his dark, tan skin, his hands, tufts of dark brown hair growing on his arms, down his legs, he has a sheen, a perfect white cocoon around him.
Oh, dear. Oh, dear, Oh, dear, Oh, dear do I know where this is going if this is what I'm thinking.
I walked across the pebbled beach. It was a hot. The morning clouds had burned off and the sun was bright and high in the sky. It was a beautiful and I felt like throwing up.
We were warned trips to neighboring islands were part of the camping 'experience.' We were told it built our sense of accomplishment and self-awareness.
We would to make our own food, sleep outside in a tent and hike and examine the local wildlife.
Lee told me it would build my self-confidence; I told him I had my bed the night before. He asked why? Why wouldn't he?
He looked at me for a solid thirty seconds. Then he gently took my wrist in his hand, took me aside, gave me a fresh pair of jeans and told me it's nothing to be ashamed about.
I thought he was a lesbian trapped in a straight man's body, but I loved him for this. I loved him more than I could find words for. No one had ever been so gentle teaching me about life. Looks, glares, silence and avoidance...that I understood, that I got.
Richard saw me walking down the beach. "Mike!" he yelled, maniacally waving his hand in the air. I scowled. He howled, throwing his head back, planting his hands on his hip and exaggerating his enormous, bulging eyes.
"What's wrong?' he asked, a mischievous look on his face. Even after two days, Richard knew me better than anyone else. There was an unspoken understanding between us that were the only gay boys in the cabin.
I found Richard a curious and delightful friend. Despite his outrageous laugh and gregarious behavior, he was extremely proper and conservative. He wore bow ties to dinner. He ironed his socks. He admonished behavior which didn't conform to his ideal and had a scathing view of other people he deemed lower class.
I met Richard, years later, in New York City and found out he was in politics. The man he had become shocked me. But I'll save that story for another time.
"You can't tell me those are safe," I said, pointing at the center canoe. It had two dents on the side and the middle wooden seat was cracked. "We're gonna die. Plain and simple."
Richard's eyebrows knitted together and swooped down over his eyes. He stared at me. "You're being ridiculous," he replied.
"No, I"m not. You're just think you're always right."
"You need to think before you open you mouth."
"You need to not open your mouth so much!"
Richard was visibly moved by my cutting sarcasm. He reached out and pulled me into a giant bear hug. "We'll make it through this, I promise."
I shook my head, my feet numb with fear, my palms sweating. I held up the life preserver Richard had given me. "And this isn't my color. White Irish boys should never wear orange. You're black. You wear it."
Richard's launched into a free-flowing riot of endless laughter. "I'm gonna slap you across those flapping gums of yours." He slapped my back with his hand. "You'll be fine."
We walked over to Lee who stood in the center of the four canoes. He was beaming. Clearly, Lee was in his element. He smiled and spoke in his slow, methodical Midwestern drawl.
"This is very exciting, boys," he said, rubbing his palms together. Richard and I rolled our eyes in unison.
"This is our first overnight," Lee continued. "Now, for some of you, I know this is the first time you've ever done something like this. It's nothing to be nervous about it. We're all going to row past Chapel Rock, around the bend of Orcas and past Lopez Island. Beyond that is a small, unpopulated island where we'll spend the night. It's large enough for day hikes but secluded enough so we'll feel like we have the place to ourselves."
Lee finished and beamed. I looked around at all of the other boys. They looked excited and ready for the trip. I was ready for the first bus back to civilization.
Curt caught my eye and grinned. He could tell I was nervous. He smiled maniacally and gave me an overly eager 'thumbs up.' I rolled my eyes and loudly exhaled.
Four boys were assigned to each canoe. Lee positioned us next to the part of the canoe where we would be sitting.
Curt stood at the rear of my canoe. I stood in front of him and two smaller boys were getting ready to sit in front of me. "Now, the boys in the back, you are the ones who are going to steer the canoe. The boys in front paddle and the center boy is the Captain. You are going to call out and set the rhythm for the others boys to paddle by."
I couldn't help but smile. I was the Captain of the boat. Curt reached forward and touched my shoulder. "Hey there, Captain. No pressure, but our lives are in your hands." I knew what I wanted in my hands from Curt and it wasn't his fate.
Lee told us to take our positions. Take our positions? Jesus Christ. I was told there would be sun and fun and here I was taking my position.
"On the count of three, we're going to push our canoes into the water, run and jump into them. The last person to get into the canoe will be the one steering." Lee grinned in a sly, maniacal way. I knew why he was grinning. He knew there was no way we would be able to get into the canoe and not get wet.
He was a sadist, plain and simple.
"On the count of three, everyone push their canoes into the water," Lee said as he pulled a whistle from deep inside his shirt pocket. A whistle attached to a fluorescent piece of thick string. Dear God. We were like cattle to him. Where did they find this man? Alkatraz?
Lee raised the whistle to his mouth. "One."
I felt my knees go weak. I turned to look at Richard standing nervously next to me. "I'm not having fun. This is not fun to me," he said, his face deadpan, his eyes brimming with rage.
We were too far from the water. There was no way in hell we were going to be able to push our canoes into the water, jump in, grab our enormous oars and push off. The water may only be four feet deep at the edge but was very, very cold. And we had seen Jaws way too many times.
"Two and a half," Lee whispered.
"Oh, come on!" Curt yelled.
"Two and three quarters."
Richard's hands shot to his hips. His massive stomach bulged out from beneath this ultra-tiny "I Love Camp Orkila" T-shirt. "This is child abuse!"
Lee blew the whistle Everyone grabbed their canoes and raced towards the water. The air was filled with the sound of pebbles ricocheting off of the bottom of the boats.
Everyone's canoes splashed into the water, sending water shooting into the air, drenching everybody from head to toe.
I scrambled to get my feet up and over the side of the canoe. In a matter of seconds I would be in the water.
Richard screamed,"This is not enjoyable!"
I looked at the tiny wooden seat in the canoe. If I could get there, I'd be set. But I couldn't...get...my...feet...
I was in the air, flying, my head rolling back, the blue, blue, blue sky in front of me. I felt something hard underneath me and realized...I'm in the boat..
I'm in the boat!
I turned quickly and looked at Curt. He had lifted me into the boat! He was laughing hysterically, his blond/brown hair a flurry of light. "Paddle, man, paddle!" he screamed.
An uncontrollable giggle rose in my throat as I snatched the paddle from the bottom of the soaking wet boat and yelled to the other boys in the front two seats.
"One! Two! Three! Go! Go! Go!"
We locked into the rhythm of my voice as we lifted our paddles into the air and pushed them with all of our might at an angle into the water. I could feel the water resist my paddle, how it fought me, refused to give in, then in a glorious instant, gave way, wrapped around my paddle then spun into a tiny whirlpool and disappeared.
After a moment we stopped. We looked around. The other three canoes were far behind us. We had pulled ahead of everyone. Somehow, someway, we had made it out into open sea.
Curt raised his fist in the air. "Yea!" he screamed. We raised our fists and joined him. We sang our war cry. "Yea! Yea!"
From behind us, Richard's voice, high-pitched and frantic, rose into the air and slid across the surface of the water and landed smack dab in the center of our canoe. "This is not fun! My Mother didn't pay for me to do this! Slavery is over!"
A half hour into rowing and we had all succumbed to the quiet of being in open water. I was still having a difficult time accepting I was in a canoe in the middle of the ocean. The lip of the canoe dipped precariously close to the water. One wrong move and we'd all be capsized and left bobbing along like fresh fish food for unseen predators.
I stared ahead and as we rounded the corner of Lopez Island, a massive land mass with numerous vacation houses. I saw our island in the distance. It was impossibly small. And very far away.
My mind wandered as we coasting along Lopez. I felt relaxed. Feeling relaxed wasn't something I was accustomed to. The absence of anxiety felt odd to me. When I didn't feel anxiety I didn't know what to feel. And right now, paddling in the water, I felt nothing but..nothing. It was wonderful and terrifying.
I dipped my paddle in and out of the water. Sun rays caught tiny drops on the paddle, making them look like busy, scurrying diamonds. I became lost in the sound of the water and the feeling of the paddle in my hand.
Paddle into the water, paddle out of the water, paddle into the water, paddle out of the water. Oh, look. A big white rock. That's nice. Paddle into the water, paddle out of the --
Why is there a rock in the water?
It moved. The rock moved. Why is that rock moving?
A rock can't move this far out in the water so if a rock can't move this far out in the water that rock must be...
"Mike, why did you stop paddling?"
Curt's voice. I knew I should respond but what I really wanted to do was pee my pants.
"Lee," I whispered.
Lee was two canoe lengths away from me. He was staring into the water like a hypnotized robot.
"Lee," I whispered. Fucking hippie was bonding with the fucking water. Lee kept staring, his mane of bright hair bobbing back and forth. For some reason, his hair really infuriated me. I wanted to throw my paddle at him.
"LEE," I said in a half-yell, half-whisper. Lee looked up at me. His eyes were tiny and relaxed. I thought he looked retarded and I wanted to smack him. My anxiety was reaching a feverish pitch and when it reached a feverish pitch I wanted everyone within a four foot radius to die.
I pointed to the water. "Is that...", and trailed off.
Lee slowly turned his head to the water. Suddenly, his eyes opened very, very wide.
"Oh, now you see it," I hissed. "We're gonna die. I told you. This is it. We're about to die,right?"
Lee leaned over the side of the canoe. It tipped, almost dipping into the water. I was two seconds away from a full-blown panic attack. "Look everyone," he said, his voice full of wonder and awe. I wanted to give him wonder and awe all right. My oar shoved up his butt.
Everyone looked into the water and saw what I saw.
A whale. An enormous Killer Whale.
It was slowly circling our canoes.
Killer Whales, or 'Orca's' as they are called, are part of Pacific Northwest lore. All of us had seen them as children, but from safe distances. To me, this was not a safe distance. To me, this was way too close for comfort and I, for one, was two seconds away exposing my fellow campers to a little thing my Mother had passed onto me known as IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
We all knew the name was misleading, since Killer Whales are anything but. We were taught they are the 'gentle giants' of the sea. Their bodies are mostly black but on the back of their heads and underside they have looming white spots of skin, hence, the white 'rock' I had seen moving in the water.
All of the boys were in awe. They were seeing nature up close and person. Lesbian Lee was rhapsodic. This was his nature nirvana.
Of course, this is what was running through my mind:
I looked at Richard. His eyes were so wide I could see their reflection in the water. He looked at me with an expression of such aghast I vigorously nodded my head and said, "It's nature wonderful?!"
"Don't make a move," Lesbian Lee said. "Everyone take your oars out of the water and don't make a move."
"This is your advice?" Richard exclaimed. "Don't move?! You must have whale repellent or something in that nasty looking backpack of yours!"
Lee couldn't respond. It was if he was hypnotized by such blindingly beautiful nature. I heard a small snicker behind me. I turned and glared at Curt. I knew he was making fun of me.
"I'm afraid, too," he said. I could tell he meant it. "I laugh when I'm nervous." He touched my shoulder. "We'll be fine. I promise."
We watched and waited. After twenty minutes of circling, our friendly Killer Whale became bored and swam out to sea, but not before rising into the water, twisting once and then splashing down, creating a wave which gently rocked our boats.
We arrived on the shores of the island shortly after lunchtime. We pulled our canoes high upon upon the sandy beach and unpacked our tents. There were twenty boys in the cabin and ten tents. Lee drew us all together and told us we were free to choose who we'd like to bunk with.
I knew this moment was coming. I wanted to have Curt in my tent, but I knew if I said that it would be blatantly clear to everyone and God I liked boys. Admitting that was akin to living out the worst sin imaginable.
Hiding my attraction to boys was my number one priority in life. Being gay was the worst possible scenario and I had to make sure no one knew what I was really feeling...including myself.
Richard looked over and me. I knew he wanted to bunk with me. His face was so earnest and open I couldn't say no. Richard raised his hand.
"Richard?" Lee said.
Curt stepped forward. "If it's okay with Mike I'd like to bunk with him. If that's cool." Curt didn't look at me. He stared at Lee.
Lee nodded his head once and looked at both of us. "You bet! Start setting it up like I taught ya back at the camp. I'll come look at how good of a job you did."
"Great," Curt said as he grabbed the bunched up tent at Lee's feet and motioned me to follow him down the beach. Richard stared at me, his head tilted to one side, his right eyebrow raised. He folded his arms over his pudgy chest and shot his hip out to one side.
"Sleep well," he said, his eyelids heavy.
(...to be continued...)