Thursday, April 6, 2006

NUANCES (C) 1988,2006 (From My File Cabinet)

As a child I always wished that there might be someone, somewhere, who could understand me completely. Someone who could see the world through my eyes and senses and being. Someone who could appreciate the nuances of every emotion and the shades of meaning in each experience.

He awakened depressed and angry from a night of sexdreams. Grabbing some porno mags from the nightstand, he indulged his compulsive desire to masturbate. At some level of consciousness he knew this would relieve the anxiety of starting a new day and temporarily ward off the obsessive thoughts of sex – sex that seemed always just out of reach – real sex with real men, not just the glossy bodies of guys who really did it with each other in the porno books.

Once, it had been guilt or fear of being like those who were despised above all others that kept him on the fringes like a movie-goer, safe from all the consequences of the actors, yet able to experience vicariously the lives they lived. Now it was just fear – ostensibly fear of the disease that stalked like an invisible vapor of death in the midst of pleasure – that kept him isolated. But if the truth be known – and he was aware of the truth – it was the same old fear now transformed into faces, names, stories he would never know: now it was the fear that he could never become enough like those who were despised above all others.

Orgasm came as a relief, not only for the sexual tension that had built up during the night, but also for the confusion that seemed to accumulate along with it. He could not remember a day since becoming aware of his sexuality at the age of twelve or thirteen that he did not think of sex or of his being “different” (he had never heard the word “homosexual” until perhaps the age of fifteen or sixteen). The fact was that all of this colored his experience of himself, of events, of people, of life in general, in a way that he could only describe as confusing. His experience vis-à-vis the rest of the world always seemed dissonant, incongruous.

This morning he remembered the times, countless times, when he was in his early teens, that orgasm brought this kind of relief. The hours he would obsess with thoughts of jerking-off, of how it would be a mortal sin, of how no one else his age seemed troubled by the propensity for such evil, of how this “temptation” would not leave him alone: only by masturbating would he be freed from this tortuous game of tug-of-war. Before long he learned to do it when the desire arose; to do it without thinking too much; to avoid the struggle entirely; to do it now and pay later.

The price of this decision was the Saturday ritual cleansing in the dark confessional in the presence of a stern and faceless priest; a priest who came to know this unrepentant boy and once refused to grant the absolution, exacting a price unexpected. “Unforgivable” sank into the fabric of his identity along with “queer” and “faggot” and “fairy” and “sissy”. Was this the same priest who told him to wrap rosary beads around his hands when he went to bed? The question faded, unanswered, as he matter-of-factly cleaned up with a wad of Kleenex. Guilt was no longer a factor in the morning ritual, but the memories that entered his consciousness this morning accentuated his depression and anger.

If he could tell his story, he would recount feelings more than events in time and place; for in his mind, feelings and emotions give the only significance to otherwise ordinary occurrences. His story would be in no way extraordinary. Others might tell similar stories but with considerably more interesting detail. Even his feelings are no different than those experienced by others but he imagines that he feels more intensely, more acutely and considers himself cursed by this propensity.

This morning his depression and anger are vaguely annoying, like unwelcome houseguests one becomes accustomed to and learns to tolerate for what seems like eternity. He knows not to stare too long in the mirror while shaving this morning lest he see the ugliness show through. Others have on occasion told him that he is handsome, but he finds this absurd: his aquiline nose, narrow face, a weak jaw and small bone structure, while not unattractive to some, are not masculine or sexy by his definition. There have been times when, on close examination in the morning mirror, he and his mirror image have exchanged insults, “You ugly, ugly, ugly son of a bitch.” This morning’s toilet will be brief.

He is rarely startled by coincidence. In fact, he expects that things and events will come together in ways that trigger memories, if not to make life interesting. Like this morning, now on the way to work, the combination of crisp autumn air and Stevie Wonder singing I Just Called To Say I Love You on the car radio causes a lump to form in his throat and his eyes to become moist with grief. The particular mixture of stimuli is too powerful, even now, after nearly a year since the relationship ended, finally, for good. There is still an empty space left by that ending and he feels the time-deadened pain less often and for briefer moments, such as these, when Stevie and autumn conspire to remind him.

The grief feels more real than the depression that deadens his emotions. It frightens him when he feels nothing – nothing but dead inside, afraid it will all turn sour and hateful. The driver in front of him is going much too slow, “Fucking asshole”, his anger focused on a safe target. He veers into the passing lane, hating his anger. He is convinced he does not tell his story because he would have to apologize for his self-indulgent pity.

There is a long-ago memory that sticks in his throat this morning, connected in some strange way to the feeling aroused earlier by the song on the radio. It is a story he never told. A story he has imbued over the years with a meaning that goes beyond its apparent significance. It has become the key to all the other stories in his life.

It took place when he was fourteen, during the summer when his mother was hospitalized for a lung removal. It was not her first prolonged stay in a hospital. She had suffered from tuberculosis since his infancy and had spent years at a time in the sanitarium.

This particular summer he was experiencing a degree of independence as well as a significant amount of responsibility. When he was not off swimming or riding his bike, he was expected to take care of his younger brother and do chores around the house. And it was the summer of his sexual awakening. It was during this summer that his fascination with the male body began to define itself as an indisputable fact. He remembers seeing for the first time with distinctly sexual interest, a naked black man in the dressing room at the pool. His interest in swimming and beaches grew proportionately that summer.

He was invited by an aunt to spend a few days with his cousins at their cottage on the lake. It was here that his story begins:

My aunt Antoinette was a dark, earthy woman with two young boys: James, who was twelve and Nicholas, who was seven or eight. She was not easily upset by the antics of growing boys and her displeasure, when she showed it, was short-lived. She seemed to prefer a laisez-faire approach, with tacit approval of boyish behavior. She had taken firmly to heart the belief that “boys will be boys” and that mothers should not interfere too drastically in this mystery. She gave her affections freely, with hugs and kisses. It was obvious that she delighted in such shows of affection with her own children and seemed to have enough left for a visiting nephew.

Although I could not articulate it at the time, I sensed once again the unfairness of life’s circumstances. My own mother was hesitant with her displays of affection and seemed to keep her children at a distance. She felt that the disease that ravaged her lungs was too communicable to risk the health of her children by being physically close. But she kept her fear and her sadness secret. Thus her hugs always seemed brief and uninviting, and although she would allow us to peck her cheek at bedtime while she held her breath, her body language defined the limits of intimacy.

In my aunt’s home I experienced, as if for the first time, a profound difference in the quality and quantity of love that I and others might enjoy depending on the fact of our birth into a particular family. Then of course, there was James.

James was a dark-skinned boy with straight, almost black hair and dark eyes. Although James’ had a mostly Italian heritage, there was some French/Indian blood on his father’s side. I was intrigued by the romance of James’ being part Indian.

(He no longer has a clear image of James: it has been blended with the images of a half dozen men with whom he has had sex or been in love, or with whom he has had an infatuation – not to mention the countless others: nameless strangers in passing cars, or fashion models or movie stars.)

James, though younger than myself, was more confident, unhampered by self-consciousness and thoughts of “what might happen if”. For a few brief days I began to share this possibility, delighting in the opportunity to walk everywhere barefooted and not to worry about getting the sheets soiled with dirty feet.

James and I would buy Lickum-Aide at the corner store when we went for milk and bread and Aunt Antoinette’s cigarettes. We would pump water from the well outside the cottage. We would swim and dive from the wooden raft in the lake for hours at a time and eat sandwiches for lunch at the cottage. In the evening we would wash with soap by the lake and then dive in to rinse off.

For me, being with James was different than being with anyone else. Being with James began to feel more real than identifying with Spin or Marty or with Joey on the TV series “Fury”, more real than being lost in the book “Old Yeller”. Being with James began to feel like being a part of James’ family, of being just like James, of being James. Being with James was a feeling that had no word to describe it.

Reality has a way of intruding, despite efforts to ignore or deny it. And so it happened one day that James challenged me to dive from the raft to the bottom of the lake and, as proof, to retrieve a stone.

James and I dove together on our separate missions. The water was deep but clear and I swam down, the brightness of the surface behind, till the bottom was in sight. The distance under water was difficult to judge – enough so as to cause me to wonder whether I could hold my breath long enough to return to the surface. My confidence shaken by this doubt, I turned to swim back to the safety of the raft. Only seconds later, James bobbed up with a handful of pebbles.

For James it was no big deal – neither that he had produced stones, nor that I had not. He neither bragged nor teased. But for me, it was not so much that I had failed in this contest, but that now there was an indisputable difference between James and I – a difference that could not be breached, not even if I dove again and again and brought up every stone from the bottom of the whole lake. I was aware of the separateness suddenly, painfully but with that momentary delay, like the realization that one has been cut, only after noticing the blood. I quickly buried the awareness in my gut.

When, a few days later, I was at home, alone under the maple tree in the backyard, I experienced the separation and the pain acutely. My tears were not those of a child hurt, or teased, or merely disappointed. I sobbed, gasping for breath, from my gut which felt empty in a way I could not describe….

1 comment:

  1. OH WOW! Saw you commented on my blog...thought I would check out yours. I actually dealt with some of the same crap but from a Baptist evangelisitc church sort of way. I didn't go into all of comes much later. a read. Am in interested in reading the rest of the story.



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