Pageant

Sometimes my kava tea smells like a car ride home from the Christmas pageant at my church when I was a kid.  And my Burt’s Bees face wash smells like that, too. There is something a bit citric and slightly sweet about these fragrances – and like the mild, flattened out melange of an old spice drawer –  that reminds me of the one clementine and the plastic sandwich bag of rock candy given out to each kid as we left.  That aroma filled the car, the clementine rolling around on the seat, unloved, while I grappled to loosen a piece of candy from the lump that had stuck together.  The hard candy was disappointing to me, a fat kid who preferred all treat roads to arrive at chocolate town, but I would take sugar however it came to me.

The hippy-adjacent rituals of my cruelty-free cleanser and natural relaxation tea seem themselves worlds separate from a white bread family driving home from a baptist church in a Ford station wagon in the 1980s.  To be fair, while world peace and zero carbon foot print were not buzz words in our family, we were hardly model conservatives either.

The last thing on my mind was God and I suspect it wasn’t on the minds of my family, either, because talk centered around whose kid forgot their lines – with a lot of laughter and a healthy dollop of schadenfreude – and then, more quietly, there were gossipy exchanges between our parents about other adults.  Eventually we broke the barrier between front seat and back by sharing the tidbits of ignorance we’d gleaned from other kids before the show.

“I heard Barry Hart’s a queer,” one of us said.

And, “Mrs. Clatterbuck is putting Tammy Joe on pills because she’s gotten so fat.”

“Donna said Sven Jenkins is a child molester. Is that true, Mom?”

This wasn’t the first time my parents had to hear kid gossip and go to the bat to save the world from our brutality and flagrance.  My mom always either cried out in alarm or rolled her tongue in disgust at our childish ignorance.  She would caution us against gossip in general and then run defense for the rest of the community. This night was like most others.

“Barry Hart is not that way. He just happens to be a nice, polite kid, who cares about his appearance. I wish more kids were like Barry. And don’t forget how hurtful it would be if talk like that got back to his mother. Eloise has it hard enough, raising that boy alone.”

And, “Tammy Jo is a perfectly pretty girl. I don’t know why the moment someone puts on a couple of pounds, everyone becomes obsessed with how big she’s going to get. People are so stupid sometimes!”

That one felt personal. We weren’t blind to the fact that there was a little more lap to mom these days than there used to be.  Come to think of it, cuddling up with a pudgy mom when we were really little felt great, so it is strange that society gets so distraught about it. Maybe if we were all to get swept up in this hygge craze, we’d each discover the comforts of a vast and pillowy hug and finally set the fashion world aflame. Okay, now I’m taking it personally, because I, too, have a bit more lap these days. I wish people would leave Tammy Jo Clatterbuck the fuck alone!

Of course, the tidbit of pre-pageant gossip that had come up before and which my mother took pretty seriously was the one about Sven Jenkins.  It had been bantered around by kids for as long as I could remember.  This ride home from the pageant it was my middle sister who reopened the cold case, lisping in my memory because she was either in between teeth or worrying a chunk of candy.

“Donna said Sven Jenkins is a child molester. Is that true, Mom?”

“It’s Mr. Jenkins, Meredith. And, no, I don’t think he’s a child molester. Do you kids even know what that means?”

We bristled.

“It’s when grownups do stuff to kids and stuff!” That was my oldest sister, Molly, her voice a mixture of boredom and winter allergies from the wood stove at home. Nasal and flat, she usually chimed in from behind a trashy romance novel. Tonight she was pretending to study the pageant program in the dark.

“I watch 20/20, Mom!” That was me, wanting it to be clear that I had a level of worldliness far beyond my years. In fact, though I really was foggy about what child molesters were, I knew a lot about normal, everyday sex from reading Molly’s trashy romance novels.

I’m still surprised that a sixteen year old girl was allowed to read that openly in our house and that a nine year old boy could get by with it with little effort to hide his movements.  My sexual awakening was painted all the more colorfully by reading accounts of men with tanned and brawny thighs ravishing women on the beaches of Caribbean plantations or in the wet grasses of an English moor. Thanks, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, for all the deliciously filthy memories.

Regarding pedophiles in our baptist church, Meredith brought forth evidence from the court of public opinion.

“They say he lures kids to him with those pink mints.”

He did give each kid a round pink mint from the pocket of his nice navy blazer with the brass buttons each Sunday after church. A tall and lean farmer with a speckled tan and a blond flattop haircut that always looked newly cut, he had to lean down pretty far to offer the sweets. It did feel a little alarming when he’d peer at you and hold out the circle of pink cradled in his palm.

“Oh my God,” Mom said. And that was as close to God as that car ride home from the Christmas pageant ever got. “Can’t a man give kids candy anymore without being accused of something? People are so…sick.”

I don’t remember how that conversation ended. I like to think we eventually grew quiet, tired of trying on adult themes, letting our heads lean together as we succumbed to a sugar coma. Maybe I even eventually tore away the skin of that clementine.

 

 

Sunny Made Tea

For show and tell, Sunny demonstrated how to make tea the Japanese way.  With long blond hair and a tomboy’s beauty and poise, she stood at the teacher’s desk, heating the water, an electric cord trailing to the single steel-plated plug under the blackboard. There were a few workarounds to bring the tea to an American classroom and I doubt that now a twelve year old would be allowed to heat water over a glowing red burner in front of their schoolmates.

I remember only a few technical things about the demonstration. Sunny measured loose leaves into what I believe was a chamber that stacked overtop of the pot, perhaps with small holes that allowed the water to steep with the leaves before descending to the lower vessel.   That part is vague. What stood out is that she said the proper way to prepare tea was to use the water when it was not quite boiling.  The temperature was important to open up the leaves.

The teacher nodded knowingly.

It’s funny to me that I can remember this so clearly, the tea demonstration, the light on Sunny’s hair, the brief introduction that let us know Sunny’s father had served overseas and that they had only recently returned to America.  She had a posture that was almost athletic, a confident way of holding her head, a smile that was broad and free. Her jeans were light blue with curves of stitching on the pockets.

The room filled up with the scent of tea, exotic to me because the only hot drink I ever smelled at home was the Eight O’Clock coffee that cooked itself thick every morning in the percolator. The same batch that Dad made at four-thirty before leaving for work, mom would finish off at seven after she’d dragged us out of bed.  No wonder she was seduced by cans of International Coffees only a few short years later.

I want to imagine that it was spring when Sunny made tea, that a tree was in bloom outside the metal-cased windows, covered in pink blooms that imitated cherry blossoms. But this is my adult mind embroidering the story with a designer’s inclination for well-defined motifs.

It was autumn, though, and in a few months the shuttle Challenger would explode on a television set in our science class.  We would go home that day on a bus quietly full of hushed whispers shielded behind dirty mittens.  But on the day that Sunny made tea, we were ahead of a tragedy; no snow had yet fallen and the leaves were only just turning.  The school year was new and so were Sunny and I to this school.

I think of Sunny and her tea demonstration at least a handful of times a year and I cannot imagine why. It has been thirty years since that pot of tea cooled and the leaves made their way into the waste basket.  I’ve only just tried to imagine the details I wouldn’t have seen, like Sunny and her mom washing up the teapot together at a kitchen sink that evening. Her father might have sat at the table nearby, his military shoulders set square and mighty as he glanced up over the paper to ask how the demonstration went.

I can imagine that most of us watching her from our desks could have been sketched as round cartoon faces with slack oval mouths, diagonal lines to show our brows raised in wonderment.  I think I remember that some of the girls came up to Sunny afterward, more than convinced that she ought to be ushered into their group.

Later Jamie White stood beside her at recess, talking to her comfortably as they each dug their hands into their back pockets, bookends clearly well suited to one another. Jamie could hold onto the flagpole with both hands and hold his body straight out like he was being blown away in a gale force wind.  The pair of terrycloth athletic wrist bands he always wore didn’t help him with this trick, but they made him seem a little more badass. The only time I ever saw him look less than completely confident is when Sunny smiled at him and his face went red behind the little corn chip moles on his cheeks.  He dropped his eyes to the cracked concrete, grinning so wide it looked like it hurt.

 

Meatloaf and Tennyson

When I was ten I threw a dinner party for my grandmother and my aunt.  I had been given a cookbook for kids by my mother that year. It nurtured my desire to conquer grownup rituals like making food other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese.

My grandmother was rather old by then and little did we know she was in a golden moment just before a series of small strokes would shroud her mind in confusion and weaken her body.  At the time she was still rosy cheeked, with a shock of white hair rising up off her brow and a whimsical wave over each ear.  She wore a double knit pantsuit when she was going anywhere nice; at home she wore printed cotton dresses under a faded apron.  I was pleased to see the pantsuit was trotted out for my humble fete.

My aunt was rather like my grandmother, only younger and more vivid, with dark hair that was just as unruly and only a little peppered with grey.  She wore lipstick always, although no other makeup.  She was the oldest girl in the family but she might have been the same age as any of her sisters. We always thought that having no children had preserved her looks.  Her name was Becky.

Becky had a lot of distinct peculiarities, among them rocking on her heels while she listened to you; grabbing a niece or nephew as they walked by to check that their ears were clean; and in later years blinking her eyes quite a lot while she spoke.  Someone said that was nerves.

For my dinner party, I insisted on doing all the cooking. I chose a recipe in which you made a meatloaf, frosted it with mashed potatoes, and put it back in the oven with slices of American cheese laid in overlapping diagonals along the top.  I thought it was the height of elegance. I probably heated up a can of green beans as a side dish.

I remember folding our printed paper napkins into triangles and laying them out alongside our Corelle plates with the little green flowers all around the edges. They were corny plates, but hard to break.

Everyone said dinner was great, but there was an air to the whole evening that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. It was as if Grandma and Becky had been placed in unchartered territory.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know my mother’s dishes quite well and there was nothing extraordinary about a meat and potatoes meal in our family.  It was more to do with who had orchestrated this event.  None of my uncles or boy cousins cooked, but I was quite used to my father’s delicious Saturday morning breakfasts.

I think I would say that Becky was taking in the whole thing with a mixture of confusion and amusement.  It was plain to them that I was not like the other boys in the family, but what exactly this dinner party meant was something that her personal life experiences could not quite reconcile.  We were family, and that went a long way to keeping the evening humming pleasantly. Not that our family specialized in uneventful gatherings; our default was typically at least two people leaving in a huff.  Yet still there was that elusive quality of unspoken surmising: a soft kind of astonishment and many things unsaid.

After dinner I read aloud to my aunt and my grandmother from a book of Tennyson’s poetry I had recently discovered.  I think my grandmother nodded off early on, not that she didn’t love the written word. It was something that was key to her life. Still, she was fading as the long summer twilight burnished the sky outside our picture window.

I stood before the glass and read from The Lady of Shallot with as much artistic lilt as possible. I enunciated every word with something that tried to be a British accent – but gently, as not to earn the kind of criticism that any act of pretentiousness was rightly apt to receive in my family.  It was a coup to even read a whole classical poem without eliciting sniggers from one of my relations, and there was a moment when my mother had a coughing fit that might very well have been a smothered laugh.  At least it sounded a lot like the way she stifled nervous giggles in church.

I had not yet discovered who I would become at that age, although the difference between who I felt like and what other people expected me to be had begun to cause me a lot of  confusion.  Yet on this night, despite that underlying sense of a secret not quite articulated, I was still a child in my family, with the women near me providing a sense of safety.  It surprises me to discover as I write this, that this would be the first of many coming out parties, each nudging me forward toward my authentic self.

That night I watched the taillights of Becky’s dusty little Pinto fade down the drive, still drunk from the thrill of what I had accomplished. The words of Tennyson expanded in my mind like a spider web growing bigger in the brewing heat of a summer day.  The crickets in the meadow outside the house were noisy; it was only about eight o’clock and there was plenty of time yet to clean up my dishes and wind down with a little television before going to bed with a book.  The night and I were still young.

 

Edie

We had a black nanny and housekeeper briefly when I was a kid.  Even writing it down makes me cringe from the white privilege. My physical impressions of Edie are clear still: the short, broad shape of her in slacks, peter pan collar, and sweater; a pair of inscrutable dark eyes; the wigs she wore that Mom called ‘fright wigs’ because they were the kind you could only buy at Halloween. What did my Mom know about black women’s wigs?

What I remember about Edie the most is an air of calm; she didn’t bustle and she never seemed frantic. This wasn’t like our family, where it seemed someone was always whipping through the room in a state of agitation. We were always running late, losing things, grabbing paper towels to sop up a spill, scrambling into socks with clumsy fingers.

Edie worked for our family from the time that I was an infant until I was perhaps four. Then she worked for us a little later, but this time just cleaning house. When I was in my teens, Edie hadn’t been cleaning for us in a number of years. But sometimes she would call my mom to talk and inevitably she would ask to speak to my sisters and I directly. Following the cues of my older siblings, I either dodged the call by frantically waving my hands and mouthing ‘no’ or I took it with a sullen expression on my face, like someone being forced into an obligation.

I think the reason we tried to avoid the call was that we didn’t remember Edie much and it felt like an awkward exchange with an elder who wasn’t family. Maybe there was a little sense that her ‘otherness’ was an excuse; we certainly were raised with a lot of racism in the family. Yet this perspective might be a distortion.  I am thinking of an elderly white lady friend of the family with whom I would definitely have felt the same stilted discomfort if we were placed on the phone together.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if my Mom had pulled us aside at some point and made a nice movie speech about Edie and why we owed her a small degree of affection or at least respect.

“That old woman, with her cheap wig and her moth-eaten sweaters, was the closest thing to a mother you had when I had to punch the clock to get this family through the mess Carter made of the economy! And I’ll be damned if you ever, ever make her feel like spending a minute on the horn to ask her how she’s doing is anything but a pleasure! Do you hear me?”

She would have waved her finger at us as she spoke and we – sufficiently cowed by the force of her conviction – would have exchanged guilty glances. Watery music would have underscored the scene and one of us would have suggested we go out, get some ice cream, and take it to Edie’s house. The director of photography would pull away as we all spooned dessert from bowls on our housekeeper’s porch, smiling and laughing, lens flares nudging bubbles of light across the screen as the camera tilted upward through a stand of pines.

Our mom never really forced our hand like that, making us confront our attitude problem.  She did sometimes say, “Poor old Edie, I don’t know why you kids…” She would trail off, distracted by the can she was opening for dinner or something she had been reading in a magazine before Edie called.

A few years ago, my mom told me she had invited Edie to come live with her.  I had always known that Edie and her only child, a daughter, had a strained relationship. The daughter had become a Jehovah Witness and Edie could never come to respect that choice.  With Edie’s mind and body beginning to fail, she felt she had no place to go. Mom set her up in the guest room.

Edie felt haunted, it seemed, in her dementia. She often told members of the family about the man who would come into the house when she was alone, and how she didn’t like him. He would stand at the foot of her bed and stare her down. We couldn’t imagine it was real.  In our old house, back when I was a kid, where Edie had lived in for a while, she used to talk about the noises the ghost made in the basement.   My father swore it was the belching of the furnace.

My mom would further dismiss the ghost theory, “No one ever even died in this house, unless you count the son of the last owner, but he was killed in a car accident at the end of the driveway, so even that doesn’t make sense.”

This time around, we were sure that Edie was just imagining things. Eventually she became so agitated by the idea of the strange man that she didn’t want to stay with Mom and Dad anymore. Her daughter was convinced to come pick her up; she put Edie in a home after that, where she stayed until her death some years later.

I wonder if Edie’s daughter visited her frequently. When her mother called, did she look at the number on caller ID and have the same desire to dodge it that we did as kids?

Edie didn’t ask for anything for herself when she spoke with you. She asked how school was going and when you said okay, she’d reply with, “Mmm-hmm.” You could hear her chewing gum, which she always did.  Then the silence would stretch for a while and she would say, “And how you behaving?” When you’d say you were being good, she’d give another ‘mmm-hmm’ but this one sounded more doubtful. More gum chewing. Then Mom would take mercy on both of us and take the receiver back, getting Edie to chat about people they both knew.

I have a strong sense of myself. I know what I want and how to ask for help when needed. I make a point of fostering only meaningful relationships, knowing I want to make room for conversation only with people who enjoy me as much as I enjoy them. I am guarded a little bit, but I never have to be at the mercy of relationships that aren’t equal.  It is perhaps one of the many subtle advantages of privilege.

What choices did Edie have in life?  Who would she have been if she had the same opportunities as I did? I had so many choices that I’ve been wasteful with some of them. Maybe Edie’s daughter saw how her mother’s life shaped her into someone who took what was offered and accepted it. Maybe the daughter made it a point to question everything, even her faith, and to make a study of using choice to shape herself. This difference between them would have been profound and it was perhaps what distanced them ultimately.

I have a lot of trouble separating prejudice from my musings about Edie. If we were the color-blind society that some would like to pretend we are, than my recollections about her would probably only ponder how children don’t like chit-chat with their elders.  If we were more honoring of age in this country, perhaps there would be little else to consider. Because I would never have made Edie do all the heavy lifting when I got on the phone with her. Instead I would have made it equal.

“How are you doing, Edie?”

The bigger yet picture suggests that if our society wasn’t laced through with race crime, than very likely we would not have had an Edie to look out for us as children. That a white family in a small home with only middling incomes could afford to pay a black woman a very likely small going rate is in and of itself the legacy of slavery. Centuries of abhorrent, racist policies had caused our very different paths to intersect for a while.

I’ve inherited a lot of white guilt, but strangely my mother – who sides politically with so much that disenfranchises people of color – is the only one of us who never hesitated to take Edie’s calls and even gave her a place to stay when she needed it. Edie knew she could ask.

Race is as complicated as people are themselves.  I hope we can solve it, but it will likely take more willingness to connect and less abstract liberalism to bridge the divide. Less expressing that we are all one from the safety of a social media bubble and more sitting at the same table and opening up about our conflicted and incomplete impressions of one another.

 

How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.

 

Failed Pass

I came to the party to see both the brothers.  Strangely it was not the one I was in love with who I hoped to hook up with before going home.  The one I loved was not an option, a guy a couple of years older than me who was strictly into girls.  But his brother, Dillon, was what we called open.  We had fooled around in the back of my car once, parked behind the high school, but it hadn’t ended great.  He’d been too drunk to concentrate and finally we straightened up the seats and I drove him back to his car across town.  I still thought about him a lot – the taste and feel and scent of him and perhaps most that things ended so incompletely.

 


 

The party thinned until there were only a few straggling in the foyer, but still I hung back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves in the library. Earlier in the night their mother had shown me this room, waving a dismissive hand at the volumes that climbed to the ceiling.

“But who has time anymore?” she’d asked in a breezy, rhetorical manner.  She smiled at me, “I guess when you’re young…”

Linda seemed more human to me in that moment, thought I still didn’t care for her. Earlier that night I’d heard her use the word ‘fag’ about her oldest son.

“I mean honestly, I don’t know why Linus is so sensitive about everything,” she told one of his friends, a girl named Terin who had big red lips and iddy-biddy bangs. “He’s such a fag sometimes.”

Terin and I had exchanged a glance.

I had glanced over at Linus, watching him shrug off the jab, and thinking wryly, ‘I wish.’

 


 

He was slenderer than his brother, with a long bony nose and bright green eyes hidden under meticulously polished spectacles.  These weren’t eyeglasses as I knew them back then: the huge plastic frames that hid half the face.  These were small, clever, brass. They made him look bookish and vaguely historical, which was probably why he chose them. Maybe too why I romanticized him so much.

I used to study Linus like a painter does a muse, but when the muse doesn’t welcome the scrutiny, there are too many veils to peel away.  I wanted intimacy with him and when I was so young my hormones and naïveté conspired to convince me that was unattainable. Because the way I saw getting there was steeped in sex and sexuality.  I’d never had a solid friendship with a man and didn’t know how that was supposed to work.

Dillon spoke a language I understood more viscerally, a language not of words but of straight up sex.

 


 

Even as the summer of my eighteenth year grew sweatier and more still, all the mild breezes of spring spent, even as I fell more in love with Linus, there were more chances to spend time with his brother.  We met with mutual friends at the tea house, bantering about topical things now forgotten, smoking too many cigarettes.  He had a hunger about him.  Despite the fact that he was handsome and athletic, Dillon seemed to always search your glance for admiration.  I sensed it about him and I was put off by it.  Perhaps I preferred the enigma that was his older brother.

Still I enjoyed watching Dillon for months before our singular hook up.  He had golden skin and dark golden curls. His legs were covered in golden hair and rippled with muscles he’d built playing soccer. His hands were broad and square and capable, his lips each full and quick with a reckless grin.

Then a friend of mine who went to military academy with him told me how he used to sleep with a boy that was their classmate.  I hadn’t seen this coming.  Dillon seemed unattainable until that morsel of gossip. Shortly after, he and I were the last ones to close down the teahouse – me lingering later than was my wont – and with only a slight pass, I opened the door to the fleeting encounter behind the high school.

It was sexy and yet not sexy all at once.  In later years I wished I’d made more of the night. We should have gotten out of the car and wandered down over the hill into the grass. There ought to have been night sky and the summer cacophony of cricket and cicada and swiftly running brook.

 


 

When they invited me to the party, I was surprised to be asked.  I never really thought anyone liked me very much and was often taken aback to be included.  I didn’t know if it were Dillon or Linus who proposed my name.  I never found out, not that it came to matter.

It was odd to be there, wanting to be loved by one brother and to have sex with the other. Perhaps it wasn’t so much about want as realism and expediency. I knew I stood a chance with Dillon.  Linus thought of me as merely a new friend.

As the guests started to leave in groups, while I was hiding in the library, I heard Linus head out with his girlfriend.  Their mother even said good night, making a lot of noise about the clean up waiting until the morning.  There was one person left standing in the foyer with Dillon when I peered out from the library.  It was a girl he’d been talking to much of the night.  She had curves for days and hair like an angel in a Renaissance painting.

Dillon glanced my way and rather than be caught, I barreled out a little too quickly, pretending to only then discover how the house had emptied.  The girl with the beautiful hair said she needed to get home; she was going on a long road trip the next day.  Dillon gave her a kiss before closing the door. He peered through the sidelight until she drove away.

When he turned to study me, I dropped my gaze.  It occurred to me that we hadn’t really spoken much since the night in the car.  We’d never been alone together since then.  I wished I’d never come tonight, but a part of me longed for a chance to be with him again. There was a lonely craving in me that supplanted all better judgment.

“You not tired?” he asked.

“I thought we could hang out.”

He shrugged and I followed him into his bedroom down the hall. We sat on the bed and looked at an album cover together while he talked about things that happened at the party.  The scent of him made a kaleidoscope of butterflies circle in my stomach.  When I put a hand on his thigh, he stiffened.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

The butterflies dropped as if turned to stone by his tone.

“I thought we might…”

I faltered as he turned his brown eyes on me. Dillon always seemed to have laughing eyes, but tonight they were impenetrable, dense and cold like a pond in winter.  I felt myself grow smaller.

“We’re in my mother’s house,” he said.  “That was my girlfriend who just left.”

The funny thing is that I can’t remember how I responded. I didn’t say anything to him to change his mind.  Yet how he looked as I left or whether I stumbled out or was walked to the door are facts lost to time.  What I do remember is the light in his room.  There was only one lamp in a corner, casting long shadows over our suddenly sordid tableau.  Shadows trailed from his lashes and from his bed and from the soles of my feet to the top of my head.  Maybe he softened his rebuke with a smile. I honestly couldn’t say.

The drive back from their remote home on the river seemed interminable.  It was hard to believe I’d only passed these landmarks a few hours earlier.  The night had left me hanging open, exposed and restless.  With the windows down, I could feel the coldness of March on my skin and moving through my hair.  I should have turned on the radio and filled my bandwidth with raucous sound, but I made the trip home in silence, wondering what Dillon would tell his brother about my failed pass.