Taboo

Taboo

by Boyer Rickel
Taboo

Taboo

by Boyer Rickel

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Overview

An impressionistic memoir offers images of a life in progress, including scenes from Boyer Rickel’s rural Tempe, Arizona, childhood in the 1950s; his relationship with a physically shrinking father; his eccentric teenage friendships; his growing awareness of his sexuality among young, Hispanic gays; and a trip through Italy with his lover. A personal book, but also wholly universal, Taboo investigates the way one breaks through taboos and becomes a self-realized adult.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780299162603
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date: 03/22/1999
Series: Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography Series
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Boyer Rickel is the author of a collection of poetry, arreboles, and his work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Sonora Review, and many other magazines. He is assistant director of the creative writing program at the University of Arizona.

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Manhood


1


My earliest memory is of dustballs floating like ghosts along a brown, cracked, concrete floor ... the flash of brass, a doorknob, as I fall ... and Sen-Sen in a red and black paper package on the third level of the bookshelf beside my parents' bed ... Sen-Sen, the smell of utter freshness, herbal and sweet ...


... the smell of Tone, poking storefront to storefront along Tucson's Fourth Avenue, a downtown strip of thrifts and secondhand shops, three days before Halloween, 1979.

    I followed as unobtrusively as I could. At first I wasn't sure if Tone was a he or a she. He wore black tights and green sandals, a coarse purplish shawl wrapped around his shoulders. The shawl tails hung down in front, draping the crotch. I inhaled everything, the spiked blond hair and dangling silver teardrop earrings. The round smooth face and large green eyes with smears of silver eyeshadow, a purple stripe above each eyelash. I guessed a he from the tiny ass and slightly muscular thighs.

    Tone, who told me that afternoon, as we sipped coffee at a sidewalk cafe, that he was born in Boston to a Swedish au pair and the horny bisexual son of the Irish family she worked for. His father, a merchant marine, was still randy, Tone whispered with a wink. He rested his hand on my thigh, the shawl sliding down to expose a milk-white shoulder; six silver bracelets clacked to a halt against my jeans. He was a jeweler, he said. He hoped to create perfumes someday, and their bottles, of silver, for a few exclusive clients.

    Wewalked three quick blocks to my apartment. Tone sat, legs extended across the couch, like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. This allowed the shawl to part, the sheer tights so form-fitting I could see distinctly his circumcision line. He talked about his well-connected friends in New York fashion circles and the stores, Bergdorf's and Bloomie's, that would soon feature his jewelry. I started to tell him about the motel where I was desk clerk. I hoped to impress him with stories of the hookers, or the bigots off the freeway on their way to California who often asked me if we had a "nigger problem" out west.

    "I like the shape this little part makes here," he said, interrupting. He ran his finger down the middle of the lump made by his balls.

    "I made a silver bolo tie for my last boyfriend using a clay-cast mold from the area right around here." Tone slid his tights down to his knees and, pulling his cock up toward his belly with one hand, traced a silver-dollar-size circle along the underside of his scrotum with a finger of the other. I could picture the bolo ornament, two wrinkled lobes, like silver walnut shells. He talked on about things I didn't have the concentration to comprehend, cradling his balls and stroking his lengthening cock, gazing into my eyes as though disconnected from the manipulations.

    He stopped talking when I pulled off my jeans. I lay down along his legs, kissing downward from his navel, intoxicated by the clean, sweet smell of Sen-Sen.


* * *


One tiny chip placed on the tongue released throughout the mouth a flavor that nearly stung with intensity. As a child I wasn't sure I liked it, not for itself; but I did like it because it seemed an almost forbidden pleasure, doled out ceremonially one or two chips at a time.

    My father deliberately placed the package on a bookshelf too high for me to reach, beside the bed he shared with my mother. When I was four, I fell trying to climb the shelves. I huddled on the floor, determined not to cry out. It was then I noticed, floating under the bed, the dust ghosts, erratic phantoms darting suddenly or rolling purposefully along the concrete floor. They frightened me at first, but I was transfixed, distracted from my throbbing hip. I lay flat on the floor, pressing my belly into the coolness, and watched the movements of these apparitional beings.

    I awoke at the touch of my father's hands. He lifted me gently, cradling me on his lap as he sat on the edge of the bed. Groggy, I couldn't fully figure where I was; he offered me Sen-Sen.


2


My father I see, papery ears fanning out from his head, brown hair slicked straight back, a slight slouch to his shoulders from years at the piano keyboard. He wears baggy, creased slacks, brown or gray, which I find beautiful because they shine, and short-sleeve buttoned-collar shirts, plain or printed in pale colors, always of the thinnest fabric, like the new slick fifties synthetics, so that the lines made by the straps of his undershirt show through. The single shirt pocket is stuffed with small white sheets of paper clipped together, his lists, which he checks throughout the day, crossing off accomplished tasks. At night the collection is reviewed and left with his keys and wallet and change purse on top of his dresser.

    My father I see; my mother is nearly invisible, a ghost.

    Is it possible to not actually be yourself at some point in your life? Could I have been so much my mother that I could not as a child see her any more than I could see myself, except by examining my image in the mirror?

    My mother in the 1950s I gather in parts from photographs. From a snapshot of my brother's eighth birthday, her legs, thin and straight but strong with enough calf to give them shape, as she leans to cut the cake. A narrow waist, brown hair falling straight from the crown into a wave running ear to ear above her neck. From photos taken on desert picnics or during Sunday dinners at my grandmother's or at the piano in our living room where my mother gives private lessons to children, I see her skirts, some made of gingham, one red, another yellow, and one tan squaw dress with dozens of tiny pleats spoking downward from the belt, three concentric rows of metallic rickrack several inches from the hem.

    In some memories of my first few years, my visual vantage is from high up looking down, as though I am carried by my mother, perched like a video camera at her shoulder. From this perspective I see my older brother in a homemade Indian outfit, a strip of terrycloth rag tied around his forehead for a headband with a pigeon feather standing up in back, red lipstick stripes on his cheeks, naked except for his underwear and a loincloth—two hand towels, one in front and one in back, draped on a belt.

    Or we sit on the living room floor, my mother's books—she's taking an evening course in Greek mythology—scattered around us. I'm intrigued by nakedness, Achilles, Hermes, Aphrodite, in photographs of statues and painted urns in the various texts. While she reads and underlines and takes careful notes on small white cards, I draw with crayons the naked people from the books, or fingerpaint them on butcher paper, or, if she'll help me get set up, spread newspapers and sculpt in clay their whole forms, taking special care with the breasts and penises. And when I think it might be okay to interrupt, I ask her to tell me their stories.

    In all these memories, she is a presence, a feeling, a warmth, even a voice, but not a physical body I can see. And so to know my mother in her young adulthood, I study my favorite photograph of her, taken some years before I was born. Behind her rise jagged mountains, the range just north of her college town. She sits atop a horse, which is pictured full-length facing left. She wears jeans, a fringed leather jacket, and a dark Stetson; she smiles toward the camera, her right hand on the horse's mane, her left holding the reins a few inches above the animal's neck.

    To invent her eyes, her smooth skin, her youthful demeanor, I stare at this photograph. And from it I can ask her to step down and crouch beside the tan enamel tub, dark brown tiles extending from its edge up four feet on three sides, the bathtub of my childhood. I can ask her to rub my five-year-old's back with a soapy washcloth, and to sing a song with me. I love the crackly blueness of her eyes. I love the sweetness of her narrow lips, which have, by this time late in the day, only light traces of red lipstick on them.

    This is the mother who encourages everything I try: small cakes from a mix in the child's oven on the back porch, an actual electric oven I stand before in one of her aprons dragging on the concrete pad; marriage to Cindy, the new girl across the alley with hair darker than my mother's; the mother who loans me scissors to cut my own hair before the ceremony, which I do without a mirror, trimming only the middle, down and down until I make a hole exposing my scalp; who helps me write braille letters to my father's blind sister, letters I compose by improvising the way I do when I dance in squaw dresses, according to the emotion of my thoughts, punching the stylus erratically into the special heavy paper, each letter a series of bumps bunched into dense colonies or oddly shaped groups or solitaries spread across the paper's smooth surface.

    Not until my mother divorces my father when I am ten, not until we make up the beds with clean white sheets on the weekend, tucking opposite comers as I talk about the hollowness in my body from my father's absence, not till then does she take on a face and body I know I remember. More serious, her forehead slightly lined, the skin's pores now visible, her hair teased into a bubble and dyed a pale honey color, a result of the new luxury of weekly beauty parlor appointments in our town's only shopping center, she says, "Yes, I have that feeling too. I suppose we'll have it for a long time."


3


The sound of the same musical phrases played again and again, our house filled as always with a funereal presence the week before my father's piano recital, as though a body lay in state somewhere out of sight—I know this unsettled me. I was without doubt an annoyingly oversensitive child. My sister, eight years my senior, sat calmly through recitals like a little adult; my brother, the middle child, slept through performances. Before my feet could touch the floor, I perched on the edge of my seat, alert for the few—and inevitable—accidental notes my father would strike, each wrong note producing in me a sudden jolt of shame.

    A pianist on the music faculty of Arizona State College, my father was not short-tempered. But at these times he was so taken up by the music, his concentration became palpable, a formidable presence; energy from normal household activities seemed somehow drained away into him, every conversation, every meal under a peculiar control—a control emanating, mysteriously, from him. I remember my mother and sister as virtually silent for days at a time. After meals, they'd wash dishes at the kitchen sink without speaking, both gazing out the window along separate lines.

    I remember also, at this time in my life, my curiosity about the limits of things that were delicate, breakable—like our canary, such a small live creature. Once I deliberately damped my teeth on a thermometer, gradually applying more pressure, frightened it would break—and delighted when it did, the mercury and slivers of glass on my tongue not lethal after all. How hard could I shake the cage, I wondered, before the bird stopped singing? If I knocked him down, would he hop up on the perch, a small wooden dowel, and sing again?

    In the living room, beside my father's Steinway grand, stood the five-foot, shiny chrome bird-stand, shaped like a question mark. When my father practiced, experimenting with dynamic and rhythmic relationships of notes and phrases, repeating short passages over and over—to give each, as he explained, a spontaneous shape, a sculptural quality and life of its own—the canary sat silent in its cage, seemingly entranced by the singing of the piano, such an enormous, dark animal. But in a quiet house, mornings before even my mother had gotten out of bed, or evenings as we sat reading in the living room, the bird sang a pure high song that gave my father a particular pleasure. He'd reach over from his chair to my mother on the couch and touch her shoulder. "Just listen," he'd say, "how beautiful," in the voice he used to call us to the backyard patio on nights when the sky blazed orange and red at sunset, I'm sure there were even tears in his eyes, as there are occasionally tears in mine on such evenings now. Back then it was all my siblings and I could do to keep ourselves from laughing right out loud at his emotion. We held it in as best we could, but it sometimes drove us crazy to be called away to witness this incomprehensible grown-up rapture.


Shortly before I turned seven in the spring of 1958, the week of my father's recital, after several weeks of tense household restraint, my father at the college, my brother and sister at school, my mother hanging clothes in the back yard, I was left alone with the canary, who sang in full voice in the living room. I wrapped my fingers around the bird-stand and shook it until the bird slammed against the side of the wire cage, falling lifeless on the seeds and newsprint lining the birdcage floor.

    I lied, hopelessly, when my father came home, as I had lied not long before when he'd found his father's heirloom pocket watch no longer ticking atop his dresser. (Told never to put a magnet near the silver watchcase, I tried it the first chance I got.) The cage had obviously been shaken, all its furniture in disarray—perch and water bottle and mirror and green plastic seed dish toppled every which way.

    I began to cry, and ran to my room. My father carried his beloved canary, Chipper, out the kitchen door to bury him.

    I closed my door, cuffed up on my bed, and searched for the small manufacturer's tag on the pillowcase. I cultivated a smell in the area of this tag. I'd let saliva collect there as I sucked my thumb, until the spot took on a sweet bodily fragrance I associated with comfort and safety, my childhood narcotic. Whenever I was upset, I could lay my head on the pillow, inhaling this special fragrance, and fall into a deep, untroubled sleep.


4


How Did It All Start? an essay by Dianne Rickel for Mrs. White's fifth-grade class


We Rickel children were trying to decide what to be on Halloween. Always the first place to look is in the old trunk in the boys' bedroom. We found a ghost costume and a fairy costume and a Hawaiian grass skirt and many old clothes. Richard who was six decided on a ghost costume. It was black with white bones. I who was ten decided on an old beggar costume made from old Levi's and shirt. Boyer who was two called the fairy costume his "hula." Boyer thought the "hula" costume was very pretty so he decided that he would wear it.

At Halloween Boyer, you remember, wore his "hula" and also he wore earrings, lipstick, rouge, scarf, and green slipper socks. Everybody thought he was a big sport to look like a girl when he was a boy. So day after day and week after week and month after month he wore his "hula" until we had to throw it out because it was too filthy. (Of course he didn't know where it went.)

Boyer was so unhappy that he could not find the "hula" so I let him wear my squaw skirt. So this went on day after day and week after week and month after month until we had to throw it away.

We decided to try hard to get him over this. Daddy bought him new Levi's and shirts. Some of Mother's girl pupils wore Levi's to lessons.

Mother wore her Levi's to teach in. Mrs. Wilber brought two of David's shirts. This idea worked part of the time. He insisted on wearing a dress especially when he saw someone in a dress. He was worse when there was a party.

Now with the squaw skirt gone he took to my lavender dress. To keep it clean Mother had to wash it sometimes twice a day. One day Mother did not have time to wash it and so we told him that Mother would wash it "tomorrow" and THIS went on day after day week after week and month after month.

On Mother's Day we had Grama Susie and the Brimhalls for dinner When he saw us all dress up he remembered his dress and so he went out to the garage and into the dirty clothes to get his dress. He put it on by himself and came in to show it to us.

Day after day week after week month after month and year after year he wants to be a girl.


The End


5


For my flattop haircut, I went with my father, every two or three months, to Ray's Barbershop. A low, narrow structure, Ray's was just down from the newspaper office on the main commercial street and marked by a revolving barber pole, the red stripe spinning forever down or up, I couldn't decide. At age five and six, propped on a smooth board laid across the arms of the barber chair, a white smock fanning out from my neck, I'd fuss—I hated the buzzing clippers and being confined—till some treat, usually a piece of Dentyne gum, could be found to pacify me.

    Entering Ray's, to the right one saw three black leather swivel chairs that rose and turned on pedestals like carnival rides; to the left, against the wall, a line of five or six green Naugahyde-covered chairs with chrome tube armrests. These waiting chairs I loved because their surfaces stung with coolness the skin on my arms and bare legs in the many hot months of the year. Having used up the cool of one spot, I'd lift my legs and shift my arms to a new position—enjoying even the unsticking sound—and use up the cool in the new location.

    Despite the chairs, each time we neared Ray's those first few years, my fingers wrapped in my father's hand, I felt an odd sense of dread. Ray's was a world of men, men without women. If a mother had the job of seeing to her son's haircut, she'd usher him through the door, ask Ray to keep an eye out till she got some other errand done, and be on her way. This charged the atmosphere in some way that made me uncomfortable. Though the talk was generally good-natured, it took on the quality of a public competition, voices chiming in from all parts of the room, the volume rising and falling and rising again quickly.

    And the talk seemed to follow a pattern. Whether a man agreed or disagreed with what had just been said—"What a lousy baseball team the college has this year" or "We need to pass those road bonds"—he'd have to up the ante, speaking more loudly, making a point, or countering a point, with greater intensity. A break in the buildup and he was out.

    What made me most uneasy, though, was how my father, stepping through Ray's door, became someone else; how he suddenly treated me as an other, to be discussed as if not present, located in the third person: "I hope he's not too much trouble today, Ray." My father's voice would dip to a lower register, sounding flat and less gentle.

    "A bad time to be in the stock market, Ray?" he'd ask, settling into the barber chair. I could see his shoulders, even beneath the smock, flatten against the chair-back—my father, who was otherwise noticeably round-shouldered. I could see that rather than take part in the actual contest, my father asked questions, deferring somewhat to the others. I was puzzled by the changes that took place in him; I was embarrassed by his awkwardness.

    Some years later, as a member of the high school tennis team, I'd stand with about a dozen naked boys every day after practice in the open showers, the air thick with steam and the stink of gym clothes.

    —"What a fuck-up Jimmy was in his match Thursday:"

    —"It'd serve that asshole right if Sally didn't let him touch her for a month."

    —"Hey, Jimmy, she let you do stuff to her with that little wang of yours?"

    Though we made our points with quick insults and sarcasm, the pattern was the same as in Ray's, each comment an attempt to top the one before.

    Without calling too much attention to myself, I discovered how to add in a sentence here and there, not unlike my father's practice of posing questions. I'd snort at the appropriate moments, and find safe places (the splintered foot of an old wooden bench, a pile of discarded towels) to direct my gaze—away, always, from what interested and confused me most: the other boys' bodies.


* * *


By age twelve I visited Ray's alone, riding my bike downtown after school or on Saturday. Not only had I begun to figure out what made me uncomfortable there, I was becoming a student of character, intrigued by the manners of speech and dress and movement that gave adults their distinctive places in my small universe. Ray's was no good for this, the cast changing too quickly for long observation. But just a few blocks up and across the street, I found in another men's place, The Q, a pool hall, a cast of characters who daily arrived to take up their roles. Allowed, perhaps encouraged, to watch—these men knew how to play to an audience—I'd rent a table for half an hour, then sit with a cherry Coke at a distance to observe the drama.

    The Q was cavernous, a huge open rectangle with lights like giant plungers hanging down over the green-felt-covered tables. Entering through the heavy glass door at one end of the storefront, you were met by a squinty little man with stringy dark hair and a stringy body, a body dried and smoked like beef jerky, and a few fading tattoos on his forearms. He sat behind a register near the door, at the end of a long snack counter. From any of the high stools along this counter one could turn and watch the nearby tables. The real action, though, was usually at a back corner snooker table; where the older characters—the Mex, Doc, Walter—would mix it up with the younger hustlers like Smitty, the Rail, and my brother, Richard.

    Richard, four years my senior and in high school already, was friends with Smitty and the others; he could hold his own at this table. Always voluble, and tall, with a broad smile and crisp flattop haircut like mine, he could smoke and curse and talk about sex in conspiratorial ways with the other guys, hinting at conquests, winking, cigarette jittering between his lips, breaking into a growling laugh. All this carried off as he sighted along his cue to make a shot. Between turns he sat with three or four others in high plastic scooped chairs along the wall. They'd slouch in their seats, sticks standing straight up and held with both hands between their legs, comments floating side to side, heads rolling back and forth along the cool painted cinder block.

    I was his kid brother, okay as long as he said so; he said so as long as I never made a point of being his brother. For hours I'd lurk outside the circle, witness to the give-and-take of men—from late adolescents like my brother, through the older unemployed or retired ones, some of them drunks, noses red and porous from years on the bottle.

    Walter and the Mex were the lords of this latter group. Though Walter was light and the Mex dark, their bodies matched in almost every other way, paunches overlapping their belts, skin puffy yet creased here and there, brown eyes bloodshot as if they never slept. And their voices were ragged. Walter barked out phrases in hoarse bursts, tugging at his pants from the belt loops to emphasize a point. The Mex, quieter, was more inclined to ribbing Walter and the others than telling whole stories. "Better pull hard, my friend," he'd wheeze, "you got no ass to hold those pants up." They always looked and acted so settled, small grins and chuckles punctuating their remarks, I figured they had some secret to life.

    The younger men handled themselves differently. If the rumpled Walter approached the snooker table like a respectful lover, deliberately considering each shot, gently placing the bridge-hand on the felt, his elbow coming to rest in one slow graceful motion, the young ones said with their bodies they would dominate. Volatile, loud, with quick eyes that knifed in anger or pleasure, Smitty charged the table, swiftly finding the desired angle, pulling the cue back in precise but sudden preliminary jerks. Missing an important shot, Rail, nicknamed for both his skill with bank shots and his skinny frame, would slam the butt of his cue against a wail, spitting a curse. And there were actual fights—over debts (these games were played for money), over occasional insults (about little peckers and never getting laid, or somebody's dumpy girlfriend). Sometimes I couldn't see the explosion coming. There'd be the thud of bodies against a table, arms and grunts and teeth in a blur, and then five or six men rushing in to pull the bodies apart. Those of us just watching would scatter to the walls like so many water droplets shaken from a rag.

    I was scared almost to trembling each time I walked into The Q—and excited by my fear. But it wasn't because of the fights. It had to do with my role as a watcher. I felt no kinship with either group, the fiery young hustlers or their blowsy elders, though both I found fascinating. I knew I was a spy, an imposter. I was terrified some comment or some stupid stumbling gesture would show them who and what I was. And though I didn't know what that would be, I felt certain something fundamental in my nature would be different, and to these men, to my brother, even, unacceptable. So I held myself in absolute, nearly frozen, reserve. If I was blank, I thought, if I didn't try to show I was anybody, if I simply watched, smiled, smirked, laughed at the right moments, slouched down in my chair, I'd pass.


6


We talked about Mozart, we talked about rock and roll, the Beatles, the Doors, about sports, about teachers we knew in common at the high school. We took turns at the piano. I played simple pieces by Purcell and Bach and Handel; he knew jazz and swing, inventing looping passages of darkness and humor. He showed me his watercolors, wondrous, dense worlds of vegetation, vine and tree and flower, with animals. He was two years younger, a freshman, my best friend Will's little brother. Brown as earth, his eyes nearly black, short and lean with luminous skin.

    We'd lie on the living room floor, propped on our elbows, shoulder to shoulder, looking over a piano score. We'd shoot baskets at the hoop over his garage door; I'd tease by wrapping my arms around him from behind, to keep him from driving for a lay-up. I sensed something in him, like a secret, some vitality, that spilled into me whenever I was near him.

    Whereas I arranged my bedroom in precise order—bed tightly made, dresser drawers aligned, desk a geometry of books and pens and stapler—Leon's was in a disarray suggesting, I realized instantly, life: albums and clothes and a broken, overturned fish tank and a blond imitation-wood fifties Zenith TV the size of a hay bale and, of course, an unmade bed with baseball cards and marbles and notebook pages crumpled and tossed among the sheets. And the walls were plastered with pencil drawings and paintings and maps and magazine ads for guitars and posters of rock stars. He'd even put large hooks on one wall from which he hung jackets and a camera and a Boy Scout canteen. You almost had to kick your way through the clutter, scooping away a spot on the bed to sit. I could have burrowed in the profusion of that room; I could have shouted for the joy of such energy. I managed on my second visit to make off with a threadbare, soiled, plain brown T-shirt, which I hid in my closet and slept with for weeks, my dreams incoherent and sensual and redolent of Leon.


* * *


The wind had a bitter edge I'd not expected. We dug a shallow pit the size of a small backyard swimming pool in the sand. Five of us—Leon, his best friend, Tom, Will, another mutual friend, and I—all tumbled in. Woozy from a night of drinking, we pulled sleeping bags around ourselves, squirming into comfortable spots. The wind would swell, the sound filling my ears, before I'd realize it was the ocean, the breaking of a wave creeping up the shore. I lay next to Leon. This was my second trip to the Gulf of California, a spot not far from the U.S. border where Leon's family camped often. It was Thanksgiving of 1967.

    We'd been carousing in town at several cantinas. Mixing with other American kids, set free to drink in public, we shouted the lyrics to songs we knew on the jukeboxes, pissed in the dimly lit dirt streets, tried to hit on the few American girls who could shake their parents.

    I'd felt some physical charge, some urgency this night, as strong from Leon as emanated from me. I felt it now as we lay on the beach, my mind growing powerfully clear, a sense of inner focus opening up inside me. I could actually visualize the aura encircling me and Leon, whose eyes were—I knew without looking—also open to the night sky. And then one by one, inexplicably, the other boys hauled their sleeping bags out of the pit.

    I stared at the stars. Dense as spilled powder, I thought, we thought, the thought not mine but ours, my whole body now infused with Leonness. We turned to look at each other and exchanged an inner howl of recognition and fear and then the absolute joy of the amazing telepathy. Was this God?

    I lay in a state of exhilaration—and absolute tension, possessed by Leon, Leon by me. I'd never felt so vital, our bodies two parallel, blended, sensual vessels. I longed to embrace him. Yet we agreed, silently, that we shouldn't touch. Like the sound of our own voices, surely touching would break the spell. And so it went through the night, during which we lay side by side, perfectly still, and spoke not once, but thought together, using not words exactly and not imagery—pure thought, as energy, as spirit. So this is what it means to be alive.

    First morning light was a millennium arriving, arriving in a no-time, in a second. We rose and laughed, our first sounds in hours. The rest of the day we had a power over and in each other, a connection that we'd test. That night, across a crowded cantina, a swirl of drunk Americans, a few Mexicans, dancing and shouting, a few couples necking: I can see the haze and feel the sweat sticking my shirt to my skin as I talk excitedly to Will and my head gets pulled, my gaze forcibly drawn across the room to where Leon is staring into me.

    We had this connection for weeks. And I was changed; we were changed. We'd sit at the piano and improvise wildly for hours, the music itself a way of knowledge passing between us. We'd find tiny resonances of our new sense of life's possibility in a Charles Ives quartet, a Thelonious Monk piano riff, in paintings by Gauguin and van Gogh. We tried to express the mystery, Leon in paintings and a journal, I in poems and short, allegorical stories.

    Over the months the intensity diminished; still that night in Mexico remained a powerful source. We could spark it to life especially at the piano, though I grew anxious over what seemed a draining of our intimacy.

    One evening, over a year later, at a time when I was thinking more and more about college, my plans to enroll in a small midwestern liberal arts school, wondering what would happen to me and Leon, we attended a recital together. It was held at a private center for the performing arts in the desert north of town. The small adobe building reserved for chamber recitals had room for only three or four rows of chairs, arranged in a rectangle. In the middle was space for the performers. Concerts there, which I usually attended with my father, always seemed special. When the lights were turned down, one looked toward a circle of glowing musical scores lit by lamps clipped to the music stands, the musicians nodding in and out of the light as they performed.

    On this night's program, before intermission, members of a German string sextet played two works, the first a quartet by Mozart, as delicate, as purely architectural as a spider's web. Then a monumental Brahms sextet, a piece that builds in its final movement from a brooding fugue toward six independent, translucent, ethereal threads, a journey on the breath of angels. I sat, as the house lights came up, transported somewhere beyond my self, astonished at the beauty and strangeness in being alive.

    On a patio where intermission refreshments were being served, Leon asked me what I thought. Wanting to please him, to show myself in perpetual harmony with him, I lied—surely I'd heard him fidget during the Brahms? "I liked the Mozart best," I said. "The other went on too long."

    "Oh no." His voice cracked with hurt.

    Neither of us spoke again till we got back to town.

    I can never think of that lie—a lie about a moment of near-spiritual significance—without feeling sick. I have no idea what was played after intermission. I spent the time composing apologies, some confession of what I'd done and why. But my shame confused me; it seemed too crazy to explain. I couldn't tell him I loved him, because I didn't know it myself.


7


I was forever forming secret alliances with other boys, clubs with codes and shifting hierarchies. We played war games, spied on neighbors, made up elaborate stories of how we'd someday rule the world. We'd meet in our older brothers' tree forts. These were perched in the cottonwoods—huge white-skinned trees with broad yellowish leaves—alongside canals that ran through our neighborhoods. From the top of such trees, we thought we could see the curve of the Earth.

    Such secret places were also good for talking about sex and, whenever possible, looking at pornographic magazines. The college dorms were only blocks from our houses; by the time we were nine or ten, we knew that at each semester's end, the young college men, graduating or returning to their parents' homes, would have to throw out the pornography they'd collected over the term. We'd root through the garbage cans, clustered in small, three-sided, redbrick enclosures behind the dorms, whooping with glee when we discovered a cache of magazines, spiriting them to one of our hideouts.

    And sex, of course, was a remarkably empowering secret. I can remember feeling somehow important, strong, for days at a time after a sexual experiment with a friend or a first long look at a new set of magazines; I walked with an inner confidence I knew the adults couldn't see from the outside, that I owned from within.


* * *


Homo. The word was so dark and ugly I couldn't say it. Nigger one couldn't say because it hurt, it offended, its ugliness the power to injure; when spoken, it produced in my mind the image of a painful flesh wound. But homo's ugliness grew out of the filth and degradation homos practiced, and the places they habituated.

    Homos did it, boys were told by their older friends and brothers, under the abandoned, broken-down train bridge spanning the dry riverbed at the north end of town, not far from the public pool. The pool, with its small attached park, was located at the foot of a newer bridge for cars a quarter mile east of the old bridge. Through the 1950s and early sixties we had a family pass and swam at the pool all summer long. Parents could drop off their children for the day, knowing they'd be watched by the lifeguards.

    But bums lived not far away, back of the oleanders at the edge of the park, under the old train bridge, their skin a grimy gray-brown. They reeked of urine, and worse, they were homos. When they ventured into town at night, they always hung out along the railroad tracks or in the dark areas of parks, doing what they did in the public restrooms.

    During these same years, when I was between six and ten, there was nothing I loved more than having sex with friends. One boy in particular enjoyed taking turns with me, top and bottom, in the missionary position, rubbing our genitals together until it almost hurt—or, what seemed more common, until we were caught, our secret out, though I was gratified to discover how soon the adults, embarrassed and righteous, were willing to forget.

    Once in second grade, after the midmorning recess bell had rung to call us in, Tony, a chunky Hispanic, the class giant, with skin dark as potting soil and the broad face of a Navajo, pushed me to the floor of a restroom stall. We'd shared the toilet, peeing from either side. He latched the metal door, guiding me to lie face down. Then he lay on top of me, pushing and wiggling to get his penis in. It felt almost good, the warmth of his weight and the pressure, though the linoleum was sticky and cold.

    "Now you try," he said, peeling me back with an oversized hand. As I got started, we began to slide, as if the earth had tilted under us. Angelo, the janitor, had grabbed Tony's ankles, which extended from under the stall. He dragged us into the center of the restroom.

    Angelo said nothing. He never said anything, I'm not sure he spoke English. I was mortified, too shaken to pull my own pants up. Tony matter-of-factly buckled himself, then helped me to button my jeans, my underwear bunched uncomfortably around the bottoms of my butt cheeks, and pushed me out the door.


* * *


Age seven, when a neighbor boy taught me how to masturbate, the sensation of tugging the loose skin up and down around my small hard penis was purely thrilling in and of itself. I needed no image, no story, to bring me to a dry, electric climax.

    In a few years, though I enjoyed having sex with other boys, the magazines provided new and provocative images when I was alone: large smooth breasts, nipples dark and textured like raspberries, and tight round buttocks, I'd slip into the bathroom I shared with my brother, a magazine hidden under my shirt, I'd sit on the toilet, slowly turning the pages, the photos sparking instant erections and quick ejaculations. There was sex talk among us boys about girls, how some at school showed signs of breasts; we speculated about which would let us kiss them on the lips.

    By junior high, sex games with other boys were out of the question. Now we tested our manhood, which meant going as far as we could with girls. Boys who did things with other boys were homos, to be ridiculed, hardly male at all. Needled by a friend about how I used to like beating off with guys, I'd deny everything, my fury so righteous I almost believed my own words.

    We dated, we necked at parties with girls, we began to learn the prevailing story of sex: the teasing and awkward conversations between classes, the meetings after school for Cokes and visits in the kitchen with the girl's mother, the wrestling out of sight of parents in the yard or on the living room carpet, the long phone calls and the notes passed between friends. When beating off at night in bed, I'd lie back on the pillow and close my eyes, imagining impossible circumstances—in her bedroom or mine, or at night in the park—the story's climax a literal one. Meanwhile, it was particular friends, boys, whose bodies sent complex feelings of pleasure through me.

    Gradually, through high school, I began to move boys into my fantasies. In plot, these were no different from my stories about girls, equally impossible, equally thrilling—sex after school under the athletic field bleachers, sex in his bedroom, where we'd gone to do algebra homework. But what such fantasies might signify was literally unthinkable. I experienced this as forgetting: daily, automatic, painless. For all I knew, I was just like my friends, forever horny, forever hoping for the chance to go all the way with a pretty girl; settling, gladly, at parties and drive-ins for endless, tongue-filled kisses, the stroking and sucking of breasts, and the sweetness, on lucky nights, of delirious moans and mutual hand- and finger-powered orgasms.

    By college all my sexual fantasies were homosexual, though their meaning was screened from my conscious mind. My eyes scanned classes, concert audiences, waiting lines in grocery stores, tables in the student union beer hall, for men, images of men to call up when I needed them, to live inside my narratives. The search was automatic, unconscious, as if performed by some other, some separate, intelligence. Otherwise, I behaved as did my new male college friends, acting out the rituals of romance we'd been practicing since junior high—pursuits' flirtations, seductions, long serious talks, short-term monogamies—with women.

    In glacial increments, through the four college years, my conscious mind began to waken. Why did I beat off with men in my mind, then sleep with so many women? Could the feelings I had for men, my fantasies about them, belong to me? Might they be my story?

    It delighted me to see men dance with men at parties. When I joined in, it didn't mean I was a homo. Age twelve, I shared my father's disgust as we turned the pages of a Life magazine photo layout of the Beatles: their hair edging over their ears, the pointy heels on their black zippered boots—were these guys or girls? But since high school in the late 1960s, my friends and I had questioned so many of our parents' codes. By 1968 I was on the principal's list of students called every few months from classes to check hair length: over the collar in back and we were out. We were nicknamed "the Dirty Thirty."

    In college I pierced an ear and wore a dangling earring; I grew my hair to the middle of my back; I toted books and wallet and keys in an over-the-shoulder satchel much like a purse. Who knew where a new sense of maleness might lead? If out with a woman friend, I'd wait beside the car while she opened the door; at a formal restaurant, we'd enjoy the waiter's confusion as she ordered meals for both of us. I took a sexuality course with a girlfriend; we talked about the need to embrace the Other residing in each of us, her male self, my female self.


* * *


Once in high school, twice in college, I had girlfriends I cared for deeply, women I knew other young men in my position would have asked to marry. Something held me back; I couldn't name it. "I'm not feeling what I'm supposed to feel," I said to each in turn. I feared I couldn't love.

    The week of college graduation, I slept with two close friends, both women, a consequence of all-night parties and a profound sense of freedom, of not quite being anyone I knew. We were all between selves, the old ones we had become these past four years and the new ones surfacing, based on the old, facing an unknowable future. Our sex was gentle and dreamy and without complication, a form of farewell. We showered after hours of dancing and drinking, made love, slept, made love, showered again, talcing each other's bodies against the stickiness of a midwestern May. In bed we took our time, rolling to change positions without letting go. We lay half the day among the sheets, giggly as children, emptied of responsibility—no papers due, no exams, and no need to discuss where our relationship was going. It was going nowhere.

    That week I also slept with two men following parties, men I hardly knew. The first I'd noticed in the dining hall where we both worked. After dancing together, flirting openly, kissing a little, he took me to his dorm room under the pretext of listening to Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder." I'd loved this work for years in a recording by a mezzo-soprano. A voice major, this tall, green-eyed sophomore with sandy, thinning hair, wanted me to hear the songs interpreted by a man, a tenor, he said.

    The sex was awkward, elbows in all the wrong places, my body too angular, too skinny, the prickle of mustaches as we necked a shock; my cock too meager, I feared, his much too grand for me to manage gracefully. This first time with a man, I had little idea of the mechanics, my beard stubble scratching the inside of his thighs, my teeth causing him to cry out, "Why do I get all the virgins!" He laughed as he lifted my head from his crotch.

    I was grateful for his humor, his ease, his patience. I inhaled in gulps the fragrances of his body, the muskiness gathered in the hourglass-shaped mat of hair at the center of his chest, the pungency in the seam between his inner thigh and scrotum.

    At two A.M., I walked to the house I shared with friends, delirious with recognition, feeling tall as a giant; the sidewalk seemed miles down to my feet. I had glimpsed what I had missed, what I had been unable to feel, with women.

    While having sex, though intensely anxious, my voice trembling and my tongue chalk-dry, I'd been released, paradoxically, from the burden of self-consciousness: I felt like myself.

Table of Contents

One
Manhood3
Two
Man Shrinking29
Angel35
Soldiers39
Permission44
Mr. Todd47
Called by Name53
Three
Taboo63
To Dusk66
Care68
The Touch72
Manners75
Ground77
Chaos79
Four
Brown Boys85
Reading the Body115
Acknowledgments135
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