Taking the Road
Matthew Graham Smith
for Lindsay Caplan
Delayed from the beginning, I watched movie after movie. My car, the crucial green light, laid locked in the body shop undergoing operations. It still needed repairs from the accident I'd crawled out of a month earlier. I don't really want to go into it, but there are some unavoidable thorns: the insurance representative interrogated me with cold politeness, looking for reasons why the Explorer had slipped across the three A.M. wet bridge grid. I did not mention to her my suspicions that the car always seemed on the verge of betraying me. The smoke from the airbag gunpowder still stung my nostrils, yet I was impatient to steer that dangerous machine again.
With school over, I avoided my bedroom where my diploma crowned a pile of junk heaped on the floor. Instead, I taunted myself by riding the local commuter trains whose tracks paralleled highways, swaying through rain-streaked daydreams as the stations rolled by. I wanted to feel the open sky, to get the road under me and start moving away from the east with its familiar percussion to see all that country, reaching toward the other coast, to San Francisco where a boy stood, marking the edge of this big cracking land, balancing the opposite shore from where I sat brooding in Westchester.
Waiting for the treacherous car, I spent hours face to face with the road map of the country mounted on the wall of the body shop. I sat listening to the sounds of metal and electricity coming from the shop garage, thinking of casting off from my suburban town of coma streets, fixing my eyes to the big skies westward. I imagined all that land out between me and the Pacific and all the people that everyone else flies over. I dreamed I was a monk who could pray with cool wheels, asking what the hell might happen to me when I rolled out into the middle of it all. For example, burning out of the suburbs and into the corn, I scolded myself: what did I know about Nebraska? I wasn't sure it existed.
I felt so itchy trying to sit still, drinking too much coffee. At least moving I could start to feel myself getting shaken up, could start fighting the vague theoretical doubts tugging at my totally vague and theoretical sleeve. At least in moving there was a chance to see farther toward the end of this confusing ground, a chance to be scared for once beneath the biggest sky I'd ever shuffled under. I wanted to prove something. I did it because I don't ever want to be afraid of this country.
When the mechanic handed me the keys to my car, he warned me, "Registration's expired." Later, I noticed one of the plates was missing.
I made up some plans. I started packing. I called friends, told them, "I'm coming, get ready!" Yes! That was exactly the kind of craziness that saved me from going numb. I only started feeling alive once I picked up speed on the highway. I saw myself in the rear view mirror, hands around the wheel, speeding away from New York toward Philadelphia where my friend had a summer sublet. Driving an unregistered vehicle out to California and back seemed absurd at first, but I made arrangements to have the registration FedExed it to me when it arrived. If I could just get out of New York state with the one plate, clear the George Washington bridge, no one would bother me about the missing one. As for the registration, I would have to avoid getting pulled over as long as possible or else face arrest, impoundment.
I couldn't be stopped. There's so much paperwork; if you don't just start out you'll never be able to move. I thought about Jack Kerouac and how his big crush on Neil set him in motion, hoboing the roads for more kicks. Up ahead I imagined the beginning, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.
Driving, the mind wanders. Time changes its shape and places lose their roots in the ground. My heart released memories; his brown eyes, the boy in first grade. I can't remember his name. He's out there somewhere.
Back in the drunk early years of college, with shoes secretly and unexplainably leaking some type of red sand, I wandered into a big party where this boy stood, separated from the bopping mess of horny kids. There was almost nothing special about him. His name, I knew, was Sebastian.
Before we finished staring at each other, a bottle started spinning, the excuse to start satisfying these overwhelming feelings of small lust. Sebastian stood across the forming circle looking beautiful and eager, a picture made of nervous hands, a soft shock of blonde hair, a bitten lip. He had no record for kissing boys, and everyone in the school had a record you could literally read in the girls' bathroom stall in the campus center. I often found myself trapped in the stall, waiting for my chance to escape the bathroom after checking the list for updates, arrested by the sound of a real girl endlessly applying product to herself at the mirror. To be honest, I often fall in love with boys who don't kiss boys, but this seemed beyond that loop of frustrating desire. Sebastian was trying to reach me, fumbling when we passed each other in tight crowds, eyes racing toward me and darting away whenever I caught him.
I don't have a clue what desire is or where it comes from. He made me feel warm. I was curious.
The spinning bottle slowed, torturing and tickling us all. As it stopped, squarely demanding our inevitable collision, a redred blush rose to our cheeks. We quickly grabbed each other from across the circle, surprising each other, kissing hard, embarrassing ourselves. And then he was gone, unable to look me in the face. I felt nudges and smiles from the drunken partiers, urging me to chase him off into the night. When I made it down the hallway and out of the front door, the road greeted me with its simple emptiness, and I stood there on the curb for what seemed like too long, enjoying the cool night.
Sebastian called me up eventually hoping for more kisses, and even words from me. I remember thinking that these were bold moves from such a quiet, unfamiliar body. We wandered around each other, clumsy, like stupid kids, unable to get up the nerve to touch each other's lonely skin.
Out of frustration with myself, I said too loudly: "let's go smoke some pot in my room." I wanted the pot to last forever so I wouldn't have to figure out what to do next.
But Sebastian just took the pipe out of my hand and pulled me toward him. Afterwards I couldn't talk, didn't know what to say. He stared at me expectantly. I pulled my jeans on: "let's get some pizza."
"You're the first boy I ever kissed."
To be fair, I had seen that coming. Still, I hated myself for the responsibility he'd given me. What did he expect of me? I could see his need, watching his jaw devour the pizza, the kind of hunger you get from years of starving.
We saw each other a few more times the following week, and then school ended, summer began. I lived in New York City that summer, working as a temp in midtown during the day and then interning at this deathtrap theater in Tribeca at night. I was renting my apartment, another deathtrap (though very much smaller), from a shady man who was converting his building, room by room, from a welfare hotel to a dorm for the School of Visual Arts. His project half complete, my next-door neighbor, Stan, was a paraplegic alcoholic who had reversed his sleep schedule. I would see him zipping around in his motorized wheelchair with an empty bottle of vodka in the mornings when I crept bleary-eyed toward the elevator to go to my temp job. The room was just big enough for a bed, which was okay by me because all I did was sleep there. A small bathroom contained a tub with sad green stains and a sink with a syringe stuck way down the drain out of reach.
Sebastian commuted in from Long Island and met me when I got home from Tribeca. Without talking, we would fall into bed. I enjoyed this routine at first; the rush of his body, the reckless silence of our nights. But I would lie awake while he slept, arm around me, asking myself why I felt so uncomfortable, so distant from this alien form on the pillow next to me. I remember desperately wanting to take care of him and wanting him to care for me but feeling like I understood none of the language to perform such beautiful rituals.
So one rainy night after wiping the fluids off our selves, I acted. I couldn't spend another sleepless night with the evidence of my failures weighing on me, the weight of an arm around my waist. Guilty for enjoying all the pleasure he had brought me, crazed because even next to me he seemed miles away, I told him to leave.
He seemed confused at first, like someone who's been hit very hard and is trying to figure out where to run. I walked him to Penn Station, the busses charging past us through puddles as we walked across town, feeling I had finally done something true. I said goodbye, and he tried to kiss me in the street. It made me mad.
His train carried him back to Long Island, and my relief carried me back to my pathetic apartment, still smelling of him. He would leave messages, and I would forget to return them. And finally the calls stopped.
I didn't think about Sebastian for two years until I caught the scent of his cologne at a bar one night. I stayed awake trying to remember every detail of him, because I felt that to forget any detail of Sebastian would be to lose an essential clue to my own salvation. The first thing I remembered was the wrinkles near his eyes whenever he laughed or smiled; joy stretched his quiet face in an almost violent way. I remembered the salty taste of his skin covered in sweat. I remember the weight of his compact body on my back with his arms wrapped around my neck as I laughed in circles on a dark soccer field a few blocks from his house in Long Island. The plainness of his short blonde hair, the dimples appearing in the smoothness of his face, the "yes" of his green and blue eyes, the neediness in the slightly nasal tone of his voice, and the strange sensation of his new-budding whiskers, his first, though he was twenty years old; these flavors of Sebastian floated to me through the night. I understood that if I could make peace with him and mend our jagged ending, that I could anticipate a future where I might risk myself again.
Tactics: I made him these huge dinners. I taught myself how to cook, blasting Louis Prima while dicing vegetables. I made these meals and invited Sebastian over, our first exchanges after all that time. We fumbled, caught each other up, gulped my cooking experiments, but I never spat out what I wanted to say: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Your affection made me feel like my life was a mess."
In the meantime, he was being targeted by this player, a walking stereotype of circuit boy, a novelty on our little campus. The two of them would grind on the dance floor as I stood by smoking and pretending to talk to people while looking past their heads in carefully disguised rage. I wasn't jealous of Brad, just protective. His name was actually Brad. Unbelievable.
I gave Sebastian little warning signals. In my drunken reasoning, I would bring him little symbols to alert him to Brad's shady intentions. A light bulb slipped quietly into his hand one humid night as I passed him on a staircase. I quit my strange habit after delivering a stop sign to his doorstep, so drunk I couldn't even remember how I'd stolen the thing, discovering only mysterious blue stains on my hands that stayed for days.
It was raining but the keg still sat out back in the mud. I stood next to it under a baby blue umbrella behind the sad, old house where the queer kiddos lived. A typically frenzied Friday night of drinking had turned into a muddy cold affair, where close contact with even close friends or attractive strangers felt uncomfortable. Brad held the umbrella, which matched the color of his extra-soft, sleeveless fleece. "Stroke it, it's soft," he insisted.
"Bold!" my friend Jai shouted, pumping the keg for beer.
Brad and Sebastian's humping had ended months ago. I still hadn't told Sebastian I felt sorry, and Brad had moved off of Sebastian -- and on to me. The ground roared with rainwater and suddenly Sebastian appeared dripping, and moved under the umbrella to make a damp quad of tangled desire.
Sebastian stood with us, laughing, smiling, and for the first time since catching his cologne, I began to feel as if things were okay at last, as if laughter, and rain, could clean the stains from the past. It was a good feeling, hearing Sebastian laugh standing so close to me. What I cannot explain about that night is how I accepted Brad's invitation to see his homemade blue curtains in his dorm room (the ones that matched his sleeveless blue fleece) and waking up to snow in April with my arm numbed senseless under his shoulders.
I walked home through the white morning to hear Sebastian's voice on my answering machine, asking why I had disappeared last night. I went over to his house, watched him make macaroni and cheese, refused his repeated offers to share, and finally announced, "I need to talk to you."
I couldn't be stopped now. In a single breath I told him all about the dinners, the attempts to apologize, the way I had treated him, my regrets, the ways that I was sorry for all my cruel mistakes, that he was my first boyfriend, too. I told him I hadn't known anything more about how boys might share their lives than he did. He laughed, "I knew those dinners were supposed to be that. That you wanted..." he searched for the safest word, "...closure."
A few weeks later we drunkenly found ourselves walking home, gently bumping into each other from step to step, until we found ourselves at his door, and he told me to come inside, where it felt like our home, as if we had been gently bumping our way home to his room every night together for years. When the light switch snapped down, the touches felt different than I had ever felt touches before. They were words. I could hear them, and they licked my ears.
The first time you fall into sleep naked with a beautiful boy whom you believe you love is a moment of light. That first time you feel as if nothing in the boundless desire of your solitude was a mistake. The first time shoots you with the feeling that what you knew about yourself was true and glorious, that all your doubts were small nervous things which scattered away in the wake of this, this revelation of long overdue secrets and welcoming, the feeling of arrival.
Before Sebastian left for California, we giggled on a swing set a block from his house on Long Island. He had rented a small room in San Francisco and planned to find a restaurant job in the Castro. My own plans were even less distinct and we clung to each other that night in the midst of our young confusion. "This is such a surprise," he struggled. "This is so weird. You coming back into my life again. All this sex."
"I know. I didn't expect it."
"I never thought you'd want to be with me again."
"I was a different person back then. I've been trying to apologize for a long time."
"The light bulb, the stop sign?"
"Um." How could I explain to him? I didn't know myself. I let him do the talking.
"I just don't know what to do from here. It's just -- I'm going to San Francisco in a few days. This is just going to end. And I'm so smitten. I hate this. Bad timing."
"If we want to see each other, we can figure something out. Bad timing is laziness," I offered. "I can come out and see you when you are in San Francisco," I suggested with the certain high-pitched quality that characterizes hope. "I'll be out west driving around all summer. I could even live with you for a while...if you wanted."
He kissed me.
"And then we can adopt kids and move to Vermont," I screamed, tickling him.
Jumping on top of me, he hugged me to the ground, and we played like that in the playground.
"You are beautiful," I whispered later, in his bed. "Not just pretty, because you are pretty, but I think you are beautiful. I think you say beautiful things. Your life, how I see it, is beautiful."
"Um...." he stumbled, almost frightened. "Thank you," he managed.
"Don't say thank you," I begged. We stared at the ceiling.
"You're beautiful, too," he said later.
Later still, head on my chest, he felt my heart pounding zig zags in the dark as we calmly lay together. "Why's your heart going crazy?" he asked.
In Virginia, somewhere in the endless stretch of trees and other wet, green, creeping plants, I stopped at a Subway for lunch and started flirting with the girl behind the counter because she was complaining about how much longer she was going to have to work. I felt bad for her. I was bobbing up and down weirdly to stretch my legs and watching her make my sandwich. Soon I got her laughing, and I was glad. Then her face turned as if she had noticed something suspicious about me.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she asked.
"No," I said, the smile on my lips fading.
"Where are you from?"
"God! Do I have an accent? You must think I'm a hick. Do you think I'm a hick?"
When I got to Columbia, South Carolina, I found my friend Sara Ann so deeply involved with maid of honor duties that I drifted solo through the music and humidity. I had never been to a wedding before, not to mention a real big deal southern wedding. The kids getting married were my age, just out of college. The boy's name was Sparky, and I forget the girl's name. They sweetly laughed with me over dinner, and I hoped they might really love each other.
The Southern boys in their finery weren't as cute as I had imagined. For some reason I had this idea that they would be effeminate in this let's-go-into-the-woods-and-be-naughty kind of way. Not a chance. I introduced myself as Sara Ann's date, which interested them slightly, as they tried to guess what kind of lifestyles Sara Ann had been exposed to during her collegiate years up north. I tried to explain to them about my plans to go to a training school for clowns.
"So this isn't like the normal thing theater majors do after they graduate, is it?" one of them asked.
"Well, no. I guess not."
"It's a pretty unusual thing for even theater people to do, right?" he persisted.
"Yeah. It's not that common," I agreed. I started chugging wine.
"Yeah. Weird," I confirmed. "What are you doing next year?"
"Going to business school; I was an econ major."
I desperately craned my neck around the scene for more wine. the music started again, and he asked me, the traveler, the stranger, the one with the accent, the one wearing the "Hollywood getup" tuxedo, the "Yankee-boy," the question almost every other guest had asked me:
"Do you know how to shag?"
Shagging, I had learned hours earlier, is Southern-style swing dancing. This antique boogie is just cultural anthropology now, even in the South, dragged out of the closet at weddings for the torture of it. Everyone wanted me to know that I was on Southern turf. No one seemed to realize how funny the question sounded.
"Yeahhh baby!" I said drunk. "I didn't think you boys would be into that!"
"You play nice with the boys now!" Sara Ann scolded as she walked up with the woman I came to call Cookie.
An enormous woman, Cookie was the only black guest at the wedding, which, I learned, was only because she had designed and made all the dresses. "Cookie costumed all the shows at the theater where I worked down here," Sara Ann explained.
Sara Ann disappeared following the white sweep of the bride's dress. Cookie and I clung to each other amidst a sea of young econ majors shagging. She smiled big. I loved her from the beginning.
"Whole lotta poop," she toasted.
"Shitloads," I tried to smile like Cookie.
"You watcher mouth now. You down in South Carolina now."
"You do theater? What kind of plays do you like?" I asked Cookie.
"I like what pops yer eyes open. The American classics, you know, Williams, Miller. They really shook shit up and made people face issues and confront problems."
I wondered if she would marry me.
"What about now?" I asked, "What was the last play you think really did that?"
She thought for a moment, adjusting her huge glasses.
"Angels in America did that, but that play is old already, ten years old, those issues are not the same anymore. There are new issues."
"Yeah there are!" I smiled.
"Yeah there are!" she nodded.
"We should write a play together, Cookie."
"Yas we should."
"What should we write our play about, Cookie?"
"Well, I'll tell you, I've been thinking about this for a long time."
"Lesbian interracial dating in the South."
She looked me up and down, worried I might lose control of myself. "That'll shake it up," I sang out.
"Yas, I think so."
"Cookie, I have to tell you, I'm very interested, but I don't really know a lot about that subject."
"You just live with me for a month honey, you'll get the gist."
"Wheeee!" I managed.
"On second thought, that might get a little too wild for you."
I was drunk and in love with Cookie. I wanted to poke her to make sure she was real. The joyful mass of her body and the arc of her gorgeous smile made me wonder if she existed anywhere but in my clouded needy head. But she was no cartoon. She told me about her two children, told me she was tired, hadn't slept in a week making dresses for all these white people.
I was tired, too. The heat of South Carolina dripped down my spine. Cookie left abruptly, heading back home for sleep. I waved goodbye. I didn't have her number. I was too drunk to run after her.
As I crested the twisting road through the Appalachian Mountains during a sun shower I was listening to Madonna for some reason. Each hill looked like a giant breast, and I contemplated how jealous I was of West Virginia and women for possessing such beautiful contours. I don't know why but the eighties always make me think about performing in drag. I began to wonder what my drag queen might look like, a train of thought that had become a constant source of anxiety. I thought if I could spot music my drag queen might dig, I could begin to imagine what kind of woman would rock out to it.
This project kept snagging in past months, due to my fear of discovering that my inner woman might bear a close resemblance to my mother. This finally receded after some encouraging queens told me this was a normal fear resulting from some "mixed up gay Oedipus whatevers."
Madonna was wrong. My inner woman wouldn't like that. Then somehow a gospel song started in on the radio. My heart moved. I began to smile and thought: my inner woman is an enormous, black, gospel singer named Cookie.
For three hundred miles before I arrived, I saw the yellow signs advertising the Jesus 2000 convention in St. Louis. My friend Padraic told me that Pride had been on the same weekend the Jesus people were in town. Diversity, I thought.
I spent the afternoon wandering around the art museum on the grounds of the old World's Fair. I decided on a long walk across the park to remove several days of car cramps when a golf cart bounded over the rise beeping its little electric horn at me.
"We're playing here! Off the course!" the sweaty driver squawked.
"Sorry, didn't realize it was a golf course."
"Whadaya call this?" the driver said, shaking a club.
Padraic came out of the 7-11 carrying a beer for himself and a large bottle of water for me. The yellow flowers on his Hawaiian shirt spun like a Ferris wheel. He had the deep Irish red painted across his cheeks that he always got after a night spent in the bar. He sucked in a breath of air and seemed like a circus bear, a smiling father, and a mischievous child in alternating seconds.
When he reached me he noticed the funny look on my face. "What?"
I shook my head and shrugged.
We walked across the street to the hotel that the theater company had put him up in. I paused on the sidewalk thinking I might hurl my guts out to clear the heaviness in my head. But nothing came, and Padraic soothed me by rubbing my back in calming downward strokes. I felt the heaviness creep away for a moment, and I lifted my head, standing straight. "If you gotta puke, you might as well just puke," he advised.
He started walking again, and I followed him.
We were up on the patio of the hotel's second floor, looking at the sun setting behind the flat Midwest horizon. We drank in silence for a while, the smell of Padraic's cologne drifting over to me sweetly.
"I got laid last night," he said.
"Only 28. He looks younger."
"Right. You meet him online?"
"You gonna see him again?"
"Dunno. He's sweet. He got out of bed before me this morning and asked me what kind of bagels I wanted. By the time I was awake, he was back, and we had bagels."
"That is sweet. I like him."
"We'll see. You?"
"Still thinking about Sebastian."
"In San Francisco?"
"Yeah. It's so weird. I'm mooning all the time. Not mooning, what's the word...?"
"At least he's gay. He's the first gay guy you've ever humped around with isn't he?"
"Yup, he belongs to the dark side of the force now."
"The Jedi are a dying breed."
"I fucking hope so. I don't know. Padraic, I think I need to have a very official coming out conversation with my parents. I'm so bored with my parents."
I was thinking of this more and more. Ever since Sebastian had set my heart pounding, I felt like startling all the straight people I could find.
"Yeah? That's good. Keep 'em on their toes."
"It's just dead boring. I'm kind of exploding to rock the boat a little."
"Did I ever tell you how I came out?"
"It's so epic."
"You are a walking drama."
Padraic went on to tell me exactly how he had come out, and I will, for the sake of the record, include it here. I should say from the outset that this story, whether true or not, certainly has the makings of a legend. Perhaps this actually happened to Padraic. I have doubts. In any case, it is the coming out story we all wish was ours.
"I went to Dublin for my whole junior year of school. That's why I didn't know you when you were a frosh. And, while I was in Dublin my oldest brother started having these marital problems with his wife." Padraic sipped the beer.
"It was crazy. She got into this big screaming fight with him and told him that his youngest son, my godson, wasn't his. Get this: she tells him she fucked some total stranger she met at a bar one night to show my bro that things weren't working out."
Padraic's whole family, I mean even apparently his extended family, are all drama queens. I've always been jealous.
"Yeah. My brother didn't know what to do at first. He finally decided to be really big. He took a breath, cleared the rage, and apologized for all the fuck-ups he had made with her. He told her that he would raise the kid as his own, they would go to counseling, work harder, save the marriage. We're Catholics, right?"
We clinked drinks, and I sort of laughed.
"But this freaked her out more than anything. She didn't want to save anything. She wanted out. So she bailed. Got a temporary restraining order on my bro. Got temporary possession of the kids. So he comes home to live with my parents. In my room."
"You never told me this before. What did you do?"
"Well, that's just it. Nobody told me. I was in Dublin. My Mom didn't want me to be bothered by all these family problems, wanted to keep them secret if she could. She instructed anyone who knew not to mention it to me when they spoke to me on the phone. So I went home without a clue for Christmas and found my brother living in my room. When I demanded to know why I hadn't been told, my mother actually said: 'Padraic, we didn't think we needed to talk about family secrets while you were away in Dublin.'"
He chugged his beer while I twiddled with the cap from the water. Then I started chewing on it. It made weird crunching noises.
"I had been planning the whole time I was in Dublin to come out to them, but after I found out about all these secrets I just planned to get my revenge. I ran up a huge phone bill to 1-900 gay sex lines, knowing that the bill would come in mid-January, just after I got back to Dublin. That way, my mother would have to call me in Dublin and ask me, 'Explain these gay sex hotline charges on the phone bill!' and I could say with total fucking immunity: 'Mom, we don't have to talk about family secrets when I'm in Dublin, do we?'"
"You are so excellent. I have to hand it to you." The cap came flying out of my mouth without Padraic noticing.
"Well, it didn't all work out so perfectly. My mom got the phone bill the day before I left and came knocking at my door, woke me up, and asked me what all this gay sex shit was about, and was I gay? I said: 'Yup, whater ya gonna do about it?' and she asked me if I was sure. And I said I was. She wanted to know how I was so sure. I told her because I had enjoyed fucking all these boys, boys that I grew up and went to church with. She said it was wicked of them to seduce me, but I told her they could take no credit; I had seduced them. I really had. She told me she still loved me and that I was never to tell my father. That was that."
"Ever told your father?
"There's no way my coming out story is going to be that dramatic. I mean I told my Mom before I went to college about this guy I'd been with. But it was more like: I did this, not I am gay. There's a difference."
I started groping around with my foot, trying to find the cap so I could chew on it some more.
"And denial is so huge. Unless you say it..."
"Right. I'm sure my parents know. I just have to tell them. I have to declare my major."
"You're not going to drive more tonight, are you?"
"I was thinking about it."
"No way. They gave me a king size. I won't even know you're there. No way you're going to drive now."
We went down to his room and Padraic read to me from the play he was rehearsing until I fell asleep.
After St. Louis I pushed on into Kansas, green flats of bored crazy cows yawned for a whole day, and might have gone on forever, until Colorado came with its dirt like ash, and a silent lightning storm flashing across the horizon. America shifted beneath me and knew I was rolling toward something big. Little changes in the land, small red curves, and descending undulations gave me a boner until I saw the Rocky Mountains shooting up over Denver.
As a child in high school I practiced dying in my room. I took up positions on the carpet or with my head laying on its side supported by a flat piece of furniture. My friends lay there with me sometimes. Smoke swam past us from cigarettes. I can still see myself hanging, suspended there, getting constant erections, the dirty lust for my friends killing me. I blame myself for not slamming my walls a little harder and hammering my desires to life. If I had courageously unzipped their pants...
At a gas station in the dead heat of Utah I watched trucks rip through the desert. I wondered what Sebastian was doing and how the milky fog of San Francisco covered him like a prince in a cloak of silvery moisture. I thought about calling him and leaving a message on his pager, but I knew it was useless. He had no phone and couldn't afford to call me long distance anyway. I was getting lonely, and I instinctively knew that great loneliness would be dangerous with so many miles still uncrossed.
An empty great blue sky towered over the ribbon of roadway, and I knew that the sky or the desert would swallow me up forever if I didn't keep my mind sharp and clear.
Born in Utah, Luke looked like a Mormon, but, was not. Skinny, blond, with blue eyes, he drank like a storm, most often beer or whiskey.
When I first met Luke in college, years ago, he flirted with me and then tried to convince me of the virtue of friends who sleep together without sexual contact. We experimented, spending a month in the same bed without touching each other. When he surprised me one night and began giving me a blowjob, I let him and never said another thing to convince him he had a sexual desire for men. Every once in a while he would begin a sentence, "I'm not gay, but..."
I would laugh and he would say, "What?" and I would say, "Nothing."
When I'd arrived at his cabin in the southern Utah desert, I hadn't eaten all day. I spent the day on dirt roads that stretched from a gas station, the last reminder of civilization, into the canyon where his one-room log cabin stood. I was weak from hunger, and I couldn't speak in sentences until he fed me some rice and orange juice. As I ate and Luke talked, I put my hunger-crazed head back together. I realized Luke had been living alone for three weeks here in the desert, the gas station his only outpost, miles away.
The only other sign of human life in the canyon was an old couple, Hilda and Henry, who lived in a bigger cabin half a mile away. They walked by the cabin one day and Luke shouted to offer them a glass of water. Like elves, they sat with us and made jokes in their German accents. I noticed the holocaust tattoo on Hilda's arm and asked myself how a holocaust survivor might be found laughing in the Utah desert with a couple of queers like us.
Luke told me later about Hilda's imprisonment with the Nazis, her whole family murdered. She alone reached the last days of the war when the Russians freed the Jews from her camp. They allowed each prisoner to do anything they wished to their German captors before leaving the camp forever. Hilda, at sixteen, walked down the line of handcuffed Germans sticking her tongue out at each one.
Climbing rock faces in the afternoons, the sun became a formidable partner, clawing our backs. We hiked for hours to find a waterfall so we could shower since there was no running water in the canyon. We scaled small mountains, tasted dust, admired tribal rock paintings, dove from lightning on unprotected peaks, walked barefoot through sharp rocks and thistles until our feet were bloody, lost clothing every hour until we were naked wanderers completely unaware of the shambles of our appearances. There is so much joy in the yellow desert. The rocks are so clear and uncompromising. Scavengers, the sun, the wind, and time prey on every surface until the entire landscape has been made clean. My thoughts followed the desert's example, eliminated whatever was unnecessary.
At night the desert turned cold and we sat out in the sand drinking whiskey, Luke telling me about his great-grandfather selling alcohol to the first Mormons in Salt Lake City. We would watch the stars, admiring their unbelievable clarity in the dry desert sky. The sunsets in the canyon made me cry as the sky performed a transformation that lasted for hours in a kind of absolute silence that I had never known before.
Luke and I set up the tent on a ridge of brush plants and sat out under a darkening Utah sky a day south of his cabin cooking a dinner of penne and cheese. We ate the pasta with our hands in silence, listening to the cars pass on the nearby interstate that we had turned off for sleep. Luke made some coffee for himself while I walked up the ridge and peed.
The moon came up and we moved into the tent, a two-man bubble, zippers sliding back and forth, until we lay snug in our bags. "What do you think of chastity?" he asked me.
"Do I believe in it?"
"Do you see it as valuable in gaining some sort of higher consciousness?"
"Do you want to ask me something, Luke?" I said with as much hardness as I could muster. I listened to the loud sound of our breathing in the small space of the tent. I could hear him pausing, could almost see his eyes rolling back into his head before he replied.
"I just wanted to know about chastity. I just wanted to know what you thought."
"What do you think?" I sighed.
"Well, I think, to an extent that there is a valuable perspective gained by holding back."
"I made this bet with a friend of mine one summer. No coming. To see who could last longer. No jerking off, no pussy." He carefully left out the other possibilities I would have made it my duty to exploit. Luke sniffed, and I could just about see my cue card being held up so I responded with bored obedience.
"How long did you last?"
"About five months."
"It wasn't like a big thing. Some girl I didn't really know, that I wasn't even planning on fooling around with."
"But did you..." I tried to finish gently, "...did you find this new consciousness you were looking for?"
"I don't know."
I listened to his breathing trying to figure out what the hell he was trying to say. At last he turned toward me on his side and asked me in a different, softer voice, "What's your passion?"
I lay struck silent for a second, gathering myself in, thinking the conversation had taken a tricky turn. I felt him pushing me into a corner, testing my exhaustion with his ambiguous groping. But he spoke again before I could respond, rolling onto his back and addressing the arc of the tent once more. He began a confession of sorts.
"I woke up with that girl the next morning after losing the contest. We were lying around in the bed, and it was a beautiful morning, and I felt good. She was playing with my hair, and I moved my hand onto her breasts. I was enjoying myself when she asked me so sweetly, as if it didn't matter at all, 'What are you passionate about?'"
I turned myself toward Luke. His body lay flat, hands outside of his bag at his side, and I had the distinct visual impression that he was the main event at a funeral.
"I told her a bunch of things that I equate with passion. I told her about theater, about art, about trying to create things, about craft. I said some things about politics, about learning. I talked about all the things I pursue with consistency. I didn't really know where I was going with my little monologue, but I just kept talking. When I was done I just sort of ran out of steam and sat there, reaching for her breast again. And I asked her, I asked her, 'What about you? What are you passionate about?'"
"'Nothing,' she said."
We both heard a plane flying somewhere overhead, listened to its engines until they were swallowed by the desert silence.
"She told me she didn't have anything she pursued with passion. She didn't really know what she felt totally consumed by. She said she just felt empty most of the time and drifted from one thing to the next. And she said all of this in this totally unregretful way. It didn't make her sad. She was so peaceful about it."
"She got up after a few more minutes of twisting her finger through my bangs to go make coffee for us. And I sat there thinking, 'I've lied to this girl because I have nothing I do with passion, either. There is nothing I do with absolute conviction. But I lied because I was ashamed. She wasn't ashamed. She could just admit it.'"
"It made you sad?"
"I don't know."
I didn't know what to say after that. Sometimes there is nothing to say. I thought of the forty-year-old woman in Cedar City the night before, whose job was alcohol server at a restaurant where I ate diner. She came to the table with my bottle of wine and a corkscrew somewhat embarrassed, confessing that she had never used a corkscrew before. When I tried to show her how, she jerked the bottle out of my hand, explaining that I was not allowed to open the wine according to the state liquor laws. I explained the procedure to her step by step, but she shredded the cork and half of it fell into the bottle. Sometimes there is nothing to say.
In the tent with Luke, the silence rolled over us. I needed to leave Utah soon.
The grid of Los Angeles welcomed me out of the desert with its strange plastic trees and artificial sunlight. The experience of heavy traffic was the kiss of civilization.
I arrived at Jai's apartment around dinnertime, and he made me burritos while his flat mate, Tony, mixed margaritas. I really hate margaritas, but I had one anyway because Tony had been so excited about making them.
That night Jai took me out to the block of boy bars on Santa Monica Boulevard, and we drank fruity cocktails at an outdoor bar for an hour or two, watching the characters cruise and smile. The scene tipped toward the yuppie end of the scale, but did not compare to the generic boredom of Chelsea on a Friday night. The Los Angeles melting pot with its lower rents and beautiful dreamers had more color. But the clink of glasses and the wrought iron decor reminded me more and more of a garden party the more I drank until I told Jai I was through with it all and wanted to go pimping around the video racks of a porn store.
Crossing Santa Monica Boulevard in my state proved comic, with Jai alternately laughing, and trying to stay far enough away from me so that people would not look to him for answers as I tangoed toward the DON'T WALK light. "They ticket you for jaywalking here!" he insisted.
"I'm from New York. I don't know what jaywalking is."
The road itself, however, was also in a state of disrepair. The two regular westbound lanes gaped wide, reduced to pits of gravel. The traffic squeezed through the two remaining lanes, one in each direction, a real annoyance to the drivers used to cruising the bars on the north side of the street. The open gravel pits were guarded with construction barricades, cones, and orange CAUTION tape that stretched down Santa Monica Boulevard. Large, flaming orange signs posted to the barricades announced in bold, black letters: OPEN TRENCH.
I began laughing, and Jai tried to quiet me. Here we were, in the middle of gayville Los Angeles, with signs screaming, "Open Trench!"
"Yes!" I shouted, gesturing to the sign. "My trench is definitely open, what about you?" I asked Jai.
I jumped the CAUTION tape and landed in the gravel pit. "This whole block is just full of open trenches!" By the looks of the goateed men above, I could tell that no one in Los Angeles had ever jumped into this particular trench before, and shouted about it with so much enthusiasm. "You sir!" I addressed a skeptical man, "Would you say some trenches will be opened tonight?"
He chuckled and nodded, "Is that an invitation?"
"Come on down here and find out," I answered.
He looked lost for a second and then moved on.
I climbed out of the pit and ripped one of the signs from the barricade, holding the large orange diamond above my head. Boys whistled and hooted from down the street. "Yeah baby!" "Go girl!" "Where's that open trench at?"
Jai put his arm around my waist. "You are trouble," he giggled. He guided me back to the open-air bar with my sign. We found a table easily; it had gotten late and the patio was clearing out slowly, while the more sleazy late night crew washed in. We took a table with three chairs, one for me, one for Jai, and one where we propped up the OPEN TRENCH sign.
Boys, queens, waiters, daddies, yuppies walked by to flirt, asking if perhaps there was an open trench at our table. We laughed red-faced with our admirers as they bought us more drinks.
"Tu es mi hermano."
"You are harmony?"
"You are my brother."
"Okay. Tu es mi hermano."
"Another one," I demanded, but Jai was looking away from me down the Venice beach promenade, pointing toward a tattoo booth. "It's Tony and Richard. Tony's friend. I told you about him right? How I think he's got this big closeted crush on Tony. Remember?"
A quick recap: Richard, possibly gay with a crush on Tony, is Tony's friend whereas Tony, Jai's straight but high maintenance flat mate has a tendency to make strong margaritas. Jai is, to be thorough, my sister, meaning brother, meaning harmony.
I nodded, vaguely remembering Jai's preview of Richard, but I get so frustrated when boys swoon over straight boys. I mean, I've been there and it's such degrading work to twist them around from straight to curvy. They make you work so damned hard.
We walked over to them and, of course -- I am the first to break my own rules -- within minutes I developed a big, secret crush on Richard. He stood posing, his pale face broken with a twist of black curls slithering down over his forehead. His teeth cleanly bit the air as he shouted to us, his pink tongue, I swore, was glad to see us.
"Jai," he beamed and grabbed Jai in a hug. "Do you think I should get a tattoo?"
"Sure, kiddo," Jai beamed back. He introduced me and I felt the energy of his attention shoot through me.
"You're staying with Tony and Jai?" Richard asked.
"For a little while."
"You should come to my party. It's tomorrow night. We've been inviting all these randoms we've been meeting in diners and bowling allies. I love Los Angeles. I'm from New York, but Tony convinced me to come out here for the summer." His eyes twinkled all the more magically, I guessed, new to the constant sun of Los Angeles, and rather more adapted to the rainy cold and skyscraper shadows of New York.
"Are you coming out with us tonight?" asked Jai. "We're going to this really great club."
"A gay club?" asked Richard, his eyes narrowing.
"Yeah, but you'll be fine," Jai said. "It's a really hip place."
"Are you going?" Richard asked Tony.
"Yeah, me and Sarah go there all the time," Tony said, referring to his blonde waify girlfriend.
Walking away from the tattoo booth, leaving Richard and Tony behind, Jai was dying to know what I thought.
"Of Richard?" I asked.
"Yeah, do you think he's..."
"Maybe he's just one of those people who likes to flirt with everybody because he likes to know he can turn people on. Vanity is not a strictly gay trait, you know."
"You don't like him."
"I didn't say that. He's beautiful."
"I know. Isn't he?"
The drag queens in the elevator wore so much pink I felt like a kindergartner on Valentine's Day. They were large queens, really big girls, and to my delight, a cat fight was in progress between these two sumo faggots. A small, balding man, who seemed comfortable in the role of mediator for these big bunnies, tried to calm them both, holding both their hands and looking from one to the other hopefully. The club shook the top floor of the building, and we could all hear the bass thumping five floors below our destination in the crowded elevator. This reminder of the impending arrival only increased the temper tantrums of the painted elephant girls and the sizes of our concealed smirks.
The doors slid open and the penthouse party blasted us with a wave of sound and heat. Clumps of dull, beautiful people danced or leaned against the bar. Jai led the way through clusters of minglers to a table in the lounge area, where Tony and his girlfriend dropped into a serious relationship talk. I imagine a gay club is actually a great place for a straight couple to have a serious conversation, and I really do commend Tony and Sarah for their smart thinking. Jai informed me later that it's a standard practice they employ.
I watched Richard as he started flirting with a beautiful South American woman. In a minute he found me at the bar and asked if I smoked. "No. Sorry," I told him. "I don't either," he said, "just socially, you know?"
He disappeared back into the crowd, and I glimpsed him going up to a table of thirty-something boys, who were all obviously charmed by Richard's elfin looks and bold advances. I heard him say, "My name is Richard. I was wondering if anybody has a cigarette I could bum."
Bum. God, he's an artist.
The boys made Richard lean in to the table as they lit the cigarette for him. He started taking the stage once the cigarette was lit, becoming animated.
"No. I'm not alone. I'm here with some friends. Actually, I'm not gay but my friends are. They're dating." He pointed to Jai and I. Caught staring, I waved with what must have been a totally strange look of confusion and frustration. Richard flirted with the boys for a while longer until a second attractive woman caught his eye, and he excused himself. "That girl is beautiful," he told the table of boys, who all exchanged chuckles.
I turned to Jai. "Did you tell him we were dating?"
"No," Jai said, hurt.
"He just told those people we were dating."
"What do you want me to do?"
The party was getting tiresome. I was restless to create more trouble. Everyone at the club seemed to be too laid back to want to pick people up, as if flirtation was so-five-years-ago. Most people seemed to be genuinely happy just dancing and drinking. Los Angeles is so fucked up.
We both sat watching our young friend Richard discover that girl number two was not only a lesbian but also currently dating girl number one. The look on his striking, open face faltered between disappointment and exhilaration. The South American girl pawed him and then kissed the other girl, pawed Richard more, kissed her girlfriend. They played Richard like that for the rest of the night. He drank beer after beer, getting more and more frustrated and depressed, until finally he sank down with his arms around both me and Jai while resting his confused head on the table. He stroked our shoulders and petted the backs of our heads as he breathed heavily. I looked at Jai in disgust, but I couldn't help enjoying the warmth of his hands smoothing my neck.
"Is he alright?" a tall stranger asked me.
"Fine," I said.
"He told us all about you two," the man said acknowledging Jai and I.
"How long have you boys been together?" he asked.
"Not that long," I said, looking at Jai who seemed to find this all very funny.
It seemed that the entire club passed our table before leaving, offering their sympathy to Richard who had befriended them all, seducing them with his wide, straight-boy-in-a-gay-club eyes. As we dragged him up from the table, Tony brooded and his girlfriend stormed away. Noticing her departure, Richard shifted his weight off of us to Tony for support. Even I admit there was something beautiful about the way Tony carried Richard to his car that night. It made me so jealous that I started to cry.
I drove like a madman from Los Angeles to San Francisco, flying over the pass and down toward the bay with the windows open, smelling the sea fog and pine trees. I felt a strange sense of homecoming, as if this journey were only an excuse to draw me to this place so that I could see how all the stale, old histories of my former life could be shed like a ridiculous shell. I didn't even need directions to find him, the boy I had driven across the country to touch. I could feel myself getting closer and steered by instinct. I did a little dance when I got out of the car. My legs joyfully bent themselves and sprung, my ass rolled around in silly circles, my back arched and flopped like some sort of funny fish. I stood blushing, a boy in San Francisco, in dirty pants, with sunburned arms, with a wish to be held by the ghost of a lover.
He met me in his white shirt and black pants from work, shaking his head in disbelief that I had arrived. Sebastian ate a deli sandwich for dinner while I sat, too hungry to eat, telling him about all my adventures at an incomprehensible pace. I pulled out a bottle of wine from my backpack and suggested that we start drinking it soon. He had no corkscrew, so I improvised with a key.
When the bottle of wine was gone, we curled into bed and before we started kissing I whispered very sweetly, "Are you sure it's okay that I'm here? I know this was kind of a surprise."
"To be honest, I was worried that you were expecting something really serious and intense, but then I got so excited to see you, and I'm glad you came."
"Right," I said.
"I'm so tired."
"We'll sleep late," I responded.
Then we folded into each other held on for hours of friction, perspiring under a sweet pressure that seemed as if it might fuse us so tightly together that we would lose our distinctions.
We woke up at two in the afternoon to the sound of a cell phone, which bothered me a little, since I knew that Sebastian had no phone, until I realized that it was mine. I answered the call to find Sebastian's friend Marci asking for Sebastian. I handed the phone to him and overheard only Sebastian's side of the call.
"Yes. Of course he's here...yeah...he slept here...no, in my bed...yes...no, I haven't told him yet...look, we can talk about this later...sure, we'll meet you there in an hour."
I was worried. Watching Sebastian towel off after his shower, something I'd never seen him do before, I thought how happy it made me just to watch him begin his morning routine, and how I might never see it again. "I think maybe we should talk about what we started talking about last night," I began. "Is it bad that I'm here?"
"Yeah. It is."
We walked out of his building toward a park in silence. On the steps of some monument he told me that he didn't want this to get serious, intense.
I refused to understand. He told me he wanted to have a lot of sex in San Francisco so I told him, "That's fine! I don't care! I just wanted to spend some time with you! Is that so crazy?"
We looked at each other but I couldn't think of what to do next, how to get up from the steps, how to go somewhere away from Sebastian and carry on. I felt my heart dropping, my hands groping. He looked away from me and did not look back for a long time while he tried to finish his explanation.
"I don't know what to say. Did I do something wrong?"
"No," he said. "You didn't. It's just not working."
"Because if you tell me what to do," I begged, "I could do it."
"You shouldn't have just showed up."
"I just assumed that we left things --"
"You do an awful lot of assuming with me." He took a deep breath. "You have no idea for me what it's like having you come back into my life. I just need my space right now. I need to figure it all out."
He looked me in the eyes.
I wonder if he realized how accurately he repeated my words, the words I left him with one night, long ago, in Manhattan.
I got up and left.
"If you need a place to stay, beep me," he said. "It'll be weird but if you need a place you can have one. I don't want to just kick you out."
I felt dizzy and strange. I threw up before getting in my car. I drove to Golden Gate park and smoked furiously until I felt dizzy and nauseous again. I threw up once more before buying the whiskey.
I picked up a businessman in some Castro bar that night and went back to his upscale hotel with him for some bad sex. When I asked him what turned him on, he replied: "I like to seduce white guys -- especially when they are with their Asian boyfriends."
Asian himself, Issac told me he was born in Texas to Japanese parents who now live in Salt Lake City while he lived in New York City and traveled to San Francisco on business four times a year at the end of each financial quarter. He was incredibly precise in a weird, serial killer sort of way.
"Why do you like to seduce white guys?"
"I don't know. It makes me feel like I have their attention. I like to be the center of attention."
He had a pretty big dick and talked in a strange affected kind of whisper. I wouldn't let him touch me in the morning, so he sat in a chair where he could see me naked on the bed and jerked himself off before going back to his job at the stock exchange.
My first taste of swordfish wasn't bad. I was staying with my friend Kate in San Francisco at her uncle's house and his boyfriend cooked me my first swordfish meal ever. This boyfriend was the sweetest man, especially in his apron. He insisted that I call him Mom and that I eat the fish. I couldn't refuse. Mom wanted to know all about my travels.
These two grandpas were domesticated teddy bears who loved to sit around, read the newspaper, and take long walks through Golden Gate Park. They hadn't been to the Castro in years, and they sneered when I mentioned it, as if I couldn't have said a less appealing word. Kate explained to me that they were not "really into being gay." It's true they could seem a little antique and boring at times, flaunting their obsessions with cats and the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, but remember, I kept telling myself, they were hippies once, before one corner of Haight and Ashbury was a Gap clothing store. Peter, the uncle, once said to us, "Why doesn't your generation find a different corner to slum it on? That was a cool place to slum like forty years ago. Get your own goddamn corner."
He would say these nasty things, and then we would hug him, and he would pretend to endure these affections patiently. I think Kate told them both about my separation from Sebastian. Mom especially wanted to take me under his wing and become the parent he'd never been. Mom told me a long story about driving cross-country and how he was nervous to do it as a gay man. I could tell that he'd never had an opportunity to play Mom in this way before, and it lifted me out of my sour funk, if only briefly, to play the role of his daughter so sweetly.
"You know what I would do?" he asked without stopping, his usual mode of conversation. "Wherever I would go, in these small towns or the Midwest or whatever, I would find a way in the first minute of the conversation to let these people know I was gay. I would mention my boyfriend or something. Any way that I could. Because these are very suspicious people, and they can tell when you are hiding something from them, being secretive, they can tell. And I can't exactly hide the fact that I'm gay. It's written all over me. Once they knew, most of these people really trusted me. In their minds I had told them just about the worst thing anyone could possibly tell them about himself. That was the darkest, blackest secret I had up my sleeve. They figured if I confessed to that, I would have told them anything else, too. And then things went just fine."
"Right," I said with the widest eyes I could muster.
Uncle Peter compulsively cleaned the spotless kitchen as we talked. When Kate and I asked if they knew any clubs on the Castro that were fun, he almost dove for a sponge to start washing dishes. "It's his only available addiction since quitting smoking," Kate explained.
"Are you looking specifically for a gay club?" he asked.
"There isn't any other type in the Castro, is there?" I asked back, not really answering his challenge for me to own up to all of this queerness I'd brought into his house. I could hear Kate laughing from the next room. Peter heard her, too, and frowned as he put on his reading glasses to surf the Web for clubs in the Castro.
We finally gave up on Peter's Web search and drove down from the Panhandle, where he lived, to the Castro and slipped into the first bar we found. Kate explained that her uncle really didn't feel comfortable with her coming out to him as a lesbian in high school. "He thought I was too young and it was too easy because he didn't come out till he was in his mid-twenties, and it was really difficult for him. He thought I was in a phase. In his opinion, I didn't take it seriously enough. He thought I didn't know what I was saying, you know, he thought it was part of the whole 'cool-to-be-different' thing that our generation loves to do in high school. He's really not into the political movement. It's just a different thing for him."
To distract me from my own throbbing heart, Kate told me about falling in love with a boy from Siberia a few weeks earlier. Now, it's true that Kate is a lesbian, but dating boys has nothing to do with it, or so I've explained to my poor, confused mother. If straight people can fuck around with gay sex and just be "curious" then why can't gay people fuck around with straight sex and still be gay? My mother conceded the point with an analogy: "I guess it's like if you're Catholic but you don't go to church every Sunday."
Kate told me all about meeting him, how they fell in love without her knowing Russian or Roma knowing English. "I know sign language," she insisted, "and he does a lot of mime work at his acting academy, so we could communicate that way. Physically. He has strong energy, even though he looks a little fragile. You can just tell right away, what he is trying to tell you by feeling his energy. His energy is very lesbian. I think he's a lesbian. A woman from his acting studio made that comment to me before they all went back to Siberia. I don't know. He certainly doesn't have any of that straight man energy I hate so much."
"Tell me some words in Russian that you learned."
"God, both of us are always trying to learn the languages, we are always like pointing to things and asking what it's called. So one night after we had sex he pointed to the come in the condom and asked, 'What is it called?' and I was so excited to tell him all the different names. I can just picture him sitting there holding the condom in front of his face saying 'spooj' and 'jiz' and 'load.' Then I wanted to know what it was called in Russian. He told me they only have one word for it in Russia: sperme."
Mom made me pancakes for breakfast. I ate them, kissed Mom goodbye and locked myself in the bathroom while I beeped Sebastian from my cell phone and waited. I didn't really need a place to stay that night. I couldn't stay at Kate's uncle's any longer, but I could sleep in my car or find a friend of a friend who lived somewhere in the Mission. I needed to speak to Sebastian, though. I wouldn't be able to sleep until I found out what the hell was going on. It seemed so stupid to me, a mistake generated by something outside of our intentions.
He returned my beep late that night. He was at his friend Marci's and told me to come over if I needed a place to stay; Marci could put me up, too. I drove over, sucking cigarettes, hating Marci for being in the way.
She was house-sitting for some crazy New York documentary filmmaker. The house was filled with strange masks and statues from different tribes around the world, and a pile of human skulls sat on the living room floor. Marci had been sleeping in a shed outside the house. Her arrangement with the owner had been that in exchange for yard work and laundry duties she could live rent free in the unheated shed behind the house. He didn't even let her use the bathroom while he was home. Now that he was away on vacation, however, she did what she liked.
Sebastian had warned me that she'd been sobbing for days after her recent break-up with her girlfriend, but when I arrived she seemed deliriously happy. "Guess what?" she asked me as I limped in, ready to have my heart ripped out.
"What?" I managed.
"My ex-girlfriend wants to get back together with me!"
I attempted some sort of genuine smile with really poor results. Sebastian was ignoring me, hiding in the corner biting his nails.
"You know what I did?" she asked, pinching me. I looked up, startled.
"You know how I did it? I sent her an e-mail. I just told her I loved her. I just told her how I felt about her, you know? We'd never talked about how much we felt about each other. When I let her know, she called me up the next day. We're going out for sushi tomorrow night."
I was taking notes. I had no idea what Marci was doing, but she seemed bent on getting Sebastian and me to forget all our gripes and just kiss. I didn't think it could hurt to follow her instructions; maybe she knew something I didn't. Sebastian had no idea what we were talking about.
"I remember when Sebastian came home one night to our dorm two years ago and told me he had just kissed a boy for the first time playing spin the bottle. It was so cute."
"Oh, brother," Sebastian said.
"Well," Marci sighed, "you guys can sleep in there, I'm going to bed." She pointed to a small room with one large futon mattress. I love you, Marci, I thought, while waving goodbye to her as she walked down the hall.
"What are you doing?" he asked me.
Sebastian sighed and sat down on the futon.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
"Look," he said, "the thing is, you've had so many more experiences in life than I've had. I need to have some of my own now. I need to go out into the world and do my thing."
These "experiences in the world" Sebastian told me I've had -- I wonder what they are? Are they the ones that make me feel like an old man? Are they the ones that make me want to go to bed early all the time, that make me skeptical of love? The ones that make me think sex can be the stupidest of human obsessions? It felt like I came to know all of those things a long time ago.
"You don't know what it's like for me. It's so weird to have you back here in my life. Do you know what you are in my head? Do you know? When I was coming out, when I first realized I might like boys I took this huge risk, and you used me. You threw me away."
I was speechless.
"You had your fun with me, and you tossed me. Whenever I think of myself, of coming out, of being a gay man, there is always this figure, you, who showed me how painful and cold this community would be. You are a part of how I define myself now. Can you imagine what it feels like for you to come back and tell me you want to be with me again?"
"No, I can't."
"Well, it's fucked up."
I tried to explain but I could see Sebastian was farther away than ever. I wanted to walk out of this without feeling defeated. I wanted to knock Sebastian down and make him feel guilty and stupid.
"I love you," I told him.
"What?" asked Sebastian. Marci would have been proud of me.
"That's what I want to say: I love you."
He stared at me, turning pale.
"How can you say that? You don't know me." He said it again. He insisted. I could sense his fear, so I drove forward.
"I love things about you and maybe you don't see them and maybe your friends don't see those things, maybe nobody in the world can see those things but me, because of where I've been, but I see them, and I love them, and I love you."
"I feel like I've just been hit over the head." He looked like he might fall over. "How can you love me?"
"I wouldn't know the first thing about love if it wasn't for you." I wasn't making this shit up.
He began to fold at the knees.
"This is too intense. I can't give you what you want right now."
I stared at him and saw him afraid of me for the first time.
"If I wanted anything back from you it wouldn't really be me loving you," I began. "It would be something else. A barter. I want to give this to you, because you don't think you are worth it, but you are. I think you are worth it."
I kept speaking, throwing words at him, because to say things like this, it's not like there is music playing. No, there's nothing to conceal your hesitation and you want to make sure you get the right words out.
"You are the most beautiful person I've ever met. I just want you to know that and have that. I don't want anything from you in return. And maybe you won't understand what I'm saying now. Maybe you won't understand it till a long time from now. But it's worth it for me to think that someday you might remember this and feel happy that someone once really loved you and wanted nothing back."
I walked Sebastian to the BART the next morning. He told me he felt much better. I told him I did, too. He had to go to work. He hugged me, and he told me he would miss me.
I wanted to tell him more, but I wasn't sure what.
And anyway, he was gone.
I walked the streets for a while and went out for drinks that night with some of Sebastian's friends. Paul, who drank only straight vodka, told me that Sebastian's problem was that he never went through that time in high school that "most boy-boys do, where you do stupid things like giving midnight blowjobs in parking lots."
Jimmi complained over his pink martini that Sebastian was stealing men from him at bars left and right, and that the only person who really liked Jimmi was this beauty, Modesto, who he had also been in love with until he discovered that Modesto had no fingers. They had been removed in an accident. "I could never love someone without fingers," Jimmi whined.
We were all drunk before long and decided to head over to Marci's place and go through the filmmaker's artifacts. Poking around the skulls and talismans, I discovered a liter Ziploc bag full of grass that I insisted was ours by right to smoke. We puffed the herb, and I remember nothing more of San Francisco.
Someone beat the shit out of the soda machine beside my door at the Motel 6 a few days later. Heading east into the rising sun each morning hurt my eyes.
I camped outside of Laramie, Wyoming one night off some service road near the highway, scared shitless. I could hear these coyotes howling as I went to sleep before I had this dream with Sebastian asking me to forgive him and take him to bed. I woke up screaming, something brushing my leg, thinking some homicidal homophobic cowboy was trying to kill me. A desert mouse ran down my leg and cornered itself by my canteen before I caught my breath and let it out.
I kept driving, pushing east, saw a billboard declaring: "Call 1-800-DNA-TEST! Find out who the father is!"
I drove through the smoke plumes of a huge brushfire by the side of the highway. They almost shut down the road. I couldn't see very far beyond the hood, so I took it real slow for about a hundred miles across the desert. My mother once told me she followed a police car about that distance through a sandstorm out here when she was my age.
Somewhere in Ohio I began to feel the road trying to shake me off it. The car betrayed me, slipped on the wet bridge grid and crunched, jumping barriers, spinning backwards down-slope into silver cornfields. It was a vicious explosion like being slapped with the enormous shame of being alone. The noise punched my face. I crawled out of the metal shell of the crash covered in blood, not mine, but the car's, I thought, because I didn't feel anything like pain. I wandered off into the cornstalks away from the highway to look for help. I could hear singing.
On my back I heard the corn ears whispering to each other, and noise coming from my car that sounded like a spinning bottle.
Then I saw a face. It said, "Hey!"
"Hey," I said.
"You're going to be fine," a boy's voice told me in some other language. Had I crossed into French Canada without realizing? He took off his shirt and tied it around my arm and smiled into me. His bare chest was pale and smooth.
I rode with him in his tow truck back to the garage. He was a tall boy with a thin, darting body, and he drove his truck like a horse. He wore a cowboy hat and reached out to touch my arm every few minutes, making sure I was still there.
"Is today your birthday?" he asked abruptly in his foreign tongue with a tilt of his chin. "Do you have a girlfriend? Or a boyfriend?"
"NO. Uh. NO. NO." I stammered. He looked at me and then put his head out the window letting his eyes close momentarily in the breeze before he ducked back inside the cab.
"Do you wear your clothes inside?" his voice came floating to me, but I may have misunderstood. He didn't say much after that, just continued reaching out to hold some part of my arm every few minutes. His hand felt warm.
Looking at him, I wondered what he was up to, but then I thought, maybe it's him, the boy in first grade with brown eyes. What was his name?