All the Young Boys Love Alice
Did you read Alice Munro's story in The New Yorker -- about how at sixteen she secretly dated the Salvation Army boy? The tale is touching, forgiving, wise, with poignant and subtle shades of feeling. I long to write the same way about my youth, and to be approved.
Young Alice is daring, trespassing on a strange woman's property to lie beneath a certain tree. She lies on her back and imagines that the trunk grows from her head. This girl will grow up to tell truths and touch souls and be loved.
As she escapes the woman's property she sees the boy. He works for the woman, a sharp-tongued horse breeder who shouts a rebuke after Alice. Alice sees him again on a Saturday night in town, preaching and making music with his family in full Salvation Army regalia. They meet again in the countryside, riding bicycles. The boy turns out to be like Alice, thoughtful. He doesn't find it silly that she imagines a tree trunk growing from her head. They kiss, and she feels his erection against her.
But the boy belongs to a lower class, so Alice keeps him a secret. She accepts his family's invitation to dinner, but lies about where she is going. How noble, the lies of sixteen. Memories I wish I had.
After dinner they set out for her home. He wants to detour by the horse breeder's barn. Alice follows him inside. They kiss, then... Well, I won't spoil it. You might read the story some time. You should. It's beautifully etched. (Or limned -- whichever.) And the prose is even lapidary. Alice evokes universal feelings, as though you are there and know these people. I will take Alice's idea and fit it to my own life at sixteen -- it should be easy enough; it's universal -- and make the story I've always dreamed of, the one everyone will love.
So -- it is summer 1974, and I am sixteen. With whom would I have gone biking? Invited to my home for dinner, stolen into a barn to kiss?
I dreamed of such a person, but there was none.
Instead, silently but with primal inevitability I longed for Clifford, a night manager at the diner where I washed dishes. Clifford was two years older than me. His taciturnity, his compact body and mop of dirty blond hair, his quick, little smile and slight swagger captured what I longed to be. I wasn't really male, not really human. To Clifford and to many others, I thought I was a soft, fumbling, impotent girl-boy, bussing tables, mumbling confused answers to their snappy questions. It filled me with despair, but thinking of Clifford's swagger obliterated the pain and confusion. Clifford had what I needed to make myself real and good, and I used it secretly.
Late, after he'd scrubbed down the grill (face flushed, shirt clinging, the sweat and rippling fore-arms setting off his prettiness) Clifford ducked into to the manager's office to change. I made up reasons to pass the half-closed door, to see what I should be. He was too modest to reveal much. He did sometimes emerge with the clean shirt unbuttoned, chest smooth, cigarette hanging from red lips. He slouched on a stool and spun, eyes narrowed, watching me as he blew out smoke. Or he might come out still tucking the shirt, jeans unzipped an inch or two, and I'd see the elastic of his underpants, snug to his hard belly.
Once a girl called Clifford on the pay phone. I knocked on the manager's door, and he came out shirtless. As he murmured to her, I racked the last dishes and grill implements while attending to my life's true, secret work: glancing at his downy triceps, golden hair under his arms, the gap between his spine and the waistband of his jeans. How in his glory he was!
Once, when I was on during the day, he came to pick up his check. He wore a blue flowered shirt, and had his arm around a girl. She was delicate like him, the kind of girl I wanted in my arms.
Maybe it was best I never investigated a barn with Clifford. But I can't get an Alice Munro story out of him.
Nor could I get one out of Jeff, my fellow busboy.
He was more gregarious than Clifford, but not as smart. Rangy, with a big grin, prominent Adam's apple and black curls, he grabbed pots one-handed, and veins stood out in his forearms. I couldn't dream of dreaming of Jeff. He liked motorcycles and, of course, girls. Every question he asked about what I done in my life or what I liked I just had to mutter, "No, sorry," or "Not really," and frown to discourage further questions. I couldn't tell Jeff that after work I stayed up late with Moby-Dick. Maybe I could have told Clifford, so long as I added, "Yeah, I was bored ...s'posed t'be some 'great classic'..." Clifford would have understood what I couldn't say. But even Clifford could go down that road only so far.
Or Mark, another night manager, like Clifford. I felt relieved the nights Mark was on. Smart and bubbly and soft-voiced, he'd been one of my father's piano students. But in Windsor, Connecticut in 1974 no one talked about what smart and bubbly and soft-voiced and playing the piano might mean. Mark was my sanctuary, so long as I wasn't like him. Clifford and Jeff were not sanctuaries, and I wasn't like them, either. I wasn't like anyone I knew. My struggle with life was a stain on the sheets, singular and disgusting.
One night Mark burst into the Rice Krispies song. "No-o-o mo-o-ore Rice Kri-i-ispie-e-es!" he sang in his thin tenor, eyes wide, rushing down the aisle at Jill, the waitress with whom I'd gone to Sunday school. "We've run out of Rice Kri-i-ispies!!!" He pulled little cold cereals from under the counter and sang, "But we do have Sugar Pops, Fruit Loops and Frosted Fla-a-akes..."
I grinned from the kitchen doorway. What happened the nights Mark was on with Jeff? He probably didn't sing. He probably barely spoke, except to Jill. Only thirty years later does it occur to me that, just as I felt safe the nights Mark was on, maybe he felt safe the nights I was on.
Jeff came for his check one night when Mark and I were on, and Mark spoke a few friendly words to him. Jeff spoke friendly words back -- to someone he'd decided Mark was. I also recall chatter passing between Mark and Clifford: Mark chirping, Clifford nodding with narrowed eyes, reaching for his girl. I think I remember thinking: They...share something...understand one another...that's why he just nods. Except I didn't think it that specifically. I just stared and wanted more than ever to be Clifford, to gather a girl to me and please my mom and dad as Clifford must have pleased his. And the goodness of my longing fulfilled me, for a moment before it crashed.
Or maybe Clifford listened to Mark to be polite, and later he told his girl, "Those types make me uncomfortable." Maybe, like many people in relation to many things, he didn't think anything. You never know what people are thinking, or why they do things, even when they tell you.
Nights Mark and I were on together were nights off to me. Nights off from fear -- of how I looked, what someone might ask me, what they might say to me or behind my back, what they might expect me to do or say, nights off from my face, reflected in the stainless steel of the dishwasher. Usually the boy I saw was a shell -- frightened and angry. Nights Mark was on that boy, if I stopped to look at all, was whole, busy, unself-conscious, in motion as boys his age should be. No stack of dishes was too big, all was right with the world because nights with Mark belonged to a world more right than any "real" world of motorcycles and girlfriends.
I had no sexual interest in Mark. He shut the office door when changing, but I wouldn't have looked anyway. Not that he was bad-looking. But the bubbliness, the turn with the cereal boxes... People looked up from their burgers, rolled their eyes... I didn't want to be like Mark. I just wished the whole world was like him, so I could breathe, go anywhere, do anything in peace. That's my grown-up rendering of the wish. What normal sixteen-year-old would expect the world to sing the Rice Krispies aria? Instead, I had to fit the world's requirements -- somehow become strong, simple, decisive, in charge. And leave Mark behind.
But I couldn't.
I'm not doing well mimicking Alice here. The best fiction is predicated on hope. "Fiction" might be a synonym for "hope." But so far I haven't offered much.
Maybe if I stop and focus on the elements of Alice's story. So here's what I need: ache of youthful love; ennobling awareness as adulthood dawns; rebellion; the shock when the boy and the situation turn out not to be as innocent as one thought; the sadder-but-wiser ending.
The seduction I want to practice on you would come especially from the love and dawning awareness. So: Whom did I love? I felt a longing when I saw Clifford with his shirt off, but I denied that longing thus:
It was just envy, don't you see? It wasn't lust (certainly not ho-mo-sex-u-al-i-ty), just envy and resentment, on the part of a guy who hadn't made it. Yet.
But isn't it sad that, upon first feeling first love and desire, I had to call it envy and resentment just to survive it. My love was a tightly wrapped, mislabeled masterpiece, ignored in a museum basement for years. The desire/cancellation, desire/cancellation loaded me down with guilt, fear, hopelessness, a feeling I was shrinking. Love -- Clifford?? How? Why? For what?
Oh, lighten up! Adolescent boys have crushes all the time!
It wasn't a crush! Why exchange one lie -- treating Clifford like he meant nothing to me -- for the lie of a "just a crush"?
Well, you could have made friends with him.
So we could -- do what? -- shoot hoops together? Go for beers? Sit close, give the occasional pat on the back, over before it began? Talk about girlfriends? Maybe if I, too, had had a girlfriend, Clifford and I could have been closer. Yet, if I'd been like him, he could not have lived inside me in that way. O, Alice, help me!
So what about Mark?
I liked Mark, I felt safe with him, but I didn't want to be him. And if he and I did things together, everyone would suspect. And my family knew him. And no guarantee anything would happen, which with Mark I didn't want it to, I just wanted to be Clifford in his flowered shirt with his arm -- my arm -- around a girl...
We'll get this yet. Wasn't there a girl you did go out with?
Ellen, from school. We went for ice cream one afternoon, walked along River Street. I'd imagined a whole romance, but she reacted to me as a friend. And I felt relieved. I felt drained by expectations, leaving me no strength to leap the chasm. I felt no primal electricity; I had no idea who to be for her. Still, I had electricity for the idea of someday having a girl. Or I had impotent desperation.
But now I must be sage and forgiving. That's what puts the glow around Alice's stories. That and her loving detail. I've neglected to mention the scalding plumes of steam unfurling from the dishwasher as I pulled up the stainless steel doors, jammed with grease. I haven't mentioned the bursting laughter of customers as I scurried with bus pans of dishes gummy with melted ice cream, smeared with ketchup. I haven't mentioned my somehow favorite duty: cube and boil potatoes, frothy pot hubble-bubbling, for next morning's hash browns.
Maybe I should have been able to get a better job, in an office, where a nice boy in a tie...
But we exhaust ourselves thinking how a summer might have been different. Really set the scene, fill in the nice boy, script an encounter with him. Then the wish, the child of regret, will die. Its death rattle: "You were who you were." Stillborn wishes exhaust me, but in the womb they feel better than reality.
I should be telling you of first love, but I still can't find anyone I loved at sixteen. I thought I couldn't love, and stories only exist if someone loves.
Alice and I do share one motif: books. After the Salvation Army boy disappoints her, Alice retreats to a world of literary lovers -- Rochester and Mr. Darcy. I didn't seek men to love in the books I read. Mr. Darcy wouldn't understand or even see me. There on my bed by the window overlooking the neighbor's unmown yard, not the characters but the books themselves became my lovers, their powers of resolution conferring on me purpose, worth, hope.
I didn't love Thoreau's Cape Cod for Thoreau, but because our family went to the Cape at Christmas. I had maps of the Cape on my walls. I tried to own the windswept dunes of Orleans and Truro. I'd be a naturalist-philosopher, tramping the dunes with my walking stick, sketching dune grass, describing waves. I'd meet a girl on the beach, someone soft I could love, who'd love me because by then I'd be different. I'd be strong and save her from the rip tide. We'd have babies and live in a cottage looking out to sea.
I did like girls, but never enough or in the right way. I wanted to impress them as other guys did, but they scorned or didn't notice me. Girls I felt attracted to, like Ellen, slipped away -- apparitions that other guys made real. Sex was a sheer rock face, impossible to climb. But I desired those boys who clambered up it effortlessly, who were unconsciously born to climb. What turned me on about Clifford's chest, glimpsed beyond the half-shut door of the manager's office? It was how his girl loved it, how he felt as she stroked it and whispered, "Oh, Cliff!" Jeff's veiny arms: if I had them, girls would want me. But I had been made too girly, too soft and timid, too fruity, my mind rotting with warped desire and fantasy.
Like all great artists, Alice is brave. If I liked girls, why didn't I ask one out? If I liked boys..? But I just gazed over the beige dunes. How did love work for those like me? I didn't think to ask, because there were none like me. Yet people operate without evidence all the time. Brave people, like Alice.
My shift is almost over. No, I won't be like Alice. How you write is how you live, and I have not lived in a way worth reporting on. Alice lives with vision and courage; she's earned her audience. I've hewed to fear and sought to diminish myself. I won't be writing an Alice Munro story, but can I tell you I'm frightened? Frightened that there can be no victory, that destruction rules the crippled house, frightened now, as then, that no effort can bridge the chasm between what I wish I wanted, and what daily life reveals me as wanting. Should I take a graceful bow and leave the stage?
I lock the back door, turn out the lights in the store room, kitchen, and bathrooms. On my way to the door, where Clifford waits, I pass the cold, fluorescent aura at the fountain.
"All set," I say, emerging into humid night. A cigarette hangs from Clifford's lips. He presses the door shut. He stands legs spread, denim cupping his bottom, his shoulders stretching his white shirt, stout forearm turning the key. He yanks the key out and shakes the door. He turns to me half-grinning, gives the keys a little toss, snags them and clips them to a belt loop. An almost-full moon lights the parking lot. "Headin' home?" "I guess." "Stay," he says. "Lemme finish my cig." "'kay..."
He puffs, shoots me a look, jerks his head toward his rusty Camaro at the far edge of the lot. "C'mon!" I follow. Is that a light across the street in the Cymerys Funeral Home, or just a reflection? Clifford unlocks the door. "Drive ya home."
I get in.
Slouched close by him I watch his small, strong hand turn the radio dial. I lean forward, trying to pull out of the deep, bucket seat. He stops turning and looks at me. "Relax," he says. "What groups you like?"
"The Rolling Stones," I lie, and he must know it's a lie because I didn't call them, 'The Stones.'"
"Cool," says Clifford, as I try to recall titles: "Tumbling Dice," "Satisfaction"... Clifford can only find Elton John: "Mongrels, who ain't got a penny..."
"Your girlfriend didn't come tonight?" I ask. Sometimes she picks him up. He shakes his head. I wait for an explanation, but there is none.
"This car yours?"
"Kinda..." He blows smoke out the window. His gaze nails me, eyes narrowed. A smile curls the corner of his mouth. "So what you like to do?" He's slumped so the top of his shirt pulls open, revealing clear skin that is so much and nowhere near enough.
What do I like to do?"
He laughs, leans forward, pats my left knee twice, hard, then flops back again, shirt open, blue denim in a nice, tight V between his legs. I say, "That's a dumb question!" and we laugh. I think he's blushing. He shakes his head.
"God!" He regards his cigarette. "Gotta give up these things!"
"You should," I say, and realize that I really do think Clifford should give them up, so he'll be more pleasing to me and won't die.
He squirms. "Make your blood race." "Cigarettes? Make your blood race?"
"Yeah. Feel my heart. Go on!" "Feel..?" "Feel my heart."
His hand circles my wrist and I let my palm open a little. He draws it to him and I open further and he places it on his shirt, but so my thumb rests on the exposed skin of his chest. I have never touched another boy's bare chest. My palm cups his left pectoral. My face is hot. I nod like, "Yup, sure is beating fast," though I can't feel his heart and have no idea how to find it. I can feel him breathing. My hand lingers a moment, then I take it away. Clifford flicks his butt out the window and blows smoke. I glance at the funeral home and try to remember the perfect fit of his bare pectoral in my palm, the cloth of the shirt, moving as he flexed a muscle. He twists around, hunches up to the wheel and turns the key. "Let's go," he says.
On the way up Bloomfield Avenue I keep my eyes front, but I know he's watching me. I ask, "So, you gonna give up cigarettes?"
"Yeah, your heart really was racing..." The grin again, but he doesn't look at me. "Was it?"
In front of our dark house I pull on the door handle but don't yet open the Camaro's door. "You on tomorrow night?" I ask, though I know he is. Is that the light over the kitchen sink, or just a reflection?
He nods. I nod. "Great," I say. His face is so still, so blue-shadowed, so pretty. Softly I add, "See you then." "For sure," he says. I heave myself out, shut the passenger door, then poke my head back into the fetid warmth. "I can..." I stop and clear my throat. "I can check your heart again."
He smiles. "Cool," he says. He nods a couple times more, then averts his eyes as he smiles. We wait, but nothing more will happen tonight. It will tomorrow, an age away. He gives me a last grin and shifts the Camaro into gear and I step back. My knees feel weak.
"Oh, it's you!" My mother stands in her blue-and-green patterned housecoat and slippers once pink, now colorless. "What're you doing up, Ma?"
"Oh...heard the car. You didn't walk?"
Suddenly I'm incredibly hungry. I want to get rid of her so I can raid the fridge. I need to sit and eat and think of the compact mound of muscle over Clifford's heart.
"Got a ride." "Oh. Who with?"
"Clifford," I say, inching toward the fridge. "The night manager."
"Oh... Isn't he the one you like..?" "Ma! I don't 'like' him!" "Oh...well...I saw the way you looked at him that time I picked you up from the day shift. I saw..." "Mom..!" "You should invite him to dinner one night when you're both off. Your father and I can get to know him a little more." "Maybe." I pull the fridge open, putting my back to her. "You know, we don't want our son going around with just anyone!" She giggles. "Mom! I told you: I'm not 'going around' with him. I don't even... Never mind..." "Well, whatever you say. I just hope you'll invite him over and let us meet him." "Yeah, well, maybe..."
I busy myself taking three slices of cheese and the mustard. When I turn around, she's gone.
The top of the house is hot. I smell the damp wood of the banister and mildew in the walls. In my room I start the thrum of the fan. I take off my clothes and stand in the shower.
I lie naked on top of the sheets, turn my face to the window screen, the dark, vegetable-smelling night. The neighbor's yard is a black sea. I place my hand over my own left pectoral and feel the thud. I close my eyes and squeeze. I have a little breast. I have a heart. I think of Clifford's red lips, his shirt open. The tip of my penis skips up the still-damp inside of my thigh. I think maybe Clifford wanted me to notice his shirt open. How maybe he thinks I am beautiful and good and exciting. Me.
Life has begun. It stretches as far as I can see, a hundred times more to be revealed tomorrow. I am loved and nothing touches me, not parents or friends, not my job, not time, for I contain everything. If I yawn or scratch my shoulder it is special. My fingernails are beautiful, and the pimple on my back. Angels envy me. Most of all, I am without fear. I'd jump out of an airplane to embrace the sky; I'd run into a burning building, strip my clothes off and laugh as flames bubbled my skin.
Tomorrow evening, I'll keep asking Clifford how his heart is. He'll let me feel quickly. After we close he'll call me into the manager's office where he'll stand with his shirt unbuttoned all the way. I'll put out my hand and he'll say it's more accurate if I put my ear to his chest. I will, with my right hand on his back, where it narrows. Then I'll straighten up, and I'll bring that heart to mine, and we'll kiss, and he'll blush and tell me that, from the first night we were on together, he thought I was sexy, and I'll say, "Yeah, I thought the same about you."
I'll invite Clifford to dinner. He'll be nervous and keep asking me what he should wear, and I will find it annoying yet utterly adorable. The evening he comes to our house he won't smoke. He'll wear his flowered shirt. He'll put on mitts to help my mother lift a dish from the oven. He'll call my father "sir" and tell him about his plans to study accounting, and I will watch my parents' faces; they're both teachers, and I fear they'll think accounting is not enough. But all during dinner my mother will give me little suppressed smiles.
Tonight, as I lie in the dark, unchanging breeze, I know none of this. I do not know that I'll walk him home (his brother will have the Camaro that night). I don't know that as we step out into the dark my mom will catch my eye and she'll mouth, "He's very nice." I don't know that my dad will beam and nod and not say anything.
I don't know that Clifford will take my hand on the empty streets of town, or that we'll detour past the darkened restaurant because he has the key. I don't know that we'll kiss passionately against the still warm dishwasher. I don't know that suddenly we'll hear a noise, nor do I know that it will be Gary, the manager. He'll say, "Hey! Who is it? I've got a gun!" Clifford will shoo me out the back, promising to handle this and to call me tomorrow. I don't know that I'll linger by the back door and hear, "Just me, Gare." "Oh, Jeez. Hey. What're you doing here?" "I, um, left my jacket..." "So you're alone?" "Um, yeah..." "You been out somewhere? You look good in that shirt." A chuckle. "Yeah?" "Yeah. I've told you that. I like that shirt" A pause and another chuckle. "You doing anything now?" "Uh, not really..." "Want to go over to Windsor House for a drink?" I listen. I wait for Clifford to spurn dopey Gary. "Or we could stay here..." Gary says, and Clifford says, "We could." I hear the little half-smile in his voice. It is my half-smile. Or was. I see him toss the hair out of his eyes. "How about it?" says Gary. "You ever done it at work?" I see Clifford slowly shake his head. "No?" Gary says hoarsely. "You never had a man fuck you up on the counter?" Silence. Then nothing more, except once I think I hear Gary sigh, "Yeah, that's right..."
Then I go home.
I'll go home and I'll bury myself in book after book, in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. I'll imagine Mr. Darcy half-dressed, gently moving my buttocks apart, saying, "I want to get inside you..."
I'll find that next week I'm only on the nights that Mark is on.
And summer will end.
But tonight I know none of this. Tonight, pleasantly exhausted, naked with the fan going, I caress my chest and belly. I imagine a big house with lots of windows, and my parents' car pulling into the driveway on a Sunday afternoon, and I imagine, even before Clifford and I emerge, that Clifford Jr. charges out the door and across the lawn, his blond hair flashing in the sun, his little heart thudding faster than it ever will again.