American Graffiti

by 3amguy

(Published in *Gulf Coast*, 2009; newly revised)

Jodie Foster came out on the Golden Globes by saying she wouldn’t.

It was the opposite of a speech act that performs what it says. Her statement performed what it didn’t say. What it refused to say. It was like how you’d come out if you were Magritte.

There she is framed in the TV set or computer screen, enacting disclosure, above a caption that reads, “This Is Not a Disclosure.”

A surrealist says, “I’m gay,” but it’s in French and it’s a collage and the words are scattered across the page in the shape of a teapot.

It was 2013. She was fifty-one years old. “If you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler,” she said, “maybe you too might value privacy above all else.”

And what I want to know is: what’s “privacy?”

*

It’s the bicentennial spring of 1976, and I’m in the middle of a football field in Annandale, New Jersey, graduating from high school. I’m high, but not as high as I want to be, because I’m still here, and aware of being here. My best friend Jenny picked me up this morning in her VW Beetle and brought me to school, and we split a joint in her car, and she gave me a couple hits of speed. “Are you high as a motherfucker?” she said, which was what she liked to say, and we laughed. She had graduated two years ahead of me, but she was a student at Trenton State Teachers College, and she was still around. I was really high.

Not high enough, though, like I said. Because I knew there would be trouble at my high school graduation, and there was.

I went to a big rural high school in Northwestern New Jersey, in a part of the state that is now a bedroom community for pharmaceutical executives who work in Rahway and New Brunswick, and Wall Street types who commute to Lower Manhattan, an hour away on Route 78, but which was still, in 1976, undeveloped hill country. And though there were new housing tracts spreading out around Pittstown and Clinton, and though there were plenty of suburban kids in our high school who lived in Tewksbury Township bordering the horse country in Far Hills where Jackie Kennedy had ridden to hounds, still, the place was – and if you went there now you would still see – corn fields, dairy farms, chicken farms, slapdash housing spilling down the Musconetcong Mountain ridge, country roads cutting through open fields, backyard horses, junkyard dogs. Hunterdon County, New Jersey. A big river valley. Isolated, verdant, up and down hills. Sometimes spreading out flat along a plateau. Delaware River up the west side, Musconetcong River across the top of the county, Lamington River down the east, and the South Branch of the Raritan River weaving in and out of the less hilly southern edge of the county. Maybe the slapdash houses aren’t there anymore. I am still afraid of chicken farmers and white teenagers, and here’s why.

We’re sitting on temporary bleachers centered on the 50-yard line. The audience is facing us in the regular stadium bleachers. There are 2500 students in our high school, maybe 600 in our graduating class. I have finished school a year early, not because I’m smart, or have good grades. All I needed to graduate in three years was the credits, and I took summer courses – Sociology last summer with a hippie guy in a Beatles-in-India white linen blouse and a big bushy beard, which would not describe most of our teachers – and I got enough credits, and fled.

I never wanted to spend a day at my high school. Not another day. Certainly not another whole year, and now that I’m done I don’t have to. Though I have been compelled to attend my high school graduation.

My parents are sitting in the stadium bleachers with my brother, back from his first year of college. People’s families and friends sit in orderly rows, with members of the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes, maybe curious to see what they can expect when it’s their turn to leave.

I’m in the back row of the infield bleachers. We’ve been seated alphabetically, and my last name comes late in the alphabet, so I’m at the end. We have rehearsed for the ceremony, and we know it will go like this: after speeches, after the bestowal of prizes, after the student valedictorian’s address, after the national anthem, and the school song, and the listing of members of the National Honor Society, and a blessing by both an Episcopal minister and a Catholic priest – all of that, maybe not in that order – the Superintendent will call our names one at a time, and we will, each of us individually, walk down off the bleachers, cross in front of the audience, climb a set of steps to the Superintendent, grab his palm with one hand and the diploma with the other, turn and go back down the steps, pass again in front of the audience, and then walk behind the bleachers and circle back to our seats.

Our names are called quickly, one right after the other, because there are a lot of us, heading in a continuous green line to get our handshakes and diplomas. Yet there is time for each of us to have his or her or their sole individual congratulatory moment.

It’s a beautiful June day in the middle of the afternoon. The football field is down the hill from the school building, a two-story red brick 1950s high school that has been added onto every decade in jutting extensions. The school grounds are banked in the side of a hill along Route 31, which goes south to Flemington and past our rival high school, the Devils. We’re the Lions. Our colors are green and gold. Our mortarboards are hung with green and gold tassels that have been stitched at the top with little gold liberty bells, marking the Bicentennial. After everybody’s name is called, and everyone greets and thanks the Superintendent, and has returned to the bleachers, we are going to grab our tassels and move them from one side of the mortarboard to the other. We rehearsed this.

Across the highway is a huge field that fades into the distance, with a white farmhouse and red barn just visible at the line of the horizon. There are woods all around us, and we can turn our heads as far as possible in every direction and scan past green tops of trees and the two green electrified football scoreboards, which are scoreless, but announce that we are statewide football champions, because our football team was number one in its division in the whole state last fall.

In the pauses between and among commencement speeches, when the public address system goes briefly silent, we hear cars on Route 31 headed to Flemington, or down the road to Clinton two miles away, where two old mills face each other across the South Branch of the Raritan River.

It’s a big rural high school in a landscape of farmlands that were once thriving and are turning slowly into suburbs, the spent agricultural economy and new consumer economy laid out side by side or growing and decaying inside each other, in the northern part of the county, at the base of a range of low hills.

The Superintendent calls my name. I stand, walk down the bleachers, and join the students heading for their diplomas. I’m wearing a green robe over clean slacks and a button-down shirt, Wallabees sticking out under my robe, tasseled mortarboard on my head.

When my name comes over the PA system in a series of echoes, a gang of kids sitting in the audience yells that I’m a fag. I step down off the bleachers and onto the field, and they yell louder. I don’t know how many are yelling. Ten, twelve, twenty. Ten would be enough.

They yell:

“Faggot.”

“Fairy.”

“Gay boy.”

“Fruitcake.”

“Homo.”

“Girly fag.”

“Queer.”

None of this is surprising. I’m the high school homo. I expect to be called a faggot, every day. Called a fag, pushed against lockers and threatened, shoved on my way through hallways from class to class, screamed at from the windows of the school bus after I get out at my stop at day’s end and the bus disappears down the street with kids hanging out the windows and calling me a fag. That’s also how the day, each day, begins: heads of kids out the school bus windows, their voices growing louder as the bus approaches. “Hey, fag.”

I have known all along that I would not get past the audience at graduation without being called a faggot in a chorus of voices, loud enough for everyone to hear.

I walk through the sound of their voices. I go up the steps to the Superintendent, who shakes my hand and says, “Congratulations.”

I get my diploma. Then I turn around, back down the steps, past the audience, through the voices, around behind the bleachers and back up to my seat, where I sit down and wait for the signal to move my tassel with the gold liberty bell from one side of my hat to the other.

*

I got through high school with the help of two things, marijuana and musicals. It’s supposed to be sex and drugs and rock and roll in the 1970s, but I was not having sex. I was fourteen years old. I was seventeen the year I graduated. Sex was way out of my range, not to mention opportunity. Of course, I thought about sex all the time, but it didn’t involve other people. I had penetration anxiety. I couldn’t see myself mounting anything. That’s what sex was, getting on top. Boys got on top. Everyone said so, boys and girls both.

There was no internet porn, there was no internet, there was my mother’s beat up paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and a novel called The Crazy Ladies, which was Fifty Shades of Grey ahead of its time, only comic, with a group of women orbiting a polymorphously perverse sexual sybarite named Robert Fingerhood, a great name for a character in Dickens, I thought. I had no idea what anyone in that book was really doing in moving cabs and big comfy beds on the Upper East Side.

Later, in the early 1980s, I was grateful that I had been so clueless about sex, because I figured my stupidity had kept me alive. Unexposed to HIV by 1982. I was glad for what I couldn’t do, but it didn’t seem to me like a blessing in 1976. When is it ever a blessing to be paralyzed with anxiety and shame about your desire? Rhetorical question. D. H. Lawrence in any case wasn’t much help. Or maybe you’ve never read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. As a sex manual, it was about as useful as Popular Mechanics, copies of which my engineer grandfather who lived five miles from us in a log cabin in High Bridge kept in his john.

My father worked in the city. He was a TV executive in Manhattan, and he left early and got home late. My mother raised and trained horses and dogs and rescued strays that sometimes showed up floating in our pond with their heads stuck in dog food cans they had dug out of the garbage. She rescued cats, dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, and whatever the cats caught: baby geese, ducklings, birds she pried out of their mouths. She hated cats. In the afternoon, she rode her mare, a retired racehorse, bareback at the bottom of the field behind our grammar school. I’d look up from my 5th grade reader, Engine Whistles, and see my mother on horseback galloping in the distance.

Often at night my mother got a babysitter from Califon or figured what the hell and loaded my brother and me into the car; and my father, back from work, drove straight from the Gladstone train station and met her at an old stone mill in Clinton, where my parents and their pals put on plays. Mostly musicals. My mother directed them, and my father played drums. I can still sing the score of Man of La Mancha, beginning to end.

When I was in 7th grade, the high school hired my mother to direct the Spring Musical, My Fair Lady, and that’s where I met Jenny and started getting high. She was the Stage Manager. I was on her crew, with a bunch of high school kids, though I was still in grade school. A few of my classmates had been calling me a fag since the 5th grade, but 7th grade was when everybody started naming me, and I was grateful to hang out at night with older kids like Jenny who didn’t yet know what I was. They found out, though.

*

Jenny was my best friend. She smoked Marlboro Lights and had a car. My brother called her “Handlebar Jenny” because she wore her hair in two pigtails that stuck out from either side of her head. She had a big German nose and John Lennon wire-frame granny glasses, and she dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts like a boy. Her mother was actually German, German-from-Germany, and her father was massive and German Irish and Chief of Police of Clinton, New Jersey. His name was Gus. Jenny was their only daughter, out of six kids.

She was my rock star and bodyguard, caustic, brotherly, and aloof. Under cover of her friendship, I could go places where I would not be called a fag. Even squeezed between two of her five mean brothers at her mom’s dinner table, I felt safe. Not because her dad was a cop. He came to dinner with Caesar, a blue-black German Shepherd with matted fur and hip dysplasia. We ate in silence while Chief Gus shared his food with the dog, and Jenny’s mom doled out seconds before our plates were clean.

Her mom must have thought Jenny and I were dating, because the night before my high school graduation, she made a huge meal in my honor. Meat loaf, creamed corn, cole slaw, scalloped potatoes, hot rolls, and lemonade. For dessert, she baked a cake. It was more a lesson than a dessert. A bitter chocolate Schwarzwald cake with marzipan icing that sealed it tight. On top was my name in gothic script. I felt warned. Jenny’s mom was Bavarian and her kitchen was hung with German samplers that said Verboten. She knew I wanted to get out of New Jersey without saying good-bye. Two days after my graduation, I was leaving for a summer job, and then I was going to college in Ohio. For the past year, I had been trying not to make an impression, so I could vanish without a trace. Yet Jenny’s mom served a cake as dense and heavy as a doorstop.

Despite what her mom suspected or wished, Jenny and I weren’t “going steady,” we were potheads. We had gotten high before dinner, and my pupils were spinning plates on a juggler’s stick. “Can you please be cool?” Jenny whispered. I could never be cool. Before dessert was done, she grabbed my arm and hurried me out to her hippie car, a blue Volkswagen Beetle, where she lit a joint and headed for the interstate. She never worried about cops, because of her dad. Or maybe she was just lucky. “She baked that thing all day,” she was saying, “your cake. Do you know what I got at my high school graduation? I’m the oldest, the first. My mom never graduated high school. You know what I got? From her?” She passed me the joint. “I got to do the dishes, that’s what I got.” Then she stepped on the gas.

We were going to Oldwick. Our friend Sherrie was throwing a party while her parents were gone, and she wanted us to meet her new boyfriend, Pierce, a senior at the Lawrenceville School near Princeton, who had pot to sell: Colombian weed, my graduation present.

We were celebrating, but not yet. Jenny was pissed off. “My father’s goddamned dog,” she was saying. “He’s such an asshole.” Her esses hissed like Satan’s. I loved her abrading voice, which I felt up the back of my neck. She hardly wasted her scorn on anything she didn’t love. “He eats cake off his plate and it gives him the runs,” she said. It wasn’t clear whether she meant Dad or the dog: Who fed whom, who got the runs, which one of them was the asshole? “He thinks he’s Jesus.”

“Who? Caesar? Your dad’s dog is Jesus?”

“No, not the dog,” she said, punching me in the arm. Days later, I noticed a small bruise. “You’re all so hang dog,” she said, “like him.”

We never fought. Were we fighting now? I wasn’t sure. What if we were? I started to sing. “I have often walked,” I sang. “Down this street before.” It was from My Fair Lady, of course. The guy who sang it at our high school looked like Bobby Sherman in Here Come the Brides.

“Oh my fucking God,” Jenny said. “He never got that song right.”

“People clapped.”

“People clap at dog acts.”

“What kind? Like eating Mom’s Schwarzwald cake off the plate?”

That did it. We fell into a laughing jag. The trigger was “Schwarzwald.” We laughed so hard she almost swerved off the road, but I wasn’t scared. I had ridden with Jenny when we were high on everything from hash to tequila, and we always got home.

“Jesus – ,” she said.

“ – is somebody’s dog,” I said, finishing her sentence, not blinking as she swerved, proving I could be cool.

“Don’t blaspheme in my car,” she said, crossing herself, which she meant and didn’t. “I never called anyone Jesus. I said, ‘He thinks he’s Jesus.’”

“So does Jesus.”

“Will you shut up?”

“That’s the trouble with Jesus,” I said, repeating something I heard my mom say at a cocktail party. “What if Jesus was just one of those guys who thinks he’s Jesus?”

That silenced us. We didn’t speak again until we got off the highway. Jenny took the exit ramp, and we were on the Oldwick Road. We lowered our windows and felt the damp air, full of the scent of pine sap and red clay dirt, and the ammoniac smell of dung rising from the low hills that rolled into corn rows and pasture for cattle. “Everything is ripe here,” I said accusingly. Then Jenny pulled to a Stop sign, and turned to me.

“Where do we go now?” she said. She sounded angry, not lost.

And for the first time, I wondered if she was upset about my leaving. I had never asked. I went blank around Jenny, especially when we got high. She let me disappear. What if she had been waiting all this time for me to, you know, “start something?” Wow, that seemed unlikely. I looked out the window. We were in front of the Oldwick Public Library, where we had once seen Bonnie and Clyde. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty played outlaws who didn’t have sex. Was that Jenny and me? Which one of us was Clyde? The whole point of our friendship was not to think about sex. We had an unspoken agreement that she would protect me from mean guys, and I would never grab her breasts. She said breasts were a dart-board under your chin.

Was I supposed to “make a move?” I couldn’t even think of the words without laughing. It was how her brothers talked. Maybe it’s what her mom’s cake meant. Jenny’s rage at her dad’s dog was because I had never stuck my head in her lap? Was that possible? She knew I was a faggot. A couple of her brothers called me a fag at school. When I phoned her house and one of her brothers answered, I’d hear him saying, “It’s your little gay boyfriend.”

No way she was waiting for me to start something.

I was high, though. We were high as motherfuckers. What if I was wrong, what if I wanted her, what if she wanted me?

I heard myself in my stoned voice saying, “We should do it.”

My just-having-inhaled-a-toke voice.

“Why don’t we – ” I said, and she put a stop to that.

“What the fuck?” she said.

I was sort of insulted. “You think I can’t do it?” I said. “Let’s go get Pierce’s pot, and then drive to the Hackettstown Mall for a pack of broncos, and we can park in a cornfield near the Fairmont Church – ”

“‘Pack of broncos?’”

“I meant condoms.”

“I know what you meant.” She was really laughing now. “Are you high, or something?”

I started laughing, too, which killed the moment. Maybe resolved it, maybe ruined it, maybe just smoked it away. Anyway, I had a gay laugh. I tossed my head back and opened my mouth and went, “Hah, hah, hah,” and then my shoulders collapsed and I was a pool of jelly in the passenger seat of Jenny’s car. She was laughing, too. Shapeless with laughter. We weren’t Bonnie and Clyde, we were single-cell life forms idling at a Stop sign. In Jenny’s earnest German household, no one was silly. I was her fool. She liked to cue me, and she liked to shush me. Shifting the car into gear, done laughing, she said, “Which way is Sherrie’s house?”

“I thought you got directions,” I said, trying to decide if she had hurt my feelings. If my feelings should have been hurt.

“Oh,” I said. “I think we turn left up ahead.”

She looked at me like she was about to say something she could never take back. “Try not to get wasted too fast,” she said. “Okay? We have the whole night.” Then she pulled away from the Stop sign and got to Sherrie’s house without my help.

*

I was twenty-five years old before I told anyone what high school was like. Told, unwillingly. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was ashamed. I knew I had caused it. The taunts, attacks, not daily but hourly threats, cat calls, public shaming, on the school bus, in hallways, like I said, in classrooms dissecting earthworms, on playing fields, in locker rooms, choir halls, onstage when I was performing in plays, in the lunch room, the library, anywhere. For years afterwards, I could not walk by a group of two of more people without wincing, steeling myself, ready to be called a fag. I spent college waiting to be named. It stopped when I moved to New York, where I could disappear. And I disappeared for half my twenties, into a blackout, not an alcoholic blackout but an emotional absence from my day, every day, for years.

Then I fell in love with a health care professional, ha. Mental health, no kidding. We got in a fight once, I forget why. We fought a lot. It was a bad fight, and he hit me, hard across the face with his bare hand. He had been married – not gay-married, there wasn’t gay marriage when he was in his twenties – and he wore a ring on the slapping hand. Maybe it was a wedding ring. Somehow, I never asked.

The ring left a scratch on my face. It was there for a while. I was more shocked than hurt. We were in his apartment, standing in the open door that led to a garden. It was August, hot and hazy, and the trees smelled like semen. Gingko trees. The smell of semen from flowering trees in the summer night.

My boyfriend was as handsome as he could possibly be, and older, which I liked. He was a man, another reason I liked him. I did not think of myself as a man.

He hit me really hard. I felt his ring scratching my face. He had been sexually abused as a child. He had been called a faggot by his father.

I cried, not from pain but surprise. Then I said, “They hated me.” The words came out. They were not planned. We both heard them. “They hated me,” I said, twenty times, a hundred times. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about. I stayed with him for six years. “They hated me, they hated me, they hated me.” I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. He was nice to me for a while afterwards. “They hated me,” I told him, just as stunned by the words as he was. My beating heart pumped them out of me. Blood spurting with the force of a bodily function I couldn’t control. A mess I made that now I would have to clean up.

*

We parked behind a Peugeot in Sherrie’s circular drive and chased the sound of voices down a slate path that led to the back of the house. The path widened and became a patio around a glowing pool whose surface sparkled with heat and reflected moonlight. “Jesus,” Jenny said, either in warning or exclamation, or both. “Yeah, really,” I said, staring at the pool, the patio, the curtained French doors thrown open to the lawn, and at the tanned girls in halter tops and peasant skirts lounging in iron chairs at the poolside, and the boys in shorts and Madras shirts standing in the living room by the liquor cabinet, mixing drinks with sneaky names – Slow Comfortable Screw, Sex on the Beach – and playing Bob Dylan on the stereo.

At the edge of the patio, we stopped. I liked to pause at the start of things. There was a chance I would giggle, or sing show tunes, or play with my hair. I had to remind myself to be cool. So far, none of the girls had seen us. Most of them were cheerleaders, like Sherrie, and they could have been as far away as a football field, they seemed so out of reach. Still, some of them were my friends. I liked to hang out with girls, because they were not afraid of anything. They were the real boys, lying, fearless, obscene, and indestructible. When they were not turning cartwheels and baby-sitting for their moms’ friends, they cut class and drove drunk and made out in parked cars with boys so trashy even I could shun them. Or they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania where they passed for legal in red neck bars and shot pool with bearded guys who lived in hippie communes outside Easton.

And they never got caught. Girls were shrewd. They were painful and impressive. Yet they made a show of their magnificence in order to attract – who? Jesus? Hollywood? Eternity? No, boys. The object of all their audacity and rage was teenaged boys. Girls aimed low, and they got there. Except Jenny. She didn’t care about men, maybe because she had so many brothers. Sherrie, in contrast, was all about guys. And the guys at her party were forming themselves into a pack and stalking out of the house, their bodies gleaming like open razors as they headed across the lawn towards the cluster of girls.

Then Sherrie came out of the house, laughing and holding hands with a guy. Was that Pierce? Jenny’s dealer? He was tall as somebody’s dad. Sherrie was four foot nine, if that, but tonight, barefoot in blue jeans and a black hooded blouse, she came up to Pierce’s bent elbow as he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of her palm. He was wearing a pink Oxford cloth button-down shirt, un-tucked and hanging over his ass. The boys who sold pot to Jenny didn’t wear pink shirts. They were from Bayonne, and they had peach fuzz on their pimpled cheeks and Jethro Tull blasting from their eight track tape decks. She also did business with Princeton boys, but I couldn’t picture them. I was a public school kid, I didn’t know how to identify a preppie white guy from Princeton.

Pink-clad, with brown hair that hung to his shoulders – not in a girly way, like mine – Pierce delivered Sherrie to her guests. That was their conceit, that the party was Sherrie’s debut. And she made an impression. She was not flamboyant, she was just buoyant. With her black hair newly bowl-cut like Dorothy Hamill’s, she looked cute and happy and half his height, yet he leaned to her effortlessly, and she seemed to float into his grasp. Everyone had stopped talking in order to watch Pierce lean and Sherrie float. Jenny and I got a tracking shot of the action. Then the two of them turned and headed for us, for Jenny and me. Nervously, I grabbed Jenny’s hand and squeezed it hard. It was the first time we had held hands. Except for passing a joint, we hardly ever touched.

“Look,” I said. “It’s the Great Gatsby.”

She didn’t seem to care that I was clutching her palm. Or, no, she was pretending not to notice. I felt her indifference. Wow, that was new. I was startled. “Are you pissed at me?” I said. “Because I talked about sex? I was kidding.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“You’re pissed because I’m not Jesus? You’re tired of driving? I’m sorry I don’t have my license. I’m sorry you have to drive while I’m getting high.”

“I have to drive while I’m getting high.”

“And I’m sorry for that.”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

I was being dismissed, in favor of him. That guy. He was threatening my safety. Jenny was my armor, and I could not afford to lose her to a boy. Even worse, he was dressed kind of fruity, and I was supposed to be the queerest guy around. If I had to be a faggot, then I was going to be the faggot. I’m not calling him gay. Maybe he was French, or southern, or rich. I didn’t care what he was. For now, I wanted Jenny’s attention to be centered, again and as always, on me. I was ready to bug her, if that was the only way to keep her.

“Did I say something stupid at dinner?” I asked.

“You didn’t say anything at dinner.”

“I don’t like to speak in your house. I’m afraid of your dad.”

“Everyone’s afraid of my dad. He’s the Chief of Police.”

“Why are you repeating everything I say?”

“Who said I was repeating everything you say?”

“I did. Do you want me to go? You’re my ride. If I leave, you have to take me.”

“Shh,” she said, like a Stage Manager during a scene change, hissing, “Quiet backstage!” After all, I was her stage crew. She was my Stage Manager, and she taught me to wear black and disappear into the background. If I showed up onstage while the lights were low and the audience was breathing, it would wreck things.

She was a great teacher, funny and smart, and just mean enough to make you want to do things her way. And always there was her gravelly, melodic laugh. Maybe my sudden rage at Pierce was a student’s possessive love for his teacher. I wanted to be her only pupil. I knew I was over-reacting. But I felt like I was watching the end of our friendship glide across the lawn.

When they finally reached us, their arrival coincided with a special effect: The porch lights on the side of the house went dark and a dozen lights around the ledge of the pool flashed on. Steam rose from the water, and everyone clapped. Sherrie introduced the two of us to Pierce, who said nothing. Oh, he had that silent grace, like all authentic guys. It didn’t matter if they were chicken farmers or bankers’ sons, boys knew how to be quiet and still. I was irritated by his calm, and I pulled Jenny’s hand to my lips, mockingly, as if for a kiss. I would have licked her palm if she hadn’t stopped me.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.

Sherrie was nodding. In agreement? Normally, she was a protective pal, like Jenny. Protecting me meant you knew I was a fag, but never mentioned it. Sherrie was another friend I met onstage. Our Spring Musical last year was The Fantasticks. I was the Boy and Sherrie was the Wall, a mute part. She ran around in black tights, handing out props and dropping tinfoil rain on me and the Girl. When her back was turned to the audience, she made goofy faces, mocking our love scenes – just to be silly, not mean.

In real life, she was not satirical. She was a cheerleader. She was also the only Asian American student in my high school, and so small she was always the girl who got hoisted to the top of the human pyramid the cheerleaders built at Pep Rallies and Homecoming Games. “I’m tiny and Korean,” she said, not ironically, but truthfully. “Where else would they put me? Up there for everyone to stare at. Except on top, of course,” she said, laughing, matter-of-fact.

She was matter-of-factly laughing as she held hands with Pierce. “We’re all friends,” she said. “Okay?” It was a cheerleader’s “Okay!” It meant the game was on, and the game was, “Don’t sell pot in the middle of my backyard. Be cool.” Everyone was gravely silent. Marijuana was most serious thing we could think of. We smoked cheap weed in parked cars and cemeteries in the dark, but we acted like we were outlaw dealers hiding a million dollar stash from both the FBI and an international drug cartel.

Then Pierce cleared his throat. That was all – but for a minute, nobody moved or made a sound. He was standing in the middle of the circle we had formed around him, and he filled it with an attitude of ease and fury, trapped at the center that he simultaneously hogged and loathed. Hating the attention, he refused to budge. He was martyred to our attention, a lesser crucifixion in the suburban night. I saw how foolish I had been to mention sex to Jenny. Desire was coaxed forth not by entreaty but sulking, and Pierce sulked with a sexy stoop to his shoulders and a lazy patrician frown. Jenny, who was never weird around guys, was ignoring him so aggressively it was a declaration of love.

I wanted a cigarette. That would be a mistake. I smoked wrong. Guys smoked like they were taking a lonely shit after a losing game, straining against their rage and constipation: Brief stabbing drags, the butt gripped between their thumb and pointer finger and driven into their mouths. What fun was that? Smoking was supposed to be British. I was afraid to light up in front of Pierce because he would find out I smoked with an accent. What’s more, I was staring at his chest, at the span of collarbone visible at the base of his neck. He must have thought I was looking at the Salems in the pocket over his heart, because he fished out the pack and held it flat in his palm, saying, “Want one?”

I pictured Jenny’s dad offering cake to Caesar, and I thought, “Now I’m the dog.”

“You don’t smoke menthol,” Sherrie said. “He doesn’t smoke menthols.”

“He smokes OPs,” Jenny said, maybe trying to insult me. “Other People’s.”

“Go ahead,” Pierce said. “Help yourself.”

“Sure, thanks,” I said, shrugging, like it was no big deal, either way.

I was lying, of course. It was a really big deal. Because, Jesus Christ. I had never wanted anyone as much as I immediately wanted Pierce.

*

I wasn’t gay, I was a girl.

Not just a girl. I was an actress. That’s what I wanted to be. I still do. The women in movies in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They were so much better than men. Porous with need, but what did they need? You’re Streisand, you’re Liza, what else could you possibly need? Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Glenda Jackson. Liv Ullmann, Gena Rowlands. What were they seriously without? Yet they moved towards you, they were attuned. They knew where you were, they reached out. Trained in the Method, some of them, Actors-Studio-emotive, ferally alert, they had learned hard what to watch for and how to listen. They were heart-shatteringly attentive, no one could stand them. Protecting everyone but themselves, protecting themselves by refusing protection, they gave whatever they had and felt safest having nothing.

Julie Christie, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, Cicely Tyson, Barbara Harris, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Snodgress, Karen Black. Miss Diana Ross as Billie Holiday: two miracles at once. Barbara Streisand singing “My Man.” Liza, “Maybe This Time.” Who did they think they were fooling, they should lose anything for love? Joanne Woodward saying, “How can I be out of danger if I’m still alive?” When was Joanne Woodward ever in danger? She married Paul Newman! If they were lucky, they got Newman, or Redford, or Warren Beatty. Was that luck? Newman sat home and drank beer and made salad dressing, he was in love with a racecar. Beatty played lost boy and seduced your wife. Redford wanted the woods. They didn’t want you, the men never wanted anything but to grunt with each other and get high and bang strangers and pass out, and prove they weren’t gay.

The women, though. Stunned by their own abjection. Why did they abase themselves? What did they get? The communist party? Bad abortions? Linda Blair? They got Estelle Parsons. Faye Dunaway got to die in cars. Shot dead with her head forever on the horn. Swiss-cheesed with bullets in a parked car watched by several cameras set to different speeds and rolling at once. Death, solitude, addiction. All because they had wants that involved other people. Because they appeared. The guys did not appear. They gave nothing and then vanished. Why want them? The camera said we should. When the men were in the room, everything stopped. The women stopped, the camera stopped to stare with pained apprehension at the men, who would either fuck you or ignore you, or refuse to fuck you, or fuck you and ignore you. Fucking was ignoring, it was a way to erase you. And the women allowed themselves to be erased by unresponsive men.

Jane Fonda! In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, she begs a man to kill her. In Klute, she needs a man to save her. How I wanted to be Jane Fonda when I was ten, when I was twelve. I thought, If that’s a girl, I can be a girl. I want to be a girl. If I were Jane Fonda, I’d always have the right haircut. I’d look great in men’s pajamas. I would get to say things like, “Goddam hypocrite squares!” Without irony. She wasn’t big on irony, which, fine. She didn’t need irony, she knew how to be watched.   She craved and resented your attention, men’s desire, and she had learned to inhabit the circle of light in which you wanted to define or exploit her. A light she used, and required, and felt trapped by, and found herself in.

I was in love with her self-consciousness. There was a space between her performance and herself. She didn’t consume her characters the way Bette Davis had devoured every part she played as if it were her last supper. Jane Fonda left a window open between her privacy and her sense of being voyeuristically seen. She made you complicit in her self-exposure. She fought back, she was beautiful and boyish and strong and smart, she had a man’s hands with long articulate fingers. She could crush you, if she wanted. I hope I don’t sound like a Billy Joel song. She was too honest, it galled her, but she said what she meant, and if it bugged you, whatever, your loss.

Her directors and photographers with their penis cameras were men. She knew who was watching her. I wanted her power to survive their gaze. The boys who called me faggot didn’t try to fuck me. I wasn’t being sexually abused, just verbally threatened, mocked and humiliated, smashed against lockers, followed around by strangers in the hallways and called a fucking queer. If I could be Jane Fonda. If I could be Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, she was fourteen, nearly my age, playing a prostitute, Jane played a prostitute in Klute, was that a viable career option? Could I at least get boys to pay to abuse me? I was an unpaid cock whore, they pinned me to the wall and shoved their hot straining red bursting blood engorged heads in my face, and called me a fucking faggot, and splattered me with rage.

*

Sherrie’s party was nearly done. No one was left. Just the four of us: me, Jenny, Pierce, and Sherrie. It was the fag end of the night. That’s what I kept saying. Out loud. “It’s the fag end of the night.” I was sitting by the pool, wasted. We all were. For the past couple hours, Pierce had been tending bar, where he mixed highballs from the Prohibition era – Monkey Glands and Sidecars and Luigis. Who knew what they were? Sherrie tried them all. Up to now her drinking had been limited to things that went with Coke: Rum and Coke, Jack and Coke, 7 and 7 with Coke instead of 7-Up. It wasn’t long before she got sick on Pierce’s bartending, and while she ran off to puke, most of her guests left. She hardly noticed their absence when she came back out to the patio and sunk into a chaise longue. It was made of cast iron and covered with a blue pastel pillow, and Sherrie, tiny and collapsed, with her black hair and hooded black blouse, looked like ink seeping into a self-folding airmail envelope.

Disappearing ink. She could mail herself away. Jenny didn’t like to drink – “The only thing that doesn’t make me barf on contact is tequila,” she said – and no matter how much pot she smoked, she never seemed high. Sober, expectant, she lay on the diving board, stretched out on her belly, her chin propped on her crossed arms. I don’t know when or how she got up there. Had she made her drug deal with Pierce? They had hardly spoken to each other from the second they met. No one talked. We seemed to have slept, and when we opened our eyes to look around, and to anchor ourselves to the conscious world, here was our evidence of situation and self: Jenny tensile and vibrant on the diving board, Sherrie merging with the lawn furniture, and Pierce and me facing each other across the pool.

Four of us squared off around a rectangle. A wrecked tangle: I was high and punning. Sherrie was drunk and burbling. Pierce was sipping at one of his cocktails. Both Jenny and I were secretly watching him, though Jenny’s secret was much more open. At the unsteady tip of the diving board, her head slightly bounced, the shining twin pinspots of her round glasses flickering up and down Pierce’s body.

He had taken off his pink shirt and his soft brown shoes and, in his white V-neck T-shirt with his jeans rolled up to his knees, he sat by the edge of the pool, soaking his feet in the water and his white face in the moonlight. His brown hair spilled from his head and ended at the crest of collarbone where his T-shirt left a pale line of flesh before exposing the ripe burn of his suntanned skin.

I never felt the dislocating pain of desire until I saw Pierce. Before he showed up by the side of the pool, I was undifferentiated from whatever I touched or saw, as if everything were me, including, not just Jenny, but her mom’s cake, and her dad’s dog, and her hippie car. Pierce flung me out in the world. I mean, my dick got hard. What was I supposed to do about that? Sherrie was knocked out and Jenny was watching Pierce. Which of us would he pick? I had to speak up. I had no idea what it would take to get someone other than me involved with my stiff dick, but I settled on this:

“Jenny says Jesus is a dog.”

I tried to catch Jenny’s eye, to see if she heard. But she was still watching Pierce. Before I knew what I was doing, I was talking so loudly that even Sherrie grunted.

“She thinks Jesus is a German Shepherd,” I said. “Named Caesar.”

I turned my head back and forth, watching Jenny and Pierce, tracking their response, which they expressed by growing even more immobile. You couldn’t be certain they were sensate, their bodies were so still. In the background was Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, drifting out from the living room, through open French doors hung with drapes that blew in the breeze. “I came in from the wilderness,” Dylan sang, “a creature void of form.”

“Jesus eats from the table, without utensils,” I said.

“Who doesn’t?” Sherrie said. Like the rest of us, she was waiting. We were all filled with waiting, or rather, with waiting for the wait to be done: The wait for whatever we wanted or hated to happen, for Pierce to choose or Jenny to speak, for Sherrie to sink or swim, for my commencement to come.

Then Jenny abruptly stood. Swaying at the end of the diving board, she took off her shoes and shirt, her jeans and bra, her panties, and her socks, balancing expertly, partly on one leg. She put her eyeglasses on top of her clothes. And then she jumped blind and naked into the pool.

It was maybe the most selfish thing she had ever done. As in, calling attention solely to herself. She swam a lap across the pool and back. She was a good swimmer.

Pierce laughed, put down his drink, stood up, and undressed. Then he, too, jumped in the pool. I watched this naked guy swim with my friend. The water distorted their bodies, so they looked wavy and green, but I could tell Jenny was beautiful. They reached the shallow end, and pulled themselves onto the blue lip of the tiled pool.

Clearly, she was not me. Her body was athletic and her breasts were really big. She let us see them, not embarrassed, though not showing off. I was aware of the defiant set of her chin, and the way she pressed her arms into her chest to steady the slight sway of her breasts. In her nakedness, it was only her hands that seemed exposed, and I wanted to cover them with mine.

I couldn’t say what I felt about Pierce. He was surprisingly soft. Nothing like the jocks in my gym class, farmer’s sons, with their hard limbs and calloused palms. Pierce had a preppie white boy’s pale soft body. When he leaned back and lay flat at the side of the pool with his feet still in the water, his chest and hips and thighs were a straight line, his gut scooped, and the bones of his pelvis were sharp.

It was his pelvic bones that made me stop breathing. I mean the depression between his groin and the jutting, saber-edged bone of the furthest edge of his hip.

We were instantly no longer high. Everyone was brightly lit. Jenny was staring straight ahead. Pierce had an erection. I had never seen an erect penis, before. Just mine. Pierce’s curved, which shocked me. I remember how he sat up and put his arm around her, and how he buried his face in her neck and touched her breasts, without a hint of compassion or regret.

*

If I had been a girl. I was already a girl. Pinned like girls in everyone’s gaze. Girls in old gingham dresses, hand-me-downs, rural poverty, their stringy hair, their sweaty smell. Girls who played horsey and jump rope at the bottom of the field behind the grade school building and chanted while I jumped: “Gypsy, gypsy, please tell me, who my husband is going to be. A rich man, a poor man, a beggar man, a thief. A doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief. . .”

Girls named Cha Cha. And Tiny. And Sexy. And Frog. And Greasy. And Lezzie Sex Queen. And Snowflake. And Bubblegum. Holly, Laurie, Tina, Cindy, Sharon, Betty, Agnes, Diana, Cheryl, Kathy or Cathy, Maureen. Girls who kissed each other playing spin-the-bottle at birthday parties because the guests were twelve girls and me.

Girls who were suspended from the 6th grade because they wore pantsuits, and were not allowed to wear pants in grade school, not even polyester. Girls who could kick a ball farther than me, not just me, but anyone. Girls who disappeared for weeks with older boys who played guitar in terrible bands. Girls who took you into the bathroom at pizza parlors and taught you how to smoke pot. Girls who got thrown to the ground and told to spread their legs by boys they laughed at.

Some of them must have been gay. I hope they were gay. Some of them were boys. I hope they’re still boys. They were kinder, gentler boys, they made more believable boys.

The only person I ever said anything to about being called a fag all the time was a girl. Her name was Nanette. She had long thick hair like Vanessa Redgrave.

Girls who got perfect scores on standardized tests. Who jumped naked from diving boards. Who smelled like horse liniment. Who ironed their hair. Who showed me how to braid my wet hair at night with rubber bands and wake in the morning with ecstatic frizz that hung to my shoulders.

Who played classical piano. Who sang show tunes. Who sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar onstage in the high school auditorium. Who were fucked by their step-fathers and never mentioned it for decades.

Girls who read Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Who wrote poetry they stole from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Who wrote me long letters for months that they folded small and tied in knots. Knot notes, I have them in a drawer somewhere.

Girls who gave head to the football team. “Gave head” = got raped.

Beautiful girls. Heedless girls. Homecoming Queens in frilly dresses bending down to dance with short boys. Who waited tables and served ice cream sundaes in skimpy uniforms.

Girls who took me to movies in their father’s car. Who bought me ID bracelets inscribed with their name for the 5th grade Christmas gift exchange. Who held my hand. Girls who sat beside me pretending to play saxophone in 6th grade band. Who twirled batons or ran track or forged a Smoking Card and stood in the rain in the Smoking Lounge and smoked Camels and Winstons and mocked me in their whiskey voices and hated boys and played Cat Stevens on their phonographs and burned watermelon incense in green glazed incense burners shaped like elephants and sang Carole King songs at choir concerts: “I still don’t have any answers, but I don’t get high anymore.”

Girls who did what they wanted, and knew you watched.

Girls who loved the same cruel boys that I did, and sometimes hated them as much.

*

The day of high school graduation, I missed the school bus. I was stuck. Bound to be late for my commencement. There was no question of heading back to my parents’ house, waking my brother again, begging a ride. He had already fetched me from Sherrie’s place in the middle of the night, after Jenny and Pierce disappeared. So I started to walk. The high school was seven miles off, and I got nearly halfway there, down to Route 31, when Jenny showed up.

“Hey, you,” she said.

She had driven onto the shoulder of the road, and she was leaning out of her car, calling my name.

I hadn’t seen her since her naked swim with Pierce. Now she was back. It was like the end of The Fantasticks, where the Boy comes back to the Girl after a long time away and sings about how everything he ever saw was her. Except we weren’t singing. And no one had been gone long. What’s more, I was the pining girl and she was the rambling man, though I didn’t expect a song on her return. I was half hoping she had Pierce in the car.

“You, kid,” she yelled.

The driver door swung open as she pulled alongside me. She was alone. I could see that she had not been home last night. Her hair was both frizzy and lank, uncombed, tangled and stiff where the chlorine had dried it out.

“Come on,” she said.

She drove slowly beside me on the shoulder of the road. It was awkward for her, which made me happy.

“Ask me how I got home last night, after you went off with him,” I said. Cars sped by, north and south, blasting us with tail wind.

“You freak,” she said.

“That’s what my brother said, when I woke him to come get me. He said some other stuff, too.”

“Come on,” she said, so roughly I could tell she was worried.

I really wanted to get in her car.

“I like walking,” I said. I was a few feet ahead of her now, and she was inching along behind. We moved like this down the side of the road, sweating in the June heat. Cars honked, thinking we were idiots. I loved her following me.

“Hey, you,” she said. “Put your ass in my damned car.”

I had mocked her in front of a boy, and she had left me by the side of the pool with no ride home. Which one of us was the more aggrieved? I hoped it was me. Could I afford to sulk? No. I wanted Jenny back. I wanted her to get out of her car and come to me. I stopped walking, and stood still. Jenny killed the engine. I waited for her by side of the road.

What is the thrill of knowing without looking that someone you love has come up beside you? I loved her. It wasn’t the same way I yearned for Pierce, but so what? Stupid kid. It hurt to look at him. Jenny was different. I knew the shape of her, by my side. Her shoulders and arms. I heard the rasp of her breath.

“Fuck you,” she said, real praise.

“I’d rather walk.”

We were talking the way we always did. It would be okay. Six months or a year from now, when there was time, we could ask each other what happened. Meanwhile, I got out a cigarette that I had stolen from my mom. “Got a light?”

She reached in her jeans pocket for a pack of matches. “Stand close,” she said, pulling us inside the shelter of the car door to block the wind. We crouched, and she struck a match. The first one didn’t catch.

“Shit,” she said.

There was a red bruise on her bare neck. Scratch marks, like a cat’s. I touched it, and she frowned.

“Don’t,” she said.

“You look terrible,” I said.

“I slept in my car.”

“With him?”

“Shut up,” she said.

“You let him, didn’t you?”

She struck another match, which caught. For a while, we smoked, saying nothing. Smoking was tragic. I wanted every cigarette to taste like the first drag I ever took, when I was twelve years old, the harsh warmth stinging the inside of my mouth. It never happened. I kept smoking because I hoped it would be like it was. Smoking was nostalgia for smoking.

We finished our cigarettes. Then she produced a treat: Two joints. My present. Pierce’s Colombian. She had scored in every sense, apparently. “Happy Graduation to You,” she mock sang, handing me the joints.

“I don’t think I need these,” I said. “I’m pretty burnt-out from last night.”

“Hair of the dog.”

“Which dog? Ceasar? Jesus? Pierce?”

She smacked me. “Get in the fucking car,” she said.

So I did. I couldn’t think what else to do. “Where do we go now?” I said.

We sat in the car getting high, staring blankly at New Jersey.

Then, out of the blue, she said, “He kisses like a boy.” We were taking hits off a shared joint. “What does that mean?” I said. “‘Like a boy?’” This was new information: Jenny knew how boys kissed. Not just Pierce. She had been kissing boys. At Trenton State Teachers College. “Like the way boys kiss,” she said, shrugging. She looked like Diane Keaton with her blonde hair and her long straight nose. I realized suddenly that she was wearing Pierce’s white V-neck T-shirt. It looked good on her. I wondered what he went home wearing. “He does it with just the tip of his tongue,” she said. “I guess he thinks it’s his ‘move.’ Just the tip. It’s like kissing a guitar pick. Sorry,” she said. “You wouldn’t know about that.”

“Maybe I would,” I said, possibly out loud.

“Maybe,” she said, and then, still holding the lit joint, she grabbed the back of my neck with her right hand and pulled me forward, like training a pet. And then she kissed me. Wearing Pierce’s shirt. She still had smoke in her lungs, which she exhaled into my mouth. That was our excuse. She was shot-gunning me, in farewell. Normally it was done with the burning joint in somebody’s lips, but not this time. Our teeth made a scraping sound. She held me there for a minute. Then she let go of my neck.

I shook my head like a dog. I think I heard my ears flap. When we separated, we were both blinking, as if we had just stood for a portrait in front of one of those cameras with giant flashbulbs that went off with a brilliant flash and a puff of smoke. I took her hand as she dropped it from my shoulders. I wasn’t looking at her. Across the highway, in a cleared cornfield, were three new half-built houses, raw and pink in the morning sun. I stared at them, holding onto her hand. Then I let go, and she started the car and drove me to school.

*

When did I see her last?

Just before my graduation ceremony, in the hallway near the cafeteria, she made me spin once in my cap and gown. It was della robbia blue, she said – blue of the robe. My blue robe was robe blue. Green, I told her, not blue. It’s green, I said. She laughed. Looks blue to me, she said. She set my mortarboard at an angle on my head. I watched her push her glasses up on her nose. Then I lost sight of her. She spun out of range behind me as I went to join my classmates, to get my handshake and my diploma.

Was she at the ceremony? Did she stay to watch? I hope not. I never saw her again, and I never talked about my high school graduation with anyone – including especially everyone who was there – and no one ever asked.

*

After their swim, Jenny and Pierce evaporated, steam rising from the pool and disappearing into the dark. I wasn’t aware it happened until it already did. They were just gone. My friend, my ride, the guy, were gone. I got left behind with Sherrie, who was passed out, a string of drool hanging from her lips as she lay on her chaise longue. Horse flies were dive-bombing her arms and legs, leaving welts. I carried her into the house and settled her on the couch. While I was in the living room, I called my brother to come get me. Then I sat by the pool and finished Pierce’s drink. It was foamy and warm. I didn’t like whiskey. But it had been Pierce’s.

“This is it,” I said, not exactly to myself.

I lit a cigarette and waved my arm around, British. I tried to notice where my skin stopped and the air began. What if everything was not me? What if I was not the guy you watched? What would that be like? My flesh stung like I’d been swarmed by Sherrie’s flies. I’ve had worse feelings. I pictured Pierce in Jenny’s car. He’d be leaning back in my seat. Or maybe she had let him drive. Which one of them did I hate more? It didn’t matter. Neither one of them was me.

I thought about the people I wasn’t. I thought about circling the field tomorrow and being called a fag. Called, being. Tomorrow, I will still be the fag. Then I took off my clothes, jumped in the pool, and swam a couple of laps. Afterwards, I stretched out in the grass. I was still lying naked on the lawn an hour later when my brother showed up.

Advertisements