The Q Review The Queer Literature & Arts Magazine Tue, 20 Mar 2012 04:04:54 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.3.1 With Clouds Between Their Knees /2012/03/with-clouds-between-their-knees/ /2012/03/with-clouds-between-their-knees/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 16:00:26 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=276 By Stacy Danielle Stevens

“It’s covered in chicken shit,” I observed.

“It was your father’s,” mom replied.

Was there a logical connection there?

“Wasn’t that mine?” I asked.

“Your father was never one for throwing things out, especially not perfectly good things.”

Did she realize the irony of what she’d just said? No, apparently not.

“Take it,” she added, proffering in her gloved hands the encrusted Radio Flyer Row Cart. I took it into my own gloved hands, scrutinizing the chicken shit, considering the best way to remove it without damaging the paint on the metal or the finish on the wood. I was assuming, perhaps with wild-eyed optimism, that avian fecal bacteria would be a perfect cleanser, and that dehydrated organic matter was the ideal preservative. I could see myself on camera, saying something like that to the appraiser, the guy with the glasses and the mustache, I think it is, who appraises antique toys.

Maybe this wasn’t an antique, and maybe there’d be nothing left by the time I brushed all the chicken shit off, but I took it to the keeper pile.

When I turned around, I saw that Mom was looking at it, and at me, and I noticed tears collecting at the bottom of her goggles and moistening her dust mask. Reclaiming things from an abandoned chicken coop involves reasonable precautions, to be sure.

She was thinking about a photograph album. I knew that, and I remembered almost as well as she did the two photos I knew she was thinking about. A black and white with scalloped edges showing Bobby Lou, as my father was known in childhood, taken with a Brownie Instamatic, and a color polaroid of Stevie, as I was known in childhood, taken with a Square Shooter. This same Radio Flyer Row Cart, without the chicken shit, was in both pictures.

* * *

I feel sorry for Mom at moments like that, when she’s face-to-face with the dissonance of incongruity.

In War and Peace, when Countess Rostov has a stillbirth, her husband goes into the the hovel of a serf family and takes a newborn from her mother, then brings it into his own house, telling his wife that her baby is alive after all, that the doctor had made a mistake. Of course, the Countess knew better, but she played along.

* * *

My father’s father had piloted a B-17 in The War, and I’m sure that’s why he gave his son a Row Cart. The front axle is mounted on a pivot, so you steer with your feet. The handlebar doesn’t turn, it goes back and forth, connected to a crankshaft on the rear axle, which propels you. This arrangement is very much like the rudder pedals and yoke of a B-17.

His first mission had been to a target in Germany, and on the return flight, his aircraft was shot down just inside the German border. With the help of French Communists, he made it to a village on the coast. A fishing boat took him to the middle of the English Channel, where air sea rescue picked him up. He flew twenty-four more missions, and after The War, returned to the family farm, which he managed successfully, despite his alcoholic tendencies, which surely contributed to his early death.

* * *

There had been a pantry cupboard in the chicken coop, and inside, where the chickens couldn’t roost, an accordion file stuffed with yellowed papers written in blank fountain pen or pencil. I didn’t have time to read them that day, so I brought them home with me.

* * *

Robert Choudalmelka
October 23, 1953

When I ride my jet pack, I must be careful.
“Don’t go too near the sun!” Daddy yells up at me.
I catch clouds between my knees and bring them to the corn.

* * *

It was that first mission I piloted. The sun in the west shining on the clouds behind us hid the fighters, and that’s how they tore into us. I was able to keep it steady while everyone else bailed. I guess that’s how I got separated. A farmer saw me coming down, and had a pitchfork in his hands, charging at me when I hit the ground. A tine caught my left hand as I pushed it away, then I grabbed it from him, and looking at it now, I know it was only later that I decided it had to be either him or me. At the time, I just had the pitchfork in my hands.

I’d seen chickens with their heads cut off before, and had cut their heads off myself, but that was only chickens.

After that, I thought I hated Nazis, and I was glad whenever we dropped our sticks over Germany, but now that I’m home and all that is
still not behind me, I realize what I hate is what I became that day, and what I am now: a man who wakes up in his own vomit and sees fresh bruises every morning.

* * *

To know all, they say, is to forgive all. I understand why Mom allowed everything of my father’s to be covered in chicken shit; why he allowed that to happen as well.

* * *

I spent years in therapy with a psychiatrist who was convinced my transsexualism was caused by the violence of my father and grandfather; he supposed that being a man was simply unthinkable for me, and tried to cure me of it. I finally realized that I don’t care why I’m transsexual.

* * *

I decided on a soft-bristled brush, then a mild solution of oil soap with a chamois. Underneath that patina, the paint and wood were both in excellent condition. I’ve never had it appraised; how could I think of selling a thing like that? On the other hand, where could I ever display it?

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The Pharmacy /2012/03/the-pharmacy/ /2012/03/the-pharmacy/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:21:06 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=261 By Heather Wollin

Tasha’s parents owned a pharmacy.  Her mother wore a white coat and stood behind the counter, counting out pills.  Tasha and her sister, Alice, helped their parents on weekends, and sometimes I would join them; our hair wet with chlorine from Saturdays spent at the public pool, the ends of our plaits dripping down our t-shirts and leaving our backs with a damp half-moon. It was fun to pretend we had jobs, stacking the sweets perfectly, or asking customers if we could help them to fill their prescriptions.  Tasha’s mother even had a smaller white coat she would let me wear sometimes, unlike my own mother, who would never let me wear anything of hers.

At the pharmacy, all the non-medical items were ours as long as Tasha’s parents stayed engrossed in their work.  “Take anything,” Tasha would urge, “we won’t make you share it.” But how to choose between the Wine Gums or the Fruit Pastilles; the Wine Gums or the Jelly Babies: desire after desire after desire laid out in front of you in brightly colored cylinders. I felt Tasha and Alice watching me: Jewish girl from the other side of London; daring me to be like them.  Cool, cool, like the feeling of the silver sweets wrapper against my arm, my twelve-year-old heart thumping inside my mouth. “She did it!” Alice whispered, as I sauntered around the end of the aisle with a bag of Licorice Allsorts up my sleeve.  We shared my bounty in the corner by the Cold and Flu aisle, the licorice fusing my teeth in a gummy grimace, something like a smile.

After the first few times, I became a professional. “You’re not eating,” my mother said, weekend after weekend, failing to notice the jammy smears on my cheeks. I emptied my pockets into a shoebox I stashed under my bed, filling it up with lancets, glittery stickers, and pencils. I dreamed about scissors growing legs, about medicines walking up out of the box, thermometers and bandages engulfing me during the night.  “Where is she?” My parents would ask in the morning, but there would only be pharmacy goods, as though they had been inside of me all along.

I was surprised no one wondered why I had packets of denture cleanser strewn around my room or remarked on the pens I used for my homework. But my mother had recently fired the cleaning lady, and no one ever crossed the threshold into my room anymore. “You’re almost a teenager, you need your space,” said my mother, but hadn’t she been giving me a wider and wider berth all these months?

I imagined how my mother would react if she knew.  She’d ask, “What’s this I hear about you stealing?” and I would say “Nothing” and she would say, “That’s right, I thought not.”  Yet my goods would be laid out before me in the living room, organized by category, the way she told me they did with evidence for trials when she worked as a paralegal in America.  Her eyes would become steely as she surveyed my transgressions. Ultimately, she would turn back to her papers with the same clenched lips, and she would make me feel my contrition over and over like a coin I could never spend. I wanted my mother to shout at me: to ban me from ever setting foot in the pharmacy again.   I couldn’t bear the thought that she would just pass me over, like the liquor bottles gathering dust on the top shelf of our pantry, where no one had looked in years.

I didn’t give much thought to stopping, but my stealing soon became more pointed.  I thought about what to take for each of my family members. For my father, I stole stationery so that he could write to us when he went away.  For my mother, I got a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses, though I didn’t know her prescription. I put the lenses on and stared at myself in the mirror for a long time until my eyes crossed and swam.  I wondered if this was how the world looked to her without glasses, and it made me sad to think of her this way: crossing the ocean from Chicago with my father, nothing ever clear or certain.

One Saturday, I wandered through the aisles, wearing the stolen glasses.  Both my pockets bulged with contraband chewing gum. As I reached up to take a magazine off the rack, I noticed a man flipping though a magazine he’d stashed inside of another.  The magazine he was reading contained pictures and stories, but I couldn’t tell what they were with the glasses. I craned my neck to see better.  His face was flushed and his hand trembled.  I was trying to be as quiet as possible, but the man looked down at me.

“I won’t tell them that you’re trying to steal that magazine,” I said, gesturing at Tasha’s parents.

“I know you won’t,” he smiled.  He had blue eyes, one of which had a large speck of brown inside it.  His eyes were not unkind.  Not like I’d imagined the eyes of strange men would be.

“Trust me, it happens all the time,” I told him, “More than you’d thi—“

“Here,” he said, and handed me the magazines, loping out of the shop.

I peered over the tops of the glasses at what he had been reading.  There was a picture of two women locked in an embrace.  The headline read “Sara’s Subway Escapade.”   The magazine burned in my hand.  I shoved it in my trousers and ran into the toilet.

Sara and her friend were on an empty train, late at night, riding home. Sara pushed her friend against the doors of the train car, nibbling on her neck, kissing her mouth and face.  Kissing her in places — places where, well, could women even kiss each other like that?  These were words I barely understood, had heard only once or twice before. I worried at the words like a loose tooth, pulling taut the strands of fibers and nerves with my tongue, waiting for the moment when the tension broke, bursting fragments of bone and blood into my mouth.

What made being friends with Tasha different from the kind of friend Sara had?  One night when Tasha slept over, I stayed up until she fell asleep.  I stared at her throat, at the strands of dark hair that had fallen there.  I wondered what it would be like to kiss Tasha in the hollow between her collarbones.  That small dip that held all the breath and all the sound. I dared myself to do it. I brought my face close until I could feel her breath on my forehead. Her eyes snapped open. “What are you looking at?” I had veered away, not out of fear, but out of the desire for something better, someone I wanted more.

I knew where I could find Sara and her friend. In Soho, near smoke-filled shops that boasted pictures of naked men. I had been there once with a friend of my parents.  Unlike other parts of the city that were unknown to both of us, it was as though this particular neighborhood was familiar to him: the glances and chin-tilts of recognition from certain passersby.  I had seen women like Sara there, swaggering down the street.  I averted my eyes when they passed, scared to stare the way I wanted to, afraid to see myself reflected in the mirrors of their hearts.

I wanted to ask him if he knew any Saras.  I felt certain he did.  I wanted to ask what they were like, where they went, who they lived with. I also wanted to ask if he noticed anything different about me lately, like the lumpy wads of tissue on my chest that had me running my hand under my t-shirt as I lay in bed at night, convinced I was dying of cancer.  I wanted to ask him all these things, but the questions stopped in my throat and made everything I said afterwards sound muzzy, as though I had a bad cold.

Later , I heard him arguing with my mother.  “You took my child where?” she sputtered.  After that, he didn’t come around as much, and I missed him; missed our excursions to places I knew no one would ever have taken me to if he hadn’t; missed hearing his stories about my parents when they were much younger. I tried to imagine a version of my mother from that time, recalling the sound of her laugh, that certain one, when she threw her head back and sound came cascading out of her mouth in waves.  That laugh was a beacon when I was very small, calling and calling me back to her.

“What are you doing in there?” Tasha pounded on the bathroom door.

I had forgotten how silent the world had become.

“Nothing” I answered. “Piss off.”

I flushed the toilet and thrust the magazine under the bathtub as far as I could.  It brought up clouds of dust as it hit the floor.  I had been gripping the glasses so hard they had snapped in two.  I threw them under the tub as well, running my finger over their imprint on my palm.  I splashed water on my face and came out into the pharmacy.  My hair was wet.  Tasha’s mother looked up at me.  “Are you well?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” I replied, and began to tidy the already fastidious boxes of Aspirin, lining them up in rows and coming back to the beginning of the line when I made a mistake.  My hands were damp and the back of my neck prickled with sweat. I knocked a box over.

“Damnit!” I muttered under my breath.

“Come here, my little chemist,” said Tasha’s mother, and pulled me on to her lap.  “I think that’s enough for today.” She put her arms around me and I laid my head on her shoulder, breathing in her comforting medicinal scent.  We rocked back and forth as she finished up the billing. “That’s enough.  That’s quite enough.”

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Restricted Movements /2012/03/restricted-movements/ /2012/03/restricted-movements/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:19:02 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=259 By Liz Baudler

There was a tow-zone sign in the space I pulled into, just briefly, to drop her off. I would have parked somewhere else, but looking down the street, rows of car doors gleamed in my headlights. I pushed the gearshift forward into park and turned to look at the girl I had spent the evening with. Her milky skin glowed even in the shadows, and occasionally a bit of light would strike the top of her cropped, glossy black curls. She had an alert, attentive face with eyebrows that would raise slowly when she wanted to know something, not that she would tell you what it was she wanted to know.

We had not spoke once on the twenty-minute ride to her apartment, except when I hit a pothole so hard we both bounced up in our seats and I said “sorry, sorry”, compulsively. Yes, the dancing was the most fun I’d had in years, but we hadn’t touched once in three hours and shared only about two hundred words. As the bassline pulsed around us, my eyes had been sneaking glances at another, older female couple as they spun into each other, their hands draping languidly over the other’s palms. They grabbed each other around the waist and swayed. Occasionally one’s head would rest on the other’s shoulder. One day, I said to myself, I would like to dance like that. Tonight wasn’t that night. We’d just met, and something, maybe my own terror or some unconscious signal, told me to give this girl space, to let her explore, to not interrupt, to stand back and watch, like I had done with the various cats of various friends. I did, and by the end of the dance, I felt, somehow, that we had stepped closer; though no one’s arm had reached out towards anyone’s shoulder, we were dancing together.

So there we were, my date and I, watching each other in the shadows of my Monte Carlo. Given how the rest of the evening had gone, I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to say anything. Which left me to say something, except that I had no idea what to say. First of all, I had never been on a date before. My previous and only relationship had been a blossoming friendship with no real dating involved, and no one else had given a shit since. There’d been a few girls I’d admired, but no one enough to ask out for coffee. The only reason we were here at all was that speed-dating had helpfully informed us of our “mutual interest”, we had communicated solely over Facebook message, and she was the one who suggested the psychedelic dance, to which I’d said yes, and immediately started wondering why we weren’t going out for coffee, like any other potential couple.

Then I’d arrived forty minutes early, in the rain without an umbrella. I’d contented myself with a Pacman machine thoughtfully programmed for continuous play (I lost about 50 times), and at 6:55 I walked over to the building where the soiree should be held. There was a disco ball shimmering close to the ceiling, and colored lights flashing against normally gray walls. Funk blasted throughout the first floor, which bummed me out, since I thought “psychedelic” meant spins of “Her Satantic Majesty’s Request” and “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In”. But that was a minor issue. It was 7 pm, the dance was supposed to start, and the dance floor was…empty. Even a security guard felt compelled to ask me why I was there.

I took out the copy of Antigone that I had helpfully shoved in my purse in case, I don’t know, things got boring, sat at a table far away from the disco ball and strobe lights and winced. When my date finally arrived at 7:30, the dance floor was still filled with shadows.

At this point, awkwardness was crippling my little stomped-upon heart. My date had given me a cursory glance and glided out to where the music beckoned. I just wanted to curl up into a ball under one of the tables and will myself to disappear.

But I didn’t do that.

Instead, I decided the frustration and incompetence and empty dance floor were good for something. I bounded over the concrete floor in my sock feet, shaking the hair I hadn’t bothered to put in a ponytail since it looked nice for once. I shook my arms and legs free of the desire to shrivel, kicking my feet up and down so rapidly I probably looked like I was riding a bicycle in midair. Truthfully, I could never even master the Electric Slide, but I didn’t care. The dancing was something to do, something to throw myself into, to forget about the unspeakable horror of the evening.

Occasionally in this first ten minutes, I glanced over at my—was she a date at this point? We had barely said hello. She danced the exact same way, arms thrown up into the air shimmering over her head, her curls quivering as she leapt. Clearly, she didn’t care that I couldn’t dance. When we finally gasped for breath after our brief bout with Terpsichorean possession, she asked me if I wanted to dance in her music video the following weekend. She was a folksinger, and a damn good one. It beats me how she made this decision so quickly, let alone that I said yes.

So now we were in my car. The date had ended. We were at that point in the script in a mostly unscripted evening.

I don’t even remember what I said. One of those comments that lays everything out and yet establishes nothing, along the lines of, “Well, that was fun, you’re a really good dancer,” and then she would have said, “Yeah, I had fun too, thank you,” or if she had been feeling a little bolder, “You’re a really good dancer too,” and I would have blushed slightly because I’ve forgotten how to accept compliments, and been like, “Thanks…” and then would have said, “I’ll see you next weekend,” because we had already made plans for next weekend, I’d be dancing in her music video, and then, “Have a good night,” and she would have said “You too”, and gracefully exited the car into the misty evening, leaving me to ponder our mostly wordless date and what it had meant. We followed this script to the point where she had her hand on the handle that if pushed one push further, would have opened the car door.

But she didn’t do that.

She reached across the center compartment and gave me a one-armed hug. As I was not expecting this gesture, the result was frankly pathetic. The most I managed to do was to cup my hand around her left shoulder. There was a good foot of space between our chests. It was sad, this hug. It conveyed so many things I did not want to convey—that I had not had fun, that I did not want to see her again, and while I knew the first was totally false, I wasn’t sure about the second and I wanted to leave my options open and not squash them with a tepid embrace.

I blamed my car. The separate bucket seats, the giant knob of the gearshift, and the immobile, blobby, center compartment all served to make any affectionate reach questionable and misconstrued. A further awkwardness piled up on all the other awkwardnesses of the evening. This will not do, I thought. No matter what I think of a person, a goodbye hug should be a goodbye hug. She hadn’t yet turned back to the door. Her arm still lingered on my shoulder, the back of my hand still brushing the tips of her curly black hair.

Suddenly we found ourselves with breasts pressed together and our foreheads forming a kind of arch. Well, it had started out as a better hug. Some part of me that likes to slap its little forehead whenever I mispronounce words or talk too softly at parties was squeaking, “But…all I wanted to do was give you a real hug…no, no, not this, not this, I didn’t want THIS, I promise!”

Our lips twitched closer together and our arms wrapped tighter, and then we kissed. I was proud I had remembered to kiss with my lips open (I’d had trouble doing that all the other times I’d kissed), but then instantly regretted it. Within our second kiss, she had stuck her tongue in my mouth. And having never opened my mouth while kissing other people, you can bet I’d never been French-kissed before, not even as a joke.

 

***

When our lips met the first time, no, in the second when we’re bending toward each other and impact seemed imminent, the phrase, “here we go,” resounded in my head. This quickly catapulted itself into, “Oh, here we go again.” Is it official, now that it’s the second time in my life I’ve made out with a girl? Is this what it’s going to be from now on, despite the lack of any evidence to the contrary? Is it more official now that I have her saliva in my mouth?

For someone so woefully inexperienced, I didn’t have any of the problems one normally has in this predicament. I didn’t think I was going to swallow her tongue, or choke on it, or bite it off. Her breath wasn’t even bad. I’ll admit I was confused—I may have ended up licking her teeth at one point, which didn’t seem right to me. At some moments my tongue just sat there like a lethargic alligator in the sun as hers swirled around my mouth, trying to rouse it. Eventually I licked back. I did, however, have the reaction to all this that it seemed everyone else in the world had 5-7 years earlier than me—that this, especially the teeth-licking, was not exactly sexy.

But we kept going, I kept licking her teeth, she my gums, our lips crashing into each other, and she wasn’t pulling away in horror. In fact, she was pressing into me more, the kisses becoming throatier, deeper. I worked my right hand free of the curls of her body, reached over for the dangling keys, and turned off the running engine. My eyes cast downward, I saw her stomach stretched taut over the gearshift. Meanwhile, I was basically upright, maybe a little canted her direction, in my stiff bucket seat. I took a breath, swallowed.

“Um, is the gearshift getting in your way?”

We broke apart for a second, investigating how far we’d traveled from our original positions. She looked down and laughed. Only then did I unbuckle my seatbelt. She snuggled against my stomach. Every window in the car was foggy, which still did not stop me from flinching every time a pair of headlights flashed by. Well, I was already pulled over. Could you be arrested for making out in a car? Would it be worse since we both had breasts? Most crucially, how would I call my mother to inform her that the Chicago Police had brought me in for A. Making out on a darkened Lakeview sidestreet in what was technically her car, and B. with a girl, no less, when I had told her that some professor had invited me to a reading and I’d be home late?

As if it had the answer to everything, my crotch began tightening and tingling in a familiar manner, though one I rarely felt when there was an actual human being two feet away from me. Who—and maybe this was just more paranoia or god forbid, lust—kept glancing over at the glowing glass door of her building, and then at an open parking spot diagonal from where we currently sat.

Though I tend to ring up large monthly bills at Dunkin’ Donuts and bookstores, have books I’ve never opened and clothes I’ve never ripped tags off of, and my writing keeps getting pushed to later and later in the day, I still hold firmly to the belief that I am good at denying myself things I want. Perhaps even a little too good at it. Or actually, maybe it was the fact that I knew I didn’t want this, didn’t want to be the kind of girl who had sex on the first date, that made me not give in to either of these signals. Or maybe it was that this would have been not just any old sex, but you know, the first time I’d have sex. Or maybe that I would have been home way too late for any excuse to my hopefully slumbering mother to sound plausible. Or maybe inadvertently becoming the kind of girl who makes out in a car was enough for me. Or maybe it was because I was parked in a tow-zone.

We went back to pressing our lips together instead, the paranoia bubbling up through me now, scarcely calmed by her stroking my back. At some point—I had learned for the first time this evening that I couldn’t go too long without saying something, no matter how inconsequential it was—I pulled my slimy face away from hers and in that squeaky voice that belonged to the part of me now hiding under a table going “I CAN’T LOOK!”, I said, “can you tell I’m not very good at this?”

There is only one good response to that question, and my date had it. She giggled, yes, but then she went back to kissing me as if I had never said anything at all.

***

I hadn’t heard that old song, “At Seventeen” until a few weeks ago. I heard of it on a list of the 50 most depressing songs, so I had heard nothing good about “At Seventeen”. Yes, it sounds like it should be playing in an elevator full of hula-skirted women. And perhaps it is the slightest bit depressing. But I am fairly sure a wise person once said that truth is depressing. Janis Ian, by the way, later came out as a lesbian. You can sort of tell when you listen to a song that like. How many misguided young women invented a lover on the phone with a husky voice and a 5 o’clock shadow, not knowing they really wanted someone with a body like their own? But everyone knew. Especially the boys. They marvel at how quickly you can read a book, that you know the name of the actress who played Princess Leia without ever having seen Star Wars, but they never ask you to Homecoming. You turn eighteen and you think you were just waiting this whole time for something to happen and now it will. And it does, but not what you expect.

One day a girl comes along and dances with you in a forest preserve. She kisses first your cheek and then your lips. She leaves you two months later. You were going to have two children and live in a log cabin by the lake. She never stuck her tongue inside your mouth, but that doesn’t matter. You never thought you were worthy of it in the first place, and the second time seems like it will never come. You wrote of this first girl in your journal that she seemed like she might be the one and only, and that was before the two of you even admitted to liking each other. It is official. No one will ever want to kiss you again. No one will ever want to call you their girlfriend. It took you 18 years to have the first relationship; it may take you another 18 to have the second.

You will go gay speeddating and no one will like you. You will go to a gay coffeehouse and listen to a folksinger strum her homemade dulcimer and sing a song about how no one gets told they are gay or anything and you want to talk to her so bad you get in your car to leave when the event is over, then get out muttering to yourself, “carpe diem”. But you don’t. You see her walking away down the street ten feet ahead of you, and you don’t run after her. You call up your friend Dan and leave a mawkish message about what a coward you are and how this girl too, seemed like the only girl you’d ever want to go out with. A few weeks later, you place an “I Saw You” in the Reader for her, with the title “Didn’t Wave at New Wave” (the name of the coffeeshop). You admit this to no one until years later.

You grow out your hair and start volunteering at a lesbian event at a feminist bookstore. You read at gay poetry readings, always mentioning that you are single. Your hopes not high, you go gay speeddating again. And there is a girl there with curly black hair and glasses and a big lopsided smile who asks you if you like music. It is the folksinger, and according to the email the event organizers send a week later, she likes you.

***

We were parked in a tow zone, and thus, we never left my car. When this “nonsense”, as the Victorian gentleman in me was already clamoring to call it, had stretched for perhaps twenty minutes glowing green on my car’s dashboard clock, and our passion was winding down to mere squeezes and strokes, I said, in a-soon-to-be-immortal phrase, “I should probably go.” Meaning, of course, that I’d love to stay, but really, I have good reasons for going, I have to be at work in a suburb an hour away from here at 9 am tomorrow morning, and if this goes any longer my willpower will shatter as well, so I should PROBABLY go.

And she said, in a distant voice, and another-soon-to-be-immortal-phrase, “Yeah, I have a lot of homework.” Meaning…well, god knows what. I wanted to have sex with you and that’s not what we’re going to be doing so I feel silly now? I don’t know what you think of me though we made out in your car for a third of an hour? I suddenly just realized you were only giving me another hug to be polite and I took it completely the wrong way? Or maybe she actually did have a lot of homework. Somehow it sounded believable. I did too. She finally pushed open the door she’d meant to push open so long ago, we wished each other good night in soft voices, and I drove away slowly, my elbows balanced on the steering wheel so I could hold my head in my hands. I was now the sort of girl who made out in parked cars, who had gone from hopelessly single, unattractive and naïve to at least attractive enough to French-kiss, singleness confused and abashed into the dark misty world outside of my slowly rolling Monte Carlo, and still naïve.

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How to Build a Country Club /2012/03/how-to-build-a-country-club/ /2012/03/how-to-build-a-country-club/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:16:36 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=257 By Jeanne Althouse

One cold Sunday night, just before dark, Temple Seeks drove over to the old golf club building, closed for winter, and let himself in with his member’s key. In a duffle bag he carried thirty large firecrackers, each made with more than three grains of powder, and a dozen aerial shells full of stars. He put them on top of the old gas furnace. The thermostat, an old one whose numbers were barely readable, was set for “off.” He sprayed the walls around the furnace, the wood floor and front steps with a pesticide sprayer he had filled with gasoline from his lawn mower. As town Mayor, and President of the Volunteer Firefighters Association, he was confident he could persuade everyone the fire started from mice chewing on the ancient electrical wiring. When he was done, he returned to the thermostat and turned on the heat. He knew it would take a few minutes.

That winter, before Temple set fire to it, the Board of Governors met to decide when to replace the dilapidated building overlooking the golf course ten miles outside of town. Instead of making a decision, the men talked about when Hem broke one hundred and then collapsed and died on the green, or when Dottie left her devilled eggs in the sun at the member’s picnic and people puked in the potted ferns, or when the Knights of Columbus got together to repaint the dining room and used the wall color on the trim by mistake.

“Room looked like a bordello,” said Temple, turning his cigar back and forth in his fingers, leaning back to show off his big belly, a sign of his success. Seeks was owner of Seeks and Sons Hardware in Nameless, Montana. His store was well-known for its mail order kits on how to construct fireworks. Around the 4th of July, they had the best stock of illegal reloadable mortar shells in the county.

The Trustees procrastinated. At one meeting instead of the building, they talked about the old days, before the road was paved, before membership cost four figures, and before they allowed women on the green. Then, another time they avoided decision by discussing possible paint colors and design. Taupe with eggshell trim was proposed by Hem’s widow, the one woman on the Board who held a no-vote position as secretary. The style, majestic, like a capital building, with a grand entry staircase leading up to double glass doors, was proposed by Seek’s nephew, a contractor. He said the toilet that always leaked and flooded the old men’s room should be replaced with a water-saving device with two kinds of flush handles—one for yellow, one for brown. They spent hours on the toilets at a Board retreat.

Temple said he hoped they made a decision before he was too old to lift a club.

No one remembered exactly when they split into two factions—one group supported repair of the old structure to save money and the other argued it would be cheaper to start over with a new building. They proposed calling it the Nameless County Country Club.

Temple, who led the advocates for new construction, challenged the others—said they were more afraid of change than showing up for a prostate biopsy.

They took several votes, and individual members switched position after bribes from the opposing side, but the votes always ended in a tie. Finally, Temple couldn’t stand it any longer.

While he was waiting for the gasoline to ignite, Temple hiked to the far end of the platen of green grass, now dotted white with winter snow. From this distance he turned and stared back at the old building. He had golfed here for forty years. He and his wife had their wedding reception on the veranda. During high school his son had worked summers driving carts. But now his first grandson was on the way.

“Time to think about the future,” he whispered. His breath made a smoke ring in the air.

The first sound he heard was the drum beat of the exploding firecrackers. Then the furnace blew up; the blast cut open the roof and the aerial shells launched. Hanging in the air, spheres above the fire, the shell casings burst one after another, igniting the stars and scattering them in all directions across the sky.

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Church Pews /2012/03/church-pews/ /2012/03/church-pews/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:15:34 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=255 By Catherine R. Smyka

St. Celestine’s Church sits at the corner of a residential street in Elmwood Park, IL, in between a cluster of homes and an elementary school of the same name. Sunlight pours through the stained glass windows featuring Biblical scenes. Mary and Joseph under a bright star. A mountaintop crowd with baskets of loaves and fish. The twelve Stations of the Cross. Sometimes the kindergarteners next door draw their own New Testament depictions and hang their drawings by the Holy Water font in the front Atrium. I’ve sat in almost every pew in that church. When I was growing up, while the priest spoke about loving your neighbor and lights under bushel baskets, I stared up into the vaulted ceiling and wondered if I could climb high enough to hide inside one of the nooks by those stained glass windows.

I was baptized in St. Celestine’s Catholic Church. So were my brothers and sisters and cousins, even some of my aunts and uncles. First Communions and graduations and Confirmations were celebrated in that building with the stained glass. St. Celestine’s was where you went on Sunday morning, and then walked the two blocks to my Grandmother’s for spaghetti dinner. I watched my Uncle get married there six years ago and have pictures from my Aunt’s wedding twenty-one years ago, when I wore patent leather shoes and white ribbons in my hair. Thirty years ago, my parents got married in that church. In all that time, the windows have not changed.

In high school I started thinking about what my wedding would look like in St. Celestine’s. I could picture my dress and the flower in my hair. For once, I began to picture what it would look like to stand against the windows and look back at the pews. I could see all my Chicago relatives beaming at me from their seats, embracing me on my wedding day. The part I couldn’t picture, however, was the groom.

It’s been almost five years since I came out to my family. In the time following, I have spent many Christmases, New Year’s Eves, baptisms, and Sunday mornings at St. Celestine’s church. I have watched my siblings sit in wooden pews near the back. Some of us still consider ourselves Catholic; some of us don’t. But we keep finding ourselves back in that building with the stained glass windows. The front steps will always be a great place to gather, to tell jokes, to wave hellos. The parking lot is still a good destination when embarking on an autumn walk on a Tuesday evening.

I know now I won’t be able to get married at St. Celestine’s. There will be many more exchanges of vows under that vaulted ceiling, maybe even some vows I know – just not mine. But I do have history there.

No matter who I see on those steps or what happens in the future. No matter where I get married, or to whom. My story still started right there.

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Huck Finn Reels in Some Stretchers /2012/03/huck-finn-reels-in-some-stretchers/ /2012/03/huck-finn-reels-in-some-stretchers/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:14:13 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=253 By T. Allen Culpepper

My dead mam and pap
named me Huckleberry Finn,
but most folks jest calls me Huck.

Last time I brung myself ’round
to tellin’ stories ’bout myself,
I said wouldn’t nobody know me
lessen they’d read a book
name of Tom Sawyer
by Mr. Mark Twain,
but I hear tell now
some of y’all’s been readin’
’bout my adventures too
and thank you know all about me.

Well, I ’cused ol’ Mr. Twain
o’ tellin’ a few stretchers
in his book ’bout my friend Tom,
and that’s got my conscience
to botherin’ me ’cause I reckon
I done told a right smart
of ’em my own self.

’Fore you get to thankin’
too bad about me, though,
you orter know that
if I was to’ve of told
the whole truth back then,
me and Jim both would’ve
got lynched faster’n I
could’ve got the words out.

First thang I reckon you orter know
is Jim warn’t near as old
as maybe you thought he was.
Folks thank ’cause he had him a wife
and a couple of liddle younguns
he must’ve been a older feller,
but that ain’t right.
Truth is, he warn’t but twenty-one,
not that much older’n me.
And makin’ a few younguns
don’t necessarily ’liminate
some other possibilities,
if you hear what I’m sayin’.

Second thang is, some of y’all
got to thankin’ I had me a crush
on Miss Mary Jane Wilks,
and that ain’t quite right neither.
Now, don’t get me wrong,
Miss Mary Jane was a fine, sweet girl
and I reckon a better Christian
than some preachers I run acrost,
and I did take a likin’ to her,
but when it come to gettin’
myself some satisfaction,
it warn’t Mary Jane what give
me what I was jonesin’ for.

You might start to git the pitcher
if I told you that my friends called me Huck
but some folks had other names
for me like Suck-yer-berries
and that kind o’ thang.
And the King and the Duke
orter been called the Queen
and the Prin-cess, to git it right.

Anyways, some people
git to talkin’ ’bout the end
of my book and sayin’
I was always jest givin’ in
to what Tom Sawyer wanted,
and I reckon it’s true,
leastways up to a point,
but what they don’t know
is what I got back in return;
I reckon a boy needs
his fantasies, and Tom,
he could make up
romantic stories like
nobody’s business.

Now I don’t mean to say
that there was a-thang serious
a-going on between me and Tom;
we was jest friendly liddle buggers,
and a lot of it was jest
play-acting around, to tell
you the honest truth,
but Lordy knows we had
ourselves some fun in that
lean-to on the Phelps place,
jest like back home
in Tom’s Aunt Polly’s shed.

But it ain’t Tom
that I’m a-tryin’ to tell you ’bout.
See, the thang is, me and Jim—
Well, takin’ off down the river
warn’t about zackly what I said it was.
See, me and Jim done heard
afore we left that ol’ Miss Watkins
done made up her mind
to set him a-loose and give
him his freedom, so that
warn’t gon’ be no problem.

Thang was, me and Jim
was needin’ to get away
from siviluzation for a spell
so we could get nekkid
and git to to ruttin’ around a liddle bit,
only it warn’t play-actin’
like it was with Tom,
’cause Jim and me,
I reckon we done
fell in love and was
wantin’ to what them preachers
call consummate our union,
and that meant gittin’ away
to where nobody warn’t
watchin’ us, ’cause if
you think a trash white boy
and a runaway nigger
gon’ raise up trouble,
then make ’em both
sod-umizers and see what happens.

So anyways, that liddle run
down the river warn’t zackly
a quest for Jim’s freedom
from slavery so much
as it was a liddle ol’
honeymoon cruise.
Jest ’cause we couldn’t
afford to take
no riverboat
and had to do our
business on a raft, well,
that don’t make no
difference when it
comes right down to it.

And if any of you folks
is wondering what a
white boy, even if he was trash
could’ve been seein’ in a black man
like Jim, well I reckon
Jim was a sight better lookin’
than ya’ll thank he was,
and the kindest, sweetest
man you ever wont to meet,
not to mention that
all that talk about snakes
was what ol’ Mr. Twain
might call symberl-ism.
See, y’all don’t know
a snake from a ’possum
’til ya’ll’ve seen
Jim’s snake uncoiled
and ready to strike.

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A Boy’s Best Friend /2012/03/a-boys-best-friend/ /2012/03/a-boys-best-friend/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:13:09 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=251 By Jarrett Neal

My partner Gerald plays on a gay softball team for men over fifty.  They’re called the Real Daddies in spite of the three lesbians on the team.  I watched them play one Saturday in Sauganash Park.  Unlike Gerald, who works out at the gym almost every day and closely watches what he eats, some of the players are terribly out of shape.  Slowed down by big bellies and bad knees, they actually need other players to run the bases for them after they hit the ball.  They’re a genial group of guys who are just out to have a good time more than anything else.  I tried playing on a gay football league a few years earlier, the Drake Demons, but had little success.  Despite all the muscle mass I’ve added to my frame through years of rigorous weightlifting at the gym and a high protein diet, when it comes to sports I’m as out of place as Queen Elizabeth II at a monster truck show.  When Gerald and I arrived at the ball park I took a folding chair, some bug repellant and a cooler of water bottles out of the car trunk and found a spot under the shade of a big elm so I could relax and watch my man hit some homeruns.  Just as I was getting comfortable, one of Gerald’s teammates approached me carrying folding chairs and a small cooler.  I recognized him instantly—it was Joe, my coach from the Drake Demons.  Walking slowly beside him was a tiny woman who, from her pale, wrinkled skin, age spots, and slight tremors in her arms, had to be at least seventy-five years old.  Dressed in an all black pants suit, pink trimmed sneakers and a baseball cap, she smiled ear to ear.  Joe unfolded a couple of chairs next to me and they sat down.

Joe bent down to tie his cleats and said, “Mother, this is Jarrett.  He used to play on my flag football team.”

His mother extended her slim hand; I shook it. “Well, hello dear,” she said.  “I’m Bennie.”

“It’s good to meet you, Bennie.  Your son’s a really good coach.”

“Oh, Joe just loves sports.  His father was a big baseball player.  I’m sorry, dear, what’s your name?”

“I’m Jarrett.”

“That’s a nice name.  You must be a very good football player.  Joe loves football, too.”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t a very good player, Bennie.”

“You were good,” Joe said.

“Oh, yes,” Bennie insisted.  “Everyone’s good at something.  Joe, did you put on bug spray?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’ll get bitten up.”

“I said I’m fine, mom.”

Then Bennie turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, dear, what’s your name?”

“You can call me J.”

“J.  Okay.  Will you get to play first base, Joe?”

Joe busied himself bending his baseball glove.  “I can’t always play first, mom.”

“But you’re best on first base.  Tell them to let you play first base.  And don’t forget sunscreen.”

“You want some water, mom?”

“No, dear.”   Bennie adjusted her baseball cap, lightly tapped my forearm and said, “Do you have a friend playing today?”

“Yes,” I said, “my partner.”  Gerald was warming up, tossing a softball back and forth with another player several yards away.  I pointed him out to Bennie and she smiled.

“Hear that, Joe,” she said.  “His partner is on your team.”

“I know, mom.”

She gave me another wide-eyed look.  “What is your name, dear?”

The rest of the afternoon, Bennie and I cheered on the Real Daddies through a double header.  I had to repeat my name about eight times before she finally remembered who I was.  Ordinarily this would have irked me something fierce, but Bennie conveyed such a pleasant and personable attitude and seemed so accepting of her son’s sexuality that watching the ball game with her turned out to be a real treat.  She knew much more about the game than I did (I’m embarrassed to admit) and took the time to fill me in on Joe’s involvement in sports since he was a boy.  Judging from the wealth of detail she provided about Joe’s athletic prowess, his fears and frustrations with sports over the years, I gathered she never missed a single game Joe played as a kid.  I was struck by her devotion to Joe and her comfort around gay men as much as the jewelry she wore.  She sported a dazzling silver necklace and a diamond wedding ring.  Whenever the Real Daddies were at bat Joe came over to check on Bennie; he sat beside her and sipped water as she questioned him about the score, the team’s winning strategy and the names of his teammates.  Periodically, whenever Joe or another member of the team made a good play, she’d shuffle onto the baseball diamond amid the heat of play to go over and congratulate the player, at which point someone politely escorted her back to her seat.

Joe’s very close relationship to his mother is well known among gay intramural sports enthusiasts in Chicago.  I don’t recall ever seeing her at any of our football games, and I assume she didn’t attend them because we played rather early in the morning and the weather in autumn is too damp and chilly for her to sit and watch from sidelines.  As Gerald and I drove home from the game he expressed his opinions about Joe and Bennie’s relationship.  “It’s a little creepy.”

“Don’t say that,” I said.  “They obviously love each other very much.”

“Joe’s fifty-two and doesn’t have a partner.  Now I know why.”

“If your mother was alive and needed care you’d move her into our guest room in a heartbeat and you know it.”

“Of course I would, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a life outside their relationship.”

“We don’t know that.”

“When she eventually dies he’s going to be a wreck.”

Ironically, that same evening Gerald and I decided to lie on the couch and watch Suddenly, Last Summer, the 1959 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play.  Directed by Joseph L.Mankiewicz and starring Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, the film remains one of my all time favorites and, for better or worse, is a landmark in gay cinema.  Not only does it present a trio of Hollywood’s most admired actors, it is also famous for its subject matter and a production which was plagued with problems from the start.  Suddenly, Last Summer is a lurid tale of madness, homosexuality, licentiousness, pandering, and cannibalism, yet it is also one of the first Hollywood films to explore the dynamics of the complex relationship between gay men and their mothers.  Each time I watch the film my opinion of Sebastian Venable, the recently deceased son of wealthy New Orleans widow Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) changes.  Though Sebastian is never seen, the audience is given a very clear indication of what kind of person he was.  Something I find rather brilliant about the performances of Hepburn and Taylor in this film is that whenever she directly quotes Sebastian, each actress alters her voice to sound as much like him as possible.  (It should be noted that both women received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for their work in this film; Taylor won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama.)  Though revered by both his mother and his cousin Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), it becomes quite clear early on that Sebastian was pretentious and egotistical, a brand of wealthy, aesthete young white men, like Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan in Rope and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, who delights in using other people for sport and exploiting the poor and indefensible.  Sebastian Venable is, as we all are, a product of his environment.

The story unfolds in 1937 New Orleans, a period marked by the Great Depression, mounting geopolitical strife (the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, decolonization), and rigid race and class divisions.  In the arts, modernism was about to reach its apex.  American literature, dominated by the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, dismantled the staid, labored work of the Romantics in order to penetrate the inner lives of individuals and examine how they cope in the midst of sweeping social, political and economic change.  It was an era very similar to our own in which individuals are forced to navigate rampant changes, yet Sebastian Venable resists change by maintaining a haughty disaffected air of noncompliance with the new and emerging rules of society, ones that will inevitably alter the status quo.  Sebastian is trapped by his class, wealth, status and background.  Most of all, he is trapped by his erotic desires and his inability to freely embrace and express them.

The trailer for Suddenly, Last Summer announces that Elizabeth Taylor’s character had no idea she was being “used for something evil”.  The evil which is referred to, and what hip audience members at the time undoubtedly knew, was Sebastian’s sexual liaisons with beautiful young men.  Such blatant homophobia, even in 1959, is thoroughly distasteful and equally problematic within the context of a film that is awash in abhorrent thoughts, acts and motivations.  The plot of Suddenly, Last Summer concerns Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a neurosurgeon recently relocated to Lion’s View, a poorly funded mental asylum in New Orleans.  At the behest of the wealthy and powerful Violet Venable, Dr. Cukrowicz visits the matriarch at her estate on the pretense that she wishes to discuss his work with him.  Upon his arrival, Dr. Cukrowicz is instantly aware that he is about to encounter individuals and an environment as deceptive as they are gothic.  The Venable estate is a hideous wonder.  Prior to his death, Sebastian, exercising his god complex, had a garden planted in back of the estate that Dr. Cukrowicz describes as a being “not unlike a well-groomed jungle, and frankly a little terrifying.”  The jungle is populated with every botanical oddity known, including a Venus flytrap which Mrs. Venable feeds with flies.  Though Dr. Cukrowicz is unaware of the purpose of his visit Mrs. Venable—austerely dressed in white and descending from a throne built inside of an elevator—tells him that her niece Catherine was traveling with her son Sebastian when he died, and the event has made Catherine lose her mind.  Her intention is to have Dr. Cukrowicz lobotomize Catherine in order to prevent her from relaying the circumstances behind Sebastian’s death to anyone.  But the doctor refuses to perform the operation until he speaks to Catherine himself and determines if she truly is mentally unsound.  After a showdown between Violet and Catherine (a scene not to be missed for cinephiles like me who marvel at the sight of cinemas two greatest actresses sharing screen time together) Catherine reveals that she and Sebastian’s mother procured for him; in other words, they were the bait he used to get young men close enough to him so he could proposition them and pay them for sex.  It is this truth Mrs. Venable wishes to have excised from Catherine’s mind, and it is also Sebastian’s undoing, the very thing that eventually gets him killed by a band of boys in a coastal village located in southern Europe.  He is chased through the streets like a wild animal and literally devoured by the youths.

Such ghoulish acts make it difficult to decode what Tennessee Williams is trying to communicate to audiences through this work.  It’s worth mentioning that Williams despised the film adaptation of his play and felt Elizabeth Taylor, in particular, was miscast.  His vision, it seems, was utterly lost in adaptation, yet the spine of the story remains.  While many themes present themselves within Suddenly, Last Summer, one that stands out immediately is the cost of being sexually liberated in a society in which sexual repression, particularly in regard to women and gay men, is the norm, especially in the South where gender, sex, and class meld in customs, traditions, discourse and mythology that is both distinctly American yet foreign to most Americans who live outside of the South.  Dr. Cuckrowicz, a Chicago native, is ill equipped to decode the tacit rules of propriety, secrecy, and social exchange that insulate this environment, and as he attempts to apply common sense thinking to the individuals who populate this world he is met with formidable resistance.  Not only is the doctor a Yankee but one with a Polish last name.  His status as an outsider couldn’t be made clearer.  Yet his outsider status also makes him the one person who can best resolve the mystery behind Sebastian’s death and Catherine’s mental collapse.  Catherine confides in Dr. Cukrowicz about an incident that occurred prior to her trip abroad with Sebastian in which she had sexual encounter, which may or may not have been consensual, with a married man.  For this, she is branded a harlot by her family and the society at large.  Any and all attempts she makes to find credibility among her family are circumspect.

By the gender codes of Western society, and Southern society in particular, Catherine is no longer a “good” girl.  Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also played by Elizabeth Taylor on-screen) Catherine’s efforts to reveal the truth behind the events that led to Sebastian’s death are silenced, and as punishment for her loose tongue she is stripped of her place within society, called an insane slut and locked away in an asylum.  Both Sebastian and Catherine pay a price for being sexual, yet Catherine is allowed to survive and is eventually readmitted into society, an action that, read symbolically, seems to suggest that while society will always make a place of sexually liberated women, even if only on its periphery, it has zero tolerance for men who express same sex desire.  Williams’ decision to condemn Sebastian to death by cannibalism amplifies an unspoken hunter-prey relationship between the dominant heterosexual society and the homosexual subaltern, but this dynamic works both ways in Suddenly, Last Summer, for Sebastian, the symbol of white American capitalist wealth and decadence, wields his money and intelligence only to satisfy his own selfish desires.  He hunts and devours young men, using the two closest women in his life to do so.  In this manner he has more in common with the forces of Western culture that oppress him than one would think.  A common belief among the LGBT community is that our greatest threat comes not from homophobic evangelicals or right wing fanatics but closeted gay men and women, especially those in positions of power.  The closet imposes a strain of fear and self-loathing so insidious that gays and lesbians operating within its confines will go to any lengths to maintain the fiction that they are heterosexual, even if doing so means they destroy others in the process.  Closeted individuals are more likely to engage in behaviors that are reckless and self-destructive (barebacking and promiscuity, for example) in order to satisfy their desires.  While Suddenly, Last Summer has been taken to task by the LGBT community for its condemnatory stance against homosexuality, the film can also be viewed as a hyperbolic cautionary tale of the dangers of living one’s life in the closet.  Moreover, it serves as a protest against sexual repression, recognizing that the root of both Sebastian’s and Catherine’s troubles is the inflexible Christian morality of Western society which promulgates shame of the body and imbues all nonprocreative sexual acts outside of marriage with wickedness and degradation.

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When I was in the fifth grade my classmates and I were given permission slips to take home to be signed by our parents.  We weren’t going on a field trip; instead, the administration and a nurse from a local clinic were going to show us a filmstrip titled Changing, sponsored by Proctor and Gamble.  When our teacher, Mrs. Bible (yes, that was her name), announced to the class the nature of the film, she was met with snickers and giggles.  “You’ve all reached the age when your bodies are beginning to change,” she said as she stood beside her desk twirling a piece of chalk.  “You need to understand what those changes will involve.”  She went to the board and wrote the word Puberty in large letters.  I lived with my grandparents, so when I got home that night I phoned my mother, stepped into the bathroom with the phone so my grandparents couldn’t hear, then asked my mother if she’d sign the form so I could see the film.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

My body temperature rose.  “Growing up.”

All she said was, “Okay.”  When she came to my grandparents’ house to see me later that evening she signed the form and next week I watched the film.

While it is no secret that sex is a topic mothers and sons avoid, I think the issue of sex is rifer with secrecy and boundaries in situations like mine, when the mother is single or the son has no brothers.  I was raised in a family of women.  By this I mean the closest men in my life were either alcoholics who spent most of their waking hours drunk or men so invested in their own families and professions that forming strong bonds with me was not a priority for them.  All of my cousins were girls, and I envied them because they could always turn to each other if they had any pressing questions about how to be a woman.  Everything I learned about being a man I learned on my own, from what I observed in other boys and men.  This is especially true of sex.  All I know of sex I can attribute to watching hours of pornographic films and having many frank, raunchy late night talks with close friends.  My mother is a hip individual; I often refer to her as the Denise Huxtable of our family because of her broad-minded worldview, her willingness to defy convention and the fearlessness with which she approaches life.  She possesses abundant confidence, makes friends easily, takes risks and isn’t afraid to fail.  Over the years she has maintained friendships with people of various races, ethnicities, religions, backgrounds, and orientations.  Mama knows the value of appearances; she also knows that they have no value without integrity, generosity, self-love and self-respect.  Men have always swarmed around her, and before she married engaged in several romances, some more serious than others.  No aspect of human nature, however slight or nuanced, is lost on her.  She knew that at a certain point she’d have to start knocking on my bedroom door before she entered my room.  During my early adulthood, when my life lapsed into a state of flux I thought I’d never get through, she never questioned me about my personal life, and I am grateful for her discretion and respect for privacy because I would have been mortified if she had made inquiries, despite that fact that I remained a virgin until I was twenty-two.

The loss of my virginity forever altered my relationship with my mother.  Before, I was her buddy.  She took me almost everywhere she went: mundane trips to the grocery store, jogging with her in the park, jaunts to the public library and other locations.  Like Violet and Sebastian we were each other’s main companion.  Because my mother gave birth to me when she was fourteen years-old we practically grew up together.  Our relationship transcended the usual mother-son dynamic.  My adolescent years were perhaps the most freely expressive time of our relationship, yet that all changed when I became sexually active.

My mother found out I was having sex in an unusual way.  She and her husband were living in Des Moines at the time, and my grandmother, who I still lived with, phoned her regularly to inform her of my comings and goings.  When I came home from work on Friday afternoons I ate dinner, dressed, went out and didn’t return home until late afternoon the next day.  Then I’d grab something else to eat, change clothes, leave again and not come back until Sunday dinner.  Soon all the women in my family were buzzing about who I was spending time with.  I had come out to my cousin Alexis a few months earlier, but when my mother and her sisters interrogated Alexis about the girl they assumed I was seeing she wouldn’t tell them.  It was only when my grandmother told my mother that no girls had phoned the house, yet I was receiving calls from lots of men she didn’t know, that my mother, the savvy woman she is, put two and two together and came up with gay.  To this day, even after she attended my wedding to Gerald in 2008, my mother and I have never had a candid discussion of my sexuality.  She loves me and wants the best for me and Gerald, yet I just don’t think either of us is prepared to confront the big gay elephant in the room.

Verbalizing one’s sexual proclivities somehow makes them more real.  When we give acts or behaviors a name they have relevance; this is the power of language.  Sebastian’s relationship with his mother devolves into a co-dependence wholly inappropriate for an adult mother and child.  Sebastian’s inability to embrace his sexuality and Violet’s blindness to her son’s urges and struggles only exacerbates their individual and collective arrested development.  On several occasions she boasts of the intensely close relationship she and Sebastian shared.  Every moment of their lives is ritualized, from the daiquiris they drink at the stroke of five each afternoon to the book length poem Sebastian writes each summer to coincide with their annual trip abroad.  In a sense, Violet and Sebastian have a non-sexual marriage, a relationship so contrary to the customary mother-son bond that it excludes all other individuals, even Violet’s own husband.  I see these types of relationships replicated in real life all the time.  Ayelet Waldman made mention of this phenomenon in her controversial essay “Truly, Madly, Guiltily” in which she notes that the relationship between a husband and wife should be the primary bond within a family structure, yet increasingly she was meeting mothers who were transferring the feelings of love and desire typically reserved for their husbands to their children.  According to her niece, Violet chose to remain with Sebastian in a village in Tibet where, on a whim, he decided to become a Buddhist monk, rather than return to her dying husband’s bedside.  The precepts of white Christian hegemony demand that Violet, her family and even Sebastian himself conceal and deny his homosexuality.  Yet Violet needs him to remain a closeted homosexual in order to assert such a domineering influence over him.

For many mothers, having a gay son is the best thing that could ever happen to them, and Violet is no exception.  In her view and the view of other mothers, since no other woman will love him, she doesn’t have to compete with another woman for her son’s attention and affection.  She is his alone.  In Sebastian’s case, his mother fails to see him as a sexual being (when Dr. Cukrowicz asks her what type of private life Sebastian had, Violet’s terse repose is “He was chaste.”) so he will forever be a child to her.  Sebastian’s capricious, immature behavior only confirms Violet’s belief that she alone could “satisfy the demands he made of people”.  Sex, especially sex with a woman, is the one thing that can destroy the covenant between Violet and Sebastian, even after his death.  Violet’s goal is to deflect all questions about Sebastian’s private life, to employ whatever measures at her disposal to keep the memory of her son as chaste as she claims he was.  If Sebastian is seen by others as a poet who, by his own volition and high-minded principles, decided to live a life of chastity, then Violet can be seen as a vessel of nurturing support.  If others know that Sebastian had sexual impulses, Violet will be blamed for impeding his emotional and sexual maturation.

But Dr. Cukrowicz is no fool and neither is the audience.  We know that Sebastian is far from the paragon of aestheticism and celibacy his mother proclaims him to be.  Catherine’s primary function in Suddenly, Last Summer is to speak the truth, to communicate to Dr. Cukrowicz and the audience the prurient and cruel aspects of Sebastian’s personality and expose him, his mother and all of us for the hypocrites we are.  Elizabeth Taylor was at her most alluring and voluptuous when she took this role just shortly after the death of her third husband, producer Mike Todd, and on the heels of her scandalous affair and eventual marriage to Eddie Fischer.  The swirl of gossip and tabloid reports that engulfed the set of Suddenly, Last Summer made it an unbearable production for the cast and crew.  Katharine Hepburn was particularly livid over the openly homophobic treatment Mankiewicz was giving Montgomery Clift, so much so that legend has it she spit on the director at the end of the production.  An automobile accident three years earlier left Clift a shell of his former self.  He relied on drugs and alcohol to get through each day, and the result is a stilted, wobbly performance eclipsed by his co-stars.  With all of these provocative events taking place around her, Taylor had no difficulty embodying Catherine Holly, a young woman wrestling with ungovernable emotions.  Paranoid and fascinated with morbid thoughts, Catherine is uncertain of the motivations of those around her yet adamant in what she does know in regard to her cousin Sebastian.  She was the only person besides his mother that he had a close connection to.  Moreover, she can be seen as an early model for such characters as Grace Adler in Will & Grace and Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City—sexual, cosmopolitan women who befriend gay men and empathize with them and their struggles.  In vulgar terms these women are called fag hags, yet the relationship between gay men and their female friends has the potential to undermine the bond between gay men and their mothers.  Though Sebastian and Catherine never have sex, they share intimacy that Sebastian simply cannot and does not receive from Violet.  They both enjoy sex yet are made to feel like whores and perverts because of it.  They enjoy and admire good looking men yet are forbidden to convey these feelings to the world at large.  The culture gay men and single straight women establish among themselves is one that excludes almost all Victorian sensibilities, one in which whispers become uproarious laughter, where men—particularly heterosexual men—are sexually objectified, and the rules that dictate the order and balance of power in the dominate culture have no sway.  Though emotionally wounded, Catherine’s companionship during Sebastian’s final summer abroad has the propensity to impart the treasures of such a relationship to Sebastian.  In stark contrast to Violet’s cold, brittle demeanor, Catherine is earthy and passionate.  Violet’s contact with individuals is limited to perfunctory handshakes; Catherine embraces and kisses those she loves.  Violet is slim and angular; Catherine is full-bodied and curvaceous.  Catherine exudes sex and is well aware, as all women are, that her body promotes in sexual responses men.  It is because of this fact alone that Sebastian chooses to take Catherine with him on his annual voyage and not his mother, because, as Catherine puts it, she could “lure the better fish”.  Positioned between these two powerful females influences—the Madonna and the whore, chastity and sexual expression, Victorian repression and modern liberalism—Sebastian is unable to achieve happiness in either domain.  One can only speculate how the trip with Catherine would have altered Sebastian’s self-perception and his relationship with his mother had he survived.

Every gay man I know, myself included, has a relationship with his mother that defies easy explanation.  Those whose mothers are dead have a very difficult time talking about them; the closeness they shared was so sacred that to speak of it in open company will bring them to tears.  Those friends I have whose mothers are alive and on good terms with them tend to maintain close bonds.  Unlike Violet and Sebastian their relationship relies on honesty and open communication.  While I don’t think it is healthy for mothers and sons to convey every minute detail of their private lives to each other, I do feel it is vital that we each understand that mutual respect is necessary in all relationships.  As my mother figured out early on, a mother has to know when to knock on her son’s bedroom door and, when his cries are muted by a thousand hateful voices, she needs to break the damn door down.

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Yes /2012/03/yes/ /2012/03/yes/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:11:41 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=249 By Frank Adams

No one told me
I could say no.

No one told me
what happened was wrong.

I learned
to keep my mouth shut.

I did not tell on the older boys,
delivery man, neighbor,
cousins, or coach who touched me.

I did not tell,
always assuming it was me
who seduced them.

Assuming it was me
who used them.  But
it wasn’t.

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The Talk /2012/03/the-talk/ /2012/03/the-talk/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:11:09 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=247 By Frank Adams

My parents did not
talk about sex.
Mother could not say
out loud, bathroom
or toilet tissue.
She whispered them
as though
they were magic words.

No one questioned
the guys
I brought home.

No one said gay, queer, or
homosexual to my face.
And I volunteered nothing.
All of the time aware
they knew,
and whispered to one another
behind my back.

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Just Asking /2012/03/just-asking/ /2012/03/just-asking/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 14:10:47 +0000 tonymerevick /?p=245 By Frank Adams

Once, mother
asked me
if an older boy
was bothering me.

She didn’t mention sex,
but I suspected that was
what she was asking.

I said, no, he wasn’t
bothering me.  And
that was the truth.

I didn’t tell her
I wished the boy
would bother me.

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