By Scott Ross
I dislike him immediately.
As the sixth-grade best friend of one of my best friends, Michael is in some sense a rival. But what I detest is the arrogant superiority he wears like a second skin. Perpetually carrying a massive paperback edition of War and Peace I wonder if he ever actually reads, he disdains me as much as I loathe him. Knowing of my interest in cartoons, he accosts me once on the playground with a sneering, “Ah — Monsieur Mickey.” A few months later, his is the only name I recognize in the posted list for my upcoming 7th grade homeroom class. And against the odds we become inseparable.
Health-class this year includes sex education. After one late session, which covers V.D., Michael asks me to stay with him after class while he asks Mr. Newman a question.
Health is just before lunch. A good time to linger and speak to a teacher. When our classmates have all left, Michael asks Mr. Newman whether homosexuals can contract venereal disease. Mr. Newman assures him that they can. After we leave the classroom, I ask Michael why he brought that up. He doesn’t answer.
I’m not repulsed, or disgusted, or suspicious — merely puzzled. I’m also, sexually, not so much confused as misguided. Since I believe (as I had been taught) that men and women (or boys and girls) naturally gravitate together, it never quite occurs to me that anyone I might know would be any different — myself included. When I masturbate, I do so with pornographic cartoons I’ve drawn myself, despite one set having been discovered by my parents the year before. My drawings are utterly heterosexual, in that they contain both men and women. And anyway, it’s not the genitals per se that arouse me. It’s the sheer, trembling excitement of contemplating sex.
Yet that same year, and before Michael’s question to Mr. Newman, I find myself opening dictionaries and surreptitiously searching for the word “homosexual,” experiencing a nameless thrill at reading the definition “one attracted to his or her own sex,” and feeling something else, something I can’t pin down or put a name to. It’s only with time that I realize I am searching for my own identity in those dry, dusty pages — just as only the passing of years reveals to me why my infatuations are all with other boys: Bobby, Terry, Scooter.
And there’s something else. Despite a couple of close friends, I am deeply, agonizingly lonely, and that is what I believe (if I believe at all) these small obsessions are about.
By this time, through the machinations of some Board of Education members, who think (wrongly, as it turns out) the move will benefit their own children once the planned new school (which never materializes) is built, the local classes of 7th through 9th grades — what we then called junior high, and which is now referred to, curiously to me, as “middle school” — are divided into two districts, and split. One half of Garner will go here, the other there.
Michael is “here”; I am “there.”
While I see and speak to him over the telephone from time to time, I have the uneasy sense that our friendship has largely lapsed. And, despite a pair of very good friends — one of whom is still my best friend today — I am desperately unhappy: Taunted and abused by bullies of both sexes, and aching for something I cannot name. (In my 30s I will date the initial onset of what is now my chronic clinical depression to this period.)*
When my sophomore year begins, at the senior high school, and Michael and I are “reunited,” the happiest period of my academic life begins. In my need to cast off an identity I associate with unhappiness, I ask family and friends to call me by my middle name. The one I have gone through life so far with, “Tim,” has for the last year or so grated on my skin the way my clothing has when I briefly experience that odd, thankfully brief, stage in my physical development in which I have to get my trousers from the “Husky” section of the J.C. Penny boys’ department. Having always been thin, this development makes me feel acutely self-conscious. Curiously, and without any overt changes on my behalf, it ends as quickly and inexplicably as it begins, and I am my normal, skinny self again when 10th grade rolls around.
(Reading the preceding paragraph again I realize that my sudden weight-gain was not exactly “inexplicable.” In my 8th grade year, I was tormented, daily, on the bus ride home by a senior high school with the last name — I am not, as Anna Russell used to say, making this up — Raper. Being weak, and passive, and uncertain, and frightened, I took the abuse, silently. One afternoon as I was walking up the aisle to the exit, young Mr. Raper grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me, hard, against the side of the bus. I ran home where, coincidentally, Michael was waiting. As I was telling my mother what happened I suddenly burst into tears. All the silent rage and humiliation of a year’s worth of constant bullying came to a head in that moment, I think. In any case, I vowed I would never ride that bus again. And I never did. In the mornings my parents would drop me at the halfway point on their way to work and I walked the rest of the way. In the afternoons, I walked the entire way. Although the distance was only slightly over a mile, the twice-daily walk (in all weathers and conditions) must have made me ravenous. From the time I arrived home until my parents came home and dinner was prepared, I ate pretty much constantly. Anything. Cereal, cookies, apples, bananas, glasses of milk with thick spoonsful of honey or Nestlé’s chocolate. Whatever was available. While I almost certainly walked off much of that the following day… well… no wonder I had to get my clothes in Husky.)
During the summer following our junior year, I begin working for the food shop Michael’s father owns at the largest mall in Raleigh. One evening Michael asks me to stay the night with him, as we are expected, early the next morning, to get to the airport to pick up a package. I have never before slept in the same bed with anyone outside my immediate family, and then not since childhood. We’re wearing our briefs and nothing else, and as the night goes on I am acutely aware of Michael’s body beside mine. The next day I tell him that lying beside him gave me an erection.
The revelation makes Michael distinctly uncomfortable, but I press him on it, because my feelings are raw and new, perplexing and, to me, somewhat incomprehensible. Finally, a day or two later, he reveals himself to me but — typically of Michael — in a manner so ambiguous I’m as puzzled as I was before, if not more so; my naiveté about sex is as profound at 17 as it was at 12. Finally, at my urging, he becomes more explicit, telling me about his previous emotional and sexual attachments, which included both that mutual friend from sixth grade and, later, while I was exiled to the other school, a boy I did not like called Tony. A Demascan Road moment for me, in which I suddenly realize not only that I am gay but that he is as well, and that I love him in a way far different from the brotherly love our friendship has previously represented. The next few months are as rocky as any I’d known. For some reason — an uncomfortable awareness of feelings he doesn’t reciprocate? concern that he will be “tainted” by association? — Michael repeatedly discounts my identifying myself as gay when I say I am.
Two observations, by others, occur to me as distinctly applicable. In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal notes of the perfect complementarity of his boyhood love affair with Jimmy Trimble, “Everything I wasn’t he was, and everything he wasn’t, I was.” It was a phrase that seemed to leap off the page when I read it, placing Michael’s and my relationship in broad relief. The second is Stephen Sondheim’s encomium for his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein: “If he’d been a geologist, I would have become a geologist; I just wanted to be what he was.” When Michael converted to Catholicism at 16, I naturally followed suit. To paraphrase Sondheim, if Michael had converted to Judaism, I would have converted to Judaism. I just wanted to be what he was.
It is this new, self-imposed Catholic identity that drives the wedge between us at the last — that, and Michael’s own intense, warring guilt at being unable to reconcile his sexuality with his chosen religion. Through that autumn, as I struggle with both my Catechism and my increasingly obsessive feelings of love, my 15 year old’s depression recurs, and deepens, made all the more unbearable by Michael’s chiding of me for both; he sees what I now recognize as a major depressive episode as “brooding.” Prideful. A sin.
The split arrives courtesy of a two separate incidents that feed Michael’s own growing discontent.
The first occurs in the wee hours of a bitter January morning, just after my birthday. We have been to a late show, in Raleigh, of Midnight Cowboy (for which, curiously, Michael later blames what happened next; but then, Michael’s reasoning is, was and likely always will be curious.) After the movie, we go back to Michael’s home. His parents have converted one area of the downstairs den (previously the basement) into a bedroom, giving Michael more or less free access through an outside door. We have recently purchased a nickel bag of pot from my friend and theatre colleague Amy, which Michael now augments with Lowenbrau and vodka. (The vodka is for him; I could not, and still cannot, bear the taste of hard liquor, neat.) When we are both good and juiced, he suggests we go to a secluded place in the woods near him home and light up the weed. (Neither of us had ever smoked marijuana.) We stagger down the street in each other’s drunken arms, giggling, and he leads me to his “private spot,” deep in the surrounding woods. A friend has given me a pipe for Christmas and we use it to smoke the pot, passing it back and forth until we are well and truly buzzed, on top of already being blitzed.
Pot, I will discover, generally does two things to me, in succession: Makes me first amorous, then sleepy. Accordingly, I lay with my back to a pine tree and close my eyes. They fly open again when I realize that Michael is on top of me, kissing my lips. We roll together on the pine straw-strewn forest floor, somehow managing to remove our clothing in the process. (This is in January, please remember.) He lies on top of me and we belly-rub until we both ejaculate. What should be the joyous consummation of my fondest wish is irreparably sullied in one, careless moment, as Michael, in the throes of erotic passion, calls me Tony.
“It’s Scott, Michael,” is my feeble response.
(Years later, when I see From Here to Eternity, I will identify that moment with the end of the famous beach scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, which most people remember as a steamy romantic interlude but which actually ends with Lancaster’s cruelty driving Kerr away in humiliation.)
When we are both sated and reality, or some form of it, returns, Michael abruptly rises and clothes himself in cold silence. I am as puzzled by his shift in mood as I had originally been elated at our finally coming together. I am also, suddenly, aware of the temperature, and begin to shiver, my teeth chattering all the way home as Michael reluctantly leads me by the hand out of the woods. When we get back to his bedroom he immediately takes a shower as I sit nodding in a chair near the bathroom door. (In his typical, ineluctable manner, he’s just ordered me not to fall asleep, and in my stupor I think there must be some reason I shouldn’t. What do I know from marijuana? Maybe it’s dangerous to drowse after.) When he is finished I remove my contact lenses and we sleep.
When we awake next morning he coolly says he is going to Mass. I say I don’t feel up to it — I’m bleary, cotton-mouthed and, essentially, still drunk. He gives me a stony look and observes that I ought to go. I decline, and he drives me home. It is perhaps 7.00 in the morning. Before getting out of the car I ask him if he’ll call me later.
“Maybe,” is all he can manage.
My ecstasy has long since passed, but his coldness remains. When he does speak to me again that afternoon, he informs me in no uncertain terms that what has happened between us will not reoccur.
The second major incident begins with the brief memoir that is our first Psychology class assignment of the new semester. Mine is as unguarded as Michael’s is slippery, and our teacher, Miss Watkins, calls me into her office to discuss the paper, revealing that she’s already talked to Michael about the disparity between truth and fiction in his own. Since she is a very special woman, one of our two most beloved Senior year teachers, this intrusion bothers me far less than perhaps it might, or should, have. But the upshot is that Michael, with his usual flair for the over-dramatic, informs me coldly that I have brought about “a schism wider than the Reformation.” We are no longer friends. Period.
Sometime in the spring, Michael wins a current-events essay contest whose first prize is a trip to the U.N. At the time of his visit I am busily engaged as stage manager for the spring musical. (The advent of which he uses as an excuse to get rid of my presence in his father’s store.) I am taken aback one afternoon late in the spring when he appears at the stage door and asks to see me. We go into the drama director’s office and he tells me how, while in New York, he has seen A Chorus Line on Broadway and has been so moved by the gay dancer Paul’s monologue it has forced him to confront the truth about himself. He apologizes for his behavior, we embrace, and the sides of the “schism” blend into the earth once more.
Sex and love are two separate things with Michael — at least where I am concerned. While he loves me, he is never in love with me. The distinction — which to his credit he never conceals —allows him to engage in sex with me, off and on, for the next two years. But it leaves me as unrequited, as uncertain of myself, and as self-conscious of what I see as my physical imperfections as I had been that cold January morning.
Michael and I are on-again/off-again for some time — and always at his whim. I know now (and I knew then) that I permit his sexual usury. But my self-regard is so low, and my love for him so high, I follow whenever he beckons. Something in me, aside from simple biological need on his part, must be at work, but more than once he tells me he is simply not physically attracted to me. This instills, quite naturally a belief in myself that I am irredeemably unattractive. Now, when I see photos of the boy who was me at 18, 19, 20 I think, What a cute kid. Which thought is usually followed by, Why did no one ever tell him that?
Alas, when I look into a mirror now I see — as I did then — only flaws, with, now, an addition: The cruel gravity of middle age.
There is more to the story, but it’s less important than the primal fact of it. Although he could be, not deliberately but instinctively cruel, and damaging to my fragile ego, and while his body excited me (especially clothed, which doubtless makes little sense; but to me, Michael’s bubble-like ass never looked better, or more alluring, than when encased in tight corduroy) what I loved most about Michael was that I had more fun with him than with anyone else. He could be marvelously silly, in an impromptu fashion that did not eschew the ridiculous pleasures of slapstick — seeming to crash head-first against the nearest wall was a particular delight for him. It was this as much as anything that led me to cast him in my first play, which was performed at the senior high that year. He was terrible. He was certainly no actor; whatever divine inspiration overtook him in his life off the stage he simply could not channel in performance.
In Palimpsest, Vidal also maintains, apropos his young self and Jimmy, that one is lucky ever to find love, and that having found it once, one should not expect no encore.
I was never in love before I fell for Michael, and I don’t know that I will ever again experience such staggering depth of feeling for anyone else. At least, I haven’t so far. I realize of course that adolescence expands the contours of everything it touches. Love is bigger, fuller, more passionate, more intense — and when it goes awry, more devastating — at 18 than it can ever be again, especially when that love is one’s first.
Interestingly, I have no photographs of Michael. The only one I ever took — of him sleeping in my bed, naked under the sheets — did not come out when I took the film in to be developed. That’s weirdly appropriate, I think — the perfect metaphor for phantom desire.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
*I misspoke. My first encounter with “the mean reds,” as Capote called it, was when I broke my wrist at age 6 or 7.