Homosexuals, according to Jeff's straight friend George, have always been exceptional readers, but in fact only recently have we actually been writers, homosexual writers, so at the present we still read better than we write.
"Most fags are boring as straight people -- they start businesses with lovers and end up in Hollywood, Florida, with dogs and doubleknit slacks, and I have no desire to write about them," wrote Andrew Holleran's narrator in Dancer From The Dance. All for the best since the double-knit slacked businessmen in Florida are not readers. They may read. That very book which excludes them in its preface may sit on a walnut-finished bookshelf; they may have read it in the summer of 1983 laying out on a beach blanket in the backyard with a pitcher of Long Island ice teas. But they are not Readers in that larger cosmological sense by which, in the same way others divide the world into Homo- and Heterosexual, George and Jeff divide the world into Readers and Non-Readers.
"English and Math," George says, correcting the proper terms for this divide of consciousness. "By the time you're in junior high school, you know whether you're English or Math: You make your choice.
"Most people are Math. I'm not saying they like math, or necessarily are good at math. It's the promise of math that gets them. Math's an abstraction, we both know that, a series of arbitrary symbols, a series of postulates and theorems which can't be proven except by self-reference. But how does math present itself? As truth, as readily understandable objective truth: All you've got to do is learn to do it."
George fumbles for a moment, selecting examples to clarify his thoughts. "Galileo, Da Vinci, Einstein." He pauses. "The great math radicals of history. They could see something else in that system, something potential." He coughs a little. "They put Galileo in jail. When Einstein was in grammar school they thought he was retarded.
"People want to know, to know things for sure, and that's what Math gives them, even if what they know for sure is they're going to be assistant manager of a Dairy-Mart, have a fertile wife who was their tenth grade girlfriend, and live half a mile from their parents."
And Jeff says, "So what's English?"
George falls back in his chair, exhausted. "Don't be an idiot, man." His arm lolls over the edge of the low seat, fingers dragging on the rug. "You know what English is."
This is New York: Jeff and George are both twenty-two and have fled here from disparate circumstances. George's father was a petty diplomat, and he's lived in Tokyo, Ottawa, Laos, Chevy Chase; George and his family parted ways as his father was reassigned to Bucharest after the fall of the iron curtain. Jeff's from the country outside Baltimore, a town where his family's lived for nearly two centuries while neatly avoiding the distinction of gentility. He went to a high school with the indecorous name of Cowtown, in recognition of the area's wealth of dairy farms.
"When I was seventeen or eighteen," Jeff recalls, "I'd decided that I'd never felt loved or approved of by my father, and because of that I was destined to search for love and approval from other men." Jeff sits in a chair like a contortionist, right foot under left buttock, elbow on knee, head tilted forty-five degrees. "It was a combination of bad psychotherapy, Gay Studies -- and the realization that five foot six blonde pretty boys couldn't, even on the most subconscious level, represent my father -- that convinced me otherwise. I haven't replaced it with a new theory or anything. I've just gotten to the point where it's okay for me to say I don't have any clue why people are gay, if it even makes sense to say that particular 'people' are 'gay' which, again, I'm not sure of.
"Freudian psychology says that homosexuality is a developmental stage that should be outgrown, replaced by 'normal' genital heterosexuality. Well, I liked to wear my sisters' and my mother's clothes when I was little, and I liked to pretend I was a girl. Needless to say, I learned quickly what society thought about that." Jeff quickly downs the rest of a glass of iced tea, the amber liquid swirling in the bottom of the glass.
"I assumed for the longest time that I did that, played with dresses and all, because I was a prepubescent homosexual. That as soon as I was mature enough to think of sexuality as sex, I stopped and thought of myself as gay instead of a failed girl. I've matured to genital homosexuality, understand?"
Jeff stuffs his hand into the tight pocket of his jeans, pulling out a crushed pack of Camel Filters. "Still nobody talks about this. I've talked about it with my gay friends and all, and some of them did the same things. But maybe some boys who are straight did too. We don't talk about that." It takes one, two, three matches before his cigarette is lit. "It was a part of me that was taken from me before I knew how to think about it."
Jeff was a textbook case of gender identification disorder, Yale psychiatrist Robert Green's "sissy boy."
"Oh, fuck that." Jeff inhales deeply while adjusting the rubber band of his pony-tail, his sublimated femininity. "Actually, it's not the least bit sublimated. What's femininity anyhow? Are you one of those gender reifiers? I have long hair because I couldn't have it when I was little.
"I wore dresses, for sure. I had one that was blue with a gingham apron, just like Dorothy Gale, which is the closest I've ever come to a Judy Garland fixation, by the way -- but I had to wear hats, play wigs, I could never get the hair."
Jeff places the cigarette in a glass ashtray, one he'd taken from his grandparents' house: It bears a family crest etched, in mirror-image, on the bottom. "I don't want to be a woman. Or a drag queen. It was never something I did for attention, to get people to look at me. I did it for myself."
"People say that gay men act effeminate because society sees men who sleep with men as effeminate. I hadn't slept with anyone when I was three fucking years old, okay? I didn't cross my legs too high up in grade school to receive all the lovely attention I got from it." Jeff's body is curved elegantly in the armchair, an elegance that a twenty-two year old body might possess that an underweight eight year old surely wouldn't. "I let it be driven out of me, first by my parents and the straight people around me, and second by gay boys spouting bullshit about men loving men as equals, meaning you have to act like a 'man'."
"I mean, who the fuck wants to act like a 'man,' anyhow?" He turns in the direction of his silent friend, sprawled on the springy couch. "George, you want to act like a 'man?'"
George stirs only slightly, like the famous dormouse. "If I acted like a 'man,' I'd have to date a girl who acted like a 'woman."'
"As it is, George doesn't date much of anyone. My friend Kendra, incidentally, on hearing of an activist group called Men of Color With Men of Color, proclaimed herself founder and sole member of her own group, 'Girls of Color With Nobody of No Color.' There's a sex drain among New Yorkers around our age. Nobody's getting laid."
"People are getting laid," George protests. "It's just not us."
"Well, I won't say I have better things to do," Jeff says, "but I manage fine without it, most of the time. I'm going through a period of recovery. The guys I've been with in the last two years have thought either I'm too radical or too conservative. I'm not conservative, certainly, but I'll also say I'm no radical, at least not in narrowly defined terms, I'm a left-winger, certainly. Radical means 'root', however, so strictly speaking, a radical gay perspective would be one that saw a dichotomy of sexuality as the fundamental human difference. And not even being sure of the categories of 'gay' and 'straight,' I can't be a gay radical."
"He's a radical English," George offers.
"I'm a historical materialist," Jeff corrects him.
"You're a historical materialist wanna-be, buddy." George puts on his black-framed glasses. "Call me back when you've read more than a fucking Marx anthology."
"I may not have read a lot of Marx," Jeff confides, "but I'm up on contemporary theory. Anyhow, I don't believe in sexuality as a natural category. Which makes me ideologically incompatible with most people." George and Jeff share an apartment on the barely gentrified fringes of Brooklyn's Park Slope: one floor of a 1870s brownstone, with fifteen-foot ceilings, picture moldings and marble mantelpieces, and three rubbish-heap upholstered chairs, which sit in the center of the main room like a miniature Stonehenge.
From the child psychology books he surreptitiously thumbed through (mostly cruising for anatomy illustrations) and from Donahue episodes he caught on the days he pretended to be sick, Jeff acquired a halfhearted fear that his mother would accidentally burst into his room and find him in her silver-and-aqua empire waisted ball gown with her rose plum lipstick and charcoal blue eye shadow, his shaggy brown hair fluffed up with a mothball-scented quail-feather ornament he'd stolen from her cedar chest. This fear, plus the feel of the stiff fabric smelling of Evening in Paris, got Jeff aroused; he'd invariably jerk off, naked save for a strand of pearls and pantyhose rolled around his knees, stroking his body in front of the mirror, the dress neatly draped across the baby blue quilt on his bed.
Every year, around September or October, Jeff's father would need to have new suits made. When Jeff was three or four, and his father spent the summer away in Charlottesville, getting a master's degree in business administration, it was only one suit, a gray moderate weight generally appropriate year-round. By the time Jeff was ten and eleven, his father could afford four new suits made up annually. Jeff was permitted to choose the lining. Thus, at age 15 when he helped his mother pack up his dead father's closet, dividing the suits into three pile -- Consignment, Goodwill, or Keep for Jeff -- he could date them by the silky fabrics inside the jackets. Orange and Blue polka-dots, circa 1974; Horse and Riders on blue silk, circa 1980, a visual history of Jeff's developing taste.
The ones he kept required considerable taking in, and Jeff just wore them for fun, mostly; the pants, if you pleated the waist, would fit fine, but the jackets were always still too big, and those pieces were too complicated to readjust on his mother's sewing machine.
Jeff was just starting to appreciate suits by 1985, when his father died, but he'd always liked clothes. His mother's everyday clothes, wraparound skirts, turtlenecks, or, when she was young and her husband owned only a few suits, a homemade blue house dress with red gingham trim -- these he knew intimately but never thought about. The dresses she kept either at the back of her wardrobe or in a box in the basement, these were the ones Jeff coveted.
He was thirteen or so before he was actually left alone in the house with those dresses, and he waited twenty minutes after the tail lights had disappeared from the driveway before running downstairs and making his selection.
"I was also beginning to read at that age," Jeff explains, "that is, novels and such. I'd put away my books on mummies and the kings and queens of England, which I'd initially liked for the paintings of dresses anyhow. There were three things I learned from his cursory readings of American literature; that teenage American boys were all straight, but indulged in painful platonic relationships; that they were all white protestant and upper-class," Jeff raises his eyebrows, smiling. "And they all attended eastern boarding schools which I promptly aspired to, soon as I figured out where some were." Even at fifteen, Jeff was never naive enough to suppose that these were the only boys that existed, but it did seem they were the only literary kind of boys, the only boys worth writing about, if one was to write.
Jeff's Art teacher was Mr. Freedman, a hippie Burl Ives who had pulled out his teeth with a pair of pliers when he was fourteen, he claimed, because there was nothing else to do in his tiny Pennsylvania hometown which was even smaller than Cowtown. Mr. Freedman had seen an intriguing denture advertisement in the newspaper that inspired his self-surgery. He clicked the plates around in his mouth, audibly, in the pause after the story. He believed there was always some out for frustration, whether it was artistic creation or self-mutilation.
["A lesson I've learned well," Jeff affirms. "Each of these holes," he tugs on his ornamented earlobes, "are detoured suicide attempts. There's five of them, see?"]
-- which lead to Freedman's other famous saying: Putting two fingers together, letting out a high-pitched squeak one could not have expected from his stout innards, he'd say, "This is the world's tiniest violin playing 'My Heart Bleeds For You."' Romantic troubles, tension at home, lost homework, creative block: Mr. Freedman's heart would bleed for you, sometimes on the world's smallest record player rather than the violin.
He let Greg Heeler make, as his ceramics project, what definitely turned into more of a bong each class period. Jeff was vaguely frightened of drugs (then), and drug users, and being in a class with a known stoner caused him a bit of anxiety. Kristen Eckert, a teased-up blonde in pretty pink and blue sweaters, sneered at Jeff across her desk, "Doesn't he know what that is?" Jeff gave the half-smile and shrug he used to steer clear of potentially difficult conflicts. Greg grinned a rat-like smile from underneath his long, shiny hair, leaning back in his chair in admiration of his finished product. "That's wonderful," said Mr. Freedman, rocking rhythmically, hands on hips. "Beautiful lines. And it's so smooth, so symmetrical, I can't believe you've never worked in clay before." His thick sausage fingers ran over the mouth of the tube, gently, in admiration, until that horrible moment when he shifted his weight onto that arm. The clay oozed in turd-like filaments through his separated fingers.
Freedman's high, tittering laugh emerged. "Oops!" He drew back, shocked. "Well, it's just as well, considering. Couldn't let it be said I let students make paraphernalia." Greg's mouth dropped, and the hair fell from his eyes as he raised his head in amazement; they were small, wet, blue -- Jeff had never seen them exposed before. "Mr. Freedman..."
"Squeak. Squeak." His back was turned, walking away. "My Heart Bleeds For You, Greg." Freedman's cynical silliness was funny, but also fearful. He'd sometimes forget he was dealing with children, and accidentally stomp an ego, or set off a bitter rivalry in the midst of the fragile alliance that was Studio Art Three. Greg was a mean stoner boy who told stories about tying cats to clotheslines by their tails and making them fight, burying them to their necks in the dirt and running over them with the lawn mower, or, most classically, sticking a firecracker up a fat tom's asshole.
["My grandfather told me the same story when I was little," Jeff notes, "in his green vinyl easy chair. Except he called it a nickel firework. Rednecks are evil, by the way."]
In junior high school Greg hung small nerdy boys by their shirts on coat racks. Jeff's deskmate Steve was exactly that kind of small nerdy boy, with enough of a social persona to necessitate his hanging on a coat rack. Jeff was too big and mostly reclusive and no one since seventh grade had taken it upon themselves to single him out for degradation. He was the silent, non-member of the class, and only the occasional studied insertion of meaningless but ambiguously obvious symbolism into his drawings gave him a character: Jeff was inscrutably deep, a true artist.
This story hinges on the substitution of conceptualization for experience. This is not the lot of every gay teenager, though it does tend to produce adults who in their turn provide the concepts for the next generation. Jeff was a Reader; had learned how to understand his sexuality in terms of isolation, of misunderstanding, and by analogy, thought of himself as an artist. If I were to describe Jeff as painfully self-aware, that would imply a state of being, a quality of his person, and that is not what I mean to describe; self-awareness, in this case, is a mode of thinking, not an objective quality, a bad habit of reflecting on all possible choices of action and asking the metaphysical question, "what does this mean?" as if one can supply the answer. As such, it reflects self-consciousness which, at its root, springs from embarrassment.
Jeff was silently amazed by his deskmate Steve. He was a geek. This was plain to see, and not just as a cruel taunt from the preppie girls or redneck boys. Underweight, clownish looking in baggy clothes with the bright Memphis patterns of the early-mid-eighties, with a round, pimply face and bulbous little nose. Irritatingly persistent sense of humor. But Steve was not aware that he was a geek. In fact, Jeff discovered, he regarded himself as a founding figure and leader of Cowtown's alternative scene. Jeff didn't quite know what exactly an alternative scene was, but gathered it had something to do with wearing big boots, stealing your father's big gray overcoat, and buying records, which was something Jeff hadn't discovered yet.
["And god help us all when I finally did!"]
And while Steve was this scene's princeling, his best friend Trey, who occasionally wandered into the class and sat down, receiving only a scornful raised eyebrow from Freedman, was its undisputed king.
Trey wore earrings in both ears. His blond hair was long on the crown of his egg-shaped head and shaved on the sides. He wore a leather jacket and black boots. Jeff's home room was filled with sociable preppie boys whose executive fathers had moved them from near Baltimore to one of the superficially stately executive developments that had, in Jeff's short lifetime, come to dominate these northern farmlands, and these boys kindly informed Jeff that Trey Baloux was, simply, a big fag.
"You wanna go out with me tonight?' Steve asked Jeff as he stood in front of his open locker, his classmates wondering why on earth any senior'd be talking to him, even a geeky, outcast senior. Punks hung out in downtown Towson, the county seat, in the parking lot of the Burger King. There was no larger scene to hook up with, no downtown teenage friends with garage bands for them to copy. Jeff couldn't even skateboard so he was left out of that aspect.
Jeff sat on the trunk of Steve's Toyota, the minimal lights of Towson illuminating the unauthorized night life of Burger King's back lot, and soaked up stories of building skateboard ramps. "Man, My dad pulled down that quarter-pipe Mike'n I'd spent all last summer building," Brent, a wiry boy who looked just like the pictures of California skaters in magazines, was saying. At about ten-thirty, a murmur spread among the thirty or so boys and scattered punk girls. Almost spontaneously, or at least without a conscious understanding of the chain of cause and effect, the crowd leaders systematically instituted a massive roundups of boards and sticks that Jeff reluctantly took part in, for the impending rumble
["like the Mods and the Rockers on Brighton beach"]
-- between themselves and the heavy metal kids in their muscle cars.
"Here, take this." Steve handed Jeff a two-by-four with two rusty nails on the end, and he ended up cradling it in his arms all night, too nervous to throw it away, but praying to God that nothing would happen, that the red Nova would never come back down Allegheny Avenue. A white Volkswagen Rabbit, plastered with bumper stickers of the "Jodie Foster's Army" and "Bones" variety as well as orange and black spray paint, sped into the parking lot, squealing to a stop. Two boys jumped out, nervous with excitement and enthusiasm; one was Steve's friend Matt, a jovial, perpetually stoned Mormon with a wave of oily black hair that hung in his face. He'd ridden Jeff's school bus to elementary school, carrying a grotesquely large brown trombone case, and looked the same now as then, except his prodigious baby fat had turned into a round-faced cuteness. The other boy was tall, thin, clad in torn up knee length khakis with tall combat boots, torso unnaturally bulky with a black leather jacket. He twisted his head about as if smelling the air and a pouf of strawberry blonde trailed in slow-motion, settling back over one side of his head. His head was too big for his neck.
"Trey!" Steve yelled, dropping the shortish pipe that would have been no use in fighting anyhow. "C'mon man. Those guys in the red Nova are fucking with us again."
"Man," he said, puckering his lower lip and blowing away the slightly starched wisp of hair that floated near his face. "They're not going to fight us." He leaned his butt back against the closed car door. "They're just driving around, looking for something to do. There's nothing to do." Then, without moving his gaze, which was directed towards Steve, he noticed Jeff off to one side. "Hey Mr. Artist." Trey acknowledged him with a slight tilt of his chin.
Trey owned the only black leather jacket in Jeff's high school. He'd had it for a couple years, or else had bought it used -- maybe more likely, considering how new this fashion was to Cowtown -- and the gray lining hung inside it like tattered fur. Whenever Trey left it hanging on the back of chair or on a table in the art room, Jeff would slip it on as if he were imitating Trey, as if he was mocking him really, sure of Trey's ultimately farcical essentiality. Meanwhile, he inhaled the entirely memorable odor the jacket contained, impressed enough to suppose that the ripe, complicated smell was a combination of Trey's armpits and moldy leather.
["It was Drakkar Noir, actually." There's an almost wistful look in Jeff's eyes. "Plus a minute personal variable, of course."]
And it was about this time when Jeff, left alone in his isolated clapboard house, tried on torn fishnets, black makeshift skirts he'd shortened himself, and dramatic red and black makeup. He imagined that in this outfit he could slip into a dimly lit downtown club and pass as a punkette. He might have been able to, actually, if he'd though of a way to get there.
Jeff's mind felt pretty blank as he began his weekly sketch book assignment, alone in the art room during C lunch. Standing in by the blackboard, He placed the open 18 by 24 sketchpad on the chalk ledge. Jeff traced the contours of an oblong head, the divisive angle of a line of hair falling across the face. He rapidly filled in the body, got to the spindly legs, disappearing into exaggeratedly huge boot tops. Jeff drew over the skeleton with red and black magic markers; the caricature of Trey emerged from the page. A black-edged bubble emerging from his mouth. "It's like, Hardcore...like, you know, Anarchy...like Punk Rock... You know, Hardcore."
"Does that look like Trey?" Jeff wondered with an acceptably passable ignorance in critique the next day. "I wasn't thinking about him." In subsequent drawings, Jeff reduced Trey's visage to a reproducible formula.
An exaggerated oblong formed his head proper.
Two lines, set close together, was his neck.
Two big dots, eyes; two littler dots, nostrils.
Tiny horizontal line, a mouth.
Squiggle at the top, that piece of hair that fell along his forehead.
A half circle, the t-shirt neck.
Two large shark fins, a diamond. Tiny triangles on the shoulder, Trey's jacket.
A lightning bolt and skull earring dangling from the left ear.
This formula without fail created an unmistakable and obvious portrait of Trey Baloux. Jeff improvised a form of printmaking from mimeograph sheets and a clay burnisher, did a Trey Baloux, rubbed it out forty times on a sheet of watercolor paper. The first sheet Jeff colored au natural, pink for the skin, orangey for the hair, blue-black for the jacket. The next sheet he tried random colorization. Sometimes Trey's skin would be blue, green, pink, the jacket yellow, red, black. He did it on colored sheets of paper. He made six-inch high versions of the Trey stamps and filled a sheet of hundred-percent rag gray charcoal paper with eight big Treys. "That's me," Trey would say, in admiration of the reproduction of his image, his pride drowning out any potential apprehension over why Jeff might be creating this series.
"Why are you fascinated with him? Do you want to be him? What's the deal?" Mr. Freedman stood, hands on the hips of his round body. "All I know is I'm sick to death of seeing Trey Baloux's bony face."
"Don't know why you like him," Kristen muttered. "He's such a fag."
"Hey. Hey!" Freedman gave her chair a hard rap as he waddled by.
"Wanna go down to Club Unknown with us tonight?" Trey asked as Jeff sprawled out on his huge amorphous bed, an ordinary double mattress on milk crates plus the wandering forms of sheets, quilt, pillows, underwear, and loose cassettes. Club Unknown was in the basement of a community college's student center, and cost three dollars to get in. "A guy I know is deejaying tonight and's gonna play cool shit."
"Okay," Jeff said. An alternative to reading The Red Pony for English class on Monday. Trey threw his t-shirt on the bed near Jeff's ankles, and stood motionless for a moment, his pointy red nipples like buttons on his pale and well-ribbed chest. When he dropped his pants Jeff looked at him sort of, to show that he wasn't concerned with Trey's impending nakedness, but he also looked at other potential objects of interest; his Clash albums, his BMX bike posters. Jeff positioned the angle of his head so that Trey's pelvis area was at the periphery of his vision, and without evidently moving his eyes, got a good look at Trey's cock, fringed by a sparse ring of orangish hair, as he slipped out of his boxer shorts and hung them on the arm of his chair. Jeff got hard against the mattress as Trey stooped to pick up an undoubtedly smelly bathtowel off the floor. He sat on the bed next to Jeff for a moment while he picked up and looked at tapes, before making his choice and inserting it in the stereo. In the blank before the music, he turned the volume hard to the right and strolled into the bathroom.
Underneath the wailings of Nina Hagen, Jeff listened to the shower pelt Trey's body, or splash loudly when he moved in the stall. He could smell moldy traces of crotch and lint in the grayed underwear scattered around him. Slowly he rubbed himself against the mattress, just a little. When he heard the water stop, he pulled his cock straight up and put the head under the waistband of his shorts so it wouldn't stick out. He pretended to ignore the reverse strip act, until Trey had a pair of black jeans thoroughly on and was starting on his socks. He smelled like cheap green stick deodorant and the hair under his arms was plastered into shiny wet spikes. He combed his hair straight back so that the rough edges of the long parts stuck out like a ledge over the darker stubble of the shaved back portion of his head.
"Cowtown didn't have a wealth of opportunities." Jeff is getting dressed to run to the store -- "tea bags and ciggie butts. He thrusts his feet into stiff leather boots that come up a little over the ankles, and he wears these with red and white socks. Jeff has his hair loose now, and it hangs just to his shoulders, one length, chestnut brown, like the hair his grandfather claims to have had before it fell out because of the Vaseline he used to slick it straight. "Trey wasn't actually gay, of course. Even though people said he was a fag and all. He actually got laid quite a bit. More than most of the jock guys. I don't think he had a clue why I liked him. And he never was very personal in his friendship with me."
"And that's a lucky thing," says George, "you sicko." And aside: "Imagine what he would have done if he'd actually found someone to go along with his literary fantasies."
Trey's Volkswagen was packed: him, Deedee, and Brent in the front seats, Jeff, Steve, and Mary and her brother Willie, whom Jeff had met a couple times, Mary being an Unknown regular, in the back. Jeff's legs were pressed up against the back of Deedee's seat, his scuffed red kneecaps sticking out through the dark blue plaid of his pants. Trey was bitching at the backseaters for attempting to smoke and use the ashtray, which was located on the stick-shift island between the front seats. Willie had his head laying on the top of the seat, looking up, upside down from the rear window, watching the buildings of Charles Street grow progressively taller from that vantage.
"For Christ's sake, Rats, you can relax," Willie said, sitting up finally. Rats was the nickname he'd come up with, after the worn out fox stole Jeff'd bought in Georgetown because it matched his fake hair color. "You don't have to sit all squished up like that." He roughly grasped Jeff's leg right above the knee, pulled it from its locked position. "That's better?" He nodded, an elfin leer from his nearly bald head with its fringe of blond mohawk. Jeff nodded back with an idiot smile, and looked out the window.
Trey parked the car in the back lot of a business, in what looked to Jeff to be a seedier area of Baltimore, though only because he'd never before seen it at night. The lot next to this one featured a loudspeaker which blared, in a masculine computer voice, "This is private property ... Do not park your vehicle here ... it will be towed away ... this is private prop ..."
"Lock your doors," Trey insisted, and marched haughtily down the ally to Maryland Avenue. Jeff was briefly shocked; He saw no nightclub, only closed-up storefronts, and a trio of shadowy homeless men congregating on the far street corner.
"Have you been here before?" Jeff asked no one in particular, but it turned out he was asking Mary, who was closest. Brent and Deedee held hands and rowdily bounced back and forth between the storefronts and the curb, and Steve and Willie produced the wailings of play-fights about a block back. Trey had walked directly to an aluminum painted warehouse door, and was knocking on it.
"Yeah," said Mary, as the door opened, setting free dance music and slivers of red light on the sidewalk. "It's pretty fun."
Jeff had been to underage night at Maxwell's, a suburban singles bar, and felt oppressed by the high school jocks who felt compelled to point out that Jeff's socks didn't match, as if they were still in their territory and outcast teenagers should respond appropriately to their presence. Jeff stared his nasty stare at them; Didn't they realize? Here we were the boss, the cool kids. Trey dancing in between two girls grinding their miniskirted pelvises against his bony butt. Bottle blonde Deedee fighting off an assortment of beautiful skater boys, the same Deedee who had fake bloody maxi pads stuck to her locker door with notes that read, "fucking ugly bitch." And Jeff, sitting on top of a four-foot high speaker in black shorts, army boots, black turtleneck and red and gold bathrobe, flicking the butts of his Dunhill cigarettes onto the dance floor, acting as world-weary as he could manage with freshly dyed auburn hair hanging at the ordained length -- covering the eyes. Trey got into a couple fights at Maxwell's, just wimpy touch-tag games in the parking lot, basically, and Maxwell's was cut off the list. But the Cygnet was legendary, a name with an aura of forbidden stuff.
["It was," says Jeff, "a cheesy gay juice bar that opened up once a week to underage kids."]
Deedee and Steve dropped its name regularly, and Jeff never right out said he'd never been there.
Jeff stepped into the entrance cubicle of Cygnet as Trey argued with the doorman; apparently there was one too many people for his guest allowance. So they crowded around the little desk the man was sitting at
["An obviously gay man, pushing thirty and probably not too thrilled about the new kind of clientele"]
and Willie slipped behind them, onto the dance floor. The walls of the place were flat black, inscrutably dark, and the carpeting was bright red and black in an immense diamond pattern. Willie waved at Jeff from the edge of the dance pit. The doorman counted them again, got confused, let them go in, and the layout became apparent. Astonishing. A wooden dance floor was set down like a mini-roller rink, around which ran a carpeted platform with spotlighted precipices on which the especially vain could dance.
"And that's where Trey went straightaway." Jeff laughs in recollection. "He had this peculiar dance he always did where he bent his knees, stuck out his rear end behind him, and jogged his arms and shoulders like a clock from the four o'clock to eight o'clock positions, bouncing his head in rhythm to the music." On his feet, Jeff demonstrates, quite naturally. "It was the first dance I'd ever learned. I wasn't very light on my feet, I was used to doing the little stick your feet out in rhythm, bounce slightly, don't move your arms or butt, what my friend Kirsten called 'the straight boy dance.' Don't know why I went out dancing back then, 'cause I didn't like to; the next summer, when I went on a program to Paris, me and my friends slipped out to go to La Piscine (a club which was supposed to be extremely hip at the time, like the Palladium in New York or something -- it was an old bathhouse, hence the name), and when I danced, I imitated Trey. But nobody knew that's what I was doing." Jeff shrugs. "And that's how I began to dance, a year later, on a different continent."
Willie elevated himself onto a black metal grid that towers over the floor, and pumped up and down on it, as if seeking to leap off but unaccountably restrained to this roost. Someone else thought he looks threateningly like he'd jump onto the dancers below, one of the bouncers unfortunately. Willie was a bit much for that place, his approximation of an angry young man too believable. Jeff saw his scrawny legs hanging in mid-air for a second, tangled in the sleeves of the plaid shirt tied around his hips, and he decided not to-- kick the bouncer? climb up higher? Whatever was in his head, he simply jumped down onto the platform into the hostile embrace of the bouncer, with whom he walked into the darkness of the bar.
Jeff was not having fun. There was nobody to talk to.
["This was the attitude that got me, and still gets me, labeled a killjoy."]
Jeff was wearing ripped up blue plaid pants, part of a suit of his father's circa 1978, a black tank top, his sprout of dyed red curls not in the least dampened by sweat. "Willie must be bored," Jeff figured, "so I'll go hang out with him."
"Hey Rats," he said as Jeff cautiously peeked out the club door, not wanting to be kept out if he didn't see Willie. He was settled down on the stoop of a hardware store a few yards away.
"They throw you out?" Jeff asked.
"They don't like me there." He took the last drag of his cigarette, a Pall Mall. "I slammed there once and I guess it was really uncool. They're pretty uptight and all, 'cause of all the old people." Most of the club's clientele was late twenties, hip urban professional.
Jeff sat down next to him in the low lights of the streetlamps.
"Is Trey still dancing in there?" He folded up his knees, placed his white-haired arms on top of them, his chin on top of that. "Yeah." Jeff pulled out a red-and-gold pack of cigarettes, pulled one out and noticed the gesture of his mouth, open, tongue slightly protruding, eyes fixed on Jeff's hand. Jeff gingerly placed the filter end on the exposed pink lining of his bottom lip. His mouth shut on it like a trap. Jeff removed a second cigarette for himself, and lit them with his father's silver zippo.
"Thanks." Willie laughed, taking the first drag. "Yeah. Trey likes to dance." He untied the shirt from around his waist, draped it over his shoulders, like an old woman. His mohawk, nine inches of fine yellow hair, lay on Jeff's side of his face, silk over stubble, with the shell-like edge of his ear poking through. "How'd you meet Trey?" He blew smoke effortlessly in dual plumes from his nose.
"We go to school together."
"Cowtown?" He snorted, then coughed, his frame vibrating. "Man that place's beat." Willie's from Lutherville, more suburban, infinitesimally less beat. "Yeah, Trey and Steve've talked about you. You ought to come out with us more."
"Remember when we went to Georgetown during Energy Week, last February?"
"That was you?" He scrunched up his nose. "Yeah, I guess that was you. Looked pretty normal then though."
"I've never been particularly normal."
"Well, join the club. I know the difference between looking and being."
Jeff let his shoulders slump, just a little.
"This time last year," Willie told him, "I looked pretty straight myself."
"You know. Uptight, normal." He cocked his head. "What'd'ja think I meant?" Jeff sat uncomfortably in his scuffed penny loafers, his rear end cold against the cement. "Did you think I mean, like, straight versus gay?"
"No," said Jeff, with finality.
"I don't think I look very gay." Jeff looked at Willie quizzically. Willie laughed. Jeff didn't.
Willie stopped laughing, the kind of cutoff you give a laugh when you realize you're telling a joke about death to someone whose mother just died, or, maybe, when you're telling a joke with a dirty punchline to someone's parents that you thought were hip, but whose faces are turning sourer the further along you get. "And I'm not," Willie said, in nervous humor, "very gay."
"I'm not very gay either," Jeff added in seriousness. Willie wore a severe, melancholy expression, then laughed outright, retreated back into moribundity, only to break into an irrepressible smile again.
"The young homosexual is especially adept at recognizing others like himself," Willie repeated.
"What?" Jeff asked, bewildered, before sensing the presence of irony.
["And Americans can't tell the difference between irony and sarcasm anyhow," says George.]
"Oh, yeah." Willie scrutinized Jeff's expression. "You're scared shitless, aren't you?"
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No." His hand rubbing the stubble of his head. "Where do you get boyfriends in Baltimore?"
"Have you ever kissed a boy?"
"If I'd kissed a boy," Willie's face was towards the sky, "I'd probably consider him my boyfriend."
"Do you think Trey's gay?" Jeff asked him, idly rubbing his chin with his hand.
"Oh please." Willie turned his head, his warm and slightly rank breath in Jeff's face. "Trey fucks more girls than you or I'd know what to do with. Trey is such a straight boy." Jeff looked dead ahead, into the black roadway, glistening with glass fragments. He rubbed his hands along his bare upper arms. "You cold?" Grabbing the sleeve of his flannel shirt, he balled it up in his lap. Taking it by the shoulders, he laid it across Jeff's back, patting it on. He left his hand there.
"Willie, I want to go back in."
"You want to go back in the club?" Jeff nodded. "You do
like me, kinda?"
"I don't want to sit on the street."
Letting the weight of his feet ballast him upwards, Willie stood erect and extended his hand down to Jeff. He stood up, the top of Willie's head came just to his chin. The stripe of blonde hair formed a perfect line down the center of his skull. They walked the half block to Cygnet's door. Willie dropped Jeff's hand, which Jeff hardly noticed he'd been holding. It felt moist, then cold in the free air. "You'll see me again, okay?' Willie said.
Inside the club, Trey was dancing with an older black woman who was probably an office worker by day; Tonight, she was a svelte creature of the night, shimmying with a nineteen year old white boy, and she'd turn and smile at her two friends, dancing more decorously with men their own age. Deedee and Mary were drinking red punch, spiked out of a little bottle Mary'd had in her purse. Brent and Steve chatted up some awfully well made up thirteen year olds, compatible in size, though Deedee threw Brent disapproving looks when she thought about it. Willie tugged on Mary's arm. "Sis, you wanna go home?" Deedee disapproved. "Man, we can take a cab home, it's not so far."
"Stop, Willie, we're going soon." Deedee leapt off the barstool and found Trey in the crowd. "It's all right," she said, returning. "Trey's found some friends here, he said we can take the car and go home."
Deedee dropped Mary and Willie in front of a gray house in a Lutherville neighborhood; Mary jumped off Jeff's lap, kissed me on the cheek, waved. "Call me Deedee," she said mechanically.
"Dudes." Willie crawled over the back seat, scrambling to his feet. "See you." He held out his hand to-me, doing some funny handshake that Jeff couldn't follow. "Rats," he nodded, then smiled. The light at the door went on as Mary searched for her keys. "Later."
George purses his lips, looks dubious.
"Of course," says Jeff, answering that look, "this is a compilation of a lot of things that had an influence on my life at the time."
"No kidding." George says deadpan.
"Physically, the skinniness, the 'elfin leer', the blonde mohawk, is Billy Schwartz, whose father owned a Cadillac dealership, and I only met him once, on a day trip we all took to Georgetown. I remember watching him run along the creosote railroad ties at the edge of the canal, throwing empty beer bottles he'd found in the parking lot upwards towards planes taking off at the airport across the Potomac. He definitely wasn't gay."
"Sitting outside the club, that was this boy named Jimmy, who was an engineering student at Johns Hopkins when Trey was at Art School. Trey would have these parties at his apartment where he'd set up two turntables and deejay hardcore singles all night long, and everyone he'd invited would sit around talking to each other, brought together only by the fact that Trey knew each of us. Jimmy was older, but one night he sat down with me and my friend Kirsten and we sang songs together; later that night, after the buses stopped running, he gave Kir and I a ride back into the country. A couple weeks later, Jimmy showed up at one of these parties with his girlfriend Dana, they'd just been to see Cats together. When they left, I told them I'd like to sleep with them sometime. It went over like a pretty witty thing to say, which I guess is more or less what I intended.
"And the thing with the leg in the car, that was Trey's roommate John, one of three guys he lived with. They were friends at the beginning of the school year, and he'd go out with us sometimes, but he told Trey he was gay, and after that, Trey didn't like to hang out with him anymore. I never said a word about it."
While Jeff's out at the store, George begins filling us in on some of the less savored moments of Jeff's life. "Last year, Jeff ran away from New York City after his first boyfriend broke up with him. Did the Holden Caulfield thing and took a room in the Belvedere Hotel where he stayed for three days before he called me and had me come get him. He made a pass at me that weekend, in terms so polite and noncommittal I had to laugh at it. He knew he was being silly before he'd even asked. 'Would it be all right if I gave you a blow job?' is how he worded it, and there was a terror in his eyes as if this was the most important thing he'd ever asked of someone."
He scratches his elbow, glances towards the brass alarm clock sitting on the floor near the wall. "I had to tell him that I probably couldn't get it up for him. 'You're just too ugly."' He makes a facial expression, the equivalent to a shrug. "He accepted that line of reason. Not that Jeff's really that ugly or anything."
The door scratches loudly as it swings open over the warped linoleum. "What are you saying about me?' Jeff yells from the kitchen.
"Nothing," George says, "I'm telling 'em about the time you wanted to suck my dick."
"Oh fuck you," Jeff says, offhand.
"Gallant," Trey began, "excuses himself into the bathroom when he has to fart."
Jeff gazed out the car window, reflecting on the two cartoon boys, how they'd react in the same situation. "Goofus says to his dinner guests, 'Hey, pull my finger."' Jeff subtly adjusted his shorts underneath the black satin dress he was wearing; They were on their way to Deedee's Halloween party. "Gallant returns his sister's underwear neatly pressed to her top drawer after he's jerked off smelling them."
"Well..." Trey strove vainly for something even more disgusting. "Goofus jerks off on his sister's panties and keeps them to suck on."
"Well how can I top that?" Jeff mused. The hair on his thighs felt springy under the weight of the fabric. He hadn't wore pantyhose. That seemed too much of a commitment.
"Who all's going to be at this party anyhow?'
"I dunno. Deedee's already over there, I guess Steve and Matt and Brent; Mary, Kirsten. Maybe Billy Schwartz, maybe Jimmy. Some people from Dulaney High." He stole a glance at Jeff's folded hands, glittering with silver and onyx skull rings Jeff had borrowed from him. "You sure you'll feel all right dressed like that?"
"Is that boy Willie going to be there?"
"I don't know, man, Willie's kind of a drag." Trey kept his eyes on the road. "I don't really like Willie." He switched on the wipes as plops of water began falling on the windshield. "Willie's a fag, I think."
The top of the dress, Jeff's sister's, felt tight against his chest. "Why do you think that?"
"Something Mary told Deedee."
Jeff visualized Trey Baloux, walking defiantly through the halls of Cowtown Junior-Senior impervious to the murmurings which surrounded him like a royal fanfare. "What d'you mean, he's a fag?"
"What's wrong with you? What do you think it means?" He gripped the steering wheel tightly, his knuckles turning white, the black rubber and silver bangles around his bony wrists bouncing with the car's motion.
Jeff lit up a cigarette, winded down the window. Trey didn't like smoking in his car, and Jeff was mad at him. "I can't believe you threw him over because of bullshit like that." "Man..." He shook his head. "You just don't understand."
A song Jeff liked came on WHFS, the Velvet Underground, "Sunday Morning."
"Deedee asked me if I was sleeping with him." The tone of his voice had softened.
"Trey, I don't really care, okay?" Jeff flicked the butt end out the window, watched it spark against the back seat window behind him. A few light drops of rain blew inside, but the air felt cool. "Sunday Morning" ended; the Smiths came on the radio, their new single. The boy with the thorn in his side / Behind the hatred there lies a murderous desire for love.
"It's not any of your business to complain about. He wasn't your friend."
Jeff couldn't remember the number of the house we'd dropped Willie off at, nor the street. Jeff didn't even know his last name.
"How can they see the love in our eyes and still they don't believe us?"
The radio turned off with a snap of Trey's wrist. "I was listening to that, thank you."
"I hate the fucking Smiths, man." Was Trey sulking? It'll be worse with no music, Jeff thought, and only the sound of rain on the hood. Jeff truly wished he was home watching "Mr. Belvedere" or something, rather than heading out for the night with a guy who, at this moment, he hated.
"Are you sleeping with him?" Jeff managed an accusing tone.
Trey flinched. "What the fuck is this?" He slammed his open palm against the steering wheel. "Why don't you and Deedee get together and talk about what a fag I am? Okay?" He pulled the car over to the side of the road, the wheels bouncing over the crumbling asphalt. "Get the fuck out of my car." He reached across Jeff's thighs to the handle, popping open the door.
"What are you waiting for?" Trey demanded, looking straight ahead.
"Trey, I was just asking 'cause..."
"I stick up for you, man." The muscles of his jaw vibrated. "They say the same shit about you and I stick up for you." He crossed his arms. "You can walk home from here."
Jeff stepped out of the car into the heavy rain. His shoes sunk into the mass of decomposing leaves. Trey placed his hand on the gear shift, and sat still. The dyed curls of his hair soon hung limply in front of Jeff's eyes, water spiraling off the tips. The dress clung to his body, his boxer shorts showing through.
Trey leaned over, pushed the door open. "Get in." Jeff sat down, the wet vinyl sticking to his ass. Trey shook his head, shifted into forward, and turned the car around in the middle of the road. "I forgot you're wearing that stupid dress."
"How much of that story is a lie?" George asks.
"All of it," Jeff said. "Stories are. Fiction is a pack of lies."
©1997-1998 Blithe House Quarterly / All Rights Reserved