we beat on, boats against the current,
For years I've put myself to sleep with the following fantasy. I find a way to defeat time and return to an earlier period in my life. I find my younger self and guide him.
Today is May Day 1998. I know they tell you it's foolish to mess with these things but the planets are aligned properly, God's in his heaven, all's right with the world and I'm going back.
Be careful what you don't wish for. If you don't wish for it, you won't get it. I wished for this. I just got it.
Oh, I will be able to do one thing for my younger self.
It will change his life. You'll see. Come with me.
It is May Day 1957, two in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. I am here, floating above Boston. Not much traffic on Storrow Drive at this hour, one or two cars with flashy tail fins, a truck hauling fish to market from one of the decaying wharves, trains emerging from North Station and South Station, Irish bars in Scollay Square, burlesque houses, tattoo parlors, The El, the Central Artery, auto showrooms along Commonwealth Avenue, the Fens, the Esplanade, Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, the Custom House, Bullfinch's gold dome, the Public Garden, the Swan Boats.
Charming, quaint. But I'm looking for my younger self.
He's a chore boy at the Boston University Faculty Club at 145-149 Bay State Road. "Chore Boy" means that he waxes and buffs the marble floor of the foyer and vacuums the red carpet on the stairs three times a week. Those are his jobs. In exchange for this, he gets a free room on the top floor. The top floor used to be the servant's quarters when this was a private home. He's a servant but he doesn't know it. He thinks of himself as a student. He's a chore boy because he's a needy student, poor but worthy, a kind of poor relation. It's charity but he thinks it's his due. Without this room, he'd be on the streets or in the army. He is 22 days from getting a useless degree in English from the College of Liberal Arts. Once he graduates he will be unemployed and unemployable in a city with a 9 percent unemployment rate. He knows nothing of this. He read Donne and Browning while in the College of Liberal Arts, not Marx or John Maynard Keynes.
There are six other chore boys living in rooms on the top floor of the faculty club--Paddy a Korean War vet, Kim a South Korean exchange student, Helmut a chemistry major, Andrew who is in the School of Theology, Adrian a music major and Pandit an East Indian from Lahore.
I've found him. He is sleeping in his room.
"Kim," he is saying. "What is the essence of Buddhism?"
Kim, the Korean exchange student, is a Buddhist. As Kim looks through the closed eyelids of my younger self, his face expands till it fills the room and a light like the light from the moon when the moon was young a billion years ago issues from it.
"That's easy," Kim replies. "The essence of Buddhism is knowing yourself. Know thyself."
"But who am I?" my younger self asks.
"Ah," Kim replies. And he disappears.
This is a dream. My younger self does not wake from this dream. He goes on dreaming. He dreams the mirror image of the previous dream.
In this dream Kim says, "The essence of Buddhism is not knowing yourself."
"Oh, Kim," my younger self replies. "I know who I am."
"Ah," Kim says.
I will call my younger self Jack , since that's what people call him. See Jack wake up. See his eyes fly open. See him throw back the red and white blanket stamped Boston University. Hear him cry out, startled, "What...? Who...?"
There's been a clattering on the roof. That's what woke him up. Since this is May Day not Christmas, Jack knows it's not Santa and his reindeer up there. He knows who it is because this has happened before. He gets up, opens his door a crack and looks out into the hall. He would put on a terrycloth robe and go out into the hall if he owned a terrycloth robe but he's too poor to own one. He stands there in his tee shirt and shorts. I stand a foot behind him. He cannot see me. To my regret, he will never be able to see me. I will not be able to manifest myself to him. But maybe that's for the best. He might freak, turning suddenly and confronting a 62 year old man in his room at two in the morning on May Day 1957. Bad enough that he was jolted out of sleep by someone clattering on the roof.
Lights go on in rooms along the hall. Some of the doors open. Helmut the chemistry major puts his head out and shouts, "Who the fuck's banging around on the roof? Is it that fuckin' Paddy again?"
Adrian's door opens and he puts his head out. Adrian is the music major. "Yes, it's Paddy. He fell near my window again. He's hanging on out there. Come in and help me haul him in."
Other doors open. Pandit appears without his turban and says "Golly." Andrew comes out of his room carrying The New Testament. If Paddy falls three flights to the street, Andrew will be there to give him the Methodist equivalent of Extreme Unction. But Paddy won't fall. Helmut and Pandit will pull him in through Adrian's window as they've done before. Paddy is destined to live a long time, dying finally of angina pectoris in a VA hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire some time in the next millenium.
Kim does not appear. Kim remains asleep. Kim could sleep through World War III. That's why Kim does not appear in the following scene.
Jack gets into a pair of chino pants, steps into the hall and moves toward Adrian's room. His body is so transcendently beautiful I cannot look at it. I am so dazzled, tears come to my eyes. Jack doesn't think of his body this way. He's Boston Irish-Catholic after all. He's been told that his body is the exact center of the sinful earth. He knows that's crap and he's working on it but he has yet to experience the light in his body. He is 21 years old. Believe me, the light is there. I can see it.
When he gets into Adrian's room, they have already hauled Paddy in through the window. Helmut is shouting at him. "This shit has got to cease, man. Like, enough is enough. Show some fuckin' consideration for the rest of us."
Paddy stands there with army surplus binoculars around his neck. He's a big-boned stupid guy who climbs around on the roof at night looking at the girls in the dorm across the street. The girls know he's there and they strip for him.
As I ease myself into the room and stand behind my younger self, I hear Paddy say, "She was ready to take off her bra. She was unhookin' it. What a pair o' jugs. She already had her panties halfway down. Then I felt myself slippin'."
Helmut says, "Paddy, cut this shit. You're gonna get reported and then we'll all get thrown out of here. And look, man, this is the third time you slipped. What if we're not here to haul you in next time you slip?"
"The roof's wet."
"It's always wetter after you been out there."
Adrian is standing with his cello and his harp behind him. They take up 98 percent of his room. He sleeps resting his head against the strings of his harp with his toes tangled up in the strings of his cello. "Why do you always fall outside my room?" he asks. "And I have a recital on Tuesday. I need my sleep."
"I can't help it if I'm horny," Paddy says.
"Well, get laid or something. Get a girlfriend."
"I have one. She won't put out."
"Get another one who will."
"There aren't any who will. They were all brought up by nuns."
"Well, fuck nuns. You're gonna get yourself killed."
Two weeks ago Paddy beckoned my younger self to a window, handed him the binoculars and said, "Great. Oh it's great. Just look. It's terrific. Tonight's the best night ever. Look look look. Look at that ass, those tits. Oh man. I'm in heaven."
Jack looked through the glasses and saw what he knew most guys would call a hot broad standing naked at her window fondling her breasts. He was totally indifferent to this. More, he was beyond pretending he felt anything. He handed the glasses back to Paddy and said, "Yeah." Paddy was too excited to notice that Jack didn't give a shit. A naked woman means less to Jack than a piece of toast. Jack is queer. So be it. He's beyond worrying about being queer. He knows now. His only question now is What next?
Jack has been lied to for four years at Boston University about Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, W.H. Auden, Thomas Mann, Hart Crane and half a dozen other queers. He's been told that Billy Budd is about Christian redemption and that Death in Venice is a travelogue. When I stand behind him and look into his mind--because as a spirit I have this ability--I see dusty attic rooms full of darkness. That's because of the silencing and the censorship and the lies.
Jack believes none of the lies. Give him credit. He knows bullshit when he sees it. He has found the queer authors on his own. He 's just spent a semester researching Wilde and read three books on the trials. When he hands in his research paper, his Victorian literature professor, Wendall Stern, who's been living in a love relationship with another man in Cambridge for three years, will give him an A on the paper and an A for the course. Of course Jack thinks Wendall Stern is straight. Wendall has given him no reason to think otherwise. In fact, Wendall has invented a fictional wife he calls Lisa. He tells the class about her almost every time they meet.
At the present moment, Jack is reading the fourth volume of The Journals of Andre Gide. He is also reading The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate and The Counterfieters. He has the ability to find what he needs when he needs it. And the queer books are there. Well, some of them are there.
Jack suspects that Adrian is queer. After all, isn't Adrian a music major? Jack stays behind in Adrian's room after the others leave. I hear Jack say, "You never go out on the roof, Adrian."
Adrian draws his fingers across the strings of his harp. Jack thinks Adrian's fingers, as they stroke the harp, are languid, a word he found in The Portrait of Dorian Grey. "I have a girlfriend, Greta. You've met her. I don't need to go out on the roof. Now if you'll please leave my room, I'll get some much needed sleep. I have to give that recital, you know."
Between 1960 and 1978, Adrian will sire seven children by two women. After 1978, he drops from my radar screen.
Jack does not go back to sleep. He throws on a windbreaker and walks the streets from four o'clock to dawn. He is looking for a fellow queer. In the queerest city in the United States, he can't find a queer. Well, it's true, by four o'clock in the morning most of us are off the streets. But Jack can't find a queer at two o'clock in the afternoon at Harvard. Last week he sat in a stall in a men's room in a sub-basement of Lamont Library and read the writing on the walls. Admittedly, this being Harvard, most of the messages were arcane and some were in Greek and Latin. Still there was one that read:
Someone had written under this:
Jack took down the phone number but when he called a man told him that he'd reached Link Fire Extinguisher on Cummington Street.
I stand beside him at sunrise staring across the car tracks on Brighton Avenue, watching the sun come up over Vauxhall Pontiac. I've watched the sun come up over auto showrooms before and I'm not impressed. His head, however, is full of Ruskin and Walter Pater and Wilde and Ernest Dowson. In his mind he is in Venice burning with a hard, gem like flame.
A lonely 27 year old queer named Matthew Ashcroft passes a block away, heading home to his apartment at 260 Clarendon Street. Matthew has been looking for love all night and he has not found it. I press my finger against Jack's lovely young chin and point his face in Matthew's direction. "Look!" I whisper in his ear.
But it's not time. I will change Jack's life before the day is through. But it won't be with Matthew Ashcroft of 260 Clarendon Street. All Jack sees is a crew cut, a tan raincoat and saddle shoes. Matthew will graduate in 1959 from Binghamton Business College, take a job as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, meet a guy named Toby in 1965 at a convention in Seattle, fell in love, move in with him and remain his partner until Toby's death in 1987. It could have been otherwise. He could have met me.
After breakfast at Hayes Bickford and fifty minutes in a required class called Philosophy 101 during which he is told to conserve his sperm and keep himself clean for his bride, Jack returns to the faculty club.
It is one of the electric moments. There are electric moments every three or four weeks. An electric moment occurs when Miss Messbauer, the director of the club, discovers that the chore boys have done something wrong and she has to deal with it. In this case, someone has called the police and reported that he saw a man crawling across the roof in the middle of the night. Miss Messbauer will see each of them alone in her office and do what the chore boys call her Gestapo/NKVD bit:
Rat on your friends and I'll let you off. Turn in the boys responsible and I won't kick you out of your room. Squeal and it'll go easier for you.
Kim meets Jack in the marble foyer by the fountain, leans over the railing on the divided stairway and says, "Ooh! Electric moment."
I hear Jack say, "What does the Buddha say about electric moments?" He has asked Kim this before. It's a private joke between them.
"Buddha say electric moment all in mind," Kim replies. Which is what Kim always says. And they laughed together as they always do. Kim has a silly high pitched laugh which sounds queer to me. This does not occur to Jack because Kim is a practicing Buddhist and Jack thinks there aren't any queer practicing Buddhists.
I look down at the goldfish in the fountain, which seem beautifully Oriental to me, something I might encounter on a Japanese scroll. Jack has seen the fish a hundred times and is not impressed. His eyes are on the door of Messbauer's office which has just opened, ejecting Adrian, the music major.
"She's on a tear," Adrian says. "Someone called the cops."
"I wasn't on the roof," Jack says.
"Look, in her mind we were all up there, every single one of us. It's guilt by association. We're all going to be fried in the same pan."
I hear Messbauer shout from her office, "Next!" I see also that Jack is angry. We go in. Jack sits down in a chair in front of her desk. I stand behind the chair.
I remember these interrogations from 41 years ago when I was Jack. I remember my anger. I remember hating Messbauer. And she hated me. She hated me because I was a needy boy and she hated needy boys. But she hated me also because I didn't hide the fact that I hated her. I hated being needy and I hated the power this gave her over me. Now, because Jack needs that room, she holds his future in her hands. She could kick him out three weeks before graduation. He could fail his final exams. He could fail them because he has nowhere to live and nowhere to sit down to study. The entire four years could go down the tubes. 41 years ago she threatened me in this way. What a shock it is to be in this office again, to see that desk, that telephone and that philodendron. How heart stopping it is to stare again into the cold eyes of the President of Boston University in the photograph on the wall just as I did in 1957.
"Do you know what this is?" Messbauer asks, waving a piece of paper at us.
"I haven't a clue," Jack answers.
"It's a police report."
"I wouldn't have guessed."
"Don't be smart. You were up on the roof."
"I wasn't on the roof."
"You were on the roof spying with binoculars at the young women in the dormitory across the street."
"I wasn't on the roof spying with binoculars at the young women in the dormitory across the street."
"One of the other boys said you were."
"I don't believe that. They wouldn't tell a lie like that. Which boy was it?"
"I can't tell you that. But you can tell me which boys were out there with you. If you tell me, things will go easier for you."
"I can't tell you who was out there. I wasn't out there."
"I can tell you who was out there, however."
"You," she says.
"Look," Jack says, staring directly into her eyes. "Look at me. Really look at me. Are you looking at me? Can you really see me? Good. Now if you can imagine the person you're looking at crawling around a roof in the middle of the night to peep at naked co-eds you are not living in the real world. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Two things happen simultaneously. Messbauer blushes and Jack realizes that she is a dyke.
One blush tells all.
Jack sits there stunned. He knows it's true because it is true. It's just true. You don't have to be a Buddhist monk and sit in the lotus position for fifty years. You can attain truth in a flash with no effort at all. Here it is in front of him.
"Get out of here," she says, sharply.
I turn to leave but Jack hasn't gotten out of the chair.
"Leave." she says sharply. "I'm through with you."
"You owe me an apology," he says, softly. "You accused me of something I didn't do. You knew I didn't do it but you accused me of it anyway."
"How could I know you didn't do it?"
"Because you know," Jack replies.
He knows now that she has always known he was queer. He knows that this has fueled her hatred of him. But she herself is queer. And she hates herself for being queer. She has projected that hatred onto him. He knows all this now. He knows it absolutely.
She can't look him in the eye. He's won. He will never be interrogated in this office again.
"Thank you," Jack says. He gets up from the chair. "You don't need to apologize after all."
We step outside. Andrew is standing in the foyer with his copy of The New Testament in his right hand.
"Read her the part about casting the first stone," Jack says.
"I will," Andrew says. But his eyes remain on Jack's face too long. There is a tender, wistful look on Andrew's face. The thought crosses Jack's mind, My God. Andrew's gay.
Jack has found a gay brother, his first one and this gay brother had a room right down the hall all the time.
Andrew is terrified. Jack knows. Andrew sees his career in the church vanish before his eyes. He hurries into the office. He closes the door behind him.
Andrew never speaks to Jack again.
In the afternoon, Jack takes a nap in his room. I am incorporeal. I have no substance. But I lie beside him on his narrow bed, holding him in my fleshless arms, cupping my fleshless body around his fleshy one, generating the illusion of a protective shell.
I can smell his hair. It's a fresh, natural smell. He doesn't use hair oil or shampoo because he figures he can't afford them. I begin to cry. Tears which have no substance roll down my face which is not a face. I cry because my younger self is vulnerable and I can't protect him. I know his entire history because it's stored in my memory banks. His history is my history. I've experienced the pain and I know he'll be spared none of it.
I hear him speak out in his sleep. "Poor soul. The center. Of my sinful. Earth."
It's the Shakespearean sonnet I memorized 41 years ago in order to pass The Literature of the English Renaissance. He will write every word of it on the exam two weeks from now just as I did in 1957. His grade will be A just as mine was.
I whisper the first four lines of the sonnet into his ear.
And he replies, out of his dream, "So costly gay."
In the evening I trot along behind Jack to a drugstore in Brookline where he buys a copy of Physique Pictorial. He goes to the counter and hands the clerk a quarter. It's an act of bravado. In the past, he has stolen Physique Pictorial, slipping it into a copy of Life, Look or Field and Stream so the clerk won't know he's buying a queer skin mag. But now he slaps the magazine down on the counter with the Quaintance drawing--two cowboys sitting side by side on a pile of straw in a barn--face up for the clerk to see. The clerk, one Mark Weiser, a senior marketing major at Brandeis, has seen five copies of this magazine leave the store since he came on duty six hours ago (two of them slipped under sweaters.) Mark is surprised there are so many fags in the world. One thought crosses his mind. "They're coming out of the woodwork."
However, Jack is bored with Physique Pictorial.
"You are tired of Physique Pictorial," I whisper in his ear, once we're out of the drugstore.
"I am tired of Physique Pictorial," Jack thinks.
We are passing the red brick walls of a posh Episcopalian boy's school. A magnolia tree hangs over the wall. There are hard phallic buds on this tree. "Toss the magazine over the wall," I tell Jack.
He tosses it over the wall.
It would be nice to imagine that a 13 year old boy named Amory from Pride's Crossing discovers the magazine and that the photographs of young men in jockstraps standing in front of Doric columns change his life. But in fact the school's 72 year old gardener will find it covered with dew at eight o'clock tomorrow morning and toss it into the plastic bucket he carries with him. It will rest there until noon with grass clippings and magnolia blossoms and then be thrown on the compost heap where it will rot.
"Let some rich prep school boy jerk off over it," Jack thinks. "Tonight I want the real thing."
"You want the real thing," I tell him, in case he still hasn't got it right. "Tonight you want the real thing. Yes."
"The real thing," he thinks. And the thought moves down from his brain through his nervous system to his dick.
"And I'm going to lead you to it," I tell him.
"Tonight I'll find it on my own," he thinks.
I lead him to the State, a movie theater on Huntington Avenue. Two movies are playing: The Guns of Fort Petticoat and The Lavender Hill Mob.
"Lavender petticoats. This must be the place," I tell him.
"This is the place," he thinks.
He enters the theater at that point in The Guns of Fort Petticoat where Audie Murphy, wandering in the Great American Desert, finds a fort inhabited entirely by women, one of whom, Hope Emerson, points a rifle at him and says, "Walk on, mister. We don't need none of your kind around here."
Jack sits down in the front row.
The young man who sits down in the seat beside him is a shadow figure, washed in the flickering shadows from the screen. He might be one more anonymous urban cipher drifting like an alienated shadow through one more marginal movie house in one more lost and lonely Thomas Wolfe city. But I know better. His name is Gary Walker and he works as a mechanic at Bill's Auto Body at 979 Pembroke Street in East Boston. Though he scrubs with Lava at the end of every working day, he can never get the grease out from under the nails of his beautiful hands. It's also beautiful grease. Today he's been working on a black Buick Roadmaster belonging to an ex-sailor named Tony Spinelli, who happens to be his second cousin. Garry got paid today. He gets paid every two weeks. He cashed the check in the amount of $56.97 at the Shawmut National Bank and used 35 cents worth of the $56.97 to pay for the ticket which let him enter this theater. There are no urban ciphers. Trust me.
I am standing in the aisle behind him as his hand drops onto Jack's lap. The hand is numinous. Or at least it seems that way to me. Jack's lap becomes numinous as soon as Gary's hand touches the cloth of his chino pants. Jack's cock is awesomely numinous once it's released from his pants. It shines with an inner light brighter than the light from either the moon or the sun.
"Do you mind me doing this?" Gary Walker asks in a whisper.
"No. I don't mind," Jack answers.
Gary leans over and kisses Jack's cock.
I recognize this as an act of love, of reverence. I have changed Jack's life. It's time for me to leave. I feel myself being drawn back to 1998. I don't want to go but I have no choice. Jack has thrown his head back. His eyes have closed. I lean forward and brush my lips against his forehead. The last thing I hear my younger self say is, "I've never done this before." Then I hear Gary say, "Ah. Beautiful."
And then I'm gone.