Saturday, October 14, 2006

If the People Stare, Then the People Stare

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Do you have that book? You know what I mean. That book, when you read it, you feel you are reading about yourself? A book you feel you almost could have written? Mine was Bless the Beasts & Children. I read it for my English class, when I was 13. Not only did I see myself in that book, but I understood it from start to finish. I knew that book inside out. I can't remember what I was more excited about; my connection to the book or my comprehension of it. I wasn't the greatest student up until then, and I had some serious doubts about my academic abilities. That book changed my life. I hope you have a book like that.

In 1986, someone I knew was struggling with his sexuality. He had kids and grandkids, but somewhere along the way he pushed his preference aside and got married. I knew two of his sons and his daughter a little bit, and I couldn't keep my eyes off them whenever they were around. They were all very beautiful, and dressed with great style, but I could never tell if they were hung-over, high, tired, depressed, or just plain quiet. Whenever they were around, I would think to myself: Why am I so fascinated by them? What is in me that compels me to want to be like them; to want to be them!? Their auras of suburban glamour and mystery confounded me, because I felt so obvious around them.
Bill, their father and my friend, would ask me the stupidest questions about being gay in front of total strangers at work.
"Brian, is it true gay men sleep with about 500 men a year? I read that somewhere." He asked.
"Are you crazy?! There's only 365 days in a year! I don't know anyone like that. I've never heard such a horrible thing! I'm 19, and I've slept with four men in the past three years." I said.
"But you're not gay gay. I mean career gay: San Fran and New York gays." Bill said.
"Gay gay? What is that? Career gay? Where do you hear this stuff? Look, the gay people I know are just like the straight people I know, when it comes to sex and relationships. I guess there are some 'sex addicts', but you don't have to be gay for that, ya know?" I said to a roomful of people, getting madder and madder.
One night, Bill drove me home, and asked me some saner questions, as we sat in his car for a couple hours:
"How did you know you were gay?"
I told Bill a little bit about my past, and I told him I was attracted to the person. My first love was my best friend Brad, but I have been in love with a couple girls, too. I told him this world likes to tell us who we are supposed to love. Love is love and attraction is attraction, you can't control it.
"I don't think of myself as gay or bi or straight. To me those terms are related to an act; a sexual act. When I am intimate with someone, it's because I have an emotional connection to them. Them, not their gender. Does that make sense?" I said, finding this conversation and our 30 year age difference a little odd.
Why doesn't he already know this? What does he spend his time doing? Do I think too much? I thought to myself.
Bill asked a few more questions that night, and sat quietly and patiently through my long-winded answers, til it was time to go.
The conversation I had with Bill reminded me about the questions I had about my own life. I admired Bill for talking to me about such personal matters, cause I lived in my head so much, and couldn't do it. I didn't realize it then, but the only time my self-hatred went away was when I drank. I felt better when I was drunk. I knew drinking wasn't the answer, but it worked for a while. I knew pop music wasn't the answer, either, but I did get a lot from The Smiths and Nina Hagen. I spent many many hours in early '86 with Hatful of Hollow and Nunsexmonkrock. Morrissey asked why pamper life's complexity and when will you accept yourself, and Nina told me to be fearless and the future is now. I looked in many books, and besides Vonnegut, The Color Purple and Jayne Eyre inspired me a lot then, too.
The main thing I learned from these people was that the answer lay inside me. I just had no clue as to how to unlock that door.

Jody, Scot and I liked to spend our weekend days walking all over the city. Those trips usually included a stop by the lake, and through the old north side neighborhoods. We would count the 'geese lamps' in the windows, which were some weird fad back then. Scot liked to people watch and Jody liked to talk and I liked to look at all the old buildings, because my home town had so few, and all this history was new to me. As I walked with them, I silently wished I lived back then, a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, cause life seemed less complicated to me. Everyone dressed the same and had jobs and families. Everyone seemed to live the same life: You bought a car and a radio and went to work and went to church and opened Christmas presents and had kids and grandkids and died. Easy!
But I knew those were illusions I had of the past. I could easily shatter them when I thought about The Jungle, Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, or those Weegee photos of people found dead and nude in shitty apartments.
As much as I hated to, I was starting to be glad to have the opportunity to figure things out for myself.

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