Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Freak Show


I find it ironic that for me the years most people describe as their worst were my most stable and for all intents and purposes, normal. I refer to my teen-age years. It was a miracle that I never had to repeat the ninth grade. I missed weeks of school at a time. My salvation came when my cousin started going to a small liberal arts, public high school. It was mentioned that my mother and I take a look at it. Depending on whom you talked to this school was either for smart kids or freaks so I had major reservations about it. I was not a smart kid, B group remember? Although, since I felt like a freak I thought why not take a look. It only took one day to know that I was home. The school was founded in the early seventies and had some pretty far out ideas about education. We called our teachers by their first names. In some classes we sat on couches or even beanbags. My fist impression was walking into my homeroom on my first day and smelling the strongest incense I have ever encountered. This was the classroom of one of those teachers whose influence you don’t fully appreciate until years later. She wore caftans and enormous chandelier earrings. She taught a course called multi-cultural literature. It changed my life. We read Native Son, Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple and Elie Wiesel’s Night just to name a few, books that changed the way I saw the world. This school provided me with my first taste of racial diversity. We would all sit around and discuss these books and talk about how they made us feel. Everyone had their own voice and their own opinion and I was not afraid to share mine. I loved high school once I got there. I had a blast. I was making all these new friends, some of who were a lot weirder than I was. Kids with nose rings, girls who shaved their heads, black kids, white kids; I got along with nearly everybody. I still got teased every once in a while, occasionally people would mock my tics but I never felt ostracized for it. There were kids far stranger than I was like one girl who was full-on Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club” with a shaved head and intense black eye make-up who once at our Geometry table, when another girl innocently offered her a sniff of a rose she’d been given, ate it instead.
There was a group of guys a grade ahead of me who would always snicker whenever I spoke out loud in class but it never bothered me too badly. I was making friends who liked me so I didn’t care if some guys thought I was “a fairy”. Even when they said point blank “you’re gay” it never seemed especially malicious, it was if they were stating what they considered to be a fact. I got frustrated but mostly let it bounce right off. I could do that because I had friends. I wasn’t lonely anymore. Good friends too, the best friends I’d ever had to that point. Friends to go out with on the weekends, although I preferred going out on Friday nights because Saturday nights was Golden Girls, read into that what you will. I guess you could say I had a very typical adolescence, except for the dating.
Yes I dated girls, not a lot mind you, but I gave it my best shot. I think I was fairly cute. I had great hair complete with early nineties “Beverly Hills 90210” sideburns. I was just going through the motions really, I was nowhere near ready to deal with who I really was, and it was fun being part of what I perceived to be the normal high school social world. It made me confident that I was fine, there was nothing weird about me and I certainly was not going to turn out gay. I mean how could I if I was dating girls, right? I remember my first full tilt make-out session. It was with a girl from church who was fairly aggressive and seemed a lot more experienced than I was. It was pretty harmless, just a little over the bra action and some heavy petting. I remember how proud I was of myself, and how stoked I was, yet I cannot say that I enjoyed it. I remember thinking, “ok I can’t wait for this to be over” I felt good when it was over, yet started to dread having to do it again. Sort of like how I feel now about going to the gym. When I was sixteen there was this new girl at school. She was beautiful and we became fast friends. Guys were lining up to get to her so when I heard she liked me I jumped at the opportunity. I must admit my ego had a lot to do with it. Here was this girl all these guys wanted and she wanted me. We went out for a while if you can call it that. She was even my date for my sister’s wedding. But I couldn’t make myself be attracted to her. I didn’t understand why, I knew she was pretty and we had a lot of fun together so why didn’t I want to kiss her. And when I did all I could think was "Eww, I taste your make-up!" At the time though I found it better not to think about it too hard; because when I did that I would ask myself questions I did not want to answer. I would tell myself that I wasn’t ready for sex, but I would be soon. “I really like boobs,” I would literally say this to myself out loud so clearly I was somewhat aware of what was lurking inside of me fighting to get out. I am not saying I was completely prudish, I certainly talked sex, and joked about it all the time. I just didn’t do it. I was actually pretty judgmental whenever I found out one of my friends was; I liked them a little less. I remember one friend I had at school told casually told me she and her boyfriend had sex in her parents bathtub, I said “you are the biggest whore ever”, she laughed and then said, “Are you a virgin?” I said, “Yes, I’m only sixteen.” She then listed to me everyone we knew who was doing it. Basically the whole thing made uncomfortable. Looking back at high school I often wonder why it wasn’t harder. Emotionally I mean. There were plenty of kids whose lives I am sure were abject Hell, I’d like to say that I never made fun of others but that would be a bold face lie, there are a couple of people who I am sure look back and do not think of me with such fondness. Part of the curse of having a quick wit is that things tend to fly out of your mouth before you have the chance to stop them. I know I took some cheap but wonderfully clever shots at the underdog. It’s a song as old as time itself, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh. And if you can make them laugh at someone else, they won’t laugh at you. I’m not proud, I’m human.

I was still a pretty crumby student; I was lazy the bad habits that I had formed way back in the B group stayed with me. I never did my homework, I was forever doing extra credit and managing to charm the teachers just enough to get by. The only trouble I ever got in at school was because of my mouth and it was all pretty minor. On one occasion in my junior year I was banned from being an anchor on our morning video announcements because I said “shit” on the air. Once I got detention because I asked a substitute teacher if she was drunk. And once in chemistry class I caught on fire. Well actually my sleeve caught on fire so I plunged it into the nearest bucket of liquid I saw which fortunately turned out to be water. This resulted in the whole class getting a long lecture on lab safety, the teacher told us that if anything like that ever happened again we were to run to the center of the room and pull the chain of the showerhead there, and start ripping our cloths off. I proceeded to list to her the reasons why I would rather have my flesh eaten off by acid then rip my clothes off in front of my high school chemistry class. She was not amused, and I had to write a paper on proper classroom etiquette.

Aside from things like that I was never in trouble. In fact I have always been slightly irrational in my fear of being in trouble, even now I have a unexplainable fear that I will go to jail for some reason. Partially I think that comes from not wanting to add any more problems at home, not rocking the boat. However, I think it mostly comes from not wanting to be observed too closely. If someone observed me too closely I was afraid of what they might see. All of my friends love my family, they think we are hilarious but I was always hesitant to have people over. Some of the reasons are normal for any boy with sisters. Once my friend Dave came over only to hear my sister Pam yell out from the bathroom “mother, don’t you have any maxi pads in this house that aren’t two feet long? I mean whose vagina is this big?” I figured hearing bellowing about the size of Kotex might make him think our house was odd. I think part of it also was because I never knew what the situation with Alli would be, although she was much less volatile now she still could be as embarrassing as hell; for example playing my friends a tape of me at thirteen singing Under the Boardwalk from one of those do-it-yourself recording studios you find at amusement parks. But another part of it, the bigger part, was the fact that I didn’t want anyone to see inside. Even my closest friends I kept at a distance. It was as if I was afraid they would find something out about me. Something I wasn’t even sure I knew. I had a Halloween party my junior year and a lot of people came. I remember thinking “Wow all of these people are at my house, at my party.” By all accounts the party was a huge success, even though I thought my mother would need CPR after on girl showed up with her pet snake. However I remember spending the whole night on edge and anxious that someone would find they secret place I hid my picnic basket of Barbies. Needless to say I was never a kid who tested my limits. In fact I was called a goody-goody on more than one occasion. But goody-goody I could live with. Certain other words I could not

The end of my senior seems now like a great big blur. At school things wound down like they do for everyone. I went to the prom, taking a friend of course, therefore ruling out sexual complications, I can only imagine how many girls went to prom as a repressed gay teenage boy's beard, they should start a club. I went on my senior class trip to The Great Smokey Mountains where we went to, wait for it... Dollywood!!! It was that year’s season opening of the park and Dolly herself was there, so while all of my classmates disbursed to go ride rides I waited an hour and a half with the Assistant Principle and a Guidance Counselor in a greet line for the chance to shake Dolly’s hand. Oh yeah, and I still didn’t think I was gay! But you know what? Dolly did shake my hand and she dragged her acrylic nails across my palm; jealous?
It was on this trip that I had my first frightening moment of clarity. My mother and I have always been great fans of the comic strip For Better or For Worse. I grew up with it, I still collect the books. However around this time the cartoonist Lynn Johnston introduced a gay teenager to the strip which in 1993 was very controversial. I remember reading each mornings strip at this time with a gnawing pit in my stomach; I just wanted her to stop writing it. I wanted her to sweep it back under the carpet. I felt the same way about a boy in my class who was openly gay. These days more and more people come out in their teens but when I was seventeen it was practically unheard of. I always kept my distance from him. Not because I thought badly of him but because he made me think, which I did not like to do. He made me uncomfortable. Well it was on this senior class trip that I got him to sign my yearbook. This is word for word what he wrote “Dear Jason I know that our paths will cross again, I assure you we have much more in common than you are aware of, xoxo!” When I read that I froze in terror, he had found me out. In that moment, for a split second I knew, and I made my first conscious decision to deny it. I was pretty enraged, the gall of him, “how dare he!” I said to myself, “I will not be this way, I will not be this way, I will not be this way”. But there you have it I admitted to myself for a split second that I was gay. And I was choosing to deny it. Choosing to deny it and being in denial are two very different things and I had switched over. I spent the next five years of my life running away from the truth. And when you are desperate to escape the truth, telling lies becomes second nature.

Friday, September 10, 2010

No Beaver Here!

I left some really juicy stuff out of this ones so let's all work together on getting me that book deal so you can read it, lol :-)

All things considered life with divorced parents, a father I saw only on Sundays and a mother new to the work force made for a relatively easy transition for me. My dad was lost. I know that now. It took him a while to get himself back on his feet. Someone in that kind of despair can do little to support four children and an ex-wife. As usual I was kept in the dark about most things, seeing as I was seven that was probably wise. However, there a couple of things that I remember that clearly indicate that things were getting serious, if not dire. For example I remember finding out that my mom hocked her wedding silver to keep me and my sisters in parochial school. And I recall it being touch and go for a while as to whether or not we would be able to stay in our house. In fact at one point it got as far as there being a For Sale Sign in the yard very briefly, which Renee, who has never liked change all that much, would promptly remove and hide somewhere. However, life had to go on and my mother was new to the work force and for women who got married at nineteen and had no college education I’m sure the options were limited. Still, she managed to get work. An old friend who was the station manager of a radio station, no doubt charmed by her personality as well as her plight gave her a job at the radio station, which I thought was very cool because she got free trade at lot of restaurants. Fancy ones even, where I could get a Shirley Temple.

My mother started to blossom in this period, I do know that men came into the picture right away. I learned young that my mother was beguiling to men. One of the first ones I remember meeting was a man who was a theatre professor and had a young son, a toddler. I’m not sure why that didn’t work out but I do remember he was very nice. I also remember that he took us to a Juice Newton concert, which just goes to show you, everyone comes into your life for a reason. Meeting these men never felt awkward or threatening and they always treated us to fun things, however, it’s like they weren’t real to me. Better yet, it’s like they weren’t important. I was not looking for a new dad; in fact I can’t even recall missing my old one. I am sure if I’d been older it would have been an entirely different ballgame, but I was so young I was able to detach. Trust me, I made up for it in my twenties when daddy issues hit me like a ton of bricks, but at the time I just went with the program. I never considered these guys as anything other than nice men who liked my mother and took us to movies. The only time I got annoyed was when my mother insisted theses guys try and spend one on one time with me, fearing that with my father so emotionally unavailable I was going to suffer from lack of a male role model. I dreaded this. First of all I was a very shy kid, uncomfortable around people I didn’t know very well. I was a regular mama’s boy, always clinging to her leg. Secondly, these attempts at male bonding always proved to be the most boring events for me. I did not care about getting to know these guys, I was seven for Christ’s sake, and inevitably they would start talking to me about sports or fishing or building some sort of nonsense and immediately my mind would drift away. Didn’t these people know I had coloring to attend to? I mean who was going to color in just the hair and clothes of the characters in my coloring books if I wasn’t there to do it? Then came Jim!
Life at home was becoming chaotic, four kids is hard enough, when one of them is Alli that chaos is doubled. The older two girls we’re left in charge of Alli and me quite often and needless to say things didn’t always go smoothly. Big Al was going through puberty and becoming more and more difficult by the day. She and Pam made a particularly combustible combo. I spent a lot of time in la la land to avoid getting caught up in the crossfire. My mother was under the impression that Pam was the most solid and least affected by the sudden change in our family unit therefore put too much on her shoulders, especially since the reality was the exact opposite and she was spiraling out of control when no one was looking.

Renee did not respond well to the idea of our mother dating Jim. It took some time before she ever fully accepted the situation. I was eight years old and all that was perceivable to me was that this really nice man named had fallen in love with my mother and wanted to marry her. I really liked him; I thought he was a lot of fun. Every Friday night he would take my mom Alli, and I to some place fancy, like Pizza Hut. You remember Pizza Hut in the early 80’s? It was all dark and velvety, and you could play the juke box and Ms. Pac-Man and walk out with leftovers and a Flintstones glass. After dinner we’d go to a movie or to the mall. These Friday night events became quite a weekly tradition, and because them, and Jim’s ever growing presence I started to feel a stability that I was too young too realize was lacking. Still my mother was resistant to his frequent proposals. In fact, there was period when she broke it off entirely. This was the point when the course of our family’s entire future would be set. My mother enjoyed dating and enjoyed the attention of men and was free to pursue that and see where it would lead. However, there were a few discerning factors. The financial burden of raising four kids, a young boy in desperate need of a father figure, and a ticking time bomb named Alli who was just about ready to blow. What Jim did, and as an adult I see the manipulation in this, was simple, he helped. He provided my mother constant, often suffocating assistance at a time when it was most crucial. Therefore she relented, and allowed for herself and the rest of us to be rescued.

Mom and Jim were married in September of 1985, Alli, after spending some time in a hospital and a failed attempt a boarding school was back at home, and thanks to the right balance of many pharmaceuticals was doing rather well. Finally a school, right in our own backyard was a fit for her. Pammy had just started college and Renee was happily in her second year. The stage was set for the beginning of a lovely stable new life for us. The wedding of mom and Jim was beautiful, I was ten years old when they were married and since that time Jim has assumed most of thr roles of a father. He supported us well. We always had great vacations, and Christmases, and birthdays. He has shared twenty-five years worth of ups and downs with this family. He is the person I call when I have a question about income taxes or when I need to know what a carburetor is. Jim became a part of this family without questioning anything. He has helped my mother with Alli during all of the roughest times. He has accepted me and who I am without flinching. Jim filled my need for a father in many ways. Not all, but many.

My dad fell off a cliff. No, I’m not being symbolic; he really did fall off a cliff. As family legend goes my dad was staying with some friends at a cabin at a lake not to far out of town. The cabin being rather primitive had no plumbing, so in the black of night, after having one too many, while searching for the outhouse my father took a swan dive off a cliff. I do not mean to make light of this, he could have died. In fact his back was broken in the fall. My aunt and uncle had a cabin on that same lake and dad would take us there a couple of weekends each summer to spend time with the cousins. Every time we’d go out on the lake in a boat we’d get to the spot where he fell a sort of silence fell over my cousins and I, we would just stare at the cliff in awe. It was almost a moment of reverence. Well, as reverent as one can get on a pontoon. The only reason I bring this up, is I remember being taken to the hospital to see him. I’m not sure if my parents were divorced yet or just separated, but he definitely was no longer living at home. There was a woman there, all I remember about her is that, she was introduced as my dad’s “friend” and that Alli promptly interviewed her on her tape-recorder.

My point is neither of my parents stayed single for long. The year I was in the fifth grade was a big one. Both of my parents got re-married. My father married a woman named Shari, who ironically enough bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Lady Tremain from Disney’s version of Cinderella. Before Shari my dad was a pretty sad case, I realized that even in my youth. He lived in a bare, dingy little house and floated from job to job after he was forced to sell his bar. I was sad about that because to me the bar, which I only ever entered when it was closed on Sundays, meant I could eat beer nuts and Heath bars and play Centipede while my dad did work. Aside from the occasional trip to the lake most of the time my dad and I spent together involved picking me up on Sundays and taking me to a movie. He met Shari when I was eight or nine years old. She seemed to be the catalyst for him getting his act somewhat back together. He went back to school and became a nurse, that is pretty admirable. Basically she told him what to do and he did it. He needed someone to make his decisions for him. The drawback to that is that these decisions rarely took his children into consideration. I liked Shari, but I was somewhat leery. Still that year stability not only re-entered my life, but both of my parents as well. Dad and Shari bought a house with a pool, and being ten years old this bought my dad quite a few extra points with me. I was seeing him somewhat frequently. We would swim, and play games, and watch movies. R rated movies, which was my mother was unyieldingly strict about. This was the most consistent time between my father and me. Still we never really connected. He did not know how to talk to me and I was a little bit afraid of him. The way you’re afraid of any big, mysterious creature you’re not fully comfortable being around. Plus he never took an interest like a father should. Other than our visits every few weeks, he took no active participation in our lives.

As I mentioned before, after some time spent in “the nut house” as we eloquently refer to it in our family Alli was home and doing well thanks to a tremendous amount of medication. We do love us a good mood stabilizer in my family. After years of trying, and fighting, and starting over she felt she had found a school where she truly belonged, a school for the developmentally handicapped. Alli was fifteen at this point and you could go to this school until you were twenty-one. Renee was in college, and after one semester Pam decided to postpone college and travel the country singing with a band. With the girls gone it was just Mom, Jim, Alli, and I in the house most of the time. These were to be the most stable and seemingly normal years my family was ever to achieve. The four of us were almost the Cleavers. At least what the Cleavers would have been like if Beaver had worn pajama bottoms on his head and pranced through the yard singing show tunes, or if Wally had been a hypersensitive teen-aged girl doped up on Lithium. And if June said fuck a lot. When my mother hit mid-life she developed an affinity for foul language. By the time I hit my teens my newly designed family was intact and relatively stable! However, I still had school to contend with.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Girls

I am told that as a baby and a very young boy I was always saying “Toppit” (stop it), and “lee me lone” (leave me alone) to my sisters. They were always picking me up, showing me off, trying to be little mothers. They used to find me hiding behind a potted plant or our big itchy red chair and say “whatcha doing Boy,” and I’d say, “I’m moopin,” as I dropped a load into my diaper. In contrast, as I got a little older I was desperate for them to notice me. One night they were cooking dinner before mom came home. I could not have been more than seven or eight. Alli must have been strangely subdued that evening because I was the one being rambunctious. They told me that if I didn’t get out of their hair they were going to tie me up and put me in the closet. So naturally I started egging them on, practically begging for them to do it. And they did. They tied me to a kitchen chair and set me in the hall closet all of us laughing hysterically the whole time. Then I started to yell to them that I was thirsty so they squirted me with water, which just made me laugh harder and fall over. I heard my mom walk in the door and my three sisters getting the table ready. “Where’s Jake” she asked followed by a casual “oh he’s in the closet”. Talk about ironic foreshadowing. She must have heard me giggling so she opened the closet door and untied me. I guess that is a really weird story when you here it but it really is a happy memory for me, just Na, Pammy and I having fun together. I used to beg them to let me sleep in their room with them sometimes. They shared a big bedroom downstairs with its own bathroom that I inherited after they went off to college. Sometimes they would let me and I’d lie there and they would tell me stories about high school and all their teen-age friends and I thought I was just the coolest kid ever. I used to sit and watch Renee get ready for a date which for her involved full test runs of wardrobe make-up and hair before taking a shower and starting all over. Pammy used to hang me upside down by my feet and dip my head in the toilet; I didn’t care as long as they noticed me. My big sisters were the shit! End of story.

Renee is the oldest; she is nine years older than I am. When I was a kid she was a teenager with her own friends and her own life. We didn’t become really close as friends until I was eleven or twelve and she would come home from college for visits. That was when we bonded. We have exactly the same since of humor, to this day she remains more than just my sister; she is one of my best friends. When I was twelve I went to visit her at the University of Dayton. Now at this time I bore more than a striking resemblance to Fred Savage who played Kevin on “The Wonder Years” which was at the height of its popularity. Renee took me to a party on campus, and we told a whole bunch of people, who I know now were probably drunk off their asses that I was indeed Fred Savage and I’d be happy to give them an autograph. She also let me have some beer. Needless to say I went to bed that night thinking I was the hot stuff. In those days Renee tended to have big expectations of people. She had an idea of what life should be like and everyone should just follow suit. I’ve always been somewhat afraid of letting her down. When I was twelve she called home and I answered the phone and she told me to stop sounding like such a girl. That was the first time I recall ever having a fight with her. I don’t know if I’d had a particularly hard day defending my mannerisms or what but I wasn’t about to take it from my sister. I don’t remember exactly what words were exchanged or if my mother got involved or what but soon after I received a care package in the mail full of candy and a long letter from Renee telling me how much she loved me and was sorry. Of course I realize now what that was, she was becoming more and more certain of what I was and I’m sure it scared her. After all she was all of 22 and clearly knew her little brother was a huge fairy. Still, what my sisters thought of me held a lot of power, maybe a little too much, especially Pam.

In my young mind’s eye Pamela Cooper was the coolest person on the face of this earth, period, bar none! Pam is seven years older than I am and as a kid I worshipped her. She is one of the most talented people I know. She used to put on puppet shows for me. She would use different voices, and p.s. she made the freaking puppets. Two of them I remember distinctly were little beaded dolls she used called Pablo and Charlene and she would use a bizarre Mexican accent that made them both sound like Speedy Gonzalas. Pablo and Charlene would put on shows for me and I would roar with laughter, and go to sleep in awe. However I do blame her for one of my deep seeded phobias. When she was young Pam saved up her money and bought a marionette. I was absolutely never allowed to touch it, which of course made me obsessed with it. As a deterrent she told me it would come to life at night and walk around the house. Umm, that is still the most terrifying image I can conjure. When I was in college studying theatre we watched videos of the Bunraku, Japanese puppet theatre, I fled the classroom in a cold sweat. I can’t even watch The Lonely Goat scene in The Sound of Music. Pam also is one of the greatest singers you will ever hear, ever. She could have been huge. I used to go to her school plays and watch her in awe and vow that I would follow in her footsteps. Can I say it enough that I thought she was the coolest. In all actuality Pam was a troubled teen-aged girl whose home life was falling apart. She was the exact opposite of the way I saw her but to my young self she was a rock star. I craved her attention. One night that is forever seared into my memory is December 4, 1984. That was the night that Pam took me to see Cyndi Lauper in concert. Pam was sixteen, I was nine, and I thought I’d had arrived. There I was with my cool teen-age sister at a rock concert. She even spiked up my hair. I used to want so badly for her to notice how cool I was. I wanted to be just like her. Or at least what I thought she was. When I got a little older Pam told me that when I was a little boy she used to sneak into my room at night when I was asleep, get into my closet and smell my shirts. She was trying to freeze time so she’d always remember the innocence and sweetness of her baby brother. This story might seem a tad creepy to anyone not in our family, but to me it is so touching that it brings a tear to my eye. I cannot imagine a life without my big sisters; I love them so much. They have always, always been there for me. But I have to admit, with all that estrogen around, did I even have a chance? It was just understoof that for two nights out of the month iate dinner in my room, out of the firing zone so to speak, it was a hormonally charged atmosphere to grow up in.

We were never allowed to fight in the manner that normal siblings do. My mom grew up in a house so chaotic that any semblance of a brawl sent her over the edge, so we managed to fight subversively. It’s really just a matter of preying upon one’s fears isn’t it? For example, Renee is has some weird bird phobia, so what better way to sock it to her than to leave a dead bird on a paper plate on her pillow. Or say when someone crushes a Lego airport that took you weeks to put together, a good form of retaliation would be to use the sash of one’s Homecoming dress as toilet paper. You could keep these things from mom and still get your point across. I mean doesn’t everyone’s sister give them a series of rabbit punches to the kidneys and try to make herself pee on you if you try and tickle her legs.

Once Renee and Pam were having an argument about something so one of them, I can not say who or I'll be punished took a jumbo bobby pin, straightened it and actually speared a turd out of the toilet and chased the other through the house with it. I remember hearing the commotion, looking up to see them chase through the room then going right back to watching TV.