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.