I was never good at being like other boys. I was often lost in daydreams and didn’t know how to make friends. When the other neighborhood kids were outside playing Keep Away I was alone in my room listening to music. But I didn’t really recognize that I was different until my family experienced a crisis. Then my differences were all I could see.
We’d recently moved from Minnesota to Iowa. I was ten years old, and found myself alone on the hospital bed, watching a muted television mounted high on the wall, waiting for my parents to return. Time crept at a glacial pace and the waiting felt unendurable. I’d been told to stay put until my brother came out of surgery. When I heard the familiar lilt of my mother’s voice I peeked out the door and saw her down the hall, her head against the glass of a window, peering into a room. She looked so worried and so distant. My father stood at the other end of the window, pinching the bridge of his nose, ears red and shoulders shaking. The way they stood so far apart and their anguished postures frightened me. I called out and waved. Seeing them this way sparked my own worry for my brother, causing tears to rise. I began to run toward them but an adult I didn’t recognize intercepted me. Not now, I was told. As I was ushered back to the room with the silent TV, I glanced again at my mother staring into the glass partition, her hand covering her mouth as the door closed.
Each day my mother stood in the same spot, peering through the glass at my brother. Everything felt uncertain in the silent spaces of the hospital. I heard words like miracle and recovery when they talked about my brother’s surgery but I wasn’t sure what had happened. I watched my parents closely. They became the barometer from which all things would be gauged. I was sent to a friend’s house at night while they stayed at the hospital. I remember being sat down by an adult and told it was time to man up. I’d need to be strong for my parents. I would need to be more like my brother. The words released a tremor of panic in my belly. They seemed to indicate some deficit in me that was apparent to everyone except myself.
I began having nightmares. In these dreams killer bees from South America invaded my home, the world I knew vanishing into a fiery swarm. During the long daytime hours spent waiting at the hospital, the hive in my mind wouldn’t stop buzzing; I began to write and draw comic books. My hero, Youngblood, battled whatever tried to tear him down, and always won. When I saw my parents, I tried to show them what I’d created but they seemed to be someplace else. Tending to my brother’s recovery left little time for anything else. My mother, her eyes leaden, whispered “that’s nice, honey,” and paced the hospital hall. They needed me to be quiet, to slink away. I tried to be good, to remain in the distance. I told myself I’d become what my parents wanted, the child they needed me to be.
Just as I began to refashion myself into a good son I discovered my attraction to other boys. Specifically, I began to fixate on a neighborhood kid down the block. I walked by his house multiple times a day, needing suddenly to stop and tie my shoe in front of his house each time, hoping to catch a glimpse of him playing ball in the yard. My passion for him felt uncontainable, and I dreamed up scenarios that almost always started with exposing an emotional secret and most definitely ended in an accidental embrace.
But I knew enough not to share this fantasy. My Iowa town was sports-centric, provincial, and frowned upon any kind of “otherness.” Boys were supposed to be aggressive. Nothing was worse than being seen as a “fag.” I’d heard about the kinds of violence inflicted on effeminate boys. Even at my young age I was becoming acutely aware that, on the surface, I fit some of the stereotypes that that word conjured: I was artistic and a sensitive loner; I cared more for music than sports. I knew my frequent walks by my neighbor’s house could elicit rumors ending with me spitting out a mouthful of blood so I began to enact elaborate tactics, performed psychic contortions to keep that part of myself hidden, to ensure my attraction wouldn’t be discovered. I practiced my walk, the way I talked. I contorted myself into the image of what I thought boys were supposed to be, keeping anything that could expose my attraction at arm’s length.
In my desperate attempts to keep my secret I learned to shut everyone out, to become as closed as a fist. I found solace in comic books, in superheroes—not because they were archetypes of masculinity but because I was fascinated with the dual lives they were forced to live. There was a part of them that could not be known, a private place within themselves that contradicted their public self. Peter Parker was meek and studious. Clark Kent, shy and awkward. Both harbored a secret no one would expect. I spent long hours at my childhood desk, consuming page after page, fingertips dark from the smeared print. I stared so closely at the images of costumed men that the pixels seemed to flit and shudder, as if the colored dots were the molecules that made up the flesh of my heroes, as if there were a secret life inside each frame.
First, darkness. Then a faint twinkle appeared from the black. Softly, slowly, light rose from nothing until tiny radiant beads speckled the darkness. Suddenly the night sky fell into place just before me as I sat low in the reclined cushioned chair, and Jimmy, my classmate, dipped his head onto my shoulder, his warm, steady breath brushing my cheek.
“There’s Betelgeuse in Orion’s left shoulder and Rigel is his foot,” a voice said from nowhere, everywhere. A red dot appeared against the stars indicating where we should look. “And once you recognize Orion, you can remember that Orion’s Hunting Dogs are always nearby. Then you might recognize the two bright stars in the upper and lower left as Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius in Canis Major.”
Jimmy grabbed my hand, squeezed. I swung my feet trying to graze the floor below as I searched this replica of night to see the shapes the voice suggested were there. In the darkness I felt Jimmy turn his body toward me and drape his arm over my belly. I placed my hand over his arm, securing the comfort it provided. Behind us, I heard Tim and Bobby’s muffled laughter, then a fart, followed by an explosive, collective howl from the whole class. Mrs. Gettings had told everyone before leaving for the Planetarium field trip that if we acted up she’d cancel second recess and snack time the next day. She shushed them from across the aisle and then she shuffled herself over, moved Bobby and then sat between them. “You’re in the fourth grade now,” she whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, “and too old for these shenanigans.”
The sky above began to rotate, the stars tilted, leaving me slightly dizzy with excitement. A shooting star sliced the sky. The Aurora Borealis shrouded the stars in ripples and waves of day glow ember. Everything up there seemed tumultuous, mysterious, alive.
Jimmy concentrated his attention solely on me, disinterested in and almost unaware of the makeshift sky above. I remember the comfort and secrecy of the dark room as his fingers clasped my own, his breath warming my neck. He stole a quick kiss and my body came alive. I remember in that moment, with him by my side, what my young mind could only translate as warmth and well-being and pleasure. I was able to forget all the things I could never be, all the parts of me I didn’t like.
And then, when the stars faded and the lights came on, our classmates witnessed our embrace. They pointed and screamed a salvo of insults. I remember the mocking taunts as they peered down at us, calling us “faggots” and “fairies.” I looked to Ms. Gettings, hoping she’d put an end to their jeers, but when we locked eyes I only saw her disgust for me. I wondered, as my fingers broke away from Jimmy’s, and our faces jointly filled with shame, how everything that felt right under the stars could be so wrong.
Not long after that my brother was well enough to come home for a visit from the hospital. I wrote a letter to Casey Kasem at America’s Top 40 radio show, asking him to dedicate the song “Never Surrender” to my brother. I listened to the radio that Sunday, then every Sunday, while dressing for church, wearing the corduroy slacks my mother liked, but the letter was never read and the song was never dedicated. I tried to alleviate some of my parents’ stress by doing the things my brother was known to do. I tried out for sports, and pretended to like watching Monday Night Football. I hoped if I could conform to this idea of masculinity I’d be able to make things go back to normal. But I couldn’t help them shake free from their worry. And although no one said it, I assumed everyone saw me as a failure. I was ashamed of being doughy (I was the kid who wore his t-shirt swimming) and was sometimes mistaken for a girl. I grew to hate my inability to fit in, how I let my family down for not being the son I assumed they wanted me to be.
At school my loneliness swelled like a hunger. I refused to talk to or be seen with Jimmy again. I did everything I could to distance myself from him. When I wasn’t the target of my classmates’ spontaneous games of Smear the Queer I could be found telling elaborate lies, insatiable for crumbs of attention. I told my classmates that the pop singer Rick Springfield was my uncle. I ripped a picture of him out of Teen Beat magazine and signed it, “To my favorite nephew, Ryan.” On our Iowa playground students gathered around me as I spun tale after tale of near brushes with fame: how I was supposed to play Elliott in the movie E.T. and it wasn’t until Henry Thomas auditioned last minute that the part was taken from me. We all stood near the cornfields that outlined the perimeter of the playground, tall stalks whipping the dry wind. My classmates looked at me, then at each other, unsure how to respond.
When my family went to church on Sundays, I prayed that God would change me. But there I sat, still different no matter how many Hail Mary’s I whispered or disguises I secured. My brother slowly regained his health and my parents their emotional equilibrium. From my limited perspective my family was returning to normal but I was stuck in the newfound awareness of my differences.
I began observing another family in the first row pew each week. The parents were young and attractive. Their daughter, the oldest child, was beautiful but distant. The brother, my age, sat in a wheelchair. The parents doted over him, wiped the saliva from his lips, adjusted his leg braces. I didn’t want to be caught staring at him so instead I focused on his sister and, as the weeks passed, her gradual transformation. Her attire darkened until she wore only black, and the expression on her face toughened until she stared out bitterly at the priest giving his sermon. There was an incandescent gloom about her that fascinated me. I thought of her as the Black Orchid from my comic books, a master of disguise, carrying with her all her complexities. I did not yet know that, like her, when I got older I would resist being defined by things I did not chose.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I was able to articulate the differences between identity (how we think of ourselves), behavior (what we do), and perception (how others think of us). Yet in those brief moments at church as a child I saw a glimpse of how I could live a life not strictly determined by how I assumed others perceived me, but more often by how I thought about myself. I wouldn’t have to see myself as compartmentalized identities, or flee, discard, or slink away from the parts of myself I hated. Antiquated concepts of masculinity wouldn’t define me. Sitting in the church pew I didn’t have words for any of that. All I knew was a sense of security watching a Black Orchid in what I imagined to be a field of daisies.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.