|Jul/Aug 2015 Nonfiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
I think we were all in love with Tony. Blond, feathered hair. Finely cut jaw. A body shaped like a college halfback's, and actually he had played high school football, though now he was a Theatre Teaching Assistant at our small Alabama college. Tony specialized in costumes and set designs. He could whip out headshot caricatures in minutes, a complete production scheme for And Mrs. Reardon Drinks A Little in less than a week. Though I was afraid it was beneath him, I asked him to draw the cover for our campus newspaper one week.
What he turned in the next day was a sketch of a sultry woman, facing front, cleavage three-quarters exposed.
After the newspaper hit the stands all over campus, I was standing in our student canteen ordering a cheeseburger. All the women behind the counter were in their sixties at least, and the usually smiling one in the horn-rimmed glasses and plaid-gray tunic who waited on me said:
"You're the editor of the paper aren't you?"
And then she dug out a copy from under the register.
"Cover her up!" Only it sounded like she said "coover."
Somehow she believed it was in my power to redo all the covers on a 1000-print run.
"Is it that bad," I asked.
"COOVER HER UP!"
Later at supper I told Tony about the incident, and he laughed:
"My harshest critics."
Amongst the other drama Tony was involved in that semester, not only did he design the set for The Boys in the Band, he played one of the sorrowful men in this production, one of the first American plays openly focusing on the lives of gay characters.
Tony wore beautiful cashmere sweaters and sturdy Frye boots. Often, he had a colored kerchief wrapped around his neck. He could play straight if he wanted to, but there was little reason to play what you weren't at our college, even in this particular place and time: the very strange mid-70's where Free Birds and Dancing Queens coexisted on the same radio dial. We were a very rural campus and a small student body. You might say there was room enough for all at our local inn.
I had many gay friends in college. There was no sure, certainly no straight path to these friends, and if I tried tracing that journey, I'd probably get lost. What I remember about my beginning, my freshman year, is that the campus newspaper editor, my friend Ron, dated a girl, Lynne, whose roommate Cheryl was in theatre. Cheryl and I became good friends and for a brief few days, lovers. But that was much later. Back in that freshman year, we'd eat supper together, the four of us, and sometimes I'd follow Ron to parties at James Rimel's house, or at Joanne's.
Joanne was a woman in her fifties, and I had seen her acting in Birmingham when I was still in high school. She was in The Festival Theatre's Night of the Iguana, and I don't know if she was good or not. All I really noticed during her performance was her Southern-slow manner of speaking, her overbite, and her long reddish braid. So when I arrived at college, she was one of the first people who stood out. She was widowed, had a college-aged daughter, and was living just off campus, finishing a degree she started thirty years earlier.
It was at Joanne's house, in my sophomore year, that I first met Tony who, on that night, seemed about as stuck on himself as anyone I'd ever met. He kept his sunglasses perched atop his head. He said nothing, but observed everyone. He was very clean-shaven. Very secure. Very attractive. I thought on that night that there'd be no way he and I would become friends. Usually, I read people so much better than that.
Our college was twenty-five miles south of Birmingham, in the "Geographic center of the state," which translated into the middle of nowhere. On weekends during my freshman year, I'd go back home to Bessemer, just thirty minutes away, because many of my high school friends would also return from Alabama or Auburn. In my sophomore year, though, as I became closer to the theatre kids, I found another world—life in the Birmingham bars, particularly the gay bars. In these days of early disco, the dancing, the music, the mystery, throbbed in clubs such as The Gizmo or Chances R. I really didn't know how to dance before that year, but after a little clubbing, that didn't matter either.
A few weeks into the semester, Tony loosened up, commanding the lunch and supper tables in our student cafeteria like he was Dorothy Parker. It was easy sitting in his presence as he cruised the guys in line, dished on those who were closeted or straight—all the posers and pretenders. We'd get to the cafeteria when it opened at 4:30 for supper, and leave only when the workers started putting chairs on tables. Often there were twelve or sixteen people listening and laughing as Tony held court. It was like if you were in his camp, nothing out of the cool could ever happen to you.
My roommate, Keith, didn't understand the attraction:
"But he's gay, right? Why are you so close to him?"
"Well, he's funny, and smart. I don't know, I guess I like him because he doesn't fit in here."
I could have said that about many people in our group, but I didn't realize then that other people were saying it about me.
Tony didn't have a car, but he organized all the weekend drives to the clubs. He also organized his own rides home with the guys he always picked up, the second most desirable guys at the club. Guys like my Social Work advisor, Tom.
The next night at supper Tony said to me:
"You knew Tom is gay, right?"
"Oh yeah, sure," I said, covering as best I could.
Was I jealous of Tony? Or in awe? Today, forty years later, I'd say "both," though back then I didn't see such complexities. I only saw Tony.
By the end of September, our group spent anywhere from three to seven hours together each day. It was like we were in high school, exploring the secrets of adolescence together.
One night Jada, Karen, Cheryl, Tony and I were riding around campus getting high. When we neared the girls' dorm, Tony turned to Cheryl and said, "Pull over here." She did, and then Tony said, "Now, I want to see the three of you kiss him. Give him your best." And without protest, first Cheryl, and then Karen, and finally Jada kissed me, each with great emphasis, though Jada lingered longer on my lips than I thought a girl with a boyfriend somewhere in Birmingham should have.
"That's very good," Tony said at the end. "Let's go," and Cheryl started the car. I was a good pal to the girls too, though at this time it was Karen I knew best. And on this night, I knew that Karen would rather be kissing Tony.
Maybe it's strange, or maybe not given who he was, but Tony never offered himself in that game. Neither did Karen tell Tony what she told Cheryl and me a few nights later:
"I had a dream last night that Tony wasn't gay!"
Her deer eyes grew even wider as she spoke. At that moment and, who knows, maybe for many moments after, I think she believed her dream.
It took me decades to understand that whatever we dream, whoever is in our dream, that person is almost always some manifestation of ourselves.
In Karen's dream it wasn't Tony who was no longer gay. Karen was dreaming about the part of her that she would one day truly play.
An arc of herself passing its other in the midnight of a dream.
Another midnight, another Friday, we're all dancing at The Gizmo, and unbelievably Tony hasn't picked anyone up yet. James has driven us tonight. James is in love with Karen, at least for this year. At least until he figures out how she feels about Tony, and how he himself feels about other men. Tonight, though, James and Karen seem like they could be lovers as they sit against each other in the front seat of James's purple and white '55 Chevy Bel-Air, while Tony, Cheryl and I huddle in the rear.
When I look back on us now, I wonder which one of us was writing this drama? Some plot points seem so obvious when you think about them. Like James and Karen fooling themselves with each other. Like Tony asking me to dance.
These are the days when straight people are investing in "the Bump," a dance I find boring, even worse than the "Bus Stop." Group dancing is no way to get you noticed, and being noticed is what we're all seeking at The Gizmo.
After enough pot, I'm uninhibited enough to free form, trying to match whatever the floor is up to. I want to be cool, to be part of something greater than just me. So when Tony asks me, I think cool means showing everyone that I will free form with guys. The DJ is spinning hotter and hotter songs, and as Tony and I take the floor, the singing voice is pleading,
"Where did you come from Bay-beh? How did you know I needed you so badly?"
Before I know it, Tony is bumping me, and I relax into it. It all seems so easy in this moment, the disco ball shimmering, the "little gay boys and girls," as Tony liked to say, spinning right round and round us.
After the bar, we drive me back to my parents' house. Tony, for some reason, doesn't want to return to college tonight, so I invite him to stay with me.
"I just have the one bed though," I say.
"Your parents won't mind?"
"No, why should they?"
All through high school, my best friends had spent nights with me in the four-poster deep mahogany bed I inherited from my grandmother.
Sleep came quickly as it often does when you don't fall into bed until 3 am. The next morning, my mother cooks us a nice breakfast of French toast and bacon. While she's cooking, Tony whispers to me, "See, I can sleep with another guy without trying anything."
"Sure you can," I say.
I've always pretended to myself that I'm not naïve. But even as he confessed, or complimented himself, it still hadn't dawned on me that Tony had ever, would ever see me as anything but a friend, a running mate, someone to amuse himself with before the real action started.
When James and Karen appear later that morning, Tony leaves like nothing has happened. And of course, it really hasn't.
A month later on New Year's Eve, Cheryl and I are walking around outside of The Gizmo. Standing on Birmingham's Southside, our shadows arcing over a busy 8th Avenue, we're taking a break from "The Bar," as we call it. Even a gay bar can be stifling, restrictive. All aired out, on our way back up 22nd Street, we glance over at the parking lot across the street from the bar.
Where Tony is making out with my best childhood friend Jimbo in the front seat of my father's car, which I had borrowed but not exactly for this specific scene.
"C'mon," Cheryl says. "Let's go back inside."
I brought Jimbo with me this night to meet my friends, my very wild friends. I thought we'd all have fun. For some reason I thought we'd all be friends, not lovers. Just for one night.
I knew Jimbo had a checkered past with girls. Extremely cute, he had always gotten any girl he wanted, and there were quite a few, including one older, married woman. He wasn't very masculine; he was never athletic or interested in what most guys our age liked. Jimbo read Dune in 7th grade, and had just given me a copy of The Magus for Christmas.
Sometimes you know what a person likes, what that person is, before you ever realize you know it. So when I see Jimbo and Tony alone in my father's Buick Special, I'm not surprised. Mainly, what I am is numb.
"You know your friend is gay," Tony says when he re-enters the bar, and all I can think of is that I'm the kind of guy who must be perpetually told that his closest friends and trusted advisors are gay. As if I'm stupid or disbelieving, or possibly homophobic.
"I know he's gay. We've talked."
Actually we hadn't, but we did on the drive home. Jimbo was as relieved as I've ever seen him when I told him it didn't matter to me, to us. We had been through too much already: high school theatre; acid trips; and the older woman, someone we both had trusted. He had once called me "moralistic," when I disapproved, and maybe I was. But not about his being gay.
So I felt fine about Jimbo, but what did I feel about Tony?
Tony didn't give me or any of us time to sort him out, because just before winter term started, he announced that he was moving to California. He said he would be working for Bob Mackie, the guy who designed all of Cher's outfits. I never knew if that was true or not; I don't know even now whether I believed it or not, but I do know that Karen, for one, did.
We all drove him to the airport; we saw him collect his ticket out of Alabama and our lives. The five of us—Karen, Cheryl, Jada, James, and I—watched him walk up the breezeway in those days when security was lax; those days before the many forms of terror gripped us. He looked back only once, and waved as if he were only going home for the night with another beautiful boy. We waited until we saw the plane taxi away.
Lives end on airport tarmacs in ways you never imagine they will.
A few months after he left, Jada told me this:
"Tony and I had a bet to see which one of us would have sex with you first."
"Looks like you won," I said.
I thought about the fact that I had slept next to Tony and that he hadn't tried anything. Maybe he could sense the way it would have turned out, or maybe he always knew that though I loved him, I wouldn't have "loved" him. It's funny though; I never thought of Tony as one to pass up a chance. As one to not risk it all for what he might have had.
When a group loses its center, the void has to be filled somehow. Karen and Jada and Cheryl and James and I grew distant for a while. I'm not sure how they spent the weekend after Tony left, but I know what I did.
I called Tom.
He had not only come out to me, he had also told me that two-thirds of the Social Work faculty were gay. That my current Methods professor was in a long-term relationship with a woman in the Biology department, which explained why that professor was always passing on Op-Ed columns from her lover for me to print in the paper.
"Are you planning to go to the bar this weekend?"
"Maybe... why do you ask?"
"If you go, can I go with you?"
"Sure Terry. I'll let you know."
I should have known by his voice.
Tom called back the next day and said he'd pick me up Saturday night about 7. We'd go to The Cadillac Café first for pizza, he said. Another friend, Jack, would be going too.
I wasn't sure what I was asking, what I wanted, why I wanted to go without the girls. All I can say now is that I wanted to be in spaces where Tony used to be, and the dance floor of The Gizmo seemed primal. Yes I missed him, and yes, in a way, I longed for him. It was a way I've never fully understood.
Because I don't find male bodies attractive. I don't trust men with intimacy, much less sex. Men are crude and violent, and I know too many men who've gone too far. Who haven't stopped when a reasonable person would have.
I also know that ever since I entered adolescence, just seeing a woman's legs stirred me up. Those Gold-Digger dancers on "The Dean Martin Show" for instance: their costumes, their movements turned me on so much I had to lay on my stomach on my parents' den floor so they wouldn't see the positive effect. On many Saturday afternoons, I'd squat behind the magazine racks at our local newsstand sneaking looks at Playboy and Ace Magazine, while I was supposedly deciding on comic books. And I used to stand beneath staircases in junior high to watch girls like Jean Anne and Becky walk upstairs. My eyes were filled with desire for all those beautiful legs.
Yet I've also danced with men in gay bars.
Tom appeared in my doorway that night at 7. He stood there silently, watching me for a few moments before I saw him. His eyes were different that night, slanting, coy.
"I'm ready," I said. I had dressed in white jeans and a matching white cotton sweater. I was trying to be attractive.
The drive up, the pizza, the conversation among the three of us: I don't remember a bit of it. I sat in back, I know that. I never made any semblance of an overture.
At the bar, as Tom visited with friends, as Jack wandered in the flow, I stood in the crowd: "The meat rack," they called it. Soon, I noticed that the man standing in front of me was in slow, almost imperceptible stages inching backwards. Yet, I realized what he was doing only when he pushed his backside against me. He gyrated for a few minutes, pushed harder, and I stood frozen, pretending it was OK, pretending I was part of this:
"I could take you in easy
That's just half the fun, oh boy
Keeps me on the run... "
When he finished or realized that I wasn't responding in the way he hoped, he reached around, patted my leg, and moved away.
I've always remembered that pat on my leg. I've always been thankful for it.
I walked over to Tom then, wanting to be next to someone I knew. And I knew I was missing Tony, but as I scanned the crowd, the congestion, and as I smelled the scent of poppers everywhere, I noticed, finally, that Tony's space was missing. That he really was gone.
"What would you say if I said 'let's go home,'" Tom asked.
"I'd say great!"
And I'm sure you know that we were arcing in very different directions.
I assume Tom figured it out when I got into the back seat again. He and Jack were quiet, anyway, on the ride home, and Tom dropped me back at the dorm.
"Thanks for taking me," I said, explaining nothing to him or even to myself.
We never discussed that night, though Tom remained my advisor until he quit the college. I switched majors to English, but Tom switched careers and spaces. Once, when I was working in DC for a semester in the Congressional mailroom, I got a letter from him. He told me that life in Atlanta was much more open than in Birmingham. He said he could truly be himself there and was living a good life.
I was glad for him. I wrote back, though he never wrote again.
But that was one letter more than Tony ever wrote.
Is it strange that I should long for a man who wanted to sleep with me, but at his best opportunity, chose not to? Did I long for him because, no matter what, in his space I felt safe? Protected?
For months after Tony left, I watched the credits on "The Sonny and Cher Show" to see if his name might appear after Mackie's. But it never did.
If he had made it, it would have been kind of miraculous. I gave up, finally, looking for him.
Is a miracle still a miracle if you never see it happen? Or hear from it again? Or is it simply one of those almost unnoticed tremors in your pulse that cause you to pause and wonder what is happening to you now, and forever?