I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy
In a world of my own at the back of the garden
I didn't want to compete, or play out on the street
For in a secret life I was a round head general- Left to My Own Devices, The Pet Shop Boys, 1988
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past...- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
It is sometimes hard for me to live in the present. Memories, both good and bad, suddenly decamp in the front of my head and crash into my present consciousness for apparently no reason. It is unnerving. At times there is a trigger- an old photograph, the sound of a song, the smell of a certain food, but often not. The memory is always sharp and vivid, but simultaneously it is hard to trust. Am I embellishing it, making it worse or better? Has years of therapy refashioned it into something different- a cause, a symptom, a displacement, a sublimation? As Susan Sontag might say I long for an erotics of memory, free of interpretation and reason. But, I guess as long as we are all castrated by language that is simply not possible except maybe in dreams and maybe not even then.
Coming across town on the M23 bus on my way home the other day I suddenly remember my first Halloween in New Jersey in 1975. That previous summer my family had moved from Brooklyn from a gang of block kids of all ages, playing stickball, kick the can, hide-n-seek to a New Jersey suburb with no sidewalks and 2 Waspy, preppy kids on my street who both went to a different school. There was no such thing as preppy in Flatbush.
My transition was not an easy one and that Halloween of 1975 I was alone without trick or treating companions. With nowhere to go, I still dressed up in costume as a pirate- eye patch, bandana, blue and white striped shirt, maybe a short sword; it’s a bit hazy, but I was definitely a pirate although not quite a swashbuckler.
When we moved to New Jersey my new room was decorated with a sailing ship theme which made more sense for my young queer self than my room in Brooklyn with its red, white and blue sports themed wallpaper. In my suburban bedroom where you could hear crickets at night, there was a feature wall covered with wallpaper in a blue background with outlines of maps and overlaid with images of ships, anchors, sextants and so on. The other walls (and here is the design genius of my mother) were covered in dark, faux wood paneling wallpaper hung horizontally like the planks of a ship. The decor of this room was eerily prophetic. Even at the age of 8, I was ensconced in my own metaphoric ship, a vessel alone amidst the vastness of the ocean, a pirate without a crew for trick or treating or finding buried treasure.
I am not sad anymore for that little boy who was all dressed up with nowhere to go except to his grandparent’s house. I don’t remember them being impressed as I stood in the kitchen feeling foolish. This memory has been digested, unpacked and understood, yet the prophecy of the ship room is still disquieting. And years later, when I read these lines by Roland Barthes about Jules Verne’s Nautilus it all made haunting sense now as then:
[A]ll the ships in Jules Verne are perfect cubby-holes, and the vastness of their circumnavigation further increases the bliss of their closure, the perfection of their inner humanity. The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable of all caves: the enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite- Roland Barthes, Mythologies
The Toy Soldier
There are other memories that when they emerge make me a bit sad, wistful- a brief watering of the eyes and then it is done. When I was 9 or maybe 10, I went with my biological father to visit my grandparents as I often did because if I was with them he would not have to interact with me by himself. And thankfully my grandmother was a loving woman in her own way who made the simplest tasks hysterically funny and eased my discomfort over her son.
Now to explain the differences between my parents and my biological father is not my intent here. Succinctly, I have a wonderful mother and father and I also have a biological father (once married to my mother) who was unreliable, emotionally distant and often absent throughout my life.
That weekend at my grandparents my biological father decided to go through his childhood toys which my grandparents had painstakingly preserved as if they realized that their son had not grown up to be a very nice adult. Perhaps they wanted to hold onto the image of his younger self through these childhood objects.
At first I thought my biological father was nostalgic about these toys. As a kid growing up in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, my he had amassed a vast collection of exceptional lead toy soldiers from England mostly knights- standing as well as on horseback and equipped with a myriad of weapons. And perhaps relating to Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, he had a huge cavalcade of British soldiers in red coats with tall bearskin hats and soldiers on horseback wearing silver helmets with white plumes and gleaming armored breast plates.
He lined up all of these figures on the living room rug and the unsaid implication was that I could look, but not touch. At 9 or 10 I coveted those soldiers, but knowingly did not expect my biological father to give them to me. Instead, I received the grey plastic knights with black and white armored plastic steeds which were also in the box. My biological father took the lead soldiers not for his pleasure or nostalgia, but to sell them for cash.
When my grandmother died a few years later, my biological father found her lambs wool jacket, a type popular in the 1950’s. Again seeing money rather than memory or love or meaning, he took it to the Ritz Thrift Shop where they sold second hand furs. They gave him $15 for it which I assume is less than he expected. Typically, he used the money to take a cab home to the Upper Westside. He told me this story without hesitation as if it was an amusing anecdote.
The College Freshman
In the fall of 1985 I entered Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Trinity’s campus is idyllic (or it was at that time); it resembles a storybook college with its neo-Gothic architecture, sprawling green lawns and large old trees. It was also at that time fairly conservative, “preppy” to use that antiquated term and small- anonymity was never an easy subject position there.
For some reason it never occurred to me that my queer 18 year old self might not exactly socially fit into this bucolic setting of ideal learning. But then as now, I am always passionate about accumulating knowledge (folly though it may be) and I was excited to enter a place where learning was more rigorous, more specialized, more complex and more valued.
On a social level, I naively assumed (and why I still don’t know) that when one went to college. one naturally fell in love. In my head at the time it was as if this very amorphous thing, love, just
happened. It would somehow find me at college despite the actuality of the school.
I can still remember that day in chem lab and watch it like a video clip in my head when _____ came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to dinner at the dining hall. Things went black or white or something. Unfortunately, the story never had much of a middle or an end despite its fantastical beginning, but it did have a New Order soundtrack. Mostly what followed was misunderstanding, frustration, disappointment, miscommunication and immaturity.
When this memory surfaces now, usually brought on by a (New Order) song (Why do teenagers always seek answers and solace in music?), I think of it as an amour fou like Breton’s Nadja. “…beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all…” I wasted time
and energy in that moment of my life. But there is still a small part of me buried deep that wishes it would have all gone differently and that those visions of white Adidas sneakers would have continued to dance in my head…