Monday, November 15, 2010

The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys / chapter 1

And the man in the suit has just bought a new car On the profit he’s made on your dreams. . . . . . But spirit is something that no one destroys And the sound that I’m hearing is only the sound Of the low spark of high heeled boys. . . .

The first pair of boy’s underwear I ever wore was after nearly drowning on the Oregon coast. I was eighteen and had just driven to the coast in my ‘64 Bel Air station wagon with my new best friend, my first best friend who was gay. We made this trip specifically so that he might help me redefine my life in terms I could understand. It was like this. From the day we met, my best friend and I did everything together. We went to the underage dance clubs, drooled over the same guys, swapped clothes, we even slept together (it was the wall next to his bed, not mine, that had to be cleaned the morning after I got sick on sloe gin), we did everything but . . . you know. So one day I just came out with it. “This is great, what we have,” I said, “but . . . I need sex.” Next thing there we were, me, my best friend, and his friend, all sleek with teenage hormones, all strolling along the sand in the sun at Seal Rock on the first day of our weekend together at the beach.

It feels strange, this arrangement, but the boy is tall, taller than me, and I like the sound of his voice, soft and deep, and the look of his fingers, strong, smooth. So, at some inevitable point, my potential boyfriend and I link hands and wade out into the shallow surf. My jeans are rolled thigh-high, the thrill of the surf rising up my legs, and I like the feel of his fingers interlaced with mine, so I let the boy continue holding my hand as we walk out further, further, and I’m starting to think the situation looks pretty good when the bottom falls out -- literally. It’s water water water and when I surface the boy has swum ashore and is yelling toward the ocean, "Swim! Swim!" Now, I suppose I should have known that the boy getting quickly to shore meant we weren’t that far out, but from my sea level vantage point it seems a very long way, bobbing as I am in small waves much bigger and taller than my tiny head, and the instruction to swim struck me, in that moment, much the same way that a psychiatrist’s later admonition would strike me -- “You need to learn adult skills," he said -- like this could help me while I’m in over my head.

I can’t swim, not anchored as I am by the weight of water-soaked denim and flannel, and I can’t get my arm high enough to signal for help. So, I begin paddling -- like a dog -- paddling and panting, I-believe-in-God-I-believe-in-God-I-believe-in-God. I didn't. At least I hadn’t up to that point. The shore is impossibly distant. God isn’t helping. So I do the next best thing: strip. I’ve unzipped my jeans and I’m struggling to yank them off when my toes touch sand. I drag out of the sea like some half-dressed, half-drowned Venus on the half shell, the red letters of my T-shirt still announcing my game before I arrive: “flirt!” Years later I would see the sign warning of sinkholes, right there for any idiot to read, which pretty much describes how my life went in the two decades following high school. So captured was I by the vision of what I wanted, what I needed, what could be, that I missed the obvious warning signs, such as the fact that I was dragging myself out of the surf without any offers of assistance. I noticed, of course, but this awareness did not keep me from getting involved with the boy -- or from having sex -- for then, as now, I plunged ahead like a teenager in love (or lust, anyway) certain that the surface of things reflected what they actually were. One way or another, that’s a lesson we all get to learn.

We three teenagers drove to the tiny trailer where we were to stay. It had no shower and no hot running water, but it was dry and when I was dry, too, my best friend gave me some of his clothes: a red and blue striped pullover that made me look like a ten-year-old boy, Levis that were two inches too short but rode just right around the hips, and white, size 28 shorts. Jockey shorts. The kind with the wide elastic waistband and the double flap in the front, the flap that fascinates girls until they grow into women and begin washing their live-in boyfriend's laundry. I liked them instantly. With my skinny thighs and teenage hips, these undershorts fit me good good good.

The postcard on Frank’s refrigerator read, “He/She was the man/woman of his/her dreams.” Above that caption, a cartoon rendering of two tall dark and hairy-but-oddly-good-looking men in low-cut dresses, pearls, and lipstick. Next to the postcard was a printed invitation to “D-Day,” which proclaimed itself to be a food-provided, dress-as-you-are, BYOB affair: “bring your own booze, boy, bio-pic, or batting average.” Staged on the Labor Day weekend, Drag Day -- or D-Day -- was the last blow-out-all-the-stops party before school. School meant the end of travel, summer visitors, and long weekends with the gang. School meant thirty-five children to teach and keep in line. But most important of all for Frank, who is both a dedicated teacher and a big kid-at-heart, school meant back to the closet.

Each year, D-Day would find men in various stages of undress and gender bending vying for a view of themselves in the triptych mirror that hugged the length of Frank's bathroom wall, a bathroom transformed just for the occasion into a performers' dressing room. On this particular D-Day, just outside the door, a crop-haired woman in a man’s tuxedo could be seen squinting into a video camera and lobbing questions at the primping men. In front of the camera and at the exact center of the mirror, waist sucked in and chest pressed out, stood Garrett dressed in pantyhose, a half-slip, and a bra. He/She leaned deep into her own reflection, making the face women have made for centuries when applying their eye make-up: mouth rounded and stretched downward; Edvard Munch’s The Scream in drag. Garrett was always Dolly. This year Dolly Parton would be clothing her enormous rice bag titties in gold lame, but right now she was busy painting her forehead -- white from lashes to hairline -- and arching a pencil-thin Marlene Dietrich line much higher and wider than her own whited-out, unplucked brow. Dolly grinned big for the camera and declared in a Southern falsetto, "Get that thing outta here, or Ah'll flash ya one!" Then she laughed, a big pink-mouthed laugh that flashed teeth as big and yellow as hominy.

Frank, who stood on Garrett, er, Dolly’s right, had had a thing for Peter, Paul, and Mary since high school -- well, Mary actually. “I didn't want to screw her,” he used to say, “-- well, who did? -- I wanted to be her.” Tonight Mary stood in a bath, er, dressing room with two other men, thrusting her head forward like a box turtle, swaying it side to side as she vied for a piece of the mirror. Mary’s ruler-straight blond wig hung just past her man's shoulders but not to her full Playtex bra. Her eyes blink-blink-blinked beneath the long blunt-cut bangs and her hands flicked at the acetate tresses in the same way teenage girls say, “You know?” Frank’s Mary voice, high-twanged and school-girl-giddy, said "I don't want no one to see my panties!" Then he/she raised his/her hemline to tug on said panties and moon the camera. She and Dolly crack up. Big, deep belly guffaws. So unladylike.

The camera turned toward Jose, who sat quietly in a kitchen chair against the wall. Although Garrett and Frank had done the dress-up, lip-synch, drag thing dozens of times, always as Dolly and Mary, this was Jose’s first. He was doing it for Frank, he said. Jose, unlike Dolly and Mary, wore no wig. Falling nearly to his shoulders in waves of natural curl -- somehow more masculine for its length and beauty -- Jose’s dark hair framed a clean-shaven face bare of make-up. No bra hugged his lightly haired chest, although it would have to for him to transform into a torch song chanteuse. For now, though, Jose sat in his chair, nude, legs crossed at the hip, right over left, toes flexed and calf extended. Slowly he drew the razor toward himself, shaving the lower half of his right leg, and as he did his soft tenor voice narrated for the camera. "I am preparing for my North American debut as a singer-dancer,” he said quietly. “This is my first time in front of an audience." With a final stroke of the razor, Jose raised and then lowered his lashes. So demure. He pointed to the small triangle of fuzz at the juncture of his crossed thighs. Deadpan, one note higher: "This is my pussy.” Dolly and Mary bust up again, the big laughter of boys playing dress up.

He was crying when he called from jail. When he talked the next day at school, he was back to his old self, running on like a tape-loop voiceover, the one from an animated short he took me to at Cinema 21, the one with the heavy back beat and the voice that yells, “Hello, Dad? I’m in jail. Hello, Dad? I’m in jail. I like it here.”

My first openly gay friend and I became best friends my last year in high school. Rob, we’ll call him Rob, introduced me to classic black and white movies, the Animation Film Festival at Cinema 21, and Patti Smith, reigning Queen of Punk in the late ‘70s. We met when he sat next to me one afternoon on an airport-style ottoman in the student commons. I was an Oregon Scholar senior skipping chemistry. He was a scruffy-looking junior who clearly spent most of his time outside of class. Depressed and irritable, I was giving off the don’t-bother-me vibe, but he walked right over in his torn jeans and his uncombed wire-brush hair, hair that alternated between being matted down and sticking straight out, sat down right next to me and said, “Some people are over the line.”

“They are,” I said, both a question and a statement.

“Yes,” he said, “on a different side.” And then he gave me one of those loopy grins I would come to think of as his trademark and drew a line in space. “Here’s where most people are,” he said. Then he pointed to another point in space somewhere off the continuum. “And some people are over here. That’s where I am, over the line.” It was the ‘70s, like I said, and it wasn’t the thing back then to come out of the closet in high school. It certainly wasn’t in vogue. Hell, it just wasn’t done. All the same, I knew what he meant, gay, which meant no come-on line; he just wanted a friend. Okay. I let him stay, and soon we were inseparable. Now, I don’t know if I was the first best friend he ever had who was a girl, but for sure Rob was my first best friend who was a gay guy. I make this point because of an odd experience I had not long ago. In getting to know another woman at a party, I indicated that the man I’d arrived with was my best friend. The woman looked confused and then said, “But he’s gay.” Yes, I said, now confused as well. Her face cleared up when she said, “You mean he’s your best gay friend,” as if a person might have a wardrobe of best friends from differing categories. “No,” I said, “He’s my best friend. He’s also gay.” I’ve had a number of best friends over the years -- I’m a best friend kind of girl -- and these best friends have been male and female, gay and straight, intellectual snobs and partying fools, white people and brown; some have disappeared the way people do as circumstances change, some remain Christmas-card friends, some suddenly decided we were enemies, and some have died. The woman at the party made several other attempts at defining best friend categories for me, and then she sighed and told me she was from Utah. I laughed. I laughed because I liked her and hoped we would be friends, and I laughed because I have to laugh whenever others feel the need to edit or reduce the terms of my life to simplistic categories. It was a need for simple categories that had landed my high school friend in jail.

Rob’s favorite place was Mildred’s Ballroom, an underage gay disco housed in the old Knights of Pythian building in downtown Portland. Sometimes he took me with him. Sometimes I danced with a girl, if one asked me. And whenever Rob went to Mildred’s, he wore his favorite boots: thigh high, spike-heeled, shiny patent leather boots. Every once in awhile, he’d complain about how hard it was to walk in them, to which I would snort, “Tell me about it!” Like all teenage girls at the disco end of the ‘70s, I was a veteran of the strappy, spike-heeled, platform sandal made of solid wood. Like I said, my best friend and I shared just about everything. The night he got pulled over he was just outside the disco, and sitting next to him in his black Rambler sedan was a regular from Mildred’s, a crop-haired bleached blonde with dark roots. (Hello, Dad?)

It’s after midnight, so the cop snaps, Outta the car, which is when he sees those boots, those leather-sexual-fantasy boots, and he starts rapid-fire, first about my friend, Where you been? Where you headed? then about the girl, Is she really a girl? Has she always been a girl?

Hello, Dad? I’m in jail!

As a college undergrad I spent ten weeks in New York City on an arts and culture study where I was not completely ready for all the culture I would encounter. My first lesson came in the form of schooling in a new set of street rules. The most important rule I learned by returning the smile of a good-looking man; he followed me for three blocks. Now Manhattan blocks are easily four times the size of any city block from my neck of the woods, and unlike the men in smaller cities such as Portland, this one would not take my backside nor my determined walk as an answer. Finally, I gave up, whirled around, and half yelled half pleaded, “Why are you following me? Quit following me!”

“But,” he said, “you smiled at me.”

I blinked.

“I’m from the West Coast. We smile at everyone.”

Newly chastised about the devastating power of my feminine smile, I decided to explore the city to find a spot where I might feel at home, and I found it in the Village. I spent many happy hours writing in the coffee shops and parks there. Then one sunny afternoon as I sauntered down the street, a good-looking man walking toward me on the sidewalk smiled. I looked over my shoulder. No one behind me. Then another man smiled at me as he walked by. I did a quick mental inventory: no make-up, dressed in my favorite Hammer-style pants and one of Cliff's shirts, a pale plaid number from some ‘50s sitcom; braless, but that couldn’t be it since I was so thin my breasts didn’t bounce; new haircut, sheared short just the day before at a Village barbershop that specialized in haircuts for punks, but I hadn’t bothered to style it that day. In other words, I hadn't gotten any better looking than the day before when no man had smiled. I knew the rule. They knew the rule.

As I pondered this, another man smiled -- a beautiful man. This time I smiled back. He didn't follow me. After that, all the men seem to be smiling at me and I'm smiling back, feeling sassy, feeling like my old West Coast self again, thinking, Why are all these men suddenly giving me the eye, the once over, the look? After all, this is the Village and these guys are . . . . And then it hits me. They think I'm a boy!

I stayed in New York only a short time, less than three months, but I missed the arts and culture as soon as I returned home. So I got a night job ushering at the local performing arts center, where I was paired with an usher who was a schoolteacher by day -- closeted, naturally -- a mild man with salt and pepper hair and a quiet disposition. He not only showed me the ropes but, by way of example, an understated and impeccable standard of usher etiquette as well.

Between curtain time and intermission, ushers have very few duties and so most would sit in on the show or talk in the hallway. Patrons were one subject of conversation. For example, an opera regular in the second balcony was a middle-aged, not terribly attractive man who attended each show as a conservatively dressed matron. With her bland beige dresses, the braided belts that snaked around her apple middle, her low-heeled pumps, and the snapped-shut handbag that hung from her elbow, this matron was as badly dressed as anybody's auntie from the old country. But she was composed and courteous and we felt a kind of protective affection for her. Still, after seating our old-country auntie, the schoolteacher and I often found ourselves remarking ruefully on her sense of style, her choice of color -- does beige even count as a color? -- not to mention the grandma-style wig that lay matted and fuzzy around the edges. She was far too easy to spot as a cross-dresser, and we wanted nothing so badly as to take her out for a makeup session or to buy her a more flattering frock. Of course we couldn’t say this.

One night after seating our auntie, my trainer exited the auditorium door with a mime-white face, his eyes and mouth stretched as wide and long as the Minister of Morality in La Cage Aux Folles at the exact moment he realizes he has, with one feather-boa-wrapped gesture, sunk his entire political career.

He looked at me and said, "I called her sir.”

"You what?"

"She had trouble with her heels, you know, the carpeting and the narrow stairs, so I held her elbow to steady her, helped her to her seat, and when she said thank you, I said” -- and at this point his face sunk like a punctured beach ball -- “You're welcome, sir.”

"Do you have any Jockey briefs like these in medium?"

"We have this kind," said the sales clerk. She pulled out a three-roll pack of briefs with various colored stripes.

"No, I like solid colors," I said. "Those are the right colors, but I don't do stripes. You have the briefs I want in small and large, but I need a medium."

The clerk looked up from the roll of shorts in her hand. "My small days are over," I said.

"Are these for your boyfriend? husband?" she said, both doubtful and hopeful. I flash on Cliff, who was then my live-in partner. He’d have a field day with this.

"They're for me."

"They're . . . for you." It was a question, but it didn't sound like one. The clerk continued holding the tube of striped Jockey briefs, the kind without the flap.

"I've always had skinny thighs," I said. "These fit better than women's underwear ever did." The clerk set the three-pack back on the table.

"Did you know they make Jockey for women now?" she said.

"Look, if I buy a pair of women's underwear, Jockey or otherwise, I might as well buy a thong because that's what they're going to turn into as soon as I move. Know what I mean?"

"Uh," she shifted from one foot to the other, looked at the cash register. No one was waiting.

"I found the colors I want in the bikini, but I prefer the regular briefs. Do you have them in back stock?"

"I've just never heard that before," she said.

My lunch hour was ticking away. "Would it make you feel better if I told you they were for my husband? Okay. They're for my husband. Now do you have them?"

It's a straight party, and when Cliff and I enter the room no one recognizes us. This seems odd because I am wearing no make-up, no mask, and no glasses -- I forgot the Groucho Marx glasses I’d meant to wear -- and in a suit, fedora, and eye-pencil mustache, I am so lightly disguised as to be, for Halloween anyway, naked. So there we stand in the archway as the whole room laughs, all their pink college-kid mouths stretched wide: me a down-at-the-heel but nonetheless dapper Italian man in a plaid suit and striped suspenders escorting a hot babe clad in a clingy blue knit that sweeps up into a turtleneck and down into a hip-hugging, knee-length dress. Sultry but demure. Below the hemline, my hot date sports great calves in sheer hose, two pair, because she shaved her face but not her legs and any drag queen will tell you it takes two pair of pantyhose to cover the hair. No one can figure out who we are. Not after a minute. Not after two. Finally a curly-headed man says, "I only know one woman that big."

Because of his size, Cliff is accustomed to being drafted to help with jobs requiring strength. Before the party, in fact, Cliff was at the home of friends who’d just purchased a big screen TV. I was to meet him there to do hair and make-up. When the delivery guy knocked, it was Cliff who answered the door, and in a big voice that matched his big body he said, I'll help you with that. Keep in mind, this was the ‘80s and Cliff wasn’t dressed in some hooker outfit -- the kind straight guys like to wear now to show their girlfriends that their masculinity isn’t threatened by a little make-up and heels -- no, Cliff’s frock was a thrift-store cast off, made by someone’s elderly aunt. So imagine a football player, say six-four, 250, in a skin-tight, hand-knitted, electric blue dress, his hair in hot rollers, wrapping his arms around the end of a box nearly as big as he is. On the other end of the box is the delivery guy. He looked up at Cliff, looked back down at the box, said nothing. Cliff, wearing no make up and walking backward with his size twelve feet stuffed into a pair of red jellies, said, Watch that corner, and, Over to your right a bit, and, Okay, let’s set it down here. The delivery guy said nothing. As they hefted the television out of the box, Cliff caught his reflection: a bit thick at the waist, he thought, but what a pair of knockers! To the delivery guy he said, I'll bet you get a real workout on a job like this. Delivery guy said nothing. But Cliff noticed a slight flick of the eyes -- across the size forty-eight, double D chest -- the kind of half-conscious, half-fearful glance preteen boys have for busty girls. Cliff looked down, paused a moment, and then realizing the problem -- and before the delivery guy could make his exit -- pulled up the dress and reached down into his bra, turning the balloons knots-forward. “I need nips,” he said. The delivery guy didn’t even wait for a tip.

At the party later, I catch the curly-headed man, one of my classmates, eyeing Cliff's chest. A sneak here. A peek there.

Cliff sidles up to him and says "Go on. Touch 'em."

The curly-headed man shakes his head. "No," he says, but his mouth twitches into a shy smile.

"Come on, man, they're balloons, but they feel real."

The man shakes his head, "I can't."

Many years from now at a high drag affair, Cliff will win the Best Camp award with an over-the-hill-Liz-Taylor muumuu, lime green leggings, fuzzy slippers, and a middle-aged gut. But at the college party tonight, Cliff is svelte in a knit dress, pouty red lips, bedroom eyes, and a hand-on-the-hip stance that would make Jane Mansfield look butch. He focuses his movie-star gaze on the curly-headed man.

"Sure you can," Cliff says and he -- er, she -- snatches the man's right hand and places it on her left boob, palm turned inward against that knotted nipple, fingers wide to embrace a tit so big that even a man’s hand can’t contain it. A circle gathers. Hand still on Cliff’s boob the curly-headed man looks side to side. He makes a tentative squeeze and then, as if propelled by a jolt from a hot wire, his body suddenly rockets backward as he screams -- ”Ahhhh!”

The crowd busts up. The curly-headed man lands on his feet a couple yards away, looking at the offending hand. Then he looks at the Jane-Mansfield chest on Cliff. Her face. Then at his hand again. "Oh, God!" he says. He looks at those pouty lips, the lashes shading Cliff’s eyes. "I'm sorry," he says. The crowd laughs harder. "I'm sorry. Oh, God, I'm sorry."

How do we know what things are? Is it the inside that counts? Is it the outside? How do we know when something is what it appears to be? How about when a facade covers the true nature of a thing? By what measure do we judge? Appearances? Intuition? Our knowledge of the “facts”? What is a fact, exactly, and when is a “fact” actually a philosophy, a theory, an opinion? Once I learned that all scientific facts down through the ages were, at bottom, based upon the philosophy of the day, I stopped expecting reality to be anything outside of or independent of my own point of view. I mean it was once a fact that the world was flat -- you could fall off the edge of it! -- and now that’s just a very outdated opinion. In the end, what we focus on is what we create, that’s reality. And right now, that’s the only thing I am truly sure of.

Cliff was a swinger when I met him, but because I have only one relationship rule, which is you can’t cheat on me, he gave up the life without a backward glance. So I was taken completely by surprise when, out of nowhere one day, Cliff volunteered that his tolerance for gay men stemmed from the long-held belief that, as long as there was consent, sex was sex: gay sex, straight sex, swinging sex, kinky, bi, or simple onanism, none of it was anybody’s business but those participating, just like he’d said when we met. Stunned to hear my husband -- or anyone, for that matter -- say he did not imagine love to be a part of the equation for any but heterosexual lovers, I sat silent and pondered the fact that the man I loved seemed to tolerate our friends only because all sex was fair game. Meanwhile, Cliff kept going. It was our friendship with Frank and Jose, he said, seeing the love they felt for each other, it was this that had changed his view. He went on to elaborate, but I was only half listening. Instead, I was remembering the early stages of our friendship with Frank and Jose. While at first there had been the pretense of being roommates, soon that fact gave way to the truth of being a couple and the two of them began to embrace and kiss when we were in their home, as we all do with our mates. I remember how excited -- that’s the right word -- how excited Cliff and I were over this new development. Engaging in couples behavior meant that our new friends trusted us, that they felt safe. Wonderful! How could we facilitate more of this behavior? Cliff and I had gotten a couple more sentences into this private conversation before we heard ourselves. What were these men to us, anyway, animals in a zoo? And what did that make us?

To be fair, almost any dance with the unfamiliar can elicit the animal-in-a-zoo response. What is this new thing, we wonder. Is it interesting? Is it funny? Do I like it? What happens if I tap on the glass? This activity is fun when you are on the outside looking in. Being on the inside is another story. My own experience on the wrong side of the glass came as a girl of ten. My parents had made a stop after church at the home of a couple who had two boys and a big tree in the back yard. Looking forward to showing how well I could climb, I changed from my good dress and patent leather shoes into the cotton shirt and shorts my mother had brought, took my little sister by the hand, and went outside to where the boys were. I wasn’t asked to play or to climb. Instead, what I heard was the younger brother saying, “She’s alright, I guess,” to which the older replied, “The bigger one looked better in a dress.” The younger one nodded. And then. . . . silence. The sun, warm, bright, sparkled and winked through the leaves of the cherry tree. I stared into it awhile. Then I went inside.

* * *

Love, beautiful Jose said nothing of love, but love rose from him like the childhood scent of beans and rice for breakfast. Jose talked about sex. He talked about sex like it was love. He‘d sigh and say, "Ah sex, it is life."

Frank once repeated to me the words of his and Jose’s couples’ counselor, who told Frank early on, “Jose has an unusual definition of sex.” For Jose sex was, to put it in the words of an eighteen-year-old, when you, well, you know, when you “did it.” Penetration was sex. But mouths didn't count in that definition. Not when kissing. Not when tonguing other things. Certainly backs and bellies didn't count, and arms -- the embrace -- that counted for love but not for fidelity. Now, if you’re gay or a swinger, this may sound like a lifestyle choice. But if you are straight, particularly if you are married, such a definition might have you calling Jose, what's the word, easy? sleazy? a slut? Words with attitudes like those a teenage boy might lob at a girl who’s turned him down and then made out with someone else at the same party; ugly words that couldn’t be further from the truth of Jose. But then, when it comes to sex, we all tend to speak as if our definition and point of view are the only possibilities.

As Jose lay dying; dying the death that sex had brought him, dying into his short, wildly-bright candle of a life; as he fell away from life and his body shrank like an inflatable love doll unplugged and abandoned in the corner of a rented room, Jose became love. Sex was gone -- “Ah, sex, it is life” -- and now life ebbed, trickled, seeped away. As the body receded into the folds of the bedclothes, sloughing off its muscle tone, its modesty, its toilet training, its words and codes and thoughts, its social graces; as the body lay dying, Jose’s spirit rose up, flooding the room as the sun floods the earth with light. And all who entered there became flushed, breathless, starry-eyed in a universe wholly and completely nourished by the light emanating from Jose. Awash in love, furniture floated, ties to the outside world came loose at their moorings, plans bobbed and drifted away. Freed from the gravity of the everyday, the creases in our faces relaxed, cheeks plumped, mouths lifted into beatific smiles. Each day when I arrived to care for Jose, I flew to him, held as the planets are held to the sun, the sun that burns its own bright body, its yellow-orange emotion, its incandescent, cannibalized light.

* * *

For me, Jose’s death yanked out the tent pegs of the universe, and in that one swift motion, all that I had thought permanent in my life began to collapse: star; black hole. Needing a sense of control -- over something, anything, in my life -- I decided to raze what little remained, make a clean sweep of it. I would divorce my husband. He hadn't understood what I needed before Jose died and he didn't seem to be learning now. Without Jose's friendship, there was no way I could endure the fissures in my marriage. That's what I told a friend who then said to me, "One crisis at a time." So I waited, figuring I could divorce just as easily next month as this.

During this time, Frank got two tickets to Portland's La Femme Magnifique, the local competition for a national drag queen contest, and invited me to go with him. Cliff, who had long since quit accepting my invitations to go anywhere, decided to buy himself a ticket and come with. When Cliff and I arrived ahead of Frank, we found ourselves entering a sky-high hall aflame with lip gloss, glitter, sequins: a veritable skyline of resplendent bigger-and-better-than-reality beauty. All the ladies in this flight of fantasy were ‘70s stewardess gorgeous, the preflight drinks strong, and the cruising direct nonstop. Being a mere RG (real girl) under these conditions can be dangerously ego-deflating unless you are a) drop-dead gorgeous and dressed to the teeth, b) a stone lesbian in a killer tux, or c) hanging with a cute friend who needs you to check out all the guys he’s checking out. Frank was late. I didn't know anyone else. In less than forty-five minutes, I'd crowded up to the bar twice, made the looky-lou rounds, chatted up the shy table mates to my right, and was in danger of getting drunk before the festivities if I had one more gin and tonic. Finally with nowhere left to go, I turned to my husband, even though I knew he wasn't one to flirt, not even with me. What I saw made me rethink my plans for divorce.

My husband, man whose posture and movements make clear that he owns not only his place in the world but the seats on either side, whose personality and fashion sense produce an image somewhere between hippie surfer dude and long-haired redneck, was chatting with the near-twin blonds seated to his left. The voice raised an octave, the expansive hand gestures, the scattering of "girl" and "hon" and "doll" as he talked with these men, all the signs were there: my husband was dishing. Don't ask me why I was surprised. I never made a list of the qualities the man I married would have to have, simply assuming that any man I loved would look at the world the same way I did. If I had made such a list, however, being man enough to enjoy the company of gay men would've been in the top five. Jose was my best friend -- not gay best friend; dearest friend -- and when Jose lay dying, Cliff had argued with me as much as he had consoled. More. He was a man who had raged about the checkbook and the daily chores, a man who coped with his friend’s dying and his wife’s disappearance by focusing on the unraveling disorder of things, and I had hated him for it. But as I watched my husband on this evening, I heard Jose’s words. “Cliff is my hero,” he had said. “He’s the model for how I believe a straight man is supposed to be.” And who knows, maybe Cliff is. I know I never contradicted Jose when he said this, nor offered any example that might make him think otherwise. Jose adored Cliff. Every gay man does.

“Oh, Jose would have loved this,” Frank declared as friends and family gathered. At Frank’s suggestion, we drove caravan from Jose's apartment in the city to the memorial, an hour away, as a formal funeral procession: single file, headlights on, all the way up the mountain. I was dressed in black, complete with black hose and a fashionable hat. Oh yes, Jose would have loved that, all of it, not because he was a drama queen, though Frank thought as much, but rather because Jose lived his life guided as the stars are guided. Call it timing, call it style, Jose knew how to play to the mood of a moment. He always dressed for the occasion of meeting for lunch, for example -- casually of course, but with care. That’s how it was with our friendship as well. Whether staying in to watch a video or going out to eat, our demeanor was casual, yet we held each other’s hearts with care, in full awareness of the needs of the moment. Sometimes, as we entered a restaurant or a movie house, our reflection would flash into the room -- from a window, a mirror, art under glass -- and in such moments I could almost hear the glass sound of hearts breaking.

I love the movies. On the big theater screen, on the small glass screen, all movies are marvelous. The television in my living room is just small enough that I don’t have to say I own a big screen TV, but at twenty-seven inches, it’s big enough that the glass reflects everything in the room. The TV was a gift to my husband, given by me for saying “I love you” every day, for picking flowers and arranging them in my favorite vases week after week, for booking a moonlight cruise for our anniversary, which came just two months after Jose’s death. Our marriage survived, of course, for the same reason it had survived up to that point: Cliff and I always gave each other the space to be exactly who we are, and who we are is not exactly what most people expect. I haven’t any close girlfriends to speak of, at least not any that aren’t gay men, and for years Cliff’s closest friend has been a single woman who’s straight and a decade older. I don’t do shopping with the girls; Cliff doesn’t do football with the boys. At our house, it has always been Cliff who does the cooking, while I put away the dishes, recycle, and take out the trash. I’m also the one who takes the car to the mechanic and mows the lawn. Cliff does the laundry and cleans the toilet. (Okay, so I’m the one who does laundry that requires special care; he is still a guy.) So naturally, even though the television was purchased for my guy, I control the remote. Cliff doesn’t mind. He goes to bed early. I‘m the one who stays up late. I stay up watching videos, like Jose and I used to.

The first color TV Cliff and I ever owned was a hand me down from Jose, a thirteen-inch portable, making it a full two inches larger than the black and white set that preceded it. Cliff loved having color, but I loved the TV itself; not because it was color, although that was novel, and not because it came with my first remote control, although that too was novel -- and fun, once I learned that I didn’t need to point directly at the TV -- no, the reason I loved that TV was that it had been Jose’s; we had watched years of movies on it, the two of us sitting side by side against the wall on the living room carpet or the bed, all propped up with pillows. Whatever we couldn’t see on the big screen we watched on the little one, scooted up as close as humanly possible, so that thirteen inches could become thirteen feet, could become Cinescope, could be the world.

After Jose died, I watched movies just to be close to the world we once inhabited. After Jose died, what I wanted most to watch -- but could not -- was the video we made of our trip to the falls. Multnomah Falls is one of the most scenic spots in Oregon. Jose had only been out of the hospital a couple days, but ever the host, he had arranged to drive his visiting parents up the Columbia River Gorge to show them the sights. We stopped at all the roadside attractions, Frank, me, Jose, and Jose’s parents, looking at this waterfall, taking in that view, and reading every other historical marker, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that getting in and out of our rented car was a comedy of elbows and good manners. Picture five adults squeezing into a subcompact meant for four, five adults sucking in their bellies and clutching their packages until every door can be closed and the high hum of the highway can be countered with polite conversation in two languages; then, at each stop, all five adults burst forth like happy candy from a piñata.

At each stop, we’d get ourselves upright and smoothed out and then stand a moment to wonder whether we ought also to take out the wheelchair, packed in the trunk three layers down. Then out came the video camera, and we’d roll tape on Jose narrating the history of the Gorge, Jose posing with his parents next to an historical marker, Jose leaning on his cane before a scenic vista, Jose speaking to the camera as he read from a list all the names of family members in LA to whom he wished to send greetings and thanks. It wasn't long before I could see that Jose was getting tired, hungry too. I could see it in the way he walked, even more slowly than usual, and in the deliberate way that he exercised patience, with himself, with us. And because I saw Jose losing ground, I took the camera from Frank and told him to go stand next to his sweetheart, not yet knowing that this was to be the last thing recorded that day, in fact, the last video altogether; not knowing that after lunch we will have to cut the trip short and return home.

With the camera rolling, Frank cracks a joke about how much Jose loves him. "How much do I love you?" Jose asks in response. He smiles. He licks his pasty lips. He makes a false start, clears the phlegm from his throat, smiles again. "It's not that I don't want to say," he says in a voice suddenly hoarse. He laughs. The joke is that when he and Frank split up it was over love, displays of love. For Jose, the Catholic from Nicaragua, love was something you showed through your actions, not something you said. For Frank, the white southern Baptist, love was the words “I love you” spoken out loud and often. Standing high above the floor of the Gorge where the mile-wide Columbia slow-rolls to the sea, Jose recovers himself enough to say, "I love you more than I could ever say." Then, as if to show proof, he adds, "Just wait till we get home." Frank smiles, raises his eyebrows. "A little hoochie coochie?" he says. Everyone laughs. For a moment we are, all of us, silly, embarrassed; in love.

Jose's eyes keep rolling up into his head, his long lashes falling, eyelids drooping like those of a child determined to stay up till the celebration at midnight. Patiently, he brings his eyes back down, smiles, flexes the charm he still has so much of. Frank is wriggling his hips in a little happy dance over getting some hoochie coochie tonight when Jose grins at him, a huge smile that says, You know I love you. Out loud, in his lightly accented English, he says, "Maybe." Jose’s eyes roll back into his head. He closes them, opens them, smiles, and in a voice thick as river gravel, "Maybe not."

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