China Boat

Chapter 44


I have a special memory of Jack, at school, which can be a real comfort to me, in trying times. It is a thing I can call up and review in my mind's eye, like a favorite part of a favorite film, whenever I wish.

It is all the sweeter, because I've never told Jack about it; it is my own, cherished secret. Because in many ways, Jack was not there to experience it.

* * *

"How it it — ?" I asked; holding the rug in my arms.

Jack was squatting down on his heels, feeling the ground beneath the birch tree with the palm of his hand. He pressed down on the new grass and the leaf-litter in one spot; and then, in another spot. He lifted up his hand, and looked at it, and then he brushed his hands together.

"It's fine; almost completely dry," he said. Then; "Here, let me give you a hand … "

He took one end of the rug — it's a thick one, that he brought from home; we keep it rolled up, under his bed — and we stretched it out and laid it down, one end up against the tree trunk, the other partly in the Spring sunshine, dappled by the green shadows of the early leaves.

I sat down with my back against the tree; and I stretched out my legs, making myself comfortable, and I opened my book-bag — 

Jack took off his cap, and stretched out full length on his back; and then, miracle of miracles — he moved upwards, a little, on his elbows, and he settled his head slowly and carefully onto my lap

I froze, a moment, in glad surprise. I actually held my breath

We had slept together, intimately, any number of times by then … But we had never done this.

"Mmmmm … " he sighed, in contentment. His eyes closed, and he shifted himself on the rug, just a little, getting more comfortable.

The weight of his head, in my lap. The warm of it, of him, through my clothes.

I stroked his hair, his beautiful, soft, pale-blond hair, gently; once, twice, slowly — 

His breathing slowed; his breathing slowed, and his mouth relaxed, a little, and then he was asleep, unmistakably asleep.

His head, in my lap. Me, rapt, still gently stroking his hair … 


Jack had every good reason to sleep. He'd been awake, for more than a day.

It was because of a paper, of course; an assignment. When Jack gets deeply involved in any given subject, on behalf of a writing assignment — he can go a little far. He can get carried away.

This particular paper was on Gothic cathedrals, and had been assigned to him by our History professor, Doctor Hewitt.

Doctor Hewitt is a favorite of us both; he is a kind and gentle man, and a joy to listen to. He presents his subject, not as rote lecture material, but as a series of stories, one story leading to another, stories involving real people, with whom he has real sympathy … 

He is also one of us. He is clearly homosexual. And we love him the more, for it.


At first glance, I would not have expected Jack to get so wrapped up in his assignment. In retrospect, it's a little easier to understand. First, because Jack is so naturally curious; he has the capacity to become fascinated by whatever he encounters, just as he became — briefly — fascinated with that one particular, inappropriate, camera, in the shop where I was buying my Leica — 

It was more than just passing curiosity with this subject, though

The thing about Gothic cathedrals is, that they go up. They soar; they are meant to attain great heights, to draw the eye upward, to overawe the worshippers with the height of the nave — 


Jack approves of things that go up.


And so, in his usual way with subjects that interest him — he set out to learn everything he could, about Gothic cathedrals. He started with encyclopedias; and he moved from there to specific books in the school library, and from there in turn to the Carnegie library in the village close by, compiling pages and pages of notes and references, becoming more and more excited by the subject, as he went — 

I had seen it happen to him, before. I have seen it happen to him, since.

We are a team, Jack and I; but we do not write one another's papers — I cannot possibly write as fast as Jack, for one thing; and our writing styles are utterly different, to say nothing of our penmanship — 

Neither would I tell him when to write; other than to gently, and occasionally, remind him of the upcoming due-date. And in fact, I wasn't sure I should do even that; Jack has his own writing-process, he says he has to see a piece in his head, first; he has to write it in his mind, fair and complete, before starting to set it out on paper. After that, he says, it's just a matter of mechanical transcription.

I can believe that, too. I have seen him write, furiously, quickly, and clearly, and produce marvelous stuff, in the end.


The problem with this approach — especially when he gets carried away with research, with outlining and note-taking — is that he can run short of time.

And he did, in this particular instance.


And so it was, that the night before, after lights-out — Jack and I had quietly slipped out of our beds, and into our bathrobes and slippers, and we'd headed up to the Common Room, where Jack had ten solid pages yet to write, due in the morning.


It was all strictly against the rules, of course; but the prefects turn a blind eye to the practice, as they turn a blind eye to so many things.

There wasn't much I could do to help Jack, once we were installed in the Common Room; I'd brought my book-bag, so I was sure he'd have enough writing-paper, and blotting-paper, and ink; and then I'd settled down next to him, at the table, to quietly read, with just the sound of his pen to break the silence. It was actually quite peaceful.

It hadn't occurred to either one of us, that I stay behind in bed, while he worked.

Finally, after an hour or more, I was finding it hard to concentrate — I was reading a serial story by E.E. 'Doc' Smith; a science-fiction story with space pirates, and aliens, and giant space-cruisers shielded with confusingly intricate arrays of electronic shields, and the details were actually starting to make my head hurt, a little — 

So I wrapped myself up in my bathrobe, and stretched out on the couch, and propped my feet up on the far arm-rest, and I fell asleep.

Not, however, without kissing Jack goodnight, first. I hugged him from behind, and I kissed him on the cheek, with feeling, and he stopped writing, for a moment, and he kissed me back — 

Kissing Jack is not something I ordinarily get to do, in the Common Room.


And so, that is how we came to this moment; this utterly magical moment. Jack, asleep, his head resting in my lap. Me, stroking his blond hair, gently over and over. Around us, the cool birch-wood, impossibly green-and-silver beautiful, in the Spring sunshine. My book forgotten beside me; and my heart just so full of love for him, right then, I was almost afraid it might burst … 

* * *

Jack and I know full well, how lucky we are to have found one another.

If luck it was, and not — something else — at work.

But we are lucky, we are truly blessed, in another important way. We could have met, we could have fallen in love, with the whole weight of society's condemnation of homosexuals against us … We could have believed that we were perverted, that we were mentally ill, or deficient, or unnatural — we have both met other boys, other men, homosexuals like us, who hate who and what they are — 

I don't know what might have become of us, if we hadn't known better.

But we had known better; or at least, Jack had his glimmerings, and I'd known better, and I taught Jack a very great deal, I opened his eyes to the whole history of our kind, of our tribe, and he says it made all the difference in the world, to him — 

And my knowing about such things, in the end, all comes down to luck. It really comes down to one stroke of stupid luck.

* * *

When Grandfather and Grandmother came to Geneva for Christmas, that first time, one of the things we did together was to go to the museum. The Musée d'art et d'histoire; the Art and History Museum.

Going to museums was something we did very often, back home, after Mother died. Typically we'd go to the Metropolitan, or the Museum of Natural History; although there were others. It was a way for us to spend time, together, to enjoy exploring, together, and to just enjoy being together. For me, it was always a treat; the very best part of my week.

However; we didn't have the same perspective, the same approach, to viewing exhibits.

Simply put, Grandfather and Grandmother prefer to look at just a few things, on any given visit … but when they do, they like to take their time; they'll look at something, a bracelet, a painting, from different vantage points, and they'll discuss it with each other. Sometimes they'll bring along books, reference books, and read excerpts about the object they're viewing. More than a few times, they'd have the company of a curator, who was more than happy to talk about his subject — 

I appreciate that approach more and more, as I get older. But that first Christmas together in Geneva, I was eight years old; I lacked the patience.

Those early years, I loved everything about museums; there was just so much to see, and everything was so fascinating — 

And so, my grandparents and I had worked out compromises.

From a young age, I was allowed to roam; I was allowed to go off by myself, even to other rooms, and to explore whatever interested me, just as long a guard was present, and I came back to them frequently.

This I was very happy to do. Spending time with them was the most important part of the day, after all.


So. On that fateful day in December, 1928, I was off roaming by myself in the Museum, when I had my stroke of luck.


It happened in the hall dedicated to Greek antiquities; a hall full of statues, and fragments of columns, and friezes from temples — and, of course, pottery.

I was drawn to the pottery at once.

For one thing, the pots and vases and dishes were colorful; while most of the rest of the pieces in the hall were bare stone, or dull bronze. For another thing, the paintings incised into the pots and vases were quite beautiful, and very detailed. The older ones tended to be black figures, on red backgrounds; the newer ones, beautifully-executed red figures on black.

'Old' and 'New' were, of course, relative terms. Both were over two thousand years old. The older, stiffer vase-paintings tended to be from the Fifth Century B.C.; the newer, more realistic paintings, from the Fourth Century B.C.

I gaped at the paintings. Except for the places where there were chips, or obvious repairs, they seemed new; they seemed as if they could have been done yesterday.


One piece in particular attracted my attention.


It was a tall — jug, you might call it, a vase — with two handles, decorated in the red-on-black style. It was a big thing, beautifully proportioned, maybe three feet tall; it was installed on a short plinth, near the wall, and was in its own glass case. The card next to it listed it as an amphora, or wine-jug, from Athens, circa 430 — 370 B.C.

The painting on its facing side is what got my attention. It was of a troop of warriors, muscular, slender, and beautifully nude, except for fierce helmets and shields and spears, confronting some bearded, and clothed, foes.


Of course, it got my attention.


A digression is in order … An explanation.


As I have said, I have been sexually and emotionally attracted to other boys, from a very young age.


There was the teenage boy who'd taken off his shirt, while sailing the skiff with me as passenger in Newport, when I was five … I can still see him, in my mind's eye; barefoot, his trouser legs rolled up, his torso smooth and brown-tanned, young muscles working as he trimmed the sail, his face beautiful in his concentration as he looked up — 

I will never forget him.

But my awareness of my attraction to boys goes back even further.

I remember when Mother was alive, we would occasionally leaf through an illustrated Bible together. One plate disturbed me very much; it showed a young Isaac — as a young teenager, I thought — nearly-naked, and bound to an altar, with a weeping Abraham standing over him, holding a knife — 

It went far beyond the sexual attraction I had for the naked boy in the plate. I was disturbed, I was horrified, at his plight. I imagined sneaking up to the altar, and cutting the ropes that bound him, and running away with him, and being friends with him, together in the desert — 

When Mother explained the story to me, of how Abraham was being tested by God, and that he did not indeed want to sacrifice his son — well. The pathos of the whole situation, the pathos of Isaac's plight — was he willing, or unwilling, to be the sacrifice — ?


It had all moved me to tears. I'd cried; I remember it, well.

The story bothers me, to this day.


And, so. Here before me was another picture, of beautifully-nude young men; depicting some sort of story, from thousands of years ago, from an age long before Christ.

I looked at it, for some time.

I wondered what was on the other side of the vase; the side that faced the wall. Would it be just a continuation of the same scene — ? Or could it be something that would help explain the scene, give me a clue as to the story behind it — ?

The plinth that supported the vase was quite close to the wall; the other side was obviously not meant to be seen. But I was eight years old, and small for my age; I could just squeeze in … 

So I did.


And I gaped.


What I saw, changed my life. I believe it is fair to say, that it has changed the lives of others, as well.


I was looking at a beautifully-executed scene of two men — or, a young man, and what seemed to be a teenage boy — in the last moment, before a kiss.

Oh, it was superbly-done, it was masterfully-done. The man — he was half-reclining, on a couch — the man's left hand was behind the boy's head, obviously pulling him down, and closer; their lips, just not-quite touching … 

The boy's face was glowing; excited; rapt. The artist, more than two thousand years ago, had captured the expression brilliantly. That look of excited, breathless anticipation — 

That they were a man, and a teenage boy, was indisputable. The young man was wearing some kind of open, draped clothing, that left his chest bare; he had a younger man's thin, new beard, and his expression was almost as rapturous as the boy's — 

The boy was nude. And the young man's other hand was reaching down, and gently caressing, or tickling, the boy's genitals.

As I said, I gaped.

But in the end, looking up and down, my eyes kept coming back to the faces of the two young lovers; the glad excitement, the anticipation, the nearness of the inevitable kiss — 

"Hey! Hey, you! Get out of there — !"

Well; it is a rough translation, of the original French. The museum guard's imprecations had been slightly more colorful.

He had been loud, too, as well as angry; he clearly knew what I was looking at. I scrambled out from my narrow space, and with an eight-year-old's natural instincts, I pelted out of the hall, back through the rooms and halls towards where Grandfather and Grandmother were inspecting some ancient Greek and Roman coins — 


But. I had seen, what I had seen. All of the shouted imprecations in the world, could not make me un-see it.


I found out, later, that the amphora at the Musée d'art et d'histoire was almost certainly a presentation-piece. It would have been specially commissioned, perhaps even by the Athenian Council, and given to the winner of an athletic competition, or of a dramatic contest; and it would have been presented, filled with good wine, or olive oil. It would have been an expensive thing, a prized thing, which is probably why it survived more-or-less intact for twenty-four centuries … 

I even found out that the pose of the young man and boy — the man tickling or touching the boy's privates — is a very common one, in Greek vase-painting. If a rather snide footnote in an archeology journal I read at the New York Public Library is to be believed, major museums of the world have crates-full and rooms-full of the stuff — and even more explicitly homoerotic pieces — which of course they don't dare put on display … 


Of course, they don't.

Of course.


As I said … the experience changed the course of my life.


It certainly changed my view on what was Commonly Accepted Wisdom, about me, and people like me; other boys, who liked boys.

To put it mildly.

I'd been vaguely aware of jokes, and sniggers, at The School In The Sky about boys who … did things … with other boys. Attitudes about such activities were far harsher there, than they are at our American school; although I'm sure they still took place. As they certainly did, later, between Emile and myself.

And then, there was annual lecture on Hygiene and Morals, delivered by Monsieur Heurault, and then later by Herr Kuntzler; consisting, in large part, of Things Thou Shalt Not Do, with other boys … 

I could sit through the lectures, with the image from the amphora in my memory. Knowing that, in another time, another place — an exalted time, and an exalted place, in the judgment of Western Civilization — love between males had been celebrated, and shown to be beautiful, and not a Crime Against Nature … 


Classical Greek and Latin were core subjects at The School In The Sky, as they are at most good schools.

I found myself motivated to master both of them.

I have a certain talent for languages; an ear for them, perhaps. I did pretty well with both. Our current Headmaster had told Father, before we left America, that my classical Greek was better than his; and he'd been telling the truth — although in his defense, his concentration was on the Greek of the New Testament, naturally enough, while mine was on the Greek of Aeschylus and Aristophanes, of Euripides and Plato — 

Especially, Plato.

It's all a work in progress, still; I'm still a student, still learning, at sixteen.

But being able to read in Greek and Latin has opened up whole libraries to me, whole worlds, actually, especially when it comes to — us. People like me, and Jack, and Tom, and Charles … 


There is so very much about us — about homosexuals — that is edited, or ignored, or Bowdlerized, or flatly denied.

I'd managed to tell Tom about some of our history.

The story of Aristogeiton and Harmodius is difficult to deny, and difficult to disguise, although I've seen it tried. The Sacred Band of Thebes is — or was — also famous; a military regiment composed of pairs of lovers, on the theory that members of such a regiment would never show cowardice, would never turn their backs to an enemy, to flee … 

And in fact, it was only defeated once; by the cavalry of Philip of Macedonia, as commanded by his young son Alexander. Who would later be called, Alexander the Great; and who would celebrate his love for his friend Hephaestion at the purported tomb of Achilles and Patroclus in Troy … 

Such events were too big, too world-changing, to be entirely ignored. But I wonder how much else has been lost. I wonder how much of our history has been deliberately destroyed.


If some of our history, at least, has survived — well, a little more of how we were portrayed in ancient literature, in plays and poems and dialogs, exists too. Sometimes, as I told Tom, only because no one bothered to censor the original Greek.

The Iliad towers above all else, of course; it really was the equivalent of the Bible in Ancient Greek society, the source foundation-story of their whole world. And as I told Tom, by the Fifth Century, B.C., it was taken as a given, that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.

I know that because I have read the references to their love, in other texts, in the original Greek.

And then there are the myths; and even in the surviving ones, the number of times that (male) gods seduced and loved beautiful boys is astounding … 

For some reason, these stories frequently fail to appear in modern-language compilations.

And there is more than just Greek literature, of course. There is the Satyricon by Petronius, a Latin epic comedy in which the hapless Roman narrator spends much of his time unsuccessfully trying to keep his young boyfriend Giton from being seduced by — well, by virtually everyone, male or female, that they meet — 

I've always wondered what the medieval monks who transcribed the Satyricon, copying it, keeping it alive for us to read — I've always wondered what they thought of it. Did they read it to one another, laughing, in their Scriptoriums — ?


There is, in fact, much more.


There are many fragments of works, referencing our kind, referencing homosexual lovers, at least. There are tantalizing comments and references to works which have been completely lost; it is enough to make the heart ache.

One work which survived stands above all others, in my eyes, as important to us, to our kind.

The Symposium, by Plato, is a philosophical text; a teaching-tool, really.

It isn't as dry as that description might sound. A Symposium is, or was, a drinking-party; a party at which vast amounts of wine could be consumed, even if the wine was mixed with water.

This particular drinking-party had a certain structure. Each of the guests was to make a short speech — an encomium — in praise of love.

The guests at this drinking-party were all actual, historical Athenians; famous figures, like Socrates, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Alcibiades. And the love which they praised was the love between males.


Love. Between males. Love; that taboo word, in our boys' school society. Love between males; that taboo concept, in our whole modern world.


I have three translations of The Symposium; two in French, one in English. One of the French translations is the only one which isn't at least somewhat Bowderlized, censored or altered for modern audiences. It used to help me in my own reading of the original Greek text.

Which I have now read, and re-read, any number of times.

The whole piece is a great many things. Parts of it are very funny; Plato has Aristophanes come down with hiccups, and temporarily unable to speak. Alcibiades tells how, as a teenager — he was famous, in real life, for his beauty, as a boy and as a man — he tells how he attempted, unsuccessfully, to seduce the equally-famously-ugly Socrates, and how frustrated that made him — 

And parts of it are moving beyond all description, beyond all possible telling. Reading the Symposium can make me feel almost stunned, as if I'm floating, filled with golden light … 

It can make me feel, in short, almost the way I felt, when I was falling in love with Jack.

And that is especially true when I am reading it to Jack; translating as I go along. The two of us, holding hands.


And so, that Spring day, with Jack stretched out asleep, his head in my lap, me gently stroking his hair … I could only wonder what our lives would have been like, what we would have been to one another, if I hadn't come across a wine-jug in a Swiss museum, all those years ago. If I hadn't come across the writings of certain authors, from more than twenty centuries, ago … 


I try to spread the word, to our homosexual friends, at school, as best I can. Jack and I both try to spread the word; quietly, and discreetly.

And now I've done the same with Tom.

I think Jack and I will be doing it, for a long time to come.

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