Triptychs – Chapter 19
Like I was saying, it’s funny how time – changes things, for me.
Sometimes it’s the night’s sleep, that takes the edge off of a really black, black day; sometimes it’s the single moment, the blinding flash of an instant, when the world shifts under your feet . . .
And sometimes it’s just the steady, drip, drip, drip of passing days, that brings the change. Almost without me noticing it.
October wore on for all of us, in a kind of haze of classes, papers to be written, tests taken; and work-study, of course. The days were still warm, but getting shorter, fast.
And then of course, there was an election. A Presidential election; ‘Decision, 2008!’, as the cable channels all screamed. Just a minor matter.
I got really caught up in it – actually, we all did, Cole, Jeremy and me, we did phonebanking through the union, the ILWU, calling Arkansas and Ohio, Florida and Virginia and North Carolina – talking to really polite people with heavy accents –
And then came election night, and our side – on the national level – our side won, and it was so amazing, it was so incredible, it was almost orgasmic; and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried; when the networks called the election, I covered my face and cried, just a little, I really did, it flat out meant so much to me.
Jeremy cried more. Duh.
But then the state returns came in, and on one California proposition, a really important one, our side lost . . . and the sickening realization came, we’d been so wrapped up in the national election, we hadn’t done nearly enough work, on this state proposition.
It was a shock.
We were at the headquarters, the Berkeley headquarters, of our national candidate, when the news flashed on the big flatscreen.
“No,” went Jeremy. “Oh, no.”
Most of the people around us didn’t even see it, didn’t pay any attention; they were too busy partying, almost delirious with happiness. Hey, it was Berkeley; you know?
“Not all the precincts are in yet,” Cole said, after a second.
I didn’t say anything; I just kept looking at the graphic on the screen, and the percentage-numbers that weren’t changing, and the red check mark that meant we’d lost.
Around us, a few people here and there were noticing the screen too. “Fuck,” I heard off to one side of us; and, “I don’t believe this, I just don’t believe this,” from Sue, this short, dark woman we’d gotten to know from get-out-the-vote work. She was holding her partner – sorry, her wife – Marilyn by the hand; looking stunned.
The numbers didn’t turn around, in the end; and the party got a little muted, with a lot of real, awkwardly-expressed sympathy for us queers, from the straight folks in the room.
And Cole and Jeremy stood together in the middle of it all, arms around each other’s waist; caught between the joy of one victory, and the pain of the defeat; you could so see it in their faces.
They really had wanted to get married, someday; I think.
Maybe they still will; somehow, somewhere. I hope so . . .
So the election happened, and everything was in a kind of whirl of excitement and emotions . . . and then, the whole cycle of papers and tests, reading and quizzes and lectures and still more papers due, slowly settled in again.
Life went on; the mostly-trivial, mostly-mundane. The bad news, and the good news.
The bad news, was . . . Michelle and Darien broke up.
Well, actually, it sounded more like Darien dumped Michelle. Darien, that ‘He’s-really-nice’-boyfriend Darien, dumped her pretty hard, pretty abruptly, as far as I could tell. As far as we could tell.
And, that really got to me; that really steamed me, and Daniel too, I knew . . . I mean, it was Michelle; about the sweetest, shyest human being on the planet; you know - ? Who could do anything to hurt Michelle - ?
We all did our best, giving her space, giving her our love; and, yeah, it was love, there isn’t another way of putting it. And when I had a chance, I took her aside, and gave her the story – the clean version of the story – about Erik and me, about me finding out he was dating somebody else. And she didn’t say much; but at the end of it, she reached out and took my hand, and gave it a squeeze, a really firm, long squeeze . . .
I think it helped. I hoped that the whole ridiculous story helped, helped someone else, anyway.
Jose didn’t drop out; that was the good news.
But he did divide his schoolwork time with casual-labor time, sometimes missing Learning Community meetings to go stand in streetcorner lineups, trying to make a little money, trying to do it all, be it all, for his family.
When he did show up at school, at our Learning Group meetings, he studied with a kind of grim, concentrated ferocity that made the rest of us . . . go quiet. Made the rest of us a little ashamed, of our jokes and riffing and goofing-off. I mean, this was Studying For Survival, this was thoroughly adult studying, with more than a hint of desperation about it.
Studying with Jose made the rest of us grow up, some.
So, early-November started turning into middle-November, and then we were looking at Thanksgiving, and more things changed. Noah and me –
No. Wait. That gets complicated.
Actually, a lot of things started changing in my life, around then; including, close-to-home kind of changes.
As in, my mom. My mom, quietly, without really talking it over with me, without any kind of discussion that might risk a confrontation – started spending more time in Stockton; visiting my uncles.
On weekends, I mean. Not every weekend . . . but every other weekend, maybe. Maybe, a little more than that, really.
And of course I knew what she was doing, what she was pulling.
She was giving me some space; she was giving me some space, and time. And it was all because of our last non-fight at the kitchen table, when I’d told her I was afraid to even go out to dinner, anymore, when I’d as much as said I didn’t have a life, because of worrying about her. Worrying what my dad might do; not wanting to be away from home, for worrying.
And fuck-me, part of me felt way, way guilty about driving her off like that . . .
And another part of me was glad, that she was getting away; glad for her. Really, really glad, that she was getting away from the worry, and the constant tension.
The cosmic joke, of course, and believe it, that it made me laugh – the cosmic joke was, that I wasn’t dating anyone; well, at least, Erik didn’t call, and I wouldn’t have met up with him, I wouldn’t have done him if he had called. No. I didn’t have anyone to bring home, anymore.
I used the time, the freedom, another way.
I went hunting for my father, instead.
“Gimme . . . a Guinness, and a shot of . . . ”
“No, no, you’re not listening to me, you’re fucking not LISTENING to me . . . ” in a thick, drunken voice.
“’Jenny, Jenny, who could I turn to? – ‘” from bad speakers, somewhere, way too loud –
Yeah. There was a logical approach to finding my dad.
I didn’t bother with the better bars, on Telegraph, or Bancroft, or anywhere near the campus; no. I headed more downhill instead, closer to San Pablo Avenue; figuring he’d be hanging out in the darker, cheaper places . . . probably in Oakland, maybe in Albany.
It’s amazing how disgusting some of the places are; how far gone the people in them are, people who maybe haven’t held jobs, haven’t been sober, for years.
I figured my dad would fit right in.
“ . . . don’t think it changes anything, do you - ?” from a drunk, blonde woman.
“Yo, Dave, can we get another Harp down here?”
Each time I did it – each time I scouted out a new place – was basically the same; coming in from the dark and the cold, to a roar of noise, voices and music and sports-TV, and the loom of bodies hunched over the bar, and the stench of spilled beer –
Sometimes the stench of the bathroom overwhelmed the stench of the beer.
That happened more and more often, as I worked my way through the likely places.
“Oh damn, the fucking Raiders are so FUCKING bad, we should just sell their asses down to Los Angeles . . . ”
I wasn’t going to talk to my father, when I found him; no.
I was looking for him, out of pure self-defense.
I’d spent almost two years, now, waiting at home, not-sleeping-well at home, waiting for the asswipe to pull his next move . . . not knowing when it was coming just knowing it WOULD come –
No, wait, that’s not entirely true; about not knowing when his next move was coming. Every time he DID pull something, he went quiet for awhile, a few weeks, maybe; and things actually got a little relaxed, around the house . . .
And then the tension started building again. Slowly; day by day, week by week.
When my mom started getting a little furtive, when she started being too obviously-cheerful, or worse, when I could tell she’d been crying . . . that’s when I knew it was coming. That’s when I knew, and my stomach would start knotting up, night after night after night.
And I was sick of it. Sick to fucking death of it.
Now, with my mom out of town, sometimes – I could do something about the whole fucked-up situation. I could at least find out where he drank; meaning, where he spent most of his time.
The low babble of voices in this particular bar washed over me, as I scanned the crowd from near the door.
I didn’t have to buy a drink, and risk using my fake ID, or anything; my dad’s easy to recognize, even from the back.
“Okay, three Guinness, and a JD – that’s twenty-one – ”
The bartender’s voice was slurred. The shelves in back of the bar were outlined with a string of miniature red Christmas lights; almost half of them were burned out . . .
Not here. Not tonight, anyway. I let my breath out, I relaxed, hugely; and I slipped quietly out the door.
I didn’t exactly know what I’d do, when I found him; how I’d use the information. Maybe I could come up with my own restraining order – though that would be really tough, without my mom’s statement.
No; I don’t know. I think in the end, it was a kind of animal thing; wanting, needing to know where The Enemy lives; where to find him.
Not just waiting in the dark.
So I went on going from bar to bar, those Friday and Saturday nights in November when my mom was away, and it was a dark and grim thing to be doing . . . but it made me feel better about myself than almost anything else, that month, that time.
Almost anything else.
* * *
Okay. Noah and me.
So, like, Noah and me started spending time together, as the weeks went on; hanging out together some, after work, between classes . . . we started to get to know each other, we actually got to be friends –
No. That’s so totally dishonest, so incomplete; and I really am trying to be more honest, with myself, and with everybody else. It’s something I have to keep trying to do, something I need to keep working on; you know?
No. The thing is – Noah liked me; and I knew it, after that touch in the loading dock, and he knew I knew it . . . and that was, like the unspoken framework, of us spending time together; it colored everything.
I let it happen.
I just, kind of, went with it. Not meaning to lead him on, not meaning much of anything at all, one way or another . . . we just, started spending time together. Over coffee; lunch, on campus, almost every day, as the days got shorter and darker and colder – it was just, easy.
Noah’s good company.
He’s quiet; well, I always knew he was quiet, and that didn’t change, as we got to know each other better . . . but it’s the WAY he’s quiet, that’s special. He listens; he listens to me closely, really closely, he actually thinks about what I’m saying –
And then, he’ll react. But often enough, it won’t be with words; it’ll be a shrug, a gesture, an expression, a little half-smile . . .
And often enough, it’ll be a skeptical expression, a pointedly ironic upturned-corner-of-the-mouth telling me that I’m full of shit, and that makes me break out laughing, it so totally does.
He actually makes me laugh, a lot; and for someone who isn’t a pushover for my jokes, someone who is, as it turns out, deeper and more skeptical and more ironic than me, even, that’s saying something.
Skeptical, and deep; yeah.
I never realized how lucky I was, not being particularly religious . . . I mean, I went to parochial school when I was really young, and I remember the nuns, and praying and everything . . . But that ended when I was eleven. And we were never exactly really observant Catholics, even before. I remember going to Mass on Christmas Eve a few times, all the sights and sounds and colors . . . but that was about it.
Noah went to Catholic schools his whole life; first parochial school, then his Catholic high school . . . and the things he told me about it all, came as a real shock.
“No fu – I mean, no way!”
I was staring at him, my mouth open; we were at our usual spot, the overlook at the edge of the parking lot, the whole San Francisco Bay stretching below us, blue-gray fog, and colored lights, and the dying brick-red sunset to the west.
He just looked back at me sideways, a second; his head tilted a little, his expression kind of wry, in a way that, I’d learned, translated out to, ‘Duh’.
“You actually had to sit in class and listen to that shit? Didn’t anybody complain or anything - ? Didn’t anybody argue - ?”
He’d been telling me about getting taught in his high school class that being gay was an ‘intrinsic moral disorder’; and how acting on gay urges – meaning, a boy even TOUCHING another boy, sexually, was a mortal sin . . .
“It’s a Catholic high school,” he went, patiently. “And that’s what the Church preaches. So that’s what we heard in class.”
I was having trouble wrapping my mind around the concept.
“If one of my high school teachers said anything like that to us, in class, they’d be suspended. Or fired. And if they WEREN’T suspended, the parents would raise hell with the school board ‘til they were.”
Another little shrug, from Noah; then, a very small smile. “I don’t think complaining to the Archbishop would’ve helped, very much.”
“That . . . really, really must have sucked.” I was still dealing with it; I mean, I KNEW shit like this happened, way too often, in way too many places . . . but I’d grown up in Berkeley, the People’s Republic of Berkeley; LGBT rights were written into city law, and all my schools and classmates – well, after parochial school, anyway – had been totally okay with us queers . . . It was such a non-issue.
“It really wasn’t that bad,” Noah went, softly; after a second. “It wasn’t. Nobody really took it seriously.”
“Yeah - ?” I blinked at him.
“No. It was just something that got read out in class, a couple of times, because they had to. It was Father Kentzler’s class; and you could tell he didn’t really believe it, he just hurried through the whole subject, and went on to the next sin.” Another little shrug, another sideways, ironic smile at me. “We got that a lot, in school.”
“Okay,” I went; watching, as he looked back down at the Bay beneath us, the lights coming on all over, now, the grids of the streets beginning to glow yellow and white and blue.
And it wasn’t okay, of course. The idea of Noah having to sit in class, with all his friends, and LISTEN to crap like that – ‘Intrinsic Moral Disorder’ –
“I mean it,” he went on; not looking at me. “It actually turned out good. For the best.”
“Okay,” I went, again. Neutrally.
Nothing from Noah for a second; and then the seconds stretched on, and I wondered if he was going to say anything else about it, at all. Then –
“See,” he went, looking down below us – “By the time we had the lecture, about, well, homosexuality – I was already a junior. I was already sixteen.” He paused for a beat; I just kept looking, sideways, at his profile. “And by then I already . . . had feelings for this other person. This other boy . . . ” His voice was soft. “And it was the most beautiful thing in my whole life; it was why I was born. I really loved him, I’d loved him since we were fourteen, and it was all beautiful, and I just knew it was pure, I knew it wasn’t . . . immoral. A disorder.” Another pause. “It was beautiful; and pure.”
“I know,” I said, into the electric pause that followed. Feeling his words ringing, in the quiet dark.
Silence then, for a stretch; just the fog, and the lights below us, and the gentle, cool breeze, making the bushes rustle. Noah’s face, in profile, was – set. Young, a boy’s smooth face; almost angelic, really, but also – set. Certain. Peaceful.
And wholly, completely beautiful; just then.
More silence, for second after second, after second.
“And so,” he went at last, still softly, “I started having . . . questions. I started having a lot of questions. About the Church, I mean. About teachings. About dogma.” His expression changed; he shrugged just a little, and he glanced at me sideways, quick, then back down to the Bay, below.
“Yeah?” It came out soft, to match his tone. I was afraid of breaking the spell; afraid, I don’t know, of saying something wrong; he sounded fragile, just now.
“Uh-huh,” he went; and in profile, the corner of his mouth twitched up, a little impishly, maybe. “Yeah. So I started asking questions; I started talking to our priest, and I started talking to a couple of my teachers . . . you know, the Fathers.”
“You came out to them - ?!” I asked it a little less softly, maybe than I’d intended.
A quick flash of a glance, from Noah; no, he still wasn’t exactly comfortable talking about coming out, that was sure.
“No. Nothing like that,” he said softly, after a second; his eyes down on the lights of the cars crawling on the freeways, below us. “Not exactly, anyway . . . I just started asking questions about things. Morality, mostly.” A pause, and he looked away from me, for a second, then back down. “But I did ask some theoretical questions about . . . being in love. With another guy . . . ” His voice trailed off, so soft I could barely hear it.
Another, hold-your-breath silence, for a second. I kept my own eyes on the panorama below us; giving him some space.
“And mostly,” he went on, after a beat – “mostly, not very much came out of it.” A quick pause, and a breath that might have been a kind of laugh. “My parish priest told me to go to confession, and do whatever the Father Confessor told me to do. Which would have been him, of course . . . ”
“Uh-huh,” I went.
“But one of my teachers, my Biology teacher . . . ” He trailed off, a second; and I saw him shrug, beside me, just a little. “We were already kind of close; he’d helped me a lot, in class, the year before . . . so, he listened to me. He listened to me, and he actually talked to me.” Another pause, and I heard wonder in his voice. “He actually talked to me, like I was an adult; he didn’t talk down to me, or anything . . . ”
“Yeah - ?”
“Yeah.” Another quick flash of his eyes, at me. “Father Chapin.” A little sideways-smile, and his eyes were back down at the Bay, again. “He’s a Jesuit; do you know what that means - ?”
I blinked at him. “Sort of . . . ”
Still that small smile, as he looked down. “They’re the intellectuals in the Church . . . I don’t think the Popes like them, very much.” A little shrug. “Father Chapin didn’t exactly answer any questions for me . . . it was more like, he kept asking me new questions. What I thought, about a lot of things. The Virgin Birth; the Holy Trinity. Transubstantiation.” A short pause. “Half the time, all the things he said – well, the questions he asked – I expected to be struck by lightening, right then and there . . . ”
Another moment of priceless beauty. He was almost-laughing at himself now, doing it quietly; his face, shining and gentle.
“And then,” he went on, after a second – “there were a couple of books he gave me to read. And after I did, we talked about them . . . and then, some more books after that.”
He stopped, then; still looking down at the Bay. It was getting dark fast, now; his face, under the shadow of his baseball cap, was getting harder to see.
“And - ?” I asked; gently. Eventually.
A quick flash of his eyes, again; then he was looking back down. “Father Chapin taught me to question things, and not just accept them. He taught me about the whole history of questioning things, in the Catholic Church; how teachings have changed, how things we’re taught now, used to be heresy. And how some people are questioning things in the Church still . . . with some really, really good theological arguments . . . ” A short pause. “And he taught me, it’s more than just the Church, he taught me to ask questions about life. About real life . . . ” His voice trailing off; so gently.
“Real life, like, you and your friend?”
I said it, low. The breeze rustling the little bushes next to us next to us, almost drowned me out.
He nodded, slowly; not looking at me. Below us, the lights of Hayward and the cities across the Bay blazed brighter, against the dusk, jewel-like.
“Yeah,” he went, softly, at last. A pause; a long pause. Then – “He . . . my friend in high school . . . he’s straight; and he never knew how I felt about him. But that doesn’t matter; because I really did love him. And it was the most beautiful thing in my whole life, and Father Chapin helped me see, it really was pure . . . and that’s why it was all for the best. That’s why it turned out all right . . . ”
Oh, oh fuck me. Fuck me.
For a whole lot of obvious reasons, his words just, hit me; they speared my heart.
I mean, I know something about undeclared, unrequited love; you know? It’s the story of my life, it defines my life . . .
And I was used to it, as much as anybody could get used to it; for myself. But the idea of Noah going through it all . . . alone, in a Catholic high school; no gay mafia to hang with, in love with a straight boy . . .
Like I said; it speared my heart. It so totally did. Oh, Jesus . . .
And so without thinking about it, by pure instinct, I took his left hand in my right hand, and it felt cool in the night air, and I squeezed it, gently, and for some reason I didn’t let go, for second and second after second –
And Noah, beside me, was struck frozen . . . but at last, after a long stretch, his hand was squeezing mine back. Tentatively. Carefully.
I didn’t let go.
And with my own pulse pounding in my ears, the darkening Bay below us, the breeze blowing gently around us – I felt a weird sensation. It was almost like a sunburn on my face, that I knew I didn’t have –
And it came to me; I was blushing.
Me, blushing! With my history; all the shit I’ve pulled in my life, all the hook-ups I’ve done, all the wrong beds I’ve been in - ?
Still, I didn’t pull my hand away. And Noah didn’t pull his hand away. And my face went on feeling, hot . . .