You are not always the person your parents think you are. In fact, you are not always the person you think you are.
Hard up as I was, you’d have thought I’d jump right on that. We’d flirted much of the summer and that she came to my room in only her underwear and sheerest night dress was, in a sense, inevitable. But she was a broken soul. I was, at 21, merely lost, absent of a clue as to what to do in any aspect of my life. I have friends who’ve known from the time they were nine what they wanted. This purpose imbued their lives and the personalities they took on in the aura of their purposefulness. They were the people who got laid in high school.
I didn’t lose my virginity until college and, even then, was so drunk I didn’t ejaculate, despite which, that single, failed attempt remained, up until and even for some time after the night Stephanie stole into my bedroom, the only time I’d had sex.
A single word sums up my attitude toward the opposite sex and, even more frighteningly, the idea of sex with the opposite sex. Not strictly fear of girls, though there were any number of them, from high school on into my twenties, who I would only ever pine for from afar – Amy, Julie, Jess, Tammy, Jenn. I adhered to one of Isaac Newton’s lesser known laws of motion. The object of one’s affection will remain admired from afar unless one is acted upon by an outside force.
But I was afraid of something more than the girls themselves, something captured in a more colloquial law than the one promulgated by the father of Calculus. To paraphrase: far better to avoid sex and be thought inept than to engage in it and remove all doubt. When a boy, you assume sexual prowess is a gift you either are or are not born with. I assumed the latter. It never occurs to you that, like all things, sex is only something you get better at the more you do it.
Once he’s reveled in his first ejaculation, a feeling so good how could he not want to experience it over and over again in bed at night, night after night, it becomes difficult for a boy to recall the time before which this feeling so fully permeated his being. One’s individual pre- and post-pubescent eras are as irrevocably divided as our era from our grandparents’. To try to prove the negative, to capture what it was like not to have a sex drive that, when it was installed, dwarfed your adolescent mind’s hard drive, is to be the elderly relative who tries explaining to the grandkids what life was like before modern amenities, how a Coke was a dime and one flipped baseball cards against the brick apartment house wall and ice was delivered by a man with a stevedore’s hook and a pick with which he cut off blocks of it for the ice box because they didn’t have refrigerators.
My father still refers to the refrigerator as the icebox. He is a religious man who studied two years to be a priest before deciding he didn’t, in fact, have that particular calling. He spent most of the rest of his adulthood engaged in the life of our parish. When I was growing up, he served as eucharistic minister at mass and taught CCD to students preparing to be confirmed. It must be a great disappointment that none of his own children today practice the faith to which he was so devoted.
Needless to say, my father never talked birds and bees. Neither did my mother. Having attended Catholic school for all but three years, neither did I get sex ed. I vaguely recall Mr. Williams, a biology teacher at my Catholic high school, where he was also, more importantly, for these matters took precedence, the assistant football coach, rather embarrassingly and haltingly broach the subject one day in class because an administrator tacked it on to the biology curriculum. But that was it. My education proceeded apace elsewhere. It had to.
The first two pornographic magazines I remember were Penthouses. One my friends and I found in the rubble and weeds along the access road to the supermarket a block from my house. The other was my oldest brother’s, who hid it under some tools on a shelf in the back of our cellar. I don’t remember how I discovered this ignoble treasure, but I give my brother credit for an ingenious hiding spot. Though he owned tools, my father never used them. He remains one of the least mechanically inclined men I know. He was an inveterate reader of all genres and periods and the biography of, say, Peter the Great always held greater interest for him than any home or yard project. God bless him. He may have left me in the dark sexually, but a lack of mechanical skill or interest is but one of the tendencies I’m happy to have inherited.
The magazine my friends and I found was for looking. Because it was communal property we kept it hidden in an old cinder block in the rubble where we found it, but an access road isn’t exactly a spot where one can whip it out and have at it, even if, as young and horny as we were, the entire act would have lasted less than 30 seconds. Besides, it rained a few days later and we didn’t think to sheath the magazine in a plastic bag to protect it from the weather. Clearly, we were in need of some form of sex ed.
My brother’s magazine on the other hand was for more than looking. I remember one of the photos in it, an exceptionally close close-up of a vagina that belonged to one of a pair of women who, it’s clear to me now, were only simulating girl-on-girl action, but I was also, back then, a big fan of professional wrestling. Enthralled by the picture I snuck downstairs every chance I could. My brother must have known. I wasn’t exactly sanitary in my upkeep, routinely ejaculating on the magazine’s pages, which began to stick together and would, when I ripped them apart, become blighted with white spots, but he never said anything.
You might profitably ask whether my parents didn’t notice the amount of time I spent in the cellar, considering it was unfinished, little more than a space between the bare granite of the house’s foundation and the beams supporting its first floor, but I was the youngest of three boys and, by the time I ambled along, my parents may have decided they didn’t need to hold the reins so tightly or, what’s more likely, been sapped of the energy to do so. For that, I suppose, I owe my forbearing brothers a measure of thanks.
To me the latitude my parents granted was a good thing and not just in that way any child given a great deal of freedom would claim. Out of the house by 9:00 most summer mornings, I would call for Chris at his house or he at mine. In my back yard, which, though not big, was big enough, we would, the two of us, one pitching, the other batting, using imaginary fielders to project whether a ball one of us hit would have been caught had we, in fact, full teams of players, play whole baseball seasons – 162 imaginary games – over the course of a few weeks, keeping meticulous statistics – hits, home runs, rbi, batting average, earned run average. It would be dinner before we stopped.
As I grew older, summer’s daily excursions ranged further afield. By that time, my friends included Mike and Danny, who lived a good half-mile and mile, respectively, from my house. We split mornings between Mike’s, where we played basketball in the driveway, and Danny’s, where we played ping pong in the basement. Afternoons, we’d bike it to the river, where it bent behind the abandoned drive-in. This was before the feds mandated the state clean it. The water, turgid where it entered a marsh before turning toward the city and, finally, the ocean, and where older teens drank at night, unbothered by the cops, was filthy. We bided our time, which meandered like the river, throwing the trash at hand into the water and daring each other to dive in, though we were all well repulsed enough that none of us took the dares seriously.
I don’t remember when or for what reason, but at some point my brother’s magazine disappeared and, though, upon discovering its absence, I spent a frenzied afternoon scrambling through every reach of that cluttered and dust-covered cellar, I was forced to accept its loss and move on. In that pre-internet age, there was, luckily, quite the surfeit of masturbaturbable material in glossy ads of everyday magazines. Sports Illustrated became the periodical of choice. There was a Fruit of the Loom ad I liked: smooth, tan, dark-haired model in teal briefs perfectly accentuating the line of his thigh. Jim McMahon graced the cover. The Bears had beaten the Dolphins in the first week of the NFL season. As in my brother’s Penthouse, the pages became difficult to turn.
I was a kid from an outlying, almost completely Irish Catholic neighborhood of a city dominated for decades by Irish Catholics, who didn’t learn not everyone is Catholic until he was 10 when, on a family vacation, he struggled to assimilate into his limited worldview a Protestant minister and his fiancee, whom he met on a sightseeing train from Durango to Silverton, Colorado. I didn’t know what bi-sexuality was and had never met anyone who was openly bi-sexual and, even if I had, these matters don’t usually provide epiphanies. I’m not Gregor Samsa. Sexuality dawns more slowly than that. One’s libido is physical, it is of this world and is, therefore, observable. Though grounded in biology, our sexuality contains a spiritual element. It is part of who we are, which can take a lifetime to ascertain.
The night we met my wife and I agreed everyone has traditionally masculine and femnine aspects to their personalities and is, to different degrees, phyiscally attracted to members of their own gender. I copped to 60-40, that is I thought I was 60% gay and 40% straight. She claimed to be 60-40 the other way. It was an interesting first conversation, one which others, because of the respective revelations of our bi-sexuality, might have found discomfitting. I’d attempted to reveal my bi-sexuality before to friends and even a girlfriend and they had, each of them, found the conversation intensely uncomfortable. One of my best friends, whom I’ve known since third grade, sensing where the conversation was headed, cut me off before I could get there. A girl I’d been dating, and cheating on with men, broke down crying when I told her. I was never sure which she was the more upset about, that I’d been unfaithful or that I’d been unfaithful with men.
I’d gone to England for grad school with the intent of exploring my gay side. I was 32 and, though I’d had sex with men, women always seemed to get in the way. I was, with that one glaring exception, a serial monogamist. Once I got over my fear of women, it seemed I couldn’t go much more than a week between girlfriends. Every time I broke up with one woman, always thinking I’d lead a single, bi-sexual life for a while, I’d meet another almost immediately and, before I realized it, find myself six months into a relationship I didn’t want. In that sense, Nicole, who was in the same program, was no different. We met the first night of the semester, went on a date the second, slept together the fourth, but, two weeks later, in a bar in Amsterdam, where we’d gone for the weekend with some classmates, across the table around which six of us were crowded, Robbie Williams playing on the jukebox, I realized by the look on her face that she loved me and I her.
One might argue I’ve lost the chance to explore my gay side, but I would argue that’s what porn is for and, now that we live in an internet age, it’s so damn accessible. Still, I’m often asked whether my wife and I swing, as if sexual openness must be an aspect of all bi-sexual relationships. For the record, we don’t. I might want to fuck Jake Gyllenhall, but I’m pretty sure there are married straight men out there who want to fuck Gisele Bundchen. Monogamy is monogamy. What does it matter if it’s similarly or differently gendered?
I never told my parents I was bi-sexual and, as I’m married now, I don’t suspect I ever will. But strewn under my old bed, which rested on a raised frame, providing ample storage for them under it, were the issues of SI and GQ and People that contained the bare-chested models hawking everything from sports drinks to underwear, whose pages became covered in those damning white blotches. My parents did my bedroom over a few years ago. I can only presume that, as they threw the incriminating magazines in the garbage, one of them flipped through the pages to expose my secret, which would, of course, be as obvious to them as my imagination cast it. Those white blotches were Lady Macbeth’s spot.
There were also books, my favorite being, for masturbatory and not aesthetic reasons, Bret Easton Ellis’ thinly veiled portrayal of life at Bennington College, The Rules of Attraction. At the novel’s heart lies a love triangle – one girl, two boys, though one of the boys either denies or doesn’t realize he’s in a homosexual relationship because he’s high when they first jack each other off, the scene to which I most often, in what I guess you could call a form of reader-response criticism, jacked off.
The book was my middle brother’s and, rather comically, it never dawned on me he too might be gay, or at least bi-sexual. I just thought he was, like other college kids in the late 80s, trying to attain a literary hipness Bret Easton Ellis for some unknown reason then conferred. Even after I learned he was gay, I never spoke to him about his gayness or my bi-sexuality or what it was like to grow up gay in a family and community that might have shunned him had they known or why he, I can only assume, fled to California all those years ago or what it felt like, at long last, to come out to my parents, which he did on a June weekend when he was home for a wedding.
If Matt had wanted to see me, he could have hopped the T to the shitty, $900 a month apartment I was sharing with two other guys, so I knew as soon as I heard his voice on the phone something was up. I hadn’t spoken to my mother in months, despite which he asked me to go to dinner at my parents’ house, the same house we grew up in, containing still the magazines and books that had shaped our fantasies of sex with men.
But if he thought my presence would ameliorate anything, he underestimated the coolness of my relationship with my mother, who was something more than disappointed with the somewhat less than rapid development of my career. I’d quit my job in public relations to work at a Boys’ and Girls’ Club for the princely sum of $17,000. For a woman who grew up poor, poorer than I will, hopefully, ever know, who had uprooted her life to emigrate to a new country at the tender age of 28, that I would spurn a Harvard education, one, moreover, she helped pay for, to work for a wage that hovered near the poverty line, which was too close to home for her, was beyond bizarre, beyond the not unusual idealism of a young college graduate. It was, frankly, unconscionable.
On that June evening, as I walked in the back door, the only door in our house anyone – resident or guest – ever used, her greeting could only be described as brittle. As she prepared dinner, moving from the kitchen, where I sat in an attempt to engage her, outside to the grill and back again, she said little and looked at me less. After one trip to check on the steak tips, she slammed the screen door on her way back in, then proceeded to stomp around the kitchen opening and slamming cabinet doors, rattling the glasses, bowls, and plates like an earthquake.
Lost in the haze of my ego, I assumed that, as was so often the case, she was pissed at me. What eluded me from my self-inflicted perspective was the reason I was there. On her last trip to check on the tips, my brother, who was outside reading, had jumped the gun on what was to be the primary topic of dinner conversation. In this case, dividing did not conquer. All Matt accomplished was to necessitate he come out twice.
Now, I only learned this later, when, after dinner, my oldest brother called from Tennessee. He spoke first to my father, then to my mother, then, as he was older, to Matt, and finally to me.
His first words were, “Dude, what the fuck?”
The three conversations before mine had gone something like this: Dad, Red Sox, Mom, barely a word of any kind, Matt, revelation of earlier revelation. More damningly, my mother’s reaction to said revelation. She made my brother promise he wouldn’t tell my father, which was unfair, and not just to Matt. My mother demonstrated little respect for my father’s love for his son, which I knew would outstrip even his adherence to church doctrine. Moreover, as some of our cousins knew Matt was gay, it was inevitable my father would learn of it at a family party in the course of what others would presume was cocktail conversation.
I don’t know what happened – whether my mother relented or my brother defied her – but a few days later I stopped by the house. My brother had flown back to California and my mother was out shopping. Sitting at the kitchen table as I stood leaning against a counter, my father asked if I’d known Matt was gay.
“Yes. He told me last year.”
My father went on to ruminate that, if given a choice between a son who was straight and one who was gay, he would prefer the former, if for no other reason than that he believed a straight man’s life in this world was easier than a gay man’s and, as a father, he didn’t want to see any of us struggle.
“Life wouldn’t be life without struggle,” I said like a good Darwinist.
Here was an opening to slip in my own bi-sexuality, but I decided against piling on, which is, oddly, how I conceived of it. I made the mistake my mother did. I underestimated my father’s ability to assimilate a primary aspect of my being. That I still haven’t told my parents indicates I yet underestimate them.
There are versions of ourselves our parents carry with them. In the course of a life, a person changes. What we do and what we like changes, our habits and our tastes change, but, to our parents, the person we were at 17 is the person we are at 39. I’m convinced that when parents die, an event, thankfully, I have yet to experience, children mourn the loss of the image of them their parents hold as much as they mourn their parents.
My parents maintain certain expectations for me. It is with only a dash of facetiousness, but a whole dollop of regret, they say they thought I would grow up to be Mayor of Boston, one of the jobs that, in my mother’s eyes particularly, combined the best aspects of being Irish Catholic and a Harvard graduate. And I can tell you that, at 17, I expressed political aspirations, even as I desired to be a writer, and that, at 39, I continue to straddle the divide, one that coincides with other aspects of my split personality: the extrovert and introvert; the boy who wants to be one of the guys and the man who wants to tell every fucking guy he meets that to be the King of Queens shouldn’t be his highest aspiration; wanting to cinch the community binds that constitute a support network and wanting to cut them so I can go home at night and write free of obligations; the fear of ostracism that so often accompanies living life on one’s terms, outside of society’s prescriptions, and the desire to do so anyway.
All of this, all of the expectations molded and defined by religious belief and societal convention, is inextricably tied up in that fucked up head of mine with my conception of sin, which is one part religious in nature, one part familial, and one part my own. When I think of my parents discovering the cum-encrusted pages of advertisements in the magazines under my old bed, I don’t conceive of it within the natural course of child development, of which it is, of course, a part. Because we didn’t discuss sex in my house, I didn’t know it was perfectly normal to masturbate. And, even if we had, it is unlikely I would have learned that to masturbate to images of other men was just as normal. But it is for neither of these reasons, or at least strictly so, that I conceived of my actions then as sin. To masturbate to advertisements filled with chiseled, sweat-soaked men, then hide the evidence under my bed, was to subvert my parents expectations of me. And that, more than anything else, constituted the gravest sin I could commit.
And isn’t it sad that today my being bi-sexual is likely to help me attain one of my professional aspirations more than the other, the one, not coincidentally, my parents hope I achieve: that it is easier, even in my own mind, to conceive of myself as a bi-sexual writer than as an openly bi-sexual mayor.
So, when Stephanie walked into my bedroom that night, God, almost twenty years ago, I was scared. Scared of what was a sure thing. Scared of what I wanted and of the consequences of getting what I wanted. Scared I might not perform well, itself, Freudianly enough, part of the high expectations set by my parents, who, though they may not have talked to me about sex, certainly expected I achieve excellence in all aspects of my life.
Mostly, though, I was scared that this broken girl would, even through the glass shards of her life, see me for what I was. Scared of the dawning recognition that, somehow, the different aspects of my personality didn’t represent a Manichaean divide only the one side of which, if I were to be happy, I needed to choose, but, rather, an integrated whole. Scared, ultimately, of, in the words of another great bi-sexual, the multitudes I contain, unsure if those multitudes would meet my parents’ expectations. And, today, though I’m too fast approaching 40 and my parents 80, the fear remains. I’m just a latter-day Jacob wrestling the better angels of my parents for their blessing.