We rarely used the living room.
So it felt very formal when my father gathered my brother and me there for a talk. It also felt alien, as we never gathered to talk. The question on the table was why my brother and I were not talking. Verbal communication was probably my father’s weakest suit, so I give him credit for this attempt at resolution.
“You two haven’t spoken to one another for a long time. It’s really starting to upset your mother. What’s going on?”
“Ask him,” my brother responded nodding towards me, “he’s the one who’s not talking.” This was true.
“So why aren’t you talking to your brother?” my father asked me.
“I don’t know.” I squirmed on the sofa cushion.
“Well, this has been going on too long,” he cautioned. “I want this silent treatment to stop.” He glanced in my direction indicating where the culpability, in his opinion, lay.
If I had been younger, my father would have taken me to the basement, had me drop my pants, and used a belt on my behind, but I was too old for that. I had found a pretty effective tool, as he couldn’t make me speak. He did not possess the wherewithal to figure out I was emotionally confused to the point of trauma.
I hadn’t spoken to my brother for over a year and we shared the same room and the same bed.
Often when emotionally upset, I clammed up and would not speak. I did this on a semi-regular basis with my mother. I remember being upset with her and not talking for hours, even days, walking around Kroger’s nodding or shaking my head in silent response to her questions. I don’t recall one precipitating event that led to this silence with my brother Anthony, just confusion over my sexuality and the direction my sexual urges would take. I have no idea what my brother thought. Part of me, perhaps, was just resentful about still sharing a room and a bed.
The matter of personal space was a big one for me.
My father, who had fought in the war, allowed for little such space. I could be taking a bath or washing my hands and he would walk in and take a piss right in front of me. I guess when you share hand-dug latrines and troughs this is not a big deal.
The other male in our family was my brother Anthony, the oldest with whom I shared a room and a bed. He had an independent nature and a much stronger self-concept than I, although that wouldn’t take much.
My father couldn’t bully him easily like he could me. My brother was a good male role model, much more so than my father who had more than a bit of the sadist in him. Most likely my father was really a weak man who had found someone weaker in me to knock around. I thought of Anthony as a typical male, but I didn’t feel like one myself.
Tony was five years older than me, but the age gap seemed much wider when we were young. He worked hard and had a strong constitution. He was a serious soul who was patient with my tagging along. Also, unlike my father, he was into sports. I couldn’t understand how my dad was a “real” man if he didn’t follow or play sports. I learned how to play baseball, football, and basketball from Anthony. We would play long games of H-O-R-S-E into the dark. I could never compete; he just had no one better to play with right then.
He let me follow along when he went to collect his paper route payments. I would peek out from behind him, and if someone spoke to me, I usually said, “I’m shy.” Most found that very endearing but I wasn’t learning to come out of my shell. Sometimes he helped me with chores that my father had given me. I was skinny and weak as a child and we had a large yard with a hand lawn mower. My father would give me a certain area to mow. I struggled so hard pushing that thing.
Many times, unbeknownst to my father, Tony finished the job for me.
It wasn’t long before I started working as well. Paper routes were the main source of income. At one point for a while I had both a morning and an afternoon route. I would get up before the sun and do the route even when it was below zero. The tires would make a persistent crunching sound on the snow frozen to the sidewalks and it would hurt to breathe. I still hate winter and early mornings to this day. Eventually, I also mowed lawns and shoveled snow like my brother did. We were taught to save almost everything we made, opening a savings account in elementary school; spending any of it was rare indeed.
My brother was not a delinquent but he was a little rough around the edges.
One time the police picked up him and one of his friends. I had never seen my mother so angry or heard her spout so much vulgarity. She could not believe they would pick up someone from such a good family. When he was in eighth grade he got in trouble for leading some type of minor rebellion. I looked up to him for doing what I figured boys were supposed to do.
As puberty approached, my relationship with him changed in ways I didn’t understand. Like any healthy, straight male my brother strutted around a bit showing off his biceps and being macho. When younger, we had bunk beds, but when I was in fifth grade we moved and Tony and I shared a bed. I don’t know why this was the case or what happened to the bunk beds; we may have just outgrown them.
I began to have urges to touch him in bed, which confused me. My Boy Scout compadres were now talking about “jacking off” which I didn’t even understand. From what they said about it, I figured out enough to give it a try. I was a freshman in high school taking a break from studying for a biology semester exam (the things we remember) when I first masturbated. I really didn’t do it right but I learned fast. Once this occurred, I fantasized about my brother doing the same thing and what it would be like to do it with or to him.
My father did not intimidate my brother, and I even remember one time when he stood up to him at a Sunday dinner and they actually “took it outside” and pushed one another around. It didn’t come to actual blows but all of us stood and watched through the windows aghast that someone had stood up to him.
My brother began attending Northern Illinois University and still we shared a bed. My therapist years later was aghast at what he considered the inappropriateness of this, but I didn’t know how odd it was at the time. Eventually, his student deferment ran out and he was drafted for service in Vietnam. He was vehemently against the war and had just gotten a degree in political science. He read Chairman Mao’s little red book and got into heated arguments with my father about the war, the ’68 convention, and anything political. I really thought Tony would go to Canada but he didn’t. I am sure that even though he had an office job over there, they were probably the least favorite years of his life.
When he returned, we still shared the same bed.
He had discovered alcohol in a big way. He worked at one of the factories in town and spent all his spare time drinking, mostly at a bar in town called “The Uptown.” He would crawl into bed stinking of gin or some other booze and I grew to hate that smell. He was much less appealing now. I also sensed that something must have happened to him over there, but he never talked about it.
He eventually got it together and married our sister’s roommate from nursing school, while the same sister married my brother’s roommate from Vietnam with whom he had stayed friends. After my breakdown at twenty-one precipitated by my first sexual experience with a man, my brother set me up with a Gestalt therapist he knew. He sat in on a session or two and heard me say I thought I was gay. He seemed fine with it. One of his two sons is now married to a man, and Anthony and his wife are fully supportive.
We grew apart over the years partly due to physical distance, and I have always identified more with women such as my mother and sisters. Even as a child my friends were girls, and at recess I could be seen playing with them while the boys did boy things such as play catch or kick a ball around.
In adolescence, years of Boy Scouting did expose me to male bonding and a kind of semi-military fraternity where guys talked dirty, a time when sexuality was shared like the tents we slept in. I remember the “Indian” swim at summer camp where all the boys and counselors swam naked at night, and my friend Jim got “massages” by one of the camp staff. More important to me was watching Doris Day and other actresses and listening to female singers. What would Cher wear for this week’s torch song? I remember blaring, “You are my Sunshine” at the top of my lungs throughout the neighborhood and staging performances in our little garage. I seemed to come out of my shell to direct others. I played with my sister’s toys including dressing their paper dolls in the chicest outfits, doling out advice on how to accessorize effectively.
I learned to “butch it up” over the years and not appear effeminate.
I have never been able to understand the phenomenon of effeminate straight males. Like many gay men, I assume they are just waiting to come out, but perhaps this is not always the case.
I was brought up believing that being male was synonymous with being straight and with “acting like a man.”
Anthony taught me much about being male; he did not need to be abusive or sadistic like my father, he had tried to help me by securing a therapist open to someone who was gay, and he had been patient when conflicts over my own sexuality muted my self-expression.
He had also demonstrated that a man could listen to another man, that nearly every interaction did not have to involve giving and taking orders. He at least activated in me the desire to understand what being male and being sexual encompasses.
Photo: Peter Varga/Flickr
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