Of course it's purely coincidental, but the last months of a decade have often been major turning points in my life.
1999 - Yesterday, ten years ago, my late husband and I completed the move of my possessions and me to Texas. Back to Texas, I should say; half my family is Texan, and my parents and I had lived in Dallas when I was a kid. Well, I thought ten years ago, Now it's all smooth sailing from here on, the rest of my life will be spent happily and placidly in a little country town with my husband, we will grow old together here. Whither thou goest, I shall go . . . and there shall I be buried. We were so much in love. But, as I've written before, fate had other plans in store for me. All I can say is, boys, it's such a damn good thing we can't know the future until it gets here. It would only scare the shit out of us.
1989 - Not much was going on at this time in 1989, just a comfortable routine. A couple months before, I'd bought a house and was settling into a steady civil-service job, both of which were good developments because my mother had gotten to the point where she wasn't really able to live by herself any more, so I was able to make a home for her in a house where I expected I'd spend the rest of my life, probably. But that happy plan was thwarted and smashed by fate, too. What followed in the next five years was the death of my best friend from AIDS, my mother's suffering and death, huge medical and funeral bills, bankruptcy, and a disastrous relationship with my first husband, all of which culminated in losing my house and holing up in a tiny garage apartment, less than 400 square feet, into which I somehow managed to jam the contents of my former 3-bedroom house, with just barely sleeping room left over for myself - on a couch - and not much else, except a broken toilet and a drinking problem. In my life, long-range planning has always been an entirely laughable concept; fate just keeps on throwing them curve balls, ya know?
1979 - Somewhere in the last few days of November, I attended my very first gay party: that was my initial, very tentative step of coming out. It was my senior year of college, and a couple of months before I'd finally worked up enough courage to get in touch with the local gay group on campus, who had a program of peer counselors, specifically trained to talk with and support closeted guys like me. I lucked out and landed a really great guy for my counselor, very down to earth and easy to talk to. Straight-acting. In fact, he'd been married, had grown kids. I don't know when I would have ever come out, if not for that very easy, gentle way of doing it; I would have been completely terrified of going to the one gay bar in town by myself, and in fact I'm not sure I even knew there was a gay bar there until I came out.
After a couple of months of pleasant one-on-one coffeehouse chats, he invited me to come to the gay group's Christmas party, which because of the way holidays and finals fell that year, took place on the last weekend in November. It was held at some faculty member's spacious house in a nice neighborhood, and perhaps fifty-odd people showed up. A typical Christmas party: a tree and a roaring fireplace, lots of yummy munchies (that was the first time country boy ever saw raw vegetables served as something to dip with, which seemed very strange), jingly music on the stereo, and lots of gab in a mixed crowd of gay/straight/male/female. It's funny now, but I'm sure I must have looked like one of those goofy bobble-headed dogs: I remember I spent the entire time either looking up at the ceiling or down at the carpet, so afraid was I of making eye contact with the other guys there. Whenever I did, by accident, happen to meet another guy's gaze, I blushed right down to my boots.
Yeah. I was that shy, and that scared. But I got over it soon enough. And boy, howdy.
And once again, here I thought life was finally going to straighten out - no pun intended - and run smoothly. At last, I would be among my own kind; love and happiness would surely follow, right? Who could have foreseen that just two years later at about the same time of year, the first news of the AIDS epidemic would filter down to us in the provinces; and all the horrors of that decade that followed. And from a completely different point of view, who could have predicted that I would turn out to be so goddamn lousy at picking lovers/partners? Or that I would finally finish college and get a real job (starting salary $17,000 ~ $35,000 today, a princely sum after scraping by on three or four thousand a year in college) - but be marooned thereby in a little hick town ninety miles from nowhere, you might say, just as I am now. (God is such a practical joker.) Which was as good as being shut away in a monastery. Well . . . most of the time, anyway. Certainly it put a great big halt to my social life and sent me right back into the closet for another half decade.
Oh, I can just feel it: somebody, somewhere is thinking right now, Well gee whiz Russ, why weren't you more proactive, why didn't you take charge of your life, control your destiny, get a job in a big city like Dallas or Atlanta, have lots of dates and sex and friends and lovers, etc., etc.
Answer: Come sit a little closer so I can explain while I slap you silly, honey. When I graduated from college, there was a big recession going on, just like now only it seemed even worse then. Whole families were pictured on the nightly news, dragging around from one city to another in search of work, living out of a car, mom, dad, kids, baby. For the first time, homelessness entered the national vocabulary. Jobs were damn hard to come by; I counted myself very lucky indeed to be chosen for the one I got. And then, fresh out of school with no professional experience, you feel the need, if you have any damn sense at all, to stay with your first job several years, build up your experience and skills, and get a good resume going.
And then too, butthead, unlike some golden boys and girls in this world to whom everything seems to come so easily, your Head Trucker was starting from zero, financially, and I mean zero. I went through college with holes in the soles of my shoes quite often - very ticklish in the wintertime, when your bare skin hits the frozen pavement at every single step - and living on dried beans and cornbread for weeks at a time. My father was long dead, my mother's business had gone belly up in the previous recession, there was no one around to finance me; and certainly no money to flit around and jet around and live the highlife, gay or otherwise. It was hard times.
Hell, I didn't even own a car when I got offered the job, had to rent a car just to go for the interview, in another state. And it was only with great difficulty that I was able to scrape together enough down payment to buy a used car - an old clunker - to go to that job. And I thought I would starve to death, that long, long first month of employment, waiting on that first paycheck to arrive. Then when the salary did start coming in, I had to send a sizeable chunk back home every month to support my mom, who had a major stroke a couple of months after I started the job, and was never able to work again. So there was simply no money left over to be "gay" with or even think about moving for quite a few years. I just had to hunker down and work my fucking ass off, and do the best I could in that place, in that time. Alone. No friends, no family around, and not another gay person in sight. Just me. Lots of gay boys I've known couldn't have stood it. I had to stand it. And I did.
What I do remember is being amazed after being on the job a year or two, at how my young colleagues, hired at the same time I was, were suddenly able to buy houses - very nice houses - in good neighborhoods, with new cars, and all that sort of thing. All I could afford, was to rent ($175/month) an old, tiny, one-bedroom, tin-roofed wooden shack down the street from the workplace, hardly big enough to swing a cat in. (No, it wasn't wonderful to hear the rain on the roof; you couldn't hear anything when it rained, the landlord had stuffed the attic with insulation. Thank God, or the heat and cold would have been unbearable. The thin walls were still uninsulated; sometimes ice would form on the inside of the windows in the wintertime.)
Eventually, by dint of some subtle questioning here and there, it finally dawned on me that my colleagues and their spouses all had affluent mommies and daddies somewhere who gave or lent them the money to make down payments on houses and cars and such. I never did; I come up the hard way, I've had to work for everything I own. It's still not much - even illiterate moving men sneer at my old beat-up furniture; but by God it's all paid for, I don't owe nobody a cent, and I pay off my one little credit card in full ever month.
1969 - A real turning point in my life. This takes us back to the time of that terrible incident that I still can't bring myself to write about. In fact it just took me five minutes to type that last sentence, which tells you so little about it. It was actually a series of physical and verbal incidents that began in the fall of that year, and the bullies kept it going until the end of school the next year. An eight-month-long ordeal.
That whole long time, I lived in daily fear - heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed terror - of being beaten or publicly humiliated. Called a homo out loud, in front of God and everybody. Repeatedly. Before that year, once in a great while somebody would call me a sissy or a mama's boy, but usually in anger that blew over and was quickly forgotten. Nothing like this: daily, repeated, deliberate, going-out-of-their-way acts to humilitate and embarrass me at every opportunity.
[Correction: Though in memory it seems that way, these incidents might not have occurred daily in the literal sense, mainly because I learned to be very good at hiding out in places like the library where they couldn't attack me, zooming from one class to another via the shortest possible route, and otherwise avoiding the places they were likely to be. But the ennervating fear I lived in was most certainly a daily ordeal, palpable and unavoidable.]
That was a really big turning point in my life on several levels, and I can't write about them all tonight. But I'll make this one point for now: the fall of 1969 was the first time I consciously, with full understanding, put together the words "homosexual" and "me." Because when these bullies started calling me that every day, I looked inside myself, and realized with a shock - and this is the terrible thing, the thing that did a lot of damage - that I had no defense against them. I was indeed a homo. So even though their taunts and cries were rude and hurtful in the extreme - they were true. I had no mental/emotional defense I could put up in my own mind against their arrows; I was, in actual fact, a queer, a fairy, a pansy, a faggot, everything they said I was. Cruel as those guys were, they were right. Absolutely right, I had to admit to myself. I had no defense.
(And in case you young folks are wondering, no, the Stonewall riots made absolutely no impression in the Deep South. Nobody down here was really aware of it at the time, if it made the papers at all it would have been a brief mention on a back page. I don't think I ever heard about it until a couple of years later; all that Gay Lib stuff was something strange, scary, and vague, far away. Nobody at all was "out" in the South, not in 1969; homosexuality was still just a very dirty word.)
It's funny I've never thought of this before, but the image of St. Sebastian just popped into my mind: tied to a post, an open, unresisting target for a hundred arrows. Not being Catholic, it's not an image I've ever spent a lot of time looking at or thinking about. But I guess that really does portray what it was like to be me at age 14 - no means of resistance, no means of defense, physically (I was the skinny, scrawny kid who liked to read books and was a total pushover in sports or fighting) - or even within the walls of my own mind. When you can't even find shelter inside your own head, that's a very very bad spot to be in. It twists you around and changes you. Bad.
St. Sebastian, suffering the arrows. I guess that was me, all right. Though of course if you are a grown man, consciously suffering martyrdom for a righteous cause, you at least have that inward comfort of knowing you are doing the right thing, and some heavenly reward to look forward to. If you are a terrified, isolated boy effectively trapped in a daily chamber of tortures that have no redemptive purpose whatsoever, the effect is rather different. It does bad things to you inside, very bad things.
Because I realized not only that I was a homo, but also a very definite coward, and an effeminate Not-Man, as I've tried to write about a couple of times already. My self-confidence, my self-esteem, were entirely crushed at that delicate stage of adolescence, ground into the dirt under the bullies' heels, with effects that lingered and festered for years, linger in fact down to this very day.
But there was, unknown to me at the time, little scared frightened mouse that I was, a redemptive note in those pangs of suffering after all; an element of moral courage in me, a streak of steel in my soul, that I did not come to realize until many years later.
But I've written and shared all I can for tonight, guys. I'll pick it up here again soon. I just have to catch my breath, you know?
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