Brilliant Rainbows & Fading Crosswords
Rainbow flags spilled out into the street from floats and cars waiting in baited anticipation of the music and dancing to follow. The music and dancing soon to be barreling down the streets during Houston's first night parade. I was lost in daydreaming and afterthought of past events.
Stammering under his venomous breath, my stomach couldn't decide how to respond. My body was trembling with confusion. We had already passed the quid pro quo of "Have you ever" questions, and had moved into reciprocated dares. The chilly summer air of the Texas hill country bit into the atmosphere of the church camp cabin with frigid teeth, and it was a shocking awakening to realize the exact temperature as I rose from my bunk to enter his. Hands flowed over the sensitized skin of another for the first time, and he was a boy. I shivered. Not from the refrigeration received from the weather, but from nervousness. Though my clumsy fingers had never fumbled over the silky, supple softness of the in-between-space of a woman's breasts, I had fantasized about it -- but only once or twice. Yet here I was nimbly navigating the soft sternum of my cabin mate with trembling arms and steady fingertips. The next day I felt guilty for violating the sacred pact of all newly teen-aged boys not to veer from the road; never to deviate from the straight path. I had almost crossed over to the never-going-back place and barely saved myself by riddling my thoughts of it with guilt. Later that night we resumed what had begun previously. After the second go-round, I felt less guilt. Everything felt natural, similar to a fit-like-a-glove move you throw out on the dance floor: it's always been in you, but you just don't know it until you take a chance.
I made no connection in my pre-pubescent brain that this spoke to who I was. I'd no idea that my future was shaping up, because-at the time-it was shaping up so far back in my head, taking notice of the developing gayness was like trying to view a cable-stealing TV with a foil antenna (and no ground wire). Hindsight, being twenty-twenty, is more illuminating of the event's significance. I still remember everything about it: his tenderness burned into my fingertips; his smell stained onto the walls of my nose; the taste of his mouth always lingering on my tongue; and his name, forever acid-etched into my memory.
I thought of all this as I prepared to walk with fellow young queers down lower Westheimer for the annual Pride Parade. Dressed to kill in less that I'd ever worn in public before, I flaunted my lovely gay self in celebration of who I was: an American homosexual male. I reveled in the midst of a distinctly American phenomenon: gay subculture. From the hidden bars and speakeasies filled with ancient queens worshipping old film divas (Bette, Garbo, Liz, et al.) back in the fifties, we have emerged into a color-matched, accessory-coordinated group of snapping fingers, dykes-on-bikes, quiet blenders, and fabulous drag queens with only one unifying quality: the desire to identify ourselves as queer and create our own places to be and do so undisturbed by those who tend to more genocidal thoughts.
She would bring her bible-toting-self into the sacred arena of my lunch group at high-school. She'd quote Leviticus and force-feed Romans like she needed to convert at least one faggot to get initiated into her tent-revival, Billy-Graham's-dick-sucking crowd. She'd deliver the passage reference to Leviticus and then proceed: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, just as a woman shall not lie with a woman as with a male, it is perversion. To this butchering of the text she supposedly held so sacred, I could only serve up the text itself and point out her mistake. "Is the part referring to lesbians new or listed as Leviticus 18:22a? I don't ever remember seeing it. And what happened to the laws against bestiality? Did you conveniently forget them for your own ends?" She never did like my responses. I never liked her provocations. Her personality and brand of Christianity smelled as foul as soiled baby diapers left in the open for seven days.
When she first began pestering me, though, I was nowhere near the self-assured mess she ran into later during my senior year. Two years before, she began her cursory trips to my lunchtime peacefulness. She would always bounce down the sidewalk all giddy-like, thinking she'd found another flowering homo to fuck up. After her bible became a falling-apart pulp from the beating she gave it at our first run-in, I bolted. Tail between my legs I fled to safety in the practice rooms. There, I could lock the doors and seek quiet solace in the rough-red carpeted walls and tattered walnut-finish upright piano music. Through pentatonic improvisation in two-part harmony and counterpoint, I could drown out the cacophonous racket of everyone else. At home, my safe-place run led me to black and white print-patterned encyclopedia pages. Freud would enter my life, brown-tweed-wearing, Cuban-cigar-smoking, over-analyzing-round-spectacle-wearing absent father he was-then.
Eventually I was driven to the medicine cabinet. I could open up the peach-colored doors and immerse myself in an almost innumerable sea of deadly concoctions. Several times I'd stood in front of the mirror waiting to grow the balls to drink whatever I'd most recently mixed. By the end of two weeks, I'd mixed over ten potions, given names like Sunny Tuesday Hemlock. Finally, I threw them all together in a glass mug. The pungent potion swam through my senses just as murkily as it did within the confines of the now stained glass. Aged like great wine, this nectar had a bouquet that could burn hairs right out of your nasal passages. As I pressed the glass to my lips, my mind was flooded with virtually real maybe-memories. The most prominent one placed me in mid-air above a funerary service. Dark wood paneling covered the walls, and all the pews were stained to match. Marble lined the center trail between the rows of pews, and the altar was hidden: hidden by the giant sterling-gray casket. I knew it was me in the satiny insides of the casket. I watched my mother slowly traverse the painful distance from her comfy seat to the edge of my eternal-resting-place-bed. Her tears flowed and swelled until they flooded the sanctuary, and continued spreading through the surreal city. Luckily no one was home to hear me drop the glass mug on the floor or swear while cleaning up the mess.
After realizing what others had driven me to, I decided to own myself -- lock, stock, and walk-in-wardrobe-closet. Some of the initiative had to do with my sobering process: getting off coke, acid, and a few other amenities of junkie life. Mostly, though, the initiative had relevance to my drive not to be shit-kicked around. I wasn't going to be anyone else's shooting-can at the end of the range anymore. I found myself a "gay mother" who treated me like I was the most fabulous person he'd ever known. The best thing about my "gay mother" is that he never expected sex. This introduced a new realm of queerness to me: not everyone who isn't straight wants into your pants. Just a short time later, I was fending off Christian-wrong radicals and spewing attitude all over their Thursday-worn Sunday-quasi-best bible beating uniforms. Remember to tell your favorite Radical Right member this: Jesus is coming ... look busy.
Chuckling over the idiocy of what I'd been through to get where I am, I decided to race down to the official dissenters' area at the corner of Mandell and Westheimer. There were a small group of fashion-faux-pas, card-carrying fag haters. One proudly brandished a hastily made sign saying, "Yes! God DOES hate faggots!" I simply blew him a kiss and thanked him for coming. And what was he doing after? He was kind of cute. Felling satisfied that I'd sufficiently pissed them off, I returned to my parade-mates to begin our light-encrusted, star-studded affair. When we passed a friend's parents, they asked where are your parents? I didn't know. I didn't care. This wasn't for them.
With my identity firmly moving in a gay-positive direction, I set to find my cultural heritage. My mother and grandmother (the Winge women) took their trip to Norway during the summer before my senior year in high-school. My mother returned with baggage and arms exploding with Norwegian flags, paraphernalia, and bunads i. She had recipes and instant mixes for flatbrød, lutefisk, and rømmegrøt. When Syttende Mai rolled around, novelty Norwegian flags popped up all about the house, the smell of cooking rosettes and lefse filled the house, and mom and Mrs. Skjonsby would dance around in their Scandinavian garb and quote little snippet phrases they learned. Drik min ven, men drik med maade;/ drik, men lad fornuften raade.ii Those nights, sometimes when I drifted into far-away dreaming lands, I would see relatives I never knew I had, speaking to me in forceful words I never wished then or since to translate. I Jesu navn går vi til bords/ Å spise drikke på ditt ord/ Deg Gud til ære, oss til gavn/ Så får vi mat I Jesu navn.iii The Norwegian was a new addition to the home-save for the traditional "I am so glad it's Christmas eve" carol (in Norwegian) around the tree when the festive season struck again.
Crosswords were the only real connection my mother and I had outside of defending ourselves from dad's clinical-depression-rages. Even if he cared, I doubt there's enough cultural heritage left in his lineage to create a bleached-out, burned-away never-was-photo of his ancestral cultures. I always associated with my mother and her mother through our common bond: the crossword puzzle. Grandma would yank out her yellowish battered, thumbed-through-worn crossword dictionary while mom would siren across the room, "What's a four letter word for all colors absorbed?" We'd all sit on the couch, huddled together around the paper. Grandma and I would admonish my mother incessantly: you should remember to use a pencil, you're no good on crossword with a pen! Mother then pulled out her erasable pen and began reworking. Squares became blurred, lines: jumbled messes; and the crosswords bleached out. Exeunt. The crosswords and the Norwegian dreams and oddities fade into the background and, finally, into black.
* * *
Laughing to myself, I hug my friend, Leslie, and join her in a rousing traditional ballad: Happy Gay Day Too You! People cheer us on as we march loudly, proudly down the street. Yelling our sexuality at the top of our lungs, we can feel pride swelling up from within the birthing-place in our hearts. I realized that I need no ethnic heritage to plug myself into a culture, and feel blessed to be a party to such a lively, sprightly, brightly-colored, cartwheel-turning, lavender-menacing, rainbow-toting, same-sex-loving mass of beautiful people. Faded pictures of Norway, Freud, and wherever anyone else I'm related to was ever from fall away into the still-born afterbirth storage palate in my mind. Stripping my cultural identity down to simple association gave me the gift of pride-so essential for survival in a world where Jesus forgives, and his inadvertently adopted magpie-cronies don't. Where love is verbally used and abused so much, that emotionally, there's suddenly not enough for you when you don't play by Newt's rules, you've got to just smile wryly while tipping your hat and say, "Fuck you very much, I'll have my life back, please." And in doing so, you are unknowingly inducted into the most stylish subculture this country ever tried to abort. Welcome home, I'm glad I'm came out.
ii Norwegian proverb: Drink, my friend, but drink with moderation;/ drink, but let good judgment rule.
iii Norwegian table prayer (before the meal): We go to the table in Jesus name/ To eat and drink by Your word/ To God the honor, ours the gain/ We receive our food in Jesus name.