A few weeks ago, I was sitting around one of my usual Boston haunts, a South End coffeehouse whose recently-remodelled decor was initially described to me by a colleague with the cool, studied evaluation of an architectural genius:
"Don't do it, Myke. It looks like Laura Ashley threw up in there. Enter the Wicker Nightmare. Bad, bad scene."
Still, home is home, and among the checkerboard floors, quaint Depression-era Midwestern bonnets and carvings of wooden geese wearing Pilgrim uniforms, I would sit and commingle with some of my closest friends. And, I might add, some other people for whom the word "quirky" is somehow just too good. On this particular evening, after a long day spent soaking luxuriantly in the gold-card ambience of the extravagant Copley Mall, my friends and I were tossing around some ideas for a Pride '98 theme.
The principal cast of characters:
So it was we three, huddled around a table which resembled a leftover from the live-action version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, all absurd curved lines and giant black-and-white checkers. I was sucking down a black cherry soda, Cass had contented himself with some sort of gooey, sinful chocolate confection, and Aaron, despite his protestations, wasn't being allowed near any sugar or caffeine. Jason was still feeding off of the testosterone that lingered in the air after a roving pack of loud, macho football apes had stumbled through our homestead in search of dime beer and party mix. He looked somewhat hungry.
"How about 'Boston Pride And Friendship'?" Jason oozed, clearly missing the irony.
"Greeting card," I said. "All I can think of is 'Walk on the Wild Pride,' but that's because I stayed up until two in the morning listening to Lou Reed."
"Who Reed?" Jason asked. I looked as if I had just witnessed a murder. I couldn't help but notice the conspiring look on Aaron's face, and Cass and I exchanged worried glances. We waited for the explosion. Suddenly, he barked.
"'BOSTON CREAM PRIDE'!!"
"Oh, Jesus--" Cass leapt up and made for the door. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back down to the table.
"Look, at least the kid's creative. You haven't said a thing." I looked over at Jason, as if to affirm my defense of Aaron's frankly baffling invention, but he had all the mental presence of a deer in headlights. I followed his transfixed gaze over my shoulder and turned to look.
Operation: Boywatch was clearly in progress.
Sometimes I have to admit, in spite of myself, that Jason's taste in men runs deliciously into the Red Zone of Cute Young Things. This particular one was about six two, doe-like brown eyes, rail-thin but impressively filling out a Structure undershirt, which he wore, despite the winter cold, without any further insulaton. A pectoral muscle shifted as he leaned over the counter to receive his change, and I heard a tiny gasp emanate from Jason.
"Are you two hookers almost done?" Cass grumbled. I'm not sure if it's possible to glare at someone without actually making eye contact, but he shut up without further protestation. The Adonis figure disappeared into the rear seating area bearing a giant salad, and Jason got up to follow. I turned back to my remaining companions with a wry smile and couldn't help but notice Aaron, who had frozen in this sort of maniacal Al-Jolson-on- amphetamines pose. The Muses were giving Aaron star treatment today, it seemed, and before I could inquire into his latest epiphany, it was out.
"'El Nino Can't Stop Our Pride!'"
Cass was shielding his eyes from the horror. Ordinarily, such creativity would be honored by a dignified, stoic silence on my part, but my defenses failed me and I crumbled with laughter. I managed to compose myself long enough to adjourn our gathering, and ventured out, Cass in tow, into the bitter-cold Massachusetts dusk.
"That kid is a monstrosity."
"I think he's fun. And you can't deny his enthusiasm. Would you rather hang around him or some jaded old South End queen?"
"You ARE some jaded old South End queen, Myke."
"Shut up. Where are we going, anyway?"
"I want to show you something."
So off we marched, cutting a cross-section through the commercial hub of the Back Bay: the junk food havens, ritzy clothing stores, and token queer book shop of Tremont Street, the anything-goes-as-long-as-it's- overpriced lower end of Newbury, the scenic divided lanes and monolithic brownstones of Commonwealth Avenue. We swung a left at the Church of Scientology on Beacon Street (stepping lightly so as not to alert any potential proselytes lingering nearby) and headed across Storrow Drive to one of the few oases of vernal tranquility in Boston, the Esplanade. Hiking briskly along the labyrinthine trails, Cass kept me occupied with an amazing array of anecdotes, unusual conversational topics, and the usual breathing space to allow me to rant freely (the polite call it "extemporization," for me it's just ranting) in my usual stream-of- consciousness fashion. Finally, somewhere after the giant bust of Arthur Fiedler's head, we came to rest at a small cluster of trees in a dark corner of the trail.
"So what brings us here, anyway?"
Cass gave me one of his trademark Looks. I find these looks very hard to describe, but this one is a cross between a sly "woudldn't-you-like-to-know," a grimacing "wait-till-you-hear-this," and a satisfied "how-about-that." I felt as if he had already told me.
"Let me tell you a story, Myke."
I leaned against a tree and prepared for the adventure. Cass is a marvellous storyteller. I'd commission him to write this column for me, but I hate being outclassed.
"One evening, after I had been arguing with Brad -- you remember Brad -- I was out on one of my customary walks. By this time it was already three or four in the morning, and I just kept walking around, not really keeping track of time. Anyway, I'm down here on the Esplanade and it's starting to get light out. I'm guessing it was maybe five in the morning. I'm just enjoying the fresh air and the water, and as I come around this corner here, I see a group of people standing around these trees."
The gears in my head shifted despondently.
"As I get closer, I realize that it's a group of about three or four, maybe five, teenage boys. And Myke..."
He touches my shoulder.
"...We're talking, fifteen, sixteen. And they're all gangbanging each other, and I can't help but notice that they're unprotected. One of them looks up at me and calls me over, asking me if I want to join in."
I shot him an inquiring and worried glance, hoping that his answer matched mine.
"I don't think I said anything, but it was only a matter of time before they shifted positions and he was preoccupied again. I just remember thinking how sad it was. I mean, Myke... these kids are *young*, and most, if not all of them, are probably HIV positive. And the sun is starting to shine through the trees, and they don't even seem to take notice. It was really, really sad."
"So what did you do?"
"I just kept walking, and they kept fucking. I figured someone else would be along soon enough, and I didn't really want to be implicated." He sighed, then shrugged.
"I mean, I'm fascinated and more than a little depressed, Cass, but why did you tell me this story?"
"Because," he said, his voice rising emphatically but lowering to a near-whisper. "One of them was Jason."
There was a silence. A long, pregnant, impenetrable silence.
I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. I fell forward, just a little, as if the poles had shifted ever so slightly, and Cass caught me. I stood there, whimpering at first, and roiling clouds of regret rolled in over my conscience as I began to cry softly.