Rick Shory

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Coming Out Year, Part 17: East, and South.

Still, after my shattering disappointment, I decided to go with Adrian to Boston.  My memory of the trip is fragments, vignettes.

We stopped at a gay bar in Eugene.  It was bright in the afternoon sun, through big windows, unlike any other bar I have been to since.  I think I heard it used to be an old IHOP or something.  There was a young guy in there, wearing very short shorts.  He had a very nice ass and legs.  He was playing pool.  He would bend over picturesquely as he lined up shots with his cue.

As Adrian and I sat down, I must have done something to betray I didn’t know how things were done in bars.  “He hasn’t been out much,” Adrian explained to someone.  I was furious.  Who was Adrian, to make excuses for me?!  All these decades later, I still don’t know how to behave in bars.  It’s something to be proud of!

Our route must have gone up the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, and across Idaho, but I don’t remember a thing.  I just sat, looking out the window, feeling empty.  We went through Yellowstone.  We must have toured the geysers and mud pots, but my only memory is that there was road work and we were stopped in our lane for awhile.  Out the car window, I saw a lone bright red flower growing on a dry clay bank.  Years later, I was to learn the species; scarlet gilia.

We must have crossed eastern Montana, miles of prairie.  I remember where the trees started in the flats of North Dakota.  The terrain finally started to look like the Eastern forest rather than the Great Plains.

In some little motel where we stayed, there was a faint spicy fragrance; something with perhaps a touch of clove in it.  I had gone into the bathroom after Adrian showered.  I recognized it as a trace of the scent I’d thought of as his scent.  I realized then it was not intrinsic to him, but something he wore, or that lingered from some hair care product.

The weather was hot and steamy.  Along the south shore of Lake Superior, we stopped for a dip.  We’d found a beach remote enough so we didn’t bother with clothes.  As I came dripping ashore from that freshwater ocean, Adrian remarked at my thick chest hair, wicked into circlets by the water.  “It looks like you already have nipple rings.”

I guess he meant it as a mild complement.  I only thought, “already looks?”  As though sometime in the future I really will be so mutilated?  Not a chance!

We stopped for an afternoon with Scandinavian relatives of his in Wisconsin.  Aunt Frances told a story about during the war when there were shortages.  “Somehow, your uncle Pete got ahold of a pound of coffee.  He called everybody together.  They brewed it up, so everybody could have a cup.”  Scandinavians and their coffee.

Adrian had brought photo albums.  People were looking through them as we visited.  Aunt Sylvia turned the pages while others looked over her shoulders and from the sides.  They came to a section of pictures from a Gay Pride parade.

The lowering sun slanted through the windows.  Adrian was at the head of the table, talking with other people about something else.  He didn’t offer any remarks on the pictures.  It certainly wasn’t my place to.

Young Tommy was bursting the say something about the photos, but he didn’t.  He had to find a nervous release.  Instead, with something shiny, maybe his watch crystal, he flashed oblique sunlight across the eyes of his uncle Jan, one of the men sitting with Adrian.  It was as much as Tommy could do not to squeal, “Look at this!  Look at this!”

Uncle Jan blinked, and suppressed annoyance.  This was, after all, a festive family occasion.  “Oh, Tommy, stop that silly stuff,” he mildly said.  Aunt Sylvia paged the photo album on.  And so the moment passed.

Later, Adrian intimated, “I wasn’t going to hide that part of my life from my family.  I’m not going to rub it in their faces, but I’m not going to hide it either.”  Thus we bivouac along the ever-shifting skirmish line of coming out.

In all those thousands of miles of travel, Adrian and I must have talked about something, but I only remember fragments.  At one point, I asked what he’d been expecting, coming back to meet up with me again.

“I was hoping to recapture what we had before.  I hoped it would be like last year again,” he said.

Nowadays, I might have known more what to do.  But at the time I thought, so much has changed.  The way you’re treating me has changed.  How could we ever have that magic again?

The irony hung in the air.

Somewhere in upstate New York, Adrian said something and, for a moment, the lilt of his voice sounded like my Uncle Fremont.  I mentioned this to him.

“What’s your uncle like?” he asked.

I gave a quick inventory:  Never married, no kids.  Except his adopted son, Jorge, who still lived with him.  They had a big house in Pompano Beach.  I’d never been there, but the reports were they had lots of art.

“Sounds like he’s gay,” remarked Adrian.

I was thunderstruck.  Such an idea had never entered my head.  But the possibility that I had a gay uncle, my godfather in fact, began to send tendrils of exotic fancy down the corridors of my mind.

“What does he do?” asked Adrian.

I had never been sure.  Different stuff.  At one time, he’d worked for the perfume company, Faberge.

“Oh,” chuckled Adrian, “Has to be!”

I was reeling!  What if I were not the first?  What if I were not alone in the family?  What if gay were inherited somehow, or passed along by cultural similarities, or perhaps by subtle imitation?  He had, after all, always been my favorite uncle!

My Uncle Fremont was a grand, loud, larger-than-life character.  He had traveled all over the world.  He told wonderful, exotic tales of the Middle East, and South America.

Within a very few months, I wrote a coming out letter to Uncle Fremont.  I framed it as, “You’re cosmopolitan.  How can I help my dad, your brother, to understand this?”

He wrote back, supportive, with some good advice.  He reminded me always to conduct myself with dignity.  He gave not one slightest hint whether he himself were gay or not.

Over the ensuing years, Uncle Fremont’s adopted son (life partner?) Jorge died.  The word was, pneumonia.  My brother, the physician, was sure it had been AIDS.  He told me a story.

Once Jorge had, in a fierce argument with my strong willed aunt Ann, screamed at her, “Your brother’s a homosexual!”  But this was Aunt Ann’s version.  She always did see things her own way.  And who knows what might come out in fits of passion?

After Jorge’s passing, Uncle Fremont seemed toned down a bit, though not much.  For decades, most of my life, he and Jorge had been distant relatives, both geographically and in terms of their infrequent contact.  Now, Uncle Fremont gradually reconnected with the rest of the family.  I heard more news of him, though by then I was living out west and didn’t have occasion to see him directly.

Nearly 20 years after my coming out, I spent some time in the Southeast with my parents.  I drove them down to south Florida to see Uncle Fremont.  We all stayed for a few days and had a great time.

My parents spent the night at a motel, but I stayed up late talking with Fremont.  He and I caught up on old times at his house, now a small downsized bungalow. There was still art, for example an exotic collection of carved meerschaum pipes. We looked at paintings he’d done; maybe not quite professional quality, but not bad. He showed me photos from the local Little Theater production he’d been in, cast as the doctor in “The Miracle Worker”.

It got late, and I slept there — in the spare bedroom of course.

Next morning, when I was about to make up my bed, he casually remarked, “Leave it.”  In not so many words, he indicated he wanted it obvious we’d passed the night apart.  This strange incident was the only hint he ever gave, that people might even think he was anything other than straight.

Not long after, Uncle Fremont had complications from bypass surgery.  He never recovered, but his strong fighting spirit kept him alive more than a year, though mostly flat on his back in long-term care.  I drove my father down to see his brother one time, but with my dad so old and me living so far away, we could not manage it twice.

Finally, Uncle Fremont died.  Many times over the years, I had wondered if he were gay.  In the long months of his final debility, though, I realized some things just don’t matter any more.  So now, the story, whatever story, of him and Jorge, will never be told.  It hangs out there as a mystery, tenuously tethered to my life, but never to be known.

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Coming Out Year, Part 16: Full circle.

As the year came full circle around to my birthday again, I was restless.  In the past year I had read everything I could get my hands on about gay.  It hadn’t helped me find much love, though.  Or sex.  I half-jokingly mused to myself that if somebody wanted to get me the ultimate birthday present, it would be a man.

As I always did, I turned for solace to nature.  For my birthday, I went on a loop bike trip of about 30 miles.  Peavine lies in a flat valley a few miles wide.  Salyer Creek, which flows out of that valley, passes into a canyon.  The canyon takes an almost circular route around a range of hills, coming back close to the headwaters.  A short, steep pass connects the two, and there are roads the whole way.

I started out by going up the valley.  I biked over the pass, and turned off the main highway into the old road up Salyer Creek.

During the winter rains, Salyer Creek is virtually a rushing river, gray with silt.  Now in midsummer it was sleepy and gentle.  The low water had exposed many sandbars along the curves.  The slow current was cool, green, clear, and inviting.

The canyon was reminiscent of the coastal rivers of California, and indeed shared some of their aspects.  The forest held occasional Bay Laurel trees and live oaks, both near the northern limits of their range.  The tall evergreens were draped in lichen and moss.  It was too far north for redwoods, but the big old cedars and firs gave much the same atmosphere.

I camped on one of the sandbars, and took a dip in the swimming hole.  I made a little fire, and stayed up long into the night, thinking about everything.  In the morning, I woke to misty golden sunbeams slanting through the trees.  It was my birthday.  One year before, this whole tumultuous adventure had begun.

I spent the rest of the day slowly pedaling and exploring up Salyer Creek.  In the afternoon, I came to the steep grade that climbs to the valley level where Peavine lies.  Halfway up, I stopped to snack on thimbleberries.  I went through Peavine, my town for this handful of months.  I continued the several miles on out to Forest Glade.

Once there, I had a task to accomplish.  It took me many hours over a couple of weeks.  I was trying to make the Front House livable.

I usually stayed in a little dugout cabin, nestled in the side of a steep slope of pebbly rock chips.  It was cozy, but small.  It was basically one room, with a built-in bed, a few shelves, and a tiny wood stove.  The scree flowed out onto the roof, so the cabin was like a hobbit hole in the ground.

One morning, I had woken up to a neighbor’s stray goat looking down from that roof into my bed.  The wall below this roof was entirely made up of windows, oblong panels divided into many small panes.  One of the windows opened, to serve as the door.

The Hobbit Hole cabin was charming, but not much different than camping out.  It was understood that, as the interim caretaker, my entitled quarters were the Front House.  This was a long, low, cinderblock structure.  It provided more space, but was harder to deal with.

I had been impressed by the old adage that the fastest way to learn a language is to fall in love with somebody who speaks it.  Jeff, the guy I was so smitten by in Seattle was learning Sign.  “In case I go deaf,” he explained.

Nowadays, I might judge this a bit neurotic, but at the time it was all part of his charm.  He would spice up conversations with signs, such as “fine”; the splayed fingers erect from the breastbone, suggesting an old fashioned ruffled shirt.  He had been complementary, saying it a lot about me.

It was remarkable.  In short order, I was dreaming in Sign.  In one episode, I was welcoming some travelers to Forest Glade.  They were asking where they could stay, indicating, questioningly, the Front House.

Presumably, they were inquiring in Sign, because I responded, “You don’t want to stay there.  No water.”  I signed the two-fingers-snapping-down-on-the-thumb “no”.  This flowed right into the three fingers upraised into a W, and this tilted to the mouth as if sipping; “water”.  I continued, “No electricity.”  Again “no”, then the two index fingertips brushing each other obliquely, as if to strike sparks.  I summed it up, right hand snapped down and away from the mouth, “Bad!”

The Front House was a job to bring from bad to good.  No water, no electricity.  The mice, and something worse, had had the run of the place for a long time.  There was lots of sweeping and throwing away to do.  All the scrubbing and mopping required water brought in buckets from somewhere else.

At least the exit functions of the plumbing worked.  I could empty buckets down the drains.  I could even flush toilets, if I poured the water in.

Finally, the place began to feel a bit inviting, at least during daylight.  At night, candles and kerosene lamps would have to do.  I dusted and scrubbed.  I found clean linens for the bed.

What was I doing all this for?  I wanted a space of my own.  I wanted a space I could welcome someone into.  Adrian was coming back.

All this time, all this past year, I had burned the flame for him.  He was my paragon, my one.  In all my roving ways, my compass never turned away from him.

He was back out on the West Coast.  He’d gotten in touch to say he was coming to visit.  Then, I could get a ride to Boston with him.

On the night he was to arrive, I waited by the gate.  I thought of all the many months past.  I though of the long winter of rain.  Water from the sky had been so constant and so much that forms of gelatinous of algae grew in the gravel parking lot.

I looked up towards the back of the little valley, past the maples and oaks.  They had been so long bare and were now again in summer leaf.  My eye traced the familiar silhouettes of the forested hills, dark against the starlit black sky.

And then he was arrived.  He pulled in.  The headlights swept past me, and he was up the drive.  He hadn’t seen me.  I ran behind the receding taillights, my feet pounding the clay and dust.

Maybe it was metaphorical, off beat from each other; out of kilter.  Not meeting gracefully, but stumbling past each other.

By the time I got to the Big House, he’d gone inside and was visiting with everybody.  I didn’t have him all to myself, to welcome.  Instead, I was mixed in, just part of the scene.  He, like everybody, loved Wholeness.  That’s why he’d come.  I was just incidental.

I did have him to myself later that night in the Front House.  I showed him in.  I lit the candles and kerosene lamps.  In the flame-shot darkness, there was the time of getting ready for bed.

He’d been in San Francisco, and had got his nipples pierced.  The rings were in, to maintain the piercings and prevent them healing closed.  He needed to keep them clean, he explained, as he dabbed on peroxide with q-tips.  This was the first time I had ever seen such a thing.

The flame-lit darkness was not cozy or romantic, as I’d hoped.  The nipple ministrations felt clinical.  The enforced dimness was only an inconvenience.

I don’t remember quite how he broke it to me that he was not going to make love with me.  “You’ve been with men, who’ve been with other men,” he said.

This was before AIDS antibody tests were commonplace and readily available.  This was before the gay community developed the current paradigm of how AIDS prevention works.  Get tested, and if it’s been six months since you’ve had sex, you can fairly well assume you’re clean.  Back then, it was still a vague, formless paranoia.

I was devastated.  It was Adrian himself who had encouraged me to explore.  “You need to get experience,” he’d said.  “You should have a boyfriend in every town, for awhile,” he’d joshed.

If I were writing fiction, I’d never get away with this plot twist. I’d have to resolve it somehow. But it never resolved. There is not going to be a happy ending. The irony hung in the air, then and always.

Somehow, I got through the night.  The next morning, I told Deva about it.  Then I broke down with her and cried and cried.

She held me.  Finally, my sobs began to abate.  Referring to my cry, she said, encouragingly, “Well, this proves that it worked.”

I am still not sure what she meant by that, but I trust it was something good.