Walt Whitman’s was our go-to place in junior high. Not the poet’s house; that was down the road. We never went there. We went to the mall named after the poet. Shopping for clothes at Macy’s or A&S, lava lamps and black light posters at Spencer’s, mostly just playing Space Invaders at the arcade or walking around and hanging out by the fountains with friends; this was what we did after school. Our mothers would drop us off, and we’d cruise the long indoor esplanade, seeing who else might turn up, talk about which girls we liked, then get shy around them when they joined us. I even got my first job at Walt Whitman’s, scooping out Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors.
The mall also had B. Dalton’s, the only bookstore I’d ever been in, and though it was only the size of our living room, it had everything. Cold War spy novels for dad for Christmas, calendars and cards, tables of romance novels, and a literature section with Salinger and Orwell and John Knowles that wrapped around the whole store. One day, my friends George and Anthony and I discovered the self-help section. Amidst the titles we didn’t understand—about menopause, bi-polarity, What Color is Your Parachute—one book stood out, like a billboard: The Joy of Sex. Un-believe-able. Illustrations of couples getting it on in every position possible. Playing at Horses. The Viennese Oyster. It didn’t take long for our titillated laughter and too-loud exclamations to get us kicked out by the middle-aged sales clerk.
From Catechism class, which I trudged to through the woods after school, I knew sex was not supposed to be a joy, more of a duty once you were married. Despite this, I went back to B. Dalton’s on my own, several times, trying to build up the nerve to check out the book I couldn’t help but notice was shelved a few books down from The Joy, its counterpart, it seemed. But as I approached, it suddenly seemed too bright in the uncrowded store, like there was a spotlight on the self-help section, installed perhaps by God himself, keeping me in the more wholesome aisles. I could only imagine what secrets The Joy of Gay Sex contained. What graphic answers to my clandestine desires the Gay Joy could reveal.
Sometimes there would be another guy in the section, and I would fantasize that he too wanted to open those forbidden pages but was too ashamed to take down the book. If I felt bold, I would run my fingers on the spines of several nearby books I pretended to be considering and then pause ever so slightly on the Gay Joy, as if that alone were enough to signal the man to approach and show me the world that was contained within its pages. Maybe my quarter-second pause on its spine was too subtle; in any case, no one ever made a move.
Until one day, right before Christmas, when the store was packed with shoppers. There was this sort of cute guy—a man really—in my section wearing a gray parka, with dirty blond hair and bristly cheeks, and he was actually holding it. The Gay Joy. Flipping through the pages, studying it. In-con-ceive-able. I couldn’t resist moving nearer, two rows away, of course, but craned my neck to take brief daring glances, to see what the Gay Joy was all about. It was a revelation. I only saw a few pages, but what I saw I dug. Drawings of bearded, hairy guys with big muscles and big penises, with pretty blond boys in tank tops between their legs or sitting on their laps. I learned right then and there that more than two people could go at it, like they joked about on TV sitcoms like Three’s Company, and that the penis could end up in unexpected and uncomfortable looking places. It was heavy.
But I was also distracted by the guy paging through the book, worried what he might think. He would catch my eye occasionally, and I’m sure he could guess what I was eager to see. Unlike me, he probably had a good reason for looking—maybe he was a doctor or a therapist. Or an undercover police officer, hired by the store to…
I needed to get out of there. I barely remembered to put back the book I was pretending to read before racing out into the mall. I ran eight or nine stores down until I realized I was feeling clammy and a bit dizzy, like I might throw up. I decided to sit down in the fake snow and evergreen-scented Christmas tree forest, which, when Santa was in residence, served as a waiting area for kids with long wish-lists and parents wanting pictures of their little angels: the perfect place for a teenage pervert to catch his breath.
A plastic elf stood next to me with a disorienting sign that read: “Welcome to the North Pole.” As my childhood self suddenly and clammily confronted my freshly fleshed-out Joy-of-Gay-Sex-self, I sat there surrounded by giant candy canes and oversized stockings filled with boxes wrapped in silver and gold, reflecting the lights of Christmas. I thought I could hide there and steady myself. I had just put my head down between my knees like they taught us in school, when I felt the bench move and heard the stocking bells jingle. I looked over and noticed there were now jeans and part of a gray jacket on the bench next to me. Oh, God, I’m getting arrested, was all I could think, and this was not helping my nausea. I looked up slowly and saw the handsome cop from the bookstore. Surprisingly, he was smiling. “So, what do you say,” he said. “Wanna get it on?” I felt his hand on my thigh, and then a slight squeeze. Whoa.
“Aren’t you a cop?!” I asked, scanning all directions for his partner with the handcuffs.
“No, of course not.” He removed his hand.
“Oh, thank God,” I blurted out. My mom wouldn’t have to find out. I smiled, let out a small, hysterical laugh. Then crazily, I hugged him.
“Oh, sorry…I didn’t mean to…” I excused myself, then looked around again, for possible witnesses. Maybe Santa himself? But all seemed quiet at the North Pole.
“Don’t be.” He smiled, returning his hand to my thigh. “So… you game?”
“What?” With my reprieve, I had spaced out the store, and my sneak peek at the Gay Joy. Then it hit me. He was into the Joy. Maybe into me, as well. “You know I’m only 13, right?” came out of my mouth, fast and unbidden. My heart raced, realizing just at that moment—freaked out and excited—that the Joy could be mine.
“You look a lot older,” he said. I did, actually. I was tall, had a starter mustache and hair was already sprouting on my chest. “My name’s Larry, by the way.” He reached out his hand, and I told him mine.
We talked until I needed to meet my mom in front of A&S. I called him the next day after school and many a night after. He told me his age, which was a little more than twice mine, and that he just moved back in with his mom. We both had to find private places in the house and arrange times (and back-ups) when it was safe to call. This was spy-novel thrilling. I chose my parents bedroom, right after dinner, behind the enormous curvy purple divan, where, if I lowered my voice, no one could see or hear me. I loved it: having a secret sort-of-boyfriend—well, at least a guy who was cute and would hang out with me on the phone. Larry and I talked about his years in the army, how he knew guys that were fucked up from Nam (whatever that was), and that he was glad he never saw any fighting. He asked if I was planning to go to college, and I told him everyone said I should be a lawyer. He agreed. Said I was smart and sure asked a lot of questions.
Larry told me that it was a real chore finding the right job, and that living at home made it hard being gay. I tried to contribute, to act like I knew what he was talking about; to sound interested—and interesting. I always meant to ask him about what he knew about The Gay Joy, but it never came up. I told him about the books I was reading for school and actors, like Robert Redford, that I thought were talented. I guess it worked. Eventually, he suggested we get together.
I went back to B. Dalton to get him a gift for our first date. It was too cold for flowers, and a book seemed, well, more meaningful, considering how we met. I had one in mind, in the romance section, which I noticed amidst all the covers of castles and yachts and women being held tightly by strong, swarthy men. This one had two men on the cover. They were blond and tanned and looking directly at each other, and, a-maz-ing-ly, almost touching. What was it doing there? It must have been an ordering mistake, and I worried that it might have already been returned. When I saw The Lord Won’t Mind still on the table, I gasped, the title seemed so perfect: just in case he, too, was Catholic, and needed confirmation.
I had planned to buy it for Larry, but when the moment came, I couldn’t bring myself to face the cashier, even armed with a well-rehearsed plan to mention casually, smilingly, that it was a gag gift for my girlfriend. So I shoved Gordon Merrick under my bulky coat and prayed for protection, my heart beating so hard I could barely hear, as I passed first the register, then the door out into the mall. I made it! This was a sign, of course, that Larry was the one.
I inscribed The Lord with all the heart I could muster: Dear Larry, I can’t tell you how much our phone calls have meant to me and how glad I am to have you in my life… You are such a special man, Larry. Don’t ever change…I practiced writing it first on scrap paper (which I burnt immediately in the fireplace) in order to elongate my script, garbling things together with lots of dashed lines and angular capitals, like my mom’s after school notes. After much practice, I felt confident that my handwriting seemed intriguing and as far from a 13-year-old’s as possible.
* * *
Larry picked me up after school at the corner of my street and the main road, the only place I could think of to meet. I was relieved he showed up before somebody drove by and asked me what I was doing out in the cold. I hugged him awkwardly behind the steering wheel when I got in, but he hit the gas as soon as my door closed and didn’t really hug me back. His car smelled of trapped heat and cigarettes, which reminded me of Mom and her yellow Camaro, with its butts and ashes everywhere. It made me feel guilty, too, for lying and saying that I was going over a friend’s. But this was my first ever date—and with a real man! How many gay men could there be out there? This might be my only chance. When we got to the beach, I couldn’t wait to give Larry my gift.
He looked surprised, and he barely glanced at the book’s inscription, even after I pointed it out. “My friends think I’m crazy for doing this,” he blurted out—not the romantic “thank you” I had anticipated. He lit a cigarette. It was cold and it had started to sleet, too nasty to get out of the car and walk by the ocean, which was the idea for our date. The invasion of smoke in the car made it hard to breathe. I thought of Mom again and how I would pretend to be choking and gag each time she lit up.
“I know what you mean,” I offered, though, of course, I had told not a soul a single thing about him.
“I could get arrested for this.” He was looking around, out each of the fogged up windows. In this cold, in the middle of winter, there was no one else around, of course, probably not for miles. I felt like I should reassure him.
“Hey, don’t worry, Larry, there’s no one here.”
“It’s just that you’re such a nice kid, and I like talking to you.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “And cute, too. Why couldn’t you be older?”
He kissed me. I had dreamed of this moment. For-ever.
But I had to pull away, so strong was the smoke in my eyes and in my nose, and now, in my mouth. I felt like I might throw up. I rolled down my window and gulped at the freezing salty air. He rolled down his side so the smoke could escape. It got cold. I started making small talk about the weekend coming up, the movies I wanted to see. We closed the windows, but, even with the heat on, my teeth were chattering. He pulled me into his arms to warm me up. I squeezed him as tight and close as I could, to try to stop shaking, and to remind myself that this was real, that this was what I wanted. I nuzzled his hair and brushed my cheek on his neck. He reached into my pants and rubbed me, just for a moment. The car was cold and his hand was freezing. We were both nervous as hell, and nothing down there was ever going to warm up.
“Maybe I should take you home,” he offered, after a while. “I wish there were somewhere else…”
We drove without talking. The car warmed up, but I was still shaking. The realization that this had been a mistake only amplified with the silence. Larry looked over at me a few times, and I could tell he wanted to say something. But I just stared at The Lord, which had slipped from the seat and was now lying on the damp, dirty car mat, not far from the accelerator, no longer new and unblemished. The suntanned men on the cover mocked our wintry experience. I tried to blink myself into their world so I could feel the beautiful way they looked at each other, and become part of their romance, which I imagined as virtuous and undeniable.
A flurry of questions swirled around me like a squall. Were there other gays out there besides Larry? Ones who maybe didn’t smoke? Was there something wrong with me? Did I ruin my one chance at experiencing the Joy? Was it all make-believe, the books and pictures?
At the drop-off corner, Larry asked me, “Is everything OK?” I gave him an awkward hug without looking at him and a fast goodbye and thank you, before running down my street, past the friend’s house where I was supposed to be playing, and home, where I locked the door behind me in the bathroom, jumped into the tub and scrubbed myself warm.
I must have dozed off. My eyes flashed with the pounding on the door. My brother was yelling at me to get out of the bathroom, demanding to know what was I doing in there (we were not a lounge-in-the-bathtub family). I’m not sure what came over me, but I felt too guilty to reply. Instead, very quietly, I washed my mouth out with soap, like Grama would do when I talked back to her, and got on my knees, in the draining water, and prayed to God, like they taught us in Catechism, to clean my soul.
* * *
Two weeks went by and, as far as I could tell, my soul was fine. The bad taste in my mouth now seemed adult, like coffee, and I reinterpreted the date as mildly successful (after all, I had kissed a man). So I called Larry and left a message with his mother. I had never spoken to her before. She seemed cold, and I thought I heard reproach in her voice, as she told me he had gone away for a few days. I felt disappointed and more than a bit relieved. I missed talking with him, but I was still confused—about our date, my soul, the future. I knew I would not call again.
More than anything, I wanted to ask Larry about The Lord Won’t Mind, which, with all the time it took to properly inscribe, I had not even had a chance to skim. I wanted it back. To know if it could possibly be true.
Gregg has published poetry in several magazines and reviews, as well as nonfiction essays in Hamilton Stone Review, about his heart-opening but strangely closeting pilgrimage across Spain, and Cactus Heart, about the earth-shattering third grade revelation that he liked other boys—and his third grade teacher. He is working on a memoir, The Men Who Would Not Be Mine, an accounting of love’s discards and takeaways, age 8-45.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commins/Erin M