Wednesday, March 17, 2010

O Tannenbaum!

This is a story of young love. Not my first love, but the first that was reciprocated, at least by an actual person and someone else's hand other than my own. I'd spent two years loving a boy in West Virginia who claimed he was straight, then came out, finally getting that it was only me he wasn't attracted to instead of guys in general. He dated various dinner theatre actors, which stabbed at my heart, as it would anyone's. Later, his mother told him he wasn't allowed to be gay so he married a fat girl. I couldn't deal and ran off to Galliopolis, Ohio, a town about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. There I met a guy in a doughnut shop who I told I loved even though I was absolutely lying. You do that sort of thing if you want a cute person in a teency, rural town to do you. Particularly when the gay community in such a place consists of six people who know one another and your best option is to settle for cute and stupid instead of just stupid. I moved on. I went from Gallipolis, Ohio, right across the river from the Mothman sightings, to Columbus, Ohio, home of James Thurber and Lazarus department stores. It was at this point my parents began to demean me for my high-falutin', big city ways.

As far as love stories go, what I'm about to descibe is the real deal. It's the sweetest story of near-statutatory rape you'll ever hear, outside of Edge of Seventeen or I Love Rock and Roll because everyone knows middle-aged women make it so much cooler and forgivable to confess the hotness of high school boys than homos in their early twenties, right? But yeah, I was 24 and Tom was 18 and he was a senior in high school. I had another teenage friend named Paul. We met in a magic club meeting and there are no demographic boundaries whatsoever when it comes to a shared love of card tricks. We were fast friends despite the age difference, probably because I have always been woefully immature. That, and the mean age of all the other magicians in the club was around 70. We had no hip replacement stories nor medicare anectodes and turned to one another to keep from going out of our minds with the onslaught of unrelenting boredom. Paul didn't care that I liked guys and I didn't care that his idea of music was Nolan Thomas singing 'Yo Little Brother.' He told me there was an out, gay kid at his high school who was working part time as a talking Christmas tree at the local mall. He said I'd like him. I was single and prospects were nil. I figured I ought to go and have a chat with this tree.

The concept behind the talking Christmas tree is this: someone, in this case Tom, is hidden inside a hollow, polyurethene tree like one of the Keebler elves, only wired with a mic. Kids come up and tell the tree what they want for Christmas or whatever else they feel like talking about. The tree responds, its electronic voice booming across the department store. I lurked about, waiting for all the children to leave.

"Hi," I said to the tree.
"Um, hello," it said, probably not used to twenty-somethings addressing it.
I went for whimsy. "Do you guys hate dogs? I mean, given what they do on you and all?"

The tree answered immediately. "We just focus on the fact that in China dogs are considered free-range cattle. We have other things to worry about. Moss. What you guys call crabs."
"No," I said, "aphids are crabs. Moss is psoraiasis."
"And Dutch Elm Disease is rectal cancer. Do you have a point?"

Damn, this tree was funny. "I'm Dan," I said. "Paul's friend."

The tree thought for a minute. "I hear you do a mean Carol Channing," it said.

I belted out a couple of croaky stanzas from Hello Dolly, the gayest thing I have ever done in my life, even more so than taking it up the ass. "Come around and open my back door," the tree said.

My brain fizzled and sparked under the weight of too many replies.
I went around behind the fake tree and sure enough, there was a tiny door. I opened it and there was Tom, crouched inside wearing a headset. He was tall and lanky and much too big to be crammed into a tree, which made me laugh in his face. He probably thought I found him unnatractive, little knowing the mere thought of someone who's managed to secure a regular paycheck from being a talking Christmas tree, to me, is like downing several hundred smoked oysters.

I probably made some inappropriate sap jokes.

"Can you come back at 8:30? That's when I get off." Again, my comedy club mind overflowed with too many zingers.

I wandered around the mall at the height of Christmas frenzy, an act which makes waterboarding seem positively humane, then went back to the tree at the designated time. Tom stretched after emerging from the tree, relieving his cramped muscles and I would like to think unknowingly, causing his shirt to ride up and reveal a flash of skin above his belt buckle. His body was just what revved my motor, the delicious, bone-revealing frame of a borderline anorexic; the sort of person who has to wear snowshoes in the shower to keep from slipping down the drain.

Thing is, cranium contents notwithstanding, from the neck up he just wasn't my type. Since I was in my New Wave phase, this was probably due to the lack of applied cosmetics. And the hair. Curly and a little fluffy whereas I wanted it long and flowing or spiked and reeking of Aqua-Net. But no, he looked like Ann B. Taylor as Alice.

Five minutes later I was willing to gobble his pube-trimming remnants from off the bathroom floor. He was so smart and so funny that I was in love before the escalator hit the lower level. This is still my formula for the ideal mate: someone who is wickedly intelligent but enjoys acting like an idiot. Tom was my first exposure to this heady combination and my first insight that what's inside can truly make a person beautiful. He morphed, like CGI special effects, from ew, the hair, into the most beautiful face I'd ever laid eyes on. It was also apparent, during our short walk around the mall, that he liked me, too. He showed me his fake tap-dancing skills and his faux-Israeli call to prayer. Love, love, love.

Time out to deconstruct: Truth is, you can't really love someone unless you really know them. This means at least a year of being around someone or, if you really want to make sure, living with them. If, after that, you still want to kiss the person who's annoying, electric pencil sharpener of a laugh makes you want to put their head through the television, then yes, you probably love them. There's no such thing as love at first sight. It's an endurance trial at best. Confusingly, Infatuation at First Sight is a very real thing. This has dicked with more people than you can imagine because, unfairly, it feels just the same as love. Infatuation makes you swoon, breathe heavy and pop a boner. Love does the same thing, but also keeps you from comitting homicide. There's a subtle difference. So of course Tom and I, two weeks after meeting, professed that we loved one another.

There was just one problem, shared between he, me and Norman Bates: His mother. Tom still lived with her. She was old, so much so that the fact that Tom and his sister were not retarded was pretty much a miracle. This woman, due to the cruelest act of fate a gay kid can consider, also taught math at the very same high school he attended. The fact that he was not shy about telling anyone he was hot for guys, she must have felt, reflected on her abilities as both parent and teacher. His fondness for the main vein and broadway shows was a horrible reflection on her.

Consequently, Tom was barely allowed to leave the house. She probably imagined he would run off to the pet store, buy a supply of white mice, then sneak behind the Taco Bell with a toilet paper tube. Tom's mother monitored his every waking move, demanding at all times to know where he was and who he was with. Ironically, this is how I've since treated all subsequent boyfriends.

My friend Tor, who was there at the time, tells me that he never remembered any gossip about Tom being queer. He had his suspicions, but none of the kids ever mentioned anything about sexuality. Instead, he says, what he heard was that Tom's mother was a cunting bitch who treated him like a dog in a wire cage. What Tom wanted to do with his pecker wasn't news; the fact that everyone understood he was being held captive by a crazy, old woman was what fed the high school rumor mill.

Tom's mother would send him to the store and he'd whiz by my place, giving us a scant five minutes to kiss each other and swear our love. A week later, he would lie and say he was going to some girl's house (hope, no doubt, springing eternal in his mother's mind) and he'd get to spend an hour with me. But finally someone at his high school threw an all-night party and Tom's mother gave him permission to attend, no doubt praying some big-haired cheerleader would finally switch him. He called and I picked him up from there and we headed for my place.

In the car he was smarter and funnier than ever, his version of getting me liquored up. When we got back to my place, we started ripping each other's clothes off before we even made it up the front steps. Inside he finally emerged completely from his clothing, stunning, like an eighteen-year cicada. We shuffled, naked and embracing, to the bedroom and it was great. Even the sex was smart and funny. "Just so you're aware and not alarmed later," he said, adopting his most serious face, "when I climax I scream out the word 'cockroaches.' Hope it's not a turn-off."

I pulled him close. "Call me Mr. Peepers," I begged seductively.

We found it hilarious. Absolutely hysterical. We snickered and laughed all throughout our first coupling. (This would happen time and again with other boyfriends, but for all the wrong reasons.) If you are instantly comfortable enough with someone to actually point out the funny side of sex with one another, first time around, mid-act, then I'd say there's some serious chemistry there. Not that I didn't have serious chemistry with later paramours but it usually took the form of windowpane and blotter acid. He did, in fact, yell out the word 'cockroaches', which he would continue to do in future encounters in such a way it made my heart swell. There is no aphrodisiac like someone fully committed to a joke. I wanted to slide my dick between the hemispheres of his brain. Tom and I held each other afterward, made sarcastic comments and laughed like fools. It was incredible.

But then, of course, we'd catch sight of the time. "Only a half an hour left. Shit." It was always like this. I couldn't call him; he could only call me when Mother was away. Surprise ten minute appearances, like he was a guest on my talk show. Meeting him for fast-food dinner in a very public place. Waiting in line with children, me wanting to scream at them to get the fuck away so I could have private time with the tree. There had to be a knothole in that thing somewhere.

It went on like this for quite a while. At least in the young love time continum, where a day feels like six weeks and a kiss seems to last forever.

Tom's mother begrudgingly allowed that he could have a birthday party at his house. She of course would be on hand to monitor the entire affair. With her there, the concept of a party among his classmates surely seemed appealing as Algebra II. But people said they'd show up, because, who didn't like Tom? His sheer force of personality superseded his gayness, even in a high school in midwestern Ohio during the mid-nineteen-eighties. He never had problems with jocks threatening to beat the crap out of him. He was just Tom, funny as a motherfucker, and nearly everyone adored him. Especially me.

Which meant I had to attend the party. This was a stupid, stupid, stupid idea on both our parts. Mother, we should have realized, would not be sitting quietly in her fruit cellar but lurking about, inspecting the party for moral decay. I was pretty much the poster child for this. She knew every student attending on a first-name basis and I, a total stranger, was youthful for my age but not exactly able to pass as valedictorian material. Plus there was the fact that I looked like every member of Duran Duran, along with the entire Maybelline product line, had been thrown into a gene splicer. I kind of stuck out.

Tom and I were forward-thinking enough that we planned for me to arrive when the party was in full swing instead of when only a few classmates were there. We might have also considered that leading a baboon, or me, into a crowd of average teenagers might attract undue attention, but no, we didn't grasp that essential point. I showed up and Tom immediately dragged me to the piano. I sat on the bench beside him and he banged out a hysterical, torch-song rendition of My Funny Valentine. I was in tears, laughing, mascara trailing down my cheeks. We started talking, whispering actually, each telling what we most liked about the other. Then I went off to mingle. Thanks to the dynamic I'd grown accustomed to--impromptu phone calls from out of nowhere with Tom saying "My friend and I are coming over right now! She has to meet you!"--I knew a lot of the people Tom hung out with at school. More than a few were also gay, if not neccessarily out, the sheer number of which gave me hope for the future.

A bony hand clamped down on Tom's shoulder, like something in a movie about witches eating children. It was Mother. "Who...was...that?" she said, carefully spacing and hissing her words.
"That's Dan. He's a friend of Paul's."
"Then why isn't he talking to Paul? Oh, I know. Because Paul's not here."
"Well," Tom said, stalling for time, "he knows a lot of Paul's friends."
"Like you?"
"Yeah, we've met."
" I don't like his hair at all. Not one bit. What kind of man colors his hair?"
"Rock stars? Televangelists?"
"There's another kind of man who colors his hair." Here, Tom's mother flopped her wrist, American Sign Language for queer as a cat fart.
"I don't color my hair and I'm that way," he said, driving another knife into her sternum.
"I don't think it's healthy he's here in my house."

Tom's mother began to follow me the way Korean convienience store owners do African-Americans. No matter where I was or who I was talking to she was there, arms folded and her tightened, mean face staring as though sheer will could cause my dick to drop off and roll down my pant leg. Finally, after some furious hand waving she whispered something to Tom.

He sidled up to me while I was talking with Andrea. "You've been asked to leave," he said.

"Love ya," I replied as I made my exit. "It's been fun."

This was, sadly, the beginning of the end. Maybe I'm romanticising the situation, but I think our shared intimacy over My Funny Valentine clearly and effectively communicated to Tom's mother that her son and I were more than aquaintences or even friends. I'd like to think the way we looked at one another brought to her mind images of both of us gargling body fluids simultaneously. It sure did to me.

No matter what mental specifics prompted it, the surveillance efforts on his mother's part, after the party, quadrupled and he was interrogated with even more deranged fervor. Casual trips to visit long-standing friends were suddenly suspect and his mother would make him call her from there and also demand to speak to the friend, just to make sure. His already boxed-in life had become ever much more so and I was responsible. I can't blame him at all for not wanting to live like this.

Before I go on, would you like to meet Tom? Experience him just as I did in all his high school hotness and see how fucking funny he was back in the day? You can. The big news at the time was that Hollywood was coming to Columbus to film a movie. The stars were arriving! Nick Nolte, Ralph Macchio, Morgan Freeman and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' Royal Dano! Sadly, the results were a really unfunny comedy called Teachers which you can get on DVD and in which, in good old 1984, Tom landed a part as an extra, playing in a not especially demanding role, a high schooler. There's a scene in a hallway where a student pulls out a gun and all the other kids hit the floor. Everyone pretty much crouches to their knees. But if you look carefully, the tallest, lankiest one does a pratfall worthy of Chico Marx. Smart but funny. It came out on video while we were dating, if you can really use that term to describe a relationship forged on surprise, ten-minute visits. I am probably the only person in history who has, more than once, jerked off to a Morgan Freeman movie.

I decided I would have my own party for Tom and all his friends, without the glaring spectre of a praying mantis in a house dress spoiling everyone's fun. He created the alibi and I can't remember what it was; only that it worked. Mother allowed Tom to be away for an evening. This was before the word party became associated in my mind with drugs, alcohol and doing my best to alienate everyone present. It was simply music, good times and fun without the electric eye of crippling, parental supervision. We danced on my glass-topped coffee table until it broke, causing us to drop two feet with glass shards flying everywhere. I did not pick up the mess for weeks, much as I do now, given that disarray can serve as a visual reminder of joyous or nutty times gone before, even if in the present that definition references when I spilled scrambled eggs all over the cat. The coffee table destruction was so much fun I invited my guests into the kitchen to avail themselves of all the dishes in the cabinets and to, please, smash them to bits just because it was so exhilarating. We did. Broken cheap China was everywhere. Damn. I need to have another party like that, and soon.

But Mother's opression continued to bear down on Tom. I was probably a sheer prick to expect him to live that way in the name of love. It was like saying I, myself, was reason enough for him to be chained to a post in the basement and forced to shit in a salad bowl.

He arrived one night, unexpected as per custom, and I moved to kiss him. Something tensed. I didn't like it.

"I've got something I'd like you to read," he said.

Whenever a kiss feels like the other person is being rubbed down with lizard entrails and they've got something for you to read, you can bet your ass it's a Dear John letter. It was. As I had yet to perfect my stone-faced, I-will-not-show-you-my-weakness personna, I cried. As Tom was just not funny, but smart, he did not point out how pathetic I was behaving. Had he done so, a gruesome scene involving hacksaws and my bathtub might have occured. Essentially, according to the letter, our relationship was just too intense too survive. He was still in high school. What do you want? Flaubert?

It wasn't just his mother, of course, that killed the concept of us. It was being that age, with your whole life ahead of you. How the hell was I supposed to compete with that? Nonetheless, decades later, when I heard Tom's mother died I visited her grave. I did a fake tap dance on top of it, humming My Funny Valentine the entire time.

Anyone out there, I beg: Let's go home and rap with one another.

Update: 3/17 Per Tom's request, here's Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark in concert from 1985 doing 'Secret'. It was, after all, "our" song. Well, after the Ray Conniff Singers doing 'Coconut Wireless'.

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