I was moving away from home, a relief to all concerned, and found my first apartment and job in Gallipolis, Ohio, a town as I’ve noted about as big as the period at the end of this sentence. (The jokes don’t write themselves, folks; sometimes you have to bring out the summer re-runs.) I found an ad in the paper for an apartment to rent and went there. The first thing I noticed was that the sidewalk, stairs and guardrail were all spray-painted fluorescent orange, like the entire building had been gang-tagged. Since it was Gallipolis, probably not the case as the only resident gang members were two guys in baggy pants who shoplifted from the hardware store.
The reason for the ostentatious display of fire-orange paint was because the landlady was legally blind. In fact, she was all the way blind, so I doubt she knew her aid to seeing the place made her house look like crap. The first thing she told me, even before I looked at the apartment, was “You will not bring strange women to your room. I’ll not have my home turned into a whorehouse.” Can do, I thought. I also thought if that is how I come across, she’s gotta be REALLY blind. Also, it crossed my mind that anyone described as a strange woman would probably turn out to be a pretty good friend. I’ve met some strange women in the years since and it’s usually been the case.
The apartment was pretty damn ugly, but at the time I did not have the discriminating, rarefied taste in living quarters I do now.
My job was working as an X-ray tech in a local Medical Center, a job at which I was terribly not good. I got fired for, among other reasons, pinching a woman on the butt, my thinking being, hey, I’m gay so how the hell can that be sexual harassment or offensive, a concept I have difficulty understanding to this very day. I mean, not that I run around goosing women anymore but a lot of shit I think is funny other people…do not.
So I had to get a job, anything, no doubt a few steps down on the economic ladder from what I’d been used to—again, a situation that seems to keep happening. I saw a sign on a shoe store reading ‘Help Wanted’ so I went in and talked to the manager. He was actually one of the funniest, smartest people in that teency town I’d ever talked to. I liked him on sight, but not in the way he instantly liked me. He was closeted but somehow sensed I was gay, too. It might have been the fuzzy pink sweater I was wearing. (My clothing options have changed considerably; now my decisions are based on, well, this doesn’t smell TOO rank so I guess I’ll put it on.)
So I got hired and we became friends, and he wanted a lot more than I could give, because I just wasn’t attracted. Besides, I was madly in love with someone else. To him, this did not serve as a plausible excuse for why we shouldn’t be together. Things got creepy; there were many offers for unsolicited back-rubs. He told me, “You know, I parked my car in your parking lot last night, happy just to watch your building and know you were in there.” Yow-ok. Things were starting to get messy.
Then there was the night he refused to leave. “Okay, good night, Shoe Store Manager, I’m going to bed.”
”I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here with you tonight.”
”No, you’re not. The night’s over, I’m going to sleep.”
”And I am going to stay here tonight and watch you sleep.”
Jesus Motherfucking Godzilla. “NO, you’re not staying here. It’s time to go home.” He did this thoroughly insane thing where he shut his eyes tightly and shook his head back and forth, like no, no, no I’m not hearing this and god damn, everything is going down the way my crazed fantasies want them to and that’s just the way it’s going to happen. You get face to face with that kind of nuts and you get scared. Things were starting to blur; I really did like him as a friend but this kind of crap was starting to be a deal-breaker. “Okay, since you’re refusing to leave, I’m calling the police.”
“Go ahead,” he said.
I picked up the phone and dialed 911. “You’re an asshole,” he said, as he bolted. It might have been true, but I doubt so much in this specific case.
Shortly after I moved from teeny-tiny Gallipolis to my beloved Columbus, where I lived with my friend Michael. One day, Michael told me, “You know, I’ve really got to tell you something. Your shoe store manager has followed you here and has been living here. And he’s been keeping tabs on you.”
Goddamn Michael. It would have been nice to have known this sooner.
But, you might ask, what would a complete idiot do in this situation? What would someone who was totally incapable of learning through experience; someone who’s hope for the best might as well be an illness do? I’ll tell you what they would do—they would move in with the shoe store stalker, which is just what I did. I just assumed I’d made it crystal clear that no romance or sexy-time was ever, ever going to happen and figured that would be the end of it.
First night in our shared space: “Do you want me to rub your back a little bit?” No, no I do not.
And I got every bit as weird as him. The fact that I loved someone who didn’t love me back made me feel like I was dying. So, I told him I was dying. Yeah, there’s a good move when someone’s not only crazy about you but just plain crazy. Plus, I was wearing parachute pants so I can’t say my judgment was all that sound. “Oh yes, I’ll be dead soon,”I said, cause I really thought it. I made up this lie that I had pernicious anemia, cause saying I was dying of angst-ridden heartbreak would have sounded as stupid as it was. Unfortunately, I gave Shoe Store Manager the book to read I’d stolen the idea from and the jig was up. I’m not that bright.
He went on a passive-aggressive tirade and just didn’t speak to me for months. Uh-oh, this ain’t good, cause the opposite of love isn’t hate; the opposite of love is indifference. I’d beg him; “Fuck it! Tell me what’s wrong and maybe we’ll fix it and maybe we won’t!” but nope. He just wouldn’t speak and it was a very awkward series of months. But finally, he spoke. It was my birthday. “I made you something,” he said. It was a cake pan full of chocolate pudding stuffed with little, plastic dinosaurs. “I call it La Brea Tar Pit.”
I got the hell out of Columbus. I moved for love. Again, I’m not that bright.
Ten years later, back in town. Fifteen years later after that, life had gone to hell in a handbasket. In the meantime, though, I’d talked to Shoe Store Manager on the Internet and on the phone, and it seemed as though, you know, we were back on the same page where we were friends and there wasn’t going to be any insinuations. And for a change, I was the one who had gone stark, raving crazy. I was out of my damn mind, couldn’t think straight and thought the best plan of action was to leave the best job I ever had and run, run away. So I asked him, can I come and live with you for a little while, cause I’m going out of my damn mind? Also, I want to bring my cat.
Amazingly, he said yes. He lived in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, a place that make Gallipolis seem like goddamn Manhattan, but my mindset at the time was flee at all costs. So my friend Joe drove me halfway, Shoe Store Manager’s sister met us at the midway point and was going to drive me back the rest of the way. You understand, life as I knew it was unsettled to crap and back, I was shaking like a leaf at just the sheer uncertainty of the whole situation—which I did knowingly but still was kind of freaking over—and it didn’t help when Shoe Store Manager called his sister, asked to speak to me and said in a slow, measured and altogether creepy voice, “So are you a frightened bunny?”
Well, ya know, I wouldn’t have personally put in those terms but after hearing this, yes, yes I think I am.
It was his creepy voice. The same one offering back rubs I hadn’t heard for 25 years. He’d seemed so normal and fun lately and the guy I liked hanging with, but no, back now that I was on the way to live with him again his tone of voice had changed from someone desperately trying to sound alluring. It did not work and instead the flesh crawled off my bones.
Now his sister, she was driving a van up the winding mountains of Virginia and a snowstorm had hit and snow and ice was all over the road. The vehicle was sliding all over the place, with her saying “We gonna get there in time! We gonna get there in time!” and then just let drop with this chestnut: “You know what? Sometimes I just pass out behind the wheel! I don’t know why, I just do and sometimes I end up in the ditch.” I was a scared little bunny.
Somehow we made it there in one piece. And it was good to see Shoe Store Manager again, at least for the first night. Now he has some health issues (and apparently has a crackpot doctor that prescribes him an entire wall of prescriptions, which he unfortunately thinks he needs) and the next morning Shoe Store Manager was doing some projecting and wanted to make sure I didn’t have them as well. Now, I was in a bad place and thought, hell, if a guy is going to let me come live with him it’s perfectly normal for him to do a finger stick and test me for diabetes. It’s not, of course, but like I say I was sort of batshit at the time, so hey, why not, draw blood and let’s get this over with. You see, though, this was only the first step in his wanting to be some kind of nurturing, authority figure. Which is really the last goddamn approach you’d ever want to take with me if you were going to be met with any sort of success.
So fuck, he took my blood pressure, he took my temperature, he would have done a bowel chart if I would have let him. I put up with it because, hey, this nice man is helping save me from myself…but things just got too far. All the time. If I was washing dishes or cooking dinner he would sidle up behind me and start telling me how I was doing it wrong and needed to do it the right way. If the dish is damn clean or the meal is tasty, fuck you, it’s not the method but the end result. But no, everything had to be done in a specific way and if it wasn’t the Shoe Store Manager way it was wrong. Oh, did this get on my nerves.
And that, hellish enough to endure, I probably could have lived with were it not for the creepy factor. I was crashing on the couch. His bedroom was on the other side of the trailer but he would NOT shut his damn door, claiming it was for the benefit of his cat to roam free. Now nobody other than me knows how a lonely man can love his cat, but in this case it meant he was perched across his bed, staring out the open door and watching me sleep just like he wanted to do years ago. Shut the damn door and let the cat shit in the box in your room. With him doing that, though, I didn’t get much sleep. I mentioned this, and here was his suggestion: “Maybe you’d like to masturbate. I have some tissues and lotion.” Like I was ever going to fucking close my eyes after that. I’d been faked out, the phone calls and Facebook chats were lies and the real deal was that the Shoe Store Manager was once again thinking about me in a sexual scenario I just didn’t want.
How did I cope with this? I drank. I was trying to get away from doing that, but when essentially some guy tells you he wants to pet his cat and watch you jerk off your options for dealing are limited. Shoe Store Manager was not wild about this and of course turned it into a thing all about him: “What would you do,” he asked, “If you were entrusted to take care of someone, to protect someone, and they kept drinking beer?”
“You’re NOT entrusted to take care of me or protect me; I just needed a place to live for a while! I don’t even know how to answer your damn question because it’s some weird world you live in that I don’t.”
My solution to the problem: Jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. And that might be a story for another time.