Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way, now available on Amazon.
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The serrated voice tears through the air, up the stairs, into the private world I am building there and I know that I am in trouble again.
I put on my mask of rock ’n roll and screaming for vengeance that hides all my fear and trembling. These days, at fourteen years old with a pack of Lucky Strikes hidden close to my skin, I sneak hard liquor from the dining room cabinet. With shaking fingers I pull the bottles from the back, oh so careful not to clink them together in the still night. Then I smuggle them out in the folds of denim and leather, one by one into the woods behind the house, where the little sips of scotch and gin burn just enough to sooth the pain that gets worse every day.
Have I been forgotten as the storm of confusion and hormones and growing up different rages on in me and around me? The only calm is out there in those tangled woods of barbed briars and sumac where I hide from divorce, from remarriage, from the homophobic racist stepfather who has moved in calling himself Lord. Out there, by the cool spring that bubbles up pure and clean, I listen for some faint whisper: that it’s ok to be me, that it’s ok to like boys more than girls.
But the spring never speaks. It just bubbles and babbles and I think: oh well, at least it never runs dry.
I tumble down the stairs now, and when I turn the corner my mother is standing in the kitchen five feet tall and terrible. My mother, once the source of all my comfort, now the source of all my fear.
“What are these for?” she asks.
There, in her open palm, rest the two wrapped condoms I had hidden safe and secret like precious coins: the fare for the ferry boat that would one day take me across the wide river to the shore of the real thing. I had quaked and shivered all over when my best friend, Mike, dropped them onto the bed between us and I gasped in wonder.
“These are for sex!” I thought. And as I picked them up, the revelation was a heavy, holy grail right there in my two little hands.
But now I am silent and the glossy plastic rings shine before me even as I try with all my will to tear my gaze away.
“Is Mike gay?” comes the wrong question that we both know the answer to. Her eyes smolder and I shudder and I know that it is the worst thing a boy can be.
“No, no, no!” I cry. While the yes, yes, yes! echoes inside then fades away, even as the budding new part of me that I’ve been grappling with, alone in the dark, cries to get out. All my daydreams of dressing up in stockings and high heels and rolling around in laughing little games with my boyhood crushes flash in front of me. But I am so afraid and I think: oh my god, she can never know, she will never understand. So I tell myself that these daydreams belong to another boy, some strange boy from far away, and the moment slips by.
And so with a shake of her head she sends me back to my room with her sobs following behind me as I trudge back up the stairs and quietly shut the door.
A day goes by, then another and another. They are all dark days filled with a shame that seasons the steely blood that flows in my mouth from biting my tongue. The question has been asked, however obliquely, and I know now that no one really wants to know the answer.
There is no need to say it anyway. You see, my family doesn’t communicate in words but instead, by directly transferring thoughts from mind to mind. My stepfather has this power too, so when I see him and my mom eyeing me darkly across the dinner table, I can hear what they are thinking.
“What is wrong with him?” they say.
“I’m gay,” I tell them. But they never listen.
Then comes the day I come home from school and my mom is crying in the living room. Her new husband, the Lord, is there comforting her with her head buried in her hands while the tears drip, drip, drip through the cracks of her fingers.
“There, there dear, everything will be ok,” he coos.
Then he turns and looks me up and down with hatred and disgust that makes me wish I could disappear into the walls and the wood and never come back out.
“I’ll deal with you later you filthy little pervert,” he tells me with his mind.
I run up the stairs to lock myself in my room, my sanctuary, but when I get to the top and push open the door the blood drains out of me and into the floor. My bed is overturned. All my dresser drawers have been tossed around and emptied. My locked file cabinet, my treasure chest of adolescent mysteries, has been pried open and all the secret, sacred contents looted. Everything has been found: the cigarettes, the liquor, the pornography, the dildos, the stockings.
It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me. But when I open my eyes again the mantra hasn’t worked and nothing has changed.
But then the panic subsides. I take a deep breath. I relax and let go. Now they know. They must know. Now I am transparent and all of my longing is known to the world. There is nothing left to hide.
They are standing behind me now and they take me by the arms, march me down the stairs, out into the light of day where the neighbors wonder and whisper behind closed doors and tightly pulled curtains. For a moment, when the sun hits my face, I think that they are going to set me free, to let me flap my wings and finally fly high and away into the clear sky. But instead I am only being led to another cage.
In the silence of the back seat of the old blue Pinto, the shadows of oak and maple flutter across my face. We twist and turn through the winding country roads until we leave the comfort and shelter of home and enter the big city of New London. There is concrete here and crime and drugs and poverty. There are psychiatrists, too.
My psychiatrist waits for me behind a windowless door in a pre-fab office building that smells of fresh paint and carpet glue. His name is painted on the door in gold letters: Dr. Gary Greenburg, PhD. But in 1984 on the eastern shore of the United States it may as well read “witch doctor”.
I am naked and exposed in the florescent light of the hallway as my mother knocks on the door. I am humiliated and powerless even as rage boils in my belly. I cannot breathe. The pressure has nowhere to go. I am going to implode.
The door opens with a swooshing and sucking of air from the hallway. It draws the air out of me too, and I breathe again with a sudden gasp. Dr. Greenburg is smiling on the other side as he holds the door open and waves us both in. He is skinny, frail, with pale thin arms and a narrow face. His wispy black hair falls into his eyes so he has to brush it away when he turns his head. His eyes are nut brown and warm. He is no witch doctor that I have ever imagined and when I look at him I feel safe.
“Thank you Mrs. Lord,” he says. “I’ve got it from here.”
We leave her, befuddled and dumfounded, in the waiting room and he points me to a comfortable chair. He pulls up a seat right in front of me and kicks off his shoes. Then he crosses his legs and looks at me with those dark brown eyes, wide and friendly and full of care.
“So, what’s going on?” he asks.
With a great exhale I let down my defenses, open the gates and let him in. I divulge. I confess. But it is confession without guilt, without penance or remorse. There are no sins here, only the beginnings of trust and truth. I don’t know where the words come from, didn’t know I had so many words dammed up inside me, but they flow out now like a river and all the confusion of my young mind takes shape right before my eyes. Dr. Greenburg does nothing. He just listens, holding up a mirror so I can see it all, so I can see who I am without the judgment and the fear and the self loathing that have already become reflexes, taut and fine tuned.
When the session is over, I am smiling. There is nothing wrong with me after all. Dr. Greenburg slaps me on the shoulder and I laugh for the first time in a year. But when he opens the door and I see my mother waiting outside with deep lines of worry on her face as she waits for the diagnosis, my heart sinks into darkness again.
It is appointment day and I am looking forward to my third session. The resentment and the stigma of going to the doctor are gone. In only two weeks he has become my psychiatrist and I even brag to my friends about where I go every Wednesday after school. Maybe today he will ask me about being gay, I think. Maybe today I will tell him the whole truth. That is what I really want, someone to just come out and ask the question, point blank, like a gunshot or a sucker punch. I would welcome it.
“Well, are you gay?” they will ask. “Yes,” I will say and be embraced again, and loved. No more innuendos and awkward avoidances. No more shushing up the obvious; no more uneasy evasions. No more mind reading. No more silence.
I come down from my room and find my mom pouring over bills and letters at the kitchen table.
“Well, are we going?” I ask pretending that I don’t really want to.
“No,” she says.
I wait for more, some reason or explanation, but there is just the wide gap of silence between us. I can hear the scratch of pen on paper, the cat clawing at the screen door behind me, the mail truck idling outside the open window. The warm air of late spring carries in the scent of honeysuckle and sea that used to fill me with joy, calling me and my little brother out to play boyhood games, simple in their rules and enjoyment. But now I just feel nauseated and recoil as I look over the edge of this new cliff.
“Why?” I whisper.
She slams down her pen, huffs and puffs before blowing my house down.
“Oh c’mon!” she says. “We can see you have Dr. Greenburg bamboozled just like the rest of us!”
I see. I am a liar now.
And that is that. I have tried to tell the truth; was forced to tell the truth. But it was not the truth that anyone wanted to hear. The message is now seared in my mind: To tell the truth is to lie; to lie is to tell the truth. So I give up on the truth and I seal myself away. My little secret self that everyone now knows but denies is even there will be routed back to the forest and the dark. I will be silent again. I will speak to no one. I will forget the passwords that let even friends through the gate and I will be alone.