I don’t tell my father I hitchhike. He’d only tell me to stop doing it.
“You’re only 17,” he’d say. “You could be picked up by a pervert.”
I don’t tell him I already have been.
It almost always starts with the same question: do I have a girlfriend? Then they ask why not, because for some reason I always tell the truth and say I don’t have one. What they say next depends. I mean, there isn’t a script or anything. You’re a good-looking guy, one guy says. I can tell you’re an athlete, another one says. A young guy has needs, naturally. You can’t keep all those needs bottled in.
One guy told me about doing it with his best buddy in the army. He said he was so horny having to be away from his wife for so long. It happens all the time, he says. Two guys helping each other out, no big deal.
It’s creepy, all this talk about letting it out. It makes me feel like a cow that has to be milked. When I tell this to my friend Simon, he laughs, but I probably make it sound cornier than it is. I don’t really like the way they made it sound like the sex is going to be nice but only a kind of second-rate substitute till the real thing comes along. I know I’m not waiting to find a girlfriend. But I don’t tell Simon this.
They ask me if I’ve ever played around with a friend. I could tell them I thought about doing it with Simon but instead I ask them to drop me off at the next corner. They always do.
The men don’t look sad or ugly. Just old. Well, older than me. They don’t look all that different from my father and my uncles and my track coach. And their cars smell just like my father’s, with its scent of stale cigarette smoke and pine from the evergreen air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror.
But the car that stops today is different.
It’s an MG roadster, and I have to bend down to see the driver as he tells me where he’s headed. It’s a half mile from my house. I could get a better ride if I waited but instead I slide down into the low narrow space of the passenger’s seat. It feels as if I’m slipping into a clam. It smells of hand-lotion or soap maybe.
The guy behind the wheel looks different, too. He’s younger, for a start. He’s in college, I think, though I’m not good at guessing people’s ages. He looks like a runner, like me but stronger, more filled out. The cuff of his polo shirt hugs tight around his upper arm, mine looks as if it’s on a hanger. He’s wearing a pair of faded ripped jeans and I can see his right knee through one of the holes in the denim. His hair is short and spiky but trimmed, as if he had it cut just a few days ago. Probably in the city. I remember a picture of a dancer for the Joffrey Ballet I saw in a magazine a week ago. He had a haircut like that, so it makes me wonder if this guy lives in the city, too.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting into a car with a complete stranger? You’re kind of young to be hitching” he asks me.
“No, I’m 17 and I hitch all the time.” I feel grown-up saying this, reckless in a way I’m usually not. But it’s true. When I can’t ride my bike, I hitch. I sometimes took the bus back in the afternoons after track practice, but mostly I don’t feel like waiting, so I hitch home.
“I don’t get into the car if I think there’s something wrong,” I tell him. “Like if the car smells of dope or the driver looks drunk. Or if there are more than two guys in the car.”
He turns his head and looks at me, the way a driver might in a movie when he’s having a conversation with someone in the passenger’s seat, as if he’s not really driving on a road with traffic in the opposite lane.
“It could be dangerous. You never know who’ll pick you up.” he says.
I should ask him if he’s dangerous. It’s the kind of thing Simon would say, but I’m not that forward. “I can handle myself,” I say.
“Yes, I guess you could. Still you should be careful.”
I keep looking at the patch of skin exposed by the rip in his jeans. I can see dark hairs framed by the ring of white frayed thread.
I tell him about the team and Simon and our plan to bike to the tip of Long Island. He listens and asks questions, but doesn’t say anything about himself.
As he shifts gear, his knuckles graze my thigh. Without thinking I open my legs ever so slightly, as if I were nudging open a heavy door, and I drop my knee down a notch, just enough to feel the gentle pressure of his hand against my leg. It’s enough of a point of contact. A current of warmth floods my knee.
I feel myself tremble and try to steady my knee at exactly this position. Any higher and I’ll lose contact, any deeper and I expose myself. I’m on a beam balancing on one leg.
I’ve never touched a man this way before. My heart is pounding harder than when I finish a race. I’m not thinking what this all means. I don’t care what it means or what it says about me. I’m just thinking I want him to touch me back.
If he looks down at my crotch he will see the outline of my erection. But there’s nothing I can do to tame it.
Halfway through the ride he tells me he has to stop at the Post Office to pick up some mail. “Take your time.” I tell him.
I wait in the car while he goes into the Post Office. Who picks up mail at a Post Office? Why can’t he have it delivered to his house? Is this a sign?
I wish he hadn’t talked about danger, though. It’s dangerous. I’m dangerous. Don’t play with me. I want us to play. But we shouldn’t. I keep rehearsing his words in my mind, trying to make it sound like a game but each time it comes out like the werewolf’s plea as the full moon approaches: “Lock me up, I’ll do you harm.”
He comes out of the Post Office.
I’m not ready yet. How do I let him know? Do I slouch back in my seat and scratch my crotch? It flashes on me that this is probably the kind of the thing the men my father warns me about would do. The thought unnerves me and arouses me at the same time. But I don’t do it. What if he’s not like me? I imagine him seeing me the way my father would.
He drives down the maple-lined avenue, past houses with wide porches and well-tended unfenced lawns. They go by too fast. I wish we were driving farther, up to the lakes at the far northwestern corner of the country. It would give me time to think and maybe find a way to be sure.
I can’t tell if it’s his knuckles pressed into my thigh, or my leg pressing against his fist. I just need a sign, a nudge. If he slips his hand off the gear knob and onto my knee, I know that I’ll take it.
Instead he slows down and pulls up to the curb. “I turn off here,” he says.
For my father and my uncles and the guys at school, “faggots” and “perverts” were all instances of a single type, easily discerned from the subject’s clothes and appearance and mannerisms. When I listened to them, they all seemed to have such a concrete image in mind when they used these words. I think of the portraits of tradesman I had seen in a photography book Simon’s father had. (It was only later in college that I discovered the photography of August Sander and realized that the book was a selection of the portraits he had made for his massive documentary portfolio of classes and professions in Weimar Germany). For men like my father a pervert was as readily identifiable as the aproned pastry cook with his whisk, or the varnisher with his pail and boat-shaped clogs.
How could my father and my uncles and the guys at school be so sure they could identify this type so readily when I, who suspected that I, too, was one of this lot, could not?
My father was wrong. There was no type.
At 17 I had few images of men who had sex with other men. One was the young guy on the street up from me whom I remember from the city, a kid who dyed his hair blond. Another came from the men who picked me up on my way home after practice. But these were mostly ordinary men, indistinguishable from other ordinary men. But now I had another, the guy in the MG, who was just a few years older than me. Even though I couldn’t be sure of him, he was a sign nonetheless, a pointer to other men I was slowly becoming sure must exist.
Yet if there were others like me, I couldn’t read the signs of their existence. Was it something as small as the gryphon or deer heads on the buttons once worn by the men of a noble house, unnoticed by all save for other men of other noble houses?
Later, of course, I would realize that for most of us most of the time there is no sign, or rather, that our most distinguishing feature is our desire. It is only through desire that we become visible to each other.
Men who loved men were not among the archetypes that Sander documented. It is certain, though, that they appeared as subjects, their desire hidden from camera and known only to the men they made love to. Perhaps it was the roofer or the matchbox seller or the gypsy and the bailiff. Or maybe it was one of the three young farmers in their Sunday suits, out for a walk along a muddy country lane. And that farmer would know other men who shared his desire. Somehow they had found each other, making visible their desire much as I hoped I would do.
But this realization came only after I had left high school, after I had said goodbye to Simon. Later, when I learned it was not about a look at all, but a way of looking.
The image the post ends with is part of Absence of Subject, Michael Somoroff’s arresting tribute to August Sander, which was recently on exhibit at the Benaki Museum in Athens and which triggered the memory of this incident (though I can’t be entirely sure that I saw Sander’s book in Simon’s house).
In this haunting photographic essay on absence and memory, Somoroff digitally manipulated the images from 40 prints of Sander’s People of the 20th Century to remove the subject in each. We are left with the touchmark of a subject that has vanished: the vacant salon where once the pianist stood, a table with spools of thread and a sewing machine, the black doorway where the varnisher once stood. One is startled to realize that however much the tools of trade help one at first fix the subjects in memory, it is, in the end, the faces one remembers most of all.
My brother Daniel has given me three gifts in the last two decades. I don’t mean to say he was stingy; I haven’t given him any at all. We don’t exchange gifts. We live too far away to visit for holidays and birthdays are remembered in other ways.
Instead of gifts, we write letters, long feverish letters, sometimes two in a day, though not every day, at times not even once in a month, and sometimes for much longer than that. And suddenly, like species of insects that reproduce in years spaced in intervals of prime numbers and then in enormous number, we write and write and write.
One of Daniel’s three gifts was a vase he had made. Or what looked to me like a vase. It was a hollow black cylinder the height of my forearm, from which irregular thin polygons of ceramic jutted out like flaps of hardened flesh. In contrast to the dull, matt finish of the vase itself, these appendages were glazed in chthonic hues of ores and roots and humors, each piece in its own color: strips of cerulean, a wing of oxblood, a single rhomboid of cadmium yellow. A slit had been made into the surface to open a long thin void that extended down to about a fist’s distance from the base.
Theatrical, imposing, and impractical, it was an anti-vase.
I was moved by my brother’s gift. He never showed his work to me, much less given me something he had created. Living so far from New York, I rarely had the chance to visit him and when I did, he didn’t want to talk about his work.
I tripped over my words in rushing to thank him. It was remarkable. Extraordinary. Wonderful. I was overwhelmed, I said. He must have sensed my awkwardness as I groped to acknowledge the gift without using the one word that would have been the easiest to say if it had been the most ordinary of presents: beautiful.
Because I didn’t think of it as beautiful. I wasn’t sure if that was even something you said about this kind of art. I don’t know what frightened me more—appearing insincere or looking stupid in Daniel’s eyes.
But though honored by his present, I felt as if I’d received a book of difficult but important poetry in a language I knew only half well. I couldn’t quite get it.
I also couldn’t entirely escape the feeling that Daniel was teasing me in some small way. I was half convinced he already thought I was boring and pretentious and a snob—in his defense I probably was at the time—and his gift was a way of calling me on my conventionality. He was daring me to exhibit his piece in my tidy house of hardwood floors and Breuer chairs and a sink that never held dirty dishes overnight.
I didn’t blame him. I was fiercely proud of him and always defended him, so naturally I thought he had a right to judge me. (You don’t grow up with a mother who’s angry a lot of the time without thinking that you have, in part, provoked it.)
In retrospect I know Daniel wasn’t judging me. But I was a harsh critic of myself then, and found in my brother the perfect person on whom to project this criticism. Perfect because I loved and admired him so much.
He was the uncompromising rebel who pushed at boundaries and broke rules. I told myself that’s what gifted young rebels are supposed to be, angry and arrogant. I remember walking with him in New York, how he carried himself erect with his gaze fixed at a point slightly above the horizon and with a look that slid back and forth between a scowl and dull indifference. He lived in a rough part of Brooklyn and had told me that his mien was a mask of self-defense, a precautionary measure for the streets he lived in. “I feel safer if they think I’m a crazy fuck who would bite their nose off or something.”
Daniel had brought the vase with him from Venice, where he was living and working at the time. It was his first visit now that Matthew and I were together, and like a boy tugging at his father’s arm to show him the fort he’s built at the shore’s edge, I was eager to show my brother the life I had made with Matthew and my second homeland.
The three of us went to Sifnos, a small island in the Western Cyclades renowned less for its beaches than for its centuries-old villages of whitewashed houses which lay strewn across its hilly uplands like pearls spilled from an undone necklace. Most would call it beautiful.
Daniel didn’t say much about his impressions of the island, but he was wonderful company and more relaxed than I had ever seen him before. Goofy, even. I have a picture of him in a village square with his mouth around our beagle’s front paw in a re-enactment of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”, part of an impromptu show he put on with the “grossest scenes in the history of art”.
He didn’t say if he liked the island but he told me he liked Matthew and the person I was with him. That should have been more important than his liking the island, I suppose, but for some reason it wasn’t.
“Why should it matter to you if I find it beautiful?” he said. “You didn’t make it.” And then he added: “Always be a little skeptical of people who judge anything too quickly.”
For a few weeks after Daniel left, I kept the vase on the dining room table. To his credit, Matthew was accommodating and didn’t say a word, though I think more because he was waiting half-amused to see how I would deal with it. Eventually I put Daniel’s gift in a gap of space on the bookshelf where Matthew and I kept the weighty foot-high exhibition catalogs we bought on our trips abroad. It didn’t call so much attention to itself there.
I tried to like it. I tried to think of it as the work of sculpture it probably was. At times I saw it as a piece that questioned the love of decoration and show, at times a memento mori, a reminder that a vase, in the end, is but a receptacle of death.
But it didn’t work. I kept seeing a vase that couldn’t hold water.
It stood there on the shelf like a figurine of some Fluxus god of disruption and practical jokes, scolding me for my mediocrity. Daniel was the artist that I wanted to be but didn’t trust myself to become. Instead of writing my own words, I settled for editing or translating the words of what others wrote, or teaching these words to others.
It wasn’t the worst of decisions. I am a decent editor and a translator, though I work too slowly for either to be a sole source of income. The writer in me sneaks into both trades. I rewrite more than I should when editing, and I am an unfaithful translator when faced with a clumsily written original. But these moments of infiltration were not the same as my brother’s work. I was a dilettante, the vase told me.
As disturbing the piece was, I couldn’t banish it from the house. The vase was his avatar. It reminded me of him as much as it reminded me of the distance that separated us. It was all I had of him, apart from a few pictures I’d taken of him on the island. One sits in a frame at the far end of the same shelf on which the vase stands. He’s in profile, his face awash in the milky light of late morning and graced by a smile as radiant as the folds of an angel’s robe. He is impossibly beautiful.
Years later, I still don’t know what Daniel intended his gift to be. One can never be certain about an artist’s intentions (though it is not wrong to wonder what they were). I am certain now that the vase wasn’t meant to test or tease me. I think he wanted me to have something that he had created, and this was the piece he was proudest of. Odd really, why it was once easier for me to believe I was more worthy of being taught a lesson than of his love.
His gift no longer makes me feel unworthy. I have even come to think of it as beautiful. With its window of space excised into the walls of a hollow cylinder, the vase is an intriguing play of voids that confounds presence and absence, much in the way that it reminds me of Daniel and not-Daniel at the same time.
The vase will hold no flowers. Daniel and I will spend no summer evenings talking late into the night after the others have gone to bed. But art is not utility, nor love proximity.
The image for the post is a photograph of Jules (1830-1870) and Edmond (1822–96) de Goncourt. The two brothers have a special place in the history of literary and art criticism, not only because of their work and the Prix Goncourt, which was their legacy to talented young writers to come, but also in light of their unusual literary partnership. The brothers first rose to fame with the publication of a series of essays they had written together on 18th century art, which the younger brother Jules illustrated. They wrote six novels, again together, now largely forgotten, and a much more widely read (and no doubt more fully enjoyed) journal of Parisian society, in which they chronicled the city’s literary and artistic life. It is in this very long Journal that the brothers write: “There have been many definitions of beauty in art. What is it? Beauty is what untrained eyes consider abominable.” (translation by Robert Baldic).
The two brothers were bachelors—Jules straight and Edmond gay—and spent every day of their adult lives together, until syphilis claimed the life of Jules in 1870 at the age of 40. The two are buried in the same grave in Montmartre. A selection of entries from the brothers’ Journal, edited and translated by Robert Baldick, was reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2006. See Geoff Dyer’s review in the Guardian and Adam Kirsch’s intriguing piece “Masters of Indiscretion”, in the New York Sun.
I lost my faith long before I lost my virginity. My defection was not a single act of apostasy but rather a slow unwrapping of belief, a long series of minor dispossessions in which I abandoned one tenet of faith after another , each leaving behind a trace of emptiness, as if I were disrobing an invisible man. Small things at first, the scarves and brooches of religion, a man in a whale’s belly and my guardian angel, haloed doves and apocalyptic floods. Later the broader garments of Hell and the Trinity would come undone.
My falling away began with a question about the demographics of heaven, and I am 11 years old when I ask it. Naturally, I ask my Uncle Leonard, whom I go to whenever I have something serious to talk about it. He’s the only grown-up who seems to be interested in what I have to say.
I ask him how all the souls who die and go to heaven can fit in the Garden of Paradise. He tells me heaven is a very big place.
“No, I don’t mean just the people who are alive now,” I say. “But all the people who came before and who will come now and forever and ever until the world ends.”
“That’s complicated to explain,” he says and leaves it at that.
A few days later he takes me to the beach. It’s too cool and windy to go swimming so we walk for a while along the dunes, stopping when we reach a bluff from which we can look out over the ocean.
“Let’s do a little experiment,” he says. “Close your left eye and look out onto the surface of the ocean. Somewhere in the middle, it doesn’t matter exactly where.” Then he makes a fist and lays it over my right eye, relaxing it just a bit so that a pea-sized shaft of light can open through his hand. “Now count the waves.”
I get to fifty. The whitecaps rise and fall quickly, and new ones keep appearing. I keep counting, Leonard opens the aperture in his fist just a tick. “Keep looking at the ocean,” he tells me, “and count.” The numbers race in my head and I stop counting and start multiplying. He relaxes his fist further and further. “Think of these as the souls in heaven,” he says and draws his hand away.
I’m startled by the expansion of ocean that suddenly fills my field of vision. I think I can hear the murmur of the sea resolving itself into voices, thousands and thousands of voices whispering stories and prayers I can’t understand.
“And this is just one narrow strip of water off a small bit of land. And there are millions and millions more waves breaking along the shore, down to where your cousin Karen lives and even further south where Uncle William and Aunt Mary have their house. And that’s just New Jersey. Then there’s New York and Massachusetts to the north and Virginia and the Carolinas, and then Florida to think of. And the West Coast, too, of course, and Canada and Mexico and South America, and we haven’t even gotten to China yet.”
Back in the car I ask him if heaven won’t be mostly just old people. “Seeing as most people die when they’re old except for the poor children who die before they have a chance to grow old,” I say.
Leonard tells me we will all be resurrected “in a glorified body.”
I’m not sure I know what a glorified body is, but I think of my cousin Harry, who sometimes comes to stay with us for in the summer, who has muscles like the ones the soldiers had in that painting of St. Matthew’s martyrdom I had seen in class. I think of the photograph of my father as a young man, not the wedding photograph on the mantelpiece but the one where he’s in his sailor’s uniform from the time before he got married. The one where my father looks like a movie star in the picture. An actor playing a sailor.
The thought that I will meet my father in heaven as a young man with a glorified body is somehow disturbing and I don’t ask Leonard to explain. But over the next few years I continue to share my doubts and questions with Leonard. Did Cain and Abel marry their sisters? And Noah’s grandchildren, didn’t they marry each other? None of the answers satisfied me for long, and like the Lernaean Hydra, for each one posed, two new ones would arise.
I didn’t have problems with the Immaculate Conception, though, but mostly because I didn’t know anything about sex to start with. And no one wanted to talk to me about sex. Not my father, nor the teachers in grade school. Not even Leonard.
I thus escaped the Church’s traditional teachings on the “grave offence” of masturbation. But my lack of instruction also meant that I had no idea what it was that I experienced the first time I brought myself to orgasm, or the milky fluid that squirted out of me (and which, like countless other boys my age, I first thought would be pee).
How could nobody have told me about this? Not just the technicalities of the act but more shockingly, that my body was capable of experiencing such intense pleasure. And that I could bring it about myself! That I could be its cause and author, spurring and guiding it until the pleasure took over at the very last stretch and threw me off and up into the darkness. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?
I had heard about jacking off, but only obliquely, in snatches of talk overheard from boys at school who weren’t my friends. And I had heard stories, though I can’t remember where from, about how “playing with yourself” could give you warts or blindness. I was sure this wasn’t the case. My mother was obsessed enough about how I ate and dressed myself in the winter that she would surely not have let me play with the risk of going blind.
I was at an age when I could get aroused just by the swish of seawater in my swim trunks. I could get aroused simply watching an actor on TV as I lay on the carpet of the living room floor. I didn’t need to see anything. But I looked nonetheless, and soon the images of rock musicians and gymnasts and divers began infiltrating the fantasies I created in my mind.
Except for that one summer night when Harry slept in the attic cot across from mine (and perhaps for a few nights more after he left), the object of my desire was always anonymous. That is, until Brother John entered my fantasies in sophomore year in high school.
He taught chemistry. I wasn’t fascinated with the subject the way I was with English or math. I liked the puzzle part of it—figuring out valence electrons and balancing equations—but I was indifferent to the physical stuff of chemistry, the polymers, crystals and acids that played in the theatre of transformation that so fascinated my friend Simon. But chemistry gave me a chance to look at Br. John. I could watch him as much as I wanted without worrying that my look would be noticed, returned or remarked on. Nowhere else could I look so freely at a man.
Br. John was a beautiful man, though at the time I wouldn’t have used that word to describe him. Instead I thought he was the kind of man an artist in another age might have used as a model for a sword-wielding archangel. I recalled what Leonard had told me about the resurrection of the dead. A glorified body. Even more than my cousin Harry, Br. John had a glorified body.
Years of lifting weights had added further bulk to his broad-shouldered frame. I would watch his back muscles tugging at his cassock when he lifted his arm to write on the board. I sometimes saw him in the weight room when we had a lifting session there for wrestling practice, and I could see the two plates of muscle that his chest described beneath his t-shirt. As the term drew on and we moved from the geometry of ions to acids and bases, Br. John began making appearances in my fantasies, the ones I wove after school as I lay on the couch in the downstairs rec room.
Br. John also team-taught sophomore religion. One day he announced we were going to discuss masturbation. But he didn’t talk to us about grievous offences and the near occasions of sin. Instead he talked about giving and receiving. Sex, he said, was, or should be, an act of giving yourself fully to another person in the context of relationship—he may have said marriage, though I’m not sure. It was a turning out, whereas jacking off, he explained, was a turning in on oneself. The worst kind of lover, he said, was the selfish one, a man who’s only concerned about his own pleasure (it didn’t occur to me at the time to ask how he knew all this). He assured us that it was normal for boys our age to masturbate but reminded us of the threat of self-absorption. “You don’t want to become anti-social,” he joked.
His talk, intended to liberate us from a guilt of sin with which ironically I was not burdened, imposed instead a different kind of anxiety. I was already an introvert and I thought if I withdrew any more, I’d vanish. I may not have believed in hell by that time but I did believe in psychology to the extent that I knew any, and more importantly, I believed in Br. John. Now every time that I closed the door to my bedroom and loosened my belt or headed down alone to the rec room I would ask myself whether I could be out with a friend right now or spending time with my brothers.
Br. John’s presence in my fantasies eventually yielded their place to others my age, to classmates I saw in the hall but didn’t know and then in my last year at school to Simon. My falling away from faith, now almost completed, coincided with a growing awareness and acceptance of my sexuality. As one was stripped away, the other began to take shape, though I did not connect the two in my mind.
In the end, I didn’t need Br. John’s warning. Rather than enclose me in a shell of self-absorption, jacking off made me want more and more to enact in real life what I scripted in my imagination. But if in the years of my adolescence I could more clearly discern the desire that lay at the heart of my differentness, I could not begin to imagine myself staking claim to it. Growing up Catholic I naturally had a large store of images of the afterlife, but I had none of a life in this world in which two men could love each other. I knew the stories of prophets and martyrs and apostles but knew of no one whose life could show me how to live my life as a man who desired other men.
Luckily I discovered these stories in books. My fantasies were slowly enriched with the thread of experiences I gathered from books I read, discovered on my own of course and at first quite by chance, that spoke of love between two men. Baldwin and Whitman and Maurice and trashy pulp novels.
These were the stories of my conversion, my catechesis. No one attempted to proselytize me—what a ridiculous idea indeed!—though I wish that someone had. Bereft of confessors and mentors, I was obliged to construct, at least at first, a world in which the attraction I felt could be expressed, and I did so with the stories I read and the men I fantasized I about.
Years before I would enter this world and first make love to another man I was already convinced that even if there were life after death, a prospect I thought highly improbable, and even if some divine entity determined my place in this afterlife, which seemed even more unlikely, I would not be judged because of my sexuality. Only a sadist would bestow such a wonderful gift upon someone and then punish the person for using it to make love.
I got some things wrong about the world to come, of course. When I came out after high school I discovered that were many more people like me than I had thought possible. It was like that time with Leonard in the dunes when he opened his fist to let in a wider expanse of sea and I could suddenly see more whitecaps than I could ever count.
Like the sons and daughters of landed gentry, we native speakers of English have been born into a world of privilege that we have done nothing to deserve. We are linguistically pampered and catered to wherever we go and whatever we do, whether it’s booking a train to Florence or ordering dinner in Buenos Aires or making small talk with clients in Tokyo.
We don’t need to work very hard at communicating because others will make the effort for us. So accustomed we are to this Gilded Age of linguistic privilege that we may not really see this effort as anything extraordinary, if we see it at all. Hopefully we are no longer tempted to think that our interlocutors are grateful for the chance that we’ve given them to “practice” their English, an amusing proposition for anyone who’s lived in Europe for any length of time. (The EU Eurobarometer 2012 report on “Europeans and their Language” reveals that almost half of EU citizens who are competent in a foreign language—and this is English in most cases—already use the language often or every day.)
While it’s not exactly the equivalent of schlepping our bags to the station, our non-native interlocutors render us a service when they speak to us in our language. It comes at a cost, even for those who speak it fluently. If you’ve ever groped for a word or case ending in another language, you will have a sense of this effort. A cost of doing business or science or trade in a global economy, we might say, and though we may be its unwitting beneficiaries there are considerable economic and social benefits as well for the non-native speaker of English, more than enough to offset the cost.
Fair enough. But it is remarkable how easily the (mistaken) assumption that nearly everyone speaks English—and if not, there’s someone to be found in the village who does—becomes the expectation that everyone should.
We Americans are rather bad at learning foreign languages. As economist Bryce Caplan notes, data from the General Social Survey reveal that only 2.5% of Americans claim to have learned a foreign language in school well enough to speak it “well” or “very well”. Of course, more Americans do speak a second language well enough to carry on a conversation. Both the GSS and Gallup reach the same number, about 25% of the population, but this number includes a large chunk of the 20% of persons living in the US who the US Census informs us speak a language other than English at home, mostly Spanish. The majority of these speakers are likely to be first- or early-generation Americans, an assumption supported by the fact that only half of the respondents who state they speak Spanish at home also say that they are able to speak English very well.
There are reasons for our monolingualism. We don’t start learning languages early enough and don’t study them long enough once we do start. Our teachers are not always adequately trained in foreign-language teaching methodology. We lack the extensive exposure to the target language that many of those learning English have to ours. (Watching subtitled TV series is a surprising boon to developing listening skills in the target language).
Caplan offers another reason. He says we have no incentive to learn a foreign language.
In a post for the libertarian website Library of Economics and Liberty entitled “The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money”, he argues that there is no compelling economic or social benefit for Americans to acquire competency in another language.
“We don’t learn foreign languages because foreign languages rarely help us get good jobs, meet interesting people, and enjoy culture.” We already can do that, he says, because we have enough jobs in the States that don’t require foreign language competency, and there’s enough cultural diversity within the country already. “If Americans do decide to sample other pools [of culture], we can literally travel the world without needing to learn a word of another language.”
Albert Saiz, an economist at MIT, has even quantified this lack of incentive. His research on the return of investment in foreign-language learning was recently profiled in a recent Freakonomics podcast called Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth it (a question that could only be posed in America, I think). Saiz has calculated that Americans who learn a foreign language earn a bonus of only 2%, less for Spanish, slightly more for German. As The Economist pointed out in an column shortly after the release of the podcast, this is not really peanuts. Thanks to compound interest, if you bank the annual bonus, you can cash in your rewards for a bonanza of $64,000 at the end of a 40-year period or $128,000 if your language is German. But I doubt that even this nest-egg would be enough of an incentive. Survey data suggest that most Americans believe that speaking a second language is a good thing to have but far from necessary.
I’m alarmed at the cultural insularity that lies at the core of Caplan’s argument “we have it all here”, just as I am uncomfortable with the reduction of learning to equations of economic utility. I think there are compelling non-material reasons for learning a foreign language. Even if we do not become proficient in the language we will have gained access to a culture in a way that was not possible before, an ability not so different from imagining living in a house that is only half-finished. It’s also a means to acquiring a greater awareness of the workings of one’s own. And for us who are native speakers of the world’s lingua franca, it is an exercise in humility, an acknowledgement that we share this world and its resources and that our language—and by extension, our culture—is but one of many, with no inherent claim of superiority simply because it is ours. It is not the only antidote to American exceptionalism but it is a potent one.
But most of all speaking another language enables us to think in a different way, which is reason enough to learn it.
Going out for lunch in Koreatown or getting together at your daughter’s softball match with second-generation immigrants whose kids are also on the team is not really the same thing. Once when I was back in the States for a visit, my brother took me to a just game like that. I was astounded not by the diversity of the young Hispanic- and Asian- and African-American parents on the sidelines cheering their kids on, but by their sameness.
If I have inherited a linguistically easy life, my friend Yannos is one of the dispossessed. He has never learned English, though it’s not for a lack of trying. He has taken classes and worked through Teach Yourself books and CDs, all to no avail. He complains that the sounds of the language feel too alien. “The words taste like metal in my mouth,” he says. “I think I’m just not made for English.”
If he needs to communicate with a foreigner, he speaks a creole of his own making, small bits of Italian and French strung together like shells and beads on a string and held in place not by syntax but by affability and good will. But his stock of words is too limited for anything more than the exchange of pleasantries. Like the great majority of Americans, Yannos is essentially monolingual, except that very few people in the global village speak his native tongue.
Which is why I’m here today on the building site. Yannos has found a buyer for a half-finished house he has built on this island in the Western Cyclades. The buyer is a French couple, Emile and Simone, and he needs an interpreter. I tell him my French isn’t very good. He says, no problem. Emile speaks English, too.
Yannos’ talent as an architect speaks for itself, as Emile and his wife know. They stayed in one of his other houses, and were enchanted by his austere line and respect for the island’s vernacular architecture. They noticed his attention to detail and his uncanny sense of the site’s natural advantages.
But a house is more than form and view, and Emile and Simone have come to talk about their house, the one they want to buy. About the kitchen, which they think is a bit too small, and the guest bedroom, which is way too small, and the gardens that will be planted and the material for the windows and dozens of other questions. Many of these questions will be decided on much later, but that’s not the point. They are trying to imagine themselves living in this space, which is now just two blocks of concrete and brick on a plot of rocky, bramble-covered land.
“Ma perchè ? C’est pas petit,” Yannos says to Emile as they survey the guest bedroom. “È seulement pour dormir.” He turns to me and says in Greek. “Why buy a summer house on a Greek island if you’re going to spend time in your bedroom. What else do you in bed but sleep and fuck?”
I tell him the French live in the bedroom more than we do. I don’t remember how I came to know this.
Emile asks how far the garden will extend before it hits the first retaining wall. I translate.
“How can I know that now?” Yannos asks me in Greek. “Explain to them that I have to work with the site before I can see how it should be landscaped.”
I tell Yannos how evasive this will sound when I translate it. He can’t feel it, but I can. “Yes, I get it. You’re an artist. But you’re asking this couple to lay out all this money for a house and you can’t even tell them where their terrace will end?”
Yannos sulks but picks up a rock and tosses it out toward a thicket of broom ten or so meters ahead of us. “Jusqu’à quà”, he says, and then continues in Greek as he outlines the spaces of the garden, including where the septic tank will need to go. I struggle for the word in French but it doesn’t come. I probably never learned in the first place.
I switch to English, hoping that Emile will know it. He does.
“Ah oui, la fosse septique,” he says.
I am embarrassed to have reached for my crutch of English but am glad that it’s there. My French can’t really bear the weight of a technical conversation, and I’m relieved as we gradually shift more and more to English. But later I think of this moment and wonder what it must be like for Yannos, who has no crutch to grab on to. If he falters, he falls.
I wonder what it would be like for Americans if we could not rely on our crutch as often as we do. If large swatches of the country spoke a language other than English.
Yannos belongs to an ever diminishing minority of Europeans who cannot speak English. As more of the world’s population becomes competent in English and as more of the world’s trade and information exchange is conducted in languages such as Chinese or Portuguese, Americans will find that they have become part of a different kind of linguistic minority.
Earlier generations used to consider the inability of foreigners to speak English a sign of underdevelopment or, in the case of the French perhaps, of chauvinism. The rest of the world may come to see American monolingualism in a similar vein. If Americans abroad once lamented that the “natives” could not speak English, the next generation of global citizens may look upon Americans and sigh, “They can only speak English.”
The image for this post is a part of a larger map produced by Eric Fischer (@ENF) using data from the Twitter API for the period May 14 – October 20, 2011.
I sometimes imagine that there is a parallel universe in which a version of me, one who has made wiser decisions than I have, is leading a richer and more satisfying life. The thought doesn’t sadden me, and I am not terribly envious of him. For if this is true, there must also be versions of me who made much worse decisions and are now languishing in a loveless relationship or trying to get clean in a detox clinic.
Parallel universes are the stuff of science fiction and thought experiments of physicists. I don’t really understand the mathematics which prompts such speculation. From what I gather, it has to do with a divergence of events on the quantum level. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting story.
Let’s say instead (as some thinkers have) that each time you make a decision that alters your future, the universe splits and another self is generated to live out a different life. Apparently there’s no communication between these parallel universes, but I think the fun only starts when you start imaging that you could quantum jump from one universe to another and discover your alternative selves.
And so, I decided to conduct my own thought experiment, one in which I could jump from one of my histories to another.
I discovered as I shifted between these parallel universes that many of us—me, that is—have lived very similar lives, even if we have different jobs and live in different cities. Oh, a few are fatter than me, though none obese, and a few are much fitter than me and have done the triathlon I was training to do before being sidelined with a SLAP lesion. None of us who have beards have dyed it, in the same way that none of us married a woman or became a surgeon. There are doctors among us, yes, but no surgeon. A man who spent his childhood painfully aware of his lack of coordination does not easily take up a trade with knives.
Most of us are missing our gall bladder, and the others are just waiting for the stone to make its presence felt, as mine did one night at a friend’s riverside apartment in London. Jörg got me to the hospital where the doctor administered a shot of morphine to relieve my pain, the first and only time in my life I was given an opiate. I wish I could say that the drug made me woozy and not myself and I didn’t like it at all, but that’s not the truth. I have encountered versions of myself in these parallel universes who are addicts, and I can understand them. They are very few in number, but that does not surprise me, seeing how cautious we tend to be.
At first I suspected this sameness could be a sampling error. Perhaps the selves I was encountering were just an unusual sequence of very similar variants, like a rare repeated series of 2’s and 3’s in a chunk of digits of an irrational number, and that this freak region of sameness lay in a distant sector of Stephen-space far from the majority of possible selves who were published authors with fabulous husbands. What if I am an outlier?
But no. I come to realize that the less fortunate versions of my self were drawn by native intelligence and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility back to the person I am now. The store clerk became a manager, the short order cook a chef. At the same time, the more successful variants were never enormously successful, handicapped as they—we—are by an aversion to taking risks and discomfort in leading others. Both our gifts and our failings have nudged most of us towards a mean, as if some guiding hand held us all on a leash, allowing us the occasional foray into impulsiveness or imprudence and giving us the illusion that choice alone determined our lives.
All of us are gay, of course, and all of us know it, even the earliest of our permutations, even the rare ones who have channeled their love of men into a love of God and bound their passion in the friendship with their fellow monks.
Yes, most of us have converged back to an archetype of self, whose contours and scope of possibility were laid down long ago. We are like twins separated at birth who later meet and discover they’ve married the same kind of woman.
We, I say. I’ve already begun thinking of these variant Stephens as a collective, a “we”. And if we are a collective, then we deserve our own term of venery, as foxes and otters and nuns all have. Gang and colony don’t sound right, and coalition and convocation are too formal. Besides they’re already taken by cheetahs and owls. But an accident? That hasn’t been used yet. Yes, an accident of Stephens. That sounds apt—we are, after all, the result of a long series of chance events as much as of discrete decisions.
During one of my jumps, I met a man who suggested that we have a dinner party. “It’s so much more efficient than us jumping about on our own,” he said. I smiled. It was such a Stephen-like thing to say. And so we organized one, and of course news of this quickly got around, and countless other get-togethers were organized, all happening at the same time.
We all wanted to cook, of course. The translator in Antwerp, and the man with the small bookstore that he had opened in the city of his (our) birth, and the psychiatrist—they all wanted to. It’s our way of taking care of people. But none of us is particularly comfortable with sharing his kitchen with other cooks, and since we couldn’t all cook, we decided it was best to take turns.
As I walked into the dining room I saw that a few guests were elegantly and expensively dressed, though in the same muted palette of earth and coal that marked the chinos and dress jeans that the rest of us wore. A few were wearing contact lenses, the rest of us wire- or horn-rimmed glasses. Nothing that would make a statement, naturally. None of us had had laser surgery to correct our vision, even the men who could easily have afforded it.
Despite our native introspection the conversation was lively. We are good at taking turns and we listen attentively. We tend to ask a lot of questions anyway, so no one needed to take the lead in conversation; it was given to him. Few of us could remember the last time we spoke like this. Unaccustomed to being so courted we rushed to end our story and let the others talk.
During dinner I caught a Stephen—the one wearing the Armani trousers and a black turtleneck sweater—nibbling on crumbs of bread that he picked up from the table with the tip of his middle finger. Funny that he, too, hadn’t shaken this early childhood trait. Later he came to talk to me. He had meticulously trimmed eyebrows and much whiter teeth than mine, and the body of an older man who has the money for personal trainers and manicurists. I didn’t much like his company. He seemed too studied, too foreign to me, even if I could feel the inner anxiety scratching at the surface of his consciousness. I thought to myself that he had hidden it well but then I wondered, perhaps he is really different than me. His presence spoiled the camaraderie that the rest of us had established simply through our similitude. He was a reminder of what we could have been if we had been braver and more daring. “And luckier”, another guest said to me later.
Whenever two of us first meet, our conversation centers on discovering when we emerged. I didn’t use that word when I first started jumping. Emerge. Instead I wondered what point the other originated from—when he diverged—as if I were claiming the line of true descent, the standard-bearer of the true faith and all the others heretics.
“When did you come into existence?” I would ask.
“When did you?” he would answer.
We were all, I soon realized, each of us but a permutation with no special claim to authority. And so I now look instead to the point of our emergence. There is no one absolute point, of course, it all depends on whom you’re with. A screenwriter—yes, there is one, I was flabbergasted to discover—he and I emerged when he, but not I, joined the university newspaper. A man who lives on an island in the Dodecanese and makes a very modest living giving private English lessons to the more affluent of the island residents emerged with me when a few years ago my boss, contrary to my own history, accepted the resignation I had tendered. It is dizzying to think how many times I have emerged in the course of my life.
We go back through time, recounting memories to learn which ones we share and which we don’t, circling closer and closer to that one decision or event that triggered the split in our shared universe. Do you remember gathering oysters in the pond on Martha’s Vineyard? Our first Gauloise? (Some have never smoked, others have never quit). The appendectomy?
We fire these questions as they come to us in no particular order, like Scrabble tiles withdrawn from the bag. But unlike the word game, the a’s and e’s of oft repeated pleasures are the most difficult to play. Matthew and I spent five Easters in a row on a quiet island in the Western Cyclades, each time with different friends, couples mostly. I’m not sure which couple came when. It didn’t matter; they all split up after the trip anyway. But they are no help in writing our history.
I ask one guest if he remembers the night our Boston landlord brought up a pair of prospective tenants to the roof for a view of the Charles River and instead came upon us lying naked in the arms of an oboist we had met on the Cape. He asks me if I remember the orderly we met swimming at the City Hospital pool, who took us back to his apartment in the South End for dope and sex, the one who would bite but not kiss.
It’s funny how our milestones are the men we have loved. We could ask about places we lived. It would be a helpful unit of measurement for the early years, when I was moving around a lot, though it is useless now. I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else in my entire life. But an apartment is not a milestone. We are not only attempting to date ourselves, we are telling stories to one another. I think we play this guessing game less to identify our point of divergence—sorry, emergence—than for the pleasure of remembering.
But I realize that the members of my accident don’t quite remember events or people the way I do. We fit our past to our present. The story must have coherence.
One of the other guests had stayed with Matthew after I had left. How could that have happened, I asked? At the time it seemed so inevitable that we would separate, like a gargoyle weakened by years of stress that breaks off and falls crashing to the street below. I asked. “What about Lucas?”. The other man.
“Who?” he asked.
In his world there was no Lucas. One night years ago, it was soon after we had moved into our new place and just as we were beginning to drift apart, I told Matthew about a dating site I had heard about from a colleague. He insisted we go online together, joking at first that we would find a threesome but then becoming very earnest about hooking up. I got annoyed and left him to go to bed. But he stayed up the whole night, clicking on profiles and chatting, dazed at first by how easy it was to arrange to have sex with another man and by how desirable he was. But my interlocutor at the party had a different story. He sat with Matthew that evening and they talked to a young archaeologist who was very much into threesomes and who came over. Though they never saw him again, this Stephen and Matthew had found a way of injecting an element of adventure and passion into their relationship, and it was enough of a nutrient to keep the love they still felt for each other alive.
I wanted to ask if he was happy, but I knew it is the kind of question we never answer.
“It doesn’t matter in the end, you know,” he said to me. “You’re me. I’m you. We just have different memories.”
The painting featured in the post depicts the artist Karel Bruckman and his twin brother. Bruckman, a Dutch artist who lived for many years in the United States (with his life partner Evert Zeeven), worked largely in the tradition of magic realism.
My brother and I live in very different places a continent and ocean apart, but the city that appears in our letters is neither his nor mine. It is an imagined city, the one we both grew up in.
I thought at first we were exchanging experiences, the way we once traded baseball cards. I had some of the players, he had others, and together they made up a team. He had some memories, I had others, but they’re all fit into a coherent whole.
Sometimes they do. But the scraps of evidence can be maddeningly ambiguous, and we are left to guess. Details have gone missing, our recollections but images in shards. It is not memories we exchange but interpretations. Unable to return we content ourselves with photos from newspaper archives, vintage games, old postcards, and the stories of friends and family.
Such memory work is at the heart of Andro Wekua’s Pink Wave Hunter, now on exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens. In his installation Wekua, a Georgian artist who lives and works in Berlin and Zurich, has reconstructed the city he was forced to abandon in his youth and has never returned to since.
His city is an unhappier one than the city my brother and I grew up. Sukhumi lies on the coast of the Black Sea in what was once the northwestern finger of Georgia but is now part of the Russian Federation. The once fashionable resort city on the Black Sea still bears the scars of the heavy air strikes it suffered in the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, and the ethnic cleansing that ensued. The artist’s family was among the tens of thousands of Georgians who were forced to leave the city, fully 40% of the population. Wekua never returned.
The installation is composed of scale models of 15 buildings and structures from his birth city. In fashioning these maquettes, Wekua has relied partly on his own memories, partly from old photographs found on the Internet or sent to him by friends.
The documents are incomplete. The camera can capture only a part of the building, memory is retrieved in fragments. The constructions are thus unevenly remembered. Some are almost devoid of detail, a featureless slab of concrete with only the faintest of marks to suggest the presence of windows. Others, for which perhaps the artist had a better store of evidence, are made to painstaking detail and with remarkable workmanship.
But even here the construction is incomplete. The back or side of a building that the camera’s lens could not capture has been left unfinished in its sheath of aluminum or polyurethane casing. A row of old houses has been reduced to a strip of façades, propped up by scaffolding in the back, like a set for the stage. A railway bridge is viewed in chunks, minus its abutments and pillars. An exterior staircase ends in a blank wall.
In the middle of the city stands a scale model of a crumbling beachside café. A sign stands above the round, squat stone building, rusted metal letters on wires strung like a wash line between two poles.
Some of the letters are missing. They are like gaps in a game of hangman whose players had run out of time, when the bombing started and people fled the city. But enough is there to decipher the name. Dioskuri, the twin brothers Kastor and Polidevkes, sons of Zeus, whose coachmen legend has it founded the city.
These missing letters are emblematic of a deeper absence that haunts the city. Buildings stand empty. No one fishes from the pier. Signs of abandonment are everywhere: the rusted trusses of a railway bridge, peeling paint, the brown-ringed splotches of dampness on the roof of a station.
Wekua has likened the empty buildings of his boyhood city to the ersatz towns built in film lots, “a city of façades [that] still stands and waits to be used for a different movie.” He writes:
“I am more invested in the architecture of this city, and how its nature is being conserved and untouched while being allowed to deteriorate, a mirage of sorts… maybe this city does not and has never existed.”
Wekua designed the exhibition space himself. Eschewing the single platform on which these works were earlier presented at the Kunstahlle Fridericianum in Kassel, he has set each building on its own plinth and arranged the pieces in the hall according to a logic—if there is one at all—that seems to bear little resemblance to the geography of the city.
A conceptual axis leads from the pier at the entrance of the hall to a government building at the far end of the room. Cast in bronze and towering over the other constructions, it stands like a tabernacle of a sinister deity, and its soulless concrete plaza, a sacrificial altar. But apart from this axis, there seems to be no apparent reason to the arrangement of these constructions. The route we trace as we move from one building to the other corresponds to no tour that could be plotted on a guidebook map. There are no streets in this city. We become its boulevards and thoroughfares; we compose the city as we make our way through the exhibition.
This seems fitting, though. The landscape of memory is a terrain of mostly empty space that is interrupted only here and there by a structure of significance—a neighbor’s porch, a beach café, the boardwalk on the pier, the topoi of a first kiss or a lover’s betrayal—and we wander through it almost haphazardly.
Like memory itself, Wekua’s city is muted in hue and sound. The colors are those of the artist’s materials, the browns of firebrick, wax and plywood, greys of stone and concrete, here and there the metallic shine of bronze and aluminum. The only exception, the specks of powder blue on the shield-like panels in the railing on the pier.
As I wander through the exhibition, I can hear the noise from the café that’s around the corner from the gallery. It surges in when my concentration lapses and threatens to tug me out, like a wave breaking on shore that then sweeps sand and pebbles back out to the sea. It’s background noise, indecipherable for the most part. But if I listen carefully I begin to pick out the clang of tableware on the porcelain plates, individual voices, the clinking of glasses.
At first I’m annoyed by the sounds of the café crowd. What a curatorial oversight, I think, to place these meditative pieces next to such noise. But then I think maybe it was a deliberate decision. The noise – of life, company, the sharing of food and wine – only underscores the haunting desolation of the city.
Paradoxically, it is the crowd that seems insubstantial, and not this quiet deserted city of memory. Voices gather force and then fall silent, conversations rise and dissipate, friends meet and dine and say goodbye. The sound of fleeting encounters. Whatever has happened at their tables is gone. It will have left its mark, a layer of sentiment, for some a resin of deeper intimacy, for others the bleach of indifference or the hurt left by a careless remark or a confession of inconstancy. But even that will recede.
But the pier stands, its pylons rotting unseen in the brine of the sea. I look at its restaurant, oddly shaped like the prow of a ship, and think how it, too, once contained conversations much like the ones I’m now hearing. Conversations that will soon be lost.
Or perhaps not? Perhaps some were retold in the stories Wetua gathered in his effort to rebuild—to remember—his city. Stories shared by fellow exiles or distant cousins. Perhaps by a brother. Remembered.
I sometimes send my brother pictures I find of our city, the way it was when we were boys. He doesn’t want to see them, though. He doesn’t even want to go back, though unlike Wetua, he could. He’s afraid the city will be too small, too leached of color. I want to go, though I’m afraid, too. I’m afraid the city will be too real, too true to memory, and I will feel my exile more intensely than I do now.
We are like two scientists trained in different disciplines, the memory work of bugs and bones. He delves into board games and girder sets and the other toys of our childhood that he finds on e-bay, I work with the postcards and old photographs of our the city that I find on the Internet. But we’re not all that different. We are both overlaying history on memory, the archival on the personal, trying, each in his own way, to give substance to his recollections.
We are all exiles from the city of our childhood, and the place we unfaithfully but lovingly remember, indeed never existed. But that’s not the point of remembering, is it?
If I had been able to open the door and run out of the car, I would never have told him. At least not the way I did, barking it out like a cornered dog, and not then. I was only twelve. I would have waited. But the car had a childproof lock that could only be opened by a small key that my father kept on his keychain.
The car was a square-framed compact station wagon, a survivor of a line that was discontinued a year or so after my father bought his. Though a station wagon, it was much smaller than the Cadillac and Chrysler sedans my uncles drove, and missing their sleek curvature. Their cars were like hawks in flight, ours a box with an engine, the reincarnation in metal of a child’s wooden toy on wheels.
The car’s cherry-red body paint only underscored its quality of make-believe. Now and then my father would get us to wash the car, and for a moment while still wet it would shine. But inevitably the patches of water would evaporate, leaving behind the dull finish that was its ordinary day coat.
I hated going anywhere in the car. It felt like showing up for a party in a pair of old scuffed shoes. It stood out in the parking lot at school and church and now at the supermarket we were parked in, waiting for my mother to pick up some groceries.
“Skumata iki go. I bet you can’t say it,” my brother Charlie said. He was sitting in the middle as usual, flanked by me and Daniel, the youngest.
“Why would I want to say it? It doesn’t mean anything,” I said. It was one of his games, egging me on to repeat a phrase that apparently only he could reproduce.
“It’s Italian. I heard Grandpa talking to Uncle Leonard yesterday.”
“That doesn’t even sound Italian.” I replied.
“You’re just saying that because you can’t say it,” my brother said.
“Skumata iki go,” I said. “Satisfied?”
“Not even close.”
“So if it’s Italian, what does mean?” I asked.
“Why should I tell you?” he snapped. “You can’t even say it.”
“Skumata iki go” I said, drawing out each syllable carefully.
“You’re a joke,” he snorted.
“It was exactly how you said it,” I said.
“One more thing you can’t do.” He turned away from me and sat back, looking straight into the car’s rear-view window, just in case my father was looking at us. “Skumata iki go.” he crowed.
Daniel slouched further into himself. My father lit up another cigarette and faded into a swirl of sickly blue fluorescent smoke.
Maybe I really missed something, I thought. Maybe I misheard, maybe there was a tiny vowel wedged between ki and go that got lost, like the sixteenth notes I struggled with in my flute lessons that were just too fast for me to play.
I listened to him as he repeated the call, straining to imprint the sounds in my head, slicing the syllables into smaller bits that I could put together again. Maybe it wasn’t iki, I wondered. Maybe it was egi.
I tried again.
“Ha, now you know why Grandpa won’t ever teach you any Italian.” he said.
I wanted to punch him and make him shut up. I probably could have beaten him up, but I didn’t trust myself enough to let go. I had only thrown one punch in my entire life.
“Tell him to stop!” I shouted to my father.
Charlie kept hammering the word, the way he meted out punishment when I lost to him at cards. We didn’t play for pennies or privileges. We played for knuckles. Whoever lost would lay his hand, clenched in a fist and knuckles up, out on the table. The winner would hit the loser’s knuckles with the edge of the deck. The exact penalty was determined by the loser drawing a card from the deck beforehand. The rank would dictate the number of hits, the color the intensity. A spade or club meant soft, a heart or diamond, hard. Black was easy. Red, at least the way Charlie played, was blood.
“Skumata iki go, skumata iki go…” It was like the drone of a merry-go-round you can’t get off.
“Jesus Christ, you guys. You can’t even sit in the same car without fighting,” my father said.
My brother ignored him. “Just admit it. You can’t do it.”
I shouted back the phrase, but it came out even more distorted. Charlie caught the tremor in my voice and pounced on it and went back to chanting his phrase.
I could feel the tears welling up within me, and I knew I was going to cry. I hated myself for it—I had never cried at school, despite the taunts and bullying—but I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Ah, for Chrissakes, what are you crying for? It’s just a word. You’re a grown boy. Only sissies cry. And you,” my father said, turning to Charlie, “that’s enough.”
Sissy. It wasn’t so different from the words that Jamie Marsh used in the playground to hurt me.
I wanted to get out of the car and run. It didn’t matter where, just as long as I was far away from my father. I clutched at the handle of the car door but it wouldn’t yield. I was stuck.
I hadn’t told him what was going on at school. He didn’t know the reason I’d gotten a “D” in gym was because I used to cut the class so I wouldn’t wind up alone in the locker room with Jamie and his friends. I never told him about the stomach cramps I’d sometimes get in the morning on my way to school.
I didn’t tell him because I was ashamed. Ashamed for his sake. It was my fault, I thought. I stood out just like the boxy red station wagon on this wide empty lot. I knew I was different but I didn’t see how it showed. It wasn’t something like the color or shape of a car.
But now I wasn’t ashamed. I was angry. I hated him for not protecting me at school. For not showing me how to protect myself. And now, most of all, for taking sides with the boy who spoiled school for me. And I wanted to hurt him the way I had been hurt.
I could feel my tears receding, like water from a breaker sliding back into the sea. “Well, maybe I am a sissy,” I answered back.
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course you’re not,” he said.
“How would you know?” I spit out. “Some of the kids at school say… they say I’m a faggot.” It was the first time I had ever said the word. It felt sour in my mouth.
“And you know that’s…” I struggled to say the word. “It’s hereditary.” And I added, just to be sure, “it passes from father to son.”
Charlie sidled up to Daniel. I sat looking at my father, waiting for him to say something. To say I’d be ok and he’d make things right.
Then my father said, “No, it’s not passed from father to son.”
He swivelled back in his seat and crushed out his cigarette. No one said anything until my mother came out of the store five minutes later.
My father and I never spoke of that day again. He never asked me about it.
The following year I started high school. It was a Catholic prep school miles away from home, a good school with nice kids and a proselytizing track coach that encouraged me to try out for cross-country. To my surprise I discovered I could run. My father never came to my meets, the way he did to Charlie’s baseball games. Daniel says it’s because I never invited him.
This was our pattern of avoidance for years. The clues to my life that I left behind, unintentionally for the most part, like the consent forms he signed for my track meets, were left unexplored. Our discourse was stripped down to “How you’ve been?” “Fine, you?” Maybe he feared that even the most innocuous gambit, the slightest warming to intimacy, would lead our conversation back to that evening in the car.
When my father died, Daniel and I went through his papers. He had saved whatever traces of our lives came into his hands—grade school report cards and school projects and prom pictures. Among these yellowed and brittle papers were a thin stack of small newspaper clippings. There with my name and time circled in red were the results of the cross-country meets I had run in.
Skumata iki go. Faggot. The one incantation meant nothing. The other gave me cramps and turned my school into a place of ambush; it was a charm that distracted from my true nature and turned me into a cautious, self-conscious boy who could no longer trust himself freely.
My brother Charlie’s spell was broken that night. I never played knuckles with him again, never tried to mimic the odd-sounding phrases of his made-up language. It was simple in the end. You can’t lose if you don’t play. Jamie’s hex took longer to break. I could have tried to ignore him, too. I could have told myself I didn’t care. But I wasn’t brave enough at the time to do it then, and the man who could have taught me how was too distant or just too unseeing to help.
For years I told no one of this story. In the beginning because I believed in the power of the curse and was ashamed that I had broken down in front of my father. Years later when I came out, I would remember this story again with shame, but one of a different hue, as I recalled how that night in the car I had used my sexuality—something good and beautiful that lay at the core of my being—in the same hateful way that Jamie had. As a weapon.