Our southern spring is now long gone. It departed as abruptly as it had arrived, like an ill-mannered houseguest who suddenly realizes there are better things to do elsewhere. One can barely recall the prospect of renewal trumpeted in that first riot of blooming wildflowers. An empty promise, after all. We should know better by now.
In its infidelity, spring is no different from those other times in the year that seem to promise a new beginning, a new vantage point, the vista we imagine from a hill we are soon to climb. The New Year, September, the advent of spring —each seems to offer us the chance to re-imagine and rewrite our life. But it is a prospect experienced more in its anticipation than in its fulfillment, and is as fleeting as the view from the hill once crested. Resolutions are quickly surrendered, and the new projects of September, begun with the same enthusiasm and hope that marked our expectations of the new school year, are abandoned.
For me summer was always the occasion of renewal, a gentler one with a longer event horizon of disillusionment. It, too, promises a new turn in life, but not one that presages the acquisition of new skills or the relinquishment of old habits. It is not a season for accomplishments. It is instead an invitation to that exhilarating unselfconsciousness that is found in both childhood and passion alike.
I think it has something to do with being naked. It is as if in ridding ourselves of the woolen sweaters and heavy shoes of less temperate seasons, we begin to put aside the burdensome distractions into which we are drawn the rest of the year, the intrigue and politics of work and school, the deadly commute and the clamor of bills. We shed layer after layer until in the end and for a short but blessed while, we find ourselves stripped of clothes and worry alike. We can once again feel our nakedness: the swirl of a breeze against our skin, the thin film of salt drying on our back, the tickle of grass between our toes. It is as if the world is trying to make love to us.
It is not then surprising that a summer house should have different memories from the ones that inhabit the home we make for the rest of the year. They, too, are lighter, less encumbered. You can tell from the attic. There are no trunks of wedding dresses and christening outfits, the costumes in which the set pieces of family history are played out. If boxes are stacked in the attic they contain no albums or tax records, no report cards or school trophies. It’s as if the inhabitants of the house lived in a timeless present, liberated from the need or desire to preserve memory. Of course, memories are captured and preserved, on film and in photographs and in stories we recount later. But none of these archives seem to be present in the house itself.
The attic in our summer house was such a place. Instead of trunks and chests and boxes, it had beds. Four to be exact, arranged in parallel rows of two on each side of the attic.
When I think of that house it is the beds I remember first. There were the beds in the rooms in which my grandparents, my parents and a widowed great-uncle slept. But there was also a pull-out sofa in the living room and a divan and a glider on the porch. There was even a pair of beds in the finished basement, which also housed a second kitchen and the long monastery table where we all ate.
And then there were the cots in the attic. The stairs were too steep for the old and young, and the space, with its exposed rafters, rough plank floor and army cots, was thought too rough for the women in the family. They were the beds of last resort, the domain of unmarried cousins and uncles, to be used when the sofa-beds and divans were all claimed by other guests. The attic was a makeshift barrack that seemed to exist apart from the rest of the house, a left over space for left out men.
The beds were there to accommodate guests, of which we had many. They were all family, if in a very broad sense of the term. The edges of this kinship—who was and who wasn’t family—were defined in accordance with the season, and expanded in summer to include little seen relatives eager to escape the heat and asphalt of the city.
My uncle Harry was one of these refugees. Technically, he was a first cousin once removed, but he was part of my father’s generation and thus called an uncle. In fact, however, he was only a dozen or so years my senior when I saw him for the last time during what was to be my last summer at the house. I was 16.
He had come down with his parents on one of their rare visits to the house. My family didn’t talk much about Harry. I knew how he was related to me, and that he lived on his own in the city and wasn’t married, but not much more than that. The men in the family, mourning perhaps their own foreshortened years in the pursuit of pleasure, said that Harry was having too much fun as a ‘bachelor’ to settle down. The women said that Harry hadn’t found the right woman to marry.
I just remember that Harry was cool, and very unlike my father and the other men I was accustomed to calling uncles. He asked me about school, but not in the perfunctory way the others did. He wanted to know why I liked English and what music I listened to and who my best friend was and why I liked him. He told me about his best friend and I told him about Simon, but not as much as I could have or secretly wanted to. I was still too unsure of myself.
Unsure but not confused. I didn’t want to be someone else. I couldn’t even imagine myself liking the girls the way the other guys in school did. No, I didn’t want to change. But I didn’t yet know how to be me.
I wish I could have confided in Harry. I wish I could have had him as an ally. Someone whose advice I could have asked about what to do with my feelings for Simon, or more importantly, someone I could ask about what to do about me. But I didn’t know how to ask him.
I must have had role models as a child, the heroes of comic books and adventure stories, and I would find new ones at college, impassioned teachers and reckless poets, and a mentor in the guise of a therapist. But I had none when I needed one most, in those awkward years of my adolescence.
The day after he arrived, we went crabbing, my grandfather and father, my brother and me, and Harry. There isn’t much to do on a rowboat when you’re out crabbing, apart from checking the traps every 15 minutes or so. The men drank beer from a cooler and talked. My brother and I watched sailboats tack across the bay and seagulls dive for the remains of the sandwiches that we tossed into the water. Now and then I would steal a look at Harry.
The day was hot and he had taken off his shirt. Unlike the paunch my father and uncles carried, his stomach was flat and tucked into his bathing trunks like a sheet on an expertly made bed, the kind I’d been taught to make at Boy Scout camp. He wore his thick black hair slicked back with gel, and this too set him apart from the others, but that day the stiff sea breeze had loosened it from its moorings and it now swung over his eyes like a veil of tassels.
I remember the ridged delta of veins on his forearms when he pulled up the traps. I remember the way the muscles in his back flared as he rowed. The physicality of the man fascinated and unsettled me.
That night I slept in the attic, my brother and I having ceded our places on the sofa bed to Harry’s parents. I lay awake for what seemed like hours, restless and unable to sleep, straining to make out what my father and Harry were saying as they sat and talked on the porch below.
Eventually the drone of their conversation and the sheer exhaustion of the day lulled me into sleep and I awoke later in the night to find Harry asleep on the cot across from mine. I turned onto my side so that I could see him better but he was hulled in darkness. A streetlight shone through the attic window, bisecting the dormer with a swathe of silvery light that grazed the outer edge of our cots. It illuminated a strip of Harry’s body, nothing more than an arm and shoulder that clasped the edge of the mattress.
As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I could make out more of his body. I watched his torso slowly rise and fall as he breathed. I became aroused, and without seeming to will it at all, my hand slid down to my crotch. I watched him and made love to myself as quietly as I could, fearful that if I moved too much the springs in my bed would creak and waken the others. I felt I was breathing too loud but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. And then I didn’t care. There is a point when we make love, whether to others or to ourselves it matters not, in which time suddenly flattens, eradicating past and future, our watchfulness and sense of consequence. And then my brother vanished from his cot and the house emptied its guests, and it was just me and Harry and the pale sheet of light that stretched from the edge of his bed to mine.
Harry and his parents stayed only for the weekend. I wished he could have stayed longer. I liked being around him and I liked who was I when I was with him. Though I could not imagine a life as a man loving another man, since I had no images or stories with which to construct such a life, Harry nonetheless afforded me a glimpse into another world in which men did not marry and lived in the city in the company of other men.
I thought about him the rest of the summer, hoping he’d visit again, but he never did. Sometimes in the early afternoon, I’d steal up to the attic on the pretence of finding a quiet place to read, and lay down on the bed from whose vantage point I had watched Harry as he lay sleeping. I would slip off my shorts and call to mind the image of him shirtless as he rowed across the bay. Even in his absence he made me feel good.
Image: Jared French, Homesickness, 1942.
French (1905–1988) was a painter who worked in the style of magic realism and in the medium of egg tempera. Together with his wife, artist Margaret Hoening, and Paul Cadmus, with whom he was briefly lovers after college and with whom he remained life-long friends, he founded the artistic collective PAJAMA, which became known for their photography of life on Fire Island where the three summered together. For more on this artist and a look at some of his work, see Christopher Harrity’s article on French in the Advocate.