I was named after my father’s father, as was the tradition in my family for first-born sons. I didn’t think much about my name as a child. It was simply one more fact about me, like the city I was born in and the school I went to. But when I did, I thought it didn’t really fit me. I was never close to my grandfather, I didn’t take after him and I didn’t want to become like him. The coincidence of our names underscored the differences between us. I was an anti-Stephen as much as I was a Stephen.
Still, it was okay as first names go. It didn’t have the ring of a previous century as Winifred or Emil did, and it didn’t have the devastating sexual ambiguity of names like Laurel and Marion that would have condemned me to even worse bullying than I had been subjected to. It wasn’t dull like Don or weird like Ezekiel or Angus. It had two terms of endearment, Steve and Stevie, the one for a man among men, the other for a man who refused to grow up, though no one in my family addressed me by either.
But then at 11, I was to acquire another name at Confirmation, and I was allowed to choose it myself. Instead of contemplating my new life as a solider for Christ, I spent days trying out new names, inserting them between my given and family names and writing the triplets out, each in a different colored ink. I knew it was a sin to think of the sacrament simply as an opportunity to take on a middle name, but I had greater sins I hadn’t confessed so I figured I was already lost. I hadn’t actually committed any of these grave sins, but I knew it was enough that I had thought them.
I couldn’t imagine myself a soldier, anyway, at least not like the men I saw in war movies, the brawny, swearing tough guys who were heroes in battle and killed the enemy and then got back to base to drink beer and play cards and talk about the girls they’d hook up with. I could be the medic, maybe, the quiet guy who wore glasses and read a book between battles. I could be the radio operator, too. Like me, he was usually the short guy in the platoon, and the youngest one, too, the kid who never had a girlfriend and didn’t even know about girls, though he was the one who was usually the first to be killed.
I chose my Confirmation name on the most frivolous of reasons. I liked the way it sounded and there was no one in my family who had this name, not even as a middle or Confirmation name. In every other way, however, he was an unlikely patron for a boy of eleven. Christopher was the patron saint of sailors and ferrymen and travelers, and of unmarried men.
I knew two stories about him. One was the legend I learned in school, the one every Catholic kid knows. The Christopher of legend was a giant—a dog-headed ogre in some less flattering versions—who was called to the Lord and who served God by helping travelers cross a river. One day Christopher was asked to carry a little child across the waters. As he started wading through the river the weight of the child on his shoulders grew heavier and heavier, and the waters swelled around him, and he needed all his strength to just take a step forward. It is, of course, the Christ child that reveals himself to Christopher when they finally reach the shore. “You have carried the whole world on your shoulders and He who made it.”
The other Christopher was the one I read about in the book of saints that my uncle Leonard had given me, the historical Christopher if you will, though, as I discovered later, the story of this man had its own elements of myth-making. He had been a soldier in a North African regiment during the reign of the emperor Decius and later acquired a name for himself as a proselytizer in Lycia. He was arrested and brought to Antioch, where he was offered wealth and privilege to renounce his faith. He refused, at which point the governor ordered that two prostitutes be brought to the palace, clothed in costly garments and anointed with perfumes. “Let us shut him in a small apartment with them,” the governor commanded, “so that they can seduce him and convert them to our lusts.” The women took the seduction of Christopher seriously, a challenge for professionals, if you will, but he declined their advances and spoke instead of his faith, so convincingly that they relented and eventually embraced the faith. I’m recording this now from a source I could not have had read at the time. My book would have said something like “the king sent two beautiful women to tempt Christopher but he converted them.” But both versions are built on the idea of temptation.
I could not know whether Christopher resisted the allure of these women because of his faith and inner strength or because, like me, he was simply uninterested in girls. But I was taught enough about temptation in catechism class to know that true temptation involved a struggle. The will had to bend, if only for a moment’s wavering, before the object of its temptation. You were pulled toward someone or something, beguiled by the foretaste, imagined or remembered, of the pleasure or power to come, the first notes of the siren’s call or the rooftops of a jeweled city seen from the mountain above. I read and reread the story of Christopher’s martyrdom, imagining myself in his place, locked in the room with the beautiful harlots, with their perfume and painted faces, but the scene made me uneasy. Had I been in Christopher’s place, I would have broken the window and run away.
I told myself I was too young to be tempted as Christopher was. But I knew it was more than that.
My Aunt Gloria was beautiful, too, or that’s what my uncles and cousins said, though I didn’t need to hear it, I could see how they swarmed about her. As I got older I understood why they were enthralled with her. A vivacious red-headed woman with large breasts and wide hips, she was all curves and flesh that the dresses she wore could hardly contain. She always seemed to me to be on the verge of spilling herself.
She was always in a dress. She wore ones with large floral prints or bold polka dots, and she matched her jewelry accordingly. Her bracelets clanged and rattled with the dramatic gestures she made as she talked in her gravelly, low-pitched voice. The men in my family were captivated but she made me nervous at the time. My uncles could be tempted. I knew that I would never be.
It was only later that I found my own way of bearing witness and thus of honoring the name I had taken at Confirmation. Coming out was a similar confession to a creed, one that marked my identity as much as Christopher’s faith had his. Mine was a creed born out of my sexuality, of saying yes to desire. Still, I like to think that my coming out was a kind of Christopher-like confession, a rejection of unfaithfulness and inauthenticity, a refusal to be “converted to the lusts” of others.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but for most of my youth I was, like Christopher, a ferryman, though I had no passengers other than the man I imagined I might become. I shuttled back and forth between two shores. One was the familiar land of my family and my school, a land I felt a stranger in, a land where other boys—but never me—would lie awake in their beds at night and imagine themselves submerged in the cleft between Gloria’s breasts. And then there was this other land, one I hadn’t dared yet to explore, but the faint outline of whose shores I could discern.
There were times in high school, and always with Simon, when I was so close to landing on this shore. Like the night before our long bike ride to the coast. We were at Simon’s house; his parents were away for the weekend, taking his sister to a pre-college scouting visit to MountHolyoke. We were lying on the living room floor amid a fort of pillows with a map splayed out on the carpet to plan our route. The hurdle was how to cross the pincer of industrial wasteland and refineries at the mouth of the river we needed to ford. The highway bridge was closed to bikes. This left a swing bridge smack in the middle of the refineries or a long detour in the hilly country to the west of the delta. Predictably enough, Simon favored the swing bridge.
As we debated options, buzzed with the Riesling we had commandeered from his parents dining room credenza, we nudged closer to the point on the map on which lay the bay we had to cross. We were so close to each other it would have taken just a slight shift in body weight for my head to graze his, and my cheek to lie on his. It would have taken the slightest of movements to bridge the distance between us, but the gap seemed so enormous. The more I wanted to touch him the heavier I felt, the more difficult it was to budge from my place.
If only we had a name for it, different from the ones we were schooled in, the hateful bilious names that spewed contempt, names like queer and faggot. If only we had never heard these names and what we felt was simply a force drawing us to an uncharted, unnamed shore. I keep seeing the glint in Simon’s eyes, I keep hearing his deep, labored breathing, and I realize now, the only name I needed to know was his.
Image: Anto Carte – Le Passeur d’eau 1941