August Sander, "Young Farmers", Westerwald, 1914
Sexuality and Identity

Give Me a Sign

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.

Michael Somoroff, Young Farmers, from his series "Absence of Subject"

Michael Somoroff, Young Farmers, from “Absence of Subject”

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.

Featured image: August Sander, “Young Farmers”, Westerwald, 1914



5 responses to ‘Give Me a Sign

  1. I’m pretty envious of the way you write. You have a style that fades into the background; the most prominent thing in your writing isn’t the style or turn of phrase (both of which are great) but the content. It’s immersive, the reader gets to experience the story through you rather than observing it at a remove. I was six paragraphs in before I realised.

    It’s a talent. Looking forward to reading more.


  2. How I love your writing; the narrative tension literally ached in this. Thanks, too, for the Somoroff – very interesting. And, thinking about possible hidden messages and clues in pictures and portraits, I’m struck by the way one of Sander’s farmers distinguishes himself, makes me want to think he’s different (though who knows in what way): standing slightly apart with the rakish hat, aslant cane, cigarette…


    • Thank you! I am grateful for your readership, Liz, and enjoy reading your comments. They have a way of extending and enriching the text, much in the way that good conversation provides openings for faithful digression.

      Yes, the farmer on the far left is different (and you captured it so well in your description). It’s curious how strongly the individual emerges from these portraits, however much Sander intended them (in the spirit of Neue Sachlichkeit) to be “factual” and “objective” documentation of types.


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