Apart from an early appearance as Joseph in a Cub Scout Nativity skit, my first theatrical role was Dracula. I performed it in a summer play that my brothers and I staged at our grandparents’ country house. It would be followed by other summer plays, all revolving on the same theme: monsters.
As the oldest I was director and writer, and thus claimed the role of Dracula for myself. My brother Daniel was a werewolf. As far as I know the two characters never appeared together in a movie, though Bela Lugosi did have a role as a werewolf in The Wolfman.
Our stage was a row of seven houses on the dead-end street on which my grandfather’s house stood, and the woods that lay at its end. I didn’t have a castle but our garage served as my crypt, and the neighbors’ yards the equivalents of cemeteries and haunted fields. Jonah’s back garden with its giant sunflowers became a pen of bewitched spirits entrapped in stalks. A hedge of buffaloberry concealed a trove of poisoned fruit. And in the Spencers’ excitable collie, tied to a cable run, was the soul of a boy who had wandered into the vampire’s castle and never emerged.
Though I insisted on calling it a play, there was no script; instead I would think beforehand of things that could be said or done during the game, mostly lines of dialogue and plot turns culled from movies and books. I would throw them into what was essentially an elaborate game of tag with elements of hide-and-seek.
In our game the tagged boy or girl, instead of changing places with the tagger to become “it”, joined the other “its” whom my brother and I had turned. The victim was then sent out with the others to round up the remaining innocents. Contamination was not transferred but accumulated, victim by victim, until all but one had been found and transformed into a neophyte vampire or werewolf cub.
If our parents had witnessed this last scene, with a gang of kids descending like a frenzied horde of zombies on the sole remaining untagged boy, they might have forbidden us to stage another play. With its notion of contagion and the disturbing metamorphosis of prey into predator, our game was dark play. But it was democratic. Eventually everyone was tagged, everyone became a freak. Then the game was over.
I didn’t care much for the tag part. I played monsters because I could wear a cape and be debonair.
I had heard my grandmother use the word when we watched old movies together. “He’s so debonair, that Cary Grant,” she’d say. I didn’t know exactly what it meant but I knew it described a man very different from my father and the other men who visited us at the summer house and sat around in t-shirts drinking beer from a can. Debonair men spoke in subdued voices with elegant turns of phrasing, and got dressed for dinner, which was served at a grandly laid table with decanters of wine. Like Dracula.
Debonair men were smart and well-mannered. They lived in another world quite separate from the one in which men shouted and cursed and fought over money or girlfriends. I wanted to grow up to be like one of those debonair men, though I wasn’t tall and had no idea how to dress well or dine at stylish restaurants (these men, I learned, didn’t eat out, they dined). I couldn’t do anything about my height except hope I’d catch up in a few years’ time. But I could learn the other things.
And then there was the cape.
I never had the slightest interest in dressing up in either of my parents’ clothes. But as a boy I would sometimes wrap the bedspread around my shoulders and walk around my room in the slow measured steps of what I imagined a royal processional to be. Now with the play I had an audience. And a better cape in the form of an old wholecloth quilt that my mother had washed and given to me. It was dark blue but regal nonetheless.
“I am Dracula. Count Dracula. I bid you welcome.”
I stopped playing the game the summer before I started middle school. And then the monsters got real, and I was one of them.
No one called us that, of course. The bullies had other names for us. Queer, freak, dork, faggot. Except for Alicia. Among the outsiders and outcasts in school, Alicia Carr was a minority of one. Her divergence from the norm, unlike mine, was unnamed but she was shunned by nearly all.
Alicia lived in a post-war tract house by the river. It had been built like all the others in the development, a starter house with a low-pitched roof on a treeless, postage-stamp front lawn. But the maroon paint on the sidings had long faded and peeled, and the lawn had yielded its place to a unmowed parcel of pigweed and rye. It had taken on the look of a haunted house.
To compound matters, Alicia’s mother dressed her in ill-fitting floral-print dresses and heavy stockings that reminded me of etchings of Alice in Wonderland or the Amish farm-girls I had seen during a trip my father had taken us to Pennsylvania. They made her look like an oversized doll from an earlier century.
She always had a book with her. In good weather during recess she’d sit by herself under one of the oak trees beyond the playing field and read. I could understand her retreat; I had often found similar refuge in the worlds conjured up in the novels I had begun to read. But Alicia didn’t seem to realize how provocative her public reading was, or if she did, didn’t care or thought the alternatives not attractive enough to stop. She made me think of the early martyrs who were mocked and spit at for their faith, when not branded, scourged or boiled alive. Whether intentional or not, reading for her was an act of defiance. Alicia was a martyr of the book.
Maybe it wasn’t a matter of faith after all. Maybe she was just as paralyzed by fear as I was, trapped in the dresses which her mother made her wear and in which she would emerge from her strange sad house each morning, as unable to change the defining marks of her differentness as I was unable to change whatever mix of intelligence, voice and demeanor had prompted Jamie to call me queer.
Unlike Alicia, I would have tried to change if I had known what set me apart. I had no distinctive mark like her doll-like dresses and public reading.
It must have been something, though. Why me and not Todd, the first of the friends I had made at school? Like me he was smart and slightly built, and somewhat reticent. Moreover he had the choirboy’s delicate beauty, the kind that bullies seem drawn to vandalize. But Jamie left him alone.
But I knew why it was me, even if I tried not to think about it much.
The last summer I played monsters with my brother I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or rather, an abridged version of it that I realize now had been sanitized to remove a good part of the violence and sexuality of the original. Still, enough of the uneasy attraction that Harker feels for Dracula in the beginning of the novel remained to color my reading of the rest of the book. “I think strange things which I dare not confess to my soul,” Harker writes in his journal.
For me it was not strange things that I thought but strange things I looked at that set me apart. I didn’t look for them but I would see them nonetheless—the bodybuilders on the cover of magazines I’d see in the deli in town, the muscles on the back of a young uncle who had come out with us on a crabbing trip, the college lifeguards at the beach. These men beguiled me more than the debonair men on screen, and frightened me more than a vampire ever could. Maybe more than Jamie did.
This way of looking, this inner sign known only to me, must have seeped through and been made visible to the world. I have an aura, I thought, one that was imperceptible to most but there for those who knew what to look for, a sign like the pallor in the vampire’s countenance or the ecstasy in the martyr’s eyes.
I didn’t want to be it but I wasn’t yet ready to be me. I should have let Jamie know I had the streak of a wolf in me and would fight back and hurt him if provoked too far. Instead, I tried to disappear. I’d wait until the last 10 minutes of lunch to go to the cafeteria when I was more certain my tormentor had left. I absented myself from the hallways and playing fields, and found ways to excuse myself from gym class. It was a bad plan. My reserve just fanned Jamie’s animosity.
Alicia was a potential ally and certainly braver than I was, but being her friend would have colored me even more conspicuously. I would be tagged again. I would be it twice over.
And so to my shame I avoided Alicia, just as Todd had started avoiding me. I used to go over to his house in the afternoon after school where’d we play with his hamster or explore the woods along the river. I sometimes stayed for supper, after which we’d play ping-pong with his father, who looked like the kind of man who fought in war and shot pool. But Todd stopped inviting me over when Jamie started bullying me and calling me faggot. Maybe Todd thought he’d be next.
I made other friendls. Marianna, a chubby girl who lived in a clapboard two-family house near the bus depot, and Yves, whose family, like mine, had recently moved here (though his from much farther away) and who, like me, longed to return to the city of his birth. There was Chance, a half-Korean boy with flyaway bangs and a voice I thought Katherine Hepburn would have if she were a boy. Outcasts all and all more openly contemptuous of Jamie and his like than I could have been, Yves especially, who had once called Jamie an imbecile to his face.
“Am-beh-seal,” he had said. I remembered it all through the rest of middle school.
Yves made me laugh at Jamie. He helped me peer through the hatred and I fear I harbored for the bully to see him for what he was: a dull, mean-spirited boy who would know nothing more of life than what this small town had to offer, a boy condemned like the sunflowers in Jonah’s backyard to grow tall but never move.
Yves gave me the first sign that Jamie’s hold on me would eventually break. A few years later I would come to see my difference as a mere fact, stripped of the connotations of perversion with which my tormentors in middle school had taunted me. And then I would come to see it as a gift. My sexuality would enable me to love and to be whole. Without it, I would be half a man without a soul. A monster.
The image for the post, taken from an untitled painting by Henry Scott Tuke (1858 – 1929), may seem at first an odd choice for a text about monsters and bullies. Though also a portraitist and painter of maritime scenes, Tuke is best known for his paintings of boys swimming or boating off Falmouth Harbour in the artist’s native Cornwall. Tuke’s dreamy summer palette of pastels and the idyllic world of gentle play and camaraderie he depicted in these paintings seem the very opposite of the shadowy world of vampires that was the inspiration for my “plays” and the intolerance and meanness that haunted the playing fields of my school.
There is something, though, about the youth’s tentativeness that reminds me of the boy I write about here, the way he’s slouched up against the rock, perhaps peering from a distance at the other boys playing on the beach.
If only that boy could see himself the way he would be a few years later. Or the way Yves and Chance and Marianne saw him.
There was, of course, nothing freakish about the boy, except perhaps his willingness to believe that he was not beautiful.