As a child, I just wanted the other boys to like me. To treat me in the same way as they treated each other. But they never did. I was always left on the outside; a rejected spectator looking in. I tried to fit-in, but I was awkward and unsure of myself. As I failed, unable to hit the ball with a bat – every strike and accompanying groans of disgust from the male bystanders progressively lowered my already slumping posture. Soon, I rarely raised my eyes off of the ground and the teachers remarked to my parents how I seldom said a word during the entire school-day. I felt like a third-sex. I knew I wasn’t a girl, but boys seemed increasingly alien to me. As if I were a visitor to a planet I didn’t belong. Life was lonely.
Inside, I simply wanted someone to play with. My older brother understandably saw me as an intrusive pest who occasionally got into his room and unthinkingly broke some cherished treasure; being the last child of four, my father was busy trying to keep his family warm, clothed, and fed – as well as us kids in Catholic schools. I didn’t see him much; he was like an overstretched father who takes on being a little-league coach. He could muster some directions and orders, but then, after a hard day at work, fell asleep in the dugout. I think my mother sensed that I was oddly sad and struggling and she instinctively tried to comfort and protect me. As a result, I was close to her as well as to my two older sisters. I will never forget a summer day at the local pool and a boy in my class appeared out of nowhere to viciously bully me – my sister stepped in as a sort of human shield; it was kind of her to do, but I felt emasculated. Things weren’t better at school, as a group of sympathetic girls befriended the odd misfit and treated me as if I were just another girl; again, they were being kind, but it doomed me.
When I graduated from the loathsome experience of high school, I knew what I wanted to do: I was going to find myself in the “gay” community of San Francisco. Although it was the height of the AIDS crisis, I felt as if I had no other choice. In a sense, I knew that I would be rowing my boat towards a sinking ship, but at least I could sing with the boys in the band for an hour or two before the Titanic finally plunged to its icy death. For I found intense camaraderie in the all-male safe-space of homosexuality, that became even more intensified by the lingering presence of HIV and near daily funerals. Later, when fewer of us were dying in our twenties, the shared political ambitions, and the overwhelming desire to make the martyrdom of the dead mean something, sustained our male bonds. Only, these transitory moments of collective masculine identity required sex in order to maintain the enthusiasm. And, one needed to be constantly reinitiated by another man; therefore the further reenactment of the ritual became more desperate and violent. Every sex act was a test of endurance, almost as if I were trying to prove to the others boys that I had worth – in a sick way, that I could finally handle a bat and balls. Yet, the more I tried to hold onto masculinity, as soon as the sex was over, it literally slipped away again.
Like an athlete past his prime due to multiple injuries, I had to finally admit that I was done. That I had never made it out of the farm-leagues. After spending a decade among men, touching each other, grunting and sweating, I was still that hurt little boy standing on the mound. One, two strikes. I swung for the last time, missed and crashed onto the dust. It was over. As I walked off the field, I could see other players looking at me through the chain-link fence. Their faces were blank and emotionless. Suddenly I recognized them as the friends who died years before. Some still bore the blotched marks of their disease. Lights out. Game over.
Years later, as a recovering homosexual, I was still fearful of men. Albeit, not other same-sex attracted men, but of heterosexual men. In a way, they were the same boys who rejected me – only now grown up into bigger versions of their earlier dismissive selves. So, on one unusually warm mid-winter day, when a friend invited me to the beach, I was reticent to accept because my friend’s straight brother and family would also be going. But, after first saying no thanks, I decided to go.
Usually, this stretch of shoreline just north of San Francisco, at this time of year, would be nearly deserted. But on that day, it wasn’t filled, but there were a scattering of people walking on the sand, a number of large families with blankets, umbrellas, and picnic baskets, and a few lone fishermen at the rocky end of the beach. I didn’t take much with me, and neither did my friend, but the married brother, who followed us in his own car, had a hatchback load of chairs, coolers, and various brightly colored play buckets and shovels. I tried to help him carry the lot from the parking lot to the beach – while I was silently annoyed the whole way. His two sons, still small, couldn’t quite manage the sinking steps into the sand, and he threw the older boy onto his shoulder and the other he carried with his one arm while the other impossibly hoisted almost the entire contents of their car. I was sort of amazed.
But his brother always amazed me too. He was unlike me; more outwardly manly appearing and more sure of himself. But, as he told me many years before, his dad had been a complete SOB and the mother only apologized for her husband’s abuse that touched and bruised everyone in the family. Yet while one boy went “gay,” the other buried himself in high-school sports and somehow survived.
As we walked to a random spot, that his wife scouted ahead in order to designate as a proper place for sitting and eating, we passed a group of noticeably “gay” men. They were overly pumped, covered in too many tattoos, and meticulously manscaped. I couldn’t help gawking at them for 60 seconds too long, but then my gaze quickly went back to the family man in front of me. One was a simulacrum of masculinity. The other, not as outwardly chiseled and hard, only it had the feeling of authenticity.
For much of that day, I sat and watched my friend’s brother interact with his kids. This had become a kind of recent obsession with me – wherever I went: paying special attention to men with their families; watching them; as if I were some visiting extra-terrestrial studying humanity in order to report back to the home-world.
One extraordinary moment occurred, when the dad walked out towards the waves with his two boys: the older one rushing ahead and the little one standing close by, semi-clutching his father’s leg. How I longed to be that little boy. As for mom, she hung back and watched. My eyes darted back and forth between the boys with their dad and the mother. At some point, as the older one went further out into the water, she looked a little concerned. I thought to myself: if this gets out of hand, she is going to take charge. She never did.
The older son, he stumbled a little when a rogue wave took him by surprise. He turned to gauge his dad’s reaction and for reassurance. He knew he was there: dad was solid and unperturbed. A couple of times, he made his way back to his father – they spoke a few words, and the boy went out again.
Later that day, the boys took out a yellow plastic bat and white wiffle ball. Oh, how as a kid I hated those things. They were the instruments of my degradation and torture.
For a couple of moments the boys squabbled over who got what – then dad stepped-in and started to gently pitch the ball to each of them. The younger one was uncoordinated and clumsy – he reminded me of…of me. But dad was patient with him.
After lunch, the boys started to get weary and stuck close to mom on the blanket. Then, the brother suddenly had a football which I hadn’t seen earlier. I sighed heavily without making a sound – this was like a sports nightmare from my childhood.
I watched for awhile as the two guys tossed the ball back and forth and then my friend asked if I wanted to do it. Before he finished asking me – I said no. The brother overheard and beckoned. A small voice in my head said – someone wants to play with you.
I lurched myself up and threw the ball. I was awful. It wobbled in the air like a damaged single-engine plane about to crash. No one noticed.
From behind his mother, the once slumbering older boy saw what we were doing and ran over. He got between me and his father and watched as the football flew overhead. Then, as the ball passed from his dad to me – he ran successively to each of us. By throwing around that inflated piece of brown cowhide, by doing something this boy couldn’t yet do, I was like his father. When the boy ran towards me, he looked at me like he looked at his dad – he looked at me as if I were a man. That startled me. I thought – Joe, you are stupid, how else is the kid going to look at you? That was when I truly began to heal.
Final closure of the wound:
When I was boy, I wanted to work with my dad around the house, inside the garage, and out in the yard – fixing things, repairing a motor, mowing the lawn. But, away of the hostile confines of school, I was far less introspective and tended towards being absentminded and endlessly talkative. To my overworked dad, who was simply trying to get something done, I was aggravating and underfoot. When I tried to help, I blundered. Consequently, he would send me into the house. Into the domestic female sphere.
Now that I am in mid-age, and my dad elderly, he often needs my help. I perform rather simple tasks that he could once do in a snap. He is appreciative and it’s good for me.