With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Some people hide in closets, some hide in attics, some hide in basements; some hide in freeway off-ramps; I hide in myself.
When I was a youngster, I hid as the class clown. When I was a teenager, I hid as the class drunk. When I was in my early twenties, I hid as a Marine — hiding from little people in black pajamas. When I was in my late twenties, I hid as a husband and father. When I was in my early thirties, I hid as a drug addict in San Francisco. Now that I am in my late thirties, I am hiding in a small cabin in northern Michigan. I am hiding from the corporate confusion. I must be doing it rather well, as my hiding places are the welfare office and the unemployment line — a somewhat dubious barometer of success.
There is no growth in hiding places. It is lonely, unrewarding, self-defeating — but, nonetheless, the easier way.
Hiding places are eradicated by honesty. Being a little bit dishonest, or a little bit in hiding, is like being a little bit pregnant.
Elk Rapids, Michigan
My mom, I think, still hides money under “Cookies” in her Betty Crocker Cookbook. Last year a friend of mine in Boston bought an old desk at an auction. Recently, when carrying it out to a truck (he was going to have the top re-leathered), he accidentally pressed against a lever hidden beneath a drawer, and a perfectly flush door on the desk’s back side swung open, revealing three very shallow shelves. On one sat a set of sterling buttons from Shreve, Crump & Low, which now adorn my friend’s blue summer blazer.
I hide nothing, yet I’ve hidden everything. Here in my loft in Manhattan there are no secret compartments where I stash away private or valuable possessions; when not on me, my good watch is always in my jewelry box, my money in my wallet on the dresser. And I have no pornography or sexual devices of any kind. Actually, I have no secrets — except maybe one.
I’ve hidden in New York these past two years. Being homosexual, New York is one of maybe three cities in this country where I would consent to live — the other two being Boston and San Francisco. All are beautiful, all relatively liberal. But as a writer, I feel that New York is where I should be.
Large cities of course give anonymity; this is what I mean by “hiding.” As a writer and therefore a voyeur of sorts, such is helpful; I can more easily watch, listen, formulate ideas. And as a homosexual living in an era of revived national conservatism, this anonymity is comforting. I don’t worry about being harassed, arrested, beaten-up — as have been men I know in other parts of the country. Moreover, when one is young and still coming to grips with one’s sexuality, as I was two years ago when I moved here, anonymity is almost mandatory.
I was twenty-two, and New York was a hiding place filled with limitless possibilities. I remember walking by Julius (the oldest bar in Manhattan, which is gay) at least a half dozen times before I could muster the courage to go inside. But in I did go, and since that time I have been to dozens of bars, to clubs like Studio 54 (which is gay two nights a week) and the Saint (a private club that holds thousands). I’ve been to all-male black-tie parties in penthouses and to gentlemen’s country homes and have had drinks on large yachts where I was served by handsome crewmen, and I’ve sunbathed on Fire Island beaches with talented writers and famous designers and very closeted bankers, lawyers. . . .
I don’t mean to make myself out as being some sort of socialite, because I’m not; I spend most of my time behind my desk, writing, here on the Lower East Side (certainly not a fashionable neighborhood). Neither am I trying to paint a complete picture of homosexual life in New York; some gays are certainly much more sexually oriented, others more community oriented. But I simply tell you this to impress upon you the kind of hiding place New York has been for me.
I hope that someday in this country all homosexual men and women will no longer feel they must hide, that they can be accepted for what they are, for certainly we are all much more alike than we are different. Looking back over what I’ve written here, and particularly on this last sentence, I realize that I haven’t said as much as I might about politics and homosexuality. I’ve never been a political person — certainly political activism and “hiding” are rather disparate sidelines — but recently I have found a need in myself to become more active politically, or at least more aware. Perhaps New York is no longer, or will soon no longer be, the hiding place it once was for me. After all, I feel no qualms about putting my name to this piece.
New York, New York
A couple of weeks ago I was taking a bath and I became fascinated with the surface of the water. If I held still it reflected the pink tiles on the wall next to me. If I moved, the image was ruined, and I saw my nakedness beneath.
I started to think about the illusions we cover our bodies with. You want to know where I am hiding? Here I am, inside my clothes.
New York, New York
There was talk around the block about a tree house in Jimmy’s backyard. Certain kids could go there, and he explained:
“It’s for boys. We can see the whole world.”
“Can I see it?”
“Girls can’t. It’s reserved.”
“I wouldn’t fall. I’ve climbed trees in my yard.”
The toe of his faded sneaker shifted nervously in the dirt. He looked away, pretending to have other thoughts. I didn’t move. The stillness brought his face back.
“It’s hard at the top. There’s a platform. I could help, but you might fall. It’s too dangerous.”
“I would just climb back down.”
He hesitated, then gave in.
“O.K. How about this afternoon around three? I’ll be at the tree.”
Suddenly, his blond head disappeared around a corner. Some of my hope vanished, too. What if he didn’t show up?
I had wondered about this place. Boys said Mr. Barber built it so Jimmy could see the world, and we were all curious. Jimmy and his friends were older and had rules. But I now had a “ticket” to the tree house. Here was my chance!
I sauntered back down a narrow walk, following my shadow along the side of our house. A peach tree grew from the center of my sandbox and I felt the sunlight as it rippled the leaves of cool shade. Small dried cakes lined the seats. I reached for an empty cup and, mechanically, began to mold the damp sand. Jimmy Barber had said I could see his tree house?
The summer afternoon dragged on as the quiet face of the clock almost immobilized me. Could I be dreaming? After a while I was running across front lawns and down the driveway to the back of Jimmy’s house. There he was, waiting.
“Follow me. I’ll help you at the top.”
We began climbing. Part of my body rested each time I negotiated tree limbs to pull to a new notch. Foliage hid most of the view. Up and up we moved, Jimmy leading. I imagined this tree house touching the sky.
Suddenly, my head was beneath a square of boards. I slowly moved a hand and caught the edge. Fear of falling grew. Where would I land? I looked for branches to grab if something slipped.
Jimmy gave directions from above:
“Put your foot there. See the V? Where the branches come together? Good. Easy now. Hold this branch. No, with your other hand. Watch your balance. Don’t move your feet. Good position! Now, shift to the right. No, your right! Easy. Grab my hand. Hold on tight. Slowly. . . .”
He quickly pulled me up, dragging me halfway over the rough edge to the wide base. My legs and feet dangled. One of his hands held mine, the other a branch above.
“Push your foot against the trunk! You can make it!”
One big shove and I was over — ribs aching, body trembling, face on the floor. He helped my hands find an anchor. I was scared stiff, staring at white knuckles against a board. Branches and leaves mingled in dizzy patterns, blinding my view of the ground.
Soon my eyes found a rooftop below and I felt some bearing. The tree creaked in the wind, swayed and moved slowly around like a boat on water. I floated gently, a leaf on waves.
Suddenly, I realized something. This was not a house at all! Just a platform nailed to the tree. Jimmy was pacing back and forth with ease and control, waving his arms at landmarks, talking, talking. He was caught up in his visions — parks, roads, the river.
Inside I felt a slow relaxing. My knees shifted and my body moved toward an opening in the leaves. There it was! The world. The entire city, with houses, red buildings, white spires, green trees, snaking images of the river, pale blue horizon. The vastness bubbled my mind. I was a bird viewing the earth from sky high, blending with the sun, hanging and turning from tree and wind.
My hands moved to new positions and strength coursed through my legs. I stood up. The world leaped to change as my eyes and mind adhered to this single, remarkable expanse. For one long moment I simply stared.
I don’t remember climbing back to earth.
Marie H. Baldwin
Scotch — now that used to be a very good hiding place for me. Scotch, with its smell akin to sweaty jogging shoes and its taste like pickled charcoal. One must indulge in it in order to develop the taste.
It was the “kick” I liked best — that profound burning that shot like fire from tongue to stomach followed by the numbing sensation that traveled osmotically from gut to brain. Of course, the only way to tolerate such a kick is to practice the art of consistent indulgence.
I have had many hiding places in the form of indulgences, but none of them gave me that kick the way scotch did — except one. This was fantasy — the frightful phantoms which moved me into the deep canyons of a dark depression that kicked with that scotch-like burning and numbing and pulled me into a torrent of surreal imagery.
Before I became an adult, mature enough to have a stuporous relationship with scotch, the fantasies sufficed to hide me from the world — a world even more frightening than these apparitions: a childhood nightmare dominated by neglect and abuse from an alcoholic father and a schizophrenic mother.
As a child, the forests and the mountains were my home, my alternate parents, my niche and refuge. Almost daily, I played a childhood war game against phantom armies. Finding the deepest corner of the woods in which to hide, I allowed the trees to swallow me up like a corpse rotting among the dead leaves of winter.
As I lay immobile my mind came alive with the images of monstrous skeleton soldiers searching for me — hungry creatures who devoured children for sheer pleasure. I prayed that the worms found me first. I hoped they would devour me quickly and deposit me gently into the cool dark earth where I would be safe.
Somehow, in spite of it all, I made it to adulthood and even managed to make it through college, all the while attached to the hiding places, soaked with and magnified by the scotch.
In relationships, I set myself up for dependency and rejection, and it worked quite well. I went through two bad marriages, a river of scotch, and a multitude of hiding places.
By the time my third wife found me, I had become the skeleton soldier I feared in childhood — a bag of bones moving through life in a translucent haze filled with phobias, fantasies, anxiety, and depression. I even found a new hiding place — intellectualization. I constantly intellectualized to anyone who would listen with drunken existential ramblings, analyzing and criticizing everything.
When marital problems came up again, my wife made me see the signs. With therapy, much emotional work, and with her patience and encouragement, I stopped hiding from life.
I started sessions of yoga, meditation, and aerobics with my wife. I began lifting weights, jogging and bicycling. Instead of sitting in my office during lunch, I walked in the park. I stopped analyzing and criticizing everything, and began just “being” in the present, accepting what is in the world, both the good and the bad.
Walking in the park one day, I watched a baby robin being torn by the claws of a cat. I realized that the robin — as it was being eaten — was becoming part of the cat. With sudden relief, I saw in a new way the whole question of life and death. I no longer felt dependent on my wife, and I knew that if she, and my young daughters, were to die suddenly, I would not run back to my hiding places and become immobilized. I would grieve profoundly and then go on with life.
I eventually destroyed the last of my hiding places when I decided to do something constructive with my fantasies. I put them on paper. I became a writer. And this gives me the strength to bury all my hiding places.
Stephen D. Carpenter
Williamston, South Carolina
Dreams banged on my morning door today, sharp and insistent, heavy as an axe. Today’s edition featured the kitchen sink, which was loose from the wall and somehow light. When I wiggled it, coffee drooled from its pipes below, finding new flood patterns across the kitchen floor.
No doubt all of this has some significance that is both telling and real, a shadow indicating some as yet undetected sun, but I find myself increasingly tired and testy about “significance”: by the time a significance has been distilled, bottled, labeled, and retailed, most of the true significance seems to have vanished and something very much like insignificance seems to hold sway.
Yet what a wonderful hiding place, this “significance” business — like a walled city in which to be safe from the circling savages of insignificance!
What makes a hiding place? Two — always two: the one in hiding and the one hidden from. Quick — under the card table or behind the couch or upstairs in the closet with all your mother’s dresses that smell vaguely of her and of her safety. What a good place! Yet suppose no one was looking? Suddenly hiding makes no sense. It evaporates and in its stead is . . . what?
So too, “significance.” Experts offer all kinds of significance — material, spiritual, psychological, philosophical, emotional, rational, etc., etc., but very often what they refer to as “significant” only has meaning in terms of a contrasting “insignificance.” Peace is praised only in terms of the absence of war (which, incidentally, probably means that war is unlikely to stop any time soon); spiritual matters are more important or lasting or compelling than mere mundane affairs . . . and so forth. It is a subtle and socially acceptable matter, this two-ness, this hiding place, this fear.
The trouble is that what is socially acceptable can hardly bring us home to true significance. For example: distaste for atomic annihilation is strong and a group of friends may enjoy a good bottle or two of wine and warmth discussing the awfulness. Death is significant. But what happens to the significance when the bomb is on its way and you personally are three seconds from meltdown? In such a time, what time is it? Is there anything else? What time is this? A time for life, perhaps?
A gloomy scenario or situation always arouses the attention, but a joyful one may do so too and be equally capable of dissolving “significance” into significance. As in the midst of goodness there is no such thing as “goodness,” so in the midst of significance there is no “significance.” This is significant. Without some understanding along this line, the doubt and fear persist, vain gropings become a way of life, and there is only hiding and the hidden-from . . . slavery, in short. Ghosts going hoot in the night — ghosts which, were they attended to with attention and care and even love, might gladly sleep a dream whose “significance” could be left to others.
New York, New York
I have a hiding place to which I retreat when I am in pain. Like a snail, I curl up inside myself, wrapping my shell around me. I am unable to reach out to another human being. I reach only to myself — becoming mother to a hurt child, wiping away the tears, soothing the pain.
Slowly, peace comes over me and my strength flows back. I open the shell and soak up the warmth. Like a child who knows she is loved, I once again embrace life.
Park Forest, Illinois
When I hurt, I want to hide, the way a hound mangled by a speeding car on the hardtop road will crawl under the smokehouse to die alone. A hiding place is a safe space, where we are free to drop all acquired guard as instinctively as a snake shedding last year’s dead skin.
There are a few basic requirements for a hiding place, of which the foremost is privacy. Immediate accessibility is a close second. Thirdly you need to know what you are hiding from. And why. And if you are hiding from yourself, it goes without underscoring that you’re in trouble, friend.
Hiding is the first step in the process of self-healing, I think. That’s why hiding places must also be serene, restorative, relics of all the lost gardens we cherish. We all need to hide, at times.
My first hiding place was a huge cedar near the barn and stables on my parents’ farm. I could monkey up to the fourth forked limb, about 15 feet above ground level, though at the time it seemed 50,000 feet. This cedar was the majestic patriarch of the grove encircling the house, and provided blessed cool shade in the sweltering summer, a warm wind-break in January. This was my reading place, for books stuffy grammar school teachers and prissy preachers and my anxious parents deemed triple-X-rated — all Mickey Spillane’s mystery novels about “wasted blood and naked women,” all True Stories and Real Confessions (because they were poorly written and would make me boy-crazy), Forever Amber (a poor role model), and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (because I was too young to know about war and about how babies were made). I consumed them all, in my aboreal nook, ignoring the shrill shouts from the back door to come and eat supper RIGHT NOW. Or I could just do without. And I’d usually make the curfews, ambling in nonchalantly, very innocent-eyes, with a rolled-up Wonder Woman or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle hipped in my right dungaree pocket. This retreat served only for as long as it took my mom and dad to figure out just where I was hiding out (about four years, from age six to ten).
My second hiding place was the Whitfield family cemetery, about a mile from the house. By the time they’d deduced whether I went the woods way or walking along the roadway, I could have smoked half of a Fatima filched from my daddy’s pack, surprised two baby foxes playing hide-and-seek amid the gravestones, sucked two ripe maypops dry, and written one very amateurish sonnet. This was when I first learned that you leave a hiding place with what you carried into it unawares. Poetry has been my favorite hiding place since. When I go in hiding, I like to bring back souvenirs, and that’s what I try to make my poems: living chronicles.
The woods remain my one constant sanctuary — my bare feet know every pig path, each deer trail in the 125-or-so acres of virgin forest behind my mother’s house. The Big Rocks, massive grey granite boulders, might be a lost temple. The inhabitants of the pine groves are still ready to strike up an acquaintance, be they furred or feathered.
For me, the woods shelter and nurture, goad and spur, just like a hiding place should, teaching me the value of change. Whenever I cross the treeline, I know I am home free again.
Virginia Love Long
Hurdle Mills, N.C.