What I care about most is the freedom of man, the liberation of the individual man from the network of moral and social convention in which he believes, or rather in which he thinks he believes, and which encloses him and limits him and makes him seem narrower, smaller, sometimes even worse than he really is.
— Federico Fellini
Last Thanksgiving, one month shy of my fiftieth birthday, I was raking leaves in my front yard, my baldness hidden under a navy watch cap, my 120-pound body bundled up in a black canvas baseball jacket, when I glimpsed a man on a bicycle approaching slowly on the street. He paused at the corner of my lot as though he were going to speak to me. I turned to look at him, a stranger in jeans, black shoes, and black leather jacket, his face shadowed by a black baseball cap. Not recognizing him, I resumed my raking. He continued riding down the hill in front of my house, wobbled a bit, then lost his balance and fell head first over the handlebars onto the asphalt, the bike toppling and twisting behind him.
I dropped the rake and ran to protect him from traffic. Standing over him like a warning signal, I frantically scanned the park across the street and my neighbors’ yards for help. But the park was deserted, and my neighbors’ cars were gone. (It was Thanksgiving, after all.)
He was lying in the street, his right cheek flattened against the blacktop, his left eye open, staring blankly, unblinking. “What’s wrong?” I asked him, wondering whether he was in the throes of a paralytic fit, or was drunk or high. I thought of calling an ambulance but didn’t want to leave him in the street. “What is it?” I asked, hoping he would get up.
Slowly, he peeled his cheek from the blacktop and pressed a hand under his right cheekbone, where a scrape was oozing blood. Realizing he was in the line of traffic, he rolled over to the side of the street. I followed him with the bike; then, as he tried to stand, I braced him, gripping his left forearm through the thick leather sleeve of his jacket. He leaned against me; he didn’t smell of alcohol. I steered him and the bike to my front yard, where he collapsed against the slope of my lawn. “I’m hurt, man,” he said.
“Let me call somebody,” I said, glancing up at my house.
“Aw shit, man. Fuckin’ shit,” he said. “Don’t call the cops.”
“I won’t call the cops,” I said. “Where do you live? I’ll drive you home, and you can come back for the bike.”
“It’s a three-hundred-dollar bike,” he said, softening.
“Where do you live?”
“Benton,” he said.
“Benton Street?” I asked, unfamiliar with the name. “Let me call somebody to come get you.” I thought I might be risking my life if I put him in my car; I was taking a risk just standing there talking to this man, who — judging by the expensive bike, the leather jacket, and the trendy athletic shoes — was not a street person, but was obviously high, possibly dangerous. His eyes were red-rimmed, glassy, and wild.
“Aw, man,” he groaned. “Don’t call the cops.”
“I won’t call the cops,” I said again. “What can I do?” I asked myself as much as him. I was afraid to go into the house, afraid he would try to follow me.
“Shit, man.” He was off again, cursing me or himself or the situation, making no sense, frightening me.
“I’m just trying to help you,” I said, stepping back. “I’m gonna leave you alone, and you can go when you’re ready.” I walked over and grabbed the rake from where I’d dropped it.
Suddenly lucid and perceptive, he shouted over his shoulder, “Are you scared, man?”
“Yes,” I said. Then he stood, apparently all right, and walked over to me smiling, extending his right hand.
“You’re cool, man. You’re cool,” he said. And we shook hands warmly. We stood a couple of feet apart and were about the same height, the same size, I noticed. I was enjoying his handshake, thinking about the way he gripped my hand and held it as I squeezed back. And I was thinking that he might throw me to the ground and beat me up. His nose was off-center, crooked like a boxer’s, the end flattened. I was scared but smiling, relieved that he appeared to be uninjured except for the scrape on his cheek. For all I knew, his cheekbone could have been fractured, but he was smiling back, looking me in the eyes. I wondered if he was aware of what I was feeling — my intoxication with his black leather jacket and jeans, his boxer’s nose, his smile — and if he was a party to it, or if I was the only one.
“What’re you doin’, man?” he asked.
“I’m just raking leaves,” I said.
Then, like a bolt: “Could I come live with you?”
God, I thought, what’s he saying? Is he serious? I was reeling, the autumn-brown yard, the sandlot-baseball field across the street, the bare-limbed trees all fading into the background, leaving just the two of us alone in the world. I wish you could, I thought. Let’s live together. Please. And when my sixty-five-year-old Republican sister comes to visit from North Carolina, I’ll introduce you as the man I picked up in the street. “I don’t know his name,” I’ll say. But she will love you as much as I do, despite your drug habit and your foul language.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, forcing myself to coyly say what I didn’t want to say. “I can’t do that.” I desperately wanted him to tell me one more time, You’re cool, man.
Then, in one continuous, protracted motion, he mumbled something, unzipped his jeans, and turned toward the street. Standing behind him, I could see the stream of urine arching from the top of the slope at the edge of my front yard to the curb below. The trajectory was as impressive as the aeration jet in the middle of the park pond — and as public; a car drove by just then, the passengers grinning at us from behind rolled-up windows.
His bladder empty, he lay back against the slope with legs spread and fly unzipped, his penis a pink rosebud on a field of faded denim. Avoiding the puddle he’d made by the curb like a dog, I moved between him and the street, trying to protect him from view, wondering if we were being watched. And wondering, too, if he was exposing himself for my benefit or was simply too stoned to realize that his fly was open.
“Zip yourself up,” I said, not knowing where to look. “You shouldn’t have done that, man.”
“I had to,” he said, arranging himself and zipping his fly. Then he asked, “Do you have a cigarette?”
I shook my head, patting the pockets of my jacket as though I had ever carried cigarettes in my life. “What can we do?” I asked him, meaning, What can we do about us? What can we possibly do?
“I think I can push the bike,” he answered, head lowered, sobered, even somber. Then he stood, lifted the bike, and began walking away, the bike’s gears clicking brightly. I walked in the opposite direction, not entering the house by the front door where he might see me, but going around to the back. Once inside, I went straight to the bathroom and washed my hands with antibacterial soap.
That night, I went to Thanksgiving dinner at my former landlord and -lady’s. Their son, a future divinity student, was home for the holiday. Also joining us: the realtor who sold me my house; her son, a music major and Merit Scholar; an eighty-six-year-old spinster who contributes short essays to the local newspaper recalling her past and her beloved deceased twin sister; and my former neighbor at the apartment, a widow in her seventies who’d supported and cared for her mother until she’d died of Alzheimer’s.
We said grace before dinner, joining hands to sing, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” We helped ourselves to sliced turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry-apple gelatin, sweet-potato casserole, peas and carrots, rolls, pickles, and black olives — and for dessert, a choice of apple, pecan, or pumpkin pie. I was as affable as I had ever been, I am sure, and as happy as I could be, enjoying the company and the delicious dinner, all the while savoring the secret of my afternoon encounter.
If they had known what thoughts about the strange cyclist had raced through my head, they would have been shocked. They would have said they’d had no idea, or perhaps that they had suspected it all along. They would have shaken their heads in dismay, probably feeling betrayed; I had represented myself as a nice person, a friend of the family, a hard worker, an idealist, even something of an ascetic, celibate, practically a priest, devoting my life to teaching. They would have been saddened and uncomprehending. They would have pitied me and wondered out loud how I could have come so close to throwing my life away at the urging of a mere sexual impulse, as destructive to the will as cocaine, the kind of desire that sweeps a person away to oblivion, that denies the spirit and transforms a person into a rutting animal, that weds a person to dust, to death.
Twenty-nine years ago, when I was a junior in college, the husband of one of my professors was caught in flagrante delicto with a man in the bathroom of an interstate rest stop. Everyone on campus found out about it, and within days of his arrest, my professor’s husband committed suicide by jumping off a highway overpass. This is all I knew. I did not pursue the subject among my friends. I was inexperienced and could only imagine the actions that had resulted in this tragedy. My sympathies were with my professor and her son; I felt sorry for them, and I recognized the courage it took for my professor to continue teaching, to face the class knowing what we students were thinking. But as far as her husband, the guilty party, was concerned, I was simply baffled. I could not imagine how someone with a wife, a son, and a social position would risk losing it all for a few minutes of sexual pleasure. Sex had never been — and would never be — that important to me.
I am an English professor now. My office is in the library on campus. Erected in the twenties, the library was a modest, classically inspired structure until it was expanded in the early sixties, the edifice enclosed by a brick-and-concrete shell, an International Style box, its two-story-tall windows hidden behind a steel grille. On each floor of the library is a men’s room. Standing at a urinal in one last week, I turned and read the graffiti on the metal stall to my left. Someone had scrawled in pencil: “Good BJ, Cherokee Park restroom about dark. Fall semester ’94.” Beneath that, someone else had written: “BYOB (Bring Your Own Bat).” The custodians had left the graffiti intact when it could easily have been washed off.
I don’t know whether any students actually respond to such want ads. I wouldn’t dare, of course, nor would I care to. I ignore these messages, except to think that, even among my own students, there are men (gay, straight — it hardly matters) for whom sex is merely sex and not, as it is for me, the riddle of the universe.
When I bought my house, I didn’t know that the park across the street was once notorious (and perhaps still is) as a meeting place for homosexuals, a site for anonymous sex — specifically, the public toilets in the bathhouse behind the swimming pool. There were arrests once, I later heard, and a story in the newspaper. I forget who told me — whether it was someone who knows I’m gay or someone who assumes I’m straight or someone who isn’t sure and doesn’t give a damn. But I remember I was disturbed when I heard about it. Of all the available properties within my price range in town, I would have to buy this one, as though compelled to become the unwitting butt of someone’s joke. I wouldn’t have bought the house had I known. I am still embarrassed by the motives that might be imputed to me.
My house is nearest to the park of only three houses on this street, directly across from the sandlot-baseball field and, beyond that, Cherokee Field, home of the University Indians. My house is in clear view of the stands, and I can watch the games from my dining room. Almost every Saturday and Sunday afternoon in spring and summer, my peace is disturbed by the national anthem blaring from the public-address system, sung by a nasal soprano with a speaker-busting vibrato. Then the applause, the cheers, the occasional roar of the crowd. If only I liked baseball.
I bought this house in January, when snow blanketed the baseball fields and the park was as silent as Antarctica, the pond frozen over. I bought it because it has a fireplace, plaster walls, hardwood floors, a sun porch. It’s within walking distance of campus. I figured proximity to the park would have its advantages as well as disadvantages, and to some extent I was right; the lawn beyond the sandlot is green and lush in spring. In summer, when the breeze blows north across the pond, I can hear the ducks quacking. And when Santa Claus comes to town, he comes to my house first.
He arrived late Sunday afternoon, three days after my encounter with the cyclist. Participants in the annual Christmas parade were assembling in the park, as they do every year. Floats and high-school marching bands and dignitaries and equestrians were lining up along a route that threaded its way through the park and ended in front of my house. And there, in the position of honor, was Santa Claus, enthroned at the rear of a flatbed trailer on which a miniature version of his workshop had been constructed. Santa’s helpers, mechanical toys themselves, raised their stiff arms in imitation of a wave while real people (some dressed like elves) scurried alongside the float, checking electrical connections and communicating on walkie-talkies.
An hour later, when night had fallen and the parade was about to begin, Santa’s float was illuminated with strings of white lights hung from posts at each corner, reminding me of a used-car lot or a shrimp boat heading out for a night’s catch, its running lights a barely visible line between the night sky and the darker sea. Santa was in the spotlight, his red suit and white beard glowing. The entire procession was aglow with spotlights, running lights, taillights. On the far side of the park, at the front of the line, a band struck up the first tune, and the train pulled out of the station at last.
While appreciating the cheap pathos of the scene, I thought about what had occurred in that same street three days before. The contrast between the garish childhood joy and the sadness of two lonely adults reminded me of the foreign films that had come to the art house I’d visited almost weekly while in college: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, for example. Indeed, the scene was Felliniesque, mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. Santa Claus was like a scary clown. Beauty and ugliness, the familiar and the bizarre, the sacred and the profane were juxtaposed.
And I thought for the first time in years of another movie I had seen at about the same time as Juliet of the Spirits: the now-forgotten A Taste of Honey, directed by Tony Richardson. In the movie, Jo, an unwed, working-class girl made pregnant and abandoned by a black sailor, is befriended by Geoff, an effeminate homosexual.
I don’t remember what ultimately happens to Jo, whether she is eventually taken in by her parents or not. But I vividly remember the last scene, in which Geoff must part from Jo, and walks off into the gathering dusk, down some working-class alley. The brick pavement wet from rain and fog, the roofs of row houses out of focus in the background, Geoff walks past a group of children who are singing and dancing in a circle. Each child holds a sparkler, and the camera focuses on the drops of light raining down in all directions. Fireworks splatter and streak the screen. Geoff pauses, his sad eyes briefly illuminated, then disappears into the shadows to face a future we know will be dreadful, leaving behind the children’s glee. Their song rises as the movie ends and the credits roll.
The overall quality of the film aside, I was deeply moved at the time by this final scene, and by the character of Geoff. I wondered, Am I like that? And I wondered if my future would be as bleak as his. But I didn’t say a word. I was afraid to talk about the film with the boys who’d come to see it with me (one of whom I suspected of being gay and detested for it).
But that was thirty years ago, and my life has not turned out so badly. Unlike Geoff in A Taste of Honey, I did not walk off into the shadows; I went to graduate school. My education has protected me from Geoff’s sad fate, and it has shielded me (my recent encounter excepted) from the likes of lonely or predatory men in deserted parks. I have been privileged in a way. Yet I have been deprived in another — of experiences that might have made me a better person. This is difficult to say without sounding like a self-help tape on the one hand and — in the age of HIV — a madly irresponsible advocate of free love on the other. Still, I’m hell-bent on full disclosure (in print at least) and apparently determined to embarrass myself, to play the fool. Or perhaps I am trying, at age fifty, to exorcise my shame.
Look, nothing happened between me and that man on the bike. All right? Nothing. And nothing ever will. I am still the rational, self-controlled, right-thinking, civic-minded, law-abiding, milquetoasty academic that I was and always will be. All right? Are you satisfied now? Are you happy?
But I must say this in defense of perversion: that besides inspiring compassion for sad-eyed queens and wild-eyed cyclists, our impulsive sexual urges can engender a proper reverence for life’s mystery and a heightened sensitivity to the odd beauty of experience, the strange mixture of accident and intention that teases us with meaning and sometimes fills us with hope.