chapter one

Winter, 1971
I was a bright horny kid and my queer career started at a Texaco station in northern Wisconsin. I expected I’d meet hip homos at an Ivy League college, but Dartmouth had none so on a wintry afternoon I pondered my future at Occom Pond. I lost my father at ten and on a corroded iron bench I remembered his insistence I be true to myself. To find men like me I spent months searching Baker Library’s dimly lit stacks into the wee hours for anything written about homosexuality and found only titles like Abnormal Psychology. On frosty winter day I warmed ears five minutes from frostbite and saw the forgotten envelope on the bureau where I stored wool socks and long underwear. The envelope with Cousin Kerry’s invitation to visit him in San Francisco was a godsend. I bounced around Lord Hall with Kerry’s letter in hand and stretched my novice’s erotic imagination to sample every imagined pleasure in this Baghdad by the Bay. My roommate and bridge partner Nick Firestone came back from class and I needed a reason for dropping out fast, but growing up different honed my skills and I fabricated one in seconds. I showed him the envelope. “My uncle’s degenerative spine disease is now so bad he can’t move without assistance and he wants me to come to San Francisco and care for him in his final days.”
He tore off his Burberry scarf like a bandage. “It happens in the best families and sad you have to go there of all places. They say its weirdos.”
He didn’t know I was queer. “He’s lined up a part-time job for me at the DeYoung Museum where he used to be the director.”
He jabbed a pile dirty clothes with his lacrosse stick. “Be careful. Museums have sick homos on their staffs.”
I lied again. “I don’t know anything about that, but I’ll be invited to the best homes.”
Nick was preoccupied with wealth, especially any greater than his, but his shoulder shifted and suggested he was skeptical, but if I told him the truth, he’d tell the dean who would call Mother and stop her already weak heart. Just as I started to panic he saved me. “You’re a genius and sharp looking, Paul, so you’ll have no trouble marrying a girl who’ll pay for an MBA once your uncle’s passed, but to make it to president of the company like Uncle Joe you’ll need a more respectable sport than running.”
“He’s already signed me up at his tennis club.” I lied again.
“My advice, take up golf because a country club is a far better place for inside information, and to advance you’ll need it to blow the competition out of the water.”
“You’re so very thoughtful.”
I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough but I hadn’t seen Kerry in years so I wasn’t sure he’d the same friend. The first leg of the trip to Wisconsin started with my mind going fourteen directions until I concocted a scenario of Mother blessing the trip. I’d seen gay men in San Francisco in Life magazine so I trusted my enthusiasm for sex would make up for my inexperience. Somewhere over Indiana I steeled myself to being civil with Mother’s new husband Gerald, our town’s mayor whom she married because she was vulnerable. When lunch was served my seatmate with tangled hair asked, “Where you headed?”
“I’m going to Wisconsin to see Mother and then on to San Francisco.”
He screamed, “My dear!” and gave me his copy of Howl. “Please, I beg you, take it to North Beach and pray for me.” Minutes later I was happily careening through Ginsberg’s life as a fellow deviant. I wanted to find my gay ancestors and that book was the first in my collection.
I did my best to hide elation oozing from every pore when I was greeted at the door by Gerald in golf slacks. I extended my hand and after quick shake he nodded toward Mother who looked up from her crossword puzzle. “Hello Son. I didn’t expect to see you so early. I have sad news; your Uncle Alfred passed last week Saturday.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better opening. “It must have been a shock for poor sweet Aunt Isabel. It was so sad for Kerry he wants me to be with him in San Francisco.”
“So that’s where he went.” Mother’s scowl was the one she used to say her patience was running thin and she went back to working on her crossword puzzle while Gerald pretended not to listen. I wanted to get the hell out of town, so to push it along smoothly I said, “San Francisco was Father’s favorite city.”
Gerald who was acting like lord of the manor bellowed, “No decent person goes to that Hellhole!”
Mother straightened the doily on her chair “Our family never dropped out of anything, Paul Edward.”
When she used my full name I’d failed her so I tried guilt that worked in the past. “I can’t fail poor Kerry in his time of sadness.”
Gerald scolded, “Is he one of those pinko hippies?”
Mother hushed him. “Kerry will know you care if you send flowers. You don’t have to fly across the country.”
I had to appease her and again faked it. “As luck would have it my thesis is on the California painter George Post and most of his works are in museums in San Francisco and Berkeley.”
“Paul, is there something you’re not telling your mother?” I worried he read my body language.
“No, there’s nothing I’m not telling her. My thesis will get me accepted at Harvard for graduate work.” I pulled that out of my ass.
Gerald grumbled, “Another hotbed of fringe thinking!”
Mother pointed her pen at him. “Now don’t be harsh with him.”
He sneered, “He’s wasting your money.”
She slapped her crossword puzzles book and toppled her tiny reading lamp. “He’s my son!”
I righted the lamp without looking at her. “Kerry needs family at a time like this.”
Gerald scoffed, “Is he a pansy?”
She rolled her eyes. “Gerald, you have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“I read somewhere that all the men in San Francisco are pansies.”
“Mother, can I take you out to dinner at Elmer’s?”
She got up and headed toward the kitchen. “There’s pot roast from last night.”
Gerald glared at me. “You don’t fool me.”
I was on my own and feared erratic Gerald. “What do you mean?”
He said with a wave of his hand, “You’re just waiting ‘til all of this will all be yours.”
From the top of the stairs I said as calmly as I could, “If you’ll excuse me I’m going to unpack.”
He yelled, “Come back a homo and you’re not welcome here!”
I looked at the pictures of Michelangelo’s sculptures that I’d taped over the cowboy wallpaper in my bedroom to assure myself I’d make Father proud. At dinner Gerald treated me as competition and made it a contentious hour of deflecting his innuendoes. That evening Mother came into my room. I set down the book I was reading eager to see if she’s come to talk about San Francisco. Mother had a wistful look when she said, “When you were a boy I imagined your father and I would make all the important parental decisions together. He had such big dreams for you. Were he here, I know he would give you his blessings for your trip to California. Lord knows, it had to happen sooner or later.”
I embraced her fragile body. “Oh, you don’t know how much that means to me.” I held back tears. “Kerry will know you care when I’m there.”
Gerald had left for city hall by the time I came down for breakfast, and Mother was still fretting about Isabel so I didn’t mention going to San Francisco. At the door she kissed my cheek. “I’m sure Kerry gives splendid tours,” and slipped a twenty dollar bill into my pocket.
“Thanks. I’m sure he will.”


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