The names have been changed to protect the guilty
by Fritz Gerlich
11/28/2008, 2:22 AM #
One day in seventh grade, when a bunch of us were hanging out, Jack Bruggman suddenly looked at me and said, “Gerlich, you’re a queer.”
“I am not,” I said uncertainly. Jack was obviously baiting me, and I didn't want to admit I didn't know what "queer" meant. I had the vague idea it had something to do with sex--itself a darkly alluring and dangerous word that I understood little about. I knew, technically, where babies come from, but I had never tried, or even wanted, to imagine myself doing such improbable things.
“Yeah, you are. You do it with guys.”
“Do what with guys?” I asked, stupidly.
I said, “Go to hell” or something equally inane. (I didn’t know any swear words besides “hell” and “damn,” and I was usually afraid to say those.) To my relief, the subject was dropped.
I went home and promptly asked my mother, “Am I a queer?” I find it hard to believe I actually did that, but I did. My mother had been my confidant all my life.
“No, you’re not!” she almost shouted. “Who said you were?”
“He has no business talking that way!” Mom was really upset. Now I really wanted to know.
“Well, what is a queer?”
“It’s—it’s—somebody who is odd in a very peculiar way.”
“Never mind. Jack Bruggman should be reported for talking like that.” So much for enlightenment. But, honestly, if she had told me that men did the baby thing with other men, I would have thought she was making it up. I barely believed it about men and women.
I didn’t have to ask what she meant by “reported.” Our lives revolved around the Catholic parish and the Catholic school that Jack, I, and all the other guys, attended. She was thinking about calling the principal, Sister Gerard, and asking her to deal with Jack. I didn’t like that idea.
“Don’t say anything, Mom. Please. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m a tattle-tale.”
In the event, she said nothing, and I forgot about Jack’s taunt. Over the next few years, I learned what "queer" meant. I even knew one--a real, fuzzy-sweater, feminine gay guy who sat near me in home room in high school. We weren't exactly buddies, but we got along fine. On the other hand, I also laughed at queer jokes, then and for years to come. The first time I got to know a gay person as a close friend was in the army. My friend Gar was open in our group about his orientation. He was considerate in not pushing the issue. But he needed to talk, sometimes, and I didn't mind listening.
Four years after declaring me a queer, Jack Bruggman was in a horrific motorcycle accident. He survived, but he underwent a marked personality change, from a feisty, take-charge kid and first-rate catcher to a disturbingly passive person, seemingly not interested in much. Conversations with him petered out embarrassingly quickly. To my shame--today--I avoided him. Before we graduated, Jack discovered alcohol. The last I heard of him, many years ago, he was a street derelict in Seattle.
In eighth grade, Robbie Beaumont was the coolest kid in our school. His family was well-heeled and his parents were prominent. Robbie wasn’t much of a student or an athlete, but he was blond, handsome, a good talker, and he stayed ostentatiously current on the coolest clothes, music, entertainment, and slang. He knew how to use his coolness to shame and intimidate. To this day, the word “sneer” makes me see Robbie’s twisted face and hear his contemptuous voice. I wasn’t naturally attracted to Robbie’s sphere of interest, but inside I knew that I knew that there was fear behind my avoidance, too. I was a good student and a passable athlete, but I was not cool. Robbie could cut me off at the knees, socially, if I gave ever him the chance. I had the feeling he would enjoy doing that.
In our school, boys and girls attended separate classes in sixth and seventh grades, and then went back into coed classes in eighth. Many of us boys found ourselves mysteriously tongue-tied with girls. The girls we had palled around with just two years earlier had now become disturbingly different. They hung in groups, giggled, and looked at us strangely. We couldn’t talk with them comfortably, except about school projects. But Robbie could have real conversations with the girls, about the Beatles (brand-new then), about Candid Camera, about skiing (a big new thing where we lived—all the cool kids skied). He could talk with girls one-on-one, but what he really specialized in was being the center of female group attention. The memory of Robbie talking and laughing confidently on the playground with three or four admiring girls can evoke bitterness in me today. Especially when Linda O’Rourke was one of them.
There was, in our class, a somewhat odd girl named Marie Korner. She wasn’t friendless, but she was a bit apart. That was puzzling, because Marie was quite pretty, in an exotic way—high cheekbones, glossy black hair, dramatic Armenian eyes. But she was quiet and did not seem to mix easily. I remember that she sometimes flashed a sudden, grateful smile that made her seem, for a moment, a different person. But it was rare, and she always returned to her aloof, unsmiling self. I knew that her parents were divorced—among Catholics there was, at that time, a social stigma associated with divorce—and that she lived with her mother. I had heard that the school didn’t charge tuition for Marie and her younger sister. (My parents were always reminding us of how much they sacrificed so their children could go to a “private” school.)
One day five or six of us boys were waiting in the school lobby to get a work assignment from the principal. Three girls started to cross the lobby. One of them was Marie. Robbie had been learning against one of the pillars, blondly holding forth on some cool subject or other. When he saw Marie, he broke off, straightened up, and as she approached, called out in a soft, crooning voice: “Hey, Korner: how much do they pay you?” I remember very clearly how Marie’s head snapped back, defiantly, and she stared straight ahead. I didn’t know the term “fuck you” then, but today I would surmise she was thinking “fuck you, asshole” or its childish equivalent. She walked past us with a set, proud face. It was, I suddenly realized, not the first time she had heard this from Robbie.
“She lets high school guys do it with her,” Robbie sneered. “They pay her for it. She’s a whore.”
The only reaction I remember in our group was shocked silence. The subject was just too dangerous, and none of us was in a position to challenge Mr. Cool about something like that anyway. I wasn’t even clear what the word “whore” meant. I did, by then, know what “do it” meant. It meant going all the way. It was the ultimate mortal sin. No decent person did it without being married (and why they did it even then was beyond me). In an instant, Marie seemed to me a completely different person: not pretty and shy and unhappy, but soiled, degenerate, even fiendish. Here, in our very school, she walked around with an unspeakable secret between her legs. How could she do that and still face us? How could she still go to mass, as we all did together every Friday? Was she not afraid that Jesus Christ himself would denounce her from his huge cross behind the altar?
I knew that, whatever the truth of his claim, Robbie’s motives were cruel—he wanted to show off the power of a kind of coolness he knew none of us could match. But I didn’t have the judgment—or the context, maybe—even to question whether what he said was true. I couldn’t imagine him, or anybody, telling a lie that monstrous about someone in our school.
My shock passed off fairly quickly. I forgot about it more or less immediately. I never treated Marie any differently--although I never quite forgot what Robbie had said about her. I never repeated what he had said to anybody, nor do I recall hearing anybody else talk about it. I saw Marie once, in later years. She was at a football game, talking animatedly with some friends. I remember that, even under the strange field lights, I could see that she had an outbreak of acne. But she was laughing, gesturing, clearly enjoying herself. That memory gives me pleasure.
I had absolutely no idea what I wanted from Linda O’Rourke, other than that she be there for me to look at for the rest of my life. In those days (and in my puritanical family especially), the notion of eighth graders “dating” would have been only slightly more acceptable than eighth graders visiting brothels. I hadn’t the slightest idea of ever asking Linda to spend time with me, or even to notice me. I just wanted to look at her.
Linda was cute but scarcely beautiful. Pale skin, dark hair, freckles. Always neat, and deft in her movements. She had a way of holding her head slightly back that made her look sure of herself, almost regal. I was afraid to look directly at her black, black eyes. They were too deep, too appraising. The expression on her face was usually serious, as if she didn’t want to miss anything. She was a good student, but not brilliant; friendly, but quiet. She was, to me, someone who had no need to advertise herself—a need I felt to a painful degree. In her, I could idealize every desirable quality that I so keenly felt the lack of.
Near the end of our eighth grade year, the first ice-skating rink ever opened in our town. A few of the mothers organized a graduating class skating party one Saturday morning. Although skiing was becoming very popular in the Seattle area, ice skating was a novelty to most of us. We started out clinging to the side rails and shuffling along, laughing at the first to venture out on the ice and fall. But, being kids, we got the hang of it fairly quickly. Within an hour, pretty much everybody was actually gliding around, some on shaky knees. Others were starting to pick up confidence and speed. I considered myself one of those.
Something else new was happening: a few kids were forming couples and skating hand-in-hand. I was sure that some adult—or if not an adult, then God himself—would quickly put a stop to that, but not only did it not happen, the phenomenon spread. Within minutes, it seemed, skating with the opposite sex had become The Thing To Do. I felt a surge of panic. I knew I had nowhere near enough courage to ask any girl to skate with me. In a flash, I foresaw myself isolated, ostracized, rejected, shamed, driven out, and probably pecked to death by the swans for being such an ugly duckling.
But then a reprieve: somebody proposed that we play crack-the-whip. Although we had never done it, we knew what it was. With relief, I skated to join the line, taking some guy’s right hand with my left, and sticking my own right hand out behind me. A soft, slender palm slipped into it. I swiveled to see who it was: Linda. She must have just arrived, because I hadn’t noticed her earlier. For a dizzying moment, I looked directly into her black, black eyes. She gave me a smile that had some kind of knowingness in it, and for that single glorious instant, I had the feeling that she had taken my hand, not quite accidentally, but because she wanted to. That was when I learned—though of course I couldn’t then have put it this way—that the greatest thrill a man can have with a woman is not making love with her. It is the moment he first knows she wants him to make love with her.
The line of skaters started moving fast. At some point in all the yelling and craziness, it broke up. The people near the end went sprawling on the ice, the rest broke into individuals or short segments. I lost the guy’s hand on my left, and in what felt like a solemn, inevitable continuation of this magic moment, Linda lost the hand of whoever was on her right. We skated forward, silently, her left hand in my right. I could not have felt more reverent if we had been approaching the altar to plight our troth before the pope. I dared not look at her. If I had had to say anything, it would have come out like the sound of a hanged man hitting the end of the rope. I had nothing to say, and , blessedly, Linda didn’t, either. Our hands tugged gently at one another. I was lost in the wonder that I was actually touching Linda O'Rourke's naked hand. We were . . . doing it. Doing what I had been sure would never, ever happen.
We only skated a lap or two before we pulled over. We weren’t good enough skaters, and it seemed natural to, at some point, turn and face each other. There was still that solemn feeling. She gave me her canny smile (and dropped her eyes, for which God be praised). “Thanks,” I muttered. “Thanks, Fritz,” she murmured. And she skated off to join some other girls. If she hadn’t, I would have started twitching. I was in a daze for the rest of the day.
Nothing ever happened between Linda and me. We went to different high schools, and saw each other only rarely, at a few church events. We both moved on to other things. I was slightly confused about the funny feeling I had when she looked at me. I had by then gotten tastes in girls that went beyond plain old Linda O’Rourke, so why should it mean anything when she looked at me? I assumed she, in her self-knowing way, had been sorting through the prospects available to her. Several years later, I saw her engagement picture in the newspaper. Same freckles, same serious expression, same way of holding her head back, same level, black-eyed gaze. She still had every desirable quality I so keenly felt the lack of.