Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Alternative Boyfriend

This is a picture of my first alternative boyfriend. I will call him Jay, because that was his name. I was 15 when I met him on August 15, 1986. It was a Friday.

I know precisely when I started dating him because I stopped dating him exactly one week later. We broke up forever right before Henry Rollins took the stage at Einstein-A-Go-Go, a legendary club in Jacksonville Beach.

Even though we’d not gone out anywhere or even spoken to each other during the 7 days of our courtship, the breakup still stung. I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend who understood me – the real me that most guys my age thought was weird, and ugly.

But not Jay. He also loved that Nemesis song by Shriekback, and not only could but actually would cut quite a step when the DJ put on Love and Rockets’ Ball of Confusion. At last, I had an actual boy to dance with instead of the cloud of shuffling girls I was usually a part of. And that was what we did the first night we met; the first and last time we saw each other before our relationship shattered. We danced.

But that wasn’t all. Jay wore eyeliner, and skirts, and shirts buttoned all the way up to the top button. I was absolutely sure that this indicated an artistic, creative bent, and probably also familiarity with or at least sympathy for the fringe dwellers of the world. This was someone who would not ask “why?” when I announced I wanted to break into an abandoned building, see if I could find some homeless people who would agree to be photographed, or fall asleep listening to Psychocandy. He’d be right next to me, holding the crowbar, lens cap, and record player. This was perfect. I was 15, and I was so excited about my first alternative boyfriend.

There was only one problem.

“Robin,” said my friend Christine when I told her the news the next week, “Jay cannot be your boyfriend. Jay is gay.”

“That’s so racist, Christine.” I said. “You think just because he’s wearing a skirt, and make-up, that makes him gay? Way to stereotype, there.”

It was true; I was right. This was 1986, when the most desirable guys around looked like this:

and this:

and this:

See? Wearing a skirt.
And then there was our very own beloved DJ and notorious local hottie, Jay Totty, who looked so great in a skirt in 1986 that he even made the front page of our newspaper’s lifestyle section. 

 Everyone agreed, Christine. Even the Florida Times Union. Wearing a skirt or eyeliner definitely did not mean you were gay.

“No but,” said Christine, “I know Jay. He’s gay. He’s definitely gay. I know because he told me. And I’ve only ever seen him date guys. Look, I know he’s gay, he knows he’s gay; you are the only person who doesn’t know he’s gay.”

I looked at our mutual friend Billy, who was standing there in the heat with his Salvation Army suit coat and amethyst brooch. “Could this be true?”

“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s not a secret. He’s very open about it.”

“Well, huh,” I said.

A few days later, on Friday, it was time to meet up with Jay again for our second date. This was going to be an absolutely fantastic night, I told myself, not only because I was going to see Jay, my love, but also because Henry Rollins was going to read his poetry. I’d never heard him read anything before – he had just started doing it. But I’d seen him leading Black Flag the year before, and if that show was any indication, this would be something to see. This would be a night to remember.

Black Flag. Jeez, mom, what were you thinking? 

Christine’s news about Jay bothered me not at all as I Aqua-Netted my bangs and pulled on my silk pajama pants.

“Hey,” I told myself, “I am a tolerant, accepting, worldly person. So what if my boyfriend only likes boys? This was a problem, certainly, but one that could still be overcome. It’s not like Christine revealed that she’d caught him listening to Huey Lewis and the News, or something. Now that would have been it. But this?”

This is what I told myself as I pinned my beanie to my hair and waited for Jackie to pick me up in her shiny red Hyundai. But deep down, I knew this was not true.

The fact is, Jay could have been a desk caddy, a serial killer, or an avocado, and that would have been just fine with me. Because what mattered was that, whatever else he was, he was someone who liked me. Me, you see. Like many other unfortunate people, I was years out of my adolescence before I understood that “well, he likes me,” is not actually the most important attribute on the list when it comes to potential partners. Back then, with my braces and my funny way of dancing and the awful memories of being fat in middle school still defining who I was, just liking me was enough. And Jay did like me.

I showed up at Einstein’s that Friday, August 22, 1986, insides a-flutter. Jay was there already, wearing a different skirt this time. And guess what? He’d brought me flowers. A big bouquet of gladiolus and lilies. No one had ever waited just for me to arrive anywhere before. No one had ever bought me flowers and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. And in 15 minutes, I’d be sitting with my gay boyfriend and my flowers and we’d be listening to Henry Rollins together. This wasn’t absolutely perfect, sure, but it was still pretty good. The only thing was, where was Jay?

I walked outside with my flowers, outside the clove-scented air of Einstein’s and into the syrupy heat of Florida in August. The low-slung buildings around me were closed for the night; the streets, deserted. I walked a few blocks, aimlessly, looking for Jay, I guess, but also trying to think now that I was away from the lights and the music. I believed that what Christine had said was true, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was what this obviously meant about Jay. He’s going to talk to me for a whole night about music and movies and concerts and art-type things and all the things he likes, but he’s going to leave out that piece of information? What else is he not telling me, then? What kind of boyfriend is my first alternative boyfriend, exactly, I belatedly began to wonder.

My thoughts were interrupted by a snuffling sound coming from a recessed doorway up ahead. I got even with the entryway and there, in the alcove, leaning up against the locked glass shop doors, was Jay. He was deeply involved in kissing someone, I noticed. He was facing me but his eyes were closed, his head turned to the side. I stood there for a minute, and then I guess Jay sensed something, because he opened his eyes and saw me. This broke the kiss, and the person he was sharing it with turned around and saw me, too. It was a boy, of course, a boy wearing eyeliner and hairspray, just like Jay, just like me.

“Aw, man,” I said, setting down the flowers and turning back in the direction of Einstein’s. I was snuffling, pitiful, not so much because of what I had seen, but because of what I feared it meant about me. I wasn’t mad at Jay; he was obviously gay, and so he should just go be gay and try to be happy doing it. But jeez, why did he have to pick me? Why me?

You know that Smiths’ song that goes “how can you stay with a fat girl who says ‘Ahhh, would you like to marry me, and if you like you can buy the ring?’” As I took my seat on the floor at the front of Einstein’s stage, I realized that even though I thought I had lost all the weight, I was still the fat girl. I was the girl who was so – what? Weird? Stupid? Needy? – that I’d never have a straightforward, healthy relationship with anyone. Didn’t this pretty much prove it?

I sat at the very front of the stage as Henry Rollins launched into Family Man, and cried into my hands. I cried through Art to Choke Hearts and Pissing in the Gene Pool. I cried through it all, I tell you, his whole first set. (These are actual pictures from that very night, by the amazing Jim Leatherman.)  

Cried through Family Man.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through Art to Choke Hearts.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through all of it.
Credit: Jim Leatherman

When the set was over, I was still crying. I felt a hand on my shoulder and, sure that it was Jay, looked up, ready to tell him off. But it wasn’t. It was Henry Rollins.

He was squatting down next to me, right at eye-level, and he held a slip of paper in the hand that was not on my shoulder. He shoved the slip of paper at me and shook his head sympathetically.

“Hey,” he said, patting me. “I don’t know what he did to you, but here’s my phone number. If he does it again call me and I will come cut his penis off.” He patted me one more time for good measure, stood up, and strolled off to the bar. I was confused. My gay boyfriend and I had just broken up, and that was bad, but then Henry Rollins had just given me his phone number. And that was good. I stared at the slip of paper, my week-long relationship with Jay forgotten. “Maybe I’m not the fat girl who says ‘Ahhh,’” I thought. “Maybe there will be other alternative boyfriends sometime in my future. I’m only 15, who can really say?”

I shrugged and shoved the note in my pocket, then stood up and danced.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turning to Crime

From 1993

Every morning the cat comes in through the window and wakes me up licking my face. I greet the day with superstitious dread, remembering old wives' tales of breath-snatching cats and smothered sleepers. The smell of her breath as her pink tongue exfoliates my face unnerves me. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse; her breath smells like none of these things because she eats like we do: badly and infrequently. She smells like ant bites and the heat of the middle of the day, and that's it. She is skinny and parched like the asphalt my car is parked on.

My roommate Susan and I are both recent recipients of Russian degrees, and in the small Florida town we're currently exiled in, jobs requiring Russian-language skills are scarce. We are forced to be resourceful for our income. And the closer it gets to rent day, the more resourceful we become. Susan starts talking again about Chris, that guy we know who has a Chinese automatic weapon disassembled in his closet. I try to convince myself that I really look like someone who would purchase a pink fishnet halter top and thus it won't be obvious that I'm trying to return shoplifted clothing. What I'm talking about here is turning to crime, and sometimes it is a comfort to make yourself believe that you have so very little to lose.

But I can't think about all this right now. I can't be late, I've got to wait. Rat and Dinghy's Sour Smell, Rave and Dammit's Sure-Fire Hell; no, Ray and Donna's Seafood Grille: that's where I work, and where, later tonight, I'll wait on a table that will leave me nine cents on a 33-dollar tab, because that's just the kind of place it is. But now, in the hot Florida morning, I'm still optimistic as I find and smoke Susan's emergency cigarette. Perhaps, I tell myself, this will be the day that our fortunes turn around.

Two shifts and twelve hours later, I'm driving us home. Susan's agreed to give John, the recently paroled cook, a lift to his duplex.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," sighs Susan, reaching into her apron and pulling out a wad of ones and fives. "My school loans are coming due. Creditors are calling me. I've already borrowed money from everyone who still talks to me."

"Hmm," replies John, "Do you have a tampon?"

"What?" says Susan.

"Cheaper than papers." John rolls up a joint in the powder-scented paper and passes it to Susan. "What about your insurance scam?"

"Oh," says Susan. "Well, Rich was all set. He kept leaving his windows open so I could break in and move out all his stuff. Man...he was insured for like $6000, and he lives in such a bad neighborhood that no one would ever have suspected it was someone he knew."

"So?" says John. "He's giving you half? Three thousand?"

"Yeah, well, the day before I was actually going to go do it, somebody broke in and stole all his stuff. Can you believe that?"

"Scumbags," says John, shaking his head. And then, after a silence: "I could, uh, maybe help you out if you wanted."

Turns out that John scored some stuff the other day, he says, some "really good shit."

"But I got to get it out of my house because the guy I took it from knows me. I could go to jail for this, definitely. Let me just put it at your place until I find my buyer, and then I'll give you half."

"Half?" says Susan, considering. "How much is it?"

"A hundred pounds," says John, "No, wait, man, I'm serious. It sounds like a lot, but I'm telling you, this is good quality stuff. I'm going to have zero problems unloading it. I can take it down to Cedar Key; there's this guy I know there. It's just going to be one day. Two, tops. No problem. Nobody even knows I know you. Come on, man. Help me out."

We ended up giving John the key to our apartment and staying over at Dave's on the night we picked for the drop-off. If John were caught, we decided he would just claim that he'd stolen our purse and found our key and stashed the stuff in a stranger's apartment. Susan and I vowed that if we were questioned we'd just consistently blame each other so there'd be no chance of conviction.

The night passed in sleepless anxiety, and all the next day at work I stared distractedly out the plate-glass window at the parking lot, waiting for the police cars to come screeching through the haze of August heat. At last, it was 11:30 and time to go home.

As Susan and I climbed the stifling stairwell to our second-floor apartment, trepidation over this dirty business mingled with a prickly kind of excitement over being involved with something verboten and also possibly dangerous. I fished for my key on the dark landing and Susan and I looked at each other. There it was, we both knew, right there behind door number four. Not contraband, if you just looked at it the right way, but food, and rent. Maybe even something left over for the cat. This could be the push we needed to propel us into a different kind -- a better kind -- of future. So open that red door, Robin and Susan, and don't be afraid. Turn to crime. Now is your chance.

I swung the door open and there, in the middle of the kitchen floor, wrapped up tightly in brown paper and sporting a cheery logo, was our fortune, our future, our salvation, our...shrimp.

We should have asked John what he meant when he said "stuff." We should have asked how he'd managed to steal 100 pounds of anything truly valuable. We should have known that no matter how much Tom Waits we listened to, we'd never really be criminals, but merely liberal arts majors.

We stood there in the doorway, Susan and I, and looked at the one hundred pounds of peel-and-eat shrimp stolen straight from Ray and Donna's walk-in freezer and melting straight through our un-airconditioned apartment's wooden floor. The ice it had come in had long since disappeared, and the smell of slightly off seafood was settling in for what promised to be a long, long stay.

The cat came in this morning and woke me up licking my face. I still worry that she means me some kind of harm, and am even more unnerved by the smell of her breath. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse? No, it doesn't smell like any of those things. It smells like, what else? Shrimp.


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