My Queer War
Indian summer was a little late that year, bringing lambent afternoons, miniature whirlwinds of withering leaves, misty sunsets, wild evenings. To one side of the campus lay a strip of lawn secluded behind rhododendron hedges where I liked to linger in the amethyst twilight, a select hideaway for meetings with myself. Then one evening an awareness that I was not alone stole across the grass: a figure in uniform, someone I knew by way of hello only, a PFC from down the hall named Jerry Weinbaum, not in any of our study groups, a guy who laughed a lot, tall, not bad-looking. He said, ‘Hi there. Be dark in a few minutes. Mind if I walk along?’
‘Course not. How you doing?’
‘I make out. You?’
‘Oh, sure. Everything’s OK.’
‘Find Boston friendly then, do you?’
‘I do, yes. Nice people. Make you feel right at home.’
‘Already found yourself a friend then?’
‘One of my room-mates, yes. Comes from Boston. His mother invited me to lunch last Sunday, played the harp; it was beautiful.’
‘Say, that must have been all right. Nice lady, huh? Don’t hang out with the boys, though, do the bars, drinking, you know, hail-fellow-well-met thing?’
‘Not really. I’m not too keen on the USO type, tell the truth.’
‘No kidding. Who is? That’s not what I meant. I meant making out with guys you really get along with, you know, guys like us.’
I hesitated, not knowing where such desultory talk could go – besides, it was getting dark – not giving a damn, pointless to chat with someone with whom I had nothing in common.
He said, ‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’
‘Not at all. Shoot.’
‘Are you gay?’
‘Funny thing,’ I said. ‘That lady I mentioned, she said I was a gay blade. She meant somebody without a care in the world, I guess.’
‘Come on’ – he cut in brusquely – ‘that’s not what I’m talking about. I spotted you from the beginning. Takes one to know one. So fess up. I’m not the police. Wouldn’t come on to you if I wasn’t gay myself. Relax.’
He put his hand on my shoulder while I was numbed by surprise and moved his fingertips gently to the nape of my neck, tickling my hair till I shivered and my legs were like danger in deep water.
‘You like to make love to boys, don’t you?’ he said, and when in the trembling silence I didn’t say no, he added, ‘Do you mind if I kiss you?’ and when I didn’t say no, he did.
And I kissed him back, letting go of time, place, myself, the swelling seizure of sensation, surrender, sudden nothingness of everything else, no longer knowing what or where or why, and his hands were all over me, fumbling with my clothes, nor did I understand how we were lying on the cool grass in the abrupt dark, so I mumbled, ‘But somebody might see us,’ in an ecstasy of fear.
‘This is your first time, isn’t it?’ he said in my ear. ‘I can tell. I’ll show you what it’s like. You’ll like it. Just let yourself go, baby.’
So I did, and he did, and I did.
The ascent into oblivion was utter caesura of self. I choked against the lament of pleasure, the shock of life, as if I’d waited for it for ever; neither vile nor frightening, it bit me exactly where – and how – the heartbeat of sensation, thoughtless and pure, drove my blood, the freedom of it intoxicating. So this was what it was all about. Yes. And I thought, ‘If only.’
But there I was with Jerry in the confusion of our bodies in the grass, now pitch dark, and our clothes were a mess.
He said, ‘So you don’t know what it means to be gay?’
‘It’s a password. We use it between ourselves so other people won’t know we’re talking about being queer. You don’t know a thing about the gay scene, do you?’
‘I guess I don’t.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Late starter. High time you got to know the world you’re going to spend your life in. I can give you a shove in that direction if you want. Don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got a lot to learn. I go into Boston weekends. Can show you around. You’ll be surprised. I can give you the shove. You sink or swim, that’s your business. OK?’
‘I guess,’ I said.
‘Friday then. See you at the bus stop six thirty, forty-five. Button up your pants, sweetheart.’
Was what had happened apparent to my roommates? Aaron? Tony? They naturally knew that homosexuality was a quotient of the human equation, Oscar Wilde having taken good care to publicize the facts. Jerry considered me innocent; I could play that part for my friends breezily. When Aaron enquired about the weekend, I said I was going to cruise around town on my own, never in my jejune insouciance fancying that that described exactly what I’d do.
Jerry led me along past the Public Garden to the Hotel Statler, telling me never to forget how to get there, as this would be my jumping-off place in Boston.
The lobby was long and high, expensive, gold-plated, busy with wartime visitors. This was where guests registered for the weekend. It paid off to reserve a room in advance, Jerry said, because when cruising the bar, you’d want someplace to do it if you picked up a trick.
The crescent-shaped bar was packed with servicemen, several rows deep, too many to count, a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty, most of them drinking beer from the bottle, loud with flighty talk and piercing laughter. Crowded tight together, jostling back and forth, not one lady or girl among them, only a handful of civilians.
‘Yes,’ said Jerry, ‘they’re all gay.’
‘But this is a public place. People who don’t know could come in, couldn’t they?’
‘Oh, yeah. Straights stray in. It happens. But usually they notice something and stray right out again. I mean, we have a right to Lebensraum, haven’t we? Anyway, there’s a straight seating area right up there to keep things looking honest.’
Back a polite distance from the bar, up three or four steps behind a metal grille, were a lot of small tables, clients seated there, a proviso of women among them, waiters in snappy jackets dancing around to serve them.
‘But don’t they know?’ I wondered. ‘Can’t they tell?’
‘Hell, no. Decent people don’t want to know. And anyway, they couldn’t tell if their grandmothers sold snuggle on the side. It’s an obstacle course getting to the bar to get served. Use your elbows. But watch out for your pants. It can get real feely in this crowd.’
Elbows, knees and ‘sorry’ got us through. Jerry asked for a Rheingold. I said Tom Collins.
Some of the servicemen were exciting to look at, and some of them obviously knew it, glancing round the crowd with chancy eyes and the aura pervasive throughout was edgy-sexy readiness for anything. I’d never known the like or known myself like an element of it.
An English marine lance corporal in dress uniform wedged along in front of me, said, ‘Hi there, Yankee Doodle, what say we make out below stairs in the Gents?’ his fingers fooling free-and-easy with the buttons of my fly.
Of course in the confines of the crowd it would have been difficult to see what he was doing, and he was good-looking enough, ruddy, bright-eyed, brawny in the tight-fitting uniform; and the incursion of his fingers roused me all right, though his breath in my face was brewery, and I knew perfectly well what the Gents meant; it was shocking that I wasn’t all that shocked, yet I couldn’t let myself go so easily so soon, and I brushed aside his hand, saying – but with a gasp – ‘Sorry. Some other time.’
Jerry was chatting up a lieutenant in pinks – yes, there were a few officers – but I bumped between and said, ‘Can’t we get out of here? I need some air.’
‘Christ,’ Jerry gurgled. ‘Hold on, will you? Let me say a word to Glen for a minute. I’ll catch up with you in the lobby.’
We walked up Tremont opposite the Common, to Schrafft’s, and had some pot roast and blueberry pie. Jerry told me I’d better settle down and learn what I wanted to do about what was inside my pants or I might turn out to be one sad and lonely faggot. It was common sense speaking, I knew, but I felt the gnaw of worry I’d be found wanting when called to act on the lesson of my sexual ABCs.
‘Back to the Statler?’ I asked when we came out on to the sidewalk.
‘Better try something else,’ said Jerry. ‘Now you know your way to the Statler you can touch base there any time. Now’s a good time for the Napoleon.’
‘Napoleon? As in Bonaparte? You must be kidding.’
‘Hell, no. Shit, ever since Alex the Great and his boyfriend what’s-his-name, groovy guys in uniform are doable, and anyway, Alex didn’t go in much for clothes, did he? The Napoleon’s a gay club. Right down here.’
In the darkling side street, the houses all looked stunted, their doors steeped in secrets, to which our presence brought no enlightenment, and I wondered how the hell I was going to get out of this.
He pressed a button, a piercing light lit the doorway, a peephole popped open, and he said, ‘Hi there, honey child, it’s your uncle Wiggly.’
Honey child was a black six-footer wearing a purple T-shirt and apple-green skullcap. ‘Hello, Auntie,’ he said. ‘You come in. Bring your boyfriend.’
‘Just say my friend’s friend’s all,’ said Jerry. ‘Trust him in your hands, honey, you give him a push. Me, I’ve got a date, gonna boogie with a looie at the Ritz.’
Jerry pinched my behind. ‘You’re on your own, Jim. You’ll be OK. See you back at St Mary’s.’ And he skipped away into the incautious dark.
Honey child led me inside. A staircase with a cherry-red carpet and a pink droplet chandelier. He said, ‘You trot upstairs now like a good boy, find yourself any friend, you hear me,’ and he gently prodded the small of my back.
In the high, long room upstairs a comfortable crowd of men eddied along the bar; there was a huge painting of Napoleon astride a charger and a baby white upright piano against the other wall, a bald gent in a tuxedo tickling the ivories and singing ‘Mad About the Boy’ in a whispering falsetto.
‘Are you?’ someone murmured in my ear.
‘What?’ I exclaimed, turning. ‘What is it?’
‘Like that?’ said the stranger, a dark-haired, tan-cheeked young fellow in civvies, nodding at the singer, who was still singing about being mad about a boy.
‘Are you?’ asked my interlocutor again.
The entertainer flung up his hands, turning to face the crowd and gave a seated bow to the sputtering of applause, his face florid with makeup, mascara and rouge, and some of the red had rubbed off onto his teeth so that the show-business smile was a bit Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
‘Well,’ insisted my neighbour, ‘are you?’
Then I looked at him. Tall, slender, in a navy-blue suit, eyes amber with an intense sapphire tint but smiling, friendly, dimpled cheeks. So I said, ‘Well, am I?’
‘Mad about a boy? Must be, I’d think, hanging out in this place, no?’
I said, ‘Must be.’
‘Shall we drink to it?’
He walked to the bar, his gait, it seemed, slightly askew, not quite a limp but not the automatic stride of youth either. It gave him an air, somewhat distingué, attractive. Like a diplomat, I thought, on duty at the consulate in Palermo. He ordered Scotch and soda for two.
I said, ‘Why is this place called the Napoleon?’
‘Why not? All his soldiers were in love with him. Stationed in Boston, are you?’
‘Chestnut Hill, Boston College. Special training programme.’
‘Cushy. Better off than GI Joe slogging around in the Italian rain.’
‘You bet.’ I laughed. ‘And you? You live here?’
‘That’s right. Just around the corner, as a matter of fact. I suppose you’re wondering, aren’t you? People do. I must be the only civilian in here. All these beautiful uniforms, and look at me.’
What I saw was a handsome man about twenty-five years old, wearing a white shirt and a necktie matching his eyes. ‘So what?’
‘I’m four-F. You may have noticed. The limp. Could call it the FDR exemption. Caught polio as a kid. Lucky, though. Only one leg affected, and not too bad. I can hop, but I can’t skip.’
‘Well then, you’re better off than the president. Lots of jobs in civvy street these days anyway. So you build airplanes or something?’
He smiled and offered me a cigarette. He was in control, as if appraising the terms of a plenipotentiary transaction. ‘I’m a sort of architect, pretty good with blueprints, you know. What’s your name?’
‘Jim,’ I said, taken aback by the quick simplicity of his superiority. ‘Jim Lord.’
‘Nice name. I like it,’ he said. ‘Jim. Mine’s Gordon. Haney. Gordon Haney. You’re on your own, are you?’
‘Sure,’ I said, thinking Jerry would have told me, in any case, I’d better be. ‘I’m on my own.’
‘Like to come to my place for a drink then?’
I swallowed hard on his invitation, but it was what I was here for, andI cleared my throat to say, ‘Yes. Sure. I’d like to.’
Gordon gave me a very accomplished grin, paid for our drinks, and we went to the stairway past the portrait of the soldier beloved by soldiers.
Around the corner turned out to lie several streets distant in the night now too quiet, and Gordon kept time with our steps telling stories of the city’s history.
It wasn’t too long, or long enough, before we came to his place. It lay down a walled passageway giving on to a courtyard where three trees still held a few faded leaves, and two small brick houses faced each other above an antique lantern. ‘Eighteen twenty-six,’ said Gordon. ‘Built by a whaler for his twin sons, Ebenezer and Jedediah Spooner. We live on the left hand, of course, the Ebenezer House,’ as he unlocked the white door.
I followed up three flights to an attic room, narrow and snug with a sloping ceiling, a divan to the right with cushions heaped against the wall, a couple of chairs, a record player, orange lights turned low, and a glass door at the end opening on to a flat roof. He said sit down, make yourself comfortable, take off your jacket and tie, take a deep breath. I’ll make us a drink. And he went back downstairs. Undoing the top two buttons of my shirt, I wasn’t afraid. I was terrified. Knowing perfectly well why I was there, only wanting to be there. With this stranger, his gazelle-like limp and capable eyes. Would he find me inadequate, clumsy, ignorant, timid, a fool, a mistake? I was ready for anything, prepared for nothing. And what had happened with Jerry would be no good to me now, because now I had to know myself, to be something, become someone I didn’t know.
Gordon came back, clinking glass in each hand, sat beside me on the divan and said, ‘A little music maybe. Rocky Two?’
I swallowed. ‘What’s that?’
‘Rachmaninov. The Second Piano Concerto.’
‘Come on, Jim. Don’t be nervous.’
I lied, ‘I’m not, I’m not nervous.’
‘Yes, you are. You are. Here. Look at me.’
He took my face in both of his hands, drawing me to him, to his mouth, kissing, searching with his lips tentatively at first, gently, then more tenaciously as I opened to him, responsive to his mouth in mine, holding on to him to save my life.
He held me back an inch from his face. ‘Do you want to take your clothes off by yourself, or would you like me to do it?’
Someone else speaking for me said, ‘Yes, please, you do it.’
He did it. Ever so slowly, so tenderly, button by button, easing away shirt, shoes and socks, pants, while at the same time guiding my hands to do the same for him, and he contrived too to turn off the nearby lights so we were in each other’s shadow, and it was amazing, as if such gestures and facility had been born and bred in both of us from a time before we knew what we were doing, and we were naked together on the divan among the jumble of cushions, and it was all right, altogether, everything that he did to me, and with me, that I did likewise to him and with him, and I wanted ever so much to be more, far more, and for him, and it was, it was for him and because of him when the crescendo of sensation became complete … then the silence of our breathing.
Motionless, wordless, we waited. He handed me a glass. I held it against my wet stomach. He lit a cigarette. Then there intruded a sound as of a fluttering of winged things outside, touching the door’s glass panes. It was raining.
‘That was good,’ he said. ‘You know, you’re very sweet to make love to. Are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ I said, wanting to whisper to him, ‘I’m all right, yes.’
‘I’m glad. You can stay over if you like. There are clean sheets and a blanket under the coverlet, a bathroom on the half landing outside. Better to stay over unless you have to be someplace early Sunday.’
He stood up, and I did notice then that his left leg was thinner than the right, though not unsightly. Having put out the cigarette, he gathered up his clothes and shoes in a bundle under one arm, his drink in the other hand, and said pleasant dreams.
In the morning take a shower, shave. Come down any time you’re ready. We get up early. Waffles for breakfast on Sundays. And a glass of champagne. Nothing’s too good for a member of our armed forces.
We? To be sure, he’d said ‘we’ at the front door, but I could have assumed he meant the two of us then. And why had he not stayed to sleep beside the body it had been sweet to make love to? I wondered in the sudden solitude, the flutter of raindrops against the glass speechless.
The bathroom was almost overly immaculate, too well appointed to allow you to feel at home, so you supposed you weren’t supposed to. I went alone to turn out the lights and go to sleep on the destitute divan.
An abrupt brightness jerked me awake the next day. There was a confusion of blankets, sunlight, but no naked body beside mine, and I suddenly ached for Gordon, anxious again for the desire and the bafflement.
I took a cold shower, shaved, dressed and went downstairs.