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02 January 2006

CALL ME ENNIS DEL MARLOW


BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN WAS SHOWING RECENTLY AT THE MULTIPLEX. AS I WATCHED

THE STORY OF ENNIS DEL MAR AND JACK TWIST, WHAT I SAW WAS EERILY FAMILIAR.


I close the door to my older sisters’ bedroom, roll the wooden swivel chair against it, stand the laundry basket on end behind that. I turn and smile at Serge. He returns my grin. This is our favorite part of the day. I watch him wriggle out of his red t-shirt emblazoned with a huge mosquito and the caption, “Minnesota state bird.” He slips out of his European-cut blue jeans, into the double bed. “Are you not coming then?” he whispers. I exhale, long and slow.

 

Until this summer, I believed men’s underwear came only in white, as boxers or briefs. ‘Often as I have seen them, I am still scandalized by his black bikinis. They seem so exotic, daring, a tad dangerous and like the things we do in bed, very exciting.

 

We met in England last year as team leaders at a camp for children from London’s inner city. He followed up with a visit to the States late this summer. Our renewed friendship is going places I have never been before.

 

I take one step towards the bed when the by-now-familiar sensation hits again. I am a million miles from here climbing a narrow mountain path. My feet slip, I go over the edge. In a panic I grab at grass, dirt, rocks, a branch, anything. Somehow I hold on. My heart pounds, joints quake, everything goes red, black.

 

The moment passes. I catch my breath, listen to the comforting murmur of my parents’ voices from the kitchen. My brothers have retired to their bunks in the boys’ bedroom, the youngest to rest on his laurels. He bested us all in Masterpiece, tonight’s family board game of choice. To win, one must invest wisely in fine art, avoid forgeries, know when to cash in. My brother is good at identifying fakes. This scares me.

 

I drop my bib overalls, unbutton my striped shirt. My fair skin, almost as white as my underwear, makes a marked contrast to Serge’s olive complexion. I caress his face, comb my fingers through his long dark curls.

 

I love this man, whether I know it or not. He makes me happy. I laugh when he is around. We are always talking--politics, religion, life, its big questions and little ones, our observations of the world, including the irritating things he notices about Americans. (He tells me whatever I see in him is by definition an endearing quality of all Frenchmen.)

 

We get on famously, and if we do not, I fail to notice it. Literally. Last month he grew angry at me over something. He sulked (the French national pastime, he calls it) and avoided me for days. I thought he needed space and let him be, which only fueled his anger. By day four he gave up, we made up, made love. Now we laugh about it. I have forgotten what he was mad about in the first place.

 

Pressed against him I shudder softly, breathe his name, “Serge.” I always mispronounce it. My tongue will not wrap around the proper “Sairgszh,” so I Americanize it, say his name as if it were a jolt of electricity, “Surge.” Although it is said wrong, it speaks my truth aright. When it comes to him, what is wrong is right. Oh, so right.

 

Except that it is not. Two men together? When I think of this an inner voice rumbles in King James English, “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? His own iniquities shall take the wicked, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sin.”

 

I copied these Bible verses and others into my prayer journal earlier in the week. I live this way. I make up for being defective by being holy. I am the pi–ata I made for my mother, soggy strips of religion, my pasty attempts at righteousness, layered around a hollow shell, no sweets inside.

 

Last wash day my mother nearly busted everything wide open when she turned back the bed to reveal a blue nylon sleeping bag. “What is this? What is it doing here?” I felt my feet go off the cliff. I grabbed a branch. “Serge, um, gets cold at night.” She bought my story, now makes him take vitamin E capsules to improve his circulation. In reality, the sleeping bag is our latest ploy for assuaging my conscience. It successfully serves as a chastity belt some nights, allowing us to be close, me to be holy.

 

Serge reaches back and up, turns the knob of the yellowed bed lamp hooked over the headboard. I love the cataract of muscle rippling in his arm, the flat planes of his body, the sound of his breathing, the sweet-sour smell of him. He is unimaginably dear to me.

 

A thousand yellow roses bloom on the wallpaper. The soft light illumines the built-in closet, dresser and desk opposite us, the bookshelves my father built, the dresser bought at the church camp auction sale. The two windows open to the crickets’ evening concert. Katydids join the chorus tonight, announcing the first frost in three weeks’ time. They have it wrong. The big chill arrives three days from now when Serge boards a plane bound for New York, Paris, Toulouse. Already my bones ache with cold.

 

He sits up. “Three days until airplane Black Friday.” This is old news. He pulls me up to sit facing him, caresses my cheek, looks long into my eyes. “Listen up, Bucko, I want to tell you what I am thinking of, what I am dreaming of. It will be a long time before we see each other again. We will see each other again, please God. I shall miss you. Already I miss you and you are right here. I love you, as I have told you many times. My heart will be empty. Right, it does not have to be this way. We could live together and share our activities. Come to Europe. We could live in England or Ireland, if you like, or in France, even. You would have no excuse for not learning to speak French then, you Yankee Hamburger. The thing is, we could make a life together, you and I.” He exhales a loud puff of air, stretches his fingers wide, expectant. “What do you say? Will you do it?”

 

The air in the room gets very thin. Bed and all, I am going over the cliff. What is there to hold on to? I see with sudden clarity that my panic is about mousetraps, not mountains. My father used to pay me to set and empty traps--a nickel for every mouse I caught. I carried each day’s catch down to the coal furnace in our basement, swung open the heavy cast iron door. Unwilling to touch death, I would hold the trap by its edges, dangle the soft satin body over the glowing coals, prise up the killing edge of the copper wire, watch the little corpse drop away. This, then, is my recurring panic: I am the mouse. The trap has sprung. Caught dead to rights, I am hanging in air. If I say yes I will lift the copper wire, surely tumble into the depths of hell. I scrabble for a handhold.

 

“Oh, Serge.” My voice catches in my throat. “I could never go with you. I know in my heart there is no future in such a life, no happiness. Not for me, not for you, not for anybody.”

 

We are silent. My ready answer has landed with all the delicacy of a sucker punch. I watch his face stiffen. He nods. It is OK. He understands. He is sorry he asked. He wants only what I want. He wants me to be happy.

 

I look at him across the divide of our desires, through curtains of tears. I want him to be happy, too, really I do. What can I say? I vision our future. “Serge, we are both going to get married, find a woman, be very happy. You wait and see. ‘Tell you what, when I get married I want you to be in my wedding. I will send you a plane ticket, OK?” Sure. We make a pact. We will both attend each other’s wedding, pay the other’s plane fare. Fine. This takes care of our future, but what do we do with this present space between us?

 

Serge moves first. He slides his feet into the sleeping bag, zips it up to his chest, lies on his back, staring at the cracked ceiling. I lie beside him feeling no holiness in our chastity tonight, only an aching emptiness that swallows the world, this lonesome, noisy, knock-about world. The katydids have it right. The cold is coming. What do we have but this moment? I unzip the bag, tug it off him, let it dangle over the side of the bed, slip away.

 


The second time Bryn Marlow married, he wed a man, Dave. Serge was involved in both ceremonies.

 

This essay first appeared in White Crane, No. 68, Spring 2006

It was excerpted in Utne Reader, November/December 2006   

01 January 2006

COUNTRY NOODLE SOUP FOR THE SOUL


It felt like an ordinary day, an ordinary meal, an ordinary bowl of noodles. Maybe it was, but it was his last. The earthquake hit. All hell broke loose. The river catapulted out of its banks. It came rushing in, pushing a wall of vegetation, soil and rock in front of it. He ran for his life. The bowl of noodles hit the ground and landed upside down as disaster struck. All went dark. Everyone and everything in the village was buried under ten feet of clay soil.

Four thousand years later, scientists digging at the Lajia archeological site on the Yellow River in China reconstructed this scene. They noted skeletons thrown into various abnormal positions. The inhabitants had been overwhelmed as they tried to flee the catastrophe.

As reported in the journal Nature, when scientists lifted the overturned bowl, they found the clay soil had vacuum-sealed its contents. All these years later, there were the noodles. It was an extraordinary find. As you might well guess, Stone Age noodles are not easy to come by.

I think it’s a fascinating story. My longsuffering husband has heard me recount it numerous times. The other night I was telling it in his hearing once again. “The scientists lifted the bowl,” I said theatrically, “and there were the noodles, four thousand years later!”

“And the thing is,” my weary husband interposed, “they were still hot.”

We all laughed. Yet it’s true that for me those noodles are still warm, moist and juicy. There’s something about them that compels me.

Perhaps it’s the parallels to my own life. The earthquake struck when I came out gay at age 35. In the ensuing flood, I lost my life as I knew it—along with my wife, children, church, family, friends, job and home in the country.

Yet I lived to tell about it and what felt like thousands of years later to sort through the wreckage looking for anything I could salvage. Amongst the debris I found a small bowl—a soul-container—and, inside, some simple ordinary things which nourish me.

Trees. Stars. The seasonal rhythms of nature. The musty smells of an old barn. Chickens and geese. Fresh-grown vegetables. An outdoor privy. Raccoons, coyotes and deer as neighbors. The loud hammering of a woodpecker. The even louder quiet when he’s done. These and more are good soul medicine for me.

And for others, as well. “I am convinced, both as a psychoanalyst and as cantodora [storyteller], that many times it is the things of nature that are the most healing,” says Charissa Est├ęs in Women Who Run With Wolves, “especially the very accessible and the very simple ones.”

Returning to a simple country life four years after coming out was part of my healing. My husband and I were evicted from our small-town apartment after word got out a gay couple was living there. We began an earnest search for a place of our own. We wanted it to be soul-nurturing, in the country, and affordable. At long last we found Old Winters, a rural Indiana farmhouse nestled in 18 wooded acres.

Country living comes at a price. Initially, we paid it in mailboxes. For some while after we moved in, ours was the only mailbox on our rural Indiana road regularly targeted for drive-by batting practice. Each new police officer who came by to write up a vandalism report acted mystified as to why it kept happening. My husband and I were not so naive.

We kept replacing mailboxes, hoping the vandal would tire of the game. We tired of it first. If he could play hardball, so could we. We filled our next mailbox with cement. Maybe the vandal did get a shock when he hit it, but he exacted revenge by stealing the box, the cement, the post, everything.

We then arranged a set-up that allowed us to detach the mailbox and bring it in each night. He stole our set-in-concrete wooden post. Now we bring in both mailbox and post every night. He hasn’t yet stolen the hole in the ground. What he has done is sprinkle our door and yard with bags of “anthrax.” He’s also set fire to the porch.

I feel angry and fearful about paying this price to live in a soulful place. Yet I realize that living close to one’s heart always extracts a price of some kind. For me, country living is a wise investment.

I pay attention to what feeds my inner self. Recently, that came in building an outhouse—a fabulous outhouse. It’s made of boards reclaimed from a tumbled down hog shed. This privy has curtained windows, a gorgeous old-oak two-hole seat and a sitting porch, even. We named it Fern Hill, after the poem by Dylan Thomas that begins, “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” In some way I don’t quite understand, my past, present and future meet in this little building. We had an outhouse when I was growing up, as did my grandparents. We used it regularly. Last year, when winter storms left us without power for a week, we wished for an outhouse. Having one now is insurance against future power outages. It’s also a connection with the old ways and with the earthiness of life.

Sometimes nature comes looking to us for nourishment, as when an orphaned raccoon adopted us for a spell one year. Rascal was a faerie spirit who taught me much about the wildish nature and the life/death/life aspect of being. So, too, our goose Albert, a cantankerous fowl creature who embodied my animal nature—that which will turn and bite me in the butt if I’m not careful.

Living in the country offers me solitude. Much as I appreciate that, there are times I’d like some other men with whom to be easy under the apple boughs. I learn from this, as well. For ten years my husband and I have been part of an intimate circle of loving companions that meets monthly in the capitol city. It’s a 90-minute trip one way, and worth it for the mutual support and encouragement we share. We also run a monthly gay men’s support/discussion group in our home, another way we create meaningful connection and community. Once each year we travel further afield and attend a national gathering of fey spirits. We drink deeply of these waters, for the memory of this experience must sustain us through another year.

Country living reminds me of my connection to the physical and cultural landscape around me. My outer life shapes my inner life, and vice versa. Energy flows both ways. Life is richer when I am mindful of this.

Thus, we make conscious choices about what we allow into our home. Old Winters has no television, no internet access, no cell phone. An answering machine screens incoming calls. Books line our walls. That’s my bailiwick. Hand-crafted furniture and hand-sewn artifacts testify to my husband’s leisure time pursuits. A placard above the fireplace bears words adapted from Ira Progoff, “I enter Old Winters as a sanctuary, a refuge, a protected place set apart from the cares of the world. . . . Here I deepen and expand my perspectives on being. Here I find my heart’s home.” No idle words, these. Living them out is for me a path with heart. And a venture into the unknown.

Archeologists at Lajia snapped a picture of the Stone Age noodles. It’s a good thing they did. Exposed to air and sunlight, the millenniums-old noodles soon crumbled to dust.

There is Mystery here. That which sustains me at a deep level is something of a slippery noodle. Try as I might to quantify it, contain it, explain it, its essence always eludes my grasp. It’s enough that I recognize my hunger for it, and discern what it is nourishing soul food from that which is empty calories. For me, country living sharpens my appetite for the real thing.


This essay appeared in RFD, No. 124, Winter 2005–06