“No irons, flat irons, waffle irons, curling irons.” I understood: Do not shape anything.
I didn’t know I was flamboyant. My hands simply moved that way. Now they are free again. My mother isn’t here to catch them with her stunning gaze like she used to, making me drop them into my lap like two birds shot dead from the sky.
I hemmed my hands and my walk in back then, fearing my mother’s downturned mouth. I wanted the ease and assurance of the thick neighbor boys with their knowing grins and low, rumbling voices. I tried to be more of a boy, to learn the language and the walk, wondering why I didn’t know it already, didn’t dream in it. It never looked right. There were flourishes. The voice was a problem. My body and my voice and my name didn’t align into one solid thing. They were like bits sketched and re-sketched and everyone saw the erasures and do-overs. It was an affront to people that I wasn’t presenting something complete.
I had a cousin my same age. He was a few weeks older than me, the son of my father’s brother. He was a big kid, taller than me, and at holidays—Christmas usually, Easter sometimes—his mother would have us stand back to back in my grandmother’s living room. My cousin was always bigger, always taller. It amused the adults that I was smaller and shorter. He’s all-boy, my aunt said about her son. I knew what she was saying. Everyone was sort of in on it. I don’t know what they thought they were doing. I like to pretend they didn’t understand it. They seemed to sleepwalk through those gatherings. I know I tried to.
Now most of those sleepwalkers are gone: My uncle and my aunt and my grandfather and my grandmother and my father and my mother are all dead. The all-boy cousin is dead too. He’s been gone ten years. I remember at his visitation I stood at his casket’s side looking down. He didn’t look so big then.
The same cracked plaster and poor lighting and lead paint. The rooms are one now, as in a dream where a house opens into another and another, crossing time and space. A room. Another four walls like the other four. Better floor, worse natural light. No light. A room in a boarding house with no windows, only a skylight. Like living at the bottom of a well.
Between fifteen and thirty I moved thirty-two times. I worked through apartments and people quickly, moving from one address to another, surviving on people’s good graces, the conditional kindness of strangers, and mutual vampirism. They were lonely. I needed a place to stay and was a perfect houseguest: a sweet, agreeable lap fag with a smile and a quip for everyone. I was the nicest guy you’d never know.
I would meet someone, befriend them, and move in temporarily with a small suitcase and a pillow. I lay in bed or on a couch or a floor in a strange room with strangers’ voices coming through the walls.
Moving through buildings: apartments that looked like extended-stay hotel rooms; hotel rooms that looked like independent living facilities; rehabs that looked like youth hostels; psyche wards that looked like psych wards. Life was a blur but that could be exciting because a blur couldn’t be fixed in place. Everything was temporary. I kept one eye on the next opportunity at all times. I knew that no matter how long you had lived in a place you could leave in a minute or with only a few words. I traveled light. I kept myself to two pairs of pants, three shirts, and a week’s worth of socks. I dispensed with underwear altogether and kept my boots buffed and shined. I cut my own hair and maintained a trim beard—saved on shaving. I stole books and food, slept on floors and couches, edges of beds, pieces of leases and sublets. Not eating for a few days sharpened the mind. Quick, cold showers helped too, kicking up the internal furnace.
I lived with kids like me where I could. We were disenfranchised teenage fags and dykes in Reagan’s America and the country wanted us dead as far as we could tell. We were seven teenagers living in a railroad apartment, stuffed into every available space. Our possessions were crammed in drawers, stacked in piles on the floor, or kept in crumpled paper bags in corners. We brushed against each other, slept in heaps like puppies, pissed two at time in the filthy bathroom while another bathed and the one who could do so convincingly shaved at the sink.
I was living in a boarding house with a shared bathroom and kitchen. The gas stove was missing knobs and could only be turned on with a pair of pliers. The shower door had to be held shut. Pots that were used to catch leaks in the ceiling were later used to make lunch. I slept on a filthy mattress and a yellowing pillowcase covering a lumpy mash. My clothes carpeted the floor. A small dormer window faced the building next door and over its roof in the winter I watched the sun go down at four in the afternoon.
I was invited to a dinner party. Fortunately, it wasn’t a potluck or I couldn’t have gone. I wore my one good sweater and a pair of pants that weren’t jeans. I thought I looked adult. A guy from the restaurant where I worked had invited me.
The address belonged to a large house that took me two bus routes to reach. The food was baronial. Plates crowded with meat and greens. Conversation was bright and fast. There was wine. Its warmth spread out and made everyone kind and friendly. I was a little bit in love with all of them.
Dinner was finished; dishes were cleared, the night ended. Coats were fetched.
I floated on the night and the wine and someone laughing at something I’d said because I was clever and sweet and how old are you?
“Sixteen, almost seventeen.” I’d said it over and over. It was part of the fun.
Afterward, back in the boarding house, I padded from the bathroom to my room and thought of the large hands of the man who sat beside me at dinner, daintily cutting his food into perfectly square portions. I thought of that arm hooked possessively around me. I lay down in my sweater and thought I might need a knit cap too. The room was so cold I could see my breath. I pressed my damp face into the pillow and shook.
There was a period of time when my motto was: “If it doesn’t fit in the trunk of a cab, forget it.” Magazines, books, bedding, pots and pans were all replaceable. Everything was like a wedding: borrowed and blue. Salvation Army or Saint Vincent de Paul or estate sales were the places to replenish. From friends: cast-offs. All possessions existed in the Buddhist twilight of non-attachment.
Sometimes I wondered about my mother. Did she think of me at night? I wasn’t indifferent to my mother. I did care. But after a few years it seemed both embarrassing and a waste of time to express it. I’d met many people by then who had lopped off their pasts and made new selves or told stories in an icy, funny way. I wanted to be that too. It took practice and for a long time I wasn’t good at hiding my feelings, but then suddenly it happened: I told my stories with a sharp laugh. The center was dead, and I knew that I wasn’t my mother’s son anymore.
A doubly dark night—the streets and the mind in horrible allegiance—bombed into insensibility or zonked on dope, anything to wrangle the stray energy into a fraternal order with rules, a code that only makes sense for those who take it deadly serious. Like the spy who merged with his cover story, I can no longer remember my mission.
I was told the apartment had bad electrical and I empathized with the apartment—I had bad electrical too. He said irons were particularly bad, maybe the worst. They blew fuses. He gestured at a little dead row of them like hardened insects lined along the box in the kitchen coated in grime. “No irons, flat irons, waffle irons, curling irons.” I nodded, I understood: Do not shape anything.
I said, “Sorry my hands are cold.” We shook and his were colder. It was like two ice sculptures meeting. A month ago, I had stood at my rehab graduation and was applauded and was given a certificate and a piece of store-bought sheet cake and a plush toy bear wearing a collar adorned with a Valentine heart locket that was engraved “So-Bear.”
I was starting over.
What choices did I have? I moved in.
He sat on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table. One sock was pulled partway off revealing spider veins by the anklebone. Crushed beer cans formed a semicircle around his foot like a mysterious monolith.
“How was your junkie meeting?” he said. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Can you get me a beer from the fridge?”
Day or night, he was usually on the couch in some state of disheveled undress—a slow, ripe striptease. Shirt undone, a tired man breast drooping out. He kept upping the ante. He was like an illusionist in reverse—more of him kept appearing. Cut-off track pants, sweat shorts, sleeveless tees, stringy tank tops, and then only underwear. Baggy boxers with occasional flashes of pendulous nut sack gave way to too-small briefs.
I didn’t say anything, didn’t acknowledge what was happening, made beer runs for him, and tore numbers off posters advertising rooms for rent.
My life was interior decorated with disappointments but so far I’d managed to dodge the total defeat of giving up and turning to Jesus.
As my sponsor, a Southern gentleman, would have said: I felt tested.
Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook MINCE (Bridge Productions, 2016). His writing has appeared in Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and SAND Journal, among many others.