Each Other

Adam Drinkwater

Writer’s comment: Despite increased mainstreaming of diverse sexual expression, many Americans generally treat sexuality (and specifically developing sexuality) as taboo—something mysterious, awkward or inappropriate for discussion. In a time when psychology and science can explain and dispel most irrational beliefs about sexuality, some still shy away from accepting gays as part of life and culture. I wrote “Each Other” quickly in one sitting because these lucid memories came all at once, and I wanted to capture them and sort through them and try to make sense of what didn’t make sense. I wanted to translate a delicate personal part of my past into a story about two men coming of age and dealing with issues that many Americans ignore and reject. Thanks to the total freedom of an English 101 assignment, I wrote this story.
—Adam Drinkwater

Instructor’s comment: If I had to categorize this piece of writing, I'd call it "creative non-fiction" because it dances on the line between fiction and essay: It has the drawing power of narrative, with its finely drawn characters, vivid scene-setting, dramatic conflict, and development over time (it's no surprise that Adam is also an award-winning fiction writer). But it also explores ideas, and, as an essay, it carries the weight of fact. This is a story about the author's personal experience, but it's also about the idea of growing up gay and about the ways in which that development is interwoven with (among other things) religion, education, and the Boy Scouts. The story draws us in (what will happen?), and then the ideas compel us to respond (what? how? who? where? why?). When I first read this piece it took my breath away, and I find upon re-reading it that its power has not diminished.
—Pamela Demory, English Department

I first noticed his legs when he lay flat, reaching into the pool to lift someone out. His blue Speedos were taut against his buttocks, and his whole body was white, soft and smooth—it reminded me of the naked women you’d see in Renaissance paintings, the women’s bodies so pudgy and pale they’re hardly discernable from the toga-like sheets that cover them. At night after swim practice, I’d think about myself wrapped around those legs, my face moving downward, tasting mouthfuls of chlorinated flesh.
         Nick lived on my street. He’d come over and pretend we were police officers dealing with violent criminals—at least he did. I usually played the perpetrator, and he’d throw me on my driveway and cuff me and kneel into my back and stab me with the plastic barrel of his nine millimeter and whisper this is it. I’d lay flat on the pavement, my cheek cold against concrete, and he’d continue to keep his knee stabbed in my spine.
         We weren’t friends really. He went to a Christian School downtown—his 7th grade class consisted of eleven students that learned about creationism in science class. I went to the public junior high at the end of our street and got beat up every now and then for being white, rich, or a faggot. (Justin didn’t like me checking out his chiseled body when he took off his shirt during P.E.) Because Nick and I weren’t friends, we didn’t spend much time together. Nick hung out with the club soccer players who consistently went to state finals every year, while I sat out most of my AYSO games because I was too fat to run quickly. Nick advanced to a full-fledged Boy Scout a year before I did. When I finally crossed from Cub Scouts to his troop, he usually hung out with the teenagers and talked to me when they were busy and made fun of me when they weren’t. Then my mom would take us to my house and we’d stay out in the desert night; he’d chase me to a dark corner where the shadows created an absolute blackness, and he’d take the gun—this is it—and I’d taste the cold plastic and pretend I was strung out, and he’d threaten sense into me. This is it.
         The first time we kissed I lay by my closet and pretended to be dead after he’d shot me. I feigned unconsciousness, my hands resting neatly on my stomach like the sleeping princess in fairy tales, and he pretended to give me CPR. He put his lips over mine, and breathed into my mouth; his breath tasted like sweat. I moved my tongue between his teeth and he sucked on it, keeping his lips vacuumed over mine. He always kissed like that, even in his teens, he’d keep his mouth open wide, wetting my five o’clock shadow. That kiss unlocked everything. After that kiss we had as many sleepovers as possible. He’d come over, and we’d get naked quickly. I’d watch “Boy’s Life” while eating pizza and he’d suck me. Then we’d switch. We’d do it a few times a night. We always had to keep quiet because the bed squeaked, so eventually we starting setting up a tent in the backyard and sleeping out there. In the tent we could move freely, moan, rock. “I think about girls when we do this,” he’d say when I was on top. “Don’t you?” I’d never answer and we’d keep going. Then he’d tell me that he loved me.
         At Boy Scout camp we’d share a tent. Summer after summer he tasted like salt when I sucked him. Summer after summer those downy legs became sinewy and spackled with hair. The camp was on Catalina Island, and he’d always swim in the murky green bay. I’d canoe and watch the lifeguards—well made blondes in their late teens, shaggy hair dangling about their sunglasses and sun spotted shoulders. We’d never talk about the lifeguards though. We never talked about us either. At nights we’d hike to the cliffs and watch the sea of the sky, a black depth that seemed to close in. As we’d stare up, the stars seemed to spin around us, like we were being lifted away from the crashing waves below. We’d come back to the tent late and put our sleeping bags together on the wooden floor (the cots were rusted by the salt air and squeaked loudly). We’d spend half the night together before putting our bags back on the cots. It was automatic. During the day we never looked at one another. In the shower we kept in our corners, our bodies turned to the spigots. When they taunted someone for looking at cock we’d join in.
         The older we became, the less we saw of each other. Only at camp would we spend time together. We never called one another. We never visited each other’s houses. But we’d always share a tent (whether it be summer camp or weekend excursions). In the pop up tents we’d have to move quietly, forming a consistent rhythm in one sleeping bag to avoid rustling. We couldn’t talk. In the night’s silence sound carried throughout the campsite. His dad usually lay in the tent next to us. Sometimes his dad took us to the cliffs at night, and under the stars he’d murmur a prayer, and we’d hold hands in a circle—Nick on one side, I on another.
         The last time I saw him was at camp Moabi, a motor home park bordering the Colorado River. It was July and the tents were set in a tight circle. Our shirts were off, the air stunk of sweat, and we sat on newly cut grass. Nick got up and told us to swim. He ran to the beach of the Colorado and waded up to his waist, and we followed. The six of us splashed and swam in the oily darkness. I couldn’t see anything except the orange haze of streetlamps in the motor home parking lot, dozens of motorboats bobbing by the dock, and Nick. His back was to me, and he heaved for air, his downy shoulders rising and falling. I reached out, touched the indent of his vertebrate, brushed my fingernails down the back of his trunks. As I did this he sunk down into the icy blackness and sprouted out and ran back to shore. We showered afterward to get the gasoline water off our bodies. We slept in the tent, barely moving at all for fear of making any sound, and he lay still as my lips covered his, as I tasted his five o’clock shadow and moved my hand across his rough cheek. I lay on him, my body moving like a wave, and we wiped ourselves afterward with his pillowcase, which we crumpled into the dark corner.

         I haven’t talked to Nick for three years; we lost touch during sophomore year in high school. Before we lost touch, he’d dated someone from his church, a tall big-hipped girl who always wore white debutant gowns as casual dress. They dated for about a year, and he prided himself on the fact that they’d never kissed. They attended a Christian convention together and their photographs were featured in our local paper. The article described an abstinence pledge they made along with other Christian teens across the country, and they wore special gold necklaces to prove they wouldn’t romp until they married. If this pledge were limited to heterosexuality I doubt Nick would have had trouble. But unfortunately I don’t think he recognized that his sexuality factored into his life, religion, and self. For him, it didn’t exist, we didn’t exist.
         Once we actually talked about it. “You ever look at guys when you’re sitting in a restaurant or something?” he said as we lay side by side. “Do you wonder how big their dick is?”
         Once he asked me if we could get AIDS by having sex, as though we’d somehow create the virus through homosexual contact.
         Fear drove us to secrecy. We only knew gay, fag, and queer as insults. We only knew that admiring a male body led to taunting. We only knew that boys liked girls, and those that didn’t lived in cross-dressing packs devoted to child molestation. We only knew that gay men were silly, slapped each other’s shoulders with limp wrists and cackled delightfully after lisping a joke. We weren’t gay then, not through acknowledgement or self-identification—that was impossible. We knew what we did, what we felt, and what the world would feel if they found out. So we kept ourselves hidden, even from ourselves. Homosexuality was a sin so great that it went unspoken. The shame punished those who sinned.
         Once at camp, a scout leader walked in on Nick and me kissing in the men’s room (we forgot our flashlights and couldn’t venture into the forest). Only I was facing the man as he entered and I pulled away from Nick immediately, and at the same time the man quickly diverted his eyes. I pretended to fumble with Nick’s class A uniform, readjusting patches that were sewn to his sleeves and breast pocket. And we left. But the man saw, I knew he did. I could feel his shame.

         Sometimes I wonder if Nick killed himself (as strange as that sounds). That last night at Camp Moabi we built a fire together—I was the only person in earshot—and he made non-stop jokes about the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell policy” as though he wanted to convince me he was straight. He laughed nervously after each joke like he expected me to understand some deeper underlying joke. Because he never referred to himself as anything but straight, I wonder how he transitioned into adulthood. I wonder where he lives now, who he lives with and who his friends are and what he thinks of himself. He never went into the military—the last I heard (from a friend of my mom’s friend) he dislocated his knee and the military wouldn’t accept him into basic training (or maybe it was his SAT scores).
         I sometimes wonder if I’d recognize him because it’s been so long. Sometimes I think I see him driving a Toyota Celica or passing by a grocery store aisle, but I never actually meet him again. I’ve tried online search engines, directories to colleges I speculate he might have attended, his old high school’s website, but I’ve never seen his name. Last summer in L.A., I drove by his house, but new cars were parked out front and an Asian family was unlocking the door to his house. His dad may have moved again, as military families tend to do, and exited my life forever; his existence is as ephemeral as my memory of his ghostly white body sinking into the Colorado’s dark waters. I wonder where he is and what his beliefs are, whether or not he lives the “God-centered life” his family constantly preached, or whether he broke away and accepted himself despite everyone else. But sometimes I fear he gave up and continues to live in secret, which is not living at all.

***          The decision to ban gay members from Boy Scouts happened after I’d already become an Eagle Scout and left my troop for college. The irony behind the Boy Scouts’ decision to ban homosexual leaders stems from their philosophy that gays cannot be positive and moral role models for youth. On their website hey officially state the following:

Scouts come from all walks of life and are exposed to diversity in Scouting that they may not otherwise experience. The Boy Scouts of America aims to allow youth to live and learn as children and enjoy Scouting without immersing them in the politics of the day.

The BSA aims to allow youth to live and learn, unless they are the politics of the day. Their logic somehow assumes that gay men lack “morals and values,” as stated in their widely read internet article “In Support of Values.” By banning gay leaders, the BSA argues that straight leaders will reinforce the Scouting values. But this lack of role models in Scouting (or anywhere) leads gay men to grow up in secret. Nick could not be himself, not then, not in high school, perhaps not even now. He always looked up to older role models—leaders, older scouts. He imitated them, tried to impress them for approval. He’d never seen a gay role model, not in real life, Scouting, or the media. None are allowed, and law reinforces this.
         The first gay man I ever met was online. I was 16; we talked in a chat room and met a week later. I met him in an Old-Pasadena bookstore, and we walked to a park. Shortly after he invited me back to his place, which I refused out of fear (c’mon, the guy was at least 27). After that I met others until it became a habit, and I started meeting one a week. The internet worked wonders because I could meet men without revealing my sexuality to the masses, and even after I met gay men from L.A. I still felt compelled to keep my sexuality secret, as did Nick. I couldn’t tell anyone, especially in high school (St. Catherine’s) where the priests passed out pamphlets that described the illness of homosexuality and the solutions for recovery.
         Nick once told me about a man in his church who came out at age 42 and the Church Elders excommunicated him after holding a hearing. Nick ended his story saying “It must suck to be gay.”
         Once he asked me if I’d ever been with another guy (besides him) and I said no even though it was a lie. In 7th grade I had sleep-overs with a fifteen-year-old altar boy, and I’d feel his hairy, sinewy legs (that felt like Nick’s would four years later). But I lied to Nick about this, and he probably reciprocated the lie. And that was all we had ever lived—a lie. We were lost because we knew nothing else. All we had was each other.