VOL 016: finding new freedom as a terrible teen
Through junior year, I would not be tamed. It was the worst of my adolescence.
I skipped school nearly one day every week, usually heading to Tampa. A handwritten note from home excusing me – and, of course, written by me – was never questioned.
I failed chemistry, preferring an anthropological track. I shared a desk in the back of the room with a “headbanger” heavy-metal girl, Krissy. What she shared of her and her compatriots’ lives was far more fascinating than the periodic table. Dry texts attempting to decrypt atoms had nothing on tales of teens enjoying hallucinatory trips on cough syrup.
ON COUGH SYRUP
I bought a tiny plastic baby with a Mohawk on a chain to hang in my pierced ear. I got a second hole in my left ear to join the first.
And I planned my return to Brussels. Obie was retiring and taking the family to San Diego. No matter, I was going to return and stay with Alex in his super-cool attic bedroom, where we could look at his small collection of Italian pornography and clandestinely exhale cigarette smoke directly into a hole in the chimney, thanks to a removable metal plug in the wall.
I scanned the St. Petersburg Times travel section every Sunday for deals to Europe. A Pan Am sale offered a $400 roundtrip that included the spring-break window. I was thrilled. I had nearly that much saved, thanks first to my Wendy’s job, which did not last long, and the after-school job that saw me through the rest of high school, washing dishes at Schnikel-Fritz, a goofy German deli, where I was right at home.
Dora hardly shared my excitement. Go back to that horrible environment where you picked up smoking, this time without your father? No siree. What? But I made enough for the ticket! If Pan Am will take my money, if my passport will get me into Belgium, doesn’t that trump your quaint parental restriction? Apparently not.
As frustrating as it was, I couldn’t blame her. I was 16. I was careening. That straight-A report card of freshman year was not a promise of a responsible future, but merely an anomaly. How I had the nerve to push against expected, needed restraint stuns me today. Was it courage? Was it hubris? I’ll blame the hormonal hurricane of adolescence, and agree that teenagers should be corralled on farms till they mature into adults.
With the Brussels trip out of the question, nothing to lose, I came out to Alex by mail. I was a little too dramatic, telling him that I’d been paying attention to his homophobia, to his – possibly fictitious – tale of once roughing up a gay kid. His reply was, essentially, that I should calm down, which was appropriate advice. It was also his last reply.
But I wasn’t done coming out. I told Chris. Some pals also read my “journal” while waiting in my room for me to shower ahead of an evening out. Thankfully, they seemed to find my new, exotic trait to be a possible asset to our pseudo-edgy clique.
I came out to someone else junior year: Taylor. I thought I was coming out to a boy who liked to wear makeup. That’s the way the Star Hits classified ad read.
A kid in my gym class bought a subscription to Star Hits, one of the few teen music mags, to read about Generation X, Billy Idol’s band. Once Billy broke the band to pursue his more lucrative solo career, my classmate lost interest. Instead, he would just give them to me. Pre-Internet, a magazine with a classified section was a perfectly legitimate way to connect.
That’s where I spotted Taylor. Taylor was actually the persona; Linda was the girl. Boy who wears makeup? Nah. Linda’s story was that the ad was placed by a scorned boyfriend, and Taylor was a nickname inherited from her grandfather. Was there a scorned boyfriend? I don’t know. Was Taylor from Gramps or Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor? I don’t know. It didn’t matter, either. I called her Taylor and we exchanged a couple letters a month. Hers were always remarkable, if only for how she decorated her envelopes, each a work of art. She lived in Indianapolis and was the most creative person I knew.
Without asking my mother, I bought a ticket on American Airlines for a week in summertime. “It was a sale. I had to act fast.” “What? I’m going to need to speak to this girl’s mother.” Dora tried going through the motions, but, oh, the exhaustion of raising a teenager. Just go. And go I did. Via Nashville.
THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY
HAD FREED ME
My body was enjoying a growth spurt in terms of hair. My socialization was enjoying a growth spurt relative to me leaving the nest. This was the first time I’d go to the airport with no adult participation. My pal, Robbie, dropped me off at Tampa International. That was that. In travel terms, I felt fully adult now. I’d been an Unaccompanied Minor before, but now I was the one buying the ticket. The airline industry had freed me.
There I sat, in Airside C, alone. Pegged jeans and sockless Chinese slippers (a k a Tai Chi slippers), probably a Smiths T-shirt. Despite the Florida heat, I ridiculously wore a cardigan, because bands based in Liverpool or Rotterdam probably wore cardigans. I was also nursing a bloody nose. I’d been getting over a summer cold and my sinuses were wrecked. And still I smoked – the aforementioned Export A’s.
I took the AA MD-80 workhorse to Nashville, where I transferred to what was probably an ATR 72. It was definitely a skinny American Eagle commuter plane with propellers. On the bus across the tarmac, I learned that I’m attracted to strong, annoyed women. Not sexually, but in a way that tells me I may have had a past life in which I was the loyal servant of a queen, empress, or some other sort of matriarch. On the bus’s back bench sat two business travelers, a man and a woman. As we neared the twin-prop plane, the simple, aw-shucks man announced the obvious: “Well, looks like it’s gonna be another small plane.” The woman did not turn to look at her traveling companion. Her face remained blank. She responded: “Of course it’s a small plane, Bob. It’s always a small plane.” Immediately, reflexively, I adored her. And if she wanted me to punch Bob, I would.
Taylor and her friend Sabrina – a hippie teen totally riding the retro peace train of the time, a resurgence of the Grateful Dead and patchouli that would last into the early 1990s – picked me up at Indianapolis International. This was my first exposure to the Midwest. I was impressed by all the trees. We went to a prayer circle at a Unitarian Church. We made paper lanterns to commemorate Hiroshima Day. And we went to Café Espresso. We went to Café Espresso every day. Still too young for alcohol in America, we were the perfect age for a smoky coffee house. That’s where Taylor introduced me to Jim. I vaguely knew of other gay boys, but really had no direct confirmation. If a guy was so obviously gay, I would likely steer clear for fear of drawing too much attention to myself. I was reminded, for example, decades after high school, that a younger, male classmate tried to become a cheerleader at our school. “You don’t remember? TV news even came to school to cover it!” I still have no memory of this, apparently putting as much distance as possible between his courage and me.
A photo from Taylor, hanging with her pals in an Indianapolis cemetery.
Feeling a bit of joy in Taylor's living room, along with her inscription on the back of the photo. I think she was wearing a Cure tee.
TILL OUR LIPS
WERE PUFFY RAW
As I got a bit older and cared less about reputation and more about finding community, even the nelliest Florida boys I reached out to seemed more desperately closeted than I had been. Not so with Indy Jim. I was now out-ish. Jim was flaming. He was blond, skinny, and happy to come over to Taylor’s house with us after Café Espresso one night. Taylor created a dynamic that made her the third wheel. Still, who doesn’t like to play God and create a little something? With the house asleep, all the lights out, Jim and I sat on the floor of the living room and made out till our lips were puffy raw. Outside, there was a summer storm, and Taylor burst about, dancing in the rain. I could see her through the window, a story below us, twirling herself gleefully in the backyard. Thanks to her, I enjoyed my first kiss with a boy – long after kisses with girls and even an attempt at intercourse.
The flight back to Nashville was on another ATR 42. Because, well, it’s always a small plane, Bob.
SOON, VOL 017: TRANSTAR AIRLINES AND HIVES FOR XMAS