It all began beside the war-torn sea. In Atlantic City. Truly a queer settingâ€”out of place for an epic adventure, let alone a good venue for making a young man ready to perform the daredevil feats of wartime avaiators. Yet this second-rate, overbuilt resort had been dreamed up like the locus of a psychedelic fantasy by the U.S. Army Air Force for the basic training of would-be fliers into the wild blue yonder. All the Xanadu pleasure domes left vacant by wartime retrenchment were thought well suited for billeting transient thousands of glassy-eyed rookies. Of the derelict hotels having survived the Great Depression, not to mention the Panic of â€™93, the flakiest was the Chelsea, a dilapidated pile of enthralling ugliness set at the seedy end of the celebrated boardwalk.
Along those damp and treacherous planks that dreary November afternoon slouched a sullen troop of soldiers. I was one of them: a college dropout, single, aged nineteen, and white, number 12183139, brown of hair and eye, with a straight nose, sensuous mouth, slightly protuberant chin, average of height, weight, build, unremarkable, in short, in every outward aspect.
Which was wholly to the good. Being unremarkable in that ragtag rabble of GIs, all attired exactly alike, I ran no risk of betraying my lurid, shaming, guilty secret. Never mind that by a blatant lie Iâ€™d already betrayed civic decency by putting on the U.S. Armyâ€™s uniform. But I could chalk that up to poetic license. Writing was already my good excuse for almost anything that needed excusing. Much did.
How it happened that I had become a private in Flight B of the 989th TSS was a poor joke, a joke, indeed, so furiously unfunny that it dwelt by itself as an existential black hole. Anyway, I marched laboriously against the icy winds beneath the oncoming dusk toward our billet in the Hotel Chelsea. Only eleven days in uniform then, Iâ€™d dropped out of college just three weeks before under the flimsiest of pretenses. Pretense, indeed, promised to be permanent military apparel, within which I could feast upon discontent, a disguise, moreover, expected to fool everyone but which, of course, made me misfortuneâ€™s fool.
The lobby of the Chelsea smelled of old age, sewage, and soldiersâ€™ sweat. A slovenly sergeant materialized from the staircase and ordered us to get our asses into a room, any room on the floors above and double up snap on the spot with anybody willing, two rooks to a room, two cots, two footlockers, and no shit.
Such an unprecedented option offered a hint of potential companionship on the spur of the moment. The army experience, after all, advertised its facility for creating buddies, the happenstance of warfare famous for forging bonds between men, having, in fact, made heroes of soldiers embracing each other in foxholes while the gentle rain of shrapnel burst above them in the vivid air.
Across the smelly crowd in the hotel lobby Iâ€™d already spotted a good-looking GI lost in the middle distance, and I thought, Why not? He was wonderfully fair, features almost too fine, a Botticelli of angelic allure, tall and slender. He was apparently unaccompanied as yet by any makeshift pals, so I kept close behind on the cramped upstairs climb. When he lurched under the ungainly duffel bag into a room on the malodorous third floor, I was at his heels before a rival could crowd in.
Hopping aside from the thudding fall of his duffel bag, he flung himself across the cot beside the window. I took the place by the door and waited, companionably leaving to him the prerogative of greetings. My wait while I waited extended ever so slowly beyond titillating anticipation as he lay like a heap of oblivion, absent eyes fixed on nothing. I breathed in and breathed out for what it was worth, and evidently it wasnâ€™t worth much, because the roommate of my optimistic expectation soon seemed, in reality, as much like thin air as thin air itself.
Eventually, however, he hawked and spit out, â€œThis dump eats shit.â€
An observation, if you like, well taken, and in accent native to the outlying reaches of New York City. Thus angelic Botticelli immediately matured into a Caravaggio boy of the streets. No overture to conversation, of course. But there I was, and I was there and had to say so. Timidly standing, tentatively taking steps in the direction of camaraderie, I held down my hand and said, â€œHi. Nameâ€™s Jim Lord. Guess weâ€™d better get acquainted.â€
He squinted, shifted, scowled, steely about the gray eyes, ignoring the presumptuous hand, then at last, however, snarled, â€œTeves. Joe Teves.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I said, swallowing the shame of hostility.
So he must have known. Known without knowledge, without understanding, yet with the sly menace of the male of the species. God knows beasts can be beautiful. And beauty can bedevil the best of precautions. Still, how, but how, could I have betrayed the lonely and loathsome self of that ghastly thunderclap of awareness in the grim dusk of October adolescence? The streak of pain vibrated also in the stagnant confine of that catastrophic hotel, the very vibration being surely what Iâ€™d come there for. For which, indeed, Iâ€™d volunteered to forsake Kierkegaard and Kafka, offering to the future an aptitude for matters of guilt.
My roommate, needless to say, never became my friend, much less a buddy, barely an acquaintance. Good looks went bad in a hurry. Botticelli, Caravaggio all mutated almost overnight into Hieronymus Bosch. As we became ensnared in reciprocal contempt, such words as were spitefully breathed back and forth had only to do with mops, washrags, and the danger of dirt. He promptly found a flock of pals with whom to chew the fat, numbers like himself from the wrong side of the Harlem River, none of whom even offered me a cigarette. Anyway, I didnâ€™t smoke. How gladly, however, Iâ€™d have nursed a clandestine bottle of Four Roses.
At my hateful college I used to carry a pint around the campus in a paper bag. This earned a scolding from the dean and worsened the sniffiness of classmates whose scrutiny Iâ€™d hoped to divert from inner affliction and focus upon the outer distinction of one who dared to live with a difference. This was no good, and rather worse than that, so I consequently hated the college and everyone in it with a passion almost equal to the loathing Iâ€™d felt for myself ever since that terrible twilight. Walking back to the prep school dorm after my piano lesson, with Beethovenâ€™s Rondo resonant still, along the cement sidewalk strewn with dead leaves, I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature Iâ€™d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison. So I vowed Iâ€™d never, ever succumb to the vile desires roused by those football-playing jocks and their curly-haired cheerleaders.
You might think that to wake up gay is no big deal. If youâ€™re straight, you certainly would. But be the spoiled son of a creationist family, whether in Memphis, Montevideo, or Madras, and your wake-up dream is a nightmare of hopeless craving to get into the pants of a pretty sailor, and youâ€™re doomed to a lifetime of disgusting torment. Mind you, Iâ€™m talking about a Massachusetts prep school in â€™38. Nowadays everythingâ€™s supposed to be okay; congressmen and ambassadors boast of boyfriends. And yet . . . parents in Dallas, Dijon, or Dar es Salaam hardly hope that their kids will grow up to live in sin with same-sex partners and maybeâ€”even day after tomorrowâ€”would disown them if they did.
It was all very well to hate college and despise those alluring fraternity brothers in their varsity sweaters. But how the hell was I going to get out of there? The fixâ€”and its suppositious remedyâ€”were of a character to confound the authors of Either/Or, The Castle, and then some. I sat down at my university desk in the windy, irrational recklessness of that October 1942 and wrote to my parents a letter that I thought both purposeful and tricky, leaving at the same time, I felt, no loophole for the trick to be turned on me, suggesting, intimating that maybeâ€”maybe!â€”it might be worthwhile to ponder the possibility that I might volunteer for the army, in the uncertain interim leave college so as to peacefully think things over. And wasnâ€™t I already a writer, after all, my senior thesis at prep school having, indeed, been a biography of Beethoven? Oh, yes, I was already a writer, needing to learn how words can make fools of those who set out to toy with them. Meaningâ€™s not meant to be the plaything of understanding. The trick was promptly and fatefully turned, while Iâ€™d thought myself an ingenuous young fellow out of some story by Thomas Mann, a Tonio KrÃ¶ger-to-be.
Mom and Dad wrote by return mail, approving and praising my manly decision and idealistic self-sacrifice at this time of peril for our homeland. So I had unwittingly made ready...