Thursday, August 30, 2018

Rock Candy

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”
What’s your first positive experience with anything related to the LGBTQ community?

It’s a question I regularly ask folks during trainings.  To be fair, I borrowed this question from a friend and fellow LGBTQ advocate. She had asked the question to a group we were co-training to help them think and talk about the LGBTQ community in safe way. Hearing this prompt for the first time, I found myself thinking of my first positive experience, and to be honest, it was really hard to do. Eventually I thought of one, and for the next few months I shared the story about attending my first Rocky Horror Picture
20th Century Fox Films
. Every Saturday in Harvard Square 50 to 100 newcomers, or “virgins” as we were called, checked out the show, while many regulars — dubbed “sluts” — returned week after week. I was sixteen years old. The memory and experience stay with me to this day, but I don’t think it was my first positive experience anymore. It’s still a very fond memory, but I can think of few more that were a little earlier.
The story I tell now is about reading Catcher in the Rye, the book with the ominous blood red cover penned by reclusive author JD Salinger. It was 1981, I was fourteen years old, and I attended F. A. Day Junior High, which was located on the north side of town, in Newton Massachusetts.  By ninth grade I knew I was attracted to both boys and girls, and also knew my gender identity was very different than what was given to me when I was born at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, in Brighton, a historically Irish part of Boston, less than four miles away.

I recall struggling as a reader since the 4th grade and hadn’t made huge improvements by the time I entered Mr. D’s English class in the the 9th grade. But Mr. D was different. He was young, athletic, and very handsome. So, with a sparkle in my green eyes, I read the book, hoping to impress my teacher.

To be honest, I recall very little of the novel. In fact in the nearly 37 years since, I nearly forgot about it completely. Perhaps it was too close to home at the time, especially the depiction and emotions of the main character, Holden Caulfield, whose struggle with loneliness, depression and suicidal thoughts weren’t very different from my own back then.

There is one scene I remember to this day, like it was yesterday. After being kicked out of school, Holden’s journey takes him to  New York City. While in New York, he checks-in to a hotel. Which I thought was pretty cool for only being sixteen. In his room, he looks out the window and he can see into the apartment or hotel room of another building. In that room, he notices a middle age man undressing and then getting dressed in women’s clothes. Well that was interesting to me. I mean really interesting.

And guess what happens next?  Do you remember? I certainly do.

Nothing happens. Absolutely nothing.

Well from what I remember, Holden observes this event and the story moves on. Imagine that?  

I know that’s not very dramatic, but that’s the point. Up until that very moment, the stories I had read, and the TV shows and movies I watched, all depicted someone like me, a transgender or gender non conforming person, as a monster, equal to the ghouls, aliens, and giant Japanese creatures I saw regularly on Creature Double Feature every Saturday afternoon on Channel 56. To the world we were criminals, rapists, murderers, serial killers - you name it, we - I was a danger to society and I believed it. Why not?

But when I read this small, seemingly insignificant passage, at the age of fourteen, it certainly left an impression. Sure I forgot about it and Mr. D for 36 years, but in retrospect, I think this was one of the first positive, or shall I say, not negative memories, I had of anything LGBTQ. I also believe there were other bread crumbs left for me along my journey, giving me hope that one day, I could be myself and not feel ashamed.


A few  weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with a
Stonington, Maine
childhood friend, and his family as they visited Maine. I’ve known my friend and his family since the two of us were in kindergarten together.  He now lives thousands of miles away with his daughter, but often returns to New England to fish for striped bass, visit his mom, family, and friends. While we hadn’t seen each other in a few years, we usually pick up where we left off, like old friends often do.

After dinner on the first night, we found ourselves sitting on the deck of his rented house, siping red wine, laughing about childhood friends, and looking out on one of Maine’s most bucolic harbors which was being illuminated by the sliver of a waning moon, dancing between the late summer clouds as if they were lace curtains. During our conversation, he mentioned going to a bar earlier in the week and bumping into one of our former teachers.  

“You’ll never guess” he said.

“Mr. D?” I blurted out.

“What!, that’s amazing”  he replied. “How did you know?”

“I just came to me. He is the one teacher I’d like to bump into, so I said his name. But there’s more.” I continued. “There a story I tell with some frequency, about reading Catcher in the Rye and Mr. D” so maybe that’s why I said his name.”

“Well, he said he usually hangs out at that bar or this other restaurant, so we might be able to bump into him if you like”

To myself, I’m thinking this is too weird. What is Mr. D doing here in Maine? Doesn’t he know he’s the character in story I tell all the time?

The next day, I try to forget about it and enjoy my time with my friend, his family, and the surrounding ocean. But that night, after a long visit with cousins, my friend asks if I wanted to grab a drink and some food at “that” restaurant.

“Who knows, we might see Mr. D?”  my friend said with an encouraging tone

“Sure, why not”, I laughed

The place was about 5-8 miles out of town. It was still light, but getting darker by the minute. As we wound our way to our destination I told my friend the story about Catcher in the Rye. All the more reason to find our former english teacher my friend says.  

We talk about other life stuff and the conversation suddenly gets serious. I mentioned my struggles with trauma, and how that has affected me and my mental health over the years. He inquires more, and with great sincerity. So I tell him something that only a few people know, that I was sexual abused by a priest when I was a teenager. As you can imagine, it gets real quiet.  I let him know about how I’ve only come to understand what happen just in the past few years. I guess those memories were lost, stored in some filing cabinet in the recesses of my brain till I was ready to deal with it or was unlocked by something. That something was watching the film Spotlight for the first time. It was then that my memories started to return.  At first everything was vague, just very uncomfortable feelings. They were followed by anxiety attacks, flashbacks, and upsetting dreams. I haven’t had a full night’ sleep in nearly two years. My friend was stunned, but also extremely compassionate.

We tried to make light of the subject by joking about the dark winding road, and that this would be a good place to hide the bodies.  We make it to the restaurant and park in a field. Walking across the grass I wiped my eyes. I’m glad I told my friend, but wanted to composed myself.

We step inside the restaurant and my friend asks,  “wanna sit at a table or at the bar?”

“Let’s sit at the bar”  I replied.

We walk past a guy butchering an Eagles’ song on his guitar and turn the corner toward the bar.
“Well look who it is? He’s here!” My friend laughs.

It’s hard to see, but there he is, sitting alone on far side of the bar, it’s Mr. D., now with gray hair, but still sporting a red sox shirt and a big smile. This makes me happy.

We walk around to the other side of the bar, past what looks like a group of lobsterman, and say hello. My friend laughs it up with Mr. D, and introduces me.

“Hey, it’s good to see you. You were my 9th grade teacher too. And I think you were my sister’s track coach in high school. I’m Gia.”

He’s seems confused. He recalls my sister, a few brothers, and even my parents, but not me. This happens, a lot. So I spill the beans, and tell him what’s up, that I transitioned a several years ago, yata yata yata.

“Wow, it’s good to see you.“

Before too long a friend joins Mr. D. at the bar and my friend and I return to chatting. I order a vodka tonic and he orders a draft beer. We look over the menu and order some food to snack on as we talk.

As the evening carries on we chat a little more with Mr. D, I share that I was a teacher and coach for 20 years. He lets us know that he’s now retired, and visits Maine a lot. He then offers to buy us the next round. My friend says yes, but I decline.

Mr. D. teases, “what are you, a lightweight”?  

Haha, think to myself, my 9th grade teacher calling his former student a lightweight. “I”m the driver tonight’ I inform him.

“Oh” he says. “That’s important”

“It is” I reply.

My friend and I decide it's time go and say our farewells.

“It was good to see you, maybe we'll bump into one another again.”

“Please say hi to your family, especially your parents,” Mr D says.

“I will.”

On the ride home, my friend and I laugh and shake our heads.  

“You need to write about this”  he says.

“I dunno” I reply, “it’s seems too….too perfect.”

A few weeks have passed but I’m still struggling how to process several conflicting feelings; seeing Mr. D, catching up with old friends, thinking about Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye, and the news out of Pennsylvania, where 300 priests, were accused of molesting and abusing thousands of children and teenagers, like me.

Why can’t we just have nice things anymore, like rock candy?

We can.  They wear Red Sox tee-shirts at the bar or fish for stripers off the pier. 

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