Aug 19, 2013

The Island in the Sky: My First Boyfriend

Just after Christmas in 1968, when I was in the third grade, a boy named Bill, short and deeply tanned with black eyes and small hard fists, suddenly started to chase me across the schoolyard to my house every afternoon, threatening to pound me for some offense. But I proved too swift, and my house  too close by, to make pounding feasible, so Bill took to walking next to me instead, pointing out the other boys he had pounded or planned to pound.

This went on for a month or two.  One day in February, when we reached the chain-link fence, Bill announced, “I’m gonna go to Dewey’s and get an ice cream cone.” Dewey’s was a store in a white building on 20th Avenue, facing Denkmann to attract rich South Side kids as they walked home with allowance money bulging in their pockets.  It sold mostly kids’ treats: ice cream, candy bars, Hostess Twinkies, little bags of Lays Potato Chips.

“It’s too cold for ice cream,” I said.  "Anyway, a Mean Boy named Dick hangs out there."

“Ok.” Bill turned abruptly and walked away, his boots crunching loudly on the ice-encrusted snow. But after a few steps, he turned back. “They have other stuff, too,” he said in a low dismal voice.  "Uh. . .you know, if you want, you can come with. I got money.”

Finally I understood, and I almost laughed. Bill was asking me for a date! For all his tough-guy posturing, he was shy and nervous when it came to talking to boys. Maybe this was why he became a bully – they rarely dated anyone. They substituted pounding for hugs, pointed out faults to avoid being rejected.

“That sounds cool,” I said. Bill had muscles, and he was forceful, always in charge, so we could play adventure games and Bill could rescue me and I could exclaim “My hero!” And it would be fun to date a bully; imagine the stares and double-takes when we played together at recess!

After buying a Milky Way for me and Hostess Snowballs for himself, Bill suggested that we eat at his house instead of staying at Dewey’s, where the fat man behind the counter always glared at kids and muttered about long-haired hippie freaks. Besides, Captain Ernie's Cartoon Showboat would be on in a few minutes.

Bill was rich.  He lived in a gigantic house with lots of levels and an arbor out back.  He and his brother and sister all had their own rooms. There was a separate dining room, and a family room with oak panels and chairs shaped like barrels and a piano in the corner.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the family room, watching Bugs Bunny and The Three Stooges on Cartoon Showboat and drinking Squirt from thick, heavy glasses, the first I had ever seen that were actually made of glass, not plastic.

Bill’s family kept rushing in, all bubbly and excited. His Mom, a squat brown smiling woman, invited me to stay for dinner. His Dad asked what I was studying in school and lent me a book on the ancient Aztecs. His older brother, a high schooler named Mike, mussed my hair and called me “Bud” and offered to drive us places.

Later I found out why everyone was so excited – Bill had never liked a boy before! This was the first time he had ever invited a boy over as an actual date!

This photo is not really of him; I only have a few photos of me and Bill together, and most of them make us look like little kids (that's really his house, though).

After that Bill invited me over to his house almost every day after school, and on weekends he always thought of something fun to do: miniature golf, hiking at Black Hawk Park, a “young people’s” concert at Augustana College, a trip to the Putnam Museum in Davenport to see Egyptian mummies and a huge Aztec calendar stone.

Sometimes Bill asked me to sleep over, and if it wasn’t a school night we got to stay up as late as we wanted, even later than his big brother. We lay propped on thick starchy pillows on Bill’s bed, eating Lay’s Potato Chips and listening to “Chicken Man” on the radio and reading comic books. I had only a few comic books of my own, donated by uncles or traded with cousins, but Bill had hundreds, of every type imaginable: Superman, Tarzan, Archie, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, Casper.

One of the Casper comics was so beautiful that I begged Bill to let me keep it. The cover showed the ghost-boy scaring a superhero. In the story inside, Casper flew an island in the sky called The Elysian Fields. There he met the gods of Greek mythology – Zeus, Apollo, Ganymede, Hyacinth – all with beautifully sculpted muscles. They lived together, eating grapes, throwing a discus, playing horseshoes on a unicorn horn, their idyll threatened only by the mischief of a green-faced trickster god.

They lived together – that was the most important part, the reason I asked for that comic book out of all of Bill’s hundreds. I had never heard the word "gay" before, but I knew that this was proof positive that grown-up men got married and lived together, and maybe when we were grown-ups, Bill and I would get married and live together  too.

The comic book reappears, when Darry and I search for it during my senior year in high school, and when I write a story about it during my freshman year in college.

The story of Bill continues here, when we hear a song about boys holding hands.